Given our recent extremes in weather, there is currently a lot of public concern about climate change, both globally and nationally. Fortunately, for us living here in the beautiful County of Northumberland, our local authority monitoring system indicates we have ‘generally good’ air quality levels www.northumberland.gov.uk/Protection/Pollution. But, that said, what can we do to maintain such apparently clean air?
I recently had a very interesting meeting with a gentleman whose lifestyle is very sympathetic to this aim. Conrad, who is a volunteer ranger for a sustainable transport charity called Sustrans, found out about NCVA volunteer stories through Anna from Coast Care, because he volunteers for them too (and as with most ‘serial’ volunteers Conrad has involvements with a few different charities!)
Sustrans is a nationwide sustainable transport charity that tries to encourage people to get out of their cars and cycle, walk or use public transport. The organisation uses volunteers in several ways. They have Wildlife Champions who maintain adopted greenways, these are traffic-free paths away from roads that become havens for wildlife. There are tree and hedgerow activities in the winter, grass cutting and surveys in the summer and all sorts of small interventions to make a positive difference for wildlife. They also have helpers called Community Volunteers whose role it is to inspire people to travel sustainably, through social media and talking at events. These volunteers give advice about cycling and walking activities and opportunities. Then there are the Volunteer Rangers. The rangers look after the National Cycle Network routes in their home area. From regular route checks, to cleaning and replacing signs, to cutting back vegetation and picking up litter, the activities of the Rangers are vital for making sure the Network is safe for everyone to enjoy https://www.sustrans.org.uk/volunteer.
Pedal or foot power does have many positive effects on air quality, including reduction of carbon emissions and improving overall health outcomes. Furthermore, this type of exercise also has direct health benefits for individuals who participate. It builds muscle and bone, it provides a power boost for the brain, is a good workout for arthritis and improves overall mental health https://www.medicaldaily.com/4-health-benefits-cycling-425884.
Given these benefits then, what else could motivate someone to volunteer and ride their bike as a national network ranger?
I started our conversation by asking Conrad about his reasons for becoming a ‘Ranger’. Conrad explained that although his initial interest in changing transport policy was sparked when he got involved in an advocacy group called Transport 2000 (renamed Campaign for Better Transport), he has always been a passionate and active cyclist. In fact, both he and his wife have attempted to go ‘car free’ several times over the years. The catalyst for joining Sustrans however, came over a decade ago, when a young man he knew was killed on his bicycle, and at around the same time his own daughter joined Sustrans. Conrad feels that the thing that really keeps him going is “I’m essentially a very nosey person and being a ranger is a great vehicle for meeting really interesting people!” Indeed, he has a really good way to open up dialogue. “If I see someone looking a bit lost, or whatever, I explain I’m a ranger and ask if they need any help!”
“My wife and I also volunteer for an organisation called ‘Warmshowers’”. As a couple, they do their bit for the cycling community by offering a bed, meal and a shower to any two wheeled, weary trekkers that come their way. This scheme is a ‘cycling tour’ hospitality exchange system for bike tourists. Whilst the service is free as no money ever changes hands, the beneficiaries are expected to offer lodgings themselves in return.
Although being a ranger sounds like quite a lonely activity, I expressed my amazement that Conrad appears to be such a social and extrovert personality! Yet he found this contradiction funny, describing himself as “a Left leaning, exhibitionist, retired Social Worker, who also happens to be from a Quaker background.”
“When I started as a Sustran's volunteer I lived at Ingram, on the National Cycle Networks Route 68 and this route is part of the 'Cyclists Pennine Way'. The area is pretty remote, isolated and off road, with lots of overgrown hedgerows. However, when we moved to Doxford, my patch became part of the (northern) Coast and Castles Route and I became the ranger responsible for a team of volunteers who cover a route that runs from the Tyne to Berwick on the Tweed.” Conrad enjoys the demands of this much busier route, as people often get the train to Newcastle and make a holiday of cycling the full trek (making him less of a lone ranger!). Indeed, the Coast and Castles' route is also part of a much larger NCN1 Route. A long distance route, NCN1 covers the charitys international 'North Sea' route including the east coast of Britain and parts of the near continent. Sustrans have an expectation that their Rangers should “ride their patch” at least twice a month, and also have dedicated Task Days where groups of volunteers are brought together to carry out activities over a larger stretch of the National Cycle Network, such as tidying hedgerows. Such days out can be a great way to bring everyone together and have some fun whilst looking after their own ‘patch’ or stretch of the Network.
The organisation regularly arranges training for their volunteers such as Leading Rides and Cycle Training and Conrad feels he has definitely developed since he began volunteering. He feels he has learnt to advocate for the organisation and “not to go beyond my remit and cause ‘reputational damage’ by trying to tackle issues that are not my concern”. Conrad also realises that he can be over enthusiastic, and “a serial over-committer” where his time is concerned. Therefore, he does try to be more realistic and feels supported and valued in this by Sarah (his volunteer coordinator) who has even refused to let him over-commit in the past, saying “she tries to protect me from myself”. Conrad said he has seen others develop from their volunteering experience and watched many people come in to train as Ride Leaders and gain purpose and confidence from the activity. “You get shy young people, who have low self-esteem, transform and within days they’re asserting themselves and” he laughs “forcefully telling 40 year olds what to do!” Conrad believes the charity’s volunteers also tend to be quite unconventional characters, because “if you want to spot a Sustrans volunteer you only have to look at their bike, they always have unique bikes with eccentric or individual little adaptations!”
When out and about, Conrad is on the ‘look out’ for dangers such as glass and potholes, damage to signs and manhole covers and blocked drains etc. Apparently, after this winters big chill and our visit from ‘The Beast from The East’ there was a lot of damage done to verges and roads due to the “Big Kit” farmers use to clear the roads. “I usually tend to know who is responsible for what, such as Water Board, BT or Local Authority” so Conrad Tweets, for Sustrans, informing cyclists directly about any problems they may encounter on route. Alternatively, he reports issues back to Sarah, his manager, who addresses problems with the organisations concerned, or she organises a Task Day to get the job done. In fact, Conrad is full of praise for Sarah whom he describes as an excellent organiser and a very efficient person.
When asked what the most positive aspect of his volunteering experience has been, Conrad said “I enjoy volunteering for Sustrans because they are such a positive crew. They want ‘change through growth’ and it’s such a tonic from the ‘don’t do’ type of approach taken by other organisations”. In the end it also boiled down to his interest in people too. “Basically, I’m also a very nosey person, really nosey about people, and it’s a great way of talking about bikes, finding out where people are from and where they are going! It’s a really positive and satisfying activity!”
If Conrad’s story has inspired you to volunteer, then why not visit Northumberland CVA’s Volunteer Connect database to start exploring the opportunities available. http://www.northumberlandcva.org.uk/volunteering/volunteers. Or visit the Sustrans web site www.sustrans.org.uk.