Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Zone Three - Bonnie Scotland

After a very lovely five days camping back in Llangollen, North Wales with our sister in law, nieces and nephew we did a 250 miles trip (Willow's biggest in one day) trip from Wales to England to Scotland, followed two days later by a 70 mile trip taking in two ferries to arrive at our current host in Tarbert, Argyll on Kintyre.

In many ways we have all been holding out for the Scottish leg of our journey. It marks the end of our planned WWOOFing adventure and a change of pace as we only have three hosts booked in three months. When I was organising these hosts, nearly a year ago I left lots of time inbetween each host to ensure we had lots of flexibility incase we wanted to stay longer in places or take more time off. As it happens we are feeling ready for a break from WWOOFing, or certainly larger gaps inbetween hosts and are very keen to spend some time covering some of our other plans for this year.

A side objective of the adventure was always to spend time living with less, consuming less, spending less and trying to live closer to the land. We have fishing rods and an air rifle with us in the van, along with various foraging guides so we are hoping to make do with very basic rations stocked up each week in the van supplemented with what we can pick up along the way. Here in Scotland relaxed rules about wild camping and parking to stay along the roadside mean we will be able to ensure the van has sufficient fuel for Willow and food and water for us and head off for adventures, stopping whenever the mood - or a beautiful view takes us.

We have a long list of things we want to see; Golden eagles, seals, whales, dolphins, otters, leaping salmon, the northern lights, the Loch Ness monster!!!

We are really enjoying our current host - who I blog about in more detail once we have finished here and have already fallen in love with Scotland to the point of checking out all sorts of things with regard to maybe settling here one day. We have our final three months of our year planned out now and will be heading back in a far more southerly direction for the colder winter months of mid December, January and February, returning to an indoor location which we're looking forward to as a fitting end to our first chapter of this year, before deciding what happens next.

with family in Llangollen from L-R Ady, Dragon, Cousin J, Cousin L, SIL J, Nic, Star, Cousin M

saying goodbye at the campsite with Willow in the background. Star not being patient!

At the viewpoint
on our second ferry that day - rough, rainy, windy and so much fun!

Tarbert, Argyll

a genuine Scottish thistle

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


Our final Zone Two host took us back slightly south to the edge of the Yorkshire dales. It was the host so far that is furthest from my original expectation of WWOOFing with no livestock or growing to speak of, fully on-grid although with definite green and eco leanings. We spent two weeks there and it was rather unlike any other host in that we were mostly doing general maintenance type work on the house and garden. The hosts live in a beautiful big house with large grounds including a river running through and a slice of woodland. They comprise a couple, who have two grown up daughters (one of whom was back for the week during our second week there as she was helping with caring), two teenaged fostered brothers, teenaged foster twin girls, a girl with cerebral palsy and for our second week a girl with Downs and learning / behaviour issues. Also resident at various points during our stay were the hosts sister and her son, the hosts cousin and various teenaged friends of the children.

We did a fair bit of mowing and strimming, plenty of humping and dumping (we moved chicken houses, rocks, big glass panels, lumps of wood and more), lots of household-y stuff - we removed, sanded, varnished and re-hung three interior doors, some chainsawing of wood and some building stone walls. Ady did some clearing gutters and we helped with some solar hot water panel making.

The children spent most of their time playing in the garden, building dams and making dens near the river. They caught up on some film watching, went swimming in the local open air pool and enjoyed hanging out with the children at the host.

We were very much treated as part of the family and Dragon and Star were invited along on all the trips and outings the children there went on - often they chose to stay behind with us - parks lose their appeal in their eyes when there are riverbanks and treedens to play at, open farms where you can pay to feed the animals are less fun when you have spent the last six months living on actual working farms feeding animals every day.

We had some great times exploring the local area, either with our hosts or at their suggestion and saw various local landmarks, had some great walks, spent time watching kingfishers hunting on the garden pond when the downpours of heavy rain flooded the riverbank and saw them out of their nests. The real highlight though was a trip to a local cave for our first taste of caving, which included getting utterly soaked, scrambling through caverns and tunnels, wading through underground lakes and rivers, marveling at stalactites and stalacmites, switching off our head torches and sitting in the pitch darkness, abseiling down drops and trying (and in my case failing) to climb back up them again. What an exhilarating and unique experience!

We also got to have a turn at cooking dinner (always lovely to have some time in the kitchen - we both miss cooking), played lots of games, spent evenings chatting and generally enjoyed getting to know a whole host (pardon the pun!) of new people.

Bad: The usual WWOOFers accomodation is a straw bale bunkhouse, which was dark, damp and rather smelly. We spent the first three nights sleeping in there which I really struggled with, before moving into the main house. Our hosts kindly found space for us to sleep in the main house and from then on our accomodation was fine.
Good: We were made very welcome and were very much a part of the family; sharing mealtimes, entertainment, trips out etc. with everyone there. It was excellent generosity and hospitality and I really enjoyed being part of it.
Learnt: I learnt loads about being with and caring for profoundly disabled children. What their needs are, what care they need, how to interact with them. I really enjoyed that and would now feel much more confident in being around children with such special needs.

Bad: That we didn't get to sleep in the strawbale house for the whole time we were there!
Good: I really enjoyed playing by the river and I saw kingfishers.
Learnt: About caving - the whole world looked different from underground. There was no grass, you couldn't see the sky up above and it felt like being on the moon. It was a very good experience, I'm glad we went there.

Bad: There were no jobs Mummy & Daddy did that we could really join in with.
Good: That we saw kingfishers, the hosts were really nice people. I really liked going caving.
Learnt: I had a go at sanding the doors and that was something I had not done before.

Bad: There were a couple of aspects of our time at this host that I struggled with. The first was the overall environment not really being what I had expected. The listing mentioned looking after chickens, working in the vegetable garden and being involved in alternative technology. What we actually spent time doing was mowing lawns, sanding doors, tidying a workshop and moving rocks about. I also found the busyness of the house something I needed to escape from every so often. We were never less than 14 around the dinner table which had me sloping off to the bedroom to read for half an hour every so often. I found the atmosphere of friction with teens, children with very severe disabilities and the pressure of wanting to be sure my own childrens' needs were being met quite intense.
Good: Once again my good is going to be 'the people'. I really enjoyed spending time with the various people there one to one. I found people with ideas and ways of life similar to my own and those I am seeking, I found people with incredibly different beliefs and ways of being. I enjoyed discussion and debate and swapping life stories, I enjoyed learning about parenting styles different but equally considered and thought out to my own. I learnt from spending time in the company of parents and teens and finding myself empathising with both sides - something I hope I am able to draw upon when Dragon and Star are older and pushing and pulling in different directions to mine. We were shown kindness, generosity, warmth and affection and feel priviledged to have spent time in this family home and shared their lives for a couple of weeks.
Learnt: I didn't actually acquire any new skills at this host, but as I am firmly of the belief that it's all but impossible to live for one day without learning anything so certainly can't have spent a fortnight in a different environment without learning something. On that basis I learnt about fostering, about caring for disabled children, about living in a small village in a tightknit community, about caving and about keeping a house with so many occupants running day in, day out.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The important things in life...

This week we have had some time with my parents, staying in a holiday cottage in Silverdale in the southern part of the Lake District. A literal and figurative recharge of batteries.

We had plenty of time to chat and reflect and will have much to say in our next couple of blogposts as we start to think about what happens next and where we go from here but we certainly managed to get healthy doses of the things that are important to us including:

Baths, beaches and baking - the lure of bubble baths, particularly when accompanied by a glass of wine, a bowl of nuts and a good book (for adults) or the freedom to splash as much as you like and not even have to wash your hair (for children) cannot be underestimated. When we lived in a house I used to bath recreationally, it was almost like a hobby. I don't actually miss baths anywhere near as much as I feared I would but I do have a personal top five list of Baths I Have Most Enjoyed In My Life which possibly qualifies me as someone who loves them more than the average ;). Beaches are something we are definitely lovers of and indeed we lived only a mile away from a beach back at home. We have not spent very much time at the beach so far this year and a coastal final destination seems likely for us given how much we have missed splashing in the sea, collecting sea glass, pebbles and other treasure, listening to seagulls and gazing out into the waves and of course going home with sand in our shoes. Baking is probably specific to me again - I loved being able to bake bread each day, make a cake for my Dad's birthday and even pondered some jam making while we were at the cottage. I am looking forward to having a full size kitchen rather than a four foot by one foot space with everything crammed in again one day.

Woodland, wildlife and walking. We were very lucky that the route to the beach was through a woodland, so we got to enjoy two pleasures in one trip each time (practically daily!). The woods were gorgeous; full of deer, birds and bugs, tiny froglets, baby toads, sloworms and other such treasures. They were also beautifully green and lush, generally damp and full of that lovely woody smell that freshly rained on trees have. The wildlife also spotted that week included crabs at the beach and various seabirds (all sorts of gulls, cormorants), kestrals and buzzards and woodpeckers. We walked every day; usually a good 5 miles or so which made appreciation of the baths and baking all the greater :)

Family, friends and feedback. We are so very lucky to have been visited or been able to visit along the way with family and friends. We have made new friends along the way and this is one of the huge highlights of this year for us - meeting people and forging new friendships as we go. Dragon and Star have always been close siblings but this year seems to have brought them ever closer together and the four of us now have so many shared adventures, anecdotes and moments that I know we will remember and treasure forever. We are already starting to refer to earlier times along our journey with 'do you remember when we were at...?' and 'wasn't it funny when.... said...'. The feedback is more than just a gratuitous f word because it would fit neatly into my three groups of alliterative threes - it refers to the comments we get on this blog, the emails and texts and phonecalls from friends along the way, the input various hosts have had in talking to us about why they do things the way they do and what we might do next, the conversations with people we have had, the chats the four of are constantly having as we go along, the good, bad and learnt records from each host and the general tossing abot of ideas and plans and hopes and dreams that shaped how we planned this year, how we are conducting it as we go along and what we are thinking we might do next. It's a rollercoaster ride and hearing the screams and laughter of the other three people riding along side us give us all courage to carry on and knowing we have people along listening and joining in for part of the journey is what makes it all the more exciting to be living and recounting. It was great to have time with my parents this week and get their take on this last installment since we'd seen them six weeks ago.

We've had a weekend just the four of us in Morecambe, mostly on the beach building sandcastles. Tomorrow we're off to the next host for a two week stay.

Monday, 1 August 2011


We have just finished a two week stay at a community in County Durham. A 15 acre area of woodland, dwellings and organic growing space. It is home to a small community made up of two families - both with two adults and two children. The children are all boys - aged 4, 4, 9 and 10, and three out of the four of them are Home Educated so Dragon and Star fitted right in.

They have been on the land for nearly ten years and started their time there in yurts and geodomes while building their current dwelling - a straw bale, two storey house. They have now outgrown that home and a second house - a fantastic three storey home, timber framed with straw bale infill, clay render and cob mix covered with a lime render outer layer is close to completion. Power is by way of a wind turbine, solar panels and bottle gas for cooking along with wood burning stoves. Water is harvested rainwater for everything other than drinking water which is brought onto site although we learnt on the day we left that tests on the water in their well has been cleared as fine for human consumption so they are now totally self sufficient in water.

There is a small flock of sheep, who graze and are sometimes eaten or fleeces used and a larger flock of chickens, for eggs and meat. The main use of the land though is the veg box scheme run by the community, which has a round of some 40 plus organic veg bags being delivered each week to the local area. Around 80% of the veg is grown on site - more during peak season and many of the customers also take eggs with their veg.

We stayed in the yurt while we were there Woofing - a new experience for us and a most magical and enjoyable one. I’ve been inside yurts before and always thought they seem cosy, homely and a nice place to be. This one certainly was, with a woodburner, clear panel in the roof which meant we could lay in bed and star gaze, a full kitchen set up including an oven and a very well stocked food cupboard.
bedtime stories by candlelight

just a gorgeous place to be

Our work including a huge array of different tasks including some planting out of germinated crops, some weeding, some harvesting, some picking, some digging over beds and adding compost and some packing of the veg boxes.

picking salad leaves for veg boxes

the prize marrow - actually a very oversized courgette!

We helped with the chickens - they are cleaned out every single week which was great to see, we have stayed at too many places where animals are not tended to nearly so well. There are three different varieties of hens (and several cocks) there giving a lovely array of dark brown, light brown and blue eggs. While we were there we helped mark some eggs to set under a broody hen for the beginnings of their own flock increase. It was great to be able to actually offer some helpful tips and ideas from our own chicken keeping experiences.

We helped with breadmaking and food preparation generally - at least once a week every one on site eats an evening meal together which was a festive and cheery event we came to look forward to. I baked a cake which went down very well with custard for one of the communal meals.

By far the most exciting part of the work we got involved with was the green building though - something we are really interested in and were thrilled to be able to actually get our hands dirty on. The new house almost at completion in the woods is stunning - a real dream home for those of us with a yen to live in a sustainable, local material built eco house with renewable energy, clever design features, no waste of space or resources and an eye for a simply gorgeous structure with beautiful smooth sweeping lines, pleasing colours and shapes and a truly personal design. We were helping on some repair and maintenance work on the original house which was showing some signs of having been the first crack at green building and needed some attention. This was a straw bale build, covered first with a clay render layer (using the clay dug to make the houses foundations), followed by a cob layer (clay, sand and straw) and finally a lime render layer, which should harden to a stone like texture and simply need a lime wash every year or so afterwards and last a whole lifetime or more. Some cracks and holes had appeared where the straw bales were visible so we were mixing up new clay render from clay we'd dug out and applying that. First the house needed spraying with water and the mix needed making in an old bathtub. We did this job over several days and worked with various members of the community and some visiting helpers too. It was messy, hard physical work and involved spending lots of time up very high ladders but was incredibly interesting, very rewarding and something we are very keen to do more of one day - hopefully on a house we will call our own!

We spent our weekend off exploring nearby Durham which is a very pretty city we'd like to spend more time in at some future point, it's certainly a very lovely part of the country. We were also very pleased to be able to invite some friends to pop in for a meal as they were passing nearby. It was fab to be able to share this amazing host with some friends and show them what we'd been up to.

This was definitely our favourite WWOOF host so far, for all sorts of reasons; the accomodation was so comfortable, well set up and original (I've wanted to sleep in a yurt for ages!), the welcome and set up for WWOOFers was so well organised - we had a WWOOFers book in the yurt telling us everything we could possibly need to know, the emails exchanged with the hosts before we even arrived had been so packed with information and introductions to all the people and how they live there and everyone there was so very warm and friendly. We loved the diversity of the work, the chances to spend time with each of the people there over the course of our stay, the communal meals and the feeling we had really learnt something from our time there but also been able to give something back. For us it really summed up what WWOOFing is all about.

I feel I should have joined in with the work a bit more (he spent most of his days off exploring and playing with Star and the other children there. He had a ball but on his last day he spent some time chatting with one of the adults and realised how much knowledge and interesting stuff he could also have been doing alongside the playing). I would have liked to do more harvesting and building.
Good: I've learnt that you can live how we want to live. Not too remote and away from "reality" (I think he means conventional society, rather than slipping into a parallel universe!) and luxury and shops. It does exist!
Learnt: About metal work and sharpening stones.

The wasps! Dragon and I both got stung quite a few times by the wasps that had a nest near the rope swing we were playing on.
Good: Lots of wildlife here. We've seen rabbits, maybe some hares, herons, rats, dippers, fish in the river and loads of insects.
Learnt: Courgettes left to grow big become marrows. I've also learnt some new varieties of plants - Himylayan balsalm and butterberth.

:I struggled without a shower and running water. My issue as I knew there wouldn't be any but it was a downside of this host for me.
Good: The honesty of everything here. The people stay totally true to their beliefs and their lifestyle. They are honest and open about what has been challenging. They are very kind people, both as individuals and as a community. They are an example to living in communities for the way they conduct themselves.
Learnt: Green building. This was a very hands on host for learning about eco building.

I'm really struggling to find a bad other than leaving too soon really! I guess if we had been at this host long term I would have found the lack of washing facilities more challenging, particularly in winter or muddy times. Dragon and Star returned from playing every single time covered in mud and soaking wet which without access to a washing machine would become an issue.
Good: The people! I totally fell in love with the community and felt that I gained so much from spending time there. Each individual was interesting, interested and amazing to spend time with. I was inspired by them all and also felt valued myself for what I could teach them, talk about and offer. This was somewhere my heart and soul felt at home.
Learnt: So much about communal living - the challenges and issues, the highs and the lows, the strengths that each individual has to have and what can really be gained from that lifestyle. I was inspired and in awe of the set up, organisation and logistics of the veg box scheme and the permaculture principles of the lifestyle there. I loved the bit of green building we did and am very keen to learn more about all aspects of that.

When we started our WWOOFing journey I had in my head what hosts might be like, how it would work with us being both helping hands and manpower and contributing fresh ideas, new eyes and the benefits of our own experiences in exchange for hospitality, learning and new skills. For me this host embodied and captured all of those things, inspired me anew for chasing a dream and gave us so much food for thought for our own dreams and lifestyle moving forward. It was a contasting community experience to those we have stayed in before and gave us yet more ideas about how different from the norm enviornments can offer so much.

We are spending this next week with my parents in a holiday cottage in the Lake District. We have completed five months of our adventure and only have one more host left in Zone Two.