At Rainham Hall, our fantastic volunteers help us in everything we do, including in the café, visitor welcome, in the Hall, in the office, they help deliver our school sessions and in the Garden. To celebrate National Volunteers’ Week (1-7 June), Community Gardener, Jesse, highlights the invaluable contribution of volunteers in the Garden at Rainham Hall.
My first volunteer experience
It was at University that I signed up for my first experience as a volunteer. I was interested in getting to know Leeds better, and trying to escape the student bubble for a little bit, too! At a volunteering fair I saw a project called Green Fingers, that was teaching children in a local primary school how to garden. We got to chatting, I explained that I was studying Garden Art & Design, and I signed up. The meetings were quite infrequent, but really fun whilst we were there. The kids were having a blast getting muddy, and the teachers and parents really appreciated us been there.
At the end of that year our volunteer leader was leaving, and she asked if I would take over running the club. I was happy to and set about making some changes. We created an after-school club so that the children would see us more regularly and could see how the garden and their plants develop. We did all the lovely crafty bits of gardening through the winter months; painting pots, making bird feeders. This helped to expand the children’s idea of gardening from just weeding and hard work, to something fun and a creative outlet. By the end of the year, the club was well organised, and I handed it over to another student volunteer. I had really enjoyed my first experience of volunteering, the sense of been involved in your community, the joy people take from seeing the nice garden we had made. Simplifying gardening was also something that I took from this project. So many people are put off gardening because they are worried about killing plants. The best thing we did was take away that fear from the kids, and just got them chucking seeds and plants in everywhere!
How volunteering has developed in the Garden at Rainham Hall
The National Trust has such an incredible array of volunteers, over 60,000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. So, when I joined the NT at Rainham Hall, my first priority was getting to know my volunteers. There was a group on a Tuesday that had been coming in to look after the Garden for about 5 years. During this time, they had seen lots of changes, with site going from tenanted Hall to a visitor attraction. These changes had taken a toll, and a large volunteer team had dwindled to 5-6 regulars. The passion was certainly still there though! I spent my first few months just finding out what these guys wanted for the Garden they cared for so passionately. We created concept designs and wrote management plans, and for the first year, all we really did was tackle infrastructure problems: wider paths, with better surfacing, greenhouses, tools. Whilst we were getting all this right, the volunteers were warming to me, and sharing their ideas for the Garden.
To implement these ideas, we would need a much larger team, so we recruited, and the numbers leapt up from 5-6 to 30+. We were really open to finding ways to make volunteering work for individuals. We were able to work with a volunteer who pruned for half an hour whilst her baby slept in a pram. A group of children actually initiated our After School Gardening Club. We have also adapted our Garden for our volunteers with disabilities or different mobility needs, from adding a raised Hugel bed (for those who can't bend down) and working together with individuals to find ways to make volunteering at Rainham Hall Garden match their needs.
Initially this required a lot of time to adapt our space and train the various volunteers. Now though we are seeing the benefits. We have a huge team that have been working on the development of the Garden for nearly 5 years, and we can go so much quicker because of their dedication. And the Garden is so much richer for having them all. The play areas are inspired by the ideas of the After School Gardeners. The Orchard Pergola that has become such a beautiful feature was a design solution from one of the original 5-6 volunteers. This knowledge and passion help to drive the Garden forward and create a space that is truly reflective of the community.
What volunteering could look like in the future
Recent additions to the volunteer team were a flower arranging group. As part of The Denney Edition exhibition in the Hall, this new team have been creating beautiful Ikebana style floral arrangements. This has helped to bring some seasonal highlights from the Garden into the Hall, and it’s nice to see these two spaces interacting with each other. I think future exhibitions, and unearthing of historical stories, could similarly influence new Garden volunteer groups. Perhaps one day we will have archaeology volunteers or garden art volunteers?!
I am writing this blog in the build up to Volunteers' Week, and it’s been great to look back and think about how far we have come. Working with volunteers is an absolute joy, full of ideas, inspiration, and passion. Usually we would celebrate Volunteers' Week with some cake. But seeing as we can’t do that, I’m going to say thank you to everyone who has donated their time, plants, seeds, ideas and enthusiasm; it’s a privilege to know you all.