The town of Chagford on the north-east edge of Dartmoor is locked in by cattle grids. Despite this, every so often, the steel bars fail to prevent cows and wild ponies roaming the streets. “At a certain time of the year – when the hedgerows are bursting with nutrition – they come stomping down the hill and start munching on everything,” explains the restaurateur, Clare Lattin. “Stupidly, I planted a tree out the front and the cows had it for supper,” she says, laughing. “It is now just a skeleton.” Happily, it was not the only tree Clare had planted.
Clare moved from east London to the edge of the town two years ago. She found a house between two tors with a plot of land large enough to plant an edible forest. “This was an idea bubbling up inside me for quite a while,” she recalls. “Being in the restaurants and seeing the ingredients wasn’t enough anymore: I needed to get closer to the land. I wanted to connect with it more – to get my fingers in the soil and to understand it a little bit more.”
Together with her business partners, Rory McCoy and Tom Hill (the chef), Clare is the co-founder of Ducksoup in Soho, and Little Duck: The Picklery in Dalston. The ethos behind these intimate, domestic spaces is “simplicity and respect for nice things,” she explains. “From the ingredients we cook with, to the wines we source, to what we serve the food on – everything is from our hearts. It’s very much an extension of who we are and what we believe in.”
The success of both venues – with their commitment to simplicity and seasonality – is a testament to this clear vision. Plus, there is a looseness to the concept that is timeless in its appeal: “It’s about opening the oven door, and bringing out a tray of something delicious and letting the smell fill the room,” she explains. There are no formalities. “We don’t have a wine list,” she says. “We prefer to open up a bottle of something lovely, smell it, taste it, get excited by it – and then pour a glass.” Clare has brought this same spirit of looseness and intrigue to her Devonshire plot of land.
Her interest in permaculture began whilst still in London when she came across the work of two pioneering forest gardeners: Patrick Whitefield and Robert Hart. Further research led her to Martin Crawford’s 25-year-old, two-acre forest garden in Dartington, where she was able to study the principles of designing, planting and maintaining a forest garden.
Around the same time, she visited Knepp Wildland in west Sussex – a 3,500-acre rewilding project undertaken by Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree. “I suddenly realised that the way we grow food is completely out of tune and disruptive to what really happens in nature,” Clare recalls. “The forest garden course was totally enlightening in that respect. I learnt that you can grow food guided by nature: it doesn’t have to be so damaging for the land. It can be a self-sustaining system that produces food and a habitat for ourselves and for wildlife.”
Clare’s plot in Chagford is situated on the edge of the moor, 350 metres above sea level. Wet, windy and slightly acidic, it had previously been used to graze sheep. “I wanted to see if I could do something more productive with this area of marginal land,” she explains. With a bare 1.5 acres at the end of her garden, she began planning.
“Initially, I tried the logistical and technical approach of working out the maximum growth of each tree, the shadow and shape of it and where it needed to be positioned on the slope, but that quickly became very boring to me,” she admits. “Like anything, you can do it the most complicated way possible, or you can just feel it and see what happens. I decided to do the latter.”
The planting adheres to the principles of forest garden design. There is a tall, canopy layer of trees including birch and Italian alders. The birch are chosen for their height and lightness and their sap which can be tapped and turned into a tonic. The alders are nitrogen fixers – their role is to support the fruit trees and shrubs that grow in the mid-layer.
Apple, quince, pear, cherry, greengage, damson and sea buckthorn are just some of the fruit varieties Clare is growing. As with her restaurants, there is a looseness to the project that creates space for experiment and creativity. There are kiwi climbers in the forest as well as sumac, szechuan pepper, gingko, American persimmon, jostaberries, loganberries “and some grapes that didn’t survive.” The third layer is ground cover: sage, lemon balm and several mint varieties that have been planted to keep the grass at bay.
The diversity of the forest garden co-exists with what Clare describes as her “wild veg patch,” in which perennial and annual vegetables grow haphazardly throughout the garden. “The approach there is just to mix it all up,” explains Clare. “It’s not your usual vegetable patch with neat rows of radishes in a line. In fact, you actually have to go and hunt around the garden to find things.” Inspired by the American botanist, scientist and poet, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Clare grows perennial spinach, Turkish rocket, wild carrots and “walking onions” – edibles that enable you to take only what you need from the ground, when you need it.
The forest is still very much in its infancy (“I’ve had maybe one apple from the forest so far,” Clare admits. “I’m not joking: one apple.”), but Clare is reconciled to the fact that she won’t live to see it in its full beauty. “It is an absolute long-term vision to see if land like this can be used productively to grow food,” she explains. “If in the end, I can eat from the forest, and if it can support me and a few people, then great, but there is no overarching aim,” she continues. “I just wanted to see what could happen here. It’s an experimental project of joy.”
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Marco Kesseler.