Friday, 7 August 2009

westward ho!

Now that our children are just old enough to be left alone for a week, Dirk and I decided to go on a road trip, our first time alone for that long since we got married, 20 years ago. Unlike the road trips of the past, I planned it carefully, to take in permaculture projects and friends throughout the south west and Wales.

First stop Ourganics, a 4 acre field in Dorset, lived in by Pat Bowcock. Run on permaculture lines, the field is irrigated by sluices from a spring and is off the grid, using solar and wind to power Pat’s lights and laptop. The veg, grown on no-dig beds and in tropical-feel polytunnels, are part of the lunch, eaten by us and the WOOFER volunteers, who include our friend Penny Barltrop from Transition Town Lewes. One of the best things about Pat’s integrated plot was the anti-mud patio made from bits of stone and marble, and weeded by the geese.

We spent the night with friends Franny and Justin Owen in Lyme Regis, hearing of their stories of opposing the Tesco Express in town. They live elegantly in a house that’s falling about their ears and we harvested a huge bowl of salad for supper from their first-time food garden. The next morning Fran took us to Fivepenny Farm, run by Joyti, an amazing American woman. This was a much larger mixed farm, with different kinds of livestock and plants, also powered by solar and wind, and including a household of four children. Joyti is clearly a grant magnet, and has built a huge barn used by a cooperative of local producers to process their food and add value to it. Both Fivepenny and Ourganics are having to apply for ongoing planning permission and may not get it – it’s gutting that such pioneers of new ways of farming are not being fully supported.

Next stop the Transtion Network headquarters where we spent a happy hour exchanging news with Ben Brangwyn, the coordinator. One of the most exciting bits of gossip was that the Transition network is talking to the Cooperative Food, apparently the second largest landowner in the UK, about how to feed Britain on a low-fossil fuel diet. According to research being carried out by Rob Hopkins and Simon Fairlie, it’s just doable, if we eat far less meat. That evening we had a tour of the Forest Garden, an abundant, layered edible landscape, run by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust. Perennials, especially nut trees, are an important part of the mix of future food: walnuts yield tonnage more per acre than wheat. Quite a few of his plants, such as the Italian alder, are nitrogen fixers or support microrrhizal networks, which distribute nutrients across the land.

The next morning, after a scintillating breakfast with our friend Sapphire, we moved on to Cornwall, where we visited the Keveral Farm community of 13 adults, 10 children, which has been going for 36 years. Sarah, who has lived there for 15 of those years, showed us their approach to collective growing, which is divided up into separate areas of enterprise. One man, Oak, has planted most of the trees that tower above this lush and productive valley, and they now have a business allowing people to come and camp there. After a night with Dirk’s old friends Dave and Barb, who happen to live across the valley, we moved on to stay with another old friend in Stroud, Steve Hurrell, who first introduced me to permaculture when it came to Britain in the 80s with the Australian founder Bill Mollison. Steve took us up to see the Stroud Community Supported Agriculture project, where people commission the farmer to grow their year’s supply of veg, thus sharing the risk and rewards with the farmer rather than the farmer carrying all the financial risk. It’s a brilliant system and I’d love Transition Town Lewes to catalyse one here. The next day we went to Stroud Farmers Market, a weekly market that’s so successful that it spills out through the town and creates a real market day buzz of real people shopping for affordable local food. Again, wouldn’t it be great to have one in Lewes, a real antidote to the Tesco expansion. Let’s hope the new coordinator will facilitate that.

Up to Wales, where we stayed with our old friends Marcus and Daniela Lampard. Marcus, who farms cattle and sheep, is dubious about permaculture but over the years I’ve noticed a shift in his practice away from herbicides and pesticides and towards low-impact tilling, green manures and interplanting. The farm is really gorgeous, with lots of mature trees, many of which were planted in the 40 years he’s tended the farm. They also run a successful bed and breakfast, and have recently put in a shepherd’s hut with a woodburning stove in one of the fields, along with a solar/wood heated shower and compost loo, and we stayed there for two nights, waking to an awesome view.

On, through the rain, to the Centre for Alternative Technology, set up 30 years ago and now a real centre of excellence, with the Welsh Institute for Sustainable Education being built to cater for the hundreds of people being trained in Masters degrees from CAT each year. That night was spent with our friend Siam, who has just bought a piece of lush land in the remote hills, to run courses from and plant trees. She’s just starting out, not letting her ripe age or lack of funds stop her.

The next day we landed up at Park Attwood, Britain’s only anthroposophical (Steiner) nursing home, where I’ve been having mistletoe treatment. They hold a rare vision of a truly integrated, holistic approach to health.Our final stop was not permaculture but Ryton Organic Gardens, a demonstration site for everything organic, started by Laurence Hills, many years ago by experimenting in his back garden ways of growing food and feeding the soil to combat his allergies. There we ran into our friend Anna from Lewes taking a short introduction to permaculture course – merry met at the beginning and end of this unforgettable road trip.

For me the week was about two things. It affirmed that Dirk and I can survive being alone together for long stretches, post-kids, because I still find him very interesting and funny. Second, it reminded me that there are many successful visionaries out there, people who care and who are really making a difference, usually against the grain for their time.

As someone who’s trying to reduce fossil fuel use, can I justify the trip? If we’d had longer time we could - just – have reached even the remote places by public transport. In the car, we travelled 1,000 miles, which is the equivalent of .43 tonnes of C02 emissions for our medium-sized community car. Given that most Westerners are emitting 13 tonnes of CO2 annually, and our family currently emits about 5 tonnes per head, that’s a significant proportion of our budget*. The same trip by train and bus would have emitted a quarter of that. Which I didn’t realize. Till just now. So perhaps that’s the last road trip I’ll ever take.

*Ref the 3 Tonne Club handbook by Ann Link, a Lewes resident and Transition Town Lewes member

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