Learning super simple sourdough baking

My partner and I had the privilege of attending a sourdough baking course at Andy’s Bread in Llanidloes (which is deep in mid Wales) last month.  It was an absolutely superb day, we made pizza, French sticks, pain de Campagne and Russian rye bread, coming home laden with ten loaves, four sourdough starters and eight pizza’s worth of dough to freeze.  We had so much that to freeze and use up that we didn’t get to try our new found skill again until last week when we made a very good Russian rye sourdough which we repeated again yesterday.  Very tasty indeed!

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This was the haul after giving a loaf to the neighbours!

Neither my partner nor I had never tried sourdough baking before – it has always sounded a bit intimidating with so many stages to go through.  However, Andy has made it really simple and with very tasty results.  We had a wonderful day and I would absolutely recommend both Andy’s courses to anyone who is interested. If you don’t live in travelling distance it is a beautiful area to have a holiday!

Andy uses some Welsh milled wheat from a working water mill – Felin Ganol – at Llanrhystud (near Aberystwyth).  I was so delighted to hear about this particular mill as, by amazing coincidence, I lived in Llanrhystud in the 1980s, on the river bank just half a mile down stream from the mill site.  I hope to be able to pay a visit there sometime soon.

This to me is particularly tangible evidence of the ever increasing growth in local sourcing and production.  Reading more about the grains they mill at Felin Ganol (which is pronounced Velin Ganol) I was amazed to find out that they are able to use two Welsh grown wheats.

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Welsh milled flour for Welsh baked bread

I am lucky enough to live between two locations – one on the Welsh / English border, but just in Wales and also in Shrewsbury, Shropshire (about 20 miles away).  This weekend I am in Wales and backing using Welsh milled flour.  In fact it was milled about ten miles from here at Bacheldre Mill.  If it were not typical wet and windy Welsh weather, looking out of this window the mill is hidden just behind the hills I would be able to see!

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In their words:

There has been a water mill at Bacheldre since 1575 and the current building was built in 1747. The mill was built to service the 500 acre estate of ‘Crow Wood’ including the hamlet of Bacheldre, it has been mainly used during the winter months, due to the supply of water to the mill, and for such a small estate only a small amount of feed and flour was required.

Today we have grown the business and although we do use motors to turn our stone’s, this has been done sympathetically to match the speed that the water wheel turns the stones, we can mill longer in the day, but not faster. We use a green energy supply and we are now working on installing an electric generator to the waterwheel to use the water to create some of the electric required.

 

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600 g strong white flour, 400 g rye flour, 20 g salt, 20 g yeast and 700 g tepid water and hey presto!

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If I am in Shrewsbury but without time to bake myself I am now almost spoilt for choice with the range of local bakers that have opened – two new ones this year:

  • Swifts from Clee Hill, with several shops in Shropshire are a fifth generation bakery with a super range of gorgeous breads.
  • Bakehouse 2.0 make very nice bread and they also sell the Bacheldre flour I used today.
  • There is also Bread and Loaf which has been going for a few years now.

Some personal re-skilling – at last!

Making bread again

It has taken a ridiculous amount of time for me to get round to this but over the last two weeks I have at last got back to making bread.  All I can say is that now I am retired from work there is, as you might expect, definitely more time to get things done.  Even so there was such a pile of things to do of a more mundane nature like filing paperwork before I could get on with the things I have been looking forward to doing.

Years (decades) ago when I had young children, I used to make all the bread for the family, and also for other people for some of the time.  Looking back I actually did this for ten years, which was a lot of baking!  In this day and age I might have considered turning myself into an artisan baker but in the 70s and 80s such things were not heard of.

So here, with the help of my new book, “Dough” by Richard Bertinet.  He is originally from France and uses a French method of bread making with a different way of working the dough to the traditional British method of kneading but I did not have any difficulty with it.

Here are my first few attempts.  The first time I made a single, basic wholemeal loaf and doubled the quantity the next time (one to eat and one to freeze).

first try!

first try!

 

second batch

second batch

I asked my partner for her opinion of the results – “nice flavour, nice texture, little bit hard on the crust, very nice in my sandwiches with smoked trout!” was the reply.  I too have enjoyed them, they have more about them than shop bought loaves, even the more expensive ones which we usually buy.  We had the frozen loaf with breakfast on Sunday but I did not get the part baking / rebaking times right so it ended up not quite cooked properly right to the centre.  However toasting it overcame that bit of inner doughiness.

Today I have made three loaves with a mix of rye and white flour.  I did a double quantity again, but was not concentrating to start with and ended up with double the water but only a single portion of flour.  The result was initially a very soggy mess, even soggier than it looks in this picture!

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But I realised what I had done and added another quantity of flour and all was well.

my three little rye loaves baked this morning

my three little rye loaves baked this morning

What this adds up to is that reskilling is about practice and more practice!  I think the results are improving each time.

The loaves I have made so far have used Shropshire home grown wholemeal organic flour from Pimhill Farm in North Shropshire as described in last year’s post “The Old Ways are the New Ways”.  The other half of the flour is from Doves Farm in Hungerford, Berkshire close to my original home town of Reading.

My partner and I are eagerly looking forward to attending a sourdough baking course in April which promises to be very interesting and in the meantime I shall be getting as much practice with ‘normal’ bread as I can.  I have the River Cottage bread making book which I will also use over the coming weeks / months to compare methods and recipes.  It feels good to be learning new things again!

The slippery, soapy path to squeaky cleanliness

Every day we all use all manner of personal care products and when we do so we support a massive global industry which is not always as beneficial and pure as many of their adverts portray.  The Silent Spring Institute warn that chemical pollutants are commonly found in household and personal care products and that

“Despite information campaigns that warn consumers about chemical risks from household and personal care products, people often fail to make the connection between those products and their personal exposure to chemicals that could harm their health”

I will not side track myself by documenting those dangers further here, save to say that there is a great deal of research and information – accessible via one click on a search engine – demonstrating that many common ingredients of personal care products (such as sodium lauryl sulfate) are in fact toxic.

Nevertheless worldwide the industry is worth billions of pounds / dollars / euros etc suggesting that it is, to some extent at least, making excessive profits on products that are not actually fit for purpose.  It is, I think, high time that personal care products were routinely sourced locally, from ethical producers who use safe and wholesome ingredients.  Looking around my locality I have found several such companies from whom I shall be buying my own personal care products from now on.  Here they are in their own words from their websites:

Pure Scents

Hi! We are Pip and Ivor and we run our business within a beautiful backdrop of the South Shropshire hills. Inspired by the textures and colours of this beautiful landscape. Our range of products intend to reflect this simplicity & beauty of Mother Nature.  All our soaps and body care essentials are primarily health centred as we endeavour to provide authentic, wholesome, people and planet friendly products.

People say our soaps look ‘good enough to eat!’ and they certainly do, (but we don’t recommend you try!), however they will be gentle and nourishing on your skin…..a back to basics skin food with lots of botanical themes. We all know that skin breathes, and just like the saying “You are what you eat”, likewise what we put on our skin is just as important.

Nature provides us with everything we need, simply and straightforwardly and we try to reflect this simplicity in our ranges of Aromatherapy Essentials and endeavour to promote the pleasure of nature’s gifts through smell, sight and effect.

‘Pure Scents’ soap making began way back in 1996 in Shrewsbury, working from our home. Now we have a purpose built studio, in the hills!  This is part of an old Methodist chapel that we renovated in 2007.  The chapel, which had fallen into disuse and a part of the lead mining community which thrived during the nineteenth century, had been standing forlorn and empty for several years.  It stands in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty in the Shropshire hills.  We happened across it one fine sunny winter’s morning out on a walk! We saw its potential immediately it and thus began a long journey of purchase, planning applications and renovation.   We are fortunate enough now to be living and working in a beautiful rural landscape surrounded by rocky hills and a lot of sheep!

The Blue Lemon

We have been making handmade skincare in the Midlands for nearly 5 years now. You can see everything being made in our shop at the Jinney Ring Craft Centre.  [In addition they have recently opened a shop in High Street, Shrewsbury]

We don’t adulterate our creams with water, Parabens, Mineral Oils, Alcohol or Emulsifiers. Our products are all vegan and only ever tested on humans.

We use a range of oils and butters including shea, hemp, jojoba, rice bran, avocado and cocoa to make a wonderful selection of skincare products which are both effective and affordable. They are fragranced with essential oils and we have an unfragranced range especially for sensitive skins or those who suffer from skin conditions.

Belladonna Hand Made Goats Milk Soap

About 12 years ago, whilst trying to find an alternative use for all the milk produced by my herd of British Alpine goats I happened upon soap making and it became something of an obsession with me. My work space gradually outgrew and moved from house kitchen to caravan to my present home, a lovely log cabin dedicated to all things soapy.

My soap is handmade from start to finish in small batches, using the cold-process method. The oils are gently warmed, then mixed with lye (sodium hydroxide) and goat’s milk, poured into moulds, turned out and left to cure for several weeks. The soap is then hand-cut, hand-finished and carefully wrapped and labelled. Other ingredients are added for their skin friendly properties and aesthetic value.

Since I do not use any artificial preservatives, I would recommend that the soap is protected from direct sunlight, and kept dry between uses.

I have undergone full cosmetic assessments with a registered chemist and all the recipes that I use have been safety checked and have been certified safe.

Handmade goat’s milk soaps are all natural with no harmful chemical ingredients (the lye is turned by the saponification process into soap); compare my list of ingredients with that of a commercial bar of soap and you will see what I mean.

Sufferers of skin complaints such as psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis have found goat’s milk soap to alleviate their symptoms greatly. Some of my products have fragrance and colour, this might not be suitable for those with very sensitive skin, please enquire if you are in any doubt.

Elegance Natural Skincare

This family run business was established in 1985 by my parents and I (Hazel). My mother suffered from psoriasis and found, whilst milking the family goats, that spraying a little of the milk on the affected area helped dramatically to smooth and speed up the healing of her irritated skin.

The first product the family developed therefore was Goat’s Milk Moisturising Cream, which has helped thousands of people world-wide with eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and dry sensitive skin. Family research and development found the benefits of honey in skin-care products and this inspired us to make a honey range which includes a rich hand cream for gardeners and people who work with their hands.

Word spread and soon people began to ask for our “famous” gardener’s hand cream. So in the 1990s we called it our Famous Gardener’s Handcream. We then developed a barrier-type cream for people who spend time in and out of water, needing that extra protection, called Fisherman’s Handcream.

We still make all the original products and many more by hand to the traditional closely guarded “secret” recipes using the minimum of equipment. We are now located on the Shropshire/Cheshire border in rural England, where we have adopted a green policy, we also sell our Elegance Natural Skin Care range from our shop.

I have some shower gel and hand cream from Elegance who regularly trade at the local farmers’ and craft markets in The Square in Shrewsbury.  When my current shampoo runs out I plan to try the shampoo from Pure Scents which unusually is a solid block.  The Blue Lemon recently opened a shop on Shrewsbury High Street which I have had a browse round but not yet purchased anything.  I have lots of soaps already that I have been given, but if they ever run out I will be trying the Belladonna goats’ milk soap.

It was not until I actually sat down and did some research that I realised how many personal care products are actually produced in my locality using good quality, natural ingredients.  There really is no need to continue to add to the coffers of this multi billion pound industry, nor to use products with ‘dodgy’ ingredients, those which require ultra long supply chains or cause environmental degradation.  And now I come to think about it I have a book on the shelf about making your own beauty products, I need to get it down and read it and see what I can conceivably conjure up right here!

Wishing you all a Happy 2016

 

Old world …. new world

I look forward to a world of fair shares and equal opportunities.  A world with a restored, biodiverse and fertile environment.  Where food is fresh, healthy, locally sourced and sustainably grown.  Where business is based on community co-operatives, not for profit enterprises and ethical, responsible practices.  Where all energy is generated from sustainable sources and neither energy nor any other kind of resource is wasted.  All that is not presently needed is re-used, recycled or repurposed.  A kinder, friendlier, slower, more peaceful world.  Where work has been restored to a purposeful occupation that gives personal as well as monetary satisfaction for a job well done.

Am I dreaming my utopian dreams again?  Maybe, but when one has become profoundly acclimatised through a lifetime of experience to dysfunctional, dystopian ways of being, no doubt anything as beautiful and positive as this would seem profoundly unrealistic.

But I don’t think that means it is not possible, so maybe it is not a dream – I do think that a better, fairer, kinder world is currently being born; that it exists in embryonic form in many, many places, possibly most places.  That it is gently germinating in my locality and in yours and that it is becoming more and more visible if you look for the signs.

So this is the focus for my blog for the time to come, I will be writing about local people, places and events that I think are part of this better world.  Some parts have been there for many years and go just about unnoticed, so used we are to seeing them whereas others are vibrantly novel, brilliant new ways of being and doing and yet more (many more) are yet to be revealed.

I will be writing about the signs I see in my own locality on the Shropshire / Powys borders (between England and Wales if you are not from the UK).  Signs of local people taking responsibility upon themselves and getting on with creating a better place to be.  This is a relatively remote part of the UK so whatever is happening here is equally likely to be happening somewhere near your – or could be.

Just around the corner from my home in Shrewsbury is this lovely market hall, a wonderful example of bringing the past up to date.  It houses an extremely popular small cinema run by the local council.  It shows lots of British films and the interesting films that don’t make it into the multiplex cinemas.  It is always full and often sold out.  It means that we can enjoy films in a very congenial setting whilst the cost of the ticket gets fed back in to the local economy.  Tomorrow I shall be enjoying watching Maggie Smith starring in The Lady in the Van.

Built in the 16th century this lovely old hall has had many uses over the years and now houses a very popular small cinema run by the local council.

Built in the 16th century this lovely old hall has had many uses over the years and now houses a very popular small cinema run by the local council.

Old Market Hall Cinema Shrewsbury

Milestones

This year I reach a milestone along life’s road.  My time, so far, on this Earth, divides neatly into thirds.

For the first third I was (inevitably) a child and young adult, leaving school in the mid 1970s.  At that time the environmental movement as we know it today had hardly been born.  However there was something of a consciousness – perhaps left over from the flower power 1960s, of a beautiful world that was being wrecked by humans.  “Silent Spring” and “Limits to Growth” were both published by then and had caused a stirring of thought, intention and action towards helping and healing our already broken planet by the newly formed Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

By the age of twenty I was married with a child and for the next twenty years I was mostly a full time Mum; aside from a bit of work in the early years and studying for my degree.  The earliest years were hard work – when my children were young there were no disposable nappies, I did the washing by hand for some years, had no central heating, no car, no freezer.  I cooked simple food, from scratch.  Clothes were second hand and the phone was down the road in a public box that was often vandalised.  I was busy all day and very tired by bed time.

By today’s standards it was a low carbon life in the mid to late 70s.  However, over the period living standards rose and even though we still lived on a low income daily life was much easier.  Of course that meant that we along with the rest of the UK population were using more carbon all the time.

By the age of forty my two children were 16 and 20, I was newly divorced and went out into the big wide world of work just about for the first time.  The world has changed almost beyond recognition in the twenty years since then.

Now global warming is now accepted; but only in 1995 a geography professor who taught me at university was on the radio denying it was happening.  At some point there has been an explosion of activity on the part of ordinary people like you and me who believe in trying to create a better world while we still can.  I am convinced that the internet was one of the main catalysts of this surge of action.  It is now so easy to contact other like minded people, get together, get information and get things done.  Whilst it clearly has its darker side and its very frivolous side there is so much that is positive and helpful in cyberspace.

My imminent milestone is my sixtieth birthday later on this year.  Although the law now permits women to work for longer I am planning to leave my job when the magic date comes around.  It makes me think about all the “hype” about working life, careers, ambition etc.  I have had thirteen jobs, four redundancies and a lot of frustration occasioned by my working life and I am not sorry to be leaving it behind.  I was never really interested in a career, preferring to follow my own path and interests in my spare time.

But it does feel odd to realise that the choices about work do truly belong to the past and that it is actually too late for a change of heart or a career change now!  Just as my home-making phase ended twenty years ago, this part ends soon.  With that thought comes reinforcement that sooner or later the whole show will be over and all my choices will be past tense, written in stone as it were, immutable.  For better or worse.

So what comes next is crucially important.  Certainly to me as an individual, but also potentially to whatever enterprises, projects and tasks I spend my time on.  In some ways I feel very much the same person as the young idealist I once was.  In other ways I am vastly changed by experiences of all kinds.  Maturity is a process one permits, or denies, but does not control.

I am relishing the prospect of the opportunity for time not constrained by the workday routine.  I know many people suffer from a loss of identity and purpose when they retire but I don’t anticipate that happening to me.  This feels like a really big and positive opportunity; that the best is yet to come.  I have the chance to put together what I have learned about the world, myself and life, to use those skills and qualities to serve the future I am hopeful for.

What else would I want to do?

Re-skilling in action – learning to spin part 1

As mentioned in my post of 8 November last year (Co-creating our futures) I am learning to spin.  I was given a spinning wheel for my birthday at the end of 2013.  I had a brief flurry with it in January last year.  This was singularly unsuccessful and ended up with trying to untangle the mess I had made for several hours.  Then I got very busy with one thing and another and today was the first opportunity to give it another go.  Both Pat and I have had a try.  It is, of course, much harder than it looks on Youtube being done by an expert at the company that makes the wheels.  However we feel we have made a bit of progress – at least in understanding what you don’t do; which is of course the essential prelude to finding out how it is really done.

This is me working out the basics of how to get the yarn through the relevant bits:

KODAK Digital Still Camera

And Pat getting stuck in:

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Now we have made a start it will be easier to come back to and have a go when we have a few minutes spare.

 

The Old Ways are the New Ways

I have made a start on researching existing local initiatives of every kind that have a positive contribution to make to a low carbon, resilient future.  Local for me is Shropshire and across the Welsh border.  I have started with the easiest and probably the most obvious thing – food – because it is of course crucially important.

The local food movement has been gaining a great deal of momentum in recent years and I wanted to look deeper than local food shops, jam and chutney makers etc to food producers whose work and methods demonstrate at a fundamental level how to produce food in a low carbon way now and in the future.  I have found a number of interesting farms and associated enterprises but to begin with here are two Shropshire family farms.  They have both been purposefully standing up for what they believed to be the better way for many decades.  Now in the fullness of time they are recognised for their invaluable contribution to preserving the best of the past and using it to focus on a sustainable future.

Pimhill Farm, Harmer Hill, Shrewsbury, SY4 3DY

Pimhill Farm is a mixed organic farm with a dairy herd of 260 which also grows wheat and oats.  Interestingly they have a mill on the farm for processing their own grains.  The family has owned the farm since 1923 and it became organic in 1949:

Sam [original owner] and Richard [his son] had been concerned about the direction of the farm due to a breakdown in fertility in the cows. This coincided with a time when nationally there was a great push for agricultural production as a result of food shortages during the war.

Richard and then Sam were so impressed by Friend Sykes’ book [Humus and the Farmer, Frank Sykes, 1946] and his emphasis on the importance of soil health that they took the decision not to use artificial fertilisers and chemicals -effectively, not to follow the conventional route. In 1949 they went ‘organic’ (though at the time it was not known as such). This was not done with a market in mind: it was a decision taken on the strength of their belief that this was the best way forward for both their land and for their livestock.

At Pimhill they have never lost sight of the fundamental importance of healthy, fertile soil.  In an article dating back to February 1965 – An English Organic Farm by Sam Mayall he says that “a good soil seethes with creatures, many forms of life.  All treatment of the soil must be based on that fact and this life must be fed.  It means that all animal and plant residues must be returned to the soil”.

Pimhill oats, oatmeal, muesli, biscuits and flour are widely available in Shropshire and I expect further afield as well, plus on line.  We have been using their oats for porridge for some years and can recommend them.  I have to say I have not as yet tried their bread flour, which I had better rectify as soon as possible.

Fordhall Organic Farm, Tern Hill Road, Market Drayton, TF9 3PS

Fordhall Farm is adjacent to the massive (and much more widely known) Muller Dairy factory.  They rear cattle, sheep and pigs on an extensive grazing system and have been chemical free for over 65 years.  The farm comprises 140 acres of grassland, wetland, woodland and streams.

Arthur Hollins took over the tenancy at Fordhall back in 1929 at the tender age of 14, after his father passed away. Following the intensive food production of the war effort, the land left to Arthur amounted to no more than a fallow malnourished soil, but the new farmer was soon struck by the big difference in the rich growth in the woodlands.

Arthur grew to understand that “Mother Earth” would correct man-made errors if left to heal herself. Shortly after the Second World War he vowed never to put chemical fertilisers on the land at Fordhall again, relying solely on natural animal muck as fertiliser. He let the grassland fields return to nature, and built up a herd of dairy cows to supply milk to the yoghurt enterprise set-up alongside his first wife, May. Being among the first in the country to make LIVE yoghurt they were soon supplying many famous London and Edinburgh stores and markets.

Even while business was booming, Arthur always found energy for his research. He was adamant that farming could work in harmony with nature and he spent his whole life reinforcing this idea. Even when many were saying he was a crackpot, he knew that this was the only style of farming that was sustainable. It is this importance of sustainability that has been easily absorbed into the Fordhall Community Land Initiative today.

The full story of the farm’s history is told in Arthur Hollins’ book “The Farmer, The Plough and The Devil”; what a man he must have been, to plot such a sure course from the age of 14.

The family were tenant farmers and did not own the land; they came very, very close to losing their farm when the landowners considered selling to neighbouring Mullers.  Thus it was that Arthur Hollins’ youngest children Charlotte and Ben ( at the ages of 21 and 19) set about securing their own tenancy in 2004.  In 2006 it became England’s first community owned farm when it was bought by The Fordhall Community Land Initiative (an Industrial and Provident Society with charitable status) with 8000 shareholders across the UK and wider world.  Shares can still be purchased (£50 each); they are lifelong and non profit making.  Purchase of one share entitles the owner to a vote at the AGM.  For anyone who would like to know more about the larger challenge of setting up a community owned farm Charlotte Hollins has put together a guide available here.

A system of “foggage farming” ensures that they can keep animals outside on the land all year round and feed them almost entirely from their own pasture……….

Fordhall operates a system of outdoor grazing called ‘Foggage Farming’. This means that our cattle and sheep live outdoors throughout the year, making them completely grass fed. It is a Permaculture based system developed by the late Arthur Hollins, as he tried to move the farm away from a reliance upon costly outside inputs.

The system relies on a diversity of grasses and herbs in our pastures – in fact over 70 different plant species have been recorded in our pastures! This variety provides a healthy diet for our livestock and the tight root structure of our permanent pasture means that our livestock can be wintered outdoors without ruining (or poaching) the ground.

Fordhall consists of both wetland meadows and sandy hills, this allows the livestock to be rotated around the farm throughout the year; grazing the wetlands during the drier summer months and moving up to the sandy hills near the farm for the wetter winter months.

We do have to supplement with some additional hay in the height of the winter, and Ben is able to cut this from a traditional hay meadow he rents from Shropshire Wildlife Trust near Whitchurch.

This system means that Fordhall does not have to rely on buying lots of dry feed or grains during the winter months, providing a degree of shelter from market forces as well as a healthier diet for the livestock. The compromise is that our cattle and sheep grow slightly slower than the grain fed animal, however the flavour that develops within the meat is unrivalled and they are living the way nature intended.

To compliment this system our cattle calve only in the spring. This means that we never calve in the autumn, so that no cows are trying to feed young stock through the winter as well as themselves. Similarly, the sheep lamb slightly later in the year, beginning at the middle-end of March; again as the fresh grass is beginning to show, allowing the mothers to develop plenty of milk to feed their newborn.

This system is sustainable, healthy for the livestock and low in embedded energy. For more information on the benefits of grass fed meat see the Soil Associations recent report on Carbon and Farming.

Looking beyond the farm to the wider community Fordhall has had a community gardening project which has now become a sustainable “Care Farming Project” to teach people in the community about growing their own produce, to eat more healthily and to engage with the environment.  There is much more fascinating information and inspiration on the website do have a look!

I don’t eat meat (except poultry on the rarest of rare occasions) but am so very pleased that for those who do, this farm is such a wonderful example of a viable, ethical and people friendly enterprise that has stood the test of time.

I have known about both Fordhall and Pimhill since I moved to Shropshire in 1989, but it has not been until today that I have understood more clearly the importance of their work and example.  Since the 1920s (which I guess will be before everyone likely to be reading this was born), pre-organic, pre-permaculture, pre-Transition – these two farms they have withstood the external pressures on farmers to compromise their integrity and the soil’s fertility with the use of chemicals.  They have achieved the still greater feat of remaining economically viable throughout many decades when small farmers were swallowed up by ever larger ones and have come to the 21st century with much to teach those who would like to learn.

Walking

My partner and I have just been for a lovely walk.

Last week we watched a DVD of the film “The Way” about a man who undertakes the pilgrim walk ‘El Camino de Santiago or The Way of St James’ after his son dies whilst walking ‘the way’.  It is an ancient pilgrim route from southern France across northern Spain to the Church of Saint Iago de Compostela; a route which over the centuries has been taken by countless people and probably for as many reasons.  It got me thinking – about walking and about pilgrimages in general.

I have never made a pilgrimage and I don’t have the stamina (or inclination) to undertake one.  However I once did a lot of ordinary walking.  Not walking for recreation, just walking to get from one place to another.

I grew up in a family without a car and did not acquire one of my own until I was 30.  As a child and young person I walked everywhere.  I walked to school, to Brownies, to dancing class, the library, the shops (to buy groceries for my Mum in the school holidays and save her from going).  For the first two years at secondary school I caught the bus (at my parents’ insistence).  However after that I found out that I preferred to walk the 2.2 miles (I have just checked on Google Maps) each way.  I used my bus fare it to buying a bar of chocolate which was a rare treat back then.

When I left school I walked to work sometimes when my shift at the hospital was too early for the bus.  I walked regularly between our family home and our parents’ homes, taking the children to see their grandparents.  I walked to the shops every day and carried the shopping home and I walked at weekends with the family round the local streets or the park for fresh air and a break.  None of those walks were particularly scenic.  Mostly they were in the town or suburbs and with the only hints of natural beauty as we went across the university campus sometimes or through a park.  However they were important times of reflection, pauses in the busy-ness of life as a young person and with a young family.

I love to walk still.  This week I was able to walk home from work for the first time in years because having moved house I now live again in the same town as I work.  Work relocated in 2011 and I had to drive every day since then.  Even before the office moved it was too far to walk regularly, but I did it occasionally and always enjoyed it.  It feels good to be able to have the option again.  As I walked down the as yet unfamiliar route to our new home I was reminded of the many miles I covered all those years ago when my feet were my sole source of locomotion.  I remembered something I lost when I stopped having to walk everywhere – a particular kind of reflection.  I am someone who needs life to have meaning and I think that walking aids contemplation.  It gives time to be, to think, to let life seep in to your bones and your soul.

As well as a new apartment in town Pat and I have a little house in the countryside, just over the border into Wales.  We come here for weekends; or longer if possible and we go out for a walk everyday unless the weather is vile.  We don’t need to get in the car as there are footpaths leading in all directions practically from the door.  Today was a sunny and sparkly day and we set off after breakfast.  Taking care not to slip on the icy road and with the Severn valley behind us we walked uphill to where the snow still lay.  Turning right onto a footpath we followed it through the woods and then took a fork that leads to a track leading to a splendid view over the Camlad valley and Shropshire hills.

Descending by the footpath, over a stile and skirting a farm we crossed a lane and hopped over another stile into a field.  Sometimes there are cows or sheep, but it was empty and silent today.  At the foot of the hill, concealed until you are virtually upon it is the loveliest little church I have ever seen.  It nestles peacefully and largely unseen in the folds of the hills, with woods around.

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It has recently been restored and today it looked as though the builders have probably finished their work.  Certainly there was no sign of them or their equipment and the walls have been finished with stone where last time they were still laid open at the base.  I don’t know what it is about this little place that is so enchanting.  It has been a place of worship since at least the early 11th century and possibly longer but there are many old buildings that don’t have the quality of peace that this one has.  Perhaps it is the isolation.

 

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We go for this walk quite regularly at different times of year.  Today I wanted to go because it is snowdrop time.  They are already out in the lane and local woods and I wanted to see how they had fared at the church as the renovation works had turned up a lot of ground where they grew.  Although some had gone many were still there along the edges as before.

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The timeless grace and innocence of snowdrops exactly matches the spirit of this lovely place.

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Though I am unlikely ever to undertake a formal pilgrimage this walk is akin to one.  I am inclined to think that walking is actually a profound activity and whether undertaken along a centuries old route or as a regular part of every day life maybe any walk can become a pilgrimage in the end.

Going forward

To see beyond the ‘business as usual’, prevailing politico-socio-economic system we need a new and different framework within which to understand the truly positive things that are happening: it’s all about what you pay attention to.

I think that society works (at all) because the vast majority of people the world over know and understand in their bones that we all have to co-operate with one another.  Most of us live normal and unremarkable lives characterised by working, obeying the law, living peacefully in our communities, loving our families and friends and caring about others in the wider world.

It is not us ordinary people who are the root cause of the manifold problems our world faces, although we often act in ways that are destructive and damaging if only because of the system(s) within which we currently live.  Those who hold the reins of the global business and political interests have made the choice of the destructive path, generally for their own gain.

As I have searched the internet and read quite widely in recent years I have become convinced that there is much to be optimistic about.  Across the world thousands, tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands and possibly many more ordinary people who are doing what they can through innumerable initiatives, organisations and projects spanning every conceivable aspect of creating a sustainable future for our world.

The mainstream media like to report problems, conflict and despair and I think that this tends to condition us to expect more of the same, so much so that we can be blind to what is actually going on, often close to home but we just don’t see it.

Once I started this blog I started looking around at what was in my immediate vicinity in Shropshire / Welsh borders (UK).  I found an array of projects I had not known about; and now everywhere I look I see all sorts of things going on that are part of a new and better way of living.

I have been trying for some weeks to coalesce my thoughts and formulate them into coherent and readable text that will express clearly and succinctly what I see going on and then tonight Jules Peck posting on Rob Hopkins’ Transition Culture blog I read the following:

But the alternative future is already (partly) here, emerging in pockets of light around the world. Aside from nearly 500  Transition initiatives worldwide, there is a vast and increasing array of practitioning and thinking around what is being called the ‘new economy.’ As Professor Gar Alperovitz, a leading thinker and practitioner in this area, has recently said “just below the surface of media attention literally thousands of grass roots institution-changing, wealth-democratizing efforts have been quietly developing.” 

In this context, the Real Economy Lab is focused on helping emerging global movements working towards the development of a new economics to connect the dots and help to ensure that their impact can be greater than the sum of their parts. 

I promise that I have not stolen his thoughts but what I have been thinking I would like to be able to do (or to catalyse) is to join the dots (in my locality) that will help shift a mass of individual and apparently unrelated projects and initiatives into something resembling a more coherent set of parts of a different way of doing things.  To this end I will probably start with trying to make a map of what is going on very close to home and then see where that takes me.