It’s barely 8.30am, and the rain is lashing down, again; stair-rods spearing out of a leaden sky. Twelve of us are squeezed into a minibus, already steaming through waterproof jackets & trousers, boots not quite dry despite the drying room’s best efforts.
Soon we will arrive at Tarn Hows, the astonishingly lovely yet largely man-made lake above Hawkshead. Hopefully the rain will have stopped, or we’ll get even wetter. And we will load up with tools and enter the woods that cascade down from Tarn Hows towards Coniston Water, all part of the Monk Coniston estate, managed by the National Trust. We are a volunteering party. We have chosen to be here, we have paid for the privilege of being here. And despite the best efforts of The Weather in July in The Lakes, we’re having a terrific time. We spend the week removing old unwanted fences, rolling up yards and yards of chicken wire, seeding new grass and protecting paths that shouldn’t be paths, hacking back and removing Rhodedendrons from the native woodland, laying new gravel paths in the Monk Coniston gardens, planting trees and constructing protection for them.
We age from 18 to (ahem) over 60. Some of us (like me) are novices, some are completing their Duke of Edinburgh Awards, others are seasoned ‘professional volunteers’, with tales from Lundy and North Wales, from The Peak District or Dorset. We muck in to cook and clean, we sleep in rudimentary dorms, we take turns to shower.
And mercifully, on our day off mid-week the weather clears. A group of us march up The Langdale Valley, climbing the Pike o’Blisco and across the Crinkle Crags. It is a glorious experience, and one I will not forget. In the evening we get fish and chips and a couple of beers.
That was 2008, and this Spring I revisited The Lakes, where in the woods around Tarn Hows I noted the absence of several fences and rhodedendrons. I admired the completed gravel path and was slightly underwhelmed at how patchily the grass seeds had taken. And I sat once more on top of the mound above Tarn Hows, drinking in the 360° views down the lake, South towards The Old Man of Coniston, and across to the Langdale Pikes.
I’ve done a few days volunteering at Westonbirt Arboretum since then, and want to do more. It’s a good feeling to be doing something active, physical and practical, in the outdoors. I’ll wager that hardly anyone notices paths are no longer crowded or overhung by hazel saplings. But however seemingly unimportant, it does make a difference.