My muscles are aching as I type, my cheeks are glowing more than ever and I have a satisfied grin on my face…why? I’ve spent half the day clearing woodland and sawing huge branches in the name of biodiversity and, admittedly, fitness…
[All photos by Zofia Walczak]
Today I took part in my first ever Green Gym session, an initiative run by BTCV (the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers). Funded by NHS Camden, the Green Gym is basically a combination of volunteering on biodiversity projects in London’s green spaces, getting a good work out and meeting new people. As someone who detests gyms (positively loathes them), I was keen to find out exactly what these ‘Green Gym’ sessions entailed. The thought of working out in a green area, fresh air and not doing exercise just for the sake of exercise appealed greatly.
I have tried gyms extensively, and failed. Gyms make me feel tired and bored. The constant monotonous whir of exercise bikes and running machines, coupled with people in their own bubbles looking stressed and thinking about other things, monitoring their heart rates and counting every calorie they burn makes me depressed. Likewise, seeing my reflection in the mirror-covered walls everywhere I turn, under the unflattering lights that make everyone (even the buffest-looking posers in the highest-end gym wear) look like sad, old potatoes, has made me finally admit to myself that gyms are not the answer. After a run in the park (rare, lately) I always feel energised and glowing, but the gym just makes me look and feel grey, sweaty and blotchy…more like I should be in bed on medication than like I’ve just had a 45-minute workout.
So here I was, on my way to Baker Street, battling severe delays on the circle line, and modelling some of the least fashionable garments in my wardrobe. I was wearing a pair of old, black hi-top trainers (NB these were my dad’s old pair from his engineering work, not of the retro ilk). I had baggy woollen long-johns underneath some rather tired looking tracksuit bottoms tucked into long green and red thick woollen socks, about 3 jumpers, big fat bright green men’s fleece gloves, an old bright pink scarf, and a men’s waterproof jacket. Chris, the organizer, had warned me to dress warm and prepare to get muddy. For a second, as I stood on the packed London tube, it struck me that I might bump into an ex in this less-than-attractive get-up, but I soon felt liberated, and everyone else started to seem over-dressed!
Today’s green gym session was in a blissfully serene, snowy, slushy, empty Regent’s Park. It’s incredible how the grey, heavy sky which is a permanent backdrop to the London skyline actually looks so beautiful and poetic in a wide open space, a background for the silhouettes of huge old oak trees and their twisted branches.
Super-keen, but with no idea of what I was letting myself in for, I skipped insouciantly into The Hub, a cafe/sports area in Regent’s Park, where I was greeted by the smiling faces of the group I’d be working with. There were a few more newbies so I wasn’t on my own, but mainly people who had already been to a few sessions. After quickly filling us in on what we might expect they praised us for being hardcore enough to have our first green gym session in the current muddy and cold conditions. Apparently it’s all much easier and more pleasant in summer…
After a brief introduction we wandered to the site that Green Gym participants will work on in the next few weeks. It was so easy to talk to everyone, and it was such a mixed group. There were people who had been referred by the NHS (the scheme is a physical and mental well-being initiative as much as a ‘green’ one), editors and anthropologists who had been made redundant, new graduates and people on volunteering schemes…in all we were about 16 or 17 people, though I’m told groups number between 20 and 30 in spring and summer.
We started off with a warm-up, and then Chris from BTCV explained the tools we’d be using and went through health and safety…basically, the saws and shears used for cutting up big boughs and clearing huge twisted areas of extra-thick bramble are not to be chucked and swung around carelessly if you want to come out intact!
Laurent, who had done the warm-up, showed us around the area, and explained more or less what our aims were. The area had once been a meadow, but was now covered in thick, intricately interwoven ivy, bramble and deadwood. Ivy is a great habitat on trees, Chris explained, but on the ground it acts as a thick barrier preventing birds from finding food. One of the key aims of BTCV is to enhance biodiversity, which the UN has decided to dedicate this year to (see International Year of Biodiversity). We would also be clearing and thinning-out the south-facing side of the space, allowing trees and plants to receive more sunlight rather than it being blocked out by dead branches. The best branches would be used to start making a deadwood hedge.
So we got to work, with smaller groups working in different sections. I worked with Catherine, a nutrition graduate who was taking up volunteering after finding it impossible to find work. It was also her first session, so we stumbled along and asked lots of questions together. With over-enthusiastic use of the huge shears, we quickly cleared a very messy area of the woodland, forming a huge pile of dead branches, bramble, weeds and ivy. Any doubt that an indoor gym session would have actually been a better workout soon disappeared; there is not a single muscle in my arms or back that escaped un-used!
Whenever we found a thicker, straight and strong branch, we would cut it to size (about 5 feet) to make stakes for the hedge. The stakes needed to be sharpened at one end and hammered into the earth, and then long bendy branches would be woven around the stakes.
The session was split into two, with a tea and biscuits break in the middle. The hard work meant a re-fuel was definitely on order, and we got to mingle and chat again. We got back to work, sawed and sheared and chatted some more, and when 2 o’clock came around most people didn’t want to stop. This kind of work can be so refreshingly addictive if your workout ‘routine’ is usually a mind-numbingly repetitive set of excercises you have stuck to on and off for seven years.
I initially planned today to be a one-off trial, but it would be ideal to continue. The sessions will be held in the same place for the next few weeks, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11-2. Some people come to every session and some come along sporadically; there’s no pressure to commit but people seem to keep returning. To sign up for a session you can go to BTCV’s website, send them an email, and they’ll reply with all the joining info. The Green Gym certainly beats running around in circles in my small local park, but the disadvantage is that you can only really take part if you don’t work 9-5 full-time.
I spoke to Chris after the session, and he told me some more about what BTCV is up to this year. Green Gyms are soon to start in four other boroughs, and Camden Council is also funding a BTCV Carbon Army project to plant orchards in council estates. To be selected for the scheme, residents of the estates had to express and prove an interest, since they will be planting the fruit and berry trees themselves with guidance from BTCV, starting their own vegetable patches, and later taking care of them. It is a way to get people working together as much as an environmental and local food initiative. We are so removed from most food production now that this will be a great way to start democratising the process again. Having grown up on an inner city estate myself I can definitely appreciate the scheme and it will be interesting to see where it goes.
I’ll be going along to the setting-up of one of these orchards in the coming weeks, so will write up about the experience. For now though, I really really need to go and stretch some more. I have a slight fear I won’t be able to move when I roll out of bed tomorrow morning… but at least I’ll have spent the day breathing fresh air and surrounded by green leaves rather than grey concrete…bliss.
Biodiversity, bramble, BTCV, camden, Carbon Army, climate, conservation, deadwood hedge, environment, Green Gym, ivy, NHS, orchards, permaculture, Regent's Park, UN, Volunteering, Year of Biodiversity
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