School never really understood me. I was obsessed by natural history, bred woodlice in my bedroom, spent my Saturdays looking after sealions in London Zoo and used some clay I was given to make scale models of the poo of all the native species of British mammals.
I never quite found my tribe, they were all Wham and designer labels, I was more Elvis Costello and mud. But a chance sighting of a Natural Break poster in our sixth form centre changed all that. I celebrated finishing my A levels by spending a week building boardwalk across the bog at Malham Tarn and I learnt as much in a week as I had in the previous year… who knew Northampton was not in the North, Americans had names like Jesse William Angel the third, or I would find my tribe.
I loved everything about the BTCV approach, the pragmatic can-do-ness, the way they let volunteers lead sessions, doing something good for biodiversity, outside, in nature with like-minded people. The way everyone is genuine when you are standing in a peat bog in the rain.
Over the next year I worked in offices during the week and escaped almost every weekend with the London residential weekend team – undeterred by being kerb crawled as I waited for the minibus each Friday (Kings Cross was a bit different in 1985) my friend Matt and I stayed in village halls, scout tents and barns and learnt words like crome, shovholer and monkey strainer. I got stuck in ponds, dyed my hands purple pulling up water lilies reviving a choked up pond and discovered Blondie.
There was no BTCV in Bristol when I went to University so I strayed for a while to the Avon Wildlife Trust, volunteering to restore the coppicing of the crazy wooded valleys of Blackdown Hills, but I found the true path again when I moved to Leeds in 1990 and started volunteering for John Preston at Hollybush. I volunteered on the Cookson Project and trained as a Leader for TCV. The photo is from our four-day course in Wirksworth, learning everything we could possibly need to run residential conservation projects – how to manage mass catering on a tight budget and a two ring camping stove, managing conflict, loading roof racks safely to building group rapport. I don’t quite remember which section the face painted group massage was in but I’m sure it stood me in good stead when I started working for TCV in 1992, taking a job setting up Skelton Grange Environment Centre in south Leeds where it has been my privilege and pleasure to work ever since with the most amazing team of staff and volunteers you could imagine.
I never knew who put that poster up in the sixth form centre but they could never have imagined the impact it would have on my life and it makes me reflect that I think that is one of the best things about being involved in TCV – that chance to do that for other people, often at challenging times in their lives – to give them that chance to be outside, doing something good for the planet with like-minded people and to feel valued, included and involved.