Nov 6th 2012 – Nov 16th 2012

Crab Apple CommunityBerrington Hall, Berrington,  Shrewsbury

Thanks to all at Crab Apple for being able to be fairly spontaneous and responding to a last minute plea to take us in after two other cancellations and accommodating our request to extend our stay because we liked it!

IMG_1332Experiencing community is high on our list of the experiences we want to glean. But living in community is not like developing skills for growing veg, managing an orchard, or woodland and developing low impact building skills. The whole community thing is more illusive, most important but at the same time the most difficult to prepare for. It is common place for groups to fragment and intentional communities to go into melt down due to internal conflicts.

When we were there, Crabapple was home to three families, three single people and two long term visitors. As we only spent a short time there the structures that keep the community going remain vague to us. What was more immediately obvious was that the challenges of renovating and maintaining the massive Georgian house owned by the co-op had provided a significant focus for the community to work together on. Some community members expressly stated that it was doing stuff together that has been a glue to building community rather than anything else. Biomass boiler and heating system on a gigantic scale, solar PV and reroofing, facilitating a summer full of events perhaps were some of the things that went towards developing an easy spirit about the place.

IMG_1253With the exception of some electrical work, in a new living space most of our work was outdoors and involved the growing areas. Imagine a two acre walled garden!  Two acres of walled garden! The urban allotments that I’m used to offer approximately 300 square yards as a full plot; someone somewhere back in time suggested that was the amount of land needed for a family of four to feed themselves (according to my allotment friend Caroline). An acre is traditionally a field that could be ploughed in one day using oxen. It was 220 yards long and 22 yards wide, so its area is 4840 square yards. According to my maths that means that the gardening folk at Crabapple are working 32.25 allotments! It was easy to feel overwhelmed at the sheer amount “to do” here. I suppose the best thing about volunteering is that it’s not your responsibility so being “a willing worker” is easy but as time passed I did get a sense of the massive scale of everything and it was overwhelming.

P1020041Our jobs included: raking leaves for leaf mould, stacking wood, clearing a large area for a fruit cage, preparing veg beds, making new raised beds and Rob did some electrical stuff, taking our turn to wash up and cook a meal . We ate a shared meal each evening and Rob and I felt Crabapple an easy place to be. Thanks to all for making us feel like that and to Phil and Bex for showing us yurt life.

And so our first WWOOF placement passed easily. The weather was warm and usually bright. There was sense of a long autumn; the leaves still crisp and blowing around in a gentle breeze when we raked them, the ground easy enough to manage. For the most part the soil was crumbly. We sent messages home telling everyone we had life sussed!  And then it started to rain!

Nov 18th 2012 – Dec 2nd 2012

Radford Mill Farm – Timsbury (between Bristol and Bath)

“Doctor Foster

Went to Gloucester

In a shower of rain.

He stepped in a puddle

Right up to his middle

And never went there again!”

IMG_1347The poly tunnels flooded three times!  The homes of Richard the owner and Frank, the gardener, were flooded. The previous day we had been working on a wall by the river bed with several other IMG_1349volunteers. The instructions were to build a dry stone wall with breeze blocks for a base leaning into the bank and back filled with hard core. As it got higher we salvaged red bricks from the IMG_1368recently renovated mill building area to build further courses. Frank talked of the river walk that was planned and the beauty of the area come spring and summer. Simultanously it was part of other P1020078work such as willow planting to keep the river banks strong.This was routine seasonal work. We spent the morning working despite the rain and as we went for lunch in the farmhouse a couple of fields away, Richard warned us  that occasionally over the last 30 years the water had risen over the bank.
No one could have anticipated the how high and fast the river would rise!

When we surveyed the water damage the next day we expected to see the wall washed away and were slightly astounded that despite the ridiculous levels of water the wall stood standing.

We sought refuge during the weekend at the home of Theo and Phil our friends and comrades in all things ecovillage. Rob’s cold set in good and proper and Theo also was suffering from virus sickly bugs, which he would get later.

We returned for week two. It was still raining and everything felt damp. There were teething  problems with the new boiler in the house and generally we felt glum! Rob’s cold laid him off work for two days. There was something very humbling about our situation. It was only our fourth week and both of us were separately wondering when we could go home! Facing the fact that we’d given that up we were confronted with our circumstances: home was time present – no escape! It focused our thoughts on how important basic comforts are – keeping warm and dry.

IMG_1379However, we set to with instructions to build the wall higher. The significant thing that Radford taught me was “you can”. None of us had done this before. We were working with: Rosie 18 years old, fresh out of 6th form, a French Engineering student Gil, and Lou and Liam employed mostly for gardening and alongside all I learnt that you can stack bricks and with a bit of care, make them sturdy without mortar so they can survive a river in spate – it was satisfying work. We joked at the beginning as we worked from the river bank, that soon we wouldn’t be able to get over it and surprised ourselves as it grew!

We also learnt the value of willow. Sticking willow stakes into the ground and bridging the gaps with faggots is probably a very ancient way to strengthen river banks. Lou and Liam in their evening research found the term ‘bio-engineering” and diagrams gave us all a clearer picture as to how to do it.

As the weather abated and the poly tunnels started to dry out we worked to tend the bedraggled veg and sodden ground. Gently turning the top inch of silt I could see that this year’s beds may be even richer than last year’s. The soil seemed lovely. The salads and winter veg although bedraggled looked like they would recover. I enjoyed the poly tunnels a lot and started to consider the size and shape we would need for our project.

The vulnerability of those trying to make a commercial enterprise from growing fruit and veg was never more stark than here. Drought, a wet summer meant that the winter stores of veg were paltry compared to previous years. It is the same everywhere. Both hosts ran out of onions. Lou came back from a Lidl or Aldi bearing a massive sack for two quid. It’s all crazy.

Dec 9th 2012 – Dec 19th 2012

Middle Ninfa Farm – Llanfoist, Abergavenny

IMG_1436Approximately twenty acres in the Brecon Beacon National Park owned by Richard and Rohan Lewis, includes 9 acres of woodland, ranked third best place for remote camping in a guide for tiny campsites.

Richard at Middle Ninfa also commented on the poor harvest and the fact that in times past this year’s harvest would have led to a time of famine. I hadn’t thought about it like this before but of course it would have been. To recover, it would take several growing seasons, to build up enough capital to buy new livestock.

But Middle Ninfa was an antidote to all that: woodland 500- 1000ft high on the side of the Blorenge on the fringe of the Black mountains was not subject to flooding. Woodland gets on with it. And for a good few days the temperatures were below freezing with a bright sky and it was a joy to work in.

IMG_1431Our jobs entailed: managing brambles, tree planting, digging out the compost now vacated by the grass snakes, mulching veg beds, pruning hawthorn trees in the tree nursery, felling and digging out the roots of fruit trees killed by honey fungus, harvesting basket and  structural willow, clearing willow stools and preparing and replanting a fresh bed, Rob P1020134replaced some wiring for the light in the compost loo and solar shower and put in a socket for mobile phone charging, fencing the area surrounding the spring, pruning and dragging firewood to base. Besides the daily P1020133work stuff we were invited to join in the social life stemming from Richard and Rohan’s community projects, we joined in two film groups, dinner with the drama society, family dinner with the neighbour had a quick visit to Homemakers furniture recycling project and can highly recommend buying your tools from Tools for Self Reliance.    We also came away with more knowledge about water from springs and the devastation a grey squirrel can cause to a woodland in spring.