Taking a holiday to work? For some it would be unthinkable. But for others, volunteering as part (or all) of a holiday is a no-brainer, offering an opportunity to learn new skills, meet like-minded people and ultimately give something back to a charity or the place they’re visiting.
What is a volunteering holiday?
For the uninitiated, volunteer holidays (also known as voluntourism) involve tourists undertaking some form of work as part of their trip. In exchange, visitors can gain hands-on experience in a craft that interests them, or receive benefits, like free accommodation, that helps to keep holiday costs low. Placements can range from days to months, and the intensity of the work can differ from a relaxed hour or two in the afternoon to a full day’s hard, honest graft.
What volunteer holiday opportunities are there in Wales?
Opportunities for volunteer holidays are plentiful in Wales. Volunteering Wales, along with dedicated sites like Workaway and WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), are great resources for those looking to browse the range of experiences on offer. But to give you a taster of what’s out there, here are seven types of volunteer holidays you can try in Wales right now.
Big builds: construction and restoration volunteering opportunities
One of the most common types of volunteering holiday centres around construction or restoration projects, where visitors who deem themselves handy with a hammer or proficient with a paintbrush work as part of team to bring buildings or structures back to life for the good of the local community.
The Inland Waterways Association, which works to preserve the historic water routes of Wales, runs popular week-long Canal Camps across the country. The work, which can vary from fixing damaged weirs to repainting old locks, might have you working up a sweat, but it also fosters a strong sense of comradery – kindled by nights spent as a group under canvas or in local community halls.
Similar volunteer-staffed projects are run by the Mountain Bothies Association, a charity that looks after the UK’s smattering of off-grid hikers’ shelters. Wales is home to nine of these beloved rural refuges, and they’re routinely patched up by bands of volunteers during weekend-long ‘work parties’, with helpers bedding down in the shelters overnight.
On the farm: Farming and agricultural volunteering opportunities
Another sector that lends itself neatly to volunteer placements is agriculture, with landowners across Wales routinely seeking help in exchange for a hands-on (wellies-on) taste of the rural life, typically with simple accommodation and hearty meals included.
Visitors looking to take their first muddy steps into the world of farming and forestry (or simply escape to nature for a while) might consider a short-stay placement on a family-owned small holding, such as Bronhaul Farm in Carmarthenshire. Alternatively, more gregarious green-fingered holidaymakers might find themselves more at home helping out at one of Wales’ numerous low-impact communities, like Lammas Ecovillage in Pembrokeshire.
Those with serious ambitions of living a greener existence, however, should weigh up applying for one of the six-month volunteer placements at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), a research centre in Powys that showcases innovating sustainable practices it believes can aid in the fight against the climate crisis. Volunteers join either the gardens or woodlands teams, and live on-site as part of a close-knit, international community.
Riding the rails: Heritage railway volunteering opportunities
One for all the big kids out there: volunteering on one of Wales’ heritage railway lines, where grand old locomotives haul tourist-filled carriages along sections of preserved tracks, gives visitors the opportunity to play trains on a very grand scale.
Heritage lines throughout Wales rely on volunteers to keep things running smoothly. Ffestiniog Railway, which links the port of Porthmadog with the former mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Gwynedd, is one such example, regularly taking in a crew of volunteers that serve as everything from ticket sellers and – snazzily suited – station guards to track maintenance crew and signallers. Other heritage lines that welcome volunteers include Bala Lake Steam Railway and Blaenavon Heritage Railway.
Meet and greet: Hospitality volunteering opportunities
Not all visitors to Wales dream of spending days out under the hot sun (or, perhaps more commonly for Wales, damp drizzle). For the more indoorsy-type volunteer, helping out at a hostel could prove a rewarding experience, providing opportunities to meet scores of new people and improve language skills (Wyt ti'n siarad Cymraeg?), with ample opportunity for leisure activities during downtime.
The YHA (the Youth Hostels Association), offers regular week-long ‘Hostel Manager Volunteer’ positions at its numerous sites throughout Wales that span from Conwy to Cardigan. Following an online training course, volunteers will be tasked with checking in guests, staffing reception and mucking in with the cleaning, in exchange for a complimentary bunk for the duration of the stay, plus a small travel budget for getting out to explore the surrounding region.
Festival fun: Festival and event volunteering opportunities
What’s better than attending one of Wales’ world-renowned cultural festivals? Scoring a free ticket to one. And that’s usually what’s on offer for those willing to spend a portion of their time at the event helping organisers to ensure everything runs smoothly behind the scenes.
You could opt to check ticket stubs at hard rock festival Steelhouse in the Brecon Beacons, manage the queues at the behemoth of poetry and literature that is the Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye, or even help to herd the sparkly-jumpsuit-clad crowds at the Elvis Festival in Porthcawl, all while meeting local people and fostering friendships – you might find you have more fun working than revelling.
Beach clean: Marine conservation volunteering opportunities
Wales is renowned for its stretches of coastline, be they vast, wind-whipped sections of golden sand or quiet pebbly coves fringed by the foaming white rollers of the Atlantic. If you’ve journeyed to Wales to see these natural wonders, consider lending a hand in safeguarding their beauty for future generations, as well as protecting the marine life that call them home.
The Marine Conservation Society run regular short and sociable beach cleans on a number of stretches of Welsh sand, including Newborough in Anglesey and Swansea Bay. Sporadic group beach cleans are also organised by the National Trust and Surfers Against Sewage. Alternatively, visitors can get involved easily by visiting one of the many Caru Cymru Litter Picking Hub dotted along the Welsh coastline. These centres lend litter picking equipment to volunteers free of charge.
Going wild: Wildlife conservation volunteering opportunities
Volunteering to help protect native wildlife will appeal to many holidaymakers, and there are plenty of conservation organisations looking for willing helpers across Wales.
In the north of the country, the North Wales Wildlife Trust are always on the lookout for casual volunteers to help carry out day-long placements on their nature reserves, with tasks like tree felling and checking the health of grazing livestock top of the list. If you feel more at home on the coast, the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre takes on seasonal volunteers (usually in one- or two-month slots) to staff their welcome centre, assist with educational outreach programmes, and carry out marine mammal surveys.
For those looking to really get away from it all, the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales recruits a handful of hardy volunteers to spend up to three months on tiny Skomer Island, off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Work involves monitoring wildlife like puffins and seals, and accommodation falls into the rustic category.