The thick history merry go round

Roman, medieval, Georgian and modern in one picture

Since Willsbridge Mill (Saturday 25th, ‘Joining the dots’)  – I can’t get settled. I’ve been living on online searches, in books, photographs and maps of the hundred or so square miles in which I’ve lived the greater part of my life and it’s a truly immersive experience. The great thing about a blog is that no-one expects it to be great literature unless it’s a Joycean kind of stroll through the weather of life. Aside from taking out the odd word, turning it in my hand and either discarding it or giving it a bit of a polish and setting it back in the wall, I don’t anguish too much.  It’s obsessive, for sure but only in the sense that it sharpens my collector’s instinct, and so I carry a notebook and a phone camera to record the things that strike me. If there’s any sort of metaphysic behind the Potwell Inn it’s the fact that I believe there’s nothing more extraordinary than the ordinary, the old William Blake poem that urges us:

To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.

That’s just about it.  I call it Muckyannydinny Lane, the place where everything and nothing happens.  Where the ordinary is suddenly but never more than momentarily revealed and sets up its home in the imagination. Not great thoughts but the pocket lint and bus tickets that accumulate on our journey. 

But sometimes, the ordinary of  “today, here, in this place”  is inflected by an intuition of the history.  The thin, linear description of the way things are around here suddenly thickens – as it did when I wrote about the South Gloucestershire Coalfield and mentioned Handel Cossham’s name.  As I typed it I remembered Brandy Bottom, the pit he owned, and which was joined underground to Parkfield, the pithead where I played and sometimes peered down the shaft to see hart’s tongue fern sprouting from the walls into the gathering darkness. Cossham built a hospital and endowed a community hall, but he employed children – small children – to drag the coal trucks to the bottom of the shaft in the confined spaces of the mine. I went looking for Brandy Bottom a few years ago and found the abandoned buildings almost covered with ivy.  It’s being restored now – “The most perfect remains of a Victorian mine in the UK” – they say, but I was haunted by the ghosts of those children. As I stood there, transfixed by the thickening of the air, I knew that in some dimension the old mine was still functioning, the children were still there, pale skinned and blackened with coal dust. Children were even cheaper than ponies in those days. The practice of using them wasn’t ended because it was wicked in itself, but because the Victorian moralists thought they might get up to things, wicked sexual things down there in the darkness. Seems like Victorian thick history was different from mine. 

And so the landscape here has suddenly deepened to include what’s beneath;  the coal measures and the wealth and cruelty they created, the surface farmland which has become the scene of another, later, despoliation under intensive farming, and during which – since my childhood – whole species have disappeared, and then above the fields the atmosphere which has become so polluted by the burning of hydrocarbons that in summer, during prolonged sunny periods, a yellowish photochromic haze forms. 

Here in my imagination today I might easily see a steam train running in to Green Park Station across the river.  I might encounter Mr King, the retired miner, walking back from Parkfield before it closed in the 1930’s, and making for his allotment above the railway tunnel at the end of our garden. I might see lapwing in the fields, or pass a horse and cart taking milk or cream down to the station incline.  And does this inflected, ‘thick’ sense of being human intuit the future as well? What’s going on there beneath the bright surface of the present? It’s like fishing. You have no idea what’s going on beyond the reflections on the water aside from experience of how it was before. You might see the float bob, or sense a tug on the line but it might be caught on a shopping trolley for all you know. 

Last time I fished here, in thick history, I think to myself –  humans were selfish, greedy, unfeeling creatures who found it hard to accept responsibility for their actions.  Is that the future? We were all raised on the idea that the industrial revolution had brought us into a new age of prosperity but it never occurred to us that we would suffocate in the fumes of its success. Handel Cossham lives on, but his mines were sold in 1900 and his money is probably invested in India or some other place where the state doesn’t take much interest in poverty or child labour; and the supreme gold-standard irony is that we came to believe that the industrialisation of the Southern hemisphere was a kind of human right.  That the poor people of India deserved the right to be evicted from their farmland so that more factories could be built, more wealth extracted from the earth – because it was better for them to live in megacities scratching a living on rubbish tips.  

We have seen the enemy – it is us

California, the gold rush and the F word.

IMG_20200126_161359Just in case you read my piece yesterday where I got a bit lyrical about the old South Gloucestershire coalfield here’s a teaser for what I’m thinking about today.  What links California Farm, the gold rush and the F word? OK here’s a clue about the last term – I’m not talking about Gordon Ramsey’s favourite word, but fracking.

I was mulling over my piece when I remembered I had a book in the shelves, a reprint of the 1873 monograph on the coalfield written by John Anstie. I bought it for a pound about thirty years ago, and so I had a flick through again and realized that the geography of my childhood – you might call it the psycho-geography, almost exactly coincides with the limits of the coalfield.  You could lay the two maps on top of one another and see the place names I wrote about on both of them. All very comforting you might think, and I thought it was pretty cute too at first, until I thought about California Farm.

In 1876 the Cowhorn Hill Colliery was purchased by Abraham Fussell.He deepened the old Blowbottom Shaft to 640 yards where he reached the valuable Smiths coal, only 18 inches thick but in great demand.  He renamed the shaft – CALIFORNIA. Fussell thought that, like the gold mines in California, it would make his fortune. 

The paragraph above was copied from the excellent local website DistrictWeb.

Note the date – three years after the book was written. The mine prospered but in 1904 the workings were flooded and the mine abandoned and sold to a water company who pumped and sold the water. Another fortune was made when the land was sold for building development in the second half of the 20th century, and now much of the area is built over as the California Farm estate, the coal wharves on the river and the dramway have all but disappeared and the abandoned mill became the hub of the small nature reserve I wrote about.

I’ve always assumed that the age of coal has gone, not least here, where the seams are narrow and difficult to mine but especially because the whole world is supposed to be trying to cut the use of carbon based fuels.  But my assumption is wrong for a number of reasons. The greed that allowed land bought and sold as a commodity, and allowed mineral extraction without regard to the consequences hasn’t gone away. We have the most ecologically illiterate government in many decades, and the fracking licences for the whole area have been quietly on sale for years. But finally the principle that the polluter pays is largely understood as extremist propaganda. In short, the Klondike could return to South Gloucestershire any time soon, because there is far more coal and methane left in there than was ever taken in the past.  

Fracking! The local authorities oppose it, the residents oppose it and almost anyone with a grain of common sense would oppose it, but ….. there are fortunes to be made, even at the expense of global heating and species extinction.  This is not a time for complacency!

Anyway, enough grumpy, because today I found this at the back of the garage ….. (see below)


It isn’t an alien life form but a bag of last year’s early potatoes that I harvested, put in the garage and promptly forgot.  When I said recently that they were pink fir apple I was quite wrong.  I found those today and they’ve stored perfectly. These were almost certainly Arran Pilots and, driven by their biological imperative they were seeking fresh air and sunshine from the most disadvantaged place you could imagine – in a hemp shopping bag in an underground garage. The Sarpo Miras and the Pink Fir Apples – both main-crops,  have stored perfectly with no sign of premature chitting. What it does show is just how important the differences between varieties can be, and – another important lesson – chitting potatoes need light and cool conditions if they’re not to get leggy or dry out. It’s nowhere near time to get them going here, although the seed merchants are desperate for the space in their warehouses. The best advice is to wait until you can see the seed potatoes in the garden centres and snap them up before they all go.

Joining up the dots

_1080882 - Edited

This is a slightly improved photo of Siston Brook on a grey day today, just before it runs into Willsbridge Mill.  There’s no reason why anyone except a native would need to know that, but I’m a native and I had the surprise of my life when we visited the community nature reserve here on a field trip with the Bath  Natural History Society – there’s a link on the right hand side of this page if you’re interested.

Of course, being observant, if you click on the link you’ll see that we were meant to be three miles away at the Bath Cheese Company for a riverside walk.  That’s where Madame and me were until the appointed time when we realized we were alone and one of the cafe staff came out to say “They’ve gone to Willsbridge – they’re meeting in the second car park” These turned out to be a precis of the actual instructions, leaving out the grid reference – which would have been useful because Willsbridge is a big place. However by a mixture of intuition, cunning and good luck we eventually found the party peering into Siston Brook.

Now at this point I had no idea what it was called so I filed it in my mind as ‘brook’ and we walked on.  The footpath we took led us up the valley.  The party comprised mainly birders and photographers although we were blessed with two snail fanatics and a couple of moth twitchers to leaven the lump, oh and our distinguished President the retired ‘Minister for Bogs’ who turned out to be an impressive birder as well. He could point to a blur in the sky and say ‘lesser spotted woodpecker’, or stand stock still, point to his ear and say – and say ‘marsh tit’ which was, sadly, beyond the competence of my hearing aids and so he gave me a brief demonstration of the call, he’s a great teacher!

_1080880 - Edited

Anyway it wasn’t long before we came across a kind of sculpture which lit a lightbulb in my head.”Ohmygoodness”- I thought in a jumbled sort of way- “we’re on the Dramway!”

[There follows a brief excursus on the soft mutation in what we used to know as children as – ‘broad Gloucestershire].

Native speakers, all of them now long dead, often substituted the softer ‘d’ for the hard ‘t’  according to a set of rules that were more complex than rocket science – we just absorbed them as children do, and then had them beaten out of us by our teachers and parents who thought they were common. It was only decades later when I had to learn enough Welsh to catch buses up the Valleys, that I realised that this was technically known as the ‘soft mutation’. We just thought it was the way to say things.  All of which is a long winded way of explaining why this particular place is universally known as the Dramway although it appears on the maps as ‘Tramway’ – I hope that’s clear ….

The point of all this excitement on my part (‘though probably not yours), is that the Dramway and Siston Brook were a significant part of my childhood, but I’d only ever seen them from the other end, the northern end which was close to where I was born. The old line had disappeared decades before I was born, as had the mines that it served, bringing coal from Coalpit Heath – there’s a clue in the name – past the Pucklechurch mines and the Warmley ones too and terminating on the river Avon. But the remains were everywhere, and the names too, names like Handel Cossham, one of the principle mine owners and a local benefactor in the way of those days, who built a hospital to serve the victims of his mine accidents as well as the general population.

My childhood is embodied in the locality – we were free to roam and we walked and cycled every inch of our end of the County.  If you cast a conservative circle five miles around where I was born next to the end of the railway line that, now disused, passes our flat on the other side of the river, that gives an area of around 75 square miles that we knew inside out.  Make that circle 8 miles – a  distance my friend Eddy and me regularly travelled to explore the pithead and the brickworks at Shortwood, that gives an area of 200 square miles. We crawled the underground flues at Shortwood brickworks, played dares over the mineshaft and put ourselves in harm’s way so many times. We caught buses to the docks to the West of the city, always inseparable, and cycled to Brean and back. Our bike range was enormous – we never told our parents where we were going – and we rarely told them afterwards,

The Dramway was one of the tracks we would follow across to Siston Common where I fell in love with the sound of the wind in the coarse grasses.  My first ever OS map had all our favourite places marked, and I planned a cross country run from the footpath that crossed Siston Brook when it was no more than a ditch, It was there I found the unmarked St Annes Well, but until today I’ve never joined up the dots. The spot, nowadays signposted, is engraved in my memory for two reasons.  Firstly, finding the well and researching it, (I was about 12), in the reference library, I discovered its reputation for the healing of eyes and that kindled a lifelong interest in folklore and healing.  But secondly, I was once chased by a cow while I was running the path.  I’d stopped to examine her calf which I thought was dead but was in fact newly born.  I had to leap a barbed wire fence and the brook to escape her enraged charge. I could go on for ever; I’m hefted in this place by the voices and the places, all of them gone and built over.

IMG_20200125_115558And then in the midst of this revery we came upon the remains of a huge yew tree, fallen over very recently by the look of it and – someone said – 800 years old. There’s me indulging my memories of the past 70 years and there’s a tree in front of me that saw the Tudor wars, the English revolution, the Reformation, the enclosures, the Napoleonic wars, the early industrial revolution and two world wars. Standing in the corner of the graveyard of St Anne’s church  (is there a connection with the spring upstream?) it had rotted through the centre and tumbled down the steep bank, upturning the slabs of some 18th century tombs.  Memories almost bursting from the soil like Stanley Spencer’s painting of the resurrection at Cookham.

All this was going on in my head, while I gossiped about this and that and looked for any signs of stirring plantlife at my feet whilst almost everyone else was looking skyward.  There was cafe there, but when our party paused to use the loos, the caretaker – schooled in the methods of counter evangelism – told us off loudly for using the cafe’s toilet facilities. You can win people over and please them a hundred times but you’ll only piss them off once. I spent my life trying to teach volunteers that the organisation didn’t exist for them but for the people who didn’t come – yet. Needless to say we didn’t stay there but hurried back to the car park at the end of the walk.

The birdy highlight for almost everyone was the dipper fishing downstream from the mill.  Marsh tits, lesser spotted woodpecker -there was a long list being prepared when we parted company, but for me joining up the bits of my childhood would have made it worthwhile if we’d seen nothing.




Turning over an old leaf

It’s a bit of a funny time on the allotment, especially for no-dig allotments, because where in the past we’d be using up every suitable occasion during the winter to dig the last few patches of ground, now there’s not so much of the warming work to be done. That’s with the exception of path making and mulching. We’re lucky to have supplies of free leaves and woodchip provided by the Council, and it can be hot and heavy work taking it all down in the wheelbarrow. The paths are nearly all finished.  When they were made, it took many barrow loads of woodchip because they were 18″ deep so they could function as drains to the beds. They function very well, but the chippings rot down surprisingly quickly and we need to add at least a couple of inches every year to keep them full.

The leaves, taken from all the parks in Bath and shared between the sites are incredibly useful for building humus in the soil.  Most of us put anything up to six inches on any empty beds, and then cover them with some kind of membrane. It’s amazing how they seem to disappear before spring, taken down by the worms and chewed into small pieces by woodlice, earwigs and all the other insects, but the impact on soil structure is profound, and even after four years there’s no comparison with the heavy and dense clods of clay that used to be there.

So today we moved a couple of gooseberry bushes into better positions, made possible by removing the strawberry bed to another plot outside the cage. If there’s one lesson that comes up over and again with gardening, it’s the negative effect on yields of overcrowding the plants. Then, after a weeding session I started trucking the leaves down while Madame spread them around the cage in a thick layer. There was no-one else working on the site and no competition for the leaves, so I was able to hunt around at the bottom of the heap to get the ones that had been compressed and begun breaking down.  I find my ancient stable fork perfect for the job, and the leaves go into a council cardboard sack which, when full weighs a ton (figuratively speaking) but  I can get three barrow loads into one bag.  Five full loads later the job was almost finished and I had a backache.  That’s the point at which you say to yourself “we’ll be glad we did it in the spring” which is true but no consolation.

Our departing neighbour also bequeathed us his storage bench and half a dozen office water cooler bottles which have been outside in the frost, sun and rain for at least four years functioning as mini cloches. They work brilliantly with newly planted sweet corn, but at the moment they’re encouraging some chard.  There’s a load more stuff in the greenhouse waiting but after weeks of rain and a few nights at -2C we’re waiting for the soil to dry and warm up a bit. Now’s one of the weird times when the weather can go from wonderful to frightful and back again in a day.  In previous years we’ve sown seeds too early and had to protect tomatoes and chillies while they grew leggy and weak.  This year we’ll be more careful – this is where a diary is particularly handy.

The potatoes have all gone now.  The sack of Pink Fir Apple I was storing in the garage have all chitted too early to be of any use for eating or growing, but in any case we’ve lost the big chunk of land which we borrowed from our neighbour, so we’ll grow far less potatoes this season. But the other roots are still in production  – Madame would love to know how to dig a parsnip without putting the fork through it somewhere! The roots in general have done well, the alliums were disappointing and we’re still holding our breath hoping that the purple sprouting will deliver.  Every year we discuss whether it’s a waste of space and every year it comes good at the last possible moment and we have our feast. The other crop we’re eagerly awaiting is the asparagus which we’ve mollycoddled for two full seasons while it got its feet down.

The weeds are all under control at the moment, although I noticed a few acer seed propellers in the leaves, so I daresay they’ll all germinate. The couch grass is all but vanquished in the beds but the bindweed never gives up.  They don’t call it devils guts for nothing, although that’s a name that’s used traditionally for all kinds of pernicious weeds like dodder which we hardly see these days. We worked quietly until about 4.30, appreciating the growing day length, and then misty rain and gathering darkness drove us off and, because we were the last people on site, we came home and wolfed down a couple of mugs of tea and some biscuits.

Our youngest son, who’s a chef like his older brother, has just inherited a new general manager who can’t say a sentence without management-speak creeping in. He’s full of the kind of inspirational garbage that makes you want to chew your own arms off, but our son entertains us with such wicked impressions of him – it would make a tremendously funny novel!

Believing and belonging

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – on Karl Marx’ gravestone.

I have met some people for whom even the mention of Karl Marx would lead to the paroxysms of tooth grinding and frothing, so for the sake of sanity, and to save anyone the bother of frothing, the quotation is not a wholesale endorsement of  everything Marx said or wrote; but he’s an important thinker and deserves better than being wildly misquoted at every turn.

So simply knowing that there are some people in government who think that demonstrating against environmental damage and species extinction amounts to a form of terrorism is a chilling thought. Just as a ludicrous overreaction, it could be laughed off if it weren’t backed up by hard state power. I’m quite sure that there are many more people in this country and across the world who believe the evidence that a global catastrophe is looming up on us but feel powerless in the face of the ideological onslaught that tells us every day, and in a million subtle ways, that there is no alternative. Since the brexit referendum and in particular since the UK general election I no longer listen to news broadcasts and I don’t read the newspapers which are part of the problem. I choose my sources carefully and I try as best I can to verify what they’re saying – especially if I really want their stories to be true. As a result I have no idea who the members of the Cabinet are, for instance, but I’ve a pretty good hunch that they’re a dangerous bunch of charlatans and chancers.

Which is all very well except it raises the dilemma of how to respond effectively in a particularly challenging way. Let’s assume that there’s no point in writing letters about it to MP’s who, it seems to me, have no horizon beyond the next election or being appointed to profitable directorships. Successive prime ministers have learned the art of ignoring demonstrations, however huge, and convincing themselves that they know what “the people” are thinking even when best part of a million of them are walking peacefully past the houses of commons suggesting that they don’t. The principal opposition parties all seem to be clutching their favourite parts of a potential policy jigsaw but refuse to collaborate with anyone else in order to put something workable together. Waking up every day feeling powerless and lonely is a bad place to be.

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about direct personal action. I’d wonder – sometimes out loud – how wearing organic cotton T shirts or making your own soap was supposed to change the world. I suppose in part it’s my age, what with being a first generation hippie and seeing our dreams of a better world crushed relentlessly. I’ve written before about my own moment of enlightenment at a free festival in Bath, when I saw a young mother scraping the crap off her baby’s nappy against the only standpipe and water tap on the site. People have always misunderstood St Augustine when he said “love and do what you will” What he meant was that if you love, then you will make better moral choices – like, for instance, not threatening hundreds of people with salmonella because you can’t be arsed to clean your baby up safely.

Although the language changes, selfishness, greed and idolatry – in our case the worship of profit and the neoliberal economy – have always been the real problem. That’s my belief and it brings me no comfort whatever. Even if I were able to convince millions of people that my belief is correct, it wouldn’t do anything to get us off this self destructive path.  The only way to do that is to change our behaviour and – I’m finally beginning to understand – that it begins with me. It may not change the world if I wear an organic cotton T shirt or eat more veg, but if I do –  I’m part of the solution and not part of the problem. Change from the bottom up is the only show in town now and we at the Potwell Inn have been thinking about it for ages.  The allotment, our diet, our choices when we replace our worn out clothes, the way we get about, how we wash and what we wash with, what goes down the sink, how effectively we recycle – all these things are part of the fight back. I suppose you could say “that’s just virtue signalling”  – I’ve said the same many times as a defence against changing.

The most encouraging thing is that when we change our own lives we inevitably start to interact with other people who are doing the same thing. Just like the way you notice when you’ve got a baby on the way that the world is full of pregnant women, so it is that the allotment site is full of people who feel the same way about organic farming and gardening. Today we were continuing our search in Bath for somewhere we could buy food staples without packaging, and reading the small print on the back of re-chargeable shampoo bottles – it takes all sorts! – and we found just the shop we’d been looking for and it was like coming home.  We even met a fellow allotmenteer who works there.

The signpost in the photo at the top stands in a guerilla garden on Walcot Street and when I spotted it I felt the presence of a mass of people who also want to change the world. The new community crosses all the barriers that artificially divide us – age, gender, orientation WTF?

Any half decent evangelist, for any cause whatever, will understand that belonging is far more important than believing. Environmental change will happen when our collective imagination reaches the tipping point where not to change becomes unthinkable.  So the most powerful strategy for change in the face of a hostile government is having more fun, being better neighbours and refusing the limits that their edited version of human possibility try to impose on us. They’ll  tell us that we’ll only survive if we build a better machine, invent a new technology, build a higher wall. And we’ll show them what human flourishing really looks like. When you look at it that way there’s no contest.


Alleluia – proper frost at last

Yesterday gave us sunshine and frost, in fact proper winter weather set to at last for two or three days, so we put on our winter woollies, grabbed the walking sticks and binoculars and set off across the river to pay a return visit to the last field trip walk. It’s been so wet that everywhere we went there was water spurting from each tiny spring and there were times when we were skating almost as much as we were walking. Our first quarry was the heronry we spotted last time, but we were a little later starting off and by the time we got there the birds had – so to speak – flown.  There are plenty of garden ponds in Bath, but I suspect their first port of call would be the lake at Prior Park which is so full of signal crayfish that the dam has been eroded to the point where a £2,200,000 restoration project has begun.  Rumour has it that crayfish cakes have appeared on the menu in the cafe from time to time, as they try desperately to eliminate them.

But quite apart from the more unusual wildlife, I loved the frost encrusted plants, especially where the usually invisible hairs on the leaves had been highlighted by tiny crystals of frost. An absolute visual feast.

IMG_20200119_131236So no herons then, but it was such a lovely day it was good just to be out in it.  Bath lies in the valley of the river Avon and because the river takes a winding course through the southern end of the Cotswolds, it feels as if we’re completely surrounded by hills. This gives us our own microclimate and means that traffic pollution is sometimes trapped in the bowl of the landscape. On the plus side – so long as your knees are up to it – you can climb in almost any direction and enjoy fabulous views.  We contemplated walking up to the highline but decided instead to follow the Twin Tunnels cycle path back into the centre. The two tunnels in question once formed part of the Somerset and Dorset railway line, whose initials S & D were immediately dubbed the ‘slow and dirty’ line by the passengers. In fact the longer of the two tunnels, the Combe Down Tunnel is the longest cycling and walking tunnel in the country at just over a mile long.  It had no proper ventilation and so the train drivers would occasionally become unconscious as the steam trains laboured through, filling the tunnel with smoke and fumes. On one occasion the train ran out of control down the steep incline into Bath, killing the driver.

At the point we joined the route we could have turned left through the long tunnel, over the Midford Viaduct and on down to the Kennet and Avon canal, but yesterday we took the shorter Devonshire tunnel – a ten minute walk – and back down the old line to the city centre.  Quite apart from being a magnet for runners, walkers and cyclists, it’s a long narrow nature reserve as well and we shared the path with hundreds of others on foot and on bikes.  We’re incredibly fortunate to have such marvellous facilities here.

Frost is wonderful, well at least it is to us because we’ve got nothing too tender on the allotment.  Broad beans and garlic positively relish the cold and a quick check showed no serious problems at all.  We’re right at the bottom of a steep slope and so it’s a made to measure frost trap. The higher allotments get more sun and less cold, but we, on the other hand, are protected from the strongest winds and retain more moisture,  The key to gardening is to know your ground and respect its foibles and qualities and after four years we’re beginning to understand what we can and can’t grow. The robins now show up as soon as we appear, whether or not there will be any digging, and they sit no more than a couple of feet away keeping an eye on us.

The old hands always insist that the frost kills off pests, making it a good thing. Certainly it has an effect in breaking up clods of heavy clay but since we gave up digging that’s not really an issue for us,. As for whether it really kills insects I’ve no idea; you’d have thought that if overwintering pupae were all killed by the cold, the species would have become extinct through evolutionary pressures, but it’s just nice to have a change of key in the winter. Our biggest worry is whether the lavenders will survive.  The globe artichokes are still looking fine but they’ll surely die back after this cold spell.

The seasons are wonderful.  There are always intimations of what’s coming, alongside traces of what’s past and so it’s impossible to ignore the never ending flux of season and weather.  My mum – who was given to sunday school soundbites – would say ‘hope springs eternal in the hearts of the faithful’. It’s hard not to feel that some kind of nebulous and inexpressible faith in nature is what motivates gardeners everywhere. IMG_20200119_131945

“We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”


Albert Einstein – quoted by Vandana Shiva in her book “Soil not Oil”

I had a faintly disturbing conversation with a retired farm worker at the wassail on Friday evening. There were two things he said that made me prick up my ears – firstly something to the effect “we are going to lose all our subsidies and get paid to plant trees” – I’ll come back to that one – but secondly he said that the farm he still helps out on has changed the approach to foot rot in sheep (very successfully apparently) and so they no longer trim the feet – there’s sound evidence that this increases lameness – but now spray infected feet and then inject the sheep with long acting antibiotic such as oxytetracycline which is apparently very successful.  I came away with the impression that this treatment was being administered prophylactically in the flock which is probably nice for the sheep but possibly not quite so nice for us humans if it helps create more resistant strains of bacteria.

It’s just another example of the mindset that’s got us into the environmental mess we’re in. The land on which the flock is kept is very wet and is drained by a network of rhynes, (ditches) that feed larger ditches and  and pumping stations.  The prolonged wet weather these last few months has left farmers unable to sow spring cereals and even moving flocks of sheep has been problematic. The solution, as is so depressingly frequent, has been to reach for a new technology.

The question of farm subsidies is crying out to be examined, but as my friend spoke I had a premonition that even in the entirely sensible ambition to plant more trees, big business will sweep into the field with new and even more expensive technology offering a one-stop solution to farmers that’s almost inevitably going to be indiscriminately applied and propped up with even more chemicals. Which is where the moss comes in.

Ever since the mid 20th century agribusiness has been treating the earth as a simple industrial input. Land is graded from the very best through to the marginal, and farmers, hill farmers for instance, have been heavily subsidised to keep sheep on land that’s not really suitable. During the past centuries peat bogs have been exploited for fuel and horticulture to the extent that 95% of them have simply disappeared. It’s now becoming clear that peatlands are performing an indispensable service to the earth by soaking up half a trillion of tonnes of carbon – the data is here – twice as much as is stored in all the forests combined. Yet peatlands only cover 3% of the land areas of the earth. It almost makes you want to weep that only fifty years ago Scottish peatland was being ploughed and drained and planted up with imported trees. I’m quoting here from Dave Gouson’s book “The Garden Jungle” –

Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have quietly sequestered 5.5 billion tones of carbon – nearly forty times the 150 million tonnes of carbon stored in our woodlands.

– and we’re still digging them up to spread peat on our daffodils!

It also happens to be the case that peatlands grow proportionally faster during periods when the global temperature is rising. So here’s just one part of the puzzle that we need to solve, and we can solve not by buying into impressive new technological fixes but by doing almost nothing. We need to ban the extraction of peat altogether and we need to halt and then reverse the draining of peatland for agricultural use.  We need to allow them to flood again which will not only increase the amount of carbon being sequestered far more efficiently then tree planting can but will also hold vast quantities of water that would otherwise run off moors, mountainsides and hills filling rivers and flooding good land and towns downstream. Peatland holds the carbon in storage for as long as the bog exists.  Trees only sequester carbon while they’re actually growing and when they die and rot they release it back into the atmosphere again.  So tree planting can only be a temporary solution while we make all the other changes, the ones we haven’t made during the fifty years we’ve known about the problem! Inevitably this will impact farmers’ livelihoods, but the subsidies can be reapplied to the maintenance of peatlands and their vital impact on wildlife and biodiversity. So my friend was right in outline, but not – I sincerely hope – in detail. Yes of course we should massively increase tree planting as well, but in the right places, not just anywhere farmers can shove a couple of thousand saplings in and book their summer holidays on the subsidy.

So if my newly found interest in bryophytes – mosses, liverworts and the rest – seems a bit perverse or leftfield, it’s because these poorly understood branches of creation just might be in a position to help solve what no amount of cash, science, technology and PR has managed. George Monbiot is right in many of his diagnoses but some of his prescriptions are terrible, especially when he seems to have bought into the fantasy that technology can solve our problems. More nuclear power stations fuelling factories that produce gigatonnes of industrial seaweed and fungus gloop really aren’t the solution.  I’m not even sure if they’re part of the solution.

There’s no reason why you should know that our word martyr derives from the Greek verb ‘martureo’ – to bear witness; it used to be my job to know stuff like that! Each age has its own witnesses and it so happens that in our own time of turmoil, the environmental scientists, the botanists, mycologists, bryologists, ecologists, meteorologists, climatologists, organic gardeners and farmers, the young activists and all the others are the witnesses to what’s going on. It’s about the earth, the soil – and it’s no accident that organic allotments are between four and eleven times more productive than intensive farms. Is anybody listening?

Elvis leg almost spoils my big moment

Wassail, wassail, all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee

I knew it was a mistake the moment I scrambled on to the picnic table, but there was nothing I could do but carry on with blessing the orchard and hope – earnestly – that I didn’t slide off and in or rather on to the crowd. The months of rain and murk had turned the whole top of the table into a green skating rink and I perched there, holding a lantern in one hand and my brief script in the other, sandwiched between two empty cider kegs and facing a sea of expectant revellers, inexperienced in the etiquette of crowd surfing – as am I. It was the realization of my grim situation that brought on an attack of Elvis leg worse than anything I ever experienced while I was climbing. I’ve written before that I’ve arranged to be buried in Littleton, but I hadn’t thought of ending my ministry in such a spectacular fashion. As it was I missed half of the first line, mispronounced ‘miasma’ and left the last two lines out altogether rather than push my luck. The Master of the Feast helped me down and I’ve never been so grateful before to sink my feet into some good liquid mud.

The wassail is always fun and, because it’s always in the dead of winter the weather is often pretty awful, although yesterday the rain gave over about an hour before we kicked off, and by the end of the evening we could see the stars – cue for a heavy frost overnight.  A couple of years ago we had a crescent moon rising above the orchard; a surprisingly affecting sight. Last night the moon was well below the horizon; still visible early this morning.

The evening begins with traditional songs around an enormous bonfire, during which numbered labels are handed out because the wassail queen is elected by a spinning wheel lottery.  Grave suspicions that the lottery is rigged were put to rest last night by the person who made the wheel when he admitted to me that he’d tried to  rig it with a magnet behind the arrow but it never seemed to work. Once the Queen is chosen she’s taken to the orchard in her chariot, preceded by the singers and the Green Man. Once she’s there and we’re all assembled around her, we make the most tremendous racket to frighten the spirits away – blank black powder shotgun cartridges are fired into the air with great plumes of flame and smoke; fireworks are set off to drown out the noise of the converging riot police vans and more Littleton Lifesaver is consumed. Then the Queen hangs a piece of toast on one of trees – why not? – and pours cider around the trunk.  The Green Man reads a poem and I mount a picnic table – the slippery one – to bless the trees. Then, more wassail songs where new verses are always inserted to make fun of various people, always including me, and we process back to the fire and the mummers play.

The best thing of all is that I get to chat to all my old friends in the village – provided I can recognise them under all their makeup and fairy lights.  Every year the costumes seem to get more and more exotic. Of course it’s all a nod to tradition but the local farmers all used to make cider – in fact it formed part of a labourer’s wages. The larger farms could get through thousands of gallons a year and if you know where to look there are still cider producers to be found. The Cider Club, which runs the wassail is a relatively new institution that took over the redundant cider orchard and which now boasts a stainless steel bulk tank and refrains from calling its fruits ‘artisan’ for which I applaud them. If you ask me what it tastes like I wouldn’t know because I never drink it but I’ve used it for cooking where it works very well. This year the Cider club members dressed themselves in sackcloth, presumably because however successfully we drive out the demons from the orchard they always come back in the cider!

So it was a marvellous evening and my only remaining clerical duty of the year. This afternoon Madame and me attended a workshop on sphagnum moss identification – we certainly know how to live the life – as my son rather acidly pointed out.

Taking the fight to Australia

Today was the day of the cake stall that our seven year old grandson organised for the victims of the Australian bush fires, and in particular he was hoping to raise a substantial sum to support relief work for animals on Kangaroo Island.  He’s pretty dotty about wildlife in general and with an Australian mum he was totally focused on the task, ‘though being a proper pom I don’t know the first thing about Kangaroo Island except that it seems that it’s name doesn’t reflect that it’s the last stronghold of disease free koala bears.  I guess there must be quite a lot of kangaroos as well.  What’s clear is that the climate driven crisis in Australia has become a worldwide cause for environmentalists and animal lovers and it’s reached into the hearts of millions of British people as well.  The parents at his primary school really got on-side today and there were more cakes than you could shake a stick at but better still, hosts of customers willing to buy their own produce back at ridiculous prices, egged on by our grandson who was overheard telling one customer that ‘he didn’t do change’! All the teachers rallied round; the local firefighters turned up to support but then got called away to a fire and between them they all blew my estimate out of the water.  I thought he might make £50, but it looks as if there was over three hundred pounds in notes, so by the time the coins are counted it’s going to go to four hundred if not five.  What a magnificent effort for a seven year old! – even if it was with a bit of help from family and friends and especially Mum who was so nervous about today going well that she looked as if she’d burst into tears if anything went wrong.

I was despatched early this morning to go to a local catering supplier to get paper plates and I looked for paper bags as well, this being in response to an environmental crisis.  I managed to find ample supplies of compostable plates, but paper bags came in 250’s which made them rather pricey. I spotted some reusable paper bags treated with beeswax, sold in tens, but they would have cost twenty times more than the paper ones.  Tickets to the moral high ground are a bit pricey it seems. What was so encouraging was that people, dozens of people – many of them parents were getting it. It didn’t feel like our grandson was pushing at a door, it felt like he’d opened it and the people were pouring through.  I know we get very dispirited by governments and the media for propagating and apparently believing their own lies, but here were around a hundred parents and their children in an ordinary British primary school refusing to buy their guff. I don’t have the bottle to accuse a bunch of bright seven year olds of being ridiculous and idealistic because they’re our hope for the future or, for me perhaps, their future if they’re to have one.

So I really believe that today’s effort was one more small step in the right direction.  We can’t rely on national politics so we’ll ignore them and take on the task locally.

How do I finish off a day like today? Well, I wrote about my favourite breakfast of home made marmalade and home made sourdough, so here’s a picture. My cake baking efforts were unevenly received – I was up against some very stiff and colourful competition, so I bought back most of my cheese scones at a delightfully inflated price, but most of the blueberry muffins found a new home.


Doing the right thing beautifully

Since the sun shone this afternoon, once I’d finished baking we went over to Dyrham Park for a walk. In fact the park itself was closed because it’s a fairly unique combination of grass and limestone, so quite thin soil and easily damaged by walkers – which didn’t bother us much because we could walk down the main tarmac path to the house, following the course of a stream in full spate after all the rain. There were patches of waterlogged soil in many places, and we couldn’t drive home the back roads because the road was completely flooded at the top of Dyrham Hill. It’s a steep walk down to the house and gardens, and we were met there by one of the terribly efficient welcomers who offered us a leaflet about the gardens parts of which are in the process of restoration to something like the original plans.

I’m not a fan of formal gardens, I don’t like things to be too orderly and sterile, and so my heart sank a bit when this process began. The notices boast something like 40,000 bulbs planted, and new yew hedging no doubt accompanied by finely cut and weed free stripy grass. However once you leave the formal garden, which amount to less than half of the total area, things are altogether more interesting – with a lake, or I think more accurately a large pond with flowing water taken from the stream; a waterfall, and a much more informally planted area of shrubs and flowers. The leaflet described all the exotic plantings but could have made much more of the wildlife potential. Someone, somewhere had made the decision not to deadhead or cut back all of the seed bearing grasses but to leave them over the winter, a marvellous food source for birds and small mammals and very beautiful in their own right. I thought the leaflet had missed an opportunity to show people the potential of wildlife gardening. Dave Goulson’s book “The Garden Jungle” was on sale in the shop, and the subject seems to be rising higher and higher in the consciousness of gardeners everywhere, so why not put up some signage to say “this is what it can look like” – which is very beautiful.

Outside the house the snowdrops are flowering and you could almost have thought spring had arrived if it weren’t for the cold wind blowing steadily up the escarpment. We could see that it’s going to take weeks for the soil to dry out. Apparently things are even worse in Northern France.

On the allotment today Madame followed up on my idea that perhaps our rat trap had not been stolen but dragged off by a fox who’d found a rat in the trap and had carried it off to a more private place to devour the remains. My hunch turned out to be true, and the fox had eaten all bar the tiniest scrap of fur and even cleared out the last remains of the crunchy peanut butter bait, leaving the empty trap in its box about 50 yards away in some long grass. I’ve said before that I don’t in the least mind the foxes eating the rats, but I’d prefer it if they didn’t steal the plates and the cutlery as well – it’s such bad manners.
Naturally we were relieved that it wasn’t another visit by our burglarious predecessor who now just owes us two net cloches, two water butts, two very expensive cold frames and a max and min thermometer. We can solve the fox problem by attaching the rat trap boxes to some long pegs, and on the plus side another neighbour who is moving to a different site has given us an enormous tarpaulin and a storage bench which he doesn’t want to take.

It’s lovely to see our early sowings taking off so well. I was so concerned about the waterlogging in one part of the plot which lies above an underground stream, that I gently mooted the possibility of digging a small pond on it, sealed by puddling it with the plentiful clay. Madame didn’t just disagree, she saturation bombed the whole idea and could see nothing but drowned creatures and malaria infected mozzies. I think I’ll put that one to one side – for the time being!

Daldinia concentrica – Cramp balls

Back at the park, as we walked up the track I spotted a felled tree trunk – there are lots of them lying around with their associated brash, another sign that the National Trust policy is changing very much for the good. Once again the instinct for tidiness is being restrained to the benefit of the many plants, fungi, bacteria and small creatures who can both eat and shelter under the piles; and this particular tree had an array of turkey tail fungi – Trametes versicolour at one end, and cramp balls, or King Alfred’s cakes – Daldinia concentrica – at the other; neither of them the remotest bit rare but fun to name.

Nothing more to do this evening than bake a loaf and pack the cakes and scones into tins for our grandson’s charity cake sale tomorrow.IMG_20200115_134048