Where travel and culture meet, there are always opportunities to volunteer and help out local communities. As Autumn fell over the Wye Valley, I volunteered at the Wye Valley Greenways and Cycleroutes workcamp, helping in small ways to transform the disused Tidenham rail tunnel into a bat-friendly walking and cycle route.
The image of me in high vis, holding a screw driver is a rare one. But more than having not wielded a set of tradesman's tools in a while, I had also honestly never heard of a 'workcamp' before, until my partner asked me if I fancied going to one. Scrolling through Twitter one day, he'd found a call for volunteers to help out at The Wye Valley Greenway workcamp, taking place from 5th- 13th September 2020.
Neither of us had never done anything like this before, but as we both work in the arts, we understood the importance of volunteers and the incredible work that they do. Given the current global climate, we wanted to offer a hand in some way, and felt that this work camp would be a great change from our current working-from-home environment.
Greenways and Cycleroutes are a charity that develops walking and cycleroutes for the community, by connecting with and enabling volunteers to run these projects. This charity was developed by those who have previously worked with SusTrans (short for Sustainable Transport), another charity that aims to make it easier for people to walk and cycle, and they are the custodians of the National Cycle Network.
We joined the Greenways and Cycleroutes September 2020 Wye Valley work camp as they aimed to transform the Tidenham tunnel into a walking and cycle route. The Tidenham tunnel is 1100 metres long, making it the longest tunnel on the once prosperous Wye Valley Railway, which connected Tidenham to Tintern back in the day.
Getting down to work...
We were just 2 out of the 71 volunteers who gave their time to help out at the (socially distanced) work camp during the week. I personally spent two days there, focused on jobs which added up to assembling some of the planned 137 lights outside of the tunnel, before they were installed separately.
In all honesty, I was initially anxious about what I might be able to offer in terms of help - I'm a professional choreographer who has (I now realise) a bit of a phobia of power tools. I'm also 5'3 and my 'guns' don't add up to much... if you get my drift! However, my partner and I were given the job of beginning to customise 70 of the tunnel lights, and we very quickly got into a productive groove.
It turns out I'm rather handy with a screw driver, and so on my first day at the camp I was responsible for unscrewing the lid of each light, and applying some silicon adhesive to make the lights' seals watertight, before passing those now deconstructed lights onto my partner who had to then drill some holes in them for cables. We then got a bit of a production line going with some of the other volunteers who were installing and cutting the cables, and then screwing the lids back on.
A few days later I came back to the camp and began to help with cutting the lights' junction boxes to size with a hacksaw. This wasn't my finest moment, as I'm quite heavy-handed in some ways, but I certainly began to learn some DIY skills that have escaped me for the first 31 years of my life! Finally, outside of the tunnel, I assisted in the assemblage of these junction boxes - unscrewing brackets with allen keys and moving finished lights and junction boxes out from storage to be placed at intervals along the main cable to be connected.
Something that I hadn't considered before coming to the work camp, was the presence of bats in the tunnel. A strong population of bats live here, and so Greenways and Cycleroutes had to make sure that the bats would be protected once the tunnel opens as a walking and cycle path. To do this, the volunteers also built bat hibernation areas with bricks, mortar and breezeblocks. My partner helped out with this on the extra day that he could spare that week.
We were going to help out with the tidy up on one final day at the end of September, but unfortunately our local area went into lockdown due to the further spread of COVID-19, and so we weren't able to attend. It's a shame as I would have liked to have done one final walk through of the tunnel, to see our lights installed and spend one final proud moment with the rest of the volunteers. Instead, we hope to be there when the path is opened (hopefully) in April 2021.
What struck me most about being involved with the work camp, was the incredible sense of community that we found there. We were newcomers, not just to SusTrans and Greenways and Cycleroutes, but to the whole idea of a work camp, and everyone made us feel incredibly welcome. In addition to volunteers doing the work in and for the tunnel, there were volunteers making cups of tea, and baking cookies and cakes for everyone, to keep those sugar levels up during the labour-heavy days.
There's also an incredible community looking to document the history of tunnels such as the one at Tidenham, and to breathe life back into their stories - those of the past, and the stories that the tunnels may tell in their new lives as walking and cycle paths. For example, Graham Bickerdike, one of the fab people over at Forgotten Relics, made a film about the redevelopment of the tunnel and this particular Greenways and Cycleroutes work camp, which you can watch below, and if you're interested to hear more about a volunteer's perspective on the work camp, you can also read a journal written by senior volunteer David Judd here.
Volunteering is of course a great thing to have on your CV and, depending on your line of work, could lead to further work opportunities. However, there's also a lot more too it than that. Through volunteering you can gain new skills that you might not otherwise have access to (like using a hacksaw, in my case!), and you can meet some really great people in the process.
During this time, however, I understand that it may feel a little strange to be thinking about volunteering opportunities if you're in one of those industries that is currently experiencing difficulties because of the pandemic. But I genuinely think that this work camp was a good experience for my own mental health at the moment. I work in the performing arts industry. I'm a choreographer, and I often work with vulnerable communities. My work revolves around being in the room with people, being in physical contact with them, dancing together. During this time, I haven't been able to do that, and so what this work camp provided me with, was an opportunity to feel useful - to feel like I was helping, and that I was serving a purpose during this very strange time. I think ultimately volunteering can do that - it reminds us how every human being on this planet has the ability to make a tangible difference in the world, and perhaps we need that now more than ever.
Are you interested in reading about more cultural experiences like this one? Then some of the following posts might be worth your eyes: