Following on from my visit to Town Tree Farm nature garden in early Spring, I decided to create a photo-journal about it, visiting every six weeks or so and recording the changes. The trees around this urn sculpture are now in full leaf.
A more spectacular transformation is taking place in the wreckage of the mysterious plants – the chair is much larger than a normal one!
This was the scene in February. In March, a very few tiny green shoots could be seen in these great piles of fallen stems and flowers, but by late May, a whole jungle was springing up!
Below is another clump (without a chair in the way). You could use that image to try and identify it – search programmes struggle to come to terms with the scale. It probably isn’t a West Indian gherkin.
The Nature Garden is a labyrinth rather than a maze. There are only a few places where you can take a wrong turn and get lost, and these are service tracks, only visible in winter. The paths are usually bordered on both sides by water – pool or wide ditch – so when you encounter a family of swans there’s no way around them!
We persuaded them back into the water on the way into the gardens. The male chased us furiously up the lake once the cygnets were safe, but stopped short of following us along the path!
Unluckily for us, they were back when we returned. It was now early evening and they were settled for the night. Why a creature would spend so much effort adapting to life on the water then park its young on a path which must be used by every predator in the district is a mystery to me!
They recognised us; they didn’t like us. We retreated to consider our options. Swans are quite dangerous, but my companion walks with a stick and it was several miles to the road by the other route.
There was a big pile of dead pine brush by the track. Arming ourselves with long branches tipped with large fans of twig, we approached the birds in what we hoped was a confident manner. They hissed and raised their wings, glaring menacingly, but as long as we kept the twigs between us, they couldn’t get to us and we managed to edge past!
In future, we may avoid the Nature Garden on spring evenings! Once the cygnets can fly, the family departs on their travels.
Even though the whole globe has been mapped out and uploaded, adventure can still be found in the details. The Somerset Levels are best explored by cycle or on foot, but there is one bus which crosses them. The number 67, from Wells to Burnham-on-Sea via Wedmore, takes the intrepid traveller right through this iconic countryside to enjoy a couple of hours at the seaside.
A distinctly rural minibus pulls up at Wells Bus Station, down the platform from its sleek, Bristol-bound brethren, and we are off on the ancient trackway to Wedmore. The modern B3139 follows this intricate path, connecting two projections of higher land separating broad expanses of marshland. Building space was limited on this dry ridge; the hamlets are strung along this narrow, twisting country lane, almost submerged in greenery at this time of year.
Exuberant hedges are covered in flowers; creamy elder, clouds of pink-blushed hawthorn, spikes of lilac and chestnut, curves of honeysuckle. Gaps in the foliage reveal little orchards, families of black sheep, contented donkeys. We pass through Yarley, Bleadney and Theale, past ivy-draped stone walls, verges scattered with the white flowers of cow parsley, fields decorated with buttercups, and into Wedmore.
Here, there are elegant town houses, stone built cottages with purple flowers pouring over garden walls, and foxgloves in full bloom. Wedmore, founded by the Saxons, was a busy market town in medieval times. The Market Cross dates back to the 14th century, and there are some other building of historic interest. Wedmore is the home of the infamous Turnip Prize for modern art, and an annual Real Ale festival.
You could plan a few hours wandering around this pleasant area and return to Wells, but we are changing here for Burnham-on-Sea.
Our next driver was a trainee, learning the invisible stops on the route. The passengers cheered when she edged past a horse box on a lane where ‘single track road’ would be a generous designation.
The countryside is more open as we approach the sea, crossing the old tidal marshes on our rocky ridge. Black and white dairy cows, familiar to Glastonbury Festival followers, graze in the summer pastures. Swans resting by willow-hung streams are a reminder that these fields are the domain of waterfowl in winter time.
Another set of villages is linked by this slender road, like beads on a wire. We pass quaint churches, pubs, an aquafarm and an Aikido centre. The bus begins to fill up, mainly with elderly local residents. Sit at the back if you can, as many passengers have walking frames or shopping trollies. There isn’t a bell to ring; call out if you need to get off before the terminus. The other passengers join in until the driver responds!
The gentle rural lane ended at the A38, the main coast road, lined with caravan parks. We detoured through Highbridge and arrived opposite the Old Pier Tavern in Burnham.
It’s a short walk – about two minutes – to the sea front. There’s a typical British seaside sort of building there, housing the Bay View Cafe, a remarkably well stocked Tourist Information centre, and public toilets.
I picked up a leaflet for the Heritage Trail in Burnham, found the main street easily, past the bucket-and-spade shop. There was a Farmers’ Market going on, and the second hand shops were worth a visit; there were coffee shops and cashpoints, icecreams, seaside rock in strange and wonderful flavours, chips and amusement arcades. Everyone was excited about the Food Festival on Saturday; unfortunately the 67 bus doesn’t run at weekends.
Back at the seafront, there was a good view of the Low Lighthouse, Burnham’s iconic landmark. This was built in 1832, and is still operational; the remains of the previous lighthouse are now part of a hotel.
The abandoned jetty speaks of a busier past. Steamships from Wales would arrive here, connecting with the railway service whose tracks used to run right out to the dock; now even the station has gone.
The seawall is high and curved, there are storms in winter. The tide was out, exposing the mudflats. Rippled channels of water were almost invisible on the gleaming surface, swiftly filling up the flat expanse, bringing the sea back to the sandcastles.
Gulls loitered in the seaweed crusted dampness under the pier; it was a quiet day at the beach.
A short one too; the last bus leaves Burnham at one o’clock. Still, I had a good couple of hours at the seaside and a relaxing journey through beautiful countryside – just like being on holiday!
This service got dumped by First Bus, since it wasn’t profitable, and has had to be patched back together by the town and parish councils along its route. It’s the only public transport for the outlying villages. Taking journeys like this is good training for using local buses in unfamiliar countries.
Some key points need to be considered wherever you are.
Timetables may be out of date. Check your return journey, or connections, with the driver before the bus abandons you in the middle of nowhere. Have some useful phrases printed or practised if you’re in a foreign country.
Buses may be early. A rural bus with no passengers waiting is bound to be ahead of schedule at some points on its route. Arrive at the stop in good time.
The bus may be full. A popular journey, such as the last bus back, may be crowded. Have a Plan B; an alternate way of getting back. Plot another bus route if possible, or check local taxi services before leaving.
Testing your personal resilience with small, accessible challenges is a great way to build up your self confidence.
The challenges of growing vegetables continue; a very brief Spring has been swiftly followed by long hot days with no rain. The seedlings, root systems stunted by the unseasonable cold, struggle to gather water from the hard soil.
A greenhouse is becoming essential to cope with this erratic weather. If you plan to assemble your own, read the instructions carefully and proceed slowly. Photos of the demonstration model in the garden centre could prove useful.
Watering the allotment, some miles from where I live, is a daily chore. Mature plants are doing far better than fresh sowings, but I’m still concerned about the meagre amount of food coming up. The Resilience Garden benefits from waste household water and a handy tap.
The role of water in cultivation is highlighted by this drought. The kitchen gardens of old came as much from the availability of used water as from the convenience of having herbs to hand.
Early summer is a time of leisure for the resilience smallholder, of watching the plants grow and enjoying the flowers. Many events, cancelled because of the snow, reinvented themselves. Seedy Sunday became Seedling Sunday…
Somerset Day was celebrated…
…and there was a Graffiti Day at the skateboard park.
We went to try out the archery at Mendip Snowsports Centre, and discovered Frisbee Golf! Although not all the baskets were this deep in woodland, my frisbee always headed for the nearest nettle patch!
The centre offers bushcraft and target shooting, as well as the artificial slopes for snow-related activities. There’s a pleasant cafe and bar; a good place to have a day brushing up your resilience skills.
Networking is an important part of community resilience, a whole section of the Resilience Plan. People need to exchange news after the winter season, when travel can be limited. It’s important to be aware of dangers and opportunities in the local area and beyond.
The concept of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ was identified before the internet was developed; we need not be dependent on technology for our world news. Local events, with their travelling pedlars and performers, were once key information nodes, and often more fun!
When Spring finally arrived in Somerset, it came with all the gardening jobs it was just too cold to tackle earlier. May is proving another busy month! The festival of Beltane, marking the start of summer, should be the time when you can relax, stop treading on the soil, and watch your crops grow.
This year, I had three batches of peas fail to come up – though one is starting to show now – which was a disaster, since this is a heritage variety called Telegraph which I’m seed-saving from. The very last seeds were being soaked before planting – something I don’t normally bother with – when I took a day off to attend the May Day festivities in Glastonbury.
The Tuesday market was occupying the Market Cross, so the Morris dancing took place on the newly acquired patio of the Town Hall. Speeches and bardic recitations followed until the Maypole itself was carried down the High Street by the Green Men.
More speeches and announcements followed. I was at the edge of a growing crowd and it felt like the sketch from the ‘Life of Brian’ (‘What did he say?’ ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers, I think’). The procession wended back up the High Street, past the White Spring to Bushy Combe, as described in this post from 2015.
The White Spring is run by a committee of volunteers now, who endeavour to keep it open as much as possible. It’s well worth seeing if you’re in the area!
The Maypole was duly erected following more ceremonies and recitations. I would have preferred blessings on my peas to vague invocations of universal love, but few people appreciate vegetables these days.
It’s a colourful spectacle though; both celebrants and audience take some trouble to dress up for the occasion. The practical aspects, such as untangling the ribbons as the pole goes up, offer plenty of breaks for chatting.
Quite often in previous years, the ribbons ended up tangled in a big clump off to one side of the pole! Now, enough people have got the hang of the right way to weave in and out that they can keep others on the right track – anyone at the ceremony can take a ribbon and join the dance.
This nice tight winding lasted all the way down. During most of the dance, four strong Green Men braced the pole, as it takes a surprising amount of strain from the flimsy ribbons! The completed pole is moved when all is done, and stored until next year when a new pole and ribbons are sourced, since the field is needed for other things.
The Community section of the Resilience Handbook provides advice on organising your own community events. These are a good way to meet neighbours. Even casual acquaintance helps, should you ever need to cope with an emergency together. Make a point of attending local events, if only in a ‘walk-on’ role!
In my father’s day, few men in the newly created suburbia lacked a garden shed. The sharp tools and poisonous chemicals, which were still part of everyday life, allowed a ban on children entering. The shed was a haven of orderly peace.
The men justified its existence by repairing household goods and DIY projects. They could indulge hobbies; many people were still quite skilled at craft work. The consumer culture disposed of the first two functions. Dispirited, the lure of the TV replaced the last. When the neglected shed finally collapsed, decking took its place.
Television, though entertaining, is not much company. Once out of the workplace, retired men find few opportunities to socialise and their health is often affected by loneliness and boredom. Inspired to address this issue, the Men’s Shed movement began in Australia just over ten years ago
Essentially, these are community workshops where a group of people meet up to work on their own projects. Rather than an actual shed, which might not be large enough, many are housed in portacabins or empty buildings. Most members, but not all, are retired men.
The UK Men’s Shed Association was founded in 2013, to provide an umbrella group for the thirty sheds already established. Today, there are over 400 in operation, with another 100 in the planning stages.
The Sheds mainly provide workshop space and tea. They host a wide variety of crafts – wood and metal working, electronics, model-making. Other community organisations soon learned that they could ask for tools to be fixed, or equipment made. Often adapted for disabled access, the Sheds are providing a valuable resource for care services.
The Association’s website has a map showing your nearest UK Shed, and a resource library to help you start one. Street Men’s Shed in Somerset, who hosted the remarkably well attended AGM in the pictures above, take their information stand to local events. Shed days welcome drop-in visitors, though you may need to be a member to use the facilities; there will be a small charge.
The Reskilling section of the Resilience Handbook outlines the importance of keeping craft skills alive. If you’re following the Resilience Plan, you can see how becoming involved with this group will cover everything you need to know in this section and a great deal of the Community section too. Achieving a useful level of resilience isn’t hard – it just requires the sort of gentle steady progress so unfashionable these days.
A community, town or nation which values resilience doesn’t need public campaigns to live a sustainable lifestyle. Everybody understands where their resources come from, and that payment isn’t always to do with money.
The true goal of a resilient community – and this is a long way off – is to be able to survive on its own, with no imports of goods and no exports of waste, for a year. Once you begin working out how this could be possible, it’s clear that we need to start progress to a smaller population. It’s not so hard to keep a form of internet going, even in a low-technology situation.
Perhaps we could finally depart from the city-state model, which always ends in environmental degradation and the obliteration of a once-proud culture.
It’s starting to look like a late Spring here in a thawed, but still shocked, Somerset. Plants are cautiously emerging, but the buds on the trees remain resolutely closed. As their roots are still dormant, you’ve a little time left to plant out saplings. This should be done before late March.
Apples are such a staple food that it’s good to have a tree in your garden. Our estate was built on an old orchard, and a few of the original trees are left. My neighbour has one, left to grow to its full size over several decades.
You don’t necessarily want one that large. Techniques for growing smaller trees have been developed over the centuries since the sweet Chinese apple came over the Silk Road to Europe. Our native crabapple was bitter, but adapted to the climate. The sciences of grafting, pruning and cross breeding were known to ancient cultures.
Today, a vigorous rootstock is grown, then the top part of this tree replaced with a branch from a ‘fruitstock’. The resultant apple tree takes on the shape of the root variety, yet provides fruit from the graft type. You can buy dwarf trees, bearing your favourite apple but staying quite small.
These aren’t cheap, and will be something of a fixture; it can be several years before you get any fruit at all. It’s worth going to a short course with an expert to learn the basics of orchard management and how to apply these to your garden. Knowledge of this kind is a community asset, as described in the Handbook, so I went on a refresher course.
Anthony Ward, our tutor, is the keeper of the Chalice Well orchard in Glastonbury. We were planting some trees in a new field at Brook End Farm, situated where the Levels rise into hillier ground to the east.
You can see the knobbly bit on the trunk from the graft. If you have a pot-bound tree like this, dig your hole square so the roots can spread out easier.
The stake is driven in after the tree is planted. Modern ties allow more movement, as the action of the wind strengthens the roots. The grass is kept away from the trunk with a mulch; a precaution ignored with less valuable trees. For the first few weeks, make sure the sapling neither dries out nor sits in a puddle. Then forget about it till it needs pruning, which is a whole other story.
This is the apple tree in the Resilience Garden. It grew from an apple core hidden in a plant pot by my daughter. Although it produces good red eating apples, it clearly wants to be a very large tree. It’s an example of very bad pruning; I tried to make a ‘goblet’ shape without taking into account the shading from the fence behind. After that, I appreciated the courses more.
The mulch to the right of the tree is the filling from a defunct futon mattress, which I’m covering with a thick layer of leaf mould. I have access to a large pile of this; otherwise I’d use soil exported from the raised beds. The green shoots are wild garlic; they’ll be ready to harvest soon.
Wild Garlic Pesto
2 rounded tablespoons of crushed nuts (50 grams; 2 ounces)
2 handfuls of wild garlic leaves, washed and shaken dry (100 grams; 4 ounces)
1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese – vegans can substitute yeast flakes
a dash of lemon juice and a pinch of salt to taste
Blend everything together and serve with pasta!
I couldn’t resist adding that recipe, from ‘Recipes for Resilience‘…..wild garlic does make a lovely pesto and it has quite a short season. I grow a lot of it under bushes and in the wild areas, as very reliable spring greens. The nettles are coming up too – vitamins arriving at just the right time!
I’ve been asked to talk about resilience at the Earth Hour event in Chard, Somerset on the 24th March; I’ll be signing Resilience Handbooks too. The daytime events are free, so drop in if you’re in the area!
Although Somerset escaped the blizzards from the East at the start of last week, we were nailed by the storm front coming up from the South for the weekend. Thursday morning, a light but relentless snow began to drift around the lanes. By early afternoon, there was a state of emergency declared in the county and most roads were impassable as the winds rose and the snow piled high.
The starlings huddled in their bare tree like frozen clumps of leaf, then were obscured from view entirely as dark came early. I can’t imagine how they made it back to their reedy homes in the marshlands. Late in the night, a freezing rain fell, which covered the fluffy snowdrifts with a layer of sharp-edged ice. This weather was out to get you.
Our parish was quite lightly affected – we have no main roads or other major transport links to look after. The few vehicles that braved our lane were in the service of utility maintenance. Apart from some low gas pressure, our supplies remained intact. Many other areas lost power or water.
The tractor cleared our lane quite early on Friday, but the main road was barely functional. My intrepid young lodgers walked the four miles into Glastonbury town, where the situation was about the same. The tyre tracks were in danger of freezing into black ice at any point; temperatures took a sharp dive after sunset.
The River Brue was frozen.
School was most definitely out!
Everything seemed to just freeze in place for the day on Friday; there was a major incident declared for the county. People dealt well with not going out, allowing service providers and those who’d been caught away from home priority in using the roads.
There wasn’t any point in making strenuous efforts to clear the snow away. There’s nearly twelve hours of sunlight a day at this time of year. Once the maverick weather had blown over, natural solar power would do the trick, and so it proved on Saturday. The kids had hardly time to borrow a sledge before the snow was all gone!
It’s been seven years since our corner of the Shire had anything more than a light dusting of snow. On Sunday, I was reminded of one of the reasons I wrote the Resilience Handbook.
This is a typical supermarket in Mid-Somerset, two days after the emergency was over. There’s no fresh food at all (except a tray of celeriac, which no-one knows how to cook). Will this remind Glastonbury Town Council that allotments have their uses after all? This snowfall occurred in March, on the edge of Spring. It could have been a whole different story if it was in December.
“Local emergency responders will always have to prioritise those in greatest need during an emergency, focusing their efforts where life is in danger. There will be times when individuals and communities are affected by an emergency but are not in any immediate danger and will have to look after themselves and each other for a period until any necessary external assistance can be provided.”
from the Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience (Cabinet Office March 2011)
Back to normal next week with a bit of luck….the seed swap and the freecycle day were both cancelled, and I’ve missed the potato days now. Luckily I can pay a visit to the organisers, at the Walled Garden in nearby East Pennard to see what exotic varieties they have left!
The Somerset Levels are flat, and barely above sea level. Most of the land is drained now, to form cattle pastures, but it used to be a mix of swamp, wet woodland and bog. The value of the latter is now becoming appreciated for its role in flood control. Towntree Farm is decades ahead of the game!
In the 1970s, farmer Chris Burnett began a visionary landscaping project on the family farm. Starting small, with a pond outside the farmhouse, he used the spoil to form a lawn, then landscaped a neighbouring field in a similar fashion.
The left over soil made pathways this time, and the pond soon attracted a breeding pair of swans. Encouraged by this, Chris dug out a seven and a half acre pond, specially designed for water birds. It’s quite shallow, which allows a good growth of reeds.
He planted the new high ground with trees and plants, both wild and cultivated. Once these became established, hundreds of migratory birds began to visit, and he has hopes of attracting a pair of cranes soon.
In 1987, ‘Capability’ Chris – as he had become known – was persuaded to open the 22 acre Nature Garden to the public. He celebrated this by making a ‘Peace Arch’ at the entrance from the car park, which is covered with climbing roses in summer.
Following the yellow arrows, the curious visitor traverses the winding paths. It’s not just the peaceful atmosphere and nature that bring people here, though. The trail is dotted with statues and sculptures, left to gradually merge with the wild.
As the path meanders, bordered by ditches, you can see inaccessible alcoves. Further on, the twists and turns suddenly bring you out into that very clearing!
There are benches made of stone slabs, or of dozens of horseshoes welded together.
I don’t know what the huge dead flowers behind this chair are; I’ll have to return later in the year and see them growing. Their leaves are the size of umbrellas!
The decaying greenhouse lends an apocalyptic air to the place, along with the greening statues.
I’m definitely coming back in the summer for a picnic in those shady groves! If you’d like to visit Towntree Farm, and marvel at how much difference one man can make, there are instructions here.
Compared to a grass pasture of the same size, the Nature Garden clearly holds a lot more water. This is restrained by the natural features re-created here, protecting land further downstream during times of flood.
The Towntree Farm project has always been a hobby, laid out simply for the delight in nature. Using permaculture and forest gardening principles, other such gardens could justify their existence with some financial return.
Things were very quiet after I returned from China. It rained a lot in Somerset, even when it snowed over the rest of Britain.
Although we’re continuing to work on the allotments, Glastonbury Town Council has promised the government they will sell the land to developers. I expect there will be letters to the Gazette. The Resilience Handbook Community section covers the basics of setting up a local organisation – you never know when you might be ambushed by outside forces!
Consequently, the Resilience Garden will be coming out of its fallow period, so plenty of work ahead there. I wanted to see how it would perform for edibles if left alone for a whole season. The leeks did well, and the self seeded broccoli has given a steady harvest of green leaves. I did plant out some courgettes and squash in the summer; their huge leaves and sprawling vines were a great weed suppressant.
It’s the Chinese Year of the Earth Dog now – I wonder if that’s auspicious for digging? I got the bus to Bristol, to meet up with my friend Val from Swansea, for the New Year celebrations at the Wai Yee Hong Chinese supermarket. They lay on a stage, host a street food market, and hire the Lion Dancers.
The supermarket itself is entertaining enough for a visit. The gaudy labels sometimes condescend to have a English translation stuck over them, but there’s still enough mystery for shopping to be something of a lucky dip. The range of exotic fruits – tinned, dried, crystallised, salted – and the unique cuts of pork….
….anyway this is getting to sound like an advert. Be careful though – I ended up in China itself after my first New Year Lion Dance here!
My intrepid publishers at Magic Oxygen are on an expedition to Kenya. They’ve been funding tree planting and building school classrooms in Kundeni, initially through an annual literary prize. Now they’ve formed a charity, the Word Forest Organisation, to further these projects.
They’ll be back in time to host the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Giving in Lyme Regis on March 31st – I’ll be there to answer questions about resilience – then add the finishing touches to ‘Recipes for Resilience’.
Routine life provides a backdrop to exciting travel adventures in the way that a simple chain highlights the jewels strung on it.
However, there are mysteries to be discovered in ordinary settings and one of these, pictured above, is the legendary Town Tree Farm…..
Even here in Somerset, land of marshes and muddy festivals, there’s been no proper rain for weeks, only an occasional condensation like a wet mist. It’s been relentlessly dry, and now a chilly breeze batters the valiant peas clinging to their frames.
The soil of our resilience allotment, overused and drained of nutrients by the last gardeners, has turned to rubble where we’ve dug it; concrete elsewhere. We’re holding the rest of our seedlings at home still, where they can have more water, but they’ll have to go out soon. The dark line to the right in the picture below is a compost-filled trench ready to receive peas.
The leaf mould mulch has run out now; we don’t want to use straw in case it combines with the clay to make bricks! We’re building temporary raised beds, using the wood from the neighbour’s old shed. These are getting filled with free manure and topped with a thin layer of bought compost. In the winter, when the soil is soft again, we’ll dismantle the beds and dig this in; now, we’ll raise a catch crop in them.
I don’t see much hope for the remaining seed potatoes, though. I’ll probably put them out in the lower quarter to break up the soil there, but I doubt we’ll get much from them. We’re relying on courgettes and squashes to fill in the bare patches.
The allotment is hard work, but so was the resilience garden until it was established.
The techniques we are exploring in the allotment can be adapted to reclaim post-industrial landscapes. I’m impressed with the mulching properties of packaging card. Once the rainwater distribution system – which we can top up from the communal water trough – is in place, and the perennial weeds conquered, we’ll have the basis of a low-maintenance, high yield system.
Just in time, as the next project is on the horizon – the Resilience Field!
Above is the hedge…there wasn’t time to weed the ground first, so the deep rooted perennials, able to access buried moisture, threaten to overwhelm the thin young trees. This is the worst section, being weeded by hand. Once it’s clear, we’ll lay a cardboard sheet mulch around the saplings and cover this with soil, now easily accessible as the field has been ploughed. The trees will be able to defend themselves in a few years, especially if we import wild garlic as ground cover.
Writing ‘Recipes for Resilience’, I learned how crucial grains were for survival in the seasonal North. The dry weather isn’t doing British grain farmers any favours; does anyone else worry about poor harvests? Everyone eats bread, cakes, pies…how many of you bother to find out where the flour comes from?
It’ll take you ten minutes to vote in June. Instead of banging on about it, use the time to write yourself a shopping list. Can you order any of it online from suppliers who buy British? Is there a farm shop nearby, a food market? Put Facebook down for a few minutes and have a look around. Read the Hemp Twine Project to see how much difference buying local can make!
“Farmers go bankrupt in the midst of thousands of potential customers for their produce” from ‘The Resilience Handbook – how to survive in the 21st century’.