Saturday, 28 August 2010

Sodden in Sissinghurst

We spent last weekend selling our plants at Sissinghurst Castle’s Smallholder’s Fair. If you follow the intrigues of the National Trust you will know that the “donor family” at Sissinghurst-the Nicholson’s- are much concerned with reconnecting the property with the local community, and re-establishing the estate as a working farm, or at least some kind of aristocratic demesne. This appeals to the nostalgic in me: at one time, most of the great and the good in Kent farming circles learnt their trade studying under the redoubtable Captain Beale, the long term tenant of the Castle.
Part of these plans was the idea of a Smallholder’s fair, sited on and around the new market garden that supplies the restaurant. As with all new events there was perhaps a gap between intention and reality: our impression was that there were not enough real smallholders taking part. We can think of at least three small rural businesses selling produce, fresh or cooked, that would have been excellent examples of what can be done on a small scale, businesses that provide employment and income on the local level.Many stallholders were local, or if travelling from away, were providing material or information pertinent to smallholdings: a few, however, seemed to stretch the bounds of smallholding somewhat.
The two days were marred to a greater or lesser extent by rain-drizzle on Saturday, heavy rain mid day on Sunday.The plants, of course, enjoyed the wet.We don’t believe in gazebos, as they seem to be more trouble than they are worth, so we got damper and damper as the day wore on.
We specially grew a number of varieties that would attract bees and butterflies, thinking that bee keepers would be interested. However non specific perennials were as attractive to the paying public.
Part of the fair was the “Talk Tent” where assorted worthies opined about subjects varying from poultry, cidermaking, cookery and the general place of smallholding and the environment. As we were there to sell plants, we only planned to hear Monty Don’s sermon. Don is a great communicator and enthusiast (in an eighteenth century manner) for the reconnection of food producers to both society and the land and nature. At times, there was a Wordsworthian or almost Blakean sensitivity to his talk, and it felt good that we had someone with this passion batting for us.
More prosaically, speaking to people on the day and since, we got the impression that the event was experimental, and that the public and participants didn’t really know what to expect, but were disappointed when they couldn’t find it.For our part, we would have liked to see more local smallholders and producers on site, together with a larger livestock element-I was pleased to see our friends from the Sussex Cattle Society there-, and some smallholders’ pigs!

Thursday, 5 August 2010


We’ve attended several fairs and plant sales so far this year-some in aweful weather-Smarden and Goodnestone in June, and some in blazing sun, but the one thatI enjoyed the most so far was the Grand Market on the Moor at Hawkhurst,held to celebrate the centenary of the OXO Cube. A pleasant day, weatherwise, the event was well run by local organisations, with support from SEEDA, the local development agency. That will date it, as I gather that SEEDA is to be abolished as part of the war on waste.
People were interested in, and complimentary about our plants, and we didn’t have to take too many home at the end of the day.
Researching the pub on the Moor, I discovered that OXO was developed by the Gunther family, who lived in what is now St Ronan’s School, which used to be a very superior prep school. It probably still is, but we aren’t allowed to be superior nowdays. One sad bit of information, which rather tempered my enjoyment of the day, was that two of the Gunther sons died in the Great War. However, I seem to remember that there was a farming family of Gunthers in the area when I was growing up.
Calving has proceeded without too much trauma, but, in common with the rest of the southeast, our farm is very dry, and it has been a struggle to find enough keep for the cattle, and hay cuts have been extremely low.
In a similar note, the nursery and garden have needed a lot of watering to keep growth on schedule, and Elizabeth is worried about the number of divisions she will be able to take. The Bee friendly plants that we sowed in the spring are progressing:most of them seem useful and saleable.