tribute to Eileen Hayman

Jan 10, 2016

In August 2015 Eric Hayman’s mother Eileen, born in September 1919, died, aged 95. Throughout her long years she was always keen on gardening and good natural food; hence her joining WWOOF and becoming both a WWOOFer and a host. Soon after she died Eric contacted us to let us know and here he sums up her life. Some of you may remember her. 

Eileen at the gate of her Eastbourne park homeIf you seek a quiet existence, never a WWOOFer or hoster be! If you do you will find yourself wanting to work on organic projects not just in your own country but further afield. Or you’ll want to be playing host or hostess to other WWOOFers from the next county – or from anywhere else in the world. Well, that is what happened to my mother, Eileen Hayman, when she discovered WWOOF around the start of the 1980s. 

Eileen had always been a countrywoman at heart, even if born in Carshalton, Surrey. When she attended schools in Eastbourne in the interwar years, her parents had the Old Water Mill at Hellingly, then deep in the Sussex countryside. They ran their establishment as a tea garden and guest house. Electricity for lighting came from a bank of batteries charged by a dynamo her father had coupled to the mill’s water wheel. During school holidays, Eileen would help her parents who, in those days, grew their own fruit and vegetables, or bought them from the local farmers or the suppliers who came out on their country van rounds from the nearby towns. 

Come the Second World War and ‘Digging for Victory’ became second nature for many people. In effect it meant self reliance in food wherever possible. And Eileen did her bit. She moved down to Devon in 1947, with her parents. They bought a house at Staverton, and took in PGs – Paying Guests – the polite term for visitors either short or long term, often homeless after the war, who provided very welcome extra income for cash-strapped householders. 

Eileen and friendsThe large vegetable garden to the rear of the house became the main source for what nowadays may be seen as a very limited range of items to go with the roast beef, lamb, pork or chicken. Scraps and crushed maize fed Rhode Island Red and White Sussex hens kept both for their eggs, and, in due course, for the table. Her Silkies were ‘just a bit of fun’. She also grew sweet corn, which I would eat when it was still soft on the cob. 

It was while living at Staverton that Eileen discovered there was a large property on the market just three miles away at Buckfastleigh; ideal for turning into a guest house. Bossell was its name, and it had been built about 1880 by the family who established woollen mills in the town. Remarrying in 1952, Eileen, with her new husband Bill, set about making the ten-bedroom house and spacious grounds into a welcome venue ‘Twixt Moor and Sea’ for holidaymakers from the Home Counties, the Midlands and even the North of England, Wales and Scotland. The three acres of land included the typical walled kitchen garden that such Victorian houses usually boasted. It would have been the provider of all the household’s vegetable needs and for some of the fruit as well. All naturally manured. 
Violet Gartner was one of Eileen's returning WWOOFers Bossell’s had an extensive greenhouse as the nursery for the seedlings before they were planted out; also the cold frames on which I gashed a finger when trying to replace a broken pane of glass. The tip of the long finger of my left hand bears the scar to this day! We even had a vine house, although, with lack of pruning and cutting back, the grapes were not the sweetest. 

Having to feed so many guests throughout the spring to autumn season also meant relying on buying from the town’s greengrocer, a Mr Jago, or from the large Co-op. It was to the Co-op that we took the daffodils I helped pick each spring before going to school. Several types filled the apple orchard whose trees had long since failed to produce any worthwhile eaters or cookers. 

Returning with my half brother Michael to her native Sussex in the 1970s, Eileen with Bill ran three hotels on Eastbourne’s Royal Parade over various years. Indeed Devonia – named in honour of Bill’s birthplace – is still to be seen as No 74 today. The urban setting meant no home grown produce, but still the fare was of the best quality. On retiring from the business, and continuing to live in the area, Eileen felt the need to get down and dirty once more. 

Her spacious garden chalet which doubled as extra overnight summertime accommodation for visiting WWOOFers.She had an allotment which became her escape from urban life. Apart from growing the usual assortment of table vegetables, she dug a pond and built a rustic bridge that she and friends could admire while seated in the chairs she would keep in the plot’s little wooden hut, along with a day bed. A flask of something hot or a cold drink was usually to hand. It was around this time that Eileen heard about WWOOF and became an active member. It being natural for her to have strangers living in her home, she advertised for WWOOFers to come and stay with her. She moved to a ‘park home’ on the edge of Eastbourne, and set about not just planting out its official small garden space, but also what had been a piece of unused adjoining land abutting the nearby railway line. The wild blackberries were delicious. Once more, she had to hand her own greenhouse, plants, vegetables and a patch of lawn on which to sit out. A summer house doubled as warm weather, overnight accommodation for visiting WWOOFers. One regular was Viola Gartner from Germany. 

Eileen’s own first foreign WWOOFing foray was to Spain, where she got into things with great enthusiasm. Perhaps too much, for on one occasion she was pushing a wheelbarrow when she and the barrow went off the path and down a long steep slope. Bruised and battered, she had broken nothing but had to recuperate in the hosts’ home for a while. KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON! The Tokoroa Organic Produce Co-operative’s communal allotment, New Zealand

Having made friends with people in New Zealand, she began to escape the British winters by spending several months each year Down Under. She bought a small place at Putaruru in the North Island, and was soon involved in all sorts of local projects. Not just things organic but also helping to do up an old house for community use. So for over a decade Eileen split her time between New Zealand and England and then, with age creeping up on her, she sold the Putaruru property and also gave up the allotment. Nevertheless she continued to enjoy watching TV programmes about food and farming. The organic items on Countryfile always interested her. 

So it was that she maintained her love for the outdoors, and the natural world. Back in my own childhood she would play Percy Grainger’s arrangement of the old English folk tune ‘Country Gardens’ on the piano. She died on 13th August 2015, aged 95. And one of the pieces at her funeral in Eastbourne on 27th August was the traditional tune’s vocal version that made number five in the Top Twenty in 1962: Jimmie Rodgers singing ‘In an English Country Garden’. Don’t forget the robin.

Do let us know if you have memories of Eileen as either a WWOOFer or a host. Leave a comment below or email us using

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