English Heritage Records Keeper, Richard Luscombe, writes about his time spent volunteering at Wrest Park, and explains how gaining experience with English Heritage across a range of roles has helped him overcome personal tragedy.
Life changes. Sometimes we make the changes, sometimes events change things for us. In September 2004, I moved from a long library career into primary teaching. In September 2014, our daughter took her own life.
I was put on long-term sick leave and, until the inquest the following March, couldn’t think about the future. All I knew was that I wouldn’t go back to teaching. So, a wise friend – herself a careers counsellor – suggested that I explore different occupation options through volunteering.
I didn’t know then how addictive volunteering would become.
‘My past experience rolled into one job’
In August 2015 I became a volunteer Room Guide at Wrest Park, welcoming visitors to the house and telling them about the De Grey family’s story. It was near home, all the staff and volunteers were friendly, and it reawakened my love for the past. Even better, our amazing Volunteer History Research Team then advertised for a volunteer Historical Records Keeper. I had a History degree, had run a Local Studies library, and enjoyed talking about the subject, so it was as if all my past experience were rolled into one job. I loved it then and I still love it now.
Many visitors who come to Wrest find a favourite place. They reach the bottom of our staircase and turn towards the garden, and ahead is the perfect classical perspective of the Long Water canal, finishing at the domed Archer Pavilion. That’s where the cameras come out. As a volunteer, I have the added privilege of seeing this before the visitors arrive. It’s perfect and, for those few moments, you happily convince yourself that it’s your garden, and no one else’s. Wrest Park played a major part in my restoration. It gave me back my purpose.
‘Sustaining good mental health’
It was recently World Mental Health Day, a reminder that mental health is health, not illness. We talk at length about our physical health and we slip easily from how well we are to how ill we are. Yet, say the word ‘mental’ and many people assume ‘illness’. Of course, the truth is that we all have mental health. Volunteering can improve it significantly, or simply help to sustain the good mental health that you already enjoy.
Perhaps it’s unusual for a male to discuss mental health, but I lost any inhibitions after our Becki died. She had been a national ‘voice’ for the charity Mind. In October 2013 she unwittingly started a Twitter campaign that caused two major supermarket chains to withdraw Hallowe’en costumes making fun of mental patients. Posthumously she was made a Mental Health Hero by the then Deputy Prime Minister. In tribute to her, and to others who left us too soon, friends started a local group to raise awareness of young people’s mental wellbeing. That’s another side of my volunteering, and equally rewarding.
People volunteer for all sorts of reasons. If they’re simply looking for respite from their past jobs, then the joy soon evaporates. Volunteering is a commitment, and the rewards come from the work you put in. Wrest Park has over 170 volunteers and simply couldn’t survive without them. They bring to their roles a vast range of skills and knowledge and, whether they recognise it or not, are all helping their own mental health. Take volunteer gardeners for example. They perfectly demonstrate that physical activity benefits mental wellbeing!
There are other outdoor opportunities, such as meeting and greeting, or driving visitors round on our golf buggies. Then there is room guiding, historical research, education, or working in our Archaeological Collection Store. The stimulation can be as much mental as physical. Above all, you have the responses of many grateful visitors to make you feel that your day has been worthwhile.
Mental health is now talked about more than it ever was, and even has significant royal endorsement. That’s great, but it’s those around us who can play the biggest part, and this includes employers. It doesn’t have to be big things. Sometimes, it’s just taking time to listen, making someone feel appreciated, or altering someone’s duties for a period, as one would during physical recovery. I’m just grateful to be where I am now, with the employers I have, so that what I do is given added value.
Get involved – Become a volunteer
“Wrest Park played a major part in my restoration. It gave me back my purpose.”
Have you been inspired by Richard’s story? Find a volunteering opportunity near you and join English Heritage today. Whether it’s guiding visitors around a beautiful property, helping to maintain one of our historic gardens or working behind the scenes in our archives and storerooms, there is a role for everybody.