Paddles and Privilege

I’m delighted to confirm that I’ll be joining Glasgow Watersports as Chair of the Board. This opportunity represents an interaction between two of my interests: outdoor pursuits, and health inequality.

Growing up, I was never really a ‘sporty’ child. Whilst my twin brother excelled at football, I struggled from sport-to-sport trying to find my game. I remember one awful Sunday morning as I cheered my brother on from the sideline, an injury occurred and I was called on as a sub – I could have died. After less than two minutes I was being stretchered off with a pulled calf muscle. I think the only person there more embarrassed than me was the manager whose bright idea it was – despite my protest. “You’re a Charlton, of course you can play football…”. Well, I showed him…

Football, basketball, hockey, and rugby, I tried them all but none of them worked for me. (It’s a shame that I grew-up pre-Quidditch, as I think that was probably my calling…). All of the sports that I tried were too rigid, too organised. I liked being free, going where I wanted, when I wanted. I was fortunate to grow up next to a park with a spinny – a group of trees that was as close to a woods as I was going to get. It was in the spinny where I ran, walked, explored, sat, and escaped. I wasn’t really doing anything in particular as such, just exploring the woods, collecting leaves, sticks etc. Looking back, I guess you could call it exercise and mindfulness, but it was effortless. I knew then that I enjoyed being amongst nature, and that being in nature was as good for my mind as it was for my body. I didn’t give it that much thought, I think because nobody else did. There were no medals or award ceremonies for finding the stick most like a gun, or best adventure in the woods, and the concept of ‘mindfulness’ hadn’t reached me yet.

My experience of open space providing happiness is supported by a King’s Fund report. The report highlights that the proportion of open spaces is linked to self-reported levels of health, including mental health, and that this is true for all ages and socio-economic groups.

A few years later, there was an opportunity to join a school trip for a skiing break in France. My heart lept at the thought of experiencing nature at this extreme. But it was a short leap, more of a hop, at the end of the announcement came the price of the trip. With Mum working three jobs and with me as one of five children, there was no way that we could afford for me to try skiing. Mum was great, and instead we took a trip to a dry-ski slope (imagine a 45 degree slope clad in astro-turf), but it wasn’t the same. In the end, the proposed ski trip at my school had to be cancelled. Not enough parents or careers could afford the cost. This was the first time that I experienced the inequality of ‘elite sport’.

A recent BBC Scotland Investigates programme, The Medal Myth highlighted that little has changed since my experience. I was shocked to discover that approximately £350 million of public money has been spent on Olympic Sport in the last four years, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that 90% of performance athletes had attended a fee paying school, or a state school that served an affluent population. This is a massive financial investment where there is already a degree of wealth. What about the me’s of today? How can we make these ‘elite sports’ more accessible to the majority of citizens?

Glasgow Watersports primarily operates as Pinkston Watersports, a community paddlesports centre and Scotland’s only artificial whitewater course. Pinkston is situated in North Glasgow and is part of the communities of Sighthill and Possilpark. According to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, these neighbourhoods are ‘deprived’, though like many other communities that share this label, and like the community in which I grew up, they host a wealth of assets. Despite generations of structural and systemic challenges, Possilpark and Sighthill are thriving communities that are home to numerous peer groups and volunteer-led activities and services. They also benefit from close proximity to a number of green and open spaces, including the Forth and Clyde Canal, yet these communities have some of the poorest health outcomes in Scotland.

It’s important to recognise that having access to green and open spaces doesn’t necessarily mean that people will use them. Through my work with the National Links Worker Programme, I hear lots of reasons why people can’t or don’t access some of the resources available to them. Some of these reasons are structural or systemic, and require statutory intervention to be addressed, whilst some are personal and might be overcome with some encouragement, enablement, and support.

Like my spinny, the Forth and Clyde canal and other open spaces in North Glasgow offer citizens the opportunity to try a new activity and can help them to discover an unknown potential, and Pinkston can meet the needs of those feeling more adventurous. In adulthood,  I’ve been fortunate to advance my early experiences with nature, and now enjoy holidays where I hill walk and kayak. In fact, my positive associations with nature are so strong that I originally planned to propose to my (now) husband on a kayak – a bit of  risk assessing saw the ring at the bottom of a Norwegian fjord and so that plan was re-thought. If I hadn’t had access to that spinny, and enjoyed the first-hand benefits of spending time there, perhaps I wouldn’t pursue and protect nature so much in adulthood.

The confidence that comes from trying kayaking in still waters for the first time can quickly lead to the confidence to try whitewater rafting, or other new activities. Participation in any type of activity can unlock a previously undiscovered self-belief.

Through working with the team at Pinkston, I’m excited to engage with our neighbours in Sighthill and Possilpark and to hear what they would like from the unique facility in their community. Who knows, maybe a local resident will discover that one of the many watersports on offer is their game…