…says my partner during a phone call as I sit in the city centre of Plymouth for lunch, and I thoroughly enjoy the nautical reference for it sums up the day in many ways. I have never heard it said before but it surely must have been said many times in this city of ships that plied the world, taking pilgrims to the New World to found America, as well as the pirates that we learn about in school as heroes that took to the oceans to plunder the wealth of other nations for our monarchs; Drake and Cook, dreaded plague of the seas to the peoples they robbed.
This morning I have been reminded of another man who has set out from our shores to travel the world, Chris le Breton, who is at this moment in Australia as part of his cycle around the world promoting Transition ideas. Pedalling,not peddling trinkets; now that has to be an improvement!
I have walked today over the river Tamar and seen the boats far below me as I walk along the famous suspension bridge on a wide footpath at the side of the several lanes provided for traffic. I have walked all morning through the city to reach the centre and walk for more time to get out of the city, finally crossing the river Plym after passing no-go naval installation areas and poor working class estates. A grim grey wall lines an offshoot of the river and there a series of poems have been fastened, one of them bemoaning the fact that a grim grey wall keeps the river from its people and the people from their river and presents a bland grey prison face to the world. Louise has told me of the difficulties here with the CND group who are naturally transition folk too but how that complicates relations with the military do not like anything alternative at all.
I copy a poem from the wall:
Plymouth delta blues
At the separation of the rivers by manoeuvering ice
By the running o f the salty lanes through cracks in the silt
I stood up with all I knew of live and guilt
Joy and despair like twin blocks of a vice
Like paying out a rope I paid to the wind my dues
I stood and sang these Plymouth delta blues
and stop at the wall end in a tiny public garden there to look at the carving of a prehistoric rhino and a plaque telling of the primeval heritage Plymouth has.
My destination today is Orcheton Quay, to meet John Watson, father of Riverford farm. He is 84 years old and moved to his smallholding here in 1986 when the tenancy of the now famous farm on the outskirts of Totnes passed to his son. He first bought the land in 1976 but it took ten years to get planning permission to build his home there. The greenhouse they first put up is still there and full of vegetables which we pick from for supper.
Over supper I hear the tale of how John left the army at the end of the war and went to Cambridge to read Agriculture. Then he rented Riverford farm.
I ask how it was to be a farmer in those days and hear how they didn’t know about organics and were very excited by the promises ICI gave them, and free consultations if they would use their chemicals to improve the quality of the soil. After twenty years, though, the effects were obvious; the chemicals were doing the land no good at all, and so it was that in 1986 the farm finally went organic, one of the first to do so.
I hear of John’s other discovery about chemicals; sailing off the west coast of Ireland, miles from land, and an whole ocean between him and the east coast of America he could see a big wave rolling towards him . He looked closer, and to his horror saw it was not a storm approaching, but a foam topped wave, the foam of detergent, one foot deep atop the wave. He hasn’t used washing up liquid since, washing up sailor style, rinsing off plates in good old fashioned water.
There is another nautical tale to tell too; this time a smugglers’ yarn. There was a time when Guy, his son, wanted very much to grow artichokes on the farm, and knew very well that none had the taste of the ones grown n Brittany. So father and son set sail, visited the farm in Brittany and were given the artichokes they wanted, then they set sail again, back to England, and all the while, looking over their shoulder. It seems a very simple and logical thing to do, pleasurable too, but they did not know if they would be caught as smugglers, for the laws governing fruit and veg had recently changed.
There are more tales too to be had here at Orcheton, of the seaweed tea used to feed the tomatoes, and the two battery hens bought for a pound a piece that are now feathered and chirpy and very fond of their vegetable scraps. I ask about recipes for without sugar, ever seizing my opportunity ….and am finally rewarded for my perseverance, John knows just the book, he has a translation of an old French book on preserving food and is at present experimenting with a recipe found there, preserving some of his tomatoes using lactic fermentation in a large glass bottle on his window sill, stirring them each day until fermentation occurs. He promises to show me the book before I leave.
I hear of how waste pallet wood is best for cooking on in winter for it creates heat very quickly meaning the stove gets hot enough to have a meal ready within an hour. John’s pallets come from Riverford. He collects their waste whenever he makes a trip over there. He only takes his van out when the trip is for more than one purpose. At one time he was so upset at the amount of waste the farm was producing that he would jump into the back of the trailers whenever they returned from deliveries and make up several boxes of veg which he would distribute amongst some old people he knew. He thought too it was good for the farm employees to see him doing this well into his seventies to encourage them to take notice of things.
John is a firm believer in listening to what employees have to say for they know a lot about the jobs they do. He also believes in helping people out, but only if they know what their aims in life are. He says
“You gotta know what you want if you want anyone to help you”
He sees himself as an entrepreneur and so feels he can best help someone who wants to set up a small holding business, and to this end, as well as to supply the labour he now needs to run the smallholding, he takes in wwwoofers who would work to learn the business. The current big scheme in need of help is the new forest garden that he was persuaded to start only to discover the people it has been set up to benefit, Mencap volunteers, are not allowed to travel more than 5 miles to work. He is now looking for folk who’d like to come and learn forest gardening by doing.
I find out that tomorrow we are going on a visit to see an anaerobic digester working, for John’s has hit a problem, and he wants me to include this type of energy source in my story. This is an exciting opportunity for me for I do not really understand how this works; it is another of those terms that is bandied around by those in the know without a thought for those of us who are not technically minded. Tomorrow I will reveal all.
We drink comfrey tea which we are both discovering for the first time and it meets with great approval from us both. John gets enthusiastic about drying the comfrey in his garden for tea over the winter and says he will get his next set of wwwoofers, arriving tomorrow, to pick it. He has a dehumidifier especially for the job. He bought it for ten Bridges for he is part of the Kingsbridge LETTS scheme.
John is very enthusiastic about the LETTS group, who meet every month at Harbour House at the same time as the farmers market for a LETTS market barter. John shares tool sharpening skills in exchange for reiki treatment for his arthritis which he says feels great at the time but has had no lasting effect as yet. The other group John is keen to tell me about is the gardening group who meet at his for a bring and share lunch every Friday before doing 2 hours of shared work that all enjoy and take home produce from at the end of the day.
I am mesmerised and impressed by John’s erudite knowledge about carbon reduction and he tells me he was first alerted to the need to significantly reduce our use of oil after the shortages in the seventies. He has been trying to live as sustainable a life as possible ever since.
We both retire early; John to his bedroom, and me to my little visitor’s caravan in the field. Here I am astonished to find I cannot sleep, so for those of you who were about to rush off and get the kettle on to brew up some of your comfrey out of the garden be warned; it could well have excellent stimulative qualities, perfect for those needing to stay up all night swotting for an exam…but not ideal if you want a good night’s sleep!