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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
News
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was left red faced but, thankfully, unhurt after taking a few too many steps backwards, sending her tumbling off the stage.
peopleIggy Azalea was left red faced but apparently unhurt after taking a few too many steps backwards
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
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

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition