But then, about a decade ago, we took the decision to move to St Albans, 20 miles north. It calls itself a city, yes, but it’s not the capital. And if you turn right from our front door, within 400 metres you’re in the countryside. It’s all green and there’s much less concrete. Quite strange for this urbanite.
For the first five years, I suppose I settled, but mainly because I convinced myself, commuting every day for work as I did, that I was still a Londoner, really. I remember being surprised that I wouldn’t be able to vote in the forthcoming Mayoral elections. I would have to rethink my identity a little.
We didn’t have many local friends. We only knew our neighbours on either side, and one other family (and that was originally through London-based work).
So, what changed? Three things, really. The first around leisure, the second around my professional life, and the third a bit of an overlap of the two. But now I feel like an active citizen of the local community with a real sense of place. Let me tell you about it.
Firstly, I got into running. I’m not the quickest, particularly when I’m injured which seems to happen a fair amount, but there’s something about being out there in the open air, putting one foot in front of the other. It’s both a physical and mental thing for me. I joined a running club, and I then became heavily involved in St Albans parkrun, which offers a free weekly timed 5k run in a park for anybody who would like to attend. It’s quite something. Every Saturday morning, around 400 people of all ages and all speeds come along and run round the lake, supported in a variety of ways by around 20 volunteers. I’m now the Co-event Director and because I’m there so regularly, I would say I know at least 50 people each week, and count a number of the parkrunners and volunteers as my close friends. Maybe it’s because we share similar outlooks and enthusiasms.
Secondly, I realised a few years ago that I missed regular interaction with peers, having become a freelancer. I loved that aspect of office life, much like Catherine Raynor did (guest blog 4 June 2017), and I needed to find a way to network with my peers. I work in the charity sector, and it turns out that there’s a few of us about, sometimes known as the “St Albans Charity Mafia”. We get together every other month in the pub, and the email group numbers over 30. Rather like Fight Club there are only three rules: 1) You live in or near St Albans, 2) You work in or with charities, 3) You don’t have to talk about charities, but you can if you want. It’s fun. We drink, we chat and we eat pies.
The third thing that changed my understanding of my sense of place grew out of the first two. The parkrun had shown me the power of community. The charity meetup gave me contacts and friends I could later rely on. And the idea came amid the summer of 2015, during which national charities were getting a kicking. As a result, I personally felt I needed to reconnect with the sector as a volunteer and donor. I also knew that small local charities were suffering in straitened times and that so many people would support their important work if only they knew about it. So, we brought The Funding Network (TFN) to St Albans (September 2016) and then to Hertfordshire (June 2017). Four local charities pitch their cause – Dragon’s Den style – to a roomful of potential supporters. It’s as simple as that. We’ve so far raised over £23,000 for eight brilliant local causes, money that has made a huge difference to each of those organisations. Not bad for two evenings’ work.
What do I think community means? The parkrun and TFN share something very special, to my mind. What I see is a shared sense of passion, empathy and support. And volunteering is such an important element of them both. There is nothing of greater value, in my view, than the things we give for free. My burgeoning sense of community has sprung from a greater understanding of how that drives me, and the value it brings to others.
I can still be proud of London and everything that it represents, but I am part of another community now, much closer to home. This is my sense of place.
This article was first published by Catherine Max Associates