All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for mill

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.

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.

Christmas @ The Crown

Christmas at The Crown

It’s Christmas morning and I’m feeling very honoured to have been invited to join the Stanier family at The Crown Inn, Woolhope, where their traditional Christmas walk across the Marcle Ridge takes them for drinks and aperitifs. I walk over from the opposite direction, via Alfords Mill across flooded fields, which slows me down like a reverse (rural) travelator.

Walking to the Crown

There is a pint of their own (Once Upon a Tree) very fine Tumpy Ground waiting for me when I arrive, as well as bags-full of their own cold-stored eating apples and a bottle of perry. I could squeal with happiness. Their generosity is overwhelming and their interest in this project – the rules, the questions, what it’s revealing about the local food infrastructure (which their own amazing company is a vibrant and enlivening and positive part of) – is really rallying. Conversations range widely, but I mention my slowly emerging realisation that maybe I should eat meat. We talk a lot about their home-raised pigs, and the importance of knowing and honouring the animals we eat – not a piece of nameless, faceless protein packaged in plastic in a supermarket – even if that means that they ‘still deserve a name’.

I return home in the gloaming as the moon starts to appear

Moon appears at Alfords Mill

Wet footpath

in a considerably unstraighter line from the one I walked out with a rucksack full of precious, glorious apples, sit by the fire surrounded by them and eat five in quick succession. I am as happy as a (free-range) pig. A huge thank you Staniers!

Pasture and pasteurisation

Warming feet on the still-warm-from-last-night woodburner

Warming my freezing feet on the still-warm-from-night-before wood burner before I set on a walk to How Caple where I’ve arranged to meet Debbie and Will Edwards, organic dairy farmers just above one of the sweeping bends of the River Wye. I’m excited to talk to them, because I’ve had some informal conversations with Will in the past and always been hugely inspired by his take on farming organically ‘in nature’s image’ and his passion for unadulterated milk, local food and pasture-raised animals. Unfortunately, this means that that cows are, quite rightly, dried off for the winter. So I won’t be able to try any of their milk raw (I was hoping to work out if I still had an allergic reaction to it, or if raw milk – with all its enzymes in tact – would actually agree with me. And I was also hoping to make some raw butter for a solstice treat. But hey ho…)

I walk down under Brockhampton Court, and through Totnor Mill (below, which seems to have been moated by its own leat, hence the little bridge), where a small alpaca herd eyes me warily. Then along the bridlepath to How Caple, which brings me out past another mill (I’m still pretty fascinated by these)

Totnor Mill  Alpaca at Alfords Mill 2

Will and Debbie are kind enough to give me over two hours of their time in the middle of the day, when I know that they would normally be busy with the stock. And the conversation is intense and wide-ranging – from milk (and the evils of pasteurisation and homogenisation) to pasture, to organic systems, to climate change, to Offa’s Dyke, Archenfield and cultural heritage. And it even concluded with a conversation in Welsh (supposedly my native tongue, but Will – who has learnt – was far more fluent than me.) There is lots of food for thought here – on local food systems, and the dysfunctional infrastructure and  paperwork of so-called traceability that makes it so hard – too hard – for Debbie and Will to sell their milk themselves locally where it would be ultimately and eminently traceable.

Edited highlights of our mammoth conversation will appear here soon! To be continued…

Local hangover for local people

Today, thanks to the generosity of friend Hugh, I’m mildly hungover (largely sleep deprivation from late conversation) on his family’s local and delicious Once Upon a Tree cider and perry from Dragon Orchard at Putley. But I still have to walk 9 miles home in -1 cold. I pop into Hereford city centre first, but even at the wholefood shop, I’m surprised that, today at least, I can’t find produce that can be guaranteed within walking distance of home (which is not to say there is not a lot of produce from elsewhere in Herefordshire of course).

Fodder Sign 1

Fodder Sign 2

On the way back, in daylight this time, I realise that last night I was walking across a harvested field of corn (maize) next to the river Wye. I am so hungry it makes me wistful for my last supper of popcorn.

Corn 1

Corn 2

Half a loaf of sourdough loaf comes home with me in my rucksack. My fascination with this walked connection of mill to grain to loaf continues. At Mordiford, I stop to record the sound of the river at the mill

Audio track: Mordiford Mill

Mordiford Mill Wheel 1 Mordiford Mill Wheel 2 Mordiford Mill

Then returning home through the village, I see a Suma (wholefood cooperative extrordinaire) delivery van and look longingly inside as I pass. I can’t believe I’m suddenly fantastising about food miles…

Suma delivery van

Daily bread

IMG_3662

I’m hungry already. I realise I will need more (and portable) calories than apple juice and carrots and stew  to sustain both walking and talking and thinking this month. I need to make bread.

{[(Grain + mill = flour) + water + yeast + oven] = bread}

From years of riding, running and walking on and around the farm where I live, I have seen wheat, oats, barley, and corn grown locally, albeit on a small scale. From the map I know that there are many water mills in the surrounding parishes that would once have milled these grains. But what is lost is the connection between them: the grain that is grown on this farm, that is dried here (noisily in the perpetual August whine of the grain dryer), that is briefly stored here (in the perpetual hum of the grain store) right next to my home, is also shipped away to be sold and processed.

A month before this project began, I joined the village (Fownhope) Walking for Health group on their November turn around Haughwoods. Walking next to Jean (also from the village’s Carbon Rationing Action Group) and describing my plans for All in a Day’s Walk to her, I was delighted and surprised to discover that, remarkably, there was a farming-baking family – Gail and Duncan Sayce – in the neighbouring village (Woolhope), who grow, mill and make bread from their own wheat, spelt and rye. I phone and Gail kindly agrees to mill me some flour. But she warns me that while they have combined, milled and baked with their own grain in the same day before now, their current grain has been bought in (Doves Farm, Hungerford – how ironic is the name to my grumbling stomach). Hungry, I decide that the cheat is a necessary one.

Sollers Hope to Woolhope 2

I walk over this morning to Yare Farm via Sollers Hope church, the low sun behind me stretching my shadow in front, like the pull of my hunger reaching ahead of me.  The same sun streams into the kitchen as Gail and her son Harvey share their knowledge of baking, milling and grains. Gail has waited until I arrive to mill the grain, which, she tells me starts to oxidise immediately after milling, losing its nutrient value. (The fresh-milling of their flour is something Gail says draws people to their bread, more so than whether the grain is local or not.) And of course, it’s not a watermill, creaking and clunking into action through a system of sluices as I’d romantically imagined, but an electric mill in a modern farmhouse kitchen.

IMG_3668

Grain

Balletons

But I can hardly be disappointed – their passion for local, sustainable food and fresh produce is infectious: they rise at 4 am to bake a range of different breads for the local farmers’ markets, run bread-making courses and Harvey is even selling his own Herefordshire bird seed mix entirely from grains sourced from within a five miles radius: all in a day’s flight…

Herefordshire Bird Seed Mix

On my way home, I walk the flour on a real journey through an imagined history: altering my route to carry it back via the nearest watermill – Alford’s Mill – I might once have fetched it from. Not surprisingly, many footpaths lead to this place including one in an almost straight line from the farm. I stop and talk to the current owner and learn it was functional from the early 1800s until it was decommissioned in the 1960s. Trudging through waterlogged ground, I record the sounds of transiently restoring lost connection through walking:

Audio Track: Yare Farm – Alfords Mill

All in a Day’s Walk

All in a Day’s Walk is a month-long tracktivist walking performance. From midnight on 6th December 2012 to midnight on 6th January 2013 (Epiphany) I will be living entirely within the distance I am able to walk away from home and back in a day, sustaining myself only on the food that is grown, harvested, processed and obtainable within this distance. I will walk for 6 days a week, measuring out by foot the limits of my month’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 visitors that does not meet these criteria. I will try to follow all the rules even if I can’t answer all the questions. My walks will facilitate talks: 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, woodsmen, solar installers, yurt-makers, hauliers, butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers. We might talk about the weather. Or we might talk about local food, loss of rural infrastructure, longest nights, lorry-driving, loaves, love and longing (as a vegetarian with a dairy allergy and an auto-immune arthritic with a potato problem, I’m going to be rather  h u n g r y). 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 06/12/12
Caplor Farm, Fownhope, Herefordshire HR1 4PT