We’ve spent the last few days immersed in the legacy of John Ruskin and his followers here in the Wyre Forest. And we enjoyed great company. About 30 or so Companions of Ruskin’s charity the Guild of St George visited Ruskin Land this weekend to see what is happening here. We shared stories and insights into its fascinating history, and discussed its future which is set to be just as interesting!
There were many highlights from the weekend but for me two very different aspects stood out. The first was a visit to St George’s Field, a meadow on the fringes of the village of Sheepscombe in Gloucestershire, about 3o miles from Bewdley. The event was to mark the 80th anniversary of the gift of the field to the Guild by Margaret Knight who was concerned about the threat of its development. It’s a remarkable place: a breathtaking treasury of wildflowers, including many rare orchids, and the display was at its best for the occasion. David Ingram told us of the vital importance of what couldn’t be seen – the complex micorrhizal networks below the ground – to the visible abundance of the flora above it. It was pleasing to hear from staff at Natural England, the Government agency that has been looking after it so well, that the field was greatly appreciated by the local community.
The following morning we visited Beaucastle an imposing Gothic mansion on the edge of the Wyre Forest barely a mile or so from Ruskin Land. This was for me the other highlight of the weekend. Beaucastle was built in the 1870s for George Baker who gave the Guild 20 acres of land he owned in the forest, now known as Ruskin Land. Baker who was Mayor of Birmingham in 1877/78, and subsequently Mayor of Bewdley, was a major figure in the early years of the Guild taking over as its Master following Ruskin’s death in 1900.
The current owners of Beaucastle proudly showed us many of its most interesting features. These included stone carvings by Benjamin Creswick, a knife grinder from Sheffield. Ruskin encouraged Creswick to develop his skills and he went on to become a highly praised craftsman and an important figure in the Birmingham arts world. Ruskin Land is just visible from the turret of the house which commands stunning panoramic views of the forest extending many miles into neighbouring Shropshire.
The final part of the weekend involved a mini-tour around Ruskin Land itself. The group saw the recent progress towards establishing an estate-scale sawmill and primary timber processing workshop. The field above St George’s farmstead boasts its own impressive wildflower display primarily of buttercups and ox-eye daisies. And it was exciting to discover that the neighbouring field, where the orchard has recently been established, is already host to yellow-rattle, a species associated with the most important meadow habitats. Careful management will enhance the diversity of the field’s flora. In time, we hope it will come to match the beauty of St George’s Field in Sheepscombe.