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