Thursday, 26 May 2011

A rest is as good as a change

We're three months in. We've completed Zone One. We've done give or take 1000 miles. We've completed the first leg of our adventure and ticked many things off our lists already.

We've lived in a tent for two weeks in temperatures below freezing; spent four consecutive weeks sleeping in the van, we've eaten vegan, vegetarian diets including lentils. We've dealt with vomiting, diarrhoea, menstruation, allergic reactions requiring prescription treatment. We have milked cows, been to a slaughterhouse, sheared sheep, driven tractors. We have laughed, cried, faced fears, made friends, talked to strangers, worked crazy long hours, dug ditches, shovelled shit, clipped hooves, chopped wood, lived off grid, sat around too many different kitchen tables to count.

Built into our year are odd weeks here and there to rest, recuperate, regroup, stop, breathe, sleep! This was our first one. We are not without tasks as we are holiday cottage sitting for a friend and doing some weeding and general garden tidying and ensuring the cottage is guest-ready for the next visitors after we leave but it has been just blissful to go to bed when we want, get up when we want, eat and drink and sit around. We have read, watched some TV, played cards, done jigsaw puzzles, gone for walks, chatted, baked bread and just generally enjoyed some down time. This weekend we are meeting up with a large group of very close friends which we are all very much looking forward to. It's a perfect marker to the end of this first part of the adventure.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011


We've done close to 1000 miles since we left home 3 months ago, some short and some long journey along the way.

We've slept in Willow for about two thirds of the time and cooked and properly lived in her for several weeks, sometimes plugged in to hook up electricity, sometimes 'off grid'.

Internally she is showing some signs off wear and tear from this level of use now. Little things, which can be repaired or replaced but are giving her a slightly tatty and lived in feel; stuff like edging strips coming off the worktops, the material on the seat wearing and fraying and some of the curtains missing hooks. We are all conscious of looking after her but it's a pretty small space for four people to live in so it was inevitable that we would have an impact on the rather pristine condition she was in when we started out.

Mechanically we have had some iffy moments. We knew she dropped oil but some sealant seems to have fixed that. She is however dropping automatic transmission fluid at a rather scary rate. We did call out a mobile mechanic at one of the hosts we were at as she was really struggling with hills and seemed to not be changing gears properly (Willow is an automatic but you can hear the gear changes when they happen). He checked the ATF and it was all but empty so he filled that up and just charged us for the oil. We were quite happy to be patronised by a mechanic thinking we were idiots for £30 and a fixed van!

She has been playing up again though and although we keep topping it up it keeps coming back out so we have been debating some sort of action plan. We do have breakdown cover so will not find ourselves in trouble in an emergency situation but we don't have huge funds for repair work and so are debating the pros and cons of just spending a fiver every hundred miles or so to top the fluid up or getting it looked at properly. Today we got some stuff which claims to seal holes so we will give that a go and try and press on. I remain hopeful that at some point along our journey we may well find someone who is knowledgable enough about engines to help us out with it in exchange for some work or help and feel that part of this adventure is seeing whether Willow can do it against all odds.

We also have a second issue of the fan not working. It is a design that works in some sort of oil filled manner and it is broken. The mechanic we called out confirmed this and said we'd need to get one from a scrapyard and could probably fit it ourselves. It means that on a normal run it is fine because the air flowing as we drive along keeps it all cool but if we hit traffic or a hill which she needs to take slowly the engine starts to overheat, so we are getting through quite a bit of coolant / anti freeze too. Again I suspect calling in the proper people to do the job (whatever the mechanic might think I suspect the changing of a fan is beyond us without supervision) may well cost more than Willow is worth and will inevitably leave us homeless for at least one night so I am keeping my fingers crossed we end up somewhere with a broken down vehicle with a compatible fan kicking about that we are able to buy cheaply or swap something for.

For me this all adds to the drama and adventure of our year, for Ady it is often the cause of sleepless nights but I figure if one of us is fretting and convinced it will go wrong any moment while the other one is airy and nochalent and remains sure it will all work out okay in the end at least one of us will be right. If it's Ady he gets the satisfaction of 'I told you so' and I get to shrug and be in charge of working out what we do next. If I'm right we all win as it's the best result.

Place your bets!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Little Coombe / Hallr Wood

We've finished Zone One with a week in Somerset shared between two hosts. This was somewhere we were supposed to have stayed earlier but had been put off by the host as they were unwell when we were due to be with them. They had asked us to stay in touch and reschedule if possible and when we had an empty week in the vicinity we got in touch and arranged it.

We were staying parked in the Caravan Club listed campsite within the land of Rob & Jane and our week was split between Rob and Jane; doing a variety of tasks on their land and Peter, who I had actually made contact with first working in his field and woodland. We slept in Willow, breakfasted in there from food given to us by our hosts and then had lunch and dinner with whichever host we had been working with that day.

We arrived on Monday and after parking up and having a brief tour around some of the smallholding at Rob & Jane's we set to work moving some firewood, grading it for various different piles and stacking it up ready to season for next winter. There is a real art to creating a decent woodpile; one that will not rot away or cause damp problems for a wall it may be stacked next to, fall down or be unstable - Dragon likened it to playing Jenga and I think he is pretty close; except with far less regularly shaped pieces!

Tuesday I have previously blogged complete with photos and was a day spent with Peter.

On Wednesday we were back with Rob and Jane and spent time having a really good tour of all their land. More firewood moving and some pulling weeds and clearing an area that had had some hedge laying done in the past but had grown over.

Thursday we had a day off and spent it trawling charity shops for some replacement jeans for those of us who have gone down a size or up a size in three months! After messing about with various footwear options for me I finally decided I need some proper workboots with steel toecaps so that I can be confident of safety, waterproofness and so on. I've been looking in charity shops everywhere we have been and not come across any so I decided to invest in a new pair. We were near one of those horrible outlet village shopping centres so we ventured in far enough to visit the Dickies outlet store and pick up a pair of very heavily discounted boots for me (well under half the website price) . They have already been very comprehensively tested with Dragon and Star both standing on my feet to check they work! In the evening we headed over to Middlewick for a very nice evening with Jill as we'd not managed a proper goodbye when we left to move on earlier in the week.

Friday we were with Peter again and did some putting down plastic and carpet to suppress weeds and warm the ground up ready for autumn planting in a couple of hours, harvested some comfrey, checked on the trees we'd planted and mulched earlier in the week and had the tough task of drinking a whole bottle of fizzy drink between us so we could use the plastic bottle to make some sapling protectors.

On Saturday Dragon and Star painted some bituminous paint on the ends of some posts and we spent some time in the orchard grading and stacking and splitting more firewood. In the afternoon we went along with Rob to a local jumble sale and picked up huge bargains of jeans and jumpers all round along with some books and a couple of toys for Dragon and Star all for about 20p each.

Sunday morning was more time in the orchard clearing nettles, time in the chicken house clearing nettles, time in the hedge clearing dead wood and some time spent watching two sheep being sheared and having a little go ourselves.

In the evening we all had a big group dinner with Jane, Rob, their two teenagers who live at home (a third is off at uni) and Jane's parents which was very jolly and felt rather like Christmas all sat at a long table. We had lots of compliments about Dragon and Star which was lovely, lots of enthusiasm for our long term plans and offers to return again for another stint, which if we end up going round again is something we may well take them up on.

Bad: It was frustrating to realise very close to the end of the week just how much knowledge our hosts had about so many of the things we are interested in. They had a very full library full of books on farming, smallholding, dairy sheep, beekeeping and so on and lots of experience of animal rearing and crop growing. I felt it was a missed opportunity not learning more from them or spending more time with them. On a more flippant note I also ate way too many lentils - I bloody hate lentils!
Good: It was a restorative place to spend time and gave us back some faith in smallholding and animal keeping after the rather frantic and haphazard environment of previous animal keeping hosts. The animals were all cared for with compassion and respect, they deliberately kept their flock of sheep small so they were able to give individual attention, shear by hand, lamb with involvement where required and so on. There was also a relaxed, slow pace to life with both hosts, a real feeling that everything would happen in it's own time, working alongside the seasons and with nature - permaculture in action I guess, without the fancy label or need to reinvent the wheel. There was recycling, reusing of resources and plenty of 'green' living at both hosts.
Learnt:Sadly very little in entirety but plenty of sparks of knowledge and food for thought - Jane talked to me about milking sheep which was something I had not thought about and will learn about more, we got to have a go at sheep shearing which was far trickier than it looked and I'd like to do more of. I learnt a little about woodland, trees and tree planting from Peter which I'd also like to take further. We got involved in a bit of clearing where some hedgelaying had been done - hedgelaying is another skill I'd like to learn more about. Like Star I also felt there were some areas we were more knowledgable about than our hosts (chicken keeping particularly) which was heartening that we do have some knowledge already.

Bad: I didn't feel like I helped Mummy and Daddy much.
Good: I found that it's getting easier to eat different foods.
Learnt:: I learnt most on the days with Peter, including that every bit of land has some use, whether it is bumpy, hilly, bad soil, water available or not. I leant bow line, granny and reef knots from Peter too.

I enjoy being at places with more animals.
Good: They looked after their animals really well, the best of anywhere we have been so far.
Learnt: about the dogwood tree, how to identify it and that you can use it for arrow making. I also learnt there are different types including yellow dogwood. That I know loads already about chickens, it was nice to feel like a bit of an expert and realise I already knew more than our hosts did about hatching and breeding because I have done lots of it already.

Bad: We didn't have much time spent working alongside the hosts while we were at Little Coombe, which for me is usually one of the best bits of WWOOFing.
Good: The animal welfare was exceptional at Little Coombe. The chickens and sheep were treated so well and it was so lovely to witness, exactly how I would like to run a smallholding.
Learnt: About hand shearing sheep, only a little which has whetted my appetite to learn more about that. I also learnt lots with Peter about comfrey which I am really interested in and tree planting.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

An Atypical Day

A two worlds collide type blogpost :)

Dragon and Star are Home Educated, or I guess for this year Van Educated, or Farm Educated or Field Educated, or simply Left To Their Own Devices, whatever you'd rather call it. I usually don't try to categorise anything we do as it rarely fits neatly into any one box and I don't like labels much anyway.

We have always Home Educated and with children aged 10 and 8 it is now simply something we do rather than anything we think much about, but it is obviously something we are spending time talking about a lot at the moment as we meet so many new people. We are also finding that as life has changed for us this year so has the way we all learn, not just Dragon and Star. We have always followed a child-led or autonomous approach to education, believing that being given the freedom to decide what to learn for themselves with us playing a role as facilitator is the best way. This year though life has obviously changed and the opportunities for learning are different, sometimes more thrust upon us and sometimes trickier to find.

I think a school-at-home or rather more structured approach to education can be far easier to quantify as it works nice and logically through a curriculum and progress is easier to chart. Our approach can be rather more haphazzard with days, weeks or even months going by with nothing easily identifiable as 'Educational' being covered (although if like me you subscribe to the philosophy that we are all constantly learning all the time that is less of a worry) and then a run of stuff all learnt at once in a rush. This year is likely to prove a similar experience I think with a trickle of education all day every day and the odd burst here and there of epiphany, thunderbolt or educationally very rich moments. I suspect that in a roundup of the year it will be incredibly easy to show what a rich learning experience it has been but that odd days or weeks will look in isolation as though very little happened.

But I like a challenge! So when May rolled round which is traditionally the month when for the last 6 years we have captured a photoblog of our day to give a snapshot of our Home Ed life I didn't want to miss a year. If you are interested in reading a bit more about our Home Ed journey before now, or looking at previous photoblog days for contrast a very sporadic blog can be found at Monster & Teeny  with photoblog posts for 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005 . You can see why I didn't want to miss a year!

This May we have already stayed in 3 different places with another one due before the month is out, spread across five different WWOOF hosts in three different counties. No two days are the same so I simply chose today because I happened to start taking photos fairly on in the day. This week we are sleeping and breakfasting in Willow, then working with one of two different hosts (we are being shared between neighbouring farms) who feed us lunch and dinner.

So we woke, turned the van from a bedroom into a sitting room, had breakfast, got dressed and spent some time chatting to the host who's land we are parked on as he was moving his small flock of sheep around into the field next to us. Our host for today, Peter, arrived to pick us up and we jumped into his car and headed for one of his fields about a mile down the road. Tasks for the day once we'd introduced ourselves to each other were to have a guided tour of said field which is part woodland, part allotment. The woodland is a mix of mostly native trees planted by Peter over the last 5 or 6 years. Various orchard fruit and nut trees, several wild varieties, some evergreen, some deciduous with the long term intention of creating a woodland for years to come. Multi purpose as it creates shelter for the allotment part of the field, it creates a woodland useful for wood in years to come, it warms the area up by a few degrees and is simply good for biodiversity, wildlife, privacy and screening of the field and so on. It was fascinating to see which trees were doing better than others planted at the same time and try to work out why - shelter, proximity to other plants, disease, weather damage, water level in soil and so on.

We planted one of several trees Peter had brought along with us, telling us that you should not be planting trees at this time of year and all the reasons why not but explaining that sometimes you just end up with a tree that needs planting and so have to do so and what 'special measures' can be taken to give it the best possible chance and negate some of the factors for iit being the wrong time of year. Dragon and Star got a great lesson in tree identification, planting techniques, working out the weight of water by the volume, seasonal gardening and climate and some practical skill learning in digging, breaking up soil, watering, putting on cardboard and grass mulch and got to use tools such as wheelbarrows, fork, spade, watering can, knife etc.

Then it was tea / lunch time so we retired to some chairs near the shed, a kettle was boiled, tea was drunk, food was eaten and further conversations held. So much of our Home Ed day revolves around conversation, so much of our WWOOFing experience and learning revolves around conversation and today was no exception. I have already forgotten large amounts of what we talked about today and indeed to record it all here would be far too many thousands of words anyway but I do recall that when this photo was taken we were talking about languages. We were discussing Welsh, which my Dad speaks and any Welsh words I knew, how people learn language and whether French people learn to speak French from birth like we learn to speak English (or other mother tongue) or whether they learn it how we would learn a second language. I was explaining about Mother Tongue, Bilingual, citing some real life examples of people we know who learnt to talk using two different languages from babyhood, another friend who lives in the UK and says she now thinks and dreams in English despite being German and having that as her original first language because she has been here so long and talking about how written language is different again and that for example the word we or wee in English is not actually the same as the word Oui in French despite sounding the same, how the word for both white and grandfather in Welsh is the same but by knowing what context it is being used in you would be able to know which meaning it had each time.
Then we planted another tree so a repeat of the above, before heading back to the allotment area to water the raspberry canes, get a lesson in weeding and talk a bit about crop rotation, green manure and comfrey

Another cup of tea, more conversation and then a brief car ride to the woodland Peter has where they do various community projects including Forest School, green woodworking, bushcraft and survival, chainsaw and tree felling lessons and more. We had a tour of the area including a go on the very cool swing, a sit in the very cool chair at one of the fire circles, a use of the compost loo and a quick lesson in how it worked and a look round the kitchen with rocket stove, earth oven and other such cool kit.

 some wildlife stuff such as looking at the tadpoles in the pond and discussing life cycles of frogs - frogspawn, tadpoles, froglets and so on, some more tree identification including looking at damage to trees from deer, rabbits, woodpeckers, some spotting of bugs and beetles and listening to bird calls and a tour of the woodland including looking at which trees had been felled and what impact that had had on the surrounding area, which trees would be selected next for felling and why and discussion on forestry, woodland management, what is coppicing and pollarding and tree diseases. We talked about which trees are good for what including their wood as timber, for burning and so on.

Then it was back to Peter's for dinner where we met his wife and son and had a nice meal and further chats and life information exchanging - always interesting :)

Then back to the van :) We sat and chatted for a while, talking about our day, what plans we have for the rest of the week and for the week after that. Dragon and Star made themselves some toast as a pre-bedtime snack:

Then teeth, pyjamas and 'up to bed' which these days all happens from one single standing point in the middle of the van :) with 'up to bed' meaning a clamber up to their bunk. Tonight we were reading Esio Trott (we're on a Roald Dahl kick at the moment, I think we've read most of them before but we re-read The Twits a couple of weeks ago and have been enjoying going back to a couple of other old favourites).
Ady and I carried on chatting so Dragon and Star ended up contributing to the conversation for a bit longer before they fell asleep.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Wonderers Return

We were due to be at an intentional community In Devon this week and next week but when I emailed them to confirm the details they said they had re-read our initial email and were worried we would not learn enough from them. They were concerned that we were looking to find hosts who could show us about self-sufficiency, green technology and rearing livestock and they are none of those things. They said they would love to meet us and we would be very welcome to come as there was always something to do in their communal gardens but we felt two weeks would be too long to spend somewhere that didn't cover enough of the things we want to learn about. So we made contact with another couple of hosts on our reserve list. One was not able to accomodate us but the other, back in Glastonbury again could take us for the second week. That was enough to persuade us to take Jill at Middlewick Holiday Cottages up on her offer to 'come back any time'. We had stayed in touch with a couple of phonecalls anyway, so it was simply a matter of seeing which cottages she had room in and what time we could arrive.

We've had another lovely week here, helping with various tasks as diverse as trimming hedges, mowing lawns, manning the office, tidying the library, converting an old red telephone box into a very small tourist information centre, filling up salt and pepper pots, serving breakfast to a group of Italians, cleaning windows, scrubbing the swimming pool steps, lighting the fire in the pizza oven, feeding the chickens and tending the vegetables. Enough glimmers of growing and animals to keep our hand in WWOOFing-wise and sufficient touches of luxury in the shape of proper beds, baths, large kitchens and of course the swimming pool and steam room to make it feel like a mini break!

Star has been happy to be back with Maggie the dog  with the added attraction of chickens and horses:

Dragon has very much enjoyed learning how to drive the quad bike, practising his Harry Potter / Jedi / Pirate moves with sticks /swords / wands / light sabres and some space to spread out all his drawing materials and get creative:

Ady celebrated his birthday too this week, the first of the birthdays we'll spend away from home. We managed to get cards from friends and family send here, presents delivered bought online and had the day off 'work'. We spent it doing the couple of things we'd not managed to get round to last time we were in Glastonbury and had wished we'd done; visiting the Chalice Well & Gardens  where we drank some of the water and had a quick bathe in the water too, reputed to have healing properties. I'm not sure if I believe in such things but it certainly felt lovely to put my shoes back on again after such shockingly cold water!

The other Glastonbury experience we had missed time we were here was fish & chips at Knights, an award winning F&C shop. We'd meant to get there but the only time we were organised to be there when we were hungry it was closed last time we were here. This time we managed to get there at lunchtime :)
It's been nice to be somewhere where people already know our story, we have met new more people as well as strengthening links with people in this area. We're looking forward to our next host; a week shared between two neighbouring farms.

Bad: missed farm-like jobs, I find gardening a bit boring (qualified that it is no one's fault as she knows this is not a farm, just that she loves being on a farm!)
Good: Got to spend time with Maggie (the dog) and Jill again.
Learnt: How you can furnish a house for free - not technically learnt from Middlewick, we visited a neighbour who have furnished their entire shell of a house using free stuff from freecycle / friends / rubbish and it is fabulous, Star was very impressed :)

Bad: The cottages have been very busy, fully booked most of the time which has meant we have not had the run of the place as much as we did last time.
Good: Spent lots of time pretend sword fighting with Daddy
Learnt: How to drive the quad bike.

Bad: Missed Johnnie, Jill's husband who was here more last time and we only saw briefly last weekend.
Good: The hospitality and generosity of Jill has been amazing once again, it's a fab place to be with stunning scenery and a great place to spend time. Also it was nice to be somewhere that feels like a home away from home for my birthday.
Learnt: About repairing a rotten wooden window frame from spending some time with the carpenter working here.

Bad: It's been a more sedentry week for me, less time spent outdoors and rather more sitting down. Nice, certainly but  not good for me, particularly when coupled with our own kitchen to cook bigger dinners in!
Good: Lovely to see everyone here again, have a rest from Willow in a real bed, with access to bath, swimming pool etc. A busman's holiday certainly as we've carried on working but a slight rest nonetheless.
Learnt: more about the hospitality business; we got involved in catering for breakfast, more housekeeping and I spent several 'shifts' covering the office answering the phone and checking emails.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Evergreen Farm

We are back in Somerset again, slowly heading northwards over the next few weeks to complete Zone One before we arrive in Wales for Zone Two.

We spent nearly three weeks at Evergreen Farm, owned and run by Emma and Pete. They are a mixed farm, rearing chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, sheep & lambs and veal calves. They also open out one of their fields to campers for limited time each year.

The days and weeks at Evergreen have a rhythm which we quickly fell into;

Sundays and Mondays are quiet so we took those as our days off each week - we had some lovely walks in the woodland opposite the farm, did plenty of wildlife spotting and nature exploration and borrowed one of the farm cars for a trip to some of the nearby little towns.

Tuesday is slaughtering day - sheep, cattle and pigs go to a local, family run abattoir which involves selecting which animals are going, loading them onto a trailer, checking they have their ear tags in place and replacing them if not, completing the necessary paperwork for transporting animals - cattle have the equivalent of a passport which stays with them from birth to slaughter, sheep and pigs have transportation forms. This ensures that meat is traceable by movement throughout it's life and is another check for animal welfare to ensure animals are not travelling long distances or loaded in trailers for long periods unnecessarily. The animals are loaded into pens at the abattoir and slaughtered by humane means with a minimum of fuss or stress. This has the obvious benefit to the animal of a speedy despatch but also ensures the meat is as good a quality as possible as the endorphins and stress related chemicals which are released into the blood stream and body of a frightened animal would produce tough and poor tasting meat.

Once killed (a stun to the head with either an electric pulse (pigs and sheep) or a bolt (cattle) animals are hung up by a back leg and have their throat slit before they have a chance to come round from the stunning. They are then bled and gutted and hung for a week. Some farmers have the butchers at the abattoir joint and process their meat but Pete butchers his own pigs and sheep and has a specialist butcher come to the farm to butcher his veal calves so he collects last weeks animals on a Tuesday ready to take back to the farm.

Tuesday morning is also a local market, Star and I visited it with Pete on our last week with them and enjoyed selling eggs, pies, pasties, sausage rolls, burgers, sausages and meat to local shoppers, along with exchanging banter with fellow stall holders, trading produce at the end of each market day. This market also has a live poultry auction so Star was in her element watching all the chickens, ducks, geese and other more exotic birds arriving (there were peacocks and some fancy pigeons the week we were there) and being put into their show cages, then watching the auctioneer fast talk his way into selling them all off. She watched Pete bid on, and win, some laying hens and came back later with a serious face to convince me she had bid on and won some ducks - I believed her for a while!

Pete has a licence to slaughter his own birds so there is a dedicated Killing Room on the farm. Our first Tuesday there we helped catch chickens and turkeys and got involved in the slaughtering process of them, similar to the pigs and sheep they have an electric current applied to their heads to stun them, then their throats are slit while they are stunned. They go in a hot water plunge bath to open their pores and loosen their feathers then an electric plucker machine removes most of their feathers. They are then finished off by hand and legs and heads removed. Obviously we were not allowed to do any killing but we witnessed the whole thing and assisted with the processing once they were dead.

Wednesday is spent in the kitchen baking for Emma - she turns all the unsold meat from the week before into pies, pasties, scotch eggs and sausages rolls, using as much bartered for local produce in her baking as possible. Pete meanwhile is in the cutting room dealing with the meat brought from the abattoir yesterday. Pigs and sheep are cut into joints - legs and breast for roasting, chops and ribs, specialist cuts like neck of lamb, pigs trotters and organs like heart, liver and kidney, some meat is diced for use in stews or pies and some minced. Bacon is cured using a dry cure method (similar to this one) which results in a far nicer bacon than wet cured in brine, less salty and no pan full of water to dispose of like you can get with some cheap bacon.

Next the processed meats; the mince was mixed with flavourings and preservatives to create sausage or burger mix, then minced again for a nice fine texture. Pete does a huge variety of flavours including traditional, cumberland, hickory smoked, sweet chilli, pork and apple, pork and leek, sage and onion, lamb and mint, lamb and rosemary. Then the mix is either put into the burger press or fed into the sausage machine and Pete makes strings of sausages.

I got involved each week in the packing and labelling process, arranging a variety of sizes and numbers of meat to make sure we had a good choice to take to market for people wanting to feed just one, to a whole big family. Meat had to be packed in a vacuum bag, or placed on a tray and wrapped with cling film, then weighed and labelled with details including price, ingredients if it contained any processing (such as the bacon) or ingredients (such as the burgers and sausages) and use by date.

One of the weeks we were there we also went to a cattle market and livestock auction with Pete which was a very interesting experience. We took along some ewes and lambs to sell, so had the selecting, loading and paperwork to complete and then the putting into a pen at market. The sheep auction had the auctioneer walking between the pens with the group of interested people following him along and bidding. A variety of people were there to buy from farmers looking to increase their own farm stock, to abattoirs who buy meat to kill and sell in their own farm shops to to buyers, to big buyers who buy livestock in one area and move it to another to get a better price to sell at - trading and the buyers who look for meat stock.

The cattle market was an arena with the cattle brought in to parade around while the auctioneer took bids, he was amazing to listen to and had clearly been doing the job a long time. The cattle ranged from week old calves just off their mother's milk that morning who would need to fed formula by their new owners to couple of year old cattle ready for meat, milking or breeding.

Thursday is a market day at a slightly further afield market which Ady did twice. It doesn't bring in a huge revenue for them and is further to travel but does run year round whereas some of the markets are summertime only, so they keep this one going to ensure an income and presence at markets year round. Again this was selling pies and pasties, meat and sausages. There was more trading of produce between stallholders and it is clearly a valuable networking resource and place to get local news, gossip and keep the local food producers community alive. Back at the farm the veal butcher comes in on a Thursday to joint any veal calves slaughtered the previous week; creating various roasting joints, steaks and escalopes, diced meat and osso bucco (which literally translates as hollow bone and is the leg, or shin, apparently very good for slow cooking in stews or casseroles). So there is more packaging and labelling to be done along with top up baking.

Friday varied rather as during our first week I went along to a local market they had been doing but had been less profitable so ended up being their last time there. It was an indoor pannier market whereas the other markets are all open air ones, so interesting to see the contrast and slightly different feel to it. The second Friday we were there was the Royal Wedding so I went along to help out at a local event celebrating that with the wedding shown on big screens and local traders selling a variety of produce from food to handbags and several local charity stalls too. We were cooking this time; our own bacon, sausages and burgers to sell alongside our pies and pasties and meat to take away and cook yourself. We did really well on all counts but the hot food sold particularly well with us having to run out and buy more rolls and do some speedy burger making by slitting open some sausages when we sold better on one than the other! Flexible and adaptable definitely key skills when selling at a market! They do a regular local market too which Emma does on her own each week every Friday too.

Saturday was another market, this time on the quayside through the summer at a nearby seaside town. We only went along once and Ady was offered the chance to work on a neighbouring stall selling fish. In the interests of embracing opportunity, learning new skills and the offer of free fish for dinner that night he jumped at the chance! Dan the Fish Man is a real character and Ady really enjoyed working alongside him, learning a fair bit about fish and even more about how to sell it! I worked on Pete and Emma's stall selling burgers, sausages, veal steak sandwiches alongside meat and pies and pasties. I particularly enjoyed the banter between stallholders (especially with the attractive man selling fish on the stall next door!) and flogging the pasties for a pound at the end so we sold out. Dragon and Star particularly enjoyed the ice creams Pete traded for some sausages with the ice cream van.

Alongside all of this daily change is the general day to day running of a farm; feeding, bedding, mucking out the animals, checking their general health and condition and dealing with any illness or injury, collecting eggs, getting in supplies such as animal feed, baking ingredients, sausage skins, packing materials, bags for the market stall, dealing with paperwork and of course living your normal life too! Not to mention the times of year when animals need breeding or birthing, maintenance needs doing or trying to plan ahead and speculate to accumulate.

A regular refrain from Pete was 'if I had the money I'd...' or 'what I'd like to do is...' or 'when I get time...' and I think the luxury of seeing all of these needs before we have the pressure of needing to be making a living or dealing with our own animals or land is realising that planning and being very realistic about how long tasks might take and will cost is essential. One of the biggest costs in keeping animals is feeding them and we learnt how valuable a field of grass is to a farmer as this time of year is the first cut for silage. We were lucky enough to be down the road from a farmer who does this on a grand scale and was happy for Pete to take us along one evening to witness it happening, huge impressive (and expensive) machinery in full operation with a team of farmers driving tractors in a sort of synchonised dance around the fields. This is large scale, million pound farming and not where our dreams and ideals lie but fascinating to see and try to learn which elements and aspects would scale down to our planned level.

Pete and Emma are not WWOOF hosts, they took us in because their friend is a WWOOF host and had booked us to stay but then was not really able to have us. She had spoken to Pete & Emma about us as we were going to spend some time with them learning about butchery so they were aware of the idea of WWOOFing but not the finer points of the arrangement. I think they have a lot of offer as hosts; they are very good teachers with a huge amout of knowledge and practical tasks to share with WWOOFers aswell as the need for plenty of help! We did explain the usual guidelines of a set number of hours work each day in exchange for food and board, or a camping pitch but we also offered to work more hours if we were learning and getting something out of it. Most of the time we were and although we put in regular 11 or 12 hour days with Ady still getting up to do all the clearing away and washing up after dinner we were happy to do so in exchange for all of the new skills we were being taught. We learnt a fantastic amount in our time there, we picked up skills and knowledge, all sorts of ideas and things we want to research and discuss more and add to our potential wish lists. We got a candid and honest view of their lifestyle, the highs and lows and were able to see what we do and don't want for ourselves. They were generous people with an interesting life totally different to our own, different backgrounds, different values and different priorities and meeting people who don't act, think or live like us was high on our list of reasons for having this adventure. We did have a couple of days of rather less pleasant or productive from our point of view tasks; things like tidying out a shed and digging ditches which although relevant to their farm and useful to them were dirty, dusty jobs which we would not be willing to do too often. I was fully prepared to muck out chickens, pigs and cows, get covered with muddy lamb footprints and dragged through the mud by a sheep though.

The very definite downside to this host was that Dragon and Star did not get as much out of being there as we would have liked. For safety reasons they were not allowed the run of the place and contact with the animals was far more minimal than in other places. This will hopefully not be an issue in future hosts as we have been clear in our introductory email exchanges that the children are expecting to work and learn alongside us and are interested in how everything works and have their own wishlist of achievements during the year; previous hosts have been very good at including them either with us or by giving them tasks of their own to complete and teaching them new skills too. Pete and Emma were perfectly happy for Dragon and Star to make use of their lounge, dvd collection, large screen TV and big box of lego which was very generous but not how we planned the childrens' days being this year. It meant we missed each others company and I had concerns that if not learning practical skills alongside us or our hosts, or simply spending time chatting and asking questions in the way they did when we were at home it is hard to demonstrate that an education is taking place. That is not to say that they didn't learn anything as they did, and I am a firm believer in education being everywhere, even when not blatantly obvious; Star very happily gave change to customers on the market stall, they both learnt where to position themselves when herding a flock of sheep, Dragon was a dab hand with the mincing machine and they both had a go at plucking turkeys and catching chickens.

We did leave a few days earlier than originally planned for a variey of reasons; Dragon was not feeling very well, we were all quite wrung out from four solid weeks sleeping in the van and our final days workload fell into the dirty, phyically tough and simply not very pleasant category. When we left the house it was with a promise to ourselves that this year was to be enjoyed not endured, that while we were aware we would meet challenges along the way that tested us and sometimes had to be faced and got through it is not a punishment and we are doing it to learn and acquire new skills not because we 'have to'. Ady was fully prepared to grin and bear it and enjoy the feeling of having 'got through' it whereas I was more aware of the childrens needs and happiness and the freedom to not spend time doing things that make me miserable. A family conference in the back of the car sitting in a field in the rain had a majority decision leading to a consensus. Overall though it was a very positive experience which ticked many things off our list of things we want to learn this year. I think we have also given them the idea of becomming WWOOFing hosts themselves and that maybe they learnt a little from us in return.

Bad: Didn't have as much time with Mummy & Daddy at this farm.
Good: I learnt lots in our time there.
Learnt: How a slaughterhouse operates, how to turn a sheep.

Bad:I didn't feel as though we had as much freedom as at other hosts. There were lots of areas we were not allowed to go and things we were not allowed to touch.
Good: I liked the dog there - Jess, I enjoyed the day I went to market with Mummy
Learnt: That all animals are stunned before they are killed, I didn't know chickens get stunned before they are killed.

Bad: We made excuses and left early because our last few days would have been spent on labouring type tasks with the hosts parents, rather than doing markets and finishing the last week working alongside hosts. I sort of wish we had been honest about why we left early or explained that we were not prepared to do the proposed jobs.
Good: The sheer magnitude of the things we learnt; the confidence that our host showed in me.
Learnt: That location of your land can be more important than what you grow or which animals you rear in terms of finding your market.

It was not a balanced hosting for the four of us as a family. Whilst Ady and I gained a lot from visiting markets, seeing livestock auctions, going to the slaughterhouse, some basic butchery and meat processing and livestock handling as well as the more academic conversations with the hosts Dragon and Star were not able to get as much from those things on their level. I am sure they did gain from their time there but it was not the deal we promised them in exchange for leaving friends, family and home behind and I feel bad about that. I was very proud of them for having discussed it between the two of them and coming to me with their concerns and an action plan at the end of the first week and continuing to discuss things with us and show maturity, intelligence, a bigger picture ability to their thinking and find ways to make the best of things. So I guess it offered an opportunity to demonstrate that though. Another bad is that many of my green ideals were compromised and I had no way of recycling, creating less waste or living in the eco-friendly manner I am passionate about embracing.
Good: Such a thought provoking place to have spent time. I have had loads of ideas and sparks of interest in new directions as a result of things we saw, conversations we had and the places we visited while we were there. I am feeling more sure that we want a certain type of life than ever and this is certainly giving us some more concrete ideas about what we do and don't want. It was the embodiment of why we decided to go WWOOFing really, despite not being an offical WWOOFing host, a real 'suck it and see' opportunity.
Learnt: About farmers markets, some practical eyes-wide-open stuff about what free range really means along with some other terms such as 'farm assured' and 'freedom food', that many of our previous career experiences can still be very useful to us in a new life as the skills are very transferable, about livestock auctions and what aspects of the farming lifestyle are tough with little reward and which aspects are quick wins with large financial gain for very little work, which are gambles and risks and which are slow and steady and how to combine all of the above for the most solid but rewarding overall picture.

Monday, 2 May 2011

End of week two

We are about to start our third week at our current host, the longest we've got planned at any host this year.

Our second week here was much the same as the third - busy! My parents came to visit and stayed at a nearby B&B for the weekend at the end of our first week which was lovely, we are missing them and although we speak at least once a week on the phone I think they left reassured we are all just as fine and happy as we tell them we are! We had a couple of nice days out locally with them and two very good meals at a local pub.

We did our customary hiding mini Easter eggs round the house late on the Saturday night after Dragon and Star had gone to sleep so they would wake up on Easter Sunday and find them - obviously both trickier in terms of hiding places and easier in terms of size when your house is a campervan!

We both did two markets this week; Ady sold meat at Chudleigh Farmers Market while I attended a local event to celebrate the Royal wedding which was shown on big screens with a picnic and live band afterwards selling a selection of meat, pies and pasties along with freshly cooked bacon, burgers and sausages in Holdsworthy. The local mayor proved a very good customer, coming back for both breakfast and lunch!
On Saturday we all went to Bideford Market where Dragon, Star and I enjoyed a couple of hours off in the morning to wander round the town and do a little bit of shopping before coming back to help out on the farm stall selling pasties, pies, meat and burgers, while Ady spent the whole day helping out on the neighbouring stall, Dan the Fish Man a friend of our hosts who had said he needed a hand on his stall so they had suggested Ady. In exchange for a couple of quid and enough fish to feed all of us and our hosts for dinner that night Ady spent his time learning his skate from his halibut, his turbot from his plaice and enjoying fish related banter instead of sausages for a change!
He is welcome back any time apparently, he was great at it!

Also this week, along with helping to feed and muck out animals and do some general tidying up around the farm we went to our first livestock market, helping our host take along some ewes and lambs and watching the auctions for sheep and cattle.

Ady has had a go in the cutting room and we've both been involved in more packing up and labelling of meat and sausages.
During our evenings and days off this weekend we have spent time in the woodland directly opposite the farm which is just gorgeous, full of evergreen and broadleaf trees and teaming with wildlife. We have walked,
and we have sat,

including picnics and spending quiet time being still and silent to see what we could spot, we were treated to a deer coming really close to us before getting spooked and dashing off again.

And of course Dragon and Star have played, found 'treasure' (a deers skull in this instance), waved sticks around, tried to identify mushrooms and enjoyed getting dirty!