All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for veganism

Vegan roadkill

Vegan roadkill at White House Farm

A walk through Dymock to Brooms Green, home of Charles Martell cheeses. I’ve been intrigued by this cheese-makers-cum-distillery ever since I’d heard my friend Hugh (himself of the inspiring artisan cider-producing Dragon Orchard) waxing lyrical about them back in December. I wasn’t eating cheese or dairy then of course due to a suspected allergy, but this time around and in the absence of allergy, their delicious nettle-wrapped May Hill Green has been very sustaining on long walks. I set off late today with a belly full of it. I haven’t called ahead to arrange a meeting, optimistically hoping to bump into someone when I arrive. Or simply for the walk to guide me into an encounter with someone else.

I don’t and it doesn’t. In fact, I barely see anyone closer than waving distance: two farmers mending a trailer and a lone dog walker. So much for talking activism today.

I pass through a sinister concrete bridge under the M50 that looks like it should house a 1960s concrete troll and join up with the Daffodil Way, round the edge of Dymock Forest. I pass an equally sinister looking mansion which instantly makes me think, with a goosebump frisson, of  Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. For miles it seems to be watching me with coolly blank eyes, and I wonder why we anthropomorphise houses when really, they are just hemmings-in of space for us to shelter in.

In Dymock I find myself following the Poets’ Paths to Brooms Green. It’s not intentional. In fact, there’s something vaguely embarrassing about it. Perhaps this is because I’m always achingly conscious that walking seems to have a tendency to turn everyone into a navel-gazing poet or philosopher of varying degrees of awfulness, something I’ve been anxious to avoid through informing my walking practice with my environmentalism and other political concerns, of varying degrees of gentleness. By this, I mean that I’m permanently hyperconscious that, for all that I was at pains to put activism in tracktivism, I know there’s still nothing overtly, tub-thumpingly political about it. And inevitably, in the luxurious engagement with natural world that rural walking offers, the political is not present for me in every step. I am not a pilgrim. I can allow my mind and senses to wander.

What I remain conscious of, however, is that this is no rural idyll. These farmed landscapes are constantly changing and responding to the challenges of economy and climate. Less obvious, dramatic and dizzying than the melting ice-sheets to be sure, but still more fragile than we think. As our oil dependency continues and rural infrastructure falters, maybe we should all be walking these paths and writing bad poetry while we still have the chance? In less time than has passed since Edward Thomas, Robert Frost et al. were walking here, who knows what these landscapes will look like as a consequence not only of changing weather patterns and climate but also resource depletion and population explosion.

On the way home, I’m really hungry. I only brought a small sorrel and beetroot salad with me (no cheese or oatcakes), it’s 7 pm and I’ve walked about 17 miles, 5 more to go. Then I see on the side of the road a whole broad bean plant that’s been pulled up and dropped (by a creature? off a trailer? I’m not sure). Some of the pods are broken, but some are intact and I liberate the beans. Vegan roadkill, I think. At a green activists’ event earlier in the year, I’d been speaking on a forum about local food, revealing my epiphany that I’d suppressed my ethical concerns over killing animals to eat in favour my environmentalist understanding that pasture-fed (and finished) meat was a more carbon-neutral form of local protein (and very likely also a healthier one, than grain-fed meats). A vegan member of the audience had disagreed: with enough planning, she said, we were more than capable of growing enough beans to make enough protein to feed ourselves locally and ethically. The beans dont give me much oomph, but in my ongoing unease with eating meat and dairy, I wonder if she’s right.

My how you've grown, maize Maize at Warren Farm Dexter cow Ford at Brockmoor Farm Ford at Brockmoor Lane Hay Wood Stop the cull M50 footpath tunnel Lake at Timber Hall Farm Boyce Court Slow sign, Dymock Slow signs, Dymock Dymock Poets Path II Dead rat Dymock poets path again Charles Martell cheese Pears at Hunt Court Lintridge Green Put the money in the pipe Morris Men Beauchamp Arms, Dymock Lake at Boyce Court

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

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

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