Friday, 28 May 2010

Goodbye Sheardum

The heat wave may have ended in Scotland but it makes it no less beautiful.

We are leaving Sheardrum this morning which feels quite sad, this has been a fantastic place. The farm may be slightly chaotic but Claire and Ali have made an amazingly fun, colourful and interesting place to live in. If ever we acquire our smallholding and it’s half as characterful as this place I’ll be very happy!

Over the last few days we have had a day off and gone walking along the coast ending up in a picturesque town named Elie where we enjoyed an ice-cream on the beach. We then had a couple of days working without Ali which involved more bashing thistles, veg weeding, feeding the baby (Tiny the lamb), taking the dogs to the Sportsfield, watering the lawn etc. etc.

We’ve also been getting to know the lambs a little better!

Oh and guess what? We’ve been eating YET MORE delicious food. Including Matt’s magnificent sticking honey and almond cake last night which we ate with ice cream and custard (having already eaten a huge macaroni cheese). After eating it Claire said she felt “quite cardiac”.

Today we will travel westwards towards Acaracle for our next farming adventure. Apparently there are mushrooms.


Monday, 24 May 2010

The New Levellers

The ratio of good WWOOF hosts to bad has improved – three to one now!

Our new hosts, Claire and Ali farm near Dunfermline, on a smallholding called Sheardrum. It’s a mile from the nearest road up a long, windy, and bumpy track and they’ve been here for about 11 years slowly converting derelict barns into habitable spaces – there’s still renovation work to do but its getting there and looking good. They farm a small number of Shetland sheep and a few Highland cattle – one of which gave birth on our first day here. There are lots of lambs gambolling about the place and four dogs of varying sizes and shapes: Sky – large and very hairy; Norman – stick obsessed; Mac – old doggy breath; Jake – number one top dog. All of the dogs have perfected the art of lying exactly in the place they are least needed at just the most awkward moment, very helpful! We’ve laughed a lot and also learnt a lot about sheep farming and good practice, and also about the flora of the area. There always seems to be interesting people dropping by for a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and we have been eating rather too well as usual. The quality and deliciousness of the food is definitely a good indicator of how good WWOOF hosts are.

We may also have solved the riddle of Tiny’s disappearance from Smiling Tree Farm, as he appears to have travelled to Sheardrum!

Our first three sun drenched sweaty days here have been spent preparing for the laying of a new lawn. We helped to build the brick edging which descends at a small but steady gradient away from the house, and which took us almost two days work to complete.

Then on Saturday we had a very long day levelling the ground (Laura earning the soubriquet ‘Level headed Laura’ due to her amazing eye for levels and skill with a rake) then laying the turf, finally finishing at around 9pm. A long day, but a very satisfying one. I (Matt) also helped Ali fetch the turf which involved driving a very heavily laden Landrover and trailer quite a long way – but the Police car that overtook us declined the opportunity of stopping our very slow progress, so we must have been legal… (just)!

A well deserved rest day on Sunday, and most of the day was spent taking it very easy, enjoying the sun. Then we became more adventurous; exploring the Black Devon River to an impressive and apparently little known waterfall, then gorge walking our way back to the farm. Now we have now been joined by a couple of German WWOOFers, Benni and Tania, we all worked today bashing thistles and mending rickety fences.

Question: Is the weather always this good in Scotland?

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Soooo Delicious

Another week has gone by, no WWOOFing for a while but we will be starting at our next farm later today. It’s a farm near Dunfermline and will be our first farm in Scotland. Fingers crossed that it’s a good one!

After collecting Olivia from Oxford last Thursday having just arrived home form Argentina, we ate a fine cooked breakfast and left Bampton feeling like we were finally starting our proper journey north towards Scotland. We stopped to visit my Gran for a lovely lunch with my Mum and then continued to the Peak District for a long weekend with Owen, Liz and Anwen in their new home.

Three good days of satisfying hard labour followed, helping to transform their back garden - wrestling with stubborn bushes, shifting tons of gravel and green waste to the tip and building a raised bed for vegetable growing. The garden had pretty much doubled in size by the end of the weekend and we’re looking forward to seeing the end product after the new lawn is laid! We also found time to help them clear their front yard of years of accumulated junk and ‘fine’ woodwork inherited from the previous owners...

Of course we ate very well too, delicious meals and cakes, not to mention freshly baked scones for breakfast – we could get used to that. But most of all it was really great to see the Williams family looking so well and enjoying life in their new home!

On Monday we travelled further north to visit Laura’s aunt and uncle near Beverley, enjoying a walk in the sun on the Westwood followed by a relaxing afternoon, and in the evening we ate yet more delicious food – we were hoping to get fit this year but seem to be spending a lot of time eating rather too well!

Yesterday we did something I’ve wanted to do for ages and explored some of the Northumberland coastline. It really is beautiful up here and it seems rather overlooked, if you saw ‘Coast’ on BBC 2 on Monday night then I can assure you it really is that stunning, everyone should visit! We sat on the beach and ate a delicious smoked kipper bought from the smoke house at Craster then walked along the coast to Dunstanburgh Castle. Later we walked along the huge white sandy beach and through the dunes near Bamburgh Castle enjoying the sunshine and watching the crazy Geordies going for a swim wearing only a pair of Speedos - crazy. We stayed the night with Amanda and Peter, family friend’s of Laura’s and yes, we ate even more delicious food.

Today after Breakfast in the garden we drove over the sea and explored Lindisfarne then ate delicious fish and chips on the beach at Eyemouth. Now we have arrived in Scotland… (Matt)

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Halt the rescue operation!

Matt keeps telling me to write this blog in case people think we’ve been abducted into a life of the bread people. Sorry to disappoint. We dropped in nervously after coming back from some free wifi-ing in Honiton and met some more of the friendly community. No invitations to dinner this time though. We left without a struggle with a goat’s cheese and onion focaccia and I can tell you it was delish.

We departed the farm on Friday and headed to Ilfracombe for Julie and Craig’s wedding weekend. Despite the weather it was a wonderful weekend full of: catching up, stories of Oz and NZ, wind, CDs entitled ‘Free-wheeling’, gossip about Swindon, wine, rain, pasties, beautiful views, games of Taboo, rock pools, meeting Captain Hog, ball pools, beautiful dresses, greasy fish and chips, pirate eye patches, sky lantern hilarities, moving speeches, glimpses of sun, beaches, slides, scrumptious pancakes, toe-dabbling in freezing sea, laughter, pretty cup cakes, dancing to Take That, ice creams with clotted cream on top, smiles, hangovers, crosswords, election news (“Breaking News: a light has come on in No. 10”), sailing boats, greedy seagulls, deckchairs, boogie-woogie-ing, hills and wedding ceremonies looking out over the sea.

A brief stop in Bristol to call in on the allotment and do some plant-based necessities (thanks to Helen and Katie for putting us up and to Alex and Stu for nurturing our brassicas). Please now say a prayer for our newly planted out squashes, that they may survive these cold nights and prevent us from being kicked off of our plot.

Now we’re recuperating at home in Bampton with mum (dad, newly retired, is off gallivanting around France and Spain with Jeremy). We have taken Tiggy and Max for walks, eaten lots of food, explored some gardens of Oxford, cycled to see some woolly pigs, been to the pub, and had a car parking ticket. What adventures!


Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Lure of the Bread People

Well, compared to last week, what a boring week it has been! Although we do feel very relaxed and refreshed, so we can’t really complain about that too much.

We’ve been mainly weeding for a few hours in the mornings then chilling out in the afternoons, going for short walks and trying to resist the pull of the bread people* (*not their real name). A bakery based cult (or religious community) located next door. They are very, very nice, extremely friendly and do bake exceedingly delicious bread and sweet treats (also available from Bristol’s farmers market outside St Nics on a Wednesday if you are interested!), but we felt it best to decline the invitation to dinner that followed Abraham’s impromptu tour of the bakery – we’d only gone to get a loaf - just in case we never quite managed to get away again… Apparently a WWOOFer from a neighbouring farm has just left their WWOOF host to join the bread people – we had been warned!

We are currently trying to pluck up the courage to go and get one of their all too delicious sounding Sun dried tomato and Parmesan Focaccia’s for lunch, if you don’t hear from us again, please do come and rescue us.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The saga continued...

So our first (and only) full day began on the farm. We got up early to help our host feed the animals - lambs, pig, ducks, rabbits and birds. We spent most time with the rabbits which were couped up in a smelly shed and just kept as pets, can’t say we were really learning much about smallholding life. And something about being instructed to fill up the bird feeder made me feel annoyed. A duck egg and bacon breakfast was definitely the best bit about our stay. For much of the morning we were away from the house which made it almost pleasant – we took the dog for a walk and then got taken to a local farm auction. We enjoyed going round looking at all the lots and listening to the strong Devon farmer accents. The homemade “Hedgecutting” warning signs went for £20! (Had my eye on them, gutted.) In the afternoon after a sausage roll and salad lunch back in the house of gloom, our thoughts turned to escaping! Our host gave us the perfect opportunity as she left us alone mucking out the lamb’s barn as she went to collect some straw. But we chickened out. And besides, both our postal votes were on their way to this address… Some more digging in the afternoon took us up to 5 o’clock when we were once again free to do as we pleased. After a quick shower (the toothbrush on the side of the bath covered in hair was my favourite touch), we escaped the house for a few hours.

We were given Wednesday off to do as we pleased once we had helped feed the animals in the morning. But something about repeating the same routine as yesterday, and the thought of having one more whole day of work (and meals in the house) to go secured in our minds our need to leave. There were several issues though: 1. How would we leave? We could do a runner and leave a note explaining why (the idea of telling our host that the state of her house was unsatisfactory did not appeal) or we could explain that the lack of organic principles meant we could stay no longer (which was partly true); 2. If we were going to leave we needed to do so before we had a day off (i.e. that morning) so that we did not owe her anything. We would already be leaving our host in the lurch, and we did not want to cause more upset than was necessary. However our postal votes were in the post to this address and we didn’t know when they’d arrive…we were willing to give up our democratic right to vote in return for not living in mould-ville but were less happy about leaving post with our home addresses in the hands of someone who might be a bit upset with us. So, we packed up our bags so that we could make a quick exit and planned to leave once our host took the dog for the morning walk. We even wrote a letter in preparation. All depending on the postal delivery of course. We waited, nervously in the garden, our favoured spot. The postman delivered! Both our postal votes arrived, so our plan could go ahead. We waited for our host to leave, but she remained in the house. Then she came out to say she needed to go into our bedroom to get something and before we could say “I’ll get it for you” she was off. Eek! She’d see our packed bags lined up by the door ready for their departure. Perhaps she’d just think we were exceptionally tidy? We waited further, sitting outside on a bench pretending to read in not exactly glorious sunshine until we had no choice but to tell her the truth. Well Matt did, I just kind of froze. We didn’t give her much time to react, just headed upstairs, got our bags, put them in the car and drove. It felt amazing, we really had escaped!

Looking back on this place, I can’t seem to describe what it was that made it so bad that we simply couldn’t stay beyond 48 hours. Yes the house was in a dreadful condition, there was mould on the kitchen walls, the table was piled high with stuff creating a barrier between our host and us, the farm buildings were in a dilapidated state, the smell of stale cigarette smoke seeped into every item of fabric, a crazy dog tried to bite your ankles every time you left the living room. But I think more than that was the depressing feel of someone who was living a life they didn’t enjoy. And that negativity really did infiltrate every part of that farm, making it a very unwelcoming place to be. (Laura)

After the escape: we drove to Bideford to take stock and get supplies for potentially 5 days of unplanned camping. But after the last few days it was a huge relief to be looking forward to being able to enjoy ourselves without huge amounts of negativity following us round. Luckily the weather was still lovely so we headed to the North Devon Coast near Hartland and found a campsite, set up camp and went for a walk past Hartland abbey to Hartland Point and back along the Coastal Path. We gathered wood supplies as we walked for the Kelly Kettle as we knew rain was forecast for later in the week. Then back to the campsite for some edible food, which made a very nice change!

The rest of the week went quickly. Thursday morning we woke up to thick sea mist, so we packed up and left, not quite sure where we were headed for. We decided to drive to Launceston for a pasty and a free cream tea while we worked out what we were going to do – whether to stay in the South West or drive 200+ miles to Oxfordshire. The weather was still looking a bit dodgy but we decided to stay in the South West and use these few days for a bit of exploring. We drove to Polzeath, walked in the drizzle round to Pentire Head then set up camp overlooking the beach. And in the evening the rain cleared to treat us to a beautiful sunset.

Friday we drove on down to Gwinear (to look for traces of my (Matt) family history) and on to St Ives for another Pasty lunch. Then we suddenly thought: we may well be going to John O’Groats sometime over the summer, so as we’re so close we should probably go to Land’s End! We parked at Senner Cove and walked round the headland enjoying the view out to sea and the odd squally shower. After that we drove to Mylor Bridge near Falmouth to stay for a couple of nights with Avril and Martin, my aunt and uncle. It was a relief to be in a normal, clean house once again, eating delicious food and drinking champagne cocktails.

On Saturday we explored Falmouth, ate Fal Falafels for lunch which if you’re ever in the area I can heartily recommend. It may be a big decision not to eat a pasty when you’re in cornwall, but these falafels were even better than the ones from Bristol’s Falafel King – high praise indeed! In the evening we ate delicious Sea Bass, celebrated Kip’s birthday and continued to generally enjoy civilization again – Thank you Avril and Martin!

Sunday was spent mostly driving over Dartmoor and on to Honiton, not a great day weatherwise. Ended up camping at a random holiday park near Honiton called Forest Glade – surprisingly nice despite hitting 4 degrees over night, Brrrr!

Monday morning we arrived at our next WWOOF host with trepidation… The Old Kennels near Honiton had come to our rescue at short notice, but what would they be like?? But no need to worry this time – lovely host with a very helpful (maybe!) 3 year old son, a nice annexe all to ourselves. Phew! Spent the day helping in the vegetable patch (watched by the alpacas), we built steps and washed the greenhouse then chilled out. And today we had another great day, followed by a HUGE lunch, I had to go and lie down afterwards!! Great to be back with a nice host, and to have our faith in WWOOFing restored – 2 out of 3 hosts have been great, and I’m sure the odds will improve further! (Matt)

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Beware of Devon Farmers

So on Sunday evening we arrived at Richard and Lucy’s near Tiverton and had a lovely evening of learning about what Laura used to watch on TV, eating delicious food and pointing at different Countries on the world map. And on Monday morning we took Billie a walk with Lucy then set off for our Next Farm via a short diversion past Nixie’s school. We arrived at the Next Farm (near Great Torrington) around 12 am. It was to be an interesting few days…

The Next Farm was odd. Very odd. First impressions: really dirty, dark, depressing, dilapidated, smelt of stale fags, our host was not very cheerful, our room had a hole in the floor and a rather large damp patch on the ceiling, our lunch (of semi stale bread and out of date cheese) was eaten off a table that hadn’t been cleaned for a very long time, and the dog was crazy. Oh yes – and the lady who ran the Next Farm had a husband who lived in the annex, but who never came out. Oh dear.

We were taken on a tour of the farm, and very soon the fact that it was not run at all on organic principles was established. The animals were not fed organic food, and weedkiller was used to control the weeds. This is not what our interpretation of WWOOFing is about. Our first task was to help drench and spray some lambs and also put in some ear tags. Strangely for a smallholder the owner seemed to have little idea on how to catch and control her livestock, we did this for her, penned up the lambs and even did the ear tagging – thanks to Christine from Smiling Tree Farm we knew how to do this. Odd. We were not very happy about any of this – the depressing conditions of the house or the in-organic farm practices. We had intended staying at the Next Farm for 10 days, it was very obvious that we couldn’t do that, so we told the owner we would only be staying until Friday, which in retrospect was very ambitious.

Monday evening came and we left the farm asap and started to contact other WWOOF hosts in the area to try and arrange an alternative host. Then we returned for the evening meal, which was barely edible (especially since we had seen the state of the kitchen) and the constant negative attitude of our host became even more testing. It seems that for our host everything that can go wrong did, and that every positive thing had a huge BUT to follow. One thing was for sure, we were learning an awful lot about how not to run a smallholding - something which perhaps could turn out to be a valuable lesson. After barely a day at the Next Farm it was hard to see how we could possibly last until Friday.

To be continued...