Meet our Volunteers

By Kristy Turner, Museum Manager and Curator

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’ Gandhi

Dartmoor is home to an amazing variety of businesses and charities which provide services and help to an abundance of locals and visitors and we certainly could not do without them. But many of these groups could not exist without the wonderful work of their volunteers. One such charity is the Museum of Dartmoor life, hidden away at the end of a courtyard off the main road through Okehampton. It is housed in an old mill building that sits on the site of a mediaeval burgage plot, hence the long thin access. The stone over the front door reads 1811 and the courtyard and ground floor of the museum still have the original cobbled flooring which many believe was laid by Napoleonic prisoners of war.

In 1976 an inaugural meeting of the Okehampton and District Museum Association, led by John Young, set about raising funds to open a museum. Many activities ensued to raise money and thanks to the Town Council the mill and surrounding buildings were purchased in 1976 in a rather derelict state. Volunteers were immediately hard at work helping with fundraising and clearing up the site in preparation for the initial collection donated by Alan Endacott.

On the 4th July 1981 the Museum finally opened its doors to the public and for the last forty years it has managed to keep on going and improving its offer to the community and visitors, thanks to the hard work of the volunteers.

There are currently 9 volunteer Trustees and 25 volunteers who run the museum and also the Tourist Information Office. The Museum volunteers work 3 hr shifts Monday to Saturday either mornings or afternoons. Most do one shift a week though some generously do more. Mainly they run the front of house and shop and answer Tourist Information questions, but they also get involved in outreach events with the local community and special fun days at the Museum, such as Halloween and Edwardian Evening, when dressing up is involved!

There are some specialist volunteers such as Paul Hambling, an amazing archivist, Brenda Hague who does the buying for the shop and helps with the accounts, Dave Evans and Lyn Evans who do maintenance and health and safety checks, Jan Hazell who is in charge of rotas and Vivien Andrews who oversees the TIC.

Before Covid the volunteers enjoyed days out together visiting other museums or walking on Dartmoor to learn about historic sights. This year the Manager and Trustees hope to be able to reintroduce a calendar of events as a reward for all their hard work.

There are also the volunteer Trustees who oversee the governance of the charity. Currently led by Chairperson Dick Jennings, the multi-skilled team supports the manager,  puts strategies in place, raises funds through grant applications and finds ways to improve the museum and its offer. They are currently looking for new Trustees and you can find more information on the website at  www.dartmoorlife.org.uk

The Museum is open from 21st March 2022 until the beginning of December and is currently closed for the winter.

The Trustees and Manager believe in equal opportunities and access for all and have strategies in place to keep volunteers feeling heard,safe and happy.

If you are interested in joining the friendly team at the Museum contact manager@dartmoorlife.org.uk for further information.

Sarah White

Sarah was brought up in Brixham but has always felt a strong connection to Dartmoor, spending much of her early childhood horse riding over the moors. Even though work took her away to London and Hampshire the call to return was too strong. The long distance walking she enjoys fills her with peace.

 So what made her think about volunteering?

 ‘Living in Okehampton I wanted to help promote its local history,’  said Sarah, who has been volunteering at the Museum for six years now.

 ‘I like being able to engage with the visitors and give them a strong awareness of what the Museum and local environment has to offer during their visit.’ She particularly likes the John Young gallery with its ever changing variety of exhibitions, enabling the social history of Dartmoor to be updated and maintained. A living museum. She remembers one particular occasion when a large group of visitors arrived in beautiful saris. It was a wonderful sight. Sarah was worried that they would snag the fabrics on some of the farm machinery but thankfully all was well.  When asked about her favourite item in the collection she quickly remarks:

 ‘The man trap!’

Sarah also volunteers with Guide Dogs for the Blind as the fundraising coordinator for the area and fosters some of these special dogs. Her final words:

 ‘I believe volunteering requires a strong interest in the area that is being promoted. However a friendly face, an appealing nature and the prospect of being part of a team goes a long way.’

Jo Firbank

Jo, a retired learning support worker, originally turned to volunteering after getting divorced and being made redundant. She felt it would be a good way to make new friends.

   ‘I’ve been volunteering at the Museum since 2015 and it’s the perfect job as it combines meeting nice people with manning the shop,  entrance and tourist information too. I’ve learnt a great deal about the collection and the beautiful area that we live in.’

Laughter is also important and she recalls how once a lady asked her to mind her pram for her while she looked around the Museum. Jo went over to coo at the baby to find two rabbits snuggled up together!  It seems there is never a dull moment.

Jo’s favourite collection items are the small finds from the recently discovered Roman settlement off Crediton Road.

 ‘These tiny fragments help bring ancient  people to life, telling us their story.’

Would she encourage volunteering?

 ‘If you are interested in history and the Dartmoor area, I can’t think of a nicer job and would recommend anyone to do it.’

Dave Evans

Dave started his working life as a Butlins Red Coat before moving into sales where he climbed the corporate ladder, finally becoming Global Sales Director for a carpet manufacturer. Changes led to him taking early retirement at 50 and he took on several part time roles as Parish Clerk to three Dartmoor parishes and Secretary/Treasurer to The Trustees of the Forest of Dartmoor. He also found time to volunteer for the  Samaritans and Citizens Advice Bureau.

Twenty years later, Dave decided to volunteer at the Museum.

 ‘I wanted to be a museum guide and share the knowledge I had gained over the last twenty years, with members of the public.’

Dave loves working with the other volunteers as he has met some really nice people but adds:

 ‘I get huge enjoyment from the role, especially when visitors thank us for bringing the Museum and its artefacts to life.’ Dave was amazed when on one occasion a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of shopping bags turned up at the Museum and quizzed him about all manner of historic facts, for about half an hour, then said he had to catch his bus and trundled off with his barrow!

Dave also volunteers as a Ride Operator at Dingles Fairground Heritage Museum and as Treasurer at Launceston Memory Cafe which he finds both fun and rewarding. So what would he say to anyone thinking about volunteering at the Museum?

   ‘Come on down! Contact our Manager or call in to see us and discuss what you could bring to enhance the enjoyment of the paying public. We are a great bunch of people from very different backgrounds.’

Jan Hazell

After a long career in the nursing profession, Jan retired in 2014. She found herself doing very little except thinking about what she should be doing, until she saw an advert in a magazine asking for volunteers for the Museum of Dartmoor Life. She went along for a chat with the Manager and has now been a volunteer there for five years. Jan explains that she enjoys this activity for several reasons:

‘It gets me out of the house and makes me organise my days. The team are lovely, friendly people who I enjoy working alongside in a relaxed and fun atmosphere. It’s great to meet people and have a chat with the visitors who are in good, happy spirits enjoying being on holiday or a day trip. Our many overseas visitors are fun too, especially when we are trying to understand each other and explain what a museum exhibit is!’

At Halloween Jan loves to dress up in a scary costume and jump out on unsuspecting visitors to make them laugh.

Jan also volunteers with Greatfield Hedgehog Rescue and fosters hedgehogs at her home until they are ready to be released.

When asked about recommending volunteering to others Jan said:

‘Do it! Join our great team, meet people, learn about local history and enjoy it. It’s a very satisfying way to spend your retirement or fill up free time.’