Our man went to mow
Robert Nurden gets his hands dirty at an organic farming commune in Somerset
Sunday 16 May 2004
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).
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