All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

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Equine empathy

Merlin at Adam's Cot

Yesterday was a long and hot and hungry horse-relocating day. (I got so faint and stomach-crampy, that my partner fed me some non-local sourdough bread. Sorry, but it was necessary.) Now Merlin is calmly installed in his new home next to the growing vegetables (Martin the proprietor of Adam’s Cot is also a supplier of excellent local veg boxes).

Today is about beginning to cultivate Merlin’s own landscape empathy.

Back before I even contemplated or conceived of the idea for this performance, I’d long been interested in connecting my artistic and domestic practices, or my rituals of exercise (walking, running, riding) with more practical pursuits. (I waffled on about this way back in December in ‘Home is where the art is…’. But more and more I am discovering that this is becoming a preoccupation for many artists, interestingly most often those living and working rurally.)

At Caplor, one of my favourite short rides on Merlin was a jaunt (usually bareback) across the lanes and fields to buy honey. This route became known, famously, as the ‘Honey Run’. Here I already seem to have discovered a new equivalent: the walk up to Aston Crews to buy duck eggs. ‘Duck Run’ isn’t cutting it, but they have hens eggs too. So, with apologies to Aardman, it’s ‘Chicken Run’.

Merlin and combine

Horse hiatus

No, not a hernia of equine proportions from all this walking and vegetable-lugging.

Today is an important one: after 10 years living at Caplor Farm, my horse Merlin is moving down to join us in Lea. He will have a new home at Adam’s Cot, the farm next door. He should have been moved before I started the performance (because I can’t walk the 18 mile round trip to Caplor and back everyday to see him; or expect someone else to look ater him for a whole month) but the logistics didn’t work out.

So this is a necessary hiatus in the performance. I will be accepting a lift up to Caplor to pack him and his red-and-white spotted handkerchief of buckets and haynets. And accepting a lift back in the horse-box to deliver him home.

I will still be consuming local food in the process, however. (Hopefully.)

Meanwhile, some images from 10 glorious years at Caplor…

Merlin - Long Meadow, Caplor Merlin and Kizzy - Long Meadow, Caplor Merlin - Long Meadow/Gypsy Field, Caplor Merlin - Rough Patch, Caplor Merlin - bareback Rough Patch, Caplor Merlin and Proven wind turbine, Caplor Merlin in the garden, Caplor Merlin grazing around the yurt, Caplor

Duck eggs and sunset

Ash and Cai in the Warren Farm wheat

walk in the evening cool and the setting sun with the dogs to Aston Crews to get duck eggs, passing fields of wheat and maize and wild strawberries in the hedge. It’s all excitement here.

Warren Farm wheat Sunset over Warren Farm maize Maize at Warren Farm Duck eggs from Aston Crews

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