Our man went to mow

Robert Nurden gets his hands dirty at an organic farming commune in Somerset

Mike, a former tea-planter in Sri Lanka and a "green Christian", was adamant that the Austrian scythe was superior to the traditional English model. "Look at the way this blade curves just the right amount at just the right point," he said. "Ruthlessly efficient." Simon the eco-warrior insisted that because we were hay-making in England, we should mow the English way. It wasn't the first time the argument had been rehearsed during a mid-morning cuppa at Tinker's Bubble, an organic farming commune in deepest Somerset.

It was an indication, during my two-day stay as a volunteer, that all was not sweetness and light on the 15-strong collective near the picture-postcard village of Stoke sub Hamdon. Then again, peace and harmony is difficult to maintain when you've got a four-acre field to hand-cut in temperatures nudging 90F.

We'd started at 5am, before it got too hot. We'd been woken by Mary, who went around the cluster of self-built houses making sure we were all ready for the first day of hay-making. With pigeons cooing in the conifer canopy, we sleepily slurped coffee made in a bubbling cauldron hanging over the fire.

Soon, eight scythes were swishing through the dewy grass. Simon broke off to remind us about ragwort. "Make sure you don't let it get in the hay," he said. "We don't want to poison Milly, Fern or Bracken." They were the cows.

Tinker's Bubble - the name harks back to a time when travellers camped here by the bubbling spring - is home to a hotchpotch of environmentalists who own 40 acres of wood, orchards, meadows and gardens, aiming to "derive a living from the land, organically, sustainably and collectively", without the use of mains electricity or fossil fuels. Just about the only sop to modernity is the telephone. The line had been put in by Libby Purves and her BBC Midweek team for the programme they'd broadcast from here, they said. "After they'd gone we thought we might as well keep it."

Most of the founders had been active in the Twyford Down road protests - Simon became something of a martyr when he was jailed for two weeks. After losing the battle, they clubbed together to buy this tract of land. But South Somerset district council turned down their planning application, as co-operative shareholders, to build low-impact housing. Eventually, with the support of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown, who lives in the village, they won the appeal.

Decisions at Tinkers Bubble are taken at monthly meetings. Each member works on communal projects two days a week, with the rest of the time for themselves. It costs £17 a week to live here.

I'd spent my first day as a Wwoof (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteer freeing Becca's plot of nettles and dock. For hands more used to tapping the keyboard than overcoming the cunning twists and turns of root bowls, it was a rude awakening.

Becca's previous job had been to get children to grow their own vegetables, and she brought the same earnestness of purpose to her own garden of beans and Brussels sprouts. "When I arrived, I didn't want to give up my research," she said. "So I asked the community if I could have a computer. They weren't happy but they eventually let me. But I've hardly used it, I've been so busy."

That evening she was missing from the circle of diners sitting on logs round the fire as they tucked into vegetable curry, brown rice and broad beans. Apparently they were used to her picking peas by moonlight. She regularly sells her produce outside the primary school.

At any time of the year, a Wwoof volunteer is likely to be around, coppicing, hedge-laying, cider-making, making greenwood crafts, or eco-home building. Being a commune rather than a family, it's not a typical Wwoof project, but that means people are involved in a wider range of ancient arts - bodging (making chair legs), tinkering and herbal medicine among them.

I watched Dave shaping a chair leg on a pole lathe. "It's really tricky doing it this way," he said, one leg pumping to keep it turning. "Wouldn't you prefer a mechanised one?" I asked, and immediately wished I hadn't. Taciturn to a fault, his frown said it all. After a welcome hot bath in the communal washroom, I joined the others. Energy comes from photovoltaic panels and a windmill, which together provide electricity for lighting, a fridge and electric fences. Pumped spring water is abundant.

I lit up a cigar. Jane, one of the volunteers, said: "Well, I've seen people smoke all sorts of things here, but never one of those." Maybe, with my urban ways, I was not cut out for the organic life. When nine-year-old Joe turned his nose up at the brown rice and asked for fish fingers, I did feel a stab of sympathy.

Wwoof gives volunteers a chance to help small organic farmers in exchange for bed and board. It has about 250 British smallholdings and gardens on its books and there are Wwoof organisations in other countries. Membership costs £15 a year. Wwoof, PO Box 2675, Lewes, East Sussex BN17 1RB (01273 476286; www.wwoof.org.uk).

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links