TRAVEL Hedging their bets

Holiday or hard labour, wondered Richard Gilbert as he volunteered for a National Trust working project
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The Independent Culture
IT'S EARLY Sunday morning in the run-down orchard of a farm on the Golden Cap estate in Dorset. Jacqui, a tax collector, tears away ferocious brambles with her freshly sharpened bill-hook; Ian, an electricity company manager, swings his 7lb axe against a hawthorn tree; Sarah from a VAT office confidently fells thick branches with her bowsaw; a research chemist and an electrical engineer hurl dead timber from a wooded bank into the field.

I have joined seven other volunteers on a week-long National Trust working holiday. Our goal? To lay a 100-yard, traditional Dorset-style hedge. The Golden Cap is one of the National Trust's finest properties: a 1,900- acre jigsaw of unspoilt coastline, spectacular cliffs and hilltops, including the highest point on the south coast. It boasts sheep-covered valleys, sloping fields and 20 miles of foot and bridle paths. There is plenty of maintenance work to be done and, according to the estate's warden, George Eliot, "The place would grind to a halt without the volunteers. They are easy to teach, willing to work hard and the six volunteer projects we have this year will save us thousands."

Every year more than 4,500 volunteers spend a week of their holidays working on one of the National Trust's 460 projects at 45 different sites across England, from Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland to Zennor in Cornwall. Anyone over 17 who is reasonably fit can take part: no previous conservation experience is necessary, all you need is enthusiasm and flexibility. Some projects are designed specifically for 21- to 35-year-olds, others for over-35s, but our group spanned both age ranges. The work could be anything from dry-stone walling, footpath repair and pond clearance to more specialist tasks such as wildlife surveys and archaeological or mapping activities.

To encourage people to take part independently, the Trust allows you to come along with only one other person. The idea is to prevent the groups, which average only a dozen people, being swamped by a single large family or a gang of friends. Nearly 50 per cent of volunteers have been on at least one project before.

The holidays are also very cheap. For only £37 (£40 in July and August) you get a week's accommodation and meals, as well as a free National Trust card for a year. But don't expect cosy bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. Our base camp was a converted radar station perched on Stonebarrow Hill, overlooking the sea and surrounded by golden gorse and inquisitive sheep. There were two separate dormitories for men and women and two bathrooms, one with hot showers. With triple bunk-beds and a kitchen rota where everyone had to take a turn at cooking and washing up, the atmosphere was like a cross between a youth hostel and a residential college. I gathered from other volunteers that some camps are much more comfortable: Scotney Castle in Kent and Fount-ains Abbey in Yorkshire were both highly rated.

On arrival, all you share with other volunteers is enthusiasm, but the teamwork quickly builds up camaraderie among strangers from different age groups and backgrounds. I was a little worried to discover on the first evening that most of our group had been on working holidays before: they knowingly compared notes on tree-felling, building rabbit fences, rhododendron bashing and barn renovation.

After the introductory talk from the group leader ("Anyone here do resuscitation?"), my only question was, "Where's the nearest pub?" A mile and a half away, down an unlit hill path with a landslide to be crossed, was the answer. But we all made it to The George in Charmouth most evenings, and I quickly found that my lack of environmental experience was no handicap.

Volunteers work from 9 to 5, with at least half a day off during the week to explore the area. There is no slave-driving, and both the project leader and National Trust warden ensure that volunteers are not assigned work that causes exhaustion. As the group leader said: "It's meant to be a working holiday, not a chain-gang." Volunteers are given detailed advance information about essential kit to bring with them, like a sleeping bag and work clothes.

On the first morning, when the warden briefed us about our work, I felt another twinge of unease. Laying a 100-yard hedge, using the traditional Dorset method known as "pleachers", sounded highly exotic to someone like me who doesn't know a wattle from a daub. I've never done anything more rural than run a strimmer over suburban nettles. But we were given a gentle introduction to the work ahead by sharpening all the menacing tools that we were going to use. Gingerly I stroked the double-edged blade of the billhooks with a sharpening stone, gazed at the thickening sea mist in the orchard and briefly yearned for that little hotel in Menorca I had originally considered.

Before starting work, our warden, George - a dead ringer for Ian Holm - asked to see our work gloves. Proudly I held out my virgin gardening gloves. "Chuck them away; the thorns will go right through them," he said, replacing them with a pair of hefty hide gloves that Buffalo Bill could have happily worn for years.

The bank where we were to lay a hedge was overgrown with brambles, small trees and holly. George reckoned it was originally man-made, perhaps thrown up in the Iron Age and much later planted with hazel as stock for thatching. After slashing away decades of neglect, we were split into pairs and shown how to make a new hedge on the bank with pleachers. We stripped dead branches off the hazel, ash, elm and willow growing on the bank and then used the bill-hooks to hack out a deep wedge in the base of the tree trunks, making sure we didn't slice all the way through the tree. Bending the tree to 45 degrees along the bank so that it sloped uphill a few inches above the earth, we made sure the sap would flow upwards. After interlacing and pinning, young shoots would soon grow from these pleachers and, bingo - a natural hedge.

Urged on by the warden's shouts of: "Whack it, don't tickle it!" I managed to make my first pleacher - long after the others. Volunteers swarmed over the bank, chopping, slashing and binding. By the end of the first day, 20 yards of the new hedge had been laid. George promised us that if it was finished early, he would find us a different task before we went home. This was no idle threat: with the hedge completed one day ahead of schedule, he took delivery of 60 tons of hardcore and persuaded us to spread it on a crumbling road.

On the final day, everyone agreed with Ian: "The work may be strenuous, but it's restorative and rewarding. Every morning when we picked up the tools I used to think, at this precise time I would normally be stuck in the rush hour. Instead, here I am in the open air, surrounded by magnificent landscapes, laying a hedge in a 19th-century orchard."

Apart from a few minor scratches, nobody was hurt during the week. In fact the only mishap was back at base camp when the group leader toppled out of her bunk bed in the middle of the night. It was just her bad luck that it was the top bunk of the three. But a badly bruised shoulder didn't affect her enthusiasm. She is already planning to return to Golden Cap later this year to pull out ragwort and rebuild flint walls on a Dorset farmyard. !

TRAVEL NOTES

To obtain the 1995 brochure with details of all the Working Holidays send a sae with two second-class stamps to National Trust Working Holidays, PO Box 538, Melk-sham, Wiltshire SN12 8SU (01225 790815).

Other organisations offering working holidays include: British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (01491 824602); Canal Camps (0181-530 4767); Earth-watch (01865 311600); and Cathedral Camps (01525 716237).

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