A weekend working on the land

Reconnecting with soil and the solstice, South Devon

Twenty hectares of land. On them, a lake, a well, woods, orchards, ponies, sheep, plump chickens, buzzing bees, vegetable gardens, old-fashioned rope swings and endless wild nooks and crannies for daydreaming. And all in the Devon countryside. Imagine if this was your second home. A fantasy? Not if you fancy lending a hand on an Experience Weekend at Embercombe. The Eden in question is just outside Dartmoor National Park, a few miles southwest of bustling Exeter, in the Teign Valley.

Run as a charity, Embercombe is a cross between a farm, a community and a lively sustainable education centre. It is one of those special spots where both nature and people come first. There are few places where you can turn up for a weekend, be instantly welcomed – not as a tourist but as a member of a community – and have the run of the land. This is the joy of Embercombe.

‘We want to encourage a deep immersion in nature, because such experiences are transformative,’ says Jo Clark, the energetic head of the charity’s Land-Based Learning branch. ‘We’re fostering a culture of care, for the land and for each other. We also want to offer the chance for people to get together and work together on the land.’

At Embercombe, even the most cloistered urbanite can dive in and try rural activities at a pace that feels comfortable. And no, no-one will laugh if you turn up with a suitcase instead of a rucksack. Whether it’s gardening, food harvesting and preparation, or traditional crafts, everything you do here involves getting your hands a little dirty.

There’s also time and space to wander the land freely, to exhale and to daydream in the way that you may not have done since childhood. Then there are the good times to be had and the easy friendships forged over a glass of cider – there are 80 apple trees in the orchard and 50 varieties of apple – the folk music or the lazy stargazing.

I’ve come here to volunteer for one of the Embercombe Experience Weekends. It’s billed as a chance to pitch in with outdoor tasks, prepare and share food and enjoy some downtime. This might all sound a little hippy-ish, and you do sleep in yurts – albeit in nice, cosy beds – but with me are people from all walks of life: office workers, students, artists, business people, families, seniors, eco-lovers, urban dwellers, camping addicts and people on their own.

It seems that everyone wants to get closer to nature. I arrive on the eve of the summer solstice, the fields ablaze with colour. It’s clear that the land here has been sensitively nurtured. Wildflowers carpet meadows beloved of butterflies and bumblebees. There’s a sustainably managed wood to lose yourself in. Hedgerows and shrubs abound, and the gardens are bursting with life, both edible and floral (and sometimes both).

“There are few places where you can turn up for a weekend, be instantly welcomed – not as a tourist but as a member of a community – and have the run of the land.”

Vegetables and ten types of soft fruit are growing in neat lines and the polytunnels are packed with produce. The harvest feeds both the guests and those who live here. The scent of lavender teases, sheep graze in the paddocks, ponies whinny in the far fields and even the chickens look rather plump and pleased with themselves. A perk of the weekend is the Embercombe minibus pickup, which meets me off the London train at Exeter St David’s station. It’s far cheaper and more convivial than a cab, as you get chatting with your fellow volunteers.

The journey is a scenic one, past neat villages through which peep the hills. On arrival, I’m invited to dump my bags, sip tea, sit round the early evening fire and admire the valley views. It’s quiet and peaceful, and everyone’s friendly. It feels good to shed my city skin. Like all meals at Embercombe, the buffet dinner, served in a yurt, caters to vegetarians and vegans. On the menu is soup (nettle on the first night), thick slabs of homemade brown bread, assorted salads, bean and vegetable casseroles and couscous. It’s rustic, hearty, fuss-free fare.

Afterwards, everyone gravitates to a large, yet improbably cosy hangar-turned-event space where a folk band is playing. The atmosphere is mellow, festival-lite. Then it’s bedtime and off to the yurts, which are nicely spaced out in two villages. You have to bring your own sleeping bag, but the sleeping quarters are warm and cared for, with blankets and a welcoming vase of wildflowers.

In winter there’s a woodburner, with a tray stacked full of kindling. The wood is either recycled or gathered from Embercombe’s own land. After a big buffet breakfast, we can choose between helping with gardening, harvesting, preparing food or landscaping. I choose the last of these. Clutching wheelbarrows, our ragtag crew forms a conga and follows a bright-red tractor down to the Linhay. This is a beautiful new education centre, sustainably built and, on my visit, in the final stages of construction. The area around it is ripe for clearing and beautifying.

Paths need to be raked and built, rocks need to be cleared and there’s weeding to be done. I find myself pushing a wheelbarrow full of debris with the help of an enthusiastic four year old – the easy mixing of generations is another plus of a stay here. It might not be delicate or elegant work but no-one’s cracking a whip and the pace is leisurely. During the long tea breaks, where platefuls of biscuits and brownies are devoured, we all get better acquainted. I chat to a single mum from inner-city London who has brought her son with her.

‘He loves it here,’ she says. ‘He can run free.’ In the afternoon, I opt for the coveted position of ‘dreamer’: the lucky, lone volunteer who gets to spend the afternoon roaming the land, daydreaming to her heart’s content. Yes please!

“It might not be delicate or elegant work but no-one’s cracking a whip and the pace is leisurely.”

Taking my new-found role to heart, I climb a mound, survey ‘my’ kingdom and slowly amble through a large field to first a forest garden and then the lake. I lie on the pier and do precisely nothing. It’s a tranquil spot: hidden away, with scarcely a ripple but for the odd wriggling carp.

Afterwards, I head into the woods and marvel at the peace. I get an early night, as the next morning we’re due to mark the solstice sunrise. Too few hours later, I crawl groggily out of my yurt. Stumbling in the dark over dew-tipped grass I enter a field encircled by a hedge of ox-eye daisies blinking in the dark. Beyond it is a stone circle. Here a small, sleepy band of weekenders has gathered and a fire is lit. Not unsurprisingly, Embercombe has its very own Stonehenge. Gradually the sun rises, rippling pink through grey clouds.

Despite the cold, and my urge to fall back to sleep. I’m struck by the intimacy and simplicity of the scene. It makes a refreshing contrast with the actual Stonehenge, with its hordes of revellers and tourists. Even the dawn chorus feels sweeter and gentler here, the birds not struggling to be heard over early morning jets. A few hours later, I’m swapping the sweet song of chaffinches and blackbirds for a hoe. Weeding ought to be a chore but in the bright sunshine in this colourful garden, it feels more like an offering.

Embercombe isn’t for those wanting boutique-style facilities: the living is communal and there are just three showers to serve all guests. But for those who crave a chance to exhale in a beautiful place, reconnect with the land, experience sustainability in action and make new friends, it’s hard to beat.