I was washed ashore at Hollybush as a student on the NVQ course in the Spring of 2007 and somehow ended up staying for 8 years teaching the course I first arrived to take. Without doubt these were the happiest working days of my life. The culture, the atmosphere and the mood was always unconventional. It was an emotional place to be, full of extraordinary people. There was no normal day. New volunteers and students would arrive to find that Hollybush was a place that judged no one, was not shocked, offended or phased by any of the issues that had disenfranchised them from mainstream society. The staff were compassionate and deeply committed to changing lives.
Those years teaching on site were a great adventure. The volunteers were such a divers group of skills and life experience and they created their own culture of work and recreation. I remember a ferret being produced on the way to site, a large dog stowed at the back one day, stopping at the road side so a student could buy a new mantel piece. There were rules but they were our rules and as long as the work was done on time and people enjoyed learning there was no need for anything conventional to happen.
The kitchen in a morning was always a special place to be as volunteers rolled in one after another and scanned the wipe boards for which van was going where. Some tasks were a hard sell, the land fill sites, litter picking at Halton moor, tree planting a wind swept hillside in the pouring rain. Once we were loaded up and off to site it didn’t seem to matter where we went or what we did. Task days were full of laughter and great company.
We managed to get access to some great nature reserves through Hollybush and regularly worked on Otley Chevin, Townclose Hills, Oakwell Hall and at Temple Newsome and Kirkstall Valley. The students seemed to appreciate the value of the work we did and as a rule were deeply committed to environmental management and improving local habitats. We built footpaths, gates and stiles, fences, walls and leaky dams, we coppiced, willow spiled, thinned, felled and planted. We laid some excellent hedges along the way. It was always the winter work that went down best, the woodland management that seemed to inspire. In the course of 8 years as many as 150 students completed the Diplomas in Environmental Conservation at Hollybush. Some have worked within the sector, many still do in one way or another.
Those days still linger at the back of my mind. I happen upon old students and Hollybush volunteers all over Leeds and drive past work sites, hedges laid and trees planted a dozen years ago and more and I remember