Thursday, May 31, 2012

Putting Honesty on the Table

The weeks of wet weather during April and May were welcome respite for the dry, parched soil and a change from the previous two springs when planting time also meant an arduous watering time. However, the lack of sunshine meant that, although allotments and vegetable gardens were well irrigated, plants were not moving on in their growth. Lettuces that I planted out in mid-April were barely any bigger in mid-May; but that has all changed now. Over a week of continuous sunshine has meant that the watering cans are out again, early crops can be harvested and ‘honesty tables’ are being stocked again.

For the uninitiated, an honesty table - or honesty box - is a way of selling surplus fruit and vegetables by leaving them unattended outside your house at the roadside and relying on the integrity of passing customers to leave money for what they have taken. The honesty system is ubiquitous where I live, ranging from farms and smallholdings selling their produce direct to the public, to householders with a glut of seasonal vegetables, jams or pickles. Sometimes actually a table, more often than not they are a covered shelf that looks a little like an open fronted rabbit hutch. Invariably, there will be a small hand written price list and a pot to put the money in. There are few abuses of the system but there have been some thefts of the takings; one honesty table near me has a metal moneybox clamped and padlocked to the shelf, and at another you have to put your money in an angled length of pipe that is then sent down through a hedge and securely into the cottage garden.

All the year round, some honesty tables sell eggs that you can guarantee will be fresher than any in the supermarket; but it is as Spring matures - and the primavera appear - that I get very excited when I approach an honesty table as I barrel around the lanes of the Sussex countryside. For two weeks now, we have been able to get asparagus - cut that morning - from a local table, as well as lettuces and giant radishes; and the first broad beans, courgettes and carrots will be appearing soon. As Summer draws on, tables will be laden with runner beans and tomatoes - a dish in itself - and in the Autumn it will be fruit and squashes. If you cannot grow your own, or do not have the space to grow as much as you need, honesty tables are an essential part of a life of sufficiency. They exist outside of the system, they are a way of ensuring that food is not wasted and they put the freshest fruit and vegetables on your own table. Mind you, you could just give your surplus away for free.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Byng's Sussex Pub Guide

At 7am on Friday 15th August 1788, the Honourable John Byng set out on his horse, Poney, from Westminster Bridge. He rode south through “long, lazy, Lewisham” before arriving a few hours later at the Bell Inn, Bromley, where he met a friend of twenty five years, Mr D. From here they were to embark - Byng on horseback, Mr D on foot - on a tour of Sussex.

Having been in royal service and then the Army, in middle age John Byng was a civil servant in the tax office, a position that enabled him to go off for six weeks each summer touring different parts of England. Part of a Georgian vogue for exploring and celebrating landscape, churches and country houses, three of Byng’s trips are recorded in Byng's Tours: The Journals of The Hon. John Byng 1781-1792. First discovered and published in the 1920s, I recently stumbled across an edition put out by the National Trust in 1991. What makes the journals so readable is their irascible and Pooterish quality. He spends most of his time bemoaning poor inns and the deficiencies of the people and places he encounters, and there are clearly problems in his relationships, both with Mr D and his own wife, that Byng is comically oblivious to.

Byng and Mr D - or he is sometimes referred to - constantly leapfrog past each other on the journey. Byng invariably gives his companion a head start, overtakes him but then stops at an inn for a lunch which Mr D spurns and keeps walking. They are rarely together. After travelling through Kent, Byng arrives in Sussex at Rye and notes that it “smells of fish and punch”. He makes for the George – these days a plush hotel and wedding favourite but here described as “a dirty sea-port inn with a wretched stable” – where he finds Mr D “hardly glad to see me, so discontented was he with his treatment at this house”. Quitting Rye for Winchelsea, they find an inn where they have a “noble meal” of cold beef and roasted fowl; but the evening ends early: “we never sit late; for I.D. is very hasty for bed”. But it is not all humour at his own expense: Byng can turn a phrase to invoke something of the Sussex landscape. As he looks back at the first two towns he observes, “the one, Rye, upon a bare rock, the other Winchelsea, on a wooded point, both springing out of the flat and looking like two cities in Chinese paintings”.

Hastings and Battle fare no better than Rye. Hastings is “narrow streeted and ill-paved” and Byng is disappointed at the lack of fish for lunch. He complains that “there is always some excuse of wind, or idleness, to prevent the fishermen”. At Battle, they stay in a “miserable alehouse” where they have lamb chops for supper “and then having said little to each other, we mounted to our sleeping apartments”. Clearly, it is the company that is colouring the hospitality. When Byng has lunch alone in a public house at Boreham – presumably what is now the Bull’s Head at Boreham Street – his report of its excellence to his companion causes Mr D to double back a mile and eat the same lunch, also alone.

Byng does visit some interesting places, though. At the Ashburnham estate, he is shown the family church and a chest of relics, including some mementoes of Charles I given to John Ashburnham in the King’s last moments. As well as a watch with an enamelled dial plate he sees “the shirt worn by that unfortunate monarch at the block…one sleeve much stained with blood”. But even here, Byng finds cause for complaint as he unsuccessfully tries to cadge some Morello cherries from the kitchen gardener. At Herstmonceux – “a name pronounced with such variety of wrong by the natives” – he sees the castle and decries its parlous state. “Mr Hare Naylor, the owner…has stripped, destroyed and pulled down all the interior parts of this grand old mansion…which was one of the largest habitable seats of antiquity in this kingdom”. Naylor had built what is now Herstmonceux Place - a building Byng describes as “a paltry citizen-looking house at the edge of the park” - and plundered the interior of the castle, leaving it a picturesque ruin until it was restored at the start of the twentieth century.

After staying overnight at the King’s Head in Horsebridge, a hostelry that gets rare approval from Byng, they travel to Lewes where he is to meet his wife and son, travelled down from London. Byng and Mr D do some rare sightseeing together here but, even as Byng explores “every old corner” of Lewes Priory, Mr D “laved his feet in the brook”. They stay at the White Hart but “the only good thing…was some brill fish”. This causes Byng to reflect on Sussex hospitality: “the beer everywhere has been very indifferent” (Harvey’s brewery was two years away from being founded) and “I do not believe in the county of Sussex there are any such excellent inns”. Paranoia creeping in, he also thinks the best bread has been kept from him: “I have sometimes seen wholesome comfortable-looking brown bread under a cottager’s arm, yet I have been obliged to eat of tough, white, tasteless bread.”

Hilariously, with the final part of the tour yet to be completed with Mrs Byng and son Henry, Mr D “expresses a wish to return instantly to London”. When he is gone, Byng reflects that “I.D. did not appear, during our being together, to be in right health, for he neither ate nor drank”; well, not with you John, certainly. When his wife Bridget and son Henry arrive, they are accompanied “to my great surprise, by my late companion in touring, Mr Windham”. William Windham II was married to Bridget’s sister Cecilia, was something of a philanderer and known to have been in love with his sister-in-law. Innocent of this, Byng can only be thankful that Windham “kindly came as escort”. When they go to Brighton, Mrs Byng and Windham travel together by carriage – “at Windham’s desire” – while Byng rides on horseback. Unsurprisingly, he is dismissive of Brighton: “Brighton appeared in a fashionable, unhappy bustle, with such a harpy set of painted harlots as to appear to me as bad as Bond Street in the spring.” Quite.

Byng’s journals are clearly not as celebrated as William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, or have the same significance as the diaries of Pepys and Kilvert, but they do provide a funny and revealing glimpse of the Georgian English landscape at a time when it was on the verge of revolutionary, industrial change. For a large part of his life, Byng was estranged from his older brother George because of his sibling’s profligacy with the family name and fortune. In December 1812, George died and John finally became the 5th Viscount Torrington. Sadly, it was a title he held for only a fortnight as he too died on New Year’s Day, 1813.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Winds of Change

Travelling into Lewes these days, the journey is not complete without a fierce struggle amongst my children to be the first to spot the Glynde wind turbine. This causes great excitement and, even after the first spot, there is intense competition to rack up as many subsequent sightings as possible as the blades slip in and out of view between hedges and houses. The turbine appeared at the end of last year and, as well as being the largest energy source for Glyndebourne opera house, it has quickly become a landmark in the Sussex countryside. It was not established, of course, without controversy: local views were divided for and against the turbine.

Now, six or seven miles to the east, a renewable energy company, Galliford Try Renewables, has submitted a planning application to Wealden District Council for a five turbine wind farm at Shepham Lane in Polegate; and again, opinion is polarised. Posters depicting a turbine overlaid with images of Big Ben and the London Eye – at 415 feet the turbines will be similar in height to these London landmarks -have appeared in the area since the application was made in October last year and a protest group, Stop Shepham Wind Farm, has been formed to object on grounds of height and visual impact, effect on the environment and wildlife, and noise and light strobing. In order not to appear to be just NIMBYs, opponents of turbines routinely belittle the energy generating capacity of wind power and the campaign against the Polegate plan is no exception. This is a shame as dismissing new energy sources seems to be a lazy excuse to do nothing until the oil runs out.

However, support for the proposal has been growing: Friends of the Earth have backed the scheme and a local group – Yes to Polegate Wind Farm – has been active in the community. From stalls in Hailsham and Polegate town centres, the group have been spreading the message that wind is a key part of renewable energy sources for the future and the Shepham wind farm will generate electricity for 6,000 homes. The turbines will be connected to the national grid but this would be more than sufficient to power all the homes in Polegate. Wealden are due to announce their decision soon and I hope it is one that recognises their obligation to tackle climate change and allows the presence of these structures of delicate, towering magnificence to add to the beauty of the countryside.

Whether it is wind turbines, landfill sites, incinerators or poly tunnels there will always be a ready army of naysayers who are good at objecting but poor at proposing alternatives. All the while there is demand for cheap food out of season, not enough waste is recycled and the consumption of energy increases, proposals to deal with these shortcomings will be opposed from behind the high hedges by those who feel a threat to their lives in aspic. As ever, the answer lies in the way we live now; but expecting Orwell’s “deep, deep sleep of England” to wake up to change and start consuming less and growing more seems unlikely at a time when even reading a book seems to be increasingly incomplete without the aid of energy- consuming electronic equipment.