Day 19: Rhayader

30.06.2013. I met Zoe, my second Wwoof host with a little apprehension. I wasn’t sure what will be expected of me at her lavender field, where she grows the purple plants for commercial use. We met at the Llandrindod train station, where she picked me up in a silver land rover. She seems like a pleasant lady, someone rather excitable, and we had good introductory chats on the ride to her home. My mind eased a little.

We arrived at Bryn Pedol just on the outskirts of the region’s main town Rhayader. The name of her house is Welsh for ‘Horseshoe Hill’, where Zoe shares with her partner Chris, a professional ferrier (thereby the name). It is a considerable house, impeccably clean and designed, rather different from the “anything goes” farm at Garway I came from few days ago. Somehow or rather, despite the pleasantries showed by the family and the comfort of my stay, I felt more at home at my previous host.

balcony
Views from the balcony, with Elan Valley in the distance

This wasn’t the season for the lavender plants to bloom yet, and therefore my tasks were largely weeding and tidying up. My initial fears were unfounded as Zoe was lovely to work with and there was no pressure to get things done. Nonetheless, in 4 days time I completed weeding 3 rows of the lavender plants. At the end of which, with my back ached and my hands sore, I had to resign myself to a career in the comfortable premises of modern offices. Huge respect to the people who do this day in and day out.

lavender
Lanes of lavender plant after weeding

bryn
Bryn the dog kept me good company

Zoe was curious about my trip. I explained to her that my purpose of volunteering at farms is to seek different life experiences, learn about agriculture, and basically to mix things up a little during my 3 months travel, a break to refresh myself before adjusting back to life in Singapore. Whilst she was impressed that I am willing to get my hands dirty, I was more in awe of her energy and passion to life. Running your own business is incredibly tough; I had to wonder if I would ever have that sort of courage, drive and commitment.

zoe
Zoe

At the end of my 5 days stay at Bryn Pedol, I bid Zoe farewell, wishing her all the best in life and with her business. The 2 Wwoof experiences have been very different, but both incredibly fulfilling.

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Day 10: Garway

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.

mount pleasant

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.

bonfire

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.

garway hil

hill 2

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.

log

dinner

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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…