Our volunteering days

At Responsible Travel, we ensure our holidays support local communities and have, where possible, a positive effect on the environment. But this ethos doesn’t stop once we get home and unpack our suitcases; they say “charity begins at home” and for Responsible Travel’s staff, volunteering in our own neighbourhood is even more important than doing so while we’re overseas.

We've always organised a day each year for our staff to spend the day away from their desks and volunteering in the local countryside; fortunately, our office is based in Brighton so we have a wonderful array of woodlands, walking trails and downland right on our doorstep. Here are some accounts of previous volunteering days.

We still spend at least one day a year getting stuck in and muddy – so if you know of anywhere we can help out and make a difference to the environment or the local community in the Brighton area on our next volunteering day please send your suggestions to lyn@responsibletravel.com.

October 2022: Relining a wildlife pond in Preston Park

volunteer day october 2022
“I was doubtful we would get it all done when we started, so I was well impressed when we managed to get it all finished by the end of the day. I knew Responsible Travel wouldn’t let me down!”

The words there of Neil Doyle, Brighton City Parks Ranger and a man who knows a hard-working group of volunteers when he sees one.

This autumn the Responsible Travel team again gathered together for a day of hard work and fun socialising in the open air, the venue this time being Brighton’s Preston Park. At the north end, close to the velodrome, there’s a wildlife pond tucked away among the trees. Due to a damaged liner, the pond always empties out by around June and so the species living in it, including newts and frogs, are unable to complete their life cycles and the pond never reaches its full potential.

Our task in early October was to resurface the pond with a new liner and a coating of cement, ensuring that water stays in and doesn’t drain away in future. Hopefully, from spring onwards, the pond will become a wildlife haven where all park users can enjoy spending some time.

We began by splitting into two teams under the watchful eyes of the ranger team. The first mixed the cement, requiring lots of heavy lifting and resulting in some bruised arms the next day. The second group spread the cement smoothly on top of the pond’s new liner – and nobly resisted the temptation to write their initials in it.

As is usually the case with Responsible Travel volunteering days, the sky threatened rain, but in the end we were spared and actually enjoyed a bit of sun for a change. Though exhaustion was beginning to show, the work finished only when we ran out of cement, after which the team adjourned for a debriefing session in the nearest pub.

Thanks to Neil and the City Parks volunteer team for helping to arrange another really enjoyable day out.

March 2022: Creating habitat for wild meadow to increase biodiversity

volunteer day
With the Responsible Travel team now working remotely, our staff volunteer days are doubly enjoyable as they provide a rare opportunity for us all to get together in person and complain about the weather.

March 2022 saw us heading to the Waterhall Conservation Area, just north of Brighton and close to Devil's Dyke. Connecting with the hills and valleys of our beloved South Downs National Park, the landscape here is a mixture of species-rich chalk grassland, scrub and woodland.

Among the wildlife reliant on this habitat are populations of reptiles, birds and butterflies, as well as hazel dormice and badgers. An encounter with a slow worm provided some early entertainment, as did the occasional curious canine interloper – this is a popular area for dog walkers, though discarded poop is an issue as it adds to soil nutrition, reducing biodiversity.

Armed with our now-familiar equipment including loppers, saws and mattocks, we went to work prying up dense hawthorn scrub, thereby creating the right habitat for wildflowers and grasses to grow. Along the way we were able to salvage a substantial number of intact plants, which we replanted close to the old golf clubhouse to create a hedgerow. The leftover scrub was then burned on the bonfire, always a highpoint of a Responsible Travel volunteer day.

Never ones to shirk a challenge, the team bravely coped with constantly changing weather that began with a chilly mist before continuing through rain, wind, snow(!) and eventually, sun. We hacked, sawed, dug, pulled and burned our way through the hawthorn scrub from around 10am to 3pm, after which it was time for another volunteer day highlight: comparing scratches in the pub.

Thanks to CityParks Ranger Neil Doyle and his team for giving us the opportunity to help out with this fantastic rewildling project.

October 2019: Return to the nightingales in Sussex

Here at Responsible Travel there are some days that are more eagerly anticipated than others. Volunteering day is certainly one of them – Christmas karaoke is another, but I digress.

This year our volunteering day saw us return to the woodlands that we visited 12 months previously. Revisiting the scene of the crime, some thought, as it was rumoured that we’d inadvertently burned down an old fence. Of course, these rumours were completely unfounded despite hearing that this year we could well be turning our hands to fence building.

Bravely we ventured forth from our offices in Brighton armed with waterproofs, packed lunch boxes and water bottles. Like eager, chattering school kids we boarded the bus and headed off to Lewes.

Uninitiated volunteers were remarked upon for their lack of suitable apparel. Trainers and leggings were met with sighs and knowing shakes of the head. Old hands were kitted out in army fatigues, ponchos and hobnailed boots that looked like they’d done their time on tours of duty.

I think it was raining from the moment we arrived on that autumnal October morning. However, Nick our learned leader met us with outstretched arms and shooed the clouds away with his smile. Unfortunately this was to be the only break in the weather as it pissed it down from thereon in.

Undaunted, we squidged and squelched into the woods in search of our horseshoe shaped scallops that we’d cleared along the path the year before. Our aim was to spend the day hacking, cutting and lopping hawthorns and aspens so as to allow nightingales to nest and biodiversity to flourish.

You know what, we did what we set out to achieve. We cleared, we cut and we lopped. We laughed and chatted in the rain and even attempted to burn stuff that was more wet than dry. If efficiency was what Nick and the nightingales – great name for an acapella group there if you’re reading, Nick – required then that is certainly what they got.

We were back in the relative warmth of the barn within two hours. Wet, yes, bedraggled, probably, and cold, most definitely, but buoyed with that heartfelt glow that comes from getting scratched to pieces by thorns. Hot tea, warm blankets and borrowed coats nursed us back to health. As did the announcement by Justin that we were to be offered extra paid holiday days as part of our regular RT allowance. Roll on next year!

October 2018: Encouraging nightingales to nest in Sussex

Barcombe woods office volunteer day
On a warm October day, everyone on the Responsible Travel team left their Brighton offices for a day in the woods outside Lewes, East Sussex. Our mission – to clear scrub and young trees along a disused railway line to encourage nightingales to nest.

The owner of the private woodland area where we worked had already heard nightingales on his land, but was eager to encourage more pairs to nest here, and to boost the overall biodiversity of the area. Nightingales favour dense vegetation on or near the ground for nesting, but dislike closed canopies. So, our mission was to clear sections of growth, consisting largely of hawthorn bushes and young aspen trees.

We worked in teams of five or six people, creating what are known as scallops. These are semi-circular areas along the edge of a path that are cleared of trees, allowing scrub, herbs and grasses to grow, and creating a varied woodland edge. This would create favourable habitat for nightingales and by allowing light to penetrate, encourage wild flowers to grow here, which in turns should tempt woodland butterflies in.

We worked from around 10am until about 4pm, using loppers and saws to create the scallops. Several members of the team took responsibility for two huge bonfires that burned enthusiastically with every new armful of wood we threw on. It was hot work for the bonfire managers and for the rest of the team, the hacking, sawing and grappling with spiky scrub and heavy young trees produced an array of minor cuts and grazes. We ended the day with a stroll back through the woodland, past an enclosure of happily truffling rare breed pigs, who came up to the fence for a back scratch. They seemed happy and we were tired but very happy after a fanstastic day of fresh air and exercise in the gorgeous Sussex countryside.

October 2017: Clearing a way for species to thrive

South Downs office volunteer day
Just recently the Responsible Travel team replaced desks and computers for saws and clippers as we took part in our very own volunteering day in the South Downs National Park.

National park ranger, Charlie Cain, led us from the warmth of the Plough pub at Pyecombe and into the hills where he explained what we’d be doing to help preserve the integrity of the local ecology.

Charlie told us that some insects, such as butterflies, only live on one species of plant. The Blue Adonis butterfly, for example, eats exclusively horseshoe vetch. Living within a jungle of dominant grasses these smaller species of plant struggle to find space to grow and therefore the butterflies and other insects are forced to look elsewhere for their only source of food.

This is where the Responsible Travel team came into action. Chopping, burning and clearing shrubs we formed an open space for cattle to munch their way through the dominant grasses. This process will eventually create a much wider, more open space for smaller plant species to flourish; transforming the land from just 5-9 species of insect per square metre to a staggering 35-40.

The day, however, took its toll on us soft office workers. Chopping and dragging spiky bushes to a huge fire left us with bloodied arms, singed faces and aching legs. But, overall, the experience was fantastic and we ended up staring into the warmth of the fire as the sun set and a huge harvest moon began to rise to signal the end of a hard, yet rewarding, day on the Downs.

May 2017: Making bat boxes with the National Trust in the South Downs

South Downs office volunteer day
In May 2017, the staff of Responsible Travel left our Brighton office behind and headed to the South Downs National Park for our annual volunteering day. This year’s objective was to build bat boxes, under the guidance of Charlie Cain and Crispin Scott of the National Trust.

Tucked into a fold of the Downs, hidden from the high walking trails above, a disused firing range was the location for what we quickly nicknamed ‘the bat hotel’. This range was designed just after World War One and was in use until the 1960s. A scar in the hill behind shows where bullets marked the landscape and old metal winding gear, which would have raised the targets, still stands in place.

Before the heavy lifting and serious carpentry began here, Charlie and Crispin lead us on a looping walk on the crest of the Downs above, explaining in fascinating detail what we were looking at, from the grass beneath our feet to the trees affected by ash die-back on a distant hill.

Down at the range, which consists of a brick wall and a ‘room’ – now the bat hotel – half the team covered the flat roof with earth and scrub to encourage brambles to grow across it. This will help the bat hotel stay at the steady, cool temperature that these tiny creatures love. The rest of us got to work with planks, hammers and nails, creating neat bat boxes and simple boards that the local Daubenton’s and Natterer’s bats can use to hibernate safely.

The National Trust won’t be actively advertising this location, but anyone stumbling across it can learn about the bats through an information sign, complete with this poem, written by Responsible Travel’s founder Justin Francis:

Elastic furry flyers,
In between creatures,
Neither bird nor grounded mammal,
Neither a day nor night lover,
Here a safe place to rest folded wings.

While the bats will fly in via small gaps in the walls, the bat hotel itself will be secured with a sturdy oak door to protect its residents from disturbance. Waking a bat from a short summer kip is fine, but rousing a hibernating bat can be deadly. The physical effort needed to power up from deep hibernation burns as many calories in two hours as a bat uses in two weeks when active and feeding during spring and summer. If it’s the wrong time of year to be awake, the bat can starve.

We won’t know if the bats are using the hotel until the National Trust checks in January and February. It may even take them a few years to find it, but there’s no rush! We had a lot of fun working together on their behalf, even though it rained solidly for the afternoon. It wasn’t supposed to, but it did, and heavily! By the time we’d made 14 bat and hung them up, most of us were soaked – a soggy end to a seriously fun bat-benefitting day.

2014 and 2015: Stanmer Park

Stanmer Park office volunteer day
Our volunteering day saw us return to Stanmer Park on a (thankfully) beautiful spring day in March. Often described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Brighton and Hove, it has 5,000 acres of open access land and woods, which we were to help coppice for the day.

We met resident ranger Neil – who came armed with flasks of hot tea and coffee – at the edge of the wood for the day’s instructions. Tasks included coppicing young trees, clearing debris, and dividing harvested wood into bonfire fuel and potential fence-making material. The idea was to then help create a protective fence around an area of land to be re-generated, while also helping to keep mountain-bikers on a designated trail.

We soon got to work hammering fence posts into the ground and interweaving the coppiced hazel and ash branches to create the substance of the wall, complete with ‘curves’ which were a particular source of pride on the day! The bonfire and tea helped to keep everyone toasty and as well as getting to spend time outside in the sunshine, learning new skills, it was also a really good opportunity to catch-up with each other outside of the office. We’re all looking forward to the next one...

Stanmer Park is on the lookout for people happy to lend a hand for the day in the great outdoors, so if the idea of some coppicing, fence post-building or bonfire stoking has got your volunteering passion ignited, you can find out more information here.

July 2009: Volunteering day at Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare

Raeside volunteer day

In 2009, the staff at Responsible Travel decided to see if the grass really was greener on the other side and spent the whole day outdoors volunteering at the Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare in East Sussex, helping the resident gardeners turf a large lawn.

Based in Ringmer, just outside Lewes, the Raystede Centre is a 40 acre site, surrounded by the beautiful Sussex Downs. It aims to prevent and relieve cruelty to animals and to protect them from unnecessary suffering. Over 1,500 unwanted and abandoned animals arrive at the centre annually. Dogs, cats and other companion animals are found new, caring homes while others remain in Raystede's care for the rest of their days.

One of the centre’s recent initiatives is to provide education packages that allow children the opportunity to creatively explore the curriculum by learning about animals and their natural habitats as well as demonstrating responsible pet ownership. The area we turfed was to become a children’s education centre. The sun shone on us rewardingly as we worked as a team: shifting wheelbarrows, raking, lining up and cutting and stamping down the rolls of grass. Luckily there was a sprinkler nearby which acted as a welcome cold shower. There was a real sense of tangible achievement as, late afternoon, we stood back and surveyed our work. Who would have thought a smooth lawn could give such a feeling of satisfaction! We all agreed that a bit of physical work had done us good and vowed to spend more time getting our hands dirty.

We were kindly given a tour of the centre – through the donkey and horse fields, past the well kept, open plan rabbit runs and the colourful aviaries, and inside to meet the dogs, cats and rodents. The whole place is beautifully kept and every animal has ample room to play and enjoy each other’s company. There was barely a dry eye as all the creatures, great and small, rose to greet us – brave and willing to make friends despite their unfortunate pasts. The parrots even regaled us with loud exuberant ‘Hellos’ and comical, rhythmic dancing that would put any hip hop professional to shame. Their feathers were stunning shades of red, blue and green; it was incredible to see what colours nature can produce.

We are delighted to have contributed to such a worthy cause and would recommend it as a wonderful place to visit. The Raystede Centre is a charity (registered charity no. 237696) and relies totally on voluntary support.

October 2008: Volunteering day at Chestnut Tree House

Chestnut Tree House volunteer day

In 2008, our volunteering day took us to the outskirts of Angmering to Chestnut Tree House, the only children’s hospice in Sussex.

On a rather soggy Wednesday morning, the Responsible Travel team made their way to Chestnut Tree House for some gardening. With our gardening gloves and waterproof trousers, we were all ready and raring to go, despite the drizzle, because we were about to start work preparing the ground on which a garden will be created by The Body Shop to celebrate the life of the late Anita Roddick.

Anita Roddick was a good friend of Responsible Travel which makes this project all the more close to our hearts. Anita was an inspiration to many of us and one of the original supporters of Responsible Travel. By helping to create a special garden area in the children’s hospice, we’re hoping to honour the great work that Anita did and help provide a serene and relaxing area for the children and their families at the hospice to enjoy.

The first task was ground clearance. The land was very overgrown with scrubs and reeds dominating the area and swamping the stagnant pond. Armed with shears, a couple of strimmers, several rakes and two wheelbarrows we set to work pruning, chopping and clearing our way through the tangle of weeds.

Clearing away some of the reeds and bulrushes from the pond was unpleasant work as the water was stale and smelly and in desperate need of some aerating plants, but we didn’t let this stop us! We followed the cutting with some painting of the fences, picking up the cleared plants and creating a compost heap taller than some of the staff!

After a hard day’s work we were rewarded with a lovely cup of tea and some chocolate cake, very kindly provided for us by the hospice. Even though it was a fairly large patch of land, many hands made light work of it and by working together we got it all cleared within the day and ready for planting. Plus, we all had a great day out of the office and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

May 2008: A day at Lewes Local Nature Reserve in the rain

Lewes volunteer day

As the name suggests, the Lewes Railway Land Local Nature Reserve used to part of the railway sidings which fell into disrepair as the rail network fell out of favour. It was rescued in 1987 by community action supported by the Friends of Lewes and this led to the formation of the Railway Land Wildlife Trust in 1988. In 1995 the land was declared a Local Nature Reserve. This 25 acre site offers a diverse mix of habitats from woodlands to wetlands and is a haven to wildlife and local people alike. The site is accessible to the whole community with footpaths and wheelchair accessible paths winding through the site offering sightings of the myriad of species that make their home here.

The railway land is being carefully managed to provide a variety of habitats. Recent projects have developed areas such as reed beds which have attracted kingfishers. Other wildlife visiting the reserve includes march frogs, woodpeckers, damselflies and 365 species of wild plants. There are also wet woodlands and wet grazing meadows (we really should have been expecting to get wet!)

Under the guidance of Dan the community ranger the Responsible Travel team set about resurfacing footpaths and clearing brambles to maintain access to this reserve. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t on our side in the morning but we’re a hardy bunch and we didn’t let it slow us down. By lunchtime most of us were soaked to the skin and some of us were suffering from splinters and nettle stings but we were still not dissuaded from our task. As the sun came out (to dry us off) we got our second wind and we pressed on.

At the end of the day we had managed to resurface almost 900 metres of the path and clear away brambles and overhanging vegetation so that the people of Lewes can enjoy this rural retreat over the summer months.

2007: Constructing fencing at Sheepcote Valley

Sheepcote volunteer day

Sheepcote Valley is a green and pleasant haven on the outskirts of Brighton often visited by families, dog walkers and unfortunately motorbikes. Responsible Travel staff, along with Neil the urban ranger, spent the day building small fences across the footpaths to stop motorcyclists from scaring and injuring walkers and dogs, and conserving the environment as a habitat for the local wildlife. We were very lucky with the weather, which - despite forecasts - was dry for most of the day. Some of us even got a little sunburned!

It was all back breaking work but we took it in our stride. From stripping the bark off the wooden posts, to digging 2.5-foot deep holes into the chalk and erecting the heavy posts and rails, we all found it very satisfying. Fuelled by several cups of tea we managed to get the job finished on time, despite a few nettle stings.

Some of our highlights of the day were watching the rabbits running around, seeing a fox creep up to our bags and threaten to steal our lunch and just generally being out in the fresh air and enjoying the view over Brighton and the sea.

All our hard work paid off and there are now many happy walkers and dogs roaming Sheepcote Valley no longer fearing unruly motorbikes.