‘Friendly, informative and inspiring’ were the words used by a WWOOFer to sum up her experience of our most recent Members’ Gathering held at The Sustainability Centre, near Petersfield in Hampshire on 23rd September 2017. The one day event was a fresh take on our traditional autumnal get-together and WWOOF UK team member Amanda Pearson tells us how it went.
This new member had not yet plucked up the courage to contact her first host. She thought this event would be a good way to put her toe in the water – and she was right; having arrived knowing no one, she left with at least two firm offers from hosts and some warm WWOOF memories.
The gathering started at ten o’clock and while we waited for our late arrivals, delayed by major local traffic problems, we jumped straight in to a question-and-answer session, offering members a chance to raise burning issues of the moment. Replies came as much from members as staff as knowledge was pooled and experiences shared.
Topics included both older and younger WWOOFers, hosting volunteers with children, and the thorny problem of insurance. Frustrations were expressed from both sides of our membership about hosts who don’t reply to messages and volunteers who fail to show up. Everyone agreed this shouldn’t be happening. We completed the formal AGM in record time and tucked into coffee and delicious homemade cake before the workshops and tours began.
First up was a session led by Carol Lewis, a former social worker turned interfaith minister and now Spiritual Director (or ethical juggler) for Gaunts House, a host with a mansion and 2000 acre estate in Dorset. This community of 25 like-minded equals has welcomed WWOOFers for many years and seeks to create a nurturing environment that supports personal growth.
Carol invited us to step back and examine the essence of the WWOOF exchange and what it means to belong to our organisation. Several entertaining stories of residents past and present served to remind us that hosts can learn from WWOOFers just as much as WWOOFers can learn from hosts. She proposed our foremost question on meeting a member should be ‘what can I learn from you?’
Inevitably talk turned to the role of our regional host contacts and how they might energise the local WWOOF scene. If you are a host, do you know who your regional host contact is? Do you know who your neighbouring hosts might be? Would it help for all new hosts to have a buddy?
Sadly, lack of time meant we could only scratch the surface of this philosophical discussion but clearly the mood in the room was that it would be great to be better connected with one another on a more regular basis. The question remained – how?
Some continued to ponder this over lunch, whilst others took the opportunity to fit in a spot of sunbathing, it was a gorgeous day, or discover the joys of the swaps table, which this year was particularly well laden with surplus goodies members had brought to pass on in the spirit of exchange.
The spirit did however get a little carried away. A box of cat food was put on the table by accident and there was a case of mistaken identity when the Centre Manager’s shopping was assumed to be a contribution! Fortunately, everyone had a good laugh when this error was unearthed at the end of the day. Whoever has the food, we hope your cat enjoys it!
After the profound discussions of the morning, our next workshop session was much more down to earth with everyone absorbing the advice medicinal herbalist Sarah Furey had to give. A former head teacher who has embarked on a second career by pursuing her passion for plants, Sarah advised us on the many and varied anti-bacterial, antifungal and antiviral agents to be found in our back gardens, allotments or on local walks with much talk of tinctures, teas and syrups. Sarah was on a mission to let us know about the free medicinal cabinet nature provides and to reconnect us with the knowledge of the wise women rather than the bank balance of the big pharmaceutical companies.
Our trio of contributions was concluded with another practical session from WWOOF UK Director Katie Hastings who shared her story of setting up The Green Isle Growers co-operative veg box scheme in Machynlleth, West Wales.
Katie works with seven other local growers to serve 50 people with seasonal and organic fruit and vegetables for six months of the year, with occasional supplements from an organic wholesaler. The group’s turnover is small – in the region of £13,000 per year – but, by working together, they avoid undercutting each other and ensure they get a fair price for their veg.
Katie joked that in the corporate world the co-op might be accused of price fixing, but this strategy has given her the rare luxury of a realistic and sustainable price for what she grows as well as enabling her to do something she loves and connect with her local community.
Throughout the day Sustainability Centre Education Officer, Louise Ambrose took those not participating in the workshops on tours of the former HMS Mercury site. The Centre is a place for independent learning and study, dedicated to exploring how we can all make greener, healthier and more ethical choices – the perfect backdrop for a WWOOF UK meeting.
Set in 55 acres of woodland and downland it is not, however, your typical ‘alternative venue’, as it comprises several office buildings in Sixties/Seventies style that the organisation has bravely decided to retrofit rather than pull down and start again.
One has been turned into a lodge to provide accommodation for, amongst others, early arrivals for our gathering, as well as course participants, visiting school groups and users of the nearby South Downs Way. The other building acts as the main reception area and classroom for the various courses and workshops the Centre offers in green living, rural skills and bushcraft, as well as housing the all important café.
There is a huge amount going on at the Centre. Do check it out for yourself at www.sustainability-centre.org. As we walked around we saw a green burial ground, campsite, with bookable yurts, solar showers and compost toilets, Wetland Ecosystem Treatment System (WETS) and chickens rescued from a battery farm. The star of the show however was the stunning Woodland Hall designed and built by Ben Law of The Woodland House fame and used by the Centre as a venue for various events. Louise told us all the wood, and most of the materials, were sourced from within a mile of The Sustainability Centre. We were all fantasising about the amazing parties we could hold there until Louise told us the site has a 10.30 pm curfew.
And so to our last tea break, which afforded participants a final opportunity to purchase the new 2018 WWOOF UK calendar at the bargain price of £6.00. Some people bought multiple copies (possibly because they featured in it). Those who missed this limited offer can now buy the calendar from our website, www.wwoof.org.uk.
All too soon it was time to head home. We want to say a big thank you to Holly for her excellent organisation, and Dan who provided a taxi service to and from the local railway station with his veg-oil-fuelled car.
As ever it was great to meet some old friends and make some new ones, bound together by our passion for all things WWOOF.
photos: Taryn Field – thank you Taryn!
Green Isle Growers photo (Katie Hastings talk) from their website: www.machmaethlon.org