Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Memoirs of a Midweek Volunteer by Roy Mather.

"Oy! Ranger bloke! What are YOU staring at?"
Roy wrote this last spring for The Bridge newsletter. The editor felt it was too long, but too good to massacre with the red pen. I think its too funny to be neglected. Ive made a few tiny changes and added a few comments. I hope you don't mind.

Several years ago after I had got bored with the free bus rides and, mindful or Mr Springsteen's dictum that some people just die piece by piece, I decided to see if I could find a better way to fill in the time until St Peter has to decide whether to press the up button....... or the other one.

Brian: "I dont think you need to hold the floor down any more.
Let gravity do it's work."
Roy: "No, I was just thinking how well this shed would burn."  
So it was that, instead of taking the King's Shilling, I took the Reserve's custard creams. (So it was YOU! Ed.)  And now at 9:30 on weekday mornings I find myself waiting at the Visitor Centre with others to see what jobs we will be doing today.

After several years of doing this I still get the feeling I used to get while waiting to see if I was picked for the football team. However, here at Paxton you are always picked. Brush-cutting, fence repair or hedge-making are the bread-and-butter jobs, but it may also be building a home for the otters that we (allegedly) have, or pushing uncooperative cows around, or a boat ride to the islands. (But please don't let it be painting!) Sometimes we have away-days at Barford Road, St. Ives or Alconbury.

Apart from the work itself, volunteering at the Reserve has made me, a former commuter whose only previous awareness of seasonal change involved leaves on the line or frozen points, alive to the ever changing conditions in which we work, even changes in the light. And I notice the weather, never more so than trying to find shelter at Pumphouse Pit when your hands are so cold that the tea is jumping out of the mug.

"It's so ***** cold I've got four layers on."
"I have six! I just hope that Matt doesn't ask me to do anything that involves bending my arms!"

It doesn't matter what work we get to do really, the company is good, whatever the job. And the visitors provide the light relief.

A visitor was watching us maneuver a loaded wheelbarrow through a RADAR gate. He asked, "Are you really volunteers?"
One volunteer replied, "Have you heard of a Zero Hours contract? Well we are on a Zero Pay contract."

David; "Ee Lad, I think we left the tool-box underneath
so I'm taking it all apart again."
Roy; "It's in the trailer you daft ha'peth."
We do get to learn new skills, but not all of them are applicable elsewhere. I helped to assemble a composting toilet, (It's also a bat house. Ed) and I have brush-cut an acreage equivalent to the State of Kansas, but I'm sure it was good for me (!) and it gives me a smug feeling about having a small role in conservation.

While we were hedge-laying a visitor commented "It's so good to see there are people who are maintaining the old crafts." The ex-senior schoolteacher and the ex-tax inspector tugged their forelocks and bent to their task.

However, not everyone is so appreciative: "This place now has too many fences and hedges. I remember when my dogs could run with complete freedom."
"Yes, Ive just stepped in some of your dog's freedom!"

As a by-product there is the knowledge and skills that you pick up from co-workers. As someone who only knew two kinds of birds (pigeons and those who are not pigeons) (You mean columbiformes and non-columbiformes Ed.) it has been an education, gained through mixing with those who are better informed, to identify at least a couple of them. The annual arrival of those most welcome immigrants, the nightingales, has become something to look forward to, now that I know what they sound like.

We get a uniform to wear. Like pheasant pluckers.
This is a very common conversation that takes place in a midweek volunteer work party;
"Look, a kingfisher!"

So, whether it's running out more barbed wire than they needed at Vimy Ridge, or wondering if Little Paxton has the global monopoly in willow, on straightening my back and taking a good look round, I often think there's nowhere else I would rather be than here.

Roy Mather.