War & Peace

Recently returned from a long weekend with our friend Michael Gee, staying at his cottage in North Devon. As always Kim & I are entertained, informed and integrated into local life by our extraordinary host. The afternoon of our day – Rememberance Sunday, 11th November – was spent driving over Exmoor into west Somerset, to explore the picture perfect settlement of Dunster on its lush eastern edge, overlooking the Bristol Channel. Not been here since touring an adaptation of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ with Barnstaple based Orchard Theatre Company back in the 1980’s. The company derived its name from a line in ‘Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance’ by John Arden. It took Joan Littlewood’s Theatre practice out of the East End of London (Stratford Theatre Royal) into the rural heart of Devon, premiering and later touring lots of new work and adaptations. That morning I’d stood in silence with Kim in Michael’s cottage garden, remembering the fallen of World War One, exactly 100 years after the armistice. Grandfather William Tomlin was a Stratford lad (b.1890), a regular soldier in the Essex Rgt, wounded in action on the retreat from Mons in August 1914. A story he told was about breaking ranks on the march to take apples offered by Belgian civilians. He was charged and accepted field punishment, being tied to a gun wheel to take a beating. He reckoned it saved his life as on returning to his unit he discovered they’d all been wiped out by a German shell. So, there you go – Orchard, Stratford, War, Apples, Fate. But back to the present… Michael was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) two years ago for his services to Orchard Conservation in Devon. He’d been a consultant for Dunster’s community orchard project, established from scratch on a gentle slope just above the centre, on land donated by the Crown Estate, the largest landowner hereabouts. He was relieved and delighted to find it well pruned and established some five years on. The parish tithe barn (now a restored community centre), old priory dovecote, magnificent parish church and the equally impressive restored and rebuilt castle with its lovely encompassing gardens, (now in the care of the National Trust) all provided further delights to make our day out a truly wonderful one. Our drive demonstrated very clearly that beech predominates on Exmoor – a result of upland enclosure and improvement on a mass scale by agricultural developers in the early 19th century. As trees, hedge plants or windbreaks, beeches autumn foliage was shining dull gold everywhere in the fine clear weather. The Victorian landowners – led by the Knight family, fabulously wealthy ironmasters from Worcestershire – used every means at their disposal to settle the waste (as they saw it) and turn the former royal hunting forest into profitable farming acreage. One key aspect was drainage and here they built on methods already in place since Tudor times. Steep valley upland holdings had their fertility improved through ‘catchmeadows’ – open drainage systems which helped thaw the land and quicken grass growth and increase the fertility of poor soils and rough grazing. The hardy farmers tapped into head streams, diverting flows through fast moving open channels (leats), often taking them through the farm’s yard, where muck enriched the mix, down into the still frozen intake fields, slowly thawing them in the process of running in rills to a lower lateral drain which in turn would fill and brim over to repeat the process down to another lateral cut and so on to the valley bottom where any remaining water would drain away into the lower wider stream. The result of this comprehensive system brought thawing and fertility to otherwise unpromising land, thus increasing grass yield & hay crop. More animals could be stocked and a viable living generated. Some 240 farms on and around the national park have been identified to have had this system in operation at one time or another. It would take a keen eye, knowing what to look for, to identify the remains of such practices today. Michael knew someone whose job it was as a child to clear the plugs in the yard wall so the ‘catch meadows’ could operate in the early spring…A cold and thankless task for the otherwise ignorant youngster staying with relatives still farming in the old way. I knew of the systematic ‘bedworks’ system involved with seasonal ‘drowning’ of meadows in chalkland valleys in the southern counties of England but this sort of upland practice was a revelation. Put to wondering that it could not surely be unique to Exmoor. Did Dartmoor farmers of old must follow the same practices. It seems likely….More homework clearly required!

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