Sitting as it does in 110 acres, the estate at Minsteracres takes some managing. Over the last few years conservation consultant Andrew Pennington and his small band of conservation volunteers (nicknamed the volcons, with a nod to Star Trek) have made quite an impact.

The volcons and visiting groups of volunteers take on the hard work of implementing the estate management plan to restore the grounds preserving their natural and historical heritage. To this end they have cleared significant amounts of laurel and rhododendron which were choking up the woodlands, planted thousands of native trees, including a coppice to provide a sustainable source of firewood for the retreat centre, improved drainage across the woodland by renovating ditches and created a wheelchair-accessible footpath through the shrubbery for our visitors to enjoy.

Andrew is passionate about using traditional tools and skills and teaching those skills to the next generation. “In this technologically advanced age in which we live, more and more young people are disengaged from the natural world. I feel here at Minsteracres we have an important role to play in helping young people to re-engage with the environment. We can provide a safe and welcoming place for young people to learn, play and discover the natural world, fore if we don’t who in the next generation will continue to care for natural world.” he says.

Under Minsteracres’ Sequoia Training arm, Andrew has worked with young people in groups as large a several hundred (Bede Academy from Blyth have used Minsteracres for their annual environment day several years running), to just a few, like two who came for a fortnight on work experience as part of Consett YMCA’s Prince’s Trust scheme.

Andrew also works regularly with the 1st Crawcrook brownies and guides who have provided 1,000 oak, beech, wild cherry, grey and goat willow, field maple, silver birch, hazel, alder, dog rose, hawthorn, crab apple, holly, blackthorn and rowan trees under a project funded by the Woodland Trust. Their contribution will be marked by naming one of the new woodlands after them. “It’s great to see the girls get stuck in,” says Andy. “And once they’ve finished planting we let them loose to explore and play. There’s nothing they like better than getting covered in mud!”

The latest group to lend their support is Tynedale Horticultural Service which provides training and work experience in horticulture for adults with learning disabilities or mental health problems. The group works to a list of possible tasks and chooses day by day which they tackle. The fact that there are up to ten people five days a week means they too are making quite an impact on the gardens and grounds.

What is undeniable is that all this work would not happen without the many volunteers and Minsteracres’ small, core group of volcons is at the heart of the effort.

Alan Staines, at 83 the oldest of the volunteers, joined three summers back. “I was looking for something physically active in the open air to do in my retirement,” he says. He has certainly found it.

“The first summer I was here we laid the new path through the shrubbery,” says Alan, who until that point had been helping a friend with his overgrown garden. Minsteracres was a rather more challenging proposition. “It’s heavy work,” he chuckles, “but I can manage it.”

Perhaps the hardest job they have tackled was to dig out a group of long established laurel trees by hand to make way for the new St Cuthbert’s garden using spades, pick axes and a winch. “It was hard work – so hard the winch broke! And terrible weather too with freezing rain.” None of this has put him off though and he’s still to be seen on the estate in all weathers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Like others in the team, Alan’s previous experience, in his case as a structural engineer, has come in handy. “It helped when we were planning a revamp of the old walled garden. I drew a plan of the new network of footpaths and estimated the amount of materials we would need. I wasn’t far off either, when we finished we only had two or 2-3 feet of planking left.”

Minsteracres needs others to join the volcon team. “We are looking for men and women from the age of 16 upwards,” says Andy. “We will provide them with tools and give them training in how to use them and teach them skills they can apply to their own gardens or other projects. We will cover travel expenses too, though they will need their own transport as there are no public services to Minsteracres. All this and tea and biscuits too!”

Contact Andrew at Minsteracres on 01434 673248 for more information or an informal chat, or e mail info@minsteracres.org.