11 Jun

I didn't expect to retire when I did. I figured I had another 2 years in me and was happy to do it - it would bolster up the pension. Then Covid happened. My working pattern changed a couple of times, starting with my being away from home - a lot - to being at home, a lot. I spent more time with my husband, used to being apart for long periods, it was great to find we actually liked being together for the majority of the time! So when the chance  of early retirement became possible, it didn't take much for me to go for it.

For the 1st few months I pottered round the garden and did some much needed decorating. Read  a good deal, walked the dog for hours and bought a narrowboat - as you do. I started helping a friend who was branching out with a new business, building a website, writing the content for her, oh, and spent far too much time on Facebook - and that was where it all began.

I'd joined several groups and pages, relating to narrowboats, while I looked for ours. There were lovely pictures from all over the country, taken from the water, glimpes of how people lived on their boats, cooked, decorated, found room to store stuff, painted the outside, blacked the bottom. People asked for advice - there were always answers - many conflicting - some useful, some funny, some down right rude, but that's folks for you. Then I stumbled on one small post, which was gathering a lot of attention. Just a few lines, from a chap I had never met, who belonged to a group I wasn't a member of, but shared to one I was. Andy Flint suggested that may be a few interested people could rescue a boat which had been abandoned - yes, people do that - restore it and give it to a homeless veteran to live in.  He had me at "veteran". 

If you've read my biography you'll know the rest. The original post was swamped with people saying what a good idea it was and was getting lost, so I created a Facebook page for it. 3 days later it had a substantial following. A week later we were donated a boat and muggins here suggested there ought to be a website, and ended up building one. Where did all that free time I had thought I'd got  when I retired, go? 

Almost 2 years down the line and we realised we were way more than a bunch of strangers who were doing up a single boat - we had 5 for  start. We were partnered with another charity, but had no official status, no formal statement of who we were, what we were doing and or a way to handle any money donated to us.

It was then we realised we'd gone from a one-off project, to what was really a volunteer-run  charity, and we needed to become one. We formed a group of trustees from the original supporters, voted people in to positions, drew up a constitution, and became a Charitable Trust. The great thing about it all was that we were all doing this out  a desire to help. We were, and are still, all volunteers. Some of us work - and fit in commitments like moving, painting or refurbishing the boats, round  more than full time jobs. I am the retired one - with "time on my hands" - so I do the donkeywork of administration, run the website and the Facebook page, and sort things like finding out how you do become a charitable Trust. 

But behind  the trustee committee of visible "volunteers"  there is, if not a small army - then at least a battalion - of unseen but very much needed volunteers. How do you get a tug boat and a 70 foot narrowboat, who's engine doesn't run, up one of the longest and most feared flight of locks in the country? Worcestershire's Tardebigge locks. You appeal for volunteers to work the locks - and people turn up, clutching their own windlass, with nothing more than the promise of a brew and a biscuit as a reward. It was filthy weather too, as I recall. You do the same when a boat's taken on water, needs to have all the wet stuff hauled to the tip, oh, and lets black the bottom while we're at it. You need to get a boat without a working engine ( people don't give you boats that are running well except on very rare occasions!)  out of a marina, on the 3rd of January? You ask another charity, who have a boat, to come out and give you a tow. And they do - and they are all volunteers too. It's amazing.

And that's why I think this week - Volunteers Week - is so important. Not just to drum up more volunteers, although we won't turn you away. It's also to say "thank you", to everyone who does volunteer - whether they intended to or not. I may have had a vague idea about doing some charity work in my retirement, but nothing was formally settled - it just sort of happened but I can't imagine life without The Forces Veterans Afloat Charitable Trust. 

"Do some charity work," they said. "You'll enjoy it," they said.  And you know what? They were right.

Lizzie Lane, Co-chair, The Forces Veterans Afloat Charitable Trust

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