I left university and got a graduate job with a computer firm in Horsforth for a couple of years and that basically taught me everything about what I didn’t want to do as a job! It was inside, with a cut throat atmosphere, where everybody was scrabbling to get to the top and earn more money and do better than each other, and I realised I wanted the exact opposite of that for my working life.
In 2012 I decided to quit and find what I actually wanted to do, and I’d always been really interested in being outside and animals. At that time, wildlife was probably something I was interested in, but I didn’t really know where to kind of channel that. So I got a job in a café to sustain myself and started looking for volunteer work in environmental type stuff. Hollybush was the first place I came, and it stuck basically. I mean, people still say this, that it’s quite hard to find Hollybush, if you don’t know about it, but I guess it’s just because it’s sort of a niche thing that you have to be interested in, to actually find out about it. I started volunteering alongside doing my job, until I got to the point where I thought right, I want to do this full time. I managed to support myself for six months, as a volunteer officer, and came to Hollybush, every single day as a volunteer for six months. I did a few other bits with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and National Trust as well, just to broaden my CV experience, but the people here made it really. I was alongside 8 or 9 other Volunteer Officers (VO) at the time who were all great, we had a really good team going. One of them is now my best mate, who I see every single week. So yes, it was a really formative period for me in terms of my life and how I think and what I now do.
Back then there was only really the practical team that was a thing on site. There wasn’t really the gardening group or the woodworking group. So basically it was like coming in, and going out in the minibuses to go and do a practical task with a really diverse bunch of people. That was another reason I wanted to get into volunteering because I’d been sort of stuck in the student bubble, only having friends of my own age, so it was really refreshing to come here and be able to hang out with loads of different people from loads of different backgrounds. So on my first day we just piled into a minibus a massive range of other different types of people, and off we went. It was the middle of December and we went out to a pond at Rodley Nature Reserve, and the first thing I did was get into waders and wade up to my waist in a mucky pond, with it hailing on the top of me and freezing legs on the bottom of me, but I absolutely loved it! We were just pulling reeds out for the day and then we came back here and got warmed up and went home, but it was really good. It was a complete antidote to everything I’d been doing at the time. It was great.
So some of the schools projects have been really amazing, there was one at Sharp Lane, which I did as a VO. This school had a bare playing field and we completely transformed it into a food growing and gardening and wildlife oasis for the kids. It was really good to see it start to finish. We’ve done some absolutely colossal foot paths (laughing) in our time as well! Almost up to a kilometre long, over months and months and months of just wheelbarrows and spades. It’s amazing what you can do with such minimal tools and lots and lots of people and loads of enthusiasm. They’re always really nice projects, just really big footpaths that basically mean that loads more people can get out into the countryside. So that’s a really satisfying thing to do, from a small muddy, rocky, ‘ankle breaky’ track to something that maybe wheelchairs can use or that people of all ages can walk on. Probably my personal favourite, and the one I’m most proud of is some stone pitching that we did in Crag Wood, in Horsforth. So it’s basically really traditional technique of making a footpath, like they used to make cart tracks, by sinking massive rocks that you find, locally to the area that you’re working in, into the floor to make a sort of stone pavement. Once you’re done and you look at it, it looks like, nothing. It looks like, someone’s put some stones down, and great I can walk on it without getting muddy now, and you don’t really think about it. But the actual effort that goes into to doing it is unreal (chuckles). Digging massive holes, moving huge boulders, because they have to be big so then they don’t move, and it lasts a long time then. So yeah, you can look at that kind of path and think, and not even think anything of it, you can just walk down it. So every time I walk down that now, or I go for runs around that area as well, it’s really, really nice. I feel really proud of it and my volunteers, to be able to walk on that. It looks like it’s been there for 300 years, and it looks like it will be there for another 300 years. The tangibility of everything that we do here is great. Just being able to go home, day on day, and year on year and think, yeah, these are the things that I’ve changed for other people to use, is really satisfying.
I think it’s amazing that the public can visit Hollybush and come and see it and learn how to participate in it as well, by looking at the gardens and seeing people growing food and the wildlife ponds and all that kind of stuff. People can just wander in and get sucked into this world, and, sometimes never leave. For us, actually having a physical space to plan projects from and store materials and a central meeting point for the volunteers at a place that’s near a city. We have a lot of volunteers that don’t ever really get out into the countryside unless we take them there, so the fact that they can come somewhere that’s close to their homes and all the bus routes and get whisked away in a minibus is really important. I think this place as a building and the gardens, it’s got a lot of character and history attached to it, which I really like, even down to like the poky little boot room and the café that you can’t stand up if you’re over six foot tall (chuckles) and stuff like that, I still think it adds to it all. When we do the open days and trails in the garden, it shows it off as a lovely space, that we’ve transformed over forty years.
More than anywhere else, this place has taught me that you can’t take things on face value. You can’t take people or things at face value and that you should give everything a chance. I suppose that ties into us having a really inclusive culture, but I’ve met so many people here that I would never normally have met or spoken to, and it’s made me a much less judgemental person. In terms of what people who have certain characteristics can achieve, way beyond expectations, maybe of themselves and anybody else, and I think just feeling kind of proud, of what we do.
Michael Bird, Project Officer and Volunteer at Hollybush since 2012