Open Meadow, Open Minds

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The meadow is always open. A public path runs alongside Borrow Beck taking you into the heart of the valley. But not many people come – this is a hidden gem of Cumbria. When I invited a group of adults in to share the space and explore poetry, everyone left with smiles and inspiration. I included a playful poem that was uncovered while we were sitting under the sycamore trees in my last blog post.

poetry day in High Borrowdale meadow
The day after that leisurely sun-kissed poetry sharing, thirty children from Tebay school walked in to High Borrowdale. They arrived at the first meadow gate after more than an hour’s walk, fizzing and buzzing with energy. They seemed to have pushed the early morning mist westwards in their wake and as the day got warmer, their curiosity grew.

school children in High Borrowdale

The young meadow detectives hunted out flowers, conjured up rich descriptive terms for them; they stopped and listened, and made sound maps; they drew and wrote on bunting; they ran from clegs.

poetry bunting High Borrowdale meadow

And together, they wrote a poem. It contains a line – or two – from every child:

Meadow Poem, written by children from tebay school, July 2 2015

Marvellous meadow
Beautiful flowers, beautiful life
Massive meadow, rocky rocks
Here we are.

Marvellous meadow
Stands out from far away
Luminous colours, yellow as the sun
Or a Giraffe.

Twittering birds, rustling trees,
Red clover, a million fireworks
Gorgeous Guilly, he’s asleep
Cute as a baby.

And the grasses wish in the wind,
Swishing wind, blowing wind, whistling
And the flowers, they never hide
Never hide from their beauty.

Walls like stony ribbons
Meadow rocks, smashing together
And the plip-plop of pebbles
Falling in the stream.

But the cleggs are monstrous
And the midges menacing
They suck your blood
With their bites.

Magnificent landscape
Tall trees, growing like a whale
Or the yellow submarine
On the hill in Borrowdale.

Terrific trees and buzzing bees,
And scattered around us
Here at our feet, red clovers
Like juicy strawberries.

Buttercups shining like the sun
Oxeye daisies like fried eggs
And eyebright,
A group of lonely stars dancing.

Beautiful features fill our hearts
The clegs are so annoying
But not quite as annoying
As two sisters.

And here, when all is quiet
We sit and listen, we sit and listen
To the birds, to the wind,
To the sounds all around.

And then we come to the end
And the meadow will end
When the flowers are cut
And we run home through bugs.

poetry bunting High Borrowdale meadow Cumbria

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And now, poetry

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John Clare quoteThe whole point of being in the meadow, for me, is to write poetry. Of course there are loads of benefits that come with being there, and all of them, so far, positive.

My two days there last week left me in a state I can only describe as ‘meadow-mind’. I slowed down, I forgot about roads, emails, anything beyond the meadow really. High Borrowdale Valley is like a cocoon, and I was cosy. I entered a slumber-like frame of mind and wandered in the meadows, along the track and beneath the trees, down to the river. I walked in rain, in full sun, in mist and in moonlight. I let the valley seep into me. I watched chimney sweep butterflies setting their black against the green. I traced a bee’s pollen-heavy journey through a patch of white clover. I wondered what the birds were saying, and which birds they were. When it’s blazing hot, their song becomes quiet – when the evening or a cool mist draws in, they chatter incessantly.

My own poetry is forming. My notebook is filling. I will work on it next week when I will be in the meadow once again. I will also be exploring ways that the meadow flowers might contribute to the poetry. Could they write for themselves, and if they could, how?

For now, I wanted to share a poem that emerged during the open meadow day on July 1st. It was a day of sunshine, heat, storms and discoveries, and the sharing of poetry both old and new. We had a bit of a play as well, and did a ‘black out’ exercise, also known as ‘found poetry’. From the same piece of original writing, several very different poems emerged. Each one has its own poignancy. This one was uncovered by Jane Exley. 'Found Poetry' in the meadow

‘Me a do double u’    by jane exley

gather three weeks
and spread them with rain.

There a hay crop and clovers grew,
followed by betony,
a long richness of strength –

depend on each flower
depend on the complex
beauty of life,
precious.

High Borrowdale Farmers

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Seeing as I’m spending so much time in the meadow, I wanted to meet the farmers who help to look after the land. The farmhouse in High Borrowdale fell out of use in the 1970s and the valley is now managed by Brian and Helen Wilson from Ashsteads Farm, around an hour’s walk to the south.

I drove in last week in full sunshine, scattering several cats and triggering a startled uproar from chickens and dogs as I pulled up in front of the whitewashed farmhouse. Helen was clearing out the fireplace when I arrived, having decided, after an unseasonally cold June, that it must surely be safe to leave it unused until Autumn. Turns out this was well timed. With the arrival of July, summer really has set in.

Helen filled me in on the farm’s and the family’s history. When they first came to Ashsteads farm, both she and Brian worked elsewhere to bring in the money they needed while they were establishing their flock. Now the farm is more than a full-time job. Brian works in the fields, fells and barns for around 18 hours a day at this time of year, and Helen is also at it non-stop as mother, accountant, planner, cook, cleaner and farmhand all rolled into one. With four children, over 400 breeding ewes, a small herd of cows (Limousin and Angus crosses), Arab horses, thirteen cats, several dogs, a clutch of chickens and a holiday house to manage, there’s never nothing to do.

high borrowdale barn and sycamores

High Borrowdale barn on the site of the now abandoned farmhouse

The Wilson’s flock of just over 400 Swaledale ewes graze around their farmhouse and in the High Borrowdale valley, beyond the meadow walls. They are crossed with Blue Faced Leicesters to produce what’s known as a mule. The female or ‘gimmer’ mules are sold as ‘fat lambs’ and are bought by farmers from the south of the country – they are vital for the production of strong lowland sheep.

The quality of the sheep is always important and the Wilsons’ display of rosettes marks their standards. The most prized award is the ‘Champion’, or best in show, won by an exceptional tup (ram) at Selside Show in 2002. After winning the award the tup didn’t sire any male lambs, and the blood line seemed to have been lost. But this year some of his female descendants have produced sons, so there’s hope that these may go on to be as strong as he was, and bring in more prizes. Attention to blood lines and consistent quest for a strong flock are at the heart of hill farming. It’s a matter of pride and an economic benefit, because prize winners, and their progeny, tend to fetch higher prices at sales.

Caring for the livestock is the main priority for the Wilsons, but tending the meadow comes into their annual workload. When the meadow flowers and grasses have set seed, which will happen at the end of July, it will take four days to cut, turn, turn again, and then bale the hay. If the rain stays away and the hay dries well, it will be given to the horses; it might last them half the winter. If the weather is wet around cutting time, the baled crop will be used for bedding for the cows. When the meadow is empty of flowers and grasses, some heifers will be brought in to churn up the land, which helps the seeds to settle. They will also add valuable fertiliser.

The High Borrowdale meadow is quite a trek from the farmstead. Closer by, the Wilsons have two other meadows that they manage differently, with some additional fertiliser and an earlier cut so that the hay retains the nutrition needed to provide food for their livestock. It’s a management technique that allows for a meadow that is dominated by buttercups and clover, with a range of grasses. It is not a ‘wildflower’ meadow as the High Borrowdale meadow is, and has less diversity, but is more useful to the livestock.

While I was with Helen she took me into the holiday house, which she has kept in a traditional style. She showed me a picture taken from the house of a stag and a startled hind, and another of a red squirrel, also a regular visitor. These, along with the meadows, woodlands and rivers, are all part of this hill farm. And all the elements are interconnected – from the high windswept fell tops to the rushes in the fields that provide shelter for lambs in the winter and the river that sustains crayfish.

high borrowdale meadow

In the distance, the Wilson’s moving their sheep through the meadow

Out in High Borrowdale valley this week, Brian and his eldest son arrived with three dogs and gathered in the ewes and lambs, and took them back through the meadows and over the fell to the farm. It’s clipping time. I watched them walk down the track that cuts across the meadows, and the scene took on an Alpine quality for a brief moment, conjured up thoughts of times gone past.

When I walked that way later a new message had appeared on the bunting hanging on one of the gates. I think it may have had something to do with them.

high borrowdale bunting

If you’d like more details on Ashsteads Farm their website is www.ashsteadfarmhouse.co.uk.

Space for expression

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Using the meadow as a source of inspiration for writing isn’t something new – fragile and particularly beautiful landscapes have prompted writers for centuries. And this poetry residency in High Borrowdale meadow is not only about me writing in response to the experience. I will be sharing the work of other writers: voices from some of the ‘greats’ such as Robert Frost, John Clare, Wendell Berry, Anne Stevenson, John Muir, and contemporary writers including Kathleen Jones, Harriet Tarlo, Thomas A Clark, Rachael Clyne … and others. But the meadow is also a space for expression and I will be inviting anyone who feels like it to leave their own words.

meadow poetry high borrowdale

I asked my daughter to write on the bunting … she is colourfully minded 🙂

Tomorrow the event with Friends of the Lake District will be the official ‘launch’ of Poetry in the Meadow and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. Inspiration will come from the people who experience the space together, as well as from the natural environment. I know that several people who are coming will be bringing their own writing to share; others are coming to listen; others simply to discover what the valley has to offer.

During July, in addition to this public event, two groups of school children will be visiting, and a few creative friends are going to be dropping in. The meadow is on a public footpath, so I can’t anticipate who I will meet. But I hope that anyone who passes through will pause and take a moment to reflect, and add something to the open air canvas for poetry (hung out last night by me and my daughter Rosa, who has enjoyed adding her mark).

There are pens hanging on the fences, so feel free to come along and add to the emerging poetry of the meadow. You can wander in any time.

bunting in the meadow

Ready for Sunshine

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On Wednesday July 1st I’ll be heading into the meadow with a few others – anyone in fact who wants to come along to the Open Meadow event.

High Borrowdale Meadow

I am feeling excited about walking in and enjoying all that the valley has to offer. We may begin with a spot of bird watching – there’s a patch of river bank where sand martins dart in and out, elegant shimmers above the river. Then once in the meadow, we’ll be greeted by waves of flowers that are getting taller, brighter and more vigorous as the summer progresses. Jan Darrall from the Friends of the Lake District will be with us, and at least one other meadow expert (who I know is bringing a magnifying glass as well as binoculars), so that gives a perfect opportunity to have questions answered. I also have a few books about wild flowers on site to help with any identification debates.

We might even do a bit of cloud watching, although there might not be any. The forecast is for warmth and sun, finally! And of course there will be some poetry.

I’ve put together a collection of poems closely and loosely related to meadows, but all related to nature, written by others, and will be sharing these. I’ll also share a few of my own. And I’m encouraging others to take part – there will be bunting spread around that’s ready for writing on (I have the pens!), tags for placing poetry in the land, and reams of hand-made paper to add your thoughts to, rhyming, poetic, prose or otherwise.

oxeye daisy in meadow

I hope the forecasters are right, because I’m beginning to imagine a leisurely day in dappled sun, riversong drifting on the light breeze, sketch books and notepads out, discussions about flowers, grasses and birds, and the kind of gentle conversation that drifts wildly and goes off at a tangent when people get together in a beautiful space that’s also a bit cut off from every-day life. There is no WiFi and very limited phone signal; it will be about relishing the place and each moment, and feeling that very special kind of refreshment that comes from being outdoors surrounded by beauty.

As John Muir said about being immersed in a special place in his book, My First Summer in the Sierra,

Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.

If you’d like to come along, go to the Friends of the Lake District website (here) or read through the event page on this website for details of the day. Please do contact the Friends so that we have an idea of how many people to expect, or leave a comment at the end of this blog.

We plan to meet in the layby on the A6 at 0930 and wander in. The meadows are roughly a 40 minute walk from the road, but if we become distracted by sand martins, sundew, fresh larch cones, foxgloves or poetry, it will take us a bit longer!

Thanks, as ever, to Rob for the gorgeous photos. Something to inspire anyone who wants to take pictures in the meadow over the next few weeks.

A brief history of High Borrowdale’s flowers

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High Borrowdale has many layers to its history, and I will be exploring its life from the 1200s to the 1900s in other blogs. But for now my focus is on the most recent layer of the story – not as a lived-in farm, but as a meadow brought to life.

How long does a new meadow take to find its voice?

In the early 2000s the Friends of the Lake District, driven largely by Jan Darrall’s daring vision, took the decision to create an area of upland meadow on a stretch of grazed riverside grass beside the abandoned farm buildings. At the time, Jan told me, there was more negativity than optimism from others. A lot of people, conservationists included, said it wasn’t possible to start a meadow. Ten years later you’d be forgiven for thinking this was scepticism, but back then this project was one of the first of its kind – a new meadow in an upland area.

yellow rattle high borrowdale

Yellow Rattle

By 2004, with the strong support of Val Hack, everything was ready. Val was instrumental in planning the entire process, including growing yellow rattle at her own home – a plant that’s essential for supressing grass and allowing a richer meadow to thrive.

The creation of the meadow came in stages, roughly like this:

  • Cut it low
  • Scarify, harrow the land – this will get rid of 50% of the grass, without harming species like the pignut (a foundation plant for a meadow)
  • Gather seeds by making a sweep of plants – doing this twice, three weeks apart, allows for early and later flowering species
  • Put the seeds on a tarpaulin to dry
  • Spread them out on the land again
  • Roll the ground, with a tractor, mimicking the tread of cattle
  • Wish for rain

As more has been learnt about creating meadows it seems it’s not essential to be so precise about seed gathering and drying, but at the time, that was the method used. The team predicted that from the initial creation, a meadow would take twenty years to find its full voice.

high borrowdale barn and meadow

Meadow just coming into flower, with High Borrowdale Farm beyond

All was ready in 2004 but before the process could start, the rains came. And they stayed. Summer was a wash out. There was nothing to do but wait.

In 2005, the weather was fairer, with dry, warm days in spring, and rain following the first seeding of the prepared ground. A hay crop was taken from the land in September, and cows were reintroduced to tread and fertilise the land.

The next summer arrived in the midst of timid expectation and baited breath. What would appear? Hopes were cautiously low, but the land had changed. It wasn’t just buttercups and clovers that grew – ox-eye daisies appeared, followed by many others – melancholy thistles, pignuts, vetch, betony, bird’s foot trefoil, harebells. There’s a long, long list, and the ecological surveys carried out in 2008 and 2014 show that the richness and variety of the meadow is growing from strength to strength.

clover in the rainIn a way it all sounds so simple when you see it in writing. It seems so natural within the wide open spaces of Cumbria. But when you think about the wider context, it’s not quite so simple, or common. Since the 1940s, the number of wildflower meadows in the UK has declined severely. Only three percent remain. That’s a ninety-seven percent drop.

Since the 1940s, the number of wildflower meadows in the UK has declined severely. Only three percent remain. That’s a ninety-seven percent drop.

This harsh reality is like a slap in the face, and it’s frightening. Scores of invertebrates – bugs, beetles, flies, midges, moths, butterflies, crane flies – depend on each flower and grass found in a meadow. Scores of birds depend on these scores of invertebrates. The chain of nature is complex and fragile, and increasingly vulnerable as its individual links are weakened. Science can only go part way to explain the interconnections between grasses, bugs, birds, mammals and the quality of soil that supports us all, but it proves enough to show that each individual part is vital to the life of the others.

When the quantity of something so valuable declines so severely, its preciousness intensifies. And it’s not just science. It’s beauty. Even without any scientific, ecological or biological knowledge, who can remain untouched after spending time in a wildflower meadow?

Looking west along the Borrowdale Valley

Looking west along the Borrowdale Valley

The Friends of the Lake District planted a second stretch of meadow in 2013, and it is thriving: they created this using the now common technique of green hay, where a neighbouring site is cut, just before it is ready to become hay, and the resulting ‘green hay’ is spread onto the new site, without drying or wilting. It’s now possible to compare the two sites and observe how the different methods work. Friends of the Lake District has also managed the planting of 10,000 native trees in the valley.

Go to The Friends of the Lake District website here.

Thank you once again for gorgeous pictures, Rob Fraser.

Away from the city’s breath

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One of the poems in progress inspired by meadow-time.

The carving of the land by man was desecration then
Now the M6 winds, a lazy snake twixt bare-backed hills
And drivers glance, perhaps,
At the green beyond the screen

Here, in the dale, there’s no thought of motorway
No place for cars, no road, no lights
The stillness in the centre of the night
Defies time’s passing
Ignores the city’s breath

I am still, in my mind, of childhood’s kind,
Toes in the river,
The glimpse of a bug stretching into hours
Green rub on my soles

grasses in the meadow, high borrowdale cumbria

Flowers by name, poetry by nature

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The language of the meadow is seductive, suggestive. I’ve been reading through the High Borrowdale ecological survey from 2014 and playing with the names out loud and in my mind – is that strange? I don’t think so.

Some of them feel so good to roll around your tongue. Sorrel, yarrow, fecue, bent. Some paint instant pictures. Dog violet, melancholy thistle, meadow foxtail.

If the names were all in Latin they might make scientific sense and allow classification, but they would lose the sense of our connection to them. The people who named the plants we know today did so laden with stories, intention, local knowledge. Selfheal and eyebright speak of their use. Then there are flowers like lady’s mantle, ragged robin and butterfly orchid that are named for their appearance.

The names of grasses feel a little more simple, giving down-to-earth descriptions: sharp-flowered rush, rough meadow-grass. I like the sound of sweet vernal grass and crested dog’s tail, and the name Yorkshire fog instantly conjures up the scene of a misty field top on a chill Yorkshire day.

Soldier beetle on Cow Parsley

There’s something mystical, something mythical even about the names we ‘commonly’ give the plants around us. And I enjoy the way that no plant has one, single, definitive name. Common mouse-ear is also known as chickweed or starweed – the last seeming most appropriate with the delicate white flower opening like a silk star.

I’ve just been to visit a teacher at one of the schools I’ll be welcoming into the meadow, and we leafed through some wildflower cards that listed names for each plant. Imagine we were to name them all again, reflecting our own encounters with them, perhaps for the first time, with the striking up of a new relationship. When I’m in the meadow I will be inviting visitors to do just this – the new names will be catalogued on paper made using the river water and the mulch of fallen leaves, stalks and petals.

In the invention of new names our thoughts, like bees, will flit and buzz as they are drawn to brightness, seduced by scent, driven by something beyond reason. I hope we’ll be surprised by some of them and as we gather them, the new names will become part of the meadow poetry.

meadow grasses

Thank you Rob Fraser for the wonderful images. Beautiful.

Landmade words

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writing in the meadowJuly in the meadow will be all about finding words in response to the space. Even before I head out to High Borrowdale, before its flowers find their full voice, I’m beginning to come across some delicious words.

An old language that is new to me is coming back to life.

Back in the twelfth century, the Borrowdale Valley (then called Borgheredale) was granted by William de Lancaster to the monks of St Mary’s at Byland. The boundaries were recorded as running from the eagle stone, or ‘Ernestan’ to the plessicum, or slashed hedge. The homestead with its land attached was known as a toft. If words like these do not find their way into verses, bringing the land-made language of the past into twenty-first century mouths, I will be very surprised.

To deepen the sense of landmade poetry I will be making paper and stringing up natural fibre bunting as a canvas for myself and others to write on, as the meadowsong emerges.

a poem in the flowers

Forward dreaming

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Right now it is raining, heavily. The land is drinking it in. The meadow flowers are waiting beneath the green before emerging to dance in full glory. I am looking forward to the end of the  month and to indulging myself in meadowtime in July.

Back in February, I went to High Borrowdale to explore. The land was quiet, as if sleeping. The river was not. It sung, with the birds and the breeze, and the valley felt alive. I walked in with Rob and wrote about it in a separate blog which you can read here: ‘The Other Borrowdale‘.

high borrowdale meadow sign