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
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own