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…


 

Chiltern Brewery – The Best of Bucks

Ah, Buckinghamshire. That fine old English county, famous for… something, surely? We would never have made a trip to Buckinghamshire on purpose but our second WWOOF host lived there, which meant we had to visit. Our first impression of this twee home county was that it was rather dull. People seem to live there primarily because it’s close to London – so much so that it even feels a bit like London, with the overpriced sports cars, unaffordable housing and lack of community, just with more hedgerows.

So what’s a visitor to do there? Visit Aylesbury and browse the usual British high street stores? Take a walk up in the Chilterns, on hills so high you can look down on red kites gliding over Chequers, the UK Prime Minister’s country retreat? These are options, but we recommend visiting the Chiltern Brewery instead and, if not just to buy their delicious beer, taking their bespoke tour too.

display of malt selection for brewing ale

On arrival, we were welcomed with a warm smile from Andy, front of house extraordinaire and keeper of the shop that day. He treated us to a complimentary half pint of our choice, with Nick opting for the Pride of Bucks & Berks, a smooth, citrusy ale with a charitable twist – the brewery donates 5p for every pint sold to Horatio’s Garden, who are running a project to create a peaceful garden for folks recovering from spinal injuries at a nearby hospital. Flic went for the Chiltern Black, a Guinness lookalike but completely different in every other way. Complex flavours of cherry, coffee and a hint of treacle were captured within a light, quaffable brew. We hadn’t even started the tour and already we were bowled over by the beer.

Andy the bartender and front of house at the chiltern brewery

After a few minutes browsing the bountiful brewery shop, we were introduced to Nigel, our host for the springtime afternoon. An ex-fireman, proudly imparting his knowledge of the family run brewery with a no-nonsense East London accent, could there be a better guide for a brewery tour?

Leaving the shop, the tour commenced in earnest. We wandered round the back of the car park and entered the microbrewery itself. We must stress the micro aspect of the brewery here – it was just one tiny room in an old garage. Think Heisenberg’s lab, but smaller and above ground. There was a big old brew tank, sackfuls of hops, bags of barley and a jumbo sized jotter covered in equations. This is old school brewing, the brewers using wisdom passed down a generation to get the job done. Given the limited space the brewery have, they manage to brew a couple of times a week, supplying their own shop, an affiliated pub (The Kings Head in Aylesbury) and a few other local taverns.

kegs of ale and personalised numberplate at the chilterns brewery

After a few interesting anecdotes about family squabbles and the awkwardness of cleaning out the brew tank from the inside whilst being 6ft tall, we made our way out of the shed. We milled about outside for a bit, looking at different types of beer barrels and sniffing discarded grain that would be fed to a nearby farmer’s pigs. And that was it. The tour had finished. It was time for the tasting.

There were 5 of us on the tour that Friday afternoon. On a Saturday, it’s usual for there to be a crowd of 25 or more, which would probably make the tasting considerably more rowdy than our civilised session. Even better, Nigel let slip that there would be more freedom with the sample sizes, increasing our cash to lash ratio so to speak.

We started off with their signature, the Chiltern Ale, a classic session ale at an easy going 3.7%. According to Nigel, this is a popular choice for people in the age range of 18-80, so it has a fairly wide demographic. Our notes say that the bitterness of the hops combined with fresh apple and the sweetness of hops would work wonders with poultry, fish and curry. We also wrote that it was cracking with a slice of ale bread from the local Cottage Bakery in Thame, and we stand by this. Sadly we didn’t get to visit the bakery, but the thick, wholegrain bread was delicious, baked full of beery brilliance and slathered in butter.

ale tasting at the chiltern brewery buckinghamshire

As we quaffed the next beverage, the robust and nutty Three Hundreds Old Ale, we were invited to pair it with a selection of cheese, a mustard seed cheddar being the highlight. By this point we stopped making sensible, or particularly legible, notes. Take this as a sign that we were taking advantage of the light refreshments.

The last ale we tasted was Bodger’s Barley Wine, not a wine as such, but a thicker, treacle sweet ale. We swigged down this heady brew with a slice of ale infused fruit cake, a perfect way to round off our liquid lunch. The tour aimed to open up the possibilities of flavour pairings with ale, treating it more like wine. As Nigel pointed out, it’s not uncommon for trendy hipster restaurants to have a beer list or an ale sommelier. This is the first brewery tour we’ve been on that brought food to the tasting table, and we think it’s all the better for it.

bespoke stoneware at the chiltern brewery buckinghamshire

It wasn’t over yet though, as Nigel announced he had a few spare jugs to use up. The group of 3 on our tour had to leave. Maybe they had jobs or something. With little else to do that day, we knocked back a few more glasses and chatted with our new found friend. Our 2 hour tour soon became a 4 hour session. The tour cost us £15 each, a little pricey perhaps, but not if you consider that given the local clientele, we could be paying London prices. Try having an afternoon out on the craft ales in Shoreditch for £15!

When they started closing up the shop and shutting down the barrels, we took the hint and said our goodbyes. We made our way back to our host’s smallholding, carrying two bottles on the house and a recycled plastic milk bottle full of Chiltern Ale, winding our way along public foot paths, stumbling over stiles and taking our chances on the country lane verges. Ah, Buckinghamshire, famous for the Chiltern Brewery.


 

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