My first two weeks at Henbant have been filled with delicious food, laughter around the dinner table, roaring fires, cows, chickens, sheep, brambles and plenty of lessons in regenerative agriculture.
Meeting the wonderful Swarbrick family
At the heart of the farm is the very warm and welcoming Swarbrick family – Matt, Jenny, Nel, Meryn and Esme. I was introduced to them when Matt kindly picked me up from the station. During the drive he asked me if I like ‘The Sound of Music’. I knew this family lived in the mountains but I hadn’t prepared myself for singing Do-Re-Mi around a guitar…
It turned out the film was Deborah’s favourite (who’s another volunteer here) and there was a plan to watch it the next day with fish and chips for her birthday. So I didn’t have to worry too much about the singing after all, although of course we all joined in with the subtitles, wearing t-shirts on our head and pretending to be nuns.
And that was my welcome to Henbant – lots of laughter and food around the dinner table in an extended family of twelve. The volunteers staying on site include Deborah and Olivia (mother and daughter), Tina (an ultra runner who makes sure we eat salad every now and then), Stefan and Inger with their son Karl (Stefan is a regenerative farmer and Inger used to have a cafe so creates incredible feasts) and now me.
During the week we take it in turns to cook meals and I’ve enjoyed freshly baked bread, home-made ice-cream, cakes and hearty soups. All are welcome after a day of digging, tree planting or bramble pruning in the fresh but breezy Welsh weather.
Creating paths – but not too many!
Digging out a path before Stefan fills it with slate (c) Rianne Mason
One of my first jobs was to help Olivia and Stefan with making paths to help the campers find their way around the woodland and moors. It involved digging out the turf so that it could be filled with chipped slate. I suggested we make a few signs to help people navigate their way around but learnt that Matt likes to encourage people getting lost every now and then – after all this is what creates great memories and stories to tell.
I like the idea of people finding their own way around, looking for landmarks or familiar spots, and in turn truly observing their surroundings and the gifts that this established forest woodland holds.
Learning that herding sheep is harder than it looks
I’ve only ever watched people herd sheep on T.V and they make it look effortless, so I was surprised at how tricky it can be to get them into one spot without losing a couple of stragglers. We had to gather them all so that they could have their vitamins and be sorted into the sheep staying, those that are pregnant, and the sheep leaving the farm.
Even though some sheep got a bit side-tracked it really is true that they follow each other around, it takes no time at all for one to find it’s way make to it’s herd.
Milking the Jersey cow
Anyone who knows me knows I have a soft spot for cows and have done since I can remember. There’s just something about them that makes my heart swell. So I was pretty excited about getting close to one and learning what’s involved in milking them.
A lot of the work is preparing and washing the milking machine. Before attaching it I cleaned her teats and managed to milk the first bit out by hand because you don’t want to drink that bit. Then you attach the machine on each teat and it sucks on! She kindly told me when she was finished by nudging me and reversing herself out before I had chance to take it off, but it was fine and no milk was spilt.
She happily ate her breakfast throughout the whole process and I lent against her huge warm belly. I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to wrap my arms around one for a huge cow hug, but I’ve already learnt that each breed of cow behaves differently and some are really shy.
Planting alder, oak, blackthorn, birch, willow and rose
We’re getting to end of the dormant season for trees so we’ve spent a few days planting as many as we can before they wake up.
Here comes the science… (thanks Stefan)
The trees serve different purposes across the site, such as acting as a wind break, creating a micro-climate or stabilising a bank. Alder is fast growing and nitrogen fixing, Oak is slow growing and becoming rare so we all need to plant them for the future.
Birch changes the soil to a more fungal environment so we planted one with each apple tree as they need the fungi.
Willows, birch and alder are all pioneer species – so they’re good for being the first species on bare ground. We planted willow in the boggy areas to help soak up the water and nutrients that would otherwise be leached out. This all ties in to the practice of capturing everything within the natural system to that nothing is wasted – the water is taken up by the tree and released from the leaves to make rain, rather than simply evaporating from a pool.
Plastering and painting in preparation for guests
Plastering the round house and cutting back the brambles with Olivia (c) Rianne Mason
Henbant is full of enterprises and one of them is glamping/camping. There’s quite an interesting selection of little quirky houses that guests and volunteers can stay in as Matt really enjoys building. I’m even staying in one myself.
So we want to make sure that the camping areas are ready to make some special memories. The round house is the biggest and suitable for a family. We’ve been plastering in any cracks and later had fun painting it an earthy red. We also cleared the brambles away from the compost toilets to make it a little easier for folks to access them.
Admiring the landscape and discovering gorse
Admiring the views of rolling hills and discovering gorse (c) Rianne Mason
One of the highlights of being out and about on the farm is admiring the distant sea/mountain views and stumbling across nature’s gifts. I’ve spent quite a bit of time amongst the gorse bush, learning that the petals are very tasty (a bit like peas) and the spiky stems are excellent kindling. Something about their dry, crackling form told me they’d be good to burn and Matt later told me that they’re one of the hottest burning species available.
Nature is always speaking to us if we’re quiet enough to hear it.
Settling in to my little house
The tiny ‘boat house’ where I’m staying and a new appreciation for fire lighters (c) Rianne Mason
The reason I was keeping my eyes peeled for kindling was because I’d spent a week struggling to make a fire in my tiny house. Matt gave me some firelighters, that are now my best friend, but it’s been good for me to learn what it takes to make a decent fire without them. I think the key is masses of kindling.
I’m now feeling settled into the little house and getting into a routine that fits around it. This includes leaving my trip to the loo as late as possible before bed, catching woodlice in a cup every evening and throwing them outside, starting a fire at tea time to get it warm in the night and bringing enough water with me in the evening to brush my teeth and boil for washing my face.
The magic moments
Karl about to learn that chickens peck and Inger showing some love for the first meal I cooked everyone (c) Rianne Mason
There’s lots to adapt to when you’re staying in a tiny house and becoming part of a big community, but I can’t be more grateful for this experience. It’s been a tough year in isolation due to Covid and I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to be surrounded by people and conversations. Everyone here has different backgrounds and life stories to bring to the table and I feel so lucky to witness them unfold a little every day.