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.

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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.

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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…


 

How Koh Lanta Changed Our Lives

We left in the back of a truck, distraught that this moment had finally arrived. With tears threatening to run down our cheeks, we waved goodbye to our family in the jungle. Anke, lean, strong, light as a feather, called after us with her broad Dutch smile that promised we would return. Her husband Aoi held up his hand in a gesture of peace, sending us much needed Zen blessings for the road. Their daughter Asa, just over one and a half years old, called out our names as she always did when we departed, unaware of the finality of the situation. And Bob, curious adventurer, natural builder and broker from The Netherlands, bid us farewell with his customary wink before heading back up to the community kitchen for breakfast. Life would go on as usual at ASA Lanta, but our bamboo hut would stand empty until the next visitors arrived, filled only with our memories and a bamboo table that we’d made ourselves.

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We stayed with our friends Anke and Aoi for 5 weeks, from mid-November until late December, yet the experience was so profound, so life changing for us, that it is only now that we feel able to write about it. We did not expect that living in the rainforest on Koh Lanta, an island off the West coast of Thailand, surrounded by nature and truly amazing people, would change the course of our lives. But that’s why we gave it all up in the first place, for the unexpected moments and the unforeseen conclusions.

We arrived there with the aim of starting off an English language club for local children. However, when we arrived it became apparent that Anke and Aoi were not in a position to launch this project, but they hoped that we’d stay anyway. When we made it clear that we’re happy to do anything to fill our days and broaden our knowledge, their faces flooded with relief and we knew that this was going to be the start of something special.

We helped out wherever we were needed 5 days a week, taking Tuesdays and Wednesdays as the weekend with everyone else in the small jungle community. We were never short of things to do, from entertaining Asa whilst Anke ran the Organic Tea House and Aoi kept up with the maintenance of the education park, helping write copy for the new website and keeping the ever growing jungle at bay. In every task we did we were able to improve skills we already had, or learn something completely new, all the while having a good laugh and the occasional mojito to keep us cool.

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We shared our jungle home with a group of natural builders who were staying for three months, learning how to build a house using only the resources that the Earth provides. Led by American architect Amanda, whose passion for natural building was infectious and inspiring, we would join Bob, Rob (Irish wise man), James (North Carolina’s finest permaculture enthusiast) and Jenny (taking a well timed winter break from her London co-housing community) for Muddy Mondays. We’d get stuck in with whatever building they were doing, making mud bricks, building walls using cob and clay instead of cement, all the while having plenty of fun. Mixing clay, sand and sawdust with our bare feet, the fresh mud squishing satisfyingly between our city-soft toes, we realised that we are happiest when we’re stuck in the mud, down in the dirt.

Coming from our western lifestyles, with comfortable office jobs and all the spoils of civilization, we thought we had a pretty good idea about what we needed to feel satisfied. Spending time in the jungle showed us different. Most days we’d end up plastered in monsoon mud, worn out by the tropical heat and covered in insect bites. All we had to soothe our aching bodies was a cold, open air shower amongst the spiders, snakes and friendly frogs. We drank water from the freshwater lake on the hill, ate food foraged from the jungle and shopped at the local market. We had intermittent electricity and infrequent internet access. During the day, we sat cross legged on cushions, amongst the trees, on the bamboo veranda of the adobe community house, speaking from our hearts about the world around us. At night, we slept on the floor of our bamboo hut, perfectly at peace in the simple wooden shack. It’s corny to say it, but living closer to nature, with a stronger connection to the land, outweighed the pleasures of modernity that we’d come to take for granted.

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Anke and Aoi’s aim with ASA Lanta is to move ever more towards sustainable living, becoming more self sufficient in cooperation with the jungle. Of course, there are aways more ways to develop this, but living in buildings built from the resources that surround them, composting food (and human) waste, seed saving and cultivating numerous species of bamboo for both building and fuel, this is a much more sustainable way to live than we could ever have imagined.

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Yet, without wishing to be rude, there is nothing special about Anke and Aoi. They are ‘normal’ people, no different from you or I. It is just that they have dared to step off of the path that most of us follow, valuing long term fulfilment over short term pleasure. By making sacrifices to comfort, putting in hard work, inspiring others to help them along the way, they find themselves living in a beautiful safehaven, a community that will continue to grow organically just like the lush jungle that surrounds it. Spending time here, amongst people who are brave enough to live their dreams, made us realise that we could do this too, although we still have much to learn.

Over communal lunches of banana flower salads, spicy som tam and steaming whole grain rice, we learned of new places, like Pun Pun and Panya in Chiang Mai, where permaculture and natural building are taught to volunteers willing to make the trip. Distanced from global politics, social unrest and the incomprehensible challenges facing humanity, we learned to appreciate what was immediately around us. Suddenly everything felt possible. The world didn’t feel like such a mess after all.

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As we left ASA Lanta in the back of a truck, we knew we’d be back soon. But even on that short ride to the ferry port, we spoke quietly of plans for the future, of new ways of living. Now we find ourselves unexpectedly back on English soil, in the cold drizzle of Brexit Britain, we see the land in a new light. Thanks to the inspirational experience of ASA Lanta, we are planning a trip around these fair isles, from the South all the way up to Scotland, visiting organic farms, permaculture projects and natural building communities, getting stuck in wherever we can.

We might be far from the tropical sunshine, but our travels are far from over.