Our first taste of wwoofing has been brief and very sweet! We arranged to spend some time at some woodlands near Ashford in Kent, and were very excited to be involved in a project at the very start. Unfortunately our truck had other ideas. After spending a wonderful evening getting to know our hosts, the access route proved impassable and we had to turn around. We were delighted to get out into nature finally, having been on the edges of civilisation for 6 months, very sad to say goodbye to what promised to be a great learning opportunity, and extremely pleased to have met these inspiring and very down to earth people.
Trish and Brian bought their woods 2 years ago having moved here from South Africa with nothing but the bags on their backs in the wake of the land reclamations after the fall of apartheid. Starting from scratch again in their early fifties, the ex-farmers found suburban life maddening and two years ago they embarked on a steep learning curve by purchasing 8 acres of ancient woodland. Untended for over 30 years – though once the site of long standing low-impact settlement – thanks to Brian and Trish the woods are slowly coming back under human management.
We arrived at Easter Wood late Saturday afternoon. The morning had been spent packing; phoning the breakdown for a jumpstart; accidentally removing (breaking) the left wing mirror (landing on my arse and getting shouted at in the process); and discretely withdrawing with the baby so the men could fix it. Driving through from Sussex to Kent snow, instead of falling, had emerged from the earth until we were surrounded by at least 3 or 4 inches of pure brightness. There were piles of grey pushed aside along the roads and I had to get out and check for road markings as we turned up the tiny lane where our hosts met us with their 4×4.
Together we cleared a pile of tree stumps to give the truck room to turn up the track but half way up the track gave way to mud: thick, heavy and moist with the beginnings of the thaw. Planning permission is required to lay hardcore, making heavy goods access to the site difficult – a significant point for small scale foresters who have to process all their wood on site. Tony and Brian battled on, but ran into difficulties at the turn. After about 45 minutes of maneuvreing we finally decided to put the truck in on the side of the track, and finish the job in the morning, or in a few days once the ground had dried out. We parked on the neighbouring plot of woodland, owned by an older couple, at the spot where they park their car – but they had not been seen for months.
We finally made our way up to camp, having already begun to make our aquaintance during the journey up to park the truck. Trish had warned me that things were simple – an open bender for storing tools and daytime living, a small caravan, and a cooking tarp with a raised barbecue burning their own charcoal. Flanking the camp were a few piles of seasoning wood and a makeshift charcoal kiln (a new cast iron kiln was on its way later in the week) while a firepit lay at the centre surrounded by log benches. Trish made a start on the veggies for supper, and Rowan and Tony made tea in the bender with Simon – Easter Wood’s first and longest standing Wwoofer (at two and a half months) and, it turned out, an old acquaintance of Tony from the Circus Space! They enjoyed catching up and gossiping; I marvelled at the peace and thanked the way of things for bringing us to these human people in this wild place.
The evening passed well with plentiful charred sausages, the sweetest sweet potatoes, the freshest air and lots of storytelling. Rowan turned Simon into his slave and vanished on his shoulders to play snowballs, eat peanut butter and do important things with tools within 5 minutes of meeting. Tony and I sat by the fire and listened to Trish and Brian talking about the woods, their plans, and getting us up to speed on the work going on. It was something else to sit and enjoy a meal outside in good company, in February, with snow on the ground! I wonder that this is not done more. We all went to bed feeling alive, slept the best sleep and dreamed many dreams.
We awoke early the next morning and were thankful for our woodburner – there had been more snow in the night and poor Simon, up in the caravan, had no heating. Again and again I find our “primitive” living quarters to be not only adequate, but thoroughly fit for purpose, providing us with just what we need in just the right way. Rowan and I settled down with a huge lump of playdough to while away the time til mid morning, when we would go and rouse Simon and get him to show us how to work the charcoal kiln. Trish and Brian weren’t expected til noon, but around 930 the 4×4 pulled up.
“You’re up early!”, sticking my head out the window into the crisp air.
We had to move. The neighbours were unhappy having a live-in on their land, and had asked that it be removed asap, no debate. The track up ahead had not got significantly harder with the frost so, with the aid of a winch, a pine tree, a tow from Brian and a lot of leg work from Tony (the clutch is a bugger), by 11 o’clock we were standing out on the lane again, kissing and hugging goodbye less than a day after first shaking hands.
Besides enjoying their company, I was impressed by Brian and Trish. Used to the slow burn, they know it takes time and patience to see results. Woodland management is not for the faint hearted. The weather can be grim, the law is challenging, and there is a knowledge – of plants, of ecosystems, of woodland crafts – which used to be known and now must be learned. Consider taking this in a foreign land, a new ecosystem and a much colder climate – when most people are thinking about retirement! What flexibility, what resourcefulness, what vision, and what love.
It strikes me that you can do anything, if you think you can…