• Graham Harvey

Enchanted Ambridge

Updated: Jan 5

The Archers’ version of Britain’s medieval mystery plays turned out to be strangely moving. To be honest I hadn’t expected very much. I’d worked on the show long enough to know what Lynda Snell’s Christmas productions were like. In storyline terms this one followed pretty much the usual pattern – a few grumbles, a crisis or two, then hey presto! All’s well on the night. Only this time I was in for a surprise.

Unlike most Archers Christmas shows, this one was to have a life outside its regular time slots. In the 15th and 16th centuries mystery plays were performed in city streets, giving ordinary citizens the chance to act out the Nativity and Passion of Christ. In the Archers storyline the Ambridge mysteries were performed in much the same way, with familiar characters staging scenes in the show’s fictional locations – Brookfield Farm, Brookfield Barn, Lakey Hill and the village green.

However, the BBC recorded the plays as if this were a real event, giving them two, one-hour time slots in the afternoon schedules, on Boxing Day and again the following Sunday. Along with the usual sound effects of radio drama, what listeners were hearing were some of their favourite Archers characters playing amateur actors in a make-believe promenade performance around a non-existent village.

Given the multiple layers of artifice, the two one-off dramas were surprisingly engaging. You really got an impression of ordinary citizens playing out a timeless drama that was close to their hearts. Not for a moment did I doubt their honesty and sincerity. This was in part because we were listening to seasoned radio actors at work. At the same time they were surely influenced by the nature and language of the scripts, based as they were on medieval texts.

Told in these ordinary and, to Archers fans, familiar voices, these stories we know so well came over with a new freshness and veracity. It’s as if we were re-imagining them and making them part of our own reality. Quite a rare experience in modern drama. As audiences we’re all a little too cynical to accept things at face value.

At the time of the original mystery plays the earth was, for most people, a place of enchantment. Everything had been touched by the hand of the Creator. Everything, from rocks to trees and plants, carried something of the divine. As poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, the world was ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. It meant all citizens were under an obligation to care for it.

In our present age of scientific capitalism we accept no such responsibility. The things that are wheeled out to enchant us today are more likely to be the work of large corporations whose sole intent is to dis-enchant us with the natural world. In the countryside these new objects of desire include smart machines, super-charged chemicals, robots, artificial intelligence, GMOs and big data. These, not angels in the sky, are what seem to promise a future of wealth and abundance. But it’s a false promise.

None of these revered objects will deliver healthy foods or a biodiverse countryside. Quite the opposite. Across the world our so-called ‘high-input’ methods are degrading soils, destroying wild species, polluting air and waterways and deepening the climate crisis. They make food production reliant on nitrate fertilisers (really the fossil-fuel industry). And nitrate fertilisers are killing our greatest gift -the power of nature.

Whatever the corporate PR executives tell us, the growing of our food remains an area of mystery. Our understanding of the life of soils – on which our very survival depends – remains paltry. The little we do know is merely the tip of a very large iceberg.

It’s why the leading agricultural scientist of the 20th century – Professor Sir George Stapledon – became very disillusioned with his chosen profession. He was horrified at the narrow specialisation of his fellow scientists when so little was known of the workings of the natural world. It was hubris that was likely to end in catastrophe, he warned. As our fields fall silent from a dearth of insects – and climate storms grow ever wilder – who would now bet against him?

The Ambridge Mysteries are a reminder that we’re not masters of our destiny. When the fertiliser companies told policy-makers that crops grown in monoculture were an efficient way to produce food, they were either mistaken or they lied. When biotech corporations claim they can improve on evolution, they’re lying too. Ecological farming methods are our only means of growing the nutrient-dense foods we need while maintaining a healthy and biodiverse countryside.

At the time The Archers began back in 1950 most farmers understood this. They practised a traditional system of food production based on crop rotations, fertility-building legumes such as beans and clover, and a balance of food crops and grazing animals. It was a sustainable system capable of maintaining soil fertility indefinitely without the need for chemical fertilisers or pesticides. It also stored large amounts of soil carbon, helping to regulate the climate.

When the post-war government – backed by the fertiliser industry – moved to break up the system and promote large-scale, mechanised farming in Britain many small farmers objected. Among them was farmer and author George Henderson, whose book about his small, Cotswold farm had been a wartime best-seller. By rejecting farm chemicals and using traditional methods, he was able to grow more food per acre than almost every farm in the country, big or small. He also made a good deal of money!

Like many farmers he decided to stick with methods proven to work over centuries. They were dismissed as ‘backward and unscientific’ by economists, government advisers and a powerful lobby of large farmers. This was far from the truth. Farmers simply accepted that science had few answers to help them in their day-to-day work. A mystery still lay at the heart of what they did. Their tried and tested traditional methods seemed a safer option than the novel chemicals pouring from the fertiliser factories. History has shown they were right.

After more than half a century of damaging industrialisation, a growing number of farmers are heading back to reality. They recognise that trying to exclude nature and turn the land into a factory has been an environmental and social catastrophe. They’re now dusting off the old books – including George Henderson’s The Farming Ladder – and relearning the techniques of sustainable farming, well known until the 1950s.

The new/old methods come under a number of titles – agroecology, nature-friendly, traditional mixed farming. To me the most interesting is ‘regenerative’. This is farming that will regenerate the soil, regenerate landscapes, regenerate communities and regenerate our planet. The idea of re-wilding has captivated us all but it can only apply to a small percentage of our countryside. Regenerative farming would ‘rewild’ our entire countryside and bring nature surging back everywhere. Plus we’d enjoy healthier eating. Paradise remade.

Our farmland can deliver all the nutrient-rich foods we need from a countryside of beauty and diversity, but only when we break the stranglehold of fossil fuel and technology on agriculture. Making this change will take a little magic. We need to be re-enchanted with the amazing gifts of the natural world, the life of the soil in particular. Maybe that sense of wonder can start with The Archers?


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