I leave Stourbridge accompanied by Pam and Tails the cat; amused that this journey has had now every kind of companion along the way from babes in arms to the retired, from dogs to a cat. Tails doesn’t come far, and we head off along the Roman road and little C roads till we come to a picturesque little cut through with a bridge over the river and there Pam leaves me and I head off into Kinver, getting temporarily lost in a new housing estate before coming out of Dark Lane and into the pretty little town famed for its cave houses.
Out of the town, perched high on Kinver Edge I see the rock houses, cave dwellings lived in until the 60s, beautiful hobbit kind of places with curious added features of brick chimneys and bits of wall in and amongst the sandstone rock. The information panel includes reminiscences of those who lived here and the comment of how lovely it was to reside here in these super eco homes that were cool in summer, and warm in the winter.
From Kinver more C roads and a delightful drop down to the Severn valley and the tiny village of Upper Arley where there is a foot bridge across the river and a train station from where you can still be transported to Kidderminster or Bewdley by steam train.
I decide to follow the Severn Valley Way trail along the eastern bank, a decision I do not regret; a whole afternoon of farm free countryside is a total delight; relaxing, enjoying seeing the fishermen on the other bank, each cosy and quiet in their own little alcove. I come to Hill Farm; the most curious of places. I can hardly find the settlement on the map but it is certainly there! The path goes along a little road for a mile or so and I meet a woman walking her dog who shows me where the road rejoins the river path and tells me the stories of the place as we walk.
In the second world war evacuees from Birmingham were sent here, and temporary homes set up in all manner of structures on the banks of the river and up the side of the hill of the working farm; Hill Farm. Railway carriages, and chalets, with all sorts of additions are dotted about the place; some still inhabited by the people who were sent here and decided not to return to city life. The community that has developed here is warm, friendly, and supportive, and my guide tells me that when the snows came this Winter and some could not get out those that could brought supplies back for everyone.
Everyone looks out for everyone else in this unique community which is a mixture of holiday lets and permanent residences in this choice location on the lush green banks of the river Severn. Back on the river path I meet a very young looking grandmother with her granddaughter walking their dog who walk back along the river with me to her dwelling; a beautiful sandstone brick built chalet on the grassy flat bank that leads directly to the river, and who gives me a glass of barley water and tells me that she and her husband have live here for 10 years and rarely leave as it is so much better than many holiday destinations.
She tells me of all the fishing events that take place up and down the bank, and how convenient it is for Bewdley, just a 20 minute walk along the path.
I set off towards Bewdley, passing the ruins of the old railway bridge, and the newer Victoria bridge, built in 1861. I know I am in Bewdley because I see, on the other side of the river, a row of beautiful old houses. I am met by John Rhymer of Transition Bewdley and together we walk over the town bridge and into “the most beautiful Georgian town in Worcestershire”.
As we walk the beautiful streets, lined with characterful old buildings John explains how this once trade prosperous town escaped the fate of so many of its contemporaries; it was not on the canal network for an even flow of the Severn could not be guaranteed all the year around, and the terrain was not ideal for canal building. Bewdley (“beau lieu”, beautiful place) lost its place to nearby Stourport where a canal could be built, and the Victorians made wealthy from the new trading pulled down the old houses and built anew, leaving today’s town with little or no Georgian buildings. The Bewdley of today is now making its comeback with its delightful old houses, behind some of which has been discovered remains of the old mediaeval wattle and daub walls, with a medieval hall found in one.
I hear how in days gone by trade between Bristol, the North, and Wales was done by means of boats up and down the mighty Severn with oak bark for the skin tanning trade being the local contribution. I realise that the Severn would once have been the border between England and Wales, and John tells me that the region was once known as the Welsh Marches (or borders).
We go up to the High Street and into Grannystap; a former Victoriana antique shop in a tiny old house full of oddly placed oak beams where you can now be served Victorian teas by waiter and waitress dressed as Victorians. I eat pikelets, remembering the pikelet factory in Sheffield, and finding they are a very different experience from the commercial variety being chub not flat but still quite delicious and reminiscent of my attempts to make crumpets when I live in Brazil and craved English treats, so I imagine they were homemade.
John takes me to his house along Bark Street, where the oak bark would have been brought down to the Severn, after having been stripped from the trees by women and children, to be taken to the tanners, the high tannin content being used to cure the skins. I think of tea and what that might be doing to our insides if its active ingredient is capable of curing skins…
As we walk John talks about the other street names; the cattle would have been brought into town by the Welsh from Welch Gate, where once a gate would have stood, and the High Street was so named because it was! (high, that is, on the hillside).
At John’s I meet his Irish storytelling wife and we all walk to Uncley’s farm together through the Wyre forest. Uncley’s is a working farm that is a Community Land Trust and who specialise in events and retreats as well as keeping beef cattle.
At the farm we are met by John Ires and I am welcomed with a big hug, and meet a largish group of people all waiting for stories. John directs us to the cherry orchard and I learn that this county was famed for its cherries and that here some of the old trees have survived and the land trust have planted more, all old varieties. We are directed to the far corner where there are some log stools and we gather around and I tell my tale. In the telling of Bewdley and district’s tales the funniest tale of all is from the older lady sitting on my right; for during the telling of my tale she has watched me brush off the large contingent of wood ants who have been roaming all over my feet and legs throughout the tale! They reminded me of the sauva or Brazilian fire ant at first and I didn’t know how I was going to continue the tale without moving if they started to inject me with their burning acid, but fortunately their English cousins are harmless, if not a little curious!
Our Irish storyteller tells a tale of when Story in his multi coloured velvet cloak met Truth in her black pointy hat and her black cloak and how they joined forces to tell stories that had truth in them.
I hear that the big tale in Bewdley is the quest to get growing land; the need for more allotments and the difficulty of acquiring land when according to the district council it is the town council that should allocate this and according to the town council the district council have taken all their spare ground from them.
We hear a lovely bee keeping tale from the woman who wanted to keep bees but had no land for them and then began to be given bits of land on which to keep bees on all over the town and how she was given a tatty cardboard box with a swarm and took them to their hive and the delight she felt when they left their box and moved into their new hive quite naturally. Apparently it isn’t always that straight forward to persuade bees that the new hive is a good home. We hear from the wood ant story teller that lemon balm is best; rubbed all over the hive will it will encourage bees in. During the telling Chris, one of the group who has been successful in getting growing land tells the bee lady about empty hives here at Uncleys, and she promises to follow up both the lemon balm and the empty hive leads.
We hear to our horror that the reason cherry trees were removed from this area was for housing! What a shortsighted attitude we have taken in our recent history, not to check we had food enough to feed new mouths before cutting down fruit trees to put more people. How wonderful it will be when people become aware of the carrying capacity of their town before they plan to have a family, and how even more wonderful when communities begin to take responsibility for all the children and not see them as commodities to be owned by parents alone, but as the valuable shared future of us all, sharing parenting, and the decision of how many children can be well taken care of by the community each year so that each and every child born arrives wanted, needed, and with sufficient resources locally to ensure his/her well being, emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
I am told of the Blakedown school http://www.blakedowncofeprimary.co.uk just a few miles from Bewdley where a polytunnel has been constructed from used plastic bottles, and pupils and teachers are very involved with growing things.
We play the Quest, )and for those who are curious it will be available to all when it is published with the book of these tales next year) out of which are created 4 new communities and in the tale telling afterwards we hear of the wise 7-Can and the foragers and the great celebration that was had when two of the communities realised that when you share your resources with others suddenly there is more than enough to go around and the maxim the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is shown to be true yet again.
We eat a feast of local food; beefburgers from John’s cattle. Courgette burgers for those of us who would really rather not eat meat, and perry and juice made from the orchard’s apples. During the feast I sit with a lady who talks about her idea of a surplus veg swop and I sad to say it is only now as I write this up that I remember where it was I heard a similar good idea; Abundance of Sheffield, now spread across various transition towns across the country so if you are reading this, lovely feast companion, please check this link http://www.growsheffield.com/pages/groShefAbund.html and start your surplus veg link project in Bewdley; it cannot fail but to take off!
I leave Transition Bewdley here, with the tale of the little white farm dog, who, after sitting at the edge as the Quest tales were shared at the end of our lovely evening together, entered our circle and went from person to person wagging her (his?) tail profusely. I think we met with approval!