Fragile, naïve and centuries old; Peak District well dressing

A lovely video from @terrybnd all about our wonderful well dressings. Tissington is always the first and is the most spectacular, but from May to September you can find a well dressing somewhere in the Peak District.

Tissington is a neighbouring village, and we always try and take the opportunity to wander around admiring the well dressings during balmy evenings, after all the crowds have gone.

Well dressings are the amazing and ephemeral works of art displayed, briefly in villages all over the Peak District. For hundreds of years villagers have celebrated the gift of sweet water by decorating the village wells with intricate patterns and pictures often inspired by Bible stories. The pictures are made of flower petals, carefully laid over each other like roof tiles, fixed into damp clay, held in large decorative vertical wooden trays.

The designs are pricked out on the clay using paper patterns, the outlines created with tiny pine cones. Then starting at the bottom the vibrant coloured flower petals are gently fixed into the clay. Some wells have traditional patterns repeated over the years. The decorations remain on view for just one week, then everything is cleared away and planning starts for the next year.

I’m a painter, specialising in Swedish style folk art. When I paint about the Peak District I always give Peak District women well dressing skirts- even my ‘Angels bending near the Earth’ have well dressing robes.

Harps of Gold

Harps of Gold, egg tempera on gesso on canvas by Sue Prince 2010 (c)

Folk art (naïve art, outsider art, self-taught art) is pretty well hidden in Britain. It is hugely valued in many countries; America, Sweden, Russia and also Slovenia, as I discovered having been invited to paint in Slovenia. I joined 42nd gathering of international naive artists at the Galerija likovnih samorastnikov The Gallery of Naïve Artists

The Gallery was founded in 1971 as a result of an annual action camp for Naïve Artists, which started in 1968. At these meetings artists from around the world met each other and shared experiences while creating pieces for the permanent collection.

Well dressings are the Peak District’s folk art. Created by people of the place, they haven’t been to art college, they aren’t professional artists, but what they create touches the heart and warms the soul!

Tissington Well Dressing

Tissington Well Dressing

To appreciate a well dressing is to appreciate the closeness and tradition of a community, the relentless turning of the seasons, the love of nature and flowers, the patterns and images that surround you and the protected landscape they sit in.

Coffin Well Tissington

Coffin Well, Tissington

Posted in culture, Derbyshire, eco tourism, folk art, nature, Peak District, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

We LOVE our Cows

We seriously love our cows.
You can’t spend days and months and years with any animal without
getting to know them and appreciate their characters and quirks.  Today we let our bonny organic cows out for the first time since Oct.

They skip and bounce, buck and gallop.  It is fantastic to see such huge creatures, normally regarded as slow and lumbering, be so animated and lively!

Cows are bright intelligent animals.  We have one in particular; she was called
Amelia but is now called Bang Bang Amelia.
Here is her story.  Bang Bang Amelia

Living with cows gives you an extra dimension.  We are surrounded by huge, benign creatures  who are connected to our organic soil with all four feet and who eat our organic grass, herbs and flowers and allow us to harvest rich creamy delicious  milk.

Because they are organic, they aren’t pushed to produce more  than they are comfortable with.  They  have long and happy lives, and we LOVE them!

Beechenhill cows

Beechenhill cows coming up for milking

Posted in Children's stories, eco, environmental, farming, food, milk and dairy, nature, organics | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Soaring Spirits and Harsh Realities of the English Uplands

A while ago I tramped across the Peak District’s Bleaklow in mizzly drizzle, hot and puffing in my waterproof jacket; my legs aching from high stepping through the heather tufts. We reached a high point and stopped. All around, as I spun slowly, I could see hazy landscape; 360 degrees of our imperfect world. My cheeks were glowing and I felt strong and brave and my spirit lifted with joy. I was an explorer!


Moors for the Future is doing a fantastic job of repairing the peat, helping to recreate the huge carbon sink. We scrambled and slid down the ferny slopes back to the real world, back to my soft rolling white Peak landscape around Ilam and Dovedale. I revisit that high solitary place in my mind’s eye, and feel that thrill and burst of joy now and again. (I didn’t pay for it).

So how do you make a living in the English uplands; the real, heather clad, rough, tough inhospitable uplands? Yesterday I spoke to a friend. Feisty, intelligent and dynamic, she and her hard working farmer husband run an exemplary hill farm, environmentally sensitive, appropriately diversified and in a beautiful place.

“I just don’t know how we keep going” she said, “it’s been a really tough couple of weeks.” Their cattle have just failed their TB test. This on top of various other everyday farming and family incidents has brought her up short. “How are we supposed to care for these amazing places?” “It just doesn’t stack up financially anymore, simply to be a farmer.” The subsidy system currently should be helping here but because it is weighted towards higher yielding lowlands, the (now apparently valuable and important) uplands were not compensated for their additional hardships.

We talked about the new DEFRA Uplands Policy Review published earlier this month.

“It’s good as far as it goes” she said, “but it is still just tinkering at the edges”. “How is £20 million on broadband going to help the genuine old farming folk who only know how to farm? They know how to heft sheep, they know how to build and repair stone walls and tend heather, how to produce superb sheep and cattle often for finishing on lowland farms. They don’t make cheese or ice cream; they don’t have any easy diversification opportunities”.

This is the dilemma that hasn’t been dealt with- YET! From the English Uplands we get; clean water and carbon storage as well as recreation and opportunities to experience wilderness and adventure. We get opportunities to escape from our mundane crowded lives and expand our personal spaces and let our spirits soar!

I have been to so many conferences and seminars where earnest experts expound about “ecosystem services” and how money should be made available to pay for these “public goods”. If we don’t get on and do something very soon, the chance will be lost. Young farmers will not want to start farming in the Uplands when the returns are so low. The older farmers are dying out along with their knowledge and culture.

“If they were a building, they‘d slap a preservation order on the old farmers” my friend said.

My work as an Ecotourism consultant has lead me to work in Transylvania, helping farmers there derive an income from protecting their extraordinary mediaeval landscape. Why are there funds to help protect their way of life and their beautiful land when our ancient hill farming culture is going down the pan?

I know DEFRA plans in 2011 or 2012 to “explore and review the opportunities and challenges for the use of payment for ecosystem service approaches, including upland areas”. But may I respectfully suggest that the time for “exploring and reviewing” is over. Action is needed now.

Posted in adventure, Business, culture, Derbyshire, eco, eco tourism, environmental, farming, food, nature, Peak District, rural community, Rural Economy, Sheffield | 2 Comments

Dovedale, add music and walk

I have just been sent this video on Twitter  by

It’s blown me away- this is where I live, this is where I have lived for 26 years.  I have often seen Dovedale looking like this.  My family and I take most of our local walks during the winter, when things are less busy on the farm.  We love the, runny nosed, steamy spectacles, rosy cheeked stagger down the side of the Dovedale gorge on the well maintained but precarious National Trust footpath, where our bodies are too fast for our legs on the precipitous downward plunge.

The thing about winter in Dovedale is that with the verdant and abundant leaves shed, you can see through the trees to the underlying drama of the rocks.  During Victorian times when thousands of tourists enjoyed day visits from the surrounding industrial cities, there were hardly any trees and the gorge’s dramatic architecture was on show and consequently quaintly named, Lion’s Head Rock, Jacob’s Ladder,  Reynard’s Cave and the like.

Today it’s a heavily wooded valley and only those who walk in winter can admire the secrets then revealed.

I love my place and seeing it in Terry’s video accompanied by the stunning sound track makes my heart beat faster with pride, joy and delight.

Posted in adventure, Derbyshire, eco, eco tourism, environmental, nature, Peak District, Staffordshire, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Getting ready for Guests

I have been putting the directories together for our B&B rooms and cottages, you know, lists and leaflets of restaurants, shops, experiences and places to visit. I am bowled over by the wonderful businesses on my doorstep all offering lovely things to my guests!

There is the wonderful gastro pub and farm shop just up the road, The George at Alstonefield . Guests often walk there for their supper and we go and pick them up. I delight in hearing about their delicious meals on the way home. Apparently my romantic husband has booked us in for Valentines night!

Denstone Hall Farm Shop's prize sausage and Craig Revel Horwood

Denstone Hall Farm Shop

A few miles south is the Rose and Crown at Mayfield , another great gastro pub. They also do stunning food, and some memorable puds, they also source local meats from Denstone Hall Farm Shop , an award winning Staffordshire business. They recently won the Tastiest Sausage in the West Midlands with their Staffordshire Sizzler (judged by Craig Revel Horwood!)

Just a hop and a skip up the road is the Peak District Farm Shop

Peak District Farm Shop's pigs
Beautiful piglets at Peak District Farm Shop, Stanshope

open on Fri, Sat and Sun, ask and you may be able to see the piglets, either so cute and pink, snuggled up to their Mum or a bit older, hysterically dashing about squeaking. The Peak District Farm Shop do steaming mugs of tea and proper cakes- just what you need half way through your walk.

Then today my daughter and I tested a local experience (all in the line of work, mind you.) We had massages and pedicures at Brackendale Spa , near Carsington Water. So now we can personally recommend this lovely business.

The pool at Brackendale Spa

So I, and my lovely Turquoise toe nails, are now off to the village pub quiz at the Royal Oak at Wetton , a warm and welcoming village hostelry. Hope we win!

Posted in Business, culture, Derbyshire, food, Peak District, rural community, Rural Economy, Staffordshire | Leave a comment

Cow Manure and Bright Sparks

Our living countryside runs and thrives because there are lots of ‘bright sparks’; people who take responsibility and get things done in villages and rural communities. I have just been involved in a EU funded LEADER process interviewing candidates with our Peak District Leader Action Group to run a project “Developing Bright Sparks/Community Champions in the Rural Area”. The plan is to identify bright sparks and enable them to recognise, value and improve their skills and share them with others faced with the same problems, hopefully encouraging a whole bunch of new shiny bright sparks!

Sometimes it’s really difficult to get a local initiative off the ground. Even with lots of local support a project has to fight its way through layers and layers of bureaucracy. Bright sparks, by their nature always have too much to do, they are the ‘busy people’ everyone asks to do things “if you want something doing, ask a busy person” is the saying. An example was the years it took several bright sparks to get the Peak District Dairy Wagon off the ground! It finally succeeded because HRH Prince Charles lent his weight to the project.

HRH Prince Charles & the Dairy Wagon

HRH Prince Charles launches the Peak District Dairy Wagon


With the government’s Big Society agenda, there are so many local issues to tackle there is a danger that bright sparks are going to burn out with over work and exhaustion. So I hope our LEADER project is inspirational and does the job!

I have to admit that I am one of these (my family despairs of the time spent doing projects!!) One of my latest ideas is to try to build a small anaerobic digestion dome to produce methane from cow manure. I picked up the plans for this idea from a Peace Corps volunteer in Transylvania while working there as an Eco-tourism business consultant.

Its small-scale, low-cost and originates in India, Click

Mr Sagar designed the mini bio-digester, he grew up realising that his mother’s traditional cooking methods where harmful to women’s health and the environment. He was a bright spark he found a solution using cow manure instead of scarce wood to power cooking stoves.

Building a bio gas dome in India

Later this year we will see if this can work in the Peak District!

When you get cow manure and methane together with a bright spark you may get an explosion!

Posted in Big society, Building, Derbyshire, eco, eco tourism, environmental, farming, green stuff, organics, Peak District, rural community, Rural Economy, Staffordshire | Leave a comment

A rural, female, small-business view of an emerging LEP

I was invited to speak at the event held today by Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).  I was asked to introduce my small rural business, describe my measures of success and say what I want from the LEP.  This is what I said:

Snowy Beechenhill Farmhouse

My business

At Beechenhill Farm we have an organic dairy farm, eco tourism business (B&B and cottages), an eco wedding venue and a small artwork, web design and consultancy company.

My measures of success:

  • Our organic farm is holding its own.  We are looking forward to making our own organic cheese later this year and building an experimental small bio-digester to make energy from cow manure.
  • Our cottages are full for around 45 weeks per year with a 60% repeat rate. We are booked up with weddings well into 2012.  We are constantly ground breaking and working with other local businesses– be it renewable energies or cheese making- we love what we do.
  • We have many networks and are working with more than 11 local businesses (our supply chain) using our business to spread economic benefits into our very rural, very special place
  • We have reduced our carbon footprint by almost 50%
  • We have won national awards for website design, accessible accommodation, sustainable tourism and recently been finalist in the global Virgin Holidays Responsible Travel Awards, along with businesses in Ecuador and Laos
  • My daughter and son-in-law have invested their future with us at Beechenhill, so we have graduates coming back into our small business and our rural community
  • But basically our old customers and new customers keep coming and we keep developing new stuff for them to enjoy. They are my real measures of success!

Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP)

The LEP is our new world. It is the context in which we operate, the air that we breathe; we have no alternative so we must make this work for us.  We have the fantastic example of successful, award winning public private sector partnership in the Staffordshire Destination Management Partnership Board; EnjoyStaffordshire.  We must learn the new language and really find out what Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire are made of- what is out there?  We need to understand where we are before evidence based actions can be taken.  What is our potential? How to we realise it?

My requests to the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEP

  • Women on the board!  For goodness sake!- why not?
  • Communication processes that work both ways- make sure your message gets out to men, women and young entrepreneurs at the furthest reaches of your universe and listen out for our messages coming in to you, please let us know you’ve heard, nobody likes talking to an empty space.  Find different ways to communicate- find existing networks like Women in Rural Enterprise (WiRE).  Use social networks- we are all on Twitter, LinkedIn and other networks- please use them!
  • Wise growth- true sustainability, where resilient businesses grow without damaging their future resources and Staffordshire becomes known for supporting and engendering innovative, resilient businesses that tackle tomorrow’s issues.   Support growth in quality and value not necessarily only in quantity. Treasure Staffordshire’s environment- it will attract successful people who want to live and work in a nice place.
  • Leaky borders– customers don’t see county boundaries, I know they are vital for politicians but they cause problems for small businesses trying to co-operate within marketable areas- please respect the iconic brands and don’t reinvent the wheel! –Please look at things through business eyes and through customers’ eyes.
  • Broadband that works for all– in our area broadband doesn’t get to the businesses at the end of the phone line- they are single, small, rural businesses, usually on the borders- so no-body cares.  Actually you may think that mobile phone coverage is sorted – it isn’t and without either or both, our rural potential is suppressed.
  • Appropriate business advice– many small businesses don’t know how to employ people, we are too busy running our businesses.  We don’t have HR departments.  If the LEP is about creating jobs and growing businesses, please find ways to support potential employers and show them how to do it, how to take that first step (whilst also lobbying to have regulations simplified for small businesses, please.)  Official statistics suggest that businesses with 5 or less employees may make up over 90% of the business population*. There are around 27,000 small and micro companies in Staffordshire, if only half of them took on an employee that’s over 13,000 jobs! 
  • Young People– And finally please involve young people early in their lives and make enterprise the norm.

 *Official statistics show that there are around 40,000 businesses operating in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, with over 27,000 businesses employing less than five employees.  This equates to around 70% of the areas business population.

However, these official statistics miss out some of the smallest businesses, and information from other sources suggests that businesses with 5 or less employees may actually make up over 90% of the business population.

Posted in Business, eco, eco tourism, environmental, farming, green stuff, Peak District, Rural Economy, Staffordshire | Leave a comment

Rounded Corners

It occurred to me the other day that every part of our home and our farm has been shaped by the big, kind, capable and skilled hands of my farmer husband. 

Plastered farmer

Yet another wall/ceiling plastered

Every single wall corner, window sill and skirting board has been made or fitted by those hands.  When we first moved to Beechenhill in 1984 the house had been ‘sixties-fied’, with sharp edges, polystyrene coving and hardboard panelling covering up gloriously bumpy and characterful walls.  There was only rudimentary plumbing and the electrics resembled a dish of al dente spaghetti thrown onto the dark wood ceiling. 

Being young and energetic we set to – restoring the farm house, converting the redundant stallion pen (more of that later) and creating the wheelchair accessible Cottage by the Pond.  His hands did it all.  He took all the roofs off and replaced them, he repaired and restored it all.

He bashed away all those knife sharp edges, all those corners that used to cut the light from bright to dark so completely and instantly.  In their place he made gently rounded corners, natural ones that let the window light creep softly into the rooms.  They mirrored the wonky walls and the creaky old doors.  Having been stuffed into a cheap shiny dinner jacket, the house relaxed and settled into its skin again (actually I think it slumped, but that might have been the quantity of our stuff!)

Rounded corners

Rounded corners allow window light to creep in gently

He is still at it, plastering natural curves in the latest development. He is using lime plaster with pearlite- an excellent insulator- much better than drylining for such a quirky little building.  Its a little place for our daughter and son-in-law to settle as they work with us to take Beechenhill into the future.   What a testament to my farmer’s one pair of big strong, capable hands.

Posted in Building, culture, eco tourism, environmental, farm visits, farming, green stuff, Peak District, Staffordshire | 1 Comment

Our Organic Raw Milk Phenomenon

All of a sudden we started getting requests for our raw organic milk.  By internet and telephone; people from a radius of about 30 miles, from the Peak District, Staffordshire and Sheffield,  have contacted us hoping we can supply our organic milk to them.  We make no claims for our product but these dedicated raw milk drinkers do!  Our family drinks it every day because we trust the process and know our cows.

Contented organic milk producers

We are told that it has helped sufferers of eczema, asthma and allergies.  It must do something for them, to keep them travelling here – never mind the weather!

They call to check we have milk in the tank (it’s collected every second day) and then they turn up.  They bring their own sterilized containers and take considerable quantities of milk away- to drink, cook and freeze.

The families who come often have a clutch of rosy cheeked children (wearing wool), tumbling out of a sturdy old vehicle. Others are earnest young Muslims or twinkly eyed Sikh gentlemen.

There is a massive movement in the US advocating the consumption of raw milk and there are many who believe we shouldn’t be drinking milk at all. 

Dairy farming produces quite a large carbon foot print, although organic milk production is less destructive than conventional, partly because no artificial nitrogen fertiliser is used.

Here at Beechenhill we have reduced our overall carbon footprint by almost 50% by installing a biomass boiler instead of old oil boilers for our accommodation.  We also have plans to harness some of the methane given off by our dairy cows, in a small biodigester system.

But overall, I just love the fact that our simple organic milk is that basic natural product that pleases real people from such different backgrounds.

Posted in Derbyshire, eco, eco tourism, environmental, farm visits, farming, food, green stuff, organics, Peak District, Sheffield, Staffordshire | 3 Comments