All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for tracktivism

Talking Walking (or the Wisdom Teeth of Hindsight)

[I’m writing this with the benefit of hindsight. A whole year’s hindsight in fact. For reasons that will become clear below.]

On Friday 2nd August 2013, I walked nearly 30 miles from my then home in Lea (in South Herefordshire, mere metres from the Gloucestershire border) right across the Forest of Dean to the Green Gathering Festival at Chepstow racecourse. En route I had arranged to meet Andrew Stuck of Talking Walking – the dedicated podcasting website for ‘activism, art, gossip, interviews and news from the world of walking’ – to do an interview that would ultimately be made into a podcast.

He was travelling by train from London to Chepstow, and then planned to walk along the Offa’s Dyke path north of Chepstow. I was to join up with the path towards the end of my walk, so we hoped to walk towards each other and meet at the allotted hour. I would then be interviewed for TW. (It didn’t quite work out like that – though we did succeed in meeting – but more on that anon.)

It did not begin well, underslept and flustered, I set off at 8 am knowing I had about 24 miles to cover before I met Andrew, and very little spare time for getting lost built into the tight schedule necessary to ensure a timely rendezvous.

It was around this time that I’d more-or-less worked out that, on a 1:25,000 OS map, the span of my loosely-stretched hand aligned with a walk’s planned route was approximately an hour’s walking for me. But not allowing for getting lost, tracking back, talking to anyone or an overly wiggly/meandering path.

(I quite liked this one:one scale of my own though – a satisfying physical/temporal take on the one-inch-to-one-mile maps, for a walking geek and a map addict…)

Within half an hour, I had got hopelessly, dangerously lost in a field of >6ft high maize [I am 5 ft 1] that had been planted across the footpath. By the time I’d backtracked, run up a farm track and onto the road to take a longer, alternative route, I already knew that I would deeply regret agreeing to meet someone at an allotted time after 28 miles of walking. That is a lot of miles for mishaps… When the going (and the waymarking) was good, I did have a great sense of bounding through the Forest of Dean: this ancient hunting forest, freemining country, this “strange and beautiful place … a heart-shaped place between two rivers, somehow slightly cut off from the rest of England…” (as Dennis Potter described his home-place).

At other times, I was battling through overgrown undergrowth, with bare legs becoming so scratched and bruised that I eventually drew a sketch of the ‘map’ that the walk had left on me.

By mid-afternoon, Andrew – who had left London without a map and so was attempting to navigate his way from Chepstow along the Offa’s Dyke path by signposting alone – and I ended up in a ridiculous series of mobile phone exchanges. He was asking me to relay directions for him from my OS map, at the same time as I was trying to use it to navigate towards him. But our relative locations spanned either side of the enormous map sheet and so to respond to his requests, I was obliged, one-handed on the phone, to keep unfolding and refolding it.

We did eventually rendezvous – on the Gloucestershire Way, not the Offa’s Dyke path – and walked back towards Chepstow, where, once the calm of navigational certainty had resumed, we found a small meadow high up on the cliff edge of the Wye gorge to do our interview. The sound of drumming from the Green Gathering festival site at the racecourse on the opposite side of the river faded in and out of ear shot with the breeze.

We parted in Chepstow and I walked on alone to the festival, weary, scratched and ready for the wood-heated-water eco-shower that awaited.

***

What happened in the intervening three days is something of a blur – talking to ‘real’ activists: climate campaigners, road protesters, foraging experts, bee advocates, editors of ‘occasional land rights magazine’ The Land; and working in a cafe. I also had a very enlightening conversation with foraging expert Carol Hunt

I set off to return home on Monday 5th August, the penultimate day of the performance. I knew I’d got a long hard walk home and I also, foolishly, couldn’t shake the misperception that it would be ‘more uphill’ going north. I was also cumulatively tired – from the performance, the walking and the festival. So my spirits were dampened still further when there was a deluge of truly biblical, climate-change-freak-weather-type proportions within the first 5 miles: three hours of solid lashing rain, thunder and lightning. It was so wet that rain pooled inside my waterproof map case, having somehow managed to force its way through the almost imperceptible hole made by a thorn on the walk down.

Fortunately my phone, which I’d used to document the entire journey down, including film and audio, was safely zipped into the waterproof Gore-tex pocket of my waterproof Gore-tex coat. But it was not so waterproof as I’d thought. Water even managed to find its way to pool in there too. My phone switched itself off near Bream and refused to reawaken. Running late by the time I reached the middle of the Forest proper, I called in at the Speech House hotel (former hunting lodge and site of “Court of the Speech” for verderers and free-miners) and asked to use their phone to make a call to the dog sitter to let her know where I was.

I was bone weary by the time I returned to Lea. The cottage was eerily quiet, the dogs calmly pleased to see me, the dog-sitter having an evening nap upstairs. I put my phone in a box of rice, hoping for the best. Then I went to bed.

The next day, the final day of the performance, I rested. And waited anxiously for my phone to revive (funny how even eco-activists are so wedded to our technology). I was still hungry and looking forward to my ‘first supper’ the next day. But then on the last night, with no warning – but as if I’d finally earned it – a wisdom tooth chose to emerge. It was painful and I didn’t sleep well. So I woke the day after the performance concluded with the freedom to eat whatever I wish, and ironically found myself unable to eat at all.

[My phone never recovered from its ordeal, losing all my photo documentation from the last 60 miles of walking. So all that remains is the sketch of my scratched legs. Oh well. I suppose it could function as a tastefully restrained Richard Long/Hamish Fulton-esque ‘text work’ or similar: neither of them seem quite so concerned about obsessively documenting their walks through the use of technology. The very thought of either of them Tweeting or blogging (esp. en route) is actually quite a funny one.]

[Images of leg-scratch-map copied and later sent to PhD student Nina Williams for her Mapping in Momentum project]

Mapping in Momentum 2 Mapping in Momentum 1

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.

Slow activism gone viral?

Cobrey berries

A day at home walking dogs, feeding the horse.

A daily commitment to the animals is easy to incorporate into a life practice. A domestic commitment to and existence with other humans is more difficult to interface with a performance practice, I am discovering. When I first performed this score, I was living alone. I was encountering – socially and otherwise – lots of other people. But the duration and nature of our encounters provided a frame – an imaginary minimalist conceptual proscenium arch – through which I could perform and they could observe. There was a great deal of curiosity, interest, sometimes concern, and sometimes antagonism about what I was doing. But once I was alone, I was alone with the score and I adhered to it rigidly. I had a commitment to the practice.

I didn’t even eat salt.

Now I am living with others – my partner, his son – and the frame has shifted and there are reluctant co-performers inside it. While I know there is a fundamental respect for what I do and am doing, there is also a concern for my well-being and a healthy, affectionate amusement with the whole concept of conceptual eco-art. They want to support me at the same time as they want to subvert the score, which is ultimately compromising me. And my hunger doesn’t take much persuading.

So I’m finding it hard to adhere to rules #2 and 4 of the score when I’m surrounded by the concern as well as the food of others. I’m also an inherently polite activist: I don’t want to be rude or ungrateful. The other day, Callum walked the 5 miles back from Ross-on-Wye with a bag of food from a specialist local-food delicatessen Truffles. Concerned that I was ‘walking everywhere eating nothing’ and with some time to spare, he’d been in, explained what I was doing and bought as much local produce they could determine was grown within walking distance: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries from Cobrey Farm, cheese and spinach pie with ingredients from Newent and they’d even thrown in a small quiche in sympathy with the apparent craziness of what I was doing. He’d got them to write down where everything came from ‘so you’d believe me’ and then he’d walked home from Ross, ‘so it wouldn’t compromise the rules’. It was really touching. So, there was no way I was going to point out that the pastry of the spinach pie was made from flour that undoubtedly was milled if not grown outside the county. I ate it and it was delicious.

It also made me think, on a carbohydrate high, that maybe it’s these conversations that people are having about what I’m doing – even if that’s expressing consternation about craziness – that are what the practice is about. If the score is intended to provoke thought and conversation, then it doesn’t matter who’s having those conversations or why, does it? In fact, it’s even stealthier than I thought : slow food-slow activism gone viral (in a rural kinda way)…

Truffles goody bag

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.

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

Little green shoots of change

Aspen House

A walk through the morning to Hoarwithy, where I’ve arranged to interview Sally Dean and Rob Elliott, who run the appropriately sub-titled ‘Real Food’ B&B Aspen House [which has since closed, in 2015].

I walk over Capler Camp and through Brockhampton, hemmed in by high hedges, passing polytunnels (which Gareth talked much about), puddles and  floods and being passed by the four-wheel drive convoys of the pheasant shoot… I stop to record the racehorses on the gallops at Aramstone (a racing yard) Audio Track: Aramstone gallops and later (because I’m earlier than expected for our meeting) to record the flooded wye forcing its way under the bridge at Hoarwithy Audio Track: River Wye (in spate) at Hoarwithy bridge. Then I visit the remarkable (and unexpected in this small village) Italianate church, before heading down the road to Aspen House.

Sally and Rob are more than ‘just’ B&B proprietors: they are passionate advocates (and activists) for local, seasonal, ‘real’ food. Sally, a nutritionist, is also local chapter leader for the Weston A. Price foundation (an organisation organic dairy farmer Will Edwards also spoke passionately about). Rob is a writer (The Food Maze and How to Eat… Like There’s No Tomorrow) and blogger. Both are extremely knowledgedgable about nutrition, local infrastructure, farming, growing and how our rural eating-living needs to work in order to be sustainable and just as well as genuinely nutritious. They are hugely inspiring and uncompromising in how they live and their desire to communicate what they do to as many people as possible. We have intense, wide-ranging discussions which I’ve edited only a selection of highlights below, as they are both best represented in their own, articulate words:

Audio Track: Sally and Rob on the importance of slowing down: slow food and slow cooking

Audio Track: Sally and Rob on meat and balanced food production

Audio Track: Sally and Rob on localised food infrastructure

Audio Track: Sally and Rob on local food activism: ‘little green shoots’ of change

A huge thank you to them for their time and sharing their knowledge so passionately..

Capler Camp flood Capler Camp gorse Capler woods Wye floods from Capler viewpoint Hoarwithy Holly hedge 4WD flood Oh no, I have to walk through this... Not as bad as it looks Strawberry polytunnels Flooded Wye at Hoarwithy bridge Flooded Wye - Hoarwithy tollhouse Flooded footpath at Hoarwithy Hoarwithy Italianate Church 1 Hoarwithy Italianate Church 2 Hoarwithy Italianate Church 3 Hoarwithy Italianate Church 4 Hoarwithy Italianate Church 5 Hoarwithy Italianate Church 6 Hoarwithy Italianate Church 7 Hoarwithy Italianate Church 8 Hoarwithy Italianate Church 9 Hoarwithy cider press  Soda bread and sourdough Kefir Kefir grains Hoarwithy mill race? Strawberry plants

And then later in the evening, because it’s Friday, I walk (4 mile round trip) through the dark to the pub with friends for local bitter

There’s no such thing as inappropriate clothing, only bad weather

When I first heard the (apparently Scandinavian) phrase ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’ I immediately, gleefully and smugly adopted it as my new life mantra.

This winter, I’m not so sure. It doesn’t seem to matter how much Gore-tex I layer onto my body, the water is still finding a way in. Even in wellies. This does not make a December walking performance very comfortable. It slows me down – and not in a good slow-food-slow-activism way either. I’m not sure if drawing my own minute attention – through the immediate discomfort of soggy feet – to the changing patterns of weather and climate is particularly useful in an activism sense, but still…

I’m reminded of my conversation last week with Caplor farmer Gareth on his experiences of extreme weather events in Africa and Fownhope, and how his farming practices are, finally, changing:

Audio Track: AIADW Gareth on weather and climate change

 Caplor lake 2  Flooded footpath 2 Wellies 2  Wet footpath  Flooded ditch below Caplor Marcle Ridge path underwater Wet walk home from Alfords Mill I fell on my arse Be safe, be seen 2 Stanier gaiters for hobbits There's no such thing as bad weather: the arsenal Christmas (walking) stockings  Christmas stockings 2 Be safe, be seen Drying Inov8s