In 1971 I was in my early twenties and working for a design company in London when I picked up a copy of Time Out and saw an advert offering weekends volunteering on organic farms. It was just what I was after, I needed to get out of the city and breathe some country air, so I rang the number. That phone call changed my life in many ways.
Possibly the first WWOOF weekend (I’m not there)
Some activities don’t change!
Working Weekends on Organic Farms was the brainchild of Sue Coppard who has watched her idea grow from five people squeezing into a mini to go and dig potatoes to a thriving international charity now known as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOF provides organic farmers and market gardeners with valuable free labour in return for board and lodging and gives young people the opportunity to travel to different countries and get involved with rural life in a way that would never happen if they were following the well-trodden gap year routes.
So how did WWOOF change my life? The very first weekend I went on was to a cottage in the middle of the Ashdown Forest. Jenifer, the owner, needed help with her vegetable garden and as we worked I talked to her and we quickly became – and remain – good friends. I went on other WWOOF weekends and realised that I wanted to move out of London and become an organic gardener. I returned frequently to stay with Jenifer and met her circle of friends. Several of us decided to set up a commune, initially close to the Ashdown Forest, before six of us moved to Wales where we bought a farm and established a dairy herd. I grew the vegetables.
On the farm in Wales with my sister (on the right) who was visiting
The farm has outlasted the commune and is owned by one of the original group, while the rest of us went in different directions. I married a farmer and went to live on his family farm, where once again I gardened organically. When we went our separate ways I continued to work as a gardener, but with two children to support, I returned to an early love of writing and began to write about organic gardening. Over the years I have written many books, including co-authoring The Elements of Organic Gardening with the Prince of Wales and until recently I was the garden editor of Country Living magazine. I now divide my time between writing freelance features for national newspapers and magazines and spending time in my garden – gardening organically. I often ponder how different my life might have been if I hadn’t answered that ad. Thank you WWOOF and thank you Sue for a truly brilliant idea. www.wwoof.org.uk
On Friday I went to pick the crop from the cherry tree that we rent each year. Sadly, it was markedly down on what we usually gather due to the wrong weather at the wrong time. That’s the risk we take and most years we are amply repaid for our investment and it’s good to know that we are helping to keep cherry orchards viable. However there is a looming risk on the horizon, the spotted wing drosophila that threatens to ravage soft fruit crops and shows a marked partiality for cherries. The orchard owner has imposed strict control measures and so far has avoided infestations, but for anyone with a cherry tree in their own garden, one of the most important ways to avoid attracting the fly is to pick cherries as soon as they ripen, not to leave any on the tree and to scrupulously clean up any from the ground and dispose of them in your dustbin rather than on the compost heap where they may still attract the flies.
As the trees spread their shade in the garden, much of it consists of textures and shades of green, but there also some star performers that provide splashes of colour, especially in shades of pink. The earlier cool, wet growing conditions has meant that the plants that successfully outpaced the slugs and snails have reached giant proportions and I find myself looking up at many of them. The Nicotiana have never been finer and although they tend to wilt a bit in the heat, they quickly recover.
It is also a wonderful year for hollyhocks with many of them over two metres high and flowering their socks off. The dahlias have been more variable with Rip City munched to oblivion (I’m about to dig it up and see if I can resuscitate it) while Hillcrest Royal has never looked finer.
Last weekend a friend invited a group of us to celebrate a landmark birthday at the former weekend home of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor at Gif sur Yvette, just south of Paris. The Moulin de Tuilerie consists of a group of buildings surrounding a courtyard, all set in a garden that was originally laid out for the Windsors by Russell Page. Now managed by the Landmark Trust (perfect for a landmark birthday!) it is all rather lovely and filled with books and photographs of its most famous residents. The garden is much simplified from the riot of flowers that the Duke favoured (they were a very colourful couple, in every sense) but the bones of the garden remains. I’ve managed to find an image of how the garden looked in their time – complete with the Duke tying in some roses and their pugs about to cross the little stone bridge in the foreground. Fortuitously I took a photo from the same point, showing the garden as it is today. It was a very memorable weekend. www.landmarktrust.org.uk
Gif sur Yvette – Then
Gif sur Yvette – Now
Although now much simplified, many of the structural elements of Russel Page’s design survive
The front door of the main house
Despite its height, judging from the size of its trunk this tulip tree may have been planted by Page
The circular building was the changing room for the swimming pool that no longer exists
Behind the scenes, the greenhouse is still stacked high with pots
Good idea – the steps outside the greenhouse have a runnel for the wheelbarrow