All roads lead to the National Lottery
5th December 2019
Telling the story of the good causes funded by The National Lottery requires visits to every corner of the UK
It was in a snow-covered stable in Flintshire, Wales that I first realised that telling the story of the good causes supported by The National Lottery would be an emotional undertaking.
Listening to someone talk candidly about the hardships they have faced is always moving, of course, but Beth Lewis’ story was more extraordinary than most.
The 27-year-old was born with a serious craniofacial condition. As a child she was “giggly and happy”, but as she grew older and more self-conscious, she became increasingly isolated and depressed.
Exhausted by years of surgery and long absences from school that made it difficult to make friends, she retreated into herself.
Beth told me the story of her difficult youth as we stood in the stables at the Clwyd Special Riding Centre in Flintshire. Outside it was snowing heavily and the horses stamped their hooves in anticipation of food.
One horse in particular – a Fell pony called Mouse – was special to Beth. Since becoming a volunteer at the Riding Centre two years earlier she had formed a deep bond with the gentle animal. Beth led Mouse into an indoor arena to allow me to take some photographs and as they stood huddled together in the half-light, their connection was apparent. “I love him – I absolutely love him,” she said.
Beth’s life has been transformed by the Centre which offers children and adults with additional needs the chance to experience the physical and mental benefits of riding a horse. She had ridden since the age of 11, but a bad fall had left her frightened of getting back in the saddle. She rebuilt her confidence at Project CELT (Centre for Equine Learning and Therapy), a purpose-built facility funded by The National Lottery that opened at the Riding Centre in 2016.
The centrepiece of Project CELT is a full-sized mechanical horse that uses an interactive screen to simulate the experience of riding through a variety of terrain – everything from a beach to a dressage event. Two full-time equine therapists use the machine to assess a rider’s balance and ability and decide if, and when, they are ready to mount a real horse.
With her confidence restored by sessions at Project CELT, Beth began riding some of the Centre’s 26 horses. None of them felt quite right until she tried Mouse. “The moment they put me on him everything fell into place – he’s an absolute star,” she says.
Things have only got better since then. “The Centre has built my confidence,” she says. “I never used to laugh, but I laugh here hysterically. When my parents came to see me ride, I was giggling and smiling and that’s really, important. They’ve brought the old Beth back really.”
Beth’s story is remarkable, but I soon learned that the simple act of speaking to people involved in National Lottery-funded projects would yield many, many more. The pattern is similar: the money allows people who want to make a difference to turn good ideas into great projects. The result – in communities up and down the UK – is the life-affirming sight of people coming together to help each other.
How do you choose which stories to tell? That’s not easy considering the National Lottery has funded 565,000 projects to the tune of £40bn since the first draw was held on 19 November 1994.
Ultimately, I looked for a range of projects that gave some sense of the staggering diversity of National Lottery funding in terms of their location and type. From dance companies in Preston and Derry, to a restored cinema in Campbeltown, Scotland and a restored water mill in Talgarth, Wales it was a job that took me down the highways and byways of our nation. I met an army veteran at a rock-climbing centre in Manchester, a blind sailor in Ipswich and a euphonium player in Morecambe. I helped feed a team of miniature ponies in Norfolk and watched a dementia dog at work in Glasgow, reassuring his owner by putting his head on his lap.
In Gateshead I ate a scone at the World’s Largest Cream Tea (1,054 very cheerful people packed in to the Sage Gateshead) and in Haverfordwest in Wales I watched WCMX (Wheelchair Moto Cross) champion Lily Rice glide effortlessly across a skate park.
I was privileged to watch elite athletes – Olympians and Paralympians – honing their skills at some of the nation’s finest training facilities as well as cheering on all manner of passionate amateurs as they punched and kicked their way to glory. Some people were committed to protecting habitats and the insects and wildlife that live in them; others wanted to do something about the loneliness and isolation experienced by many people – not just the elderly – in our fast-moving society. The common denominator: a determination to make something happen because it needed to be done.
The age of the people involved in all these projects runs the gamut from infants to the very elderly. In London, I met 94-year-old Marie Scott who was a radio operator during the D-Day Landings in 1945. Marie is an active participant in the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, an organisation providing free trips for veterans ranging from days out at the seaside to pilgrimages to WWII sites including Normandy. What a privilege to sit in the back of a London cab and share a cup of tea with this extraordinary woman.
A few weeks earlier, I was in Stirling, Scotland, to meet some of the young people taking part in a life-changing music project called Big Noise. Symone, a 17-year-old trombone player, was on the verge of taking up a position at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow and was well on her way to fulfilling her dream of travelling the world as a professional musician.
Sitting in a practice room full of violins and cellos she told me she could barely recognise her old self – the withdrawn, unhappy child who became part of the Big Noise project seven years ago. Getting free music lessons was just part of it. Her Big Noise tutors became mentors too and she flourished as a result.
“As a child I was always very insecure and lacked confidence,” she said. “Nowadays, I can’t imagine my life without music.”
Fast forward another few weeks and I’m sitting in a community centre in Shilden, a town in County Durham that has struggled since the closure of its colliery. The room is full of men with one thing in common: they’ve each experienced depression and want to do something about it.
The group is a National Lottery-funded project called ManHealth and it’s saving lives in this part of the North East where the stoic, taciturn male archetype is alive and well. Each week this remarkable group of men come together and talk. Or don’t if they don’t feel like it. Either way, they find company, empathy and encouragement, the stuff of life.
Dave Spensley, 52, told me he had suffered severe depression for decades, but the failure of his engineering firm pushed him to the brink of suicide. “I was searching for help, but felt there was no one out there,” he says. “To say finding ManHealth saved my life would be an understatement.”
I could tell you so many more stories about people whose lives have been transformed by National Lottery-funded projects. There’s Wanda in Nottingham, whose patch of land at the St Ann’s Allotments has done wonders for her mental health and John in Manchester, who was homeless and scavenging for food on the streets of Rochdale just three years ago. Today he’s a much-valued volunteer at The National Football Museum thanks to a National Lottery-funded scheme.
John is passionate about The National Lottery’s role in funding the organisations that have helped him rebuild his life. “I look at this way: everyone is a winner when you have a go on The National Lottery,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you win or you don’t because you’re changing the lives of people like me. The National Lottery took me from a zero to a hero. Without it I wouldn’t be in the accommodation I’m in or have the friends I’ve made. It’s so vital.”