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Volunteering Holidays

Looking for a more ethical way to holiday and travel? Or are you on a tighter budget this year and fancy trying something new? Well volunteering holidays can be inexpensive, beneficial to communities and ecosystems, and give you the time of your life. Here are some volunteer holiday experiences at home and away.

Built into the hillside of the Italian Alps is an ancient monastery that now houses a community of ecologically and spiritually aware people. Their days are spent recovering and repairing age-old mountain terraces to grow traditional Italian crops such as vines and olives to achieve self-sufficiency. Once a year, they invite international volunteers for a fortnight, to help repair buildings and do major land work. Other activities include Italian lessons, walking in the foothills and swimming in breathtakingly beautiful rock pools. In the summer of 1994, having just left school, I was lucky enough to be one of those volunteers. The experience changed me, opening me up to new world views and ways of life. The friends I made came from Scotland, Belgium, Slovenia and Italy and remained friends for years, meeting in the UK, Poland, and elsewhere for further adventures.

The organisation that co-ordinated this trip, International Voluntary Service, is part of a worldwide network of like-minded voluntary organisations promoting peace and justice through voluntary work. I travelled by train and paid a minimal fee. IVS project are very reasonably priced with low rates for the unemployed (see box for pricing details) and are usually 2-3 weeks long with all food and accommodation included. Volunteers must pay for their own travel and travel insurance and take some spending money (you may not need much as you'll be in remote areas). But all in all this makes for a fantastic, affordable experience for anyone who wants to travel whilst doing something worthwhile – working hard, playing hard, learning a language and meeting really interesting international people. And with IVS, you can choose the type of project you participate in from anti-racism to gender, peace to the arts.

The following summer, after visiting my brother who was living in St Petersburg at the time, I took the Trans-Siberian Express to the Ural mountain range which divides European Russia from Asian Russia. Another 20 international volunteers met in Perm, a city which had been closed during the cold war as it hosted munitions factories. We spent some of our time staying with local host families eating home-grown cucumbers, tomatoes and home-made jam. The rest of the time we slept in wooden shacks in what had been a prisoner of war camp which was being converted into a centre for ecological school trips. Our work involved clearing vegetation from a small piece of land in order to create a pond. In recreational time we were taught some basic Russian, taken to a huge lake in the woods to bathe and introduced to Russian pop music and dance floor moves. We took it in turns to help the local judo team with cooking whilst being encouraged to sample local vodka.

Volunteering holidays can also be taken closer to home, right here in Sparkland with organisations like the National Trust and Waterways Recovery Group. I spoke to some volunteer holiday leaders to find out what to expect.

Tony Rees from Bristol is in his 40s and has been volunteering with the National Trust for the last 16 years. He first got involved when he was made redundant and so was in need of a low-cost holiday. "I was looking for something completely different," he says. "I phoned up, got the brochure and chose somewhere interesting to go with interesting work and was assured I would meet great people." Tony's first project was on Lundy Island in the Bristol channel, to which he has returned eight times. "It is life-changing in a very pleasant way… many people have met partners on camps and I have two godsons as a result of my NT holidays. Go with an open mind and a sense of humour, expect the unexpected and you will have a great time. On bad weather days you can always return to where you are staying and warm up around a log fire."

The National Trust has also recently started a Youth Discovery holiday for 16-18 year olds and is pioneering family volunteering holidays. Kate Penn is Assistant Leader on the Waterways Recovery Group (WRG) holiday on the Wilts and Berkshire canal. She is just 21 and got involved after doing her Duke of Edinburgh award at a WRG camp. Last year her holiday work involved back-filling a lock with clay and uncovering and repairing brickwork. "Fifteen to twenty people of all ages are put up in a village hall or scout hut," she says. "We are very well fed with a full English breakfasts, two tea and cake breaks as well as lunch and dinner all included in the price for a week [see below]. You need to be prepared to try your hand at anything. I would definitely recommend it."

Whether you fancy a volunteering holiday here in Sparkland, elsewhere in the UK or further afield, we've done the groundwork for you, but remember when travelling to reduce your carbon footprint as much as you can.

National Trust

From conservation surveying and herding goats to painting lighthouses or planting trees. Local camps include coppicing at Stonehenge and hedge-laying. Cost: 2-7 days starting from £45. or call 0844 800 3099 to book

Waterway Recovery Group

Restoring British canals, rivers, locks and their environs. A local camp is located at the Seven Locks on the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal, just west of Wootton Bassett. Work includes demolition and bricklaying to restore the lock. Costs: £49 for food, accommodation and stay. or call 01494 783453 and press number 4

Scotland Cetacean Research and 
Rescue Unit

Work alongside biologists to protect Scotland's whale, dolphin and porpoise population. Costs: 11-day field trip £895-1095.

Monkey Sanctuary, Cornwall

Live communally, build enclosures and improve animal habitats in this popular sanctuary. or call 01503 262532 and ask to speak to the volunteer coordinator

International Voluntary Service

Worldwide Holidays are categorised into: anti-racism, North/South solidarity, peace and 
disarmament, disability, children, teenagers 
and older people, environment, sexuality and 
gender, socially disadvantaged, arts, culture 
and local history, ideological and spiritual. Costs: 2-3 weeks from £50 unwaged in the UK to £190 waged going abroad. All food and accommodation is included in the price.

Eko Centar Caput Insulae Beli, Croatia

Assist in conserving the Eurasian griffon 
vulture, repairing dry stone walls, picking olives, and helping local shepherds. Costs: 149 Euros for a 7-day stay or €370/871 for 12-weeks (depending on the season).

Call 00 11 385 51 840525 or mobile 0011 38591 3357124 or email

Grupo Lobo, Portugal

This conservation group protects wolves and their habitat by encouraging good human-wolf relations at a sanctuary. Costs: €17-40 a night. tel 00 351 21 75 00073, email

Written by Kate Burrell
First published issue 56 (Spring 2009)

Details correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.

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