Friday morning was one of those rare days this year, cloudless skies and warm sunshine, the perfect weather to spend the day celebrating the British countryside at Kate Humble’s rural skills centre, Humble By Nature, in Monmouthshire. Several months ago Kate kindly asked me if I would like to come along on one of the courses on offer at their farm. I had always been interested in bees so the opportunity to join the ‘Sustainable Beekeeping’ course was just too good to miss.
The courses are held in a large barn where there’s a space for teaching and a kitchen/dining area. After tea, some delicious honey biscuits and the chance to meet others on the course we moved into the classroom. There were beautiful handmade tables and vases of sweet peas dotted about and the barn doors were open giving us views out across the farm. Kate explained a little about what brought her and her husband, Ludo to the farm. Angry about council-owned farms being sold off and split up to generate revenue they decided to buy just such a farm in Monmouthshire with the idea of creating a rural skills centre.
They both wanted people to have the opportunity to spend some time on a working farm, learn a bit about a rural skill and enjoy some gorgeous food. They really want the centre to be rooted in the area and have pulled together a team of local experts, farmers and producers to host the courses.
Kate then introduced us to Monica and Nicola from Bees for Development who would be our teachers for the day. Bees for Development’s main work is in the developing world promoting beekeeping as a way to reduce poverty. They also provide training, advice and resources to beekeepers in the UK. After an hour or so in the classroom learning a bit about bees and some of the terms we’d be hearing over the course of the day we got to the hands on bit. Donning our bee suits we were given a quick briefing about getting stung, although we were reassured it would be unlikely, and with the smoker at the ready we went off to inspect our first hives brought to the farm by a local beekeeper.
By lunchtime any initial wariness around the bees had evaporated and we had learnt how to identify a queen bee, drones, workers, a brood and so much more. It was so fascinating. I had never seen inside a hive before or even got this close to so many bees and they were mesmerising.
Lunch was provided by Kather’s Kitchen. Katherine runs cookery days at Humble by Nature and provides sustenance for the other courses. It was all delicious with a ricotta and spinach filo tart, celeriac remoulade and salad followed by panna cotta served with local Wye Valley honey.
Suitably sated we returned to the bee suits and visited Kate and Ludo’s own hives, set up in an idyllic patch of woodland. With several different types of hives from a plastic Beehaus made by Omlet, the company behind the Eglu, to the more traditional, and I have to say much more attractive traditional ‘national’ and ‘topbar’ hives, Nicola and Monica were able to show us the advantages and disadvantages of the respective constructions.
It was sad to see the hives so lacking in honey, with one of the wettest springs and summers on record, bees have struggled and beekeepers across the country are having to give their colonies supplementary feed to make up for a lack of nectar and pollen.
Back in the classroom and refuelled with tea and cake we were taken through the various types of hives in a little more detail, shown how bees are so vital to food production and how there is so much we can all do to protect bee populations, even if beekeeping is not an option. It’s possible to buy from Bees for Development a bee nest box that once in position requires no maintenance; this does mean no honey harvesting but for those short on time it is a way of providing a much-needed nest site which are increasing difficult for bees to find.
To end the day we had a honey-tasting quiz, with 6 pots of different honeys we had to decide which matched a series of descriptions we had been given, using sight, smell and taste. The variation in colour and taste between different honeys always surprises me. I particularly like heather honey and as it always reminds me of the moorland of the Pennines. I have to admit I did terribly in the quiz getting only one right but I did get the chance to taste honey from Zambia and Grenada.
Monica and Nicola did a great job in packing in so much information into such a short space of time and I think we all came away feeling a bit more knowledgable about bees.
This was only my second time on a working farm; the last time was 30 years ago on a school trip. I do think it’s strange that in a country which has always been intrinsically linked with the countryside, where we eat produce from the land and spend our free time walking and cycling in a landscape sculptured by centuries of agriculture that so few of us have spent time on farms. Even when you live in a rural area, as I do, there is a division between farmers and the rest of us, which is a real shame. It goes back to my post last week on flower farming where a disconnection means it is harder to appreciate the time and effort that goes into something as fundamental as producing the food we eat.
The courses aren’t just aimed at those with land and a smallholding. One course member on the beekeeping day lived in London and was planning to put a hive on the roof of her flat. I always think the test of whether something is a great idea is when people want to return and even in the short space of time Humble By nature has been up and running they have already had repeat visits, Wellyman is planning a spot of hedge-laying and I’m eyeing up one of the foraging courses. It’s a big job that Kate and Ludo have taken on but their passion and enthusiasm is contagious. There’s a lovely, warm, relaxed atmosphere at the farm and situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB) the only sounds all day were birds, buzzing bees, baaing sheep, bleating goats and a tractor.
Kate and Ludo have generously offered a free day at Humble by Nature for a course of the winners choice. If you would like to enter the draw just subscribe and leave a comment here and say you would like to be included. The closing date will be two weeks from today on Monday 27th August at 12 noon. I’ll then put everyone’s names in a hat and choose a lucky winner. Accommodation and travelling expenses are not included but Monmouthshire is easily accessible and is a stunning part of the country, so well worth a visit.
For more information about Humble By Nature take a look at the website where you can see what other courses are on offer.
For more information on Bees for Development.
You can also follow Kather’s Kitchen by signing up to her blog to receive news and recipes.
‘Good Luck’ to everyone who enters the draw.