First impressions

By Will Goldsmith, Deputy Head (Academic)

Starting a new school presents challenges and starting a new school mid-year more so, but starting a new school in a global pandemic feels like throwing yourself in at the deep end. And yet, here I am, just over three weeks in to my first term at Bedales and the water’s lovely. 

I have been ‘courting’ Bedales for three years and am excited to have arrived. For me, the most immediately powerful thing I’ve appreciated has been the people who have made me feel so welcome: students, staff, parents and the local community in Steep and beyond.  

Something I was inspired by three years ago when I first visited and I’m delighted to see very much alive today is the spirit of the students here. For example, in my first (online) assembly, I introduced myself and asked the students to say hello to me as I walked around the campus; I was candid enough to confess to feeling a little nervous, being a new arrival. Some might have thought it unwise to admit such blatant vulnerability to an adolescent audience; however Bedales is no ordinary school and, for the next week, I was treated to delightful greetings from students of all ages. Outwith their warmth and kindness, I’ve had many interesting discussions with students on topics as diverse as prohibition, gender and whether or not we need school rules. I am filled with excitement about working with such lively and engaged young people. 

I’ve been equally delighted to meet colleagues with whom I have so much in common, both in terms of our professional values, but also our broader concerns and beliefs. It’s been fun, for example, getting to know Andrew and his team in Outdoor Work who’ve taught me about their late-night vigils watching over the pregnant sheep, introduced me to Favour and Tasty (two of the delightful school cows) and finding myself amused at the sunburnt piglets grunting away in the spring sunshine. I also loved celebrating Beltane around a camp fire, while wearing a crown of ivy.  

My new colleagues have patiently talked me through their work and begun teaching me the poetic, if baffling, vocabulary of the place. I can confidently say that I know the quickest way to ‘Peef’ and have enjoyed my first ‘Jaw’. David over in the English department has already shared with me some insights to Edward Thomas’ time living and working at the school which have brought his poems to life anew. I’ve even been able to sing in the church choir (socially distanced and COVID-safe, of course).  

In the classroom, I’m particularly excited about the work we’re doing on project-based learning with our Block 3 students – something we’ll be finessing next year now that we’ve run nearly a full cycle of our new venture into cross-curricular learning. I’m also loving the variety and depth of our BACs which are now in the final stages of moderation. 

While there is so much to enjoy about living in Hampshire at a school like Bedales, there are, of course, challenges: coming out of lockdown and slowly reducing the measures in place to combat COVID-19 is particularly frustrating for a school which values so highly the interpersonal (handshaking is still not allowed); our Block 5 and 6.2 students are working their way valiantly through the final weeks of assessments to provide evidence for their GCSE and A Level grades; and we do not underestimate the time it will take to bring our whole community fully back together again. Luckily, with the people, the environment and the traditions that make up this school, we are ready to make the most of what we have here.  

For me, it is such a privilege to already feel part of this community and I’m so excited about the months and years to come. 

Outdoor Work Summer update

By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

It’s only been two months since my last update on the farm, yet it seems a small lifetime ago as so much has happened. We finished our first wave of lambing just in time for the Easter holidays, which produced a healthy flock of 22 new lambs. As the majority of these lambs are Jacob ewes crossed with a Southdown ram, they should reach a finished weight this autumn and will be ready for sale then.

We are currently mid-way through our second wave of lambing with our Jacob sheep, which has also produced 22 lambs (and counting). These are currently in Butts field, on the right as you drive into school. Our pure Jacob flock differs greatly from the earlier flock as they are much slower growers. They have a unique fleece and are a beautiful breed to work with.

Each year during lambing we hope to find the next star ewe lamb who has all the desired traits that make up the strict characteristics of a pure Jacob. All those who don’t quite make the cut and all the males are kept for about 14-18 months before they reach their desired size and weight. Teaching our students about where meat comes from and how long it takes to produce it is integral to discussions about food, the choices we make, and the impact those choices have on our environment.

Our beautiful Dexter herd arrived in March and has been a great hit with the students. One of the primary reasons for getting them was to build on the therapeutic side of animal husbandry. The cows have gone from being a little wary at the start, to being friendly and interested in us. They are all happy on a halter (most days!) and walk really well with their student handlers. We have the cows grazing alongside our ewes and lambs which makes a beautiful sight.

On 11 April, Favour, our pregnant Dexter cow had to have an emergency caesarean. Her calf was presenting in such a way that she could not deliver it herself. It is at least 25 years since I’ve seen the procedure carried out and it was as dramatic and impressive to witness as I first remember. Unfortunately, despite the amazing skills of the vet, the calf was stillborn. Favour was heroic throughout and is making a speedy recovery.

For years now we have been slowly developing the large field opposite the Dunhurst entrance (part of which was a football pitch). Over the Easter break we made the biggest change yet and thanks to a local contractor we split the field into four smaller fields averaging 3.2 acres each. Between each field we have left a corridor for hedging and trees to be planted.

There is enough space for around 1700 hedge plants and 30 trees, six of which we have already planted. This area alone will create much needed habitat for dwindling wildlife. One of the new fields is naturally wet and has the potential to be developed into a habitat that will support many more plant and animal species. (I can see a whole school effort on the cards!!)

Elsewhere on the farm, we have now sold 15 of the 18 piglets born earlier in spring. The pigs go to local families and village pig syndicates who rear them over a six-eight month period. We have also over seeded a small field with a herbal ley for the first time, this is to create a more diverse environment within our field and to provide more mineral and trace elements to the pasture as well as medicinal qualities for our livestock. As the soil warms up and the trees and hedgerows fill out we are looking forward to the beauty that the land provides on our very own farm.

April has proved to be a very challenging month. There has been a record number of frosty mornings and no rain to kick start the grass growth we so desperately depend on at this time of year. It’s not often you hear farmers praying for rain, but if you listen really carefully this year you just might!

We are still on the look out for a pony or donkey. If you hear of any safe, reliable animals (preferably one that can pull a cart, although not essential), please do let us know. 

For the latest updates from Outdoor Work, make sure you’re following us on Instagram and Twitter.

Reflections – height of spring, coming of summer

By Feline Charpentier, 6.2 Houseparent and Teacher of Outdoor Work

Beltane is the third of the eight festivals our Celtic ancestors marked the year with. They divided the year into the two solstices, at the beginning and half way points of the year, and the two equinoxes. The four cross-quarters, the fire festivals, marked the changing energies between those times. It enabled them to tune into the land around them, to mark the turning of the wheel, and to feel the flow of energy from the earth a little more acutely. This helped them mark the passage of time, to plan ahead and reflect, consciously observing the shifting of energies around and within them.

Beltane celebrates the height of spring, and the coming of summer. It is the spring cross quarter, and the fire festival that marks the earth’s building energy. It was a time when people would celebrate the fertility of the land, and marked the beginning of the ‘merry month’, when people would wear green to honour the earth’s new colour, and nature in all its glory. The morning after the Beltane fire would be May Day, or Calan Mai in Wales, and villagers would gather to dance around the may pole, symbolising the union of male and female energies.

This time is a celebration of fertility in all its forms, and it would have been a time for weddings and couples to be celebrated. Our ancestors saw this as the time when the oak king fell in love with the May queen. She would be depicted as a pregnant bride, a mythological manifestation of earth’s potent fertility.

Beltane literally means ‘bright fire’, and the night would be marked with flame. Bel is one of the most ancient of the Celtic gods, associated with fire and flame, and the power of the sun to fuel all life on earth. All the fires in the village would be extinguished, and one big bonfire, the Tein-Eigin, the ‘need fire’, would be lit, often in the fields around the village. These flames were seen as sacred, and people would revere them, using the flames to relight their own hearth the next day.

This is one of the examples of ancient superstitions having its roots in solid science: villagers would drive their livestock through the cooling embers, to ward off ‘evil spirits’. Effectively what this also did was kill off potential microbes in the hooves of the cattle and sheep which would have accumulated over the winter.

Beltane sits at the opposite point of the wheel of the year to Samhain, and is therefore a time when the world is at a significant turning point. The earth’s energy is at its most potent, and we can see this all around us. The trees are covered in the green fuzz of new leaves, the flowers in the hedgerows and meadows are in full bloom. Buttercups, bluebells, wood anemones, self heal, tiny purple violets and wild strawberries are everywhere. The sound of birds and nests full of chicks in trees and rooves, and lambs bouncing in the fields accompanies walks around our beautiful school, which really comes into its own at this time of year.

On Living with the Land, our Sixth Form course in Outdoor Work, we are investing in the year ahead, and reaping the rewards of tuning into the landscape around us. We are busy planting out vegetable seedlings in the garden, as well as foraging in the fields, hedgerows and woods. We have been learning about all the different ways living with the land at this time of year can bring significant health benefits, using herbs and wild foods to boost our diet, appreciating the feel of the sun on our skin after months of grey and cold. It is no wonder our ancestors regarded this time of year as sacred and charged with potent life force.

This Beltane is an opportunity for us all to light a flame, whether a huge bonfire or small candle, and to feel reverence for all life. The flames can be symbolic of burning away all that we need to let go of, and fuelling our energies for what lies ahead. Why not think about what you wish for, and of what you must let go of for that to happen. Write it down and commit it to the flames. Make a crown of green leaves, stay out late or wake up early, watch the sun rise and make plans for the summer ahead. Tune in to the earth’s energies, try to live in harmony with it. Experience how truly privileged we are to be inhabitants and stewards of this incredible planet.

Butser Ancient Farm usually hold one of the best Beltane fire festivals in the UK and are hosting an online version this year. Find out more here.

Here comes the Spring

By Feline Charpentier, 6.2 Houseparent and Teacher of Outdoor Work

Ostara, or the spring equinox, falls this Saturday, and marks the first point of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It marks the moment when the sun crosses the equator line, and heads north. It is also known as the vernal equinox, ver in latin meaning spring – think verdant, youthful, fresh. Day and night are of equal length, and from then on our days begin to lengthen. All around us nature is coming alive, and there are signs of this life everywhere we look, from the lambs in the fields to the buds on the trees. The daffodils on Emma’s walk are just beginning to show off their glorious egg yolk yellow. The sound of birdsong is hard to miss everywhere in school!

Ostara, from the Germanic goddess Oestre, and the root of the word Oestrogen, the hormone which stimulates ovulation, was how our ancestors marked the spring, and saw the end of winter. It is a time of perfect balance, of finding harmony, between the dark and the light, the inner and outer, between intuition and the rational.

It is a time where embracing male and female energies, regardless of gender, can be full of potential, and give life to new ideas and ways of seeing the world. It is often in the state of harmony, and balance, that true change can occur. It is a time when all those gentle hopes we had at Imbolc might be beginning to come to fruition. When we can truly look forward, not back.

Two of the symbols we still mark this time of year with, the hare and the egg, have their origins at least in part in the ancient festival of Ostara. The goddess Oestre was often depicted as having the head of a hare, a symbol of immortality and rebirth. There are many versions of the story where she changed a bird into a hare to have as her companion. Eggs were thus given and received as gifts, as potent symbols of life and the fertility of the earth. The yolk and the white representing the perfect harmony of life.

Ostara is a wonderful time to literally, and figuratively, plant seeds for the year ahead. Having more time in the day to do all those jobs we wait all winter to begin is so energising, and there is a spring in the step of those you meet on walks. On our sixth form course we have been planning our planting for the year ahead, choosing seeds and imagining the bounty in the autumn.

Spring clean your space, ridding it of the cloak of winter, and face the summer ahead with fresh eyes. Bring buds into your home to see life burst forth, paint eggs, spend the day outdoors enjoying the longer daylight and fresh air. Why not revisit the intentions made at Imbolc, and step forth boldly into the light. Now is the time we may see them bloom. Celebrate the different aspects of your being, the balance that exists, noticing how we all live harmoniously with one another most of the time, even through crisis and hardship. There is so much to look forward to.

Jacob sheep wool blankets available to buy

By Marcella Craven, ODW Tutor Technician

Many of you may have seen the beautiful blankets and shawls sold in the Outdoor Work shop here at Bedales. We currently have large blankets (202cm x 149cm, £200) and medium blankets (142cm x 149cm, £120), as well as two wraps/shawls (£70) and balls of Jacob yarn, double knitting weight, in cream, dark brown and oatmeal (£4 per 50g ball) available to buy. To put in an order, please email outdoorwork@bedales.org.uk.

We thought you might like to know a little more about the work and process that goes into producing these unique items. The blankets and shawls are made from Jacob sheep wool, produced from our rare breed flock which numbers approximately 48 breeding ewes and lambs. Jacob sheep fleece is brilliant for weaving purposes as they produce different colours of wool which allow a natural coloured end product which has not been dyed in anyway.  The staple length of the wool is also excellent which makes it really popular among spinners.

Every year we hire a professional shearer to shear our flock. Shearing day usually takes place in June and is always popular with our students and our sheep, who enjoy getting a haircut once the weather warms up! It takes us around two years before we have enough wool fibre to make it worthwhile sending it to be processed into yarn.

Once shorn from the sheep, the fleeces are rolled and stored ready for our students to help sort the fleeces. They take away any old, matted or ruined wool from the fleece and separate the fleece into colours, white, brown and mixed colour wool. It’s a great way to learn about the qualities of raw wool, it’s many uses and feel the lanolin on their hands. This year we collected 132kg of white wool, 81kg of brown wool and 33kg of mixed colour wool (once spun this will be grey).

The wool is then rammed into large fibre sacks, which are sent to The Natural Fibre Company based in Cornwall.  They scour (wash) the wool and set up their spinning machines so that once spun and oiled the returned product is only the unique wool we have sent to them.

The mill make three products for us, spun yarn to knit with, washed and carded fibre to spin with at school and spun yarn to weave with. Once spun and on a cone, the weaving wool is sent off again.  This time it travels to Wales to the Melin Teifi Wool Mill in Dyfed, Ceredigion.  Here it is handwoven into the blankets, wraps and scarves which you would recognise from the ODW shop.

The effort, care, process and craftsmanship that goes into making these products ensures that the end result is totally air mile free, British made, and 100% Bedalian.

To celebrate lambing season and to mark the end of term, we are offering you the chance to WIN a medium blanket worth £120! Find out how to enter on Bedales’ Instagram page here.

Spring is in the air in Outdoor Work

By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

The change in the weather has really brought the farm to life, which is so wonderful to see. Last week our ‘spring’ flock of Southdown and Southdown X Jacob sheep started to lamb. As I write this we have 10 adorable little black lambs running around; we are just waiting on our three Southdowns (Sammi, Saoirse and Sophie), as well as our two Herdwicks, to deliver!

Our two sows, Little Pig and Bessie, didn’t want to miss out on the action either. They have been crossed with a British Saddleback (Basil). Between the two girls they farrowed 18 beautiful little black pigs, each with a white belt around their shoulders.

Running a school farm is a unique and rewarding job. Connecting students to the land and working with the animals is mostly a joy. Showing students across all three schools around the farm is one of my favourite things to do. Finding the balance between education and farming, whilst keeping animal welfare at the heart of everything we do, is a constant thing and something I believe we do very well here. We are not a petting farm nor do we want to be one. We want to educate students about food, farming and the environment, and how they are all linked.

Last weekend was a very strange one. It was probably the first time we felt that fine balance becoming a little unstable.  A combination of new arrivals, shining sun, schools reopening and the prospect of some return to normality, saw – to use a fashionable word – unprecedented numbers of visitors at the Black Barn.

When you have a large number of young, excited children, ramblers, dog walkers and picnickers, the tranquillity of giving birth very quickly disappears and the animals get stressed. This was very evident for a period of time. Everyone thinks their child and dog is safe, but to a sheep every dog is a wolf. Standing chatting beside a very pregnant sheep while dipping into some hummus may sound idyllic, but I’m confident the sheep wouldn’t agree. Likewise noisy children around little piglets and farrowing sows causes distress, resulting in squashed piglets and anxious mums.

So, although I don’t want to sound like a grumpy farmer, maybe this is a timely reminder about the countryside code. It is such a wonderful time of year and being able to experience nature so closely is so very special. Let’s try to remember the animals and their needs, alongside our own, human wants.

For all the latest updates from Bedales Outdoor Work, make sure you’re following us on Instagram and Twitter.

Ushering in the spring

By Feline Charpentier, 6.2 Houseparent and Teacher of Outdoor Work

In Living with the Land, our Sixth Form course that launched at the start of this academic year, we talk about the changing of the seasons a lot. About paying attention to the landscape around us, about how the land can influence our own state of mind, and help us be more present. The old calendars which celebrated the earth cycles, marking the four solstices and the four cross quarters, are often good for reminding us of the inevitable change that occurs all around us.

In the traditional calendar we are approaching one of the four fire festivals, a cross quarter moment in the year, known as Imbolc (or St Bride’s, or Groundhog Day, in the US). The other fire festivals are Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Imbolc this year occurs on the night of 1 February, going into the morning of the 2nd.

Looking out of the window it can seem that all of life is dreary, grey and wet, that there is little to hope for. We are all trapped indoors, and it can feel that spring may never come. And yet, all of life lies dormant beneath the soil. The trees hold the promise of buds, there are snowdrops beginning to flower. It is a matter of weeks before signs of life will begin to show.

Imbolc literally refers to ‘in the belly’, referring originally to lambing season, which would be beginning about now for many farmers, to the fertility of the soil, the imminent arrival of spring and all the life it brings with it. Our ancestors would have spent time reflecting on the year behind them, and planning the planting for the year ahead. They would have seen this time of year as a time to rest, to recuperate, to sleep and store energy for what was to come.

In some way our current confinement is exactly that, a time to rest, and plan for what lies ahead.

Although we all wish things were different and we might even be wishing the time away, there is hope to be found in the small things, in the inevitable turning of the earth towards the spring, in the time we have been gifted to reflect, to recuperate, to make plans, to hope.

Imbolc brings with it the opportunity to reflect on the darkness of winter, to draw breath and take stock, to prepare for the newness of the spring and summer ahead. To plant seeds, both literally and metaphorically, for the future. In our online ODW lessons we are baking, reading, crafting and making, planting seeds, planning what we will grow this year, looking forward to when we are all here again.

So maybe, this Imbolc, why not write your intentions for the year ahead, plant some seeds, bring a few sprigs of hazel inside to see the buds come out, or even make a solar (or St. Brigid’s) cross if you can gather some Rushes outdoors. Find instructions here.

Down on the farm – Outdoor Work update

By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

Growing up on a dairy farm in Ireland, I never really went on holidays; there were always too many jobs to do. Our modest little farm here at Bedales is no different, and we had so much work planned for the Spring term. Jobs included laying the hedge along Emma’s Walk, coppicing another section of the sand quarry and pollarding the willow in Ruth’s Meadow. We had also planned blacksmithing, vegetable bed preparation, bee keeping, jam and marmalade making, spinning and weaving, not to mention all the jobs around the farm too. I should never have let the students go home for the holiday at the end of last term!

We are working hard on the theory aspects of all this necessary work, and trying to do as much online as we can. But getting cold, dirty and wet – and developing the resilience to work through it all – is one of the key parts of Outdoor Work, and not something we can easily replicate online.

The animals on the farm are doing well. They are a bit fed up of the wet weather, but last weekend’s snow was a welcome break from the drizzle which saw a very entertaining snowball fight between the Southdown, Herdwick and Jacob sheep! They are all due to start lambing just after half term, and we will have a second round of lambing at the start of the Summer term with our main Jacob flock. Little Pig and Bessie are due to farrow towards the end of February, after we hired a big saddleback boar in October. We can’t wait to see the results of this crossbreeding.

Some very special and long awaited arrivals should also be joining us around February. They are the three Fs: Favour, Freya and Fingers, our ready-made Dexter herd. Favour is pregnant and due in April, Freya is the 10-month-old daughter of Favour, and Fingers is her cousin… Confused?! We are too, but we can’t wait to get these little cows settled in and ready for when you all return.

As always you can keep an eye on what we are up to by following us on Instagram and Twitter.

New course update: Living with the Land

By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

Living with the Land is our new Sixth Form course, which was written by Feline and me, and introduced to the curriculum this year. The course aims to equip students with the necessary practical skills to live lightly off the land, and enable them to look at the issues surrounding the environment and our impact upon it. It is a natural progression from our Outdoor Work Bedales Assessed Course (BAC), however it goes into far greater depth and includes significant self-directed work, including a portfolio and a ‘major’ project in the final year.

Living with the Land around us means having a greater awareness of our environment, living in rhythm with the seasons, trying to reduce our footprint and applying our new-found knowledge to other aspects of our lives and our community. This term we have been focusing on getting students to really think about their immediate surroundings. We have encouraged them to take a step back and take time to really consider the impact we are having on the natural environment. 

So far this term students have spent time looking at and observing our beautiful estate. This has meant a lot of walking and talking, as well as just sitting in a field, letting our senses tell us more about the land around us. We have been looking at permaculture and how its principles might be applied to ourselves, our community and beyond. We have built wattle and daub walls and started looking at natural building and how empowering and beautiful it is. Bread baking, foraging, making hedgerow preserves and site surveying are just some of the topics we have already touched upon over the past three weeks on this exciting and enriching course.

Down on the farm

By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

It’s so good to have everyone back at Bedales and to have students involved on the farm again. With the school closed during lockdown, many of our usual helpers weren’t around, but with animals to feed and a farm to keep running, those of us still on site were busier than ever. So here’s a quick catch-up on what you might have missed…

Since March: three Herdwick, 12 Bedales chocolate and 27 Jacob lambs were born, our two sows had 12 Berkshire and 13 Oxford Sandy & Black piglets between them, we sold six live lambs and two ewes, sent eight hoggets to the abbatoir, lost 15 chickens to a mystery predator, acquired two Pygmy goats, sold 22 piglets, thought about getting a cow (watch this space!), baled 111 bales of hay, harvested over 250 jars of honey, sheared 68 sheep, trimmed countless feet and bottle fed a lamb in my house for five weeks! This is without even mentioning all the fruit and vegetables that has been grown, harvested and frozen in preparation for delicious recipe making with students this term.

We received a huge amount of help from staff living on site, who so generously gave their time to tend to the vegetable beds and polytunnels. Not only did this provide a form of lockdown therapy, but a wonderful community spirit flourished – thank you! I would also like to give a special mention to Outdoor Work’s Kirsten and Marcella, as well as my own family, all of whom worked tirelessly throughout a long and sometimes difficult period to help keep this unique and beautiful farm thriving. We very much look forward to working alongside students and staff once again. Here’s to a fabulous new school year!

For the latest updates, follow Bedales Outdoor Work on Instagram here.