When I told people that we would be WWOOFing during our year abroad, I got a lot of different reactions. “That’s really cool!” “You’ll be in the middle of nowhere.” “What a neat idea to travel cheaply!” “You’ll be exploited as slave labor.” “I bet you’ll learn a ton!” “It was nice knowing you.”
“WWOOF” (Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming) is a non-profit organization that connects volunteers to organic farms looking for help in over 100 countries. In exchange for room and board, WWOOFers will work for a certain number of hours a week, usually about 30. Volunteers will learn about organic farming practices, and in their free time, can explore the area they are in and get to know the local area on a more intimate level. Some farms are out in the middle of nowhere – farms tend to be. Others are more like extensive gardens for suburban houses, and there are even some urban WWOOFing opportunities, though those are understandably more rare. It can be difficult to find an opportunity that fits just right for both parties. As a WWOOFer, what looks like legitimate opportunity for you to safely learn about organic farming and gardening? As a host, can you trust these volunteers and take them at their word that they are trustworthy enough for you to welcome them into your home? Clayton and I spent hours browsing hosts, and we were accepted for our first WWOOF experience at a location just outside Belfast for three weeks in October.
We arrived on the evening of October 6. Our hair was windswept from the ferry ride that took us over the Irish Sea, our faces chapped from the cold nautical winds. We had absolutely no idea what to expect as our taxi drove up the gravel drive. After a few nervous moments of waiting, our host Antonia opened the door and welcomed us into her home.
Huntley Bed & Breakfast is an elegant 1820s residence just south of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Most of the surrounding land was sold off for golf courses, making it a quiet oasis near the city. The period house is complemented by a stunning Victorian walled garden, a farmyard, some woodland, and a bungalow where Antonia’s mother lives. We would become very familiar with the house and grounds over the three week period, but it was already dark when we arrived and any outdoor touring would have to wait. Antonia showed us to our rooms and welcomed us to come down to dinner once we settled in. I was slightly in awe of our surroundings – I knew that we were staying in a manor house, but it’s one thing to read about it and another to finally arrive. The was a large dining room, a drawing room, a morning room, and numerous bedrooms. Our rooms were on the second floor overlooking the walled garden, though the shutters were often shut to keep in the heat. We went downstairs to join everyone in the drawing room, where a fire was crackling and bowls of pre-dinner crisps making the rounds. It was quite a full house for dinner – Antonia’s mother and sister as well as some old friends that had just come from Spain were to join us. Dinner itself was delicious, which is a matter of course if Antonia is cooking, we were to find.
The warmth of our welcome that first evening was indicative of our entire stay at Huntley. Friends and family joked about Antonia the “taskmaster”, and about the callouses we would get on our hands. I was far from worried, however, as the general atmosphere was lighthearted and friendly, and several stories about previous WWOOFers who had returned was a very good sign. I had the distinct impression that if we followed the rules and worked hard, our stay would be pleasant as can be. We spent the next day familiarizing ourselves with the layout of the garden and grounds, and by Monday, our first work day, we were more than ready to get to work.
There was a set of “house rules” to follow, along with a list of tasks Antonia wanted us to tackle during our work hours. The list started off as half a page on our first day, but as the weeks passed by, the list grew to about three pages. Some tasks were quick and simple, like taking the bins out to the street on trash day, others were entire afternoon affairs like weeding and mulching a particular plot or making apple juice. Between a set of rules to follow and a list to work off of, I was thrilled. There is nothing I like better than organized lists and clear instruction, and Antonia has both of those covered. Honestly, I knew I would get along with her the moment she said that mugs went into the cupboard with the handles facing left. This was my kind of place.
After spending the first day or two learning where everything was, we soon settled into an efficient routine. Each morning started the same way. We’d sleepily stumble down to breakfast around 8 o’clock, though it was clear that our host had already been up for some time as evidenced by a soup or jam already bubbling merrily on the stove. Antonia called our breakfast a “prisoner’s breakfast”, but if it was, it must be the prison equivalent of the Ritz. We started by cutting up fresh fruit into yogurt with muesli and honey, then some prepared some toast with an assortment of jams all made at Huntley with produce from the garden. Jams types included rhubarb and ginger, raspberry and lime, spiced apple, damson, and pear and vanilla butter just to name a few. Hastily gulping down the last of our tea or coffee, we were ready to work by 9 o’clock.
After pulling on our wellies (boots) and donning thick Barbour wax jackets in the boiler room, we would walk under all the apple trees on the property and collect the windfall from the previous day, tickling the apple branches in case more were on the cusp of falling. The sheer volume of apples Huntley’s trees produce astounded me, and we’d collect bucket after bucket just in one morning. I can still hear the “thud” of apples as they hit the bottom of the buckets as we threw them in one by one. By the end of our visit, we had to walk cautiously under the cooking apple tree for fear of getting pelted in the head à la Isaac Newton. Apple collecting done, we’d start on the list items that Antonia had marked for that day’s work. As it was October, most of our tasks were centered on winterizing the garden such as weeding, mulching, and pruning. We cut back plants that were ready to sleep for the winter, pruned the fruit trees and roses, raked fallen leaves, filled in potholes, painted a kitchen door, and cleaned out the greenhouse. Sometimes our tasks were more physical, such as cutting ivy from around trees or turning compost heaps, and despite the chilly autumnal air we’d find ourselves stripping layers off and breaking a sweat.
There were several occasions where I’d be working on a project for an hour or so, and doubt would begin to seep in as to whether I was doing it right or not. I admit, I have no real experience with gardening beyond weeding or cleaning up a Renaissance Faire site (not that that counts at all), so this was truly a learning opportunity. Antonia would check on us time to time, and hearing “oh, well done! Dilly dog, haven’t they done well?” was a true relief.
Dilly is Antonia’s little Norfolk terrier, who Antonia sometimes affectionately calls “little sausage”. Unlike other Norfolk terriers, her ears don’t flop over, making her one-of-a-kind. Dilly is friendly as can be, but clearly is a one-woman dog, and her affection for Antonia is heartwarming. Dilly spends most of the morning and afternoon sleeping under the radiator in the kitchen, and her little snuffles and snores as she dreams were the soundtrack to our breakfasts. Despite constant snoozing, she has a wickedly sharp internal clock, and every two hours will wake up to bug Antonia for her scheduled biscuit. Dilly would get herself incredibly excited for the biscuit, softly woofing and growling as she jumped up on her hind legs and turned in tight circles. Sometimes she would forget to stop growling in anticipation even after she got her biscuit, and the noisy crunching would be accompanied by her loud snuffling. It was endearing. Being so clever, there were certain words that we couldn’t say around her like “rabbit” or “squirrel” or “park”. Dilly would fiercely chase after squirrels and birds in the garden, fruitlessly yapping up trees where they had disappeared. My favorite moment with Dilly, however, would be when I had to dig out a particularly stubborn dandelion. After wrestling out the pesky root, I filled in the considerable hole I had made with freshly turned earth. This was too tempting for Dilly, who loves to dig but knows she’s not allowed to. She sat right on top of the filled-in hole, her nose pressing into it, looking so forlorn it could break your heart. She sat completely still, her entire physical form expressing the desire to dig. I walked away for a short moment to listen to instructions for our next task, and when I returned, there was Dilly, in the exact same standstill position….but with the hole newly dug and a face covered in dirt.
Working in the Huntley gardens, we could sometimes hear the laughter and chatter of golfers or the bells indicating it’s safe to cross a green, but mostly it was nothing but the sound of rustling trees or the occasional car passing by. I constantly enjoyed the smell of fresh apples and turned earth. That same turned earth would often attract a friendly robin who would keep us company as we dug out weeds – evidently we weren’t scary enough to deter him from a meal of all the uncovered insects. Whenever we had any questions about our task, Antonia would come out to show us what she wanted. She claimed to be no expert, and then would proceed to rattle of the Latin names of the plants. She was a mine of information, and I really enjoyed that we got to learn so much by doing. Over the weeks we gleaned an incredible amount knowledge from our host – not just from listening to her explain things in the garden, but also from watching how she utilized all the produce in the kitchen in incredibly efficient ways, and how nothing went to waste.
During our three week stay, we were joined by a third WWOOFer, Lucie. Lucie had previously WWOOFed at Antonia’s, but was returning after leaving a bad WWOOFing experience early. Not all WWOOF locations are like Huntley, and we can understand why she wanted to come back. Lucie was young French woman spending several months WWOOfing and working on her English, which in my opinion was quite good. We soon fell into the habit of practicing our language skills on each other. During our conversations, Lucie would speak in English and I would speak in French, each of us learning new vocabulary and strengthening our grammar as we went. It was also wonderful to have an extra set of hands, especially when making apple juice. About once or twice a week, we would take the buckets and buckets of eating apples we’d been collecting each morning and set up the press in a room just off the kitchen. After getting a good cold-water rinse in the apron sink, apples would need to be de-stemmed and quartered before going into the apple press. Once the press was almost full, we’d close up the mesh bag and turn the handle to lower the wooden disc. Apple juice would slowly drip out from the press into a bowl below, which would then be funneled into cleaned out milk jugs. Alas, since these were late season apples, there wasn’t as much juice as the weeks prior. Still, we managed to do about twenty or so liters during our stay. I will say that having seen the effort that goes into a cup of apple juice, I will always appreciate it more from now on.
Just when our stomachs would start to remember how long it was since breakfast, we’d be called for lunch. Walking into the kitchen after a morning of work, the table looked like a positive feast. Fresh salad, hard boiled eggs and mayonnaise, pate, dolmeh, cheeses, breads, cut meats, garden tomatoes, homemade chutneys, and any leftovers from previous meals would make up any given lunch. After making up a plate, I’d often bring it all together by indulging in a sprinkling of flaked sea salt that was kept in fancy little glass bowls on the table. Next came coffee and a sweet – usually a piece of chocolate or some of the pudding that was leftover from the previous evening. Then it was back to work for the afternoon – hopefully to work off all that lunch.
By the time the sun was threatening to go down, our tools were all put away and it was time to come inside. There is nothing better than a hot shower after a day of working outside, or better yet, a hot bath. We had a deep bath at our disposal and Huntley has an abundance of hot water. Heaven. Once the sun went down, it got quite chilly. Being an old house, it was heated by room, so the walk between occupied rooms could be quite brisk. Sometimes I’d even get into bed before dinner, taking full advantage of the electric blanket on my bed. We’d write postcards and practice ukulele, or I’d cry over Tess of the d’Urbervilles which I’d borrowed from the library below until we heard thumping from down below, which was Antonia hitting the kitchen ceiling with a broom to call us down to dinner.
After a chilly walk through the house, stepping into the kitchen was like slipping into a warm bath. The kitchen table would be set for dinner with two candles, and as the stove or oven had been on for some time cooking our meal, the entire room was cozy and slightly steamy. Antonia’s mother would join us for dinner each night, and some nights we’d also be joined by additional guests that had come to visit. Huntley had a busy social life, and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet more friends and family over the weeks. We’d spend the evenings eating delicious food that Antonia prepared, discussing the work from the day, getting to know each other better, and laughing about the differences between British and American English. Two countries separated by a common language, indeed. Antonia has a whiteboard in her kitchen that she uses for WWOOFers to learn vocabulary, as many of her WWOOFers come from a non-English speaking country. Soon the whiteboard was full of “transatlantic” terms as well as French words. (My personal favorite phrase was “chuffed as mustard”). Dinner would be followed by cheese and biscuits (aka “crackers”). I’d often eat mine with homemade quince jelly, one of my absolute favorites and not often found in the States. After the cheese came the pudding, which is the equivalent to what we’d call a dessert. Try as we might, we couldn’t get a full definition of “pudding”. The best I can do is that the “pudding” is the sweet course right after a meal. Cake for afternoon tea is not a pudding, for example. If you’re British and know that I’m off the mark, I truly am sorry. Pudding is serious business!
Monday nights were slightly different in that we went to Antonia’s mother’s house for dinner. Macaroni and cheese on Monday night was a strong tradition in the family, and we happily joined in. I can easily say it is some of the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had. Antonia’s mother made it with fusilli noodles and baked sliced tomatoes from the garden on top. Mouth-watering heaven. Though I could say that about any meal I had at Huntley. After dinner, we collapse into bed, stuffed with good food and ready for the next day of WWOOFing or perhaps a day off to explore Northern Ireland. We got two or three days off a week depending on how many hours we put in a day, and we took advantage of our free time to explore Belfast and the North Coast (posts coming soon!).
Our stay at Huntley was nothing short of magical. Yes, we worked four or five days a week. Yes, some of the tasks where physically demanding. Yes, I still have dirt under my fingernails no matter how hard I scrub. But I already look back on those weeks with a sense of nostalgia. We got to connect with the earth in a brilliant new way, eat produce fresh from the garden daily, and be welcomed into a home on the other side of the ocean. That warm feeling of walking out of the cold darkness and into the cozy kitchen for dinner is a metaphor for all of Huntley, I feel like. In the midst of all the madness of today’s society, from breaking news to a severe fear of what the future holds for humanity, it was a true blessing to be able to spend time with fingers in the dirt, birdsong in the ears, and new friendships for the soul.
PS – Over the next few posts, I hope I can convince you to include Northern Ireland in your travels. If you ever find yourself in the area, you too can experience the magic of Huntley as Antonia runs a bed and breakfast. You can stroll through the walled gardens and try the homemade jams – all without doing any weeding! Naturally, I highly recommend Huntley Bed & Breakfast.