Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A parade of maps and hats, trumpets and trades

LAST month I described how volunteers in past decades helped reinvigorate ‘Lyme’s shop window’ – its seafront. Let’s spot some examples of people freely giving time and talent to keep that seafront vibrant today.

At Cobb Gate, the Fossil Festival, of course. Growing from Marcus Dixon’s resourceful imagination, this education-fest draws huge numbers – the absorbed, excited faces of children busy with all the hands-on activities being the greatest of its many pleasures.

Organiser Kimberly Clarke reckons the festival relies on around twenty volunteers, whether in preparation or during the weekend, with help ranging from marketing to stewarding. If you haven’t yet dipped a toe in the volunteering waters, try taking the temperature with this admirable event.

Next May Day weekend (the tenth festival) the theme is ‘Mapping the Earth’, marking the 200th anniversary of the world’s first geological map, by William Smith. His background, qualities and experiences with the scientific establishment share much with his near-contemporary Mary Anning. She discovered her Ichthyosaur four years before Smith’s map appeared; he was finally recognised by the Geological Society, awarding him the first-ever Wollaston Medal, in 1831 – eight years after Mary found her Plesiosaur. Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed The World tells his gritty story well.

Maps are wonderful things, fitting the pieces of reality (and ideas) together. GPS, Sat Nav, Facebook and Twitter focus minds on “Where I am, now”. The more important questions, “Where have we been?” and “Where might we go?” lose out. Maps, in their broadest sense, trace answers and illuminate the nature of such journeys. A contextless humanity without grip on time and space does not bear contemplating, morally or practically.

But let’s cheer up with the Lyme Regis Town Band, whose popular summer concerts in the Shelters’ Performance Area are quintessential Lyme: “We’re a concert band, not a contesting band,” as bookings secretary Val Mahoney puts it, firmly. “And it’s a special delight when small children dance spontaneously on the Parade around us.”

With around 25 volunteer members aged from 13 to 80 and from many walks of life, rehearsing two evenings a week and engaged for around fifty performances each year, this friendly band certainly keep busy. It sustains a mixed-age training band, too, tutored by members, which keeps the flow of musicians alive. The training band will have some numbers at the Town Band’s Christmas Concert on 12th December (8.00pm in Woodmead Halls) so you can hear the present and the future.

Above the Performance Area we might hear jollity and mirth from the Langmoor Room – the Red Hat Ladies getting together. Don’t think I’m stretching the definition of ‘volunteering’ here – “Why, they’re a social club, entertaining themselves!” True, in part. But they add to the gaiety, if not of nations, then of the town: without them, in their red hats and purple clothing, where would Broad Street processions be? (OK, still in Broad Street, but less fun.) Without taking themselves too seriously they contribute, like many other groups from Community Lunches to the U3A, to the important job of fostering the wellbeing of a significant section of Lyme’s residents.

Red Hat Ladies originated in California (where else?) in 1998, inspired by the opening of a Jenny Joseph poem:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn't go and doesn't suit me.

The movement spread, bursting on Lyme Regis nine years ago “to keep ladies of a certain age young” as one expressed it. (The ‘certain age’ must be over fifty; the ‘keeping young’ is achieved by enjoying themselves and doing interesting things.) When the Lyme Bay Lovelies ‘chapter’ reached capacity, the Jurassic Gems formed a second, still growing. Each chapter has a monthly social event and regular outings, called ‘hoots’, the name telling us much about their spirited style. Why don’t Lyme Regis men do this sort of thing – could the Montagu Lodge join the Jazz Procession in canary yellow suits and pink berets?

Moving quickly on ... to the Jubilee Pavilion, where for a seven-month season over fifty volunteers welcome and advise those who’ve missed the Tourist Information Centre. The huge Jurassic Coast map on the back wall outside draws people magnetically, while inside are six different maps of Lyme and its neighbourhood. But it’s the conversations with volunteers (and re-direction to the TIC as necessary) that particularly help those from out of town to ‘map’ and plan a satisfying experience in Lyme Regis – conversations that are pleasurable for the volunteers, too.

Since the Shelters re-opened mid-season in 2011, nearly 85,000 people have tapped the volunteers’ friendly store of local knowledge; compliments about the town’s attractiveness abound in return. Such a free visitor service, supporting official provision, is rare along the coast. Users appreciate it, which can only add to Lyme’s welcoming reputation.

Last stop: the National Trust shop. Manager Gill Melly, three part-time and three casual staff work with around sixteen volunteers, most doing a weekly three-hour shift. A small professional staff supported by volunteers – the model we’ve met several times before – is an ideal combination.

The Trust benefits from a loyal, experienced team interested in the shop’s purpose and performance, and contributing to its development. Costs are reduced, enabling this popular shop to keep running. And a variety of enthusiastic residents with local knowledge are ambassadors for the town as well as for the Trust.

In turn, they enjoy a sociably interesting role in a beautiful spot, with the personal reward of helping a valued charity and our community. Under the ‘staff-with-volunteers’ model they train professionally on the job, learn the retail ropes, and come to understand the Trust nationally and locally – for all the profits from its Lyme shop support work within the Trust’s West Dorset area.

In a few hundred yards that’s quite a variety of volunteering – science and music, map-work and laughter, selling and guiding, one-off tasks and regular duties... and all with a sea-view.

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