Kevin and Rachel

Published: 30 articles

March On

As February and our final week at Shillingford Organics come to a close, we take a little time to reflect on our experience this past few weeks. An innate goodness points to the poor weather conditions and is thankful for a warm place to stay, as well as fresh organic food. However, the critical, analytic side also has a few things to add.

Overall, the work week activities passed similarly to the previous. Monday being slow, we ended up doing more weeding in the polytunnels, not an unpleasant place to be on a cold blustery day. When Tuesday arrived there was an announcement of an “all hands” project – prepare for a new herb garden on the edge of one of the “no dig” areas. Our spirits lifted at the news of working on this new task as we made our way through the bright morning sun to the designated space. Our heads filled with questions to ask, we were certainly ready to absorb some new knowledge, our minds seeming to have been preserved in a vacuum, free from any first hand explanations or transmission of gardening expertise for some time.

Upon arrival, we headed to the group and surveyed the scene before us . This was it, a day of learning. We listened carefully to the instructions. ” …Move a large pile of cuttings , etc … cut plastic sheeting … “. Soon it became apparent, that “helping to set up the new herb garden” actually translated to ripping away plastic matting that had been laid several years ago, which was thoroughly attached with large quantities of roots and grass, and relocating a large pile of gardening debris. Whilst we dragged large sheets of plastic away, the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the heavens opened. As we doggedly pulled, strained, teared, cut and lifted, nobody had the energy to talk or transmit any plans or information, and we had given up any hope of hearing anything that day. After this intriguing interlude, the rest of the work week returned to the standard cycle of orders and veg boxes, picking and packing.

Our understanding is that the WWOOF principles are supposedly based on a fair exchange- a person’s work in exchange for accommodation, food and knowledge. All too easily, it seems, WWOOFers just become regular employees, which by anyone’s estimation, are paid much less than regular staff by way of sub-standard accommodation and basic food supplies. Especially for us as a couple sharing sleeping quarters, in this instance going further to augment this already skewed trade. Both K & R coming from English speaking countries and having little interest in “practicing ” our English on people ( the vast majority of WWOOFers seem to be from non English speaking countries on a university gap year to learn the language) means the exchange is by no means sweetened as it may be for others. Perhaps it’s no surprise that from what we hear the UKBA (UK border agency) are increasingly stopping non-EU citizens from entering the UK to WWOOF.

Out of hours, as with the previous week, our time was mainly spent walking back and forth between facilities, trying to find a warm place to get an internet connection and the usual daily chore of cleaning up after the paid workers before we could begin to make our dinner, unfortunately not a quick job . After the first few days of the third week, we decided it was probably better to remove the pile of dirty mugs, bowls and plates from the sink and place it all in a corner for them (or the local wildlife) to get round to washing in their own time and to leave the rubbish which delicately decorates the floor around the base of the bin for them to pick up and place in the bin when they can find opportunity in their busy schedules.

We were thankful to have met Martin, the previous head grower here, who now has a smallholding near Okehampton and supplies for a market stall, so only working at Shillingford on Thursdays. He truly seemed engaged in teaching us, having become aware of our desire to learn and it was a shame not to be able to spend more time with this experienced and thoughtful person, only being able to pick up a glimmer of WWOOFing sanity here and there as we moved through the daily schedule. After talking for a little while we found his smallholding was one we had actually contacted for October placement – unfortunately he had had no room.

We were also lucky to have another canine friend here, Tilly. She often “helped” with our evening meals, especially concerned about the cleanliness of the floor at all times and overly interested in our eating techniques. She came to collect us in the morning a couple of times, as well, waiting patiently on our little porch until we would pop out, at which point she would walk us to our destination, leading the way. One day we were even graced with her presence on a tractor trip to the upper fields, an excursion which extended to digging for something near the spinach and helping herself to some sprouts. She is a sweet friend that will most certainly be missed.

Our third WWOOF week at Shillingford having finally elapsed, Friday afternoon we treated ourselves to a tub of chocolate ice cream, as a reward for having completed our time here. We look forward to the opportunity lined up for March and trust that we find a better scenario, one that works for both sides of the arrangement.

We also look forward to our visit from K’s Dad and Jan this weekend and to the Spring, now so very clearly on it’s way. The birds in ever more vocal chorus, the new blossoms and flowers everywhere we look, the longer hours of day and the plaintive cry in the dead of night of a newborn lamb, all stand as testament that we are entering the season of hope and new birth.

A Lovely Day

Saturday morning! We awoke to bright sun and joyful songbirds, the grey dullness of the week already a distant memory. Not only was today a break from the monotonous routine that has come to pass for our WWOOFing experience, but the opportunity to have a day by the sea with K’s Mum and Step-dad, David. First things first, though… a morning walk.

With all the facilities being over 200m away, we have become used to a stroll for food, washing or computer access. On this occasion, it was time for all three. Our work clothes had become quite dirty over the past couple of days, so K made his way to the washing machine. After going through the rigmarole of unloading someone else’s washing, which had been in there for over 24 hours (a most unsociable habit to have in a shared washing facility) we were able to wash our clothes clean whilst preparing our favoured winter breakfast!

Starting work at 7am, we don’t usually feel like eating so early and have no time/opportunity to cook on our tea break or lunch hour, so a warm satisfying breakfast is, for now, a weekend treat. After large bowls of steaming porridge and brown sugar, we caught up with a few things on the computer until it was time to hang the washing in the warm sunshine to begin drying.

Now it was approaching 10am, time to return to our pod to prepare for the day ahead. A quick pack and spruce up later, the phone rang and K’s Mum announced their arrival. We walked to the main car park to welcome them before giving a short tour of the farm, taking in the polytunnels, packing shed and our homely little pod. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to offer tea, so we decided to push on and head for the sea.

First stop was Brixham – a small fishing town to the south end of Torbay. This was where Dave remembers his first holiday, so thought it would be lovely to visit again. After parking the car just outside the town we started to make our way along a small lane towards the harbour. As we walked, present and past came together and it was soon clear we were standing at the actual location of the holiday park they stayed at on that first holiday. We stood for a moment letting all the memories flood back before walking down the steep slope to a small cove which he and his sisters would run down every day to make their way to the turquoise sea. Now, as the sun shone overhead and the waves gently rippled up the beach, it was time to reflect on childhood memories.

We made our way along the coastal path into the main town, the harbour looking splendid in the morning sun and providing a bright contrast to the days which had preceded it. With Mum and Dave not having eaten much that day, it was time for a snack and in true hobbit style, we were ready for “second breakfast”. With a beautiful view of the harbour, we sat outside a lovely little cafe, warm enough in the February sun, and enjoyed a full veggie breakfast as Mum ate a cheese panini and Dave a sausage sandwich. Yum!

We finished our meals and spent some time soaking up a few rays and chatting before continuing with our walk of the harbour out towards the lighthouse. On the way, we passed the full-sized replica of the Golden Hind, the ship which Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world.

Drake had official approval to benefit himself and the Queen as well as to cause the maximum damage to the Spaniards. Setting sail in December 1577 with five small ships, manned by 164 men Drake’s flagship, Pelican, which he renamed Golden Hinde, the expedition took over 2 years, sailing into Plymouth Harbour with only 56 of the original crew on 26 September 1580.  A pirate to the Spanish, but a hero to the British, Queen Elizabeth I herself went aboard Golden Hind and personally bestowed a knighthood on him. Her share of the treasure came to almost £160,000 – enough to pay off her entire foreign debt and still have £40,000 left over . Her return and that of other investors came to £47 for every £1 invested, or a total return of 4,700%!

After another brush with history, we continued our walk out towards the sea, the wind grew stronger and the day grew overcast, so we pulled coats tighter as we made our way catching up with news and relaying our WWOOF experiences. As always, when one is happy, the time passed quickly walking and talking and before we knew it we were back at the car, ready for the next part of our weekend adventure.

After a quick tour of Paighton, we made our way to the English Riviera, Torquay, birthplace of the famous writer Agatha Christie. Keeping our eyes peeled for Basil Fawlty, we again went for a walk of the harbour (with K & R picking up a few essential WWOOF supplies on the way). On the return journey, Mum, K and R took the steps (189 of them according to Mum’s count) through the Royal Terrace Gardens to take in the view of Torquay and the bay.

After meeting up with Dave in town (although he did give us the slip once 😉 ), we made our way to a Wetherspoons pub for a late afternoon/early evening meal. As England beat Ireland in the Five Nations Rugby on large TV screens, we enjoyed our meals; Mum and Dave had burgers, R a “superfood” pasta and K a five-bean chilli with Quorn.

All too soon, it was time to make our way to our temporary abode and so we drove back through the early evening darkness, the sights and sounds of the day still vivid in our minds. We exchanged gifts – for us a selection of clothes including some warm winter tops and for Mum and Dave some fresh farm produce and it was now time to say goodbye. After a warm shower in the peculiarly-perched shower shack, we settled in for the evening and a good film.

Sunday was a low key affair, including a few chores and old TV shows under the again grey Devon sky. The weekend soon came to a close. As we rested in bed, we held tightly onto the happy thoughts of our weekend and prepared ourselves for our last week WWOOFing at Shillingford Organics.

A Christmas Break

Against a backdrop of grey skies and a bitterly cold wind, we prepared our belongings for the journey. With Christmas fast approching our luggage seemed to have grown somewhat. So despite accepting Jan’s kind offer to leave our non-essentials at Maddocks, we still found ourselves hobbling to the car ready for our trip to Bristol.

The previous few days had also been poor weather, so after a small amount of work outside, it was agreed our time would be better utilized inside, continuing to work on Maddocks Farm new web site and social media. Punctuated with our daily walk, a sprinkling of festive cheer and much Christmas preparation, our last few days at Maddocks passed quickly and it was soon time to leave for the holidays and join K’s family for Christmas.

Stuart was travelling past Bristol, so he had kindly offered us a lift, saving us much time, expense and a great amount of inconvenience trying to navigate the public travel services at Christmas time. Soon we were sweeping up the M5, leaving behind the green chattering of the countryside and approaching the grey roar of the city. Upon arriving at K’s Dad and Jan’s house, we settled in and started some preparations for a few Christmas goodies for the family (no spoilers 😉 ).

That evening, sat comfortably with hot drinks and snacks beneath flickering Christmas lights, we began to unravel our previous 4 months, reflecting on our experiences WWOOFING, and recalling the things we had learned and adventures we had had. We also cast an eye forward to more adventures when we resume again in a couple of weeks time, beginning with our return to Maddocks. Before then, however, there is the opportunity to relax and spend precious time with some family … and, of course, a very special event… Merry Christmas!

Doris and Dot’s Big Day Out

The sun shone brightly over Maddocks Farm as we made our way to the raised beds, five of which were indicated for clearing. Later there would be an opportunity to care for the sheep, but early Thursday morning was all about weeding. So, as the sun danced it’s way across the sky, leaving long winter shadows in it’s wake and prompting increased song and general merriment from the birds, we set to work.

Raised beds have a number of benefits: they help to extend the planting season, reduce weeds and the need to use poor native soil. Since there is no need to walk on raised beds, the soil is not compacted and the roots have an easier time growing. The close plant spacing and the use of compost generally result in higher yields in comparison to conventional gardening.

The first three of the beds cleared easily, consisting of small and shallow-rooted lettuce plants with only very manageable and fairly sporadic weeds. However, the fourth bed we set about clearing broke this happy trend. Here, coriander was planted, with roots between 6 and 18 inches down into the soil spreading in many directions. As the day darkened, it took well over an hour and several passes, digging deeply with forks to locate the majority of the roots that infiltrated the small space. As we started on the last of the five beds, clearing it of the heavy growth of chickweed, we received a call from across the courtyard – time to prepare Doris and Dot for their big day!

Doris and Dot were to be meeting a ram that afternoon and it was time to help the girls look their best before being transported to the nearby farm. But before we could entertain any thoughts of a pedicure, the sheep would need to be caught. With a fairly large field in which to roam, this, we were told, had not always been particularly straightforward. Bearing this in mind, Stuart and Jan had called up reinforcements to ensure the wily old sheep could be caught and tended. So now we joined Jan, Stuart and Mandy (part-time worker) ready to herd, with Jan’s Mum and the chickens looking on and offering support from the sidelines.

The first victory was ours. Between the five of us, it wan’t long before the sheep were in the small enclosure and the gate closed to the larger field. Now the “fun” really began – time to catch and inspect them. First up was to be Dot (full name Spotty Dotty). With her years of experience, she put up a good fight, dodging into impossible gaps, ducking, diving and weaving through our line with mesmerising grace. However, after tiring herself out, she was cornered by K and Stuart and eventually we were able to hold and look her over.

The main concern was the hooves. Sheep had evolved to spend time, especially the winter, on rocky higher ground which would wear down the hooves naturally. However, nowadays at least, a domestic sheep will spend their time grazing in fields so the hooves grow too long. If not trimmed, they can cause cuts in the animal’s flesh and dirt trapped there may cause infection. Dotty certainly needed a hoof trim, so we set about carefully cutting them back. We also put on some antiseptic spray (a very attractive shade of blue) as the front hooves may have been slightly infected. Once all trimmed up and the antiseptic spray applied, Dotty was next ushered into the trailer, pretty blue hooves and all.

Next up, Doris. Having watched the whole event, the younger Doris was not at all keen to join in on the festivities. It took a lot of chasing about and what she may have lacked in experience, she certainly made up for in youthful vigor, as she left a trail of missed tackles behind her. Finally, Mandy dove onto poor Doris and ended up sitting right down onto Doris like a horse. After looking her over, it was easy enough to lead Doris into the trailer, close the gate and cover it up, pulling the trailer into the field for safe keeping while we broke for lunch.

As we tucked into cheese sandwiches and salad, Jan rang up the owner of the ram to notify him the girls would be on route that afternoon. Unfortunately, though, the ram was out on another visit. The owner offered his apologies to Doris and Dotty and agreed that the visit would be rescheduled for a few weeks time, this time with the ram coming to Maddocks to spend the winter. So, once lunch passed, we let Dotty and Doris back into their field and explained the news to them. They were quite obviously devastated, but put a brave face on it as they munched their grass.

With the holiday cottage rented for the weekend, Stuart had been working to prepare it for the guests and asked us to help by picking the remaining apples that had fallen on the ground so that he could mow the grass there. Once this task was complete, our WWOOF work day also came to an end and we cleaned up our tools and put everything safely away before retreating to our annex.

After enjoying a longer walk of our lanes and a variation of our pasta and veggie fare, we enjoyed a film in the evening, resting well with the end of the week almost upon us.

Friday began chilly, the sky saturated with a fine, persistent rain. We made our way out to the heavily-rooted coriander bed for one last pass for residuals and then finished the chickweed clearing in the fifth bed. Next, we headed back over to the mint and fennel beds we had maintained earlier in the week to add a layer of dung to each. After twelve wheelbarrows full, the beds were both prepared for the winter.

Jan had stopped by whilst we were weeding and informed us that we didn’t need to be outside in such conditions and could spend the time looking over her website. WWOOF hosts often seek certain skills from their WWOOFers, such as, ability to work a chainsaw, carpentry skills, or in our case, IT and business skills.

Maddocks had been looking forward to our time with them as much as us with them, with them being keen on our assistance with website updating and general internet marketing guidance. So, we spent the last couple of WWOOF hours for our week researching the current website, social media pages, competitor websites and in discussion with Jan about what she does and doesn’t like about the current setup, so that we could begin to formulate a plan to create a new electronic face for Maddocks.

In the afternoon, after working through some web tasks of our own, we ventured out to the same lanes for our nightly wander before enjoying another pasta and veggie creation and settling in for our weekend off, making our plans for both our day out and our day in.

Misty Monday

Soon enough, our quiet weekend had passed. Monday morning was upon us. As we looked out over the farm, the myriad of water droplets suspended in the air reflected the early morning sun into infinite directions. After our warming porridge with brown sugar breakfast, we followed Jan through the thick mist, clinging to our clothes and feeling cold against our exposed skin, to the herb beds for our first tasks of the day.

As we approached the beds, their lovely fragrance welcomed us, perhaps accentuated by the dampness of the day. Firstly, we were to weed the rosemary bed of the grasses and other sporadic weeds that had found their way in amongst the tall stalks of glorious scent. Lilly was there with us as a constant “helper”. As we methodically weeded, the farm’s black cat suddenly appeared from the middle of the bed. It was most certainly the place to be.

With mist continuing to hang heavy in the air, we worked through the weeds and moved to the next bed where the mint needed to be trimmed down to one-inch stems and any weeds pulled from the bed, as well. Most of the mint had already been harvested or had wilted, so the bed was not entirely as pungent as the others, but we did find a few sprigs that filled our noses with the familiar tingle.

The next bed was full of an enticing sage, plump and aromatic, leaving us to consider a new cologne creation for K as we passed it over, as it needed no maintenance at the time. The next bed, however, needed to be cleared entirely of all of its expired plants and the weeds that had made their way there.

Once this last bed of our assigned three was clear, we circled back to the rosemary to lay some dung onto the soil around the plants. K made quick work of filling the wheelbarrows and we forked the manure around the edges and in between the plants, giving them extra nourishment and minerals. After two and a half wheelbarrows, we had put in a couple of hours of work and were ready for more, so we went to find Jan.

Back to the same line of beds we went with our host, but beginning from the other end. We now set about weeding around the garlic chives in the first bed on this end of the row. From the next bed, K transplanted two more phlox to the bed he’d grouped phlox in on Friday. The third bed was full of bronze fennel, which needed to be trimmed to only a few inches high to make room for the new growth already sprouting from the centre and the entire bed thoroughly weeded.

We stopped after another couple of hours for a quick cheese sandwich lunch and then made our way back to the final bed of the day, which needed to be cleared of all weeds and expired plants, leaving only seeds and seedlings there from the cornflower. This time, Pickle was our constant companion, offering much advice on weeding techniques and opportunities to smooth her, whilst perching in the first direct sunlight of the day.

Once we’d swept up and disposed of the last of the weeds and plants onto the compost and could see clear pathways once again, we put the tools of the day away and headed back to the annex. After our usual walk of the lanes, we enjoyed a pasta dinner before relaxing the night away, content with our progress and accomplishments for the first WWOOF day of the WWOOF week.

Loving Simplicity