The hot dry weather continues. Here in Somerset, we’ve only had about five days with even a light shower of rain since Easter. It’s been a relentless round of watering; not so difficult in the garden, but a real challenge down at the allotment.
This gravity fed system delivers a trickle of water to the tomatoes and courgettes, but the barrel has to be topped up manually.
The raised beds are filled with a mixture of leaf mould, shredded paper and soil imported from the Resilience Garden. This is full of seeds from useful, fast growing annuals which are shading out the perennial weeds. Borage, marigold and poppy can be seen in the picture; lower ground cover is supplied by scarlet pimpernel and blue speedwell.
These are easy to pull up, and good to compost, unlike the bindweed, horsetail (outwitting vertebrates since the Triassic) and couch grasses they replace. Most of the weeds have to go to landfill just now, which deprives this poor soil of even more nutrients.
We took some time out to go to the Scythe Fair in June. Adventurous visitors could sail down the River Parrret and catch the horse drawn bus to site!
Most people came by car though, and this is finally becoming a problem. It’s a wonderful event and its popularity means that some formalities will have to be put in place. Perhaps it will lose some of its rustic charm…
….or perhaps not. Suppose it was possible to close the whole lane for a day, so visitors had to leave their cars (in a convenient field) and walk or cycle to the event? The locals would need to go along with the plan too, and not use their cars for a day.
The management felt that was too radical a concept – and I agree. It’s a shame that everyone is so attached to their cars!
I’m just about to set off on another adventure, spreading the Resilience word …more when I return!
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 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 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!
I expected June to be a quieter month than it usually is for me, as I’m not going to the Glastonbury Festival for the first time in many years. There’s no going against the rhythm of the seasons though, and events conspired to make this month every bit as hectic as before!
I’ve been working hard on my next book, about food and resilience…this involves a lot of experimental cooking and field studies. We finally got an allotment garden for our project; it’s quite overgrown. Although late in the season, we’ve managed to plant out the last of our seedlings, and there are quite a few food plants there already which only need the undergrowth cleared away.
It was the Green Scythe Fair on 12th June, which is an annual fixture for me. Strolling among the colourful stalls is like visting a future where everything has worked out fine. People gather around to admire the latest electric car on display, discuss the merits of the various tools offered for sale, consider hand made clothes or choose a pair of angora rabbits to breed for wool. The faint tap of peening scythes underscores the murmer of conversation. A woman plays her fiddle while children dance; other youngsters make nests from the cut grass.
A tremendous selection of local delicacies are to be sampled here, from crystallised flowers to venison steaks.
You can get anything you can think of to do with honey, including a hive of bees. All the brand names, the shiny labels, are absent though. The cafe heats its water by wood-fired rocket stoves; the electrical power is from storage batteries recharged by renewables, including the lights and entertainment at night.
In the Craft area, one can see blacksmiths, stone masons and thatchers at work. There’s a stall selling hemp twine, another with leather pouches. A man haggles for an enamel basin, a woman picks a new copper kettle. The plough horses watch curiously as you pass by; yesterday they were demonstrating techniques for a land workers’ training session.
The centre piece of the event is the scything. A grand marquee is set up like a scything supermarket, with blades, whetstones, files, all the odds and ends of the craft. You are ‘fitted’ for the right size of handle, consulted about the appropriate blade and shown how to attach it. The complete novice is given a introductory pamphlet, but it’s wise to enrol on one of the day courses. Like any skill, it’s best learned alongside a master.
On the day of the Fair, however, all these craftspeople were out on the long grass in the centre, where the competitions were taking place. There were trophies to be won, reputations to be made! A sudden downpour had flattened much of the grass – how would this affect the form? The skilled scythers – men and women in separate heats – would cut their allotted square down to the length of a well trimmed lawn in only a few minutes. Assistants raked up the fallen grass while the judges inspected the quality of the job and considered points.
After the business of the day was done and the cups awarded, the music and carousing began in earnest. The stalls closed up and stole away; the families left. Only the crafters and campers were left to wind the evening up in traditional style and wobble gently home across the dark, empty fields.
I had to prepare for a radio interview about the Resilience Handbook. The presenter gave me an outline of the questions he’d like to ask.
‘How worried are you about the way Britain is largely dependent on other countries for our food and fuel?‘
Very worried. It was one of the main driving factors in going to all the trouble of writing a book to explain what to do about it.
‘What do you see as the other main threats to our current way of life?’
Well, where does one start? Pandemics, economic instability, pollution…. all very threatening, but not quite what I was searching for. We already have the technology, the intelligence to climb out of this hole and start creating a better way of life, resilient against these and other threats. We’re just not doing it. Then I realised.
Our main threat is apathy.
Environmentalists argue with politicians, scientists with religious leaders, and year after year nothing is done. The endless economic growth promised seems to have turned cancerous. Resource wars are flaring up.
However serious the situation is, however impossible a solution seems, we arrived here slowly, one piece of shopping at a time. We need to take back our power and make new choices. While we still have access to fossil fuel energy, we can use it to rebuild a resilient culture. There’s no time to lose.
Even within a busy lifestyle, there’s room for these choices. You slump exhausted before the TV after a long day’s work. You make tea. Where did the milk come from? Can you have it delivered? Buy it from a corner shop? Explore the options. Just with the milk.
If you could buy milk direct from a local farm, in glass bottles, even that one tiny choice adds to the resilience of your area. More money stays in the local economy. Less plastic waste is created. If everyone in Somerset recycled just one more plastic bottle a week (that is, in many cases, recycle from the bathroom too), in one year it would save energy equivalent to one quarter of the output of the proposed Hinkley C nuclear reactor. How much more is saved by not buying the plastic in the first place!
Read the Resilience Handbook and find out how everyone can do their bit for community resilience, from organising an off grid power supply to helping out in a litter pick. Learn to change your own lifestyle for one less energy hungry and more relaxed. Pay more attention to your food – you are what you eat. Go on adventures. Become resilient.
It’s beginning to seep into national awareness that independent, locally based businesses might serve their communities better than identikit chain stores with obscure agendas.
With the destructive competition these small enterprises face from multinationals, the few that still populate the High Street need your support. It’s estimated that around £40 billion will be spent on Xmas in the UK this year; over £750 per household.
Spent locally, remaining in your area instead of instantly vanishing into a remote Head Office, this money could bring about a serious increase in prosperity.
Take a long tea break to think about this, and plan your holiday spending. Shopping in the scattered local outlets will take longer than a trolley dash. Spread it over a few weeks. Be organised so you don’t buy something twice in the last minute rush.
Set a budget for presents. See what you can find at craft fairs. Socks, especially good hand made ones, are underrated. Bath products are often welcome. Of course you’ll be able to buy more industrially produced items for the same money. Quality is the point here. It’s a gift; it’s the thought that counts not the weight.
Traditional crafts are struggling to stay alive, despite their key role in a resilient society. The few people who persevere have to price their goods at the luxury end of the market to compete with factories. They need your custom more than the supermarkets do, and give far more back. Choose your loyalties.
Half of the total Xmas spend is on gifts. In Somerset alone, this comes to over £80 million, the same as a quarter of the annual County budget. Another third is spent on food and drink.
Write a shopping list. There’s plenty of food you could buy well in advance. Farm shops often sell chutneys, jams and pickles. Xmas cakes keep for weeks and are often on sale at markets. Consider making your own mince pies.
The best way to buy your Xmas dinner is to order fresh locally reared organic meat from the independent butcher. If you’ve never done this before, consider there may be a bit of a queue on collection day. Bring an umbrella, a newspaper, be prepared to chat to people, live a little slower.
Spend your Xmas surrounded by food, drink and gifts which that have meaning, not just labels. Start planning now!
There are just over half a million people in Somerset. Imagine if, just once a year, half of those people bought an item on which a local supplier made fifty pence profit. That would generate an amazing £125,000 for the local economy. More jobs created and investment in local initiatives…..at Community Resilience and Emergency Welfare CIC they have developed this concept into the Hemp Twine Project.
They were looking for an item, not too large or expensive, that always comes in handy and could be fully sourced locally. Although there are a few things made in Somerset, such as lavender oil, they decided to start a new product. This was an educational exercise rather than a commercial venture after all.
Everybody uses string. It’s not on the regular shopping list, but it’s not a luxury item either. It keeps very well, is easy to store and cheap to buy. Most household string is made of oil based plastic or imported cotton. Replacing this in your home with a locally sourced, organically grown, biodegradable string is definitely Good for the Environment.
As well as wool and apples, Somerset can grow large amounts of hemp. This used to be processed into fibre and supplied the local shipyards in the days of sail. Hemp as a material is remarkably resistant to rot, even in challenging salt water conditions, so it was often used in ropes and canvas. Nylon and plastic ousted natural fibres awhile ago, and the industry fell into decline. The soil and weather conditions which favoured hemp production are still in place though, and it is a crop which requires no chemical intervention to thrive.
Today, hemp twine is sold to the home craft market, for use in beadwork or macrame. Sourcing a larger quantity was difficult but, with the aid of the amazing desktop ball of string maker, finally translated into a product at the right price.
If enough people buy hemp twine, the hemp industry could revive faster than it fell. Farmers would be paid well for a low cost crop, a small industrial unit would suffice to process the fibre into twine and local shops would profit from the sales. Spin offs include hemp oil, valuable as a source of Omega-3, hemp cake for cattle and hempcrete for building material. Each of these can underpin another entire small industry.
All that is needed is a market – your one ball of string a year – and the local economy could be richer by a whole new industry! With a steady income from conscious consumerism, businesses can plan ahead. Instead of playing the customer loyalty game with uncaring multinationals, bring it home.
Somerset, famed for its cider, is still a good place to grow apples. Many gardens boast at least one tree, but few people are able to make full use of the fruit and it often goes to waste. Collecting spare fruit to make apple juice could be a resilient way forward.
So we collected bags of sound apples. They need to be in good condition for juicing, not bruised or chewed. We borrowed a scratter, a press and a pasteuriser from Somerset Community Food and spent the afternoon pressing apples.
Much hard work later, we had fifteen bottles to fill the pasteuriser, and some left over. Unpasteurised apple juice will only keep for a few days, even in a fridge. The pasteuriser sat on a chair in the kitchen, full of very hot water, for several hours.
Although the juice did keep well – we opened a bottle eighteen months later, which was fine – it had taken a lot of apples and hard physical labour to make not very many bottles. If ever a process called out for mechanisation, this was it.
We knew a local firm would take apples and press them into juice for a fee, which no longer seemed so unreasonable. It would be possible to make a profit of £1 a bottle. Could this finance a larger project?
This year, we explored Plan B. Collecting fruit from an overgrown orchard in West Pennard, we estimated that one tree provided enough apples for one crate of the five needed for a minimum order. Two people took an hour to clear the ground of rotten apples and windfalls, then pick the good apples from the tree.
The profit margins are too small to offer the householder free apple juice, and you must be careful how much you sell at cost. Most people who have unused fruit trees, though, are pleased to have the ground underneath them cleared. Fallen fruit attracts wasps, is slippery and interferes with lawn mowing.
People already doing gardening work could combine this with harvesting the apples. A cider company might buy the windfalls, increasing the profit margin. Careful planning of collection rounds can minimise fuel use.
One crate of apples gives you about 12 bottles, from which you need to pay for your fuel and the time spent selling the juice. You would need to invest the money in having the juice made, and maintain a small van. It should be possible to earn a small living from the wasted apple harvest for one quarter of the year though.
The project may be a good income for a community group using volunteer labour. They would have the added benefit of being able to access a market, funding for a pilot scheme and better publicity networks.