‘The simple action of putting honey from a local beekeeper on your toast in the morning can have knock-on benefits across the countryside.’ This is advice from David Elliott, the National Trust warden at Swan Barn Farm near Haslemere in Surrey, and having spent an enjoyable morning reading his blog, I’m prepared to take his counsel. He’s clearly a man who knows stuff, about the countryside and all kinds of things I’d like to learn. How to scrump and then scrat apples for cider, how to build with straw bales, how to make sloe gin, how to weave a hurdle, and where to find wood sorrel (you can make it into tea and sweeten it to make something like lemonade). He uses phrases like ‘hand-cleaved sweet chestnut laths’; you listen carefully to the recommendations of people like this.
So this morning I am putting honey on my toast – and not just any honey, but the honey from one of the hives that David himself manages. Having never met the man, this is the closest I’ll get to his inspiring project on Swan Barn Farm, which is made up of 100 acres of ancient woodland and meadows as well as a small orchard (think bees) and ponds and streams. The estate includes a camp for accommodation of volunteers who come for working holidays and a building under construction and showcasing sustainable, low-carbon living. It’s this that has had me reading the blog (oh, say ‘hand-cleaved sweet chestnut laths’ again), as the new building is constructed from materials sourced on the estate, and has been designed together with Ben Law, (as seen building his house on Channel 4’s Grand Designs). I’ve learned about breathable lime (mix it with animal hair), about roof shingles and solar power, triple glazing and newel post morticing, and the biomass boiler.
All this busyness, and the volunteer work to build a colony, creating the materials from the natural resources found on the estate, the harvesting and storing, brings bee metaphors to mind. I wonder who learned from whom…
Either way, you can tell that Dave’s bees have been industrious. The honey is delicious, with a buttery aroma and a mellow, not oversweet taste with a spicy edge. Maybe it’s the sorrel.
As Dave said, all our bees do essential work for our countryside. But some bees are even more important than others, and I get a glowing feeling, that’s more than just a blood sugar rush, to think of the bees and the volunteer teams that are helping to keep projects like Swan Barn Farm thriving.
My Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo (2011) is published by Signal Books and available through bookshops and on Amazon.