National Trust Working Holidays

It was in 1967 that the first National Trust working holidays were held. Known then as ‘Acorn Camps’, they took place at Stratford-upon-Avon, the Golden Cap Estate in Dorset and the Lake District. Crafted, shall we say, for hardy types, guests stayed in huts or dormitories, had picnic lunches and carried out vigorous conservation work, digging out dry locks, mending footpaths and clearing towpaths. Although a few participants left before the week was up, overall the camps were deemed a success. The holiday leader at the time, a Mr Eric Crofts, was impressed with the display of team spirit: ‘In the main,’ he reported, ‘morale was very good, and the attitude towards work was of a very high standard indeed.’ The seed – or acorn – was sown, and over the next few years the number of camps blossomed from three to 30.

Fast-forward 46 years and today there are some 300 Trust holidays to choose from. ‘The essence of our holidays has remained the same,’ says Laura Gibbs, Product Manager for the Trust’s working holidays, ‘with conservation at the core of each one. But today we have tailored trips to appeal to a wider range of people. Scrub-bashing in January is not everyone’s idea of a good time, so we’re running more holidays that combine activities with conservation.’ These include ‘Wild Camping and Path Repair’ in the Lakes, which pairs wild camping with footpath building, or the ‘Surf ‘n’ Turf’ trip in Cornwall , where holidaymakers can learn to surf with qualified instructors and repair access points to popular beaches.

‘Over 3,000 people take a Trust working holiday each year,’ explains Marianne Wanstall, Head of Holidays for the Trust. ‘The “staycation” and the economic climate have boosted bookings. People want experiences closer to home, as well as great value for money.’ With a seven-night break costing from just £150, including accommodation, meals and activities, the holidays are certainly affordable. As for authentic experiences, well, there’s wild swimming, surfing, rural crafts and farming to choose from. ‘We strive to offer bespoke breaks,’ adds Marianne, ‘and we evaluate and refresh our holidays annually to tap into current trends.’

For many, going behind the scenes at the Trust is a big draw. Indeed, one of the most popular and long-running holidays is ‘Gardening for all Seasons’ at Lytes Cary in Somerset, where holidaymakers get to glean top tips from Head Gardener Damian Mitchell and help out with pruning and planting. Archaeology is another popular area with holidays taking place in Snowdonia, West Dorset and Northumberland, working alongside experienced archaeologists clearing sites, recording finds or in Northumberland, rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall.

For the properties that host these holidays, the benefits are numerous, as Rob Rhodes, Countryside Manager for Dorset, explains: ‘Having a team of willing people on hand to carry out conservation work saves us so much money, allows us to get vital work done and boosts the morale of our rangers. They enjoy sharing their skills and showing off the site. In recent years we’ve doubled the number of working holidays we run. We now hold ten a year – in winter the focus is on hedge laying, and in summer it’s more maintenance work –rebuilding steps to the beach and clearing invasive species of plants. We’ve laid miles of hedges – passing a rural skill on to numerous people along the way – and cleared hundreds of acres of invasive Japanese knotweed. The best feedback we get is return bookings, as participants get a real sense of satisfaction by making a noticeable difference to our site.’

The Noble family from Lincolnshire can attest to the feeling of accomplishment achieved on a working holiday. ‘The kids were young teenagers when we first went on a Trust break,’ says mum of two, Kate, ‘and they were very sceptical beforehand. However, they loved meeting other families and learning new skills. Working together to complete tasks was great for creating shared memories too. For me the most refreshing thing was not being in charge; yes, I was busy, but there was no “Mum! Mum?” They had to ask our wonderful leaders instead. We’ve been to Snowdonia and Stackpole and are going to Brancaster this year.’ Families can choose from a real range of breaks, which include activities such as beach cleaning, creating sand sculptures, dry-stone walling and kayaking, while teenagers have the option of Youth Discovery Working Holidays. Aimed at 16 to 18 year olds, these breaks see participants work as a team or towards completing a Duke of Edinburgh Award.

Every year, the work carried out by those who choose a Trust working holiday equates to 85,000 hours and has seen the completion of numerous key conservation projects. ‘Working holidays are an integral part of our volunteer activities,’ says Helen Timbrell, Volunteering and Community Involvement Director for the Trust. ‘As they are short-term breaks, they enable people who haven’t the time to volunteer regularly to forge a connection with our special places.’ Then there’s the legion of volunteer holiday leaders. ‘Our leaders come from all walks of life,’ explains Laura. ‘We recruit and train to a level where they take on the organisation and running of the holidays – we have 250 leaders but 300 holidays, so we desperately need more hands on deck. Leaders get to go on the holidays for free and their expenses are covered.’

Ultimately, working holidays are about creating a mutually beneficial experience. Mary Davis, from Devon, recently enjoyed a working holiday on the Purbeck Estate. As she says, ‘all of us left with a great sense of achievement – and what a great way to make new friends! Evenings spent chatting around the dining table or in the local pub allowed us to get to know each other a little better.’ Her feedback represents the thoughts of many, and there have even been a few working holiday weddings. So, participants get to learn new skills, help a good cause and meet like-minded people while the Trust gains valuable support and vital help with its work. ‘We want people to enjoy our breaks’, concludes Laura, ‘and gain as much as they can from them. We’re planning to run more vocational or course-based holidays.’ So, keep an eye on the working holiday catalogue – you may just find the perfect break for you.

To find out more about our working holidays, including leader opportunities, request a brochure on 0844 800 3099 or visit the website.