It was Tuesday the 14th of August 1984
“PLEASE RING THE BELL, said the small typewritten sign on the large, dark green front door. I did and hesitated, wondering whether to stay or go, when the door opened. “Is this where you come to volunteer?” I asked rather timidly.
“Oh…. you’ve come to be a Hollyvol have you?” I almost turned around and walked straight out again. This was said in a lilting, jolly hockey sticks way by a tall, confident woman with short cut, dark hair. Her name was Bridget Robinson, as I found out later but first and very luckily she carried straight on with – “Come in, I’ll introduce you to Michelle, she’s getting the tools ready.” I went in and found myself in an entrance hall. There was a polished wooden banister leading up the stairs on the left and a short passage straight ahead went through a door to the rear of the building.
I followed Bridget through that door and down some steep steps into what looked like a deep, dark dungeon – the cellar. It was crammed full of tools of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. The first glance showed me a few I was familiar with – spades, forks, rakes and sledgehammers – and lots more that I wasn’t.
I didn’t look at the tools for more than a couple of seconds because in the centre of the floor was a nice looking girl with long blonde hair and bright blue eyes. “Michelle, this is Ian, he’s a new volunteer, look after him will you?” With that, Bridget turned and disappeared up the steps, leaving me alone with Michelle.
I was incredibly shy and fast beginning to wonder what to say when another girl came in – this time from the yard outside, through an entrance on the same level. “Emma, this is Ian, he’s a new volunteer. Emma looked to be about 15 years old. They were both bright, intelligent, cheerful and seemed extremely confident. The next ten or fifteen minutes were a blur as I helped to load tools, cups, kettles and other paraphernalia into a blue Transit mini-bus. With no time to think, we were off.
Six of us altogether though I wasn’t introduced to the others yet. “What are we going to be doing today?” I finally plucked up courage to ask, as the Transit headed north, away from Leeds. “Bracken Bashing”, someone offered. “Bracken Bashing — what’s that?” my obvious reply.
This was their cue to give me a mini lecture, which I would come to realize, was standard form for all newcomers.
Bracken it seems, is an invasive plant in woodland and on some moors. It is very successful due to the fact that it spreads by underground runners – or rhizomes as they are called. It also contains poisonous alkaloids so very few creatures eat it, which is the way many other wild plants are kept in check. This success in itself is not so bad but by growing in large patches it prevents other wild flowers from growing and so reduces habitat diversity. It can be controlled by spraying, “but that is not the way that we do things,” I was told. “Instead, we cut it down so it dies…. We try not to use chemicals whenever possible. They can be harmful to the environment and are not suitable for volunteers to use.”
It sounded reasonable to me and I had the impression that these were thinking, caring people – not the kind I was used to meeting every day.
Before long we were leaving the built up urbanity of north Leeds and heading for Ilkley Moor. I knew the area fairly well but had no idea of the location of our task site for the day. We were soon there. Meadowcroft Farm in the hollow between Ilkley and Baildon Moors. We opened a field gate and drove through.
“We will be working in the wood over there.” I looked but all I could see were the very tops of a few trees. I thought we would park where we were but no …. our driver carried on to the edge of a steep slope and seemed like he would keep on going right over the edge but luckily he stopped – before my heart did.
Up until now, I had been chatting merrily with Emma and Michelle. After breaking the ice with the Bracken Bashing lecture, they had very easily got me to open up about myself and I had found them to be easy, refreshing and very nice to talk to. It was a bit of a shock when a sudden voice of command intruded into my thoughts.
“Right…everybody out and get the tools unloaded. We’re going to have the Tools Talk.” This was from the person who had been sitting next to the driver and who I had somehow managed not to notice until now. We all certainly noticed him from then on! “My name is Mark Slater and I am your Field Officer.” He introduced himself while we were busy taking out sharp edged, dangerous looking implements on long wooden handles. “I will be leading the task for today”.
Field Officer! Leading Task? It all began to sound a bit military and I wondered what would be expected of me. I looked at the two girls, our driver and a young lad of about 14 and thought it wouldn’t be anything too severe… I hoped!
“O.K. Gather round,” Mark said. “This is a First Aid Kit which contains only sterile un-medicated dressings. There are no tablets, lotions or potions in here; only those items which may be necessary in the event of an accident. Does anyone here have experience of First Aid?”
I looked around; no one put their hand up. Slowly, reluctantly, I put up my own. The previous year I had done the Red Cross one week course and the three year certificate obtained from that was still valid. When I had explained this… “Right everyone, if you have an accident, go to Ian”. “Oh no!”, I thought, “what will I do if somebody does?” I had never had to use the knowledge gained on the course and was not at all confident. I didn’t say so though and just hoped ‘it’ would never happen.
“Emma, will you do the slasher?” Mark asked. This surprised me, that a 15 year old girl was going to demonstrate such a dangerous looking tool to the rest of us. She picked one up from the neat row laid safely on the ground. “This is a slasher,” Emma said as she slowly swung it in an arc in front of us at arms length. “When you are using it, you should be at least this distance plus another tool length away from the next person, so you don’t do anything nasty like cutting off someone’s leg… or head!” This last said slowly and deliberately for emphasis. One look at the tool told us that she was not dramatising for the sake of it!
“You swing it like this, keeping one hand with a firm grip on the end and sliding the other along the shaft to meet it. Keep the blade edge pointing slightly up so that it doesn’t dig into the ground and try not to hit any rocks or wire fences… or each other! Any questions?” she asked after a couple of slow motion demonstrations, which we all followed easily.
“What are those for?” I asked, looking at the four and five foot by ¾ inch sticks laid out next to the slashers. I felt a bit self conscious but their use wasn’t immediately obvious. “If anyone doesn’t feel confident using the slasher, they can bash the bracken with one of these,” Mark intervened. “You won’t cut the stems but breaking them over is just as effective.” “Fine,” I thought, “but not for me; those slashers are much more in my line!”
“One more thing before we start,” said Emma. “We don’t allow you to wear gloves while using swinging tools. This is for insurance purposes. Your grip is not as good with gloves on and you might let go of the tool and hit someone… even kill them… so if anyone gets blisters ask Ian for some plasters!”
I was impressed, though feeling little bit inadequate. Here was I at 26 with a fair bit of work experience behind me but without the knowledge of this 15 year old. Others who I was to meet over the coming months would give the same impression for quite a while.
“Choose your weapons! Are we all ready? Right, let’s go!” Mark was in the lead as we crossed a boggy patch of field and entered the wood.
It was beautiful. A stream bubbled and cascaded down a boulder strewn mini ravine. In the shade it was cool and damp and a pleasant break from the hot August sun on the field we had left behind. The midges were a pleasure to watch as they danced in the shafts of sunlight but I was to have a closer, less pleasant acquaintance with them very soon!
We walked along a few feet above the stream, dodging trees and boulders and crossing tumbled dry-stone walls.
“This is it,” said Mark, “all the bracken between the wall over there on the left and the stream.” I looked – there was acres of the stuff; it seemed to go on for miles! A second, more careful look showed me that it was not as bad as I thought. It was a strip about 20 yards wide and 100 yards long. The slope, boulders and trees made it appear much more daunting.
“Spread out and away we go”.
The first five minutes were great fun. Hacking and slashing we tore into the bracken, great swathes of which were head high. “This is easy”, I thought, “we’ll have it done in no time”. How wrong can you be. Before very long I was lathered in sweat and the midges were biting furiously. I spent more time waving them away than I did on the bracken.
I could see that the others were having a similar good time. Bravely we battled on, the crushed and broken stems engulfing us in the pungent aroma of bracken. I was exhilarated. Despite the heat and midges I was having a great time… letting out pent up energies and frustrations which had been building up over the past months of inactivity. What a fabulous way to let yourself go. It couldn’t last long though, this initial burst. Soon, I was labouring for breath and my mouth was getting very dry from the bracken dust thrown up all around. The others were still hacking away, showing no signs of stopping. I felt that I had to keep up though I badly needed a rest.
I carried on, not daring to stop, for fear of what I don’t know! It wasn’t long before this ‘fun’ began to seem like torture but I still did not stop.
“Let’s take a break”, shouted Mark through the trees. He sent the young lad to fetch some orange juice and water from the mini-bus. I was relieved that he didn’t send me; all I wanted to do was collapse! One of the girls went to help.
“We’ve just done the Leeds Country Way non-stop”, Mark volunteered conversationally while we waited for the orange juice to arrive. “It took us 36 hours”. This made me look at him in awe and wonder. I had recently bought the maps of this 60 mile circular footpath around Leeds and wanted to walk it but had not made the effort to start yet… and I had thought about doing it in easy stages… not all at once!
The orange juice arrived and I was glad to see that the others were just as much in need of it as myself.
Mark rose to get back to the bashing. “Have a rest and a drink when you need one”, came drifting back as he disappeared through the trees. I immediately felt better – the pressure was off and I set about the bracken with a vengeance.
At lunch time, Mark got out a wildflower book to look up a flower that was growing in the damp ground near the stream. It was identified as Ragged Robin, named from its deeply cut petals which made them look like the frayed edge of a sack. I felt as though I was among superiors who lived in a different world from me; one where people were interested in the wider world and were ‘doing things’.
When we were back at the Conservation Centre, Hollybush Farm in Kirkstall, Mark asked if anyone liked beer. “I do”, I said without delay. “There’s 5 gallons of home brew in the cellar, help yourselves”.
No time was lost in doing exactly that and I was hooked. I would definitely be back tomorrow – and I was.
We only had a mornings work to do, to complete a post & wire fence which they had begun the week before. This left the afternoon free for a social visit to Adel Dam.
When I first saw Adel Dam nature reserve next to Golden Acre Park, ten years previously, it had a high wooden palisade fence around it and a locked gate. There was an old and faded sign stating that it was a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve with their headquarters in York. Back then the lock, the age of the fence and the sign put into my mind that the place was to do with long ago and far away and I would never see the inside.
Hollybush had a key and suddenly I was in Wonderland! A stream, a lake with herons and 3 bird hides – one of them on stilts. Over the coming months and years I would see many things in there: herons, kingfishers, foxes with cubs, tawny owls with grey-fluff blue-eyed chicks, roe deer, badger fur and setts but sadly, no sign of the badgers.
On the evening of my third day, a social trip to Hebden Bridge had been planned but the driver had to cry off at the last minute. “Can anybody drive?” I could and was conscripted on the spot. This severely constrained my drinking that evening but sealed my fate at Hollybush for several years after.
Two Long Term Volunteers lived in at Hollybush in those days along with three cats – Piddles, Shits & Puke! Puke had died shortly before I started. After I had been volunteering for 3 months, Patrick (the Prog Rock fan) and Russell (the keen birdwatcher), who had been my instructors and mentors, had come to the end of their 6 months term. I took over from them, along with Andy Nisbet and became the longest staying resident, being allowed to stay for a year.
Just a week after becoming a Long Term Volunteer, I had the chance to go on a week long Residential Project in Colwyn Bay. We stayed in a sports pavillion in a park in the town but were working in the Welsh Mountain Zoo. It was hard work making post holes in the rocky terrain to construct a fence around a new otter enclosure. Their intention was to breed otters for release into the wild. We completed the fence to the total satisfaction of the Zoo staff and it was time to return home.
Our driver of the week had to get back to his paid employment and did not have time to return the mini-bus to Tyddyn Siarl Conservation Centre in Snowdonia. I volunteered immediately and was so glad that I did. Tyddyn Siarl was a farm house on the outskirts of Llanberis, similar to Hollybush but a lot more rural and with several residential volunteers. Through my open bedroom window, I could hear a mountain stream gurgling down the hillside – very soothing as it sent me off to sleep. Next morning they took me to the Railway Station to catch a train back to Leeds (via Manchester).
Many happy times and adventures were ahead and my experiences at Hollybush Conservation Centre had a huge impact on my life, introducing me to many new friends, boosting my skills and confidence tremendously and eventually leading to my employment as a Field Officer, which I was very proud to achieve.
Following that, I had several self employment periods as a Conservation Landscaper, Conservation Skills Instructor and Green Woodworking Demonstrator at various country shows.
I lived and worked in Greece for a year where I got my Full Bus Driving Licence. After returning to Leeds, I have been a mini coach driver for 20 years. Nothing to do with conservation directly but it has allowed me to visit many places in this country which I could never have hoped to see otherwise and led to a couple of trips driving mini-buses in Europe