Making an Impact: Trails of Discovery

Making an Impact: Trails of Discovery

26 Feb 2021

Among the many ways The Arts Society gives back to local communities, there is one initiative that is especially rewarding for all involved – the Trails of Discovery. This work helps to connect diverse community groups with their local heritage.


Created and run by Arts Society Volunteers, Trails of Discovery helps engage community groups of all ages with the artistic and historic heritage of their locality, from places of worship to historic houses. Inspiration and stimulation are key: trails encourage participants to look closer at artefacts around them, to spark interest and conversation. They may be asked to find a specific detail within a stained-glass window, look out for particular flora in a historic garden, or identify the name of a statue within their local area.

The initiative began in the 2000s as Church Trails – later Children’s Trails – and was designed to connect children with the stories within local religious buildings. The first trail was registered by the former South Lakeland DFAS at St Mary’s Church, Kirkby Lonsdale in 2007. In 2017, when The Arts Society widened its remit to all aspects of the arts, the trails were rebranded as Trails of Discovery and expanded. ‘The Arts Society was broadening, and we wanted to engage with more people and members,’ Pauline Stewart, National Head of Trails of Discovery, explains.


Under Pauline’s direction, trails have since been created for buildings, as well as town tours. In 2019, The Arts Society South Devon launched a trail around Plymouth Hoe, taking in landmarks such as the Mayflower Steps, Drake’s Statue and Smeaton’s Tower. Another development has been the creation of Memory Trails, designed for people living with dementia and their families or carers. Created to prompt conversation and evoke memories, the trails ask participants simple questions: to describe, for instance, the feel of a door, or look of a church organ, or to discuss their favourite music. ‘The trails have been created with the help of psychiatric and dementia professionals, and it’s wonderful to hear people spurred by them to reminisce about their past, recalling how they used to play the piano or sing in a choir,’ Pauline says.

 ‘Not only is this more environmentally friendly, it means the trails can be accessed by a larger audience’ 

Moments like these are just some of the reasons why being involved in Trails of Discovery is rewarding. While raising awareness of The Arts Society’s work, the trails also benefit the buildings. ‘Some of the churches we’ve created trails for have also applied for National Lottery Heritage Funding,’ Pauline adds. ‘Having the trails in place helps their application, as it shows people are encouraged to visit.’

In response to the coronavirus crisis, Pauline and her team have also launched Neighbourhood Trails, which encourage participants to explore their local area. Another exciting development has been the launch of QR codes, which are printed on trail posters. ‘Participants can use their smartphone or tablet to scan the QR code on the poster to download a digital version of the trail onto their device,’ Pauline explains. ‘Not only is this more environmentally friendly, it means the trails can be accessed by a larger audience.’ She is grateful to the team of Trails of Discovery Volunteers who promote and develop the trails. ‘Their work has true impact,’ she says.


Abbot’s Hospital, Guildford

To mark the 400th anniversary of Abbot’s Hospital in 2019, The Arts Society West Surrey Area designed three trails, including a Family, Children’s and Memory Trail. Located at the top of Guildford High Street, the Grade I listed building provides sheltered accommodation for up to 27 residents. Areas of the hospital are accessible to the public on select open days. ‘The buildings, courtyard and grounds are beautiful,’ Sara Scott, Trails of Discovery Representative for The Arts Society West Surrey Area, says, ‘and participants on the trails are encouraged to spot historic details, such as the decorative chimneys and the niches for bee skeps in the garden.’

While the trails can only be completed on pre-booked visits, Sara explains that she was especially pleased with the response to the Memory Trail, which was launched in conjunction witha care home in 2019. ‘It was wonderful to hear participants talk about the past and local history,’ she says. ‘It was exactly what we hoped to achieve.’


Temple Balsall, Solihull

Keen to celebrate the heritage of Temple Balsall in Solihull – a site with origins dating back to the 12th century – members of The Arts Societies of Arden, Solihull and Royal Leamington Spa combined forces to create a Memory and Sensory Trail. Taking in the site’s court and St Mary’s Church, the trail prompts users to describe the trees and flowers that are growing in the grounds and discuss the colours they see in a stained-glass window. ‘We try to promote discussion through open-ended questions,’ say Sheila Williams and Rosemary Jewel- Clark, Trails of Discovery Representatives for The Arts Society West Midlands Area. For both, a successful Memory and Sensory Trail should provide stimulation and comfort and encourage interaction.

‘These trails are important for participants’ mental, physical and social wellbeing, as they encourage them to reminisce, which helps to open up channels of communication.’ Sheila and Rosemary are eager to encourage more Arts Societies to work together on projects. ‘Through collaboration, we can share good practice, and enable initiatives to happen.’


All Saints’ Church, Babworth

With historical links to the Pilgrim Fathers, All Saints’ Church at Babworth in Nottinghamshire was the perfect choice for The Arts Society Dukeries’ first Church Trail. Initially created in 2013, the trail was updated in 2019 by a team of volunteers, to commemorate the 2020 400th Mayflower anniversary. The new trail has artefacts for children to discover, including a model of the Mayflower made out of 14,000 matchsticks. ‘The children particularly enjoy looking out for the carvings of little wooden mice in the chancel, the work of the well-known furniture maker Robert Thompson,’ explains Gill Murphy, Trails of Discovery Representative for The Arts Society East Midlands Area. She adds that the children’s excitement is always rewarding. ‘It’s great to see them working together as a team and having fun.’


Keen to get involved? If you’d like to know more, visit or email

About the Author

Elizabeth Oliver


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