Netplants UK: a Week to Remember

By February 8, 2016 Features No Comments

In January it was the turn of Superact to host our European partners from the Erasmus+ project, Netplants. Aiming to reconnect disadvantaged people with the environment at its source, Netplants visits involve a week of learning and sharing of local ways of gardening, cooking, foraging and natural crafts with delegates and their trainees from organisations in Romania, Spain, Northern and Southern France and Ireland. Here the Superact team share their experience of the week:

Netplants group in St Werburghs, Bristol

Netplants group in St Werburghs, Bristol

Netplants has been my baby ever since that fateful day, almost a year ago, when I was introduced to the project. Before my days with Superact I was a Practical Sustainability student, learning all things local, sustainable and ecologically-sound with the mighty Shift Bristol. The year of study changed my view of the world, my attitude to life and my intentions for the future.
Of course, that was a few years ago now and, as is the nature of human beings, the importance of what I had learnt slipped to the back of my mind as new priorities emerged (arts, wellbeing and Superact, for one) and old habits resurfaced… some of that fierce passion and enthusiasm for living in harmony with nature fell by the wayside… and the reasoning which had fired my desire to devote myself to the environment faded with time – although it was never wholly lost or forgotten.
The Netplants week has reawakened that desire. We lived together on a beautiful, blustery farm in Somerset, surviving temperatures of -9 and the wet & wild of the Mendip hills; bonded over crafty activities in the cosy barn without distraction from the outside world; cooked and ate hearty meals together; saw sunrises, shared stories, learnt new skills and sang together. All with that connection to the environment and local surroundings at the core.

My learning from the week was immense. Organising a residential week for delegates from four different countries wasn’t an easy task but the sense of achievement was enormous. The Superact team pulled together to deliver and was aided beyond measure by the cooperation, enthusiasm and downright loveliness of the European partners. Our workshops in willow weaving, building keyhole gardens and foraging taught us all new skills. One of the biggest lessons I have taken away is that it is possible to find edible wild plants in January, in urban Bristol, under 3 inches of frost!

That’s Netplants for me – discovering that anything is possible, challenges can be overcome and where there’s a will there is always a way. Particularly if we take a moment to look around us and see how we can work with what we’ve got – whether that’s people or nature. We should be one big team. A comment I will always remember, from our end-of-week celebratory feast where Romanian, English, Sudanese, Irish, French and Spanish sat together in a warm candle-lit glow: “We are one country of many cultures”. We are one planet of many people; and one nature of many landscapes.

Ursula Billington, Project Manager

There was almost a feeling of dread in the run up to us, Superact, hosting the UK leg of the Netplants project. “What if it’s freezing?”, “What about bedding??” – to hold an EU mobility about Wild Food, Cooking With No Means and Foraging in the middle of January on the Mendip Hills seemed c-r-a-z-y.
The week was crazy. Crazy in a ‘we-will-all-remember-this-week-for-a-really-long-time’ kind of way. We did have issues with the bedding. It was freezing in the first half of the week. Heck it was -8C one night; the men were sleeping outside in pods!

My involvement with Netplants is not direct. I helped with facilitating, story-sharing, bits of washing up and minibus driving. My perspective, therefore, was as witness to it all. I saw first-timers to the UK, the first time outside of their own countries, have the time of their lives. Netplants is for disadvantaged unemployed people. I witnessed these people come out of their shells, live a little, live a lot! Share in learning and cooking and living together. The Netplants week warmed my heart, that people from many different countries can come together as virtual strangers, experience the best of each other and leave as good friends. People also felt (in the main!) that being away from WIFI in the day with little phone reception was good for the soul. It matched the Netplants ethos with the old ethos of Make Do and Mend.

I slept all afternoon on the Saturday upon my return.

Stu Packer, Storyteller

I am always in awe and so proud of the Superact team. They always go that extra mile. Nothing is too much trouble, as was commented on – ‘your team always smiles!’ This project was a little different to others though. I really felt that the whole team believed in the Netplants Ethos. They spent the week demonstrating this from breakfast until bedtime.

‘I’ll sort the food’ I said! ….so how much food do I buy? How much will everyone eat, how many vegetarians, which meats, who’s gluten free, all these questions and more arising in the run-up. Prepare as much as possible I felt was the best tactic – so we pulled together a menu that celebrated the best of the West Country, but on a budget. Cider, apples, sausage rolls, pasties, seasonal root veg……
With 45 litres of veg soup, 19 loaves of bread and a car full of provisions I made my way to the Mendips. What a great group of partners, some with incredible experience in the kitchen too. On the whole everyone helped and soon the meals became a creation by a team rather than by one person, which was fabulous.  My only regret was contracting a nasty chest infection which meant I had to leave the party halfway through. From the pictures the final celebratory 5-course feast looked truly amazing!

Ali Smith, CEO

Wowee. That seems to be the only way I can express Superact’s Netplants UK week.

It was all I expected and more! Naturally the stress and responsibility of hosting had us running around like headless chicken before and during the week, surviving late-night meetings only with the help of copious amounts of snacks, worrying about sleeping arrangements, panicking about gardening and foraging in January in England (!),  and oh so many more worries. But we needn’t have!
What happened during our Netplants UK week was inspirational. How 6 different partners, 6 nationalities, 4 languages and 28 total strangers could achieve what they did in a week is amazing. I had already been on the Anges Gardins workshop week in Calais in September and experienced the magic that the week holds but I was just reminded again of its beauty!

It is a true pleasure to experience these weeks. It is an entirely refreshing week of hands-on learning and cultural exchanges of ideas, languages, knowledge and friendship! And to me the best bit of it all is sharing the moments when, be it a learner or a trainer, suddenly they realise they can do it. They can make a willow basket. They can communicate with someone from another country. They can be involved. The moment they realise they are welcomed, they are equal and they are able.

Matilda Kay, Project Assistant

How on earth do I capture the essence, exuberance and well, quite frankly, success of our Netplants meeting?  There’s one truly amazing, fulfilling and sleep-depriving week that I so want to tell you about, but where to begin?  Got it! Check out a few photos, recount experiences, write a paragraph, sorted – job done!  Except… I went to our facebook page, and there before me stretched hundreds of photographs recording incredible heart-lifting, soul-filling moments.  I’m so proud to be there amongst this amazing group of delegates, teaching and participating in the most fantastic workshops, living the Netplants ethos, celebrating our land and creating an amazing community.

As lead trainer for Superact I’ll focus on the workshops: offering a snapshot of brilliant learning curves, enthusiasm, knowledge and wisdom that I witnessed and received during the week.
My biggest grin comes from recalling the ever-increasing volume of cheers as each delegate completed their willow frame foraging basket in my Natural Art workshop.  It was elation at each of them succeeding at something that at the beginning they didn’t think they could.  I never not believed.  I wanted to offer an aspirational workshop that levelled us all and as we wove our baskets, we each built and wove our confidence and individual achievements together.  Language barriers, weaving in a space that doubled as the ladies’ dormitory and even broken fingers were overcome!  The palpable determination from each delegate made me feel so proud.  Oh, and did I mention that no one had ever woven willow before?!  During our fond farewells I couldn’t help but smile because I knew that in every suitcase or backpack was a willow basket ready to travel hundreds of miles back to a home somewhere in Europe.  So this ancient craft form that I so love, uniquely created, grown and harvested on the Somerset Levels wove it’s Netplants way.  For me it’s an honour to help create this connection. Time and time again, throughout the workshops, sparks flew!  Sparks of inspiration, dare I say it, even enlightenment, that showed me a connected hope for our future.

During the brilliant Keyhole and Bag Gardening workshop, run by Sally Hunter of Project Beanstalk, I had a jaw-dropping moment when I realised how many of the delegates had never planted before.  For me and my young family it’s ‘second nature’: for them it was first. We toiled over the heavily frozen ground to pick up stones, shovelled frosted molehill soil, all intently focused on creating our bag gardens.  And once made, we paused, looking around the polytunnel to see what plants would have the tenacity to grow in January. So let’s transplant, let’s create with them!  I learnt how to find materials from round our feet (literally!) and within our surroundings, the farm’s own sheep fleece being a brilliant source of nutrients and protection for plants.  We learnt the adaptability of the Keyhole Garden, that it can be made out of our local environment and sown, fed, harvested and adapted to all types of locality worldwide.  This Spring it’s my intention that with my family I will add one more Keyhole garden to grow in harmony with this planet.  And then there’s my new intention to gorilla Keyhole garden every allotment site I see…

The Bristol workshops provided a brilliant contrast as well as an amazing continuity and future-inspiring experience for me.  One minute I was in early morning frozen ‘back-of-beyond’ lanes driving over the stunning icy Mendips and the next I had landed in a sprawling urban jungle.  On a street corner we met wild food expert Dave Hamilton who guided us from flowerbed to footpath to hedgerow to grassy mound and back again.   Dave’s a gentle harmonious-with-nature soul who carefully chose which edible plants and trees to tell us about, both hedgerow and ornamental.  He did it brilliantly.  After clearly identifying each foraged plant and its basic uses, he would offer a recipe or a story.  Once gleaned, he then offered for me the magic of this workshop: one further tip that not one of us (even the likes of me who has read every foraging book going) knew. He could only offer these nuggets because of his extensive practical knowledge and deep love of our land.  I believe that our growing future, heck our survival depends on us recognising, increasing and being nourished by our edible landscapes.  Whether it be a rural field, suburban flowerbed or by an inner city train line, Dave demonstrated that we need to regain our instinct for knowing what to eat and where to find it.
And that’s it! That’s what made this workshop,  and every workshop so good.  Our local experts were practically grown from their environments, passionate about their subject matter and all ‘walked their walk’ with nature.  The Netplants ethos was already in each of their souls and everyone of us had the honour of connecting to this.

Interwoven with these amazing workshops, encompassing and embracing this week was the Superact team. Within the organising, logistics and practicalities that it takes to create and hold together such a fantastic week, were members of Superact whose individual qualities shone and who collectively made the sun shine for all involved.  A highlight of the week for me was our feast night.  The food (prepared of course in our cookery workshop!) was delicious, the live music wonderful, the laughter infectious!  But what touched me most was observing how we all sat around one huge table, a group of people who 5 days before were strangers, and here now, because of our workshops and the amazing way Superact weaves its magic, were all connected.  We had created community.  Our Netplants project has, and will continue to, create a feast of nations.

Sarah Le Breton, Willow Weaver

To watch our latest Neplants film about Superact’s week hosting our European partners click here.

For more information on Netplants visit netplants.eu, facebook.com/NetplantsUK or email ursula@superact.org.uk

Netplants Group at Glastonbury Abbey

Netplants Group at Glastonbury Abbey