Heavy Horses at Half Term

We have had some very welcome visitors at St George’s Farm this past week.  Milo and Saul, our grandchildren, stayed for part of their half term holiday, along with Leonie, their mum, and her friend Joel.  And we were all delighted to meet Duke, an English Cob working horse, and his minder John, who have been hauling timber in Lord’s Yard Coppice, a nearby woodland owned by the Guild of St George.  Duke even brought Posey his friend from Shetland who Saul was thrilled to ride!

There has recently been a lot of activity in the woodland to get jobs done before the start of the bird nesting season.   Alongside Duke and John, Ellie and Amy, the two forestry workers with the Wyre Community Land Trust, have been felling and preparing trees for extraction.  This is all part of the long term management plan for the Guild woodlands to increase their value for wildlife at the same time as generating some economic value.

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Striking the right balance between wildlife value and economic productivity is an important part of the vision for making better use of the oak woodland here. Improving the health and diversity of wildlife in the Wyre Forest has been an important objective since over 200 hectares – almost 500 acres – of it was designated as a National Nature Reserve almost 50 years ago.  The reserve area has tripled since then. Its biodiversity has been enhanced by the work that has been done in recent years to create a more diverse woodland structure by selective felling of 60-80 year old oak trees and re-establishing traditional ‘coppice’ management.

Coppicing – where trees are cut down at ground level on a regular, 15-20 year cycle – was the main means of harvesting wood from much of the Wyre until the early twentieth century.    As well as providing valuable habitat for ground nesting birds, such as the increasingly rare wood warbler, this practice has meant the survival of  huge oak ‘stools’ – or roots – which are many centuries old.  It is also the reason that most of the Wyre Forest is classified as ‘ancient woodland’, one of the UK’s most important wildlife habitats.

Horses were generally used to remove the felled timber in the Wyre Forest up to the middle of the last century.   ‘Tushing ditches’, ancient trackways created by centuries of timber extraction by horses,  pictured above can still be seen throughout the forest. Today, horse logging is increasingly preferred in wildlife rich woodlands over the use of giant forestry tractors which can cause a lot of ground damage and disturbance, as well as being intrusive to the eye and ear.  That is why its been a such a pleasure to see Duke and John at Ruskin Land, as well as our grandchildren, and why I hope we will be seeing more of them in future.

 

 

Walking, planning, networking, learning, digging and flattening!

On Thursday last week Ruskin Land was a hive of activity. A long crocodile of small children walked by on their way to Coppers Mill by Dowles Brook, from the Frank Chapman educational outdoor activity centre on the outskirts of Bewdley. Meanwhile the manager of the centre Stuart Meese was attending the education seminar we had organised at the Ruskin Studio.  He was joined by staff from the Bishops Wood Centre, The Wyre Discovery Centre, Bodenham Arboretum, Bewdley Museum, Natural England, local Forest School providers and others with an interest in environmental education.

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The seminar had a number of aims: to learn about local educational provision, consult about local needs, for everyone to meet each other, to explain the Ruskin Land Project and to hear from Jen Hurst the education officer from the New Sylva Foundation about their excellent organisation.

During the first session, on a drawing of a large tree with branches labelled wellbeing, training, events, physical activities, curriculum, research and lifelong learning attendees attached leaves explaining each activity they provide. The tree quickly became completely covered. Clearly the local area has many excellent initiatives and services already in place.

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Jen then asked us to complete an outside activity putting in order photographs of the One Oak project.  This was an initiative organised by the Foundation when pupils from primary schools in Oxfordshire watched a tree being felled then followed each stage in the production of the 50 products made from the wood. During her session we also heard about Sylva’s new online excellent educational resource ‘Timber’.

 People were asked about ideas for the Ruskin Land project and outcomes they would like to come from the seminar. Everyone wanted to meet again as a group and continue to network. The opportunity for pupils to visit farm animals so they learn where their food comes from, social forestry for patients with mental health issues, more art and craft activities at Bewdley Museum and the need for more provision for older people were highlighted as gaps. Many participants were interested in working together on a Big Draw event at St George’s in October 2016, others offered introductions to staff in schools in the poorer areas of Kidderminster and Birmingham so we can build on our contacts and visitors.

The sawmill development

At the same time a huge tractor carrying two slightly smaller machines arrived at St George’s Farm to flatten and dig trenches for water and electricity on the site that is to become the sawmill.

After only 2 days the area was flattened and trenches dug, as well as some pipes laid. The intention is to develop a market for firewood,charcoal, planks and other wood products to raise much needed income for the Wyre Community Land Trust run from Ruskin Land.

Early outcomes from the seminar

Jen from Sylva pointed out that as Worcester has the largest number of Forest School providers in the country 400 in all, many of them near by would be delighted to have the off cuts from the sawmill to support their work. This would mean none of the wood from our precious trees would be wasted.IMG_2739

Only the day after the seminar the development of an educational visit involving children walking through Ruskin Land was being discussed by email. This might include a visit to the animals at Uncllys farm, drawing in the old barn with refreshments, discussions about why the new orchard is being planted as well as exploring the history of the area and the people who initially settled here. 

In the Making

 

A new exhibition at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, inspired by John Ruskin, provides much food for thought.  There is a growing interest in the practice and concept of craft, and the show entitled ‘In the Making’ is well timed to encourage an exploration of the meaning of craftsmanship in the modern world.   This is the third and last in a series of triennial exhibitions supported by Ruskin’s charity the Guild of St George designed in part to expose the riches of the Ruskin Collection which is looked after on behalf of the Guild by Museums Sheffield.

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As well as carefully selected items from the Ruskin Collection and further afield, the exhibition includes specially commissioned new work by a number of artists and craftsmen.  They make use of a variety of materials and techniques, and bring to life many of the principles that Ruskin espoused, truth to nature, attention to detail and practical handiwork.  Hannah Downing’s exquisite drawing of brambles does this particularly well, drawing attention to the inherent beauty of the commonplace.

The other commissions are similarly thought provoking. A collaborative piece entitled ‘what you do, where you’re from, who you know’ by woodworker Henk Littlewood and visual artist Mir Jansen uses wood from Ruskin Land to create an interactive pod like structure displaying painted images, inviting you to sit down and contemplate the questions it poses; a sort of gallery within a gallery.  Colourful prints by artist Harriet Popham made playful use of stylised shapes and forms from common plants and animals providing as floorpieces a visual link between the different rooms of the exhibition.

Coming closer to home, ‘The Clearing’, Amber Hiscott’s stained glass creation, was inspired by her visits to St George’s Farm last Autumn.  In her own words, it is a response to ‘the particular way the light shone on the farm.’   This work captures what is for me one of the most striking aspects of Ruskin Land, the sense of air, light and openness experienced on approaching St George’s, emerging from the darker, horizon-less, enclosed wooded surroundings.   This is experienced differently at night when the woodland provides a perfect frame for star studded night skies.  Another item in the show, Moonlight, a beautiful tapestry design by Sir Howard Hodgkin and woven in wool by the wonderful West Dean Tapestry Studio, is also reminiscent of the way the moon illuminates the orchard here.

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This subtle quality of light is just one of the natural resources we want to explore in realising the potential of Ruskin Land.  ‘In the Making’ also provides pointers of how we might seek creative inspiration from other raw materials that are to hand here.  Oak from the surrounding woodland, sustainably managed, will be at the heart of all this.  With the involvement of diverse artists and craftspeople we want to use this place to encourage people to explore the creative potential of their own local surroundings, in both town or country.  This is one of the ways we can begin to reveal John Ruskin’s under-appreciated legacy in the Wyre Forest.