Yes I can do it!

Summer 2000

I arrive at the school gates late having pootled around the lanes of Somerset, getting increasingly lost in Never Never land. I meet the headmaster. He makes me feel nervous. The school office is not somewhere I should go. The only reason to go there is when you have been naughty. I feel I have been naughty. I am late. Pam, ‘he tells me is already on the reserve: “follow the road to the railway bridge park on the left and walk down the lane”.

The landscape is further and further from the madding crowd with every turn of my car wheels. I stop and get out, leaving the dogs to gaze frustratedly out of the window, and even as I stand to get my bearings I hear again the high pitched sound of children. This time the noise is accompanied by a robin singing, and falls against the rich silence of green space. Then I see them, their little heads bobbing with red hats and blue hats, chatting to Pam, ferociously. “Hello” and “Sorry I’m late” I call as they see me. They fall silent, but only for so long as they take to swallow their embarrassment and realise from Pam’s response that I am safe to talk to . I ask them a question, something about what they have been doing. Then they explode, all except the boy.

They tell me breathless how they have made a leaflet, and written poems and drawn pictures and seen green shank and meadow pipits and they are learning the names of all the birds and next they are going to make a collage…..I ask them to stand for photos. Pam in the middle. Most of them had never been to the reserve which is five minutes from their school before Pam bought them here. They hand me a booklet which evolved out a series of creative workshops Pam ran, getting the children to describe their feelings for nature. I ask them to read their work aloud, and for a moment as they speak amid at the rushes at the water’s edge, the planet’s future seems secure. “I gave one to both my Granddad’s this Christmas” says Sophie. Finally it the boy’s turn, he reads his poem entitled Marsh Harrier. Oliver has never seen a marsh harrier. Pam has made it his ambition to do so.Voluntariness: the state of being voluntary, free, or unconstrained,the absolute freedom or liberty in respect of choice determination or action, spontaneity.

Pam shepherds the children off. They have to be back for afternoon school, but she points me in the direction of another small gaggle of people swamped in the enormity of the landscape. They stand on a marshland reserve which only a few years ago was horribly scarred by the industrial process of peat extraction. “What have you seen?”, is my first question, conforming to bird watching protocol. Jim has his left eye fixed through a scope on a pair of snipe side-by-side in the sunshine. He is Pam’s husband.

Jim and I take a walk on the reserve. He points to individual trees and gorse bushes planted by him, tells me that the reeds were none of them here when he first came. Together with other vols and the reserve staff, he grew them up from seedlings in the greenhouses. “You must learn a lot of skills here”, I ask him. “Not really, its not that difficult”. “It must sometimes be hard work”, I probe, “and muddy”, “Not really.” he says,* “But in the wind and the rain, it must get tough”, I urge him, looking for a soundbite on the rigours of RSPB volunteering. “No, no.”, he shakes his head, “Its easy” he says “after the classroom”. Jim is a retired teacher. Later, at the Willows tea Room, Melvyn Yeandle, warden for English Nature, is less reserved about Jim’s efforts. “You can’t praise these two highly enough” he say, “we’d like to poach them from the RSPB”. With the increasing co-operation between these conservation organisations, that is becoming less necessary.

“Why do you do it”, I ask them, over delicate cakes made by Annie, (or perhaps a celestial angel). Similar cakes were eaten at the first RSPB volunteer meeting which Pam and Jim joined 4 years earlier. “Perhaps that is why we stayed”, says Jim, “for the cakes”. I ask him seriously why they do it. Both are private, gentle people. They are not so good at blowing their own trumpets. “I would like to be pushed round here in my wheelchair when I’m old” says Jim. and know I’ve had some input. You get away from it all here. It doesn’t matter what’s left undone at home”. And the children?

Jim has had enough of children, but Pam loves working with them. “I have taught a lot of kids who have never seen a cow”, she says “its good to open their eyes to nature”. They sing the praises of Sally. “She never pushes us to do anything we don’t want to do, she’s always polite and considerate”. In this tea shop in this sleepy Vale of Avalon, with these people, there is an intense sense of loyalty, of team spirit.

Later we walk down the road to watch the starlings come into roost. 6 million of them make the sky like a monochrome kaleidoscope of reeling, swirling, identical forms. “That’s another thing” says Jim, as we all crane our eyes to the skies, keeping our mouths firmly shut: “We are learning all the time. I had never had a science lesson in my life. Every time I come here, I learn things which amaze me. Its a world of wonders.”

Part two

Done of deliberate intent or purpose, designed, intentional.Favourably inclined, willing, offered freely in aid of some cause…The world of wonders is being revealed by an RSPB speaker to a group of 180 people sat silent in the darkened lecture theatre of Salisbury Town Hall. I have arrived at my second interview, late again, and so popular is this meeting, I can’t get a seat. This is the doing of Tony Goddard, accountant by day, bird superhero by night. Tony went along to an RSPB volunteer-recruitment meeting fourteen years ago, and has led the local members group pretty much ever since. Extraordinarily, Tony met his best friend, Steve, and his wife Maggie, met her best friend, Liz thanks to volunteering for the RSPB. Now the couples live next door to eachother in a village outside Salisbury. Their houses back onto open fields and a river. I visit them there the following Sunday, and after a long car journey from Oxford, I walk my dogs before going to join the team.

Tony has just got out the shower after a day coppicing at Garston Woods. Steve is just about to start his night shift at the airfield where he works as an air traffic controller. He got into birds when a naturalist visited the airfield and was able to magically identify flying brown blobs just from the sound they made. Now Steve himself lectures on the dawn chorus and is the group’s keenest identifier. Steve finds it difficult to stop talking, which is good because he is very entertaining. Tony is happy to let him get on with it, interjecting to add small but significant points of information. They tell me of the heady early days of the members group. Everyone mucked in, setting their skills to work on various tasks. The guy with the typewriter became secretary, the one with a superb memory, membership officer. Because he wrote on his form “no special skills, have ago at anything”, Steve became leader, a role he happily gave up to Tony after a year. for his the more appropriate role of ‘talks’ .

Together with the other crucial team members, Tony and Steve run field trips, fetes, lecture meetings, wildlife gardening weekends. Since they began, the group has raised £70,000 for the RSPB and every month they get 200 people to come, whatever the weather, to hear their speakers. Tony’s house is neat and orderly. He is an efficient, self-deprecating man, running the members group in a professional manner, which perhaps is the key to its success. There are RSPB papers stacked up on the table, and a picture of a glossy ibis on the wall above the desk.

“Why do you do it”, I ask, What I want to know is, why in this world of increasing pressure to earn more, and own more, do these people give of their time so generously? “We get more out of it than we put in” says Steve, “Tell her about Goddards Global Tours” he laughs. A world has opened up to them since discovering bird life: Together they have visited Israel, the Camargue, California, Crete, New England, Lisbos, Southern Spain, the list goes on, in the most fabulous natural places looking for birds. They have an energy and enthusiasm which is infectious. No wonder so many people come along. “There’s no point doing it unless you’re enjoying it, that’s our philosophy from the outset, which we have stuck to”, says Tony. It clearly works.

* Just for the record, according to Pam, Jim does get covered in mud when he’s out on the reserve.