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Labours of love

Job a little sedentary of late? Too much studying indoors? Perhaps it's time to get out and about on a working holiday. Matthew Jones kicks off NCE's summer holidays special with a look at some holiday makers building a cycle path in Oxfordshire.

The sign on the gate to Penn farm at Towersey in Oxfordshire gives a strange welcome to visitors: 'Caution, senile dog loose,' it warns.

But there are other unusual things afoot at this idyllic little spot, nestling in the Thame valley. Crossing a yard packed with bicycles one might be forgiven for suspecting that the dog is not the only one with slightly mad tendencies.

'We've all got to be a bit cranky I think,' confides one 60-something man wandering round in shorts and a brightly coloured fleece jacket.

For the next two weeks the farm is the base for a summer work camp run by the civil engineering charity Sustrans. The aim is to build a new 3km section of the National Cycle Network, which will contribute to the 3,000km total which Sustrans hopes to achieve by 2000.

Rather than lazing on a beach sipping a cool beer as most would be happy to do, the dozen or so people assembled in the barn have elected to spend their holidays converting a disused and overgrown railway line into an environmentally friendly transport route.

It may not sound like everyone's cup of tea, but for the group of 16 to 65 year olds making last minute preparations for their day of labour the experience does seem to be genuinely enjoyable.

Ex-purchasing manager for Duckhams and BP Richard Hustler is probably the last person you would expect to see building a cycle route. Yet after attending one of the first camps last year, he couldn't wait to come back for more.

'The term work camp sounds like something out of Stalinist Russia, but actually it's all good fun,' he says.

There's a sneaking suspicion that Hustler is trying to convince himself as much as anyone else, and that were it not for his sons calling him 'fat cat' and 'man of leisure', he would much rather be at home watching the tennis.

But he remains adamant that he is doing the work out of love of the fresh air and the camaraderie of the group.

'I like getting something done and I'm all for the cycle paths. It's also great for meeting friends - there are faces I know from all over the country,' he says.

This is a view echoed by all of the volunteers. Twenty three year old creative writing student Laura Collier was only going to stay at the camp for a week, but pretty soon decided to extend that to two. Now she wants to become a full time conservation worker after graduation.

'I've been studying for months so I wanted to get away from it all. They don't work us too hard, but you do feel like you are doing something positive here,' she says.

All of the volunteers receive training in tool and site safety as well as any specific hazards relating to the farm before they are allowed to start work. The tasks then range typically from clearing brambles and cleaning up old structures, to making benches, laying the stone surface of the track and erecting signs.

The standard of fitness and experience on the camp varies widely and it is left up to the individual to decide what they want to do. No specific skills are needed and you need not be a mad keen cyclist - wearing lycra is certainly not compulsory. But what you do need is enthusiasm by the shovel load and an ability to get on with others.

For those who already have some technical training, supervising the volunteers and working as a staff member can be equally as much fun. Faced with the alternatives of working for a consultant or contractor over the summer, 21 year old civil engineering student Clary Elliott reckons working for Sustrans is much more rewarding.

'This path will hopefully be a commuter route between Thame and Princes Risborough. It's not going to be used by thousands every week but it will make a big difference to the local people,' she says.

But it's not just about work - after all this is supposed to be a holiday. Everyone downs tools at 4.30pm and the evenings are filled with bike rides to the pub, bike treasure hunts, and trampolining - without bikes of course. continued overleaf

After a hard day it would be nice to have some creature comforts, but accommodation on site is pretty basic. For most it consists of the barn floor or tents pitched in the farmer's garden. But 64 year old ex-physicist Max Bishop seems to have found the perfect answer.

'Actually I'm cheating. One of the local volunteers has lent me her spare room. I found it so uncomfortable on that concrete floor.'

Holidaymakers get stuck in to path laying.

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