From an audio interview
My initial interest in going to Hollybush was to learn to use a chainsaw properly. I was working in forestry on a private estate and basically that was always what I wanted to do, but I was having to use a chainsaw that I was utterly terrified of. Quite frankly I’m terrified of machinery and technology, I’m still not comfortable with it. To work in forestry will have to use at least a chainsaw. I met a guy who worked on the estate with a job creation scheme who told me about the BTCV and that they ran chainsaw courses. I got in touch and found that they ran lots of other courses, so I signed up for a load, and the first one was at Hetchell Wood just outside Leeds. Someone was using a chainsaw on that first project to take stumps down, I was horrified, almost taking your ankle off isn’t how it is supposed to be done, but they said, ‘We’ve just done a course.’
I turned up at Leeds railway station for the start of the course and the first thing they did was take us to Hollybush Farm which they had just taken on two weeks before. They said they were looking for long term volunteers, and I thought that sounds interesting so I went back, handed in my notice and a month latter was an LTV (Long Term Volunteer) at Hollybush, and I met the first and the only other volunteer there, who was Giles and then Robert and then Shirley. I met Lesley, who later, happily became my wife, on the first task, but it wasn’t until the autumn that she came as an LTV.
Tan Pits (Another BTCV residential centre near Chorley) was much more developed, many more people coming and going, with three 12 person bunkhouses for three parallel projects, an established “mature” situation. Hollybush was just beginning, it was a bare landscape where pioneers could do their own things, at Tan Pits you had to fit in, we were trying to find ourselves, we did and still do our own thing, I don’t fit into established ways of doing things, Giles, neither and nor does Robert. There was no (established) structure, so we could find ourselves but achieve something as a group, that flexibility and freedom to find our niches. I’m not sure if anyone had a global idea of what we were doing.
There were spells when I was on my own “running the show”, like a running feed station. When I was on my own it (the renovation) took a rest till the next person came along when we’d start running again. We were all involved in protecting a germinating seed from the locals. Basically, it was their den and playground, we had to prevent them from nicking the stuff and setting it on fire again. That side was fascinating, it comes across with an incredible innocence. Once, a whole gang turned up, I wasn’t very nervous, I invited them in and made tea and talked the heads off them. Hollybush was luxury to me, I had a massive room to myself, with a mattress in the centre of the floor, with my stuff strewn around. I showed them round, and they saw my money just on the floor by the mattress ‘Is that yours? What if someone nicks it?’ they asked. ‘Then I won’t have it anymore.’ I replied. They just gawped at me, they could do anything they liked, and I couldn’t stop them, but I wasn’t bothered. The only thing I can relate it to, is that the North American Indians would not hurt a ‘lunatic’ with a wagon train, the lads thought I was mad with magical powers, the money was ‘til there when they left.
Anyway, I went to Hollybush and got stuck into the tree nursery and the vegetable garden. At first there was no-one to tell me what to do. John Iles from Doncaster was organising another chainsaw course, he was very good with engines and machines, but not that confident with the actual chopping the tree down, and I demonstrated some knowledge about that during the Hetchell Wood task, so he said would you like to come along and help with the second part felling trees to give some tips on felling. So he (John Iles) threw me in at the deep end to teach the felling, there was no structured training in house. The next time, John asked me to run the whole thing, so I got the Agricultural Training Board syllabus and read up a bit. After that I ran all the courses in Yorkshire and was even lent to the Newcastle office to run a course. I left Hollybush to run my own business but still got called up to run courses which lead to running courses for Tony Newby in the 1990s when there was lots of woodland work. Tony wanted to make things more structured and you could actually fail one of Tony’s courses which I quite liked the idea of, before you let someone use a chainsaw. I enjoyed working with Tony, got on well with him.
At one point I became the tools officer and was going to deliver tools (to other BTCV offices) around the country, as there wouldn’t be a conference for a while. It was me and Lesley off from Leeds to Scotland, to Cornwall or Devon, to London and back to Leeds, we’d never done anything like that in our lives.
Moving to Hollybush was a culture clash, but then I discovered that nature is everywhere. I find it hard to cope with society and every now and then I’ll go off and become one of those people you see wandering around, my doctor has polite term for it, gentleman of the road. You’ll be in the middle of Sheffield or Leeds and someone will pop out of a shrubbery having a kip, it’s probably me.
At Hollybush we always tried to be very welcoming, even if we didn’t know who people were or what they wanted. Hollybush gave me an opportunity to be somewhere to grow up, many people do that at University, but I wasn’t that calibre – I didn’t have that opportunity, to have to live off my own wits and resources, to learn how to do things for myself. When I got there, I couldn’t organise cooking an egg, when I left, I’d found a way to cook for twenty people, of looking after and organising equipment. I’d learnt an awful lot about tree nurseries, how to plan a vegetable garden, it was a starting point and I’m still crap at it! It was a journey of incredible discovery of the reality of the world, not what they teach you in school, I am still on that journey. I think that happened to a lot of other people, not just about planting a few trees but people realising the interconnected nature of the world, which is a living breathing thing, all interconnected. The opportunity that Hollybush gave to experiment and to work without guidelines, to try things rather than relying on book learning or a master plan, you don’t have to follow the book, because everywhere is different.
Another lesson I learnt with BTCV, is I’ve always been a nervous anxious person, and frankly I was not happy outside my own little village, but when we all went to Hetchell Wood, suddenly I was the one who was comfortable and everyone was behaving very strangely, they just weren’t comfortable, and I realised that it wasn’t anything to do with me, it is the combination of the person and environment, if they are comfortable in an environment they are capable and if they aren’t comfortable they won’t be capable. In a woodland I’m comfortable and they weren’t. You’ve got to try and find the environment that suits your abilities, which is what I’ve tried to do, I’ve come back to the village
The centre of my life is Commondale, the village: the land, not the houses and people. It’s where I grew up, where I learned the fundamentals of what I understand about the world which wasn’t from the people, but from the land and the trees the water and everything, to start a life we had to come back, which meant becoming self-employed in woodland work. My world grew from there, with the opportunity to travel all over the UK doing lots of different things based around trees, nurseries, saw milling chainsaws, working with horse loggers, all connected to people in the village like a spider’s web. Tons and tons of stubborn determination I’m going to do this.
Through the business I decided that I needed training in machinery maintenance and so went to the local agricultural college on day release, and then they asked me to run a chainsaw course for them. Around that time the Government brought in the ‘Blue Book’ scheme, to get everyone up to the same standard and had invited private instructors to an assessment. When I first heard of it, I thought I’d never be up to it, but my darling wife persuaded me to at least try! So, Lesley drove me to Dalby Forest where I met the Forestry Commission guy, and he put me through as a guinea pig on the draft blue book. I did everything to guide, bar length, and he was happy with that, so he said do one and half, and then two and finally windthrow. He said he had never ever come across anyone from the private sector who not only passed everything, but who was up to the Forestry Commission standard for chainsaw instructors. This was all due to Hollybush and the confidence it gave me to progress along that path; encouraged by John Iles, Ian Henderson, Tony Newby and all the trainees to develop without being put in straight jacket.
I feel like back then was the golden age of Hollybush, as it provided chances for people who didn’t go to university to go and find their own feet and start moving forward. You had to learn by doing, with other people who were also learning. I learnt lots from Bob and Shirley. Bob would just sit down and look at a problem, then come up with a step by step way to solve it. Lots of people coming in bring something, all learning from each other, developing ourselves and our abilities without any real structure, but working towards a goal, Hollybush Farm.
Andy Iredale, BTCV Volunteer and founder volunteer at Hollybush