All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

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Consciousness and courgettes

Bath Vale harvest

My friends Rach and Dom come to visit from Congleton. I prepare a local lunch: a salad of leaves and beans from Crooked End, herbs from our garden. But it seems a bit insubtantial so I add chickpeas for them, and make a balsamic dressing that I don’t add to mine (though the honey is the stuff I collected from the Forest of Dean).

We eat up in the garden next to the herb spiral. Rach and Dom, experienced and conscientious growers with a productive garden (the photos are theirs) verging on smallholding, give me advice on our newly established vegetables. Then, unprompted (and sadly unrecorded) Dom gives an impassioned speech about growing food as the ‘ultimate form of responsibility…of consciousness’: the tending of plants to yield a crop that sustains us, gives us life, as a fundamental connection that underscores our relationship with the natural world: ‘if you don’t do it right, you don’t eat’. We’ve relinquished this responsibility increasingly throughout history but more so in recent decades well beyond the tipping point at which it makes sense (functional differentiation), passing it on to (often) large-scale producers and supermarkets and so distancing ourselves from food and the environment in very fundamental ways. A bit like Rob’s speech about the ‘spiritual’ practice of cooking that I recorded in the first All in a Day’s Walk, it’s both profound and profoundly obvious, when you think about it. (Though I sense from the proliferation of food-growing programmes and documentaries, and the many vegetables gardens I’m passing as I walk, that the pendulum is swinging back. A symptom of austerity culture perhaps?)

Later in the evening, after walking the dogs in the comparative cool, Rachel and I transplant the gifts she’s brought from their garden: a yellow courgette plant, two tomatoes and some herbs for the spiral.

Bath Vale harvest 2

Storm in an egg cup

Storm kettle eggs

Hungry, I visit the village shop for an urgent breakfast. I can buy local eggs (Ross), onion, carrots, beetroot (Over/Gloucester) strawberries and raspberries (Newent and Weston-under-Penyard). Phew. I still want to aim to buy direct from the growers themselves, however. And I still have to walk to wherever the produce came from, so I already have a developing list of places to visit. I just need enough energy to make the journey. And, importantly, to talk to people. (In the winter, my hunger was isolating: sometimes I felt too locked in with it to initiate much conversation with strangers.)

Frustrated, I boil the eggs on my storm kettle. We have never got on, me and this kettle. It boils water OK, but I can’t seem to feed it enough to cook on (The YouTube videos of people calmly making ‘proper’ dishes totally baffle me). I miss my trusty woodburner. We could do anything, me and that Clear View.

Hot, I walk the dogs through the wheat to the cool of Lea Line woods and back through whispering barley (I try to stop Cai jumping in and out of the crop: I’m suddenly painfully aware of waste and damage. That wheat could be my supper…) and the village allotments (no-one around this evening). I pick elderflowers on the way back, and combine it with mint from the garden to make tea.

Puppy-minding, I will be limited in the distance I can walk for food over the next week because my partner has had to go away and the dogs can’t be left alone too long in the cottage either. Cai’s puppyish personal horizon had become mine: my own edges defined by his (or the ones we have to impose to care for developing joints: otherwise he would bound for miles even at four months old.)

Elderflower and mint tea Storm kettle 1 Dogs in the wheat

Empathy and wild strawberries

Wild strawberries Cai licking his chops Cai unimpressed

Mads, a good friend and wonderful walking artist I know, recently introduced me to his concept of  landscape  e m p a t h y:  the sensitive, receptive, mutually-supportive relationship we can allow ourselves to cultivate with place as well as people. I love this: it resonates perfectly for me as a much-needed explanation of the way in which the landscapes to which I’ve developed a commitment make a tangible tug on my heart strings, as if I’ve woven myself into them, viscerally. When I first left Aberystwyth for Herefordshire 10 years ago last spring, I felt like I was being unfaithful to Wales by developing a new relationship or love for the (as I saw it then) much tamer and more inhabited landscapes of this ancient border county. I’m ashamed to say I even scoffed at the statistic (true) that Herefordshire is the most rural county in England. To me rurality was directly equivalent to emptiness.

My first job here was a two and a half year stint as a project officer on the Herefordshire Rivers Lifescapes project, attempting to connect wildlife habitat mapping at a landscape scale, with community aspirations for the biodiversity enhancements they wanted to see locally, with the ultimate intention to facilitate community-led landscape-scale conservation. (It was very new, sexy and ambitious and only partially successful: it inevitably needed much more time.) After a full time dance-training hiatus, this was followed by a six year sojourn in local government as a landscape officer, with a colleague both passionate and knowledgeable about these intricate landscapes: ancient and planned, wild and cultivated. Her enthusiasm was infectious and slowly wore away at my deeply ingrained landscape snobbery (and ignorance) as did running, walking, riding and cycling across the county. One day, I was travelling back from a (landscape) conference and seeing the road sign for Hereford, felt a strange pang of both yearning and relief. Then, I knew: this county had surreptitiously made itself my home. Now, I know: (in my appropriation or interpretation of Mads’s term) I have landscape empathy with Herefordshire.

Key to this was my particular relationship with the eccentric, remarkable place that is Caplor Farm in Fownhope (South Herefordshire) where I have lived with my horse Merlin for nearly nine years. It’s a surreal community of people, horses and creatures, randomly juxtaposed in a range of dwellings (yurts, trucks, flats, caravans) to form a bizarre post-modern collage of humanimals. While it had been my intention to leave this year, to move back to Wales and reconnect my empathy strings for those landscapes, I had not expected that the first performance of All in a Day’s Walk would deepen my relationship – my empathy – with this place and reveal to me, as if in neon (or something more ecological perhaps), a vibrant, vital web of passionate and inspiring people I wanted to know better. I also had not expected to fall in love with one of them, nine miles down the road.

So I did leave. Just nine miles down the road, where I find myself now.

I’m a bit in limbo: after three weeks away being an aerial dancing ladybird in north Herefordshire, I’m only just landing. I arrive with a bag of sweaty dance clothes and even sweatier PhD reading, and most of my stuff is still at Caplor awaiting the end of this performance in a month’s time when my yurt will go up in the garden here. Merlin is going to join me next week. I know almost nothing about this area (Lea, Ross-on-Wye). But this time, I do have someone else’s ready-made landscape empathy to rely on.

So, my first walk of the project is with The Pack – my partner and our dogs – up the lane, past Rock Farm (potatoes and raspberries, when they’re ready) to Adam’s Cot (organic or local veg boxes) to arrange livery for Merlin. There, Martin tells me that due to the unseasonal spring, the veg is almost three weeks behind this year and they won’t have anything for me ’til the end of the month. Gulp. But horse livery sorted, we walk on past raspberry polytunnels (won’t fruit ’til next year), down Green Lane to Warren Farm (wheat and potatoes: not ready yet). With Cai, I walk on alone to Aston Crews in search of duck eggs. So far I’ve only drunk some Dragon Orchards apple juice (a gift for a talk at the Ledbury Food Group Ox Roast event) and eaten a head of elderflower (‘are you sure it’s not cow parsley?’ my partner, remembering a blog about a foraging malapropism on Ten Mile Menu that’s been a great source of amusement recently). We find some tiny wild strawberries in the hedge and I graze. Cai is curious but, as a  hunter is largely unimpressed by my gathering. No duck or hens eggs left at Aston Crews. I’m hungry. And a bit scared.

So here I am walk-fasting again…

All change

Tonight marks the start of the second, summer performance of All in a Day’s Walk. It was first performed in the incessant rain of a cold, dark and muddy winter, from midnight on 6th December 2012 to midnight on 6th January 2013 (coincidentally Epiphany). Very coincidentally the current performance finishes on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. And currently it is, of course, very very coincidentally Ramadan.

It’s a different season and I’m in a different place, so I’m anticipating a new and different set of problems and provocations. I am living in a cottage not a caravan (albeit with a yurt in the garden). I am living with others not alone. I am cooking on a storm kettle not a woodburner. I am, as a result of the last performance, a reluctant and uneasy ‘ethical’ meat-eater (a flexitarian, apparently) and I now seem to tolerate a certain amount of dairy. I’m still an auto-immune arthritic avoiding potatoes. I am now a dog owner (more limiting than it might sound, because a four month old puppy can’t walk very far, or isn’t meant to). I am still a horse owner. I have spent the last three and very intense weeks being an aerial dancer.

I’m a bit tired, to be honest.

And I’m not sure how prepared I am for any of this. But let it begin anyway…

Cai

Wassail! Drink Hail!

Landlord Matt in costume outside the Crown

It’s my penultimate day and the sun is shining, weakly. I’ve got what feels like a long walk ahead of me as I set off – possibly more perceptually than literally because I’m walking to Ledbury and back over the lip of the Marcle Ridge (which organic dairy farmer, local historian and general polymath Will Edwards told me they believe may have originally formed the England-Wales border, an older and much more easterly Offa’s Dyke than the one we think of now and which would have put at least half of what is now Herefordshire into Wales). The wooded ridge pouts broodingly on the farm’s eastern horizon and makes whatever lies beyond seem laboursome to reach.

I set off purposefully, scuttling across to Sollers Hope Church and up the road past Whittlebury Farm, a neat inversion of my first day’s walk. On the long diagonal slide of road that strokes the flank of the ridge I’m almost surprised to pass a solitary walker (I’ve not had many walking encounters this month). And then I’m dropping down over the other side and the flat expanse of fields opens out between me and the spire and sprawl of Ledbury. This is comparatively uninhabited country for Herefordshire – looking at the map as well as the landscape in front of me I’m struck by its blankness: the absence of roads, dwellings and farms in this stretch of countryside. The sleeping blue dragon of the Malvern Hills form my easterly horizon now, towards which I’m directly headed. It’s a strange flat trek across endless arable fields. Absentminded or brain-numbed, I lose the footpath and accidentally trespass past the dramatic silhouette of oasthouses in a farmyard – the owner reminds me – I shouldn’t be crossing. Then roads and more clay-heavy arable field crossings until I reach the industrial outskirts of Ledbury.

My destination is the Three Counties Cider Shop (not far from the iconic black-and-white market house) the town outlet for Once Upon a Tree cider, but which is also passionate about supporting other small, local cider producers from these adjacent counties (Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire). I’m greeted by the enthusiastic Sam Pardoe who explains the shop’s ethos, recommends and allows me to sample some of the excellent produce (including the cider on tap with which they will fill any receptacle; decadently I give him one of my empty Sigg water bottles for some Gwatkins Stoke Red to fuel the walk back) and then engages in lively conversation ranging from growing up locally on, as it happens, the UK’s then largest organic farm, to ethical meat production, to bartering and skills exchange as the way forward for local sustainable living.

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – perry-making and ice-wine dessert cider tasting

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – on supporting local artisan producers

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – on growing up on a fruit farm, bartering and meat

It’s nearly 3 pm by the time we’ve finished talking, and I’ve a long walk back over the ridge to Woolhope where I’m bound to the wassail at The Crown for 6 pm. I’ve arranged to meet my friends and don’t want to be late. Carrying rather a lot of cider and perry in my rucksack, I flounder back through the clay again, enjoying – as symbolic of this whole month’s Tolkeinesque ‘there and back again’ walking mission – the refinding of my footprints from the outward journey. This – Ledbury/Aylton/Kynaston – is orchard country and I also enjoy the neatness of this day, seeing the sunset through the apple trees while carrying cider to a wassail (for those not in the Herefordshire know, a pagan ritual of the cider-growing counties that traditionally takes place on or around Twelfth Night (whether that be 5th, 6th or 17th Jan) to drink, sing and dance the health of the apple trees). After nearly 3 hours of walking through the gloaming into darkness I arrive with 15 minutes to spare, to find Matt, the The Crown landlord tending the braziers in the car park and blacking his face with a cork (wassailers traditionally had a cork-blacked face so that they could not be recognised as ‘beggars’) ready for, what he explains articulately, is going to be a ‘very rustic, DIY wassail’:

Audio Track: Woolhope Wassail

It is indeed: hearty, life-affirming, community-building and magical; a wonderful celebration of what is good about local community and local food production.

We return to the pub – where they have a cider menu of over 30 local varieties here as well as local meats from adjacent farms – for more local food conversation and rambling chat:

Audio Track: Local Food at The Crown 

And then my friend Lucia and daughter Esme kindly take my cider-heavy rucksack (which they will deliver back to my doorstep on their way home to Hereford) clip my bike light to my hood and set me off walking, not entirely in a straight line (‘tacking’ as Matt would have it), through the orchards and across the fields for home, the stiles miraculously hoving into view in my headtorchlight as I now know the paths like the back of my hand).

From farm to orchard to town to wassail to pub to farm: all in a day’s walk… I am euphoric.

Whittlebury Farm Hall Court, Kynaston for free range eggs Cross country to Ledbury Lillands oast houses Free range children Ledbury Market Three Counties Cider Shop There and back again...2 Sunset over Lillands Lillands orchard Aylton Hamster baskets Turnip Lights of Ledbury from Marcle Ridge Woolhope The Crown Inn Crown landlord Matt prepares for Wassail Brazier at The Crown Crown's own very local perry Very local drinks 2
Matt in costume again..  Milling at The Crown Milling at The Crown 2 Fire at The Crown Esme with wassail torch  Wassail torches Lucia with wassail torch
Tracktivist sound recording One of the twelve fires (in a cardboard box) Wassail fires Apple tree apple tree we are here to wassail thee   Wassailers approach the tree Around the tree 1  Wassailed tree with toast in its branches, cider on its roots  Lucia and Esme in torchlight

Gwatkin's Yarlington Mill  Preparing for the last walk home Home by headtorchlight, navigating by luck

Hooves and health

Merlin's Legs

Merlin’s equine podiatrist comes to trim his hooves. He’s been barefoot – i.e. unshod – since April 2004 when I first became involved more intensely with the discipline of natural horsemanship and began to train as an equine podiatrist myself. This before dance training made me too precious about my body to want to consider standing underneath big horses all day, as they thrashed their legs around and I vainly attempted to hold onto the ends of them whilst wielding various sharp instruments (knife, rasp etc.)… But I remain a passionate advocate of ‘whole horse hoof care’, a relatively new (certainly, in the last decade or so) way of thinking about horses’ hooves as part of the whole beast and a key physiological marker of the health and well-being – nutritional/metabolic, cardio-vascular/musculo-skeletal fitness, even psychological – of the whole animal.

This may seem blindingly obvious, but traditionally, as British horse-owners, we have practiced a heartily devolved responsibility when it comes to our horses’ feet, entrusting their care – these distal points of their four precious limbs – almost exclusively to the farrier. (Not, as it happens, unlike our disconnected relationship to our food which is produced ‘somewhere else’ by ‘someone else’ and purchased from the supermarket, neatly packaged (in a protected atmosphere) in sterile plastic.)

‘No foot, no ‘oss’ the famous saying goes. And yet, few of us questioned if a man (for their invariably are) visiting every 6 weeks and nailing rigid metal to this (actually surprisingly mobile) proteinaceous tissue was perhaps the healthiest thing for the natural function of the foot. (Or even the less natural uses we might put it to – in that riding a horse is already inherently unnatural.) Suffice to say, it is now increasingly recognised that it is not. Though it is not as simple as simply removing the shoes. Barefoot horse husbandry – for high-functioning working/sport horses at least – requires a commited attention to the environment in which the horse lives, its nutrition and the ‘conditioning’ that one is prepared to do. In other words, if you want to drag your horse out of a muddy field once a week and go on a ten mile ride on the road or a cross-country competition, then you should probably stick to metal shoes. (Or get a quad bike. Or reconsider whether you have a respectful and meaningful relationship with that animal at all…)

My journey through the landscape of having a shoeless horse has necessitated and given rise to some big leaps of faith and understanding, not least that Merlin’s metabolic health – as evidenced by and echoed in his hooves – is in delicate balance, that it fluctuates seasonally, that British lowland pasture (largely now now rye-grass monoculture to maximise dairy production – and Caplor is a former dairy farm) is too rich in summer sugars for horses, whose digestive systems are still in time-lag, adapted to the dry grasses of the vast, arid plains where they evolved (and where their hooves were healthiest), and that hoof-infesting yeasts thrive in the warm, wet mud of climate-changed British winters.

If we listened to our own bodies as intently as I ‘listen’ to Merlin’s hooves, we might have a better understanding of our own nutritional – and seasonal – needs. And if we took greater responsibility for those needs – not handing them over to the supermarket ‘farrier’ – we might have a better sense of the whole systems in which we live, eat, breathe, participate.

Amazing, really, how I can now manage to bring every conversation, blog post or social encounter round to climate change, food and our relationship to it…

(And Debbie, Merlin’s trimmer, brings me some vegan Christmas cake too. Only 6 more days before I can eat it…)

Vegan Christmas cake

Home is where the art is…

Beetroot and apple mumpet Mumpet - cooking Sourdough heart

Just two months ago, a visit to my hometown Aberystwyth fortuitously coincided with a talk at the university by John Fox (formerly of Welfare State International, now of Dead Good Guides and  ‘a total legend’ as an awestruck someone sitting next to me at a Tipping Point Newcastle described him as he got up to speak there…). John’s two-act lecture The Poetry Under our Feet was a reverse journey through his own constantly evolving and inspiring life-art practice in which, amongst other things, he asked ‘why do we make art?’. Showing a slide of his neatly-stacked wood store (he and Sue Gill now live in a beautiful self-build eco-house on the shores of Morecambe Bay ), he explained how he now derived as much creative satisfaction from the process of creating this ‘sculpture’ as from his woodcuts and other formal art work. (He also talked about how, in the process of stacking the wood, ‘the materials themselves help to find the solution’ and I liked this; that the wood ‘knows’ how to be stacked.) He described this as ‘a creative way of living’ and this has resonated for me more and more through this project.

My hunger and tiredness has thrown into focus an interesting realisation about my relationship with walking. Much of my interest in walking as an artistic practice has derived from the kinaesthetic, muscular satisfaction I get from pushing myself to travel hard across space: it’s an interest in finding the edges of (dis)comfort,  about what Tim Edensor has decribed (in the context of recreational walking) as ‘specific notions of achievement’ (2000: 93) and what Dee Heddon and Cathy Turner might describe as a more stereotypically ‘solitary male’ approach to walking (2010: 22). I realise, with a jolt of embarrassment, that I’ve been out to prove something through my ‘art’, if not to others then certainly to myself. But this approach to my practice has always been supported by a comparatively thoughtless relationship with food and how it is acquired: a banana here, some (organic dark) chocolate there, a handful of (organic) nuts or dates, a bowl of (organic) soya milk porridge to set me off in the morning. Fast food eco-hippy-vegan style.

Now I am  s l o w.  And, unpolluted by sugars or pretty much anything else, my clear head opens up to the wholeness of a practice brought home. It’s a profound (if profoundly obvious) epiphany: how the art of being at home (in one’s body too, as the somatic practices have taught me but I have somehow failed to translate to the domestic) is necessary to support a whole creative practice and thus becomes an inherent and absolutely essential part of it.

It is domestic performance art, or the performance of domestic art (as a friend recently said to me ‘can you BELIEVE that they ever called it “science”?!!!’)

it is in the JUGGLING of kettle, stew, eggs and bread on the woodburner
the CHOREOGRAPHY of choosing, mixing, stirring ingredients
it is the stacking of an AUDIENCE of wood, to dry around the burner (and contemplate its fate)
and the SCULPTING of bread (a particular pride in my sourdough ‘crown’ that cooks better on the burner for being hollow in the middle)
and the PLAYING of the wood burner airwash lever like a trombone slide (controlling to increasingly subtle degrees the temperature)

Too close to HOME, so I had to come back HOME to find it.

Eggs and kettle on burner Sourdough leaven Weighing leaven for bread Kettle keeping warm on logs drying next to burner Fully open...quickly boil a kettle Partly open - bread, stew, cakes Shut down ticking over at night or when out Clearview thermometer

Edensor, T. (2000) ‘Walking in the British Countryside: Reflexivity, Embodied Practices and Ways to Escape’ Body & Society 6, (3-4) 81-106

Heddon, D. and C. Turner (2010) ‘Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move’ Performance Research 15 (4) 14-22

A conversation on my doorstep

Home sweet home

Some old friends whose pony is on loan at the farm call by on their way past to visit him. We stand and chat on my doorstep and I tell them about the project. It’s a long conversation and Jan makes some interesting observations about the resistance there could be (in terms of visual intrusion) if we were to reintroduce more (and modern) food processing facilities into very rural landscapes (we’re talking specifically about the grain mills and presses that could have allowed me to eat locally grown oats and use rapeseed oil). I’m not sure I necessarily agree (processing facilities would not need to be large-scale industrial eyesores if they were run at a local/community level and/or made use of redundant farm buildings…) but it does make me return to the thoughts I had during a previous project Tilting at Windmills, where I questioned whether our responses to change in rural landscapes should be aesthetically driven if they are helping us lower emissions and address climate change. Especially considering the very real changes to landscape that climate change could make, and one could argue is already making through changed/extreme weather patterns and our responses to that.

I also tell them about slow activism and the idea that face-to-face conversation (though typically in a context specifically framed as an arts or performance practice) is the true site of real, sustainable behavioural change. And then I also realise that I am engaged in slow activism with them. And the nub of a life practice is just this: even the conversations we have on our doorstep.

Feed the birds

I should be walking today. But it’s stormy and torrential and in my excitement about the apples yesterday (and the pint of extremely strong Tumpy Ground at lunchtime) I stupidly didn’t make bread, mumpets, stew or any particularly sustaining, portable food for today. And I let the wood burner go out. Epic fail.

Staying in and cooking, sound-editing, catching up on reading and writing seems like a good idea. I’ve also got another project. Seeing two birds fighting over a crumb outside my window recently (and empathising with their hunger) I’ve also been wanting to make a bird feeder for the Herefordshire bird seed mix I bought from Harvey Sayce at Yare Farm.

I found these instructions on the RSPB website a few days ago but saw that they required a plastic bottle. As I’ve got none in the house and I won’t be buying anything that’s not local (and, interestingly, all the local food packaging I’ve come across has been glass, paper or card), I thought I’d have to raid the farm recycling. But on yesterday’s walk to the Crown, I found a discarded Coke bottle on the Woolhope road = perfect eco-smugness factor: de-littering the countryside and feeding the birds at the same time.

Bird feeder 1 Bird feeder 2 Bird feeder 3

Hibernating…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz