All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for Walk

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

Heat and honey

May Hill trig point tracktivist

An admittedly gruelling walk in 30 degree heat from Lea over May Hill to Highnam and Over Farm. It’s only about 25 miles, but it takes me 8 hours: I’m fast heading out but weighed down by vegetables, fruit and sun-weariness on the way back. Even as I set off in the morning, the waves of heat are palpable: we talk about the sun beating down, and all day I feel it like a slow hammer thudding me into the ground. I seem to be sweating all I’m drinking from my water reservoir straight back into the padding of my rucksack, so the weight is constant. Even ‘SPFd to ye max’ (as my friend Lewis sensibly advises – we have an acronym thing going on), my skin feels like it’s cooking. But, for all this whingeing, I’m not complaining. After the extreme rain and mud of December this is a welcome contrast. Though I do find myself musing about my canny knack of inadvertently planning my walking to coincide with extreme weather events – perhaps an unconscious climate change consciousness after all. That said, just the thought of ‘global warming’ in this heat makes me feel claustrophobic and nauseous. Walking across one particularly dry and scratchy field (I’m finding the long vegetation at this time of year is as difficult to walk through as December mud, plus I’ve developed an exaggerated allergic reaction to nettle stings) then grateful for momentary cool and shade passing through a thick treed hedgerow, I think about a future with less water, less shade, less space, less land area, more drought, fewer crops and more people to feed. It’s frightening…

Heading up towards May Hill, I pass a garden full of loganberries, fields of ripening oats, wheat and potatoes. Herefordshire is like a glowing, rounded expectant mother. This year feels like it will be a good harvest. But right now it’s locked in and inaccessible to me. And even when it bursts forth, how much of that crop will be shipped away from here to be ‘made’ or processed into food?

Striding up the lane, I pass a parked vehicle. ‘You’re off somewhere in hurry!’ a friendly passenger remarks. I explain I’m headed over to Over and have to get back within the day. I explain why and we get talking about local food. ‘You’ll be proud of me,’ she says ‘I took 100 litres of honey off my hives last week’. We then work out that it was her honey – ‘Happy Honey’ – that I’d bought at Brown and Greens two days ago, though she lives in Gorsley not here, so this really is coincidence. I’m curious about her perspectives on honey and the much-talked-about plight of the bees and she kindly agrees to share them:

I join the Wysis Way to walk up onto May Hill proper. Grasshoppers are chorusing in the long grass

I pass Taynton farm shop, the bottles of apple juice displayed on doilies (I thought they were extinct). I would like to buy some duck eggs but agree with the proprietor that in this heat ‘they’ll be cooked by the time you get home’.

I get lost after Taynton but find some bulrushes (reedmace) in a pond. I don’t pick any but I do know their rhizomes are a year-round source of carbohydrates (I’m not quite brave or hungry enough to try).

I pass High Leadon, Highnam, have a conversation with an elderly woman about cherries and am followed by curious cattle along the banks of the River Leadon.

A few miles off Over Farm and I know I’m on the right track: there is a strawberry-shaped helium balloon tethered above the pick-your-own fields. I contemplate picking-my-own and then decide, it’s a four hour walk back and I might save myself for today. Inside Over Farm market is a local food treasure trove: this is what they are passionate about and all the produce has a ‘food miles’ label. Satisfyingly, much of the produce is coming from the farm itself, so the labels read ‘less than 1 mile’ or ‘0’. I want to punch the air and whoop, but that’s a bit geeky. Then at the cheese counter (some more May Hill Green) I interview two young members of staff, Tom and Hannah. Both in their very late teens or very early twenties (I guess), they have some admirable perspectives and knowledge on local food, community and animal welfare. I ask them, is this typical of their peers?:

I slog home eating strawberries, grateful for the cool as the sun drops. As I curve around the contours of May Hill, heading directly west into the sunset, I pull the May Hill Green cheese out of my rucksack and ceremoniously eat the whole block. It’s rather poetic: eating a nettle-wrapped Gloucestershire cheese on May Hill with nettle stung legs.

Oats on the way up May Hill Potatoes on the way up May Hill  Loganberries   May Hill May Hill signs May Hills signs 2  Take care Grasshoppers on the way up May Hill May Hill canopy May Hill shadows May Hill sign May Hill elephant May Hill trig point May Hill shadow  Gloucestershire Way Wysis Way Food waste Rural neighbourhood watch Glasshouse to Taynton Taynton Farm Shop Air source heat pump installed near Taynton Bullrushes Wysis Way footbridge The Grove, Tibberton Cows at High Leadon Tibberton Pond Barley at Bovone Oxenhall apple juice consumed at Highnam Disused railway boundary marker River Leadon Highnam village Helium strawberry and pylon at Over Farm PYO IMG_5437 PYO 2 Over Farm carrots Over Farm peas Over Farm broad beans Over Farm onions Over Farm cauliflower Over Farm cherries Cairn on the Wysis Way Byfords Farm, Taynton Ardennes horses (possibly?) and Byford Farm Hidden lake in Castle Hill Wood, Glasshouse Setting sun along May Hill Sunset over the Lea

Activism in tracktivism 2

Walk don't drive

Once upon a time, I walked around the Welsh countryside and talked to people about landscape, life choices and climate change. It was an activism-by-stealth because it was a sharing of political ideas (mine and other peoples) in unexpected places (rural landscape) via the conviviality of conversation, sometimes recorded sometimes not. Then I renamed and reframed this tracktivism, an overtly activist practice, and immediately the doubt set in, as I pondered in Activism in Tracktivism? last week.

As I said then, thinking of what I do and re-imagining contemporary activism through ‘gestures’ has been really helpful to me. But what I hadn’t considered, in the context of All in a Day’s Walk specifically, was how this performance could be considered a protest gesture in and of itself through exercising and publicising my right to exist and subsist outside of our broken down rural food infrastructure and the dominance of and dependence on supermarkets, or indeed  motorised transport which is the usual refrain from people living rurally. For this I must extend a huge thank you to Laurence Malt for this Mask – Part 2 blog yesterday. I agree that it’s not a sustainable gesture – and the idea of sustainable activism that creates sustained not temporary change is an important one to me – but I’m empowered by the thought that it’s subversive in its own, domestic, pedestrian way.

Carless and carefree

Old Lane, Gorsley

After walking the dogs, I leave them in the house with Callum and walk along the many, meandering lanes through Gorsley and over the old Hereford and Gloucester canal at Oxenhall  to Brown and Green, an award-winning farm and local food shop at 3 Shires Garden Centre that my internet searching has turned up. (Word of mouth is slower to work; though writing this retrospectively, it would have come onto my radar soon enough from the number of people who seem to be aware of it.)

I am, unsurprisingly, hungry this morning, but to the worrying extent that I am hyperaware of all signs of food, including that which has already passed through other creatures: I find myself photographing cherry stones and wheat husks in poo – the latter badger, the former I’m not so sure. An unripe crab apple, fallen onto the road and squashed makes me feel momentarily mournful.

I’m also thinking more and more about foraging. Having read both Food for Free (Richard Mabey, of course) and Wild Food (Roger Phillips) years ago, I’ve long been obsessed with scanning hedgerows whilst riding and running, particularly in the spring when the first succuluent greens start coming through. I have been making all the obvious things for years: nettle soup and tea, Jack-by-the-hedge salad, elderflower fritters and cordial, blackberry crumble and sloe gin and giant puffball steaks. But otherwise, my interest in foraging has been more of an academic one: feeding my brain rather than belly. Revisiting those books now, I’m struck by how many of the recipes require significant amounts of additional produce – potatoes, butter, milk, eggs, flour, meat and fish – to make the foraged leaves into meals substantial enough to be filling. Quite often they’re more about flavouring and interest, and possibly texture, rather than calorific sustenance. (This is an observation that JoSh also wryly makes in his video blog, after a very difficult week of trying to survive purely on foraged (‘bitter’) leaves. I write an email in response to his blog, offering sympathy and agree ‘Like you say, foraging for sustenance came before we had full-time jobs – foraging WAS a full-time job, together with resting to preserve energy! ). Nevertheless, today I find myself drawn – by its scent, very sweet and almondy in the hot sun – to meadowsweet. I’ve just been reading about its use as a flavouring and sweetener, in tea, puddings and custard. There is something about its frothy heads of flower that is redolent of the richness of cream. A kind of synaesthetic olfactory-visual onomatopoeia.

After a quick duck under the shade of Cold Harbour Bridge on the disused Hereford and Gloucester canal at Oxenhall (sections of which are currently under restoration), I plod on to the main road and pass a series of sprawling garden centres (including Gloucestershire’s most inspirational plant centre apparently: I walk past). I arrive at Brown and Green. It’s like a traditional delicatessen-cum-farm shop, personal and homely and well-stocked but somewhat incongruously set in a massive, department-store style garden centre. I explain to the sales assistant what I am doing and she is instantly friendly and takes time to talk me around all the produce, making recommendations and knowing where every single thing has come from and how it was grown.

 

It’s very impressive and I fill a basket with as much as I think I can carry back: mushrooms, carrots, beans and peas, apple juice, May Hill ale (though I later realise that possibly the hops weren’t grown quite within my walking radius, sigh) and nettle-coated Charles Martell cheese (May Hill Green), made up the road in Dymock with their own Old Gloucester milk. I sit on a bench outside and wolf down the cheese with my salad leaves and broad beans.

On the way back, I fall into step with another walker, who’s joined my route from a different footpath. Slighlty awkwardly, we fall into conversation and she tells me she has lived rurally without a car for over three years. She cycles everywhere and when she can’t she walks, as she explains in the following audio (apologies for the poor audio quality; there was a breeze and I forgot my wind-jammer):

And finally within a few miles of home and passing back through Withymoor Farm, a dairy  at Aston Crews, I stop to ask if they sell any of their products on the farm. They don’t, but we fall into conversation anyway and I find myself being shown around the space-age tardis-like wood-chip water heater that runs two houses and a whole dairy unit. Now an audio documentation geek, naturally I record it:

Cherry poo Orchard near Gorsley Meadowsweet in Gorsley hedgerow Honeysuckle in Gorsley hedgerow Stoney Road, Gorsley Squashed apples Meadowsweet again Butterbur? Butterbur? 2 Three Choirs Way Hot sheep Last year's corn Last year's corn 2 Badger scat in the wheat Hereford and Gloucester canal above Oxenhall Really? La la la... Brown and Green Fresh local berries Between Newent and Gloucester May Hill ale

And then walk the dogs again when I get home…

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

Fasting, foraging and food theft

Beans

An incredibly hot day and a walk up May Hill with Rachel and the dogs. (By the evening, the garden thermometer has recorded a maximum of 39 degrees Celsius. In the vicinity of the shed, that is.) On the way out of Lea, the first fields of the footpath are full of dwarf beans. Hungry for something more stodgy and sustaining that salad, I feel like taking some but don’t want to steal. It makes me wonder, as I haven’t before, if food theft is a problem in the UK. Do people steal food straight from the field? As a child I remember occasionally scrumping apples or damsons from branches overhanging a hedgerow onto a footpath or road. But, always having had enough money to buy food of one kind or another, this was for pleasure or naughtiness, not necessity. It’s never occurred to me that some people might be so desperate, even here and now, to feed themselves or their families that they have to go out and forage or steal.

Talking of foraging, back on the first day of the project, I was ‘virtually introduced’ (via email from mutual acquaintance Roz Brown of the Mid-Wales Permaculture Network) to JoSh Rogers who, very coincidentally, is spending July only eating foraged or otherwise found food and spending no more than £1 a day on his everyday life. (This is part of an ongoing series of month-long projects, life challenges and experiments, as recorded in his excellent and very honest vlogs.) This is far, far more hardcore than this ‘performance’ of mine (it makes me feel pretentious even using the word), especially when he’s doing it on top of his everyday (physical) work as a gardener and commuting to work.

And, while we’re on the hardcore fasting front, it also occurred to me earlier in the week, that it’s very coincidentally Ramadan. (I seem to have a knack of accidentally coordinating my projects with key events in the religious calendar.) Then, reading about religious fasting, I was alerted to the Guantanamo Bay hunger-strikers and led me to this very disturbing, important protest video made by the charity Reprieve. In it, US actor and rapper Yasiin Bey volunteers to be filmed undergoing the same force-feeding technique that is being used on the hunger strikers. It is intensely humbling and my nausea (and shame that I couldn’t even watch it all the way through) makes me dismiss my grumbling middle-class stomach immediately.

Against all this my ‘polite’ activist art (and dog-walking) in idyllic rural Herefordshire is pretty pathetic.

Respect y’all.

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