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Sunday, 2 August 2015

Flying Ant Day

Christmas comes but once a year was the title of a 1930's short film, and in most years this is undoubtedly true. However in August 2015 the Festive Season began early, four months early, and with a nod to Rudolph involved a species of animal we don't expect to see on the wing - ants to be precise.


Having hacked and dug my way through 3 hours gardening I'd decided time was right for a large mug of tea and some coffee and walnut cake as a sweetener for the hard graft. Resting the weary bones I surveyed the garden with delight, it's looking good. Next to my vantage point was the Christmas Tree. Not just any tree it has to be said, this was one which I picked as a less than 2 cm high seedling in 2007 growing in the gravel of a forest track in deepest Northumberland. This minute self seedling was not going to survive there once the logging lorries hammered through. It needed saving. Popping it into a crisp packet (not having a plastic bag when you need one) I had a notion to bring it back to Somerset and make it into a pot growing Christmas Tree. It survived the 400 mile journey, and although not the best looking spruce in the wood, now reminds me of home when brought indoors for two weeks each year to deck the halls, not with holly I may add.


Casually gazing over this, something caught my eye, the soil was moving. No, it was heaving, undulating ever so subtly. I took a closer look just as the first winged queen emerged. The black garden ant Lasius niger. Within seconds the scene changed, the soil slowly became a moving mass of ants with their wings. They were everywhere.


Legend has it that the emergence of flying ants is a once a year event, on a single day, vicariously dubbed in the media "Flying Ant Day". True specific colonies of flying ants do tend to emerge on the same day, but emergence can occur over a longer period.  That said, the end of July and early August are peak 'lift off days'. Today was August the second, it was warm, light winds and blue skies - perfect.

Before moving to Somerset I'd never seen flying ants. Then that first summer of '93 swarms of them moved across walls and across Bristol pavements as I walked into work. While I was fascinated by this behaviour, most people reached for the ant powder and puffed these miracles of nature into an early grave.

Yet, until today (usually being in a hurry) I'd not really had an opportunity to observe the emergence close too over a period of time. Within a few minutes there were hundreds of ants swarming over the pot, made up of three ant body types. Half were wingless workers scurrying around after their winged brethren, and half were winged. Of the winged ants about 30% were what I call of a large and robust figure, with the remaining 70% cut-down must eat more greens versions.

This mass emergence happens when young queens leave the nest in order to set up a new colony. To do this these young females (the larger versions of the flying ants) need to find and mate with a male ant (the cut-down version) - and for some reason, rather than just staying on the ground, do this on the wing.

I was about to witness a 'nuptial flight'

To this cake munching human it all looked a bit haphazard. Many young queens flittered about on the soil or up the tree before taking off in a bumbling weakly undulating flight closely followed by hundreds of male suitors in hot wafting flight pursuit. Many ants just fell to the ground, but the garden soon became a dogfight of the most basic of biological processes, to breed the next generation. The air was alive with wing beats, close too I could just detect a fluttering sound from all this activity. Marvellous. Yet despite their lazy flight I failed to actually see the mid-air-nuptial - well would you if a 50 year old bald bearded Geordie was following you around the garden? Some decorum and privacy please.

But its all about numbers - all emerge in unison, the chances of a successful mating are high (though it never worked for me when in Newcastle on a Saturday night as a young blade about town). And of course flying from the colony decreases the chances of interbreeding.

Once mated the female heads off somewhere to begin the whole process again, and may live as the colony queen for around 10 years. Social insects are fascinating and only now am I taking their ecology seriously.

As I watched, not all the winged ants made it. A crafty spider had spun webs across some of the branches of the tree catching many, mainly male it has to be said, ants. The webs did catch the females but they are big and just too heavy for the webs to contain them; a struggle and they were free. But a few male ants provided sustenance for the hungry spider; ample reward for the long wait.


What was fascinating was that after about half an hour there was not an ant to be seen anywhere on the tree. Presumably the workers had gone back underground, and the flying new colonisers had left, though a few still flitting about the garden still.


Would I have seen this has I not stopped for a break? I doubt it. We celebrate the magnificent wildlife spectacles of the natural world, the Masai Mara migrations, monarch butterflies, shoaling fish, starlings spectacular murmurations, but for me this half an hour spent in my garden watching hundreds of flying ants emerge was like Christmas had come already, if four months early.

And if you see any flying ants this year - the Royal Society of Biology would like to know. http://www.rsb.org.uk/get-involved/biologyweek/flying-ant-survey

Monday, 20 July 2015

Coquetdale Moves With Spirit

The applause from the back of the bus was deafening. As I looked out of the window at the Three Wheat Heads in Thropton I half waited for cheers and dancing to join the applause, but then again this is the Coquet Valley in Northumberland. They do it differently here. They do it well.
 
I've followed the fortunes of Spirit Buses since they began last year by local Rothbury lad Steve Hurst. I've never met Steve before, but from people I know living here I realised he was someone who is admired and they want to see succeed. Rothbury has a long tradition of doing things their own way and from what I'd read and heard he had a passion to provide a bus service to this area and do it one better. A simple aim - to provide a real modern view of what a bus service should do in a rural area by providing the people with what they need, not what other bus companies see as a minimum service. And I have to say, from my first ever encounter with Steve he has achieved this without question.
 
I'll put my cards on the table and admit that I know the Coquet Valley well. For 20 years my parents had a static caravan up on the Coquetdale Caravan Park 'just up the hill', every spare moment was spent here allowing me to wander the Coquet landscape unhindered from the age of 6. Later I volunteered for many years as a warden at the Cragside Estate just outside Rothbury which completed my education of this Northumbrian jewel. I may have never actually lived in Rothbury, (now living 400 miles away in Somerset) but the Coquet Valley means a lot to me, in many ways provides my roots, my soul and my spirit.
 
Apt then that Steve Hurst should name his company Spirit Buses.
 
This weekend I was up with my partner Julie for the Rothbury Traditional Music Festival, but I have long wanted to support Steve and go up the Valley on his bus. The hour of departure arrived. Taking a break from the pipes and fiddles, at 14.45hrs the bus arrived in the centre of the village. A newly purchased (and as yet unliveried) Spirit bus.
 
 
We were going on the 'Coquetdale Circular'
 
 
This Coquetdale Circular route follows somewhat in the footsteps of the Royal Mail Post Bus Service which ran until January 2009 up the Coquet Valley to the last village of Alwinton. While the National Royal Mail service provided a lifeline to the many hamlets and farms up this remote valley by ferrying passengers while delivering the post, it received thousands of pounds in subsidies from Northumberland Council to keep it running. When the subsidies stopped the service stopped and for anyone living west of Thropton, the terminus to a national provider, public transport ended.
 
The similarity stops there. What Steve Hurst is doing is running a service without any financial subsidy, using his own money and driven enthusiasm. Not only up the valley, but to Alnwick (Rothbury and Alnwick have never been connected by public transport), Morpeth and other areas. How he has done this can be read below in an article in the Guardian.
 
For me last Saturday I solely wanted to experience this bus journey for what it is, which is now also becoming tourist service in its own right.
 
 
The bus was nearly full when we set off. Half the passengers were local. Steve greeting each one by name, a smile and a few words. The rest were, like me,  tourists excited at being driven on this 20 odd mile round trip for little more than the cost of a skinny latte in a city centre bistro. As I got on the bus I asked Steve if it would be okay to take photos on the way.
 
"No problem, I'll stop at Alwinton too and you can get out and take one there"

 
And we were off. Up the valley. Thropton 2 miles away, then Snitter a mile or so further on. As a car driver I have to concentrate on the road, but released from the rules of the highway my eye was caught by myriad views of the passing landscape newly seen from the height of a bus. Ohh that's what's over that hedge then? Just fabulous.
 
Onward the bus went, after Snitter, Netherton. The scenery is getting wild now. Behind me tourists 'ohh-ing and ahh-ing' at this huge, vast skied breath-taking scenery. Camera's clicked, people pointed. One lady, obviously local, had brought two guests with her and began pointing out places of interest or where she went to school. Quietly in front of me a local couple sat with their shopping, another man read a book to his little girl and an elderly lady sat next to me. More on her later.

 
Biddlestone next and it's red quarry scar, before the long drive into the remote valley near Alwinton, where the bus turned round to head back on a different route.


 
Alwinton: population 71:
 
This is the last village in the Valley. It has the last pub in the valley and is a centre for walkers and cyclists heading up Clennel Street in search of fresh air and freedom on the Cheviot Hill. Had the spirit bus continued, after about 6 miles it would have passed the last tea shop in Northumberland, at Barrowburn. Possibly the most remote café in England which is well worth a visit. Sit in the garden of this café and take the view. Nothing but hills and the odd passing sheep oh and absolute silence (providing the NATO Ranges are not firing at Otterburn). 6 miles or so beyond Barrowburn the road slowly ends close by the Scottish Border. It's a remote landscape loved by me and historically frequented by the Reivers.
 
Alwinton is home to another last, the Alwinton Border Shepherds Show which as the last country show in the calendar takes place this year on October 10th. Sometimes I sit daydreaming about the Alwinton Show while working in Bristol or at home in Somerset, its what keeps me going.

 
However my daydream was broken on Saturday by Steve. Having picked up half a dozen walkers they now filled the bus. Steve's head popped round the side of where he was sitting.
 
"Do you still want a photo here?"
 
I'd not forgotten (honestly) I just didn't want to get in the way. I got off and photographed his bus by the stop hard by the Rose and Crown
 
"Can I take a photo of you Steve as I want to write about this"
 
"No problem, I get a lot of these now from tourists, happy to do it"
 
Photographs done, I rushed back on passing the tourist information Steve has on his bus. Aside from the regular scheduled services, I'd been reading how Steve operates special events and also ties in with people like Shepherd Walks who have developed walks based on where his bus goes to and from and his timetable. 
 
This is what makes this such a special service. It's a bus service run to a very professional standard, on time and in clean friendly buses. Yet it is also a community hub, a link to other areas and people, provides tourist transport and as I was about to witness, a rural delivery service.

 
We were off, through the wonderfully named Harbottle then on into Holystone, chance for a photo of the long gone Salmon Inn in the far distance (where I spent much too much of my early years). An about turn and retrace our steps into Sharperton and a halt.
 
 
Out Steve got and walked over the bus stop where various items were. He was dropping off a delivery. Out here the community look out for each other and the additional services this bus provides is apparently well used by locals. The delivery made we left Sharperton back into the lower Valley and heading to Thropton, leaving me with plenty of time to take an artistic image of the ever smiling Steve at the wheel of his office while waiting at some traffic lights. 

 
Roadwork's in Thropton distracted everyone including Steve who accidentally drove by the regular stop where the elderly lady next to me hoped to get off.  Apologetic he pulled up as soon as he safely could, switched off the bus and walked the lady the few yards back to her home, returning to his seat accompanied by a huge round of applause from the locals (and tourists) for his act of generosity. Then we were off, Steve waving at a chap by the roadside who I later discovered was Henry, someone I'd not seen in 30 years, not since those days when the Cross Keys in Thropton and the Salmon in Holystone swapped clientele. Moving on ....
 
 
All too soon we were driving into Rothbury, time for a few last images of the Simonside Hills and the Festival from the bus.  




 
 
Matching reality to words often fails but during this short 1 hour journey I'd seen more community spirit, heard more laughter, witnessed more good will towards people, more waving at passing motorists, than I've seen for a long time. I don't know Steve but a conversation with one of the locals after we arrived back in Rothbury summed it up beautifully.
 
I was taking the photograph below and she stopped me.
 
"Did you enjoy your ride on the bus?"
 
I recognised her as one of the locals who'd been on there. Explaining how it was fantastic and more people should come to Rothbury and experience this she said (and I'm paraphrasing)
 
"Steve has brought this valley to life again. Without him we'd not be able to get anywhere. I don't drive so relied on friends for lifts. Now I can get on here and go to friends, go to Alnwick, or Morpeth and know I'm with someone who I can rely on. He's such  a good man, I only hope he can keep this service going"
 
 
I hope that too and why I've written this. As I've stated, I don't know Steve (who I hope doesn't mind my writing this), I have no connection to him other than by word of mouth, but I feel what he has achieved against mounting opposition in some areas is quite simply phenomenal. To run a bus service unaided, unsubsidised and on his own takes guts. He has guts, but he also has a charm and a sense of I am here to help the community, all with a sense of humour. Financially it must be a struggle. This is not a well populated area and running buses I should imagine isn't cheap. I hope then that more people come to the Valley and use his service. It is liberating to get out of the car and be part of a community on the move. I loved it and will do it again.
 
That lady I chatted to for over 5 minutes spoke of Steve in such warm tones, about a man who loves his village and its surrounding area and is actually doing something positive on his own for the good of others.  Steve Hurst, is in many ways the real Spirit of Coquetdale.
 
 
Spirit Busses website - http://www.spiritbuses.co.uk/
 
 
 

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Jethro Tull Agricultural pioneer


From Wikipedia

....At once the old hands quicken ---
bring pick and wisp and curry comb ---
thrill to the sound of all
the heavy horses coming home.

So wrote Ian Anderson, front man and driving force behind the progressive rock band, Jethro Tull.

Tull, or the “Mighty Tull” as Steve Coogan called them in his masterful Saxondale comedy, have been a part of my life for 30 years or more. Those lyrics from Heavy Horses, the title track on Tull’s 1978 album of the same name have long inspired me and have as a result now taken me on a long wished for pilgrimage. The band was named after the man who three centuries ago lay at the epicentre of the British Agricultural Revolution, pioneered a horse drawn seed drill, dramatically increased agricultural output but is in fact now almost forgotten by society. But not me.

A few weeks ago on a very hot summer's day I followed in the footsteps (or should that be trod the furrow ploughed by) of agricultural moderniser Jethro Tull, something I'd long wanted to do.

 
Prosperous Home Farm on the Wiltshire / Berkshire border.

 
Nestles in the lee of the Hampshire escarpment near Hungerford
 
 
An everyday farm today but with a unique past....

Prosperous Home Farm is today a 300 acre dairy enterprise, but in the Eighteenth Century it was an arable farm, which for the last 30 years of his life Jethro Tull called home. Until 2014 I regularly drove past this farm hard by the A338 near Shalbourne, a few miles outside Hungerford in Berkshire without realising this was the land which inspired Tull and changed the shape of western agriculture for ever.

I wonder how many drivers today realise the significance of this small farm to the modernisation of agriculture? What happened here was the culmination of a century of advancement, but here (and at Crowmarsh Gifford a few miles away) in a little piece of rural England the first true mechanical farming machine was developed, a moment in history which it could be argued directly aided the Industrial Revolution and fed a human population explosion in Western Europe. Stability in agricultural output allowed massed food production to feed the nation driven on by the Industrialisation of a nation, or nations. For me the arrival of the horse drawn seed drill and other equipment invented by Tull is on a par with the invention of the motor car, aeroplanes and space travel. It changed the world forever.

I’ll begin with the man, Jethro Tull the gentleman farmer. Born in 1674 to a well to do family in the parish of Basildon, Berkshire, made up of the two small out of the way hamlets of Upper and Lower Basildon. Even in 2015 as I arrived at the church in Lower Basildon where a memorial stone lies to Tull, despite its proximity to an ever expanding Reading, these hamlets seem remote and untouched by time.  Tull's exact resting place is uncertain but tradition has it that he lies in a vault under St Bartholomew's Church in Lower Basildon. He died in 1741 at Prosperous Farm. During his 67 years he both battled with ill health and quasi-luddite attitude to his inventions and husbandry practices. His ideas were not generally accepted into everyday agriculture for another 75 years or more.

 
St Bartholomew's Church in Lower Basildon

 
The memorial stone to Jethro Tull placed here 200years after his death by Gilbert Beale founder of nearby Beale Park. The lettering is hard to decipher now but a link to it is here.
 
 
 
Now deconsecrated the interior of the church offered a cool sanctuary on a very hot summers day when I visited, yet nothing inside celebrates Tull.

 
It was a strange feeling walking around St Bartholomew's Church. I quickly found Tull's memorial stone outside, leaning against the southern wall. Severely weather-beaten, the writing is now difficult to read; a stone which anyone passing by would ignore as just any other gravestone. How can the memorial to one of the Nation's great pioneers be so obscure? Entering the lovely church I hoped to find information about Tull within, after all I'd driven a long way to visit here. But there was nothing save a few lines in The Churches Conservation Trust leaflet mentioning the memorial stone and that Tull was the 'Father of the Agrarian Revolution'. That was it. And that's a shame.


Tull's classic work, The New Horse-Houghing Husbandry, details not only his hoeing methods but also the landscape of Prosperous Farm.  This farm is now owned by a Mr Kent who stated in a recent online article;

"We're able to work out which fields are which …. Field shapes and sizes have not changed [since Tull’s time]."

Although the use of the farm has changed it is nice to know that Mr Kent reveres its former guardian of the land. Tull's machinery saw wheat yields increase five-fold during the 18th century.

"Without that you could not have had the industrial revolution," argues Kent in the article.

And that is what fascinates me about the work of Tull and other agricultural pioneers like Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend (whose more poetic nomenclature of ‘Turnip’ Townshend was created due to his passion for this humble root crop).  Yes they were wealthy, but they were radical freethinkers in an age of societal constraint. 

I first read about Tull in a children's Encyclopedia as my interest in farming developed at school. What ignited that spark in me 40 years ago, a young man growing up in northern England, escapes me still. But like the writings of Thomas Hardy that inspired my love of Dorset, reading of Tull and those eighteenth century gentlemen farmers willing to break the rules and force science into the land did, and very much still does, resonate with me. 

The British Agricultural Revolution broke down centuries of inefficient agricultural toil, largely feudal in form, heavily dependent on a peasant labour force to provide food to a largely local market. Many fields were open systems such as can still be seen at Laxton in Nottinghamshire, or interestingly resemble modern day allotments which closely follow the open field system of many individuals growing different crops alongside each other with no real plan or economy of scale production.

Crops were transported no more than a few miles and until 1700 input and techniques to manage the land were rudimentary and often based on centuries old practices. True new science and invention was beginning to tap at the sod of the land, but as they say, old habits die hard. Towns were beginning to expand and their citizens they needed feeding. Many have argued it was subsistence farming, but I’m not so sure. My own view is that this farming provided what was needed for what was then a small population. Towns were small and farmers could supply the townsfolk easily as their fields were close by. Agricultural boom and bust years did happen but generally food output matched the needs of the country.

Farmers had long known that removing crops over time reduced productivity, and that was somehow linked to the soil. When farming began, “wildlands” were cleared, crops sown, yields were good for the first couple of years and then dramatically over time reduced until the fields had to be abandoned. This was fine for a small mobile population. Once the land was exhausted the small population either moved elsewhere and started again or ate their animals, or sometimes starved. The arrival of the Normans changed farming by enhancing the Manor and Serfedom system, but it was still a hit and miss affair.

Everything was dependent on the weather, and the weather defined the harvest. If the latter failed people were in famine. It was lucky then that the Medieval Warm Period was in place, when temperatures were warmer than today, vineyards flourished in southern England and the land was generally able to support the population of 3-4 million.

But from the later Middle Ages onwards settlements grew, these settlements needed and attracted people who slowly began to leave the land to develop trades in town. The town required a stable farming system to feed everyone as the population steadily rose. The best land had already been cleared, more land was needed forcing the cultivation of less productive 'wastelands' like Romney Marsh, upland moors and the Somerset Levels, with their inherent problems.

Generally a two field system existed, otherwise known as crop rotation. Basically a field(s) produced autumn sown crops until it was exhausted (of nutrients) and then returned to fallow while another field (s) was taken out of fallow and cropped, until that became exhausted and so on. So half of the available land to grow crops was fallow at any one time. In terms of yield they were inefficient by todays standards. For example wheat output in the early Middle Ages was at around 0.14 tonnes per acre compared to an average of 3 tonnes per acre today.  But by and large farming provided enough food to feed the people, though some estimates put output between 50 and 75% of healthy dietary needs.

From this a three field system developed where spring sown crops slotted into the regime, making a third of the land fallow. In the middle of all of this had been the catastrophic aftermath of the Black Death era in the fourteenth century, there simply were not enough people to farm, and this began a change in agriculture, as less people on the land had to provide enough food.

Move on a few centuries and we meet the British Agricultural Revolution and Tull. The British Agricultural Revolution of the eighteenth century, it could be argued, began with the arrival into England of the four-field rotation system from Europe, pioneered in Norfolk by the aforenamed ‘Turnip’ Townshend.

Emerging science and knowledge of soil fertility and structure developed a notion that with good husbandry three years were optimum to allow an exhausted field to recover enough to be cropped again, and if you grew fodder crops livestock could be kept all year. So developing on from the three field autumn sown, spring sown and fallow field system, a fourth field would needed.  Enter the four field system. This system involved a four year rotation usually of wheat, turnips (a ‘fallow’ fodder crop that allowed for winter feeding of livestock and manure), barley, then clover (to return nitrogen to the soil). Some systems included peas and legumes, others oats, but the principles were the same.

Thus on a single piece of land 75% continuous cropping was possible, both cereals and a fodder crop and grazing crop which allowed year round breeding of livestock, and more importantly now only a quarter of land was 'in fallow'. It is only very recently that this system has changed again with the arrival of continuous cropping dependent on high external nutrient inputs via fertilisers and plant science advancement.

But back to Tull.

In reality many changes and ideas helped accelerate this agricultural revolution, land drainage, horse replacing oxen, enclosures, turnpike roads opening up new markets and readily available writings from leading scientists of the day. But for me what Tull, Townshend and others like Robert Bakewell who developed selective livestock breeding and Coke of Holkham with sheep management did, was seize the initiative and push forward ideas that only recently had been branded heretical in society.

While the others developed new farming practices, what I admire about Tull was his ideas to ‘make it easier and more efficient’ through the development of mechanization. Absolutely in tune with the embryonic Industrial Revolution, happening elsewhere in the country.

Developments were already occurring. The predecessor of today’s modern plough with a mouldboard and cutter were developed around 1700 by the Dutch ( known as a turnboard ) based on a more ancient Chinese design. More land could now be opened up for agriculture, but that led to problems. Firstly this increasing area needed to have crops sown by hand – literally by hand or later with a seed-fiddle, which was both inefficient and took a lot of time to walk up and down a field.  Secondly once sown into bare land, common weeds could outcompete crops, affecting yields and there was little way of controlling them other than by hand hoeing. The whole system was inefficient and very labour intensive.

And this is where Tull in my opinion rises a head and maybe a shoulder above others at the time. He experimented, on his own farm which could have led to harvest disaster, new farming techniques and invented mechanical agricultural equipment. He put his money where his mouth was.  Using his knowledge of church organs, he developed a horse drawn machine which could plant seeds in rows down pipes.

Think about this. Until then people walked up and down fields broadcasting seed corn onto bare ground. Much of this seed corn was eaten by birds and mammals or rotted, before germination. Estimates put it that 1 bushel of wheat seed corn was needed to produce 5 bushels of crop.  I won't detail the mechanics of his seed-drill, but what Tull did was design a drill which allowed the planting the seeds at regular intervals, at a consistent depth, and in a straight line. This limited waste, allowed for efficient hoeing and dramatically increased harvest yields.

Tull said of his invention, "It was named a drill because when farmers used to sow their beans and peas into channels or furrows by hand, they called that action drilling."

Tull's improved drilling method allowed farmers to sow three rows of seeds simultaneously. His other inventions allowed tillage and hoeing between the crops which according to Tull, loose soil was vital for good germination and early growth and weed removal increased early growth of the crop. This all seems obvious now, but back then, revolutionary. And Tull was a revolutionary thinker, probably because he wasn’t a farmer at all.

What made Jethro Tull take up farming is not clear.  Being a gentleman by birth, after his education in Oxford, he initially became a musician (an interesting connection to his twentieth century counterpart). Music and agriculture don’t often collide but his understanding of the mechanics needed for an organ to operate led directly to his seed-drill invention. In 1693 he entered Gray’s Inn to study law qualifying as a barrister in 1699, although he never practiced. More importantly for agriculture, at this time he toured the Continent for a few months which gave him at first hand a glimpse of agricultural practices outside England. He then returned home and marryied Sussanah Smith of Burton-Dassett, Warwickshire.

 
The farmhouse where Jethro Tull lived and where the development of the seed drill occurred.

Tull and his wife settled on one of his father’s farm at Crowmarsh Gifford in Oxfordshire in 1701. Sadly Howberry Farm no longer exists but the house he lived in does, now identified as 16–19 The Street, Crowmarsh Gifford.

 
New houses stand on what was once the farm, but at least there's the Jethro Tull Gardens and Howberry Road.
 
 
 I wonder what Tull would think........ the fields he first developed his ideas for increased food production are now built on and permanently removed from food production.

 
The original building remains now a number of houses, one of which has a blue plaque thankfully


 
It was here that Tull seriously began an almost obsessive determination to improve agricultural methods and increase yields. He ran a number of agricultural experiments, while farming there but a combination of toil and too frequently exposing himself to outdoor work in all weathers meant he contracted a pulmonary disorder. Unable to find relief in England, he went on another tour of Europe, this time to the warmer climates of France and Italy.

Once again this gave him time to observe European agricultural practices. On his return he moved the family to Prosperous Farm which his father had inherited from a naredowell uncle, near Shalbourne in Wiltshire (though the farm is in Berkshire). It was here that Tull finally perfected and revised his seed-drill instruments and designed new ones suitable to the different soils of his new farm; Here too he demonstrated the good effects of his horse-hoeing culture. All of which made his farm produce more per acre than maybe any in England at the time.

Tradition has it that Tull managed to obtain a sizeable crop off a single field for thirteen years using his methods. In reality this is doubtful and more likely he managed the output with under sowing of clover or legumes and careful management of manuring. Although interestingly Tull wasn't an advocate of animal manures, thinking just the soil particles provided the means of growth, not the nutrients held in the soil as we know today.

Sadly although Tull developed machines and techniques that have a direct pedigree to machines still being used today, in his lifetime his methods were not readily adopted.

Despite Tull successfully demonstrating what might be done by improved agriculture, he was not able to turn it to his own advantage. The expense of all this research and development with often failure as the result, rose in various ways, chiefly by the unsuitability unskilled workmen employed in constructing his instruments, and in the awkwardness and maliciousness of his servants, who, because they did not or would not comprehend the use of them, seldom failed to break some essential part or other, in order to render them useless. One could guess this was self interest, seeing a machine do the work of many men could make them lose their jobs. It would be decades later, long after his death, that his vision and tenacity to develop labour saving more efficient machines would be universally adopted.

The seed-drill Tull began inventing in 1701 and developed fully years later has been called the first or earliest agricultural machine because it had internal moving parts which standardised seed sowing and spacing. Its rotary mechanism was the foundation of all subsequent sowing implements.

Unwittingly these inventions and the work of others contributed to the population explosion of the Industrial era due to a four fold or more increase in the food supply. In England and Wales, the population rose from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801. By then as his and other techniques were rapidly taken on board by nineteenth century farmers, along with new food imports from abroad the population more than tripled in a century to over 32 million by 1900.

For me as I travelled between Oxfordshire and Berkshire visiting the sites of Tull's work, it struck me that Tull is a giant amongst men not just amongst agriculturalists. His name should be up there amongst the Greats who made Britain, Shakespeare, Nelson, Churchill and so on. His influence on society can not be underestimated yet I felt as I travelled to Crowmarsh Gifford, Lower Basildon and Shalbourne visiting places and following his life three hundred year earlier, he feels like an insignificant footnote in history. One blue plaque on the house where he lived and an impossible to read memorial stone leaning against the church where he now lies. And that is about it. Scholars and those interested in agricultural history know his name, but his name is not on the lips of the general public like that of say another mechanical pioneer, Brunel? 

On that June day as I stood infront of Prosperous Home Farm I felt sad. Something was needed. How many people who pass by on their way to Hungerford to buy a sandwich for lunch know that without his invention and that of the other British Agriculture Revolution leaders, what they are buying, bread, provided cheaply and efficiently by today's agriculture, would not be as easily available without his invention. Neatly summed up Bob Rodale in "The Regenerative Concept." 

"In short, the whole concept of thorough tillage, row cropping, and keeping the soil surface as bare as possible emerged from the brain of Jethro Tull"

It is a sobering thought. We rightly applaud Brunel for the railways, but the railways carried the harvest of Tull's mind and invention, to feed the nation.

I’ll leave the last word to William Macdonald author of ‘Makers of Modern Agriculture’

When it is remembered what a prominent part Agriculture plays in the history of all Nations, it does seem strange that so little is known of the lives of those pioneers who have been foremost in the discovery of fundamental principles, improved methods, and labour-saving machines.”

 
Bring a song for the evening
Clean brass to flash the dawn
across these acres glistening
like dew on a carpet lawn
In these dark towns folk lie sleeping
as the heavy horses thunder by
to wake the dying city
with the living horseman's cry
At once the old hands quicken ---
bring pick and wisp and curry comb ---
thrill to the sound of all
the heavy horses coming home.


Reference to this Jethro Tull article

Jethro Tull Biography

http://biography.yourdictionary.com/jethro-tull

Fussell, G. E., Jethro Tull: His Influence on Mechanized Agriculture, Osprey, 1973.
Online

Jethro Tull at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers

https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/history-of-mechanical-engineering/jethro-tull

Profile of the current owner of Prospect Farm, Mr R Kent


"The Agricultural Revolution," AP European History, http://www.eurohist.com/the-agricultural-revolution.htm (December 8, 2000).

Rodale, Bob, "The Regenerative Concept," Rodale Institute, http://www.rodaleinstitute.org (December 8, 2000).

Makers of Modern Agriculture by William Macdonald
 http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/40670/pg40670.txt

Turnip Townshend
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Townshend,_2nd_Viscount_Townshend

Sunday, 5 July 2015

July 5th 2015 - Project Month 7

A mere two weeks after the longest day and already the year seems to be slipping into a fag end of summer feeling. Earlier this week we had the house lights on for the first time in ages, admittedly as it was raining, but by 9.30pm we needed light to read. So it felt this weekend taking the seventh month images for the project. Those 7 months have just flown by and as I stood next to dying grasses, scrunched leaves underfoot and observing fields turning Naples yellow under the ravages of many a harvester, it reminded me more than ever of the Wheel of the Year. That passing of time, when the next set of images will be taken as the village celebrates it's Harvest Home Festival - a celebration of harvest gathered in safely, a time to relax as the next jobs are ploughing and sowing for the year ahead.
 
It is still high summer of course, swifts screaming overhead, the sun blisteringly hot when out, a cool wind off the sea just moderating the heat, yet I saw a handful of young swallows gathered on telegraph lines, a flock of fifty or so starlings wheeling about and the teenage jackdaws are out on a rudimentary geographical lesson with their extended families. Dragonflies are now omnipresent, birds overhead with primary feathers missing as they moult,  and bramble flowers wither as they set down early drupes.
 
July has never been a favourite month of mine, that moment when the freshness and vitality of spring just fades away, almost like the countryside has run out of steam at the end of a party. This year is different. Attempting this project is changing July's meaning for me - I now see it as a holding month. January, February and March were all about emergence, new growth and struggling to get through the ferocity of winter. Then along comes April, May and June. From new growth the landscape erupts in a profusion of greens, whites and yellows, a time to breed, avian travellers arrive from afar; it's all about giving birth to the next generation. Spring is all hustle and bustle in the natural world, even before dawn.
 
July and to some extent August and September are a time to relax, put on the slippers, next generation out the nest, job done, the world is at peace - and it's too hot to work anyway. A time for the landscape to reap its rewards for 6 months graft and toil. All too soon the hedgerows will be brimming with rouge berries, sloes and blackberries. But that is for the future. So for now, before the first frosts of autumn arrive, with the sun shining, a refreshing cider at hand, pull up a chaise lounge, relax and unwind-a-while with the seventeen July images...
 
 
The village looking very quiet on a Sunday afternoon

 
Sheep have arrived in the orchard field, the pond (not visible to the left) has been opened up.

 
A single liquorice allsort of haylage alters the scene this months

 
For a church which is defunct, I was surprised to see a new grave adjacent to where I stand for this image.

 
Will there ever be a time when this road does not sport a puddle - heavy showery rain today.

 
The river is chocked with weed, the banks dying back, although the road edge has been cut.

 
Somewhere out of sight I could hear Paul chopping down nettles. I love this orchard.

 
The Strawberry Line is getting a bit overgrown.

 
Apples are begging to form, though you'd not know it by this image, taken moments after a torrential downpour, not the best light.

 
The bridleway has been cleared a bit

 
Whereas the barn image is one of black bales and a wonky gate - what is going on!

 
The meadow around Woodspring Priority is getting quite mature now.

 
Sand Bay on Saturday evening, hot, windy and a lot of walkers out. This image is my 'control' - it never really changes.

 
Blue skies say it all

 
Farmer Green had just gone into the parlour, it will be sad to see these monochrome bovines disappear.

 
Permanent pasture, ploughed and reseeded with maize, coming up nicely.

 
I failed to take any images of the many swallows and house martins flittering along the water, such an idyllic view. I love driving over this ancient bridge every morning. Never tire of the view.
 
So next image taking - month 8, will be August 1st or 2nd.