Author: Ruth Philo

Notes from a riverside garden – September 2021

Ladybird on a clematis tangutica seedhead

Lawn mowing has by necessity continued throughout the summer with no let up due to the absence of any prolonged dry spell. Something I have noticed when mowing are the large numbers of ant’s nests and the resulting eruption of annoyed ants running over my feet as I walk behind the lawn mower. Neighbours must wonder what on earth is happening when I start jumping around, slapping my feet and ankles, removing my shoes and shaking them to remove the ants! Standing stationary for even a few seconds is not advised! The mowing has been accomplished in record times. Principally black garden ants but also, possibly, meadow yellow ants or the more aggressive red ants. We have not seen any green woodpeckers in the garden for some while, no doubt they would help to reduce the number of ants.

A nuisance caused by ants, these are usually the black garden ants, is their preference for making their nests in garden containers. The sure signs of ants in residence are the plant in the container wilting and looking very sorry for itself. Closer inspection reveals an ant’s nest within the container. Flooding them out repeatedly does seem to do the trick, eventually. Repotting is another option. It is a problem in several of our containers here.

An invitation to a sweetcorn party must have gone out to the local badgers as our sweetcorn patch was completely destroyed one night. The remains of the broken plants were strewn everywhere and not a single kernel of corn was left on any of the neatly nibbled cobs. I know this is a commonplace occurrence for vegetable gardeners locally but so very annoying all the same. They seem to know exactly when they are ready for picking too! Thankfully they do not seem to be interested in runner beans and I did get a good harvest from those.

As I write we are experiencing a short period of very warm, sunny days. After a grim couple of weeks or so of overcast, cool conditions it is so uplifting to have blue skies and sunshine again. The farmers have resumed harvesting now that the sunshine and dry conditions have returned. Trailer loads of golden wheat trundle past the house heading back to the farms from the fields.

Clematis flammula

Clematis flammula

There are two fabulous clematis currently flowering in the garden. One has the most delicate white, starlike flowers in numerous sprays covering the plant and is called clematis flammula. We have it growing up one of the greengage trees on the Island. It also has a delicate, almond perfume.

Clematis tangutica

Clematis tangutica

The other is the more rampant clematis tangutica which scrambles over fencing and through a rose in the vegetable garden. It is cut down to virtually ground level every spring but rapidly covers a large area once in growth. It produces delicate Chinese lantern shaped buds, which open into attractive yellow flowers. These are followed by fabulous silky pale green seed heads resembling delicate sea anemones, when being blown in the breeze. Eventually they reach their final stage of wonderfully tactile soft and fluffy seed heads. SB

Notes from a riverside garden – August 2021

Ligularia dentata plant with yellow flower growing through Petasites japonicus (butterbur)

One never quite knows what type of creature may make its way into our garden through our front gates. In the past a couple of pigs, busily investigating the garden, were discovered upon our arrival home, with the garden gates shut behind them! Obviously a kind soul had shepherded the escapees in off the road for safe – keeping but rather a shock to us! Recently, a very kindhearted local lady, was seen herding a swan in through our front gates! The swan had been found wandering along the road and was in danger of being hit by a motorist. How it came to be in the road, some distance from easy access to the river, remains a mystery. My husband, seeing the efforts being made to guide the swan in through the gates to our garden, went out to assist. The swan was encouraged into our vegetable garden and then left to find its way back to the river, which was easily accessible from that point. Soon it was spotted in the millpond. We were anxious about the safety of the newcomer as the resident cob is particularly territorial and the millpond falls into his patch. For a couple of days all seemed to be well and the newcomer spent his days happily in the millpond. However, this calm was soon to change and I found the newcomer badly beaten with a bloodied head, smeared with mud and looking decidedly unhappy, tucked as high as he could get into some reeds on the edge of the millpool. White feathers were strewn about in the area where the attack had taken place. The poor thing just lay there with his head firmly tucked over its back, resting and recovering from the onslaught. We kept an eye on the situation and when the aggressor returned, as he did a couple of times, swimming up and down close to the reeds, we rushed out and scared him off. We didn’t know if the newcomer would recover as he was in a poorly state. The following morning the injured swan had gone, no sign of him in the millpond and we eventually found him on the Island, looking stronger but still muddy and with the wounds on his head. He remained on the Island for a few days and thankfully did return to good health following much resting. The story doesn’t end there however, as a few days later he was joined by another swan, a female. Was this a romantic drama playing out in our garden? Had they been separated somehow and found each other again? (Have I been reading too much romantic fiction!!) They took up residence in the water garden on the Island and looked stunning in the pool together along with the waterlilies in full bloom. Then, to our amazement, two became three as yet another female joined the pair! All three were then in the water garden area for a few days, doing an excellent job of clearing some unwelcome water weed for us during their stay. All three did eventually move on, hopefully finding a safer place up river, with not such an aggressive cob to cope with.

Red Admiral butterfly on Hemp Agrimony plant

Red Admiral butterfly on Hemp Agrimony.

The riverbanks are so attractive at this time with the wildflowers in bloom, these notably include Hemp Agrimony which, on sunny days, is a magnet for butterflies and insects. We have much of this plant and apart from looking fabulous it is so beneficial for numerous insects. Purple Loosestrife is a stunning plant and compliments the Hemp Agrimony when growing adjacent to each other. Nature is the perfect flower arranger! We only cut a small area of the riverbanks in the garden to enable us some clear views of the river. Elsewhere we leave the rampant growth as much as possible and the rewards are well worth it.

Purple Loosestrife plant on the riverbank.

Purple Loosestrife on the riverbank.

The time has come to scythe down the unmown areas left around the garden. These wild patches have been vastly more interesting than the surrounding neatly mown lawns. We were delighted to find a Piramidal orchid in amongst the tall grasses in one uncut area. We have also found evidence of hedgehogs around the edges of these wild patches, no doubt they have been foraging within. The cut vegetation is left to dry in piles and then used in a thatch like way on top of our several stick and log piles, hopefully making the hideways cosy in the winter months. Perhaps the hedgehogs benefit too. SB

Notes from a riverside garden – July 2021

Many summer plants in the garden border

At last the cool, wet weather has changed to warmth and sunshine, such a welcome change. Not least for the hope that the growth of the lawns may subside as keeping on top of the mowing has been challenging to say the least! The Island being particularly troublesome as the grass is lush and as quite enclosed by trees and riverside plants, it takes some while to dry off to a suitable level for mowing. However, by dodging the rain and making the most of dry days we have managed to keep everywhere mown. The areas we leave unmown are still looking spectacular with the seed heads and the variety of grasses with different heights and seed head shapes forming a feature of their own. We were delighted to find a single orchid bravely making its debut appearance in one of the uncut areas. We think it is a Piramidal orchid.

Pyramidal Orchid

Pyramidal Orchid

Elsewhere the weeds have also benefitted from the high rainfall with hedge bindweed entwining itself around so many plants and extending its range with stems which seem to be far longer searching for the next plant to climb. On the plus side the herbaceous borders are looking fabulous, despite the attempts of the hedge bindweed in some, to steal the glory! The border on the back lawn is a mass of vibrant colour, hard to belief a few months ago it was frequently underwater during the floods!

It has been a distressing time watching the struggles of the ducks to raise their broods, very few have made it to maturity. We watched a duck bravely fighting off the attentions of a carrion crow as it attempted to carry off a duckling. Sadly I think it eventually succeeded as there was one less in the brood of three a short while later. There have been terrible territorial battles amongst the swans with fatalities. We have never known such a time of intense territorial encounters in all the years we have lived here. However, on a more positive note I noticed yesterday a new brood of moorhen chicks and a duck with four small ducklings.

Clematis growing up a wall

Clematis

We have been thrilled to find hedgehog droppings in various parts of the garden. With slugs and snails, now munching their way through dahlias, runner bean plants and brassicas, there is much food available for the hedgehogs. We have never used slug pellets in this garden, nature usually keeps everything balanced.

On warm, sunny days I have encountered one or two grass snakes, curled up sunbathing on tops of low walls and on pathways. I’m afraid they always give me a start as their camouflage is so effective when they suddenly slither away as one approaches! We have seen one swimming in the river too. Strangely we rarely see any frogs, despite having what appears to be the perfect conditions for them in this garden, perhaps the number of grass snakes may account for this. We do see the occasional toad. SB

Notes from a riverside garden – May 2021

Camassia ‘caerulea’ beside the lake. A spring success!

The overnight frosts and cold of April have taken their toll on several plants in the garden. New leaves on hydrangeas shriveled; flowers on both the magnolias ruined, such a shame as the trees had been covered in buds and flowers this year. The Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, whose flowers have been turned to a crisp brown, instead of the fabulous display of white flowers we were looking forward to.

Life continues despite the frosts and cold with the starling pair now to and fro with food for their vociferous young. The parent makes good use of our television aerial as a pausing spot before swooping in under the garage eave with the food. The swans have built a nest in the lake on the island in the preferred spot. The female is still sitting on her eggs and can be seen gently turning them with her beak periodically. She sits there, in the open, through all the weather conditions nature can throw at her. The incubation period is 35 – 41 days and the cob will also help to incubate the eggs.

Mute swan nesting in the lake.

Mute swan nesting in the lake.

I wrote of the duck nesting in amongst the thyme on our terrace last month. The day after writing the piece I looked out of the kitchen window to see a duck with seven newly hatched ducklings in the thyme, she was in the nest and the ducklings were out and about, clambering through the thyme stems and exploring. It seemed very soon for the ducklings to have hatched but we assumed she must have been there for a longer period on the nest than we thought. It is always a joy to observe the antics of tiny ducklings who are so independent and busy pecking at everything so soon after hatching. I left the happy scene and returned to boiling a kettle for some coffee, just happened to glance out again a short while later to see another duck sitting on the edge of the occupied nest! There didn’t appear to be any hostility, so I assumed all was well. However, very shortly after this a dispute developed and the newly arrived duck was physically throwing the ducklings out of the nest and attacking the mother duck. It was quite horrible to witness, particularly the young being tossed about and trampled on in the melee. Despite knowing one should not get involved I couldn’t just stand there watching this unfold, so I did tap on the window and the “imposter” flew off. Thankfully all the ducklings seemed to be unscathed following their rough treatment and soon after the mother duck and ducklings wandered off towards the river. However, this was not the end of the drama as within a short while the “imposter” duck returned, climbed into the nest and proceeded to settle herself down. We had in fact got the situation completely wrong and the mother duck with ducklings was not the terrace duck but an interloper herself, trying to take over the prime position in the thyme! She did come back a while later with the ducklings and another tussle broke out but eventually, she left. What drama!! Unfortunately, after such a traumatic day for the terrace duck things did not improve and during the night her nest was raided by a badger we suspect, destroying all of her eggs. Only the mangled, chewed up remains of her eggs lay strewn about the area in the morning, which is the telltale sign of a visit from a badger.

The mother duck and seven ducklings did continue to come to the terrace for food and to drink and swim in the water tray. Surprisingly she never ventured into the thyme now that the nest had been abandoned. As is so normal at this time of year the duckling numbers reduced each day until she was left with one. Another brood that frequented the terrace was slowly reduced to two but they failed to survive. We named this remaining duckling Solo, not a good idea to name a wild creature but all our hopes for one survivor from all the ducklings we had seen in the garden were pinned on this little chap. Every morning we would check to see if it was still with its mother in the garden, or on the river. It was frequently left alone and we would hear it cheeping until its mother could return to it following yet another pursuit by drakes forcing her to leave the youngster. I guess you know what is coming but one morning, in early May, there was no sign of the duckling and sadly only the mother came for food that day. It really has been a most terrible early spring for the ducks and also for the moorhens who seem to have lost their chicks too. We can only hope the second broods have better luck in the perilous world they inhabit with so many predators around them coupled with the very cold April. The ducks, however, carry on as normal despite the awful losses and no doubt will soon be nesting again.

Syringa Vulgaris ‘prince wolkonsky’ on millpool bank.

Syringa Vulgaris ‘prince wolkonsky’ on millpool bank.

On the island there is an ancient white willow with several dead branches amongst its healthy branches, left in situ, we have removed obviously hazardous branches in the past. I recently witnessed a treecreeper swiftly ascending the trunk in search of food. On another occasion a great spotted woodpecker was drumming high up in the tree on a dead branch. A great joy was the arrival of the reed warblers whose distinctive melodic warble fills the air around the stands of bamboo in the garden. Another sound of spring was hearing the cuckoo in early May. SB

New Festival Campaign – 30 Days 30 Miles

30 Days 30 Miles campaign image of blue water in the River Stour

We’re pleased to announce that we have a new initiative for 2021 and invite you to take part, whether you are someone who loves to eat good food, a grower or producer. 30 Days 30 Miles – Tastes from the Stour Valley encourages everyone to source their food more locally, support small and independent businesses and help care for our local landscape and health of the planet. The Stour valley is a great place for food and agriculture and we believe that it will be possible to source a good portion of what we eat from within a 30 miles radius of where we live throughout the 30 days in September.

The aims of the project are to:

form a network of growers and producers working in the valley
develop an awareness of where to source local food and drinks
encourage people to grow and forage their own food
further an understanding of the seasonal aspect of growing
connect with nature to help slow climate change locally and globally
together keep our local landscape an outstanding area of natural beauty
encourage a reduction of our individual carbon footprints and plastic usage

As a local food producer, shop, or trader we invite you to be a part of our online local register, that includes a map to help people discover what is on their doorstep, reduce food miles supporting local businesses.

As a local resident we encourage you to use this register to help source your food in a more sustainable way and welcome you to add to the list so that we can all share and take part in this initiative.

We also invite submissions to our blog and your events and promotions, that we can share through our festival mailing list and social media platforms. If you would like to participate please drop us a line at riverstourfestival@gmail.com

Apples by Dave Hodgson

Apple trees in bloom at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.
Apple trees in the snow at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.

Apple trees in the snow at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.

In the foreground of the above photo is a Blenheim Orange and behind to the left, a Bramley. Further back is a D’Arcy Spice. To the right is a James Grieve then behind that is a Sturmer Pippin. There is a Monarch off in the picture to the left. Five days after I had finished pruning these trees, the snow came and settled on every branch and twig. I could not resist a photo opportunity.

The varieties of apple tree you see in this photo are five of the twenty varieties of apple we manage here at Old Hall Community here in the Stour Valley. A total of ninety apple trees in three orchards covering about six acres. Most of the trees are over forty five years old and with careful management will continue to bear fruit for years to come. No chemical fertilizers or nutrients have ever been used on these trees to encourage growth, combat disease or increase storage time. Not since I have been here and that is thirty two years. Some varieties of apple, like for instance the Monarch, are prone to canker attack. Canker is not going to kill a tree if you prune it regularly and cut away cantankerous growth. After forty five years our monarchs have survived and the older the tree the more resilient it becomes. It might look ugly but the trees learn to live with it.

Most of the apple varieties you buy in shops these days are produced for mass consumption. Indeed did you know that many supermarket apples that are sold as fresh can be up to a year old. What keeps them looking fresh is the use of 1-methylcyclopropene. A so-called safe chemical used to prohibit ripening for up to a year from harvesting. However this synthetic chemical that is marketed as being ‘no risk non toxic’ to humans, animals and the environment is strictly regulated regarding its application. Despite it being explosive when warm it is restricted for use in an enclosed environment only, not outside. The people working with it must wear protective PPE and when finished, must not enter the space for thirty minutes after the environment has been vented. It has been found that two of the impurities found in the chemical are also carcinogenic. So much for ‘no risk non toxic’. Since it was first patented in 1996 1-methylcyclopropene has been used extensively on a whole raft of fruit and vegetables found in our supermarkets across the world. Indeed on any perishable goods that need to be stored and transported long distance and across borders to reach our supermarket shelves. All the more reason why we should strive to eat organically grown locally sourced produce. So this wonder chemical is ‘no risk if you wear PPE’ and ‘non toxic if you don’t release it into the environment’.

Back to our own trees starting with the Monarch apple, no longer available in shops. Between the years 1939 and 1947 people in Britain were allowed five teaspoonfuls of sugar per day or two pounds of sugar per month. This level of rationing made it very difficult to make cakes and fruit jams, blackberry, plum, greengage and the like without sugar. Enter the monarch apple. One thing the monarch has is a very high sugar content, in fact the highest sugar content of all culinary apples. This fruit was grown extensively during the war making it the most popular apple around. It makes an excellent baked apple too. Sadly now in the 2020’s it is known only to the apple enthusiasts. We have two trees of this variety both producing good biennial crops.

The Blenheim Orange was found in about 1740 in Oxfordshire near Blenheim Palace. It is one of the most vigorous of all apple trees and if not kept in check will grow to thirty feet (ten metres) or more in height. Hence it needs heavy pruning every few years to keep it down to a manageable height for picking. It produces a heavy crop but about once in every four years will take a rest. Good for making a puree for freezing or to eat with yogurt.

The Bramley needs no introduction. The UK’s most important cooking apple. The original tree in Nottinghamshire was grown from seed in 1809 and is still standing despite it being knocked over in a violent storm in 1900. More than two centuries later this tree is still bearing fruit though sadly in 2016 it was reported to be dying due to a fungal infection.

Next is the D’Arcy Spice. Found around 1785 near Colchester this is our most indigenious apple. A small biennial yellow russetted fruit traditionally picked on Lord Mayors day November 9th. Has a nutty flavour.

The James Grieve was first recorded in 1893. A lovely tasting apple but prone to bruising and should be handled carefully. Very good for juicing. Moderate cropper. Should be ready early to mid September. Prone to canker.

Lastly the Sturmer Pippin. Another native variety was found in 1827 near Haverhill close to the Suffolk border. A late fruit which if looked after and stored well will keep into the following spring. It should be picked in late October or Early November when it is hard, green and almost inedible.

I hope you have enjoyed this little potted history of a few of our apples here at Old Hall Community. I leave you with a photo of the blossom on a Discovery apple. Eat well.

Apple trees in bloom at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.

Apple trees in bloom at Old Hall Community in East Bergholt.

Valley Farm Kitchen Garden, National Trust, Flatford by Brian Willis

Rhubarb growing in plot number 2, Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

About ten years ago, when the National Trust leased Valley Farm to The Field Study Council, it was discovered that a completely overgrown piece of ground behind the farm building had clearly once been a kitchen garden. A grant of £1,000 was awarded in 2010 towards the restoration of this garden, as part of National Trust’s ‘Eat Into Green Living’ initiative, a task undertaken by National Trust volunteers. During the restoration, original brick paths and box hedges were uncovered.

Ever since, volunteer gardeners have worked to maintain and develop the garden – or gardens, to be more precise. As far as possible, we try to maintain the gardens in as traditional way as possible, respecting the garden’s heritage. At the moment, we have four teams of gardeners, working on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

It is an idyllic place in which to work, set, as it is, in the heart of John Constable’s beloved countryside, in the beautiful and historic hamlet of Flatford. Tucked away, the garden remains unknown to many, even locals, some of whom, when they do discover us, remark that they’d been coming to Flatford for years, without realising we were there!

Valley Farm at Flatford, Suffolk. Valley Farm is a mid-15th century, medieval Great Hall House that was home to wealthy yeoman farmers up until the early 1900s.

Photo credit: Jemma Finch

We grow, organically, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, much of which is used by the Tearoom in their recipes. Two of my all-time favourites are the rhubarb and ginger, and the raspberry and white chocolate scones! Produce which is not needed by the Tearoom is offered for sale to the public on our market barrow outside Bridge Cottage.

What do we grow?

Broad beans, runner beans, French beans, potatoes, red and white onions, Spring onions, garlic, leeks, courgettes, squashes, rhubarb, herbs, salad crops, including lettuce, beetroot, tomatoes and cucumbers. Have you ever tried ‘Crystal Lemon’ apple cucumbers? They’re delicious!

We also grow flowers, such as Sweet Peas, Dahlias, Cornflowers, Sweet Williams and an interesting variety of poppies. We collect seed from some of the flowers, including from our spectacular poppies, which we also offer for sale on the barrow. We also have a soft fruit garden, in which we grow raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, loganberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries.

Visitors exploring Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

Photo credit: Trevor Ray Hart

On Open Days, we organise activities for children, and, among new schemes in the pipeline, we are planning to set aside two of our raised beds for children to tend, grow crops, and learn about gardening and nature.

The gardeners are always glad to welcome visitors to our garden between 10 am and 12 noon on our working mornings. The entrance to the garden can be found just past Willy Lott’s House.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Brian Willis, volunteer gardener
National Trust, Flatford

Notes from a riverside garden – April 2021

Sunrise over the water meadows on a frosty, April morning

The garden is a hive of activity with nest building in progress or completed in numerous locations. A pair of starlings have found an opening under the eaves of our garage roof and are busily darting in and out. This space has been used by bees in the past.

Adjacent to the garage is a Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ where a pair of blue tits have taken up residence in a nest box affixed to the trunk of the tree. Close to the mill pool ivy has completely covered a pollarded, dead ash tree and this provides an excellent nesting site. We are suspicious a duck is nesting in there. It is a sizeable area of dense habitat, with a pigeon nesting, and probably other birds we have not noticed as yet.

I have been watching a pair of goldfinches building their nest in the top of a small Holm oak from our bedroom window. The pair fly off together each time searching for nesting material but only one returns with a blade of grass or a small feather (the materials I have observed so far) and disappears into the tree, while the male sits waiting in a prominent position close by. I have read that the females construct the nest so I assume she is the one conveying the nesting materials. Within a very short while she flies out and off they go together in search of the next item. They are back and forth within minutes. Such industry is admirable.

Evening at Henny bridge over the Stour

Evening at Henny bridge over the Stour

The pair of swans were mating in the mill pool during the Easter weekend. Such an elegant and rather beautiful bonding ritual takes place prior to mating with mirrored neck movements. I have observed this several times over the years, and I am always stopped in my tracks if I am fortunate enough to see this delightful display taking place. The aggressive and territorial nature of the cob swan has also been on display with two or three violent confrontations taking place in the mill pool with an interloping cob. The necks being used as a weapon as they entwine and beat each other with their wings in fights that can continue for some time. Eventually the loser manages to extricate himself from the relentless pecking and pounding of the resident male and makes a hasty retreat, usually across the island and to the river above the mill pool sluice gates. The female circles around the battling males giving the interloper the occasional peck too! We think it is the same cob trying to take over the mill pond territory but so far he has always been driven away minus a few feathers!

We were so thrilled to see a kettle of eight swallows swooping and circling over the river early on Easter Monday. Snow was in the air! Their visit was brief but a fabulous way to start the day. Other sightings in the garden include the blackcap, reed bunting and several chiffchaffs filling the air with their song. A pair of Egyptian geese also made their presence known for a few days as they surveyed the island as a possible nesting site. Being of an aggressive nature they chased off the mallards from a wide area around them. Calm has now returned as the geese seem to have moved on.

The paving on the terrace outside the kitchen window has been there for many years and gaps have appeared in places adjacent to the low brick wall and these are where the bank voles access their underground world. They dart out and make off with any seeds that fall from the bird feeders above. Recently we saw a stoat exiting a larger gap with a rodent in its mouth! It happened so fast it was impossible to identify the rodent, most probably a vole but maybe mice live under the terrace too.

In the same area, only two or three yards from our kitchen window, and where we walk past several times each day is a clump of long established thyme. It has become quite woody and about a foot high. I just take the flowerheads off with shears once they have finished flowering later in the year. The low brick wall extends around behind it. We have had ducks sheltering in the middle of this clump with their ducklings in the past. They are so well camouflaged and can sink down into the slightly open middle of the clump but still be hidden from view. This year we have discovered a duck nesting in this spot! She currently has six eggs. It is so hard to see her as the excellent camouflage her feathers provide merge completely into the stems and thin foliage of the thyme. In some ways it is the perfect nesting site. We put out grain and there is a water tray where she washes and drinks. She is also safer regarding the drakes who will chase any female that ventures from the safety of her nesting site. She is tucked away so not so visible to them. Yesterday she flew up onto the wall and within seconds was in flight being pursued by three or four drakes. When she does leave the nest the eggs are all carefully covered with a mossy layer so completely invisible to any predators from above. Nesting at ground level is a danger however, as we have badgers, foxes and a domestic cat as nocturnal visitors plus, of course, the resident stoat. We shall have to wait and see what happens. It is a hard time for the females, laying and sitting on eggs, avoiding the unwanted attentions of the opportunist drakes and later trying to raise their broods.

Thirteen tiny ducklings were on the terrace with their mother over the Easter weekend. They haven’t returned again but some ducklings have been seen in the lake on the island so hopefully the family have found a safe place there.

This morning there were four mallard ducks sitting on the ridge of the house roof. A good spot to keep an eye on all that is happening around them!

This morning there were four mallard ducks sitting on the ridge of the house roof. A good spot to keep an eye on all that is happening around them!

Growing Barley by Cliff Jordan

Plot at Old Hall with Barley crops just beginning to germinate

Many people who want to grow their own food start with herbs, and then vegetables and fruit. Some are ambitious and keep animals for meat and milk. But an enormous part of our diet is made up of cereals – grains such as wheat and oats – virtually all of which are produced by industrial scale monocrop agriculture, with huge fields and huge machines. I became curious – what would it take to grow just enough for a household’s
consumption?

In the UK, we each eat an average of nearly 50kg wheat in a year. Say you want to produce enough for a household of four: that would require maybe a tenth of an acre – a plot 50 yards by 10 yards in size. Way bigger than your usual garden, but miniscule compared to modern arable fields. I live in a community by the River Stour where we collectively farm 70 acres, within which I found a strip of land about half that size to experiment with.

Modern industrial agriculture is amazing; its constant leaps in productivity rely on new and better machines, new techniques and continual improvement of varieties. These are bred repeatedly to provide a crop that the machines can handle well. But unless you have half a million pounds worth of combine harvester, new varieties may not suit you. They tend to be fussier than old varieties, needing the right nutrients and weed control regime to produce optimum results. Partly fuelled by artisan bakers, and many people discovering intolerances to contemporary wheat, there has been a resurgence in interest in recent years in old varieties of wheat, and in landraces – a mix of different varieties grown together, rather than a field full of plants each with an identical genetic makeup.

You might be familiar with pearl barley – this is a barley grown for human consumption (most barley grown in this country is for feeding animals and for brewing beer) that has been through a machine to remove the hulls – a hard outer casing on each and every grain. Pioneers in this country have started in the last three years to grow ‘naked barley’ again. The yield is thought to be lower than modern barley varieties, but it does not require that stage of processing to make it good for human consumption. This is what I decided to experiment with.

I waited until the winter rains had finished, and the ground had dried out enough to work and then cultivated my plot (with a tractor and power harrow, because we have that equipment and it would be purist and perverse not to take advantage of it. That said, I spent as much time attaching the harrow to the tractor, and turning at the end of each row, as I did actually cultivating the plot.) I marked out some lines with sticks and string, and used a manual push- along seed dispenser to sow each row of barley seed. I did this during that magical week in late March when it seemed summer had arrived. It has been cold ever since and no rain has fallen. I look each day to see if the seed has germinated. If I were a subsistence farmer I might be praying by now, or sacrificing to the gods.

My hope is that the soil will warm up and that April showers will cause tiny roots and shoots to burst out of the buried grains, and I will have rows of barley popping up. I imagine having to hoe between the rows once or twice, to hold back the weeds that I know are lurking, but I hope that, once established, the barley will out-compete them. I can already picture a golden summer’s day with scythes, harvesting the barley and gathering it into stooks to dry out, and then bringing it into a barn to thresh and winnow. All being well, we will harvest a hundredweight or two of grain to last us the year. Even if reaping, threshing and winnowing with hand tools prove too difficult for us, we have chickens that will gladly glean the plot for us, so the efforts will not all be wasted.

Fingers crossed.

Cliff Jordan. April 2021

Lincoln Longwool by David Hodgson

Head shot of Lincoln Longwool Sheep

Not everyone eats meat but only vegans don’t wear wool. That leaves the vegan a choice of cotton, linen, and fossil fuel based textiles for their fashion choices. Even silk is out. If one was to source their textiles from within thirty miles of the Stour Valley in order to meet with the theme of this year’s River Stour Festival then the vegan would be strolling around in the altogether. Clothing made from wool, leather, suede and felt would be our main choice.

Two Lincoln Longwool Sheep in a field

Two Lincoln Longwool Sheep in a field

The Lincoln Longwool is one of the world’s rare breeds of sheep. Originally an Eastern Counties breed that had been around since before the middle ages. Lincolns were the backbone of the wool industry right through to the seventeenth century and East Anglia and areas around the Stour Valley was the centre of that industry. Indeed at the time the town of Lavenham in Suffolk was said to be one of the wealthiest towns in England despite its small size. East Bergholt would have been close behind too and Old Hall was, at that time, the largest estate around. At the wool trade’s height the Lincoln Longwool were exported as far away as South Africa, New Zealand and Australia because their fleeces were the longest fleece and good for spinning. The quality of their meat was also exceptional. Actually people who have tried spinning the fleece of a longwool say that it is hard and difficult. Perhaps the spinning techniques in the middle ages were different to the current methods, who knows. Felt clothing was common in those days too. However the wool trade declined in the seventeen century and the Old Hall estate began to be owned by a succession of London based gold traders, pawnbrokers and bankers. The wool trade in East Anglia was dying.

A flock of Lincoln Longwool Sheep feeding

A flock of Lincoln Longwool Sheep feeding

Jump forward two hundred and fifty years and the pre world war two development of synthetic fibres, nylon, spandex, acrylic and the like, made from fossil fuels, were becoming mainstream by the 1960’s and by 1970 the Lincoln Longwool breed was at the point of extinction. In fact there were only a few flocks left and their survival was down to the dedication of only three breeders. When Old Hall Community started in 1974 a decision was taken to start our own flock. We searched around and purchased nine ewes and one ram from a breeder in Rutland and with limited knowledge, began to save the breed. Now nearly fifty years later we have one of the oldest flocks in the country and there are now over 100 flocks elsewhere. The Lincoln longwool is still on the endangered species list however and the continued nurturing of this East Anglian flock is paramount to its survival.

Jake, a founder member of Old Hall Community now retired, who’s initiative it was to buy lincolns, has handed over his shepherding to Chris Eldred, one of our younger members of some five or six years who has learned from Jake’s experiences. Chris is being helped more and more by another member also called Chris who has lived here almost two years. Both have taken an enthusiastic interest in the flock and between them the Lincoln longwool here at Old Hall is assured to survive on into the future.