I can’t really believe it’s a year ago today that I had butterflies in my stomach caused by the excitement - and for some reason nerves - that the 2012 British Olympics opening ceremony was about to happen. What an incredible and totally unforgettable night it was too. Far from being an anti-climax as so many of our pessimistic media had been hinting it would be, it completely blew me away and was the start of an incredible month of Olympic and Paralympic brilliance which made me incredibly proud to be British!
For me, one of the highlights and indeed much discussed legacies of the events were the achievements of the 70,000 Games Makers, who became a symbol of all that the British had hoped the Olympics would be - smiling, fun, helpful, inclusive and often downright barmy, which added a fabulous additional dimension to the games I hadn’t really considered before it began.
Volunteering is something I have witnessed quite a bit of over the last few months. In late spring I was asked to take on the role of head of pr for The Chelsea Fringe. It’s an event, which as the name suggests, is a fringe event around the 100 year old RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and which is designed to be pretty much all the things the Chelsea Flower Show is not, or can be. It is accepted by the RHS but is entirely independent of it. Its founder and Director Tim Richardson launched the first highly successful Fringe in 2012 when over 100 volunteer run garden and gardening related projects sprouted up around London.
This year the number of projects doubled with more than 200 eclectic activities at venues across London and for the first time with satellite fringe events taking place in Bristol, Brighton, Kent and even Vienna, Austria. The only rules for a project to be able to join the Fringe is that they must be interesting, legal and inspired by gardening, gardens, plants or landscapes. This year’s incredibly line-up included pop-up gardens, art exhibitions, street installations, community gardening events and a host of talks and demonstrations.
Being brought in late to the project as I was - about 7 weeks before its press launch - I have to confess was initially an earthquake style shock to my rather organised and probably terribly corporate approach to work. Trying to get a firm grasp of the details and stories behind 200 wildly diverse projects, being run by groups of willing volunteers and with no budget, was not the easiest to manage. I often describe my role in the first few weeks as akin to juggling jelly. But what I was constantly in awe of throughout the project was the sheer passion and enthusiasm of the volunteers.
People were completely happy to give up their spare time after their day jobs, to help put together projects which would brighten and enlighten people around them and to share their love of gardens and gardening. It was incredibly inspiring. And once I had got myself into a position of some sort of organisation and the pr campaign began to take shape, the experience of working on the Fringe was certainly one I was proud to have been involved with.
Also during busy May, I did find time to do a little volunteering myself. Nothing on the scale of the Games or Fringe Makers of course, but I gave up a weekend to work on a show garden being created by my genius client, Chris Beardshaw, for Arthritis Research UK at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
I had been working on the pr of the show garden since the previous autumn when plans and strategies are put into place and media schedules considered. The story for this garden was a pr gift, which Chris himself having sadly been diagnosed with a form of arthritis in his early teens. The design was therefore intensely personal for him and provided a wonderfully passionate story behind the garden which the media were extremely and naturally very interested in.
Working for Chris and his partner Frances is I admit my dream job and I have to say that the months of work towards the show opening in May are always busy, but immensely satisfying. However, my day of volunteering to work on the garden is perhaps one of the biggest highlights of my year. Talking and writing about the garden for months builds an excitement and anticipation for the show. I knew the garden design and the messages behind it inside out by May, but the day I physically walk into the show ground during the build in my high-vis and gardening gloves, always takes my breath away. I have to confess that this year as I walked up to the garden, I rather embarrassingly burst into floods of tears, as it was so utterly beautiful and surpassed anything I had described or envisaged in the months before.
My volunteering contribution did not really amount to anything impressive. I swept up, watered plants, tidied and made cups of tea. I often just stared in wonderment at the plant combinations being put together by Chris and his fantastic team. However, just having had a small, hands-on involvement in the garden provided the most positive feeling and team spirit, which I can only imagine is what drives on the thousands of people who volunteer around the UK every year.
Giving money to charities is something I, like many of us, have always done. It’s an easy way to make you feel you are doing something to help. But actually giving of your time to support something you are truly passionate about is, I realise, so much more rewarding. It’s something I hope I can make time to do more of in the future.