This Is What It's Like to Farm Under Police Surveillance

In 2012, Forest of Dean eco-activists turned a 180-acre plot of land with no official owner since the 1800s into a self-reliant community farm. The land has now been sold to a local businessman, and residents are being forced to leave.

by Michael Segalov
Apr 1 2015, 10:02am

"The pattern of land ownership is complex, but in the UK today, it's all owned by someone. It's enclosed," Frank White tells me as I'm helped over a series of fences and chains, past a 25-foot watchtower that wouldn't look out of place on the Game of Thrones set. "You can't just walk onto land if nobody is using it and grow produce, graze cattle, or collect firewood. Someone will own it." White is right, of course, except that's exactly what he—and around forty other people—have done, right in the heart of the Forest of Dean.

Yorkley Court Community Farm was established in the Gloucestershire woodland back in June 2012 when a group of environmental activists arrived at the site. At the time, the land was sitting empty and "there was increasingly an air of neglect," according to a book documenting the farm by locals and residents.

The story is tricky, but the 86-page document also recounts a web of freemasonry, lost descendants and allegedly dodgy solicitors—or as they put it, "the perpetual battle between the powerful and the oppressed." It's all a bit illuminati.

Yorkley-Court-field

The owners of the land died in the late 1800s, leaving no clear heir to the estate. Attempts to find the rightful owners were made in the 1960s, but they failed. Today, the solicitor trustees have sold the land to a local (and from speaking to villagers, a pretty unpopular) businessman called Brian Bennett. The residents at Yorkley Court say the solicitor has no claim to the place. The courts, however, see it differently, and have granted possession to Bennett. And he wants them out.

Today, the 180-acre site is under siege from police and bailiffs ready to carry out the eviction, with Yorkley Court residents retreating into just 40 acres, where they've constructed their own barricades. The farmhouse they once occupied sits derelict: court papers are nailed to the door and much of the land is left.

I'm shown around what remains. Known as "The Bottom Strip," it's a narrow valley with a path running through the centre. As we walk along the track, we see allotments and greenhouses, as well as wooden structures that have become homes to the residents of Yorkley Court. Some are painted trippy colours and suspended in the air; others fit naturally into the landscape.

Yorkley-Court-houses

Yorkley Court's raison d'être hasn't altered since 2012, when the activists saw it as an opportunity to "come together and address issues such as sustainability, food sovereignty, re-localisation, and biodiversity through food." Since then, they have worked the land to build a community farm on a plot that would have lain empty.

This isn't the first time things have kicked off in the Forest of Dean. Nearly 400 years ago, 500 people marched through the Forest, fighting for what historian Robert Muchembled describes in A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present as "the restoration of free access to areas that were enclosed and forbidden to them."

Yorkley-Court-aura

The parallels with Yorkley Court are pretty obvious. The last five years have seen a number of government attempts to sell off the public forest estate. In 2012, the coalition was forced into a U-turn on the issue, and last year, the Infrastructure Bill was amended to protect forests after pressure from Forest of Dean residents. "Fuck all has changed" is a phrase I repeatedly hear around the farm.

"People in the forest have this history of fighting enclosures, commoning their sheep, and other activities," says White, who has been at Yorkley Court since it started, and acts as a kind of spokesperson. "We're part of a movement that is fighting for the right to self determination."

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Yorkley-Court-Frank-White Yorkley Court Community Farm spokesperson, Frank White

The farm also takes inspiration from the philosophy of Reclaim The Fields, a network of European activists set on addressing "the issues of access to land, collective farming, seed rights and seed exchange."

"It ultimately means we want to take back the food system," explains White. "We use direct action to confront patterns of land ownership, ways of living and producing food that aren't working."

White, who has completed an apprenticeship in organic farming since helping to establish Yorkley Court, leads me through the main fields to a natural spring, where the site's water is collected.

"All the farmers here use biodynamics—a method of organic farming developed in the 1920s that favours a holistic understanding of agricultural processes," White says. "We use no chemicals, and the only machines we've used are strimmers to cut back the overgrown brambles."

Yorkley Court's passion for sustainability extends beyond growing techniques. The site is off-grid, with power coming from solar panels, fuel from woodland on site, and water collected from the valley.

"There is no doubt the community here has developed into something special," White tells me, as we sit in one of the farm's remaining allotments. "Locals were convinced the land was contaminated, full of waste and chemicals from the mining days." Two years and nine months on, the fruits (and vegetables) of their labour are evident.

Yorkley-Court-land

With police choppers circling the air above Yorkley Court in recent weeks, some residents busied themselves running classes and fortifying the perimeter, while others continued to work the land.

"We try to eat seasonally, as what comes up is what we can eat," explains White, who is also a member of small producers union, the Land Workers Alliance. "At the moment, we are eating a lot of leeks, parsnips, turnips, and swedes. Also wild food, like nettles, and sorrel."

With the threat of the bailiffs, much of the farm's livestock and plants have been sent to other projects around the UK for safety, and the ground prepared for another season. One of Yorkley Court's residents, Ash, also stresses the importance of carrying on as normal.

Yorkley-Court-flags

"Sowing seeds is an act of hope, and very empowering," he says. "It's a powerful thing to keep going and work the land. If we gave up, then there would be nothing here to defend."

He has a point. When the farm was established, the activists had no way of knowing how long their community would be allowed to continue. Nevertheless, they planted their seeds and built their homes.

Inside the bustling communal kitchen—housed within the smaller of two converted hangars on site—a bell rings and dinner is served. Freshly baked bread is carried in on steaming metal racks from the clay oven in the hangar next door and I'm offered a plate of roasted veg by Lynne, who has lived on site from the start.

Yorkley-Court-bread

Yorkley-Court-Stella Stella, who lives close to Yorkley Court Community Farm.

"The land has not produced all our food, but we have integrated with the wider community—going out to work in exchange for food," she says. "Food connects you with the land, but also with the people around us."

Yorkley Court's vision is to be self-reliant, a variation on the self-sufficient idyl that I had anticipated. Self-reliance means that the residents could survive on what they produce, but actively open up their resources to allow a wider network of people to be part of what they do. Farming workshops and family open-days are held on the site, and crop is shared between visitors and guests.

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Yorkley-Court-Ash Yorkley Court Community Farm resident, Ash, standing outside his cabin.

"This allows us to work closely with the community around us", White explains, as we head through the mist to the watchtower, where the locals were starting to assemble for this countryside fight club. Being the morning of an expected eviction, the local press had appeared at the gates, as too had Stella, who lives just up the road.

"I think if you made a very small model of the globe, you'd see the insanity of just a few people owning so much of it," she exclaims. "These people here are living a life that aims to counteract this—it's the future, they're visionaries."

Paul, who lives in a neighbouring village, had also come to the site with his partner to show his support.

"I think what you have here is a piece of land that has been contested, and a developer that has been able to move in and manipulate the system," he suggests, standing next to a homemade banner that demands: "No Land Grabs at Yorkley Court." "They've put a lot of work into returning the land to fruitful and sustainable use and they've been let down. It's a disgrace."

Paul and his partner protesting against the eviction of Yorkley Court Community Farm residents.

As I walk around the site and say my goodbyes, despite the efforts of Paul and his banner, the mood is pretty grim.

"My home has become a protest site, and that's shit. The place I live in is about to be destroyed," reflects Ash, as he shows me around his cabin, complete with a wood-burning stove. "Many protest sites see people parachute in for a purpose, the land isn't quite so important. We have a connection to the land, one which is shared with the community. We're taking unused land and living off grid. We're not anti-this, or anti-that, we're creating a new form of society, one that is healthy, one that can survive."

Back at the gates, Stella is standing her ground, ready to fend off any bailiffs from the front. "These people have turned barren and empty scrubland into a fruitful community, she says. "I'm going to do my best to stop it getting destroyed." Fighting talk from the pensioner.

I'd arrived with expectations of a local community unlikely to be fond of their squatter neighbours. Outsiders are often alienated from these kind of alternative, eco-lifestyles, and small town newspapers have a habit of confusing activists' missions for unsavoury practices.

Yorkley-Court-beat

But Yorkley Court is different. I don't know if it's the history of the area, something in the spring water that feeds defiance, or just that there's shit all else to do in the middle of the Forest of Dean (we couldn't find any pubs open after 9:30 PM), but everyone I spoke to in the area thought the community farm was worth fighting for.

Just as I'm about to leave, a couple of bailiffs and three local coppers turn up, but quickly leave after clocking the barriers and protesters. Yorkley Court lives on, for now.