There was quite a lot going on in 1971; the UK currency was decimalised, oil production began in the North Sea, the BBC launched the Open University, Love Story was released, Earth Day was proclaimed and Greenpeace was founded. A London secretary also came up with the idea of volunteering on an organic farm. In preparing this 45th birthday celebration edition of our newsletter we thought we should reminisce with some of our longest standing members about WWOOF and their experiences over time. We wondered what had changed – and what had remained the same.
Don and Maureen Pynches looked after WWOOF UK for twenty years from 1974 to 1994; he is now in his eighties and first came across WWOOF in a magazine in 1973, just a couple of years after it started. He’d been to agricultural college and worked on a farm in his younger days, and continued to read magazines about ecological and alternative things. He liked the sound of being on a farm again and thought working with a group of people could be an enjoyable experience for a modern man. As he lived in Lewes, Sussex, his very first WWOOF was at Tablehurst Farm, Sussex with Sue Coppard (WWOOF founder). He did a couple more after that with his wife Maureen and discovered, then as now, that hosts differed hugely; large and small, rich and poor…and in their attitude to WWOOFers. In Sussex, Don reports the farmer’s wife and son treated them so well it was embarrassing. But on another occasion in Kent, the host was very opinionated and largely absent, cooked no meals, gave them very hard tasks like laying a drain and Don’s wife had to go shopping for food. There were no rules in those days!
Don’s relationship to WWOOF changed when the WWOOF UK newsletter announced a meeting in London and he went along. This resulted in his wife and himself taking over the running of the organisation – which was very much like a home industry then with everything being arranged by telephone with never a mobile app or website in sight. Don says it was all very relaxed. At the AGM he recalls people were shocked as he didn’t have an ‘official’ piece of paper to hold. And so WWOOF steadily progressed over the years, peaking with an item on Woman’s Hour in the 1980s and throughout that time, interest was growing overseas. Don and Maureen were always conscious of keeping WWOOF’s operation as low key as possible, so it didn’t become a burden. They were very low paid, as a proportion of WWOOF’s income. There was a lot of love involved – as there still is today. The arrival of computers heralded the first big change for WWOOF. Apparently Maureen got so cross with a new computer she and Don returned to their preferred card system. But eventually they realised it was time to pass things on…
Edward Acland, Sprint Mill, Cumbria – former host
Edward welcomed over a hundred and twenty WWOOFers into his home between 2000 and 2013. The origins of how he first encountered us are shrouded in the mists of time; but even as late as 2000 he recalls using the phone and sending and receiving old fashioned letters to arrange WWOOF visits. Even when WWOOF made the transition to a website in the early 2000s he continued to ensure he spoke to every WWOOFer who contacted him, saying that these conversations would often change his mind on whether to invite someone to stay with him or not.
By 2000 WWOOFing was no longer about working weekends. We had evolved into World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, with national WWOOF groups in many countries. Edward typically was enjoying help from volunteers for visits of about ten days and welcoming people from across the planet. It was the cultural cross pollination that Edward enjoyed the most. He recalls a visit from a Japanese WWOOFer who barely spoke a word of English but with whom he and his wife had a huge amount of fun communicating – so much so that she sent them some special scrubbing brushes as a gift. Some have led to reciprocal visits, such as with Patricia and Sabine from Germany.
Edward, like others in this section, embraced WWOOF in more ways than that of a host. His passion for WWOOF meant he spent quite a long time as a Director seeing us through an awkward patch in the early 2000s and continued to support us by acting as a regional host contact for Cumbria until earlier this year. He is honest about his struggle with WWOOF’s embrace of the ‘review and comments’ culture so prevalent in online life, preferring the exchanges to remain private between WWOOFer and host. A challenge we know many long term hosts have faced. Whilst Edward is no longer active within the WWOOF community he remains committed to its philosophy and its role in encouraging people to hold hands and join together. Long may it continue!
Jan McMillan, Postlip Hall, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire – WWOOF host since 1973 (or thereabouts)
Postlip Hall, a co -housing community in a Jacobean manor house with fifteen acres of woodland, walled kitchen garden and pasture, came into being pretty much at the same time as WWOOF. Jan, her husband and some friends bought the site unseen for £20,000 and discovered there was a lot of work to be done. The place was full of rubbish, overgrown and generally run down. As is so often the case Jan found out about WWOOF by talking to an acquaintance. Jan signed up immediately and Postlip began to welcome WWOOFers every weekend. Most of the time was spent clearing space be it pond, terrace or orchard.
In those early, non internet, days Jan recalls the visits were arranged via a regional co-ordinator, who would liaise between host and WWOOFer so that sometimes all Jan knew was the name, phone number and dietary proclivities of her immanent guest (sent on a postcard). The WWOOFers were often on a first or second ‘introductory weekend’ and were only accepted as full members following a positive report. One particular volunteer has visited Postlip twice a year for the last twenty years – and has a minuted agreement that her ashes can be scattered there. Another two, Chris and Evelyn, arrived as individuals, returned as a couple and then lived at Postlip as husband and wife, producing three children along the way.
Over the years Postlip has not only benefited from WWOOF – but given much back too. As a smaller organisation back then it was possible to hold local WWOOF meetings or AGMs at this lovely venue and for a time Jan acted as official ombudsman for WWOOF, dealing with complaints from WWOOFers and hosts (a job now done by a member of staff – Holly Cross). Jan has a big fat file of WWOOF correspondence that goes back a long way; it contains many thank you letters and comments and looking through this archive of memories it’s very obvious that whilst the way WWOOF is organised has changed over time, largely in the response to new communications technology, the essence of the exchange experience has been maintained. We trust Sue Coppard will be very proud of that!
photo: ’45 in tomatoes’ by Scarlett Penn
other images from contributors or their websites