It’s quiet when I arrive at the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal not far from the Welsh village of Llangynidr. The brown water moves almost imperceptibly, and the summits of the Brecon Beacons are caressed by a blanket of soft cloud.
I’m here to join a group led by Mark Prosser from the local branch of the Canal and River Trust, whose volunteers meet every Tuesday. “People come for different reasons and do as much or as little as they like,” he says. Today, he and his colleagues Paul and Chris are joined by two volunteers; Jan, who recently quit her job to retrain in countryside management, and Ray, a retired caretaker. Jan loves volunteering. “I grew up with this canal,” she says, “and the team are brilliant.” Ray, who is undergoing treatment for cancer and whose wife passed away recently, says volunteering with the group helps with his depression. “Christmas was awful,” he says, “but I’m glad to be back.”
Getting stuck in
Mark varies tasks to provide opportunities for learning new skills – one week scrubbing graffiti, the next restoring lime kilns. Today, we’re clearing hazel recently coppiced by the Llangattock Woodland Group. Issued with gloves, hi-vis jackets and goggles, we cut the brashwood into manageable pieces and stack it to create habitats for birds, mice and invertebrates. My arm muscles sing while my legs negotiate the incline. The work is steady and warming, but there’s no pressure. Mark, an intuitive mentor, believes that volunteering is as much about talking as working.
At lunch, we squeeze into a small, cosy tearoom, and conversation becomes nostalgic. “Whatever happened to those bacon-flavoured piglet crisps they sold in the canal shop?” says Jan wistfully as she drinks her tea, before Chris recalls wandering about the Brecon Beacons with a chicken-paste sandwich. Ray remembers making fishing weights at home. “Sometimes the lead would explode out of the fire and get stuck in the coconut matting,” he laughs. “It got so heavy my Mam had to throw the whole lot out!”
After a Day’s work
At the end of the day I feel relaxed and invigorated. The physical and mental benefits of outdoor activity are well-known, and the setting is important. Yet volunteering is also socially therapeutic and often binds communities. When I leave, the landscape I take with me is one brimming with spirited cameraderie, vivid in colour and noisy with laughter.
How to get involved
Volunteering provides opportunities to learn new skills, meet friends and keep fit while helping wildlife and green spaces to thrive. Local groups are abundant throughout Britain, so if you fancy tree planting, coppicing, carpentry, dry-stone walling, grassland maintenance or wildlife surveying, join one this spring. Here are a few suggestions:
• Maintain waterways with the Canal and River Trust.
• Plant trees and record nature with the Woodland Trust.
• Create habitats with the RSPB.
• Get gardening with the National Trust.