It was in February 2014 that I first emailed Helie Franklin, offering to volunteer with the centre. She diplomatically and gently replied that with much of the farm still under water there was limited scope for my help and encouraged me to get in touch again a bit closer to spring.
A year on, and this winter has been much kinder in that it's been rather warmer and rather dryer. For example, every single field on the farm is walkable this year. Last year you'd have needed waders and a dinghy to get onto several of the flooded fields. Even with drier fields though January is about building, feeding and waiting.
It's been a very long month in photographic terms, and I have especially cherished the visits that coincided with a heavy frost, new animals or birds or volunteers working on a specific tasks as they've provided extra variety for photography. The fields and hedges, which provided such fertile ground for photography and writing through spring and summer are almost in suspended animation. The wheat, sown last year, is holding its own in muddy fields that are still more brown than green. The hedges are bizarrely transparent in many places with far reduced foliage. I've seen one bud - on a bramble. There is no warm background hum from insects, though there is the odd bit of birdsong. On some days the traffic noise carries from the road and it's a long mental stretch to remember the bright days of summer or the golden days of autumn. I am thoroughly enjoying photographing the farm every week, even on the days when it's cold, wet and muddy and it's a real challenge to find new images to record. Luckily I've found some new pictures every week, but I'm really looking forward to spring and new growth! Since this is a family friendly blog I shall draw a discreet veil over the enthusiastic activities of the ducks who are making grand efforts to ensure the continuation of their line, but it's fair to say that I'm hoping for some duckling photos at some point. Can you imagine how cute an Emerson/Lemon cross would be?
This is not to say that the farm has been idle in January - far from it. The first month of the new year has seen animal and bird accommodation being created and refined. The inside of the barn has been cleared and tidied ready for the groups of people who will start arriving soon. Funding bids are underway. The large pond is filling well and is ready for planting on the banks - the geese love it. Ditches have been extended. Bees need regular checking and feeding if necessary. It won't be long before the weather and fields are ready for a new intake of sheep, and lambs will follow very soon after. The newest batch of rescue hens are doing well and are unrecognisable in terms of confidence from when they first arrived. As for the first batch of rescue hens - well I think you'd be hard put to guess they were ever anything other than happy feisty healthy creatures. Relationships continue to be cultivated and grown, it's wonderful to meet new people at Caenhill and then to see them come back again and again. There's a lot of work happens away from the fields and barn too - Chris is updating the website to a new version of Joomla! and also taking the opportunity to refresh and tweak the content. Helie is part-way through a one year course at the School of Social Enterprise which develops people who have social impact projects. Just between us I have no idea where she finds the time, but am very grateful that she does! She went through an intense selection process to gain her place, amidst lots of competition from candidates whose projects were more urban and city based. I think she did brilliantly and I'm sure her skills and passion will enthuse everyone lucky enough to work with her.
I'm planning to start a foundation course in photography after Easter. It seems fitting that after the project bought me to photography I'll be able to bring the project to a wider audience via photography. I'm also learning some Joomla!, along with Belinda, so that the website load can be shared a bit. After all, we all know that Helie and Chris are never short on ideas and plans, but they have the same number of hours in every day as the rest of us. If you would like to help, Chris tells me that they would very much appreciate donations of seed for the crop area, seed for the bee/flower area, fencing material and any old tools for the farm or building work. Thank you. I shall leave you with a shot of Lemon, having a good wash after a quick rendezvous with Emerson. It's shots like this that reassure me that there are always photos to be taken, no matter how frozen the ground and bare the hedges.
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