Preserving our green and pleasant land

AS EACH year passes Barry Davison becomes increasingly aware of his role as “custodian” of a beautiful landscape. A former engineer, he shares his energy between running a building and restoration company and caring for a 40-acre idyll which could well have been walked and included in sketches by the painter John Constable.

Barry, 61, the son of “Geordie” parents, moved to Dedham 23 years ago from Colchester. He bought Monk’s Farmhouse, at that time separated from its former farmland.

He was eventually able to buy back the land, former pasture which had in recent decades been used for arable crops, including thatching straw, and even earlier a commercial orchard which had surrounded the house.

The remnants of that orchard can still be seen on a parcel of land bought by his neighbour – rows of old apple trees hung with mistletoe. During the past two decades Barry has converted his 40-acres back to grassland and has created two woodlands, two lakes and planted about 1,000 metres of hedge, 400 metres of which were planted this week with the help of volunteers from the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley Countryside Project.

“We are only custodians of the land. It is always better to leave it in better shape than when you bought it,” said Barry who has a wife, Louise, and two step-children, Sarah and Richard, and two grand-children, Isobel and Joseph.

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Richard runs a company called Greenwood Creations and has used some of the timber from Monks Farm to make beautiful furniture.

A copse was planted about 15 years ago but last year a project involving the Woodland Trust resulted in 4,200 native deciduous trees being planted in an area of more than three acres.

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A public footpath runs through the middle of Barry’s land, beside the Black Brook, a stream which eventually runs into the River Stour. The path often flooded and Barry negotiated a deal with the local authorities and regulators that in exchange for permission to excavate two adjoining lakes he would raise the level of the walking route and provide it with a good surface. It is a route enjoyed by ramblers who will soon also have the opportunity to wander over a wide strip of land bordering the footpath.

“It is an area I am intending to leave unmanaged to see what comes up in the way of plants and I’m sure people will enjoy walking through it,” Barry said.

The farm and its 18th century Queen Anne house may have been given its name by a descendent of an officer in the American Civil War called Colonel Monk rather than, as believed by some locals, as a result of the presence of any nearby monastery.

Restoration of the pastoral landscape and getting it grazed by sheep has also meant the erection of long stretches of fencing; “rabbit-proof” fencing has also been erected in some areas but the creatures continue to cause havoc.

“Rabbits are an absolute nightmare. We’ve got about a mile of rabbit fencing but they still get in,” Barry said.

He has mixed feelings about the reversion to grassland – in keeping with the area’s pastoral history. “Part of me likes the arable landscape because the land is like an ever-changing tapestry through the seasons.

“When you are growing things it is a living landscape – it always looks different. With grassland it looks the same throughout the year,” he said. “But I’m not a farmer and to start getting involved with growing cereals and getting subsidies and everything else is not what I want to do at my age,” he added. The grassland is grazed by a flock of up to 200 mixed-species sheep in the care of freelance shepherd, Gordon Davis Morris from Capel St Mary.

Barry’s company, Saxon Properties, has been responsible for the restoration of a number of listed buildings in the centre of Colchester and in outlying areas.

He still helps out with practical work although, as the result of suffering a series of minor strokes and undergoing a major operation, he has to take things more gently these days. “It was a bit of a shocker. You think you are cracking on with life and everything is fine and suddenly you end up in a life-threatening situation,” Barry said.

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