I was high on the feel-goodness of my first Sunday’s volunteering at Denmark Farm Conservation Centre, so I committed myself to a whole weekend of it a fortnight later.
Day One -Long Wood Community Woodland
I heard about the Long Wood Community Woodland green build project from Gary at the farm, and arranged to help out with the build last Saturday 12th July. Long Wood is long, 300 acre wood just north of Lampeter in Ceredigion. With the help of Jamie, who runs Tŷ Pren construction, the community group is building a visitors’ centre out of timber from the woods. When it’s finished, it’ll get all of its energy from renewable sources and won’t be connected to any mains services. This is some real sustainability.
The one other volunteer and I got to Jamie at 10am. The build is moving quickly as it needs to be finished by the end of August, and there’ll be a big push to get things done over the coming weeks, so the project needs all the extra hands it can get. I learnt from experience that even when you feel completely useless you might actually be helping, so if you’re considering getting involved but think you’re no good, you’re not. At least, you can’t be much more clueless than I was.
The centre’s being built with straw bales, which as a building method feels really intuitive; like LEGO, but bigger and made of straw. The bales are stacked and then fastened into place by knocking wooden stakes through the top. After a quick axing lesson, I chopped and sharpened a few stakes before lugging a couple of bales into place and securing them with my stakes. I practiced my (previously awful) sawing technique (now much better), and drilled holes into timber with a real, old-fashioned brace.
Jamie’s great to work with as he’s really passionate about what he does and has a lot of patience with his volunteers. He taught me how to use traditional hand tools I’d never touched before, and went through processes time and time again until I got it right. He also doesn’t mind a chat. He told me that ultimately he wants to provide a service to those people who want to self-build an alternative home but whose lack of expertise lets them down when it comes to getting planning permission. At the moment, there are no companies around with the kind of knowledge and skills Jamie has, and people are having to build without the support of a recognised builder, making planning a nightmare. Take a look at the work he’s been doing over at Tŷ Pren’s Facebook page. We stopped work at 2pm, and Jamie said he’d be stopping by at the shop soon.
Day Two – Denmark Farm Conservation Centre
To save me having to drive the hour home on Saturday only to head back to almost the same place the next day, Mara at Denmark Farm allowed me to stay at the campsite on Saturday night. (Thank-you, Mara.) I woke up a little wet, and the next time I go camping in the rain I’ll make sure to take a proper tent instead of my ten-year-old sister’s beach shelter. Despite the rain, I enjoyed the night just for the complete peace interrupted only by cows, horses, and the dawn chorus. I cooked curried chickpeas for dinner on the gas stove in the outdoor kitchen (which Jamie of Tŷ Pren built), and an accidentally soup-like mixture of egg and baked beans for breakfast. It wasn’t too bad.
Sunday was led by Gary again, and there were was a combination of familiar and fresh faces there to help out. Having finally dosed up on coffee, we set to filling a pair of planters with the compost from the site. All of the Centre’s organic waste, from banana skins to tea bags and bracken goes onto the compost heaps, which they then use for planting. When the plants follow the compost, the planters will look like these two which were done the weekend before. Whilst some of us filled the planters, a couple of others spent some time weeding the garden, which is full of amazing flowers.
After another lunch at the roundhouse, this time with added bara brith (of which I had three slices, which is completely acceptable when doing demanding physical work), the next job was to wander through the meadows with a pair of long-handled shears and chop away the hawthorn threatening to take over.
My forearms tired, but with a team of us working together we made as light a job of it as we could and were done before long. More cake and another coffee later, the day’s work was done. Gary told me there’d be another day of work in a week’s time, when a local permaculture group will be around to help out. Hopefully I’ll get back to the Farm and pick up some green living tips on the job.