Girlguiding has four annual flagship events. There’s the Big Gig, a huge pop concert at Wembley Arena (in previous years they’ve taken it to Manchester or Birmingham and so on but last few years, it’s settled at Wembley). There’s Wellies & Wristbands, a huge music festival/national camp in August at three venues simultaneously, Magic & Mayhem, which is a scaled-down circus-themed version for Rainbows and Brownies and then there’s Sparkle & Ice, the winter version.
Sparkle is now in its second year. I took my Guides last year and… they hated it. It was freezing and wet and very muddy and the activities didn’t keep them busy for long enough. So they didn’t go this year.
I did, though.
I went as a volunteer and since they were looking for activity helpers and leaders, I wrote my Archery GB Instructor Award down and this spent the weekend teaching 350 assorted Guides, Senior Section and leaders how to shoot their first arrows.
Before I start on that, they made massive improvements to the event this year. 1000% better than last year. Rather than have temporary activities on the camping field, they spread footfall over the vast majority of the 65 acre site and the weather was a lot drier, if no warmer, so the field didn’t get churned up. They have so many activities on-site and they used them! Obviously, the covered pool wasn’t open and there were no activities on the lake and the tunnelling complex was just too muddy but pretty much everything else was on. We had archery, of course. Climbing. Zip-wire. High ropes. Low ropes. Ice-skating. Crafts. Chill-out zone. Cinema. I didn’t see any of it. I spent the weekend on the range, marshalling diners into position, carrying heavy bags and helping get tents up and down so I didn’t get to see what else was going on around the site. I know I didn’t have one single bored cold miserable face come through my archery range.
Here’s a great thing about being a volunteer: while the participants were in tents, in the UK in February, we were in the 18th century Manor House at the heart of the site. We were up and out at dawn and never back before 11pm but it was nice to have a few hours under a warm roof.
Friday I hunted down bins, directed arrivals onto their field and helped a unit put up the three Worst Tents in the World, which they didn’t know much about either. They pitched inner first, which I’d heard of but never experienced, the outer didn’t actually attach to the inner in any way and their porch poles were an inch shorter than their side-pod poles. So we got the wrong pole in the front twice and had to dismantle the tent twice. Halfway through, my sugar levels just plummeted and I got them at least mostly waterproof while wondering when exactly I was going to pass out in the wet grass. Luckily next up was the volunteers’ meeting in the bar and two bottles of full-fat Coke in quick succession kept me alive long enough to eat the emergency food I’d brought. No, I don’t have a blood sugar disorder. But sometimes when I’m tired, haven’t eaten enough and stressed, they just drop suddenly. I recognise it, I can fix it – better than I could as a Guide on camp when breakfast wasn’t quick enough and I did pass out.
So now it’s Saturday and I’m teaching archery. I’ve run group sessions before. I know how to handle up to a dozen girls for an hour or two. Introduce them to shooting, play some games, improve their aim. That’s no problem. Get them overexcited about scoring. But girls dropping in to shoot six arrows over a seven hour shift? That’s different.
Fortunately, my partner Fiona did Sparkle last year. We trained together, so we both knew each other’s experience, although she’s done more teaching than me in the meantime. But she knew how to handle rapid-fire shooting. It took a couple of hours to get into a routine. Always take them in threes – three targets, six arrows each, no fussing. While one of us is shooting, the other gets the next three braces and does the safety talk and then they collect bows while the last lot collect arrows. Once we got it going it went very smoothly.
I said there were lots of activities going on. We were the only volunteer instructors. Another dozen volunteers were on the other activities but, being unqualified they were there as crowd control. All the other instructors were either staff from the activity team or freelancers. Take from that what you will.
After seven hours of teaching archery I sat down for ten minutes before being sent off to supervise dinner – that is, get 350 people packed into 120-ish seats. Direct them to tables, order them to squish up and get them out before they’ve swallowed the last mouthful. That took three hours. Due to the caterers being terrible (and me being A Difficult Eater) my own dinner was a slice of thin bread. Thanks, caterers. I filled in my form and have an orange dietary wristband to prove it.
After that, I escaped long enough to sit round the campfire for half an hour. I do like a campfire. There’s something about singing with strangers who know all the same weird songs, if sometimes with local variants in precise wording or tune. Nice to add new songs to my repertoire too. I have the best songbook in my whole district. And I got further with Edelweiss than I ever have in my life (if you’ve never been subjected to this, you sing Edelweiss while doing the most complicated hand-clapping from hell that anyone has ever seen, and which randomly changes direction).
After that it was hot water time – manning runs around the campsite for hot chocolate and hot water bottles and no, two runs run off an extension lead run off a normal indoor socket isn’t going to work, is going to fuse repeatedly and is going to become a fire hazard. So it was late by the time I got to bed, it had been a very long day and my feet were so sore that once I was in bed, they actually throbbed, which is a new experience for me. I planned to stay awake until my roommate came up but my eyes wanted to close and my brain wanted to present random semi-hallucinatory images. And yes, I was more than a little bit asleep when she came up.
Sunday started with campsite pack-up support and then two and a half more hours of archery. You know how many arrows I shot that weekend? Seven. One full set during a brief lull and one more because a group wanted to see me hit the gold – which I told them I wouldn’t and then proved myself right by hitting red.
After that, I snatched fifteen minute for lunch and then became a pack horse. Guides always pack more than they can carry. I struck a tent for a leader who left it, her boots and her coffee in an otherwise-deserted field – I still don’t really understand why or even how. I took down windmills, stacked benches and tables, folded paper lanterns, helped haul an ice rink to a lorry, sorted Lego into colours and failed to find a cloth to wipe down a table in the chill-out zone.
I think you might understand why I slept so well on Sunday night.
Will I do it again? Only with a bigger stash of emergency food and a second pair of comfortable padded waterproof shoes or boots. I was shambling around the house like Gollum on Sunday evening. Will you do it? Volunteering is good for events and the more people do it, the more the work is spread out and the less you’ll need to actually do.