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!

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