As dusk fell, firelight spilled from the windows of the farmhouse and the hens trooped single file up a sloping branch to roost in the leafy canopy overhead.
They woke me at dawn the next day, landing like ripe pears on the roof of the rickety caravan where I slept under two duvets and in a sleeping bag, hat and gloves. As an unpaid volunteer agricultural worker escaping from my London bubble, it was time to pull on my wellies and yomp across a muddy paddock to feed pigs. That was 6am on a freezing morning 18 months ago, and right from the start I was hooked.
Burscombe Cliff Farm lies down a steep muddy lane on the side of a wooded escarpment in the Weald of Kent, at medieval Egerton village, near Ashford, just an hour down the M20 from my home. It has been welcoming “Wwoofers” for nearly 30 years, since the original Working Weekends on Organic Farms movement (now called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, but still Wwoof) was founded in 1971. People of all ages and nationalities have fed the livestock, dug the veg patch, walked the young bulls and bunked down in the farm’s ancient caravans. Unlike me, most arrive by train or bike. But I got to go home piled high with fresh local produce and bags of compost.
Our host is seventysomething former doctor Hilary Jones, who breeds award-winning Blonde d’Aquitaine cattle, gentle creatures the size of small elephants. She has been committed to sustainability since before ecotourism was a thing.
A faded sticker – Nuclear Power No Thanks – reveals the remains of an old van once used to get to an Aldermaston march in a heap of brambles beyond her back door. For relaxation, Jones dyes and spins the wool from her sheep – in weld yellow, rose madder pink and indigo blue, and the bright orange she presses from onion skins. Nothing is wasted here. Everything is mended or repurposed. There is wifi, but no TV, just BBC Radio 3 and intelligent engaged chat to the click of knitting needles or the soothing clunk of the spinning wheel.
The UK has more than 550 Wwoof hosts, dedicated organic farmers and smallholders promoting awareness of ecological management of our landscapes and wildlife by offering visitors bed, board and hands-on experience in exchange for six hours’ labour a day. There are also around 4,000 registered UK Wwoofers.
In the 18 months I have been coming here, I have delivered lambs (“We are a grandmother”), groomed the prize bull, scythed a field, mended the greenhouse and learned to eat pigs whose ears I have scratched. It hasn’t turned me vegetarian, but I treat meat with more respect and buy less of it.
Wwoofing this way, with regular return visits, is like walking into The Archers. I get updates on the fight to save the local shop and the library van, and chat to everyone from the artist neighbours in the cottage across the fields to the shepherd managing a large conventional flock on the next farm, the tractor man trying to set up his own decorating business, the veg box grower and passing hikers out enjoying the countryside.
There are at least three regular Wwoofers at Burscombe Cliff: a teacher, a writer and a journalist. We could visit other farms and Wwoof in other countries – there are 132 member countries to choose from, and Australia, New Zealand and the US each has several thousand hosts – but we like it here, taking mini-breaks from our city lives, filling our lungs with fresh air and swinging our shoulders.
Last week I popped back for a happy afternoon up a ladder in the orchard, picking apples. In the next weeks the cows will start coming in from the fields for calving, and the ram will go out to the ewes on 5 November for lambing in early April. In between, there are fences to mend, medlars to pick, broad beans and onion sets to plant, and above all logs to chop for the hungry Rayburn stove. There’s always plenty to do and winter is coming.