Saturday dawned revealing a Christmas card landscape of heavy frost and snow-tipped Lakeland mountains. Driving north on the M6 over the mist cloaked summit of Shap, England’s highest motorway route, the hill fog cleared to display a sugar coated backdrop of Kidsty Pike and the surrounding fells slipping into Haweswater below. Destination Carlisle. A group of students from the University of Cumbria Students’ Union Volunteer unit are meeting on the banks of the river Eden to continue restoration and reclamation of a quiet corner of Eden park now thick with overgrown laurel, brambles and ivy. The combination of years of neglect and the consequences of unbridled nature reoccupying its former territory.
Russell Maddams is in charge of the project, a real community endeavour pulling together a voluntary workforce from Stanwix , the broader reaches of Carlisle and now as far afield as Lancaster. Russell’s approach is what politicians and white collar managers like to call multi-agency community engagement, but it’s rare to find people like Russell who’re less interested in the politics and more committed to working with people who want to improve the places where they live. He concedes the park has been allowed to degenerate almost beyond viable repair. A lengthy process of grant applications for funding to fix original stone buildings and replace the oak trellis sheltering the walkway has hampered progress.
None of this seems to matter to Amy. She’s a photography student at the University of Cumbria and joins the group without any previous experience in gardening or volunteering. She says, ‘It’s a beautiful day and I wanted to do something a bit different with it.’ Amy has recently moved to Carlisle from Suffolk. She likes the city and the University of Cumbria campus and looks to be enjoying the course.
Rayner has travelled from the Lancaster campus, leaving unfashionably early to join the project in Carlisle. He’s a final year social sciences student who wants to teach. For him the project offers a chance to do something worthwhile. “I think employers like to see that you’re happy to do stuff that’s not part of your job and you’re not getting paid for” he says. “I think this is a great project and a chance to make the park better so everyone can enjoy it for years”.
The highlight of the day is the felling of two unwieldy trees at the border of the park. Russell issues the instructions but it’s Rayner who topples the second lofty laurel sending it crashing to the undergrowth with a satisfying creak and the accompanying shouts of ‘timber’ from spectators.
The University of Cumbria Students’ Union President ‘Potter’ joins the team after lunch. He’s travelled up by train after a previous engagement in Manchester and soon gets stuck in, sawing branches off the fallen trees. He’s delighted with the progress on the project and he’s absolutely passionate about volunteering. “I think volunteering is a really important thing for students to get involved in. We have so many projects they can do and are constantly being approached by organisations, community groups and charities who really need help which I think we can provide”. When he’s pushed on why he does it he’s absolutely clear. ‘It’s the right thing to do. And when there are projects like this one, it’s a real blast’.
It’s appreciated too. Mr Mackaye is 90 years old. He lives in Stanwix just above the park and walks here most days. He’s delighted to see young people digging, sweeping, chopping and sawing. He’s amazed that some of them have travelled from Lancaster to help and will be enthusing about the volunteers at the next local council meeting where he’s a regular.
As the sun sets, the team pitch the last of the garden waste onto Rusell’s council van and start drifting home. As they do, they should all feel good. Good about the work they’ve done. This small part of the park has had the ‘groundforce’ treatment and is visibly transformed. They should feel good about themselves too. Volunteering has that effect. It serves as a timely reminder that there are still people prepared to help out in the community by giving a little bit of their time for free because they want to make it better for all of us. And if everybody felt like that……..