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Voluntourism in Britain: moving rocks for no pay


“What are you going to do when you’re in England?” my friends asked.

“Move rocks, I think.”

On a two-month trip to Britain one recent spring, I did things that many tourists do. I visited Hadrian’s Wall, I took pictures of Big Ben, I drank way too much real ale. I also moved a lot of rocks.

Hoping to stretch my limited cash further and do something less touristy, I had signed up for four volunteer conservation projects. These “working holidays” ranged in length from five to ten days and in price from one to two hundred dollars. This was the bit of gristle some Americans had trouble swallowing when I told them about my “vacation.” Yes, I paid (a small sum of) money to dig ditches, remove rocks from gardens, chop down trees, plant new trees, build walkways and repair fences. Nor was much of this work on public land. Most of it was for private landowners who participated in a government grant scheme to restore their property to its apocryphal quaintness. Our volunteer labor benefited a large contingent of the nobility who could no longer afford an estate staff to manage their thirty-acre “woodland gardens.”

In exchange for my $150 I got a place to sleep. This was sometimes as basic as a bare floor, though air mattresses were provided. I was supplied with three meals a day, the quality of which varied greatly depending on the culinary talents of our group. I got to work under open skies, which were often as gray as my dreary office cube back in the United States, but somehow much more invigorating. I labored beside and got to know ordinary Brits of every fur and feather. And I was able to intimately experience the British Isles and their beauty in a way most tourists cannot.

The work seemed to consist mostly of gardening and landscaping on a large scale. The difficulty of the assignments varied. On the first one, we busted our backsides. On the third, there wasn’t enough work to do, so we basically drove around the countryside with a bag of tools, stopping at pubs.

I had left the U.S., however, with the impression that Britain was in a crisis of wayward stones. Looking over the lengthy projects brochure that had been mailed to me, it seemed that the objective of every alternate working break was dry stone wall repair. I could only envision this to be a largely Sisyphean process of hand-carrying rocks from one spot to another all day long. It turned out that this was not far from the truth.

YORKSHIRE DALES

My first project was building a section of footpath in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. I arrived at the site and couldn’t help noticing how very English everything was. I looked upon hills and dales, vibrant green fields divided and subdivided by dry stone walls, and rustic villages with picaresque pubs. The land effused bucolic charm. The countryside was all bleating lambs, hopping bunnies and bristling hedgehogs.

The Yorkshire Dales: quaint by diktat

The Yorkshire Dales: quaint by diktat

A friend of mine has complained that when he travels, which is often and long, the reality of a destination rarely lives up to the mental picture he has formed of it. On the contrary, I frequently find that my experience of a place obligingly matches my romantic preconceptions, as in Yorkshire Dales.

Finally, I figured out why everything was so postcard perfect – the quaintness is enforced. Designation as a national park does not mean the same thing in England as it does in the U.S. And I had been wondering why so many farms and towns were inside the park boundary. An English national park is a pre-existing area managed under a kind of covenant to keep it looking scenic and old-fashioned. It’s akin to the twelve or so approved shades of pinkish-brown that you are allowed to paint your adobe cottage or dental clinic in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

COLONSAY

For my next service break, I took a ferryboat to the island of Colonsay, in the Inner Hebrides off the west Scottish coast. Natural history writer John McPhee wrote a book about this island (The Crofter and the Laird), it being the home of his ancestral clan. In fact, while mountains in the rest of Scotland are called “munros” and attract hordes of “munro-baggers,” the hills on Colonsay are called “McPhees.”

Colonsay

Colonsay

One athletic member of our party made a bid to break the speed record for McPhee-bagging. He used other volunteers and our van as a makeshift support crew. We were pretty sure he succeeded, though it was difficult to verify. The island newspaper took the locals’ view that this was the kind of aberrant behavior typical of deranged mainlanders, and paid it no notice.

Things have changed since McPhee’s stay, but the changes are not readily apparent. The sea-locked spit of land is home to just over a hundred permanent inhabitants. The ferry lands three times a week, and during our visit the shop ran out of bread.

We toiled in the laird’s backyard, as it were – thirty acres of woods, subtly landscaped in the Romantic style. Owing to a fluke of topography and geography, which lent the island an unusually temperate climate, the estate garden had once been famous for its tropical rhododendrons. The rampant shrub had exacted a Triffid-like revenge for its importation by spreading over vast tracts of the property.

We spent our days hacking down rhododendrons and uprooting other fast-growing exotics. We piled the organic detritus on a big bonfire. At one point we had three healthy blazes going, each of which required someone to tend it. I noticed that repeat volunteers who had done any “rhodie-bashing” always grew animated when they mentioned these bonfires, as if deep down their souls still hearkened to a pagan flame.

One Friday night we went to the (only) pub, on the other side of the island. The ferry had just docked, and we hadn’t been seated long when about a dozen sharp-looking, crisply-dressed young men poured into the bar and got a big table near us. It turned out that they had come up from London on a rather remote, ascetic stag weekend (though they did bring huge quantities of booze). I mean, there are no strip joints on Colonsay, just the one pub and the sheep.

CORNWALL

The third project brought me to Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. In Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy described the West Country moors at sundown by saying: “The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it.”

This brooding landscape has given rise to tales of a supernatural “Beast of Bodmin.” The western peninsula of England has historically struggled economically and embraces every tourist-pleasing gimmick it can invent. If the Scots can have their Nessie, then Cornwall gets its Beast.

Porthleven

Porthleven

On this assignment, the deliverables were poorly defined. There wasn’t a whole lot to do. The person in charge of the general inactivity was an odd fellow. At 42, he was a bit of an ageing freak whose hair was at the stage where you couldn’t tell if he was growing dreadlocks or just not bathing. One might think that he had aimed for sort of a hippie Johnny Depp persona, à la the movie Chocolat, and had fallen very wide of the mark. He liked to go on about faeries and spirits and lesbian sex. A couple of mornings I heard him playing the damn Irish pan pipes out on the porch. He had a curious habit of comparing all kinds of dissimilar things to using heroin. Whether we were talking about pesticide overuse or the vegetarian lifestyle, his view on it was frequently, “Yeah, it’s like taking heroin – nice at first but then it gets ugly…”

Another participant, a buyer for an upmarket grocery chain, was a figure of truly Falstaffian proportions and appetites. At tea time, I half expected him to slam his coffee cup down on the Formica and bellow, “Bring me mead and wenches!” He made his expectations clear. He wanted smugglers’ tales, unspoiled fishing villages, Cornish pasties and gory stories of the Beast of Bodmin. One day a village elder came to call and was immediately pumped for yarns of the Beast. Seeing that his first answer – “My neighbor’s married to her.” – did not satisfy Falstaff, he dutifully trotted out some moldy tripe about strange sounds on the moor and dead cattle. He reluctantly engaged in the process which turns his home into a tourist theme park.

We searched out smuggling stories to little avail. We bought a book with the promising title, True Smugglers’ Tales of Cornwall. Unfortunately it contained dry, factual accounts of customs arrests and confiscations of the odd box of cigarettes or brandy. This component of the local tourist economy owes much to the author Daphne du Maurier. Her first popular novel, Jamaica Inn, dramatizes a smuggling operation in Cornwall.

One evening, after leaving the pub at midnight, the leader decided to take us on an impromptu side trip to Jamaica Inn. Recalling that the British imperial pint is twenty ounces, you can imagine that some of us were quite happy by now. As for our chief, one never knew where the effects of alcohol left off and his natural mental state began. We careened through narrow, hedge-lined back roads, dark as tunnels. Wind-driven rain lashed the windows of the van. As the truck rounded sharp bends in the road, passengers would lean their torsos to one side or the other and make squealing noises like tires. We took a glimpse at the shuttered building and then tried to find the way home. For me, the drive to and from Jamaica Inn was more hair-raising than the place itself. I just wanted to be returned safely to my air mattress and sleeping bag.

NORTHUMBERLAND

My initial vision finally came true on the last break. In wild, windswept Northumberland, way, way up in the north of England, we repaired a portion of dry stone wall. I shuttled many stones back and forth. My back hurt, but not greatly. The work exceeded my expectations of mind-numbing manual labor. The inside of the wall needed to be packed with small stones, but we didn’t have enough little pieces. In addition to moving rocks, I got to break them too.

The weather was bad, but apparently normal. There was much slopping about in the mud. We lost some work time because of the rain, and altered our original goal. We didn’t intend to complete our section of wall, but aimed instead at attaining the horizontal halfway point, where great, flat through-stones are placed to stabilize the lower part.

On our final, muddy day we reached the middle. Working in pairs, volunteers dutifully lifted some long, large stones on top of the pile of rocks. I think the work had driven me slightly over the edge at this point. I was seized with a crazed energy and wanted to keep putting on through-stones, more and more of them. When no one offered to help me, I lowered my 5′4″ frame and muscled a large slab into my arms. I waddled over to the wall and, using my whole body, heaved it into place. I had traveled four thousand miles to move rocks, and by God, I was going to move rocks! Then I returned to my senses and helped pack up the tools to take to the van.

Barbara Middlebrook lives and writes in Denver, CO. Her work has appeared in Slow Trains, TripLit, High Grade and in the “Readers Write” section of the Sun.

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