At a recent Reimagining the Levels (RtL) meeting, we agreed it might be interesting for our readers to learn more about certain woodland and hedgerow plantings we have enabled, particularly ones where the sum is greater than its parts. In this article, I want to write about Court House at Stoford, near the Yeovil Junction station that we have supported through plantings funded by the Somerset Rivers Authority ‘Trees for Water’ scheme. It is indeed a story of many parts beginning with a tragic loss and emerging back into life as a great community organisation supporting over 200 visitors a month.
Court House and adjoining buildings plus land totalling 26 acres was bought by the current owner Terence ‘Paul’ Palfrey and his partner Geoff Kemp in 2003. Paul remembers that they had visited the property and fallen in love with it but were not optimistic about owning it. The auctioneers had set a high guide price but luckily that was not met and nobody outbid them. Paul and Geoff owned a department store in Lymington, Hampshire and were making plans for their retirement. Geoff had trained as a Botanist and both were keen to live out their remaining years surrounded by nature, protecting and restoring their ‘patch’ from development or degradation.
The farmland that surrounded 3 sides of the old house was let to a local farmer so they began restoring the two barns and derelict cottage along with the gardens. The buildings took 4 men 4 years to restore as the two barns were in a terrible state, one had just 3 walls and nor roof. Paul and Geoff finally closed their store in 2012 and moved permanently to Court House. Sadly in the summer of 2016 Geoff became ill and died in early 2017 but as Paul says, he lived to oversee the major restorations of the buildings that are now used by so many every week.
After the immediate shock of Geoff’s death, Paul knew he had to do something to honour Geoff’s legacy. Bereavement meant that he had personal experience of how loneliness can go unnoticed in rural areas so using the facilities he and Geoff had built, he decided to open them up to others finding themselves in similar situations.
Knowing how much Geoff had loved the natural world and the plans they had made for reestablishing the wildlife and flora and restoring the orchard on their land, Paul set up the Geranium Trust www.geraniumtrust.org to honour Geoff’s memory and to support both people and nature. The Geranium Trust is for anyone experiencing bereavement, isolation or loneliness and allows them to access friendship and companionship in a beautiful natural setting.
To the west of the house is a designated ‘Memory Garden’. Here people can plant a tree in memory of a loved one or just come and sit quietly for a while. The field looks over the open countryside and the local church and Paul estimates that over 100 trees have been planted and small areas have been sown with wildflowers. When I visited in late summer, the field was full of bees, butterflies and birds alongside a variety of healthy and well-tended tree saplings.
Every month the imaginatively restored Barns play host to lunches, dinners and tea parties masterminded by Brian the cook (delicious food) and assisted by volunteers. There is also an LGBT support group monthly drop in, a coffee morning and a Sunday roast dinner that aim to offer friendship and support to those experiencing loneliness and isolation. All are well attended A gardening group has been set up tending the flower and vegetable gardens. An orchard, that was shown on the old maps of the land has been replanted with 60+ fruit and nut trees for all to enjoy.
Yeovil charity Able2Achieve supports individuals with learning differences, mental health and other associated disabilities. Joe, Learning Facilitator, says that Court House is an enormously important venue for Able2Achieve, enabling skill learning, people interaction and fun. Visiting three times a week, learners participate in a variety of outdoor work including wildlife surveys on the land that is happily being returned to a healthier and nature-friendly state with the hedges growing out nicely. Reports of growing numbers of slow worms, grass snakes and adders are encouraging plus increases in moths and butterflies. Able2Acheive learners have built a bird-watching hide and placed home-made bird boxes onto the existing hedgerow trees and have plans to build an amphitheatre for open air performances. They also help with the lunches and tea parties held for the elderly or lonely. There is a well-used public footpath which borders the fields that enables interaction between walkers and the volunteers at Court House. This might explain why so many local people are supportive towards the Geranium Trust as they understand its ethos and plans and get involved.
Paul has accessed the old field maps of Court House and its land and is keen to bring the landscape back to its former state by replanting the hedges along their original paths so that the large 14-acre field is once again divided into smaller fields. This is how RtL became involved, enabling the planting of 250 metres of hedging along part of the boundary. This was one of the wettest sites we have planted with run-off heading down to the houses below and threatening to overwhelm a tributary running into the River Yeo. The field itself is rich with history; there are quarry remains where Hamstone was taken to be used in the building of the grand houses in Yeovil and near the summit is a Bronze Age Burial Site. Artifacts excavated from here are kept at the Taunton Museum and are from the Beaker People who occupied ancient Britain over 4000 years ago. They are known for their sophisticated beaker shaped and decorated pottery some of which was found on this site.
As well as the hedgerow planting, RtL will add a further 320 metres this season. We have also enabled the planting of150 trees and shrubs in one of the upper fields where a strip of existing hedge is being allowed to grow out in order to create a woodland. This will properly divide the top field from the bottom. The new hedgerows will follow the contours of the old hedges that were ripped out due to agricultural requirements for open ploughing space. Restoring the land to its earlier configuration is something Paul is keen to do and as hedgerows have been disappearing rapidly from the countryside. Since World War II, Britain has lost 50% of its hedges and 60% of those remaining are badly managed, cut too often and too hard. Hedgerow roots run deep, allowing a larger, deeper area of the soil profile to act like a sponge, thus absorbing more water. They also provide food and shelter for humans and animals which is now seen as increasingly necessary as the climate heats up.
Working with the Geranium Trust and Able2Achieve has been a rewarding and gratifying experience for us. From our initial meeting with Paul and his volunteers, we provided the wherewithal to realise their plans for planting hedgerows and trees in order to restore and improve the fields for humans and wildlife and reduce the risk of flooding to the houses below. Our advice on planting and after-care has been followed diligently (special thanks to Keith) and the hedges and tree saplings are thriving. RtL always provides advice on the planting and ongoing care for all trees and shrubs but it is not always so diligently applied. It was inspiring to see how mulching and re-staking after high winds had resulted in minimal loss and extremely healthy plants.
Such a brilliant project chimes with so many of RtLs own aims and values; increasing the engagement of people with their community and landscape; putting more trees into Somerset to improve soil condition, biodiversity, water management, shade and food; connecting with like-minded organisations whose purpose is to enhance and champion nature and its extraordinary healing powers.
Thank you Geranuium Trust and Able2Achieve for allowing us to grow with you.
If you would like to know more about Reimagining the Levels, the work we do and how you can get involved, visit www.reimaginingthelevls.org.uk or firstname.lastname@example.org
We offer advice on plantings, big and small with generous grants. We also have a great band of volunteers who can make things happen! Do think about joining us.