WWOOFing as an OAP
I am 66 this year, and I am WWOOFing in Dorset. WWOOFing you ask? Is that something to do with regression and dogs? No. I haven't gone mad (yet), nor am I in a home for the bewildered. WWOOFing is an acronym for “Willing Workers On Organic Farms’ (workers offer 30 hours weekly labor in return for food and board). Whilst Gaunts House has organic farms and gardens, it is also a sprawling Mansion with accommodation for 110 guests.
My experience at Gaunts began erratically (what else is new?), as I had severe jet lag and arrived a day late (long flight delays). Once again, I am amazed at the difference between concept and reality. (In concept, I can ride horses, walk ten miles, zip line, climb mountains and of course WWOOF). In reality, I have osteoarthritis and I am more than a little neurotic. I must have looked quite a sight!
I was greeted by Fiona who, short of wings, is an angel (and she looks like one) with long, strawberry blonde hair; she is a pre-raphaelite beauty...anyone wanting to paint Gwynevere need look no further. She is warm and kind and made me tea; (the cure-all for Brits) then introduced me to the other WWOOFers and small staff team, all very warm and friendly.
Gaunts House has seen better days (haven’t we all) but still has glimpses of the old magnificence. The high ceilings and grandeur of the ballroom, the library and the common rooms all speak of Victorian opulence and old charm.
Accommodation for WWOOFers are hmm...minimal (tolerable I guess if you are a young). Most of the WWOOFer rooms are called ‘cells’ in the stable area; as I am ancient and able to partially pay, I am working 20 hrs a week and paying a stipend for my food and a slightly better accommodation. I think that’s fair.
The lovely Helen is ubiquitous. Like Fiona, she is also beautiful with luxurious long tresses (must be something in the water). She is also special with a heart bigger than Gaunts House, despite having suffered greatly. Helen lost her mother just a year ago and then found out she had breast cancer. She also lives with a back injury and is in severe pain which means she needs a wheelchair to get around. It is astounding that she happily comes in and volunteers five very long days a week. No wonder she is deeply loved! Thanks to Helen accepting my application, I am here!
My shifts to date have been ‘pantry,’ which is a bit of a misnomer because it includes a few miles of walking setting up the dining room, filling up the depleted breads, teas, condiments; taking huge amounts of crockery and foods to and fro from dining rooms, and washing up on a massive scale; for me, akin to cleaning up after the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage (but then again, I haven’t done manual labor before; and I creak when I walk).
I can't remember ever feeling so utterly knackered with a seized back aching legs and raw hands (I almost borrowed Helen's wheelchair to get back to my cell). I had forgotten about the British 'stiff upper lip' stoicism and how the British play down anything endured (its nothing, mustn't grumble, onward and upward) and play up say the weather (or WWOOFer accommodation) And, they can, without guile, use terms such as 'pantry shift' to describe kitchen-porter/ waitress/ table setter/ marathon walker/ chief bottle washer... (Stoicism; I came here willingly and I am paying).
I have since found out that this is very unusual; I was thrown in at the deep end because there were 4 regular WWOOFers absent for various reasons just as a large group of residents arrived. So this was my baptism by fire. Its been much more pleasant since and everyone is accepting of limitations. Gaunts House is a place where you can be yourself; warts and all, and that is both comforting and discomforting!
Believe it or not, one of the residential workers is actually older than me (shock) and what a character he is. This man suffered persecution and escaped death, can never return to his country and has many scars on his body and wrists to prove it. He is an extremely talented and well-known Sculptor with his works still in the museums in Guatemala. Most of his family were killed, but he was able to smuggle his two sons out before him. They now reside in the UK, but he doesn’t see much of them. This poor man now lives in basic accommodation in return for carpentry work, walks bent with a long shepherd pole and is always concerned about food waste… (he has known great hunger). He spent 23 years living deep in the jungle erecting wooden round houses with the natives. It’s an honor and a privilege to meet him; but I feel sad that these exiled, talented people end up this way.
Nina is a lovely French anglophile who has spent several years now in the UK, first as an au pair and now WWOOFing. She is a lovely natured, hard working joyful girl of 27 who has found a local sweetheart and can’t wait to marry and have children…
There's also Wolf, Greg, Steve, John, Vick and about 4 more I haven't sat down and chatted with yet...plus we have two more French WWOOFers arrive today.
Why am I here? I am here to connect. I am here to meet these lovely people, to serve, to be in the English countryside and to be surrounded by the peace of this place. To test myself. To step away from the suffocation of comfort and grow beyond the confines of limiting thoughts and behaviors.
I think perhaps blessings come after we step into the unknown and also, it helps if we work toward them, rather than resist or stagnate. My home, which is taken for granted, will seem like heaven after this; but because there are no people in it except me, I chose purgatory...(sorry WWOOFing). Nothing wrong with a bit of endurance to hone the spirit!
Today, whilst I walked in the warm sunshine through knee-high grass, overlooking undulating fields and massive trees, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see King Arthur gallop from around a tree. You see, the thing is with the British Isles, they are so steeped in legend and history it’s impossible not to get caught up. Wherever I am in England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland (oh, and Guernsey), there is an irresistible mystery, a romance found wherever you wander alone; a calling perhaps only a Brit (or the insane) hear.
Next weekend (for four days) Gaunts is host to Colourfest which is a huge event. Apparently, over 2,000 people will fill the lawns and gardens (tents, marquees and festival folk are already here). After my shift, I will disappear; If you have to find me, I'll be deep in the forest....you see, I have a rendezvous with Merlin and Arthur.
© 2018 Helen Lewis