Letter From Another Country
One smallish field away from us at Northfield Farm, what the agents describe as ‘one of the largest fields in Leicestershire’ has come on the market for sale. In a world of imaginative and sometimes ancient names for pieces of ground, this field is known simply as ‘two hundred acre’. Actually it is a little larger than that. Divided into two lots, about 50 acres, one lot, is under offer while the rest, approximately 160 acres has gone to what is known as ‘sealed bids’ to be submitted by midday on 29th July. This is a common practice used to extract the highest price when there is substantial interest in a property or piece of land.
The previous owner of Northfield Farm recounted many takes to me before he moved out and we moved in, nearly thirty years ago. He recalled that this huge field had been an extraordinarily beautiful, magical place of ancient trees, hedges and old permanent grassland.
A ‘hard man to hounds’ in his youth, he told me how at the end of a long day’s hunting, making their way home to Northfield in the fast fading light of a Winter evening, or sometimes long after the setting of the sun, he and his horse would steer their way by the shape of the broad hedges and ancient trees, each one recognisable by its own character and shape, even as they loomed up in front of him in the near total dark or in the faint light of a pale moon.
Years later, probably in the 1970’s, every line of hedge, every tree, ancient and young, every little copse, every little vestige of diverse, culturally and historically unique example of this vast and special place was ripped out of the ground to create one of the largest single fields in the county which will soon be sold.
A few nights ago I had a dream.
In that dream I considered the sum of money that it would take to buy this 160 acre, rolling, clear field and restore it to some form of its original glory. My dream would be to plant 15% or so with traditional broadleaf woodland, to plant many hedges, to protect the perimeter with a fence and to convert much of the land itself into permanent grassland, interspersed with fruitful trees. All managed to encourage the maximum possible sequestration of carbon while encouraging biodiversity of the kind we have encouraged so successfully in the last thirty years or so at Northfield Farm. I would keep some land to be set into a small-scale old-school arable rotation but focusing on such ancient grains as Spelt and older varieties of Wheat and Barley. Heirloom crops which we could mill at the old windmill in nearby Whissendine and from which we could produce flour and perhaps loaves of bread designed to nourish rather than just to fill.
I envisaged a fund, set up within a trust which would aim to encourage understanding of extensive farming of traditional breeds of livestock, their life-cycle and their purpose as providers of high quality food and a vital part of the necessary cycle of life on a ‘modern’ traditional grassland farm.
160 acres is a very small estate in farming terms so not an area suitable for any major form of so-called ‘rewilding’, but it could lead the way to learning and teaching in a way that generates positive income, recreation and a balanced approach to food production that seeks to nurture many of the methods and values which have been and are still being destroyed by so-called ‘Big Food’.
I awoke in a cold sweat as I calculated that just to set up the basic infrastructure of this venture might well cost at least £3,500,000, depending on the eventual selling price of the land itself. To stock it and take it forward as I had dreamed would require additional funds. This project would be founded in commerciality but where agriculture has come to, it could never produce what might be seen as a conventional return on investment.
It could, however, go some small way to being the beginning of a cure for the ill that afflicts us all. That of our food, our land, our nutrition, our groundedness and our very survival. It could supplement our farming activities and food production @northfieldfarm and turbocharge our sales through outlets such as ours @boroughmarket in London.
So, in a few days the future of this still beautiful, though barren land will become apparent. Perhaps it will join the seemingly endless number of applications for laughably described ‘Solar Farms’, aberrations of the renewable energy revolution which would rather destroy our extraordinary landscapes than put panels where they should be, on roofs. Perhaps it will be planted with a fast-growing monocrop of trees under the imbecilic guise of Carbon offsetting which is only one step away from the solar farm level of misguidedness.
Maybe, just maybe, someone with the rare combination of a fortune and true vision will take this extraordinary opportunity to implement a restoration project along the lines of my dream and make something truly fabulous out of this wonderful but sadly depleted area of land.
All photographs copyright Jan McCourt & Adrian McCourt