Seven years ago, in a fit of abstraction, I moved, bag and baggage, from a miniscule village in the depths of Cardiganshire to the city of Hereford. After I arrived it dawned upon me that I knew not a single soul in this mighty emporium of a place. In fact, in terms of social life it would have been wiser for me to have headed for the innermost parts of the Sahara Desert. For the first year or so, I was heavily engaged in the resolution of mysteries such as washing up, cooking, cleaning, and all the other things that normal people deal with as a matter of course. This, naturally, could not go on forever; it just felt as if it did.
I had, as a member of the RSPB, taken up a comparatively simple job of taking care of some of the shop counter boxes through which we sell pin badges to the augmentation of the Society’s funds. When I agreed to do this I had little idea of the lengths to which this might lead. About six months later I received the fateful email which changed my life completely. As far as I can recall, it invited me to the nearby Country Park at Queenswood and, once there, I would join some chap whose function in life was to persuade the local punters that the RSPB was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and that it was a jolly good thing to be part of. My particular role in this would be that of keeping any children of the party of the second part amused, whilst their parents were being given the sales pitch.
I replied to the effect that I had had no dealings with children since my three had grown up, left school, and embarked on their respective anti-social lifestyles. Further, I did not like children, and they, likewise, did not like me. This was answered by an invitation to come next week and give it a go. Being of unsound mind, I agreed.
The following week I duly made my way to the place appointed where a small marquee was occupied by a rather large chap. His first step was to demonstrate the manufacture of the RSPB dragonfly (Mark I). I am now able to report that, five years later, I’m getting quite good at it. This turned out to be the basic child distracter, but there were (and are) others. These include owl pellet dissecting, badge making, bird feeder making to name but a few. I have, therefore, acquired a range of skills, which will stand me in good stead should I ever want to dissect an owl pellet, make a dragonfly, mix ‘em together, put ‘em in a birdfeeder and stick a badge on it so that the birds know the contents of that of which they are about to partake.
Seven years ago, I came to Hereford after a divorce which nearly destroyed me. Volunteering for the RSPB has given me back the schoolboy sense of humour I had over 60 years ago. That’s what comes of learning to love kids. It’s what comes of working with an organisation whose staff and members accept you for what you are, and ask no more of you than what you can give. It takes you to beautiful places to meet all kinds of wonderful people. It gives you the joy of being able to do something positive to help keep this miraculous world, and the miraculous life that lives in it, in being. It can make old age among the happiest years of your life.
Written by Bryan Holmes
Ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer on a beautiful remote island?
In the first of our two part spotlight on Coquet Island, Brian McCullen blogs about leaving Brighton behind, dealing with complete isolation, challenging himself, Terns and Puffins and living a more simplistic way of life. Week two to follow next week . . .
THE COQUET EXPERIENCE
A BIG thank you to my lovely friends for taking me to the coach station. 05:30hrs and Brighton alive with youngsters coming out of the nightclubs, staggering around dishevelled and drunk. Fish and Chip wrappers blew around in the breeze as refuse workers clanked and cluttered around emptying bins. Quite funny really, I am just about to board a coach that will take me to as near to complete isolation as it gets. I arrived in Alnwick at 17:30hrs, an hour late as the driver had to detour to avoid traffic jams on the M1 (nothing new there then). Alnwick is a lovely town, most of the houses built of sandstone. I was met by Wesley who was everything I expected. A modern day “hippy”, one of the “planet of the earth” children I surmised!!! We drove to Amble Marina where I was to board a small “Launch” to take me to Coquet Island. There I met Paul the site manager, a big burly chap with a broad Geordie accent. We then set sail for the island. I have never experienced cold like it before and my hands and face became non-existent in a matter of seconds. It was like being on a roller coaster for the first few minutes, but we arrived safely on the Island 10mins later. As soon as I took my first island steps, I was overcome by the peace and tranquillity. No human life here (except of course the RSPB team), no cars, no rat-race; just as much peace and quiet as you could handle… After a brief tour of the grounds, the team cooked a meal of chicken and crispy spuds, all washed down with a couple of glasses of “chilled” red wine (room temperature here is fridge-like !!!). After a “get to know” chat, it was time to crash out. The front door here is left wide open all night, yet it’s quite safe. Where can you get THAT on mainland UK?? Goodnight one and all, I’m knackered.
If you like waking up, getting out of a nice cosy bed and switching on Breakfast TV, flicking a switch to boil a kettle for your morning cuppa and slouching on your comfy sofa, then deciding (after dropping off for ANOTHER half hour) that you’re going to jump into a nice hot shower, then DON’T come to Coquet Island. This is not about comfort. This is about primarily helping the RSPB and aiding conservation, but it’s also (well it is for me) challenging yourself, taking yourself out of your “comfort zone” and reverting back to a more simplistic way of life. That is EXACTLY what it is, but it is surprisingly easy to adjust to if you just embrace and accept it. Time seems to stand still here. Just take it all in and go with the flow. You will get things done in your own time at your own pace. You can also, I guess, learn a bit more about yourself. For me, the pinnacle of Day2 was enjoying a couple of glasses of Chianti (after an enjoyable day of sand and shell shifting, lawn mowing and raking) whilst chatting with the team and watching the sun set over the Cheviots. You really ARE back to nature here. Bliss.
Not too much to report today. Continued shifting sand and shells from the South Beach to the Tern terraces ready for their arrival. Should be finished by tomorrow. Took loads of photo’s of various birds and the Seals. Just gonna tuck into Chilli Con Carne very soon… (Species of Seabird identified so far… Kittiwakes, Black-Headed Gulls, Lesser Black Backed Gulls, Oystercatchers, Curlews, Shags, Cormorants, and a Black Redstart)
Pretty much the same really. Finished the North Terrace in terms of preparation for the arrival of the Roseate Terns. Mowed the Heli-Garden, then spent the rest of the afternoon learning Pétanque (a form of boules) … I scored 8 ! ! !... Must have been the Mead and Gluhvane they “tanked” me up with. Off to the mainland to try my hand at a spot of welding tomorrow…(dear god) !!!
Over to the mainland today to learn some new skills in Stephen’s Blacksmith’s Forge near Amble… but not before a hot shower and a hearty breakfast supplied care of Paul… then on to the Smithy. I hadn’t seen a real Blacksmiths in ages; think they are some sort of dying breed. They are making a pirate ship and some waves for the Puffins, and I helped to make a barbeque for the island out of an old stainless steel beer keg… Was a great experience and like stepping back in time. No “modern” here!! About half-past 5, we headed back to Amble, went to the Co-op for supplies (wine) oh yes and errrr some food too (hic), got some fish-n-chips, and sailed back to the island. We then watched the sun going down over the Cheviots, whilst eating our takeaways and drinking Weston’s Cider. Lusssssssssshhhhh…
My time here started at snails pace, but maybe as I have got used to “living” an island life then the hours seem to be accelerating but be that as it may, the fun hasn’t stopped. Yes it’s hard work mainly, but you get used to it and it’s fine by me. Today I painted the sides of the “hide” which is to be erected onto its base, by the jetty on Friday, weather permitting. Hilary had “fingered in” a picture of a Puffin on one of the panels !! I almost obliterated it with a coat of industrial white gloss, but they caught me in time. After a welcome lunch of “Spam butties” and crisps (healthy stuff eh) and a quick stomp around the island with my camera, my next task was to start applying wood preserver to the Terns’ nesting boxes…. 8 down, 196 to go !!!
So, am halfway through my “Coquet Experience” and all is well. Today I’m going to continue with the Tern boxes…. It’s now late afternoon and have done about 150 of them…. Only 50 odd to go J It’s one of those island tasks where you don’t really concentrate on what you’re doing, THAT comes automatically… so your mind goes walkabouts instead, and for me a feeling of a strange sense of isolation. Don’t get me wrong it’s not in a bad way, but I’m finding that I’m “moulding” into my temporary surroundings and accepting this very different way of life. I’m just going with it and it’s great. I think the problem for some people would be to bring the “mainland” over with them in terms of stress, worry and general day-to-day drudgery. If you leave it all behind, it tends to leave you!! A great feeling J
Week 2 of Brian’s Coquettish blog – Brian McCullen blogs about his time volunteering with our Residential Volunteering scheme on Coquet Island. Isolation, Gulls, Terns and the arrival of the Puffins . . .
THE COQUET EXPERIENCE Cont . . .
Not a great deal to report for today. I finished repairing and preserving the nest boxes ready for positioning on the two terraces. What I DO recall is the amount and intensity level of noise from the Black-Headed Gulls today. A few of them appeared to object to the fact that I was here, and showed their displeasure by swooping low where I was working. Their constant squawking was driving me nuts, but I guess we have our place on the planet and this was theirs. I figured that they must be starting the breeding process to be so agitated at my presence… WOW, does this mean that spring is FINALLY here??
Am feeling rather emotionally isolated, and its having the effect of making me want to retreat into my Cancerian Crablike shell. But I always knew that this day would come by being on Coquet, so I will be ok. When you are taken out of civilisation and placed on an island, the transformation in terms of what you are used to in daily life is gradual, but it does set in. However, today it is “Boules” with the team and some friends!!
Sooooo, today we are erecting the ‘Hide’ on the jetty. ‘Hide’ ?? Ahhh sorry yes… the ‘Hide’ is a small shed like creation used for keeping watch over the Tern terraces overnight. It is to deter unscrupulous ‘human egg thieves’ from carrying out their wicked deeds. It has a small wood burner, table and a chair… (5 star luxury eh), and whoever is here, takes turns in doing a night-shift on watch. It took us just over 2 hours to complete, reasonably hard work, but we were treated by the wonderful Hilary to some of her sausage plait and hot mead and whilst we all sat on the jetty making merry we noticed a wonderful sight out in the water… THE PUFFINS HAD ARRIVED yayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.
Well here we are. The start of the final stretch of my “Coquet Experience”. Am painting the ground level windows on the cottage for the next 48 hrs, then the afternoons will be dedicated to sealing the “Hide” with waterproofing mastic. The mornings and evenings are getting lighter now and time seems to be flying by, given the advent of my stay here. I sat on the jetty for ten minutes just taking it all in today. This really is a special place. More and more Gulls are arriving now and settling on the plateau, you can also see the puffins mixing in with them. Just wish this weather would warm up and the sea settle down; it would be so much nicer. Right, off to bed now see you all tomorrow. Night.
Penultimate day for me, and I am helping to clear the Heli-Garden log chopping area so that the Terns will have a safe place to roost and breed. It’s harder than I thought chopping logs but hey, I could do with shedding a few pounds
Well, it’s arrived all too soon. At 15:00hrs today, Hilary will come out on the launch and pick me up to go back to the mainland. I was dropped off in Alnwick as I staying in a B&B pre my journey back down south tomorrow L But first, there are jobs to do and I am going to be mowing all around in preparation for the Terns. The grass has to be kept short as if it’s allowed to grow, it will trap the rain which is no good for the nesting chicks. So done all that, and now to pack my stuff up for the journey back. Half hour before we are due to leave, I cart my stuff down to the jetty and just chill for a bit, just to take it all in for one last time, just to reflect on this amazing place and experience. This has been my home for two weeks and I kinda got used to it and its ways. I blended in to the way of life. Now it’s back to normality and I wonder how I will react… 15:00hrs and here comes the launch. Goodbye Coquet Island. Thank you for allowing me an insight into your heart and soul. After a quick shower at the marina, Wes drops me off at my guest house. I am going to miss him; he has been my companion and friend. I settle into my room and after a while, go to the town centre to get some supper. I find Carlo’s fish shop and as I eat my Cod and chips, I look out onto the towns activity, I feel strangely isolated. How can you feel like that in a bustling town of people and cars, having just come from somewhere there are no cars and very few people?? Goodbye Coquet, thank you for everything