A job worth doing ….

Walk round the grounds of Studley Royal, and this will be your first sighting of Fountains Abbey.
Walk round the grounds of Studley Royal, and this will be your first sighting of Fountains Abbey.

A few months ago, I got a job.  Not for the pin-money, because I’m not paid a penny.  But I’m richly rewarded.  I signed up to be a volunteer for the National Trust, at the property nearest our home, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.  Cistercian Abbey, Georgian water garden and mediaeval deer park…. no wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since we moved to Ripon, we’d loved spending time there, so I got to wondering….what would it be like to volunteer there?  What could I do?  What might be involved?

The answer turned out to be…almost anything you want  There are dozens of different roles, from gardening to guiding.  You could drive the mini-bus or form part of the archaeological monitoring team.  You could work in the shop, or in the admissions areas. Badged up, you could wander the grounds, being alert to the needs of visitors who’d like a potted history lesson  or to find their way to the toilets.  You could work in the wildlife team, helping look after and monitor all those ancient trees, or the herds of deer.  You could turn to when there’s a special event, and put out chairs.  And you’re quite entitled, over the years, to change your mind and try something else.

I for instance, started out as a visitor assistant at the Victorian High Gothic Church of Saint Mary’s in Studley Royal Park.  It’s a real masterpiece of Victorian architect William Burges, but it turned out not to be ‘me’.  I admire the building hugely, but it doesn’t involve me at an emotional level as the ruined abbey does.  So I quit.  No hard feelings

Looking across at St.Mary's from the Deer Park.
Looking across at St.Mary’s from the Deer Park.

But I shan’t be quitting the Learning Team.  Our bread-and-butter is sharing a Day In the Life of a Monk with schoolchildren.  The children dress up in monk-style habits, and tour the site getting in touch with the brothers’ silent and family-free routines, led by one of the team.  We examine the roofless, windowless Abbey and try to picture the church back in its prime. We imagine the vast space, illuminated only by candles, as the monks worshipped there eight times a day, from 2.00 a.m. onwards.  We visit the refectory where the monks dined, in silence, once a day. Did those monks eat meat?  What about potatoes?  No?  Why not?  We visit the Warming Room and imagine having just four baths a year, shaving our tonsures with oyster shells.  We discuss bloodletting.  We talk about all the daily routines.  Maybe the children remember only a few of the facts later, But we hope they are moved by these atmospheric ruins, and return later with their families.

Fountains Abbey.
Fountains Abbey.

They might come though, to experience the natural environment of the grounds: they might go pond dipping, or on a walk where they try to use all their senses by listening, touching , seeing, smelling and so on.  Or make mosaics based on what they’ve observed.  Or go den-building in the woods.  They’re as sure of a grand day out as are the volunteers in the team.

I’ve ended up doing all sorts of stuff I’d never have thought of attempting.  Car park attendant on Bank Holidays?  I didn’t think so.  But it turns out to be fun togging up in a hi-viz jacket, barking out radio messages on the walkie-talkie system, getting in touch with your inner traffic cop, and generally being a welcome face to visitors as you help them manouevre themselves into the busy car park.

And some things are quite simply, a privilege.  I wish you could have joined me on Sunday evening.  After dark, the site was opened to less mobile visitors.  For one night only, cars were welcome on site, to be driven s-l-o-w-l-y past the floodlit Abbey buildings.  The evening was cold, misty, moody, atmospheric.  Night birds swirled above the trees, dampness dripped from the trees, and monks could clearly be heard from within the abbey, chanting their plainsong (a recording, actually, but none the worse for that).  I talked to some of the visitors, often very elderly, as their cars and drivers made their stately way through the grounds.  Their appreciation of the staff and volunteers who were there helping the evening to go smoothly, though nice to hear, was quite unnecessary.  I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything.  A special evening indeed.

And there are other perks.  A couple of times a year there’s a ‘works outing’, when volunteers can take a trip to properties in other parts of the country. Here’s one.  There are winter lectures for those who want them, to widen and deepen their knowledge of the history of the place  There are times to socialise – a barbecue, a quiz night, meals.  We’re very well supported, properly trained, and appreciated by the regular paid staff.  I look forward to every single thing I do as a volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.  I feel very lucky.

Bread Actually

A man walks in to the bakery with a tray of eggs, newly laid by his hens.  He’s ‘paid’ in bread. A woman comes with a bag of rosemary from her garden: she too receives bread, still warm from the oven.  Over there, at the back, another woman is steadily getting an enormous batch of scones ready for the oven, while in another corner, someone else is weighing out the ingredients to make biscuits.

Margaret Number 3 makes scones
Margaret Number 3 makes scones

We’re in the market town of Bedale (population four and a half thousand).  More specifically, we’re at Bedale Community Bakery (or ‘Bread Actually’), tucked away behind the railway bridge next to the Big Cow Little Sheep educational farm.  This is no ordinary baker’s shop.  For a start, though there’s a busy team at work throughout the day, there are few paid staff.  This is a not-for-profit community venture.

The bakers are paid – they’re the ‘bread and butter’ of the organisation after all.  Then there’s hands-on Chairman Carol, and Sarah who seems to be involved in everything.  But all the biscuits, cakes, scones – the non-bread items – are made by a willing team of volunteers managed by retired baker Alan.  From today, Malcolm and I are part of that team.

Focaccia in waiting.
Focaccia in waiting.

It was a wonderful experience.  From the first moment, we were expected to roll our sleeves up and turn to.  But the friendly welcome, the team spirit, the willingness to share and help each other, the generosity of spirit shown by everyone there made for an unforgettable first morning.  Malcolm washed up and sliced cakes into even portions, and I helped Margaret ( ‘Not another Margaret, there’s three of you now’) make an entire batch of about 210 Anzac biscuits, bake them, cool them, and package them for sale in cellophane sacks of 6, closed with yellow ribbon.  There was focaccia to part-prepare for the just-about-to-start Bedale BAMfest.  There was more washing up, and sweeping and cleaning.  And time for a coffee-stop of course.

They’re seeking to build up the customer base.  There’s a country house, a high-end hotel or so, and various other outlets who like the quality and range that the bakery offers.  There are locals of course, who know a good thing when they find it, because there are always samples of the bread to taste, people around to discuss ingredients and recipes, and a constantly changing repertoire.  Today there was multi-seeded bread; cheese, chilli and – oh, crumbs, I’ve forgotten what else – sourdough; rosemary and black pepper; cheese, chive and onion bread; harvester loaves….. and so on and so on.  This is Slow Food at its best, made with locally sourced flour from Crakehall Watermill with not a single flour improver, and proved gently over several hours to develop the flavour.  Recipes are carefully tested and recorded, and every opportunity is taken to use seasonal flavours and ingredients offered from the community: a glut of fruits or herbs, as well as those eggs and that rosemary.

Off-duty loaf tins.
Off-duty loaf tins.

I hope there’s plenty more to tell about this place.  We think it’s worth the 16 mile round trip to volunteer here (and be ‘paid’ in bread), but others come from much further afield: Redcar, the home of one of the team,  is nearly 40 miles away, and Saltburn, where another lives, 50 miles.  We all appreciate good bread, and recognise a worthwhile project which offers the chance to learn new skills in a supportive and ‘can-do’  environment.

Volunteering, French style

I’ve had a professional life working in Public Service – employers included the Probation Service and local authorities.  So there’s nothing you can tell me about politically correct, right-on in-service training.  Some of it was good – very good – some of it was bad, and some was even horrid, but over the years, there was plenty of it.

Well, I retired.  I came to France, and put that part of my life behind me.  I assumed.  Wrongly.  I’ve written before about Découverte Terres Lointaines, and now I’m a co-President.  So I thought I should join the other co-president, Sylvia, and do my bit by attending a training evening in Foix for people involved in working with volunteers.

Billed erroneously as a ‘Round Table’ it turned out to be a series of presentations to more then 100 of us packed into a hot room too small to accommodate us.  Sample subject: ‘ Financial relationships between voluntary organisations and statutory bodies’.  Between the heat, the poor sound system and the generally ungripping nature of the subject matter, and stuck in the back row unable to see much, I soon lost interest, and fell to musing instead about how I’ve perceived the differences between volunteering in France and in England.

Back in the UK, most towns of any consequence have a Council for Voluntary Organisations which is an umbrella organisation offering all kinds of support to huge numbers of charitable organisations: advice, support for those with life changing conditions and diseases or other difficulties, concerned with trees, animals, people, volunteering indoors, outdoors, by day and by night.  Would-be volunteers are offered help in matching their skills and enthusiasms with organisations who would welcome their time and effort, whether they want to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in, lend a listening ear, or take further training to enhance their skills for the voluntary sector.

Here in this part of France – and I understand things are very different in the north – there seem to be few opportunities for the would-be volunteer outside sporting and similar physical pursuits for young people.  ‘Secours Populaire’, ‘Secours Catholique’ , ‘Emmaus’, Croix Rouge  and ‘Restos du Coeur’ all offer much-needed practical help to the very poor and those at the margins of society: but despite my best efforts, I’ve not found other volunteering opportunities.  This is in part because there is a strong belief that the state should provide those essential back-up services which the UK largely relies on the voluntary sector for.  There’s a strong belief too that if you offer those services, you should expect to be paid.  There’s a lot in this of course.

But my experience of the voluntary sector in England is that it’s no longer about Lord  and Lady Bountiful doing their bit for those less fortunate than themselves, if it ever was.  It’s a two-way street in which the volunteer receives as well as gives: fellowship, new skills, new confidence, a sense of worth, even a chance to polish the CV.  Judging by the scrum at the meeting in Foix last night, perhaps this is happening in France too.