21.06.2013 “My husband will be picking you up at the library next to the cathedral. He will be waiting beside a red Citroen van.”
I arrived at Hereford from Cheltenham, which transited at Newport, thus marking my first time in Wales. I made a call to Hilary to change the meeting time to 1.30 pm as I decided to take an earlier train, which should leave me with some time to explore the city. It ended up being a slow train and I arrived only with 30 minutes to spare. I grabbed some pasties from the local market and rushed to our meeting place. It wasn’t without challenge as libraries aren’t usually the first thing you will find when arriving at a new place!
I spot an old man in a green sweater, slightly hunched, unshaven, standing by a red van giving me a wave and a rather silly grin. That was the first time I met Austin Keenan.
This is my first experience with Wwoof, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It is a membership only charity which links up volunteers with farms or small holdings. The idea is that farmers will provide food and accommodation to the volunteers, who will stay, learn, and help out in these farms.
Mount Pleasant is located at Garway, a civil parish in Herefordshire, which lies in the West Midlands of England, bordering Wales. It is to the west of Gloucestershire, the county of the many Cotswold villages I journeyed from. The ride toward his farm was especially fascinating. As we leave the urban landscapes of Hereford, the only city in this region (one of England’s most rural); what laid ahead of us were narrow roads encroached by overgrown shrubs against the backdrop of serene rolling hills. When we drove past the few pot holes on this un-kept roads, Austin remarked in his slightly throated voice “The Herefordshire council is going to be bankrupt soon. That’s why!“, before breaking out into his silly laughter, a sound I miss terribly already as this gets typed out.
The Keenans grow vegetables for their own use, and Mount Pleasant, of which name was retained from its previous owner was a mere plot of land bought 18 years ago. The farm of today, which includes an orchard, a poly tunnel, a green house, a woodland, a sheep farm (oversized for 2 old sheeps) and 3 beds of grasses for free range chicken, is a labour of their love. The family is used to Wwoof, but due to several bad experiences, they stopped for several years before opening their doors again. I was delighted to be open another chapter of the farm’s marvellous history.
Life in the family went on. Sam and Faye, who lived close by joined us for several meals and we went to the pub once after a particularly satisfying meal. Frances and Sylvan, the parents of the grandchildren dropped their adorable kids Penny and Abenie with Hilary on a few occasions, who were too happy to leave trails of destruction on the flower beds! I never met Ruth and Ben, but from all the family stories I hear, almost felt like I knew them. For the short time I was there, I had became both a spectator and a participator of their family life.
I connected most strongly with Austin. Each day seems to be an exact replica of the other: coffee and toast in the morning, hard work in the afternoon, satisfying supper delightfully made by Hilary at night, some lengthy chats over dish washing (and then at the living room), before capping the day off with a visit to the chicken pen, where I will join him to have its shed closed. Austin is a professional story-teller, who has the most peculiar ability to make you sit down and listen. I shared much of mine with him, making a mental note to send him some of the Singapore/ Asian variety when I head home. On the rare chance of sunshine, we went for a delightful 3 hours walk around the beautiful hills of Garway.
The actual work I did on the farm was negligible, which includes wood splitting, weeding and compost making. Whilst the work was physically demanding and hours were reasonably long, it became a moral cause to me rather than a task imposed. It was no longer a simple exchange between labour and lodging. “You shouldn’t work that hard you know. We don’t pay you here.” What Austin did not know is that he had been wrong. I have received more than what can possibly be measured in dollars and pounds.
I stayed for 6 nights in total, after cutting a day short voluntarily. It became very clear that the longer had I stayed, the more difficult it would be to say good bye. On the morning of my departure, I put on my watch, only to remember that it has stopped working several days ago. Time seemed to have both magically stopped and flown by at Mount Pleasant. Sam and Faye had woken up early to see me off and offered me a packet of spicy crisp as a ‘farewell gift’ (we are fellow aficionados of all things spicy!), while Hilary picked me a flower of the Penelope rose, the significance of which I know because of a story she shared with me during a session of compost making.
As the village bus to Hereford arrived, I gave my hosts a hug and paid £3 to the driver, with the remaining 10 pence chipped in by Austin who had loads of change ready in his hands in case I haven’t got mine. I found a suitable seat with a good view of the beautiful surrounding, sat down and recollect for the past few days. That was when I start noticing that my eyes had became a bit watery…