Sunday, February 20, 2011

Volunteers : the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Our call for volunteers last winter was incredibly successful and I suppose led, if not to complacency, then to assumptions and an over-reliance on this free help.  We created a supra-“list of things to do” with our volunteers and anticipated a moment, perhaps in early March, when we would survey, through tired eyes, an incredible list of things done.  It was not to be.

Two couples had to cancel, both victims of the current economic climate.  One poor chap lost his job and so their five-year plan to become smallholders, and their more immediate plans to visit us, rudely evaporated.  The other couple were thrown a pair of job interviews, too risky to let pass and they, understandably, cancelled too.

A young woman had booked a week with us and, just before she came, asked if she could bring along a chap she’d befriended while volunteering.  Without another thought, we said ‘yes’ and lived to regret it.  In retrospect, our failing was not to discuss and agree with him what we offered to volunteers and expected in return.  To be brief, we mutually agreed that it was not working out and he left halfway through the week.  Thank goodness for Sue and Andrew.

I’ll hand over to Sue now, to tell you of their week with us.

Andrew's bridge
Insomnia Leads to Brittany
Gully when full
Unable to sleep one night I got up to make a cup of tea and read.  From one of my favourite blogs, an invitation to "volunteer in Brittany" jumped out at me and one click later, I’d found the ideal holiday for Andrew and me.

Pulling the plug
A few weeks later we arrived at Stuart's and Gabrielle's smallholding, to a warm welcome from our hosts  and an excellent supper of pork chops from home reared pigs.

The following morning we all went to the woods to start work, smashing through a ball of brambles to open an access way between two parts of the wood separated by a gully.  A section had been filled in to allow a passage (once the recalcitrant brambles had been dealt with) and a buried pipe connected the ditch.  Except that the pipe was blocked, creating a substantial amount of surface water.

All drained
Andrew and Gabrielle started to clear out a gully and, sure enough water began to move slowly towards the riverbank.  Taking a breather from chainsawing, Stuart poked his nose in and started pulling handfuls of leaves from the end of the pipe.  Suddenly a muddy tidal wave surged forward filling Andrew's wellies, the warning shout too late.  It was very satisfying to see the difference as the waterlogged area drained.

I got my first taste of the Kelly kettle and so began my quest to make a cup of tea for us all in the wood.  My first mistake was to only get half of the boiled water in the pot … oops!  After a lunch of home-made broccoli and blue cheese soup, bread, cheese and beers, we went back to the woods.  At the end of the afternoon it was back to our gite with its wood-burning stove, long hot showers and then over to the house for another excellent evening of good food, wine and chatting.  That night we slept really well, no chance of insomnia here.

Learning to spin
The second day involved more tree felling and pole-sawing off lower branches of some of the standing pines. It was very satisfying to see what a difference four people could make in such a short time.  At my second attempt at tea making, all went well until I put out the fire by spilling water on it as I lifted the kettle.  Half marks awarded :  tea to drink but no top ups again.

The third day began with a sausage making session using home grown pork. It was really good, especially learning how to tie a string of sausages and is something we'd like to do at home now.

First skein of wool
While I taught Gabrielle how to spin, Stuart and Andrew started building a bridge for another woodland ditch.  Andrew’s just retired from working as a carpenter/joiner, so Stuart was happy to defer to Andrew, scavenging for suitable old timbers while Andrew designed it.
Bridge building

Saturday was our day off.  We drove to the coast to get our fix of the sea and then on to Dinan where we looked at the arty shops. Having felt that we'd "eaten out" every night with Gabrielle's great meals we had a simple supper of bread, cheese, sausage and fish soup eaten in front of the wood stove.

Sunday was our last day working and we were back in the wood.  Stuart and Andrew installed the bridge and added the handrail, a small oak Stuart had felled for the purpose, Andrew then stripping the bark with a draw-knife and carving a snake's head at one end.  Gabrielle and I cleared brush and stacked logs. Tea making time arrived : failure again leaving the cork in the spout 9risking an explosion!) and needing help to stop the fire going out.  
Andrew using draw knife

Afternoon teatime would be my last chance at conquering the Kelly Kettle.  I used extra dry kindling, so the fire took well, the water boiled, not a drop was spilt and we all had full mugs of tea and top ups too, hurray !

Oak handrail

It was at this point that Gabrielle came over the bridge and presented me with a certificate and my tea maker's badge !
Andrew and I enjoyed our week immensely.  Gabrielle and Stuart are excellent hosts, hard working and full of fun with a great deal of knowledge.

Proud girl guide!