A new ‘old’ orchard takes shape

The creation of a new orchard is one of the many exciting things happening here at St George’s farm.  Over the last few days we’ve been sourcing the numerous varieties of apple, pear, plum and cherry that together make the 150 trees we intend to plant with volunteers this winter.  The initial selection and planting plan has been put together by our neighbours Linda and John Iles, and the whole project is receiving financial support under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, part of the EU Common Agricultural Policy.  It follows a number of successful orchard restoration and replanting initiatives in the locality, once part of the largest cherry producing area in the country after Kent.

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Common Ground

The land where the fruit trees are to be planted, at the heart of Ruskin Land, was in fact an orchard until the 1950s.  Back then, grants were available from the Ministry of Agriculture to grub up old orchards with the aim of increasing productivity, a policy that continued after the UK joined the EU.  In the late 1980s the arts and environment organisation Common Ground started a campaign to draw attention to the dramatic loss of traditional orchards, and the associated wildlife and cultural associations, that had taken place over previous decades.  Culminating in the first national Apple Day, which took place in Covent Garden on this very day twenty five years ago, the campaign has been a great success.  It has stimulated a revival of interest in local varieties of apple and other fruit, the growth of community orchards across the country (including at Ambridge!), and a reversal of the national and EU grant regime.    Having worked at Common Ground on that campaign, its great that we are now able to benefit from those achievements.

William Buchan Graham

The original orchard here was actually established in 1880.  Prior to that, the land had been cleared of oak trees adjacent to, or possibly part of, an area of the forest known as Shelf Held Coppice.  William Buchan Graham, a follower of John Ruskin and one of the unsung heros of the early years of Ruskinland, planted 178 fruit trees there, over about 5 acres of land, half of which were plums, along with 46 apples, 19 pears and the rest cherries and damsons.  Amazingly, the original plan of the orchard, drawn by Graham himself, with the full list of varieties he planted is held at the Museum in Sheffield which is home to the Ruskin collection.     (In fact, William Graham was buried, along with his wife Eliza, in St Leonard’s churchyard at Ribbesford just a few miles from St George’s Farm.  Their story,  a not altogether happy one, will be told in a future blogpost).

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William Graham’s 1880 orchard plan

Tree guards and teamwork

The original orchard plan and list of fruit has been invaluable in selecting suitable varieties for the new planting.  While choosing a number of those planted here originally, it’s been decided to scale back on the number of plums and to replace those with cider apples.   Finding nurseries who can supply the varieties selected on the necessary vigorous rootstock has not been straightforward, but we’re getting there!  Another challenge is to finish erecting the large treeguards, needed to protect the young trees from the attention of the local deer population, in time for the first planting in November.  The volunteers and staff at the Wyre Community Land Trust have been making steady progress on this and more than half of the guards, made with cleft chestunut and oak, are now in place.

The view from St George's farmhouse

The view from St George’s farmhouse

Sturdy cleft chestnut and oak tree guards

Sturdy cleft chestnut and oak tree guards

Stalwart CLT staff and volunteers

Stalwart CLT staff and volunteers

It’s an inspiring project which will benefit future generations, as well as our own.  By the time the final trees are planted before the arrival of next spring, it will have been an impressive team effort, consuming many months work.  It makes me realise what a heroic effort it must have been on the part of William and Eliza all those years ago.  Perhaps the new orchard should be named after them?

NS

21/10/15

Rutting deer and bats in the bungalow

Things have been restless in the woods of late.  Despite the relative tranquillity of the surroundings, I haven’t slept as well as one might expect.  The main reason for that has been the noise of rutting stags in the forest.  Though it seems you can hear their unseemly belching most times of the day, the noise can become almost cacophonous at night, as I’ve recently discovered.  Its a mysterious sound, a sort of cross between a cow’s mooing and a lion’s roar.  It actually reminded me a little of the haunting sound of the howler monkeys I once heard in the Guyanese rainforest, which I was lucky enough to visit a few years ago. 

Deer on the run at St George's farm

Deer on the run at St George’s farm

Cardiff Architecture School

This week has seen some other disturbances in the forest.   A small group of students from the Cardiff School of Architecture have been here for a few days to familiarise themselves with the local area in preparation for a week long workshop later in the year.  Their last night here was enlivened by bats flying into the kitchen at St George’s bungalow, just across the field from the farmhouse.  Apart from the nightlife, one of the things the students are examining is how wood from the oak trees, which surround Ruskin Land, can be used in new ways in design and construction.

Jim Waterson in action

Jim Waterson in action

One of the highlights of their visit, at least for me, was the entertaining and informative overview provided by Jim Waterson, from Harper Adams University, of the current agenda affecting forestry.  He covered a lot of ground including conventional forestry practice, new directions in woodland management, and the ever-present challenges from tree disease.  Tim Selman, who leads the Wyre Forest landscape partnership (and one of the reasons we are now living here), summarised recent work in the Wyre, and I spoke about policy and political issues surrounding change and development in the rural environment.   I fear it was a case of information overload. I wonder what they made of it all!

Hoxton show

The students have an interesting project to get stuck into. If the outputs of last year’s group are any measure, they should come up with some fascinating responses to their brief.  I saw the exhibition of that group’s work last year in a gallery in trendy Hoxton, east London.  It was inspirational to see the qualities of the raw material being explored in so many different ways.  I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges this year.

Student show 2015

Student show 2015

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Cultural programme

The connection with the Cardiff architecture school is just one of the ways in the coming weeks that the Ruskin Land project will be reaching out to designers, arts and crafts practitioners.  In November we will be hosting a seminar involving people from different creative backgrounds to explore how we can develop a ‘cultural programme’ of activities, in tune with John Ruskin’s thinking and linked to the land here.  There has been an enthusiastic response to the invitation.   We hope to be able to organise similar events in the future in nearby Birmingham and further afield in London to tap into wider networks.  Our ultimate goal, broadly conceived at the moment but to be refined in light of these discussions, is to become an influential rural centre for arts, education and the environment which inspires people from all walks of life. 

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Neil Sinden

09/10/15

The Wood Beyond the World

Well, I’m just coming to the end of my first full week in the forest and the sun is still shining! It’s been a challenging transition: I finished work as Policy and Campaigns Director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England last Thursday and arrived at St George’s Farm at the heart of Ruskin Land shortly before midnight the same day. Waking up on Friday morning, it really did feel like the dawn of a new era. It feels like we’re now living in the ‘wood beyond the world’, to borrow the title of a fantasy novel by William Morris. 

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Blue moon to super-moon

In fact, Lynne and I moved most of our worldly possessions from London’s East End, our home for over 25 years, to St George’s Farm in the last week of July. At the end of that week we were welcomed by the Blue Moon which shone brightly over Ruskin Land, and at the beginning of this week we experienced the Super-moon. (Sadly, we missed the associated eclipse). In between, it’s been a whirlwind of activity – sorting out furniture and boxes, organising the kitchen and new bathroom, tying up loose ends and completing handover notes at CPRE, and slowly familiarising ourselves with the sights and sounds of the forest. We feel privileged to be here, and excited about the journey ahead.

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St George’s Farmhouse

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A new dawn in the Wyre Forest

Where exactly are we?

Ruskin Land is a truly inspirational but strangely little known place. Working with others, our role here is to help realise its potential as a source of inspiration and meaning, but at the same time to ensure it retains its special qualities and uniqueness. Beyond Birmingham and the Black Country, the Wyre Forest, within which Ruskin Land sits, is not a place that resonates with many people. I’ve been surprised how often we have had to describe to friends precisely where we are moving to.

This may have something to do with the fact the forest straddles the border between the counties of Worcestershire and Shropshire belonging fully to neither (although it gives its name to a district authority which sits entirely within the former). It may also be because, while it is claimed to be the largest contiguous area of ancient woodland in England, it enjoys no formal, popular designation. Other, that is, than being listed as one of 224 national nature reserves, our most valuable wildlife sites. Having lived here for just a few weeks, it is easy to understand why. The variety and abundance of flora, fauna and fungi is  truly exceptional.

Origins of Ruskinland

If the Wyre Forest is not widely known, Ruskin Land is even less so. The name is attached to about 20 acres of land given to John Ruskin, Victorian polymath and social reformer, in 1876 by the industrialist and philanthropist George Baker, then mayor of Birmingham. Through the Guild of St George, the charity set up by Ruskin around that time, the aim was to use the land to put his ideas into action and to take ‘some small piece of English ground beautiful, peaceful and fruitful.’ After clearing part of the land of oak trees, the early followers of the Guild who moved there from Liverpool, and established smallholdings, with orchards, pigs, and chickens. 

Telling the story

While a few academics and descendants (1) of the original settlers have provided fascinating insights into the people and activities in those early years, the story of Ruskin Land has yet to be fully told or widely appreciated. It is a story that we hope to reveal to a bigger audience, and to add new chapters to as plans unfold, in the months and years ahead. This is the first of what I hope will become a weekly blog post. So watch this space for future instalments!

NS 2/10/15

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(1) Peter Wardle and Cedric Quayle, grandsons of the early settlers, have written a compelling booklet on Ruskin and Bewdley which deserves to be more widely read. It is available from the Guild of St George.