The entrance to Caen Hill Countryside Centre is very easily missed. I did so, despite Project Manager Helie Franklin’s crystal clear directions. One moment of distraction to read a new road sign and there it was in my rearview mirror, one of those elusive little opportunities that only really appear once you pass them. I looped round and tried again, slowing and signalling as I approached the turning whilst hoping that the driver of the bus bearing down upon me had noticed my lack of speed. I took a hard slow left into what felt like a miniature layby, and a track opened up Harry Potter Platform 9 ¾style to my left. On reaching the bottom of the track the sun finally broke through the morning’s rain clouds and Helie greeted me from the barn. I was relieved to hear that local residents of much longer standing have struggled to find the entrance, or even believe that it was there in one case!
“The Caen Hill Countryside Centre is a project which brings countryside learning to children, young people and communities. Located just to the west of Devizes near the Caen Hill locks and covers 70 acres of land.” I was there to see if I could add anything to their pool of volunteers, offering time and enthusiasm but precious little experience. Luckily, it turned out that Helie needed someone to lend a hand blogging, so here I am blogging whilst we wait for fields to drain. The centre is at the start of a new phase of its life, and it’s an exciting phase.
The 70 acres of land has been farmed for a long time, but areas have been neglected over the last few years and there is a lot of work to be done. Much of this work has been delayed by the very poor weather over the last few months but a strong start has already been made. Chris Franklin’s father farmed here for decades, retiring in 2002. In today’s world, 70 acres is very small for a productive farm so the Franklins have adjusted expectations accordingly. Old fruit trees are being coaxed back into full life, and damaged fruit stored and fed to some very grateful hens. The remaining apples will go to Rowde Community Shop for sale. The dairy that last saw milk in the 1970s is being converted into a training centre and office, with an interaction centre to show the milking process. A barn stacked with hay stacks from last year’s hay and straw for bedding has plenty of sheltered usable space out of sun and rain. A disused silage pond will be cleared and reused as a pond for geese and ducks. Sheep will graze, orphan lambs will be nourished and there might even be alpacas batting their gorgeous lashes and making that weird alpaca sound. Wildflowers and nettles will be encouraged in support of the bees, whose hives enjoy some really quite special views.
Vegetables will grow, be harvested and nourish. Children will learn about our food and our farms,young adults will have the opportunity to contribute to the clearing and working of the farm, earn credits for qualifications, and be part of something truly remarkable. Adults can volunteer skills, time, equipment or attend the workshops and courses that run here. Helie’s commitment and vision are allencompassing, from feeding the chickens to supporting disadvantaged young adults, to working towards the certifications that will allow these neglected acres to make a big difference to local communities. Gangs of workers arrive on “day release” from employers such as banks and food producers, enthusiastically cracking on with the not to be underestimated amount of cutting, clearing and cleaning that precedes so much of the other work. Working on rain water handling is a priority too, with seven fields currently under water.
My appetite is truly whetted. I’d like my six year old to grow up with the same experience of and exposure to the rural environment that I had, growing up in Cornwall. I’m fortunate enough to have some time to give, and would welcome the chance to build some marketable skills at the same time (did you know there’s a green skills gap? http://press.rhs.org.uk/RHSCampaigns/Press
releases/HorticultureAnIndustryAtCrisisPoint.aspx ) If you’d like to know more, or can help with time or donations (everything welcome from boots and secateurs to vintage farming equipment) take a look here http://www.caenhillcc.org.uk/ .