Hazel Murphy is a WWOOFer who discovered WWOOFing at a tumultuous time in her life. We are so glad to be able to share her story.
I heard about WWOOF through people on my Permaculture Design Course. One person had just spent a whole year with her young family WWOOFing around Spain and Portugal, and talked of the amazing experiences they had. I’d developed a strong interest in the environment, managing my own allotment, being involved in a local community gardening project and attending a full Permaculture Design Course.
However, my perception was that it was for youngsters, and that it was linked to alternative living. When my relationship ended rather suddenly, leaving me shocked and without a proper home, it seemed the perfect thing to do.
I wanted a complete change of scenery, not to be on my own and I knew being busy doing physical work would be good for me. As it was the middle of the winter, vegetable growing was not an option, and many of the placements openly stated that winter work was likely to be heavy outdoor tasks like fixing fences, so I looked for options that included some indoor work.
I managed to book my first WWOOF placement within one and a half hours and was very soon on a train to Stroud, to learn all about apple juicing on Our Small Farm, in Gloucestershire. I had no idea what I was in for, and was somewhat nervous when I met Tania, my host, but soon arrived at the farm house to be greeted by Todd the dog and a log fire.
I spent three weeks there with the amazing Greenfield family. Regular readers of WWOOF newsletters will remember the front page picture of a daffodil bank. I remember some cold December days weeding and planting the bulbs in heavy clay soil! Ian promised to send us pictures of the flowers in full bloom, but I did not expect to see the result on the front of a WWOOF newsletter. It made all the hard work seem worthwhile.
At Our Small Farm, I learnt all about apple juicing, from picking apples, washing them, juicing and bottling. The farm was just a mile from a small village and on the edge of the Cotswolds. The highlight for me, though, was moving sheep on my last Saturday on the farm. I had never worked with sheep before and I loved this. I was mesmerised by the experience of watching the sheep charge down the road and standing waving and making sure they went the right way.
Although I grew up in London, I always dreamed of living on a farm but never thought I would, or that I would be any good at farming. I felt quite emotional when I realised this dream just a month after a traumatic break up.
My second placement was on Fyfett Farm, a sheep farm in the Blackdown Hills which has been in the Sparks family for four generations. Here the request was for somebody to help with sheep work and general farm tasks, but also some housekeeping. I booked for an initial two weeks, but ended up staying five months! I did have another placement booked but cancelled this as I was enjoying the sheep work so much and I didn’t want to miss out on seeing the farming year through.
First it was feeding the hogs from last year, and seeing them off to market; then it was care of the pregnant ewes and lambing, spring and light evenings to explore the countryside. I learnt so much here, not just about sheep farming and tourism, but about a living in a close knit rural community. It seemed that everybody knew each other, and many were loosely related.
Although we were quite cut off as it was several miles to the nearest shop or bus stop, I never got lonely as we always had people dropping in, often staying to lunch which was our mail meal of the day. It was a proper farm with no central heating, just a Rayburn in the kitchen and a log fire in the lounge. I was treated as part of the family and included in socials etc. including meals with friends in Taunton and visits to other farms. It was a real wrench to leave and I have stayed in touch with the family.
I have now bought a house and settled in rural mid Devon in a lovely town called Bradninch, not so far from the Blackdown Hills where I spent five happy months. I have just taken a new allotment, to replace the one I gave up, and am enjoying entering into the community life here. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to move somewhere more rural without the confidence I gained from WWOOFing. Having been born in London and never enjoyed city life, I have now realised my dream of living somewhere more rural, and now feel at home in a small community of around 2000 people with views of hills and farmland.
For me WWOOFing is a wonderful way of learning about different ways of life. In both my placements I was included in family social events and really felt a part of the community. I feel WWOOFing is seen as a fringe thing, and a bit alternative, but in reality, it is something that many people can benefit from, if only they knew about it.
When I tell friends about it, most of them have never heard of it and many would love to try something like this. The beauty is also that all that is required of you is to be willing, not to be expert. It is a rich exchange of skills and culture, in which both sides benefit. The farmer/host gets to share their love of the land and skills and communicate the true value of the countryside, to many of us who have grown up in towns and cities remote from food production. The WWOOFer brings their own skills and interests, to often fairly isolated areas.
Whilst some WWOOF placements are with those leading perceived alternative lifestyles, in very basic accommodation, many are not, and I believe there is something for everybody. Whether you have just weekends to spare, or like me choose to take time out and use WWOOFing whilst working out your next steps, I would say just give it a go. Not only will you learn new skills and build your confidence, but you are likely to meet many new people, from all over the world.
photos: Hazel took all the photos – that’s why she isn’t in any of them!