Put on some headphones and take a walk along the banks of the Thames from Tower Bridge to Maplan sands enjoying the sounds of the river from the lifting of the bridge to the sounds of redshank on the Allhallows marshes. This recording from BBC sounds really transported me to the marshes in summer and I almost ducked as the bee flew overhead.
I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded an Foundation Grant by the Society of Authors to help fund research into my new book, which currently has the working title of, The Volunteers.
For six years I ran a volunteer group for a small conservation organisation. This experience had a profound effect on me, as it did on everyone who found their way to us. Now I want to write about those years in the woods and tell the stories of the people that came.
In particular I want to write about the young people, many of whom were in a bad place in their life at the time, either through mental health problems, drugs, a brush with the law, or simply because they had lost their way and needed something good to happen. Each one of those people took a brave step out of their door the day they joined us. Their stories are bound up with my own walk back from a dark place following redundancy and a breakup.
Behind this story is my theory, which is that, for hundreds of years we worked with our hands, on the land, alongside our neighbours and then suddenly the world changed. The volunteer group restored people, if only for a little while, to the way we are meant to be.
Nature is hardwired into our genes but increasingly we are alienated from it. We spend our days in high rise boxes cut off from such life-giving essentials as fresh air and sunlight. We are lost amid noise and concrete, our every move watched and followed by gadgets that we welcome into our lives. Small wonder that we are in meltdown. Loneliness, depression and drug use are all on the rise and, even those of us who can’t put a label on things, feel stretched thin.
For the volunteers the woods offered a respite, a chance to return to the world of bird song and dirt beneath the fingernails. To regain a sense of community and of ourselves.
I have been beavering away at this story for the last two years, visiting locations to relive the years I spent running the group and planning my research of everything from how working outdoors affects our mental health to traditional woodland management techniques.
This story of the volunteers and what that time meant to me is a tale I have long wanted to tell but find it hard to put in the time needed to write when writing just doesn’t pay the bills. Now, I feel like I have been given a breathing space, an opportunity to create something which I hope will be worthy as a follow up to my 2017 book On the Marshes.
Watch this space. A new journey begins.