Michael Williams

Forget the car! Our idyllic, organic, low-carbon holiday to the West Country

May 1, 2007 The Independent

“Are there smoked salmon in the lake, Daddy?” Shhhh! This is my five-year old son giving away our secret ­– that we are just another bunch of townies on a trip to the countryside. But we’ve a special reason not to seem like greenhorns on this first day of our “green holiday”.

This isn’t one of those “let’s buy some organic asparagus in M&S” gestures. We have decided to do the “full green” – staying on an organic farm in a remote but beautiful part of the West Country, eating as organically and sustainably as possible, and travelling as far as we can by public transport. The last time holidaymakers in Britain regularly did this was in the 1950s, before agribusiness carved up the countryside, before Beeching closed the rural branch lines. And certainly before we had ever felt obliged to study our “carbon footprint.”

So here we are on Platform 10 at Paddington, boarding the 10.05 to Barnstaple via Exeter – our coolbag packed with organic goodies (OK, yes, Waitrose). The branch line from Barnstaple to our final destination – Braunton, near Ilfracombe in north Devon, closed in 1966, but we are going to get as near as dammit by rail. Reassuringly, our 1970s high-speed train has had its smoking diesel engines replaced by new quiet non-polluting ones, so it is with a whisper rather than a roar that we are soon speeding westwards

How superior to the M4, we think smugly. The Great Western route through the Vale of the White Horse is the most beautiful main line out of London, and we are in first class (only a tenner extra at weekends). But what of Little Comfort Farm where we are to stay? Does it just mean little and comfy? Or will it be more like Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort version?  Any doubts are dispelled at Barnstaple station, where we are welcomed by Jackie Milsom, who is the very image of the jolly farmers’ wife.

An unlikely eco-warrior she, we think, but soon she is telling us passionately about her organic farming vision, and she tuts, as we negotiate the narrow lanes, about the inevitability of having to use a car in the countryside. But the farm is green in every sense of the word. Tucked away in total solitude in a deep wooded valley, surrounded by green pasture, the only non-green colour is the deep azure of the sky. We tuck into Jackie’s home-made scones with local organic clotted, smothered with home-made raspberry jam.

And if we have any doubts about the way of life, here is husband Roger, taking us for the evening round to feed the livestock. He’s a worried man tonight because of the lack of rainfall, which has even hit this most verdant part of the country. Last year, livestock births were badly affected – the animals produce fewer offspring when there is less grass – and this year has been bad so far. But Roger and Jackie are thinking far ahead about the future of the planet.

“What changed us,” says Roger with a glint of the convert in his eye, “was the statistic that it takes seven tonnes of oil to produce one tonne of artificial fertiliser.” He’s been reading his Al Gore, and you can be sure there are no nasty pollutants on Little Comfort. All the fields are rotated in strict order, according to the rules of the Soil Association, with manure from the animals and ploughed-in crops providing all the nutrients.

And it is buckets of organic maize and soya that we are taking round for supper to the 350 Black Rock chickens, 10 Devon ruby cows, 50 breeding ewes, three breeding sows and Bertie, the Gloucester Old Spot boar, who is 16 stone, and highly fertile on his diet. (There are ten weeny week-old piglets suckling from their mother in the neighbouring field. “Bertie helped himself,” says Roger ruefully. But such is the nature of organic life.) At the end of the evening, Edmund achieves every small boy’s dream – the chance to bottle-feed the new-born lambs.

Settling down for the night, to the sound of satisfied grunting from the two piggies in the barn outside our door, we reflect that on our first day, we have at least achieved an organic pass rate. And there’s no cold comfort here, sitting by the log fire in Granary Cottage. For supper, there are delicious steaks from Roger and Jackie’s beef herd and the freshest in-season Devon broccoli from our pre-ordered organic box. We are watching the food miles. Roger has already told us about the local Tesco superstore, brooding on the other side of the hill, which has sucked 30 per cent of trade out of the local high street. Sure, Tesco will sell the local farm apples, but they must be sent 150 miles miles away to Derby to be packed first.

Next day, the difficult bit starts. There’s no problem being woken up by the morning whoop of the chickens. Nor trekking up the hill to collect the still-warm, dark-yolked eggs for breakfast. How are we going to get around without a car? But all good townies are never far from an OS map, and ours shows a pub in the village up the hill. So wellies on, we set off on foot, hungry for Sunday lunch. Didn’t the agricultural workers of old think nothing of walking ten miles to work and back? And what’s a couple of miles to work up appetites.

A footpath, lined with primroses and bluebells (the English variety, not the coarse Spanish ones, naturally) quickly dissolves the distance, even for a five year old, and soon we are at a sunny table in the garden of The Bell at West Down, tucking into Sunday roast (Roger and Jackie’s organic meat, naturally). A little bit of paradise sitting opposite the oddly named St Callixtus church. But this is a very remote community on a road to nowhere in particular, with only one bus a day. Our worries about how long such an idyll can last are diverted as we pause at a farm gate on the walk home for some freshly packed butter and delicious organic chocolate sauce. A notice tells us to put our money in an honesty box. We’re not in London now, you know.

Next day we get even bolder and take the bus to the seaside at Ilfracombe, eight miles away. It is empty and the driver becomes our personal chauffeur into the centre of town. No parking worries here. Nor do we have to resort to the old artery-clogging fudge and cream tea tradition of Devon. We opt for healthy, freshly caught sardines on toast in Damien Hirst’s new restaurant on the quayside.

Though not all is idyllic in organic north Devon. Food production is mostly a corporate business, and Jackie and Roger have to labour hard to stick to their particular script – the yield on organic farms is lower, the work tougher. Try growing all your own vegetables, making your own jam, honey and apple juice as well. There are no antibiotics for the animals, no weedkillers for the crops. Roger supplies two pigs on a regular basis for a local restaurant. But his business is not big enough – and probably too caring – to make much money out of it. (Edmund is fretting about the animals going to market for an entirely different reason – where did those lamb chops in the freezer come from, he asks Jackie suspiciously?)

The compensations for the Milsoms – and for us –lie in what the award-winning chef Heston Blumenthal calls “the morality of food production.” As dusk settles we can just glimpse the farm’s rare community of greater horseshoe bats wheeling around the eaves. They flourish here because of Roger’s ban on chemicals. He has also been planting new hedgerows as an aid to their radar, and in the organic grassland, they can munch on juicy insects galore. Like us, they are here because all seems right with the world.

As we prepare to head home, I calculate we will have travelled over 400 miles by public transport and on foot, but only 20 by car and taxi.  We have lived royally for four days on the finest locally sourced organic produce. (No hair shirts for us.) Have we helped save the planet? I don’t know. But we have a brand new word in our vocabulary. Like Roger and Jackie, we are committed “locovores” now. Long may we be so when we get back to London.


May 1, 2007 The Independent

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