One of our dreams (if and when we ever tire of travelling!) is to own a smallholding. I’ve always loved gardening, but have never had a plot big enough to take it seriously. I’d love to one day be at least semi-sustainable. This year, I had a slight concern that, post-lockdown, everyone in the UK might suddenly want to go camping – and all the sites would be full. This led me to start looking for alternative places to stay and at the same time try and gain some experience with gardening, land management and animal care.
I started by contacting a few animal rescue centres and charity farms, but they mostly had their own regular volunteers and often didn’t have space for our motorhome. Then, I discovered HelpX – short for ‘Help Exchange’ – a work exchange platform. For a small fee (€20 for 2 years’ membership) you can join as a ‘helper’ and view literally thousands of ‘hosts’ including small-holdings, crofts, eco-lodges, B+B’s, vineyards and more! I did look at alternatives (Workaway, Wwoofer for example), but HelpX got the best reviews as far as support went, and was much cheaper.
Once you’ve set up your profile of who you are, what skills you have and a few relevant photos, you can go in search of suitable hosts. I found a couple of really interesting ones in Scotland that looked perfect and was overjoyed when they both immediately contacted me back!
Our HelpX experiences
We ended up spending 2 fantastic weeks on a croft on the Isle of Mull. I looked after ducklings, piglets and a large fruit and vegetable plot with a huge polytunnel. I was expected to do about 20 hours a week, which was flexible enough to allow us to really explore our surroundings. In return, we got free accommodation, fresh food from the croft and some lovely meals cooked by our hosts who were very friendly and interesting people.
Our second placement was at Comrie Croft in Perthshire, an eco-campsite/mountain bike centre/café/market garden. It was awesome! Here, there were several ‘HelpX-ers’ so it was good to meet other folk doing the same thing and find out where they had been and what they thought of the HelpX way of life.
I think it helped (particularly just after Covid) that we had our own motorhome to live in, although most places do offer simple accommodation. It also benefitted us in that there were very few travellers from Europe (both because of Covid and Brexit). So many places were desperate for help. In the end I had to change my profile to say ‘fully booked’ as I was getting so many requests from hosts.
After we left Scotland, we finally got to Europe again! We did a couple few weeks work at Bigård Birgitta – an apiary/garden/café in southern Sweden, which was really great fun! We looked after 70 hens, ducks, rabbits and quails, kept an eye on 7 beehives and did plenty of gardening. Also, we got addicted to chanterelle mushroom hunting.
Is it worth it?
Yes! I’d highly recommend HelpX as a great way to get experience in a wide range of situations, see some amazing places and meet really interesting people. It helps you realise what you can do when you put your mind to it. The HelpX website is really easy to use and when needed, I got good support from the team there.