A few months ago, I got a job. Not for the money, because I’m not paid a penny. But I’m richly rewarded. I signed up to be a volunteer for the National Trust, at the property nearest our home, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. Cistercian Abbey, Georgian water garden and medieval deer park... no wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are dozens of different roles, from gardening to guiding. You could drive the mini-bus or form part of the archaeological monitoring team. You could work in the shop or in the admissions areas. You could work in the wildlife team, helping look after and monitor all those ancient trees or the herds of deer. And you’re quite entitled, over the years, to change your mind and try something else.
I started out as a visitor assistant at the Victorian High Gothic Church of Saint Mary’s in Studley Royal Park. I admire the building hugely, but it doesn’t involve me at an emotional level as the ruined abbey does. So I quit. No hard feelings.
Now I'm a member of the Learning Team. Our bread and-butter is sharing a Day In the Life of a Monk with schoolchildren. The children dress up in monk-style habits, and tour the site getting in touch with the brothers’ silent and family-free routines, led by one of the team.
We examine the roofless, windowless Abbey and try to picture the church back in its prime. We visit the refectory where the monks dined in silence. We discuss bloodletting and the daily routines. Maybe the children remember only a few of the facts but we hope they are moved by these atmospheric ruins and return later with their families.
I’ve ended up doing all sorts of stuff I’d never have thought of attempting. Car park attendant on Bank Holidays? I didn’t think so. But it turned out to be fun togging up in a hi-viz jacket, barking out radio messages on the walkie-talkie system, getting in touch with your inner traffic cop, and generally being a welcome face to visitors as you help them manouevre themselves into the busy car park.
Some things are simply a privilege. Last Sunday evening, the site was opened to less mobile visitors. The evening was cold, misty, moody, atmospheric. I talked to some of the visitors, often very elderly, as their cars and drivers made their way through the floodlit grounds. Their appreciation of the staff and volunteers who were there helping the evening to go smoothly, though nice to hear, was quite unnecessary. I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything.
There are other perks. A couple of times a year there’s a ‘works outing’, when volunteers can take a trip to properties in other parts of the country. There are winter lectures for those who want them, to widen and deepen their knowledge of the history of the place. There are times to socialise – a barbecue, a quiz night, meals. We’re very well supported, properly trained, and appreciated by the regular paid staff.
I look forward to every single thing I do as a volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. I feel very lucky.