I leave the pretty village of Dufton, nestling in its valley with grey purple fells majestic in the background and the fresh green grass of the lowlands stretching out endlessly, seamlessly, towards Scotland till they meet the horizon, and my eye is caught by a small tourist information plaque on the garden wall of an old house. I get closer; the plaque points to a legless sculpture of Shakespeare no less, placed in a niche in the wall of Wesley House. It is said that in the 1800s the local sculptor was going to smash him up when his feet got broken off in an accident but his family saved him; he certainly is an unlikely figure to find here amongst the stone cottages of these sheep farming folk.
My walk back down into Appleby passes dog roses; sad name for that most beautiful of our wild and native flowers; somehow suggesting that they are less than the roses we are used to in gardens but they are more, much more, to me. Their scent is exquisite, sweeter and more heady than any expensively packaged perfume; free to any who walk by, creating an exotic note here in the hedgerows, another feature of our common wealth, ignored and passed by in the pursuit of fast cars, television, and fizzy drinks.
Our native rose is not big and showy like the damask rose, but small and delicate, and smelling divine, every bit a match for its luxurious Eastern counterpart. It sits in the June hedgerow with its companion the elderflower; a feast for the senses we have grown up not appreciating as the post war generation flew headlong into consumer bliss in its desperation to forget the pain, and as the speed of modern life gathered momentum our awareness of our treasure slipped into oblivion. It has been there all along though, those that valued it ridiculed, how foolish we have been, to enter a supermarket when our hedgerows sit there, full of natural products, free for the taking.
What a system we have created; aboriginals must laugh at us when they are not busy crying for the trail of destruction our behaviour leaves in its wake. A system of exchange based on debt which benefits only maybe 10% of the world’s population whilst it disenfranchises the rest of us to the point where we do not even know that the best, most nourishing food is free and grows wild in our locality.
Scent of rose, and elderflower in our drinks; we are familiar with the value of these names, yet we have relied on others to make us products to buy when we could have been picking our own.
I reach Appleby in Westmorland and am struck by the mass of roses, both wild and garden variety that have grown over the sign and the bright red poppies that are growing in the grass at its feet and I wonder if gypsies have had a hand in this; our constant reminders through the ages that there is another way, that there always has been a choice for those that follow the rhythm of their own heart and refuse to be dictated to.
It is a good road to Shap; another quiet Cumbrian, or is it Westmorland, way. When the names of the counties were changed yet again (at what expense I wonder, how many beaurocrats were required to be paid in the process) Appleby, the old market town of Westmorland, retained its county in its name. Whatever the name, the feel of this region is good; people up here are not fooled much by the foolishness of further south, they know that human life is interdependent with nature. There are not many cars, and those there are are there for the distances between places are long and communities of interest spread far and wide.
It is pleasant to walk here, and I am exceedingly grateful for the stone walls that separate me from livestock. In Appleby I get to talking to an old farmer’s widow who tells me I am right to have caution around the animals. Cows, she tells me
“…are not the same in the head”
these days. She tells me why, and I feel an answering confirmation in the thud of my heart; farmers have become addicted to speed; they drive to herd and feed their cattle on quad bikes and four by four vehicles, so that now cows are no longer used to having contact with humans.
Another consequence of our adduction to oil; I am concerned by this aspect, how long will it take the relatively domesticated and docile cow to become wild and unpredictable now …if it hasn’t already now that farmers don’t build up a relationship with each and every animal. No animal husbandry this; but factory farming, industry not agriculture, seduced by money, governed by money, corrupted by money, integrity sold and lost.
I pass a field with only a fence between me and a herd of cattle. They see me coming from far off up the road and make ready. As I near the beginning of the field they are midway down it, then they charge, as one, straight to the fence, then they, en masse, do a circle back to the far end of their field and race as fast as they can straight for me, not stampeding but stopping at the fence only because it is there and they know it.
I have become sport for bored cattle; what kind of lack of connection with their world caused our predecessors to imagine that herd beasts could be content in a parcel of land instead of open prairie? What malaise has further contaminated us that we imagine feeding our herds in petrol driven vehicles wouldn’t have a detrimental effect on the creatures we have so impounded. What have we been thinking that we think it healthy for us to eat the meat and drink the milk of this animal whose life is so far removed from its nature, even being fed grain rather than its natural food; fresh green grass and herbs plucked straight from the ground, that it can surely barely be recognised as the animals we first tamed.
I pass through the idyllic village of Maulde Meaburn. I can hardly believe my eyes; I had no idea such places still exist in our country. Maulde Meaburn has a large village green; it stretches the length of the road- following linear settlement, on it graze their flocks of sheep, some resting beneath the shade of trees, others grazing at the very edge of the road. The river runs straight through the middle of the village; it is crystal clear. It is a sight from bygone days so far removed from life in our inner cities that I have trouble believing it can be the same island, the same nationality.
Sewage works are taking place at the end of the village, not a car has passed me for miles, the road is closed for this work; it is the first time this region has had sewers. I see the name of a multinational on the signs, and call me cynical, but cannot help wondering if these sewers are necessary or if it is a convenient money earner for someone. After all this settlement has existed up until now; I wonder what system has been used before, maybe a septic tank?
The next village is Crosby Ravensworth. It is here that Vista Veg operate from. Nigel Jenkins told me of this co-op. I had hoped to meet them but at such short notice I expect they were too busy tending their veg. Vista veg, I learn from their leaflet, is a CSA (community supported agriculture). It sounds amazing; you can choose what veg you want, they deliver up to a 12 mile radius, and you are encouraged to share your box with your neighbours and to receive your box at your place of work to cut down on the amount of journeys required to distribute the veg. The scheme accept vouchers from those on low incomes and offer a choice of paying weekly monthly, or annually for the produce. It costs £10 a box and is part funded by the rural investment development programme for England.
Each box comes with a weekly menu planner to help avoid waste and membership in the scheme includes invitations to regular social events and opportunities to help with harvesting. The produce is delivered in reusable canvas bags, and can also be bought at all the local farmers’ markets. The food is gown in 6 acres of fields spread out over a few miles. To find out more visit their website www.vistaveg.co.uk .
I eat from their box at Peter Dicken’s, my host in Shap, and most deliciously too. Peter is a storyteller, local food enthusiast, and member of PACT, though he tells me he rarely has the need to visit the old red town and feels that the little town of sheep, or Shap, population 1,500, is big enough to be a transition initiative. Ahh, someone after my own heart, not fazed by scale, but able to see that what needs doing needs doing as locally as possible.
We start our meal with home baked sour dough bread dipped in oil and balsamic vinegar. It is the best bread I have ever tasted, crumbly texture, yet not crumby and brittle, with a nutty taste and thin crisp crust; satisfying to bite into and to chew. I learn how to make a bread starter, am astonished at how simple it is (a thick paste of flour and water kept in the airing cupboard or somewhere warm like a plant propagator and added to for 4 days) and hear of Peter’s friend, ex boss, and author, Andrew Whiteley (“Bread Matters”) who wants to walk around the country carrying a bread starter to all our settlements teaching us how to bake again.
I exchange the Transition York gift of local honey with Transition Shap, and receive a pot of homemade sloe jelly to take on to the next place.
Pete and I talk endlessly about local food and it is wonderful. We talk also about Graham Harvey; those of you who have been following all of my journey may remember I was lucky enough to hear his words of wisdom at the local food feast on St George’s Day in Chichester, and Peter has all his books.
Pete tells me our cows are grain fed as there are big subsidies for farmers who agree to do this and as a result beef is cheap and our native sheep dear. If we were to look in on our island, as an alien observing our habits, methinks we would think we had gone insane, a countryside teaming with sheep, the land perfect terrain for it, and farmers burning fleece, and not being able to sell the mutton which would have surely been our national meat once over, and us feeding grain to cattle instead of baking bread, and eating beef instead.
We are grossly misguided in trusting this cattle industry. When will we see sense and ignore financial incentives and start taking back our power, and tend our gardens and our sheep, rediscover the pleasure of local grown spring lamb, and mutton, remember the pleasures of working with wool which we always have, indeed, built our wealth upon it, and return to the ways that worked, made sense. Cows eat grass, not grain.
Pete and I talk about the things people throw away; The good food to be found in skips, and the objects of value thrown away at the recycling centre where he works; from expensive furniture to antique cutlery. We live in a society gone mad, and to satisfy the needs of a very few.
We go to the Bluebell near Brampton for the region’s monthly story group gathering. I hear two Midsummer stories from Peter, one about Long Meg and her daughters (the local stone circle, and the tale of the pagan women turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath) told beautifully, and a lament from a farmer who didn’t let his daughter marry her love and regrets it after their death.
I tell my tale, and we hear Tsvi’s tales of New York, local for him, and beautifully and engagingly told, yet totally alien to my experience, and full of words I do not understand. Peter and I have spoken earlier about the power of storytelling and how the meaning of tales gets lost so that in the collection of Welsh folk tales, the Mabiginion, we can hear the tales of the vanquished natives when the Romans came in and their feelings towards them in the allegorical references to pigs…
We realise how easy it is to lose the sense of what really happened through stories making reference to things that are time or place specific, and yet they tell, and have always told, our history. I tell how my storybook will have the stories in the front and the facts and figures in the back in an attempt to prevent this from happening in the tales of our times.
We drive back though the Lowther valley; it is beautiful in the moonlight, and I hear that this valley is the best kept fishing secret in England. Use the information wisely, and please do not exploit it.
Peter tells me about his wood fired oven building project; when it is built he will invite people in Shap to come and use it to cook on and start a local food group, sharing meals and starting Transition Shap. He already takes his homemade fruit pies into work with him to share with colleagues and they are shocked at his generosity and are concerned about the money it must be costing him and are amazed when he tells them a slice would have cost less than 25p; educating by example; the only really effective method, in my opinion. It is a breath of fresh air to meet a like minded soul here all this far away from home.
I love this can do attitude, the passion for what he loves, delighted that he knows it is possible. He is grounded, very aware of the enormity of the task, but totally enthusiastic; a true transitioner.
We talk about how the word “selfish” has become a dirty word yet it is only when we are selfish and do what we love that things flow and we do things that others see as altruistic, and everyone is happy.
Pete’s summary of the times:
“More eccentricity is needed”
As for local food, a quote from Michael Pollan’s book; a guide for how we may live well, be healthy and be in harmony with our environment, and not have problems with affording to eat;
“Eat food*, not a lot, mainly plants”
*Real food contains no more than its own ingredients and is food our grandmother and mother would recognise as food (ie not processed in any way)
I remember how food was in Brazil in the early 90s before the consumer economy got it by the neck and strangled its vitality; supermarkets full of freshly grown local produce suddenly started selling the non food we think of as normal; ready meals with no nutrients. Progress; I think not.
A few quotes from respected authors on the subject of our food;
“The world economy at bottom must be agrarian” Colin Tudge in “So Shall We Reap”
“In the past societies like the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans, and the Mayans used grain to gain power and domination. In recent times the UK and Europe have used it much the same way, allowing large corporations to become postcolonial invaders”
“Industrial agriculture is an efficient system of robbing farmers of wealth” Graham Harvey in “The Carbon Fields”
We know all of this; what are we waiting for; the tide is turning.