My first ever WWOOFing experience may prove to be the most unique of all. When my host Chris Atkins stepped out of his forest-green land rover wearing a hand-crafted camouflage kilt at the Ledbury train station, I knew I was in for an interesting stay. After spending the month of August at Kendrick’s Cottage with Chris, his partner Sue (also known as Morag), and a retinue of other WWOOFers, I can definitely say I wasn’t disappointed. What with axe-wielding, spoon carving, delicious vegan cooking and environmental discussions, my visit has challenged me both physically and mentally as well as being tremendous fun.
Kendrick’s Cottage

Kendrick’s Cottage is cradled in the lee of the Malvern Hills, right where the counties of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and the Welsh borders intersect. This 12th century stone cottage is surrounded by forest and neat stacks of treated wood collected by Chris from local woodland. The yard is dominated by the iron kiln used for charcoal making and rows of rails and fence posts being finished for his fencing contracts. The smell of fresh wood shavings mingles with the profusion of mint growing in the nearby vegetable garden. Rhodesian Ridgebacks Bramble and Medlar can reliably be found sunbathing outside while the cats Perry and Tigger prowl looking for cuddles. Chris welcomes dozens of WWOOFers to this idyllic spot during the year, and I was lucky enough to work with Anais and Adi (France), Kristin and Amber (USA) and Victoria (UK). With the work, shared meals and plenty of silliness, it was an inviting and sharing environment that didn’t take long to feel like family.

Welcome to Kendricks Cottage.
Out the front of the cottage.
Part of the WWOOFing group: Anais, Chris, Kristin, Me, Victoria and Amber.

Host Chris is one of few remaining artisansΒ skilled in working with natural materials. He crafts fences, benches, structures, baskets and jewellery out of different types of wood, all sourced via his coppicing activities in local woodland. He works with hand-crafted tools and only rarely brings out his chainsaw. Trees are split using a system of wedges and applying force cleverly. The logs are then stripped of sapwood using an axe and drawknife, then smoothed for use in post and rail fencing. Smaller trees are stripped of bark and used to create intricate woven bracelets and bookmarks, or to create baskets. Sycamore can be used to whittle spoons and other implements. Chris is a patient teacher and I’ve really enjoyed weaving and carving in the evenings.

Some finished spoons! That’s mine, second from the left. Thanks to Anais for the photo.
I’ll be honest – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There’s no hot water, the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down” rule is gospel, and there’s no meat or milk in the fridge. Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are picked up each week from the leftovers of a local vegetable box scheme, and day-old tasty bread from a local bakery. The focus of Chris’ lifestyle is reducing consumerism, raising awareness of key environmental issues and the benefits of simple living. For those willing to step outside of their comfort zone, Kendricks Cottage has a lot to offer. For me, Chris’ views on life and relationships, intertwined with the rewarding physical work in beautiful natural woodland, was an inspiring and challenging combination. I’ve been challenged to think outside my self-regulated boundaries and to look more deeply at myself, my character flaws and what I’d like to do with my life. Chris has a subtle way of emphasising the more important elements of life, such as the idea of living in the moment and taking pleasure in whatever task you are engaged with, be that cooking a meal, reading a book, or watching a dragonfly. For someone like me who is perpetually thinking and worrying about the next thing/challenge, I think I have benefited from this approach. I’ve also been inspired to reduce my level of consumerism, by streamlining my possessions, being mindful of my purchases and the food I consume, and reducing the amount of physical and emotional baggage in my life. I’ve whittled my rucksack down and am even learning to go without deodorant and wash clothes with home-made vinegar. It sounds gross, but I can assure you it’s not. Even with my chemistry background, I’d never really questioned the myriad of products we apply to our bodies every day. Each of these chemical compounds are being absorbed through the skin into our bloodstream. I’m making a commitment to reduce the amount of soap, shampoo and conditioner I use and avoid using deodorant or moisturiser. So far, so good (but let me know if I start to smell, all right?).
I’ve also learnt a lot about living simply and lightly on the earth. Chris is very knowledgeable about the issues that face us, including peak oil and overfishing. He introduced me to several powerful documentaries, including Food Inc, The End of the Line and The Power of CommunityΒ which I recommend to anyone concerned about unsustainable practices. His viewpoint is refreshing and inspiring and many dinner-time discussions have delved into the nature of our society and its inherent flaws. These documentaries definitely reinforced my reasons for choosing to follow a vegan diet. They have also encouraged me to learn more about the key environmental issues and make changes to my own lifestyle. Sue’s maxim of “Do you need it or do you want it” is one I will definitely carry with me.
Working in the wild woods
Fencing
Much of the month was spent in the Wyre Forest on the border of Worcestershire and Shropshire, where Chris has several contracts with the Forestry Commission. The current project was a 30m section of hand-crafted post and rail fencing. Preparing and erecting the posts and fitting the rails was hard but fulfilling work. The first week, my arms were perpetually sore, but now lifting, using the axe and draw-knife are becoming more familiar.
Splitting logs for fence posts – all by hand.
A split log, with the tools of the trade: mallet, hammer and wedges.
Removing the external sapwood. Thanks to Anais for the photo!
Stripping and smoothing the rails – me and Adi hard at work. Thanks to Anais for the photo!
Final product: some of the intricate fencing work. No nails!

Charcoal

Chris’s kiln holds approximately 1.6 tonnes of seasoned wood and typically yields 1.2 tonnes of charcoal. First of all, the kiln is stacked carefully with sweet chestnut logs, leaving a central chimney gap. Then the whole lot is carefully lit and the rate of burning controlled using four enormous chimneys and oxygen ports along the base of the kiln. The wood burns in a controlled environment at up to 1600 degrees Celsius for 8 – 12 hours before the chimneys are removed and the kiln is left to cool and settle for several days. After stacking and helping light the kiln, the other WWOOFers and I kindly left Chris to stay up all night to tend the kiln (aren’t we lovely?). Then comes the messy part – bagging up the charcoal for sale. Donning a boiler suit and a face mask, I got to assist in removing the charcoal from the kiln, even getting inside for the last layers. Emerging after several hours of carting charcoal (total of 56 bags), my face and hair was smudged black with static dust and soot – so much fun.
Before: loading the kiln.
Before: stacking complete.
Lighting the kiln and assembling the chimneys.
After: freshly made charcoal.
The charcoal team: Amber, me, Anais and Kristin.

Foraging

Β 
As well as being a skilled artisan, Chris could also survive in the forest based on his knowledge of what’s edible and what’s not. In the woodland around the cottage, there are hazelnuts, elderberries, acorns, sorrel, wild apples, brambles, blackberries, red currants, tay berries, and a whole menangerie of mushrooms, to name just a few. There are dozens of varieties of useful trees such as oak, sweet chestnut, silver birch, sycamore and willow. Chris makes his own tonics and syrups from foraged fruit and also makes apple cider and vinegar and dozens of types of chutneys, sauces and preserves.

He also showed us how to create a simple woven structure for camping, and how to construct more elaborate dwellings with only simple tools. While looking after the estate’s sheep, we stumbled across a large rare mushroom called ‘the chicken of the woods’. It’s a sulfur polypore that grows in fan-like waves from oak trees. When sliced, it looks uncannily like chicken breast. It made a delightful brown rice risotto – I’d never tasted anything like it! If it’s even possible, I think Kendricks Cottage is better than River Cottage with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Mushroom hunting. That’s our quarry up the top left. Mmm.

Kite flying


Chris and his 19-year old neighbour Ross are avid kite fliers. These aren’t your average kites, but large kites designed for kite boarding and surfing. Venturing up the hill from the cottage there’s a pretty reliable pocket of wind perfect for sailing into the sky. It was such an exhilarating experience to control the swoops and dives of the kite, and even being lifted bodily off the ground by the sheer force of the wind. There were several particularly windy days where we spent a chunk of the afternoon kiting until the wind dropped or the sun went down.
Kite flying!
Controlling the kite.

Chris’ Secret Woodland

In an undisclosed location about an hour’s drive from Kendricks Cottage is 15 acres of woodland owned by Chris. It’s remote and a great spot for camping and crafting with the treated oak and silver birch that he stores there. We popped over for some Winnie-the-Pooh style exploratory afternoons several times and discussed Chris’ plans to build a treehouse there. Shotgun living there, that’s all I can say.

Picnic in the secret woods.
Deep in the woods.
Discussing Chris’ vision for a treehouse in the woods.

All up, it was an incredible month tucked away from the reaches of tv, radio, supermarkets, advertisements and news from the ‘real’ world. Instead it was filled with reflection, enjoyable work, bounties of nature, cooking and sharing meals, and learning lots of new skills. Thanks so much to Chris and Morag, and to the other WWOOFers for making it extra fun. I’m going to miss Kendricks Cottage! Who knows, maybe I’ll be back sometime.

Stay tuned – this Aussie is off to WWOOF in Scotland next.

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