Idle Women - the group working hard to improve the lives of women across the county

PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 January 2020

An Idle Women workshop on board their canal boat

An Idle Women workshop on board their canal boat

Donna Clifford

Idle Women is an organisation dedicated to bringing positive change to Lancashire's women

An Idle Women workshop on board their canal boatAn Idle Women workshop on board their canal boat

When Rachel Anderson and Cis O'Boyle set up Idle Women in 2015, they were certain of one thing: that it should be a force for good created by women for women. Half a decade on and those across Lancashire who have visited, worked with and learned from Idle Women's projects are the perfect advocates for this achievement.

Rachel and Cis were working as arts practitioners with experience volunteering for women's centres when the idea for Idle Women came to them. Now, through their work, they and other women - as many as a couple of thousand across the region - have learned everything from boatbuilding to basic mechanics to horticulture and herbalism.

Rachel, who lives in Accrington, says that the need for Idle Women became apparent five years ago. 'We were responding to increased closures and austerity cuts - we were seeing refuges closing and services being cut. Even though that's not our sector we felt, as artists, we could use what we do well to create space for women. That was the motivation.'

The first project Idle Women tackled was building a narrowboat with women in Blackburn - where both the project and the result were intended to foster community.

An Idle Women workshop on board their canal boatAn Idle Women workshop on board their canal boat

'We worked with a Humraaz Support Services, a specialist BAME service for women who are leaving domestic violence and other harmful practices, and then we toured the boat that we created for a couple of years throughout Lancashire and into Yorkshire. It was an artist resource space with room for women to stay aboard.'

It's no accident that the boat was named Selina Cooper after the suffragist from Nelson who was self-educated from the local library and taught women about reproductive health around her kitchen table.

Rachel says the reaction was fantastic. 'What came out of that was realising how many barriers some women face to spending time in nature and being outdoors. A lot of women in this area don't have gardens, and public parks and towpaths are not necessarily seen as safe and accessible for all women.

'The feedback was how much women enjoyed being out in nature, feeling welcome and involved and included, and also safe enough to enjoy it without having to worry or look after themselves in a particular way. There was also a real sense of sadness when the boat moved on - it stayed for three months and built relationships, but then it did leave, so we felt we really wanted to create something more permanent in situ back in Lancashire where we had built up such fantastic relationships with women.'

An Idle Women workshop on board their canal boatAn Idle Women workshop on board their canal boat

This winter, the big Idle Women project is capitalising on those learnings - the construction of a Physic Garden in Nelson, the first of its kind in the UK created by women for women. Rachel explains: 'We saw a canalside garden for sale and with crowdfunding we raised enough money to buy the land. It was important to buy it because it gives it that sense of stability, that it can't be taken away.'

Last April, Idle Women was awarded £50,000 as one of the winners of The People's Project, a partnership between The National Lottery Community Fund, The National Lottery and ITV, which gives the public a say in how funding should be put to good use in their local area. This means they can now afford to landscape the space. Work begins this winter on the Physic Garden, which is a medieval herb or medicine garden. They would have been popular in every town, as common as the post office, but this is the first one created by women and dedicated to women's health and wellbeing.

Women involved in the project will learn practical skills in design and landscaping to create an entire garden from medicinal plants that support physical and mental health and wellbeing. It's hoped that the garden will be abundant with medicinal plants that women have used for centuries, from menstruation to pregnancy and childbirth, and beyond to menopause and old age.

'We spent a year doing an observation project and we've had a herbalist in residence staying with us,' says Rachel. 'We've been observing the landscape and what grows, realising what plants are out there already, learning about anatomy, physiology and health and better educating ourselves about our own health and the digestive and hormone systems of our bodies.

'We've been understanding the science behind that and also how plants can work to increase or maintain health. We've also been doing really fun stuff like how to use herbs and making tonics or creams which is helpful.'

How Idle Women helps every woman is different, but Rachel believes most women can benefit from a women-only space that's geared towards nurturing. 'We are a place for women to be strong and to develop strength. There's no-one else taking up that space, women can step into it, they can become experts, they can be professional, they can pick up the drill or the saw and do things that are a bit difficult, or things that they wouldn't necessarily see themselves doing when there is a man around.

'It's really important that we step into those roles comfortably, and support each other to adapt to them.'

Women come to Idle Women from every walk of life, Rachel explains - and whether they come once or become an integral part of the central group known as The Sisterhood, there is always something to be gained for them.

'Idle Women for many women is a place for them during transition. That might be transition out of crisis, or through recent bereavement or job change or health problems - there are so many reasons. Quite often women who are going through those changes find a lot of strength in the space.'

When the Physic Garden is finished it's hoped it will provide a safe outdoor space where women can relax, create friendships, meet as individuals and belong to a community.

'There's been enormous enthusiasm and commitment to the opportunities provided by Idle Women, and dedication to it,' Rachel adds. 'We have an immediate strong community in Lancashire who are very involved and hands on, but we have a lot of support all over the UK. A woman has even arranged next summer to come from Australia and visit us. We say Idle Women is a place for all women to belong, and we really believe that.'

To find out more about Idle Women, visit idlewomen.org

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