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Work, rest and play on a holiday with a difference

Europe

London - I stood on the wet sand and chewed a piece of seaweed. It was a rare sunny, breezy day and I was wearing a wetsuit, helmet and life vest, paying close attention to the ever-cheerful Rhian Sula, National Trust Education Officer. I had kayaked to this rocky cove on the south-west coast of Wales with Rhian, plus an instructor and our group of 12 children and adults. Rhian was giving us a crash course in marine biology, from barnacle reproduction to sea squirts to edible seaweed, and I was enthralled.

This bracing outoor venue is part of the National Trust's Stackpole estate in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. I was taking part in one of the charity's family working holidays. Jane Sheppard, the Trust's joint Head of Holidays, later told me that 45 people took part in its first working holidays, 45 years ago (it seems the Big Society isn't a particularly new idea). Now numbers have increased to more than 3,000 in 2011, with bookings up another 10 percent this year.

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190709 Wales watching Stories of the beauty of the north countryside, the friendly people and historic towns like Port\[Seth Parker\]hahmadog and the walled town of Conwy enticed Robin Brown to pay a visit THANK heavens the Welsh have either been thoughtful enough or been forced to provide the English interpretation on their road signs. Failing that, I am sure my road trip to Llandudno in Wales would have been a disaster, with me arriving in a different town. One cannot imagine that a sign marked “Twmpathau” means speed humps ahead. It is certainly a language to confuse the traveller but easily forgotten on meeting the friendly local inhabitants. After a six-hour drive from Lancing in Sussex, plus a welcome stop along one of the many motorways for a quick lunch at, believe it or not, an American-style diner with old Elvis numbers pumping out of the speakers, we arrived in Llandudno. It is a typical seaside resort and, fortunately, we had arrived several weeks before the UK summer break, when we believe it is nigh impossible to find a bed or even space to walk on the promenade. I do not think I have ever seen so many B&Bs in one small town. The quantity of accommodation is astounding. We booked into Adcote House – a B&B run by Mike and Anne. It was also one we could afford as we were on a fairly tight budget thanks to the rand hitting R15 to the pound. It turned out to be excellent and only about 200m from the beachfront. It was also interesting to meet an owner of a B&B who had spent time in Cape Town and would like to retire to Somerset West. Here we were for two days with a host of things to see and do, including, I was hoping, a trip up the 1 084m Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain south of the Scottish Highlands. It was here that Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his successful assault on Mount Everest. Deciding on a circular day trip, we left Llandudno early the following morning, headed first for Llanberis village, the gateway to Mount Snowdon and one of the most beautiful areas in North Wales. The village grew thanks to the quarrying of slate but today its main source of income is tourism, and visitors from around the world flock to climb aboard the small diesel train that claws its way up the mountain. The more energetic walk the route to the summit and hikers, hillclimbers and mountaineers flock to the area. We continued on the road and through the Welsh hills on a narrow mountain pass between age-old stone walls. Most people in the UK agree that if one can get a car and a cow alongside one another then it qualifies as a road. Through beautiful valleys and alongside lakes, the road winds haphazardly until one reaches the small coastal town of Porthmadog, which has several fine examples of small steam trains. Porthmadog came into existence after William Madocks built a long seawall, completed in 1811, called the Cob, to reclaim a large proportion of the Traeth Mawr from the sea for agricultural use. In the second half of the 19th century, Porthmadog was a flourishing port. A number of shipbuilders were active there and were renowned for the three-masted schooners known as the “Western Ocean Yachts”. Porthmadog’s role as a commercial port was effectively ended by World War I. The slate wharves have now been partly built over with holiday apartments, and the harbour is used by leisure yachts. We sat in the Porthmadog Harbour railway station, the terminus of the Ffestiniog Railway from Blaenau Ffestiniog, awaiting the arrival of the tiny steam train, and tucked into a dish of battered cod and chips. Unfortunately time was running out, and as we had not prebooked we had to forego a ride on the train. We headed for the walled town of Conwy, guarded by the giant Conwy Castle, which has been described as one of the great fortresses of medieval Europe. Conwy Castle and town |are surrounded by a well-preserved wall, which helps the town maintain a medieval character lost by other Welsh castle-towns over the years. Conwy is a town that time has chosen to pass by. Despite a few modern shops, it still looks very similar to the town King Edward I envisioned some 700 years ago. Conwy is something of a paradox. Originally a symbol of English domination of Wales, in time the Welsh managed to reclaim the town, replacing English oppression with its own medieval character. Construction of Conwy began in 1283. The castle was an important part of King Edward I’s plan of surrounding Wales in “an iron ring of castles” to subdue the rebellious population. The highly defensible wall he built around the town was intended to protect the English colony at Conwy. The local Welsh population were violently opposed to English occupation of their land. Almost all the castle is accessible and well-preserved, and a climb to the top of any of the towers offers the visitor spectacular views of the town, surrounding coastline and countryside. The Inner Ward is the heart of the castle, containing the suite of apartments which Master James of St George contracted to build for King Edward and Queen Eleanor in 1283. Unfortunately, all the floors are now missing. We returned to Llandudno and, thanks to a fine summer evening, were able to stroll out on to the pier, enjoy another fine seafood meal and retire to the warmth of one of the many fine old homes, where we bade farewell .

The Trust offers working holidays for adults across the UK, and for families in Yorkshire, Pembrokeshire and, from earlier this summer, Norfolk. But as I prepared for a weekend of activities and volunteering with my family, piling up items from the brochure's “What you will need to pack” list, my nine-year-old son looked worried. Eyeing the mountain of boots, old clothes, torches and waterproofs, he asked: “Will the TV there have Sky?” The answer was no. Instead, these holidays are a perfect way to introduce children of six-16 to volunteering, by trying conservation work such as beach cleaning, plant surveys and drystone walling. And in case it feels too much like hard work, the volunteering is combined with activities such as den building, catching crabs, sand sculpting and kayaking.

This is not a break where you can loll around reading, but I enjoyed the busy schedule. As a first-timer I was anxious about kayaking, but it took so much effort to put on my wetsuit that I eventually forgot my nerves. We paddled from Stackpole Quay, past limestone and sandstone cliffs to Barafundle Bay for some beach cleaning, stopping at the rocky cove. I thought the beach looked pristine, but we filled four large sacks with litter. Once Rhian explained that creatures can ingest plastic and then starve to death because they feel full, a sort of litter-collecting frenzy started up.

I was more daunted when I saw the banks of pheasant berry shrubs we were to clear in the woods the next day, but we managed it by working as a team. I was surprised by the children's enthusiasm, but the boys all told me later that the best thing about the weekend was using the handsaws.

I enjoyed the campfire that evening, once I'd stopped my son from extracting burning branches from the flames: “But Mum, I'm making charcoal.”

Each working holiday is run by one or two volunteer leaders together with National Trust staff to organise the work and activities. Volunteer Sue Neal, a retired civil servant, has been leading these holidays for 12 years and arrived with supplies, including wine, beer and home-grown rhubarb. Rhian and her colleague Ben Macare reminded me of Blue Peter presenters as they pitched in with our activities while gently educating us about everything from how to use a bat detector to the history and geology of Stackpole.

It turned out that the Campbells of Cawdor owned the estate from 1698 until 1976, when it was broken up, the Georgian mansion Stackpole Court having been demolished in 1963. The designed landscape, including Bosherston Lakes, remains, although nature is reclaiming it and the site of the mansion is grassed over. Our group of three families - and our two leaders - stayed in the newly renovated Shearwater wing, part of Stackpole Outdoor Learning Centre, in the estate's original limestone farm buildings. I shared a comfortable triple room with my son and husband. The decor was plain, light, clean and functional. Sue organised our meals in the airy, beamed kitchen, but everyone helped and we all ate together.

Lawrence Buckley from Doncaster, who was on the holiday with his family, said: “This offers us the opportunity to do something a little bit different. I was deskbound in my previous job, and came to realise that doing practical stuff is good for you.” Londoner Sarah Devonport said she booked the holiday to show her children that “life's not all about TV and Nintendo games; that it feels good to do something good, to get outdoors and have an adventure.”

For me the best part was seeing my son's enthusiasm, all thoughts of Sky TV forgotten. I'm proud of him and grateful, too, that he's just enjoyed his first taste of volunteering.

If You Go...

The next family working holiday offered by the National Trust (0844 800 3099; nationaltrust.org.uk) is at Brancaster Millennium Activity Centre in Norfolk and runs from 29 October to 1 November. It costs £470 (about R5 600) for a family of four, with the opportunity to assist the wardens with woodland management at a wet wood site and litter removal at Brancaster beach.

Other activities include shelter building and survival skills, plus orienteering, making bird boxes and a Halloween-themed dinner. For children aged from six to 16.

GIVE AND TAKE ON THE LONG HAUL

If you prefer to mix an indulgent family holiday in the developing world with some volunteering, there are plenty of commercially run opportunities for what has become known as “voluntourism”. These are just a taste:

The Adventure Company

The Adventure Company's Hands On holidays (0845 450 5319; bit.ly/HandsOnCo) combine adventure with two or three days of voluntary conservation tasks or work with local communities. The 12-day Elephants & Spice trip to Tanzania costs from £2,599 per adult and £2,499 per child.

On the trip, each family has responsibility for an elephant during their stay at Saadani National Park. The tour includes wildlife spotting as well as time to relax on the beach in Zanzibar. For children aged eight and above.

2by2 African Holidays

2by2 (01582 766122; 2by2holidays.co.uk) offers a tailor-made volunteering holiday in the largely uninhabited Tuli region of Botswana, finishing with five nights in Cape Town. Families can help with wildlife surveys, patrolling for snares and tracking elephants on farmland which is being restored to a wildlife habitat.

Prices start at £895 for adults and £447 for children, plus flights, for 10 nights. The organisers say that it is suitable for children of all ages, since the trip is tailor-made.

Taj Safaris

Taj Safaris (00 800 4588 1825; tajsafaris.com) offers volunteering options in Panna National Park in the north-central highlands of India, where children can get involved with local activities such as collecting firewood and milking cows, alongside their parents, as well as join safari drives.

Prices start from £250 per person per night. For children aged six and above.

Hands Up Holidays

Hands Up Holidays (020-7193 1062; handsupholidays.com) promises “Luxury Voluntourism,” and invites customers to “Experience an inspiring ethical luxury vacation” in ~some fairly developed parts of the world, such as New Zealand - where, in return for an impressive £18,850 (excluding flights) you can combine helping to preserve the kiwi with a “heli-hike” on the Franz Josef Glacier.

Responsible Travel

Responsible Travel (01273 600030; responsibletravel.com) provides a “shop window” for a wide range of family volunteering holidays in Africa, Asia and South and Central America. - The Independent

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