20 June 2009

From Horsey Culture to Horticulture

I spent last Sunday at the delightful West Country Scything Festival. Having grown up in this part of the world I am deeply proud of its particularly relaxed take on life and it comes as no surprise to me that the Green Party did so well here in the recent European Elections. Unlike the South-East, where you can't help feeling that Cult of Caroline has a lot to do with the Party's success, in our neck of the woods Green voting feels like something that is spreading organically, or rhizomically, with no great media attention and no celebrities. For an increasingly large proportion of West Country people voting Green is becoming a natural thing to do.

The scything festival is a step further. It is an attempt, led by the excellent Simon Fairlie, to keep country crafts and skills alive. Men and women are taught scything and then compete with each other - and with strimmers - to show off their prowess. The whole event feels like a 21st century Medieval fair, with mummers and the inescapable morris men thrown in for good measure. There was also music - a band called Not Made in China and a singer known as 'badly horse-drawn boy', because his home is a gypsy caravan that converts into a solar-powered stage.

The festival crowd grows in size every year, but the scything festival reminds us that the land is for more than leisure. During a debate on the future of farming several speakers railed against the paddock culture, which means that farmers and smallholders cannot afford land because the rich are competing to use it to graze their horses. (In the West Country these people are always said to come from London - as though we didn't have enough home-grown aristocrats).

Just as the phrase 'market town' should remind us that, in a balanced economy, a town has no more citizens than can be fed from the surrounding land, so we should look to recreating the market gardens that have disappeared under car parks and paddocks. A working land is a land that feeds the people who live with it, rather than use being determined by profit maximisation.

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