New beginnings: first time WWOOFing in Wales

May 1, 2024

By Joel Rouse

WWOOFing in Pembrokeshire was like being in another world despite being only 235 miles from where I live and work as a photographer and part-time travel blogger. London is home, and I work on Whitehall – one of London’s tourist hotspots, topped and tailed by some of the capital’s greatest landmarks – the Houses of Parliament and Nelson’s Column.

Growing up on the edge of Leeds’s urban sprawl and living in cities for most of my adult life, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a city boy, but living and working in central London is something else and on a totally different level to what I’m used to. The London lifestyle is all-consuming, with a pace unlike anywhere else in the United Kingdom. After visiting my brother in Gothenburg, Sweden, at the end of 2023, I knew I needed some time away from The Big Smoke. Gothenburg is a wonderful coastal city where urban living meets the sea, the great outdoors is a big part of people’s lives, and the city culture is very different to what you’d expect in a UK city, let alone London.

The Preseli Hills. A gorgeous landscape with rivers, woodland and​ marshes, just a stone’s throw from the farm.

Fast-forward a few weeks, and I was on my way to Wales for my first WWOOFing experience. I knew nothing more than a name, address, and phone number. I had no idea what the hosts looked like, nor did I know what I was getting myself into – a strange concept in the Western world where people often have an irrational fear for their personal security, and everything is meticulously planned. It was a refreshing change to my life, where I know where I’ll be, what I’ll wear, where I’ll eat, my schedule for the day – the list goes on.

Little did I know it would be one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had in a long, long time. Emma and Matt, the hosts, made me feel at home as soon as I arrived, almost like one of the family. I was staying in their son’s room in a separate building, which offered plenty of personal space, a warm bed, and a fire, which I finally learned how to get appropriately roaring before I left! The separation didn’t matter because we spent each night sharing dinner and swapping stories about our lives. It was fascinating to listen to Emma and Matt’s story about the farm, how far they’ve come, where they want to go, and Emma’s anecdotes from her career alongside the farm.

Matt fixing a fence. Believe it or not, I also did some of the work.

The farm sits atop a hill in Pembrokeshire. It’s predominantly a sheep farm in the wilds of the Preseli Hills, with over 30 hardy ewes. There is a lot to keep Emma and Matt occupied, from the sheep and their needs to the veg patch, and I got an insight into both. Matt and I spent a day rebuilding a fence to enable a field to be used again for grazing and building pens for the forthcoming lambs. And I spent some time with Emma planting veg, de-weeding veg patches, and shifting a load of wood to make space in the barn for the ewes ready to birth their young.

Emma, all kitted up and ready to chop some wood.

The work was far more physical than I am used to – I operate a camera for a living. However, I consider myself reasonably fit – I cycle, go to the gym and walk miles weekly. But working on the farm left me aching for days! The work was what I would consider functional fitness and left me without needing any supplementary exercise. There’s a lot to be said about doing physical work in a job. It felt like killing two birds with one stone – completing jobs and doing some exercise simultaneously, with a by-product of feeling great. Most of us drive desks these days and miss out on the benefits that some hard graft can have on our mental and physical health.

Me and Emma in the barn. In the photographic world, they say never to work with kids and animals. You will see Lily the dog ruining the bottom of the frame.

It was refreshing to see Emma and Matt’s passion for the farm. Matt is very resourceful with his hands, Emma has a strong love for growing, is very connected to the land, and they both let very little go to waste. Seeing this in action makes me reflect on my habits and consumption. Maybe if we were all exposed to this kind of life, we could make small changes that would be better for the planet, our bodies, and our wallets.

My WWOOFing experience was more than just an exchange of food and shelter for labour. The exposure to local culture and knowledge was priceless and something you don’t often get as a tourist. I’m an adventurer, so I was off in my camper when all the tasks were complete. Emma and Matt pointed out the best places to visit, from Tenby to St Davids, the wild Strumble Head Lighthouse to the ancient woodlands of Tŷ Canol National Nature Reserve, and Tafarn Sinc, where my visit ended – a community-owned pub with sawdust on the floor, ham hanging from the roof and resident cat curled up against the fire. Their local knowledge is all part of the cultural exchange – I could visit places and see things I might otherwise not see because I wouldn’t know they existed.

A fishing boat at Tenby was shot on one of the afternoons when I was let loose to explore Pembrokeshire.

The calming beachgrass at Freshwater East. The landscapes and beaches reminded me of the South West of England, where I’ve spent much of my adult life.

Returning to London, I felt something missing. I had all this time to fill. I no longer needed to light a fire and keep it going to keep me warm or potter about doing other bits and pieces. And after a day’s graft, I was ready for bed. Society has become so automated that we no longer have to do what we consider menial tasks. We no longer need to wash the dishes. We no longer need to wash clothes. Machines do it all. We no longer need to cook or even go to the supermarket. A delivery driver brings it all to us. But what do we fill the time with? Social media and TV. I hadn’t looked for these things while in Wales. There was stuff that needed to be done for the benefit of the farm and the animals – things that created purpose and provided fulfilment.

Ewe with her lambs poking out of a pen Matt and I built. The picture was taken on my final morning on the farm.

I watched a short film called Heart Valley about a Welsh sheep farmer. Before I’d seen the film, I couldn’t understand why this person lived the way they did, having only left Wales once and eating the same thing every single day. But it wasn’t until I watched the short, and everything fell into place. This guy was content. He’d found his place. Most of us are chasing something, trying to find happiness and trying to find ourselves. I found a bit of myself in Pembrokeshire.

It’s an unusual sight to see sheep in woodland. Here they are in the woods at the back of the house. The woods were my favourite landscape on the farm.

I’m a photographer in the Royal Navy. I’ve been in the Navy for over 21 years, and with the end of my service fast approaching, this visit to Ffynnon Organics came at the right time. It shed some light on living an unorthodox lifestyle and what’s possible beyond the military. My life is rich in many ways, and I consider it even richer, having spent a week with Emma and Matt. To finish the week off, two lambs were born a couple of nights before I left. Their birth was a suitable ending to a great week. It was my first WWOOFing experience, but it won’t be my last.

Follow Joel on Instagram: @joelrouse

Catch up with Joel’s adventures via the thebumper.com where you can read more about his first time WWOOFing in Pembrokeshire and feast your eyes on even more sumptuous photos from the experience.

Discover more about WWOOFing at Ffynnon Organics here.

We’d like to thank Joel so much for getting in touch and sharing this thought provoking and impactful story. It’s so good to read about the positive effects even a week of WWOOFing can have on a person willing to take that first step into the unknown.

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