Are We Too Busy To Volunteer?

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  • The National Trust have reported a decline in the number of retirees volunteering at their properties. So much so, they are planning to leave some of their historical properties unmanned. Dame Helen Ghosh, the director-general of the National Trust told The Independent that she thinks it’s because retirees have grand plans and grandparenting responsibilities. ‘Older people are travelling around the world,’ she said, ‘They are doing the babysitting.’

    w&h hear from two ladies who regularly volunteer and have found that it gave them more than just a sense of purpose…

     Fiona Adam 58, is a freelance voiceover artist. She is married with two grown-up children and lives in south-west London.

    I’ve always had a keen interest in plants and gardening. A year ago, after
    designing my own town-sized garden in south-west London to be low
    maintenance, I found myself looking for a challenge. I’d visited the
    gardens at Ham House, a 17th-century National Trust property in Surrey, a few times, and knew that they took on volunteers. On their website I
    saw they needed an assistant plant propogator and I emailed to say I was interested.

    After filling out an application, I was invited for an interview with the head gardener, Patrick Kelly. I was told they were looking for an ‘enthusiastic amateur’. He wanted to know how long I’d
    been growing plants and gardening, and to hear about the allotment I
    used to have; looking for evidence that I could talk on the same level
    to the other people who worked there. He explained that plant
    propogation is about sowing plants as well as providing plants for the
    garden. When I was offered the role, I was absolutely thrilled. 

    Day one felt a bit like my first day at school. I was really nervous
    because I didn’t know what to expect. Patrick took me down to the
    polytunnel and introduced me to Andrea, head of plant propogation. She
    put me to work pretty quickly; my role is to sow seeds, take cuttings,
    pot and repot plants, as well as watering and feeding in the polytunnel.

    I was working with another volunteer called Mark and they were both
    really friendly. All of the gardeners at Ham are fantastic: it could be
    very irritating having a load of volunteers asking annoying questions
    but everyone is incredibly welcoming and inclusive. After my first day I felt exhilarated – and I still do now, whenever I go.

    Images: Indira Flack 

    I volunteer every Friday from 10am to 4pm. I always look forward to it – but it is a commitment because if you don’t show up it doesn’t get done.

    Every morning, about ten of us assemble with the head gardener and
    discuss what jobs have to be done that day. We wear a National Trust
    badge which makes me feel very official! And part of the visitor
    experience is that we do interact with the public who often have
    questions, which is always interesting.

    Although I’m not paid, I see it as a huge luxury to volunteer – I’m learning so much from other gardeners and I’ve expanded my knowledge of plants. 

    The other volunteers are a diverse mix – one is an ex-ambassador and others have worked in everything from IT to marketing. But what we have in common is a huge enthusiam and it’s a joy to share that. I volunteered because I love gardening but meeting people with a similar passion has been a bonus.

    Like to join? Find volunteering opportunities with the National Trust at

    Tracey Robinson, 44, lives in Bude, Cornwall with her husband Darren and runs Vert PR, which promotes ethical and eco brands.

    Arriving at my local beach and seeing it strewn with all manner of rubbish, most of it washed in by the waves and wind, and then a few hours later seeing the sand totally clean and clear of any litter is so uplifting. Doing it in a group gives a real sense of community and I enjoy chatting to the friends I already know but also meeting people I wouldn’t normally cross paths with.

    I’ve lived by the sea for my of my life and my local beach, Widemouth Bay, is a stunning bit of coastline but, being on the North Atlantic coast, the strong tides and winds wash up huge piles of coloured plastic and fishing net.

    The group was originally started by a friend my husband surfs with called Ado (short for Adrian). After one particularly stormy weekend, hundreds of plastic bags and bottles had been swept inshore and the beach was absolutely covered in debris. Ado organised a group of friends and when I heard they had filled 60 black bin bags of rubbish in one afternoon, I wanted to get involved too. The group became the Widemouth Task Force (WTF) and Ado got backing from Keep Britain Tidy to provide litter pickers and bags and fund insurance. 

    I find out the dates and times of meetings from the Widemouth Task Force Facebook page and we’re usually a group of at least 30, from kids as young as five to adults in their sixties. People come on their own, as couples or with their entire families. I’ve been out with a group as big as 90, including tourists who see us in action and want to join in.

    My friendships within the group have deepened because of the taskforce. I used to meet Rachel, Vicky and Avril on the beach every couple of months to watch our husbands – or in Avril’s case, her son – surf. Now we all see each other twice a month at the beah cleans as well. I’ll spend two hours scouring the beach with my head down, picking up litter and talking to them, and I hear so much more about their lives. I chat to the kids too, they get stuck straight in and they think it’s great fun. We talk about our weeks, the weather and the thing we find on the beach.


     Images: Indira Flack

    Afterwards the local cafe puts on free coffee and cake as repayment because the state of the beach affects their business too. We all mingle and chat and there’s a real sense of unity as the wider community pulls together.

    Fishing net and plastic bottles make up the bulk of the rubbish. Then there’s the odd toy soldier, pants and socks and we’ll joke about those, but once, I discovered a washed up porpoise. It had a piece of green fishing net wrapped tightly around its tail and hadn’t been able to free itself. Sadly it was too late to help it and that really brought home to me the difference I can make. Just by picking up a fraction of the marine rubbish that’s washed up on the beach, I may be able to save a fish, a bird or a mammal.

    The council picks up litter during the summer too, and tourists usually use the bins so most of what we find has been blown or washed up on to the beach. 

    I was already an avid recycler but I’m even more dedicated having seen
    the damage litter can do to marine life. Once you become more aware of
    litter you can’t help wanting to clear it up. Now, even when I’m on
    holiday, I’ll pick up litter off the beach and put it in the bin.

    Like to join? To find a litter clearing group near you visit the Keep Britain Tidy website

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