Why paying to work is Britain's hottest new holiday idea

Dry stone walling, bog restoration, willow weaving – they're cheap, fun and good for the environment
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The Independent Online

With millions of Brits forgoing exotic foreign trips this year, an increasing number of people are choosing instead to roll up their sleeves on volunteer working holidays here in the UK, tackling everything from cider making and willow weaving, to the less glamorous challenges of bog restoration and dry stone walling.

According to the National Trust, people are battling for the chance to pay up to £100 a week each for the virtuous budget breaks. The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has seen an increase in bookings on its Thistle Camps working holidays, with the demand this year outstripping available places by two to one; while the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BCTV) has also reported an increase in bookings of its environmental working holidays.

With 3,800 people attending the National Trust's volunteer working holidays every year, numbers are limited by the amount of work that can be done. The most popular of the 400 holidays offered – including constructing a boardwalk in Derwentwater, Cumbria from recycled plastic and working as guides at Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland – are booked up months in advance, while last year the National Trust also launched working holidays for families, in response to demand from parents who wanted to volunteer but didn't want to give up the family holiday.

"We experienced a far higher level of interest when we first opened the booking lines this year, over 12 per cent up on the same time last year," said Jennie Owen, the National Trust's volunteer programmes manager. "The number of holidays has remained fairly static over the past few years; largely because this is the number we can usefully manage."

Applications to attend the 40 Scottish working holidays increased by 15 per cent this year, with 617 applications for only 378 places; prompting organisers to plan to expand the scheme next year. "There has certainly been a huge surge in interest in recent years," said a NTS spokeswoman. "We suspect the appeal of these holidays is down to the fact that they give people the chance to put something back, to learn new and unusual skills, and to spend time outdoors in remote and beautiful places."

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics last week revealed a 12 per cent drop in holidays abroad over the past 12 months, down from 70.9 million visits in the year to July 2008, to 63 million. But although the recession might be forcing some Brits to stay at home, their decision to work while on holiday has little to do with reduced circumstances.

The low cost of volunteering holidays is a factor for some who attend – a week's accommodation and food costs around £100 – but for many, there is a more altruistic motive. Patricia Yates, a director at Visit Britain, said: "This fits in with our research, with the mood of new austerity we are seeing in the country at the moment. People want to show the same values in all of their life, including holidays. People want to contribute to society, to do something for others."

Britons aren't confining their charitable endeavours to the UK. Many are plumping for the international volunteering holidays from organisations such as BCTV, which offers environmental projects everywhere from Iceland to Bulgaria. Nor are working holidays restricted to the summer. Some organisations are promoting Christmas breaks for those wanting to escape the madness and give something back during the festive season.

Hard graft: ‘I dig 3ft holes for poles’

Juliet Adlington, 37 is a technical writer from London.

She is currently on a working holiday in Slindon, Arundel, West Sussex “This is my second working holiday. I’ve got an office job in London and it is so nice to be out in the countryside.

Most of the people on this holiday are under 20 – I’m like the grandma of the group! – but on the last holiday I was on, there was a fairly even age spread. We have been digging 3ft deep holes for fence posts, to manage grazing on the grasslands, and it is quite hard work. We start at 8.30am, so you don’t get a massive lie-in, and we finish at 4pm.

Everything is organised for you, from the minivan that picks you up in the morning to what you’ll eat for dinner, so you can completely switch off. It is satisfying to do physical work and be able to see, at the end of the day, what you’ve constructed.”