A new era dawns for Ruskin Land

We are in transition.  Some of you may have noticed that we haven’t written a post since March.  That because we have been busy discussing and planning the next phase of the Ruskin Land project, and preparing for our move back to London.

A lot has happened at St George’s Farm since we last wrote here.  The new home for the Wyre Community Land Trust has really started to take shape, largely through the good work of the volunteer groups.  The woodyard has moved forward in leaps and bounds with a new level surface and access road, a workshop nearing completion, and a newly installed mill that will enable the processing of timber felled here.  The CLT’s temporary portakabin office has been moved onto the footprint of the old turkey shed.  And a new toolshed in the refurbished barn is now in use, with a store room for the equipment of the orchard group, as well as workbenches and tool storage.

We are also able to announce the terrific news that the Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands region has awarded the Guild of St George a grant to tell the story of Ruskin Land.  This will help realise the exciting  plans we have been developing with the CLT to put the place on the map – in more ways than one.  Plans include a community arts project, an exhibition and new website, and initiatives to explore how we can make better use of the oak that grows all around us.  A project coordinator will be appointed shortly and we anticipate launching the project formally in July at an exhibition ‘An ABC of Ruskin Land’ based at Bewdley Museum.


It has been a great privilege to help move the project forward in this way.  We are hugely grateful to all those who have helped us formulate ambitious plans for the future, especially those who have urged us to be bold and imaginative, including the 100 plus people from arts, environment and cultural backgrounds who participated in the consultation seminars we organised over the past 24 months; the several hundred people who have attended the seasonal public events we hosted; the numerous group visits we have organised, including school children from Birchen Coppic and most recently a delightful group of Syrian refugees; and those who attended the numerous talks and presentations we have given.

We are also pleased to have been awarded the Community and Libraries national award for The Big Draw event organised with the Wyre CLT last October. A small group, including we hope a family from Birchen Coppice, will be travelling to London to collect the prize money in July. The award will help cover the costs of further events in 2017/18.

As for Lynne and me, we are planning a move back to London in the Summer to be closer to our family and begin some new activities.  I have recently taken up the post as Director of the London Branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England campaigning to protect vital Green Belt and other green spaces around the city, as well as promoting better urban regeneration and a more ‘liveable’ London.  I am also looking forward to playing a more active role as a trustee of the arts and conservation group Common Ground.  Lynne will be getting involved in Spitalfields City Farm, setting up a Forest School in Stepney, and working with Kazzum, an inclusive theatre group who work with young people and refugees.  We will both be keeping in touch with the Wyre CLT and continuing to help with the Ruskin Land project both from a distance and also through regular visits.


If you want to follow the continuing story of Ruskin Land then please keep an eye on the Wyre Community Land Trust website, and also that of the Guild of St George. And if you have a particular query please contact jenny@wyreclt.org.uk.



Ruskin and the land

Unsurprisingly perhaps, John Ruskin’s approach to land has been a subject that has fascinated me well before we moved here almost two years ago.  The fascination was rekindled last week by a visit from Dominika Wielgopolan, who is just beginning a doctorate at Manchester Metropolitan University which will explore Ruskin’s approach to nature, the land and environmental sustainability

The Guild of St George was established by Ruskin primarily in order to acquire and use land as a means of furthering its objectives.  As Ruskin wrote:  ‘We will try to take some small piece of English ground, beautiful, peaceful, and fruitful.  We will have no steam-engines upon it, and no railroads:  we will have no untended or unthought of creatures on it; none wretched by the sick; none idle but the dead…..we will have plenty of flowers and vegetables in our gardens, plenty of corn and grass in our fields….and few bricks.’  It was his practical response to the environmental and social damage caused by nineteenth century industrialisation.

It was a scheme for rural regeneration and, as Stu Eagles notes, Ruskin was not concerned per se ‘with man’s ownership of land, but with the relationship between man and nature.’  The purpose was to provide opportunities for workers to reconnect with the natural world and to promote ‘the rational organisation of country life’.    There are parallels with the Chartist land movement of a few decades earlier and the ‘three acres and cow’ land reform campaign which arose in the 1880s in response to rural poverty.  While Ruskin professed ‘to know very little about land myself’, his approach was much broader than these other initiatives. This is clear from the primary objective of the Guild, set out in its original Memorandum of Association, ‘to determine, and institute in practice, the wholesome laws of laborious (and especially agricultural) life and economy, and to instruct first the agricultural and, as opportunity may serve, other labourers and craftsmen, in such science, art, and literature as are conducive to good husbandry and craftsmanship.’


Ruskin Land, here in the Wyre Forest, was one of the Guild’s first acquisitions.  Initially, 7 acres of land was donated by George Baker in 1871 and the gift was later increased to 20 acres in 1877.  St George’s Fund, as the Guild was first called, Ruskin said was to be used for: ‘the buying and securing of land in England, which shall not be built upon, but cultivated by Englishmen, with their own hands, and such help of force as they can find in wind and wave’.   Other early landholdings were at Totley, near Sheffield (below – also called St George’s Farm), and Cloughton Moor, near Scarborough, where followers of Ruskin sought to put into practice his ideals.

While the intention was to create smallholdings for farming and horticulture, it took a few years for this to be achieved at Ruskin Land mainly, it seems, due to the lack of housing nearby.  In 1882 Ruskin wrote, in a report to the Guild, that its land in the Wyre Forest was ‘so precious, in its fresh air and wild woodland, to the neighbouring populations of large manufacturing towns, that I am  content at present in our possession of it, and do not choose to break the quiet of its neighbourhood by any labourer’s cottage building, without which, however, I do not at present see my way to any effective use of the ground.’  It wasn’t until 1908 that St George’s farmhouse was built.


St George’s farmhouse – the ‘little red house’ – at Ruskin Land

Previous research, including by Mark Frost and Jan Marsh, has explored aspects of the early years of the Guild’s land-based activities.  Professor David Ingram has investigated how Ruskin experimented with managing his estate at Brantwood, near Coniston, where he lived out his later years.  Despite these valuable sources, and my own modest contribution to Arboreal – a collection of new woodland writing which describes the changing fortunes of Ruskin Land, it would be good to explore further what we can learn from Ruskin’s approach to land.  Given the many challenges faced in establishing viable smallholdings and staying true to Ruskinian ideals, I look forward to seeing what Dominika’s research reveals and what lessons it may have for the future.


Wassail in the Wyre once again

Earlier this month, just before old twelfth night, we held the second Wassail event here at Ruskin Land.  The evening was a few degrees warmer than last year and the atmosphere slightly damper, although we were spared the heavy showers forecast earlier in the week.

This year, I think it’s fair to say, the occasion was a little livelier than the first.  We have the scratch Morris dancing side – calling themselves the Wassail Morris – and accompanying musicians to thank for that.  Particular thanks are due to Lucy Greenwood for leading the wassail ceremony and organising the group which came together especially for the event and provided great entertainment and dancing opportunities  during the evening.  It was great that a trio of musicians specialising in Irish music, some of whom came last year, were also able to join in once again. One particularly memorable moment (though perhaps not for folk purists) was when the Wassail Morris gave an extemporary performance inspired by the Irish dance tunes.

It looks like the Wassail at Ruskin Land will become an annual event.  This is good news for the orchard at St George’s Farm where the trees require all the help they can get to establish themselves so that they can bear fruit for decades to come.  Sadly, a small number of trees that we planted last winter, mainly varieties of cherry,  have not survived their first year.  I suspect this is partly due to that winter being a particularly wet one, creating waterlogging for weeks in parts of the field with heavy clay soil.  We will shortly be replacing these lost trees shortly with new specimens sourced from specialist nurseries such as Keepers in Kent, Frank Matthews near Tenbury, and the Walcot organic nursery in Gloucestershire.

A meeting for local orchard enthusiasts is taking place at the Ruskin Studio at Uncllys Farm, a neighbouring smallholding, on 14 February.  The aim is to discuss a long term vision for the orchards of the Wyre Forest, no doubt considering what the future holds post-Brexit for public funding for land management.  It is worth noting that agri-environment funding available under the Common Agricultural Policy has helped pay for most orchard conservation, and other environmental land management schemes, in recent years.  This issue has been explored in a recent Parliamentary report produced by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.    We need to make sure that funding for such vital work continues after Britain leaves the EU.


We also need to discuss how we can make the most of our orchard produce in future, including through stepping up our juicing and cider-making activities.  On that note, shortly before Christmas we were delighted to be offered by friends a hydro-press juicer, scratter (which pulps the apples before pressing), and other juicing equipment. This  will help us increase our output just as many of the trees planted recently round here start to produce increasing quantities of fruit.  Look out for top quality, Ruskin Land Apple Juice at a retail outlet near you soon!


Winter light and stained glass

Not many of us look forward to the long, dark nights of winter.  Natural light is increasingly understood to play an important role in our physical and mental wellbeing. It is not surprising that Seasonal Affective Disorder , sometimes known as ‘winter depression’, is closely related to the lack of light during this time of the year.


Living here at St George’s Farm, in the depths of the Wyre Forest, there is little pollution from artificial light.  This seems to have made us more sensitive to changing levels of natural light.  In the cloudy, gloom of drizzly and damp winter days – such as today – it is harder to escape from the  midwinter torpor that can feel overwhelming.


But there is another, more positive side to this.  When the sun does shine – and it seems to have done so most days this winter, at least for a short while – the quality of the light can be stunning.  This is especially the case at sunrise.  With the sun hanging so low in the sky, it barely rises above the top of the tree line but the angle of the light through the forest can create dramatic effects.    This is often enhanced by moisture held in the air causing atmospheric mists to cling to the ground, turning to magical hoar frost when it freezes. The darkness of the night recently has also created the most wonderful displays of starlight.

Of the course the quality of light has motivated artists for centuries.  The formation of artists colony in St Ives almost a century ago was driven by the crystal clarity of the air that is often found in that part of Cornwall.    Anne Wroe has recently written on this topic in her book Six Facets of Light.  She describes how artists such as Eric Ravilious and Samuel Palmer, more closely associated with Kent and Sussex, were drawn by and sought to capture the character of the light they found there.


Samuel Palmer, Early Morning (1825)

Stained glass is one artform that has a particular dependence on light.  We have written before in this blog about the glass work by Amber Hiscott – inspired by the quality of light in the forest clearing that surrounds St George’s Farm.  It has been a delight to discover the wonderful stained glass designs by Edward Burne-Jones, and produced by the company set up by William Morris, to be found locally.   Both figures were strongly influenced by John Ruskin.


All Saints Church at Wilden, with all of its glass by Burne-Jones – examples above – which was commissioned along with the building itself by Stanley Baldwin’s father Alfred, is particularly impressive.  St Leonard’s at Ribbesford also has a beautiful window – below – again by Morris and Burne-Jones.  More of their stained glass designs adorn the Cathedral Church of St Philip, and other churches in Birmingham where Burne Jones was born in 1833.  There are also a number of other examples of their work in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that are well worth seeing.


Instead of lamenting the lack of natural light in winter, we should be grateful for the changing quality of light through the seasons.  As well as playing a vital role in the work of many of our most treasured artists, it connects us with the natural rhythms of the world we live in.


If you go down to the woods today….

It has been rather lively around St George’s Farm of late.  As well as the fantastic volunteers who come to help with various woodyard, orchard or farm work, a forestry contractor has arrived to carry out much needed thinning of woodland known as Shelf Held Coppice which borders on Ruskin Land.

Regular visitors to this part of the Wyre Forest may be surprised at the size of the machinery being used to carry out this work.  A gigantic forest tractor and ‘forwarder’ – for loading large trunks onto a trailer – are being used to move the timber to stacks ready for collection by fire-wood merchants or timber contractors.  When these big beasts are first encountered, particularly at dusk when their headlights project an eerie light into the woods, they can seem a little out of place.   But the work being carried out here, with great skill by Nathan of Home Forestry in line with a management plan agreed with the Forestry Commission, is essential to improve the health and biodiversity of the woodland.

Shelf Held Coppice is an important part of the Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve, one of our most important wildlife sites.  Yet, lack of management coupled with pressure from deer and squirrels has contributed to a general decline in biodiversity in recent years, primarily of woodland birds and butterflies and the flora they depend on such as violets. The decline of coppicing here – where trees are cut at ground level every 15 years or so to encourage new growth – since the 1930s has played a part in this.  The result is trees all of roughly the same age with a closed canopy which prevents light from reaching the forest floor so that only bracken and bramble can survive as ground cover.  Added to this is concern about the spread of tree diseases such as acute oak decline and oak processionary moth, although the latter is not thought to be present here.  To address these challenges, the aim of the management plan is ‘to increase diversity in both the age structure and species mix to create a woodland that is resilient to disease and the potential effects of climate change.’

woodland-structureThere is also an important economic aspect to this activity.  Through generating income and raw material from this kind of sensitive woodland management, the Wyre Community Land Trust intends to help rebuild the local woodland economy which has been lost in so many parts of the country.  Such efforts are being helped by a new Making Local Woods Work programme being run by the Plunkett Foundation which aims to support social enterprises, such as the Wyre CLT, to develop sustainable woodland businesses.

Some may think it unnecessary to manage woodlands in this way, and might oppose the felling of any tree, preferring woodland to be left to look after itself. This was the view taken by many associated with the romantic movement in the nineteenth century.  I am not sure John Ruskin would have taken this position.  His writing reveals a belief in the possibility of a harmonious working relationship between people and the natural world  (even if he felt this was not much in evidence).    In recent years, woodland ecologists like George Peterken have done much to demonstrate the value of intelligent intervention to sustain and enhance the value, and indeed beauty, of our native woodland.


We have a great responsibility to look after beautiful places like this with great care.   I believe the woodland work being carried out here, while it may be a surprise for some, shows how it is possible to pursue economic aims alongside longer term environmental objectives.  I can’t wait until next Spring to see how the woodland flora responds.


Apples a plenty

The apple harvest has just ended here in the Wyre Forest.  Last week we gathered as many as we could of the remaining fruits still clinging to the leafless branches of trees in local orchards.    We were playing our small part in the practice of gleaning which is growing in popularity in these parts and across the UK.

Almost all of the apples we collected recently, including a fair quantity of undamaged windfalls, we have turned into juice.  We didn’t bother trying to combine the different varieties with great precision but even so the result was impressive, a subtle bittersweet combination helped no doubt by a quantity of cider apples.  There is nothing quite like the taste of fresh apple juice drunk straight from the press.   Although it has an affect on taste, for practical purposes we pasteurised most of the juice  To do this we poured it into sterilised bottles and immersed them in a water bath kept at around 75 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes.  This should ensure it keeps well for at least 12 months. Unpasteurised juice can be stored for a few weeks in the freezer but should be consumed within a couple of days of being opened.

With the help of a heavy duty press and ‘scratter’ – which chops and pulverises the apples into small bite size lumps – we managed to turn two large ‘builders’ bucketfuls into about 20 litres of juice.  Some, I must confess, was siphoned off into demijohns with the intention of making cider.   Along with an air lock, we are relying on the natural, wild yeasts from the apples to create the right fermentation.  This is not a practice recommended by most cider makers, who tend to add champagne yeast, so we eagerly await the results.  In any case, I’m told that apple vinegar is increasingly valued for its health giving properties which is good to know as we may have a lot of that to dispose of in the coming months!

It was interesting to discover that John Ruskin has been described as a ‘leading maker of apple juice’ in his time.  So far I haven’t managed to find much information about how this came to be, either in his writing or that of his many followers.  It is tempting to imagine this juice might have been sold in the tea shop he established in Paddington Street in London in the 1870s.  The shop was conceived to provide honest, high quality tea to the local community at a reasonable cost.  (Coincidentally Ruskin’s shop was located just a short distance along the same street as the apple boutique set up by the Beatles almost a century later.  At the official opening of the boutique, it is reported, apple juice was consumed due to the lack of an alcohol licence!)


Site of Ruskin’s tea shop

The apples we juiced recently were not harvested at Ruskin Land.  The orchard here at St George’s Farm has only just been planted so we will have to wait a few years before we can begin to harvest its fruit.  We look forward to its future bounty. To help encourage a good crop in coming years we are planning another wassail celebration in mid-January. Mulled cider and apple juice from the recent harvest will no doubt be on the drinks list.  We hope the event is as successful as the first such occasion organised earlier this year. Details of the wassail will shortly be on the Wyre CLT website if you fancy coming along.


Big Draw and Apple Day

We have more or less recovered from our most recent public event here at Ruskin Land which combined Big Draw and Apple Day celebrations.  It was great to be able to link the tremendous work being done in and around the Wyre Forest to maintain and enhance traditional orchards and the great variety of fruit they contain, with a more recent initiative which aims to encourage people to observe, draw and enjoy being creative.

The Big Draw is a global celebration of drawing which takes place every year in October.   This year with the Wyre Community Land Trust we organised three days of artistic activities at Ruskin Land in the Wyre Forest, including the scientific process of making charcoal to draw with. The theme of the Big Draw 2016 is S.T.E.A.M. – science, technology, engineering, art and maths. The aim is to get the missing A into S.T.E.M. – the Government initiative in schools,  and to highlight the huge importance of the arts in all areas of education. John Ruskin would approve.  He believed in the value of drawing as a way of appreciating the world around us. The Guild of St George, Ruskin’s charity, funded the Big Draw when it was first set up many years ago and continues to do so for this very reason.

On Thursday, families from Birchen Coppice Primary School attended the event at St George’s Farm.  They produced lots of the lovely work you can see here, including the pastel drawing of fruit by Gerald the premises manager.

On Saturday,  we celebrated national Apple Day which has become an established date in the calendar since it first took place in Covent Garden, London in 1990.  We organised a range of fruit-related activities including juicing, apple bobbing and the longest peel competition (won by Jake).  A display of over 20 varieties of apple grown in local orchards included the variety reputed to be Ruskin’s favourite, the Ribston Pippin.

 Altogether, over the three days, more than 100 people visited Ruskin Land.   They met and drew the working horse Duke, spent time being creative, heard about the work of the Wyre CLT, and enjoyed soup, cake and marshmallows round the bonfire.

We have now mounted a small exhibition at Bewdley Museum which shows the wonderful creations from the event by people of all ages, from 18 months to 83 years old.  Oscar, pictured below, enjoyed the event so much he came every day!  The exhibition runs until Sunday 27th November (winter opening 10am-4pm, Friday, Saturday and Sundays).