Category Archives: inspiration

Pleasure and Joy

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I enjoyed some simple pleasures last week.  Getting outside and walking in bluebell-clad woodland, a fascinating talk by a medical herbalist at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary and a tasty lunch shared afterwards with a friend.

A creative writing exercise commonly asks for a piece that incorporates the description of how something affects all our senses. Thus my opening sentences could achieve this – the sight of the trees and flowers, the light fragrance of the bluebells, the sound of the breeze in the trees and the taste of the soup I enjoyed for lunch (celeriac, cumin and coconut – lovely!)

But what is missing is how to convey the sense of well-being that has its roots in our innermost soul, at the very heart of us.  This is the nebulous sense of joy that does not come from external stimuli, or our daily circumstances, but is an inbuilt emotion that we can draw upon if we are lucky enough to be able to recognise, identify and embrace it.  My joy on the visit to the sanctuary came not just via the enjoyment and relaxation of the surroundings, but also from seeing my friend Alison’s pleased reaction to  her first visit there.

The bluebells in the woodland are like a reflection of the blue sky above, so pleasing to the senses that they cannot help but bring a sense of joy.  Learning about them too, is a happy and interesting experience.  Knowledge in itself often brings joyful exclamation;   “I never knew that!” you say, as you learn something new … like the facts about the native English bluebell versus the Spanish garden escaper:

“True English bluebells have stems that droop, whilst the Spanish are straight.  In the English bluebell the petal tips are curly and just visible are the stamens with white, creamy pollen, rather than the Spanish blue or pale green innards”.

I wonder what it is about this magical seeming flower that sends us into joyful ecstasies?  They are certainly a challenge to the camera lens, their particular shade of blue/mauve being a difficult colour to capture.  If they are in sunlight, they bleach out and look a pale depiction of their colourful selves.

Too little light, and they are a dull facsimile of their perfect best.

But get it right, achieve that balance of the light-just-right and the colour true and there you have it.  A joyful experience indeed!

A return to joy from the depths of grieving is a hard won and long struggle that remains a work in progress.  I am lucky to possess a degree of innate resilience, but this on its own would not have been sufficient to bring joy back into my life.

The return of joy after loss takes makes me think of approaching a building project, brick by brick.   It starts small, with the foundation level being the first instance when you recognise an awareness of positive emotion affecting how you feel.

You feel happy.

You don’t feel guilty about feeling happy.

You hold on to the feeling, drinking in the emotion that surrounds you and fold it into your heart.

You have one of those light-bulb moments.  This can be built on!

Gradually the bricks mould into something more substantial. Events which please, be they small or significant, begin to form something solid on which to lean, a structure that becomes denser and supportive so that you not only feel joy, you have the confidence and assurance to begin to give out that joy to others.

The conviction that life is getting better and growing happier again, despite what you have lost, is a source of ever strengthening joy.  It is supported by the love of those around you.  As you give out the light of your joy, so it is reflected back to you.

Joy is often bittersweet because you need to have known pain to recognise the beauty that lies within the joy which comes later.  Each of us knows this in very disparate ways.  For myself, I think that joy comes most from the knowledge that I am loved.  I believe that in my insignificance as just another human being on the planet, somewhere in the massive universe, I actually matter.

And that faith brings its own form of un-diminishable joy; it is the joy that makes me want to keep on living, keep on learning and keep on exploring life’s great adventure.  It’s an extension, an elaboration and a significantly deep addition to the first-glance pleasure of seeing a carpet of bluebells softly flowing across the forest floor.

And experiencing such moments with friends is part of the glue that holds pleasure, joy – and indeed life – together.

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Look around, look up and look forward

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There are a number of traffic diversions in place locally at the moment, the main one being due to planned major works in the centre of town.  Two other unanticipated events (a burst water main and a sudden sinkhole) have temporarily closed local roads.  This is inevitably causing havoc and adding significantly to overall journey times.  Although I know our area quite well, I have been surprised to find that the diversion routes quickly take me into unfamiliar territory.

There is a need to trust in each diversion route and know that it will eventually get me to my destination.

This is an example of faith in action that I am happy to embrace.  It reminds me that at times, you have to be able to trust in that which you cannot see to achieve whatever you have set out to do.

During the week I thought I would try to figure out my own route to work avoiding the worst of the traffic.  But by turning left instead of right at an unfamiliar junction, I soon found myself going in the wrong direction.  I felt rather silly; how could I get lost on my way to work?!  – but I trusted my internal Satnav’s sense of direction, found the right road and was back on track again.

Once again, I was guided by something I could not see but I knew was there.

Tying in with this, I recently heard an inspirational talk on ‘looking around, looking up and looking forward’.  The premise of this was to show how, even when we think we are entirely alone, if we seek and ask for help, we will be aided in times of hardship, and  also rewarded in ways that we cannot anticipate.

As an example of looking forward, if you are running a marathon, your aim is to reach the finishing line.  As you approach the final straight you will see and hear all the spectators urging you on, willing you to do your very best to get to the end, within the time parameters that you are likely to have set yourself.  How encouraging they are!

But try to look beyond the finishing line.  Think about how much has been contributed to your taking part in that race in the first place.  You will have been driven by your own ambition and commitment to training, but generally speaking, no-one enters a marathon purely for themselves.  You will have been inspired by something or someone – to run with perseverance, to look forward and be uplifted and supported from beyond the finishing line.

Allowing yourself to have both vision and trust means that you can tap into what is ‘out there’ if you look for it.

Returning to the diversion theme, I had a horrible situation a few days ago when I was driving home in Shaun’s car, which is larger than my own.  Traffic was diverted away from a roundabout I would usually cross, sending me along a relatively narrow road.  As I approached a bend, I encountered a large articulated lorry coming the other way.  We both slowed down our vehicles, but as the driver tried to bring the lorry past me, we realised that the narrowest point and angle of the bend would not allow his long vehicle to pass.  I tried to pull up onto the verge on the left, but this was made difficult by the presence of bollards and there was not enough space to manoeuvre.

The lorry inched forward and the angle meant it was getting closer and closer to my car until it was almost touching my wing mirror.

I felt entirely trapped, unable to go forward or backwards.

We had reached an impasse.

I felt as though I was in the eye of a storm as other cars backed up in both directions, waiting for someone to move.  The lead car from the other direction was behind the lorry and unable to see the situation that existed on the bend.

I looked upwards to the heavens for inspiration. 

I looked all around me for a way round the problem, but found nothing. 

I tried to visualise looking forward beyond the finish line.

Strangely, I felt calm enough; I was not panicking but could not imagine how the situation could be resolved.  I opened the car window and called out,

“Can someone please help me?  I just don’t know what to do”.

Nothing happened.  I could hear vehicle horns as people became impatient, but I could not do anything.  I sat and waited for something … anything. … to happen.

A few moments later a cyclist came into view from the opposite direction.  He quickly summed up what had happened and called out to me,

“Don’t worry, I will guide you forward”.  I was so relieved!

I kept my eyes firmly on the cyclist, watching and trusting his judgement as he assessed the width of the space available on either side of the car, and he waved me forward.  Eventually, (although it felt like ages, it was probably only a minute or so), my car was clear of the lorry.  I thanked my Good Samaritan, a charming gentleman, whom had appeared just at the right time.  He agreed with me that the lorry driver should have stopped before the bend to let my car pass.  This would have entirely avoided the incident.

I drove off, shaken by the unpleasantly close shave but so grateful for the manifestation of this particular guardian angel, just at the right time in the right place, and in answer to my prayer for help.

Perhaps diversions that result in proof of the power of looking around, upwards and forwards, are not so bad, after all.

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Fire and Water

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When you are a young parent you are very aware of school years and ages.  It’s surprising how fast this fades and at the meeting I attended at the East Sussex Fire and Rescue HQ this week, I had to ask the age of children in years five and six, because I had forgotten. (It’s age 9-11, by the way).

In loss terms, this being the twelfth year since we lost James, I am a Year Twelve.  That equates to the age of 16/17; to all intents and purposes an age of discovery, development and burgeoning maturity.

Sitting in that meeting room in Eastbourne, I found myself wondering what, if I was truly a Year Twelve, I would see today that is different from what James saw when he himself was in Year Twelve, with regards to safety generally, and water safety specifically.

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The word cloud above, generated entirely from words I heard at Wednesday’s meeting, gives part of the answer.

I was invited to Sussex by Dawn Whittaker, Deputy Chief Fire Officer at East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, following our meeting last February at the launch of the National Water Safety Forum’s Strategy. This in turn led to my involvement in the making of one of the ‘Beyond Blue Lights’ films for the Chief Fire Officers Association later in the year.

Wednesday’s meeting drew together representatives of community safety, serving firefighters/lifeguards, those involved in delivering the safety messages of fire, road and water and a representative from the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society).

The meeting was relatively informal; its purpose was to share  the details of the ESFRS Water Safety Strategic Aims and Action plan which is already under way and has been instituted by a focused team of individuals.  Dawn told me that all that was required from me was to feedback my views about what is planned and to highlight any areas in which I think I can contribute from my personal experience.

The ESFRS have the same aims and intention as the National Water Safety Forum: to halve the number of drownings which occur in waters in and around the UK, by 2026.

When you consider that around 400 people lose their life to drowning each year, and it is the third most common cause of death amongst young people aged 10-18, this represents a significant target.

Drowning accounts for more accidental fatalities every year than fire deaths in the home or cyclist deaths on the road.

From this it can be seen how relevant is the involvement of the Fire and Rescue service alongside those organisations more easily identifiable as being involved with water safety, such as the RNLI, the RLSS and HM Coastguard..

The key strategies and intentions of the ESFRS Action Plan are

  • Delivery of water safety message through a more cohesive and collaborative approach including via nominated Water Safety Champions
  • Working supportively with other agencies : RNLI, HM Coastguard, RLSS, RosPA, local authorities, ASA and other Life Savers such as leisure centre lifeguards
  • Involvement with the four major national annual water safety campaigns with CFOA, RLSS Don’t Drink and Drown and RNLI Respect the Water
  • Undertaking to educate all children and young people about the dangers of entering open water
  • Collaboration with local authorities and Pub Watch schemes to achieve a reduction in alcohol related drowning

I was immensely struck on Wednesday by the commitment and energy of each individual to the cause of making this huge difference.  Each are working closely together to bring the safety messages to the community in many forms.  For example, we heard that members of the team have spent several weekends patrolling nightclubs in Brighton late at night, directly taking the message about the foolhardiness of a late night dip to the students in the town.

The introduction of Water Safety Champions, those individuals who have a particular passion for a specific area brings different resources to the table, too. The Education team goes into schools on a regular basis to spread the safety word.

The most striking thing about the meeting was that, like my experiences with the RNLI, there is an obvious willingness to share together and pull with cohesion in the same direction.  Everyone is  inclusive; no one is trying to be possessive or exclusive or to take ownership of specific areas.

This is undoubtedly where the strength of a cohesive, collaborative team approach is going to win the day. 

Dawn asked me to share what is important to me.  My view, strengthened over the past     11 ½ years, is that drowning prevention must begin with education, and a heightened awareness by every young person that they must look out for their own and their peers’ safety, with diligence.

Safety education is going to start more vigorously in primary schools, rather than just secondary schools, which is a very good initiative.

Every child will ultimately have the opportunity to learn to swim.  It is important (if obvious) to note that being able to swim does not preclude drowning, as we know to our cost.

In fact, as Dawn pointed out, it is more likely that you would choose to avoid water if you cannot swim, something that had not occurred to me before.

I also feel very strongly, a growing sense that up until recently, organisations have been lax in recognising the needs of their own staff, who are working ‘at the sharp end’ and dealing with very traumatic circumstances,   To this end, I always advocate that people seek their own avenues of grief support and trauma support after incidents.  We had some discussion about bereavement support organisations such as The Compassionate Friends, CRUSE, the Drowning Support Network and SOBS to name but a few,  and the need to have these easily accessible to operational staff as well as families at the appropriate time through the available links.

As a Year Twelve, I see that my role in water safety has gradually become twofold.  Firstly, I understand the importance of telling James’ story – not to sensationalise, but to personalise, the reality of living the life of a bereaved parent, also how that impacts on the family and beyond.  My work with Kingston Council, my writing and my subsequent involvement with the RNLI and other organisations are all key to sharing very important messages around the matters of water safety.
Secondly, I feel it is vital to share and talk about the issues surrounding trauma, grief and loss, for our own health and wellbeing.  It is well recognised that acquiring a grief toolbox is key to getting through the worst of times and remaining relatively sane!  I welcome the chance to share these aspects of grieving whenever possible, through writing, presentations and workshops.

Having said that, articulating my thoughts at such a meeting of professionals is an opportunity I never imagined I would have and I am grateful to Dawn for her invitation.

Such events are emotionally draining and I was very glad to have Shaun with me, who gamely drove us there and back and sat in on the meeting; his presence was appreciated, as always.

Finally, I share a comment by David Kemp, Head of Community Safety, who said,

“We do no harm, we only do good”.  That strikes me as a good ethos for ESFRS to have, and I wish them every success in achieving the aims of this most important strategy.

 

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What’s in a Murmuration?

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Following my talk at the launch of the RNLI Fish Supper charity fundraiser last October, I was honoured to be invited to pay a return visit to the College in Poole on 10 January and give another presentation, this time at a training event.

I was told that currently, there is something of a sea change (couldn’t resist that one) in the management structure of the RNLI to better integrate the management functions for rescue (lifeboats), supervision (lifeguards) and prevention (Respect the Water, education and community awareness).  To this end, there is a new grouping of operational RNLI Managers with specific responsibilities covering the entire coast, including Irish waters and the River Thames.  My brief was to address this group of men and women who together have an enormous amount of knowledge and experience within their specific fields.

Prior to the presentation, which was to be at 5pm, Shaun and I were sitting with a cup of tea in the Slipway café bar at the RNLI college, watching through the window a group of starlings, known as a murmuration.  We marvelled at their airborne acrobatics as they gracefully swirled, swooped and dipped, forming wonderful shapes which morphed and changed with smooth fluidity in the sky above the water in the bay.  Their synchrony and grace were a delight, and we felt privileged to be watching their spectacular pre-roost show, as the light was fading fast.

There seems a curious synchronicity at work, in that when I looked for an image of starlings to illustrate this post, I saw that the RNLI’s Ross Macleod had posted some pictures of starlings in Studland Bay, Dorset and he kindly allowed me to share one here.

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One theory of such murmurations is that they are to do with defence, representing distraction and safety in numbers; the group behaving with a single purpose, and in the starlings’ case, to avoid predators.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the birds’ behaviour in formation is that the group responds as one and although they are separate, uniquely individual characters, they move collectively, forming their shapes in shared commonality.

As I come to know better the men and women associated with the RNLI, whether they are volunteers or staff, it is not too fanciful to think that collectively they behave much like a murmuration.  Apart from the fact that they are not in danger from marauding raiders – although of course they do experience negativity from a few detractors – their underlying aim and remit is single-mindedly purposeful and can be summed up in their intrinsic desire to make our waters safe for everyone.

They are entirely impartial, proactive, positive personalities whose aims and aspirations I cannot praise highly enough.

They are vocational and often generational, many of them having fathers and grandfathers who served the RNLI.  The water is in their blood and it shows in their passionate commitment to make a difference for anyone and everyone.

What could I, as an individual, tell them that would impact on the group?

I felt the most value I could give to the presentation would be to share my own reality of ‘What Happens Next’; by which I mean … how do you live your life after the crushing loss of a beloved son to drowning?  It is only through my dealings with the RNLI since 2014 that I have come to understand how important it is to keep telling our personal story.  This is because the ways in which sharing some of James, and our life as it has evolved since his loss, provide helpful insights into life as a bereaved parent.

I found this group an ideal audience also to hear some of what I have learned about grief and loss in the past 11 ½ years – not only to help them with their work when they are involved in incidents with the worst possible outcome, but also in their personal lives.

They are all people with families and friends like any other group and inevitably, most of them will experience the loss of someone close to them at some time or another.  I was glad to mention the loss-specific organisations that have been so much help to me: The Compassionate Friends, the Drowning Support Network and CRUSE Bereavement Care.

I always feel it is worth sharing too the assorted elements that come to form the grief toolbox … in my case the above organisations, our work with Kingston Council, my writing, to name but a few.

I also thought it would be beneficial to summarise some of the Do’s and Don’ts that I have learned in the past 11 years.  These I have published in full before, but I feel they are worth sharing again:

Top Do’s and Don’ts in dealing with Bereaved families:

  • Don’t tell them that such tragedies happen to only those who are strong enough to survive them
  • Don’t change the subject when they mention their lost loved one
  • Don’t stop mentioning their lost relative’s name because you are scared of reminding them; you cannot upset them any more than they have already been upset
  • Don’t presume to understand their grief because you have experienced the death of an elderly relative or even a pet
  • Don’t remind parents that they have other children or could have another child
  • Don’t say “I don’t know how you cope; I couldn’t.” The bereaved have no choice in the matter.

 

  • Do be as normal as possible with them; talking about ordinary things and even sitting in silence, can be comforting
  • Do answer questions honestly and understand that some people have a need to know small details, others will only want the wider picture
  • Do ask how they are feeling, but only if you are prepared to listen to the answer
  • Do express your own sadness about what has happened, and encourage them to talk about him or her as often as they want
  • Do remember the needs of the wider family who may all need support and ask you questions that they cannot ask the most directly affected family members
  • Do remember that you must protect yourself from being drained by the needs of the bereaved family – who heals the healer?

The things we do as we go through our lives can outlast our own mortality.

The things we do today and tomorrow are stepping stones, building for the future.

Sharing our memories and our present and our future provides unexpected legacies in memory of those whom we have lost.

I am indebted to the RNLI for allowing me to continue telling the story.

There is a naturalness in the murmurations of the starlings.

There is a naturalness in the ebb and flow of our seas and waterways which commands us to remain vigilant … and always to continue to Respect the Water. 

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Hug a Tree in 2017

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I bet no-one ever took me for a tree-hugger, did they?

And yet … as I reflect on the nationally trying (Election/Brexit) and loss-filled (too many to mention) year of 2016 that we are shortly to be leaving behind, I realise there is a great and simple truth to trees.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whatever human frailties we have, through all our joys and sorrows, trees stand steadfast.  Whatever havoc we may create around ourselves, the roots of trees reach further down beneath the ground and their branches stretch their fingers higher towards the sky.

They bend with the wind, they do not break.

They can withstand either scorching or freezing extremes of temperature.

The cycle of leaf, blossom, fruit, continues unabated and the sap circulates in trees’ systems like our lifeblood circulates in us, bending to the rhythm of the seasons.

Trees are life givers that can feed the world.

Trees provide fuel and shelter when we need it. 

Trees can be anything from spindly to magnificent. 

Trees can be in a copse, a coppice, a thicket, a plantation, a glade, wood, a forest, an orchard, a jungle, a weald; they can stand proudly alone or be in massed company.

The cycle of the deciduous tree’s life repeated year on year has a structure that reflects the human condition from birth to passing.  In spring, the sap rises.  The tree begins to green up. The leaves and blooms unfurl, fresh and new.  The tree’s energy is growing and strong.  In summer, the tree stands tall and proud in its gown of green, embracing the warmth of the sunshine.  The autumn brings mellow colour and as the sap falls back to the heart of the tree, the leaves fall gently away, leaving the tree stark but strong against the ravages of winter.

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It may look as though the tree is dormant, yet deep within its kernel heart it absorbs the sugar of the seasons, creating a rich residue, ready to come to life again in the spring.

We repeat such patterns many times throughout the living of our days.

When a tree dies, its life is revealed in the whorls of its bark and the rings of its trunk.  Every circle tells a story, each notch on the bark is an event in the life of the tree.

Some trees are really special.  When you stand beneath the shelter of their branches you feel they can help you to safely let go of troubled, chaotic thoughts.  They nurture and support in silent empathy.  They are living, breathing beings.

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Two trees either side of a path can reach out like arms across a sacred space, drawing you to their embrace.  It feels as though they are acting as a channel that reaches high above the planet to draw down comfort, particularly at times of trouble, loss and grief.  Twice in my life I have experienced an amazing release of emotion, standing in this ancient energy and letting the trees take my sadness and absorb it into their primordial wisdom, leaving me comforted and calm. 

There is an undeniable truth to trees.  You know where you are with trees; they will never deceive.  Their wisdom is pure.

Listen to the trees.  They whisper in the summer breeze that rustles their leaves, and yet they whistle and howl through winter gales. Their moods are many and capricious, just like ours.

Do the trees mourn?  What can be sadder than a dripping, dark yew in the graveyard?  Yes, the trees can mourn.  But the beauty of trees in bloom in the early spring is a matter for deep joy.

Trees care not for politics or religion, though they are God-given.  The Tree of Life represents the first true human temptation; the mighty oak tree symbolises the stolid strength of faith.

Collectively, trees represent strength, resilience and solidarity.

A stand of trees high on a hill looks glorious.

A single small sapling reaches for the sky with optimism and conviction that it will one day be great and strong.

You may feel that you are separate from the trees, that they mean nothing to you. But we are all connected.                                                                                                                                             C S Lewis said, “Human beings look separate because you see them walking about separately. But then we are so made that we can see only the present moment. If we could see the past, then of course it would look different. For there was a time when every man was part of his mother, and (earlier still) part of his father as well, and when they were part of his grandparents. If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would look like one single growing thing–rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.”

I send love and good wishes to everyone for a peaceful and healthy 2017. 

Stay connected with each other, value your friends and your family … and if you feel so moved, go out and hug a tree …

Hey – go and clean that bathroom!

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Have you ever noticed the way that repetitive, non-cerebral activities such as household chores free up your creative brain?  This blog post literally has its genesis in a swish and rinse round the bath, continues with a buffing of the taps and ends with a swirl of bleach down the toilet.

Distraction techniques, or focusing on an undemanding practicality, seem to allow the inventive, imaginative part of the mind to run at full tilt.

A similar thing happens, albeit via a different route, through meditative practice when you are mentally and mindfully taking yourself to a different place, clearing the mind and allowing whatever wishes to present itself, to draw across your mind’s eye.

This reminds me of a guided meditation in which I took part recently, based on the Buddhist principles of loving kindness. The foundation of this is that we should learn to practise loving kindness towards ourselves as well as others.

A friendship demands little but gives much. 

It expects no more than acknowledgement of its existence. 

There is a true grace in friendship which we should encompass and convert to give loving kindness to ourselves. It is all too easy to forget that our friends like us, despite our perceived shortcomings.

You first have to learn to be your own best friend … something that is easier said than done.

During the meditation, we were asked to think of ten attributes about ourselves that we like.  Now, how is that for a tall order? – I arrived at three or four before giving up.

Afterwards I thought about why this was so difficult.  And I think it is because generally we are conditioned to be self-critical, judgemental and constantly aware of our failings/shortcomings. It becomes an alien notion to like ourselves.

So … I am getting better at saying to myself, “Stop! – step back from a commitment or two and give yourself time for you – for your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual nourishment”.

When I have managed to do this, I definitely feel better for it.  This is a good example of how loving kindness towards self is achievable.

If someone asks me, “do you believe you are loved and supported?” Then I do not find it difficult to answer “yes”.  And that means that I know in my heart that I am worthy of being loved, something else that is all too easy to forget.

My family and friends affirm to me that I am loved, through their constant support, their many kindnesses to me and their constancy.  Surely then, it should not be too difficult to remind myself of the positives in my life. The lesson lies in believing and having faith in the fact that I am loved equally by those whom I can see and those whom I cannot…

Those who are living with grief and loss can operate at essentially a polar opposite.  They constantly use distraction techniques and general busyness to avoid visiting their grief and perhaps to evade the sorrow that accompanies introspective grieving. I often think that bereaved parents work overly hard to fill in the gaps left by their loss and they are not practising sufficient loving kindness to themselves.  Over time, loving kindness really can help to process loss in a gentle way.

It is really important to find ways that work for you to achieve the balance that enables you to choose how to process your sadness.  This is a steep learning curve.

If, like me, you operate on a chore/reward system, you will be well placed to practise these techniques.  For me, reward equates to having time to write, meditate, or examine how my emotions are balancing out in the now..  First of all I must get the boring jobs out of the way and whilst I am occupied doing these, I am setting myself up to for my chosen reward.  It works! – for me anyway.

So next time you pull on your Marigolds to tackle the regular dull chores … choose your reward first.  You won’t even notice the tedium …

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The RNLI on the River

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You may think that not much happens on the Thames around Teddington.

You might think that the RNLI don’t even have a presence on the Thames.

You would be wrong on both counts …

Since 2002, the RNLI has had four lifeboat stations on the River Thames:

Tower at Victoria Embankment (consistently one of the Charity’s busiest)

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Gravesend in Kent

and Teddington in Middlesex. Teddington is the only lifeboat station that is manned entirely by volunteer crew.

In 2014, when Into the Mourning Light was published, I was contacted by Teddington helm, Andy Butterfield.  His email included, “I saw your story in the Richmond and Twickenham Times on Friday. It was very sad to read your story and so I wanted to write just to let you know of some of the success the RNLI are having on the riverThe Teddington RNLI have started training riverside bar staff initially in Kingston, but now also Richmond in the use of throw lines and providing basic first aid”. 

In response, I contacted Andy to learn more about what was happening.  To put it into perspective, the time scale was nine years after James’ passing; and some six years since we completed our campaign with Kingston Council for safety improvements along the Kingston stretch of the river.

Andy was my introduction, initially to the work of the RNLI on the Thames.  Through Andy, and RNLI colleagues Guy Addington, John Soones and Ross Macleod, to name just a few, I was to become involved in the coastal/tidal Respect the Water campaign, and ultimately also the National Water Safety Forum, my most recent written input being in their Strategy document.

Throughout the time of my involvement with the RNLI, Andy and I never actually met and our paths did not cross at the various RNLI events I attended.  We have kept in contact though, and a couple of weeks ago we finally met at the Teddington Lifeboat station on a chilly Sunday morning.

Shaun and I were treated to a personal VIP tour of the lifeboat station with Andy and his colleague Jon Barker.

We saw the two D Class inshore lifeboats which have been generously donated by local residents, the first named in memory of Hilary Saw’s parents, and the new boat, which is to be officially launched in May, named for Hilary’s late husband Peter.

We learned much of what happens on a ‘shout’ and how quickly everyone responds and reacts.  The timings are crucial and therefore it is imperative that volunteers live very close to the station and are quickly able to respond should their pagers go off.  A lifeboat can be launched in five minutes. The waterproofs the volunteers wear are incredibly heavy and must be very hot in summer.

Jon talked of the training he does with local schools and scout groups. It is obvious by his enthusiasm that he and his fellow volunteers are able to provide youngsters with the knowledge they need to stay safe around water and also to inspire them by sharing the work of the RNLI.

 It seems to me that there has been a shift within the RNLI and today, their aim is, through their training work, to raise awareness across the board to help people understand how to stay safe around all areas of open water. 

Andy drives the training initiatives along the riverside bars and restaurants. There is tremendous personal poignancy in this image from one of last summer’s training exercises in Kingston, with James’ memorial plaque visible in the background.

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In February 2016 Andy coordinated an extensive mass casualty training exercise which mocked up a pleasure boat being run aground with numerous casualties on board, who had to be safely evacuated.

The RNLI joined forces with a local company, Turks Launches, to produce the scenario-based training.   The casualties were in full moulage (mock injuries for the purpose of training) and ranged from completely unresponsive casualties to the walking wounded.  Both Teddington lifeboats were launched.

In the press report of the event, I read that Andy was first on the scene.  He said, “I had three things running through my mind at all times.  Firstly, what is the risk to my crew and the casualties?  Secondly, how many casualties are there and what is their condition? And thirdly, how do I get them all to safety?”

The helmsman of the second Teddington lifeboat was tasked with ‘walking the floor’ of the vessel to ensure that everyone was accounted for.  An evacuation plan was formed with the crew on the vessel and all the casualties were eventually safely removed from the boat.

After what was a very successful collaborative exercise, Andy said, “Scenario-based training like this is crucial to the development of our skills as RNLI crew.  It is also in our interest to collaborate while training with fellow river users as it helps to prevent future incidents and their feedback is useful for improvements”.  The collaborative exercise was a great success.

However, despite the best efforts of the RNLI and other organisations, accidental drownings still happen, sadly in Kingston as well as elsewhere. But the good news is that along the Kingston stretch of the river, we know that lives have been saved by individuals working at the pubs and restaurants.  They have been trained following our loss in 2005, subsequent campaign for improved river safety and the access to training facilitated by the RNLI.  This fact alone is incredibly gratifying for us, as naturally, we view the loss of James in 2005 as a significant catalyst for change in the area.  Our campaign with Kingston Council proved to be just the start of positive forward moves in river safety.

Andy is responsible for the introduction of throw bag training, first aid and recovery sessions along the stretch of the Thames between Molesey Lock and Putney Bridge, particularly focusing on the busiest sections around Richmond and Kingston.

I am grateful to him and his co-trainers for their efforts.  Having met Andy and Jon I am even more impressed by their dedication to voluntary service, underpinned by their commitment to saving lives.  Andy and Jon reflect the ethos of every single person whom I have met who is involved with the RNLI:  a sincere desire to improve water safety universally and to prevent unnecessary loss of life. 

These men and women of the RNLI leave their egos outside the door and concentrate on the tasks they face in an utterly commendable way, often in challenging and perilous circumstances.

I wonder whether the RNLI should no longer be viewed just as ‘the charity that saves lives at sea’ but as the charity ‘that saves lives at sea and also prevents loss of life, at sea and on inland waterways and rivers’. 

I hope I have managed to inform that plenty happens on the river around Teddington and the RNLI are indeed a great presence on the Thames.

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