All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for wheat

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.

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

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

Empathy and wild strawberries

Wild strawberries Cai licking his chops Cai unimpressed

Mads, a good friend and wonderful walking artist I know, recently introduced me to his concept of  landscape  e m p a t h y:  the sensitive, receptive, mutually-supportive relationship we can allow ourselves to cultivate with place as well as people. I love this: it resonates perfectly for me as a much-needed explanation of the way in which the landscapes to which I’ve developed a commitment make a tangible tug on my heart strings, as if I’ve woven myself into them, viscerally. When I first left Aberystwyth for Herefordshire 10 years ago last spring, I felt like I was being unfaithful to Wales by developing a new relationship or love for the (as I saw it then) much tamer and more inhabited landscapes of this ancient border county. I’m ashamed to say I even scoffed at the statistic (true) that Herefordshire is the most rural county in England. To me rurality was directly equivalent to emptiness.

My first job here was a two and a half year stint as a project officer on the Herefordshire Rivers Lifescapes project, attempting to connect wildlife habitat mapping at a landscape scale, with community aspirations for the biodiversity enhancements they wanted to see locally, with the ultimate intention to facilitate community-led landscape-scale conservation. (It was very new, sexy and ambitious and only partially successful: it inevitably needed much more time.) After a full time dance-training hiatus, this was followed by a six year sojourn in local government as a landscape officer, with a colleague both passionate and knowledgeable about these intricate landscapes: ancient and planned, wild and cultivated. Her enthusiasm was infectious and slowly wore away at my deeply ingrained landscape snobbery (and ignorance) as did running, walking, riding and cycling across the county. One day, I was travelling back from a (landscape) conference and seeing the road sign for Hereford, felt a strange pang of both yearning and relief. Then, I knew: this county had surreptitiously made itself my home. Now, I know: (in my appropriation or interpretation of Mads’s term) I have landscape empathy with Herefordshire.

Key to this was my particular relationship with the eccentric, remarkable place that is Caplor Farm in Fownhope (South Herefordshire) where I have lived with my horse Merlin for nearly nine years. It’s a surreal community of people, horses and creatures, randomly juxtaposed in a range of dwellings (yurts, trucks, flats, caravans) to form a bizarre post-modern collage of humanimals. While it had been my intention to leave this year, to move back to Wales and reconnect my empathy strings for those landscapes, I had not expected that the first performance of All in a Day’s Walk would deepen my relationship – my empathy – with this place and reveal to me, as if in neon (or something more ecological perhaps), a vibrant, vital web of passionate and inspiring people I wanted to know better. I also had not expected to fall in love with one of them, nine miles down the road.

So I did leave. Just nine miles down the road, where I find myself now.

I’m a bit in limbo: after three weeks away being an aerial dancing ladybird in north Herefordshire, I’m only just landing. I arrive with a bag of sweaty dance clothes and even sweatier PhD reading, and most of my stuff is still at Caplor awaiting the end of this performance in a month’s time when my yurt will go up in the garden here. Merlin is going to join me next week. I know almost nothing about this area (Lea, Ross-on-Wye). But this time, I do have someone else’s ready-made landscape empathy to rely on.

So, my first walk of the project is with The Pack – my partner and our dogs – up the lane, past Rock Farm (potatoes and raspberries, when they’re ready) to Adam’s Cot (organic or local veg boxes) to arrange livery for Merlin. There, Martin tells me that due to the unseasonal spring, the veg is almost three weeks behind this year and they won’t have anything for me ’til the end of the month. Gulp. But horse livery sorted, we walk on past raspberry polytunnels (won’t fruit ’til next year), down Green Lane to Warren Farm (wheat and potatoes: not ready yet). With Cai, I walk on alone to Aston Crews in search of duck eggs. So far I’ve only drunk some Dragon Orchards apple juice (a gift for a talk at the Ledbury Food Group Ox Roast event) and eaten a head of elderflower (‘are you sure it’s not cow parsley?’ my partner, remembering a blog about a foraging malapropism on Ten Mile Menu that’s been a great source of amusement recently). We find some tiny wild strawberries in the hedge and I graze. Cai is curious but, as a  hunter is largely unimpressed by my gathering. No duck or hens eggs left at Aston Crews. I’m hungry. And a bit scared.

So here I am walk-fasting again…

‘So that we don’t carbon ourselves into oblivion’

Yare Farm

Walking to Yare Farm

This morning, I walk over to Yare Farm again to pick up some more flour. It’s a beautiful day to be out but I need to rush back because I’m interviewing Gareth Williams – farmer at Caplor and my landlord – just after lunch. There’s a rainbow out as I walk over to the farm office.

Rainbow over Caplor

And I’m particularly interested in what Gareth has to say about local food, because we’ve had many informal, brief conversations about this in the past and the posters on his office wall might suggest this is something he has an interest in.

Eat local food

Buying local

But he shares some unexpected perspectives with me in these edited highlights of our conversation which ranged from food, farming, floods, economies of scale and globalisation… COMING SOON!

Pedigree Phocle Herefords at Caplor Farm…

Caplor Herefords 3

Caplor Herefords 2

Caplor Herefords 1

Old cider press in the barn…

Caplor cider press 3

Caplor cider press 2

Caplor cider press 1

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