Hollybush was a lot shabbier and more home-made looking in the mid 90s than it is now. All the work on the site had been done by volunteers. The building that is now the class room was divided into 2 rooms. One was Patrick’s office, where sometimes at the end of the day, I would see Patrick’s overalls and wellingtons left in the middle of the floor looking as if he had just dematerialised while wearing them. He had a knack of leaving them just so when he went home.
The room next door was a common room for the volunteers, furnished with scruffy armchairs and a sink and a kettle where we made endless cups of tea, and I and the other volunteers talked instead of working. On the wall some one had printed out “The Volunteer’s Lament”:
“We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We’ve done so much with so little for so long that we now feel able to do anything with nothing.”
The was another sign which I also liked. Bright yellow with a cartoon of a bumble bee, it said, “Sorry about the mess. These practical works to improve your countryside will be completed as soon as possible.”
There was a counter near the door with an old till and on Sundays we opened to the public as a shop. “A one stop shop for all your wildlife gardening needs.” We sold potted herbs, wild flowers, trees and shrubs, compost and woodchip. Larger, one-off items such as pond liner could be ordered. We also gave information and advice about wildlife gardening and Patrick was very knowledgeable and generous with his time to whoever came in.
The customers were lovely people who wanted to make their gardens wildlife friendly. Although there were occasional complaints. One lady said we’d sold her “that plant”, pointing at the herb Robert flourishing under a hedge, and now she couldn’t get rid of it!
In summer we sold pond plants, and in winter bare rooted trees and native hedging plants . These arrived by the hundred in large sacks in December, just as the weather turned cold and wet. Heeling them in into trenches alongside the polytunnels was exhausting work. Then, in spring, so as not to waste unsold stock, the remainder was planted out in rows to grow on until the following winter when it had to be lifted again.
The project also did tasks in school grounds, such as making ponds, wildlife areas, paths and wooden seats and structures. I wasn’t really involved with these tasks, I think because it soon became obvious that I wasn’t fit enough. But I saw photos of some of the finished work and it was very good. We also did woven willow – I enjoyed a training day in the wildlife garden when a group of us learned how to do a living willow dome. I’ve loved willow ever since.
There were several interesting characters helping a Hollybush when I first arrived,and they made more of an impression on me than others I met later on. A retired teacher named Ross Radcliffe used to take school parties around the garden. He loved folktales of witches, fairies and tree spirits. His skill as a raconteur kept the children spell bound. Ross had a good heart and strong opinions (and occasionally liked a good moan). A volunteer drew a wonderful cartoon of him as a tiny figure in the garden, leaning on a toadstool, dwarfed by a frog grinning over his shoulder, and labelled it “cummudgenly old gnome”. Ross’s wife, Kveta, used to come in and help on open days and bring homemade cakes. She was Czech (they’d met in the African desert during world war II) and Ross never tired of telling us that he’d married her because he thought “cheque” meant she was rich.
Other volunteers who were around at that time included Bob A (Bob Allen) who was a doctor of physics. And Bob B (Bob Broadhurst) who did a lot of practical work in the garden. Bob B often slept unofficially at Hollybush, as he had problems with his neighbours at his council flat. He eventually moved to the Buddhist centre in Todmorden, to help in the garden there, whilst telling everyone he had no intention of becoming a Buddhist.
When I first arrived, 2 V.Os , Stuart and Joanne, were living at Hollybush, which still had some residential facilities. But as they went out on task with the Hollyvols, I didn’t get to know them very well.
Farmer Bill, the farmer who worked the land in the valley used to drop in frequently to collect his mail which got accidentally delivered to us (he was Hollybush Farm Produce). He used to help himself to our tea and biscuits, and grumble a lot, which nobody minded, reasoning that anyone who who could be out at 5 am doing thankless work, such as cutting cauliflowers, had earned it.
Countryside weekends, practical tasks, left from Hollybush on a Friday night. I went on one led by Ian W and Bob A, where I helped to organise the communal cooking. (Although leadership of any kind, really is not my thing). Bob and Iain were both very skilled on the practical side, and all went well until late on Sunday afternoon when we couldn’t get a gate post in firmly enough. Even though we’d dug a deep hole and packed it well with stones and earth, it kept wobbling. Ian said, “tamp it to buggery”. The whole group all beat the soil around the post as hard as we could – and hoped for the best.
Some of the weekends were part of my training as a V.O. I loved the hedge-laying, even though the hawthorns were as big as trees and the thick trunks broke off when I tried to lay them sideways. I think that weekend was the first time I met the Wakefield office project officer, Jessica Duffy. She was sitting on the floor of the village hall where we were staying, dismantling and cleaning a chainsaw. I was very impressed!