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The Husbandry School

The Husbandry School: Devon's hidden paradise

Ella Timney 01 September 2017

Ella Timney visits The Husbandry School in Devon, a place where philosophy, agriculture, ecology, and education all play a vital role in creating amazing produce.

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"Husbandry is all-encompassing – and fundamental to the business of looking after the soil. Or, to put it another way, looking after what most people consider waste. Husbandry is looking after our muck, the mess we make around ourselves, and turning it into productive gardens."

When visiting a food producer, you don’t generally expect to leave feeling moved, kind of shaken to your core in how you see food and where it comes from. But to call The Husbandry School a mere ‘producer’ is selling them a little short. This hidden gem in Bickington, Devon, is where Carole and Jonty Williams somehow weave together ancient land management principles, social justice-driven philosophy and a pioneering education scheme, all on a fourty-nine acre plot that they began working with ten years ago.

We were lured there with a view to swoon over their amazing produce that graces the tables of a number of fine restaurants in Devon and beyond – talk of South American tubers, tomatillos, weird and wonderful herbs and more edible flowers than you ever knew existed sprouting out of the Devon soil sounded too good to miss. Devon-born chef Merlin Labron-Johnson had urged us to visit – he’s a long-time family friend of the Williamses, having grown up with their son, and the couple regularly send up a goat, a sheep, or some beautiful blooms for him to prepare in his Michelin-starred restaurant, Portland (you can see their produce regularly bigged up via his Instagram account, if you're curious for a peek).

After heeding warnings that the sat nav might not point us in the right direction and driving up the narrowest and bumpiest of Devon roads, we knew we were not approaching an average farm. The tall hedges were blooming with a huge array of flowers, alongside some kale here and there, while a small clearing held four large yurts. A giant garden surrounded the low, wooden, hexagonal house, with a huge buddha statue facing the front door.

We were greeted by Carole, Jonty and their beautiful young sheepdog Rosie. As we sat down for a coffee, Carole explained the part of the school we hadn't heard about; their 'Re-engage, Re-inspire' scheme which helps youngsters who are struggling within mainstream education to build resilience, find different ways to learn, and re-engage with education, firmly rooted in the land. In fact, the house (that they built themselves with the help of their son) is designed in just such a way to facilitate this. Each classroom backs on to its own mini garden, to extend the learning environment outside, providing the students access to their own peaceful space.

What makes the school quite so hard to describe is the number of concepts, ideas and practices that brought about its creation. Carole’s history in education led her down the path of setting up the Re-engage, Re-inspire scheme, while Jonty found his way into the practice of husbandry almost without knowing it. He first came to the notion in 2003 when his mentor Walter, a local dairy farmer, passed away, and he set out on a quest to reconcile his grief with the wealth of knowledge that Walter had passed on. Digging around in some archives, he found mentions of husbandry dating back to the 1700s, and the concept seemed more relevant than ever. He realised that he'd inadvertently undergone an apprenticeship in husbandry through Walter's careful teachings.

The principle of husbandry in this sense is that, rather than just farming the land and ‘taking’ as we see fit, it’s up to the person working that land to nourish and take care of it. He’s written several books about the concept (which I strongly recommend reading) – the short book Husbandry: an Ancient Art in the Modern World covers Georgist philosophy (which they very much espouse – a belief that land should be taxed to reduce inequality in society) but also contains beautiful gems of what it is to work with the land. I could quote the whole book if I could, but this short passage grabbed me:

'The sheep, the whole hilltop, me, my amazing wife, the barn, our house, the whole land is wet. The ducks and the earthworms, the hoof and horn, the concrete, the bedding hay, are all wet. We people, plants, soil and animals are wet.

YET… we are a ‘we’. We are in this together. We have a ‘belonging’ – sheep, shears, concrete, wet pen, people, stars, sleet, pairs of bacteria, the spray to control them, husband and wife, hilltop; all dwelling, growing and decaying in, on, over and under it.'

This sense of being in it together permeates every element of the school, not just in a philosophical sense, but in very practical ways also.

Working with the Neolithic site that the farm is based on, the couple work hard to re-sculpt the land in order to help it thrive – building banks and hedges to prevent water run-off, ensuring careful grass and soil management to keep everything as healthy as it possibly can be. The goats are left to munch away thick foliage to give greater access to hedges and boundaries, while plants are left to flower and attract a host of pollinating insects. Every creature and plant on the farm seems to serve a purpose in nourishing the landscape.

The result of this careful management is simply dazzling – from the hearty and boisterous Tamworth pigs, sheep and a ragtag bunch of beautiful goats, to the unparalleled flora that sprouts up from every inch of land – not to mention the tomatillo plants growing by the pig field, thanks to them feasting on any scraps and spreading the seeds widely.

The hedgerows burst with flowers and foliage, the result of seed and plant flinging to make every surface of the place as rich as it can be, of course attracting beneficial bees and other pollinating insects. We passed several types of radish flowers, stopping off to nibble on the petals (as Carole pointed out, not as peppery as the root, but still with a pleasant freshness), saw kale sprouting high up, cornflowers – the works.

At last we came to three polytunnels, dotted with different plants wherever you looked. As Carole plucked petals for us to try, in one moment we tasted a leaf of sweeter-than-sugar stevia, followed by aromatic tangerine sage, then pungent rose geranium followed by delicate coriander flowers.

With glee, Carole plucked sprigs of tree spinach, with its iridescent magenta dusting, then set off to pick some peas straight from the plant – some of the sweetest, most verdant peas I've ever tasted. A giddying array of heritage and rare tomatoes – green striped, black, baby plum, cherry – bursting with colour could be found between nasturtium, nestled beside Christmas basil. Exotic tomatillos happily fruited beside native flowers and tomato plants.

The main garden of the house also held a bounty of edible delights, including some giant artichoke plants looming in the borders. Carole took us into their shed to look at recently harvested crops – some fantastically sweet cape gooseberries (a million miles away from the slightly sour, insipid varieties you find as a garnish on pub desserts), fava beans, peas, purple potatoes... all fresh, perfect and full of colour and flavour. Carole then pulled out drawers to reveal hundreds of boxes of seeds, a small bank of some of the strangest, most delicious produce, just waiting to be grown.

As we said our goodbyes and set off on the long drive back to London, my colleague and I both felt strangely high from what we'd just seen and experienced. After so many days in a year when you're lucky to see some manicured blooms carefully planted in an urban front garden, walking round a place that is so brimming with life from every surface feels somewhat kaleidoscopic, a little psychedelic, but definitely reviving.

Leaving felt phenomenally bittersweet – returning to the air pollution, shrink-wrapped vegetables and extortionate rent after all this felt like a heavy blow. But knowing that there's an antidote to all that, tucked away on a hill in Devon, feels like a beautiful way to balance out the bad.

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The Husbandry School: Devon's hidden paradise


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