By Andrew Gorton
In the summer of 2010, a friend, knowing of my burgeoning interest in nature and the environment, handed me the July programme of a conservation group that had, at that time, been going for nearly a year. Activities included earthworm surveys, tree planting, and the removal of bracken, bramble and other invasive species, among similar endeavours. The group was called the North Norfolk Workout Project.
Keen to try it out, I turned up at Cromer train station, one of the pick-up points mentioned on the programme, and duly the project minibus arrived, driven by project manager Mark. After introductions, Mark explained a bit more about the group. The project had been set up by the North Norfolk district Council and BTCV, with input from English Nature and the NHS, amongst other groups. The idea was to undertake outdoor conservation projects in the North Norfolk region, and in the process give volunteers access to nature and improve their physical and mental health.
So off we went to Sadlers Wood near North Walsham - myself, Mark and a half-dozen or so other volunteers, to clear bracken from a wild flower meadow. I must admit, when I saw the amount of bracken, I quailed a bit, and wondered if we could clear it all. But we all got stuck in, and soon large swathes of the stuff had been cleared. I found it surprising and strangely satisfying to see the amount we had done just a couple of hours.
After a very pleasant tea break – an essential fixture of each session - some of the group carried out a couple of surveys on behalf of the Open Air Laboratories Network (OPAL), a scheme run by the Natural History Museum that encourages people to investigate certain aspects of the natural world and report their results. That day, we carried out a soil and earthworm survey. This involved investigating a patch of soil to find out its make-up, (how much sand, how much clay etc.), its acidity, and whether there were any earthworms nearby. The next survey involved checking trees for specific types of lichen to determine the levels of nitrogen in the air - some lichens thrive in nitrogen rich air and others do not, so this is a good way of checking air quality. In the event, we found neither earthworms nor lichens of any kind, but the results were sent off, and hopefully the boffins at the NHM can make something of them. I returned home at the end of the day having enjoyed both the work and the surroundings a lot.
It was after this that a period of ill health prevented me from getting about for a bit, so I was unable to attend any more sessions until September, when I became involved in earnest. I attended a wildlife walk in Bacton woods with Mark's colleague Fin, and saw an unbelievable (to me, at any rate) array of different fungi – 2010 being a bumper year for them. The session after that at Holt Country Park was something of a knees-up to celebrate the Project's 1st anniversary. A good time was had by all, although I did feel a bit guilty attending the event – I had only done 2 sessions prior to this, and I was rubbing shoulders with people who had done 30, 40, or 50 sessions.... Anyway, I got a good vibe from all the other volunteers, they were proud of what they had done in the last year, and Mark and Fin were given cards signed by everybody in appreciation of their efforts.
Since then, I have worked at a number of sites throughout North Norfolk with the Project, performing a lot of different conservation activities.
At Pigneys Wood at North Walsham, one of the earliest tasks I was involved in was raking recently mown grass from a wild flower meadow. This is to prevent the grass from rotting down and swamping the soil – wild flowers prefer thin soil with relatively few nutrients; a case of 'less is more.' On subsequent sessions there I have found myself cutting reeds, planting hedges and trees and coppicing alders. Coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management, where the trees are cut right down to the stumps, and then allowed to grow, often producing several thin poles from the same stump. In the meantime, the reduced canopy allows more light to reach the forest floor, increasing biodiversity there. On this particular exercise, these alders had been previously coppiced, and the numerous poles we sawed down were going to be used for an art project. They are flexible enough to be weaved, or 'wattled' into walls. (A more recent coppicing session at Holt Country Park will see the alder trunks used to make a maze – pretty 'amazing' eh?). Incidentally, a similar technique is pollarding. This is where the trees are cut to chest or head height. This is to allow livestock to graze without damaging the new shoots.
A regular activity we carry out around Holt and Sheringham is the removal of rhododendrons, an extremely invasive species. Although it sometimes seems a never-ending task – there are masses of this plant around - 5 or 6 of us can make short work of a large rhodo bush. Indeed, it is quite satisfying to saw through a large trunk of this Triffid-like plant and remove great swathes of it for later burning.
A couple of sessions were at Salthouse Heath, clearing gorse, not only to encourage biodiversity, but to expose 4000-year-old Bronze Age burial mounds for archaeological investigation. One cannot choose but wonder what sort of people they were, or what life was like back then. The photographs below show one particular mound, before we had begun work, and after we had finished for the afternoon.
There was one particular session at Salthouse I shall never forget. We'd finished early to go and see the nearby remains of a World War 2 radar mast. Towards the end of the war, a Lancaster bomber returning from a mission over Germany had to divert from it's home airfield due to thick fog that had covered the whole area. Lost, and flying at around 200 feet, the plane had crashed right into this radar mast. Six of the crew were killed outright, and the seventh died a few hours later. It was very sobering to see the remains of the tower – four concrete 'feet', each with about a meter or so of metal girder sprouting from them, adorned with wooden crucifixes and a poppy wreath. There was a light fog forming when we got there, and knowing what had happened there, it was quite an eerie experience.
On a lighter note, and speaking of fog, I have, perhaps a touch masochistically, gone out in all weathers during my time with the project. Sun, rain, snow; you name it I've been out in it. Holt Country Park, just before Christmas, looked particularly winter-wonderlandy:
The project has also garnered a couple of prestigious awards. One, awarded before I had joined, was for encouraging biodiversity in the region. We were also one of three groups short-listed for the Love Norfolk category for the Norfolk People of the Year awards. I was privileged to be invited, along with fellow volunteer Clive along to the evening by Mark and Fin (we had to wear suits, a real shock to the system!) along with representatives from other organisations involved with the NNWP. In the end, we lost to a community composting group based in Trunch. (Boo! Hiss!) But all in all, it was an honour to be short-listed, and it was a great evening, with some good food and some really inspiring stories of human endeavour. We also managed to filch a few bottles of wine to boot-something extra for Christmas!
So far, I have done some 40 sessions with the North Norfolk Workout Group, and have enjoyed them immensely. I have particularly enjoyed meeting and working with the other volunteers, who are from a variety of backgrounds. Some are college students studying the countryside and the environment. A couple of others already have degrees in similar fields. All have brought their knowledge to the Project in one way or another. Some, like me, are unemployed and are seeking to gain new skills and experience. Still others have come on the Project to meet new people and to just get out of the house and do something worthwhile. But whatever the reasons, I think I can say that we have all got something out of the North Norfolk Workout.
Andrew Gorton is an Open University student, London born but now living on the North Norfolk coast.