Harriet O'Shea, Horticultural Apprentice 

With thanks to Nenescape Landscape Partnership Scheme, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, for funding the apprenticeships offered at Nene Park Trust as part of the Nenescape ‘Investing in Skills’ programme. Also, a huge thanks to Bryan Clarke, my tutor at YMCA who has been an absolute treasure chest of knowledge and support - and hasn’t moaned once when I turn in a dissertation length piece of coursework.

Burn out. This is the one phrase that followed me across a degree and three jobs. I am 27. This absolutely should not be a thing. But I was raised to give 110% in everything I do – and with constant access to internet, social media and email I was rarely able to switch off from the job at hand.

I was exhausted from the ever-moving goal posts and felt utterly unfulfilled. With crumbling confidence and self-belief in tatters, I decided that enough is enough. And so, after just six years in marketing and comms, I left the rat race to find my next adventure.

Wind whistling around me and surrounded by nature; I am truly at peace when outdoors. And I was really falling in love with growing my own food and getting ‘stuck in’ to the garden. As a grower, I had bounds of enthusiasm but extraordinarily little competence or practical skills. Heaps of trial and error, a hodgepodge of failures and successes, and zero understanding of the reasons behind them. 

So, I really ummed and ahhed about taking on a horticulture apprenticeship. It felt like a step backward, partly due to my pride – after all, I have a degree and was more comfortable in academia.  And I was also hesitant about the dramatic pay cut: could I realistically live off £4 an hour for a whole year and still pay the mortgage? Choosing this apprenticeship meant I would be earning less than a quarter of my previous salary. But an inner voice kept asking if I could I really afford not to.

Deciding to follow an apprenticeship at Nene Park Trust felt like the greatest gamble of my life. It also felt like all the pieces had fallen in place. Ironically, I enquired about this exact apprenticeship at Nene Park nine months previously, but only halfway through a job contract in Bristol I decided not to apply. How fortunate that life granted me a second chance. 

In my first week I saw an otter whilst driving around Lynch Lake, and during my second week I got a transporter van stuck in the mud and had to be towed out. Thanks to Tom, Ken and Jeff who kept calm during the whole endeavour but rejoiced in sharing the tale of how they almost ended up swimming in the river with a new apprentice behind the wheel.

At the start I was fortunate to spend most of my time out with the ‘blue army’ and Gary the community ranger. We hacked our way through prickly bramble scrub at Coney Meadow and coppiced willow at the Osier beds. We chopped and transported firewood at Bluebell Wood and planted cricket bat willows trees at Thorpe Meadows. We cleared and burned the vegetation from Station Masters Garden and Splash Lane car park. Every day is remarkable, and I adore working with Gary and the volunteers because of their passion, knowledge, and the ability to keep me laughing through every task.

Then, cue the pandemic! Suddenly my daily dose of volunteers stopped, and I found myself at a loose end. Many of the staff were furloughed. We worked alternate days to minimise contact with other staff, and gosh - lone working was hard. However, this gave me an amazing opportunity to work much more closely with the park management team and I was scheduled into the work programme. Thank you, Ian, for although you drew the short straw with such a clueless newbie on your shifts, you were patient and tolerated my endless questions and note-taking. I began strimming and mowing and trimming hedges, and as I explored Nene Park, I finally began to learn place names and bridges and access routes around the park.

With our resident ecologist ranger on furlough, I began to participate in wildflower surveys – Rose’s Wildflower Key in hand - and took thousands of blurry photos to aid with identification. I was chased by a pair of swans on Long Meadow next to Swallow Bridge. On another occasion I accidentally added a rather large dent into one of the vehicles, misjudging a rather sharp turn at Lynch Bridge (Sorry, Greg!).

I’ve helped erect signs, sown wildflower seed, painted the bird hides and Lynch Kiosk, built bat boxes and walking sticks and chopping boards. I’ve designed and assisted in the building of raised beds, taken a lead on planting around the staff offices, and am currently establishing a herb and tea garden. I am even learning to drive a tractor and reverse a trailer, thanks to Arthur’s abundant patience and guidance. Who knows, perhaps by the end of the apprenticeship I will even be able to reverse the trailer without hearing panicked voices on the radio pleading me to “Stop what you’re doing and start again”.

This year I have been pushed and pulled and stretched and coaxed. But I can now get behind the wheel of a tractor without feeling nauseous. I know exactly which hand tools to use for each job, how to take them apart, clean and sharpen them and put them back together. My plant identification has come on leaps and bounds – and I can finally tell the difference between a maple and sycamore leaf. In the spring I will get the chance to work with Nenescape partners on some exciting wildlife surveys and sustainable gardening.

My team have been phenomenal and behind me 100%. When I think I can’t do something, they have provided a guiding hand and shown me that I can. My line manager has also done the unthinkable, because after months of listening, coaching, and encouragement I can ultimately admit I feel confident in my abilities. Gareth you have been the best mentor I could have asked for and I will never be able to truly thank you for all that you have instilled. I look back at my journey this year and I am proud. I took a leap of faith and through perseverance and supportive team, it has paid off. I am gutted that my apprenticeship will come to an end in the summer but eternally grateful for all that I have learnt and the lifelong friendships that have been forged here.

I don’t know what the next adventure holds after my time at Nene Park comes to an end. I hope to continue exploring community growing, regenerative agriculture, permaculture, and climate change gardening. I do know that the apprenticeship has filled me with the skills, qualifications, and experience to succeed in my next role, whatever that may be.