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…..
Our last day began with a trip to the Temple of Heaven, a large pagoda. The bus dropped us as near as possible – parking is very difficult in Beijing – and we walked through an adult exercise park.
Retired people could get cheap season tickets; it was quite a community gathering. Further in, groups of elders played cards and board games with great excitement, and a small choir practised in the park. The ‘maybe later’ marketeers added ping pong bats and feathered shuttlecocks to their repertoire here.
This Temple has been used since Neolithic times, to hold sacrifices for a good harvest. Bamboo scrolls and brass compasses on sale here may hint at record keeping and feng shui functions too, but we couldn’t understand much of the information. The artwork was marvellous though.
We scrambled back on to the bus before its parking time expired and stopped off at the Chinese Medicine Academy for a foot massage. This was partly to give their students practise and partly in the hope we’d buy something. If you want to take Chinese medicines out of the country, you need a certificate from the prescribing doctor.
Finally we arrived at Tiananmen Square. It was smaller than Linda had expected, and less crowded than I’d thought. There were red flags, neat soldiers and police, impressive buildings all around.
From there, we entered the Forbidden City at last. It’s vast; the guides warned us to keep up with the flag, as we had a lot of ground to cover, and the bus was meeting us at the far end.
The courtyards were huge. I could imagine the officials waiting in throngs for their instructions, standing in the cold dry wind. I hoped they let them go inside if it snowed!
Our guide lectured us on the various structures, their purpose and history. The roof decorations on the pavillions represented the Emperor riding on a rooster followed by nine dragons; this was considered to be a fortunate emblem.
There were a number of large metal cauldrons throughout the city. These were for firefighting; charcoal could be lit under them so they didn’t freeze in winter. Their stone stands, and most other surfaces, banisters and doorways were all intricately carved, often with a dragon motif.
We crossed the second large courtyard, Harmony Square, and climbed the steps to the Palace of the Supreme Harmony, where the Dragon Throne sits. The prospect of actually setting eyes on this legendary artefact had excited me more than anything else about the trip!
Tourists weren’t allowed to enter this palace, but you could join the small crowd around the doorways to view the Throne inside, and take a picture obstructed by a pillar. Already used to the rules about not photographing the Buddha statues, I didn’t see this as an imposition. Given the effort required only a few decades ago to get this close, I felt a short glimpse was enough of a privilege!
There were many Chinese tourists patiently waiting for their turn, so we didn’t linger. We had a better view of the metal ball hanging over the throne, which falls on any would-be usurper. It’s said that some Emperors shifted their seat a little to the side!
We turned off to the side through the next courtyard, to view the charming Western Palaces. These used to accommodate the second wives and concubines of the Emperor, including the Empress Cixi. A long alleyway linked a number of little courtyards surrounded by wooden houses, which now hosted various exhibitions.
Time was pressing, the light was failing. There were many more exhibits. Some, like the clocks and jewellery were extra; however the ticket office was closed by the time we got there. To really see a place this vast and historical, you’d need a full day and a guide book.
Dusk was falling on our last day in China. As we reached the Imperial Gardens, we had to hurry. Loud music began to sound, like a scene from ‘Inception’. Barriers were coming down around us, our group had to look sharp not to be separated.
We walked quite a distance to the bus, past the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, past the ‘maybe laters’ with their fake Rolex, past street vendors selling red sticky things on sticks, to a street corner where the bus driver hastened us aboard.
As we climbed on, we were serenaded by an old couple busking with a traditional stringed instrument, almost like a farewell to China.
You certainly cover a lot of ground on an RSD trip, and face some interesting challenges! As an independent traveller, I find them invaluable for getting to know somewhere I’d struggle to make my own arrangements to visit. Linda and I had already been on their tour of Turkey, and we may yet follow through on our independent plans to spend a week visiting Troy and the hot spas in more detail, if the political situation improves there.
In China, almost everywhere we went could do with another, longer visit. Our favourites would be a week in Shanghai, another river cruise, and a whole day in the Forbidden City. A Great Wall hike sounds lovely, as long as it’s warmer, and we’d like to spend some time in the South too.
We felt a bit nervous about this adventure, and most of the time were probably well out of our depth. Our tour guide, Kevin, shepherded us around diligently though, despite the British tendency to irrational overconfidence in a totally strange country. We always feel that being polite gets you a long way, and this does appear to be true in China.
It ‘d be quite hard to make any but the simplest travel arrangements yourself. You have to give the addresses you plan to stay at on your visa application form, and may have to make bookings on the phone with someone who doesn’t understand English very well.
However, the resilient traveller loves a challenge!
On the second day, there was a trip to one of the water villages around Shanghai. The city is built on the delta of the Yangtze River; the surrounding countryside is crossed by many small rivers. To the west of the urban area, there are several ancient towns which preserve much original culture. We were going to Zhujiajiao, about 50 km from the city.
We began our explorations in the Kezhi Gardens. Our guide led us through the living areas, now displaying various examples of the crafts once practised there, to a large room which housed a model of the original design.
I was stunned – it was an exact depiction of the imaginary ‘resilience village’ which I’d described in ‘Recipes for Resilience’! The establishment used to house not only an extended family, but also students learning about plants. The ethic was that the whole community would work on the fields and vegetable gardens, as well as studying, in order to have a balanced life.
Although the place had undergone changes – at one point it was a junior school, and is now an exhibition – the small craft workshops still housed skilled artisans. You can watch paper-cutting, calligraphy and embroidery; pick up some pretty souvenirs.
Some of the extensive fields survive as a demonstration area on the other side of the lovely formal gardens. I saw rice ready for harvest for the first time; it certainly seems to give a good yield of grain.
The garden itself was lovely. There was more space here than in the Yu Yuan; the water features were more intricate and the pavillions grander, with higher levels. You can see more pictures here, and read a brief history.
Too soon we had to continue our tour, emerging to take a walk along the riverfront and down the narrow colourful alleyways. These were lined with small stalls – the weather is quite warm here, even in November – selling all manner of enticing articles. Often the craftspeople themselves would be there, working on their next piece as they waited for customers.
We paused for roll call by the famous Fang Sheng bridge, and were let off to explore. Across the bridge was an area of new development; modern apartments and shops, with the ubiquitous Starbucks. Part of the old bank was artificially preserved to ensure the survival of the old culture; the rest seemed to have managed it unaided.
Zhujiajiao water village is one of the closest to Shanghai. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can get there by public transport. Most city hotels provide small bilingual cards at Reception, instructing taxi drivers on returning wandering guests to the right address; make sure you pick one up if you’re going exploring without a guide.
It’s been a busy year so far! The astrologers say there may be a short respite in early autumn, but otherwise things promise to be relentlessly hectic.
I’ve set aside the time from January to April to finish my book about food resilience. It’s based around the seasons; it became quite disorientating, writing about the warmth of May when it was January outside.
I took a break, wrote an essay for the Nine Dots Prize then went up North on a brief networking mission. I stayed at the splendid Hebden Bridge hostel – used as a refugee centre during the 2015 floods – and spent a day in nearby Todmorden.
The Incredible Aquagarden was running a course that day, which was lucky. I caught the morning session, on soil science. It was interesting to compare the teaching styles with those of our local Feed Avalon organisation.
I met up with Estelle Brown from Incredible Edible Todmorden at lunchtime for a quick tour of their edible landmarks. The medicinal herb beds beside the canal had survived inundation, though nearby buildings had suffered badly. Pollinators’ Avenue, originally a temporary installation, was still going. The locals were fending off a planned retail centre on the site, having a perfectly good market next door.
Although it was chilly and getting dark, I trekked back through the amazing park to the Aquagarden for the last part of their course. This dealt with aquaponics itself; I was able to thoroughly explore the process by viewing their demonstration equipment, complete with pet fish. This aquagarden is evolving into an educational centre, unlike the one at Mark, in Somerset, which is a commercial operation.
At the end, I was presented with a set of hydroponic pots to take home – and, fortunately, a lift to the railway station. You’ve no idea what a novelty local trains are to someone from Mid-Somerset!
There was some time the next day to visit Hebden Bridge before we left. The Bookcase is open again – you can buy the Resilience Handbook there now! The comic book store is back too, though there is still a scattering of boarded windows in the main street. The water level overtopped defences based on previous floods by several feet.
At the old mill, the Archimedes screw survived, though it was a near thing. Everyone had flood stories, but the millkeeper’s tale highlighted an unforeseen hazard. Tree branches caught on a bridge just upstream, creating a dam which suddenly burst, hurling a tidal wave at their mill house. Only the window glass held back this surge; fortunately it wasn’t broken by the debris. Riverside properties in similar situations could consider adding metal grids to their flood protection strategies.
Back to Somerset, night driving in the rain through relentless traffic. It was worse than my last visit; yet more housing was planned in the area. Is there some kind of crazy motorway Jenga going on – a game to see how much traffic you can pile into a system before it collapses?
And so back to the writing desk…an icy rain sweeps the garden as I imagine the chore of watering plants in hot summer sunshine, whilst browsing on fresh raspberries…
Worried about global uncertainty? Buy yourself a Resilience Handbook and start learning the power of community resilience! We need informed debates centred around practical, ground level solutions.
In the interests of networking, an important part of resilience, I keep in touch with Green Wedmore. This is an active and effective community group out on the Levels. When I discovered they were involved with a plan to conduct an energy survey of the area, I was keen to join in. I’d qualified as an energy assessor some years ago, but the project which sponsored me fell through before I got any practical experience.
Last Saturday, we had an Energy Essentials Training day, presented by the lovely Lisa Evans of the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol. Although I found a lot of the material familiar, it reminded me how important this information is to people.
Cold and damp are bad enough, but it’s the resulting mould that’s really unpleasant. It looks awful, stains clothes and ruins furniture. The spores of black mould can cause health problems; even touching it can provoke an allergic reaction.
Sometimes it’s not enough to wrap up warm. My daughter and her friends, in their new basement flat by the river, were faced with electric storage heaters. Not certain how they worked, and alarmed at the cost, they didn’t use them. Well insulated, the flat wasn’t particularly cold, but by December their walls and furniture were covered in mould!
You can search online for instructions if your new home has an unfamiliar heating system. If you’ve got a problem with damp, here’s a few tips…
If you have an empty room which you’re not heating, keep the door closed. Steam from the bathroom and kitchen doesn’t stay there, but wanders through the house looking for a cold surface to condense on. Move the furniture away from outside walls, and check behind it regularly. Narrow gaps and poor air circulation encourage mould; open the windows on sunny winter days.
After a shower, close the bathroom door and open a window, if you have one; let the water vapour escape. Otherwise, use extractor fans. They’re usually under 30 watts, so cheap to run. Make sure your tumble drier is vented to the outside.
Do you have a loft? If you go into the roof space, having found out about safety precautions first, there’s often a gap where the end of the roof meets the floor. Sometimes you can even see daylight through it. This gap is crucial to the overall ventilation of many houses. If it’s blocked by insulating material, you may get a problem with damp.
There’s lots more useful advice on the internet. Don’t just live with a dangerous condition like damp; do some research and find out what you can do about it!
People used to interact with their homes far more than many do today. Learn about yours – where does the power comes from, where does the water go? What’s your score in the Housing section of the Resilience Handbook? Which action should you do next?
Remember the free assessment PDF can be found at the end of the Learning Resilience page on this site.
I attended an Avalon Community Energy meeting on Monday. We were admiring the new solar panels they’d arranged to be installed at a local school. Despite the continual obstacles thrown in the path of this worthy project by central government, everyone was civil to the visiting MP.
He made a short speech, indicating more sympathy for renewables than we were accustomed to hear. He regretted that taxpayers’ money had to be spent along lines informed by good business practice; later he deplored the competitiveness between various renewables providers. If business models could run a country, politics would never have happened in the first place.
The he said something really startling. We were moving away from centralised power distribution, he said. We could be building the last generation of large power stations.
Moving towards local control of the power supply is a key pillar of resilience. As control cannot be achieved without generation, renewables represent the only way forward for resilient communities. Sourcing energy in this way also leads to a more distributed network with fantastic resilience. Emergency heating, lighting and cooking facilities could be maintained in every household! Large scale power cuts would be a thing of the past.
Moving away from centralised power generation wasn’t anywhere near the top of my ‘Realistic Things to Achieve’ list. It was just a vague pipe dream, an ‘if only people would realise the importance’ idea, facing decades of struggle even to get on the agenda!
Energy groups such as ACE need to move in from the pioneer fringes and occupy the centre ground for communities to take advantage of this unexpected trend. To seize opportunity, an organised group has to be in place, poised and ready, with a sound business plan backed by an informed community. Is there such a group in your area? If not, why not?
Take back your power.
The Resilience Handbook outlines how you can form a community group in your area. More information can be found through the links on this page.
It can be a very slow process, getting a community to work together. Encourage yourself with a resilience plan; find out more in the Handbook
My trip to Iceland was a journey through the island’s past. I was well acquainted with the Sagas, set in the period just after Settlement, from about 900 to 1050 AD, which described a prosperous landscape. I knew that deforestation quickly became a problem and Icelanders avoided the fate of their relatives in Greenland by a very small margin.*
One of my first stops was the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. This museum has been built over an excavated longhouse from the Saga days. Its inhabitants enjoyed Iron Age luxury in their spacious ‘hvoll’ surrounded by natural abundance.
Following the prosperity of the early days came the Little Ice Age which began in the 1300s and lasted nearly six centuries. The trees cut for firewood, building and smelting iron didn’t grow back. The topsoil was lost and barley cultivation ceased. The fjords filled with ice; the fishing boats rotted on the strand with no wood for repairs.
There wasn’t even enough firewood to boil seawater for salt, essential for preserving food through the long winters. Luckily cows were able to survive, presumably living on seaweed and lichens like the people, and there was plenty of whey left over from butter making. The Icelanders expanded traditional techniques of preserving meat in lactic acid.
There was no clay for making pots, no iron to repair pans. People used the volcanic springs to steam food wrapped in cloth, dug pits in hot sand. Icelandic cuisine became desperately inventive.
The climate change was compounded by hostile political conditions and by the Black Death in 1402. The population fell from 60,000 to 20,000. Then there was the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783, which poisoned large areas of grassland.
As Europe began to prosper again, there was a market for the fine woollen goods from Iceland – the sheep had survived too, and just as well as there were no fibre crops for cloth or ropes. Finally permitted to prosper from their own trade, the Icelanders invested in boats. Their fishing fleet was revived; technology trickled in from the Industrial Revolution.
Then electricity was invented! Icelanders swiftly caught on to the potential of renewable and volcanic energies. Huge greenhouses now provide all the vegetables they need for domestic consumption, and extensive reforestation is progressing. Recycling is taken seriously. So is trashing the countryside with off road vehicles.
You’ll find a great respect for the land among Icelanders. It nearly killed them. If you visit this paragon of resilience, don’t pretend you know what you’re doing. Hire locals to show you around, especially in winter!
*There’s a poignant description of the fate of one group of Greenland Vikings in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond. This is one of the recommended books in the Resilience Handbook…reading is a good activity in the winter!
There’s still time to order a signed copy of the Resilience Handbook before Xmas – email me after you’ve placed your order if you want it signed to another name!
Most of these special seasonal fairy cakes have a nice chunk of banana in the centre – but some have vegetables!
You’ll need a baking tray that holds a dozen cupcakes, paper cases and a few precooked vegetables. I used some chunks of baked squash and some broccoli florets lightly cooked until the stems were just going soft. For the rest:-
4 ounces butter
4 ounces sugar
7 ounces self raising flour
1 ounce cocoa powder
a few drops of vanilla essence
a couple of tablespoons of milk
a banana cut into six pieces
some chunks of cooked vegetable about the same size as the banana – I used squash and broccoli, but small Brussel sprouts would be good too!
Turn the oven on to gas mark 5 (190 C; 375 F) to preheat it, make sure there’s shelves just above and below the middle.
Cream the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs and vanilla. Fold in the flour and cocoa, adding a bit of milk if the mixture is too stiff to work easily.
Dollop a small spoonful of mix into each cake case, spreading it to cover the bottom. Lightly press a chunk of banana into half of the cases, and a piece of vegetable into the other six. Carefully cover these fillings with the rest of the mix until they can’t be seen.
Cook on the higher shelf for 20 minutes, then move to the lower middle shelf for another 5 – 10 minutes till the cake tops are firm. There’s extra moisture in the fillings, so they take a little longer than usual. Take the cakes out of the tray and leave them to cool on a wire rack.
You might want to use colour coded paper cases to avoid ambushing yourself with a broccoli cake!
It was a glorious autumn day, dry and sunny. The rows and swirls of colourful stalls filled the grassy spaces around the ancient stone walls of the Bishop’s Palace, spilled over into the antique Recreation Ground next door, surrounded its bandstand and carried on down the lane, where our Food For Thought marquee was.
The venue looked splendid, thanks to the lovely Laura and the Wells food group team. It was decorated with vintage bunting, lit by electric chandeliers! After an early set-up, there was a little time to wander among the booths outside admiring the huge variety of local produce on sale.
My advice – go there hungry, and with plenty of spare cash! I couldn’t resist the Gilbert and Swayne chocolates, each one a tiny work of art. Some huge chunks of fudge for another birthday present – I sampled the Marmite flavour, which was not at all awful. Then it was time for the show to begin and the 15,000 visitors to start exploring.
We were so busy that I didn’t manage to photograph the enormously entertaining Human Fruit Machine, nor even get to the cordon bleu cookery on a budget demonstrations at the far end of our tent. I spent the whole day chatting about food resilience to a stream of fascinating people. I learned that people in London still don’t have much to do with their neighbours, that mountain sheep in Snowdonia have their own culture passed down over generations. We discussed Tyre Gardening with pictures and I gave away all my ‘fourteen day stores’ recipes/ingredients leaflets.
Thanks to Sean and Elliot, the visiting chefs from the Ale and Oyster, Ventnor for the leftover pasta dough from the workshops – I managed to cook real pasta for the first time back at home!
Knowing that you have fourteen days’ supply of food gives you confidence in a situation where supplies are interrupted, or you can’t use the roads. You may not be flooded yourself, but the way to the shops could become difficult. Give the emergency services space and stay in, living well from your stores!
They’re also useful for unexpected dinner guests – and for those who suddenly announce they are vegan!