The Art of Knowing a Place

He worked the land
He could have been a gypsy, he could have had royal blood
But he worked the land
He knew the high places where the soil was thin
and the low pockets where the frost lay heavy on winter mornings in the shadow side of the hill.
He saw the river curling through the valley on pounding hot days
And the hill fields in an arc of open sky, bringing in the hay
And flies buzzing under the trees and cows flicking their tails in the shade, he brought them water.

She heard the river after heavy rains, the power of water. All that water. Pummelling the landscape.
She could have been white she could have been black
Counted the pennies in one hand, fed the lambs with the other.
They held on.

The child, the first born climbed a tree
She could have been a girl, he could have been a boy
Inched across a branch where it dipped back down towards the ground, where the grass grew long
Dropped down into the hayfield
Could have been anyone but she saw the world through long grass, bending this way and that, matted together where the roots held the soil, discovered a lapwing nest deep hidden
That was a rare find
and cuckoo spit on a single green stalk of grass.

The farm was ancient. Could have been in a valley, could have been on a hill. It had ancient hedges where lambs were born and pastures where cows grazed and a yard where chickens bathed in dust, closing their eyes. She grew vegetables in deep soil. Wheel barrows of muck from the cowsheds. Her back was strong and arms brown. Happy Days, she wrote.

Along the way a developer rips out hedges … there are loopholes if you know where to find them, secret loopholes, buried deep in clouds of information and small print and big pockets of anonymous shareholders … commodities rolls its eyes and investments licks its parched lips.

A child sits bareback on Tom the black pony with fur thick as a buffalo.

Tarmac. This is where we plant tarmac. And cultivate  wondrous shelves of profit margins. What is the subtlety of place? You what? This is where we till the soil of cheap foods, harvesting marvellous profits by diversifying into  .. whatever … stacked shelfs towering high with powdered pea haulms, palm oil and the perfected synthetic flavour of real things. Cheap. This stuff is cheap.

Above the valley, on the southern slope of an ancient field, something moves in the grass, a mouse. Or perhaps a lapwing. Something in the long grass, where the long arm of a tree reaches over the hayfield.

They still work the land.
Could be rich could be poor.
Could be African, could be from that village on the way to town, just past the corner where Joe Davies upended his car in the ditch, and down the long lane.
They’re deep rooted,
tough as boots,
old boots, new boots, leather boots, all-weather boots,
look at the soles on them beauties, designed to last they are.

At Christmas, you can get a cheap turkey for two pound fifty or a Luxury Christmas Hamper for a small fortune. The river meanders in summer, there is a place where an old ewe always takes her lambs to shelter from the storm.
Above the valley, on the southern slope of an ancient field, something moves in the grass. A child watches the world change.

Screenshot 2019-05-21 at 08.20.02.png india-e1576828929779.jpg  Screenshot 2019-03-30 at 08.21.53

Rachel Francis. Christmas 2019.

Local by Rail

Sugar Loaf Station on the Heart of Wales Line

What if

It’s June in the year 2020 and you are standing on a Railway Station early in the morning. You are dressed for work and heading for Swansea, and you have purchased a Heart-of-Wales-Line- Saver online, so you have ticket in hand, jacket over one shoulder, and the birds are singing. Also it’s not raining.

Just beyond the platform, the Local By Rail Hub is opening up. Operated from a building reminiscent of the old GWR wagons, the hub acts as a distribution point for local produce. Local by Rail staff manage and receive orders and then re-distribute freshly gathered and prepared food to chefs, hoteliers etc.

The 8.15 into Swansea draws into the station and comes to a stop. Behind two smart passenger carriages is a guard van. A man in his twenties, wearing a “Local by Rail ” tee shirt and pushing a large trolley open up the door. Inside – lamb shanks from Builth Wells, strawberries from Craven Arms, apple juice and pear schnapps from Knighton, stone baked pizza from Llangybie and gourmet cheese from Llandysul. Crates labeled for different restaurant chefs and hoteliers are neatly transferred to the trolley. The door is closed again.

You board the train in one of the clean and airy passenger carriages and take a seat. The familiar whistle sounds and the train pulls out of the station.

You arrive by train into Swansea at 8.15 am – time to grab a coffee along by the Waterfront before your first meeting. A text message from your boss – “Stuck in traffic. Please send apologies”


Later, on Shrewsbury station

Your old mum and dad are on their way back home after a few days holiday.   They’re waiting for a train with all their suitcases and paraphernalia and your mum listens carefully to the announcement in Welsh and also in English whilst your dad grapples with the suitcases and drops his smart phone:

The next train to arrive at Platform 4a will be the 10.45 from Crewe, travelling from here along the Heart of Wales Line, stopping at Church Stretton, Craven Arms, Hopton Heath, Bucknell, Knighton, Knucklas … the microphone crackles loudly … passengers wishing to visit the Elan Valley Dams should leave the train at Builth Road where they can hire an electric bike for the last leg of the journey.

Passengers are also advised to tap old mud from their walking boots before boarding the train.

For passengers wishing to bring mobility scooters on the train please use the cycle carriage. This facility is located between the second carriage and the buffet.

The buffet on this train is run by third year students on a Powys catering course. This award winning service has been especially popular and the home-made “Breakfasts-by-Rail” are delicious.


Weekend Special

On your way home, you pick up a leaflet from Swansea station about the Local by Rail Weekend Special. You think it would be perfect for your Cousin Elise and her friends who are coming over from the US for a month and you haven’t a clue what to do with them.

There are different options and this one sounds good – travel on the first day from Swansea along the line to the Local by Rail Hub, catch a hydrogen fuel-cell powered local network taxi to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales, stopping off at Wright’s Emporium for an extraordinarily good lunch not to mention the cakes. Back on the train and a short journey to Llandovery. Evening meal and stay over at “The Level Crossing” which is a posh bunkhouse.

Take a ride in the acclaimed “viewing carriage” with floor to ceiling windows which make for great viewing, especially across Cynghordy Viaduct. Arrive at Llanwrtyd Wells with an option to try out bog snorkeling or explore Wales’ “smallest town” before cycling back to Llandovery on electric bikes and catching the last train back to Swansea. Final meal at swanky hotel and inclusive overnight stay in rooms overlooking Swansea Bay.

Perfect for your visitors. You book it.

Just as you pull into your station a helpful announcement

“This train will stop at Sugar Loaf Halt. For passengers leaving the train at Sugar Loaf please remember that the new compost toilets at the station still don’t have locks on the doors. The Train Company apologises for any inconvenience that this may cause.”


You arrive home, tired and hungry. You have received a text message from B, who was supposed to be cooking a special dinner for you.

“Stuck in traffic. Please buy chips”

Written by Rachel Francis. First published in Broad Sheep Magazine. June 2015

The Dog’s Paws


Her father had taught her about hands. About a dog’s paws. Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of its paw. This, he would say, as if coming away from a brandy snifter, is the greatest smell in the world! A bouquet! Great rumours of travel! She would pretend disgust, but the dog’s paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt. It’s a cathedral, her father had said, so-and-so’s garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen – a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal have taken during the day.”
Michael Ondaatje, from The English Patient

There is something fundamental about walking in bare feet on bare earth. It ‘s quite a wild thing, a proper primeval thing – but in modern life you don’t walk around in bare feet, not if you want to be taken seriously you don’t.  Unless you are a dog.

 It’s a bit like politicians holding hands.  It’s unusual in ‘average’ society. So I was quite pleased when, reading the news, I saw a photo of the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, holding hands with President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing.

 I’m genuinely interested in politics and the economy. But that doesn’t mean I get what the papers are on about. On the 9th Feb, to take a random sample, The Daily Telegraph was reporting on “Global economy at risk” whilst The Daily Mail  thought that “British economy on course to be world’s best performing economy” and on the very same day in The Independent, an economist said “we expect growth to slow as deeper Government spending cuts are implemented.”

 For someone who grew up in a rural backwater and lived on a farm for years, away from Westminster, Fleet Street and Canary Wharf, this can be confusing. It’s not just that different papers put an entirely different spin on the state of the economy. It’s also that the economy may turn out not to be the fundamental issue. In fact one day we may judge politicians on their policies for looking after soil. The Daily Mail will berate left wing soil care pointing the finger of blame at Ed Milliband for erosion; The Guardian will run an in depth critique on what George Osborne said at the Soil Summit in Davos. The point is, one day it may be all about soil. Which brings me neatly to the subject of allotments.

 In 1086 William the Conqueror completed his famous record of land and who owned it, and called it the Domesday Book.  Meanwhile common land was set by for all the non-landowners to feed themselves. This went on in a back and forth manner and then, after the First World War, a duty was placed upon local authorities to provide land according to demand, enabling the allotment movement to spread across Britain.

The effect of this news got to some places quickly and other places slowly. It got to Presteigne in November 2009. A small piece of land that had been meadow and bramble patch managed by the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust was passed to the Town Council for allotments. A small number of Presteigne folk who had been keen to get allotments for the town were delighted.

Lin Scrannage told me “We thought about having pigs to root up the ground prior to us starting cultivation”.  A bit too bold perhaps. In the end farmers on the council ploughed and harrowed the soil and then the zero-waste recycling team from Cwm Harry, delivered some fine trailer loads of rich compost to get things started.

Lin continues, “ It is a revelation to go down and have a look at the site – every allotment is different and reflects peoples’ different approach to cultivating and growing!! There are the traditionalists who dig and turn over the soil before winter and leave it bare, there are those who favour raised beds, those who like straight lines, those who mulch, those who compost, those who like to grow the same varieties every year and those who like to experiment.”

  Its good to know that allotments are still thriving in 2015 – and, to return to the original subject, that dogs paws still smell of the wild. They do. I checked.



First published in Broadsheep Magazine March 2015 Issue



La Via Campesina

Last March my friend Lin came along and asked me to write about seeds and growing food and told me about a gathering movement of peasant farmers across the world and so may I introduce La Via Campesina, which translates as The Peasants Way.

200 Mazillion Farmers

It’s an international movement of some 200 million small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe, including 150 rural organisations from around the world, all supporting family-farm-based sustainable agriculture. La Via Campesina was the group that first coined the term food sovereignty – meaning the right to produce food on one’s own territory. The movement has carried out several campaigns, including an ongoing one to defend farmer’s seeds from corporate patents by opposing new laws that give multinationals like Monsanto a monopoly over seed and seed varieties.

Who Owns the Seeds?

Seeds are part of our common heritage.  They have been passed from farmer to farmer for generations. Year upon year the best seeds from the strongest plants have been selected, in clever, peasantish ways. Today each variety carries a certain a set of attributes, especially adapted to country, region, climate and soil. In the real world, seeds are very valuable little things.

And these seeds are the very first link in the food chain. They are fundamental to survival and to locally based and independent food production.  If we have seeds and soil and seasons then we also have the ability to feed our families or our community without having to pay some corporation for the privilege. So why shouldn’t these seeds stay in the hands of the farmers, who sowed, bred, saved and exchanged them for thousands of years?

Seed laws were first introduced to prevent unscrupulous seed merchants from selling poor-quality seed. There are some very sensible testing regimes around seed and plant health to reduce diseases, and protect consumers, which is all fine. But there are proposed laws in the pipeline that  La Via Campesina campaign against because they are not beneficial to most small and family sized farms.  Take the Plant Reproductive Material Law, which is about to set rules for the propagation and marketing of seeds and propagating material of agricultural crops in the EU. At first glance this new law is about ensuring productivity, health, quality and diversity of plant reproductive material. However, because of the rigorous testing and quality controls that have been proposed for seeds, so that they can go on the market commercially, there is no way small scale farmers and gardeners who routinely save their own seeds at the present time can afford to take part or compete. And so with nothing in the proposed legislation that allows small-scale producers exemption, this is actually an opportunity for the wealthy and powerful corporates to get their hands on all seed types by law.

Fair and Shared

On Tuesday 11th February, the European Parliament Agriculture Committee voted to reject the proposal of the European Commission on Plant Reproductive Material. The full Parliament will vote on this in a few weeks’ time and if it also rejects the draft law on seeds, the whole proposal will have to go back to the drawing board.

It’s good news, and if you want to help keep seed ownership fair and shared, in the hands of the family sized farmers and growers you can

1. Keep diversity alive: buy some open-pollinated varieties and save your own seed

2. Organise local seed swaps

3. Support small seed and plant companies by buying from them

And here are  useful websites for more info


The Market ~ Our Market



Once upon a time …

… there were many farmers and millers and wood cutters and shepherds and wheel wrights and bakers and tanners and corn growers and herdsmen and potato pickers and cider makers and all sorts of local people with jobs that simply ran in the blood, and they lived out in the hills and the valleys and the woods and forests and worked hard and looked after the land, for it was the land upon which they relied. But as you might imagine, every now and then, some people had too much meat whilst others had too many potatoes.

So local producers started to trade with one another and eventually to bring their produce to new “markets” in the town. These markets attracted people from all around and quickly became very social events as well and a perfect place to go shopping, sell home produce, exchange stories, meet friends and family, share a pint and have a good old time. All across rural England and Wales, markets provided a focal point for each local economy. They were usually near convenient existing transport systems, for example at a crossroads or close to a river ford and when local railway lines were first built, market towns were given priority to ease the transport of goods.

As traditional market towns developed, they often had a wide main street or central market square. These spaces provided room for people to set up stalls and booths on market days. Often the town erected a market cross in the centre of the town, to obtain God’s blessing on the trade. The cross was also a reminder “not to defraud by cheapening“. Some take this warning to suggest that market traders were dishonest. But others will tell that it was a warning to townsfolk not to haggle the traders so low as to discourage their returning.

A thriving tradition

Of course time passes and things change, but even though supermarkets have had a massive impact on the way we farm, distribute food and shop … still the traditional market holds a special place at the heart of sustainable community life.

Town and farmers markets today are not just a great place to get good food, they are also a ‘lifeline’ to small producers and family farms, and they can be quite a central point of a strong community even today. Research shows that town centres really do benefit from a busy local market. Most shoppers who come in for the market … from locals to holiday makers … also spend money at shops and cafes, reversing the drift ‘out of town’ to big commercial centres. Markets like ours really help to support people starting new local businesses and those expanding existing ones; there is a great atmosphere in town on market day; and of course buying local food is good for the environment as food/produce travels less far and has less throw away packaging.


The Christmas Presteigne Market will be held on the weekend of the Llanandras Fair On Saturday 7th December 9 – 1 at the Memorial Hall.


Good Work

“The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people.
And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is work …  “good work” honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honours the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing.”   Wendell Berry

Not long ago, our farms were about people and animals and natural resources, working closely together. Farming was hard work, but good work.  The picture has changed. Almost gone are the barn raisings, the hay gatherers, the voices of people at work in the fields, the potato pickers, cider barrels, bowed backs, shared purpose, harvest festivals and sun-browned children learning alongside their elders. Instead we have a world where commercial farms are often dangerous places. Keep out. Don’t touch. Danger. And instead of farms, we go to supermarkets. Most people today are consumers, but not participants, in food production.

Our farmers have become solitary beings, because most labourers have been replaced by technology. Nowadays it is oil that enables cultivation: powering machinery, providing artificial fertilisers and chemicals, fuelling global distribution networks. But as long as human society clings to the vision of an ever-expanding “growth” economy, there exists a dangerous paradox: The availability of naturally occurring resources, like oil, cannot “grow” with the economy. Far from it.  And even more important than oil, is soil. It is our most precious natural resource. We reached peak soil long ago, when humans first began to cut down trees and clear forests. It continues to erode at an alarming rate. Oil and soil are finite resources. Natural growth is cyclical. It’s not whimsical, it’s a fact.

So we search for new technological fixes that will help maintain this grand illusion of economic growth and feed the ever-expanding population that accompanies it. Maybe genetic modification will help? Or soil free hydroponic growing systems? For we have a lot of mouths to feed.

Top Barn Training Centre

This May, Michael Whithouse of Care Farming West Midlands invited me to an open day at Top Barn in Worcestershire. “Top Barn Training” is a small one and a half acre Care Farm situated within a 500 acre ‘regular’ farm.  Most of the work force for the Care Farm have learning disabilities, but it also caters for a wide range of others: disengaged young people (who are referred from schools and Pupil Referral Units), mainstream schools (to whom Top Barn offers OCN and ASDAN courses) and playgroups. There has also been interest from the county council’s Drug and Rehabilitation Unit.

The training is centred on land-based skills: farm animal care (the care farm has pigs, poultry, goats, and the main farm has cattle and sheep), rural skills, horticulture, farmhouse cooking and sustainable building.

The concept of Care Farming may seem like an insignificant part of the jigsaw when it comes to feeding the world. But it is an idea that has longevity. At Top Barn they have transformed poor land to very productive land thanks to careful composting , management and people power. And, if you visit, you will see that they have also transformed people’s lives to something meaningful and also joyous. The overarching sense of motivation and enthusiasm is palpable, the conversations whilst people work refreshing, the value of this work enticing. I wish I could work at a Care Farm for a while. Its great!

In the farming world, one gallon of oil is the work equivalent of three weeks manual labour. When money is the guiding principal, people are often replaced by technology. But a community-based, people-powered approach to the future gives us the chance to re-engage and give  life new purpose, for example by producing food in a low impact, sustainable way.

Good Work

By growing good food by people-power, we also reduce the strain on dole queues, referral units and day centres.  Most people don’t want to be consumers with no purpose. They want good work and to be valued.

Care Farms are good for people and the environment. And what’s more, they are productive. I asked a few people at Top Barn what they thought and here’s a lttle taste of what they had to say (we have protected people’s identities on request):

“I wish I could write out prescriptions for 6 weeks at a care farm” quote from mental health practitioner

“Its not just curative, it’s also preventative ‘ Visitor representing AONB

“There’s loads of space and loads to do” Student from referral unit

“I’m proud of these pigs. Very proud”   Young workman at Top Barn

For more info contact

Care Farming West Midlands  Tel: 01905 622218  Website:  E-mail:

Posted by Rachel


Finding the Balance

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” Albert Einstein

On a Sunny day in April I set off on my bike in search of Hill Cottage Market Garden. I pedaled up. I pedaled down. I met sheep. I met a car. And at last I found, at the edge of Rhos-y-meirch, four acres of organic vegetables and fruit, including busy poly tunnels , fresh plantings of broad beans, onions and shallots, raised beds with leaf beet and spinach cropping well, a lovely old tractor of friendly  size and four figures, toiling ‘neath the sun … Mick, Alice, Adam and Rolly.

“Caring for Carrots”. photo Anne Belgrave

In 2008, experienced organic growers Mick and Alice began renting four acres of farmland between Knighton and Presteigne. This land now has full organic status. They grow a wide range of vegetables, salad, fruit and flowers, run a popular veg box scheme and a lovely stall in markets across the Marches including Knighton  and  Presteigne. “Its not just the luxury of having a reliable source of affordable organic vegetables,” said a customer, “it’s Mick and Alice, they’ve got a kind of magic. Everyone wants to support them.”

And that spirit of local support is central to the Hill Cottage success.

A lot of supermarkets and food brands use advertising to focus people’s minds on, for example, “bargains” …  thus drawing our attention away from where that food came from, how it was produced, and the longer term impact on food security, on our health and on the environment. But across the Marches there are better options and our local farmers and market gardens need our support as much as we need them. Community Supported Agriculture is formally described as “a partnership between the grower and the local community, connecting people to the land where their food is grown.” In my common way, and having talked to Mick and Alice, I thought a rewrite was needed:

“Community Supported Agriculture is important because food is important. Not only that, but the way people grow food is important. And land is important. In fact without it we are stuffed. There is a link between what we choose to buy and what happens to land. If we choose to believe adverts made by people we don’t know, we may think buying food is all about saving money and the importance of attractive packaging. On the other hand we wont know what the long term effect will be on our food supplies etc.
So, if hard working people, closer to home… ie part of our community … are producing good food in environmentally friendly, healthy ways, why not buy food from them instead?  And if we have time, we might even help them and get to know the land better for ourselves.”

For Mick and Alice, CSA is central to their business. So, for example there is an optional voucher scheme where you can invest £200 – £400 per year which will be returned in fruit and veg. This is about paying for your food in advance and doesn’t work for everyone. I have a share of £400 . Each week I get a box of veg which is equivalent to one of my vouchers. Very simple and flexible, because if I want to cancel my order , I just keep the voucher for another time or spend it at the market.  In this way, Hill Cottage can plan ahead in terms of production and employ extra help to expand. And I get organic produce, which I don’t have time to grow myself. The voucher scheme runs alongside the box scheme and market stalls. Take your choice.

“Caring for Carrots2”. photo Anne Belgrave

“An organic system is the most sustainable way to grow food” says Mick, as I join them  at coffee time after a walk around the farm. “Its all about balance. At this time of year … the hungry gap …  we use fleece and polytunnels to extend the growing period and the best natural methods of storage we can develop. But we also have to balance supply and demand ,so sometimes we supplement our own produce  with that of other organic growers. This helps keep the business on a firm footing. Each business choice is made in the most sustainable way possible.”

In order to thrive, our  local and eco-friendly businesses have to balance environment, people, and the accounts at the end of the financial year. The trick is to find sustainable business models that survive even in unsustainable financial systems. Which is quite enough existentialism for one day.