Festival Theme for 2017: Quercus & Co
A Celebration of the English Oak, Woodland & local Wildlife
“This modest wood of, perhaps, some fifty acres has always suggested to me a sampling of the forest proper in many of its varieties. It was the forest proper when I was a boy. Now it is a sequence of glades, sluices, stands of ash,oak and beech, gardens, flowery banks, scrub, conifers, rabbit runs, tracks – anything a visiting woodlander can ask for.” From Field Work by Ronald Blythe.
In this excerpt from his book Field Work, Ronald Blythe describes both the mystery and attraction that woodland – or forest – can offer to a visitor. And of these two, forest is perhaps the more elusive term. It conjures images of thick, wild land enmeshed in trees and scrub and punctuated by bogs and streams or, if the topography allows, cascades and waterfalls : the Wildwood - the true, ancient inclination of the land and its natural expression. But as so often happens, the word has been adapted to new uses. In the absence of wildwood, the word forest has been tamed and now also applies to large areas of planted woodland. It has become a more domesticated version of the wild forest and a familiar sight in East Suffolk, where publicly owned forest extends over thousands of acres around Tunstall, Blaxhall and Rendlesham.
But what was the real wildwood of East Suffolk ? What species of tree grew here and what did the land look like ? And what, if any, traces of the original forest still survive in the living landscape of modern Suffolk ?
In his book The Suffolk Landscape Norman Scarfe referred to a central rump of heavy clay land that runs across the middle of the county. This was once known as 'High Suffolk' [which it certainly is, in relative terms] and also as 'Central Suffolk'. It was the home and the last refuge of a great belt of primeval forest dominated by oak. It survived into the Iron Age and beyond due to the thickness of the soil, made heavy by boulder clay. It was cut down many centuries after the Brecklands and Sandlings to the west and east had been settled and cleared for farming :
“The clay fields, too much for the prehistoric farmers to attempt, were very early cleared and made by the Old English settlers .. Many of the great open fields were already being enclosed by the Middle Ages, and drained with huge moat-like ditches; and the ditches led into streams that slowly carved into our gentle valleys. In this way the artificial creations of ditch and stream have come to look like the ‘natural’ lie of the land.”
He continues :
“The key to the occupation of the broad central two-thirds of Suffolk was the development of the beast-drawn plough with an iron coulter. Until this was first brought in by the Belgae, the main incentive to fell the oaks and drain and settle on the clay was missing. It is no accident that ‘coulter’ is at the bottom of the word ‘culture’, and that cultivation is a Roman idea from the same time. The cultivation of the landscape with the plough is the first step toward’s Suffolk’s civilisation. (Occasionally, it seems to have been the last.) Certainly one of the key questions for archaeologists to resolve in Suffolk is how much of the clay woodland was converted into fields by the Iron Age and Romano-British farmers, and how much was left for the Old English to clear.”
In his writing, Norman Scarfe suggests that the wildwood of Suffolk survived as an enclave on the clay uplands of High Suffolk up until just over two thousand years ago - until the arrival of the iron-tipped plough and the draught-ox. What we see around us today is a scattering of old and young oak trees, intermingled with self-sown alder and myriad ash, hornbeam, elm, birch, hawthorn, cherry, sycamore, sweet chestnut, poplar, willows, blackthorn, hazel, holly, maple, larch, evergreen conifers and the occasional rowan – many, perhaps even the majority, grown from planted stock. They stand alone or along hedgerows or in small spinneys and plantations; or in remnants of older woodland or pockets and occasional expanses of self-seeded scrub woodland.
It is this beautiful mixture of planted, cultivated, trimmed, cropped and self-sown, sporting wild trees and shrubs that have become part of the familiar, intriguing and richly diverse Suffolk countryside; long enclosed and farmed and ‘civilised’. And at the heart of this countryside, heavily cultivated for several millennia, stands the mighty pedunculate oak Quercus robur. It is this tree in particular, the English oak, that is an inspiration for this year’s Alde Valley Spring Festival.
This year’s Spring Festival is more closely curated than in previous years. The number of artists taking part in the main Festival Exhibition has been reduced in order to make the visual arts more focused. Quercus & Co has been chosen as the working title for the visual arts this year – with a nod also to the plough [and horse], which over the millennia has reworked the forested wilderness to create the Suffolk landscape we know today. Running through the barns are beautiful works which draw inspiration from the woodlands, trees, farmland and wildlife in the Alde Valley and beyond. New pieces from The Suffolk Chair Collection are also on show, made with timber from the farm and East Suffolk. The chairs provide a bridge between the visual arts and the Workshop Residencies in the back farmyard.
The number of Workshop Residencies for traditional / heritage crafts has been expanded for 2017. The aim of the workshop residency programme is to help invited makers to develop their practice, meet other makers and also to meet visitors to the farm. The theme for 2017 is Handmade and workshops will be open to the public at weekends and Bank Holidays with opportunities for visitors to talk to makers and buy or commission works from them through the Spring Festival sales desk. Craft practices represented in the 2017 workshop residency programmer include : chair making, knife making, spinning and felt making, bronze casting, tile making, sign writing, stained glass, musical instrument making, leather work, spoon making and basketry. There will also be static displays of tree surgery and saw milling.
Other aspects of the Spring Festival that have emerged over the past few years continue to develop and will also be part of this year’s programme of events. These include Writing at Great Glemham writing residencies, Farm Suppers, Festival Talks, The Festival Shop, Hedge Quarters Pop Up Tea Rooms, Farm Nature Walks, Farmyard Cinema [our old TV in a shed] and the finale weekend’s Big Spring Picnic – for which we invite visitors to bring their own picnic of locally produced foods and drinks to eat the farm’s 209m long Table of the East .. unofficially the world’s longest oak picnic table !
Woven through all of these events is a common thread : to celebrate a sense of place; and within this, to celebrate the essential beauty of our woodland and wildlife heritage, most notably in the form of the most magnificent of our local trees, the English Oak. My hope is that this year’s programme will bring this sense of celebration to the fore – intermingling the arts with food, words, fine arts and crafts from the landscape of the beautiful Alde Valley and Suffolk Coast. And it feels important to do this in a farmed landscape, with the fine arts and traditional crafts on show for a few weeks in a working farm environment. I believe that this roots the arts and crafts whilst also embellishing agriculture – which, as Norman Scarfe observed, was once thought to be at the heart of civilisation itself. There does seem room now for an enlightened approach to agriculture in which food, arts and farming all come together – and in which agriculture retrieves its own roots by reaching back to communities.
The venue and home of the Alde Valley Spring Festival is White House Farm – part of Great Glemham Farms partnership. The farm works with Natural England to manage a range of Higher Level Stewardship projects and also uses its own set of Sustainability Criteria for management and planning purposes. HLS projects include: ditch and dyke restoration, woodland creation, heritage orchard restoration, wild bird seed areas, pollen and nectar headlands, mixed grazing, new permissive rights of way, hedgerow restoration, riverside tree coppicing and a small Farmyard Classroom for educational access visits. Many of these conservation features are visible or open to view during the Spring Festival, which is managed partly as an open farm event. White House Farm was a regional finalist for the 2008 Natural England Future of Farming Awards and a regional winner for the 2012 RSPB Nature of Farming Awards. The sheep flock is managed by Nick & Penny Watts as part of their family's farming business.
In putting on the Alde Valley Spring Festival, it is also a great pleasure to be able to support a growing number of organisations that work with the arts, farming and conservation in Suffolk. For Spring 2017 these include: Suffolk Art Fund; East Anglian Art Fund; The Alde & Ore Association; Suffolk Red Cross; Suffolk Wildlife Trust; The Suffolk Punch Trust and Suffolk Agricultural Association. and the River Gipping Trust which has used Oak from White House Farm on some of its restoration projects. Other organisations we are promoting for 2017 include: the Woodland Trust as one of the nation’s leading charities for woodland creation; the Small Woods Association, The Tree Council and The Royal Forestry Society.
And as ever, the Spring Festival is indebted to its sponsors The Suffolk Coast DMO and Aspall Cyder. – and to media partners for 2017 Living Woods Magazine; Aldeburgh Living; About Fram; and to BBC Radio Suffolk and the East Anglian Daily Times. It has also been a delight to be able to develop links to the East Anglian Art Fund, which has very generously supported the production of a special edition of this year's Spring Festival Exhibition catalogue.
I look forward to welcoming you to White House Farm. Families and children are welcome. Come by foot, bike or car-share. Come for a day – or stay longer for a weekend or week on the Suffolk Coast ! For ideas about where to stay or eat locally, have a look at the Places to Stay and Food Adventures tabs on the Festival website. Spread the word that there is something to discover behind the hedge in this part of Suffolk, as in many parts of this fair county !
Jason Gathorne-Hardy [Festival Director and Curator]
Notes about The Spring Festival 2017
International Links ~ from Suffolk to the Heart of Borneo
The Spring Festival works with a model of development in which food, local landscape and the arts are treated as core components of sustainable economic growth – alongside renewable energy technologies and high capacity information communication technologies. Its first international link up has been with a pioneering community-owned food and cultural festival in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, East Malaysia – Pesta Nukenen dan Kebudayaan Kelabit. The Alde Valley Food Adventures and later the Spring Festival provided seed funding and core funding from 2006 until 2010. Pesta Nukenen is fully owned and managed by the Kelabit Highlands community and diaspora. If you are free on the last weekend in July 2016, the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak are the place to be !
Residency Links ~ Cill Rialaig in Kerry, Eire and Banks Farm, Cumbria
The Alde Valley Spring Festival has been developing new residency links to further cultural exchange between food and arts both within different parts of the UK and also internationally. In 2015 a residency exchange was set up with the Cill Rialaig project in Kerry, Eire. The first exchange focused on poetry, with Lavinia Greenlaw and Paddy Bushe being invited to stay at the farm and / or at Cill Rialaig. More locally, a new farm residency project has been seeded in Cumbria with a working theme Song of the Howgills.
For more News about the 2017 Spring Festival ~ please visit the Festival Blog.
If you are visiting and want a pub lunch or supper, there are good pubs locally at Great Glemham, Sweffling and Rendham; and excellent pubs, cafes, restaurants and food shops in Rendham, Framlingham, Saxmundham, Leiston, Snape, Orford and Aldeburgh.
Note: Health, Hygiene & Safety
The farm has two farmyard toilets and additional portable toilets on site for the duration of the Festival and open farm events. There is wheelchair access to most barns in which works of art are on show. There are First Aid points on site during opening hours. Please note that monitored wifi CCTV is in operation on the farm drives and around the farmyards at all times for security and safety. Whilst every effort is taken to ensure all visits and events are safe, please note that all children must be accompanied at all times whilst at the farm. Visitors are also kindly asked to keep to public access areas at all times and not cross into No Access areas or areas marked Private – and please do not bring dogs to the farm or Festival events : White House Farm is a working sheep farm with livestock in the fields.
For more information and all enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
With thanks to Aspall and East Anglian Art Fund for their generous support for Alde Valley Spring Festival 2017.