All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for food miles

Oats (on cheating and eating)

Oat cakes 1 Oatcakes 2

Reader [if there are indeed any out there], I’ve cheated.

I’ve flagrantly, badly, hungrily, unwisely cheated. I have, (only in deeply hungry moments), eaten food that I shouldn’t. That was grown outside of Herefordshire, and quite possibly the UK. Mostly it was as local as I could make it, but sometimes, in the spur of the moment, it wasn’t.

I am sorry.

The clues were all there when I was talking about how challenging it was living with the food and gentle concern of others. I’ve made an important realisation that maintaining and defending a serious, quasi-political performance practice in a domestic setting with others requires a difficult balance between light heartnedness and commitment. I seem to have failed on both counts over the past few weeks. I think to myself, I bet Tehching Hsieh never had this problem.

By way of excuse and explanation, I’ve been getting ridiculous, bent-double, Ministry of Silly Walks stomach cramps (in fact, for about 3 miles solid along the Stank between Hampton Bishop and Mordiford the other day). Seemingly my metabolism is not cut out for surviving without some form of starchy carbohydrate. The last performance, being vegetarian and dairy allergic (I thought), I staved off total starvation by allowing myself flour locally milled from a local wheat grower (even though they’d run out of their own and were actually milling grain from Doves Farm in Hungerford, as I explained at the time). This time, thinking that eating both meat and dairy would give me more than enough variety and calories to survive on, I haven’t allowed myself flour. So, no sourdough, no mumpets and really, no complex carbohydrates. A recipe for disaster.

The last, winter performance was all about the eating, even if I felt too weak to walk that far. And my weight fell under 7 stone. This summer repeat has been (excuse frivolous language) all about the cheating. It’s been more walking, less starving and less tolerance of voracious hunger in the process. My body doesn’t want to return to that extreme of leanness, clearly.

I could console myself that any accomplished improviser ultimately plays with subverting the score. And as friends Rob and Sally said ‘if we weren’t meant to cheat, we wouldn’t have a word for cheating’. But it’s how you cheat that matters. So, drilling down to the essence of activism in tracktivism as being about consumer choice as a gesture of protest, then I allow myself one clear consumer choice to prevent any future frivolous cheating: o a t s.

Pimhill organic oats are the only traceable complex carbohydrate that I know that is grown and processed in (and I seriously hope) distributed from a single place in neighbouring county (Shropshire) and sold in local shops. Oats are incredibly versatile and once I’ve given myself permission to use them, I make porridge, oat cakes (local butter) and flapjacks (local butter, local honey) and, my partner’s idea (I’m such a bad meat-eater; it doesn’t occur to me to cook it) beef-oat-herb burgers with the Hope’s Ash mince.

Instant carbohydrate. Instant ability to walk in an upright position.

What remains mad and bad – and that all this confessional waffle about ‘cheating’ is ultimately hiding – is that I’m walking through acres and acres and acres of wheat, oats, barley, maize. The wheat and oats are nearly ready to harvest, so where do they go? And why can’t I buy or eat them? Is it really more economic sense to ship them elsewhere? And if food processing contributes to the embedded carbon footprint of foods and means that a focus on food miles alone ‘is missing the point‘, how do we reconcile all this into a food system that makes social, environmental and economic sense?

Maybe that – our skewed rural infrastructure – is where the cheating’s really at.

Dams and damsels

I seem to be annoyingly addicted to alliterative blog titles, but I’m just going with it for now.

A walk to Ross-on-Wye and back with my friend Jessie, who is fasting for Dharma Day. It’s the first time I’ve walked with someone else this time around and the baking heat is a total contrast to the freezing hoar frost of my walk with Alison to Much Marcle in December. It’s also humbling to walk with someone who is intentionally and ungrumblingly fasting for spiritual commitment, rather than unintentionally, haphazardly and whingeingly for eco-activist performance.

Last night we sat around the fire in the gloaming and cooked Hope’s Ash and Crooked End beef steaks, picked and ate salad and herbs from the spiral, and, in the cauldron, boiled new potatoes from the field next door. Our own lettuce is growing faster than we can keep up; peas, beans and beetroot are nearly ready.

Today, on our way to Ross we pass through Hope’s Ash Farm again and bump into Robert on the yard. He beckons us over, stops the tractor and opens the door. There’s a slightly pregnant pause and I’m starting to worry that I’ve done something wrong when he says ‘I read your blog last night and it was the first blog I’ve ever read’. He seems to approve of it, and it’s given him some food for discussion (on veganism, dairy and meat) with an A-level student who is currently with them on work experience, heading for veterinary training. He asks me if I’ll have a chat with her about veganism which, he says unlike vegetarianism ‘which is easy’, he believes ‘really is hard’. So I do – ironically, standing with her in the pens of the day old dairy calves necessarily removed from their mothers so that we can drink milk, ‘the guilty secret of the dairy industry’ rearing its beautiful bovine head again.

Jessie and I walk on, talking about Buddhism, vows, our reluctant flexitarian meat-eating and its contradictions. We sprint, squealing, along the edge of a potato field, only just timing it right that we avoid a drenching by the rotating irrigator. Then we drop down and past the massive, industrial-scale Cobrey Farm: acres of fruit and pickers’ static caravans. We pass what I assume (from their accents and dress and our exchange of smiling, gesticulating nods) two European farm workers, also walking into Ross and playing music on their phone speakers as they do. It prompts us (Jessie and me) to discuss how more and more often (as Rebecca Solnit writes) we (culturally not personally!) think of walking as waste of time, a dead space to be filled with music on iPods or mobile phone conversations, neglecting the sensual pleasure that walking has to offer, not least as a mode of engagement with environment and self. We also talk about mobile phones, EMFs and the subtle body: are we living in a massive, global experiment that is scrambling our selves and our eco-systems, our bees and our pollinators and so ultimately our agriculture?

Dropping down into Ross and I make a beeline for Field Fayre, my local, organic, wholefood shop and recent joint runner-up (with Waitrose no less) as ‘organic retailer of the year’. I explain to proprietor David that this is the summer repeat of my winter performance (during which I’d first called in at the shop) and he talks me through the baskets and baskets of local produce. Because the shop is registered with the Soil Association, their remit is to sell certified organic produce, which means using European stock at certain times of year. But now, he says, it’s like ‘a dam bursting’: suddenly all the local producers have got everything:

We call in at delicatessen Truffles too on our way home – I want to thank them for their earlier generosity. They’re actually closed, but Richard opens the door in response to our persistent knocking and talks us through the huge range of Herefordshire produce they stock.

We walk back through Kingstone and stumble upon (if that’s possible), Bollitree Castle. We’re a bit disappointed that it appears to be a façade, but nevertheless I take photos of Jessie – with her spectacular Rapunzel-like mediaeval damsel hair – knocking on the door. When we get home, my partner tells us it’s the country home of Top Gear’s Richard Hammond. Surprisingly (for an eco-aware Buddhist) Jessie is a big fan. Later, I email her the pictures, laughing stupidly at my own subject line: ‘knock, knock, knocking on Hammond’s door?’

Jessie at Cobrey - what is the crop? Field Fayre Carey cherries Local bread board Organic veg Truffles Bollitree Castle 1 Bollitree Castle 2 Bollitree Castle 3 Bollitree Castle 4 Bollitree Castle 5

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

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

Guilt and food miles

Walking through wheat

Guilt seems to be such a fundamental part of being human, that we are constantly needing to categorise it: Catholic guilt, Jewish guilt, Non-conformist guilt (my mother’s), survivors’ guilt, climate guilt and now, for me, (lapsed) vegetarian guilt. I experience plenty of the latter today.

As a former vegan (yes, I’ve worn that badge at the same time as self-reflexively laughing at the brilliant joke: ‘How do you know if someone’s a vegan?’ ‘Don’t worry: they’ll tell you’), I’m aware that lacto-vegetarianism is itself a half-way house in the compassionate farming stakes: even a very conscious and conscientious organic dairy farmer I know has admitted to me that the necessary removal of young calves from their mothers so we can drink the milk that is meant for them is ‘the guilty secret of the dairy industry’. So, I was already battling with some uncomfortable truths in being vegetarian. When I was diagnosed with a serious and potentially debilitating auto-immune arthritic condition 6 years ago and  told it was highly recommended I eat fish, I did so, and felt both better and deeply hypocritical. When I completed the last performance of All in a Day’s Walk and heard about the carbon sequestration benefits of local, pasture-fed meat and how this offset methane emissions and provided a source of (local) protein that was not reliant on soya flown in from the other side of the world (and was an important part of maintaining diverse mixed pastoral/arable landscapes), I was forced to weigh up my environmentalism against my vegetarianism. The former won (it had always confused me that even some of the most ardent and eminent environmentalists I know are meat eaters) and I became a slightly reluctant flexitarian. (That is, occasionally eating only local, ethical, usually organic, free-range, pasture-fed meat.) I have also since read Jonathan Safran Foer’s pro-vegetarian treatise Eating Animals – perhaps a strangely counter-intuitive, retrograde choice of book after 22 years of vegetarianism – and, more recently Jay Rayner’s article about a a day in the slaughterhouse. So I remain deeply, deeply uncomfortable by the thought of being part of the meat industry and the killing chain, even in the most (oxymoronically?) ‘humane’ of abattoirs.

However, I am also hungry and in search of local food.

Today my partner’s son is dog-sitting for me, so I plan to do a decent walk to the nearest market town Ross-on-Wye as a reasonable starting point to encounter local growers and sellers. I am following the first part of a route I last walked during the winter performance to interview woodsman Dan at Deep Dean woods (the source of my winter fuel), now crunching and sliding through drying hay (as slippery as winter mud, I’m discovering).

Emerging from the woods below the poetically- (and, for me, autobiographically-) named Dancing Green, I encounter a group of workmen clearing a culvert and in conversation with someone who, from the back, I see is wearing an Open Farm Sunday T-shirt (a good sign, I now realise)… A little nervously – this will be my first true ‘tracktivist’ encounter with strangers to engage in conversation this performance – I stop and ask them if they know of any places selling local food, vegetables, eggs or honey and explain I am new to the area and what I am doing. As usual (because synchronicity is so surprising as to be unsurprising), it turns out this – food miles, local food – is a subject at the very heart of (who I later discover to be) Robert’s beef and dairy farming ethos, and one which he’s been explaining to a group of primary school children just that morning. Not only that but he tells me of a place just back through the woods selling eggs and honey. Success. And if I make a quick detour to get some (sadly they’re no longer selling either but I am kindly given one of the last remaining jars and shown around the magnificent vegetable garden) then head up to his farm on the hill above us, he will talk me through the food miles of the cattle fodder in his grain store. Here is the audio tour of our conversation which ranged from soya to fuel via sugar beet and weather:

Afterwards, and unable to carry a whole Hope’s Ash beef box home, I buy some frozen steak and mince from Rachel in the farmhouse and walk home as fast as possible before it defrosts in my rucksack in the afternoon heat. But as I go, I’m pondering again: I want to support these passionate, articulate local farmers but I’m carrying meat that has been finished with imported soya. If my only reason for eating (pasture-fed) meat is an ecological one, then I’m contradicting myself and might as well eat the imported soya myself (I was tempted, in the grain store). Then again, I think of the eggs that sustained me throughout the last performance and realise (as I hadn’t before) that most free-range hens are fed grain and layers pellets from well outside the county. And so the layers (no chicken pun) of our globalised local food infrastructure peel back and back. All these hidden food miles marching away from me as far as the eye can see – a lifetime’s walking in every mouthful… Food for thought and fodder for guilt.

Stacked bales Freshly cut hay at Lea Garden at Hope Mansel/Bailey Lane End Hope's Ash Soya and sugar beet IMG_5192 Hope's Ash wheat Hay at Pontshill Dancing Green Butterfly at Pontshill Orchard at Pontshill Wheat and heat

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

All in a Day’s Walk (Again)

All in a Day’s Walk is a month-long tracktivist walking performance. It was first performed in the winter, from 6th December 2012 to 6th January 2013. It is now being repeated in the summer, from midnight on 6th July to midnight on 6th August. During this time, I will live entirely within the distance I am able to walk away from home in a day, sustaining myself only on the food that is grown, harvested, processed and obtainable within this distance. I will walk as far and as frequently as I can, measuring out by foot the new limits of my new month’s (and new home’s) existence-subsistence-persistence. I will travel only on foot, accepting no lifts and using no public transport. I will not accept hospitality or food from hosts or visitors that does not meet these criteria. I will try to follow all the rules even if I can’t answer all the questions. And I will be curious about seasonal difference.

Tracktivism is about talking and listening, and I hope my walks will facilitate plenty of that: conversational encounters with the people I meet, either randomly on my route or pre-arranged at a specific destination… walkers, farmers, growers, millers, bakers, apiarists, artisan cider-producers, foresters, road-workers, yurt-makers, hauliers, butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers. We might talk about the weather. We might talk about talking. We might talk about walking. But we will most probably talk about  f o o d , where it comes from, and why it matters…

It’s slow food meets slow activism meets slow performance. So, please take some time to meander through these pages if you wish, and leave some slow comments…

Jess Allen 06/07/13
Lea, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR9 7JZ