I volunteer. Eight years ago, stranded in a small flat, disorientated and trying to adjust to a new life, I began my volunteering at the National Trust. Why not I thought, having done my Master’s dissertation on the very subject, why not find a place close to me to offer my services and so my journey with Ham House, on the river banks near Richmond, began.
One little life saver. My contribution, voluntarily, to help others. Volunteering takes the moving of self to the giving to others. It’s great and you should try it. It’s heartwarming, freezing at times when I stand in the winter rain waiting, hoping no-one will turn up (and they do, dressed for the Artic, determined to have a garden tour) and off I go. It is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
Lately, in this phase of ‘I am going to recapture my life’ stage, I gave my car to my children. Carless in London is not a problem, yet there are times, like getting to Ham, it involves a trek of note. Hour on the bus to the Dysart Arms pub and then literally walking across fields to the house. Think winter, yes, it happens. Today however, Summer welcomes the heavily laden, designer handbag and ancient computer laden madam to meander past brook, park, scary horses. We eye each other as I negotiate manure and gnats. Stopping nevertheless to absorb the sheer beauty of Spirea, cow’s parsley, running water and greenery that makes the eyes blink. This is Pooh country, Enid Blyton country, little lanes, public footpaths, houseboats on river and buzzing of the largest bees I have ever seen. Bumble bees.
Did I mention the Copper Beech – plumes of purple amid the white blossoms? Could get so carried away here! Nature is intoxicating at times. At Ham House, giving these tours about 17th Century life in England, I am honoured, and at times, surprised at the people I engage with. A study in characters for sure, most of them foreign, visiting London, sharing their stories from all over the world. Today I met a couple from Norfolk and a man who worked for Scottish whiskey, to fall one day and wake eighteen months later from an aneurism. Starting a new life in a different way.
As I finished, a dear old ditty woman accosted me with a question about a particular plant. Is it really what the label says?
‘Umm … think so?’
‘But you should know.’ she insisted. ‘ I come here all the time and the labels are a little confusing. Is this a 17th century specimen?’
‘Umm .. think so.’
‘Well.’ she said. ‘The problem is that one has salads and then the flower may change the entire taste, if you eat it, you don’t like it, and if you discard it, the flavour will change with the dressing.’
Say what! I lied. ‘Of course.’ I said. ‘The flower is edible, but with the given vinaigrette could alter the flavour.’ Even I did not really know what I was saying but she insisted that the salad leaves … oh my Lord … was not authentic to the 17th century. Like the shape of the leaves, the colour of the roots … and all I could think was this dear ditsy lady was lonely. Was this going to be me in ten years time?
Hope bloody not. Loved her all the same.
The tours over and she begins the walk back to Richmond, via Petersham nurseries to get her fix of beauty.
I volunteer because I get to live outside the norm of my little world. To meet and learn from others. To be in a place where history lives, films are made and true English life is tangible. The bus ride back is another story.
If you are sort of struggling about life at this time, go and volunteer. If you already do, I would love to know more about what you do.