Workaways and Wwoofers helping out @Edgeofthemoor

When you agree to host Workaways and WWoofers you can never know quite how it will work out – how you will all get on, and what skills and experiences people will bring. But so far we have not been disappointed.

Once again we have had a great two weeks getting to know four new people, as we work and eat together. Fran and Andy arrived from Bristol in a van just narrow enough to make it down the lane to our house, Philippe came by train - and I met him at Exeter St Davids, while Nils made it to Chagford using a combination of public transport and hitchhiking, and then walked through the wood and up the field to Murchington in a heavy shower – Chapeau! 


Right away it was clear that Nils (from Brittany) and Philippe (from near Toulouse) spoke English much better than any of us spoke French. Although they were keen to improve their fluency there was no difficulty in understanding each other.

Knowledge isn’t everything, but we were immensely fortunate that Philippe was an expert horticulturalist who immediately set about revolutionising our composting practices and generally improving things in the vegetable garden. He also started a small nursery of cuttings and small saplings which we will nurture carefully till they are ready to plant out.


Andy thoughtfully brought a concrete mixer with him which was a great help given the length of wall that needed repointing. But the task was also livened up by Jon interrupting the work to do an impromptu interview on Radio Five Live about his new book.

Weather was very variable over the two weeks, but we still got a lot achieved. Nils and Philippe pruned and mulched three birches while Fran braved the showers to clear nettles and weeds and reveal a lovely waterfall on a stream down by the river one afternoon. But the next day it was so wet and windy that painting the downstairs hall was the only option.

All of us were glad to have a chance to sit round the fire pit in the evening enjoying the changing views of Meldon Hill and watching for bats and owls in the fading light.


Yet the poor weather meant we did this much less than we would have liked. On the final Friday and Saturday the storm arrived, but despite driving wind and rain Andy finished constructing a new gate with help from Jon and Philippe. The old one was too badly rotted to be worth repainting

So, if you have a project that you need help with and some spare room in your house (and round your table) – think about welcoming some Workaways or Wwoofers. We have found it a rewarding way to make friends while getting a lot done quickly.

Thirteen walk over thirteen miles of Dartmoor on the thirteenth

The group walk on North Dartmoor on Tuesday was our first experience of a ‘Chagwalk’. It was led by Alan Deacon, who had described the day as an eleven mile walk on good paths at a moderate pace.

We started well with a relatively easy path taking us from the parking at Scorhill to the White Moor stone and the small stone circle nearby. From there we headed up a gentle slope to Hound Tor and then beyond to Wild Tor. The skies were grey and cloudy, but with some glimpses of sunshine and no real rain. Wild Tor is just within the military range so is not always accessible but during August the whole of Dartmoor remains open for walkers.

At Hangingstone Hill we waited for everyone in the group to be together - from there it was then a short, but rather difficult walk across the boggy uneven moor to the Cranmere pool letter box . We were warned not to have high expectations of the ‘pool’; this is no place for wild swimming, just a small indentation in the moor, but the letter box is a reminder of the practice of ‘letterboxing’ started in the 1850s and a precursor to the Geocaching of today.

We then retraced our steps back to Hangingstone Hill for lunch. From here Meldon Hill looks insignificant and there are great views across the North of Dartmoor. Just a little further south is Whitehorse hill, site of an important prehistoric burial excavated in 2011. After lunch we carried on to find a peat pass, a track high up on the moor dug to make it easier for horses to be ridden over the moor. It was here that we missed the path to take us back down to cross the Teign and trace our way round to find Scorhill again. A decision was made to stick to the better paths, even if it meant a longer walk. By the time we walked below the deserted Teignhead farmhouse and could see the familiar shape of Kestor rock in the distance we were feeling rather weary. However, the huge advantages of walking as part of a group are that there are interesting people to chat to and the reassurance that you can’t really get lost when you are walking with people who have spent decades hiking on the Moor. The Group organise a local walk monthly, always on the 13th. We thoroughly recommend it to anyone in the area keen to get to know Dartmoor better.

Travelling to the Edge of the Moor - guest blog by Nils Sabin

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As always when I travel, I prefer to be in the right frame of mind, to hear the inner voice which tells me “you’re leaving home, it’s adventure time”. In my previous travels, I enjoyed the apprehension of thinking of the next days or weeks, and trying to imagine my journey. But for this three-week trip to England, I still wasn’t in the right frame of mind the day I left. It might have been the fact that it was only for three weeks, or that France wasn’t so far, but I wasn’t apprehensive. Even if speaking English was still difficult for me, even if I had no plans of where to go (except for one week), it was just a holiday.


Then, I saw the ferry, I heard some British people speak a language which -for sure- wasn’t French and instantly I felt in the right mood. I had some flashbacks to South America, hitch-hiking, the constant flow of new people to meet, of new opportunities. Freedom. That was it, nothing more, nothing less. The first week went exactly as I had expected, waiting on the side of the road to meet new people every hour, going to a new city every day. Fast and new, I liked this start.


As this first week in the UK was ending, my journey took me to the Dartmoor National Park. If the parts of Devon and Cornwall I had visited were very similar to Brittany, Dartmoor was a clear shift. More wild and rural, crisscrossed by tiny roads and scattered with little towns and villages. With a low ratio of cars per hour and a high ratio of old people per car, it was clearly the countryside. As the rain seemed determined to follow me wherever I went, I decided to take a bus to Chagford, but I finished my journey to Murchington accompanied by a biblical deluge which transformed St Olaves -Jane and Jon’s house- into a dry and warm heaven for the rest of the day, and indeed, for the whole of my stay. 


The days I spent in Murchington -around 12 I think- allowed me to do something I can’t do often; work without having to think and concentrate too much. The stay just became a sweet succession of days of weeding, pruning and feeding hens. Days passing one after each other with the sensation of good work, of exhaustion too, but healthy exhaustion, the kind which makes you feel you’re going to sleep like a baby. I felt no need to hurry, or to leave, just to take each day as it came, fires at night, cooking, summer rains and British winds. For sure it was a good time.

Nils stayed with us and helped on the land together with ‘Woofer’ Phillipe, and ‘Workaways’ Fran and Andy in August 2019. He is the grandson of a couple who met a good friend and ex-colleague of mine when he was walking through France a few years ago.


Growing our own mushrooms... we hope

After a fascinating tour around Martin Crawford’s Forest Garden at Dartington, near Totnes, we resolved to follow his example and try to inoculate some fresh-cut hardwood logs with mushroom spores.

Following Martin’s advice, we bought dowels impregnated with mushroom spores from Ann Miller a specialist supplier from Aberdeenshire with more than 20 years’ experience.  We opted for what are said to be the two easiest mushrooms for beginners to try and grow – Shitake and Oyster. The procedure is fairly simple, but it will take a long time before we know if we have been successful (probably a year or more).

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Most mushrooms require fresh-cut hardwood logs to grow successfully – we used oak and ash logs about a metre long cut from recent thinnings (removing side shoots and any ivy or moss attached to the bark). We drilled holes for the dowels – approximately six inches apart, with the rows spaced about four inches apart. The dowels were then gently tapped into the pre-drilled holes till they were flush with the log.

When all the holes had been filled with the impregnated dowels we covered the tops with melted cheese wax to make an air-tight seal.

The logs were then stood on end in a shady corner of the vegetable garden to wait till the mushroom spores introduced on the dowels have managed to colonise the whole log. When (or perhaps if) they do this successfully they will be ready to fruit – something that in theory can happen on multiple occasions as long as the logs are kept in good condition – until, that is, they have eventually rotted away. Once the Shitake logs are fully colonised it is possible to shock them into fruiting (producing delicious mushrooms) by soaking them for 24-48 hours in a deep trough and then banging them sharply, end first, on firm ground three or four times. The theory of this method is that it imitates the natural forest conditions for fruiting – i.e. a tree branch falling to the ground after severe storms.

We will let you know if it works – but don’t hold your breath.

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Three logs resting in a shady place to produce mushrooms

Chagford Open Gardens

Chagford Open Gardens is organised every two years and gave us a great opportunity to visit local gardens over the weekend (15-16 June). As can be seen from the pictures below there is a wide variety in the size of gardens that are open, with some very imaginative, small gardens open to the public. Some have been skilfully designed to make the most of the wonderful views of countryside beyond.

At the school a wild flower garden has been created alongside a small vegetable patch. And the shell sculpture by Peter Randall-Page. There is a reminder that in the last 70 years we have lost 93% of wild flower meadows. Down at Factory Bridge it was lovely to see Ralph and Jill’s garden where they have beautiful formal borders, but are also cultivating a meadow in the orchard beyond. Many thanks to everyone who shared their garden.

Mid-May in marvellous Murchington

The garden continues to surprise us . Although this is our second spring we keep questioning whether there were so many primroses and bluebells last year. Taking more photographs and keeping a detailed record seems the best way to understand how the garden is developing and changing season by season and year by year.

The grass is starting to grow more quickly now the days are longer and there is more warmth in the soil. The lower meadow needs paths cut through regularly. The bracken is beginning to reappear as single fronds, and Jon is constantly on the look out for Himalayan Balsam so that we can continue our efforts to eradicate it and ensure a diversity of plant life.

After a few weeks with very little rain the river is flowing low and tranquil.

Stone Lane Gardens - Photography workshop

Despite persistent drizzle I spent an interesting half day improving my photography skills at Stone Lane gardens today. Our workshop lead was John Howells who kept his enthusiasm despite the cold and wet. A few tips I learned were:

1) Even when it is cloudy, it is still possible to take great photos - the light conditions are best for close up nature photography

2) If you want to take a close up make sure it is really close up

3) On a day with a blanket of white cloud avoid taking pictures that include the sky as it will just be a white block

4) Take time to look for interesting juxtapositions

5) Aim for a composition that leads the viewer into your picture

I have put together a gallery of some of my favourite shots - see what you think….

The Chagword Fringe

The Chagword Fringe


This weekend the Chagword festival was a real inspiration. It was great to hear so many authors talking about the craft of writing and their own experiences of working with words.


To contribute to the festival we set up an informal and impromptu festival fringe. We based ourselves outside the Chagword Café and Bookshop in Endecott House, opposite the Church and under the noisy rookery high up in the trees. Thanks to the Crediton Community Bookshop for being so friendly and supportive. On Saturday we collected comments about Chagford from anyone who would stop and talk to us, and compiled a Chagford poem. As you can see in the picture below the themes are mainly positive and provide a celebratory snap shot of what Chagford meant to visitors and locals on that cold Saturday in March. Perhaps the positivity is helped by the fact that we bribed people with chocolates and grapes to stop and talk to us. Not everyone agreed that what was created was a poem …it neither rhymes nor scans…but plenty of people stopped to read it and added their own comments including ‘Exit Visas Unavailable’…


On Sunday afternoon we displayed the ‘poem’ and asked people about their favourite poems. Some were very honest in telling us that they really didn’t like poetry at all. Others reached back to childhood to retrieve or partially retrieve a favourite verse. We had some great conversations, including with Betty Porter whose favourite poem was ‘The Cast Iron Shore’ a poem she wrote and had published, and which reflects on her childhood growing up in Liverpool. It was great to meet and chat to people from Finland and France as well as locals. A list of the poems which are ‘Chagford Favourites’ can be found below….What’s your favourite poem?


Looking after hens in the cold: Mrs Jacky Cluck’s feeling for snow.

This weekend the winds are gusting at 40 to 50 miles an hour and we had some torrential rain yesterday…but all the snow has thawed. It’s a good time to reflect on the ice and snow that lay on the ground a week ago and record some thoughts on caring for hens in the cold weather.

For our three hens - born last spring and purchased from Weeke Farm - this was their first real experience of snow and it was comical to see them navigating the new landscape.


 In this photo the pecking order is clearly illustrated with the Amber White at the front and Mrs Jacky Cluck (the Goldline) bringing up the rear.

Once the snow began to thaw, as soon as we let them out of their fenced enclosure they quickly found the patches of grass so that they could have some greens to eat. It was striking how the thaw started around the base of large trees – for example the larch next to their enclosure in the orchard and around the apple trees.

In very cold weather it is important to ensure that hens still have access to water as this can easily freeze. Last weekend this meant bringing water from the house as the outside tap was frozen too.

We also provided some new branches for the hens to perch on outside their henhouse so that they had somewhere that was not snow covered for their feet. We didn’t keep them shut up in their small roofed run as they love variety and as much freedom as possible – they had the choice whether to stay under cover or not.

Last March, when it snowed heavily, we saw a fox for the first time in broad daylight, and the snow this year made us more aware of animals usually hidden from view, from the very visible tracks. We therefore took extra care to check that the electric fence was working properly, and this meant clearing the snow and twig debris from the base of the fence to stop it from running to earth.


It is difficult to know exactly what a hen is thinking, but each of our three young hens kept laying an egg every day so they don’t seem to have been unduly bothered by the cold weather.

There is some useful advice in the following blog about what not to do when the weather gets cold:

And this information from the British Hen Welfare Trust is very helpful too:



Don't be rattled by the winter cold

Planting yellow rattle on 23 December 2018

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Apart from the short days, one of the things I most dislike about this time of year is that there are very few opportunities for planting seeds. There is something rewarding about planting as it holds all the promise of an unknown future, and it’s great to see small seedlings appearing.

However, one type of seed that can be planted in late December and early January, is yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). Also commonly called hay-rattle, rattle baskets, pots and pans or Tiddibottles. Yellow rattle is described as key to establishing a new wildflower meadow on an area that was previously dominated by grass, because it is semi-parasitic annual of grassy pasture land. After the yellow flowers have appeared in spring time, the plant produces brown seed pods (calyces) in which the seeds rattle when ripe.


Jon planted the yellow rattle seed in three main zones – some in the orchard, some on the flat lawn in front of the old quarry and some down by the river. In the orchard it was great to be able to make use of the mole hills as planting sites.

The reason for planting yellow rattle at around Christmas time is that the seeds need a spell of cold weather to ensure they germinate. The cold weather predicted for the end of the week may therefore be welcome for these seeds.

We recently joined Moor Meadows, an organisation that is aiming to increase the number of wildflower meadows across Dartmoor. Joining organisations online is another good activity for the depths of winter. Over the coming year we look forward to visiting meadow projects across the South West and learning more about mowing regimes and types of plants best suited for establishing meadows on the edge of Dartmoor


Apple pressing and cider futures

Apple pressing

6 October 2018


An early October Friday brought beautiful weather for apple pressing. We had been harvesting the apples for about a week beforehand. Julie Marie and George had helped the previous weekend with supervision from the three hens.

It was difficult to estimate exactly how many apples we had – each full bag was around 6 kg and then there were some larger bags and two boxes. In total we estimated that we probably had around 60 kg, possibly more. Many of these are the sweet eaters ‘Sunrise’ that unfortunately don’t keep well. We also had lots of pale green apples that look a little like golden delicious from one of the older trees at the south end of the Orchard and this year the rosy ’mystery’  apples on the other taller old tree were also plentiful.

The plan was to make some apple juice but also to fill two new white 10 L Brewers’ buckets with juice for cider.

We loaded up the car just before 9:30 and headed off for Ralph and Jill’s house near Factory Bridge. They are one of the custodians of the community apple press. For £20 local residents can borrow the press and scratter – much more efficient than every family with apples buying their own.


Ralph helpfully showed us how to set up the equipment. First the apples need to be pulverised and then the pulp is made into ‘cakes’ enveloped in strong fabric and sandwiched between wooden slats


Within half an hour the apple juice was flowing. In total we did two and a half pressings and produced nearly 40L of juice. Once back at home on Friday afternoon it was time to pasteurise the apple juice. This means that it will keep for months rather than days. We also added cider yeast to the buckets of juice – it will be interesting to see how quickly the fermentation begins over the next few days.

Mrs Jacky Cluck starts to settle in

I’m getting a bit fed up with the Black Sussex’s bully-girl tactics. She may be bigger than me, and she certainly has a sharper beak, but she hasn’t even laid an egg yet. She bites the humans too but they still don’t seem to realise it would be best for everybody if this spiteful creature went back to the farm toute suite.


At the moment the humans seem to spend every waking moment fussing over us; bringing us fruit and veg and even choice morsels like corn and mealworms. Personally I could live without cauliflower and tough old legumes strewn on the ground, but the other two seem to like having random vegetables thrown at them. They are also keen to go roaming whenever the humans open the Leg Trick Fens, but I can’t really see the point. Sure, there are fresh dandelions and plantains, but frankly I prefer the Layers’ Pellets that we have on tap in the coop. Plus, if the fox does spring I’ll be the one who can capture the whole story for posterity – if only the humans would lend me a camera, the middle-sized one is always taking pictures of us but never thinks to let us have a go ourselves.

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The white hen may be top of the pecking order but she’s a lot less aggressive than the Black Sussex. I admire the way she’s always the first to venture out in the morning – I always think it may be a fox that’s opened the sliding door. Mind you, it was quite funny when she tried to peck through the leg trick fence. I don’t know what the humans have done to it, but she jumped six feet or more when she touched it. She tried to pretend nothing had happened, but I could tell from the way she kept ruffling her feathers and trying to look tough that she’d had quite a shock. It was good of her to test it for us though – I wasn’t convinced that the humans knew what they were doing with all those wires, but perhaps I was wrong.



One year on...

A February walk

A February walk

September: A bat detector seemed the perfect birthday present for Jon. Tuning into the most common frequency (45hz) confirms pipistrelles flying just after sunset around the house and on hillside.


October: Darker evenings and Tawny Owls are regularly heard in the Orchard. After a commotion from the blackbirds their silhouettes are glimpsed flying across, into the field, ready for night-time hunting.

November: Deer often seen in the distance, throughout the autumn, then early one November morning all the apples beneath the orchard trees had disappeared. The deer had visited and feasted.

December: More mineral than animal, but the boulder dislodged by the falling ash tree in the storms was a true monster. Immoveable until a mechanical digger arrived in the late spring.

January: Pheasant plucking is a new skill learned from a helpful neighbour – also the supplier of a few braces. After removing the breasts it’s easiest to leave the rest for foxes.

February: The lower pond becomes the setting for amphibious activity – frogs not fighting but mating. Clouds of frogspawn appear alongside long strings of spawn from the toads.

March: A fox clear against the snow, padding the white landscape in search of food. Later in the warmer spring weather Jane rescued a struggling hedgehog from the steep-sided pond.


April: ‘Peak frog’ long past the pond is now awash with newts, mostly palmates with their webbed feet and agile swimming. Also the dragonfly nymphs that will decimate the tadpoles.

May: Claire and Ed helped us track a marauding cow – a week later there were twelve in the willow corner so Duncan the farmer came round to herd them home.

June: Damselflies are everywhere, including the striking Beautiful Demoiselles by the river with their delicate laced wings. Dragonflies are now hatching from the nymphs leaving eerie hollow shells behind them.

July: Three point of lay chickens are installed in the orchard corner, sheltered by the huge granite walls. After a couple of weeks settling in eggs are laid every morning.


August: Going to put chickens to bed a badger is seen gorging on fallen ripe greengages, then another arrived oblivious to the watching, a third was more cautious- scuttling away.

Twelve months, 365 words, settled.

Writing as Communication and Writing as Thinking: Reflections after a writing retreat

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On Monday we organised our first writing retreat. Seven colleagues from the University of Exeter came out to the 'Edge of the moor' so that we could spend a day together. Each of us was aiming to improve our writing practice and to make progress on a specific piece of writing. The fine summer weather provided the opportunity for individuals to experiment with writing outside as well as in the converted barn-space that forms the main room of our home.

The structure of the day was based on the concept of creating a ‘community of practice’Rowena Murray has written extensively on this, and describes the benefits of coming together to write simultaneously with other people.

In advance of the retreat I had a brief call with each of the participants, so that I understood what they find difficult about writing, and could ensure the retreat would be as helpful as possible. One of the recurring themes was that academics find it difficult to set time aside for writing, particularly given the widespread belief that writing requires large blocks of time. Getting started and staying started was a struggle, and several people commented that first drafts are more enjoyable than the process of editing and ensuring a piece is in the right format and the right length for academic publication. All of the participants are published writers, and yet during the day many people shared feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in relation to their writing – that it is not academic enough or not ‘theoretical’ enough. One conundrum is that people are often given the advice that they need to know what they want to say before they start writing, and yet until they go through the process of writing they don’t know exactly what it is they want to say. This can add to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, which in turn get in the way of getting started and staying started.

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However, on a positive note, people also reported that once they get going they often enjoyed the process of writing; there can be a sense of achievement in figuring something out through writing. As one participant said ‘My own writing surprises me’. Conversations before and during the retreat, and my own recent experience of writing, has led me to recognise that writing can serve (at least) two purposes. First, it can help to clarify our own thoughts - for the academic this can be about helping to move from a concrete, narrative description of a phenomenon to a more abstract or theoretical understanding. Second, writing is the process by which we communicate our ideas to others.

I am not the first person to come to the realisation that writing is not only a tool for communication, but also a process through which we form and shape our own thoughts more effectively. For example one of the participants alerted me to a book by Stephen King called ‘On Writing’, where King reportedly observes ‘I write to find out what I think’. We may need to go through a process of 'thinking through writing' even before we begin the process of writing a first draft of an academic journal article or book chapter. 



Tea and cake are a always welcome at a writing workshop...

Tea and cake are a always welcome at a writing workshop...

What does this conceptualisation of the distinct uses of writing mean for my future writing practice? It has made me aware that I need to give myself permission to write in order to think rather than rushing into writing as communication. It also underlines the need to set aside time for this process of thinking through writing. What was striking in the retreat yesterday was just how much it was possible to achieve in just three 50 minute blocks of writing, but the crucial thing is to build this into my schedule. At the end of the yesterday's workshop participants reflected on how successful the day had been in terms of what they had achieved, and shared some ideas and tips for better time management to ensure that there is more time for writing …and that is worthy of a separate blog post.

Postcard from the Edge of Devon

Our holiday destination this summer made us realise that not everyone is clear about the location of Lundy Island. A postage stamp of land, not quite in the Bristol Channel and not quite in the Atlantic. Puffin Island, but also home to a good number of Grey Seals.

Lundy has its own stamps and special postal service

Lundy has its own stamps and special postal service

We had five days to explore and understand more about the local wildlife. The puffins are the major attraction for many of the day trippers. Jenny’s Cove on the wilder west side of the Island is the best place to see them, either bobbing in the sea below or emerging from their earth burrows just above the rock ledges that provide precarious breeding spots for thousands of Guillemots. But unlike Skomer or the Farne Islands, these are distant views. Lundy is large enough and wild enough that the puffins are not obliged to get close up and personal with their human admirers. But it was great to see the puffins back in numbers. Little more than a decade ago they were close to disappearing from the island, but a systematic programme to eradicate the predatory rat population by the RSPB has brought them back from the brink (rats are not native to the island, they were almost certainly introduced by ship-wrecks - rats really are the first thing to leave a sinking ship). When we arrived home it was heartening, if a little uncanny, to watch BBC Spotlight reporting Lundy's newly flourishing breeding populations of Puffins, Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels. 

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Lundy is also a great place to see and hear grey seals with their woeful bellowing. The water was so calm and clear that even from the cliffs high above they could be seen swimming under the waves or bobbing up and down like bulbous wine bottles. Last autumn the storms meant that most of the seal pups didn’t survive, but it is hoped that the flourishing adult population will be more fortunate in 2018.


Thanks to Sian for being our guide on a great Snorkel safari, leading us through underwater rainforests of kelp to see mammoth Wrasse, 'purple nasty' jelly fish and spider crabs shedding their shells. At low tide, near Rat island, rock pools also reveal the vivid colours that can make Lundy's shore feel like a tropical coral reef.


There are three lighthouses on Lundy, and many remnants from wrecked boats in the Marisco Tavern. The Old Light near the Quarterwall might have been cut from an Edward Hopper painting. It provides a great place to watch the sunset at the end of the day.

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