The Wood Beyond the World

Oct 9, 2015 | Living in the Forest

Well, I’m just coming to the end of my first full week in the forest and the sun is still shining! It’s been a challenging transition: I finished work as Policy and Campaigns Director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England last Thursday and arrived at St George’s Farm at the heart of Ruskin Land shortly before midnight the same day. Waking up on Friday morning, it really did feel like the dawn of a new era. It feels like we’re now living in the ‘wood beyond the world’, to borrow the title of a fantasy novel by William Morris.

Blue moon to super-moon

In fact, Lynne and I moved most of our worldly possessions from London’s East End, our home for over 25 years, to St George’s Farm in the last week of July. At the end of that week we were welcomed by the Blue Moon which shone brightly over Ruskin Land, and at the beginning of this week we experienced the Super-moon. (Sadly, we missed the associated eclipse). In between, it’s been a whirlwind of activity – sorting out furniture and boxes, organising the kitchen and new bathroom, tying up loose ends and completing handover notes at CPRE, and slowly familiarising ourselves with the sights and sounds of the forest. We feel privileged to be here, and excited about the journey ahead.

Where exactly are we?

Ruskin Land is a truly inspirational but strangely little known place. Working with others, our role here is to help realise its potential as a source of inspiration and meaning, but at the same time to ensure it retains its special qualities and uniqueness. Beyond Birmingham and the Black Country, the Wyre Forest, within which Ruskin Land sits, is not a place that resonates with many people. I’ve been surprised how often we have had to describe to friends precisely where we are moving to.

This may have something to do with the fact the forest straddles the border between the counties of Worcestershire and Shropshire belonging fully to neither (although it gives its name to a district authority which sits entirely within the former). It may also be because, while it is claimed to be the largest contiguous area of ancient woodland in England, it enjoys no formal, popular designation. Other, that is, than being listed as one of 224 national nature reserves, our most valuable wildlife sites. Having lived here for just a few weeks, it is easy to understand why. The variety and abundance of flora, fauna and fungi is  truly exceptional.

Origins of Ruskinland

If the Wyre Forest is not widely known, Ruskin Land is even less so. The name is attached to about 20 acres of land given to John Ruskin, Victorian polymath and social reformer, in 1876 by the industrialist and philanthropist George Baker, then mayor of Birmingham. Through the Guild of St George, the charity set up by Ruskin around that time, the aim was to use the land to put his ideas into action and to take ‘some small piece of English ground beautiful, peaceful and fruitful.’ After clearing part of the land of oak trees, the early followers of the Guild who moved there from Liverpool, and established smallholdings, with orchards, pigs, and chickens. 

Telling the story

While a few academics and descendants (1) of the original settlers have provided fascinating insights into the people and activities in those early years, the story of Ruskin Land has yet to be fully told or widely appreciated. It is a story that we hope to reveal to a bigger audience, and to add new chapters to as plans unfold, in the months and years ahead. This is the first of what I hope will become a weekly blog post. So watch this space for future instalments!

Neil Sinden

(1) Peter Wardle and Cedric Quayle, grandsons of the early settlers, have written a compelling booklet on Ruskin and Bewdley which deserves to be more widely read. It is available from the Guild of St George.