Freelancing experience

I’ve finally found some time to catch up with myself and write for a little bit.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself back freelancing in Devon as walk leader for an NCS wave along the South West Coastal Path – I wrote a blog post about the previous time here. Given the nature of freelance work, you meet a lot of new people and outdoor leaders/educators etc to whom you will spend a short amount of time working, eating and conversing with. It’s a smaller world than one would imagine, as I discovered when I found out I share a mutual friend from North Wales with a freelancer down south, however, it is also a small community where reputation plays a big part.

It also a community where a vast range of people, either with little or lots of experience, with differing ideas and opinions, like to be in the outdoors as their common interest and this, for me is fascinating and I just love to meet new people and hear their stories.

So this week, the usual freelancers were moved to the on-site activities and three new freelancers were on the walking activity. (The site manager does this so regular freelancers won’t be bored with running the same activity for weeks at a time.)

 

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The campsite

 

What was intriguing about these new freelancers, as yes, I will be judgmental (it’s a normal human trait, get over it) but I only do so as I found their attitudes to outdoor learning somewhat disliking?

Now, the attraction to outdoor freelance is one of romantic Instagram-able beauty – working in wonderful coastal, mountainous, forested areas delivering developmental programmes for the uninitiated whilst also utilising a unique skill set that, if you’re not strong in, can result in a very unpleasant time for all. It’s desirable for many. It seems easy. It seems fun. It seems like it’s well paid (it depends) and most importantly, you’re outside and who wouldn’t want that?!

The three to join us, two were young – one living in a converted transit van and going around the country freelancing and the other had taken a Level 3 Outdoor Education course wanted this to be their source of income – and the other was an older person who had semi-retired and thought freelancing was an attractable source of income after years spent indoors. So you can see that freelancing does introduce you to people of varied backgrounds.

 

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Views from the coast in Combe Martin

 

What I hoped though, after spending a week with other freelancers passionate about outdoor education, was the same attitudes towards the walk they were placed on… it soon became apparent they did not.

First, was the issue around the required kit they were due to carry as part of the risk assessment. They all objected to the 20 man bothy bag (group sizes were 18 including adults) because of its size… and throughout the week wouldn’t shut up about it. Other freelancers and I asked them to consider, should anything bad happen and they didn’t have the required documented supplied kit, what would happen in court? Now this was an extreme consideration but it does happen, but apparently, them being able to carry a small bag was more important than group safety. Red flag one.

Second, each freelancer has a group and the walk is classed as a ‘local explore’. The young people with you are inner-city kids who, for many, have never been to the coast or walked further than an hour a day on anything other than concrete. Maybe it’s me, but ‘local explore’ means just that… going to points on the map to look at what’s there and educate the young people so they have a robust, enjoyable experience. For these guys it seemed walking into the coastal town as fast as possible was their aim so they could sit for longer there… they missed a lot of opportunities, which was either a) because they didn’t have any information about it (research people, come on!) or b) just weren’t interested in their groups. Red flag two.

Thirdly, attitudes towards the young people. Yes, some are unfit. Yes, some aren’t interested. Yes, some want to play their music to keep them going. Yes, some have issues around their social skills… I could go on, but what they all are, are technically “clients” looking for a memorable experience. As an outdoor leader/educator you have to be able to “read your group”, find out what they want to get out of it, adapt it to suit them and use a lot of your knowledge and experience throughout the day. To see a mass of 45 young people walking past a trig point, coastal views, a unique church etc because the leaders wanted to walk together (not leading mind you but rather at the back chatting together) is awful. Where is the safety and control going on? One leader even lost half her group on the walk in the woods because she wasn’t managing them, luckily they had followed others to the correct location – she hadn’t even known she’d lost them UNTIL they all turned up at the same location. Red flag three.

Lastly, I mentioned about the fitness of young people. Yes, fitness does turn an easy couple of hours walk into something a lot lot longer… six miles shouldn’t take five-six hours but it does with unfit people; that shouldn’t mean you should loudly and openly moan about it to your group and especially walking off and telling the ones at the back “you’re going too slow, hurry up” then proceeding not to stop and wait for them so they can catch up. I wanted to scream at them WE SHOULD BE ENCOURAGING THEM TO ENJOY THE OUTDOORS SO THEY WANT TO COME BACK LATER, NOT HATE IT. Red flag four.

I kept my group separate from the others. I wanted them to have an experience, learning about history, laugh on the route, bond as a team and find out about them. I stopped frequently, I let them set the pace, I reassured them that the route was manageable and encouraged along the way…

 

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We went Geocaching and found this guy!

 

When I got into the town and sent them for lunch, the Wave Leader who had been walking with me, after conversing with the other team leaders, told me that there had been a lot of tears, threats of quitting and hurting legs and feet from the other groups because the other freelancers hadn’t been stopping the groups on route, showing them anything local and being rude to the slower members. She was livid. She asked me about their experience and refused to talk directly to them. She wondered why they weren’t doing what we were doing. She wondered why they’d even bothered to do the work if they didn’t care for people. She wondered why they’d been employed in the first place.

After a chat, she asked me to lead all of the groups to ensure they would have a relaxing time.  She wondered if I could “teach” the other freelancers about group management etc…

Now, I’m not comfortable leading large groups in small, local areas; just because of the size really than anything else as it impacts on the public and environment, but I agreed to anyway as the team leaders threatening to leave calmed down when it was suggested and I took over.

So, placing one freelancer with me and two at the back we walked through the forest to the next stop, stopping frequently on the way (yes, the freelancers moaned that we were going too slow and about the “unnecessary” stops…) and generally allowing them time to take in their surroundings.

 

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Exmoor ponies again!

 

Learning to manage a group on a walk comes a lot from experience. You learn quickly about keeping control, the group together and the varying leadership styles to manage all this. When we reached the last major stop, a National Trust building, I knew the route would be switchbacking steeply uphill and for some, this would be a very big physical and mental challenge. At this point I didn’t have trust in the freelancers at the back – mainly because of their attitude and opinions on slow walkers – so I decided to swap the front leaders with the back… can you guess what happened next?

Yes, the front freelancers “ran off” as to be expected, with a struggling group trying to catch up as best they could panting and puffing – even our calls at the back to the front leader were ignored as the group ask him to slow down. Though it was infuriating, I didn’t mind too much as the route was simplistic enough to get back to the campsite and the group hadn’t exerted too much energy from the slowed-down walk they did before the stop, (plus they had topped up with water and food at the stop); I knew that issues usually occur at the back of the group, so felt it better that I was placed at the back to handle any incidences. Can you imagine any of these three dealing with issues? I dread to think about it.

Predicably slow at the back, we did have a big issue. A young girl, not from my group, who a year into her knee operation recovery, was clearly exhausted. I’d never seen iris’ go pale before in a lightheaded person! It was nerving, but, after a lot of rest, water, energy and reassurance we slowly paced up the hill (at this point the freelancer with me left quickly – I don’t think they wanted to help deal with any issues as the frightened look on her face suggested!). The wave leader, who had joined me at this point, and I stopped frequently to keep her rested and safe and when at the nearest road a call was made to pick her up to take back to the site. This must have taken about 30-45 minutes overall… I joined in with the ride home having realised the other freelancers hadn’t bothered to send one of them to return to check up on us… when we got back to the site, the group was already there!

 

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Sunset in Illfracombe.

 

***

I know this experience is not representative of the world of freelancers, that each person views outdoor activities from different perspectives etc but what resonated with me was the seemingly lack of care to make the experience memorable for the young people involved. Maybe it is because I’ve been working with young people for longer, enjoy exploring new areas deeply or I set a standard where I want to feel as if I’ve done a good job? Whatever it is/was/will be, this experience did surprise and frustrated me. These were inner-city kids who, for many, was their first introduction to a longer, coastal, hilly walk on the South Coast and for many, this experience sadly involved walk leaders who paid little attention to their welfare, didn’t want to involve them in the local area and felt that being rude and mean was the appropriate way to manage a group.

-Just Joanne

Walking Work

Since leaving uni I’ve gone on to do some freelance work and I’ve had the most fascinating time so far.

First up, a DofE Bronze Qualifier in the Surrey Hills – can you run a DofE exped so close to London? It appears you can! It was good fun but hard work (at times). The Approved Activity Provider (AAP) I work for use trains to access local areas for their expeditions, thusly reducing the carbon footprint and teaching independent travel to the young people, however, you end up walking pretty much the same route as the young people as there is only one care between eight teams… so my feet were pretty sore after this one!

 

Then this week I have been in a very sunny Devon in Exmoor National Park for NCS. This was my first as a walk leader for young people outside of a DofE/Cadets/Scouting/Guiding scheme and it was by far the most varied of experiences I’ve ever had.

As part of their activity week, the young people all had to participate in a hike exploring the local area. As Lynmouth was within a reasonable walking distance along the South West Coastal Path from the campsite, this seemed like the obvious choice for city kids to visit a coastal town and see some pretty views along the way, simple right? Hmm…

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Exmoor Ponies

To begin with, with camps of this size, rumours get around quickly. The biggest of the week was ticks and lyme disease

During the previous week several ticks were taken off young people, which was understandable as they had been camping in an old sheep field and walking in areas where wild ponies roam, but as with things of this nature rumours get wildly exaggerated and suddenly they became the focus of the walks… “Will we get any?” “Are we walking through areas where we can get them?” “Will I die from Lyme Disease?” And with things of this nature, people only tend to hear what they want to hear… so, overall, the general concensus was a) everyone was going to get a tick and b) everyone was going to get Lyme Disease!

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Beautiful Lynmouth.

Another rumour went like this…

Team Leader: “I’ve been told that this walk is 9 miles long.”

Me: “Nah, more like 6-7 miles depending on where we walk.”

TL: “Wow… 9 miles. “

Me: 🤔⁉

Yes, there was a route that was extended for the more fit and able however, the groups I had had a lot of medical and physical issues so I went on shortened 6-7 mile routes and even doing this caused a few grumbles… for you see, some young people don’t get outside often… but still, they kept thinking I was taking them on a 9 miler so, in the end, I didn’t disagree – some thought it was great, some thought I was as mean as an army officer making them “do all that work for no reason” (true quote.) and that was just the team leaders!  🤔

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A rough outline of the route

I have found, from young people actually interested in the outdoors, that medical issues are never usually the focus nor excuse for doing something yet for those unfamiliar with walking often their information was quickly described to me before I even asked! I had one group who almost seemed to be in competition with each other to list their ailments and who was struggling the most… funnily enough, none of these discussions happened on the gradial descent into the town, just on the hilly uphill bits on the walk home! 🤔 

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Sadly there was no bus or car to pick them up from here!

AND, the amount of “I’ve got a long term bone/joint/medical issue but I haven’t declared it on my medical form…” conversations as well were usually responded with something like: “If I had known, I could have adjusted the route or made alternatives for you so you wouldn’t be suffering right now, unfortunately you chose to tell me in the middle of a woodland walk, not before it, where we can’t easily leave and we’ve still got to go uphill to the nearest road…” 🤔

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The route took us from the top of these hills to this beach.

I also found, no matter how much I described the route and provided choices, none seemed to be able to ‘picture’ the route. Their lack of experience meant they focused on words like “short” and “slog” rather than “sharp”, “steep” and “gradual” which, combined with the inexperience of pacing, made managing the groups complex. The majority decided short (with steepness) was better that long (with gradial ascent) to be their choice… it was also very sweet when they found out the trig point was 302m above sea level, they were pleased to have walked up to that height and many thought it was really high (would loved to have taken them on Snowdon)…

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A well signposted coastal path.

And the last thing that I noticed was interesting… was the fact the majority just weren’t interested in the countryside. The majority just showed no inclination to ask questions really. We visited a trig point, talked about coastal geology and marine life, visited a church and talked about religion, saw exmoor ponies, saw dolphins, old second world war defense atilary, flora and fauna, geocaching, land use, the National Trust and what they do for the environment and other various bits and pieces… the last group I had just wanted to walk the route as fast as possible so they could go back to their tents and play on their phones! The second group of the week was my fav, the team leader was really engaging with them and allowed me to talk a lot about the countryside, chipping in with additional facts and the kids responded well!

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Exmoor ponies are curious creatures.

So it has been an interesting week in regards to taking out young people out on the South West Coast. I do it all again in a week or so!

Anyway, here’s some pretty pictures…

 

 

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– Just Joanne

Peak District Explorers Adventure

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I’ve just returned from a fun few days in the Peak District with Phoenix Archer Explorer Scouts and thought I’d do a quick blog about what we got up to!

We’ve been to Gradbach Scout Camp before; having wanted to give the young people a bunkhouse experience we found what we were looking for in the Peak District years ago and decided to return again this year.

Motivating young people, especially from an urban population such as Swindon, into hill walking can be hard at times. Although we have the Ridgeway a short ride away not many of them use the green spaces or go beyond the entertainment areas but, being Scouts, they do get out and about and we like to offer them different opportunities away from the town; so twelve young people joined us on the adventure!

The bunkhouse has bunks that they loved. Ideally, they sleep eight per room but they all managed to bunk in together in one…

I wasn’t present for the first days activities, I was on the train from Swindon to Macclesfield… the fourth national park I’ve managed to travel to via train and one of the easiest – Swindon to Reading to Macclesfield (then 20 mins by vehicle to the site) and in the same amount of time it would take to drive there. Simples.

For the second day they decided to have a small walk in the morning and explore Buxton in the afternoon, so we started off at Speedwell Cavern car park, up to Hollins Cross, along the ridge to Mam Tor then a walk down Winnat’s Pass to the minibus (which, started to roll down the hill due to the weight of all the Explorers sat on it! THAT was a moment of panic and having to get them to exit the bus quickly!)

 

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James making clouds again.

The next day, I’d planned a route which involved a grade 1+ scramble up Red Brook to Kinder Low area. We had some Explorers who had been to the Peaks with us before, so had to change things up for them as well as planning a route to keep newer participants interested!

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The weather was on our side and the scramble was great. At first, it was just a bog slog to get to the lower parts but once on it, it was a lot of fun!

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Off route walking to our destination!
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Looking up at Red Brook from the valley below
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Arriving at the top of the scramble

Will definitely be coming back here to do that again! It did take a while to get to it but certainly was more exciting than walking along the top of Kinder Scout…

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Walkign along the top of Kinder Scout. I love the views.

To break up the boredum, the Explorers did their usual “how many can we get on the boulder?” moments…

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Standing on the boulder!

There were a lot of tired faces and sore feet when we got back. Overall it was easily 25K on the route, a welcomed evening of Spaghetti Bolognese and sleep was needed!

I can’t say more than just that I had a fantastic time, I think the Explorers did as well. They’ve decided they want to do a lot more scrambling in the future and more exploratory routes on harder ground. Once certificate comes through, a Scouting hillwalking permit is next and we can start planning to go elsewhere and further with them!

More photos can be seen on the Phoenix Archer ESU Facebook Page 

– Just Joanne

Busy, busy

“But don’t you get lonely?”

That’s often the first question people ask when they find I’m dwelling in my van, 160+miles away from family and friends, and to be honest, the answer is always “sometimes”. Everyone gets lonely at some point, but I don’t feel as if I any get lonelier than others? I keep myself busy. I’ve just been hearing this question a lot more recently as visiting members of school staff are informed that there is someone staying in a van on site. Many are fascinated by the thought of it but are then confused when they expect to see some Instagram worthy beaut and see my little monster instead. Haha.

Speaking of monsters, my van has been a pain recently with the heating cable. It has decided that the cable must be in the most awkward and delicate position before it will spew out any heat via the fan. A challenge I was willing to undertake at first but no matter how I try to fix the cabling it slowly decides to shift itself and I’m left with having to pull up along the roadside to ‘fix’ it again. When my patience gets better I will take a serious look at it.

I’m still getting out and about it in and stopping at some wonderful places. The weather is getting warmer so I’ve been able to sleep within additional clothing and front window condensation has been dramatically reduced. Summer is coming!

I’ve been very humbled these past few weeks by the generosity of others in providing me with shelter, food, conversation and warmth – the lower level of my hierarchy of needs are being supported by their good will and I am grateful for this. My higher needs are being steadily fulfilled within the placement. I’ve done so much and at the end of the week, I am tired but happy tired. It has been interesting so far, especially experiencing the longer activities during the day and the energy young children seem to possess (more so after they’ve eaten their body weight in food!).

So I’ve been mining, gorge walking, a mini via-ferrata, hill walking, on low/high ropes, orienteering and beach exploration!

Just a few photos below of the activities:

Fisherman’s Walk and low ropes:

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Cwm Idwal and Conwy Mountain:

Both were equally fun. We looked at a lot of the geology, rock formations, history and flora and fauna of both areas. The only difference being with Conwy Mountain was the hill fort at the top and being able to discuss slingshots and use the rocks to create routes for the teams to navigate with!

I’ve also been taking one too many pictures of the curious sheep within this area:

These are Lleyn (pronounced ‘Kleen‘) sheep (named about the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales) and are identified by the lack of wool on the legs and face, their white faces with black noses and lack of horns. These sheep almost became extinct in the ’70s! Their use today is their fine wool and meat. They are curious and will approach you until you make any sudden unexpected movements. Still not as lovely as the Herdwick.

One day I will own a sheep. Or maybe several. I might just Sheep Trek instead…!!

I just wanted to add in these photos from Anglesey. I’ve never seen such iridescent waters as we did on this day. The sea was in a swathe of blue hues and it just looked so unnatural but equally mesmerizing. The camera did not capture its beauty and I doubt I’ll ever see anything like this again.

These few weeks have been busy and have passed quickly. I only have seven teaching weeks left within this placement, an action research project to complete, a couple of outdoor course assessments, a couple of weeks at university then it’s all over! In the meantime, I shall be heading back home, the Isle of Wight, Peak District and some caving and I still have no idea what I’m doing this summer or beyond! Fun times.

-Just Joanne

​Snow time!

I’ve relocated to Betws-y-Coed for my second PGCE placement. The first few weeks of this year have gone so quickly and again, we’ve done a lot as a group. I’ve covered a lot of it in my Back to Uni… post but I didn’t mention Blwch y Plwm mine, Borth-y-Gest nor the snow…

Living in the van is still proving interesting. It now makes a ‘chugging’ noise like a train when it starts up from the cold and I’ve had to remove important papers from the vehicle due to them getting damp… still, it’s cosy at night time. My placement has said I can park up on site when the centre is in use and use the showers and toilets there. So that’s two fewer worries. They even feed me lunch!

I didn’t see much of the snow during uni whilst still in Bangor. I was in Swindon (now dubbed Swindonia) when it hit, then when I returned it had gone… so, a trip back to Swindonia was needed to actually have the opportunity to play in it!

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Terry and I decided to visit one of our favourite places in England just for a couple of hours walking and admiration of our favourite views. The Worcestershire Beacon, the highest point in the Malvern Hills at 425m (1,394ft), you can see three counties from its point. Once used as a signalling beacon, in 1588, it formed part of a chain of warning fires which were lit when the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England as well as being lit for commemorative events, such as coronations of various kings and queens.

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It was a glorious day albeit a tad windy! As you can see, Bailey enjoyed the chill on his face!

Then I blinked and I was back in Bangor! I’ve joined a popular canoe/kayak club as I want to improve my skills in this area and their first yearly trip out was great fun!

The group paddled over Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts in Llangollen and through the Whitehouses and Chirk tunnels before ending at the Poachers Pub for refreshment!

Anybody who has ever been to Llangollen would have seen the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, it is the longest aqueduct in the UK and the highest in the world at 38m (126ft) high (336 yd (307 m) long, 12 ft (3.7 m) wide and 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m) deep). It was fun to paddle across with the drop on the right-hand side!

The group is really fun and involving. I recognised a face when I turned up… turned out it was the woman who interviewed me for my PGCE place! Small world indeed!

In our last week at uni, we got to spend the morning at Borth-y-Gest looking at beach activities for younger students. Terry and I have visited this place several times and each time it gets more beautiful than the last! I just wanted to post some photos here of this wonderful place.

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My first week in placement is over. Centre work is much different from working within a school – it’s not as fast paced but is longer throughout the day. It will take me some time to get used to it. The centre itself is lovely and very well organised. The council supports what they do so they have good equipment, happy staff and regular schools attending (the 2020 calendar is 90% full already!). It’s an amazing place to be a part of and I hope my time spent here is enjoyable; it will be interesting to work with much younger students than I’m used too, I just don’t think I’ll hear much, if anything, disgusting about gross bodily parts, unusual bodily functions and who is ‘doing’ whom from this age range…!

Just Joanne