Posts Tagged ‘events’

On Making Space for Nature with Sustainable Bungay

This post was first published on 24th September 2014 under the title ‘Mark Watson on Making Space for Flowers’ as part of the “Making Space for Nature” theme on the Transition Network website.

IMG_1158“Did you grow all those yourself?”, a young woman asked me last week at Transition Town Tooting’s 7th Foodival.

She was pointing to a wicker basket filled with the aromatic lemon balm, rosemary, anise hyssop, marjoram and a dozen or so more herbs and flowers I was preparing tea from at the event:

“A lot of them I grew at home in Suffolk, some are wild plants and others are from gardens here in Tooting, including the Community Garden up the road.”

She looked suprised, almost shocked. “My only reference for that kind of thing are the supermarket shelves,” she said.

In that moment I realised many things all at once: that events like the Foodival show how we can come together and regain autonomy over what we eat (and drink); that you never know who will walk in the door and get switched on by something they’ve never considered before; that making space for nature goes beyond the world of nature reserves, wildlife documentaries or even pilgrimages into the wilderness. I realised that an intrinsic engagement with the living world is what I’ve been showing and teaching in the last six years since I became part of the Transition movement; and that Transition has offered me a role where I can use my knowledge and skills to bring plants and people together in a dynamic and inspiring way.

Bungay is a small rural market town of 5000 people on the river Waveney in north-east Suffolk, surrounded by conventionally farmed agricultural land. The common idea that people in rural areas are automatically more connected with nature can be misleading. Wherever we live now much of the time is spent in artificial spaces: in front of computers, television screens, in our minds and indoors.

When I consider Sustainable Bungay, the Transition group where I’ve been most active since 2008, I see that (re)connection with living systems and considering the planet is implicit in everything we do, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days to a cycle ride down to the pub by the locks of the Waveney at Autumn equinox. The very first Transition event I led was a Spring Tonic Walk introducing people from Bungay and Transition Norwich to dandelions, cleavers and nettles, the medicine plants growing in the neighbourhood.

Voilet-adorned prunes detailOur monthly community kitchen, Happy Mondays is now in its fourth year. A meal for 50 people, most of it locally sourced, is prepared from scratch in under three hours and features everything from nettle pesto and bittercress salad to puddings with foraged sweet violets or blackberries from the common.

Bungay Community Bees was formed in 2009 in response to the global pollinator crisis. There are now more than a dozen beehives in orchards and gardens in and around the town. The group has also created a purpose-built apiary (an observation shed with a hand-crafted glass hive) in association with Anglia Regional Co-operative Society and Featherdown Farms. In the summer schoolchildren from the region come to visit the bees and go on nature walks where they learn about flowers and pollinators.

College farm apiary

Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out. Nature needs a breathing space!

Soil moving banner

A natural breathing space is among the many things that Bungay Community Library Garden offers. In 2009 a subgroup from Sustainable Bungay teamed up with the town library, organised an Introduction to Permaculture course with Graham Burnett and worked with local builders, gardeners, tree surgeons and group members to transform the unused brick courtyard with one jasmine and a honeysuckle into a flourishing community garden with raised beds, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.

BCLG 13.7.2014

Each year since its opening in 2010, the garden’s central bed showcases a different theme: plants for bees in 2011, plants as medicine in 2012, an edible bed in 2013 and this year dyes and textiles. This way people can get a feel for just how multi-faceted plants are and just how interwoven they are in our human lives. In many cases the categories change but the plants stay the same. The calendula you made a tea from in 2012, you tossed into a salad in 2013 and dyed a scarf with the following year!

The person curating the garden each year organises events around the theme. In the Plants for Life series I ran in 2012 focusing on health and wellbeing, there were monthly talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers, on everything from biodynamic growing to walking with weeds to the medicinal properties of homemade wine! I also ran ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer where people could come and ask questions about the project and the plants and exchange their knowledge too.

IMG_8305 low res

The garden has become a focal point for many of Sustainable Bungay’s activities from steering group meetings in the summer to seed and produce swaps, Abundance exchanges of foraged fruit, and apple pressings. It is also the starting point for the wellbeing walks begun by the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group last year.

The idea behind the walks was to explore local places together to encourage wellbeing and a sense of belonging. How that might increase personal, and particularly community, resilience, help combat the desire to be somewhere else and so encourage lower use of fossil fuels. Many people reported that simply by taking part in the collective walks brought an experience of wellbeing in itself.


There is more. Recently a group called NR35 (‘Natural Resources’ 35) based on the local postcode, began to explore “how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.” The results include the harvesting of fruit and vegetable gluts, some of which are supplied to local restaurants and grocers and a communal firewood store. Last spring a small group of us learned how to make a dead hedge with local tree surgeon Paul Jackson. It took just a morning but I remember practically everything Paul taught us.

So what I’m saying here is that making space for nature can start right outside our doors, and in the places we find ourselves. That it’s not always the big exotic landscapes abroad where Nature is to be encountered. We need to discover the natural world where we are and engage with it, because it’s the natural world that makes sense of everything in the end.

P4050041 tempcopy

In 2015 it will be my turn again to curate the theme at Bungay Community Library garden, and the focus will be on ‘Helpful Herbs’ of all kinds. Lavender and rosemary are settling into bed, with thyme, St. Johns Wort, sweet cicely and others already there. And I’m working with a team on some exciting events. I’m also planning to map the project as part of a group helping to shape a new Transition Diploma, a collaboration between Gaia University and the Transition Network. Oh, and to make it into a Transition livelihood!

Meanwhile here is a picture from a plant walk around Bury St Edmunds I led in June this year with Sustainable Bury. The caption would probably go something like this:

“You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”


Mark Watson is co-chair of Sustainable Bungay, a Transition Initiative in Suffolk, UK. Mark teaches groups and individuals to reconnect with nature through plants in the places they live. Details about his talks, walks and workshops can be found on Mark in Flowers.

Images: Talking plants and teas at Tooting Foodival, September 2014 by Chris from NappyValleyNet; Wild sweet violets adorn Happy Monday pudding by Josiah Meldrum; School visit to Bungay Community Bees’ observation hive by Elinor McDowell; Preparing the beds, 2010, Bungay Community Library garden (MW); the garden flourishes, summer 2014; Walking with Weeds, Plants for Life, 2012 (MW); 1st Wellbeing walk by the Waveney, 2013 by Charlotte Du Cann; Throwing our arms up under the cherry trees, April 2014 (CDC); Of walls and hoary willowherb in Bury St Edmunds, 2014 by Karen Cannard

Hedgerow Medicine in Bungay with Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal

The upper room at Bungay Library was packed with almost 40 people last Sunday for this month’s Plants for Life talk on Hedgerow Medicine with Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal.  Julie is a practising medical herbalist and Matthew an editor and writer and their book, Hedgerow Medicine, is a treasure store of herbal remedies and recipes you can make at home from wild plants you gather yourself.

The talk took the form of a demonstration and discussion of the different ways of preparing wild plants for medicines, including syrups, ointments, teas, tinctures and floral waters. The first plant was Forget-Me-Not and we looked at the freshly-picked flowers under magnifying glasses so we could see closer to the beauty of these cheerful blue plants. I’d been wondering about forget-me-not’s medicinal qualities (it is not in common use nowadays), because of the profusion of them in the plant medicine bed in the library garden this year. And now here they were introducing the session. The forget-me-not syrup Julie and Matthew passed around to taste was specifically for dry coughs.

They moved gently and unhurriedly through a range of hedgerow herbs, talking about the styptic qualities of yarrow (some of the men present decided we would try it on shaving cuts), the historical uses of St. John’s Wort as a protective plant and  how ribwort plantain can assist with certain allergies.

We also learnt how dandelion can nourish the liver, help with old coughs and even cheer you up. And you can make tasty fritters from the flower heads. We got to taste a ten year old dandelion syrup, which was absolutely delicious. Vintage! And I learned a new word: amphoteric. Applied to herbs such as dandelion, this means that in the body it normalises the function of a system or an organ.

Julie and Matthew work with simples primarily, making tinctures and syrups and teas from one particular plant. For tea this afternoon, they had brought along some ground ivy or alehoof. This clears the sinuses as once it clarified beer. Charlotte found a pot to make the tea – which was astonishingly green.

After tea we looked at some live plants and were invited to guess what they were. One had leaves that recalled spinach, but not quite, and no one guessed it was mandrake, that oldest of medicine plants, steeped in folklore, and related to deadly nightshade and tomatoes. In the old days the story went that if you pulled it up by its roots (which resemble the human body), it screamed and someone would die. So when people wanted it for medicine they would tie their dog to it and the poor dog would have to bear the consequences.

The other plant was Epimedium, a member of the berberis family, also called Horny Goat Weed and used as an aphrodisiac. I thought that was great as long as it didn’t actually turn you into a goat!

Out of all that herbal wealth and floral richness the piece de resistance must have been the elderflower water. I can’t begin to find an adequate description for the amazing scent of this home-distilled floral water. If anyone else can and they were there please write it in the comments. ‘Wow!’ will have to do for now.

The talk was so relaxed and absorbing it didn’t feel as if a lot was happening, or as if two hours had suddenly gone by. It was only when I was jotting down notes at home later that I realised just how much ground Julie and Matthew had covered in the afternoon and how much knowledge they had shared.

Afterwards I showed Julie and Matthew the library garden and the plant medicine bed and they loved it. It made me feel very proud of Sustainable Bungay and what we’ve brought into being here.

So warm thanks once again to Julie and Matthew for such an engaging Plants for Life session and for answering everyone’s questions.

To order Hedgerow Medicine or other books by Julie-Bruton Seal and Matthew Seal, or to find out more about Julie’s practice as a medical herbalist, visit their website HERE. They also run practical herbal classes and are based in Norfolk, about a 40 minute drive from Bungay.

Walking With Weeds

Walking with Weeds

WWW1.jpgIt was the perfect sunny day for the first Sustainable Bungay Plants for Life walk of the year after a successful winter season of medicinal talks and workshops.

Perfect that is until five minutes before we set out when it started raining. Thank goodness for bumping into Paul whilst I was doing a last minute reccy of all the dandelions, cleavers, mallows, nettles, celandines and yarrows we would be stopping at in the town’s rich and varied spaces.

Clouds were appearing. He would bring me an umbrella.

Meanwhile Charlotte put Sustainable Bungay’s brilliant new A board that Roger had made by hand (including the amazing handpainted lettering which so closely resembles the font on all SB’s literature) outside the library. And wrote out the event in chalk in her own elegant hand.

The weather didn’t seem to bother anyone and at 2.30 over twenty of us put up brollies and pulled over hoods and set off around Bungay to see the wild plants pushing through everywhere from cracks in the pavement to churchyards to car park edges and hidden alleyways behind the town centre. And it wasn’t just the adults who wanted to come along. The children were fascinated by the plants and often knew them by name.


The intent behind the walk was to consider these uncultivated plants beyond their usual description as ‘weeds’ and look at their medicinal qualities and uses. In line with the spring season we focused on the energy-moving, tonic, galvanising properties of the plants as well as how they clear and cleanse the system after the sluggishness of winter.

And there they all were in abundant supply: nourishing energisers and diuretics, dandelions and nettles. Lymphatic booster, cleanser and energiser, cleavers. Even mega Chinese herbal tonic and superfood Gojiberry, (known more commonly here in England as  Duke of Argyll’s tea tree or Wolfberry), was growing in abundance on Castle Meadow.

Goji Jack banner

After the walk we returned to the library where Charlotte prepared everyone a Wild Green and great tasting spring tonic tea made from the leaves we’d collected. It included dandelion, nettles and cleavers with a sprig of peppermint and thyme from the library garden. Bungay Community Bees’ honey was an optional extra.

Meanwhile Nick had brought gobo roots. That’s Japanese burdock and whilst Nick’s was cultivated at his allotment, we do have a wild version here. Indeed one has found its way into the plant medicine bed this year with no help from me. And it’s a mega-medicine plant – a detoxing blood purifier, skin healer and alterative, which means it gradually helps restore health and proper functioning to the body.

Oh, and thanks too for the dandelion roots, Nick. They are drying in the cupboard as I write. Maybe we’ll brew up a dandelion and burdock drink! Know where we can get some local sarsaparilla?!?



Next month we welcome Norfolk-based medical herbalist Julie Bruton-Seal and her husband Matthew Seal, co-authors of the best DIY handbook on making home remedies from wild plants I know, Hedgerow Medecine. Come along to Bungay Library at 3pm on Sunday 13th May, where Julie and Matthew will talk both about the book and the practice of Hedgerow Medicine. Don’t forget to visit the Garden Street Market beforehand and make it a day with plants.

APR 2012 - Walking With Weeds - Pouring and Drinking

This is a write-up of the fourth Plants for Life event with Sustainable Bungay, a series of twelve monthly talks, walks and workshops I organised in 2012 in conjunction with a showcase bed focusing on plants as medicine at Bungay Library Community Garden. The latter is also a Sustainable Bungay project.

Photos: pre-walk reccy checking out the dandelions and daisies (Charlotte Du Cann); Sustainable Bungay’s great new A board made by Roger proudly presents Walking with Weeds (Mark Watson); Walking up the road (me) and along the wall (Tristram); Grasping the nettle in Trinity churchyard; Wolfberry aka Goji (l) and Jack-by-the-Hedge aka Garlic Mustard (MW & Elinor McDowell); Preparing a Very Green and Delicious Tea (MW); Pouring and Drinking and Getting Galvanised for the spring season (EM)

Getting Connected!

In the beginning

People often say things like ‘We’ve lost our connection with nature’ but the conversation doesn’t go much deeper. It’s the kind of thing we can just say to each other without really thinking about what it means.

PfL A4-Feb - 2-240x338In the past I’ve tended to nod politely and think to myself ‘well, I have a connection with nature, though I might not put it like that, in fact even talking about it seems a bit, well, unnatural…’ Until I got involved in Transition it was an intense but rather private affair, a practice of keeping in touch with the plants, trees, seasons and territories wherever I lived or visited, getting to know them on their own terms, keeping connected.

It had little to do with other people.

Then in April 2009 I took a group of people from Sustainable Bungay and Transition Norwich on a ‘Spring Tonic Walk‘, introducing everyone to the plants and trees growing in the local area, starting right outside the front door.

The idea came out of our involvement in the Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Well-Being group in Transition Norwich, and conversations we were having about our relationships with the natural world.

DSC_0389[1]_1-180x120It being a Spring Tonic walk, that day we focussed on three plants in particular: Nettle, Dandelion and Cleavers and made a feisty, energising Nettle Soup along with various wild salads as part of the shared lunch.

What surprised and delighted me was that so many people actually did make a connection they had not felt or been aware of before. The discovery of Cleavers (a relative of coffee) so energised one fellow transitioner that she hardly slept that weekend and saw the plant everywhere she went. She made potfuls of cleavers tea, foraged dandelion salads and began organising the distribution of some of her allotment nettles to friends so they could get connected too!

Suddenly my personal relationship with the natural world was looking rather limited. Transition was obviously not going to be a private affair.

In the meantime

Nature is big and encompasses so many things. Forest, ocean, whale, field, meadow, sky, bird, flower, cow, river, mountain, sun, tree. Human too, though we often don’t think of ourselves as part of the natural world. That’s a big part of the problem. It means we don’t truly see that the havoc we wreak on the living systems of the planet, on all our fellow creatures and plants, we wreak on ourselves, connected as we are in the web of life.

Today there is much talk of our deracination from nature, compounded by ongoing planetary degradation: tar sands removal, gas fracking and rainforest destruction, all carried out to keep the global industrial economy and way of life going at all costs. This way of being some label ‘just human nature’, greedy and rapacious by design and natural selection, munching our way through the planet’s ‘resources’.

spring tonic2-240x160Transition is as a chance to respond in the face of these threats wherever we find ourselves, whoever we find ourselves with, by making life and planet-affirming moves together, from the creation of community food growing projects to Reconomy to communications networks. To open up the possibility of something else to happen other than business-as-usual.

Last year, as part of the team on the Norwich transitioners’ blog, This Low Carbon Life, I led a week on Deep Nature. I recommend all the pieces on that week for their diversity and quality and as an expression of how each of us, when we give ourselves the time and space, is a hair’s breadth away from making that connection.

If I look at Sustainable Bungay, where I’m most focussed, I see that the Connection with Living Systems is intrinsic and implicit to everything we’re about, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days, to Sewing Sundays and Happy Mondays and the emergence of Bungay Community Bees’ in response to the global pollinator crisis. Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out.

And what would we do without plants? We couldn’t even breathe. There would be no air, no food to eat, no paper to write on, no beauty, no medicines, no bees, no moisture. Plants synthesise so much of life as we know it. No plants, no life.

It’s three years since that Spring Tonic walk. In the meantime I’ve been on hand to assist with many of those Sustainable Bungay events in true Transition get-together-and-just-do-it style.

Last year I took an active part in Bungay Community Bees, helping to raise awareness of the value of wildflowers for bees and other insect pollinators. In the community garden at the library we planted the central bed with bee-friendly flowers and enjoyed the summer buzz. This year, at Nick Watts’ suggestion, I decided to lead a project myself.

At present

P3180029 640x480-240x180What should we call it? Medicinal plants at the library? No, I prefer Medicine Plant bed, it’s more focussed. Or better still Plant Medicine Bed. Yes, we’ll be very permaculture about it and ‘see what’s there’ (great for me, ‘weeding’ is one of my least favourite activities!). And in fact there are a lot of plant medicines there already (January 2012): Vervain, Plantain, Feverfew, Burdock, Herb Robert, Foxglove, Greater Celandine, Nettle… We can put in some Echinacea, St. John’s Wort, Valerian and Richard, who tends the garden, says Opium Poppies will have reseeded themselves from last year.

IMG_8044 640x480-220x293Oh and why don’t I organise a monthly plant medicine talk, walk or workshop? We’ll do it seasonally and use the library and garden as the base and go from there.

The Plants for Life events have really taken off. We began by Connecting with Our Rootsin January and learned about Growing Organic and Biodynamic Herbs in February. And yesterday, local medical herbalist and transitioner Dan Wheals, showed us how to Adopt a Herb.

We each chose one particular plant to pay attention to, the one we were most drawn to, then everyone made a drawing of the plant and then took it in turns to speak our impressions of it out loud. It was magic. And totally absorbing.

Rosemary - Richard-120x170Dan guided the whole process so gently I only realised when I’d got home just how much went on in those few hours. I had no idea Lesley or Richard could draw like that, or that Charlotte, who I’ve been living (and working with plants) with for years, knew that about parsley! Jeannie’s enthusiasm on discovering herb Robert was completely infectious and reminded me of finding it for the first time myself all those years ago…

So what about me and my personal relationship with plants? Well, it’s there, but I’m much more happy to bring, share and swap and join in with other people these transition days.

Every day this week Transition social reporters and guests will take their own look at Connecting with the Living Systems and its relationship to Transition. Stay tuned! Stay connected!

Plants for Life poster Feb 2012 (MW); Spring Tonic Walk nettles April ’09 (Helen Simpson); Spring Tonic Walk encounter with Knee Holm (Butchers Broom) 2009 (Helen Simpson); Sandwiches Against Migraines – Feverfew in the Plant Medicine Bed March 2012 (MW); Dan Wheals shows us how to connect with the plants, March 2012 (CDC); Richard’s rosemary flower drawing March 2012 (MW)

This post was originally published as the Introduction to the Connecting with the Living Systems theme week on the Transition Social Reporting project beginning Monday 19 March. It was republished on the Energy Bulletin. Original article available here

Sometimes Known as Lughnasa

The alarm went off at 4.30 this morning and I stumbled out of bed.
“It’s cloudy over the sea”, said Charlotte as we looked east from the window to the horizon.
“Is it worth going?” I said.
“We could go up the lane to the oak instead.”

But we always go down to the sea to greet the sun at the beginning of August for the station of the year sometimes known as lughnasa.

So we found ourselves getting dressed and going to the shed for the bikes. The sun would rise at around 5.15 and it’s a good 20 minutes’ cycle to get to the sea.

My sturdy old town bike doesn’t go very fast even along straight roads, and this morning I was struggling through the empty streets against the breeze. Charlotte zoomed ahead.

Forgot the bike locks so we propped them against the railings and headed over the dunes. There was a tent on the beach but no sign of anyone apart from ourselves. I collapsed amongst the marram grass and almost immediately the sun appeared – straight out of the sea, red and glowing in a less dramatic, gentler sunrise than last year’s. The whole morning was warmer too. Before I knew it Charlotte had stripped naked (a rare event in Southwold) and raced into the water. Meanwhile I went to visit some nearby wild fennel.

We have some grand fennels in the garden, but for aromatic intensity they are no match for these wild ones. You know how when you rub peppermint and smell it you can feel it in your mouth even without eating it (if you haven’t done that before give it a try). Well, that’s what these fennels are like; just the lightest brush against them with your hand permeates your taste buds somehow. And it feels like it’s cleansing your whole mouth. I never realised I was so permeable before I encountered mint and fennel! So if you ever come across me brushing lightly against these plants in the wild rest assured I am perfectly sane – come and join me!

Cycling back home we saw a flock of white doves on the common and stopped to collect some fallen wild cherry plums in the lane. The light in the garden was limpid and another sunflower had just emerged. I have a feeling that ALL of the sunflowers I planted this year are going to be the new form I wrote about the week before last. Not that I’m complaining…

Pics: wild fennel sunrise; sea sunrise; me, (new) sunflower, rose – all Aug 2011

Post originally published on This Low Carbon Life 2 Aug 2011