Western Quest goes West Country proper!

8th October 2012 by

After a wonderful stay at the West Town Farm in Ide, Exeter, it was sadly time to move on and head further West to the gorgeous hilly countryside of the Dartmoor National Park. After a difficult start to the ride (anyone who knows the giant hill to Dunchideock leaving Ide will know what I am talking about) the rest of the 20 miles to Ashburton were relatively flat and really beautiful, a wonderful ride. On arrival at The Husbandry School, a few miles outside of Ashburton, we were greeted by yet another steep climb to the farm itself but were rewarded  by arguably the best view of the whole Western Quest cycle tour at the top.

Thanks to Jonty and Carole we immediately felt welcomed and at home on their lovely farm and were treated to the luxury of a bath and comfortable night’s sleep – much appreciated with an early start and hilly six mile cycle to Landscove primary school the next morning. Despite our fears, the six mile cycle across the Devonshire hills to Landscove raced by at 8am, due to the lack of trailers, tents and panniers weighing us down.

 

We were immediately welcomed at this small but friendly rural school in Landscove and enjoyed performing our play to the whole school. Although the play is aimed at students aged 8 and over, the years 1 and 2 really seemed to enjoy it and some of the songs had the best audience participation of the whole tour – a great start to the morning. After the play we split into two groups and led workshops on transport and energy. The school were impressively already taking many ‘green’ measures, such as an energy saving campaign and signs around the school informing us to switch appliances off when not in use, a small allotment in the playground where students were learning to grow their own vegetables and school lunches made from ingredients from a local organic farm. The students were therefore very receptive to our workshops, which seemed to both refresh and embellish ideas on what action we can take in our everyday lives to be more sustainable.

 

The energy workshop was interesting to build on the work the school was already doing and the students enjoyed energy charades and were very surprised at which electrical appliances use the most energy. After doing an energy audit of the school the students had many great ideas on how we can continue to reduce our energy consumption, at school and at home, which we were really pleased to hear. The transport workshop with year 6 also went well, with students eagerly learning about different forms of transport and which are least polluting. As a result of the workshop many students pledged to use public transport when possible and car share to school with people who lived near them. They also said that they felt more confident to maintain their bikes, which we were really happy with.

All in all, we had a great experience at the small but pro-active and welcoming school, which was really interesting both for the students and us. We happily left the school to meander back to The Husbandry School, along the country lanes in the September sunshine, filling our tupperwares with blackberries as we went; a wonderful and inspiring morning’s work.

Gloucester and Newent – Oteshafied!

30th August 2012 by

Having turned our tums into landfill for abandoned bread products during our last breakfast in Stroud (mortifyingly, our picnicbench broke after the third helping), the ‘Five Hills’ that concertina around Stroud greeted us with particular grit as we began the 15 miles to Gloucester- we discovered why Painswick is so named, as our calves burned to reach this sandstone-clad village atop a particularly gruesome hillock. Once past the village of Edge, however, it was mad freewheeling down a treacherously pebbly and steep lane to reach the plains ‘o Gloucester. With such a short distance, we’d figured we could enjoy a relatively leisurely departure and still reach our destination with plenty of rehearsal time, but it would seem that cycle rides are like traffic on newly-built roads- they seem to exponentially fill up the space you give them – time slithered away as we paused for lunch by the canal, to pick blackberries, for a bask by the canal (Spartan living gives an extra appreciation for simple pleasures: sun on tired legs, soft grass in the small of the back…)…The heavens opened as we reached Gloucester Docks, but like a floating lighthouse in a storm, the SULA lightship appeared alongside, offering tea and shelter. Beautifully refurbished ship turned Buddhist centre, it offers holistic therapies and yoga as well as much needed tea for waifs and wayfarers…

The sky was dusking as we rolled up to ‘Lydia’s garden’: our home for the next two nights. Lydia  and her parents Kim and Steve had kindly offered to house us on behalf of Transition Newent and boy, were we in for a treat. Flat ground! Warm water.. from taps! Plum trees, chickens, guinea pigs, and best of all a SOFA! We felt thoroughly spoiled but just about managed to put away a stupefying amount of delicious food, much of it grown and cooked by generous members of Transition Newent. Ann, one of the group’s founders, had welcomed us and left us with an inventory to tell us the provenance of every treat – including veggie cottage pie, roast veggies, polenta cake, brownies, fresh apple juice and a stonking plum crumble. Over the feast Lydia shared told us about her recent cycling exploits, including a 100 mile-ride with her school from Snowdon to Gloucester! Having just aced her A-Levels, she’s soon to begin university but we’d love to adopt her for a future Otesha jaunt.…Cradling aching pot bellies, we waddled to the garden to rehearse the Morning Choices play to Lydia and Kim- thanks for the laughter you two! The food and homely comforts led us rapidly to snooze and a few snores…

After a quick cuppa back at Lydia’s, we had 7 more miles to cycle in the opposite direction to get to our performance for TransitionNewent. Idyllically nestled by the lake in a pretty park, audience numbers were nigh-on non-existent, so an audience-poaching mission was unleashed: the unsuspecting customers of Newent chippy were among those regaled by our offer of free, al fresco entertainment and we did reel in a few, including some high-spirited young fishermen who led a running commentary of the play  but we were secretly pleased that they stayed throughout. It was a good time to develop our message and gauge our reception a bit before we begin visit schools after their summer breaks. What’s great is that these different settings and audiences for the play unleash different energies and helps keep us on our toes. Our performance was followed by a magnificent picnic with some of Transition Newent, hearing about their efforts to engage a wider public with events such as free fruit picking, but it’s no easy task.

The morning began with riding the seven miles to St James City Farm in Gloucester for our first performance of the day. We were welcomed by the very inspiring Derek Wakefield-Brown, who’s been overseeing the farm since its inception in the early Nineties and whose passion for bringing farm animals and young humans together shines through. Bursting with the bleats of goats (best friends of the pony), the farm breathes life into a relatively deprived part of Gloucester. The farm enables thousands of city families to bond with animals in a nurturing environment, while giving young volunteers husbandry skills that have inspired some to go on to study agriculture and take on some of Derek’s mantle. Sadly the farm was on the brink of closure as the council funding dried up, but help from the Friendship Café charity has rejuvenated the project. The performance was a challenging one- our audience consisted mostly of young mums and tiny tots, and we really felt the sense of not wanting to alienate them by harping on too much about organic food- sustainability and affordability can seem oxymoronic, especially for families struggling with low budgets. However, Derek’s enthusiastic response was reassuring, as he asked us to come back next year for a performance in central Gloucester as part of a one-day eco event he’s organising (and suggested we perform in an Asda car park- Sunday opening has robbed the farm of Sunday visitors, he says).

Next stop  – Cirencester!

Riding the airwaves – our visit to Stroud

29th August 2012 by

Putting the kettle on, Otesha-style..

Western Quester 1: How ‘bouts we brew up a nice cup of tea?

WQ2: I’m game, but hadn’t we better put it to the group? Consensus, consensus, consensus!

WQ3: Good shout. Roll up, Questers: a decision is to be made! Shall I facilitate?

WQ4: Sure- I’d be biased by my intense hankering for tea right now. Still, does the warmth of a steaming mug in the hands justify all that gas to heat the water? [Fingers waggle all round]

WQ5: And don’t forget the vegan food mandate: oat milk’s an option, but there’s nothing on this Tetrapak to suggest that these are even vaguely local oats. Uh-oh…Tetrapak…

WQ6: Problem-led solution: that empty carton’s perfect for our next recycled wallet-making workshop!

WQ7: Phew, thank goodness: I love a dash o’ milk in my tea. And look: the tea’s fairly traded, too…

WQ8: May I make a Proposal? It’s blowing a gale, most of our tents contain at least one puddle and a team of slugs and we’re cycling 45 miles today…a cup of tea is just about justifiable…[all hands waggle frantically…brew time…]

And so on… Otesha tours try to organise themselves through a process of reaching consensus wherever possible. Using facilitation, hand gestures and an ethic of careful listening, the rainbow of personalities, lifestyle preferences and communication styles among us thus get a chance for equal airing in discussions. It’s getting us along just fine, for the most part. There are certain things that consensus can’t help us out with, however. Rain/sweat/hills: recurrent pests, those. ‘Roads’ that peter out into tracks whose clods and pits are obscured by knee-long grass. The flatulent results of the copious quantities of dried fruit and nuts required to keep us conquering all those hills. The fact that said fruit and nuts are generally shipped from China (not ideal for a ‘preferably local’ food mandate). We are heartened to hear that Totnes has christened itself a Nut Town, and we’re going! For now, snack nutrition and snack origin ethics are a challenge to balance, but the cooking teams have been producing most winsome meals for our trusty Tupperwares.

 We were sad to leave the Stepping Stones co-op at Highbury Farm, after a busy day off in Monmouth seeing to our laundry, bikes and grubby bodies (thanks to the kind folk at the leisure centre for the use of the showers!). An intense yet laughter-packed training week was rounded off by an evening of Olympian treasure hunting and feasting, sealing our Otesha initiation with suitably recycled tour t-shirts and bike bells. Proudly clad, it was time to finally get on the road!

Our first cycling day took us 45 miles from Redbrook to Stroud. We snaked along the broody woodlands of the Wye Valley, passing Tintern Abbey, the majestically spooky ruins of 12th century monastic life, whose setting inspired the following snippet from Wordsworth: “O Sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer thru the woods, How often has my spirit turned to thee!”. These wanderers admired the sublime nature too, in between handfuls of raisins and wondering whether those Team GB-clad tandem cyclists scoffing coffee cake were the real deal…indeed, the Sunday sightseers were out in force- vintage cars, Harley Davidsons, hot air balloons; but what we were most cheered by were the many cyclists- from families to the lycra-laden Competitive Camp. We crossed the Severn Bridge and swooned at the steel above and sand below, before joining part of the National Cycle Route all the way to Stroud. There were plenty of thatched rooves, cottage gardens and memorable place names to admire en route: Tomtit’s Bottom, Bendy Bow, Muzzle Patch… Lunchtime shade from the glorious sunshine came in the form of a grandfatherly oak tree on a village green. The day was also peppered with foraged blackberries, as the autumnal hedgerow harvest of sloes, hawthorn and rosehips begins to ripen. August seems rather early for this, we thought, but this has hardly been a meteorologically sane year. The food producers we’ve met so far have almost unanimously reported the worst growing season for decades. Rain-logged soils. Potato blight. Slugs with 10-foot fangs (actual quote, accused pest unverified by us).

Despite the setbacks, our hosts at Stroud Community Agriculture furnished us with a box of delicious, biodynamically-grown veg to cook upon arrival. The community-supported agriculture (CSA) model allows risk to be shared among the 190 members, who pay a regular amount for their veg box (or simply a donation) but accept that content and yields vary. The food and the setting were beautiful: they’re based at Hawkwood College, an adult education centre inspired by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and featuring such courses as ‘making your own Tibetan singing bowl’ and ‘The Sacred Clown’. After our long ride, the warm shower was all the enlightenment we needed for one day…

We were looked after most handsomely by Mark and Rachel at SCA and by James from Transition Stroud. We spent Monday morning weeding kohlrabi and holding an impromptu play rehearsal in a churchyard (thank goodness for the right to free speech, but apologies to the snoozing man bolted awake by us practising our human alarm clock). James had organised us a slot on Stroud FM, a community radio station: we got all stage frighty but managed to overcome the shyness to transmit the media scene from the play down the aerials of Stroud. The Stroudies weren’t exactly out in droves for that evening’s performance (our first!) at the Market Tavern, but that suited us fine: the audience were a lovely, encouraging bunch who gave us some tips and told us about some of the many Transition projects bubbling away: Stroud Community TV, open days to showcase edible gardens and eco homes and a hub system to distribute and exchange locally-grown produce. Stroud, in the growing trend of ‘specialising’ Transition Towns, is to be an ‘Apple Town’: we look forward to being able to replace our raisin addiction with Stroudian dried apples on future rides. James also told us about Bicycology, which organises bike tours and activism-based projects: we’ve been inspired to cook up more awareness-raising street action to shout about our growing love of all things bike, so watch this space…

On Tuesday, we met Helen from Ecotricity and learned about their aim to increase provision of wind-derived electricity and to widen the growing infrastructure for powering electric cars. A reviving vegan cappuccino in café Star Anise was followed by a magical interlude in Dennis Gould’s cosily cluttered woodblock letterpress studio. The walls are jewelled with Dennis’ musings, more often than not amusing: digs at the Powers That Be; odes to anarcho-cyclists, Lorca and Colin Ward; ditties, wordplay and quotes galore, many printed on thick handmade paper. Showered with little gifts and most with a new wannabe career in printmaking, we prised ourselves away to grab another quick session in the recording studio to record a little piece for James’ Transition-themed radio show…getting media-savvy now… (Click HERE to hear the the team performing on Stroud FM )

The evening was dominated by a lot of daily bread: two groups of us, unbeknown to the other, had stumbled across shops about to throw away vast quantities of bread, sandwiches and pasta salad and so decided to rescue the abandoned fare. The ingredients lists took us way wide of our democratically-decided food mandate, as did the horrendous packaging, but purely in the name of preventing food waste, we dined predominantly on sarnies. Breakfast, too, was a breaded affair: with hunks of the stuff in our bellies, it was time to wave goodbye to Stroud…

Western Quest – tales from a slick and well-oiled performing machine

21st August 2012 by

Friday 17th August

Last Friday, a sweaty, slightly confused-looking group of strangers heaved their bikes up a stony track and arrived at a barn on the top of rather large hill in Gloucestershire. It was the start of Otesha’s Western Quest Cycle Tour. One week later and we’ve been transformed into a slick and well-oiled performing machine, ready to bestow our dramatic talents onto unsuspecting school children. Sort of.

We’ve spent our training week camping at the beautiful Highbury Farm near Redbrook, Gloucestershire. The farm is 25 acres of rolling countryside and ancient woods, including a section of the Offa’s Dyke trail.  The community living here, The Stepping Stones cooperative, are aiming for self-sufficiency and responsible land use with rainwater harvesting, sustainable woodland management, food growing and efficient heating. They’ve even built some of their own houses with reclaimed materials.

However, despite being in a beautiful place, we have been working VERY hard! Our days have been filled with rehearsals for the play and workshops that we will be performing in the schools; learning about and using consensus decision-making; getting to know each other with numerous ridiculous and imaginatively-named games such as ‘poor little kitty cat’ and ‘Bipedibop’; deciding on our food mandate and then implementing said vegan diet. We’ve also learnt a lot about bike maintenance – be prepared to be impressed by our ability to fix our own brakes. Wowee.

The play is quickly taking shape. Jamie Oliver, Simon Cowell, Jessie J and AntorDec make regular appearances in the barn on the hill. Jenny is learning quickly about sustainability and the banana pirate has been banished from this fair isle. Soon to be famous characters include the ‘udderly exhausted’ Morag the cow, Tom the ‘blushing’ tomato and Ant or Dec with their questionable Geordie accent. It will be a hit.

As preparation for the cycling that we will be starting next week, we went on a training ride to Symonds Yat on Tuesday.  A near-vertical hairpin hill made for a bracing start to our first group adventure, especially for the poor Sara and Katie who were bravely battling with the effect of gravity on two rather large trailers.  But after stopping for a breather on the Symonds Yat Rock and munching on our celebratory quarter-of-the-way-there flapjack, we were soon well on our way to a local, free-range ice cream and a bracing dip in the river in the village of Symonds Yat.  OK, we were over an hour late back for dinner at Highbury Farm, and had to reluctantly pass the leisure centre and its promise of the our first showers of the week, but we have high hopes about our stamina, if not our hygiene, for the weeks ahead.

When managing to dodge the (frequently) torrential rain, we’ve spent evenings huddled around a camp fire, watching shooting stars and occasionally sampling Highbury Farm’s homemade apple wine.  The fabulous Jenny Tree and Ally have cooked us wonderful meals of vegan fajitas, quinoa stew and apricot soup. The pulses and beans are producing rather predictable results, but they’ve kept us well-stoked for the endless play rehearsals and gruelling schedule.

We’re looking forward to moving on on Sunday and taking what we have learned on the road. We leave behind fond memories of bananas cooked in the fire; Himalayan Balsam; the beautiful Wye Valley; stunning sunsets; our inspiring Otesha gurus, Sam and Iona; and our wonderful hosts. Look out Stroud, here we come!

Western Quest- Let the journey begin!

7th August 2012 by

After ten days of preparations in the Otesha office, the Western Quest tour is all set to start this Friday in Gloucestershire. Us tour liaisons, (Anna, Keira and Sara) have been enjoying getting to know each other and all the Otesha staff, while undertaking a spot of map routing and photocopying, researching all essential and interesting stops along the route, bike maintenance workshops and much more besides.

The route is looking exciting, beginning in West Gloucestershire and winding our way to South Devon, via Stroud, Cirencester, Bristol, Chew Magna, Radstock, Frome, Shepton Mallet, Taunton, Exeter, Ashburton and finally Totnes. We’ll be visiting plenty of exciting farms, schools and projects along the way and bringing the Otesha message to the public with the Morning Choices play and workshops.

We’re all really excited and can’t wait to get on the road on Friday. We will be posting as much as possible while on tour so check here for news and updates of our western quest adventure and follow us on twitter.

Sara, Anna and Keira

 

 


Starting as we mean to go on

26th April 2012 by

Before every Otesha bike tour,  members gather for a training week. Aside from offering a chance to meet fellow change makers (and start lasting friendships) it is a time to prepare for what’s ahead, forging a strong team to bring real, lasting change wherever they ride to. It’s a bit like starting a day with a hearty breakfast.

For me, training week was a real buzz because it confirmed that I had made the right decision in signing up for an Otesha tour – a choice that was going to be a real catalyst for positive change in my life and outlook. We began with practicalities – first up was bike maintenance. I soon learnt my Dad’s ‘technique’ was way over generous when oiling chains and I was shown punctures really don’t take 3 attempts to stick (as well as tips to avoid them in the first place). Workshop completed, I was confident and able to maintain and safety check my bike. A further session on group riding shared best practice of how to ride as a group safely on the road.

That done, we moved on to discussions and workshops on sustainability, group living and consensus decision making. Being able to speak openly and contribute fully to discussions and decisions enabled the group to respond positively to any situation. Early on, I felt consensus decision making could take an age – but once the ground rules and hand signals were in place, each decision was explored fully and consensus was soon reached. Any extra time taken was easily paid off by knowing it the group was behind the decision, everyone has had a chance to contribute and importantly, that the right action had been taken. Writing our food mandate was the first real test of the teams consensus decision making skills.. the mandate acknowledges the fact that the food we eat has wider impacts, and also that different people have different needs with the food they eat. We shared opinions, practicalities and debated issues before agreeing on a a mandate that would dictate what the team ate for the weeks ahead.

Then began the rehearsals. I am no actor. When my friends heard I was going to be  in a play, they were eager to see me to perform – if only to confirm that I am not an actor. Luckily a role in an Otesha play simply requires enthusiasm, a sense of humour and a bit of bravery –  no sonnets, monologues or dramatic stage falls required (except when making the Banana Pirate walk the plank).

This year, the tours are starting from suitably inspirational places. Walking the talk is a core part of our ethos, and so we’re happy to be hosted by projects with shared values.

For Western Quest, the tour will be hosted deep within the beautiful Wye Valley, at Highbury Farm. It is the home of Stepping Stones – a Co-operative inspired by a vision of finding ecological and socially sustainable ways of living together as a community. At the moment they are exploring ways to manage the land without the exploitation of animals. As the site is reliant on a spring for water we will see how important saving water is, especially relevant as much of the UK remains in drought.

For our food themed tour – Tastetastic, we are being kindly hosted by the folks at Breadmatters. They passionately champion the lost practice of home baked bread through workshops, books and by producing some fantastic bread. To say Thank You, we’re planning to build a solar dryer to dry produce from their small holding without consuming electricity. Excellent!

By demonstrating the best of sustainable innovation with practical and positive steps, our hosts will provide a perfect base from to launch this summer of change making tours.

If you or someone you know wants to saddle up and change the world then applications are still open – see the Cycle Tours page. or email us at cycletours@otesha.org.uk.


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