Andrew Jen Wear

Photo: Mark Pickthall.

FERNHILL FARM: “YOUR TRUE ARCADIAN PLACE TO STAY”

This interview with Andrew and Jen Wear was written for the 2009 Big Green Gathering programme. The Gathering was to have taken place at Fernhill Farm, on the Mendip Hills in Somerset, in August 2009. The programme was printed, but the Gathering was cancelled at the last minute under pressure from Avon & Somerset police.

Conservation Site

Andrew Wear and his wife Jen, with their two sons Kyle and Seth, are establishing their long-term plans to rehabilitate this landscape – whilst maintaining traditional farming practices that are naturally compatable with these ancient Mendip grasslands. 

Fernhill is very much a working family farm, sustainably rearing sheep, pigs and cows amongst the conservation aims of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme – and from this October the Higher Level Entry Scheme, which initiates a ten-year conservation project.

Elsewhere in the area, it has become common practice to adjust the naturally acidic Mendip soil by adding lime, in order to grow higher yield pasture grasses. Because Andrew does not do this, the old, traditional breeds of Somerset grasses and flowers, many of which are now rare, can thrive here again.

By grazing the livestock over a larger area, keeping the flock on the move and using each stretch of pasture at its most useful time, the farmer gets excellent pasture without tampering with the land’s natural balance.

Many rare and interesting plants are found here at different times of the year, and they are continually planting in the woodlands, hedge-rows and gardens to create beautiful and useful habitats. The vegetable garden can be seen during the Gathering as part of the Permaculture area.

Self-Sufficiency

According to Jen, “We are developing the farm into a self-sustaining unit with its own supply of homegrown resources – food from our fields and gardens, water harvesting and recycling, wood and wool to keep us warm – and we are ready, as the next step, for the sun to heat our water and the wind to provide our power.”

Recently installed is a modern, semi-computerised wood burner which provides heating for the house and the camping barn, the latter available as accommodation for cyclists and cavers on the Mendips, as well as for educational groups and social functions. The heating system – designed by Eco-Engineering of Stroud – can be topped up by the planned solar heating and wind generator, which will make them self-sufficient in energy.

The Camping Barn

The camping barn marks a new direction in the farm’s development. “The Grade ll listed building is now the new camping barn facility, and we are open to welcome you all through the doors for a truly arcadian experience.” (And if, like me, you are unsure exactly what ‘arcadian’ might mean, “Look it up” says Andrew).

There is space for up to 32 people (plus camping if required), beautifully done out with wooden furnishings, panelling etc all made from trees grown on the farm, completely wheelchair-friendly, lovely location, choice of catering or self-catering, with prices negotiable for groups. The roof is insulated with wool and the wood-burner powers underfloor heating – with 2,000 trees recently planted on the farm to provide fuel, to be topped up by willow grown on the WET [Wetland Ecosystem Treatment] sewage treatment system.

The barn will be open during the Gathering as a food outlet, selling Ploughman’s lunches, teas, and ‘silver service’ meals in the evenings. There will also be wool workshops where you can make rugs and felt.

Through contacts with local crafts-people they can also offer practical hands-on workshops in charcoal burning, first aid, stone masonry, bread making and willow weaving, as well as Andrew’s sheep shearing.

The Farmhouse and other developments

The old farmhouse, a listed building dated 1770, has been a building site during recent Gatherings but is now all but completed. After 50 years of solitude it will now be reinstated as a family dwelling, with Andrew and Jen taking up residence in time for this year’s Gathering at the end of July.

Once the house is completed, this will leave the big field barn and smaller ruined barns to give new life to, and Fernhill’s heritage will be reformed to “beyond its former glory.” The website www.fernhill-farm.co.uk provides a brief insight into the farm, though “when you contact us please remember – our lives are shared with many living things!”

‘And we are still farming!’

And besides all the developments, “We are still farming.” The new sheep shearing shed will be the venue for the final of the English National Sheep Shearing Championships on the Sunday of the Gathering – the first time this event has been held outside the traditional agricultural shows.

Andrew’s flock has been down-sized to 470 ewes – meaning that he has less need to rent additional land away from Fernhill – as well as 75 Aberdeen Angus cattle and four saddleback sows.

Having a young family has been a big impetus to spending more time at home, though he is also motivated by providing quality rather than just quantity – integrating his sheep-rearing with catering and local farm shops, rather than simply delivering meat-on-the-hoof to market. “I want to be selling a high quality product, rather than just a commodity.”

Practical and Educational Projects

Both Andrew and Jen grew up on farms, and appreciate their good fortune in being grounded in such a beautiful and well-appointed part of the planet. “We want to be putting a little bit back” they say, and amongst the numerous practical and educational projects that they have links with is the ‘Send a Cow’ project. This seeks to improve the viability of subsistence farms in Africa; providing a cow also means manure, productive vegetable plots, and a general enrichment of life though still within the subsistence ethic. He felt humbled by a recent visit from a Ugandan farmer, and hearing of the difficulties she had faced during her life.

In the UK, the project addresses a different form of poverty by giving children access to the countryside. Fernhill Farm was recently host to 450 children from schools in towns and cities – some of whom had never realised, for instance, that milk comes from cows.

There are a string of other connections with local schools, as well as organisations such as Osprey Outdoors and Aardvark Endeavours which encourage the creative and respectful use of the countryside, particularly for young people.

It is in this context that the Big Green Gathering has beeen welcomed back, for its fifth event in seven years up here on the Mendip Hills.

Fernhill Farm leaflet