Thursday, 28 July 2011

Drawing to a close

Tomorrow is our last 'working' day at our current hosts. As is now my pattern I will update on this host after we leave but unless something totally out of character happens tomorrow it is shaping up to be our favourite host so far. The people are fabulous - inspiring, friendly, lovely, interesting; the scenery is gorgeous, the set up is awe inspiring and it is generally all round fantastic!

We are all four feeling slightly WWOOFed out now. It was said to us by a few people before we set off that moving from host to host every week or two might be a bit of a challenge and indeed it has been - great because we get to fit in as many hosts as possible, interesting for the variety and diversity but hard because it very much characterised this as our Year of Goodbyes - goodbye to friends and family and home before we set out and then goodbye to new friends and hosts along the way as we went. WWOOFing for just a short period often means we are simply not around long enough to be trained to be useful so we end up doing similar tasks each time. Much though we might enjoy being in the sunshine weeding or chopping wood it can be hard to maintain enthusiasm for those types of tasks when you are doing them week in, week out and there is a sense of frustration in not learning any new skills or trying new tasks.

Fortunately this host has been fantastic for renewing our passion, reminding us of what we want from this experience and in teaching us loads of new skills. We have tackled all sorts of new things here and will leave very much educated, informed and armed with new practical abilities. We will also leave with a mere 5 hosts left to go. Although we are only just over half the way through our planned time away we are over 2/3 through our booked hosts. This was accidental in the first place as when booking hosts for zone three it was nearly a year away so it wasn't possible to fill every week. I was quite happy about this as it built flexibility into our plan and allowed space to take time out if we needed it. As it turns out we do feel we need it. We are not exhausted from work but we are ready to chill out, to recouperate as a foursome and take some time just for us. To chat, to laugh and to just be. To discus what happens next, to reflect on what we have learnt, what we still want to learn, where our adventure has taken us so far and what gaps - if any, we have remaining.

We left with so many objectives and goals for this year, so many hopes and dreams, so many expectations and ideas about what it might bring, alongside the practial skills we hoped to learn from WWOOFing we also had a plan for living off the land and seeing more of the UK. As we move ever further northwards that aspect of our plan swings into action and we anticipate dusting off our air gun, digging out our fishing rods and bringing down the spotter books from the shelf in the van as we try our hands at hunting, fishing, foraging, wild camping, wildlife spotting and enjoying the rugged wilder side of our countryside. We have at least a week between every host from now on and intend to spend it living as frugally as possible, getting back in touch with ourselves and nature and working out what happens next.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Briefly Homeless

See that? Willow - our home, our bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, lounge, our vehicle, our shelter, pretty much our everything in terms of material possessions up there on a ramp about to have all her wheels taken off.

This was where Willow spent Saturday, Sunday and Monday night.

We on the other hand, by virtue of not being allowed to sleep in here there got to stay with our wonderful friends nearby. We had beds, baths, sofas, TV, electricity, we had all our favourite meals, Ady got to hoover and wash up (things he dearly misses!), I got to chat to my friends til the early hours of the morning and sleep in til much later in the morning (a thing I dearly miss) and Dragon and Star got to play with, watch films, connect on DS consoles and generally hang out with their mates (things they dearly miss).

What a wonderful weekend :)

Willow needed attention to her brakes - Ady does the driving (although I really must do some, I hate the idea of not driving at all for a whole year) and was feeling a decline in the brakes and having to press harder and harder on the pedal to get it to stop, particularly disconcerting when in control of a heavy van, loaded with all your possessions and your family hurtling down a hill! So we took her to a garage to have the brakes dealt with and are now £300 the poorer and have brakes that work. Money we can ill afford but can't possibly begrudge and when split over the mileage we have already done in the van is fairly good going per mile I guess!

We were fairly disorganised in decanting Willow into our friends' house and had underestimated how long we would be without her so poor Ady ended up walking miles in the rain carrying bags of clothes, pillows and various other things - he said he felt like he'd just been evicted from home! Fortunately another friend was able to go to his rescue and collect him - have we mentioned before how lucky we are to have such wonderful friends?!

All of us are now fully topped up, restored and in full working order and arrived tonight, slightly delayed at our next hosts, near Durham, up in t'north. We should probably reserve judgement until we've acually done some WWOOFing here but on first impressions as we sit snuggled up cosily inside a gorgeous yurt in flickering candlelight having shared a meal with our hosts, listening to rain pitter patter on the roof and glancing at the stars through the clear roof panel. The yurt seems to be incredibly well set up with everything we could possibly need and we're really excited at the prospect of working with these hosts and learning from them.

Monday, 18 July 2011

New House Organic Farm

We spent just under a week at New House Organic Farm, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire. It was by far our most challenging host to date, due entirely to a rather unique domestic situation with the hosts who had been a couple but were no longer together and both had their new partners living at the farm too. This made for all sorts of friction, domestic unrest and bad feeling. It was a great shame as the farm is very diverse and there was plenty to learn there. Also Bob, one of the hosts, was incredibly knowledgable and only too happy to tell us and show us things, a great explainer and very passionate about livestock, wildlife and sustainable living.

Unfortunately too much of our time there was clouded by having different people giving us different jobs to do, some of which were clearly not the sort of tasks WWOOFing is about and taught us very little. We struggled to get food each day and instead of the usual arrangement of eating alongside hosts each day we were dished out food to cook ourselves, some of which was simply not acceptable due to being out of date. This was interspersed with sufficient interesting and educational tasks to keep us there and the stunning location in the peak district coupled with lovely weather made up for enough to look on the bright side of the situation. I am writing candidly about our experience as I want to be honest about the challenges WWOOFing can present and as I have name checked all our hosts I am continuing to do so. I think the farm has plenty to offer and in reading the visitors book they have historically been an excellent host so I am sure we were there in a blip in a usually worthwhile place to be. I think they are also rather misrepresented in their listing which mentions alternative energy - a great draw for me - which is infact non-operational currently, and animals, various of which are not being milked or all even on that farmland at the moment.

We did have some great experiences there nonetheless; Dragon and Star loved spending time with the dogs, chickens, ducks and geese, in particular a gosling called Gerald

We did lots of chopping firewood, which both Dragon and Star are getting pretty good at themselves

Other tasks included some crushing and sorting of cans - food and drink tins, fruit picking (mainly gooseberries and blackcurrants), mowing, clearing piles of garden waste and pushing it up hills in wheelbarrows, sweeping, generally tidying and some livestock handling with the cattle. We got involved in ear tagging, weighing, taking temperature, some medication dosing.
For us though I think the most memorable part of the week was the time we spent together in the evenings. We had a campfire every night, which we cooked over (sausages, burgers, chips, egg, bacon and various other dishes over the week) and a bonfire of the heaped up garden waste on our last night, which happened to coincide with the full moon and made for a beautiful evening. We were parked in the dip of a valley and so lost the sun each evening and were thrust into shade before the top of the hill. Three times we ran up the hill at the last minute to watch the sun dip behind the peaks - very gorgeous and a just reward for the run!

We had lots of time to chat between the four of us and have been really starting to hone our plans about what we do next. We are conscious of being half way though our planned hosts (we had nine months worth of booked places before we left) and with every new host we find new things to bat about as ideas, to discuss as possibilities for us or to write off as definitely not for us. New House Farm was no different and we came away with plenty to talk about and ponder on.

Bad: There was a lot of confusion about the food.
Good: It was good fun cooking dinner over the fire every night.
Learnt: All the different types of beer and cider tins. I didn't know that different types of drinks cans are made of different things.

Bad: The dogs chased the gosling (there were several terriers at the farm) and that made me scared it would get hurt. We were not part of the family at all like we have been at every other WWOOFing host.
Good: I really liked the gosling at the farm, he was very cute.
Learnt: If you tame a boy gosling when it grows into a gander it can turn on you.

Bad: The tension at the farm. A lot of the jobs we were given were menial tasks which didn't really represent the work that WWOOFing is supposed to be about.
Good: Bob was a great teacher and his devotion and dedication to giving us his time, sitting down and talking to us and going through things in great detail with us made him probably our best host so far. The animal welfare at the farm was exceptionally good, Bob knew each of his animals individually and really cared about them. It was another host that were very passionate about recycling their waste. The evenings spent with my family were brilliant. The weather was a huge factor in this as it was lovely every day but sitting round a fire in beautiful surroundings was a real highlight of the year so far.
Learnt: A lot about the paperwork and financial side of farming and agriculture. Bob taught us about grants and funding for various types of land which was fascinating and will certainly feature in our future plans. He also taught us about organic status. At the neighbouring farm we visited we learnt that our dreams of an educational facility for learning about farming, animals and agriculture is a realistic possibility.

Bad: The domestic unrest within the resident of the farm. WWOOFing does create a false and imediate intimacy as you live within a family as WWOOFers. This can be challenging even when the host family are lovely and welcomming. This particular host had so many issues around the relationships and family dynamics that they really should not have been inviting strangers and other people into the already complicated mix. A basic criteria of WWOOFing is that food is provided and this was sometimes a challenge to find and I felt many of the tasks we were given were not related to 'working on organic farms'.
Good: Hands on working with the cattle - we did herding and driving the cows several times, dealt with some fiesty cattle and a bull and were given loads of practical hints and experience in that, we weighed cattle, took their temperature, ear tagged them, aided in medicating them (orally and injected) and had more contact with them than at any other host so far. The time Bob spent with us teaching us about paperwork and funding will prove invaluable in the future and Bob invited us to remain in contact for further help. The evenings were a real highlight and really gave us a feel of one of the reasons we had come WWOOFing.
Learnt: Gas cutting, cattle handling, host management!!! about grants and funding.

Monday, 11 July 2011


At pretty much every single one of our WWOOFing hosts I think it is fair to say that hosts have become friends. This last week the opposite has been true and friends have become hosts!

After a fairly intense first half of our planned adventures (we have booked nine months worth of hosts, we are now four and a half months in) with no real time off to speak of we were all feeling ready for a proper break. We have had days off and the odd restful period here and there but not a genuine break with no work or expectations since we set off. We were due to WWOOF at a community in South Wales which did look great and I am sure would have been another good experience and chance to meet yet more interesting people but it was 100 miles plus in the wrong direction to the host we are now at in Derbyshire so we decided to take a week off, invest the petrol costs saved in food and a campsite and contacted friends to arrange meeting up.

So Saturday last week saw us heading to Cheshire, an area we lived in for several years when Dragon and Star were really small and the home of our dear friends Lynda and Stuart. We have stayed with them several times before and they have always been notable for an amazing level of hospitality but I think they surpassed their own very high standard this time. And of course we were oh-so ready for a bit of home comfort!

We were greeted with glasses of wine and beer for Ady and I, the delicious scent of chicken and sausages (MEAT!) wafting out of their kitchen, the sun shining on their patio, jelly and trifle for pudding, a bath and real beds. If we'd compiled a list of all the things we were missing and handed it to them I don't think they could have done a better job of ticking them off!

 We enjoyed Lynda and Stuart's company so much and are so very grateful for how well looked after they made us feel. Knowing we have their love, support, faith in us and championing of our adventure means more to us than I can ever express. So Lynda, these ones are for you.

with Snowdonia in the background

on Bangor Pier

at our hosts in Bangor

in Montgomery

Our week off was sandwiched in the middle with my fabulous friend Jay and her very cool son L meeting us at Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. It was great to catch up with them and their news, spend some time chatting together in the sunshine outside the museum and enjoy playing with some of the interactive exhibits. Jay treated us all to coffee and cake and then very generously bought Dragon and Star each a momento of the day in the museum giftshop, which as close as you can get to hospitality without us actually being in her home!

We also enjoyed browing charity shops and Star and I had a lovely couple of hours just the two of us which inlcuded a trip to a cafe for hot chocolate
Our second half of the week was back in Willow again,  but this time for some recreational camping rather than day to day living. We managed to gatecrash a meeting of a group of friends celebrating one of Dragon's best friend's birthday. We had a fabulous three nights with three other families with the children all roaming, making dens, building camps, whittling wood, building campfires, flint knapping, sharing skills, cooperating and working together, creating a show to entertain the adults and being Proper Children, while us adults did plenty of cooking outside communally, drinking tea, cider, mulled wine (camping essential!), chatting, laughing, sharing in jokes and making memories.

What a fantastic week we have had, sunshine, laughter, great food and drink, rest and relaxation but more than that, the greatest gift of all, the love and company of some of our wonderful friends.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

All about the people

One of the things I was most excited about on our adventure was the opportunity to meet so many people, subscribing as I do to the idea that strangers are just friends we haven't met yet. Along with the hosts, who have been so generous, welcoming us into their homes, their families and their lives we have also encountered all sorts of other new friends along the way.

We have WWOOFed alongside other people, from all sorts of backgrounds, coming to WWOOFing for all sorts of diverse reasons, all ages, nationalities and types of people. We have met the hosts friends, families and neighbours. As a result of bumping into people we have already deviated from our planned route and found ourselves 'WWOOFing' for people who aren't even WWOOF hosts! Our motto is gradually becomming 'take every opportunity that arises as and when it comes up!' As a result we have met some amazing people and had some fantastic experiences. Spending time with Jill from Middlewick (twice!) was as a result of getting chatting to her at a pizza evening she hosted for her neighbours, which we went along to with our WWOOF hosts at the time. We feel very lucky to consider Jill as a close friend now and keep regularly in touch.

At our last hosts the next door neighbour was Ian Sturrock, the apple tree man. Ian picked us up one afternoon as we were walking along the lane back to our hosts, let Dragon and Star do some pond dipping in his pond and invited us back the following day for a tour of his apple tree operation. We learnt about sexual reproduction and vegetative reproduction on apples, grafting and root stock, using chemicals or not, pruning, apple tree shapes and sizes and Welsh apple varieties that had almost died out. We tore ourselves away really as spending time with Ian was entertaining, informative and a lot of fun. He invited us to stay any time and we really hope to take him up on that and return some time.

On our last evening at our hosts they very kindly took us out for a meal at a local restaurant where a friend of theirs was singing. We were briefly introduced before he took the stage and were instantly entranced by both his clear and pure voice and his fantastic songs with a strong message of sustainable living approaches. After about half an hour I leant across to our host to ask the name of the singer so I could look up his songs and get hold of copies and did a double take when  I got the reply 'Eric Maddern'. Eric Maddern! Only one of Dragon, Star and I's favourite authors! We first discovered his books when Dragon was about four or five and started asking questions about where humans came from, why some of us were different colours to each other and how the world began. It seemed that Eric had a book to answer pretty much every question in beautiful poetic words, stunningly illustrated. Books to treasure, to bring out by the pile and snuggle up and share together over and over again.

We all really enjoyed the songs and spent some time chatting to Eric after his performance, thanked him for his stories which we have all gotten so much pleasure from and were invited to visit him at his home and eco-retreat the following day. What an amazing place it is too. Cae Mabon (I really recommend having a good look at the website, particularly the pictures, which do some justice to how beautiful it is there). We sat and chatted to Eric in the sunshine, added to our collection of his books with a couple of signed copies which have instantly become treasured items with a space found for them in the van, had a tour of the woodland, river, amazing eco buildings, gardens, ducks and wonderful space there. We really hope we will return there at some point and have promised to stay in touch with Eric who is interested in our adventure.

Who knows who we'll meet next, which way our adventure will lead? Staying open minded to suggestions, invitations and opportunities, saying yes to offers, taking chances and going with the flow. We're going to keep smiling at those strangers and saying 'hello' and sticking our hands out to introduce ourselves - every single one of them could turn out to be our new best friend.

Pen Y Bonc

We finished yesterday at Pen Y Bonc, a half a hectare smallholding near Bangor, North Wales. They have a fantastic website at Busy Bees where you can read about them in their own words.

We spent a very lovely two weeks with Jonathan and Lisa learning all sorts of things from them. They have chickens and ducks, a large pond teeming with wildlife, areas of their land given over to nature, many beehives, a huge polytunnel, a small orchard and many raised beds. They are close to self sufficient in their fruit and veg growing, obviously we were there at the right time to be eating many things freshly picked from the garden but throughout the year they eat frozen, pickled, preserved food grown themselves too.

Our tasks included: helping with the bees (we assisted in moving a colony from one hive to another ready to be passed on to a new beekeeper), bottling honey, bottling wine (mead, made with honey), picking off dried herbs and jarring them, picking soft fruits (strawberries, raspberries, tayberries, loganberries, red, black and white currants, gooseberries, jostaberries, loganberries), salad leaves, thinning carrots, grapes and apples, sowing seeds, transplanting seedlings, weeding, strimming, mowing, mulching, feeding and watering plants (including a diluted wee feed and a diluted seaweed extract foliage feed), treating the ends of some wood for use in building, harvesting garlic and onions and a bit of building work. Some helping to keep the ducks in the area they were supposed to be a mucking out their house and the chicken shed, collecting eggs and feeding the birds, setting a squirrel trap and a bit of moving firewood about. All hugely diverse and very educational.

It was a very enjoyable WWOOF experience, Lisa and Jonathan are interesting, inspirational people only too happy to share their knowledge and skills and everything we did was fully explained and had an obvious reasoning and purpose. We really enjoyed spending time with them and their children and the little community of their friends and neighbours around them. Our days off were spent walking into the local town, driving a short way to enjoy Anglesey and we loved spreading ourselves out of an evening and making use of the static that they had as WWOOFers accomodation.

pruning and thinning grapes

bottling honey

mmmm honey

I put that in there (with a little help from those bees!)

grading and trimming carrots

checking apple tree grafts

corking the mead

corking the mead

treating the cordwood

digging up the garlic

elephant garlic!

blackcurrant harvesting

onion harvesting

Bad: The hosts were vegetarian and I really missed eating meat while we were there. It did make me realise that meat is a luxury food though. We used to eat meat most days at home so not having it at all was hard.
Good: I enjoyed the time we spent doing beekeeping stuff. I got to have a go with the smoker which was fun, it worked differently to how I expected it to.
Learnt: About bees, about winemaking (sterilising and corking the bottles).

Bad: I found the beekeeping suit really uncomfortable. Daddy had zipped my hair into the velcro which pulled and I really needed to blow my nose!
Good: I liked the ducks and the chickens and that I got to do lots with them.
Learnt: About bottling honey, we used a special container with a tap to fill the jars and had to skim stuff off the top and bottom of the honey.

Bad: The return to suburbia! Despite having land and beautiful views there was traffic noise, helicopters overhead landing at the nearby hospital and a huge retail park very close by. There was loads of light pollution too.
Good: The innovation behind the planning of their land. Everything was well organised, the hosts were very close to self sufficient with their fruit and veg growing on a really small space. Every area was being used for something whether it was growing food or given to wildlife. It was a very efficient operation.
Learnt: About thinning fruit; apples, grapes and carrots. The irrigation system and use of the polytunnel.

Bad: Hogweed! Ady and I both have scarred arms and chests from strimming the hogweed. We had no idea it was dangerous but a combination of the sunshine, damp skin and the sap caused phytophotodermatitis. This caused itchy red spots, which blistered and have scarred. I’m hoping the scars will heal or fade.
Good: Pen Y Bonc was a great place for seeing a less extreme version of the lifestyles we have previously experienced. They are not off grid but do use a green energy provider for their mains electricity, they are using mains water but conserve water where possible and work with nature and the elements as much as they can to have as light an impact as possible. It was heartening to see that on a relatively small plot of land, in a pretty urban area it is feasible to lead the lifestyle we hanker after.
Learnt: A great taster in beekeeping - still loads to learn and I’d like to be around for some of the ‘other end’ stuff like honey extraction. I learnt lots from Lisa’s very organised approach to planning her entire calendar of events; sowing, transplanting, harvesting, feeding, mulching and thinning, crop rotation, companion planting and more.

This post is brought to you by a Mifi, from Three.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Finished working, not finished at host

We're in the rather curious position of having finished our actual WWOOFing duties before the end of our stay at our current host. Our hosts have a course to attend somewhere tomorrow so won't be around and as it was to be our last day with them working anyway they have told us to take the day off!

We're heading to stay with friends for a few nights and then more friends for a few more nights next week and very much looking forward to a bit of downtime. We've been on the road now for four months and last weekend reminded us that we had a side agenda of time off together, enjoying the fact we don't have high pressure jobs with long hours and that we should be making the most of this period of freedom. Ady and I both feel we have learnt so much already, really cemented what we would like to do next and as such are looking forward to easing off the pressure to fill the odd few empty weeks we have in the diary over the coming months with hosts, thinking it would be far more fun to execise some of the lessons we have learnt in living as cheaply as possible and maybe trying our hands at some hunting, fishing, foraging or other 'freegan' type activities.

We've had some interesting conversations about how our lives have changed so far and how they are different to how we lived before and also how we have changed and what long lasting impact we imagine this experience will have on us going forward with some very interesting and insightful responses from Dragon and Star. I have got some of that saved in a draft post which I will publish when we've all finished adding to it.