Seasoned Wwoofer Venetia Sherson gets more than she bargained for on an olive picking job in the hills of southern Tuscany.
By her own admission Charlotte Horton can be a super-bitch. Evidence of that comes when we are balanced delicately on the branches of a century-old olive tree that overhangs a precipitous slope in a small basin valley in Tuscany.
From below there is an ominous crash. In the silence that follows, a beautifully cultured English voice roars across the valley.
"I've been watching you circle that tree with a ladder for 15 minutes. In that time you haven't picked one f***ing olive. For f***'s sake, start picking."
Phil, a young Australian wearing board shorts and a bandana, dusts himself off and checks for injuries. His ladder has wedged itself in the boughs of a neighbouring tree. Without comment, he shimmies up and resumes work. In the same tree, my husband, aged 66, straddles a branch the width of his forearm, and picks with more intensity.
"We are not here to play games," says the voice, in a gentler tone.
"This is not bloody Disney."
It pays to know several things about Charlotte Horton before you sign up as a Wwoofer. One is that she is very serious about her work. Her wines are award-winning, including a star from the prestigious Italian Wine Guide; her sweet extra virgin olive, made from the Olivastra Seggianese, ranks with the best in Italy. She also has a fierce intellect, a passion for English literature and a fondness for dressing up. As well, she is a generous host.
My first contact was through email, when I explained my husband and I would like to work as Wwoofers at her property, Castello di Potentino. I was 61 and a seasoned Wwoofer in Italy so I assumed I'd be a shoo-in. But it proved a harder sell.
Charlotte replied, "This is the scary letter I write to everyone. I should warn you, we work very hard here - five days a week, eight hours a day, and punctual rising is expected. Some jobs are quite tough - rock lifting, picking grapes or hoeing all day in the vineyard, or bramble bashing... And I insist on a minimum of two weeks' work."
We could offer only 10 days, so I pleaded we were coming a long way and John had limited leave.
"Ok," she said. "But you will have to learn quickly."
We arrived at dusk in early October when the last leaves on the Sangiovese vines were the colour of the succulent Sacromonte that would later grace our table.
Jetlagged after a 23-hour flight and a 10-hour bus from Rome (via another castle with a similar name) we staggered up the path to the castle gates. Large dogs were barking and not in a welcoming way.
Charlotte appeared, dressed it seemed in a World War I flying suit, complete with aviator cap. She looked us over. A couple of ancients still wearing their flight support stockings.
"Hello, I'm Charlotte," she said while the dogs sniffed our crotches. "And this is my mother, Sally Greene."
A tiny, gracious woman with shoulder-length grey hair stepped forward and presented me with a piece of wild lavender.
The castle which Charlotte and her mother own is straight from a fairytale. It is on a hill below Monte Amiata, the second highest volcano in Italy. It has Etruscan foundations, but the first documentation to mention it was dated 1042.
In the early part of its history, it was owned by a succession of noble Sienese families. St Catherine of Siena, the patron saint of Italy, stayed over on her way to Rome to talk to the Pope about peace.
When Charlotte Horton and her mother first came upon it 10 years ago it was inhabited by bats and rats. There were no doors or bathrooms, no electricity and no water. The tower was about to fall off and the roof was open to the sky.
"My friends said I was crazy," says Charlotte. "Most assuredly, they are right. But I also have a wicked sense of humour."
So it was that, during restoration, when the tarpaulin blew off the roof, and freezing December rain flooded the upstairs floors, she saw the funny side.
"We had a Scottish carpenter and his New Zealand girlfriend - an opera singer - in residence. We were all bailing. I just collapsed in knee-deep water and laughed. I thought, everyone thinks we are living in a castle in Tuscany and it is very romantic and glamorous..."
This is the second ruined castle she and her family have restored. The first was the Castello di Montepo, Scansano, also in the province of Grosetto.
The family's love affair with Italy goes back 45 years when Charlotte's step-grandmother bought a house near Grosetto. As a child, Charlotte visited from England during school holidays. In her 20s, while working as a freelance journalist in London she made the choice to live in Italy permanently. "In London, I was running round being very silly. I thought, maybe I won't be a bad-tempered old journalist when I'm 60. I'll go off and do something else."
She discovered a passion for wine-making, and learned her skills from the locals. "I learned you can make wine in a rubbish bin. As a result, I have always tried to keep things simple."
She is now committed to teaching the importance of taste to the hundreds of mainly young Wwoofers who work at the castle each year.
"Taste is a human right. If you take that away people become indiscriminate. It makes people human and alive - not couch potatoes who become dull consumerists who have no idea about life and choice."
One of the best tastes, she says is sun-warmed apricot, fresh from the tree, squashed on to Tuscan bread.
There were 10 Wwoofers in residence during our stay: Americans, Brits, a Costa Rican and Aussie Phil. They sleep in one of the castle's many outbuildings. Charlotte won't have Wwoofers in the castle because, in her words, "they are just too messy".
In deference to our age, however, we are allocated one of the castle's 15 bedrooms. The bed is a four-poster as high as my waist.
Our work days begin, as Charlotte predicted, early when the air is clear but nippy. Uran, Charlotte's sweet-faced Albanian farm worker, drives the tractor like an off-roader, bouncing up the slopes too fast for comfort. Some of the Wwoofers ride in the trailer but we opt to walk with the dogs - Coco and Messalina - scooting along beside us.
Some days Charlotte joins us. On others Uran directs us from tree to tree. We work two or three to each tree, the fittest and smallest pickers heading to the highest branches, others hanging off ladders or working the lower boughs. The ancient trees have good footholds but it's hard to squeeze between the smaller branches and the dew is hazardous.
Later the sun warms our backs and the Americans keep us entertained with stories about their travels and songs. Rosie is a viticulturist and here to study winemaking methods; Lydia works for a wine company; Casey is studying Italian and is here to improve her conversation skills; Sean is only 18 and on a gap year before heading to Oxford university. Although it's a year since my last olive-picking venture, I find it easy to settle into the rhythm of combing the branches; the olives stream below on to the nets.
Lunches are back at the castle. In my previous Wwoofing work, lunch has been a simple picnic in the fields. But at the castle, it is a full spread laid out on a long table in the courtyard. There is pasta or thick soup, freshly baked bread, salad, sweet desserts and wine from the cellars, followed by strong espresso. Dinner is served at eight in the kitchen. Charlotte devises the menu and the Wwoofers do the cooking.
Sally Greene sits by the open fire, dressed like an English lady, telling stories about her life. In earlier days, she was a photographer and later I see evidence in her darkroom of superb black and white portraits of the rich and famous including Arnold Goodman, an adviser to Harold Wilson, former British politician David Owen, English actor Steven Berkhoff, and a former Archbishop of Canterbury.
She also has strong literary connections. Her first husband was a Horton (related to the New Zealand publishing family). Her current husband Graham C. Greene was the son of Helga Greene (who was briefly engaged to Anglo-American novelist Raymond Chandler) and the nephew of the author and playwright Graham Greene.
An imposing painting of Sally's father-in-law, Sir Hugh Greene, director general of the BBC in the 1960s, is on the second floor.
"He was six-foot-six," she says. "We used to call him, 'Sir Huge'."
A week into our stay, Charlotte arrives with a guest, Louisa from England, and declares there will be a party in celebration. The Wwoofers are ecstatic and for the remainder of the day huddle together whispering and making plans.
At 8pm, I am in the kitchen when there is a knock on the door. A beautiful young woman stands there wearing full makeup, a clinging lace dress and a large picture hat. She flutters her eyelashes at me.
"Sean?" I say. And it is he. The Wwoofers have all cross-dressed. The women have their hair slicked back and moustaches.
Charlotte sports a beard. She is wearing a hunting jacket, trousers and long boots. Sally wears a sheep wool afro and carries hats for John and me. Later we retire to Charlotte's quarters, where she has installed a film projector. We drape ourselves on velvet cushions, the dogs curled at our feet, watching the black and white classic Palm Beach, screened on the castle wall.
The next day, I learn that Louisa is Louisa Young, the author who also writes children's fiction with her daughter, under the name Zizou Corder. She has an apartment at the castle in which hangs a trapeze. Her daughter likes to work out on it when she comes to stay.
Naturally, there is a ghost. She makes her appearance near the end of our stay. Luis, the Costa Rican, who spends most of his time sketching, saw a woman's face appear in a painting as he headed for the library. He is clearly rattled. The woman is blonde and thought to be the Contessa Bianchina.
The Wwoofers are also convinced the Holy Grail is hidden at the castle and Charlotte does not contradict them. "This is a place where anything can happen," she says.
On the last day of our stay it rains and we are diverted to the cantina where the crushed grapes ferment in wooden vats made from French oak. The svinatura (taking off the grape skins) has been completed; our job is to give them a light pressing with a hand-worked press.
The process is old-fashioned and time-consuming but very gentle. Part of it involves pressing the skins by foot into the wooden press; it also involves getting inside the wooden barrels where the fumes can turn your head. The skins go to the distillery to make grappa riserva (similar to cognac) and a pinot noir grappa which is rare.
When our work is completed I explore the castle for the last time, carefully taking note of landmarks at different levels to avoid getting lost. The castle is vast and almost every wall is book-lined. One four-poster bed is believed to have been owned by the film-maker Luchino Visconti and may have been used in the film Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). A kitchen on the second floor has an ancient fire pit designed so people can sit around its edges.
From an upstairs window I can see a light-haired woman whom I believe is Sally sitting on a garden swing, taking in the warmth of the autumn sun. When I glance back she is gone. Sally tells me later that she has been reading in her bedroom all afternoon.
Facts about Wwoof
What is it?
Wwoof stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It is an international network linking people who want to work on organic farms with people looking for volunteer help.
How does it work?
In return for voluntary labour, Wwoof hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.
Who can do it?
Anyone who can help their hosts with tasks for an agreed number of hours. Age is not a barrier but, for most farm work, you need to be physically fit. Many farms are happy to host workers with children.
What work do Wwoofers do?
The work is varied and can include harvesting, pruning, planting, fruit picking, scrub clearing, weeding, hay making, building, producing food and looking after animals.
What about accommodation?
Some farmers offer accommodation in their home; others offer outside accommodation in caravans or tents.
How many hours do I work?
That depends on the host. On some farms it can be as few as 4-5 hours a day; on others up to eight hours for six days a week during harvesting.
How long can you stay?
Most farms state a minimum of one week. Some Wwoofers stay on the farm for several weeks or even months, depending on their host's needs.
Do I need to speak the language of the country?
Many Wwoof hosts are multi-lingual but Wwoofing offers a chance to learn or improve a new language.
How do I find farms?
Contact the WWwoof organisation in the country you want to visit. For a small membership fee, you will receive a list of farm hosts and advice about Wwoofing, including visas, insurance etc.
The Italian Wwoof website is at wwoof.it.
Venetia Sherson paid her own way to Castello di Potentino.