“Most people don’t know what an AONB is – but it’s exactly what it says, it’s an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.” The important word is ‘beauty’, of the outstanding and natural type.
Graeme Proud is the Ranger/Volunteer Co-ordinator for the Solway Coast AONB, whose offices and Discovery Centre (where there’s a fascinating exhibition about the Solway coast and the Firth’s geological origins) are based at Silloth.
The AONB is currently celebrating its 50th year since its designation. Its 115 square-kilometre ‘patch’ extends between Maryport and Rockcliffe on the English side of the Upper Solway, and covers features as diverse as the dunes, mudflats, wetland carr, saltmarsh and raised mire, natterjack toad ponds, Crosscanonby Saltpans and the Roman Milefortlet 21.
The AONB has four permanent staff, and obviously they need some outside help to enable them to look after their part of the Solway coast. Much of that help comes from volunteers, whose tasks can range from clearing scrub, replacing signs and stiles and mending boardwalks, to laying hedges, and digging and lining wet scrapes for the protected Natterjack Toads.
Longshore drift brings débris onto the beaches from the Irish Sea and beyond, and rubbish washes down in the rivers – so litter-picking is also an important and ongoing job. At the recent ‘Big Beach Clean-up Day’, sponsored by M&S, nearly 60 black bags of rubbish were picked, ranging from a plastic laundry basket to tangles of fishing-net to bottles and cotton-buds. (Beware the half-full milk cartons!)
You might think that this sounds really dull or even difficult, but I know from my own experience that helping out can be fun, and the ‘work-parties’ are very sociable. Graeme makes it so: a large man with a big smile, and an easy outgoing manner, he greets and talks to everyone and he’s good at picking up on each person’s skills; he’s straightforward and ready with banter; even more important, he knows when to produce a tin of biscuits or, on scrub-clearing days, “a bag o’ taties and a bit o’ Bacofoil in the bonfire, a tin or two o’ beans. We have some good summer barbeques too, a nice fire somewhere…”
Volunteers are also invited to a Christmas get-together with a buffet supper at Silloth, and there are occasional suppers or outings. “Volunteers come along to the projects they know they can help with – litter-picking, or scrub clearance, or helping with the boardwalks and hedges,” Graeme says. “If you’re a volunteer these days, you come to places at your own expense, you’re more dedicated.” Graeme’s “biggest buzz” is when volunteers become friends. “There are times when you ask above and beyond the call, and they don’t let you down. I really enjoy working with them.” The volunteers enjoy it too.
That’s what it comes down to: appreciating the Solway Coast’s outstanding natural beauty – and enjoying helping to keep it that way. So do come and help!
For more information about the Solway Coast AONB and Discovery Centre, activities, volunteering and events, see www.solwaycoastaonb.org.uk, telephone 016973 33055 or email email@example.com