We make honey and grow wool. We craft imperfect objects out of the foraged and the found; some for beauty and others for their practical use. We spin yarn, both fibre and folklore. By The Hedge is a nascent collective, manifesting tales and wares of the seasonal smallholder. The story begins with my great-great-grandparents. They owned a small farm in Co. Waterford, Southern Ireland and were deep rooted in generational farming traditions. I was fortunate to visit my ancestral land a handful of times when I was a small child, but I would never have the chance as an adult to fully understand first-hand the rich history of farming in our family. My grandmother made the journey to England during the war and would never return to the farm or indeed to Ireland again. Despite this my mother told me that farming was in my blood, and it is. I was forever (and still am) bare foot and feral; possessor of an untameable yearning to be close to the earth with the soil betwixt my toes. Something was harkening me back to the life lived by my ancestors, in rhythm with nature, I just wasn’t quite sure how to get there.
Ten years ago I made the decision to leave a career in London and enrol at an agricultural college. Originally I intended to join a course in foundation agriculture, believing it would give me a good grounding for a future life, as yet unknown, in the rural sector. The questions I faced at my interview however, brought me hastily back to reality and confirmed my preconception of what was, oftentimes, an archaic and prejudiced industry: Do you have a farm? Will you inherit a farm? Are you likely to marry a landowner?
I had no farm to inherit nor had it been an obstacle in my mind, until now. Perhaps if I possessed more self-assurance I’d have stood my ground, alas at the tender age of 23 I found myself being steered away from the path I had set my heart on at the very first hurdle. And so I embarked upon a master’s degree in rural estate management, my first foray into the world of agriculture. Not quite in the way I had intended but a foot in the door, I would tell myself.
Today I am a chartered surveyor specialising in the management of large rural estates for landowners. It’s interesting and it is of course in the rural sector. It has given me a vast understanding of what it takes for rural businesses to stay afloat in an everchanging landscape. And it pays the bills. What it hasn’t quite fulfilled however is that longing I so desired, the catalyst for that momentous life change all those years ago: a physical and raw connection to Mother Nature. Consequently I found myself looking elsewhere for this source of nourishment and I found it, on an idyllic sheep farm in the Shropshire Hills.
For ten years I would return for a few weeks each spring to help with lambing; it was here that I learnt the fundamentals to the ancient art of shepherding. My Shropshire family are those who had the patience, warmth and grace to open their arms and their farm to a very green first-generation farmer, gifting me their knowledge and allowing me to learn and, inevitably, make mistakes along the way.
It was exhausting and at times emotionally challenging; never before had I been faced with life and death in its rawest form, but I cherished every moment and it made sense. Each year I would return home with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to truly experience life - something which is an all too frequent struggle when you aren’t neurotypical and require medication to keep your spirit alive, for the most part. For the first time I felt that the life I was striving for was within reach. I’d mounted the first rung of the ladder.
For a time during this period I lived in an old cattle byre in a tiny village between Winchester and Alresford along the South Downs Way. The owners of the byre, and the smallholding on which it was nestled, had a flock of sheep. As a renewed graduate at the time I couldn’t quite afford to pay the full rent they were seeking and so I offered to pay in kind: any lambing or general sheep-work they needed, help with their ducks and chickens, and a number of other little odd jobs on and around their farm. It was an arrangement which suited us both perfectly.
They also kept bees. It was here whilst living alone and in an unfamiliar part of the country that I sought solace in nature, more so than ever before. Having quickly become accustomed to enjoying the wild and wide array of honey that the seasons brought to the colonies, I soon found myself enrolled on an Introduction to Beekeeping course in the Meon Valley. A ten week theory and practical course in a ramshackled village hall where I would be introduced to the basics of keeping bees. Again, I had no bees nor did I have land on which to put them, but I was so enamoured with the seasonality of living alongside nature so closely in this way that it didn’t matter. I would learn and perhaps one day I might boast a colony of my own, with which I could follow the change of seasons day by day for as long as I desired.
Some years later I moved to the North Cotswolds where I now reside. Having known that I one day wished to establish a flock of my own they gave me the nudge I needed, bestowing two beautiful ewe-lambs from their flock as a parting gift, and several jars of honey to keep me fed along the way. These are the matriarchs of my flock today. So began the next chapter of my life, alongside my ‘normal job’, as a part-time shepherd and neophyte beekeeper: rung two of the ladder.
Over the course of the five years that followed I slowly began to grow my flock. I also began to gather the equipment required to one day start an apiary, albeit a one hive apiary to begin with. It took me several years but two summers ago I acquired my first hive, a wooden national, and collected my first nucleus of bees from a veteran keeper near Stow on the Wold. Today my flock numbers twenty, currently with lambs at foot, and I have two (soon to be three) hives.
The biggest challenge and a source of constant anxiety is land: I am a landless farmer. I don’t know whether I will ever be fortunate enough to acquire my own plot of earth large enough to sustain a farm of my own, but I have been so fortunate to have met a number of wonderful and kind hearted local landowners who have let us graze their pasture and provide a home for my hives. In return we give them honey and help with any land work that may be required. It is always a slight worry as nothing is permanent and, whilst unlikely, we could be asked to move on at any moment.
Whilst endeavouring to remain pragmatic I do try to be optimistic, both traits I struggle with, for it is fruitless to operate with the mindset that I may lose it all. Instead, I take each day as it comes. I allow myself to wax and wane as with everything in nature. Some days I feel pessimistic and hopeless, whilst others afford me the greatest sense of gratitude and energy. Is that not what life is, after all?
The cyclical and mercurial temperament of Mother Nature is ubiquitous, reflected in her shifting seasons or our changing moods. Nature is no plateau. The canorous crescendo of spring which harks the arrival of new life. But without the descent into the quietude of autumn and hibernation of winter, we would not be in kilter. Balance is necessary. Giving back to the land that nurtures us is necessary.
I am a smallholder, a forager, a daydreamer and a jack-of-all-trades. I rear my sheep for many reasons: for love, for their wool, and sometimes for the food they bring to our table. I keep bees and when able I produce small batch, raw honey which is untreated, cold-filtered and jarred by hand straight from my hives, never taking more than I need and always leaving the bees with stores sufficient to last the year ahead. When they do provide a surplus of honey, I am in awe of the nectar they produce. Each extraction throughout the season is as varied and magnificent as the last; each an ode to the changing blossoms that have kept our bees fed and nurtured from the first stirrings of spring through to the last hazy days of summer.
Whatever it is that we take from the land, respect should be at the heart of everything that we do. Whether it is for the livestock we keep or the land that we borrow. I strive to live seasonally, slowly and earnestly. The growers and makers we collaborate with share and live by these values too. By The Hedge is the culmination of it all: it is a small glimpse into an English pastoral, here to sing about the tales and wares of a seasonal smallholder.