The Conservation Game

If getting covered in mud and making new friends is your idea of a good time,then the Essex National Trust Volunteers are for you, as Sally Mackown discovers

THE dull grey skies of autumn made it feel like a morning to be under the duvet rather than out and about in Danbury, but strolling across the saltings, a small group could be seen in the distance.

They are the Essex National Trust Volunteers (Essex NTV). Essex NTV come from all walks of life and all share a common interest in the 'great outdoors' and like to play an active part in maintaining our national heritage. But there is more to it than that. They are a very social network of people who have formed great friendships and, to put it simply, have fun.Formed in 1995, and jointly chaired by Sue Britten and John Franklin, Essex NTV has around 40 members who devote some of their free time to carry out practical conservation work throughout Essex and the Suffolk borders. Normally two tasks are set per month and it is down to the individual how large a part they wish to play in the activities, which include anything from footpath maintenance and scrub clearance to tree felling and building bridges. Volunteers go out in all weathers and from the stories told it appears that the more severe the weather the funnier the day is. The volunteers who repaired the more dilapidated bridges during their four-hour task at Ray Island in Mersea, also had to deal with the tide, which would shortly submerge the whole area.Many members have joined as a result of attending National Trust working holidays, which are held throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a great experience involving anything from herding goats to painting a lighthouse. 'It is a great break from City life and clears your mind of office work and everyday life'Joining the volunteers is a way of becoming involved on a more regular basis. Sue, who co-ordinates the tasks with the National Trust wardens, Richard Wallace and Stuart Banks, explains: 'People are looking for a break from their jobs, an escape from the office and a new social circle. Tasks normally start around 10am and end at 2pm, though we often treat ourselves to sampling the local brew - at the end of the day we deserve a pat on the back.'It is easy to understand why volunteers enjoy their days so much. The group working at Lingwood Common, located on the Danbury Ridge, proved you don't have to be a child to feel the enchantment from the woodlands, nor do you need to be an adult to appreciate its importance to our heritage. The Danbury volunteers cleared a substantial area in such an effortless and peaceful way, it was compelling to watch. Throughout the session the banter was continuous, even during the quick break to devour their packed lunch and sip a cuppa.Dawn Charles, a civil servant, who has been with the volunteers for three months now and attends every other week, said: 'It is a great break from City life and clears your mind of office work, we all have busy lives and many join to stretch their social circles and meet new people.' These are people who are not shy to do some hard work, especially for such a good cause, and however difficult a task may appear or how awful the British weather, they make it all look so easy while acknowledging that they are very privileged to be able to visit so many picturesque parts of Essex.The National Trust is a charity and is completely independent of Government, relying on membership fees, donations, legacies as well as the many hours their volunteers give (2.3 million hours in 2007/8). There are so many areas of natural beauty in Essex and this is an ideal way to find them, be part of them, preserve them and rebuild them while making lifelong friendships.HANDS UP FOR VOLUNTEERSIf you fancy escaping from the pressures of work or your typical day's activities and/or want to meet new people, then why not consider joining the National Trust Volunteers? There is no requirement to have any horticultural skills, you simply need to enjoy the outdoors and not mind getting a little muddy from time to time. For further information contact Gary on 01621 890919 or email