It all went rather quiet didn’t it?
A fair representation of our experience too really – we spent just over two weeks at our most extreme and remote WWOOFing hosts yet. A 77 acre hillside farm, in conversion to organic, almost totally self sufficient in fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry and eggs nestled in an isolated area about 20 miles from Welshpool in Wales.
Our hosts were Anna and Alan, a couple with 3 Home Educated boys aged 11, 8 and 5 and Alan’s sister Abi and her (schooled) 14 year old daughter. Alan, Anna and boys lived between a tent and several caravans while Abi and her daughter had a static. Food, tea breaks and general hanging out happened in a converted animal barn kitted out with table and chairs, wood burning stove, electric cooker, sink etc. A collection of out buildings housed the firewood, Alan’s wood and metal working tools, a selection of chest freezers – some plugged in to keep food frozen, some just used as airtight, pest proof storage space, pig feed, a sofa and TV with dvd player and video. Toilet facilities are three compost loos – two for poo and one for wee. There is a bath but not plumbed in although an old water tank, filled by rainwater and heated by a log burner underneath is used for a hot tub – not operational while we were there but a fabulous idea under the stars. Showers could be taken using a hose pipe after a long hot day of the water in the hose being warmed, or in the rather more luxurious location of Abi’s static!
Much of the 77 acres is unused other than for wildlife or with young trees planted for future woodlands. Some of the land is used for grazing their small herd of highland cattle or rented to a neighbouring farmer for grazing his sheep. Pigs are in three sectioned off areas on the land, as are chickens, ducks and geese on others. There are three main cultivated growing areas, planted into beds with crop rotation programmes set up. A very young orchard is in place along with other fruit and nut trees.
A strong thread of permaculture principles runs through Bryn Mawr with nothing wasted and the most made of natural resources and working with what they have got. Grass cut is used for mulch or compost, suppressing weeds and creating feed for plants. Alan has plans for a cut grass compost water heating system at some future point. Weeds are pig feed, stones collected from rotovated beds are put to one side for use in building or hole filling / ground levelling.
Alan is a very talented and knowledgable man with huge amounts to share and teach and we learnt loads from him about alternative technologies, eco-building ideas, green energy and more. He also was our saviour when Willow had various ailments which would have prevented us travelling much further and helped us out with arranging for a damaged water pump to be reconditioned, replacing our broken fan with a new one from a car he had for spares and various other things. She is now running really well and we are so very grateful to have been able to have her fixed up and show our appreciation with a few tokens in exchange for all Alan did for us.
Anna was an inspirational person to spend time with, particularly for me. I learnt so much from her about growing, harvesting, preserving and breadmaking. She taught me a tiny fraction of what she knows about herbs and plants and some of the uses for them in medicine. She coached me through all aspects of carving a spoon from wood selection and first shaping with a carving axe to using the saw horse and draw knife, hammer and carving chisel. We talked about education, parenting, community living, alternative lifestyles, being off grid and loads more. I felt I could have spent years in Anna’s company and still learnt from her every day.
Abi worked full time so was not around all that much but as an education officer for the local wildlife trust she was a mine of information about various wildlife and regularly joined us in the evenings to share what she had been up to that day. We were fortunate to be around to share Abi’s birthday with her too, coming together for a big evening meal and jelly, ice cream and birthday cake eating.
We were joined by another WWOOFer for most of our stay at Bryn Mawr which is always interesting. Meeting someone else doing the same as us but for very different reasons and with very different expectations. We crossed paths with several WWOOFers at a couple of our early hosts but had not worked alongside someone else for a while so that was good to do again. Knowing how much our adventure has already changed our outlook and approach to live means it will be interesting to meet our felllow WWOOFer this time again in the future and see whether further into his journey he has changed or altered at all as this was his very first host.
Our tasks over the two weeks included; weeding, mulching, gathering cut grass, helping to load the trailer with sawn wood, chopping firewood, sowing some seeds, tilling and farrowing, gathering stones, feeding the pigs and chickens, putting up an enormous compost bin and loads more. As ever what we learnt in our daily working was easily matched by what we learnt by simply living alongside our hosts, learning from them and talking to them about their lives.
The challenges, as ever, were present – this was an extreme off grid lifestyle with an hour or so per day of a diesel generator being run which meant we were able to charge things up while our hosts powered their electric oven for bread baking, washing machines to clean clothes, charge up their batteries to run lights and the TV for the kids, power the freezers sufficiently to ensure food remained frozen and for Alan to run his welder or other tools to build woodburning stoves which he makes to sell. We had virtually no moile phone or internet signal so I had to walk up the hill once a day to check for any urgent voicemail messages to my phone to make sure we were not totally cut off from the outside world.
Bad: I found it difficult to share Daddy with other children that I didn’t have much in common with.
Good: I tried lots of new foods and some I really enjoyed.
Learnt: More about being off grid and how to make most use of limited electricity and really value it.
Bad: The remoteness of the location. I like to feel some sort of civilisation, shop or similar is accessible by walking. At this host there was nothing within walking distance at all.
Good: The remoteness of the location! Conversely it was also lovely to be so isolated and feel really ‘away from it all’
Learnt: How important south facing aspect is for land you are growing on.
Bad: I was sad when ducklings died (about four were lost over a few days) and the cats caught lots of voles and mice which I felt sad about but Mummy and I talked about the voles and mice being hunted and food chains.
Good: I liked there being lots of animals – cats, dogs, pigs, chickens, cows, ducks, geese.
Learnt: About grafting trees, how to do it and why.
Bad: This was a challenging place to be for lots of reasons. Being so remote was tough, being so remote with Willow out of action was even tougher as we have always consoled ourselves that we can drive away from a host at any time if we have had enough – being 17 miles from the nearest town with no mode of transport was enough to have me feeling twitchy about being ‘trapped’. The lack of communication with the outside world – very patchy mobile / internet connection also had me feeling uneasy as I constantly fretted about emergencies happening to friends or family and us not knowing. I guess I came to realise my reliance on some sort of community – either local or virtual and how at sea I felt without that safety net within easy reach. There were aspects of our experience here which threw into sharp relief some of the less easy aspects of the relationships between the four of us, so much talking things over, accepting each other and giving credability to how the other person was feeling even if we were unable to empathise was in order, which is testing, even if ultimately healthy.
Good: I loved spending time with Anna, I found her interesting, inspiring and with so much knowledge to share. I felt like I learnt so much at this host and I cannot possibly imagine a better or more extreme example of the ‘ultimate’ in the off-grid, self sufficient, alternative technology lifestyle. Having these sorts of experiences gives us so much to draw upon in creating our own wishlist for the future and helping us realise what we are and are not prepared to give up / compromise / not have in our lives.
Learnt: so, so, so much! About mulching, breadmaking and preserving, clever use of land and resources to make the most of limited energy, reusing almost everything. I learnt the basics of spoon carving, how to identify various wild foods, some new ideas for food and ways to cook things, massive sparks of ideas for green building, alternative energy, growing foods and more.