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Explore the U.K. as an Insider

Volunteer Conservation Holidays Avoid the Tourist Hotspots

When I first came to the U.K. as a student I was naturally enticed by the excitement of London. But even then I was able to explore the countryside and smaller towns and began to get a feel for British culture. Years later I am still here, and my attraction to the British countryside remains strong.

Visitors to the U.K. who want to depart from the well-beaten tourist track and explore the country from an insider perspective may find a conservation holiday ideal. The trips allow you not only to tread lightly during your visit but also to leave something behind when you depart.

A number of organizations run conservation breaks. Most require that non-U.K. participants be 18 or over. Other than that, the only requirements are a reasonable level of physical fitness and enthusiasm for hands-on work. The projects vary in length from a few days to several weeks, take place in locations all over the country, and may involve anything from building walls to restoring ancient monuments. They provide an excellent way to immerse yourself in British countryside, culture, and history and to make new friends. You work as a member of a team and develop new skills (some unusual). There is always plenty of free time, too, giving you a chance to enjoy a pint in the pub with the locals or to simply discover what the country has to offer away from the tourist hotspots.

The Conservation Volunteers has run practical conservation projects for over 40 years and offers a variety of conservation holidays which can be booked by individuals or by groups. Group sizes are between four and 12 people. Accommodations vary but are usually basic and everyone joins in on the cooking and cleaning. The trips last from between two and 28 days and the work is full time but with plenty of breaks and free time.

Your experience could range from making hay to learning traditional skills such as drystone walling and hedge laying, which will put you in touch with the rural heritage of the country. Sand dune maintenance or wildlife surveying would suit anyone interested in conservation work and ecology.

The National Trust is a charity dedicated to protecting the coasts, countryside and historic buildings of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Their working holidays last from two to seven days and cost from around £30 to £60 including accommodation (in a Trust basecamp, usually an interesting property itself) and food, which everyone takes a turn cooking.

The several types of working holidays available cater to different interests and age groups. Your work could include repairing footpaths, clearing vegetation, building walls, contributing to the conservation of archaeological sites, or to the management of wildlife habitats. The site could be remote or nestled within green spaces in an urban area. Those hoping to visit Scotland may be interested in the Thistle Camps run by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). Lasting from one to three weeks, the camps involve work on projects similar to those described above. Volunteers on all NTS Thistle Camps and on National Trust working holidays for a week or more receive free entrance to all National Trust and NTS properties for a year—a useful perk if you plan to continue traveling in the U.K.

The Waterway Recovery Group (WRG) welcomes volunteers from overseas to join their canal camps. The work involves restoration of Britain's canals, many of which have fallen into disrepair. Most of the camps cost £35 per week, which covers room and board. You can go for no more than two weeks at a time and the WRG actually cautions against rushing to book two weeks as they say participants often find the first week more exhausting than they expected. Exhausting it may be, but where else do you get the opportunity to "scrub bash" (clear vegetation) or operate an excavator or a dump truck?

Cathedrals form an important part of Britain's architectural heritage and attract visitors from both within and outside the country. Cathedral camps give participants between the ages of 16 and 30 the chance not just to visit but to work on a cathedral, contributing to a variety of preservation projects. You could find yourself cleaning stained-glass windows or working alongside conservation experts to remove centuries of dirt from sculptures. Groups consist of 15 to 25 people and accommodations depend on the cathedral. The Cathedral Camps website says, "You might be sleeping on the floor of a Chapter House or in the relative "luxury" of a Choir School bed." Cathedral camps only take place in summer. The cost is £65 or $115 payable by U.S. check. A letter of recommendation must accompany your application form.

Remember that despite that the projects call themselves working holidays you need to enter the country as a visitor. If you plan to travel with friends, be aware that some programs limit the number of people that can book together. The National Trust limit is two people; so is Cathedral Camps. Waterway Recovery Group accepts no more than three together, citing damage to the social life of the team when larger groups of friends join the camps.

Some conservation holidays have special requirements as to what to bring, but for most it is worth remembering to bring shoes or boots, possibly waterproof boots (Wellingtons) and a waterproof or warm coat, depending on season and location. Rain is always a possibility. You may need a sleeping bag if beds don't feature in the accommodations provided.

Explore transport options so you know how to get to your meeting point. Some Internet resources that can help you prepare are the U.K. public transport information site at www.pti.org.uk and Traveline, which provides detailed planning for regional journeys. The British Tourist Authority site (www.visitbritain.com) also provides a range of information in the transportation section.

For More Info

The Conservation Volunteers (TCV)

National Trust

The National Trust for Scotland: Thistle Camps

Waterway Recovery Group

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