Our time in Northern Ireland came to an end all too soon, and we were sorry to leave. However, the nature of travel pushes us ever forward, and we were soon on a plane over the Irish Sea back to England. Our WWOOFing experience in the UK was only halfway done, and our next stop was just outside Bath in the beautiful West Country. The bus from Bristol to Bath teased us with sites of the picturesque resort town, but we wouldn’t get to visit it for another week. Our destination now was Barrow Castle.
Our host, Judy, picked us up at Bath station and drove us to our destination outside town. Barrow Castle wasn’t far from the city centre at all, and yet the second we turned off the main road and onto the private drive leading up the to castle, the quiet of the countryside took over. We crested the hill and took in the site of our home for the next two weeks.
Barrow Castle was built in the 1850s, back when the Victorians were obsessed with anything and everything “gothic”. The grounds include a coach house, orchards, pool and poolhouse, walled garden, a chicken run, and pasture land for sheep, cattle, and goats. The greenhouse is original, as are many elements of the walled garden such as the herb garden, arches, and fossilized rocks. Judy and Peter, the current owners, are incredibly successful therapists that run coaching courses out of their home, among other things. They are also working to restore the extensive Victorian gardens, though our work was primarily with Phil, their part time gardener. Our tour of the castle itself had much to impress – we would be staying in the Elephant Room, already a good sign for me as elephants are above and beyond my favorite animal. We also had the “tower” to ourselves, which consisted of a sitting room, kitchenette, bathroom, and extra bedroom at the top of the tower. Although we mainly would use the side entrances, there was a large entrance hall that housed an antique grandfather clock that chimed faithfully every hour. The dining room, drawing room, and sitting rooms were all equally impressive, as was the Victorian-era sunroom which contained numerous fruit trees and warm weather plants brought in already for the winter. The back porch off the kitchen was a storage area for produce collected from the garden, including trays of apples, boxes of kale, and dozens of ropes of onions, carefully braided and hanging on a trellis. We passed by numerous jugs of cider, actively fermenting as they bubbled and released air through little contraptions stuck in the bottlenecks. As we toured, we were kept company by Judy and Peter’s elderly black cat Louis, who to my utter delight, looked like he could be Ponder’s older twin. (Ponder is my black cat, currently under the watchful eye of my very patient parents.) Missing Ponder terribly, I was thrilled that Louis followed us around everywhere and even slept with us each night. He was fickle, ornery, and loving – just like Ponder.
The castle and grounds offer an incredible view out over the countryside. On our first afternoon, we decided to enjoy a bit of what it had to offer by making use of some of the public footpaths in the area. The footpath network in the UK is enormous, and the English take their “right to walk” very seriously. Even private land will have public paths cutting through, and they are well maintained and relatively well marked. Clayton and I set out that afternoon for a pleasant country walk, first up along the ridge that housed Barrow Castle, then down the hill to the bottom of the valley. We passed the remnants of an amateur fireworks display, carelessly left in the field as litter. Clearly a practice run for Halloween, or more likely, Guy Fawkes night, which was coming up the following weekend. We then followed the path down along some livestock pastures, and it became quite narrow and we were up against a fence on one side, thick brambles on the other.
As I was ruminating on the peaceful nature of the English countryside, a loud rustling caught our attention. I glanced up into the field and briefly felt sorry for the cow that looked like it had gotten briefly tangled in a bush – that sympathy quickly changing to fear as I realized that was not a cow but a bull, and an angry bull at that. The great, brown beast thundered down the hillside straight towards us, and the only thing that separated us from his thousand pound fury was a droopy barbed wire fence. Clayton and I froze, and my heart stopped just when the bull did, momentum carrying him several feet closer to us even after his decision to stop. I could see his muscles ripping beneath his damp, mist-covered hide, and his forceful breaths looked like steam shooting out of this nostrils. Luckily, Clayton has experience with cattle from his farm in Missouri, and said we should just keep calm and carry on (sorry, couldn’t help it). It was one thing to hear that’s what we should do, and another to do it. The bull was clearly miffed that we were so close to his territory. He turned to show us his broad side and pawed the ground forcefully, snorting and rumbling his discontent. Clayton repeated that he wouldn’t come through the fence, and I had no choice but to believe him. He was right, of course, and we made it to the next pasture just fine, and our angry bull friend was left to let out his rage on a group of sheep sharing his pasture, who bleated and ran from his charge until he was satisfied. My adrenaline was at its peak for quite a while after that event. There is nothing quite like an enormous bull running at you full speed down a hill, stopping only feet from you and intent on showing you his power and rage. Once we reached the bottom of the hill and the woodland, we had the choice of turning to go up the other side of the valley, which was in fact duchy land. Having enough adventure for the day, however, we returned home, and I was full intent on never going outside in the English countryside again before doing some online research and learning that any pasture with a bull or irritable steer must be clearly marked and closed to the public. Still, I couldn’t help but be wary on our future English walks, and my respect for the power of seemingly tame animals is now considerably increased.
Following such a hair-raising start, our WWOOFing days at Barrow Castle fell into a comfortable pattern very quickly. Each morning, Clayton and I would enjoy a leisurely breakfast in our tower. Still missing Huntley B&B, we continued the tradition of yogurt, muesli, fruit, and toast with black coffee to wash it down. Hair braided and layers donned, we trooped downstairs to pull on Wellies and raincoats before walking over to the workshop to meet Phil, who’d give us our marching orders for the day. Phil was a master gardener, and we truly enjoyed getting to know him over the next week. He had a calming laid-back approach to everything, yet it was obvious that there was fierce intelligence to go with it. He taught us about hügelkultur (burying fallen trees beneath vegetable beds to nourish the soil), the no-dig method (improve the soil by adding leafy layers and compost to it rather than aerating it), and just how miserable spreading bamboo can be. We were impressed by several of his projects, such as making his own compost fertilizer and cutting windows in hedges. We did numerous tasks over the weeks including weeding, clearing out the greenhouse, bringing in plants for the winter, mucking out the goat shed, and sucking up fallen leaves with the loud “Billy Goat” machine. I have to admit, however, as unglamorous as it sounds, my favorite task was re-digging a stream from a spring at the top of the hill down to the creek at the bottom of the valley. Phil, Clayton, and I would grab spades and machete and hack our way through the thickets and dig out a narrow channel for the water to flow into. This meant that instead of spreading out and soaking into the ground around young trees, causing the roots to rot, the water would be directed effectively downhill. It was so satisfying to jam a spade into the moist earth and watch the stream take shape for another foot. It’s my sole regret from our stay at Barrow Castle that we didn’t have time to dig it to the bottom of the hill.
Our work started at 9 o’clock each morning, and all too soon it was 11 o’clock – coffee time. This was a tradition at Barrow Castle. Everyone home would meet in the kitchen for coffee and biscuits. This would often include Judy, Peter when he was home, Phil, Clayton, myself, and occasionally Dave, who worked on the stone walls of the estate, and Julie, Judy and Peter’s administrator. Everyone would go over how their morning went and what they planned to do for the day, but usually it would quickly devolve into pleasant conversation across a range of subjects. After two more hours of work, Clayton and I climbed back up the tower and put together a lunch, still copying our Huntley meals by creating spreads of boiled eggs, meats, chutney, cheeses, and salads. We’d frequently watch a bit of “Doc Martin” to get excited for our upcoming trip to Cornwall, or enjoy an episode of the early seasons of the Great British Bake Off not available in the US as a treat. Then it was back to work until 4 o’clock, which felt like it came far too soon each day. Being broken up into so many parts, the work day never felt too trying, and between Huntley and Barrow Castle, we felt incredibly lucky that these were our first WWOOFing experiences.
One particularly memorable experience was getting to plant trees with a British Member of Parliament, Vera Woodhouse. Each MP has been tasked with planting five trees, and we so happened to be WWOOFing on the very estate she had chosen. After planting, we all enjoyed tea in the sitting room up at the castle, and this is honestly a paragraph I never thought I’d write. While Judy and Vera got to talking about local education issues, Clayton and I conversed with her staff members about metal music, sights in Bath, and Brexit. One staff member sported a blue shirt with “Bath for Europe” within a circle of stars – a clear message for being pro-EU. The whole afternoon was a lucky circumstance that made a great memory.
Once work was finished for the day and we recovered with hot showers, we relaxed in our tower until dinner, which most nights were downstairs with our hosts. Judy made delicious meals using garden produce every night, and the beef was from their very own cattle. It was delicious and organic, and simply melted in our mouths. I usually feel massively guilty whenever I eat beef given the strain the industry puts on the environment, but this was guilt-free and home grown, so to speak. Peter would regal us with many tales of his travels and teachings, and he and Clayton struck a chord on their love of Shakespeare and the theater. Again we were lucky in that our hosts seemed to sense our collective sweet tooth, and Judy presented us with delicious puddings such as a plum clafoutis and apple-blackberry crumble – following the cheese course, naturally. If there wasn’t a pudding, we were never given the opportunity to be disappointed as there was often ice cream to satisfy.
It truly was an incredible experience to stay at a Victorian castle in gorgeous Somerset. Again, we have been spoiled by our WWOOFing experiences to no end. We can only hope that our future WWOOFing experiences are so lucky, with hosts even half as gracious and generous. There is nothing quite like looking up from weeding an herb garden to look out over the rolling West Country hillside, with sun rays piercing through the mist and cows dotting the neighboring pastures.