29 March 2002

Cumbrian haven shelters a vision of rural harmony

Old farm buildings house an organic resource centre on

one Cumbrian farm, as Jeremy Hunt discovers

"FOLLOW the lonning to the end – until you come to the wind-turbine," yelled the man on the tractor as the driving rain invaded the comfort of his cab.

It seemed strange to hear "lonning" – the colloquialism for "lane" in this remote corner of north Cumbria – in the same breath as something so redolent of modernity as a wind-turbine.

But it served as a stark reminder that while our destination was an organic resource centre it did not mean we were heading into a time-warp.

This place is about living and working in harmony with the environment – and if it takes building a whirring, stainless-steel wind-turbine alongside a shed full of Galloway cows munching on organically grown meadow hay – then so be it.

Ruth and John Downham are the gurus here. Some might say that anyone who discovered such a haven could not be blamed for keeping the secret all to themselves. But the Downhams have done exactly the opposite.

&#42 Two farms

There are two farms here – Low Luckens and the adjoining Whiteholme. And it is at Low Luckens, hidden almost a mile from the road close to Roweltown, that the Downhams have created the Low Luckens Resource Centre.

The two farms – run as one unit – extend to 90ha (225 acres) amidst a rich range of wildlife habitats. There are distant views to the bleak but beautiful Bewcastle Fells and the north Pennines, but the immediate surroundings treat the visitor to vistas of ancient woodland, upland meadows and the ever present sound of the confluence of the nearby rivers of the Black Lyne and the White Lyne.

"We set up the organic resource centre at Low Luckens as a non-profit making organisation," says Ruth Downham as she prepares a bag of organically-reared meat for a customer who has travelled over 70 miles to collect it.

"Our aim is sustainability in farming, organically produced food, countryside conservation, waste management, renewable energy and water use," she adds.

The centres mission is to provide a link between people and the food they eat and the wildlife and environment that are an integral part of the whole process of sustainable farming.

Stewardship Schemes are underway on both farms including hedgerow restoration and the management of hay meadows for wildlife. The area of ancient woodland is an SSSI and contains a wide variety of mosses and lichens.

"Weve recorded over 200 species of wild flowers and the place teams with wildlife. The curlews nest in the upland meadows in the spring and as well as a badger sett we have a healthy population of red squirrels and there are otters on the river," says Ruth.

&#42 Heart of centre

The heart of the organic resource centre has been created from a range of stone farm buildings and comprises a large visitor room furnished with easy chairs cosily arranged around a wood-burning stove and with a modern kitchen area.

The walls are alive with colourful pictures, posters and information on organic farming and the environment.

There are books to inspire the novice, tomes to cultivate the mind of the expert and picture-books to fascinate even the smallest child.

The centre welcomes visitors and groups for day or residential visits – upstairs there are two self-catering family rooms providing overnight accommodation.

Visitors can also become "friends of the centre" for an annual membership fee (£10 for adults, £5 for children and £15 for families) which entitles them to newsletters and encourages involvement in various projects.

The centre was gearing up to open last spring but was hit by the foot-and-mouth crisis. The couples sheep flock was taken in a two mile cull but they managed to retain their herd of Galloway cattle and Blue-grey suckler cows.

Visitors can share information on topics ranging from organic farming to water use and from conservation work to waste management.

And even though the centre is situated on a working farm which produces its own organically-reared meat, the Downhams encourage individuals and groups to come along and experience "hands-on" farm and conservation work.

"Visitors can also come here simply to savour the beauty of the place and can either follow the woodland and riverside paths or arrange to have a guided walk. We provide information packs including activity programmes for school parties," says Ruth.

But there is another crisis looming over this commendable venture. The Downhams urgently need to appoint a farm manager to help run the farms; they may even consider letting Whiteholme.

"If there is anyone out there who shares our vision and our commitment we would be delighted to hear from them," says Ruth.

Inquiries: 01697-748331, www.lowluckensfarm.co.uk

A grand plan… Ruth points out features of interest.