Weasel Summer 2004

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Where do the children play?

Wind Power at CATOur summer residential switched to Plan B - not a tweedy week in Devon with the National Trust but three didgeridays in Wales at the Centre for Alternative Technology. We set off on Thursday morning, arrived at about 4pm, worked on Friday and Saturday then got back to Oxford late on Sunday evening. The price was just £19 each, though it cost one serious person a terrible hangover. I'll name him later...

The work was drainage channels for footpaths, a bench, a stile, a log-chute made from blue plastic barrels cut in half plus a bit of scrub clearance. Who did it? Twelve in total with three new faces: Colin (a hairy one from Los Angeles), Ellie from Faringdon and Lydia from Radley. Older features belonged to those time-wizened Oxford gargoyles Peter, Paul (but not Mary nor any magic dragon), Jamie, Kate the Smiler, Marguerite, Andrew 'Woody' Wood (the moral conscience of the OCV, praise be upon him), Liz and Roger Hardboard, who was sourced by train from a sustainable forest in Bristol. That snake-hipped god of love sculpted by Michelangelo in a homo-erotic nocturnal moment was John G.

How was it? Our eco-cabins were fun but a bit scruffy. Bunk beds, cold showers, hole in the carpet, kettle with no lid and so on. The outdoor sitting area was decked with boards one inch apart, so chair legs slipped through if you coughed or flicked Jamie's ears. Kate, who is very thin, had to walk round with her arms out in case she vanished altogether into the spidery basement (where the fridge was, oddly). The food was fine and the drinks to mark Paul's 84th birthday on Saturday evening were champagne with a red wine chaser. (He's very modest, so I gave a false age). Too much celebration led to my out-of-tune guitar playing, rowdy hecklers who stopped me singing 'Hey Jude' and obscene titles in the charades which followed - 'The Vagina Monologues' for example. Next day Peter was sick, with a face so green that lizards sent him Get Well cards. In mournful moans he regretted drinking so much and vowed never to be so foolish again. As William Blake wrote, 'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom', he also wrote that if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is - infinite. But how can we apply that?

Pubs now! The Skinners' Arms in Machynnleth (Mak-unt-leth) had beer so flat that only a plaice could swim in it. Two lads behind the bar were so big that I didn't raise this until 50 miles away. John Taylor, our CAT contact, said the same: four pints gave him a hangover, which may be code for bad guts in those parts. Norah's, in the nearby village, was a truly public house in that her front room was the bar and saloon. Maybe there's a snug in her kitchen. Swap your sofa for a pool table and your IKEA bookcase for a monster music system- then you too can be a publican.

And the vegetarian diet? Well, mmm, if you're not used to all those brown beany foods, it can blow you away. Should you want low emissions, don't guzzle the Bean Bourgignon, potatoes and salad in that grubby staff canteen, The Tea Chest. Last residential I gnawed on a cabbage stump tougher than the leg of a snooker table which lurked in a salad contrived by Woody to garnish his 'hippy slop'. This time I was musical at both ends. One polite and charming female conserver admitted to dropping 'lady-like' ones.

So what is a Centre for Alternative Technology? After three days, nosy questions and portentous discussions, I still don't know. For £7.90 per adult ticket, you can ride uphill in a train powered by the weight of water, see examples of solar, wind and hydro-electric power plus composting in action before spending yourself silly in the slick visitors' centre, bookshop and cafe. But why does most of the place look so tatty - faded labels, old paint, straw bale walls with holes in the rendering, a derelict Arriva bus with nothing in it... John T told me 140 people live there in summer, including their own long-term volunteers. This begs the question: what are they all doing? Some say this is charmingly anti-commercial, with three people doing very little as car park attendants for example. Others say the main point is the ideas and spreading the message. I say it looked uncared for and more quaint than inspirational. Maybe the internet is the new forum for alternative technology. You can learn about fuel cell / hydrogen engines, bio-fuels, making methane from sewage or farm slurry, weird bicycle designs etc. CAT looked to me like a museum of yesterday's radical ideas. It left me feeling smug because I already have a compost heap (made from pallets!), a bicycle, a green recycling box and I go conserving. Sorry, CAT, but I wish you'd made me curious, amazed or just plain jealous.

John Taylor sent us an email thanking us for our work and asking us to please, please go back if he can book the eco-cabins. We are volunteers who know what we're doing, he wrote, and it's true - we are! We have Kate to thank for organising, Kate, Jamie and Paul for driving and all twelve of us for having no accidents, injuries, unfinished work or manic moments provoked by wasps, midges or other pests. Maybe we should stay at CAT all the time and earth the place. I fancy preaching a dodgy message of love, looking like Neil Young and living in a wigwam with six gullible women, but does this solve the problems of the world? Perhaps we can do more as the OCV whilst being too modest to say it, so I just did.

If you have been disturbed by any of the issues raised in this piece, contact the author at nicholasjohng@yahoo.co.uk

More information on Exmoor National Park, Devon

Barratt Estates for Beetles

It is coming up to the hedge-laying season again, which conjures up images of frosty mornings, crackling bonfires and grappling with a billhook. It's a great fun task to do and results in an attractive and satisfying barrier, but what are the other benefits of hedge laying?
From a beetle's point of view a hedge makes a good home. Maintaining hedges provides habitats for thousands of creatures, including some quite rare species. One of the best things about a hedge is that it provides a safe 'corridor' for birds, animals and insects to travel along. In particular, dormice, voles and shrews are fond of making their homes in hedgerows, especially those that are rich in fruits, nuts and berries. The ideal home for a dormouse will be a thick and tall hedgerow, with a wide range of trees and shrubs such as hazel, hawthorn, honeysuckle, dog rose, brambles and blackthorn.
Nowadays if farmers have hedges they tend to cut them mechanically, with a nasty looking instrument called a flailer. This results in a thin spindly hedge and upsets the resident dormice. By contrast, coming out with OCV and helping to lay and maintain a hedge by hand will help to create a thick, bushy and diverse hedgerow and keep the dormice happy.
Other hedge dwellers include many common birds like the blackbird and robin, as well as some more elusive birds like the bullfinch and the spotted flycatcher. Lots of insects scurry about in the undergrowth and recent hedge surveys have revealed that more than 70 rare species of creepy crawly, such as Lesne's earwig and the Chobam combfoot spider, make hedges their home.
A further major benefit of hedges is that they help to prevent soil erosion. In places like Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, where the hedges have been ripped up and the fields are huge, the wind is able to strip fields of their topsoil, making them fallow and bare.
So what are you waiting for? Hedges are one of the best ways of helping the countryside. Put on your boots, sharpen up your billhook (or borrow a well-honed one from OCV) and come and build the next "Barratt" housing estate for Oxfordshire dormice.
Kate Ravilious
Hedge Layer

A Fond Farewell

KateApparently in Edinburgh the average temperature is 3-5oC below the Oxford clime. The wind howls as science professors and students alike struggle with their bikes back and forth between town and K (ing's) B (uildings), all built in moody grey slate. So what would inspire a pair of fun-loving, enthusiastic and hard-working nature fans like Kate and Jamie to move from the dreaming spires to the vicinity of Holyrood palace?
Shall I compare the summer nights? The neat grassland and thatched cottages or the heather-ridden bens and wild beauty of the lochs? The flat countryside or the hills and the sea? The 11pm closing time or the lock-ins? The yes, please to the aha?
But what about the huge gap they leave behind ¦ Most dedicated volunteers have been inspired by the friendly warmth and efficiency with which the pair welcomed old and new volunteers alike; organised socials, tasks, meetings and anything else that may have arisen. They have been helpful in every way; from driving to cooking, from pancakes to bonfires. Appropriately then let's sing them the 'Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne?...' The answer is an emphatic NO.

The Thieving Magpie (or What Happens on Tasks)

MagpiePica was a mischievous bird of black and white plumage. Under the tree branches, she would eavesdrop on conversations, seeking an opportunity to rob well-meaning volunteers of their thimbles and their buttons, which glistened under the foliage...

Some volunteers went on holidays and others stayed to watch the rain. Consequently sometimes the volunteers on a task equaled one and one. Some pulled poisonous, flowering-yellow ragwort with their bare hands.
Some volunteers lost at pub quizzes when they camouflaged themselves as "the weasels". Some broke strings of guitars before passing out in a successful attempt to amuse their fellow volunteers.
Some were awed and some relieved by the infinitesimal contribution of man to the history of our earthy planet and related these thoughts to religion and making chutney. Some counted their jade green glowworm jewels.
But Pica can feel the change in the season, the sun comes in earlier and earlier. Time to find shelter amongst the reddening leaves.

General OCV Info

The Oxford Conservation Volunteers is a registered charity that has been undertaking practical work conserving the wildlife and traditional landscape of the Oxford area since 1977. We are one of many such groups associated with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV).
OCV comprises 38 full time members and about 110 old members who are still connected via email. There is a £2 membership fee for the OCV, but is not compulsory for taking part in voluntary work. Membership gives you our quarterly newsletter, The Weasel, enables you to attend training courses (hedge laying skills, leadership, etc.) at a reduced rate, and allows you to vote at our AGM.
Some answers to frequently asked questions:
Safety: As one is dealing with earth and thorns quite frequently it is advised to get a tetanus jab. These provide immunity for 10 years and are free from your GP.
Insurance: Accidents resulting from use of equipment provided by the OCV and wardens at the task sites are covered by BTCV insurance policies under which OCV is registered. Nevertheless, if new to equipment please heed the advice given by more experienced members and task leaders in particular. Some electric tools require special licenses and are not for general use.
Contacts: Leaders generally are contactable by email before the task.
Leaders & Drivers: These are OCV members who have experience of the task they are asking you to follow them on. They have received task/driving and first aid training. They are in demand and short supply, so YOU could become one!

The Oxford Conservation Volunteers (Charity No 1065601)

How to Get to Pilch Fields

Pilch FieldsSay you wake up of a Sunday and it is 10 am � oops, the OCV bus is well on its way to the task site. Pack your lunch and hop on your bike or get in your car. Here are some directions to one of our regular sites:
Pilch Fields (Buckinghamshire):
From Oxford get on to the A34 heading North. Carry on into the A4421 and follow signs for a while towards Milton Keynes and Buckingham. There are a number of roundabouts that need to be traversed including the last roundabout with signposts for Buckingham. Stay on the A4421(Milton Keynes) and pass past the infamous landmark of the Lone Tree Pub. The next right takes you into a narrow single track road. You are almost there, see the chicken farms on your right? Just after you pass these is the easily missed gate for the Pilch Fields site where the hedges will need repairing.
Congratulations, you've made it!

More information on Pilch Fields, North Buckinghamshire

Old Papadopoulos remembers the past...

John GorrillWorking in my kebab van as I do, I remember the first minibus the OCV ever bought back in... when was it... 1983. Until then, the group used to hire a van every weekend. This new purchase was a sky-blue Bedford with sliding doors at the front and a few dents from when the University's Technicians Club had owned it before. Fund-raising paid for it and conservers fitted it out - I think it had no seats because it had been stripped out for deliveries.
In those days it was legal to have bench seats (and no seatbelts) along the sides of the bus. Underneath the bench tops were tool chests knocked together from plywood. The painful effect of this was that when the driver braked, the two people sitting behind the front seats got squashed by bodies skidding forwards along the benches. There was nothing to hold onto and your bum on a wooden seat had no grip at all, so unlucky conservers grew tall and flat like cartoon characters. Scarier was sitting at the back of the van when it got a turn of speed. Only a tinny door catch held you from being shot out onto the tarmac. That wasn't funny at all!
The first van officer was Steve Cornwell, a professional northerner from Blackburn but now a town planner in the Isle of Wight. He's one of the IOW Conservation Volunteers, and so was I for a day when I went to visit him. As a group, they're quite bourgeois because at tea breaks they whip out dinky little thermos flasks with never a blackened kettle in sight. Something is missing if we don�t share the brew, spit out bonfire ashes and whinge about the OCV tea bags. Conservation is about collective action, so collective tea breaks are in the spirit of the group. I spit in your thermos flask, you Thatcheresque individualistical tea pot-poopers of Starbucks consumerism!
Steve used to annoy people by singing obscure songs from the 60s, such as 'Little Children' by Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. Never heard of them- you�re well off! One task he turned up (not driving) with a hangover and slept under the van all day to avoid the sun. All we heard was the odd moan, until he emerged like some hideous swamp creature demanding tea and biscuits. His other dreadful joke was moving the skin on his scalp back and forth while saying, 'Look, I'm wearing a wig!' This was so lame that it came out the other side as a funny, regular feature of socials and tasks which made the day complete. Today you'd call it post-ironic, but it was always crap. We made our own fun in them days!
Lastly, what about OCV fashion? In the past it was anti-fashion: army surplus gear, donkey jackets, CND badges, skuzzy Oxfam un-sellables and woolly sweaters with holes at each elbow. Steve C wore a blue boiler suit with I (mperial) C (hemical) I (industries) on the back - he probably stole it from them. Now the charity shops are like boutiques, conservers wear breathable designer fabrics and high-priced mountaineering boots. Our van has a tool cage and head rests. But are we happier? Do we have more members? And after-task drinks? Or after-task meals? All gone. I'm just an old kebab seller. What do I know? D'you want onions wi' that?

Ol' Papadopoulos (alias John Gorrill)

A Conservation Conversation (the ultimate tongue-twister)

What is conservation about? Does it make people happier? Doing the right thing for free?
To be involved in something where you can see the physical effect of your contribution by the end of the day is unusual nowadays and very gratifying.
If the preservation of buildings is anything to go by then:
...repairs should be carried out using materials and techniques which match those used originally as closely as possible. There are three main reasons for doing this: firstly, repair materials which match the originals will provide some continuity with the past, keeping intervention to the minimum; secondly, by matching the original materials and techniques closely, the repair materials will age in a similar way as the original; and finally, modern materials and techniques introduced in past repair work have often proved to be incompatible with the original, causing accelerated deterioration of building fabric. Changes are usually made only where the existing materials have been shown to be inappropriate...
The continuity with the past, our heritage and 'mother nature' may also be incentives.
And of course there are the unexpected pleasures of good company with people one has only just been introduced to.
For we all know that nothing quite equals the satisfaction of a hot, charcoal drink rescued from the bonfire with sweaty hands on a rainy day just before it's time to pack up and get into the OCV van.

Snakes & Ladders: a quiz for the wizened volunteer

Q1. Which OCV driver suffered a bit of late-night road rage on the Cowley Road?
Q2. Which fuzzy-haired task leader tried to get a replacement for himself due to 'illness'?
A. The answer to 1 is not related to 2. Miss your turn to roll the dice.
Q3. Which Committee members are worried about turning 30 (oh-the angst!)?
Q4. What colour is the OCV van now?
A. I tell no lies.
Q5. How many conservers does it take to knock the head off Aunt Sally?
Q6. What is the difference between a stoat and a weasel?
A. Find out by emailing weasel_ocv@hotmail.com

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the Mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hamlet (Act II, Scene II)

Oxford Conservation Volunteers Committee

Chair : Charlotte Vinnicombe
Treasurer: Jerome Michalczyk
Membership: Laurence Banyard
Website & Publicity: Paul Brears
Tasks: Peter Gillot
Socials: Jane Fisher
Tools: Martin Crane
Van: John French
Secretary & Weasel Editor: Helena Thomaides