IN SEARCH OF SUPERLEADERS
A huddle of Heritage Heroes
At the very start of all of my canal camps, clusters of wide-eyed, apprehensive new volunteers have emerged from Newport railway station, scanning the car park for a big red Waterway Recovery Group van, as they've been instructed. Two or three of them will have slightly wider eyes and be slightly more wary — they are the brave international volunteers, usually here thanks to REMPART, the Paris-based heritage volunteering organisation.
In March 2019 the (hopefully steel-toed) boot was on the other foot, as I, wide-eyed and apprehensive, stepped off a French local train at a small station in the middle of…well…France, and peered around for the unknown person who was supposed to be meeting me (perhaps us). Armed only with mostly-long-forgotten schoolboy French, I was on my way to represent the Waterway Recovery Group and Royame-Unis at a heritage volunteer leaders training workshop organised by REMPART, and I was standing alone on a rapidly-emptying foreign station forecourt...and...phew, a friendly-looking someone was approaching me, smiling!
It is easy, as an experienced "old hand," to forget the challenges of the arrival. Unfamiliar places, the intricacies of public transport, and in the case of international volunteers, surviving in foreign country and using a different language. An immediate "lesson one" for me: I must make the pick-up and arrival as user-friendly as I can.
The smiling face belonged to Laura Soulard, an archaeologist working with Adichats, the oprganisation restoring Villandraut Castle, south east of Bordeaux. Three more smiling faces (French, Spanish, Italian), a mini-bus ride, and then, a noisy room-full of chatting strangers. Suddenly, the dizzying necessity to overcome shyness, to fight off imposter syndrome, to introduce oneself to both the ebullient and the retiring, those fluent in English and those struggling (but still totally eclipsing my faltering language skills). Who should I sit next to? Who is going to snore the loudest (important — we slept in dormitories)?
The five-day workshop was held in Maison Labat, in the village of Villandraut, a small community overshadowed, appropriately, by its castle, whose restoration has involved many a REMPART volunteer. I was there in blotting-paper mode, aiming to absorb and learn as much as possible through its two strands: "theory" and "practice."
REMPART consists of an association of some 180 member organisations in France together with partners in 14 European countries: Portugal, Malta, Poland, Italy, Belgium, Croatia, Romania, The UK, Hungary, Czech Republic, Catalunya/Spain and Germany, of which all but Belgium and Germany were represented at the workshop. Its mission is to encourage participation in heritage conservation (especially by the young), to experience traditional restoration methods and to get to know somewhere new. REMPART's aims for the training workshop were to improve the quality of volunteer work, to share best practice and resources, creating common practices, and standards, and to give everyone involved something to take back to their home organisations.
Firstly, for me it was good to meet, at last, Fabrice Duffaud, a name with which WRG leaders are familiar from its regular occurrence on canal camp booking sheets. Also leading the theoretical sessions was Marie-Georges Pagel-Brousse, the enthusiastic and energising President of REMPART.
"Theory" began with a survey of the history of heritage volunteering (to which WRG was a fairly early contributor in 1970). We looked at the political and economic factors that drive it, support it and often hinder heritage volunteering and were introduced to REMPART's past and present. All this theory, which included a rapid skim through heritage legislation and legislative bodies, was perhaps at times a little dry for hands-on people like me, until we debated the thorny, and to me unsolvable conundrum of conservation versus rebuilding, and exactly what is "heritage?"
At the end of the day we began to work on the central topic of the workshop, which was the practical organisation of heritage volunteering projects. We moved onto leadership, and worked together to pool our experiences and views on what would be the abilities possessed by a 'superleader.' Our extensive lists included being a people-person, being a mentor, patient, consistent, confident, cheerful, inspiring, enthusiastic, energetic, knowledgeable and more. The catalogue was long, but I nevertheless made a mental note to try to apply as many of these skills as I could.
Having assembled the ideal skills of an ideal leader, we were then asked to apply as many of these as possible in a series of fictional but familiar situations, including conflict management and dealing with unexpected occurrences such as lack of tools. We came up with suggestions for handling disruptive, obstreperous or lazy volunteers, unhappy neighbours, conflicts with parent organisations and disagreements between leaders. And what should we do if people arrive without their safety equipment, or the provided food is rubbish? Although I'm glad to say, I have not (yet) had to deal with any of these dramas, it was nevertheless really valuable to hear experiences, opinions and solutions from such a diverse mix of leaders.
Food...a subject dear to every volunteer. Our third workshop day began with everyone exchanging work-camp food experiences, most of them positive. We even got to create a vegan menu (bias alert — I'm a vegan)! We were in France, so the word "seduction" was suggested as a basis for work camp menus — watch out WRG cooks! Certainly the food we enjoyed during the week was fantastic!
Interestingly, REMPART work camps often have two leaders; one called the "social" leader, who deals with the everyday running of the camp and the care of volunteers, and a second "technical" leader, who directs the physical work, and who might be paid. Some of the camps include younger teens, have a much higher staff-volunteer ratio and only carry out physical work for half days. Many camps across Europe run for two weeks.
The "Practical" sessions involved working with stone, the use of lime mortar, and archaeology. To hone our archaeological skills, Laura had us making detailed sketches of the north wall of Villendraut Castle. This faces away from the present village, and had been less fortified than the other walls. It is nevertheless a great example of what I call "vertical archaeology."
Equipped with pencils, paper and drawing boards, we examined the sandstone masonry cliff before us. Liberally decorated with lichens, mosses, ivy and small shrubs, the ancient masonry was telling us stories...but could we see them? And if we could, how can we ensure that those stories can be preserved and shared? The most obvious features were the never-utilised medieval north gate and the modern bridge that we used to gain our vantage spot. Then there were several latrines that stand out from the surface, a series of large windows that were punched through it in the seventeenth century, various patches of stone robbing, the key stones of the north gate towers that were never constructed, and three or four arrow slits.
We sketched these and other details as we become more tuned in to the language of stone. We discussed how the wall might be conserved. Some questions remained unanswered — for example, what is the best way to prevent the vegetation returning once it is removed from high up on the castle walls? We learned a sad footnote: the original builder of the castle suffered from severe gastric problems, so included some 19 garderobes (latrines) in his intended residence. Ironically, he died of dysentery before his castle was completed.
We squeezed into the base of one of the castle towers to practice the use of lime mortar, guided by Pierre. I've not repointed masonry this old before, so it was fun. At the castle they mix mortar in a circular fibreglass tray, which reminded me of the circular mortar mixing floors that are often found on archaeological sites. More effort than a mixer, but perhaps creating less airborne lime dust.
One of the highlights of exploring Villandraut Castle was meeting, and feeding, Black Ears the friendly goat and the equally sociable rescue chickens that dwell happily in the castle's dry moat. One afternoon, however, Black Ears and chickens formed an enthusiastic but puzzled audience as we constructed a drystone "wall" (actually a very neat and tidy, and stable, stone revetment) under the guidance of REMPART'S Sarah Grant (a Scot abroad). Stone picking is a very satisfying activity for me, for I am a devotee of the "a tidy site is a safe site" ethos, and I am infamous for wandering around any worksite creating rectangular heaps of bricks and masonry (an occupation that allows me to be productive while keeping an eye on what is going on).
Sorting and transferring heavy stone from a random pile to create a fine revetment without squashing any fingers or toes or straining any backs, reflected that morning's workshop session, which covered health and safety.
Safety and dealing with risk of course vitally importance in all our organisations, and we debated their challenges. However I was left feeling that WRG's health and safety approaches are generally stronger than many on the continent. Certainly there appears to be less use of protective clothing, even when dealing with lime, and some of the photographs we were shown caused me to involuntarily make a sharp intake of breath! In the photographs we were shown, there was generally a lack of hard hats and gloves, and there were shots of volunteers wearing open-toed sandals and trainers on worksites. Shudder! Which of course doesn't mean that we should rest on our laurels!
We also discussed public relations, again being given challenging situations to solve. I realised that I have probably not done enough to excite the interest and support of the local community. This is partly due to the presence of an archaeological investigation, which if publicised tends to attract the attention of vandals and looters, so we don't really advertise our presence during the camps. A second factor is my home location a long way from Wales, which means I can’t simply pop down the road to give talks to local groups.
REMPART workcamps on the other hand often have much closer involvement with local communities, to the point where, as well as buying local produce, they invite them to share communal meals. Well, during my camps we do make use of the local fish and chip shop and the nearest pub, and I did give a talk to the Crosskeys Scout Group a couple of years ago, but I'm not sure that's the same!
My fellow workshop attendees were, without exception, delightful. I could see why each had earned the role of "leader." I was captivated and excited by their projects, and wanted to sign up at once for them all! Indeed I wish that we had had time to explore each other's projects in more detail. Even though none could be defined as work on a "waterway" there were certainly many lessons to be learned that could be applied to restoring canals and their associated structures.
Here was a plethora of castles, Roman villas, dovecotes, watch towers, churches, industrial sites, entire villages, all involving volunteers working with materials and using methods with which we are very familiar. Of course, working amongst two-millennium-old stones in golden Mediterranean sunshine, or at a venerable, ivy-clad castle perched high above a red-tiled, sun-warmed village in Spain, or Italy, or France, or Poland, or anywhere, surely can't compare with the fun of a wet week spent sloshing around in a Welsh canal!
Nevertheless, I envied those acquiring tans in Espalion, Chateau Calmont d'Olt in the Aveyron region of France, and those carrying out detailed dendrochronology in the Ducal Tower of Siedlecin Association, in Poland. And the day ended with a visit to the castle just down the road at Budos, where I drooled over the forthcoming project to rebuild the entrance bridge, that will involve the partial demolition, excavation, repair and restoration of the bridge arch. Sigh.
One of the really interesting and thought-provoking sessions was on sustainability, something I'd never thought of on my camps. The discussion centred on an extreme example, the restoration of a village that has no running water, sewerage or electricity supply, and as someone who is accustomed to endless water, chemical toilets and handy generators, with a choice of supermarkets just a few minutes from site, it made me ponder the effects of my camps on the local environment.
So, what did I carry away with me from the workshop? Well, I left feeling that we are not alone, that WRG is part of a much bigger community, a sort of international "family" of volunteers if you like, that spreads via REMPART as far as China. We share a mission, a passion, an approach, commitment, the investment of time and physical effort, an ethos of wishing to enhance heritage "for the common good" (to use REMPART's phrase) and take advantage of our volunteer status to involve a huge range of people of all ages, but especially the young, who will take our work forward. Being free of commercial funding also allows us to tackle projects that conventional approaches either ignore or cannot contemplate. There's a collective sense of enthusiasm, knowledge, adventure, exploration, the fulfilment provided by the outdoor life and the learning of new skills, as well as shared pleasure and fun. Being a REMPART international partner adds status and weight to the projects for which I volunteer.
One of the activities I'm going to borrow for my canal camps is a short warming/loosening up session of simple chi gong exercises at the start of the working day on site. It's not only good for waking up sleepy muscles and brains, but gets the gang together after the ordered chaos of unpacking the vans, gathering the tools and erecting the gazebo. I wonder if I'll need to do a risk assessment?
Having listened to some "digital natives" at the workshop, I'll be doing more online, especially using more video rather than static images, and making the most of Instagram as well as Twitter and Facebook.
Finally, I'll be paying more attention to my international volunteers, letting them know how much I value their input and communicating a little more effectively. I'm planning to emulate REMPART by creating a multilingual glossary of canal camp vocabulary (English/French/Italian/Spanish).
The workshop was a fine example of the sort of trans-European collaboration that I feel Britain should be continuing to be actively involved in into the future. International volunteers, especially those who have come through REMPART, have, without exception, enhanced the canal camp experience for me and my fellow Anglo volunteers, and have carried out vast amounts of hard work. The Waterway Recovery Group would be much poorer without them.
Everyone at the workshop agreed that "heritage" was actually simply a tool to bring people together, and that work camps were, to use Marie-Georges' word, "magical." In the end we raised a toast, in the local wine of course, to ourselves and our fellow volunteers — the "Heritage Heroes!"
Last updated 16th November 2019