Free (or Cheap) Volunteer Work in the UK
Great Britain and Northern Ireland have a lot to offer potential volunteers (and we have lots more projects on our shortlist to investigate further and add here) but if volunteering is your reason for visiting the UK and you are on a tourist visa and from outside the EU, best keep it to yourself. Though the rules were changed in 2015 to allow incidental volunteering for less than 30 days for a registered charity, how this is interpreted at immigration – especially these days – is unpredictable. It’s much better just to say something about the Queen and Shakespeare if asked your reasons for visiting the UK.
Grassroots Volunteering in the UK
The organisations listed below have either got in touch with us to add their details to this or another of our websites, or we otherwise have reason to believe they are actively looking for international volunteers and charge reasonable or no fees to join in, live and work with them:
A 500 year old grand family home open to the public, Kentwell Hall specialise in corporate events, weddings and recreations of the Tudor and other periods of British history. Alongside six month long vocational internships for graduates (and the occasional outstanding gap year student), Kentwell recruits in January and February for volunteers to take part in their summer season events, demonstrating life as a Tudor or helping behind the scenes. Even application is delightfully retro, requiring the sending off of an A5 sized stamped, self-addressed envelope. Kentwell also require Hall, Garden and Event volunteers and take on volunteer scarers over the Halloween period to hide around corners to jump out and frighten people.
Where: Long Melford, Suffolk.
Accommodation & Costs: Volunteers should be self funding but otherwise there is no fee.
Waterway Recovery Group Canal Camps
Become a 21st century canal navvy on these projects concerned with preserving Britain’s industrial past. The WRG run over 25 week long Canal Camps each year, mostly in the summer, open to anyone aged between 18 to 70. No previous experience or qualifications are necessary. Canal Camp volunteers may find themselves feeding 18 hungry workers, clearing gloop from a canal and learning to lay bricks. Camps last a week but there is a weekend option too.
Where: Various locations around Britain.
Accommodation & Costs: Food and basic accommodation is provided for between £56 per week.
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The Monkey Sanctuary
Thirty thousand people visit this animal sanctuary run by Wild Futures every year and volunteers are required year round to help keep the place running smoothly. Short term placements run from two to six weeks, and long term for up to three months. No qualifications are needed, but you need to be over 18 and have a basic knowledge of the English language and a general concern for animals and nature. In summer volunteers help prepare food for the monkeys, run the shop, help serving in the kiosk, run workshops in the activity room and help keep the sanctuary tidy. Volunteering through the European Solidarity Corps is also an option. A limited number of 12 month internships are offered, in various areas of the charity from primate carer, volunteer coordinator to PR and fundraising.
In the winter, volunteers help maintain the house and monkey territory, prepare the monkeys’ food and treats, do street collections, design and make displays, work in the Sanctuary gardens and help with the daily cleaning of the monkey territory. Volunteers with special practical skills have been very important in helping to build new enclosures and improve the monkey territory. Volunteers do not work directly with the monkeys.
Accommodation & Costs: The Monkey Sanctuary hosts up to ten volunteers at a time in shared accommodation in their Sanctuary house. There is a small weekly fee towards food, accommodation and insurance.
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RSPB Residential Volunteering
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds works for the conservation of wild birds, other wildlife and the places in which they live. For the Residential Volunteering programme, the work varies from reserve to reserve. It often includes practical management tasks, working with visitors and helping with survey work. Some examples include cutting, clearing and burning dead vegetation, directing visitors to points of interest and showing them wildlife, staffing visitor centres and counting rare butterflies. Residential volunteers are usually needed for between three and six months.
You will not need special skills for most of the volunteering opportunities the RSPB have but a genuine interest in and enthusiasm for birds and wildlife conservation is essential. You should be willing to help, even with mundane jobs. At sites where the work includes helping visitors to the reserve, you must feel comfortable talking to people. Volunteers from overseas must have good conversational English. Some reserves require volunteers able to tell their kittiwakes from their herring gulls and a driving licence may be required so you can drive RSPB vehicles. The RSPB also offer internships and other volunteer roles where volunteers can participate for a day, week or month
Where: All over Britain.
Accommodation & Costs: There is no charge to take part but it is your responsibility to cover the cost of your transport to and from the reserve, and to provide and cover the cost of your food during your stay. The RSPB will provide accommodation, together with basic services, free of charge for the period you are volunteering, and cover any expenses incurred as a necessary part of your work on the reserve.
Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales
Resident full time Wardens to oversee the running of Skomer Island, open to visitors between April and October. Around half a dozen vacancies are available each week from March. Wardens assist with managing day visitors and overnight paying guests, conservation work and buildings maintenance. Other forms of volunteering are also available through the Trust. For a first hand account of volunteering on Skomer Island read about Sandra Young’s experiences.
Where: Skomer Island. Other volunteer work is available throughout south and west Wales.
Accommodation & Costs: Accommodation is simple and volunteers need to bring their own food.
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Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
A World Heritage Site, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust manages ten museums spread along the River Severn, one of the early sites of the Industrial Revolution. They offers a free lunch to volunteers who dress up in Victorian garb and demonstrate 19th century social and industrial skills to tourists. Other volunteer roles can include teaching, guiding the public, delivering welcome talks, directing visitors or helping out behind the scenes.
Accommodation & Costs: Accommodation, which you pay for yourself, is available in a hostel three miles away.
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Wings & Wheels
Surrey’s Dunsfold Aerodrome is better known as the home of BBC’s Top Gear but each August Wings and Wheels wows crowds of over 30,000 with a variety of dynamic aviation and motoring displays, iconic cars and aircraft. Much of this is put together with volunteer help.
Volunteers are involved in many aspects of the show; from greeting military aircrew on arrival, helping the general public with queries to selling programmes and marshalling motoring demonstrations. Each volunteer is asked to do a minimum of three hours between 8am and 7pm, and in their free time are encouraged to enjoy the air and motoring shows with unlimited access to the public arena.
Accommodation & Costs: Volunteers receive free entry, tea, coffee and water but otherwise should be self funding including finding their own accommodation.
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Charles Dickens Museum
The museum, celebrating the life and works of Dickens since it opened in 1925, is located in Dickens’s home from 1837 until 1839, when he moved out to seek more space for his growing family. Both Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby were written here. Volunteers carry out much of the work at the museum and applicants are welcomed to apply to support the museum’s various activities. Depending on your skills and experience, tasks may include working in the museum and shop, publicity and marketing, conservation and librarianship, organising events, administration, cleaning or providing refreshments for group visitors.
Accommodation & Costs: No accommodation. Will reimburse any reasonable out of pocket travel expenses for up to £10 a day.
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Amnesty run a minimum three month volunteer programme in their offices in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. Volunteers are involved in campaigning, marketing, media and general support and can claim travel expenses and luncheon vouchers for the days they work. Volunteers who have worked at Amnesty for three months or more may request a reference. Head to their jobs page for volunteering information.
Hostel Work Exchanges
Many hostels use help exchange networks (see below) to find volunteer staff but the following either advertise on their websites or are particularly noted for taking on volunteers:
Nottingham’s Igloo Hostel has been running a small volunteer programme for the past few years, which they say has worked very well for everybody involved. Volunteers are welcome for six weeks to six months and receive free accommodation and food allowances.
The Lazy Duck
Based at Nethy Bridge in the Cairngorms National Park, Scottish Highlands, skilled, motivated and resilient volunteer helpers are invited to join their resident and local team – plus ducks, hens and sheep – with the care, housekeeping, management and maintenance of this eight bed hostel, three off-grid eco-huts and four pitch camping ground. They want people for two to three months or the whole season from May to October. A food allowance is provided along with accommodation. Past volunteers have included Noemi from Italy, taking a break from working with Syrian refugees in Turkey; Tali, who cycled there from China; and Dan, a sports specialist and outdoor guide from Minnesota, USA, who eventually left to go guiding on volcanoes in Central America.
House of Mark
Scotland’s House of Mark is a guest house nestling amongst the glens at the foot of the Cairngorms National Park. Open all year and set within two acres, House of Mark also has a self catering cottage and hostel accommodation. They tell us they have received several applications from students referring to our website. Previously, we had written a basic level of English is needed to socialise with guests and other volunteers and we have seen them use Twitter to put out a request for seasonal workers, to who they provide food and accommodation. Since then they have formalised their offer, putting up a dedicated wordpress site to attract volunteers from around the world interested in hotel internships.
More Hostel Work Exchanges
The Inverarary Hostel has changed hands since we last heard from them, so there is no guarantee they will continue the practice of hiring volunteer managers – for a week or more in return for travel expenses – to help them through the Spring low season before their paid managers take over for the main season. They were also interested to hear from persons or couples with experience of hostel reception or who have stayed in many hostels, who might be interested in volunteering with them. More hostel volunteer roles (and paid ones too) in Scotland are advertised at www.hostel-scotland.co.uk/sih-hostels/jobs-in-our-hostels.
We met a couple of people working for their stay in Paddy’s Palace in Belfast. We have in the past also seen their Londonderry hostel posting their requirements on hostel forums. Other hostels in the group can be found in Dublin, Cork, the Dingle Peninsula and Killarney. More information can be found via a post about them in The Working Traveller.
Nearby was the friendly Arnie’s Backpackers who wanted people to work in all aspects of their hostel. Along with a bed and breakfast they also paid £30 per week pocket money. They’ve changed their name to Botanical Backpackers and while we can’t be certain if the same, or any, volunteer arrangements still apply, it still might be worth popping in and asking if you’re in the area.
Elsewhere in Belfast, we’re not sure that Lagan Backpackers, who were said to take on volunteers, hasn’t closed – it’s difficult to tell in these uncertain times – but the same people also own Finn McCools, close to the Giant’s Causeway. They now use HelpStay. Vagabonds is also thought to take in volunteers.
Clink is a hostel group with a jobs page, they currently have two properties in London. Try Generator too. People from Spain that want to work in a hostel in London and learn English can do so via Feetup Hostels.
Festival Volunteering in the UK
Typically the rewards of volunteering at a festival are a free ticket and a better camping pitch.
Held on a farm in Somerset, Glastonbury offers a free ticket to volunteer litter pickers. Initially people who have worked successfully before are approached, thereafter applications are taken from those who get in touch with the Festival. Other tasks, such as stewarding, are contracted to outside firms and charities.
Guardian Hay Festival
A literary festival held every year in Wales. Stewards are required to work shifts of three to four hours to ensure audiences are safe and happy before, during, and after each event.
Other Opportunities to Volunteer in the UK
We don’t have up to date volunteering information from either the Speyside Trust’s, Badaguish Cairngorm Outdoor Centre or from The Eilean Bàn Trust, both based in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. For the Speyside Trust, a small independent charity helping children and adults with learning difficulties and other special needs to enjoy an outdoor holiday, the last information we had stated: “Volunteers assist group leaders with all aspects of the camp, ie direct care, activities on and off site, general upkeep of centre facilities, domestic duties, (cooking, cleaning, laundry etc.). When assisting group leaders and participating in activities your personal pleasure comes second (if at all!) to ensuring the participation and enjoyment for each other member of the group. This is NOT easy. It requires observation and attention to ALL members of a group. Short term volunteers are required for one to four weeks. Long term volunteers for over four weeks. Full board (on working days) and lodging are provided plus £30 pocket money per week. Accommodation is in caravans. Short term volunteers (one ot four weeks) may have to share. There is a laundry on site for your use. You must be completely independent, able and willing to look after yourself in all respects during your stay, especially on days off.”
Our listing for The Eilean Bàn Trust read: “Based at Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye, this small independent charity is dedicated to maintaining and managing Eilean Bàn, the island under the Skye Bridge where the author Gavin Maxwell lived. Each year they look for volunteers to help run the Bright Water Centre as well as giving guided tours of the island and helping with island maintenance. An interest in wildlife (particularly otters) is desirable. Lodging for the term of volunteer work will be in the warden’s room of the cottage on Eilean Bàn with cooking and laundry on site for your use. A contribution of £30 per week will be paid towards food costs.”
PDSA, the UK’s leading veterinary charity have 180 stores across the UK, and are in need of retail assistants for any period of time, any amount of hours, and any amount of days per week. There are no restrictions except that all volunteers are over the age of 14, can fill out an online or posted application form, and are able to attend an informal chat within one of their many stores. Volunteering opportunities on the Green Dagon Eco Farm‘s livestock and horticultural team will also appeal mostly to people already based locally as accommodation isn’t provided. They do though provide provide lunch and hot drinks as part of the arrangement. Dog lovers in the UK are sought by Dash Dogs, a dog shelter in Greece to visit potential adoptee homes around the UK or collect newly adopted dogs from UK, Brussels and Paris airports.
If you find yourself living in Northern Ireland and have a passion for trains the Downpatrick & County Down Railway is maintained and operated entirely by a team of committed volunteers. If you’d like to join in, they’ll make you very welcome. In 1840 the residents of Higher Buxton, Derbyshire, were overjoyed when fresh water arrived at the Market Place Fountain. As thanks local people arranged a floral dressing and tea party accompanied by brass bands and dancing children. 180 years later they are still celebrating and could always use the help of a few more willing volunteers if you could spare a couple of hours in July. Volunteers perform many different jobs such as petallers and carnival marshals.
Help Exchange Networks in the UK
More Volunteering in the UK Resources
Vinspired.com – A government initiative to promote volunteer work in the UK, this website provides a search for opportunities such as hostel work, disaster relief, with emergency services and includes under 16 volunteering.
Other Ways to Travel or Stay for Free in the UK
Stay for free in return for caring for local residents’ homes or pets. Join Trusted Housesitters to live rent free as a house sitter (Americans may prefer this link). Britain always has loads of house sits available and you can also get a free Airbnb credit from us here.
The Zombie Chase – Part 2 – Amy Blyth, with video demonstrations from boyfriend Andrew, describes her day at zombie school on her blog.
What it is Like to Volunteer on Skomer – Sandra Young reflects on her weeks’ volunteering with birdlife on Skomer Island, off the coast of Wales.
Beacon: Blists Hill Victorian Town – James Carpenter dresses up as a Victorian for the day for one of the museums operated by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
Volunteering in a Hostel in Northern Ireland – While she didn’t initially care much for the city, Belfast kind of grew on Els thanks to the owner of Arnies Backpackers.
The Price Paid to Volunteer….Time and ££ – Nicola Lazenby details her expenses volunteering at sporting events, including at the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Rugby World Cup 2015 Volunteer: The Pack Training – Nicola Lazenby begins her training in Milton Keynes as one of the 6,000 volunteers recruited to work at the Rugby World Cup.
A Terrifying Volunteering Experience – Rebecca Curtis accuses a man of stealing her sandwich and volunteers to be a zombie.
Working at One of the World’s Biggest Music Festivals – Finding T in the Park tickets to be too expensive for her backpacking budget, Alison Karlene secured a spot volunteering in exchange for a weekend pass and staff camping.
Our Work Exchange Experience In The UK: Plastering With Clay A Straw-Bale Roundhouse – The UK is the most active region in Europe when it comes to sustainable living, alternative communities, and natural building. Wanting in the future to build their own house with natural materials, Otilia and Davide cross the Channel to join a work exchange and learn some of the skills they will need.
* not all these volunteer experiences are with grassroots NGOs or low cost organisations