Welcome back to our newsletter! This is our second issue and I’m really excited about sharing some more interviews with you with a few of our amazing Bramble Green supporters. We're glad we can play a small role in keeping everyone cosy and cool as we go into Spring 2021!
The overarching theme of this issue is “reverting back to traditional methods”. So we are celebrating nature, ecology, traditional crafts and slow farming, food & fashion.
If you enjoy our newsetter, feel free to forward it onto your friends and family who can sign up to receive it in future here.
I have so much admiration for farming families; working long hours in all weathers, taking very little (if any) holiday and labouring long after others their age have retired. But in recent decades farmers have been under increasing pressure to produce ever higher volumes of food in return for lower prices. What toll has this wrought on our countryside and those stewards of it?
One family who have grappled with this subject are James and Helen Rebanks. From Instagram I have gained an insight into their bucolic life in the Lake District. Helen shares snippets on stories and often a thoughtful message on her grid. She frequently uses music as a passionate way of setting the scene and highlighting the joyous moments around the farm.
The Rebanks family are inspiring people across the globe with their work. James and Helen believe Farmers need to get back to a more natural way of farming. They are dedicated to their work and have inspired so many to start listening to their ideas of returning to old trusted farming methods. As a farmer’s daughter myself I really enjoyed reading James’ thoughts on growing up in the farming business and what modern farming can learn from the past in the book English Pastoral - which I cannot recommend enough.
The family breed a hardy flock of Herdwick Sheep which, like the Rebanks themselves, goes back generations in the area. Their farm has diversified further over the last so many years with the inclusion of ruggedly beautiful Belted Galloway cows, and a new focus on tree-planting has helped to encourage a wildlife resurgence, including rare species. I follow Helen on Instagram and get to see a snapshot of the ethereal landscape, charming animals, wonderful home cooking and four ebullient children. I also really admire how her and James make partnerships work in marriage, parenting and business, so I was really excited to get her thoughts for our Spring newsletter!
I can see from James’ referencing in the book and from your Instagram that you play a vital role on the farm. You have a partnership in the way things are managed and you have four lovely children together. I would love to know what a typical day is like for you?
Every day is different on the farm but generally, James will have had an earlier start outside so I sort breakfast. We do the school run to the two different schools between us, and I run most of the errands at either ends of the school day. In the middle of the day I keep the paperwork in order, pay the bills and do any household admin. I shop, cook and do the washing and cleaning to keep the house in some kind of order with our youngest Tom around, (although he has recently started 2 days at nursery).
On busy farm days I either lend a hand or take food down to the sheep pens for James and any helpers we have on the day like shearing, dipping, or tagging/sorting sheep.
Keeping the team and family fed with nutritious local food is a job I consider to be really important.
I also work alongside James with his writing, either giving initial thoughts back on a piece, talking through ideas or dealing with admin requests for him to speak etc. Pre-covid I organised all his travel and accommodation for book trips or UNESCO work and I have had some very last minute dashes to Visa offices for him to be able to go to far flung places.
When he is away, I oversee things on the farm either with someone here to help or I manage to do the outside work myself, depending on the time of year. My regular daily farm jobs are looking after the hens, exercising the dogs and keeping the lambing shed in order in the Spring.
James and I work as a team with pretty much everything. I may not be in the fields all the time, but I know what is happening and we take decisions on everything together.
I often feel pulled in several directions at once but I am getting better at managing this. I always try and go for walk on my own every day, even if it just 30 mins to clear my head.
The jobs on the farm follow a seasonal pattern. We can look back and think how can we do that better, or not change much and carry on the cycle of work in the same way it has been done for hundreds of years. It is very rewarding and fulfilling work. The creative side of our lives with the writing is also challenging and exciting.
Your children are very “hands on” around the farm, I believe your daughters (the two eldest of your children) are lambing sheep themselves and your boys are often joining in with the daily farm work. Do you think living on a farm has helped to keep your children’s spirits up during the pandemic?
Yes we are very aware as a family how lucky we are to live this life but as the pandemic took hold, we have valued our life on the farm even more. The open spaces, the work and the responsibilities we have to our flock and herd have been anchors when the world seemed to be falling apart around us.
Producing food from our farm has always been slightly secondary to the enterprise of breeding pedigree stock to sell to other farmers. But now as we look forward, we intend to be more self sufficient. We have always had eggs and grown a small amount of fruit and vegetables from our garden but this year we are planting more and the children are involved in that.
We are also looking into selling our Herdwick Hogget/Mutton, Belted Galloway Beef and traditional breeds of free range Pork directly to the public. This future enterprise is something I think the kids will be involved in (if they choose to be).
I love that our four children have had so much freedom and outdoor time this past year. Our two teenage daughters are now competent at lots of farm jobs on their own.
I was so inspired by English Pastoral and how it has changed your family’s approach to farming. Can you tell us more about a project you are currently working on with the wool from your beautiful Herdwick sheep?
We sell our annual wool clip directly to Maria at Dodgson Wood farm near lake Coniston in Cumbria. She has been working hard turning it into beautiful tweed and producing shepherds bags, jackets and scarves, she also sells the tweed by the metre. Herdwick wool is incredible, extremely hard wearing and beautiful in all its shades. We are thrilled she has found a way to add value to it.
Wild bluebells at Murlough Bay
Interview with Ursa Minor
I’m so lucky to live near Ballycastle, a small coastal town with lots of character. On the main high street there you will find our favourite bakery, Ursa Minor. Founded in 2014 by husband and wife team Ciara and Dara O’Hartghaile, the bakehouse has become one of the town’s best assets, winning a host of awards and recently featuring in The Sunday Times; helping to put the area high on Ireland’s artisan food map. If, like me, you swoon over decadent pastries and crave the taste of freshly baked sourdough then you will love their story.
The delicate patisserie cakes created by Ciara and her team remind me of peering through the windows of French bakeries as a youngster on holiday. The shelves of sourdough and rare grain breads, tried and tested to perfection by Dara and his bakers, taste as good as they look. The only drawback being that it’s impossible to put up with alternatives once converted. During the first lockdown I was panicking at the thought of going without, but thankfully we were close enough to get a weekend delivery of fresh bread, almond croissants and other goodies.
We’ve watched as this business has grown from sold-out market stall, to boutique café to the full blown bakehouse we know today. I really admire Ciara and Dara for what they have created and all whilst raising three young children, so I hope you enjoy their story, as told to me by Ciara below.
I would love to know more about how you both got into food?
Dara and I met during a summer working at Carrick a Rede rope bridge, once the season was finished we took a couple of months off to intertrail around the Mediterranean-we visited lots of bakeries but the idea of opening our own bakery didn’t enter our minds until we came home after a longer trip where we lived and travelled in NZ.
Although I’d always baked from a young age with my mum New Zealand really opened our eyes to the variety and quality of baked goods and sourdough bread!
Neither of us have any professional training but both did a couple of days at the Bertinet Kitchen in Bath with the amazing Richard Bertinet. Essentially we are both self taught but that came with a lot of testing, practise and eating!
After starting a family we became more aware of the huge amount of additives and hidden ingredients in simple foods. In the bakery our focus is on the best quality, local, seasonal ingredients we can get our hands on, as well as foraged wild foods and beautiful Irish made cheese and condiments. We are committed to giving our customers delicious, unique bakes, bread and food as well as trying to promote the importance of provenance of food and ingredients.
How do you find balancing your relationship as a couple with working together?
We both firmly have the outlook that our business should also be a lifestyle-we always stood by our decision to close at least one day a week so we could all be together. The business has grown organically over the years and whilst looking back now I can see how full on it was it’s always just been part of life!
In the early days we baked in our own kitchen and sometimes had to bring our youngest into the bakery, we barely saw one another as we would be on opposite shifts but things have levelled out now as we have such a great team and we are lucky to have family close by for childcare. We work well together but have quite defined roles-our main issue is trying to switch off from work but I think the nature of our business means that’s nearly impossible! Anyways, who doesn’t love having to test out new bakes?!
How has the pandemic impacted your business?
I remember thinking that we would have 3 months of lost trade and that was scary but things were so different! We adapted quickly at each stage and were extremely lucky to be flexible enough to make it work - we closed initially then moved to deliveries only, then takeaway only and we expanded our retail pantry. It was a completely crazy time as I was also pregnant; our beautiful baby girl, Easkey, was born at home in July.
The pandemic has forced us to rethink our business and we have big plans! One of the things we miss most is chatting to our customers and sharing our passion for food to others so we’re hoping to get that back. Most of all we can’t wait to have life back to normal to see our families and plan a much needed trip away!
“The Doves” by
The house where I was born,
Where I was young and gay,
Grows old amid its corn,
Amid its scented hay.
What wind, bitter and wild,
Has swept the towering trees
Beneath whose shade a child
Long since gathered heartease?
Under the golden eaves
The house is still and sad,
As though it grieves and grieves
For many a lass and lad.
In conversation with Bough & Burr with Duncan Legate - Furniture Maker (@boughandburr Instagram)
Duncan is about to make his passion for carpentry a full time occupation as a bespoke furniture-maker. Bough & Burr has come about after years of hobbying and also because of a drive to create. Duncan’s time working in renewable energy has also influenced him to source timber sustainably and get involved in a tree planting project. When he first told me that he made his own surfboard (which he still uses) I was extremely impressed.
Could you tell us a little about yourself? Where you grew up, your journey towards becoming a furniture maker and your business.
I grew up in a small village in the Highlands of Scotland and was surrounded by nature, one of the remaining parts of the ancient Caledonian Forest (which used to cover a huge area of Scotland) is only a few miles up the road. My dad is a painter and we grew up with his artworks on our walls at home but I was not any use with a brush. It wasn't until my early twenties that I properly found my passion for woodworking; upon returning to the village and starting a new job. I bought a DIY kit to build a hollow, wooden surfboard with my first pay packet and built it in my parents' attic. I found it such a stimulating creative outlet and I was hooked. That was nearly 12 years ago and I still use this surfboard today!
I studied Renewable Energy Technology at University and am now an Engineer by trade. For the last 13 years, I have worked for various engineering companies; designing and installing micro-hydro electric schemes all over Scotland; to generate clean renewable energy. Sustainability and protecting the environment have always been a passion of mine. In my furniture making this has translated to me using timber that has been sustainably sourced by the sawmills and selecting timber from trees that grew as close to home as possible.
A few years ago I decided to make my sister a coffee table as a house-warming present. I picked up a few woodworking books; 'The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees:' by Robert Penn and 'Good Clean Fun:' by Nick Offerman really inspired me. That was the turning point for me in my wood working journey.
For the past three years, I have been working on different commissions; making custom, live-edge and traditional dining tables; side tables and coffee tables for friends and family. As well as these, I make smaller items such as chopping boards, book marks and door stops. I specialise in working with live-edge timber.
My company's name is Bough and Burr. The bough in 'Bough and Burr' comes in part from a poem called, 'Give me a land of boughs in leaf' by AE Housman. The first verse in particular is very beautiful. Burr is a natural growth deformity in the grain of a tree; but it also happens to be a very beautiful deformity that is very sought-after in pieces of live-edge timber.
Your work is very bespoke and also looks like hard graft. What goes in to making each piece?
Each piece I make is bespoke; starting with a slab of timber; designing legs to best suit the piece and shaping it to meet my customers' requirements. My workshop is unplugged; which means I only use hand tools, no power tools. This makes it a slower process but I find it more rewarding working with my hands in this way. I have built up a collection of tools over the years, some from antique shops but the majority of which are Japanese tools. Planes and saws in Japan are used on the pull stroke whereas their Western counterparts are used on the push stroke. Tools that work on a pull stroke means the blade of the tool is under less force (that it would be if you were pushing) this means thinner steel can be used, which in turn can be made sharper so you are left with a finer cut and a better finish on the surface of the wood.
Some of Duncan's amazing work and hand tools
Where would you like to take your business? Are you actively taking customer orders?
This year I made the leap into self-employment and by summer I will be woodworking full time. I have a few custom orders on my books and am actively taking orders. I'm also about to launch at Etsy shop (see link below) selling homeware items and I am working on a partnership with Grown Forest, who are on a mission to restore the native forests of Ireland; whereby they will plant a native Irish tree for every piece of furniture I sell.
As you might have seen from my recent Instagram posts I have launched a new design of cardigan.
I'm working with a great family team in Donegal for these new cardigans which are made on the handloom machine. This process requires skill and a speedy hand!
I have been using wool from Donegal Yarns for most of my accessories in the shop since 2016 and have visited their woollen mill in Kilcar to see it being made in person.
So I’m so excited that the new Crop Collared Cardigan is entirely made from this beautiful rugged wool.
Rhubarb & Custard Cake
200g of self raising flour
200g caster sugar
3 x fresh eggs (ideally free range)
1 x teaspoon of baking powder
1 x bunch of rhubarb
Pinch of ginger or teaspoon vanilla
1 x 55g pot of custard
Icing sugar for dusting
Rhubarb is one of my favourite ingredients. I love the tartness! Even if you only have a small patch/garden you can easily grow your own.
For this bake, stew your rhubarb with a good dusting of caster sugar and a little water. You could use Demerara sugar if you want. I like to add a pinch of ginger as I love the flavour but you could use a teaspoon of vanilla for a milder flavour. Let your rhubarb cool a little when it has stewed down.
This recipe is really a simple sponge adaptation. I tend to follow Mary Berry’s all-in-one method. So whisk the flour, caster sugar, softened butter, eggs and baking powder together until there are no lumps. Now take a spoon to slowly fold in the stewed rhubarb, (keeping some aside for decoration). Then fold in the custard which will make the cake nice and moist.
Pour the mixture into a standard lined cake tin and cook in the oven at 180 degrees C. Check at about 20 minutes and if the cake needs longer bake for another 5 minutes. Keep checking until when you test there is no batter on the tester.
Once cooled decorate the cake with some of the rhubarb you kept aside and dust with icing sugar. Have for pudding or a mid-morning treat! (Ground almonds could be used in the sponge to add texture; in which case you can use 100g almonds & 100g self raising flour instead of the standard recipe's 200g of flour).
Traditional local craft : Dry stone walling
During lockdown, my husband spent many evenings building a drystone wall by torchlight, to keep rabbits from eating our vegetables, and section off our Irish heritage apple trees. I've featured it (under construction) in some pictures and customers have asked often about it, so I thought it would be interesting to get Alex to answer a few of the questions we received here.
A corner section of the completed wall
What is a drystone wall? A drystone wall is just a wall built without mortar or cement between the stones. It can be more time consuming to build because you need to find the right shaped stone each time as the only thing holding the stones together is the friction generated by their interlocking. There are lots of different styles that can be used but ours is a style called 'single boulder', which was historically popular in the Glens of Antrim (we live on the North-Eastern border of the Glens). You can also see great examples of the style in other parts of Ulster like Broughshane or Kilkeel, as well as further afield in Ireland and Scotland. It involves one heavy, wide foundation stone dug into the ground, with rows of consecutively narrower stones resting on top.
Is it good for wildlife? A drystone wall is a real boon for wildlife. Within hours of laying the stones the crevice's begin filling with beetles, spiders and other insects and molluscs. The birds begin using it as an observation post and for shelter - a song thrush quickly took to sitting on the first section I built and I've seen fieldmice, shrews and frogs all in or around it; probably in search of the insect fodder it provides.
How long will it last? Hopefully hundreds of years! Some people have asked me why I didn't use mortar to make it a longer-term structure, but drystone walls are actually better suited for long field walls. A cemented wall can't move when open ground naturally saturates in very wet weather or dries out in spells of drought. But drystone walls can morph with the ground in these extremes. And when a cement wall cracks, the whole thing needs to be taken apart and reconstructed; whereas if the odd stone falls off your drystone wall you can just set it back on, no cement mixer or tools required.
Where did you get the stones? I had searched for field stones for years, picking up a ton here and there to build flowerbeds and firepits etc. Then I found a farmer who had a huge pile of 120 tons from old stone walls that had been removed from land which I believe was originally part of the Lissanoure Castle estate. In the 1900s, with changes in farming practices and equipment, a lot of small fields were converted into larger ones by removing the stone walls. The stones were often left in piles and buried for drainage or foundations, so I was glad I was able to salvage them and put them back to their original use.
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(*Valid until 18 April 2021)