In March I went to visit Yorkley Court Community Farm in the Forest of Dean. The farm is situated on a small strip of land on a ‘deceased estate’ and is occupied by a group of farmers. The last time I visited was on March 26, their eviction date. A group of local supporters, press and police liaison officers gathered outside the impressive watch tower they have erected at the front gates and waited patiently for the bailiffs to show up. At 11.30 two County Court bailiffs were spotted on the periphery of the land. They simply walked around and left.
After the bailiffs left, the farm quickly resorted to a ‘business as usual’ approach. Everyone calmed down and started digging in the garden. I wanted to find out about the wider story of Yorkley Court Farm.
I spoke to Frank White, the group’s spokesperson about the aims for the farm: “To talk to people about the infrastructure, the unsustainability of (industrial) farming, the fact that we can all provide for our own needs by gaining access to land.” He explained that the farmers are part of wider campaigns such as La Via Campesina, Reclaim the Fields and The Landworkers Alliance. These groups share a common belief that people can provide for themselves if they have the land, tools and information they need to farm their own food. Frank explained why The Forest of Dean is a good place in which to set up their farm:” …the local community in The Forest of Dean still has the cultural memory of things that have gone before… they understand their free common rights and access to land so through that cultural memory, we’ve been able to put across these ideas.”
The group have not only been able to provide for themselves, but have also set up a the Dean Forest Food Hub where local growers can sell their wares, made a garden for the Lydney Youth Centre and allowed a local wood co-op access to their land for storing and chopping wood.
WHO OWNS THE LAND?
The last known owners were the Colditches who owned the farm at the beginning of the 20th Century. They died leaving no heir to the farm. Since then it has been in trust, a group of solicitors have been in charge of renting out the land to tenants and trying to find the rightful owners. Two recorded attempts have been made to locate the descendants by the trustees, once in the 1960s and once in the 1990s. On both occasions the solicitors claimed that no descendants could be located.
At the start of this year, the farmers were informed that the sole remaining trustee of the estate had sold his deed to local business man, Brian Bennett. A week later the group were given a date for eviction.
The Yorkley Court farmers, aware of their precarious situation had already employed a local genealogist, Gail Stacey, to find out if she could locate any of the rightful heirs to the estate. She has found some of the descendants and as a result there will be a Land Registry tribunal later this year when it will be decided if the heirs have more rights to the land than the current owner. The Yorkley Court farmers are hoping that the descendants will allow them to stay if they win, but in the mean-time they will do everything they can to stay on the land and continue growing.
The current owner, Brian Bennett has already taken the first steps in planning to build a large solar farm on the site. The situation reminds me of the fight earlier this year at the Stapleton Allotment against The Metrobus project. Whilst is seems desirable for big business and organisations to get behind green projects, there seem to be an increase of instances where these projects go ahead at the expense of small scale local initiatives.
If the group at Yorkley Court manage to stay on the land, they are going to apply to make the farm a Community Land Trust. This means the land would be open to community use, provided its use is restricted to ecological farming .
I leave hoping that this small peaceful group will be allowed to stay, living off the land and educating others. I will leave you with Frank’s parting words to me: “I’m a veg grower and I’m going to use any means available to me to make sure that I have access to land so I can provide for myself and my community and beyond. “
The group are still currently at Yorkley Court Farm gardening and growing. Some of the estate has started to be cleared by Brian Bennett’s employees, but they are leaving the Yorkley Court Farmer’s land alone for the time being. They have however, been clearing trees and bracken in nesting season, the group have informed the police who have told the workers that they cannot cut down any trees containing nests. In the meantime, the farmers have just held a weekend action camp where they have educated others in sustainable farming.