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.
We’d turned down the morning call, so we slept in till 7 am, missing the 6.30 Tai Chi class again. After a hasty breakfast, we were in the lobby by 7.45 ready for the inclusive trip up the Shen Nong Stream.
We sailed up this tributary in a smaller ship, passing through amazing wooded gorges with caves and the strange hanging coffins. These were usually carved from a single log and placed in caves or crevices in the cliff faces. They date back to the Stone Age and no-one knows why or how the people did this; it would have been a very difficult task.
Other cultural artefacts and lifestyles are submerged now the Three Gorges Dam has raised the water level here by 90 metres. Our tributary was once a fast mountain stream, hurtling over rocky rapids. Now it’s much deeper and slower, but the banks are still teeming with invisible wild life. Panda (cotton) bamboo grows there, but the panda range is now further south. Huge swallow nests hung from cave roofs; when the boat engine quietened, we could hear other birds singing. Once we saw a small flock in the treetops, but mainly they kept out of sight.
We pulled in at a jetty and transferred to small wooden boats. A man on the bank demonstrated how these boats used to be towed upstream when the river level was lower. The boatman sang us a traditional song from his drowned culture. Then we encouraged them to race the other boats, singing them sea shanties till we came in first!
Back on the ship I had to fix my camera – it turned out that the White Elephant batteries we’d bought locally could run out rather abruptly with no warning – so I was late down for lunch. I had to take dessert up to the coffee lounge to admire the Wu and Qutang Gorges as we passed through them. There was a standing stone sacred to the Goddess at the entrance, and dragons in the hills.
After this, we moored for the White Emperor City tour (optional extra, well worth it). We teamed up with the Bavarians (also here on an RSD tour) to make up numbers, and had a very knowledgeable and well educated young Chinese lady as our guide.
Running the gauntlet of the ‘maybe later’ market, we discovered that each stop had a different speciality, probably for the internal tourist trade. We were swiftly guided past the water gate, a Post Office kiosk and statues of famous poets.
We cut through a large indoor market full of exotic foodstuffs. I longed to try some of the huge range of dried mushrooms or take some of the exotic nuts home to identify them, but of course it was impossible. There are severe restrictions on casually transporting vegetable matter across continents, in case they harbour insect pests which can devastate crops. Finally, we crossed a long bridge, chilled by a stiff breeze, and into the White Emperor City.
Researching these tours had warned me of over 700 steps to climb; the information was out of date, as the inundation had reduced these to 346. The sedans, bamboo chair litters, were still available to hire for the climb; they now cost 100 yuan rather than 10 yuan. We didn’t use them.
‘You don’t mind a walk,’ suggested our guide firmly.
The first sixty stairs brought us to Loyalty Square, celebrating Zhuge Liang, a prime minister of old renowned for his honesty and wise counsel. There was a stupendous view of the ‘Entrance to the Three Gorges’, a very strategic site in ancient times. A huge rock there, an ancient landmark, had to be blown up after the first of the three inundation stages; submerged, it would have been a shipping hazard.
We climbed many more steps to the summit, passing an archery range. Visitors shot arrows at straw men to celebrate ‘Taking arrows from the enemy using straw men’. This was a famous strategy of Zhuge Liang, as featured in the film ‘Red Cliff’.
On the far side of the ornate painted gate at the top of the stairs was a huge dragon statue. The founder of the city, Gongsun Shu (or someone else), saw a white dragon rising from a well (or in the form of a cloud). The white dragon was considered a good omen for founding a city there anyway, and it remained untouched during the warlike period which followed.
Inside the buildings was a large tableau, with very expressive figures, depicting the story of ‘Handing over the Orphans’ where Liu Bei (a hero of ‘Red Cliff’) calls Zhuge Liang out of retirement to look after his two young sons.
This ancient city is also famous for poetry, though the displays were being packed away for the evening. Our guide managed to show us how bamboo, pomegranate and plum were often used to decorate scrolls. Their survival over winter made these plants symbols of endurance.
We also learned that the purpose of the high thresholds – which we’d assumed were some sort of flood control – was to keep zombies out! The walking dead in China can’t bend their knees.
In addition, you had to bow your head as you entered a room, to watch your step, so automatically kowtowed. It was important to step right over and not set foot on the lip of the threshold.
Returning down a different set of steps as the light began to fade, we passed through the closing market, and the evening street food vendors just setting up, to the ship.
The whole point of an adventure is that you don’t know what will happen. However, you rather hope it will be enjoyable, so it’s worth doing some research before you go.
Use the Resources section of the Resilience Wheel as the framework for a check list of things you really ought to know. It’d look something like this:-
Energy – do I need an adapter to use the local electricity?
Food – what food hygiene advice is there? Is there anything I shouldn’t eat? Will I encounter problems with my food allergies?
Water – can I drink the tap water? If not, why not? Does it just taste salty, as in Malta, or should I avoid getting any in my mouth while showering, as in China?
Housing – look at reviews for the places you plan to stay
Transport – use Google maps to check out your route, check Trip Advisor for reviews
Waste – do I need to be prepared for squat toilets? (yes, in China! Although there were one or two pedestal toilets available at all our stops, there was a longer queue for these)
Communication – can I make or receive calls from home? Use the internet? (download WeChat to your phone before you leave; you can then message people outside China who also have this app. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all unavailable there at the time of writing)
Environment – what hazards might I encounter? Should I get vaccinations, bring special equipment?
Clothing – what sort of weather can I expect? (If you need heavy clothes, bring your second best, then you can sacrifice then at the end of the trip to make flight space for souvenirs)
No matter how much I prepare for an adventure, there’s always more to learn about the places I’ve been. I enjoy reading up about them back at home; my colleague and I have developed a taste for Chinese films and dramas, especially historical ones unfolding against the landscapes we just travelled through!
Exhausted by the long train journey from Shanghai to Yichang, we barely registered our late arrival on board the river cruiser ‘President Number Six’, except to note with relief that we had our promised balcony. We awoke to the 6.30am cheery morning call, swiftly learning the volume function of the mysterious dials under the mirror!
Another ship was moored parallel to ours – you could practically step across to their balconies, so it’s a good idea to close the outside doors if you’re on a shore excursion – but it glided off before we’d made our first coffees, revealing a stunning vista of white cliffs and dark forest. After the hectic pace of the city tour, the peaceful riverbank scenery was delightful.
Far from being pestered to join in the optional excursions (priced at around 290 yuan, about £30 at the exchange rate then), we weren’t even allowed on the first one, there being no English speaking guide available. We’d already planned to try and avoid this trip, hoping that it wasn’t part of a compulsory package. Although a visit to the home town of Qu Yuan, a famous poet from the Warring States period, was tempting, we knew we’d need some rest before tackling the Three Gorges Dam inclusive excursion later.
We were content to explore the ship and admire the view. The weather was still mild enough to enjoy sitting out on the deck, or sketching on the balcony; we began to move upriver. Our ship glided smoothly through the calm waters past ever changing views, through everyone’s stories, towards the Dam.
We discovered the ships always moored in parallel. Landing parties had to walk along internal gang planks through other cruise ships and over the bare decks of commercial barges before finally reaching shore.
Our group was promptly assailed by husslers, politely but insistently offering us T-shirts and maps of China. This, we learned from our guides, was the ‘maybe later’ market. The prospective vendors seemed to have some invisible boundary, and they were never a real pest. Their goods weren’t too bad either; I actually bought one of the maps, though I probably paid too much for it. Apparently you have to watch out for counterfeit money in change though.
A tour bus took us up the winding road to the Visitor Centre, thronged with Chinese tourists. We were introduced to the 3D model of the dam complex, touched briefly on souvenir shops, then ascended to the summit up four long outdoor escalators. We were lucky with weather ourselves, but an umbrella could be a handy item to bring.
The summit plaza itself was decorated with significant statues, murals depicting drowned cultures, and information boards. Stairs led to the viewpoint at the very top – for, of course, the view was the main attraction.
Building this steel/concrete gravity dam, long planned, was finally started in 1994 and completed in 2012. The ship locks and lift were finished later; our vessel was too large to go up in the incredible ship lift itself. The dam is 1.2 kilometres across and creates a reservoir 600 kilometres long, reaching all the way to Chongqing. Its output is 22.5 megawatts; half the average UK power demand.
The landscape of the entire river was altered by this project, and over a million people had to be relocated. Many scenic features were covered by the 90 metre rise in water levels. Silt builds up in the reservoir instead of being washed downstream to fertilise the soils. Some endangered species, such as the Siberian crane and Yangtze sturgeon, may not survive the changes.
However, having experienced the pollution caused by the coal fired power stations elsewhere, the clean air of the Three Gorges, where white mists replaced brown smogs, was a powerful argument in favour of hydropower. With the deeper channels, goods can be carried by ship instead of fleets of diesel lorries. Floods no longer threaten the densely populated Yangtze basin and the coastal towns.
These could be devastating. In 1998, over three thousand were killed and 15 million homes destroyed. In 1954, the floodwaters covered the entire city of Wuhan for three months; over thirty thousand people died and 18 million were displaced. The catastrophic flooding of Nanjing in 1931 claimed at least two million lives.
The way back down was a gentler stroll down flights of stairs and through parkland, bringing us out into a charming market full of affordable souvenir trinkets. We hastened through this, back on the bus, ran the gauntlet of the map sellers and were welcomed back on board the ship with hot flannels and tea.
The ship moved off soon after we returned; there was an indefinable air of tense excitement among the crew. By the end of dinner, we were in a holding position in front of the huge lock gates; the rain considerately stopped while we waited on the deck.
I thought we’d just move to the front of the queue but, in an amazing feat of pilotage, all three large ships entered the lock together. The great doors clanged shut, and the water began to run in.
We rose surprisingly fast – ‘up’ is not a direction usually associated with ships! In less than twenty minutes, we’d emerged from our concrete chasm and could gaze out over the landscaped working areas.
The second lock swung open and we moved through in a tight group. It took about two hours before we emerged from the fifth lock onto a broad, placid lake. The sharp line of the dam, crested by illuminated machines, retreated into the night, and we were on our way to the Interior!
RSD don’t do relaxing normally, but here they were in the hands of the cruise ship agenda. So there wasn’t much advance information about the shore excursions available, some of which are included in the price, but a little research shows these are usually much the same for all the cruises, differing slightly whether you are going upriver – as we were – or down.
It was a relief to find that our cabin – like most places we stayed – had a kettle. Remember to use bottled water for hot drinks. There is often more tea supplied than coffee, so if you prefer the latter, bring some extra sachets with you.
You can visit the Dam from Yichang; it’s about a 90 minute drive. It may be possible to book an excursion which takes you up the ship lift.
The answer is in the subtitle – ‘How to survive in the 21st century’.
Even in a quiet little island like Britain, there are more episodes of ferocious weather now than we were used to in the last century. Flooding is a growing problem. What can you do about it?
Read the Emergency Planning section of the book, keep it handy to consult if you suddenly have to evacuate your house. It’ll tell you what to do, remind you to turn off your utilities, how to pack a grab bag.
You may not be directly affected by flooding, but the damage to the economy is shared by all. What can you do to help the long-term situation?
Rain comes from the sky, but flooding happens on land. Meetings of experts discuss useful management strategies, but the people responsible for the land have to implement them, Most of these are farmers, already struggling to make a living.
If they were able to sell to you, the consumer, without having to be routed through a supermarket chain…they’d have more money. Enough, perhaps, to consider engaging with flood relief; to invest in growing willow, in reforesting the hillsides.
The Resilience Handbook outlines a number of practical steps you can take to support community resilience at every level. It’s a call to action, not an invitation to more debate. Read through it, then keep it to hand as a reference book. Much of what it says won’t be clear to you until you begin to fulfill the set tasks.
Ignore the sneering quitters who tell you your personal buying choices mean nothing in the bigger picture. Supermarkets didn’t spring out of thin air. They evolved as a response to these choices. You can choose to return to a more resilient, locally based economy. Both processes are achieved one piece of shopping at a time.
It’s not just about food and its effect on the landscape. Every time you wash your clothes carefully, so that they last longer, you’re doing your bit for a sustainable community. Less waste means less landfill space. A culture where clothes are respected and cared for encourages a market for quality products. Well made clothes can be repaired or altered by local businesses, not thrown away.
Every little helps, as they say. With the Resilience Handbook you can keep track of your efforts, see how tiny changes lead to bigger ones, learn what really is important and know that you’re doing as much as you can to secure it.
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.
Storing food is an ancient human habit, taking advantage of a surplus to get your tribe through leaner times. The range of storage methods available to us today are considerable, yet fewer people than ever take advantage of them. The most popular strategy seems to be stocking up on frozen ready meals, then zapping them in the microwave. No actual cooking involved.
Is this resilient? Of course not.
In an emergency, the mains electricity may fail. After a few days, your freezer stores will be turning into a waste disposal problem. There could be extreme weather outside which forces you to stay at home. You need a back up.
Tinned and dried foods keep well, even in challenging places such as your loft or shed. Only store what you’re prepared to eat. These stores will need to be rotated as they go out of date. Your survival recipes should be planned to incorporate any other food which might turn up – garden produce, a delivery of rations, a community food share.
This 32 litre stack box fits under an average bed and contains enough supplies to last a fortnight. Porridge for breakfast, pan bread if you’ve no oven, a selection of stews and curries. I haven’t calculated the calorie intake, or added up grams of carbohydrates, just worked out a sensible meal plan covering all the food types.
There’s a more scientific estimate here. “4.9 kilograms of cereal-based products like rice, bread and noodles per person per fortnight…… 5.6kg of veggies, 3.7kg each of milk products and fruit and nuts, and 2.1kg of fish and meat.” It seems like a lot. Might not fit under the bed, and remember you have to find space for all the water as well.
A fortnight’s worth of emergency supplies can be a valuable asset to a household. Using a selection of your normal foods, as pictured, you have a back up when you run out of tomato ketchup, milk, beans, coffee. You can restock as these foods come on offer!
These stores are tailored to my preferences; what would you keep? Remember that, in an emergency, you may not have mains services. Stick to recipes which can be achieved on a camping stove (have you got one?), or even an open fire. Learn about Dutch ovens, understand the principles of cooking and how you can use ingredients inventively.
For more information about emergency planning and community resilience, read ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’
This exhibition of food stores will be on display in the ‘Food for Thought’ venue at Wells Food Festival Sunday 9th October, 10 am – 4.30 pm, where I’ll be chatting about resilience and signing Handbooks!
Hebden Bridge features in the Resilience Handbook as a top example of a town with independent local businesses, and nearby Todmorden (also flooded) is the home of the inspirational Incredible Edible movement…they deserve your support!
Here on the levels in Somerset between the sea and the high ground we’re used to seeing the water. Driving between towns, the fields are shimmering mirrors, traced with sunken hedges, populated by opportunistic swans. The main roads are edged by dark puddles, threatening to merge over the white line with every fresh downpour.
Villages hugging the tiny ridges of high ground out in the marshlands are often cut off. Farm tractors become informal delivery vans and buses. Rows of willow trees, planted so that people can see where the road was, come into their own. The river lurks just over a low bank.
The network of narrow lanes across country are under water in many places, especially at the crossroads and gateways where you could have turned around. If you come upon one flooded section, chances are there are more ahead. It’s unwise to use these lanes as a short cut.
Towns are linked by single main roads. An incident on one of these could involve you in a twenty mile diversion just to get back from the shops. If that route then becomes blocked – easy enough with the high winds and dangerous conditions – hundreds of people could become stranded for hours.
Keep at least half a tank of fuel, even for local journeys. Carry waterproofs, wellies and a drink of water in your car. Make sure your mobile phone is charged.
Shop with a list and bring in extra long life food. Try to avoid going out at all in heavy rain. Start using all those ready meals in the freezer; if your electricity goes, they will be a write off anyway.
Night time is the most dangerous. Plan to stay in, invite neighbours round, play cards or games, learn to knit. Spending all your evenings slumped in front of the TV will soon give you cabin fever!
Driving through flood water is unwise, especially if you are on your own. You can’t see how deep it is, if the road has been washed away underneath, if there are any obstructions ahead. Your electrics may get damaged.
Don’t change gears but drive slowly and steadily. If your engine cuts out, it may have got water in it. Trying to restart it might destroy it.
Even six inches of fast moving water can sweep you off your feet, and not much more can move your car. If you become trapped in a flood, call for help at once. Don’t panic and think very carefully about your escape route.
Resilience is about adaptation. Change your behaviour in response to the environment. Go out as little as possible and make every journey count. Even if you’re not directly affected by flooding, you could still be caught up in a diversion as police try to clear another area. Your presence on the road is one more factor for the emergency services to take into account, so don’t waste it.