The cows come home and a visitor from overseas

A few days ago a pedigree herd of Dexter cattle arrived at St George’s Farm.  The cattle are looked after by the Wyre Community Land Trust which now has its home here.  They had just passed their regular tests for TB, essential for preventing the spread of the disease, with flying colours.  This was a huge relief, as always, for Sally the farm manager.

The Dexter cattle are at the heart of the work of the CLT.   They carry out ‘conservation grazing’ on land owned by the Guild of St George and small parcels of land owned by others around the Wyre Forest.  The Forest’s meadows make a vital contribution to the wildlife diversity of the area and the cattle play an essential role in that.  The Dexter originates from Ireland.  It was once considered a rare breed but has seen a resurgence in popularity over recent years.  Being relatively small and lightweight they do little damage to soil structure and the way they graze helps maintain wildflower rich swards.   They seem to graze more by night, the herb-rich grass made more succulent by the evening dew, and quite noisily too!   And as they are a hardy breed they can be kept outside year round.

It seems to me that the grazing system the CLT operates is a kind of Midlands version of transhumance farming, where cattle are moved to take full advantage of seasonal growing conditions, carried out in Alpine Europe and other mountainous regions across the globe.

The Dexters also provide a useful stream of income to the CLT, not just from landowners who pay for their services but also from the meat they provide on a regular basis.   Demand is growing for  pasture-fed beef and Dexter beef is renowned for its high quality and much sought after in top-notch restaurants.  The choices we make about what we eat, whether we are vegan or omnivores, are a defining feature of our relationship with the natural world.  As people become more discerning about the meat they consume, its provenance and the conditions under which it is produced, the market for Dexter beef will continue to expand.


We were also pleased to welcome a vegan visitor to St George’s Farm last week.  Arjun comes from New Delhi, India’s capital city.  He had been inspired by John Ruskin’s writing and wanted to find out more about his influence in the Wyre.   Ruskin’s reach is truly international.   Arjun had come to Ruskin through his influence on Mahatma Ghandi, father of the Indian nation, and the great Bengali poet, painter and composer, Rabindranath Tagore.   He had spent much of the previous month volunteering at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate that belonged to Leo Tolstoy, another of Ruskin’s international supporters.      Here are some of his reflections on his visit to Ruskin Land:

‘The house was beautiful, and the location, very quiet, serene. They had prepared some ratatouille for me, without cheese, and baked sweet and regular potato. We talked about India, and about Russia, about them, and about myself……..

I woke up earlier than Neil and Lynne.  We had breakfast, porridge, and left for a walk through the forest. Passing through fields, an orchard, talking about the forest, and life, one after the other, and side by side, we picked apples, and mushrooms, crossed a brook, stopped by an old corn mill…..

Before they’d drop me off at the station, we went to the Bewdley museum. There was a library there, dedicated to the works of Ruskin, on the first floor. In the morning, I’d been reading the introduction to Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita. I hadn’t not known about his mental disturbance later in his life; but of course, that does not change, in any way, my impression of him; perhaps it even deepens it. I found out about Deucalion, a book I should read perhaps; it seems to contain that poetical treatment of science I’ve been struggling towards. Bewdley, like all English towns, was charming; and the personal-ness of Lynne and Neil lent it an even further humanness.

On the train, I felt so incredibly happy again, as then when in Yasnaya; and thought to myself, ‘I should not hold myself back now.’


Arjun hopes to return to Ruskin Land at some point to volunteer with the CLT.  It is inspiring to hear about the impact of Ruskin and those he influenced on the lives of people from other countries.  We hope to be able to host more international visitors as Ruskin Land becomes better known.





Celebrating trees and woods

When was the last time you celebrated the presence of trees in your neighbourhood?  How often do you wonder at the benefits they bring to our daily lives and the beauty they quietly provide?  As a society we take trees and woodlands for granted most of the time.  But there is a long tradition of celebrating trees and giving thanks for their existence.  


Here at Ruskin Land, in the heart of the Wyre Forest, we are currently planning the latest in a series of seasonal community events which will culminate in an Apple Day. Each event has drawn attention to the diverse beauty of the trees, mainly former oak coppice, that surround us.  The first such occasion, readers may recall, was a community wassail to mark the planting of a 151 tree orchard on the site of one originally established in 1880, shortly after the Victorian visionary John Ruskin was given the land here to pursue his utopian aspirations.  Wassailing orchards, a centuries old fertility ritual, was not so long ago confined mainly to the West Country but has undergone a renaissance in recent years.  It usually takes places around Twelfth Night, celebrating the crop of the previous autumn and wishing for a fruitful harvest in the coming year.


Springtime is a season when the beauty of trees in blossom becomes the focus of community celebration around the world.  In Japan, the arrival of the cherry blossom – sakura zensen – is monitored, mapped and eagerly anticipated for weeks.  The cherry blossom celebrations in Washington DC are an annual event that attracts thousands of participants.  On a slightly smaller scale, this year at Ruskin Land we organised a blossom walk through remnant and restored orchards which once formed what was the second largest cherry producing area in England.  This was followed by a talk by the chair of a local beekeeping group on the importance of bees and other pollinating insects.

The decoration of trees on festive days such as May Day, which has the maypole tree symbol at its heart, and, of course, at Christmas, is an old tradition in many parts of the world.  The Arbor Tree, a black poplar in the centre of the village of Aston-on-Clun, in Shropshire, is permanently adorned with flags which are renewed in May each year in a ceremony whose origins have largely been forgotten. In Appleton in Cheshire, late June sees the ‘bawming of the thorn’, an old custom involving the decoration of a hawthorn tree, said to be a descendent of the Glastonbury thorn, by local children with ribbons and garlands.  Tree Dressing Day, which was initiated by Common Ground in 1990 and usually takes place during the first weekend of December, has become an important part of the community calendar and a powerful expression of our relationship with trees.  


Millennial Oak by Mark Frith

It is with old trees that, as a nation, we have our most passionate relationship.  Our venerable native oak, which can live for over 500 years (although most in the Wyre Forest are barely 100 years old!), is the archetypal ancient tree.  It is perhaps no surprise that the recording and celebration of our oldest trees has become something of an obsession.  In Epping Forest there are over 50,000 ‘veteran trees’, mainly beech, hornbeam and oak, over 50 of which have been identified by local communities as landmark trees with special meaning.   This obsession is shared with other countries where ancient trees are often celebrated for their spiritual significance.    The tree of life, or world tree, is a symbol of immortality and fertility across all faiths and the focus of many religious festivals.  Buddha sat under the Bodhi (a fig) tree when he gained enlightenment.  Tu BiShvat is the New Year of the Trees in the Jewish tradition, when trees are planted and celebrated, and the Sidra Tree is an important symbol in the Arab world frequently depicted in Islamic art. 

These deep and diverse cultural associations provide a rich basis for tree festivities across the globe.  Woodland events of various kinds have flourished in recent years, including here in the Wyre Forest.  It will take a while though before the scale of our celebrations comes close to matching the contribution that trees make to our lives.

Young visitors, old and new

The summer has officially come to an end and its been raining heavily all day.  We made the most of the August sunshine including a picnic with some delightful young visitors and their families from a local estate.  St George’s Farm has also become home to a beautiful terra cotta sculpture of a young shepherd boy, whose creator has strong regional links.

During the school holidays, with the help of their community worker Charlotte, we hosted 15 children and 7 mums from Birchen Coppice Primary School, in nearby Kidderminster. They were driven to Ruskin Land in the school minibus by Gerald their premises manager for a walk and a picnic. What fun we all had!

The children took their fishing nets with all the grown ups down to Dowles Brook where only some of us fell in accidentally on purpose! On the way Caiden read all of the text on the Butterfly Walk information sign to his friends while Summer explained how much she loved nature.

Back at St Georges Farm we enjoyed our picnic kindly prepared by the local Soroptimists. After lunch everyone played games and made extraordinary clay creatures .

We then played ‘hide and seek’, perching on the fence to look at the cows grazing in St George’s orchard on our way to the wood pasture.  Everyone agreed they had a wonderful time and wanted to come back again, and again and again. These beautiful photographs taken by Charlotte tell the story of the day far better than any words!


We were also delighted to welcome another young visitor to Ruskin Land recently. Returning from a late summer tour of Kent we called in to see Annie Creswick Dawson at her home in Oxford.  Annie has generously donated an enchanting terra cotta sculpture of a shepherd boy complete with his attentive sheepdog and inquisitive sheep, though missing his arms! The sculpture is by Benjamin Creswick, Annie’s Great Grandfather, originally a Sheffield knife grinder whose talents were recognised and nurtured by John Ruskin.

With such patronage, Benjamin Creswick received many commissions and became a Professor at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.  His connections with Birmingham and where his carvings and friezes adorn many of the city’s finest buildings make the presence of his Shepherd Boy at Ruskin Land all the more appropriate.

Far Forest – in place and time



The Far Forest Countryside Show took place this weekend.  A hugely enjoyable annual event organised by the local community, it involves a wide range of vaguely rural activities, displays and items of interest for all tastes.  The show dates back to 1902 when the first Flower, Vegetable and Poultry exhibition took place in the Old School.  It has been suggested that the author H. Rider Haggard was the inspiration when he proposed the idea to the local vicar, perhaps when he was conducting his contested survey of depopulation in Rural England.

Falconry, dog shows, vintage caravans and farm machinery, poultry displays, live music and even belly-dancing were all on offer over the weekend.  The stand put together by staff and volunteers from the Wyre Community Land Trust proved very popular, not least due to the presence of two young pigs, Boris and Nigel. Children were drawn by the opportunity to make and decorate small forest creatures, imaginary and real, out of clay, twigs and other natural materials.  I was particularly taken by the simple yet beautiful, and almost surreal, displays of perfectly formed vegetables and flowers in the Horticultural Show.

Far Forest is a wonderfully evocative place name.  It was most likely coined centuries ago by people living in the more populous Bewdley on the other side of the forest about four miles away on the banks of the River Severn.   It is also the title of a book by Francis Brett Young, a regional writer popular in the first half of the last century, in which he writes of the people and nature of the forest before the Second World War.    It is striking that this appears to be the only novel of any note which takes the Wyre Forest, or ‘Werewood’ as its called in the book, as its setting.


For me, the words ‘Far Forest’ also conjure up an image of the forest in the future.  This is the focus of a new management plan for the Wyre Forest being devised by Natural England and the Forestry Commission.   It will bring together the land managed by the two organisations for the first time into a single comprehensive management plan.  This important document which will guide the evolution of the forest, in its own words, ‘to help bring about a more diverse, species-rich, resilient Wyre Forest for all to enjoy’.


This broad aim is based on a fifty year vision for the forest developed by the Wyre Forest Landscape Partnership, a body which brought together numerous public, private and community organisations connected with the forest.    The vision is comprehensive and compelling, and owes much to the connection with John Ruskin.  It is worth repeating in full – see below.   I encourage everyone with an interest in the future of the forest to have a look at the draft management plan and let Natural England and the Forestry Commission know if you think the proposals it sets out will help deliver the vision.  You have until 22 August to do so.

A 50 year vision for Wyre by the Wyre Forest Landscape Partnership:

“The Wyre Forest is mostly ancient woodland: 2400 hectares of it – the largest contiguous forest of that kind in the whole of England. Though there were trees here before there were human beings, the forest we know today is the product of our history. Landscapes change, particularly when people manage them. We will manage this one by caring for wildlife in all its diversity and encouraging a flourishing woodland economy. The forest of the future will be nourished by its past; it will weave together a range of communities and different sorts of landscape. We want it to be, in the words of John Ruskin, ‘beautiful, peaceful, and fruitful’. We want it to generate wealth, serve the needs of visitors seeking refreshment, and resonate in human memory.

The Forest will have been recognised as one of England’s most important ancient woodlands. The Wyre will have adapted structurally to a changing climate within an inspirational 21st-century woodland landscape meeting society’s needs and carbon targets. Wyre will evoke a powerful sense of place and this will be celebrated by the communities and people of the Forest, and shared by visitors who value the special qualities. There will be a recognition that the landscape of Wyre Forest and its setting is highly distinctive, diverse and culturally complex. The story of Wyre will be ingrained in its landscape and will be written by the generations to come. The forest will have a more natural woodland landscape, managed to increase the diversity of tree species characteristic of the ancient woodland of Wyre with a varied age structure from young saplings to ageing veterans.  A rich mosaic of woodland and well-connected open habitats will have been developed, incorporating meadows and orchards, patches of heathland and a network of ‘rides’ through the forest. Populations of key woodland species will have been secured. Habitat management and species introductions will have allowed for species migration in response to changes in climate. Re-introductions of key species will have contributed to the natural processes of the woodland. The people and communities of the Wyre Forest will understand, recognise and celebrate the national significance and value of the Forest and will have opportunities to become involved in its maintenance and development. It will be a core part of their quality of life, enhancing health and wellbeing. A vibrant woodland enterprise culture will support and complement Wyre’s landscape, turning its lumber into a diverse range of products needed and valued by society.

The Wyre Forest will be an excellent place to visit, with great facilities and activities designed for its core family audience. Interactive and stimulating information about the Forest, its landscape and wildlife will be easily accessible. The Wyre Forest will be widely known as a distinctive destination complementing Cleobury Country and the Severn Valley. Wyre will have a national reputation for high quality tourism, food and local products derived from the woodland and surrounding landscapes. The Wyre Forest will be recognised as a significant national centre for woodland learning, research and monitoring, supporting formal and informal learning and skills development in all its forms, underpinned by a deep evidence base”.

Who wouldn’t subscribe to that!



Butterfly sandwiches

Rain this week has interfered with taking the hay from the fields at St George’s Farm.  We were lucky to have fine weather though on Sunday for the Butterfly Picnic, the third in our series of public events at Ruskin Land.  Chloe, along with her butterfly-shaped sandwiches and biscuits joined over 4o local people, including an enthusiastic group of guides who were staying at nearby Cooper’s Mill.


The group met at the car park off Dry Mill Lane, the start of the official butterfly trail through the Wyre Forest.  Under the expert guidance of Scott Martin from the  West Midlands Butterfly Conservation Society we walked along the old railway track and then down to Knowles Mill, one of at least five water driven corn mills which once operated along Dowles Brook.  The mill which retains much of its machinery is now owned by the National Trust and cared for by volunteers who are part of the Midland Wind and Water Mills Group.

At this point, the weather was a little grey and threatening rain so there were few butterflies to be seen apart from some Ringlets and Large Whites.  By the time we reached the field just beyond Cooper’s Mill, however, the sun was breaking through and the meadow came alive.  We were fortunate to be able to study close up three types of skipper (Large, Essex and Small), a Speckled Wood, and a Green-veined White butterfly.  Some fritillaries, including a Silver-washed and a possibly a Dark Green, were also spotted on the wing.  Scott’s enthusiasm was infectious.

The group ended up at St George’s Farm for sandwiches, tea and cake donated by participants (Marion’s Balinese Carrot Cake was a personal favourite).   Depending on age and inclination, food was followed by art activities or an informative talk by Scott on the butterflies of the Wyre Forest. The young people made beautiful butterflies, had their faces painted and created creatures of the forest with clay.

Amazingly, the Wyre Forest is home to 34 of the 59 species of butterfly found in Britain. It was pleasing to learn that the Wyre Community Land Trust’s grazing herd of Dexter cattle are vital to the good management of the meadows which provide essential food sources for many of the species found here.  The maintenance of wide, open rides also helps, along with the creation of new coppice areas.  While butterfly populations in the Wyre are doing relatively well, across the country many species have seen a significant decline over the past 40 years.   The national Butterfly Count, taking place right now and ending on 7 August, is helping to monitor the situation.   Overall, these worrying trends appear to be slowing but continued improvements depend on the kind of environmental grant schemes available as part of the European Union’s farming policy. Following the recent referendum, it is vital that such schemes are maintained at the UK level if our wildlife is to flourish.

Traditional hay-making also has a part to play.  With help from the girl guides, staff and volunteers at the Wyre CLT managed to get all of the grass cut, turned, baled and undercover, from the wildflower meadow at St George’s Farm and the orchard at Uncllys before the rain arrived a few days ago.  We hope to bale the grass from St George’s orchard before the end of the week but, as I write, we are waiting for a decent spell of dry weather. Let’s hope it comes soon.






Ruskin and the environment

Earlier this week we experienced the hottest day of the year so far, after the hottest June on record globally.  The outside temperature was a stupefying 30 degrees in the shade and I was pleased not to be sweltering in the middle of a city.    But we were delighted to be in London last week for what is the latest in the series of ‘consultation seminars’ we have organised to inform our work here at Ruskin Land.

The event was kindly hosted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) – my former employers – at their offices near the Tate Modern in vibrant Bankside.  In attendance were more than thirty of the country’s leading environmental campaigners and arts organisers who were invited to consider the relevance of John Ruskin’s ideas for their work today.     Among them were representatives of the Woodland Trust, Open Spaces Society, Sylva Foundation, the Big Draw,  the Black Environment Network and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which was established in 1877 by William Morris, one of Ruskin’s earliest and most illustrious followers.  Ruskin was also an important influence on the creation of the CPRE – as shown in the excellent new book 22 Ideas That Saved The English Countryside – as well as the Open Spaces Society, so it was especially good to reconnect with those groups.

The highlight of the event was a stimulating presentation by Dr Sara Atwood, a Ruskin scholar from the US.  Her talk, entitled The Secret of Sympathy, explored our use of language to describe nature and how this profoundly affects our relationship with it.   Developing some of the themes in her lecture ‘The Earth Veil’ published by the Guild of St George last year, she talked about Ruskin’s interest in close observation of the natural world as a key to understanding and the way in which he saw nature as a whole, a set of interconnections, rather than in a compartmentalised, fragmented way.

Sara argued that “part of the problem we face in dealing with environmental challenges is our dependence on the language of science, technology and business.  After all, language doesn’t just express our thoughts, it helps to shape them. ”  Using abstract, narrowly scientific terms such as natural capital, ecosystems services and biodiversity, she claimed, detracts from our personal and emotional experience of nature and thereby alters our relationship with it.    While Ruskin has been described by some as a ‘proto-environmentalist’, Sara said he would have hated that clunky term for similar reasons.

A fascinating discussion followed about how today’s environmentalists (for want of a better term!) should fashion a new way of talking about their work and why it is so important for our wellbeing, as part of the natural world.  As with earlier seminars the discussion will help us develop our plans for working with the artists and others to connect with all communities and bring Ruskin’s ideas to life.


This may seem a long way from the practical day to day job of caring for the farmland and woodlands here in the Wyre Forest.  Building on its track record over the past decade, the  Wyre Community Land Trust, its staff and the many volunteers involved, is well placed though to talk about its work in ways which communicate a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the natural world. This is what the CLT has been trying to do in a small way with the public events we have been organising this year, including the Butterfly Picnic which takes place this coming weekend  And it is what we hope to explore more fully here at Ruskin Land in the coming years.


The Little Red House

The story of the building of St George’s farmhouse at Ruskin Land is an interesting one. Those who have visited us here will be aware of the unassuming character of the house which contrasts with its imposing presence, despite its relatively small size , as you approach it climbing gently up Tanner’s Hill.  It was described by Edith Hope-Scott, author and Companion of the Guild of St George, as the ‘little red house.’  Apart from the static caravan parks which encroach on the margins of the forest, it is one of just a handful of dwellings built within the woods.  A house in such a location would be unlikely to get planning permission today.


The house was built between 1906-7.  Given its location, its construction was no doubt controversial.   John Ruskin was himself in two minds about building here.  In a report to the Guild of St George in 1882 he wrote of the ‘piece of ground’ given to the Guild by George Baker: ‘ 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 1903, three years after Ruskin’s death, that the Guild resolved to investigate building ‘cottages for farm labourers’ here.

Following the decision, it seems members of the Guild visited, along with 60,000 others, the ‘Cheap Cottages Exhibition’ at Letchworth in 1905, precursor to the ideal home exhibition.  Letchworth was to become the first ‘garden city’ and a major inspiration for the planning of new settlements across the world.  The exhibition itself had a huge influence particularly on landowners keen to provide decent housing for rural workers.


We have yet to discover who designed St George’s Farm but a recent report by a professional architect describes it as having ‘many fine architectural features’ typical of the Edwardian period.  These include ‘two brick chimney stacks, large over-sailing eaves and gables with painted timber bargeboards and exposed purlins, a dormer window, arched blue brick window heads and blue brick window cills’  with gables which ‘feature decorative timber and render at high level and unusual pointed arch openings to the roof space that are edged in blue brick.’  The main orange/red bricks were made from local clay, probably fired on site, and laid in a ‘Flemish Stretcher Bond’ pattern.  A distinguished pigsty, described by an archaeologist as possibly the finest in North Worcestershire, was built with the same bricks and incorporates design details which reflect the house.

There have been a few alterations to the house since its construction.  Mercifully it retains the original well proportioned wooden window frames, and the pleasant rear veranda. In the 1960s we guess, the main entrance was relocated to the north-east corner with the addition of a small porch.  Before we moved in last year a downstairs bathroom occupied what would once have been a reception room.  We arranged for the bathroom to be moved upstairs to what was likely to have been a storeroom between the two bedrooms. From discussions with a grandson of Fred and Ada Watson who occupied the house shortly after its completion, it seems that what is now the lounge was once a kitchen/dining room with an imposing range.    All the rooms are of a decent size, making it a comfortable family home with children sharing a bedroom, as we imagine was the case with the Eva, Harry and Willy, the three Watson children who grew up here.


The Guild is now working to make good some of the poor maintenance work carried out on the house in recent years.  In particular, repointing with inappropriate cement mortar has led to problems of dampness in some walls.  It needs to be removed and replaced with traditional lime-based mortar.   With its fascinating history it is important to safeguard the integrity of this relatively humble, yet highly significant building.