All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for dogs

Wild sleeping

Hounds sleeping

You know when you should have a day off walking when… yesterday the path in front you looked like an appealing place to lie down and sleep. (A couple of years ago on a sunny August morning in the middle of a ten month bout of insomnia, I stopped on a journey from Hereford to Bristol and walked up May Hill looking for somewhere to sleep. In my sleep-deprived madness, I wondered if I could write a lavishly-illustrated coffee-table book on Wild Sleeping to add to the glut of wild swimming and cool camping ones…)

Today I’m tired: the sudden arrival of starchy carbohydrates (oats) in my diet has replaced hunger with a heavy, profound tiredness. The sudden arrival of clouds, cool weather and a breeze has replaced the artificially energising effects of sunlight and revealed an exhaustion I didn’t know was lurking.

So we’re sleeping (me and hounds) and I’m writing. By which I mean blogging retrospectively.

I’m not very disciplined when it comes to writing: not doing it at all, and then doing too much. As my supervisor says, I write like I talk, wanting to say it all – everything about everything – all at the same time (parentheses within parentheses) interrupting the flow in the process.

I find documenting walking through writing (as in this blog) is incredibly counterintuitive. While I know that writing and walking are both forms of thinking (writing is the best form of thinking, my supervisor tells me; walking is the best form of thinking argues Robert Macfarlane; walking and writing are compatible forms, with walking providing a reflective space to contemplate one’s writing, balances Tony Williams) to me they are mutually exclusive. Perhaps this is because they both take my energy in different ways.

Walking stimulates thought but ultimately brings me to a quiet stillness. It’s a linear, directional, space-eatingly satisfying, multi-sensorial engagement with the world. It gives me energy at the same time as it exhausts me.

Writing is an attempt to tether and order that thought, but it agitates me in the process. It’s a non-linear chaos of words in my head emerging through the dam of my fingers, the sluice gate of the pen or keyboard, as a tamed stream of communication. It makes me restless at the same time as it saps my energy.

They tire me in different ways but equally, so I can only do one or the other. I don’t have the energy for both.

It’s an imaginative leap over the stream of poetic license, but as I’m always going on about dichotomy and disconnectedness as lying at the root of our inability to do more about impending climate doom, I wonder if maybe this writing/walking conundrum is representative of those fundamental dichotomies. And that they are more deeply scored in all of us and harder to reconcile than we think.

Mumpet nostalgia

Beetroot patch kid

Some of you (if anyone’s reading this) may remember the infamous mumpets, the improvised fat-less, sugar-less stove-top beetroot cake of the last performance. I have since made and taken a batch of mumpets to every talk I’ve done about All in a Day’s Walk around the county and country: Putley, Manchester, Ledbury, Staunton-on-Arrow. While the usual comment is that they match the colour of my hair, the response to mumpets has been mixed…

At the Manchester activism event, someone thought I was subversively handing out raw liver.

My supervisor said they could do with some sugar.

A brave visitor in the spring requested to try some and politely, euphemistically described the experience as ‘like eating a garden’.

At Ledbury Ox Roast someone came up to me afterwards and said that, despite really not liking beetroot, they were very tasty. Others have been less enamoured. But I – locked in with my hunger as I was in winter – have a kind of Stockholm syndrome style relationship with them: to me, they are and always will be utterly delicious.

So, imagine my delight that our first crop of beetroot is harvested and ready. May the mumpets commence (when I can get my hands on some local flour again…)

'It's hard to tell which is which...' Hm, Jess or beetroot?

Meanwhile, with the garden so productive, it’s only a domestic dog walk and some oat-based baking today.

This little piggy went to market

A walk to Ruardean again to buy vegetables and meat. We have another friend – Jessie – coming for dinner later and I want to see what new produce is springing forth from the Crooked End garden since the last time I visited. In terms of local produce, I seem to have timed this summer version of the performance perfectly as a walk up a seasonal produce see-saw: it was nearly at rock bottom when I started the uphill climb but now I’ve passed the fulcrum and it’s tipping me downhill into overabundance. (Though I’m still struggling to find enough stodgy carbohydrates to support a long distance walking practice – or my own metabolism’s pace and eccentricities – but more on that anon.)

I’m walking without the dogs this time, so I’m much speedier (stiles and sniffing slow you down with hounds). But I seem to ‘read’ landscape according to my very first encounter with it, so this second walk along a route I first encountered with dogs I’m remembering the stiles that were impossibly hard to throw a hound over, or the fields of sheep where I keep them close to me (dogs chase sheep), or cows where I don’t (cattle chase dogs and I’ve been told it’s best to let your dogs off the lead to avoid being trampled yourself).

I also realise that, when I’m focused on the young dogs (are they safe? are they within sight? are they chasing something they shouldn’t?), I am experiencing the landscape more through the things their multiple senses (eyes, ears and snouts) alert me to. I have a lesser sense of the topography and terrain and my own physical or emotional response to it; it even subdues my awareness of the immediate discomfort of nettle stings. But walking this route again, which takes me up over Lea Bailey and into the Forest of Dean proper, I am more aware this time of leaving the familiar pastoral landscapes of South Herefordshire and entering labyrinthine woods with a concomitant sense of wildness and enclosure but also, paradoxically, vastness. (I remember a reading in a John Wylie paper a Gaston Bachelard quote: ‘we do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of “going deeper and deeper” into a limitless world’.)

Thinking again of landscape empathy, I realise that (of course) our true ‘sense of place’ is much more closely allied to our personal awareness of or relationship with topography and scale and the ‘recognisableness’ of landscape than administrative (county) boundaries (which I tend to be geekily hyperaware of, having worked as a landscape mapping officer for two local government authorities over the past decade). Even though we live in South Herefordshire, my partner always says by way of explanation to others that ‘we live in the Forest of Dean’. It used to intrigue my pedantic self, because strictly speaking we don’t, but now I get it: it is a highly characteristic and more recognisable and descriptive landscape area which I already feel an affection and affiliation towards. Landscapes are, of course, better defined by the perceptions of the people within them.

I also realise that it’s by situating ourselves firmly in our own filltir sgwar (a Welsh phrase, literally translated as ‘square mile’ but meaning that place which you own through familiarity and which ‘owns’ you [and] needs your vigilance), that we can begin to address wider concerns, because it gives us a context: while such a localised practice as mine could be accused of parochial tendencies, I feel that by settling in, I’m better placed to look out. As long as I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this rural idyll is all there is. (It’s OK, they sell the Guardian in the village shop.) Having recently watched Quadrophenia for the first time (I’m a few decades behind when it comes to popular culture), it makes me think that as we become separated from landscape, we become artificially tribal: inventing difference to cultivate an ultimately flawed sense of belonging to something, anything.

These musings aside, it’s when I’m passing the stile that I remember as most hideously dog-bothersome, that I see some beehives in a next door garden. I also see some people, and stop to ask them about bee-keeping (we are thinking of getting a hive for the garden). They – Steve and Sarah – are immediately helpful and welcoming. We get talking about bees, but also the project more widely, local food and meat: it turns out they have pigs, hens and a whole smallholding of wonderment. (Even peaches in the greenhouse.) Sarah kindly takes me on a tour of the pigs, the fruit canes, vegetable garden and, finally (and most surprisingly) ‘parma’ hams hanging in the cool under a tree in their garden (though, as Sarah explains, they can’t be sold as parma ham because this is an EU PDO…  and we’re full circle back to our allegiance with place and landscape). She muses, they might call them ‘Harechurch Hams’ and you can hear an audio walk through the journey from farrowing pen to tree here:

Lea allotments sign Lea allotments view Lea Bailey honey Hidden cows crossing Forest signpost Closed road Reclaiming the road Cider press at Hom Grove Farm Cider press at Hom Grove Farm 2 Cider press at Hom Grove Farm 3 Fly tipping Bartley's Oak holloway Harechurch Hill Harechurch preserves Harechurch preserves 2  Harechurch Ham

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

Crooked End

Crooked End, Ruardean Deer in the Forest

A walk south to Ruardean where I’ve been told about Crooked End Organics. I still have the dogs and no-one to puppy-sit for me, but I’m pretty desperate to get hold of something more sustaining than strawberries. I also have friends visiting tomorrow and would like to offer them some decent, local sustenance. My guests don’t have to adhere to my ‘regime’, as my visiting friend Rachel is already referring to it (as a down-to-earth daughter of a Lincolnshire farming family, this performance art is decidedly self-indulgent and not to be indulged), but it’s a matter of artistic pride for me to demonstrate that I can respond creatively to the score and serve up some delicious, local ingredients.

Cai is four-and-a-half months old and the counterintuitive rule of thumb for puppy-walking is five minutes for every month, up to, but not more than, twice a day. I self-justify wildly, take this with a pinch of (illegal, non-local) salt and estimate that Ruardean is a seven-ish mile round trip. (It’s more like ten I later discover, oops.) IF we take it slowly, IF it’s just a one-off, IF we have lots of breaks… will this be OK?

It takes us a good two and a half hours to get there: walking with puppies is excessively punctuated with sniffing, pooing, lead-clipping-on/offing, whereabouts-determining, recalling, treating, disciplining and, most challenging of all, stile-negotiating. It’s also about finding a common rhythm, especially when they’re both on the lead and we’re all effectively attached to each other. We’re all a little different and true to stereotype: bristlingly alert husky Ash is a no-nonsense worker who wants to stride ahead and get on with it; ganglingly elegant saluki Cai is a dreamer who wants to drift and loop between scents and sights. I’m inevitably somewhere (in location, physique and personality) in between. (For more on the rhythms and responsibility of dog walking – and its relationship to writing – it is well worth visiting Tony Williams’s excellent blog.)

Today Ash has been ceremonially fitted with her panniers so she can carry the dogs’ water and help me bring some produce back. It might be anthropomorphism, but she always seems pleased with this responsibility, strut-trotting more delightedly and purposefully than usual as soon as they’re on.

We walk up Lea Bailey, into the Forest, along the edge of Harechurch Wood and drop over and down into Ruardean. As I browse for home-grown vegetables (borlotti beans, chard, spinach, cucumber, mange tout and mixed salad complete with nasturtiums), local butter, eggs and yoghurt, Cai lies in the shade under the raspberry bush and Ash stands in the puddle under the water tap, howling plaintively.

On the way back, a few hundred yard from home, we pass the village allotments. I stop to ask someone if any of the allotmenteers sell their excess produce and she begins to tell me about their first six months on the site. They’ve just picked the first broad beans of the year and very kindly give me a handful to take home for my supper recommending the young pods to be cooked whole and eaten with butter. Delicious…

On the way to Crooked End Crooked End 4 Crooked End 3 Hounds at Crooked End 1 Hounds at Crooked End 2 Crooked End 2 Crooked End 5 Be a responsible dog owner Lea Bailey honey Broad beans for supper

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