This was my talk to volunteers brought together to celebrate the fantastic contribution they make to a variety of The Brecks Fen Edge and Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme projects. Volunteers had the chance to look at displays, talk to those involved in projects and hear from speakers about some of the projects. (And have a cup of tea and cake in the lovely Guildhall. Some photos of the occasion.)
I’m leading on 2 projects: Healing Waters – the Outdoor Swimming part; and Tales from the River. Although these are separate and different projects I link them together as Bathing in the Brecks, outdoor swimming and other recreation: past, present and future.
(See the talk slides on Flickr.)
Within Healing Waters (Outdoor Swimming) the main activity is our programme of swim intro events, giving people the chance to have a go and to learn about safety with support from lifeguards and volunteers.
Volunteers are absolutely crucial to running these: from organising reception, welcoming and reassuring participants (many of whom are very nervous coming for their first swim), asking participants to do the surveys we use to measure well-being and the benefits of outdoor swimming, and to make sure the sessions go well and that we address people’s fears and hopes. Going round with the surveys gives a chance for participants to ask questions and volunteers call on their swimming experience to answer them.
Volunteers have an important role alongside the lifeguards. They do an interactive safety briefing with participants before they get in the water, using prompt sheets devised by a volunteer. These have questions and activities like practising starfish float on the beach or by the river and then in the water – an important thing to know for safety should you get in a panic or fall in the water.
And volunteers (in their green swim hat or fluorescent tabards) get in the water to chat with participants, to support them, and to have fun and play games… or more unusual things such as starting the fun race with space hoppers at our event.
We also have lifeguards at the events, in the water and on the bank.
Volunteers have fun jumping in and enjoy taking part – whatever the weather – even on a rainy day! Their feedback shows that they get a lot out of seeing people’s smiling faces after having had a go, and from introducing them to this activity. And participants’ feedback often mentions the friendly and helpful welcome they get when they turn up and as they take part, which allows them to enjoy their session. Download selected feedback from participants and volunteers to Dec 2022 (4 pages Word.docx), and updated Dec 2023 (Word.docx 4 pages), and see a few quotes at the end of this article.
Volunteers also have an important role in preparing for events, doing the sampling for our bathing water quality testing, checking out potential venues, and doing risk assessment – one volunteer who really doesn’t like weeds is bravely checking where the weeds are!
The project has provided training in open water lifeguarding – to help people get the qualification and for refresher training sessions. In total we’ve trained 17 people who work or take part as volunteers at our events and elsewhere.
One of our lifeguards (also a paramedic trainer) has just started running first aid training for wild swimmers with a session done jointly with the project.
Volunteers have also come to support at events where we had a stall and display. At BFER river day at Thetford two swimmers went into the river (not an official part of the day), to show that people do swim at Thetford. It’s not all glamour – they were able to pull out some rubbish that even the dedicated canoe litter clearers at Thetford couldn’t reach.
An important thread running through the project is talking with landowners – from the beginning when we held a workshop in March 2020 bringing together local landowners to discuss swimming and water safety, with speakers local and from national safety bodies. Swimmer volunteers talked about the benefits of outdoor swimming, what it meant to them and how they keep safe. And we keep in touch with landowners with information and support from time to time.
Another strand of the project is to survey the rivers and waters, looking at places where people went for recreation in the past, do so currently, or could do in future. As part of this some volunteers had training in checking foot paths provided by Clare Dickson, project lead for another BFER project ‘Access’.
The plan is to talk further with the landowners about the places, possibly about signage with heritage and safety and wildlife information, branded appropriately. One example from Yorkshire has information about a place swum in for generations and now, along with safety information. We also hope to find places that we can include in swim walks.
We will be mapping the locations, and preparing for this includes volunteers looking at historic and current maps. At our events we ask people to tell us about places where they have done recreation or own or manage the land, by marking on the Brecks area map and talking to volunteers.
This work brings together the two projects – recreation past, present, future.
The Tales from the River project draws on memories and research and is working with local history groups such as at successful events at Oxborough and Thetford.
We’ve been training the volunteers in research, looking at maps and documents, and in oral history interviewing. And volunteers also play a key role in finding people to interview and in meeting the local community, such as at the sessions at Oxborough and Thetford and those we hope to hold in other areas.
At these sessions local people have brought along photos, information and have done oral history interviews, and we’ve used some photos already in displays to encourage discussion, in the film and in the exhibition being devised by the young people.
An important strand of the project is working with young people. We held a summer club with young historians in August: doing research – for example at the location of Thetford river swimming baths, where they re-enacted scenes from some historic photos and talked about their heyday. The young people were inspired by stories from press cuttings and from the oral history interviews already collected by volunteers, animating these accounts and filming and being filmed talking about them.
The launch of the film they created – on YouTube, ‘Tales from the Riverbank: A Fun History of Thetford’s Rivers 1880s to 2000s’ – was attended by them and their families, by several people who donated photos, research and interviews and many other local people. It was a wonderful event attended by all ages, giving another chance for volunteers to chat to locals interested in Thetford’s history. We hope to follow this up with more oral history interviews and with another Thetford drop-in, as long as we have enough volunteers. Thetford has such a wealth of history and so many people keen to talk about it that at our earlier drop in we didn’t have enough volunteers to talk to everyone.
In the Healing Waters project we’ve already had over 100 volunteers helping at different events, and we welcome more, including for the two events already planned for next year in July and August. And we would welcome people interested in local history who would like to get involved in the Tales from the River project.
Contact me, follow on social media @OSBrecks, or get in touch via BFER.
The presentation was made to an event to celebrate the volunteer contribution, organised by the The Brecks Fen Edge & Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme (BFER) which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Selected feedback quotes:
That was a really lovely event, so well-attended and supported, with all the interactions and sense of community it stimulated. The film was very engaging and informative, and clearly loved by all. I thoroughly enjoyed it, the children were a joy, their enthusiasm was obvious, as was the pride and admiration shown by the children’s families and friends.
Volunteer supporting Tales from the River film launch event
So pleased people tried swimming and enjoyed it. It was good to share my positive experience with attendees.
I really enjoyed my day. It was lovely to have a chance to share some of my experience and the volunteering opportunity also served to raise my self-esteem and wellbeing. So success all round.
Volunteers at Healing Waters swim intro events
I’ve had a marvellous experience today at the wild swimming course. A supportive and welcoming team made a memorable day for me whilst learning vital safety advice through direct experience. Thank you for a fabulous experience.
I very much enjoyed this with my son. The volunteers and organisers at these events are always brilliant, so friendly and put you at ease if you are feeling nervous.
Participants at Healing Waters swim intro events
My #wildswimming journey started on 13th September 2020 at an Introduction to Outdoor Swimming event. Two years on and I’ve loved every minute of it. I started a fb group for swimmers in my area and 13 months later there are now over 900 of us! …These videos and photos are from our end of Summer …gathering on Friday 9th September 2022. They show just some of the truly wonderful folks that make up our swim tribe, many of whom have attended one of the Introduction events that have taken place since I started. All of us have @osbrecks & @thebreckslp to thank because without them giving me that initial opportunity, none of us would have found each other!
I now have lots of new friends I’d never have met without wild swimming and an entire community around me. I love it! Huge thanks to Brecks Fen Edge & Rivers LP, Imogen Radford & the Outdoor Swimming in Breckland group without whom none of this would ever have happened.
Key project volunteer, Ellen Kirkby, who organises reception and more on the day and in advance.