Leaving Lockdown: A Week Working With National Trust Volunteers
Since the pandemic began I’ve been working at home and apart from a week long holiday with my closest friend’s family in 2020 I haven’t been in any group situations for the past 18 months.
One of the things I enjoyed doing in the pre-Covid world was going on residential volunteering trips where I would help with outdoor work for the National Trust for a few days. I joined the group that I volunteer with a couple of years ago when my friend invited me to join him one Easter and I have been on a few trips since, getting to know some of the other members quite well.
It’s been over a year since the group has been able to actually hold any events and it’s something I’ve really missed. The members are dotted around the country and I’ve met with some of them on Zoom a few times for quizzes but there’s been no opportunities to do any of our normal activities. I very much enjoy doing the physical work involved in the events which includes things like planting, clearing woodland and building fences — and I like it that I’m much stronger than I look and I can muck in with quite literal heavy lifting. I also like working in beautiful rural settings which vary from stately homes to woodland.
The trips are always in places which are a bit tricky to get to without a car (and whilst technically I can drive, I haven’t for years) but I always go with my friend which has given me the added bonus of being able to hang out with someone I like a lot and have a bit of moral support whilst being around new people.
In August the group held its first week long event since Covid. It involved a dozen or so of us staying at a large bunkhouse in Snowdonia, North Wales and working for four of those days in fields and on a farm. It was also the first trip I had done since being diagnosed with autism but when I told one of the event leaders about my diagnosis I said it didn’t really change anything.
As it was, the trip did give me some insights into my condition. Maybe it’s like when you buy a new car and then you start to notice lots of the same make driving around; being away from home I became a bit more aware of how my autism effects me. When we arrived at the bunkhouse (which I had checked out online numerous times to see what it looked like inside) I went straight up to my dorm and instantly walked around it, looking into all the partitioned sleeping sections. Some had roof windows, others had none, some were fairly large, others a bit small. One had a low floor level window with a thick stone sill and a deep wall nook higher up so I chose that one because having places to put my things felt really helpful.
Once the week got going I was relieved to see some familiar faces who I get on well with but was also surprised to meet three people who were completely new to the group so I had no reference points for them at all. They were all quite lovely so it was fine but when a chap turned up a few days into the week who I knew from various other events (and who had attended the same school as me, although not at the same time) I felt a palpable sense of comfort at seeing another person I knew I got on with.
The friend I attended with is someone who I’ve only been friends with for about three years but he probably knows me better than anyone. He came with me when I was diagnosed with autism and he’s walked alongside me as I’ve journeyed through my explorations of mental health and trauma. There’s nothing much that I can’t tell him but lately I’ve been trying to hold onto anxiety by myself a bit more. During the week I found that as happy I was to be there I did have quite a bit of anxiety going on. I thought I might mention it to him during the drive home but as each day went on I swallowed more worry and got to the point where I felt like it would be difficult to mention it at all.
It came to a head at the end of the week when we all went to a pub and filled up an entire room where we had to remain seated. I found myself in the middle of the room whilst everyone talked loudly around me. I felt completely overwhelmed and sat looking at the fireplace to try and ground myself. When I glanced across to my friend who was sat in the corner he mouthed to ask if I was ok and when I nodded, he suggested that I could go outside. I shook my head but a minute or two later made a quick sprint for the door. It was raining a bit outside but I stood in a corner near a wall and I had a bit of a cry but then didn’t know how to go back inside.
Later my friend came to join me with both his and my drink in his hands. I told him that I had been carrying anxiety all week and explained what it was rooted in. He said he hadn’t realised aside from a few moments where he had noticed me staring into space. One time it had had happened at the dinner table during a very silly and geeky engineering discussion and without breaking conversation he had leaned forward and gently knocked the table in front of me to catch my attention. One morning I had told him I felt a bit nauseous with worry and he’d asked me what I needed. I said I didn’t know and touched his arm. He squeezed my hand and that helped. Each time I felt like this I had managed to rid the feelings once I started working.
Outside the pub when I told him how anxious I had been feeling I asked him for a hug before we went back inside and buried myself into him for a few seconds. I told him that was what I had needed earlier in the week when he’d asked but I hadn’t felt it was appropriate in the bunkhouse in front of people. I told him hugs help make me feel grounded.
It was these moments that made me realise that the thing I found most challenging wasn’t the hard work but the relaxed socialising. I had gone on the trip with genuine concerns about my level of fitness because I had been sedentary for so long due to lockdown but instead I found myself working harder than I ever had on a National Trust trip and finding resources of energy I didn’t know I had.
One day we were clearing bracken on a farm planted with young trees which required us slashing at the overgrown plants to break them down around the trees. The field was surrounded by barbed wire which we had to climb over. I did it in the morning with no problems but in the afternoon I climbed a section of the fence on my own and slipped, impaling the back of my left thigh on a barb and getting my trousers so tightly snagged I had to have my leg held up off the barb by our ranger whilst a member of our group diligently freed the snagged cotton of my workwear trousers.
Once free I was still outside of the field I needed to be in so without any thought I immediately climbed back up on the wire and said “Let’s try this again then.” The ranger and the guy who had just rescued me got me to put my hands on their shoulders so I could climb over. As soon as I was in the field my legs felt like jelly and my breathing was how it goes when I have a panic attack but I just got on with the slashing. One of the leaders shouted over from outside the field to ask if I was ok and I gave her the thumbs up even though I was anything but.
As the rest of the group moved on through the field and down the hill I sat in the long grass and had a cry. Then my pal who was resting by the ranger’s truck during that afternoon’s session called over to ask if I was ok and I shook my head. He came over to the field and lifted my coat and rucksack over the fence and walked with me along the edge of the fence where he and one of the leaders then helped me climb back out over the barbed wire. I sat with them on the grass next to the truck and told them I felt like crying but didn’t quite again. Instead I had a mug of coffee from my flask.
The other activity we did was making bonfires. We were working in an area of woodland in some farmland and there were a lot of felled trees and brash to clear. Over the course of the week we had about seven managed bonfires and I watched with awe as some of the members of the group stood close to these huge fires throwing the wood on. It was absolutely sweltering work but looked so much fun. Our ranger was even more impressive, often walking into the embers to rake up ash and I took photographs of him doing this which looked incredibly dramatic due to the ash and smoke flying around.
On the last day, one of the group left a day early and so I found myself with the opportunity to get up close and throw wood onto the fire. I was in a chain of four people and had a seemingly never ending pile of large branches and entire dry Christmas trees coming my way. We were working on an enclosed riverbank which was narrow so one of the leaders and I were throwing on wood as fast as we could so we could make space for ourselves to move back away from the flames. I started off wearing just a tee shirt with my work trousers but could feel my arms and head prickling with the sharpness of the heat. At the morning break one lady kept commenting on how red my face was which made me feel really self conscious and so I kept dabbing my face with wet wipes to cool it down. After the break I went back to the fire but held back a bit which made me sad because I wanted to do more but I was conscious about my face. I put my hoodie on and pulled the hood up because I had noticed the ranger doing that — it was really hot but it protected both my arms and my face and meant I could get nearer to the fire.
Working right next to a massive bonfire sucks the energy and moisture from you really quickly. I found myself out of breath, completely parched but unable to stop. The branches and logs kept coming down the chain and occasionally bits of flaming wood would escape and need to be hit with a heavy rubber fire beater. I could manage about three seconds stood on the very edge of the embers. It made my eyes feel hot in a way that didn’t feel right and when it got too much I called for help beating the small fires. Very soon I was breathing like I do when I go running. I knew I needed water but I had already drunk half my flask. The leader I was working with told me there were bottles of squash by the ranger’s truck and I could help myself. Eventually I excused myself and climbed the bank where I had a drink and laid on my back with my eyes closed breathing like I had just finished a race. I was like that pretty much until lunchtime and knew I couldn’t do any more. My friend told me to take the afternoon off. But after an hour and some sandwiches I managed to go back and do more before sitting on a log and having a chat with the leader I had been working with all day.
What I noticed is that even though my body got completely fatigued something was driving me on. No one was expecting me to work if I felt too tired but I wanted to do it and I pushed myself past the point where I felt I couldn’t do more. I loved working with the fire and said as much to those in the group. It was hard work and not always comfortable but I felt no anxiety despite doing something that had very obvious risks attached. I also found myself googling fire safety clothing when I got home to see if I could find a lighter long sleeved top as an alternative to my hoodie, even though I may not work with another fire for a long time (or ever).
So my take-homes from the trip are that my fitness and stamina levels don’t really seem to matter if my autism slips into special interest territory (which I think the fires qualified as) although I’m likely to overdo it and exhaust myself once I finally manage to stop. I’m also far less likely to be anxious if I am working hard at something where I know what I have to do to achieve a tangible goal.
I did find it very curious that whilst I didn’t feel embarrassed at being manhandled by two men whilst they disconnected me from a barbed wire fence in front of the group (which I would have thought would have left me feeling mortified) I did struggle sitting in the snug of a pub which was full of very lovely and chatty people who I’d got to know and hope I’ll see again sometime. I think a lot of that overwhelm was due to the noise level and also the anxiety I’d been privately experiencing all week. Once I returned to the room my friend went back to his seat and I had a nice chat with the person opposite me about my photography so I think acknowledging my anxiety with someone I trust helped.
Knowing (or learning) where my comfort zones are mean I can at least work on making the challenging stuff a bit easier, even if that’s just a case of trying to not overdo it when working and being more honest and open about feeling overwhelmed in seemingly relaxed situations. I’ve got a way to go with both of these but have learnt far more about myself than I expected on this trip.