If you were to ask what my favourite things in the whole wide world are I would have to answer (after my husband and children obviously) wildlife and books. So imagine my delight when a friend introduced me to one of the most beautiful books about wildlife I’ve ever seen this week. A day later, thanks to the marvel that is modern-day shopping, my very own copy was hand-delivered to my door.
The Lost Words is an exquisitely illustrated, generously sized hardbound book with an acrostic poem or “spell” for each treasure of the British countryside it contains. Jackie Morris’ watercolours of her natural subjects are beautifully observed. Robert Macfarlane’s ’spells’ (I now see why they are called that) conjure up the very essence of the animal or plant they describe. It really is a magical book.
I love the kingfisher page, not only for its striking images of the bird that shares its flame orange and brilliant blue with the wooden struts of the yurt roofs, but also because its spell really speaks to me of kingfishers. I was lucky enough to see a pair dart past me last year at the former mill in Bovey Tracey that now houses the Devon Guild of Craftsmen. I also adore the poem about newts – it is a ridiculously clever imagining of an exchange between a newt and a coot that has the element of nonsense poem about it…
We are fortunate that our children, Mia and Felix (currently 9 and 7), are exposed to nature on a daily basis – the buzzard hefting itself off its oak tree perch as we drive by on the way to school in the morning, the green woodpecker bobbing along the lane in its lilting flight, the call of the owls to one another across the valley at night, the flit of the bats over the pond, the blue tits and wrens nesting near the back door, blackberry picking, tadpoling, I could go on.
However, it is a sad fact that many children don’t get to experience nature in this way. Many live in cities or suburbia, spending a lot of time indoors on tablets or watching television. If they’re lucky their experience of nature comes about on holiday – rock-pooling on the beach, romping through a meadow, walking in a woodland, cycling along a canal towpath or paddling in a river.
An open letter to the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2015 by a group of distinguished writers acknowledges that there is a “proven link between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing”. It goes on to say that “a generation ago 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, now only 10% do so, while 40% never play anywhere outdoors”. How tragic is that?
Equally tragic is that names for features of the rural and wild landscape are being lost to children. They have been surreptitiously dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (which is aimed at seven-year-olds) during the last ten years in favour of new words such as ‘attachment’, ‘broadband’, ‘celebrity’ and (somewhat ironically) ‘blog’.
Katharine Norbury’s review of the Lost Words in the Guardian hits the nail on the head when she says that “re-enchantment, re-engagement and conservation of the natural world is ultimately only going to be possible if we retain the language with which to make it happen”.
At Blackdown Yurts we encourage you and your children to get back to nature. We’ve been reading another book during the winter while we are closed to guests – our Visitor Book – and it tells us exactly what you love about staying here and a large proportion of that is the interaction with the countryside of our hidden valley. You love the swallows, the bat walks, the lovely green views and watching the stars while sitting round an open fire. Come and see the hazel coppice and majestic oaks, marvel at the beauty of the bluebells and hedgerow wildflowers, or perhaps catch a glimpse of the deer family or the resident rabbits.
To help you interpret and enjoy nature at Blackdown Yurts this season we will be producing a wildlife spotter guide and updating our website and social media feeds with clues of what to look for and when. I will also be lodging a variety of wildlife books and my old Living Countryside weekly instalment magazine (that I collected religiously as a child) in the barn for you to browse while you stay and learn a little bit about nature. You can (re-)discover the plants and animals illustrated in the Lost Words in real life during your holiday.
Click here to be in with the chance to win your very own copy of The Lost Words. The closing date for entries is Monday 7th March.
How to find out more about the wildlife featured in The Lost Words:
Come and see it for yourself at Blackdown Yurts. We open for the season on Friday 30th March.
Visit Cricklepit Mill, home of Devon Wildlife Trust. Despite being in the centre of Exeter, the free visitor centre has reported sightings of otters, kingfishers, egrets and hedgehogs.
Keep an eye on BBC programmes such as Winterwatch and Springwatch. Winterwatch has just finished but you can catch up with episodes online. Springwatch will hopefully be back on our screens later this year. Their website has loads of clips, information and suggestions about how you can spot and help conserve wildlife.
We wish we had a bit more forest here at Blackdown Yurts. We have some young trees growing on the hillside and a few lovely mature oaks along the hedgerows (one of which the children call the Faraway Tree, they love to take a picnic up there and Felix got stuck up it once!). Anyway, what we don’t have is a deep dark wood a la The Gruffalo, much to my husband’s chagrin.
However this is more than made up for by the Children of the Forest, a forest school located just five minutes away between Croyle and Smithincott in a beautiful patch of mixed forest on a hillside with views of Uffculme in the distance. It was set up by Lewis last year and has attracted a loyal following of kids, mums and dads for their weekday sessions and also their weekend and holiday days. And you, our holiday makers, can book on too to experience their fabulous forest shenanigans (with 10% off their Summer Clubs – see below for details).
Mia and Felix attended a Woodcraft day during half term – a real life version of Minecraft where they had to collect different colour ores in the forest, exchange them for materials to make dens and evade the forest monster! They absolutely loved it, so much in fact they persuaded me to go back with them the very next day for a “Muddy Mums” session with leader Gemma. These happen monthly on a Saturday and each has a different theme. Ours was tracking animals. We had to leave trails to be discovered by the other team, sniff smells like badgers to find worms, play rabbits and hunters, as well as cooking bread, toasting marshmallows and popping popcorn (in a clever contraption made of two sieves!) over the camp fire.
They had previously taken Mark on a “Dangerous Dads” day where they whittled bows and arrows then had target practice! They also attended to help make a cob oven that is affectionately called the “Gruffaloven” and has produced such treats as marshmallow-topped tortilla pizzas!
I can thoroughly recommend Children of the Forest sessions – their term time weekday sessions are booked in blocks so won’t be available to holiday makers, but the half term, holiday and weekend sessions are book as you go on their website. This holiday they will be running Woodcraft, Art Outdoors and Daredevil Days. Their holiday sessions cost £30 for 8.30am til 3.30pm including a campfire breakfast and are open to 5-13 year olds. Ideal if you’d like a break from your little darlings while on holiday in the safe knowledge they are having fun and being well cared for!
Dangerous Dads and Muddy Mums run on the 2nd and 4th weekends of each month respectively and costs £10 per parent with up to three accompanying children. I am also exploring the option of collaborating with forest school for home educator groups who stay at Blackdown Yurts.
When you book with Blackdown Yurts this summer you will receive a voucher code giving you 10% off Children of the Forest’s Summer Clubs. To see what they offer and book on visit children-of-the-forest.com
One of our forthcoming guests has asked what kitchen facilities we provide and what is good to cook on a yurting holiday. I thought it might be handy to put this out there so everyone knows!
We think our facilities are great (and way better than camping and having to bring your own kit from home!). Each yurt has its own camp kitchen with a two ring gas stove with oven, pots, pans, coffee pot, teapot, and enough mugs, plates, bowls, cutlery etc for its occupancy.
Not only that but each yurt has its own Weber kettle BBQ with first night’s supply of charcoal. Apparently there are a million ways (well 3) to use your Weber to BBQ (according to the latest Waitrose magazine whose writers must surely have read one of my recent FB posts entitled Come on baby, light my fire!). Plus you have an outside fire pit on which to toast your complimentary marshmallows!
BUT it doesn’t stop there – if you like a bit more sophistication in your kitchen hop along to the barn where you will find all mod cons – two huge gas burning hobs – great for mass catering – a microwave, kettle and toaster plus HOT water for washing up. Whoop.
At the yurts there is a cold water stand pipe suitable for drinking and washing up, we provide washing up liquid, dishcloths and tea towels at the yurts and in the barn so no need to bring those.
Regarding what food to cook – well eggy bread and bacon is always a breakfast winner for me. We have had splendid meatballs in tomato sauce and pasta in the yurt barn. Sausages, mash and beans are always a failsafe. And if you don’t feel like cooking at all I can thoroughly recommend the Ashill Inn’s Friday fish and chip takeaway. Yum scrum.
If you take all four of the yurts for a party I’d be happy to cater for you – we can provide an authentic Spanish paella or a Mongolian-themed goat or lamb dish cooked freshly for you in our huge paella pan. Enquire with Katie at the time of booking. Subject to availability (yada yada as we always have to say just in case).
Here at Blackdown Yurts and Halsbeer Farm we pride ourselves on being as environmentally friendly as possible. We had a busy eco-April – cleaning a beach in Cornwall whilst on our own holiday, attending the March for Science on Earth Day to raise awareness of the need to protect the environment and guard against climate change, and getting quotes in for installing solar panels to try to reduce our dependency on the National Grid and fossil fuels (as well as save some money in the longer term).
It got me to thinking about ways we can be more eco-friendly while away on holiday as well as at home. Here are my top eight tips:
1. Clean a beach – we are fortunate in Devon in having some of the country’s most beautiful beaches. The sad truth though is that rubbish often washes ashore or is left by day trippers. While you’re on the beach you can spend as little as two minutes doing your own mini-beach clean while the children play. Better still get them helping and teach them about the need to clear rubbish, in particular plastic, off our beaches. Beach cleans are regularly held by organisations including Keep Britain Tidy, the Marine Conservation Society, the National Trust and Surfers Against Sewage. The Big Spring Beach Clean ran from 3rd to 9th April 2017 and the Great British Beach Clean runs from 15-18 September 2017 but you can do your little bit to help anytime. All you need is to remember a spare bag or bucket to collect your trashy treasure and then dispose of it responsibly when you leave the beach. We often holiday in Cornwall at Easter with a big group of friends and two years ago I invited someone from Keep Britain Tidy to bring along bin bags and litter pickers. It was great fun, great exercise and great education for the children.
This year Surfers Against Sewage sent us a pack of gloves and bin bags to facilitate our own clean before we went on holiday. One of the hardest things to find (and which become quite obsessive if I’m honest and could keep children entertained for ages) are “nurdles” – tiny bits of coloured plastic that are the raw material of the myriad plastic items we have become so used to. Also the plastic stems of cotton buds – many large UK retailers have now agreed to ban these thanks to a successful campaign to use paper sticks instead. Unfortunately the plastic ones are still washing up on our beaches.
There is a “nurdle hunt” this coming Saturday 13th May, 10.30-12.00 as part of the Junior Rangers Club at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. They are also holding a beach clean on Saturday 10th June at the same time.
2. Use reusable cups and drinks bottles for your holiday beverages – I have a friend who always travels with her “keep cup” and asks coffee shops for takeaway teas and coffees in that rather than using hard-to-recycle single-use throwaway plastic and card cups. Many coffee shops offer a discount on the coffee, a donation to charity, or double reward points if you bring your own reusable cup. A recent study suggested a fee for throwaway cups could reduce their use by 300 million a year. The UK uses 38.5 million plastic bottles a day, many of which end up in landfill, on the side of the road, or are eventually washed into the sea. Bring reusable water bottles with you for all the family and refill them with delicious drinking water from the tap. The water at Blackdown Yurts and Halsbeer Farm has filtered through the Blackdown Hills and is drawn from our own borehole, UV treated, sand- and string-filtered, and we think it is the freshest, sweetest, coolest water around. And best of all it’s free! Remember to pack your Bags 4 Life or other reusable shopping bags for your holiday purchases too!
3. Say “no thanks” to plastic straws and stirrers in restaurants and bars and explain why to the waiting staff or manager. They are used once, thrown away and often end up in the sea where they can cause untold damage to marine wildlife. If you don’t believe me check out this video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose that circulated on YouTube a while back – WARNING – this video is not for the fainthearted, but really demonstrates how damaging plastic pollution can be to wildlife. And make sure you cut up those plastic six pack rings from your holiday packs of lager before you dispose of them so wildlife can’t get their heads stuck. There is a growing movement against plastic straws – biodegradable paper and washable stainless steel straws are now becoming popular alternatives. If you want to buy your own paper straws you can even find them in some supermarkets and home stores now.
4. Recycle in your holiday home as you would at home – most people are now used to recycling glass bottles, tins, newspapers etc at home and that needn’t stop when you are on holiday. Most holiday homes should offer recycling facilities, and if they don’t ask “why not”? We currently offer glass, card and paper, and mixed recyclables (tin/foil/plastic/tetrapack cartons). Our newly-installed kitchen in Cider Cottage even has a handy under-the-sink bin with three portable bins to help separate and carry your recycling waste to the large bins in the car park. We hope to install these in other cottages in due course. Until then we provide a crate to take your recycling to the separate bins in the parking area. In the yurts we also have food bins available for compostable food waste. We would love to provide food recycling in the cottages too if the demand is there – we’re just working through the logistics of compost caddies, separating cooked and uncooked food waste and getting our garden compost area back up and running.
5. Don’t flush things down the loo that shouldn’t go down there – nappies, wipes and sanitary products (well anything other than number 1s, number 2s and toilet paper) will clog our on-site mini-sewage treatment plant, septic tank and reed bed. Use environmentally friendly products – we provide Ecover handwash, washing up liquid, dishwasher tablets and toilet cleaner to ensure the holiday homes are as chemical free as possible, to keep the good bacteria in the plant happy, and the treated effluent as clean as can be before it soaks away.
6. Turn off lights and heating when you go out. It’s tempting to run the heating high when it’s not your money paying for the oil – but excessive use of oil and electricity puts demands on the environment and contributes to climate change. Our buildings are old and unfortunately not very efficient so a lot of heat is wasted. Far better to run the heating a little lower and put a jumper on. Make sure the heating and lights are off when you go out. If you are unsure how to use the heating controls please ask. Ultimately we will have to put our prices up if oil and electricity consumption remains at current levels and wholesale prices continue to rise. As well as looking into solar panels we are looking to replace all of the lightbulbs in the properties with more energy efficient LEDs. How many people does it take to change a hundred lightbulbs I wonder?
7. Limit your food waste and buy local to reduce food miles and support local business. You can’t get more local than Kentisbeare’s own village shop that stocks veg grown by local gardeners and farmers along with a host of other groceries and fresh bread daily. I saw beautiful duck and quails eggs in there the other day, plus fresh asparagus is available from a farm a skip and a hop from Halsbeer. Why not catch your own mackerel on a boat trip from Beer or order a meat box from Forest Beef in the Blackdowns. If you do overbuy on holiday, either take the surplus food with you or, if you can’t, for example ice cream or other perishables, please leave it in the fridge/freezer and we will put it to good use.
8. Remember the country code.
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I don’t know about you but when I’m on holiday I always like to sample local food and specialities of the region in which I’m staying. I’m also always on the lookout for producers who uphold the best in welfare and environmental standards too. A few weeks ago I found out about an award-winning* farm in the Blackdowns that rears English Longhorn Cattle and are looking to provide meat boxes to self-catering holiday businesses in the local area. Russ and Becky graze their rare breed stock on Forestry Commission** land during the summer months which helps to manage the land extensively while growing great-tasting beef (Longhorn steak was voted best tasty steak in Britain by Country Life Magazine). They also have pigs and chickens which (when bird flu isn’t around) roam around in lovely grassy, tree-filled ranges. The children and I went on a little outing during the February half term to meet Becky and the cattle and collect a meat-box to see what we thought of the produce.
The farm is in Churchstanton which is just under half an hour from Halsbeer Farm and Blackdown Yurts via a fairly winding route through Culmstock and Hemyock or a straighter route that passes the Smeatharpe banger racing track. On arrival we met Becky and her two young children next to her farm shop. Becky spoke with enthusiasm about their longhorns as she showed us around the barns where they are housed for winter. We were lucky enough to see a sub-one-day-old calf, still wet and wobbly on it legs. We saw other calves of varying ages all of whom seem to have lucked out in the eyelash stakes. There were a lot of mums (do we call them heffers?) plus a huge bull who has a fancy pedigree name I can’t recall but who most of the time goes by the name of Pete. The cattle really are impressive, both males and females have huge horns that either curve forwards or extend out to the sides of their head, reminiscent of a prize rodeo bull in the American mid-west. Their coats are patterned with brown or grey and white and have varying degrees of curl. We saw a stunningly beautiful chestnut brown and white hide that had been all the way to Italy and back for a professional tan. Becky retails them for between £400 and £600 and I can see why, it would look amazing on the floor of a designer flat or maybe as a rug in a yurt (wishful thinking).
Before we left Becky delved deep in the farm shop freezers and put together a bumper selection box for us to take home and try. Bacon that Becky cures herself, chipolata sausages, two rump steaks, some beef mince and minute steak. Plus a half dozen eggs for good measure. So sausages it was for tea that night – the kids and I really enjoyed them, they were good and meaty, testament to their being 85% meat and minced shoulder pork at that. They were fairly peppery and I think I could also taste mace, but no doubt Becky won’t reveal her secret spice blend to me.
Next up we made a cauliflower macaroni cheese with a topping of crispy bacon and breadcrumbs. Becky confided in me that the small white pigs that had provided this bacon were a fattier breed than they sometimes have. The bacon was more marbled than I’ve ever seen before and they did have a wide strip of far beneath the rind. On the face of it, this seemed like a lot of waste if, like me, you don’t like to eat that much fat, but on the plus-side the garden birds enjoyed a real treat. The marbling in the bacon meant that it crisped beautifully in the Aga. It was quite salty (as bacon often is of course) and topped our supper off perfectly. (Top tip – we added a teaspoonful or two of pesto to our cheese sauce which really enhanced our cauli-mac-cheese!).
To accompany the rump steak I made a cheats version of a potato dauphinoise – sliced potatoes, thinly sliced onions, a couple of crushed garlic cloves mixed in with creme fraiche, a bit of chicken stock, a teaspoon of dijon mustard, some thyme leaves, salt and pepper, all turned into an oven proof dish, topped with grated parmesan, whacked in the microwave for a few minutes to give it a head start then into the Aga until it was golden and bubbling to perfection. We wanted to try the steaks “au naturel” to get a real sense of the flavour and texture so I got a pan really hot and added some oil (I used a blend of olive and vegetable only to be informed by him indoors who had been researching frying steaks online that groundnut oil is best as it has a higher smoking point, but hey ho, too late they were in by then). The steaks were fairly chunky so I gave them a few minutes each side to get a good sear then a good five minutes resting. They cut beautifully and were really tasty with the dauphinoise, peas, beans and a good Rioja. (In my book it is sacrilege to attempt to eat a steak without red wine!) Felix absolutely loved the entire meal, Mia who is not normally a big meat eater really enjoyed the meat and I thought it was utterly delicious – a good full-bodied steak. Becky had said it would be gamier than normal beef and perhaps it was but not off-puttingly so. I would definitely have their steaks again. Two fed four of us (two adults, two children) adequately.
Possibly the best bolognese in the world! We have some gorgeous friends Tom*** and Jennie who have come and helped out on the farm during the last two half terms and always bring a meal with them. This time Tom had made Jamie Oliver’s classic spaghetti bolognese. It was so delicious I decided to try the same recipe with the Forest Beef mince. OMG. The gamey flavoursome mince of the longhorns lends itself really well to a rich ragu such as Jamie’s which is bursting with the flavour of streaky bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary as well as a slosh of red wine. This is my new go-to bolognese recipe and I think the longhorn mince is absolutely ideal for it.
That just left the minute steak – what is that all about then? Minute steak? Cooks in a minute? Apparently so. Often they are beaten with a meat tenderiser to get the even thin appearance and make the meat go further. I’d heard they made a good steak sandwich so I gave it a go. Flash fried the steak, added red onions that had been slow roasting in the AGA all morning, some sliced roasted red pepper from a jar, some salad leaves and a smear of wholegrain mustard on one side of a sliced white cobb loaf and a splodge of mayo on the other. Scrumptiousness.
If I’ve whetted your appetite and you want to try Forest Beef for yourself, then you can visit the farm shop or you can order a box to be delivered direct to Halsbeer Farm and Blackdown Yurts via their website
Their holiday meat box costs £39 plus £6 delivery. You can view the contents here
Forest Beef will be at Cullompton’s Spring Fest with their wares on 8th April 2017 and they are having a farm open day on 11th June 2017.
*Becky and Russ won “Beef Farm of the Year” in the NSF Agriculture Farm Assurance awards in 2015-2016.
**The collaboration with the Forestry Commission came about through the Neroche Scheme: a “partnership for forest, land and people in the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. I was curious about the word “neroche” and discovered by looking at the Scheme’s website that there is a Castle Neroche on the wooded escarpment at the north of the Blackdowns. Neroche in Old English means something along the lines of “the camp where hunting dogs were kept”. The website has loads of suggestions of things to do in the northern Blackdowns including “herepath walking trails.
***Big thanks to Tom (www.tomwellerphotography.com) for some of the (best) images of the cattle on this blog!
This is the first in what I hope will be a fairly regular blog on the Blackdown Yurts webpage exploring our beautiful hidden valley, experiences of glamping in the authentic Mongolian yurts we have here, things you can do while staying, places you can go nearby, campfire cooking, educational and environmental topics including wildlife, eco-tips, organic gardening and so on. Please do get in touch if there is anything in particular you’d like to ask me about the yurts, the Blackdown Hills, Devon or our life here in general!