From the moment I step out of the Master Robert Inn, Buriton, this morning, and into the warm Spring sunshine, I know my day is blessed. Within a couple of minutes I am stopped in my tracks by the most beautiful duckpond this side of a film about quintessential rural England. My breath is taken; I cannot leave. I snap shot after shot. What a thing to come across first thing in the morning when you are not expecting it!
The day just gets better and better; how come no one ever told me that this England existed? After a pleasant hour or so walking I look at the map and realise I have crossed into Sussex. The fourth county; already! My sense of achievement is hardly felt as my pure pleasure in being where I am is so strong.
The feel of the countryside is totally different here; if great tracts are still owned by one family, they are a benign influence. There are more villages, there is a sense of people living well, people having lived well here for a long time. I recall now as I write that I have read somewhere that the black death claimed many in east Hampshire and I wonder if that accounts for the difference, if the people now on that land came to it after the land enclosures.
I stop at the most idyllic Royal Oak pub in the minute hamlet of Hooksway for lunch and read a programme for the Festival Theatre in Chichester of a new play, “Bingo”, which sounds fascinating and I wish I could be there to see it, telling of the old age of Shakespeare, a small landowner, persuaded by big landowners to sign the documents removing the tenant farmers from his land, and his ensuing Lear like distress as events play out at the time of the enclosures.
It seems now, in these times of transition, that it is finally time to look again at the cost of making and implementing that policy. I hear at just what cost later that very evening when I am fortunate enough to hear Graham Harvey (author of “the Carbon Fields” and agricultural story editor of the Archers)) speak at the St George’s Day Feast, organised by Transition Chichester, held in the ancient Vicar’s House, part of the cathedral complex of Chichester cathedral.
Harvey is a good speaker, and obviously passionate about his subject, his life’s work. Our choice to farm in a mono culture way has depleted the soils so badly that vast quantities of oil based fertilisers have to be put on the land. Moving away from the small traditional mixed farms, has led to the diseases of our times; the food we eat is full of chemicals, and full of the stresses experienced by the animals kept in constrained conditions. Traditional mixed farming ensured the land was kept fertile. Roaming animals, cattle and sheep, constantly moving, kept soil fertility high, grazing the land maintains the carbon cycle locked up into the ground where it needs to be.
There is the tale of George Henderson (very fitting; of course the name George means farmer!) who, after the war, decided to try and make farming work. He bought a piece of land cheaply. The soil was chalky and not productive at all. He did the only thing possible, he put grazing lifestock there. In a time when Britain’s half a million farmers were going under, struggling to feed us all, George Henderson quickly made a profit if £4000 (that’s the equivalent of a half a million pounds today!). How did this happen? Whilst the other farmers were busy buying expensive petrochemical fertilizers to try and improve the fertility of their land, George’s grazing animals quickly returned his soil to top quality growing land! George was farming the traditional way, mixed farming, varied life stock and crops. I am reminded of the toy farmyard I loved and played with as a child (made by Brittain’s toys); it had pigs, hens, cows, ducks, sheep, goats, dogs and cats, and horses and donkeys, and all different kinds of things growing in the fields. That isn’t so very long ago. Get hold of “The Farming Ladder” to read George’s story.
We are told the tale of two farms; one, fortunately, not given planning permission…yet, the other a small business. The small business, one man, Matt Dayle, he’s bought 20 Ayrshire cows, some second hand pasteurising equipment, and 50 acres of land. It cost £50,000 altogether. The other farm is in Lincolnshire, and has the support of the council there. It is called Nockton Dairies. The plan is to put 8000 cows into a battery life, spending 9 months out of every year indoors being fed up. Cost? 50 million!
The council like this idea; it will bring 80 new jobs to the area. It doesn’t take a great mathematician to realise that 400 people doing as Matt Dayley would perform the same service for half the price, return the land to its full fertility without chemicals, and give 400 people the opportunity to be back on the land, rather than 80 stuck in a factory! I hope this has inspired some of you to find that £50,000!
If you want to find out more about “amazing grazing” Graham Harvey and fellow passionate Colin Tudge will be at the Real Food Festival at Earls Court in a couple of weeks, and at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2011. If you want more facts, read the Bob Watson report published last year.
If you want to hear the positive story in all of this, check out Mob Grazing. Started in the States by farmers attempting to put the fertility back into the prairie lands once grazed by the bison that were all slaughtered, these farmers have got together and put their herd together to intensively graze a smaller patch of land, they then move the fencing and put the animals to graze in another piece of land. Not local enough? They’ve started doing in it in Devon too apparently!
So, what are Transition Chichester up to besides getting great speakers in? Well, they are passionate about local food, and Rosemary (anyone in Chichester help with a surname?) is the greatest of people to have on board. The St George’s day feast I attend is her brainchild, and the second feast she has organised in this ancient hall. Rosemary is a woman after my own heart, every single item we eat is sourced locally, very locally. Every dish we savour is described fully, exactly where each ingredient was sourced.
We eat completely in season. St George’s day is traditionally the first day of the asparagus season. We eat asparagus; it is delicious. We have a starter of tomatoes. A stunning nouveau cuisine style picture of a dish, made from reject tomatoes. Every one of the tomatoes that have prepared our gazpacho, produced the spicy pate, and made the consommé, failed the size test by supermarkets, too big, too small, and destined… for the bin!
Transition Chichester have saved the day. Not only do we get to eat the delicious local grown tomatoes, but from now on these tomatoes will be taken to the Apuldram Centre, where adults with learning difficulties will learn how to make passata and other tomato sauces for local consumption.
Main course is mutton. I am almost sorry I am vegetarian at this stage. The sheep has been reared on a local farm. Rosemary met it. It was a sheep reared in the traditional way, roaming and grazing at will. It was slaughtered and brought whole (by Rosemary herself, no one else would do it) to the amazing Cloisters Hospitality Services chefs who have prepared our banquet. They were delighted to have the full animal to prepare rather than a joint wrapped in plastic and have made the most wonderful looking dish from it, and by all accounts, mouthwatering.
Dessert is a selection of rhubarb; the most exquisite ice cream I have ever tasted, a gentle fresh tasting sorbet, and a crème brulee to die for. We complete the meal with fair-trade coffee, (Herbal tea for me) and Montezuma truffles (Montezuma, my favourite chocolatiers, are a local chocolate maker).
The feast was fit for a king, and a queen, and we knew where every morsel had come from and in many cases the suppliers were partaking of the feast with us. The wine came from local vineyard, Wickham, near Fareham, and the veg from nearby veg box schemes. Riverford, thank goodness, were rejected as being far too far away! I am so relieved to hear this; when in Totnes I buy from Riverfords, their farm is just down the road. When I was in Ringwood, in East Dorset, I was horrified to find people receiving Riverford boxes and thinking they were local! Please think small is beautiful Riverford; don’t let us down!
I am introduced to the feasters and get to invite them to my story telling on the nearby cathedral green in the morning. Lots of people are very pleased. I am told by Anita van Rossum that when she asked for permission to use the cathedral green the dean was very pleased, it was almost mediaval in approach and a venture they wanted to support.
Anita, who is my host, tells me about other transition projects. They are excited about their BBC night held recently in March. They performed skits of lots of BBC programmes, and gave them all a transition twist. The material is being made up into a film they intend to offer out to the transition network as a resource.
Transition Chichester are the first group in a while to talk about heart and soul. It is called Heart & Minds here and is very active, in fact responsible for the BBC event. Anita had been concerned that two of their key people Julian and Ann were defecting to Dorchester but of course this is just perfect; Dorchester don’t have a heart & soul group…yet! And Chichester have since gained some new members who are really enthusiastic about the group; they have experience in play therapy, yoga, and psychotherapy, all eager and full of ideas.
Transition Chichester are very active and creative, yet worry, as everyone I have met, they are not doing enough. A positive story from them to finish is the Chicken House project. This involves buying battery chickens and putting them out to graze. I am moved to tears by hearing how they come out feathers all stuck together and not knowing what to do with themselves, and after a few days they are roaming freely and their feathers are puffed up again. The next stage in the process is teaching the adults at the Apuldram Centre who have carpentry lessons to make chicken houses. The final stage is selling 2 ex battery chickens plus house to the members of the public cheaply with the extra service that when the people go on holiday the scheme comes and picks up the chickens and looks after them while you are away….what are you waiting for – get your chickens now, or set up a Chicken House scheme in your area!
I am totally and utterly wowed by West Sussex, the gorgeous city of Chichester with its medieval cross in the very centre of its old walled centre, that I arrived in with the sense that I was walking in just as people would have hundreds of years ago, through green lanes, to town lane, to park land to city wall, to cathedral green, and the truly inspirational Transitioners who are working full pelt to making their community a better and more resilient place to be in for all concerned.