Hackney is a hotbed of history and October’s first trot for the Good Gym community volunteer crew took 15 keen runners to a corner of Stoke Newington that has seen plenty of action even before we arrived. On our 7.2km round trip we ran up from the usual Arch Gallery start – via Regent’s Canal, Broadway Market and London Fields – arriving at St Paul’s Church at 7.30pm where Rector Niall Weir was ready and waiting with a collection of shovels, pitchforks and hoes.
He showed us straight to our project: two huge piles of woodchip had been delivered and needed to be spread out under the trees that give this N16 church a park-like feel and create a nice sense of space around the church, a kind of spiritual moat. As Hackney Tours, I help people discover this area’s amazing local history on a ‘Radical Stoke Newington’ walk, so it feels like home. It was especially rewarding to do something at St Paul’s as I’ve been learning Tai Chi and Qi Gong here with the Mei Quan Academy. As well as hosting community activities like this, St Paul’s operates a soup kitchen and drop-in centre for the homeless through North London Action for Homeless (http://www.nlah.org.uk/).
But tonight was about the outside not the inside. Amid rising clouds of steam from the composting woodchip, shovels flew and in just a half hour the two mounds had been completely spread out, as per the plan. The last five minutes had seen the fastest redistribution as organiser Mark Herbert exhorted us to give one last push before the designated time was up. It’s surprising what a team can do under a little pressure.
There was one more job though, before we could head back down Amhurst Road and back to base. Good Gym has previously helped out the Growing Communities organisation and every Saturday St Paul’s hosts their organic farmers’ market (www.growingcommunities.org/market/). But it’s been taking its toll on some of the flagstones in the car park so we needed to pull out the damaged ones and switch them for unbroken replacements. And they’re heavier than you think!
Many hands make light work though; soon enough we were done and ready to leave this historic corner of Stokey. Historic because, as we toiled in the steam, we were overlooked on one side by the flats where Hackney suffered its worst Blitz loss when 170+ died in the Coronation Avenue disaster of 1940; and on the other side by the house where the radical Angry Brigade bombers of N16 were arrested by Special Branch in 1971. And we were just a couple of minutes away from the site of a notorious killing by the Krays, and what used to be one of the UK’s most controversial police stations, in Stokey’s ‘front line’ days.
Things have certainly changed a lot in Stoke Newington, but communities still need churches and they still need volunteers. Rector Niall thanked us warmly and promised to get us again back for more jobs then waved us off.
On the way back a local man disdainfully shouted “More yuppies!” as we passed. For some reason, people sometimes feel the need to yell out when they see a group of runners; whether you are with Good Gym or Shoreditch’s very-cred Run Dem Crew, it happens all the time. There’s something almost Pavlovian about the response to a body of people moving as one.
But all in all, it had been a very satisfying evening and Niall had been very grateful for our work. But the Yuppy comment was a good reminder that volunteering isn’t just about the thanks that always come with a Good Gym job. And more pointedly, that you won’t always get it for doing good. But you do it anyway.
The innovative Good Gym project marries runners with vulnerable or isolated people in the community. Details of how to get involved in this, or their regular ‘good deed’ runs in the community, can be found on their website here.