Phantassie: Five Weeks of Friends, Food and Fun on the Farm

The hare stops in its tracks, suddenly aware of Nick’s presence. It’s 6:24am on a Friday, and it’s not expecting to see him sitting on the veranda of our shepherd’s hut, waiting for the sunrise. They make eye contact and share a moment of stillness before the hare carries on along the gravel track, past the polytunnels and through the hedge to the wheat field. This moment alone was worth our stay at Phantassie. But a magical moment with a hare isn’t the only reason we’d recommend WWOOFing at this organic veg farm just outside of Edinburgh. In fact, we’d go further than recommend it – if you’re planning on WWOOFing in Scotland at all, it is an essential stop on your journey.

The owners of the farm, Ralph and Patricia, take a stonkingly fair approach to work life balance for a commercial operation. WWOOFers at Phantassie are expected to work 4 days a week in return for accommodation and some of the finest fresh food available in the UK. Work began at 8, a little early compared to other WWOOF places, but a half hour tea break at 10:00am meant this wasn’t a problem. Lunch was from 12 until 1:00pm, plenty of time to devour the daily feasts, and we worked through the afternoon until 4:30pm, usually with a quick cup of tea around 3:00pm to keep us going. Not bad, eh?

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Guy, the ever cheery head gardener and one of the most passionate people we’ve met on our travels, led his band of WWOOFers with pride. He worked insanely hard, but he was never too busy to take time to teach us about organic growing, always willing to share his worldly wisdom and have a good laugh over a cup of strong coffee.

The farm work was varied, always wholesome and with friends. Think the opposite of working in an office and you’ll have a good idea of the working conditions. Sometimes we’d be outside in the big field, planting hundreds of herbs in great rows or hoeing weeds away from long lines of beetroot. Other times we’d work in the gorgeous walled garden, protected, like the plants, from the harsh coastal wind as we hand-weeded rows of fragrant coriander or picked apples from a huge variety of trees, one of which was actually called a Bonzo Dog Doo Da. On one occasion, we had to pick the sweetest little mirabelle plums you’ve ever tasted. This involved Flic climbing the tree and shaking its branches to relieve them of the out of reach fruits. We’d cry “Plum on!” to get her shaking, then “Plum off!” once the bombardment of gages became unbearable and we scrambled around to collect them all. Incredibly, this was considered an afternoon’s good work.

Being Scotland, you’d expect it to rain fairly frequently, but the East coast is blessed with warm weather and clear skies. When that Scottish rain did descend on us, we’d retreat to the polytunnels to sow rows of salad leaves, tend to the out of control courgettes or plant lines of delicate shimonitas, punchy Japanese spring onions.

Our accommodation was a beautifully handcrafted shepherd’s hut, nicknamed ‘The Dascha’ by the joiner who built it due to its Russian architectural influences. Essentially a stripped-back tiny-home furnished with a bed and a desk, we learned the joy of living simply, with just enough room for our meagre belongings stowed away in their right places, and space for one of us to get dressed whilst the other had a bonus 5 minutes’ extra sleep. The sun would rise up to fill the cabin with light each morning and at night we’d sit on our veranda, wondering at the sheer number of stars above us – we often had to remind ourselves that we were in Scotland, not Thailand.

If we weren’t out and about exploring East Lothian’s dramatic coastline, working or sleeping, it’s safe to say we were eating. One of the first things we were told at Phantassie was that we could help ourselves to any of the produce being grown on the farm. “Really?” we asked, “Anything? Even the cavolo nero or the giant crown prince squash?” Guy nodded and smiled, used to these queries. We really were allowed to help ourselves to the abundant crops, whether it was the plump tomatillos ripening in the polytunnel or the plums hanging from the trees. It was all fair game. Obviously, if you knew that cucumbers were in high demand that week and there were only a few on the vines, you wouldn’t take them all, but that’s just common sense.

Our supply of dry goods, bread and jam was kept well stocked by Phil, a long-term volunteer nicknamed the “WWOOF Mum”, denoting his responsibilities at the WWOOF camp which also included preparing accommodation for new WWOOFers, welcoming them to the team and generally keeping the place ship-shape. The rest of our fruit and veg came from the stable, a red whinstone barn where all the wholesale produce was packed. Each day we would stroll up with an empty crate, and fill it with fruit and veg that would otherwise have been destined for veg box schemes, organic grocery stores and some of the swankiest restaurants in Edinburgh. The quality of the produce was astounding. It has left us utterly disappointed, now that we have returned to reality, by the tasteless array of vegetables on offer in most supermarkets. We now seek out organic grocers like pigs hunting truffles, poring over their produce with embarrassing enthusiasm, all thanks to the generosity of Ralph and Patricia.

Perhaps the best part of being a volunteer at Phantassie was the Green Goddess. The Green Goddess is where the magic happens. It’s where friendships are formed, stories are shared and, most importantly, food is eaten. Formerly a mobile breast screening unit, the big metal hut had been kitted out with a just about functional gas cooker, stainless steel sink and handmade wooden banquet table. Worker’s canteen by day, hippy hangout by night, the Green Goddess can be whatever you want it to be.

the green goddess

It might have been a bit grubby from all the muddy wellies and damp from the rain leaking in through the roof, but with shelves stocked full of herbs and spices, saucepans of every size hanging from the ceiling and cupboards full of top quality organic dry-goods, it was a delight to cook up a feast in there. This was lucky, because most days one of the WWOOFers would take on lunch duty, serving a buffet lunch for a working community of anything from 5 to 25 people. We loved lunch duty, even if there were a myriad of dietary requirements to navigate. It gave us a chance to try out new dishes on the ever grateful staff and gain invaluable experience in mass catering. With all the hazards and quirks of the Goddess, like the dodgy oven door and the unpredictable gas burners, we used to joke that a round of MasterChef was nothing compared to cooking in our kitchen. At evenings and weekends, we’d spend ages preparing feasts for our fellow volunteers, baking cakes full of raspberries freshly picked from the garden, devouring it all whilst cracking open a cold can of Tennents.

There was a neat little gang of us at Phantassie, and firm friendships were formed out in those fields. There was Jess, a kind and generous local lass, now a close pal, always up for road trips to nearby seaside towns and French jazz nights in the city; Tim, a swaggering, snickering, extremely talented chef with a thirst for gin, far from his home in New Zealand, finding his feet in Edinburgh; laid back Louis, so laid back that he missed his own leaving party, which went ahead without him, and others, like Phil, Gerda and Ian that were a delight to live and work with. There were local folk too, like Sam, a Scottish nomad with a woolly jumper and his friend, a big souled bearded Mexican whose name we won’t attempt to spell, who would swing by unannounced and stay for dinner. Needless to say, when we all got together, things could get out of hand. The Goddess could handle it though, and the great wooden table seemed incapable of overflowing with beer cans, wine bottles and board games no matter how hard we tried. And, because the standard of cleanliness was already a little dubious, it made the after party clean up even easier!

All things must come to an end, and so it was that in the midst of autumn, we found ourselves saying goodbye to our Phantassie family. Our parting was sad, but it was what WWOOFing was always meant to be: a place where we learnt something new every day, doing good, honest work, eating fine food, all held together with a deep sense of community.

 


 

Top 10 WWOOFing Moments

It’s been about 4 months since we decided to WWOOF our way around the UK for 8 months, a decision that puzzled our parents, flummoxed our friends and confused our cat. Driving out of a ubiquitous Aldi car park last week, boot full of our 3 luxury items – chocolate, wine and proper coffee – we noticed that we’d driven 2000 miles since we started out, zig zagging our way up the country from Somerset to the Lake District. Reaching this milestone, it seems like a good time to reflect on the finer moments of our green fingered journey so far.

Picking Up Lambs

Could there be a better way to spend a springtime afternoon than driving across rural Oxfordshire to pick up 4 new born lambs? We sped through the English countryside with our good friend Jeannie to a local agricultural college, full of excitement, eager to meet the orphaned woolly cuties. Everything was ready – their cage, milk replacement, washed out beer bottles with rubber teats – we just needed the lambs. When we arrived and they gambled across the tarmac car park towards us, there was magic in the air. Heading back to our hosts’ beautiful smallholding, with Radio 2 at full blast, Nick sat in the back singing along to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, accompanied by four very confused sheep bleating to the beat. A joyous moment indeed.

Songs Around the Campfire

Not a single moment really, more a series of moments connected by combustion. We’ve spent many an evening sitting around fires, staring into the flames and contemplating our primitive past. Usually there’s someone, if not our hosts themselves, willing to play the guitar, be it a friendly neighbour, an accomplished resident of a community or even Flic if she’s had a gin or two. Often we have the classics: No Woman No Cry, House of the Rising Sun, Redemption Song, but we had Radiohead in Oxfordshire (very fitting, given the band’s origins), ukulele hits at Old Hall Community in Suffolk, as well as tin whistle tunes and original folk music in Shropshire. Why pay to go to a gig when you can WWOOF for your evening entertainment instead?

Harvesting Leeks

There’s been a lot of weeding to be done everywhere we’ve WWOOFed. We can’t grumble about this – it’s incredibly therapeutic, often essential to the success of more desirable plants and a good opportunity to get to know our hosts and fellow WWOOFers. Even so, it was a pleasant surprise to find out one April afternoon that we’d be harvesting leeks, after hoeing the potatoes, of course. So there we were, out in the field at Old Hall with Richard, a wise oak of a man, sticking our fork into the clumpy, rocky soil, levering up the last of the spectacular spring leeks. Finally, we were pulling something out of the ground that we could eat! And eat them we did, the very next day.

Finding 4 Secret Eggs

Every morning at Long View Farm in Shropshire, we’d wake up, slide into our wellies and wander across the garden to set the chickens free. We loved this so much that we did it before coffee. Sometimes we’d find a few eggs had been laid overnight, but the egg count was suspiciously low for a brood of 13 hens. We guessed that the ladies were hiding themselves away in the tall grass to lay during the day. After work each day we would go on an egg hunt around the field. On one occasion, Flic found a neat pile of 4 eggs in a sheltered patch and carried them proudly back to the farmhouse. Yet on every other search we found nothing. Our host promised us a Cadbury’s Creme Egg for each egg found outside of the hen house but we have yet to receive this reward. Never mind, we’ll be back there soon for sure!

Finding freshly laid eggs in Shropshire

Going Back

Unlike most fellow travellers we meet on the road, we like to plan our trips in great detail. For Nick, making a plan is part of the adventure, embracing the excitement of the expected. The plan doesn’t always work out, however, and we find that having a plan in place often makes it even easier to be flexible. So, when things didn’t go as planned at a farm in Derbyshire – a whole other story – we wrote to two of our previous hosts in Oxordshire and Suffolk to see if we could stay with them again for a couple of weeks each. It was delightful to see our friends again, comforting to fall back in to familiar routines and it gave us a chance to do all the things we didn’t have time to do the first time around. It brought us all closer together and we will never forget that month we never planned. If you’re a WWOOFer yourself, never be afraid to ask to go back – it might be the highlight of your journey!

Cherry tree in bloom at Old Hall Community Suffolk

Partying in Our Dressing Gowns

One of the main reasons for returning to Oxfordshire, besides unforeseen circumstances, was that our host was having a fancy dress birthday party. The theme? 42: Life, the Universe and Everything. If ever anyone was to come up with a theme that left people baffled, it would be Jeannie. Those unfamiliar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had no idea how to dress for the occasion. The advice offered was that people could come as things that were meaningful to them, or go down a political, religious or philosophical route. This didn’t help much either. Finally it was suggested that people could just wear a silly hat.

We embraced our inner Arthur Dents and proudly wore our dressing gowns (yes, we are travelling with our towelled robes), as did many other guests. Strolling about the fairy light lit garden, to the roaring sing song fire pit, back inside to the kitchen packed with people, hot nettle soup and fresh bread, cans of Old Speckled Hen hanging in our deep gown pockets, we found the meaning of life.

Tim’s Boat on the Thames

Does your next door neighbour own a boat on the Thames? No? Thought not. We will also never have a next door neighbour who owns a boat on the Thames. But some people do have a next door neighbour who owns a boat on the Thames. If you WWOOF with these people, then by proxy you have a next door neighbour who owns a boat on the Thames. If you are a friendly, community spirited sort of person, it’s likely that the next door neighbour will take you out in the boat on the Thames for the afternoon. A boat with your friends on it. A boat with a pirate flag. If you’re really lucky, they’ll offer you a beer from their beer fridge, and you can drink that beer whilst gliding down the Thames through the heart of Oxfordshire in the sunshine. The same river that Henry VIII used as a watery highway to visit his mistress in Shillingford. On a boat. A boat on the Thames.

Naming A Calf

Bringing the cows back from the top field for milking one afternoon, it seemed that Daisy hadn’t come along with the rest of the herd. Whilst Lorna set to with the milking, Flic and Angela went back to the field to find out what she was up to. Flic spotted her first, sat in a patch of clover below the crest of a hillock, nursing a new born calf. Now, finding a new born calf at Old Hall is a special moment indeed. As the finder of that calf, you earn the right to name it. Once its private parts had been checked, Flic chose the name and called her Clover. She will keep that name for the rest of her life, a gentle imprint of our time spent at that wondrous place.

Clover the calf

Cooking Dinner Off Grid

Cooking in different places takes a bit of getting used to. You have to work out where everything is kept in the kitchen, which lids fit which saucepans and how quickly the oven can burn things. During our time in Shropshire, we were invited to cook dinner over the campfire one evening. We accepted the challenge with no hesitation. Once the fire was burning good and hot, we used a strong and stable casserole dish to cook shakshuka, an Israeli dish that’s all cumin, hot paprika, garlic and onions in a tomato sauce. Raking hot embers out every so often, we kept the pot at a consistent heat and brewed up a spicy stew, topped off with fresh eggs laid by the chickens just beyond the hedgerow. It was much easier than expected, being simplified by necessity, and a real joy to be cooking outside with fine friends in the evening sunshine. We made plans to do it again as soon as possible. Being England in June, it rained every day after that.

cooking off grid

Cats

When we left our old lives behind, saying farewell to our cat was one of the hardest goodbyes. The best thing about living on farms is that there are so many mice, which usually means a cat is a necessity. We’ve had the pleasure of staying with some fine cats, from self assured Cake at Old Hall, wise old (and dribbly) Custard in Oxfordshire and ginger Jingo in Shropshire. Jingo has to be one of the friendliest cats we’ve ever known. When we were working in the garden, he was never far away, even in the rain when he’d retreat to the poly-tunnel with us. At night, he would sleep in our bed, curled up under the duvet, or sometimes just spread out across our pillows. The only downside to having a living hot water bottle was when he started coughing up fur balls at 3.00am…


 

It’s Called WWOOFing, Not Dogging

On our travels, two questions we often ask ourselves are, ‘Why did we come here?’ and ‘What are we going to do?’. When we’ve been roaming from place to place, sometimes with no particular purpose, we find it easy to forget why we chose to visit somewhere in the first place. Now we’re back in the UK, we know exactly why we returned sooner than expected, and we’ve taken to the road with a clearer plan than ever before.

For those that don’t already know, we left Vietnam early because our TEFL jobs didn’t work out. We’ve heard that many people have found teaching English in Vietnam to be a great way to make some cash, as well as offering a brilliant lifestyle. This was wasn’t the case for us. The school we had selected from the many that offered us teaching positions turned out to be what we can only describe as a shambles. The proposal that we sleep in a shipping container on the roof for a year, and use a shower in the only toilet in the school, which was also in reception, wasn’t overly appealing, either. When the loaded head teacher (luxury Audi, leather seats, sharp suit, full time banker) put us up in the dodgiest hotel we’d stayed in during our whole time of travelling, we thought it best to leave. This was an existential moment. Where would we go next?

A full survey of the finances and a sleepless night of research led us to the conclusion that we should return to the UK. It would be refreshing to see our friends and family again, winter was nearly over and we hadn’t eaten cheese for a long time.

Yet we didn’t want to return to Brexit Britain as we’d left it, back to a 9 – 5 job, pulling our hair out with stress, crushed by the daily grind. We know that we’re happiest when we’re working outside, alongside like minded people, learning new things. We wanted to find a way to see our own country through fresh eyes, exploring places we’ve never even considered visiting, despite living here for over 20 years. But would this be possible on a shoestring budget?

First of all we looked to Diggers and Dreamers, a directory of the UK’s many communities that friends in South East Asia had told us about. Many of these communities offer the chance to stay with them for a while in exchange for voluntary work, often through the WWOOF organisation. This led to the discovery of WWOOFing as a viable means to explore these fair isles, keeping us busy with a good day’s work, whilst drastically reducing the cost.

Let’s be clear, as many people have asked us the same questions – WWOOFing has nothing to do with dogging, the latter a sordid activity that takes place in laybys across the land. No, WWOOFing is not a cult, and communities are not all communes full of people smoking funny things and trying out tantric yoga (although there’s probably a community like this if you’re looking for it). As to what communities are really like, we’re not entirely sure, which is the main reason we’re taking the time to visit them.

WWOOF is a charity, set up by Sue Coppard in 1971, and it’s full name is ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’, although it’s sometimes known as ‘Willing Workers On Organic Farms’. Either way, you get the gist. Members pay a £20 annual fee (or £30 for joint membership) giving them access to nearly 700 hosts across the UK, from the tip of Cornwall all the way up to the Shetland Islands, where you can join the UK’s most remote veg box scheme. WWOOFers, as the Willing Workers are affectionately known, receive bed and board in return for around 6 hours work per day, 5-6 days per week. Given that all of the hosts are organic farms, communities or smallholders in some respect, you can expect the food to be rather good.

As with all means of enriching but low cost travel, there are the usual horror stories about overworked WWOOFers being fed gruel and boarding with the pigs. How much of this is true remains to be seen. Besides, WWOOF actively checks its hosts through telephone interviews, and WWOOFers can report any issues in the knowledge that they’ll be investigated by the charity.

We are now proud WWOOFers, heading up the country from Oxford, over to Suffolk and then all the way to Scotland via the Peak District and the Lake District, before making our way back down through Wales in November. We’re hoping to learn as much as we possibly can about growing stuff, eating this stuff and living without so much other stuff that we’ve always taken for granted. We’re working the land in family smallholdings, small commercial operations and live-in communities. Yes, we will probably get tired, be rained on a lot and become well acquainted with steaming piles of manure, but it will all be worth it for the satisfaction of growing our own food and meeting inspirational people as we go.

So, in the immortal words of Wycliffe Jean, we’ll be gone ’til November