Vega Brennan & Sue Allan

With farmer, William Little, BEM

Vega and Sue chose Watchtree for their ‘Artful Way’ because it is a place of significance for so many people: a memorial to war and to peace, to recovery from disaster and hope for the future. William Little’s role in Watchtree’s transformation and his generosity with his time and his stories cannot be overstated. Through our walk, and through him, we have connected with the landscape and history of this special place.

Vega and her family live in the house where William Little was born. His family lived and farmed in the area for generations and he is now a good neighbour, with a wealth of stories to tell about the area and its history arising from his intense connection to the land, so deep in years and knowledge. Interestingly, William now believes farming needs to change, and revert to some of the old ways, with smaller mixed farms and more concern and care for hedgerows and countryside as well as stock and crops.

“Thursday 15 July dawned warm and fair: a good morning to explore the paths of Watchtree Nature Reserve at Great Orton, seven miles west of Carlisle. Here, printmaker Vega Brennan and writer Sue Allan met up with William Little BEM, the ‘retired’ Cumbrian farmer largely responsible for the creation of the reserve.

Watchtree’s history as an agricultural area dates back to the Bronze Age and at the time of the Border reivers, it was the place local farmers kept a lookout for raiding Scots from across the Solway Firth. In 1941, Watchtree Farm was requisitioned under wartime emergency powers to become first a World War II airfield and then a munitions storage facility, the site was eventually returned to farming in 1964, and with the erection of three turbines in 1999 was also part of Great Orton wind farm.

It was the devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Cumbria in 2001 which brought Watchtree to national attention, when the land was again requisitioned – this time by DEFRA – to become the burial site for half a million of the livestock which were killed. It was a traumatic time for farmers and rural communities. Cumbria had the largest number of confirmed cases in the country, with almost 2,000 farms suffering culls, 70% of them in the north of the county.

William Little’s reaction to foot and mouth – and that of almost all farmers – was intense, emotional and visceral. Yet over subsequent years he was able to recover something positive from the experience, instrumental in transforming the old airfield burial site into a nature reserve. In so doing, he has left an important legacy in the landscape – flora and fauna, woods and wetlands – and for the community, with people of all ages and abilities coming to Watchtree to enjoy nature and the outdoors via accessible walks, cycle ways and educational activities. In William’s own words: “A lot of people say to me, ‘How is it that you, being a farmer and a countryman that loves everything that lives and grows in the countryside, how is it that you can come and work up here in a place of death?’ My answer is that it is not a place of death, it’s a place of new life.” 

Vega: Ephemera such as postcards are perfect for capturing William’s voice and sharing stories about his relationship with the land and Watchtree Nature Reserve.

I love the portability of postcards – you can send them to friends, use them as bookmarks, put them on the mantlepiece. I typeset the text using vintage lead type for the words and an old printing press called an Adana Eight-Five. The images are original linocuts, carved in my studio. The card is cut from offcuts from the middle of mounts from a friendly picture framer. Sustainability, craftswomanship and generosity are all essential elements of my artistic practice and I share these values with the people who come and learn how to print in my studio.

Sue: I transcribed William’s testimony over the course of our walk, and it prompted a poem:

Listen to William Little here:

Answering the three Artful questions

Creativity .. The ability to use our gifts and the things around us to make new things, new connections, new ideas.

What we’ve missed, what new possibilities have opened upNew possibilities to work in different ways, both digitally and in practical real-life ways. Making new connections in every sense of the word.

How can we artfully & collectively care for the natural world? Learn more about the local, the near-at-hand, the pleasure in the small things – grasses, wild flowers, butterflies. We need to learn from the old, who have lived their lives adapting to new ways of using the land, and sometimes going back to the old ways, and we need to educate the young about the natural world and let them explore both wild and sensitively managed places.

Printing press in action
Sue Allan with William Little

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