Balance is everything for Jan Wilkinson

Jan’s newly planted 50 acre willow crop is next to the river Cocker. Downstream is Cockermouth. “We have enjoyed partnering with Iggesund and together have formed a bottoms up working group with: The Farmers Network, West Cumbria Rivers Trust, Rothamstead Research, Rickerbys, LDNP and local farmers. The aim is to contribute to slowing the flow and protecting the land for flood resilience”.

From the Honister slate mine’s industrial production, combined with tourism to her new venture with willow crop in a flood plain beside the River Cocker…. balance is the key!

JAN WILKINSON co owner of Honister Slate Mine, which is the only working slate mine in England. If you’re at the top of the London Eye along the Thames in London, you’ll see their prized green slate on Buckingham Palace and rooftops all around it. Any roofing slate shingle could be over 300 years old or new, because Honister’s technique’s for working slate hasn’t changed much over its long history.

What has changed completely is the combining of industrial production with tourism, as over 80,000 adventure seeking visitors tour the mine, and Via Ferrata, a rock climbing creation. Says Jan, “my life partner Mark Weir’s vision for adventure seekers was to experience mountain climbing, but with the safety of a continuous cable, iron rungs and supports. Imagine yourself scaling the outer incline of Fleetwith Pike, and soaring like an eagle on your way to the summit. That’s how Mark looked at life.”

Fifteen years after reopening the mothballed mine, Jan and Mark truly hit their stride. That’s when Mark lost his life in a helicopter crash just beside the mine. Since that tragic evening in 2011, Jan faced the enormous challenge of finding other ways to regain balance in her life. With the help of their 3 children, family and close friends, life is different, but with many positive dimensions. “We continue an important heritage at Honister, and keep doing entirely new things. A new generation of skilled workers bring slate out of these mountains, traditionally prized for roofing, also now for flooring, garden aggregate and decorative novelties. Honister also yields confidence and pride for thrill seekers, who scale the mountain, and find something undiscovered within themselves.

Youngsters often lead their parents through risk in the best of ways.” “Life must have balance. You must evolve to be strong,” says Jan. And as she speaks, you feel that Mark is just beside her—not just in the photos in her office.

COCKER RIVER FLOODPLAIN GAINS Jan has sought many ways to fill her life with new possibilities. She converted part of their farm into lodging for holiday seekers. Recently, she decided to plant willow on her property beside the river Cocker, even though it has been prone to flooding for years. “I learned about willow as an income crop, and wondered, could I plant on a flood plain, and still achieve success? Flooding routed the land and took the lives of many sheep back in December. Something had to change.” Consulting with Neil Watkins at Iggesund, she grew confident about a dual or triple purpose for this site. She also decided to learn more from the Rivers Trust and local farmers, deeply involved in sustainability for the region, and best practices for environmental solutions for the land. After a thorough investigation and review, support for Jan’s willow project became wide and deep. Says Vikki Salas of the West Cumbria Rivers Trust, “We need safe havens for wildlife, and natural solutions for flood abatement. We also need to maximize productivity of farmland whilst ensuring water quality isn’t adversely affected. Jan’s willow plantation will deliver just that.”

Adds Will Rawlings, Herdwick sheep herder and Chairman of the Famers Network, “Our nature around here is to grow things, and enjoy the landscape. Willow can be a good fit for farmers. Most of my income comes from lamb, but I see value in new ways to diversify. For areas prone to flooding, SRC willow shows strong potential.” “How can a simple crop yield multitudes of bees, birds, help with flood prevention, and generate income? I like the balance of willow.” Concludes Jan, “I can easily imagine Mark flying over the new willow site along the river Cocker and smiling down on me, the bees, the birds and wildlife, thriving in a formerly unproductive place. It’s almost the same as the mine, which was dormant. If you look for balance, it’s there, even in unexpected places,” says Jan.

Just as rivers change their course, well researched, alternatives out of the box thinking is a necessity. With partnership and support from Iggesund and working closely with the West Cumbria Rivers Trust, The Farmers Network, Rickerby Estates , local farmers and others. I am confident that SRC willow will work for us. Our willow will be planted in a flood plain, helping nature, but also being a productive crop. Over 8 varieties have been planted will be harvested every three years, and made into chips for biomass. As a control measure for flooding, willow is a wise approach. Environmental stewardship is important.” (Left to right) Jamie Rickerby, Jan Wilkinson, Vikki Salas, Will Rawlings and Neil Watkins.