Edited from an audio interview
I was on a trip to Israel and came across a countryside warden in the Jordan Valley, who had a truck and pistol to manage scrubland by controlling the amount it was eaten down by the Bedouin’s livestock. The area was just so beautiful, and I thought, I must do something like this, but not with a truck and a pistol. Back in the UK I must have seen an advert in the newspaper or somewhere, that conservation volunteers being needed at Hollybush and found my way to Hollybush – they needed someone, apart from anything else to guard the site from the local kids.
They(the kids) were really put out, they used it as a play area , they’d set fire to it a couple of times, it was their place and for us (BTCV) to take it from them was a big distress; they did really resist quite hard. They could go there from home and do whatever they liked, Leeds City Council were desperate to get someone to look after it, worried it would fall down (the buildings had been Categorised as Grade II listed in 1976 Ed) and be a huge liability to them.
Late one summer night it was still light, there was a very heavy knocking on the back kitchen door, I went down billhook in hand with Seamus the dog, knowing I was likely to meet with unpleasant posse of folks, and opened the door and there on the back landing there was maybe half a dozen local kids all raring to have a go at me, for no particular reasons other than from their point of view it was “their place” not “our place”. And Seamus sat with me a few minutes and looked at the situation, and he went out and sat with them turned to me, bared his teeth and growled at me. And everyone just fell about laughing. It just broke the ice completely, Seamus, dog and a half was just brilliant, they just couldn’t believe it, that my dog would go and join their gang, he (Seamus) was safer with them than with me.”
The land from the farm to the canal was completely covered in piles of cobbles and old tarmac that Leeds City Council had dumped from somewhere. John Iles had persuaded Hargreaves a transport company to clear this area for nothing, it would have cost several thousands of pounds which we didn’t have. They brought in a huge truck and a digger, they worked solid for days and days. I remember the transport manager screaming down the phone at me, saying it had gone on too long, he needed the truck for other things. I went down and asked the digger driver if he ought to stop and he said ‘no’ he would carry on until he had finished the job., and I was so gratefully. We then made into the schools nature area.”
All the YOP (Youth Opportunities Programme, became Youth Training Scheme after the 1981 riots) No-one was very disposed to organising and running things. Apart from Bridget who could run a team, people were more interested in getting on with doing what they liked to do. West Yorks County Council were offering money so needed someone they could rely on to be there and move things on.
On the day of the interviews, John Iles and the other interviewers arrived but didn’t have anyone to transport people from the station. I was asked to take the van to pick them up and chat to them to see what I thought of them, I must have met 4-5 people, who were all really nice. John wanted Dave Thompson to be the Field Officer but at his age he just wanted to adventure and go off to India so he wouldn’t want to stay at “boring” Hollybush.
Dave turned down the Field Officer job to John’s distress. Bill Shaw suggested Giles and the job was offered despite never actually applying for it.
“There were lots of bits of the job that I wasn’t good at, but Bill Shaw would come and help/guide me. Bill gave Giles a lot of work at Tong which was useful as always need a plan B when organising how to deploy large groups of people”
“Dave Thompson, he just ran residential tasks, for his pleasure as much as anything else, he was very good at it and extremely charismatic. He developed a large following of people who would follow him from task to task all through the summer, he picked people up from the station it just grew and grew and he could get a lot of work done, he was extremely reliable.”
“The South Yorkshire office in Doncaster had a good team of people so anyone who was spare was directed up to Hollybush to fill the gaps Jed was one of those. Dave Purdon, Andy and Lesley took tasks out, Pete Barfoot ran stuff in North Yorkshire but used HB as a base before there was a North Yorkshire office. and there were local groups in Wakefield, Huddersfield who borrowed tools sometimes. These groups existed separate from BTCV”.
“I organised tasks in the Dales, Calderdale and Leeds, including the towpath where cinders were spread as they were extremely cheap. Disagreement in those days about allowing cycles long the towpath, on a least one occasion the canal warden pushed someone in as he rode past, isn’t wasn’t a nice atmosphere. “
There were about 25 people on the MSC programmes.
Andy (Iredale) didn’t have a team as didn’t want one – just wanted to do things in the garden. He, Shirley and Lesley did a lot of cooking for residentials and the residents. For the grand opening there was a visit by West York County Councillors and BTCV wanting to impress them. Shirley did all the cooking for that. John Iles’ then father in law, who was a miner, came before the opening and pointed out that if this was a coal mine, they would be painting the coal white
John (Iles) was getting more involved with senior figures from other organisations. Went to Houses of Parliament regularly to lobby people about how we needed to be doing things and what BTCV could do. John Iles was more active and influential – more so than those from HQ.
Potentially it was important stuff, but never really got the backing or funding required –not a bad thing as BTCV were very lean and hungry and got more done than if it had been over funded. High unemployment at the time which is why the Government ran YOPS schemes. BTCV was thinking about these people and mass unemployment and how all those who would lose their jobs would be occupied. Interesting that I went off into mental health nursing as the two are combined as if people can be doing something therapeutic out in nature that would be good.
Tensions – to be expected between people given our personalities and age. We had no idea on controlling ego but got a lot done and huge enthusiasm, e.g. restored the building from 79-81.
With Robert Sykes, Giles set up the dark room at Hollybush. Photographs were essential for publicity boards and the travelling exhibition van. Went out to talk to community groups, Women Institute etc. Giles went from Hollybush to learn about documentary photography having been inspired by other people’s photos. By this point the Conservation Volunteers were becoming more sophisticated in the way they worked, on the verge of becoming corporate and too corporate for Giles. “My office skills were negative, – files were kept in a box under the desk.”
Final reflections on the period –“It was really interesting and worthwhile. In many ways wouldn’t have come back to Leeds if not inspired by it. “
Giles Cooper, volunteer First Field Officer 1979 -83, former mental health nurse in South Wales retired to Leeds in 2017 and became a VO at TCV Skelton Grange for six months.