On how local volunteers make a difference

The term ‘community engagement’ is often used by heritage organisations to describe a principal aspiration for their sites – but what does it mean?
The involvement of local volunteers is obviously key. Last month the annual Volunteers’ Week celebrated the contribution made by millions of volunteers across the UK. So it seemed appropriate to highlight three events in June, connected to Norfolk Archaeological Trust sites, which demonstrated the diversity of activity that can take place locally when small organisations such as the Trust are supported by volunteers.  
All these events invited new audiences to our sites, stimulated wide-ranging discussions about their interpretation, conservation and management, and helped to establish their significance at the heart of local communities. 
st james chapelEarly in the month The Friends of St Benet’s Abbey (TFOSBA) ran their first ‘Friends only’ event, which was a guided walk from Horning church to St James’ Chapel at Horning Hall, by kind invitation of the owners, Mr & Mrs Brewster. Parts of the walk follow the old route from the church to the Abbey, culminating in the remains of the causeway in the grounds of Horning Hall, running up to the old river crossing, with St Benet’s Abbey in the distance. 
The event, led by members of the TFOSBA committee, was fully booked. We were accompanied by Alison Yardy from the Norfolk Historic Environment Service, and throughout the morning the group raised many interesting questions about the historic landscape, the development of footpaths, tracks and staithes, and the purpose of the chapel.
The second event was led by the Caistor Roman Project, as part of the Connected Communities Festival 2015, and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
using digital technologyThe event invited around 20 volunteers to experiment with two types of digital technology which offer alternative ways of accessing information about places. Wander Anywhere allows the user to make location-specific information available through GPS-enabled phones and tablets (www.wanderanywhere.com). This can be information about anything from bus times to plant species to the stories of the people who lived in a particular house.  For this workshop participants explored what they thought visitors would want to know about the Roman town. The workshop also explored the use of Aestheticodes (aestheticodes.com), which are simple designs that can be used to trigger web-based digital content on mobile devices. 
The day included a walk on site led by Will Bowden which provided the forum for a wide-ranging debate about site interpretation and ways of engaging visitors with different levels of interest. The Wander Anywhere technology places the role of interpretation in the hands of the individual which raised some complex issues about the control of content on the internet. In the context of the developing interpretation scheme at the site, the workshop offered some really useful insights into how the Roman Town is experienced by visitors.
The third event was a little less cerebral - a session of ragwort pulling at Burgh Castle Roman Fort. In fact a group of local volunteers, supported by the Great Yarmouth and Norwich Green Gyms and The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) have dug up huge piles of the plant in three sessions so far, and another five are planned. The purpose is to clear one of the main fields - about 10 acres – of this toxic weed so that we can crop the field for hay as required under our Higher-level Stewardship agreement. It’s hard but satisfying work!
If you have some time to spare, and you own a gardening fork, please do come and help us finish the job at one or more of the next sessions:
  • July 2nd, 10.15 - 3.00
  • July 6th 11.30 - 2.30
  • July 7th and 8th 10.15 - 3.00
  • July 13th 11.30 - 2.30

News in brief

  • 11th - 26th July 2015: National Festival of Archaeology events in Norfolk will include a talk on Wednesday July 15 at Caistor Hall Hotel by Will Bowden (Associate Professor in Roman Archaeology, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham) after which he will lead a walk around the Roman Town. Details will be available shortly on the website: www.archaeologyfestival.org.uk 
  • Friday 10 July 2015: NAHRG Medieval Lowestoft Study Day Participants will spend the day exploring the two medieval town centres and the reasons why the early town migrated from one to the other. Based at the Heritage Centre the day will include a talk, two leisurely guided walks, a visit to St Margaret's church and a summing-up session. Price includes a buffet lunch. NAHRG members £15, non-members are welcome at £16. Please contact enquiries@nahrg.org.uk to book.
  • Sunday 2nd August 2015: Boat trip to the Bishop’s service at St Benet’s Abbey. A few tickets still available for this special trip on the ‘Southern Comfort’ Mississippi River Boat from Horning to St Benet’s Abbey, to arrive in good time for the afternoon service and return by 18.00.  Tickets are £10.00 for the return journey. Please reserve tickets and/or become a Friend by contacting: tfosba@gmail.com