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Date added: 11 October 2012

Many Hands Make Light Work 

SwindonWeb's rural reporter Julie Venis discovers a group dedicated to going green in West Swindon
Strolling past lemon and white cottages, with the faint whiff of a woodburner rising in the distance, it would be easy to forget that Old Shaw Lane is surrounded by suburban estates.

And yet this seemed to be a running theme as I headed towards Lower Shaw Farm, that much-adored hub for country lovers, families and creative souls alike.

Described as an ‘oasis’ in Swindon, farm trustee Matt Holland, and director of the Swindon Festival of Literature, explained that they once planted 2,000 native trees on the land and now the three acre farm, complete with 35 chickens, sheep, Kunekune pigs, runner ducks and a rather inquisitive turkey, feels completely secluded from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Lower Shaw Farm Working Weekends

Perhaps then, this is why the farm’s popular Working Weekends share a loyal fan base with attendees travelling from far and wide. 

An unusually bright weekend over 05 – 07 October played host to one of these monthly Working Weekends, along with the annual Apple Days which attracts local families keen to educate their young and turn their own apples into juice to drink or ferment.

Noting that there are only so many apples you can eat, a family from Royal Wootton Bassett, who had recently moved into a new house with two large apple trees, were keen to make juice from their supply of apples. 

With assistance provided, the apple pressing soon got underway, as adults and children gathered around a designated table to quarter and cut the apples into small pieces, before the next stage of putting the apples through the farm’s own scratter (grinder) and finally pressed to squeeze out the juice. 

Lower Shaw Farm Working Weekends

Sharon from Swindon, who was enjoying a family outing, and has been coming to the farm for 14 years explained: “It’s lovely to take children back to nature and show them what produce you can make from growing your own.”

Sadly, this year’s wet summer has created a distinct shortage in the number of apples but in keeping with the theme, the cafe were offering apple baked goods, including apple cake, apple, date and walnut loaf and apple spice muffins.

The farm is renowned for its vegetarian dishes using home-grown produce, however Vowley Farm, based just outside Royal Wootton Bassett were on hand to serve a tempting mix of cider sausages, pork and apple burgers and rare breed beef.

Although they could have been at the Farmer’s Market in Swindon’s Outlet Village, they were keen to show their support to the farm and trustees, Mark and Andrea, who had helped them when they first moved to Vowley Farm 12 years ago; for it was Matt and Andrea who told them to join WWOOF UK (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). 

Lower Shaw Farm Working Weekends

Lorraine of Vowley Farm explained: “With WWOOF you get a range of help; for example Dougal here, who practically lives with us [on the farm], is extremely practical and has rebuilt the tractor engine for us, while others may not even know what a weed is. Some volunteers might come daily, two or three times a week, or once a year.”

Some of the volunteers found out about Lower Shaw Farm through WWOOF UK which gives members a list of the different organic farms, gardens and smallholdings providing food and accommodation in exchange for practical help on their land. No prior experience in farming is necessary but a keen willing attitude to learn is a must. 

Liz from London, who was enjoying her first working weekend at the farm, had undertaken a range of tasks, such as clearing out the turkey house, working in the polytunnel, and baking those delicious apple spice muffins in the farmhouse kitchen.

“It’s definitely been amazing, no money changes hands. And I’ve eaten so much! At first I wondered how it all worked but yesterday lunchtime as I looked around it all made sense - lots of hands working at the same time makes stuff happen.”

The weekend also saw some of the regular workers, including Derrick from Bristol who has been coming to the farm since 1984, who says he most enjoys weeding, compost making and Matt’s sense of humour.

Retired school teachers David Gardiner and his wife Jean have also been coming here for 35 years, and travel almost three hours from London. 

“We come for the atmosphere, it has a light-hearted mood and we know the people here. I’ve learnt a bit about how the farm works and all day yesterday we were building a waterfall.”

This is quite apt since David helped to build the pond last year, which makes this is a great extension to his work. His wife, Jean, had been busy cutting the herbs and lavender back in front of the old farmhouse, whilst working alongside David, was first-timer Matthew from Cardiff, whose girlfriend comes to the farm regularly. 

Lower Shaw Farm Working Weekends

“It’s been really enjoyable. I want to get a community allotment in Cardiff, so this should help me,” he said.

Discussing the concept of the weekend, Matt Holland commented: “Lower Shaw Farm wouldn’t survive or thrive without the helpers and volunteers."

"The principle behind it is helping with work and sharing success. These are listed buildings and have historic interest but they are not standing idol, you can hear the children squealing in delight in the play barn and the sounds of chopping wood over there; there is a lovely sense of continuity here."

Lower Shaw Farm Working Weekends

"It’s outwardly ramshackled but inwardly ordered. The only signs you will see are ‘Welcome’, there are no signs saying ‘Don’t feed the animals’ or don’t do this or that."

“Being located in a development area, we thought we would be here for a short time but the opposite has happened; rather than just being a rural retreat [and very separated from the area], we are very much a heart of the local community.”

It may come as a surprise that there was talk of the council closing the farm for redevelopment but at the end of last year a 25 year lease was granted, Matt adds: “There was lots of support to fight the cause but we wanted to negotiate sensibly and luckily good sense prevailed for Swindon.”

We are interrupted as the bell is rung for a tea break where new friends and old acquaintances gather around a long bench outside, sipping tea and coffee and tucking into homemade cakes, all enjoying the simpler and rustic side of life, which can surely only be found at a place such as this.

Lower Shaw Farm Working Weekends

For more information on the activities on offer at Lower Shaw Farm, please visit their website via the link below.
Lower Shaw Farm - website
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
  Lower Shaw Farm  
Janet's Puppy School
Chelworth Windows and Conservatories, Swindon, Wiltshire