Deja vu?

Looking down from the iron bridge above lock 3 of the Kennet and Avon canal

Walking down the canal a few days ago we reached exactly this point on the towpath when I found – in the sky, the clouds and the opening buds of the trees – a feeling; a sensation near to joy that was out of all proportion to its dimensions and properties as a view in the ordinary sense of the word.

Naturally it was a welcome change from lockdown ennui but it caused me to wonder how it can be that sense experiences (like Proust’s madeleine for instance), can carry such a huge metaphorical load. I could, if there was time, draw a mind-map with the scene at its centre, and which would embrace dozens if not hundreds of deeply personal associations, many of which could generate further mind-maps. Just to give this a bit of an anchor I could mention wild garlic which is just coming into its glory. My subsidiary mind-map would embrace childhood memories of walking by the river Frome and on from there.

I have no idea whether all this can be adequately explained by brain chemistry unless the scientists would concede that human memory simply stores and recovers these experiences through the workings of brain chemistry, like a biological hard drive – the means don’t matter to me very much but the experience lies at the root of all creative processes, including science. As an allotmenteer and as a rather incompetent amateur botanist I understand that the stimulus which drives us on; enables us to tolerate frost and wind and the loss of a whole crop or drives me to immerse myself in the minutest details of a plant’s structure for hours just so I can give it a name; that stimulus is wonder.

When we’re visiting new places – especially gardens – or walking in unfamiliar environments; meeting new people, the imagination is alive; fired up. Somewhere in the mind the sense impressions are finding places, associations, pre-existing memories, experiences and cultural thought-paths; and the inner workings of memory stores them – each in their right place like roosting hens finding their place on a perch at dusk; each discrete experience tagged and keyworded so that later, many years later perhaps, the precise configuration of a landscape, a flower, a gesture, a sound releases releases the whole stored, aggregated complex. If you were looking for a non-supernatural explanation of the déjà vu experience it’s right there.

A cowslip in our friends’ meadow yesterday

Why the sudden outbreak of philosophy? – Well, this week we’ve been partially released from lockdown. We’ve spent proper time with our children and grandchildren after a year of hermetic isolation and we hugged and clung to each other like shipwrecked sailors. We went to the campervan full of trepidation and replaced the dead battery and took ourselves off for our first night away from home in many months. We camped up at Priddy which is a place soaked in teenage memories of caving expeditions; watched rooks squabbling over nests and ate up the silence. Notwithstanding a terrible night’s sleep, as we were kept awake by a series of power cuts that had the heating unit cycling noisily on and off ; we came back to Bath feeling that we’d begun to emerge from emotional winter again.

Which brings me to our walk when (at my suggestion) we found the entrance to Swildons Hole which I’d not seen in fifty or more years but which is still full of memories. I’d spent so much time down there cold, wet, tired, fearful and occasionally completely panicked but always blown away by the powerful sensation of being underground and by the occasional bursts of sheer beauty hidden from human eyes for millennia.

A few years ago I met an outdoor pursuits instructor at the climbing wall in St Werburghs who offered to take me down again, but somehow we never got around to doing it. One glimpse of the entrance was enough to convince me that it would be a miserable and possibly dangerous experience for a septuagenarian! But that in itself was enough to remind me that however powerful the memories, not all experiences are repeatable however appealing the thought might be. The sense of our own mortality sharpens and intensifies these remembered experiences which linger in the mind like ghosts.

On the other hand, if you look closely at the third photo from the left, you’ll see something of a line of trees above the pill box entrance. I had no recollection of them from the past. In fifty years or so they’ve grown into a magnificent beech hanger and the sound of the wind rustling through the branches was unmistakable and worthy of a ten minute stop for a free symphony. You can see the leaf buds about to break as they turn from chestnut brown to green. At last a recoverable and re-liveable memory from my childhood trips to Stoke Row in the Chilterns. No I hadn’t really been here before, because on my last visit the trees were so much smaller and yet my memory was able to recover more from my grandparents smallholding to furnish and make sense of this new and powerful experience.

So what about the allotment? Well, we’re in suspended animation as the pampered indoor plants grow like cuckoos while we wait for the present icy spell to end. The earth is a dry as dust and we’re having to continually water in the polytunnel because daytime temperatures soar in the spring sunshine. Slowly, slowly, enough tough old stagers are emerging to break the illusion of winter and the apple blossom sits, clenched in bud waiting for the spring as a child waits for Father Christmas. It will come soon, but evidently not yet and not soon enough for some of the wind tormented broad beans. Inside the tunnel with an additional layer of fleece we’re just coming to terms with its capacity to advance the season. Every time we look at the spinach and lettuces or the young cabbage plants we have to pinch ourselves. The container grown potatoes are growing so vigorously I seem to be constantly mixing soil and compost to earth them up, and I think we’ll have a crop by early May.

Between the flat, the greenhouse, the tunnel, the hotbed, various cloches and the open ground we find ourselves managing half a dozen quite different seasonal microclimates. One little moment of joy came when Madame opened the crown of one of the cauliflowers and found the white curds just beginning to form – and that’s the first time we’ve grown them successfully. The asparagus is beginning to accelerate into life and the newly planted trees and soft fruit all seem to have taken. There are tadpoles in the pond and the Hidcote Giant lavender plants have arrived ready to be planted out and ready to attract insects and bees.

So it’s all good. Confusing, frustrating and good – as life usually turns out to be. Any prolonged silences over the next few weeks will probably be down to sheer busyness!

Ten top tips for bloggers

You know how it always takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but surely (at least in the UK) we can agree that it’s a cold spring – and I don’t mean that we’ve had some cold weather because that goes without saying, but after being lulled into a sense that winter is over by a couple of balmy days, we’ve gone backwards by what feels like six weeks; chilled by a seemingly immovable wind from the northeast which only occasionally swings around to the west to gather some more sleet. Over in France and Spain too they’ve experienced some very extensive damage to crops, including grape vines. It’s difficult to make a direct link to the climate emergency but these extreme events have every appearance of being the smoking gun. Something’s wrong when the average temperature is way below normal and yet we’re having to water because the earth is so dry. “That’s gardening” we say to ourselves hopefully – “… you win some and you lose some”; but are we just kidding ourselves? In Bath we’ve had to cope with illegal levels of atmospheric pollution for years because local politics has been torn between reducing traffic and increasing income from students, businesses and tourism. Now, to add to the evil mix, the SUV has become the vehicle of choice for city centre aspirationals. It seems we all agree that something must be done, but the proposals for reducing traffic have been so watered down by the tourism and transport lobbies that the politicians are running scared. Councillors elected on a green manifesto to reduce traffic have crumpled under the pressure and there are rumours of palace revolutions while local bloggers have poured out their bile on those of us who challenge their so-called ancient freedoms – like driving a three litre Range Rover 1/4 mile to collect Tarquin and Cressida from school.

Anyway, all this cold weather presents us with a storage problem at the Potwell Inn, because a traffic jam of tender plants has built up and is now occupying every conceivable space in the flat, leaving nowhere to germinate the next wave of cucurbits; the cucumbers, squashes and melons – not to mention the sweetcorn and the runner (pole) beans. We’ve hatched a plan to construct a third unheated propagator under our original daylight fluorescent lamps because they give out far more heat than the newer LED’s. Desperation inspires ingenuity and we can probably get by.

Not all ingenuity seems to work, though, and I have to report that my genius attempt to lure the rats into the traps with exceptionally smelly camembert cheese fell upon deaf nostrils, as it were, and the hoped for carnage did not come about. It was at least reassuring that the trailcam worked perfectly. Alas we’ve yet to find a reliable way of controlling their numbers.

If you look very closely you’ll see the rat emerging fit and healthy from the trap before exiting down the path.

Much of the week has been taken up by getting the campervan ready for a single night on the Mendips to make sure all the systems are working properly. Our last trip – over a year ago – saw the electrics collapse in domino fashion and we spent the week reading by torchlight and huddled in the sleeping bags to keep warm. When the electrics go in a campervan nothing works – water pump, stove ignition, lighting and heating all go into a sulk. All this was replaced and patched up a year ago but during lockdown we’ve never had a chance to test it out under normal conditions. I’m almost anxious about taking the van back on to the road but, on the other hand, it’s spring and I’ve got a year’s botanising to catch up with. I think I’ll get back to grasses and try to identify the early risers. Goodness why I find it so exciting to know the latin name of a clump of anonymous green stuff with almost invisible flowers – but I do, and yes, Madame finds it inexplicable as well. Glory be! a new book on UK grasses is on its way to me and I’ve already polished the hand lens (this is not a euphemism). It’s called “Grasses A Guide to Identification Using Vegetative Characters” published by the Field Studies Council – end of plug, except to mention that you can get it from the NHBS bookshop which carries an amazing collection of titles on every aspect of natural history, and not so much as a third cousin seven times removed has links to them.

Finally, I’m publicly registering my ferocious dislike for any newspaper or magazine article headed “Ten top ****” I remember one of the chief reporters on a local paper telling me once that most journalists are irredeemably lazy and the best way of getting your copy into print is to do the job for them. A whole industry has grown up around this character defect; it’s called lobbying – and/or – dare I say – influencing in which winsome young people earn money by making videos of themselves promoting various kinds of snake oil. These videos readily supply ten best anything stories about anything from parma ham to windscreen wipers. In this way I was provoked by a “ten best” on the subject of growing veg.

As a potter, way back, I was often penalized for my passionate interest in technique. Somehow a whole generation of art schools managed to make a distinction between “technique” – which you had technicians for; and “talent”. The outcome of this lamentable attitude was that many students completed their degree courses without the least idea of how the elements of their pieces were conceived of and built, and how they all fitted together to make a finished piece. I remember visiting a degree show where I spotted a glaze that I’d designed as a favour to the technician in that department. The student, not knowing me from Adam, was astounded when I gave her the outline of the recipe. The very best students had a firm grasp of technique as well as the creative competence to carry out their ideas.

This need for technique applies just as much to gardening or cooking as it does to ceramics, and one thing I’ve learned over the years by watching really inspirational potters, gardeners and chefs is that there are always more and different ways of achieving what they’re doing. Being trapped by any sort of ten best ideology is like handing over your brains to a stranger. I’m miles too old and ugly to be a persuader but I’ve been tempted. However I’m constrained by the terrifying thought that someone might have been so impressed by my fluent and articulate promotion of camembert cheese as a rat bait that they actually bought shares in in a cheese company and created an online rat bait outlet with its own logo.

I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s comment to his daughter that the purpose of education is to teach us to recognise bullshit. I would hate to think that my epitaph might read “Dave Pole – he couldn’t tell shit from pudding!” – so please pay no attention at all to anything I write. My life is a work in progress – until it’s not.

Ghostly presences

With the threat of (another) icy spell for the early part of this week we spent Easter day wrapping the apple trees, whose flowers are dangerously close to opening; and sorting all the young plants into degrees of tenderness so they could be appropriately covered. This left the allotment and the inside of the polytunnel looking like a hallowe’en display or a Christo sculpture but it’s worth the effort – plants cost time and money and having nurtured them this far it would be a tragedy to lose them. This morning we went up to see how the plants had fared and we’ve lost two half trays of tagetes (marigolds) which were at the end of a suspended shelf in the tunnel and from which the strong north-westerly winds had lifted their covering of fleece. For some reason this was more of a surprise than it ought to have been. Because we grow so many marigolds we tend to see them as indestructible workhorses but of course they’re tender little plants and did much worse than the lettuces and other salad crops – all fleeced too – and which were completely unscathed. The other casualties were the few autumn planted broad beans that survived an icy ten days early in the year, but were severely weakened in the process. Most of them have tillered so we haven’t lost them completely, but the few which staggered into spring more or less upright have now fallen. We’ll have to rethink our autumn sowings, perhaps keeping them under cover throughout the winter. It seems that it’s the dehydrating character of the arctic winds that almost does more damage than the temperature alone. Last week until Good Friday we were wearing T shirts and enjoying temperatures approaching 20C (70F). This afternoon as I write this, there is sleet and hail strafing the green in a fierce wind.

April being the cruellest month you can spend quite a bit of time rooting around in the stony rubbish to see what’s survived the winter. The nicest thing is finding that below ground, one of those congregations of dry and hollow remains is sprouting green shoots. Today it was the turn of the fennel. In the autumn during the great sort-out we moved angelica, fennel and lovage into a bed next to the new pond which eventually will be home to all our favourite tall herbs and insect attractors. The lovage is already a foot tall, the angelica seems not to have survived (but who knows?) and today we dug up the fennel only to discover it’s sprouting below the soil. Having read that herb fennel is a surly neighbour to most of the other plants we grow in that bed, we took the opportunity to relocate it in another perennial bed behind the shed. The pleasure that such little discoveries brings is beyond price; each opening bud and flower is a blow against the rule of winter. The little line of new bare root trees arrived rather small and in one instance frail; but I knew if I returned them the chance of replacement this season would be zero. Madame is marvellous at coaxing life out of no-hope bargains. I remember we once had a brief competition with another potential buyer of the most forlorn scrap of rhubarb in a pot I’ve ever seen a nursery attempt to sell. Madame won the contest (as she always does) and the plant has thrived so much we’ve had to split it twice – it cost £1.

I couldn’t countenance a year without angelica, it’s just so stately and beautiful, but it’s a biennial and so although the replacements we sowed in the greenhouse two months ago have germinated we won’t have a fresh supply until next year. For decades I’ve thought about candying some of the stems but I’ve never got around to it because cutting them off when they’re still tender seems sacrilegious. However, you can almost never find it in the shops (in the UK at least) and for me the sweet green and fragrant strips are an essential ingredient of the Christmas sherry trifle as taught to me by my old friend Gill Lough.

After my mention of Uncle Charles in the last posting, my sister reminded me that we had “learned” to milk a cow when staying there with the aid of the outside tap and a pair of rubber gloves. You may laugh, but that’s the exact method used by our teacher when Madame and me did a course on keeping goats. Charles – always known as Uncle Char also had a “garage” made from the empty packing case in which cars were once delivered. He could just squeeze his Austin A35 van into it, but it would collapse every time he reversed out, removing the only solid foundation for the trapezoid box to lean upon. My sister also reminded me that the door to the tiny dairy in which the cream was clotted was painted green. Our working lives may be logical and deductive but our most powerful memories are always sensual. These ghostly presences have a more powerful effect on us than we willingly acknowledge and I often wonder if the very specificity of our gardening tastes, down to the exact plants that we must have to constitute our ideal gardens, isn’t a forlorn attempt to recapture the moments when our memories were at their most plastic.

At the end of the new row of trees (it’s really tiny!) there’s a space for one last newcomer. I’ll probably dig deeper and get a container grown tree for this last one which absolutely must – without any doubt – be a greengage. Even if it never bears a single edible plum I want – no I need – it to be there for us to look at every day, next to the Victoria and the Shropshire damson and know that I have honoured this part, at least, of my grandfather’s gift. The greengage is a small miracle of perfume and sweetness and he grew them at The Crest, his smallholding in the Chilterns.

Life can be driven by all sorts of irrelevancies like expediency and ambition or plain self-interest. For me (for us) the allotment allows us to live life, in short moments at least, as an enacted poem because nothing that’s remembered can ever finally die.

Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Johnny Appleseed’s true identity revealed

According to Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” – a book I’m always quoting from and referring to (I’ve got it on Kindle and I liked it so much I bought the hard copy!) – planting an apple tree had more than the usual significance for some early settlers in the US, because, for instance in northern Ohio it was a requirement for a settler to establish fifty apple trees on their land in order to establish a claim. Apart from everything else, for most european settlers apples were a reminder of home and John Chapman – AKA Johnny Appleseed saw that need and seized the opportunity. Later, according to Pollan, the legend that developed around Johnny Appleseed was bowdlerized by the puritans and later by prohibitionists, because he refused to have anything to do with grafting which ensured that his apples were all grown from seed and, (given the apple’s extraordinary promiscuity), were more miss than hit in the taste department so they would mostly have been be turned into cider. I’ve been in evangelical households where Johnny Appleseed was sung reverentially as a form of grace; the true significance of his life’s work having been completely erased. Ironically, Vic (Doughnut) Jones who was a considerable cider maker I knew in his later years, always said that his father would add a few Cox’s to a pressing. He would have nothing to do with single variety ciders which he dismissed as a fad.

Anyway, to get back to the point; yesterday I planted another four fruit trees – one Bramley, a Victoria plum, a Shropshire damson and a Conference pear; and for me the event embraced a seriousness of purpose that doesn’t happen when I sow a line of lettuces. Adding four more permanent dwellers to the allotment is a sign of commitment because even with good health they’ll probably outlive me, and in view of the importance of the occasion labeled them all by hand and added their places to the plans. They arrived in the nick of time – bare root trees need to be in by the end of March, and the flower buds are already opening on the established trees.

Aside from the fact that it felt good, there are other reasons for planting fruit trees. They’re perennials, they’re excellent windbreaks – slowing the wind down – they attract pollinators early in the year before the annuals get going, and they provide a reliable source of food for surprisingly little work. Of course there are skills to be learned but Madame has got the RHS qualifications and is a whizz with the secateurs.

The other thing that fruit trees do is provide structure. Now the two half plots feel more united than they’ve ever done before. Five years of pondering and experimentation have given us the confidence and the experience to understand the underlying dynamics of the allotment: its microclimates – the warm spots, frost traps, the places where water drains quickly and where it lingers into spring. We have tadpoles in the pond I dug over the winter and everything seems more settled down. At last we can see the allotment as a living and breathing unity and instead of struggling to make it do what we want to do we can assist it to do what it wants to do. That’s permaculture design in a nutshell.

Yesterday the temperature reached 20C/70F but by Monday the night temperature will have dropped below zero once again. Today the benign wind from the south had swung round into the northeast, and we replaced all the fleece covers once more. As with any other skill it’s complete attention to details that makes the difference between success and failure and trust me we often get it wrong. Slugs have woken up and made an unwelcome appearance and so I set four beer traps on the asparagus bed in order – hopefully – to give them a happy but very short season. The potatoes in the polytunnel are just loving the warm conditions, and the new strawberry bed has been repurposed because the strawberries we’d ordered failed to arrive.

It’s been a real struggle to get trees this year. The nurseries nearly all sold out of bare root trees early in the season and the more expensive container trees have been going fast. Yesterday I had a chat to a tree surveyor who works for the local authority and he told me that they’ve planted 4000 trees this year and would have planted more if they could have got hold of them. With covid raging, many of the nurseries have had to furlough skilled staff, and the addition of a terribly wet autumn has left some of them struggling to meet their orders.

If allotments were like cars, I’d say we’ve moved into third gear now but the transition into flat out always takes us by surprise. Most often it’s a kind of regretful realization that we’ve forgotten to sow something. Every year we have a surplus of early sown plants because we know that a late frost will call for some gaps to be filled; but failing to sow melons or corn in time is less easy to remedy because they need a long season to ripen and it’s always hard to source the range of plants that you can easily buy as seeds. But never mind, we’ll enjoy them all the more the next year when we get it right!

Rage against the dying of the light.

Some days go well and some go really badly and some can make you wonder what on earth is the point of it all. I’m writing this as a fully paid up member of melancholics anonymous, and I must stress right now there’s an important distinction between melancholy and depression – it’s not just a posh middle class word for being a bit down. I’ve had my fair share of the black dog too and it’s utterly different from other moods. Melancholy is a mode of being in which thinking – often deep and creative thinking – is still possible. Depression is paralysing, grey and empty and awful.

So the only property this melancholy shares with the black dog of depression is that it’s more likely to come on in the spring. Goodness knows why sunshine and the beginnings of new growth should provoke introspection but it does – it’s a statistical fact.

Yesterday we were on our way to see if the campervan would start after 5 months of complete lockdown and we had a conversation about the consequences of this pandemic. We know we’re paying a price for this lockdown but it’s incredibly hard to nail it down. It’s more than thinking to yourself that you’ll scream and smash your head on the wall if you have to pack the dishwasher in exactly the same careful and efficient way, even once more. Social division is certainly one of the costs. We’ve become suspicious of other people. Jean Paul Sartre once said that “Hell is other people” and until now I’ve never quite agreed with him. Now I understand a little more as we look out on the green and see huge groups of young people having fun while we feel isolated and left out. It’s not easy to accept the burdensome designation of “old people”. A couple of days ago we passed a stranger on the stairs and – because the security gates are broken and we’ve had all sorts of people digging through the rubbish and even smoking crack down there , Madame said -“Hi have you just moved in?”. Later he told his girlfriend (who we know quite well), that he’d been “challenged on the stairs by an old couple”.

Another cost of the pandemic is the lingering fear of illness and even death – it’s nebulous and fugitive but it’s there alright. We say to one another “I don’t think I’d manage very well without you” and the thought is so terrifying we change the subject immediately. But we’ve had to accept that so far as vaccination is concerned we’re in one of the highest risk groups. It’s changed the way people look at us in the streets – it seems that old age could – in and of itself – be contagious. I want to get a T shirt printed with “don’t worry my dear – old age isn’t catching”. I already own one with “I’m not old, I’m just very experienced!”

“Why me?” I think to myself – “I haven’t nearly finished yet” – but society seems to want to put me in my place; to stick me in a rocking chair on the verandah where I’m supposed to suck my teeth and tell the same story over and over. I’m supposed to hold all manner of retrogressive beliefs which, in truth, I’ve never had; and some younger people feel quite at liberty to believe that they invented childbirth, sex and environmental concern.

So this was a low point to begin a day working on the campervan which, for us, has been a source of liberation and freedom. We don’t so much go on holiday as go on field trips; carrying (but never burdened) with field guides, maps, cameras, camera trap and laptops. Its mere existence has kept us going through some dark times because it stands for something unequivocally good. It’s one of the few transitional objects (to nick a psychoanalytic concept) that we share between us. The best thing about a campervan is that you’re on holiday from the moment you settle into the driver’s seat. However, yesterday the van had other ideas and we couldn’t get it going. The battery was flat beyond the capability even of a 1000 amp emergency starter battery. So we connected the flattie to the generator 12V output and got it breathing again while I pumped up the tyres with the racing bicycle pump I’ve always used. Van tyres need 65 psi and so it’s great exercise normally, but my breathless failure to notice the sharp corner of an open window above my head cost me a black eye and a lot of blood. “I’m getting too old for this” slipped from my mouth; a greased weasel word if ever there was one, and dark thoughts of selling the van were shared as Madame mopped up the effusion of black bile.

So by the time we got home I was comatose with sadness about getting old; in fact we hardly exchanged a word in twenty miles. Losing the van on top of everything else would be like having our escape tunnel collapse. Visions of ‘old person’ conversations with well meaning social workers about whether “she” could rise unaided from a chair, finance officers who would means test you for the cost of a sandwich, occupational therapists and their confidence sapping paraphernalia of commodes and bath handrails, and deliveries of frozen ready meals – all stalked my imagination. “Do not go gentle into that good night” echoed around the my mind as I failed miserably to get to sleep.

Later I remembered the dramatic resolution to a long haunting by the black dog when I was in my twenties. This might be a bit counterintuitive but I was thrown into deep depression by the death of a friend – actually I hardly knew him but he was a close friend of Madame and he died of testicular cancer. The black dog sloped away one grey day when I realized that it was perfectly true that I was dying, but my inevitable death was not yet. There is a precious gap between the present moment and the inevitable end which is ours to fill in any way that we choose. Truth to tell, I don’t need to give a flying f*** (with a triple backflip) what anyone else chooses to think of me. I am not bound by the colossally limp expectations of others.

And so we rose early and drove back to the van with a rescue plan that worked first time and charged the battery so the van is ready for an adventure. We might even take the kayak. Then we drove home again and had a wonderful barbeque on the allotment with our youngest who refused to give us a hug until we’ve had our second jab – but said he wished he could! The sun shone in its least ironic manner, not to taunt us with our mortality but to warm our bones and it was good. In fact it was very good!

Perennials – the gift that goes on giving

Sweet Cicely emerging

I know the history of this plant because I picked a pocket full of seeds one day on a long walk with friends near the top of Nidderdale, Yorkshire, somewhere close to Pateley Bridge. Sweet Cicely grows wild everywhere in Yorkshire but hardly at all down where we live in the South West. In fact it even appeared in a TV thriller the other night when a London based forensic botanist, no less, told detectives that they should look for an allotment to find the murder scene along with the sweet cicely that had found its way onto the shoes of the deceased.

Back home, I sowed the harvested seeds in the ground immediately and nothing happened. I tried sowing some more again in pots and still nothing. I even ordered a packet in the misguided hope that because I’d paid for them they’d be more likely to work. They didn’t either. Then I read something about the seeds needing to undergo a prolonged period of cold – known as vernalisation – so I picked the last few survivors out of my coat pocket with all the associated fluff and bunged them into the fridge inside a vitamin tablet bottle and then forgot about them for a couple of months. When I remembered them I sowed them in another pot and before long there were half a dozen seedlings which I duly planted in the perfect spot on the allotment. By the next morning slugs had eaten all but two – at which point I gave up with tears in my eyes until several weeks later a blob of furled green appeared from under a water butt and there it was – alive and surprisingly vigorous. Over the next two seasons it grew larger and larger and our neighbour said he’d grown it once and it had become a nuisance.

So why – apart from the delightful name – did I so want to grow it? Well, simply because it’s ready at the same time as early rhubarb and, added to the cooking liquid it adds sweetness and a faint aniseed flavour to my favourite pudding. Every year it thrives and then dies back completely, appearing again in early spring. The photo was taken today and I can’t tell you how pleased we were to see it.

Out on the green, the buds on the trees are beginning to open – no surprise there I suppose, they’re doing what trees always do in the spring. But they’re not opening for us. Their annual cycle seems one step removed from us, however beautiful it may be because, with exception of the elders whose flowers and fruits we’re grateful to harvest, we lead slightly parallel lives.

Two weeks ago during the last big storm, a whole branch split off from one of the largest trees on the green. The brash and cordwood was rapidly sawn up and taken away by a homeless man who lives in a bender on the river – so I guess it was a gift for him. But suddenly the remaining trunk became our trunk. It was almost continually occupied by resting people for the first week and then it was dragged across the green to a new position where it’s been in use as a seat and exercise bench ever since. The Council had started to put benches out on the green but a coalition of nimbies started a petition alleging that seats would encourage antisocial behaviour and the plan was dropped. Curiously, until now, we’ve had parties – at least three of them organised by the petitioners – machete attacks, domestic violence, drug dealing and dogging without the aid of any seats at all. Free street theatre – what’s not to like? I hope the tree trunk isn’t dragged off by the police as a threat to public safety!

Back on the allotment the reappearance of the perennials is always a cause for celebration and gratitude. This period of early spring can be hard work, but the perennials come back for us year after year without our doing anything very much at all. We cut them back in the winter, put a marker cane in and for a while the allotment looks very bare – and then we start look forward to seeing them in March. Today the first two shoots of asparagus finally appeared. I wandered around the plot photographing all our old friends as they break through the warming soil or burst into bud. Our unstoppable collection of mints is coming through; the strawberries are looking hearty in the tunnel; the fruit bushes are all in leaf now and looking perky after their winter under mulch and a spring feed of organic fertilizer; our apple trees are all breaking buds; autumn raspberries are pushing through their covering of leaves like the resurrected villagers in Stanley Spencer’s painting of Cookham churchyard. The hollyhocks are racing away – often in places we didn’t put them; French sorrel, rhubarb, rosemary, fennel, chives and marjoram are all up again; the overwintering parsley is starting to bulk up, lovage too is pushing out of the ground with its pink stalks. We scan the ground looking for any self-seeded angelica but we’ve got a tray of seedlings just in case. Summer wouldn’t be the same without their giant presence in the borders – I could go on but you get the point. These perennials are the backbone, the continuity members of the community of allotment plants. The best planned allotment in the world would be a poor thing if it had to start from scratch every year.

Our perennials are the old friends we haven’t seen since before the lockdown and my goodness it’s good to greet them, to pick a leaf and remember their taste and fragrance. Last year’s apple harvest was a bit of a disappointment with only the ribstone pippin producing prolific quantities of slightly scabby fruit which we ate anyway. A year on and the row of five apples in our ultra mini-orchard look all the better for their winter rest and we think a hard pruning has done them the world of good. As ever we’re interplanting nasturtiums among the fruit trees, and we hope the grease bands will discourage at least some of the moths.

That’s my 1000 words, then. It’s stopped raining and as soon as Madame finishes her drawing we’ll be out again. I’ve waxed my walking boots for the umpteenth time in hope and anticipation of being freed on Monday to finish walking the West Mendip Way. It’s always better to live hopefully than to get old and sour. (That was a note to self btw!)

Monika’s dacha

I’m constantly amazed at the way in which our neighbours personalize their plots on the allotments . This one’s really beautiful because it combines really well maintained growing spaces with the most inviting shed on the entire site. The cast iron stove outside used to be on the inside but I think it was somewhat hazardous and so it’s been moved – although come winter it might find its way back. Monika started off with very little experience of gardening but she’s learning fast. The shed, and the greenhouse at the other end are both made from recycled materials. The greenhouse seems to be constructed entirely from discarded shower doors; fruits of a friendship with a Polish builder on furlough.

Quiet space, private space – call it what you will – are one of the most significant benefits of allotment life, and we see it expressed in dozens of different ways across the site. On one plot a sawn down tree stump serves to secure one end of a hammock which is shared by the couple whose allotment it is. One digs and the the other snoozes, and then they swap over. Another couple have a barn door on their shed and a lean-to greenhouse up against it. Our three buildings (shed, greenhouse and polytunnel) are so full of plants and their associated clutter, that we put up our folding chairs between two buildings and if it rains we retreat to the tunnel which is also full so we stand and look at one another and listen to the rain drumming on the polythene.

Yesterday a long delayed consignment of rhubarb (Fulton’s strawberry surprise); a tayberry and a blackberry all arrived and while Madame watered inside the tunnel I planted the fruit. Something of a change of mood has come this year because at last the final position of the beds is fixed and all the major structures are in place. There’s more civil engineering to do, like putting a roof on the compost bins and building a shelter for us; but they’ll have to wait until the autumn because we’re fully occupied in sowing, propagating, pricking out, repotting and all the day-to-day things that make springtime gardening feel like a full time job. We’ve organised a bigger than ever group of perennial herbs, bushes and small trees so we know exactly how much space there is for the rotating crops.

Which brings us to pottering – or is it puttering? For me, puttering is always the sound of a small boat with an inboard diesel engine so when we garden it’s pottering: one of the most pleasant meditative exercises ever. Instead of being grimly focused on raising the ziggurat of Ur or putting up the trellis for the hanging gardens of Babylon, we alight on the multitude of small tasks like browsing bees; removing a weed here and there; replacing a tree tie; doing a minute examination of a plant for signs of insects; talking to the worms in the compost heap and sniffing emergent leaves to try to guess which plant they belong to. Or it might be dozing in the sun, listening to the birds above the constant noise of the traffic. Even a small plot like ours generates a huge number of little tasks that individually don’t amount to much but collectively make the difference between a well run allotment and a thuggish wilderness. You may have heard the story of Brother Lawrence who, as a young monk, chafed at the mundane tasks he was given and longed for something with a bit more status. He eventually discovered the great satisfaction to be got from throwing himself into the everyday as if it were the most important job in the world. [This story was naturally appropriated by the church hierarchy whenever it felt threatened by anyone with a new idea and wanted to put them in their place – but it still stands]. There is no greater reward in gardening than the emergent qualities of a plot that seem vastly to outstrip the insignificance of the means of tending it – or to put it another way; hedge laying is cold, windy, wet and repetitive but just about the best job in town on a winter morning.

Away from the mundane, I had a fun five minutes after the memory of a chart in Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” wandered into my mind uninvited in the middle of the night. Bernard Leach was one of the key figures in 20th century studio pottery and one of the areas he was interested in was the use of wood ash in glazes. So …… stay with me here …. we use wood ash on our compost heap because it contains useful elements like potash and phosphorous and on page 162 of my almost worn out 1940 first edition there’s a table of chemical analyses of various ashes. I bet you didn’t know that unwashed apple pulp ash has the highest phosphorous content of any of the ones he tried. There’s a bit of a clue there for composters I think. What comes from this middle of the war book though is a charming lists of the available substances for burning that can be harnessed as fluxes in ceramic glazes, and it’s not science as much as anthropology. Who’d have thought that among the freely available substances were Japanese rice straw (he lived in Japan when he was young), thatching reed, autumn weeds,apple pulp, lawn mowings,bracken ash, box (Buxus) ash and apple wood. I can’t make up my mind if the poetry of the list doesn’t outweigh its usefulness to potters and gardeners.

A rather fun (and very personal) garden in Mousehole where we stayed a couple of years ago.

Food and farming joined

At the beginning of the sequence of covid and then brexit we saw the fragility of our food chain demonstrated in the most telling way by empty shelves in the supermarkets and perfectly good food rotting in lorries. At the time we resolved that we would switch our shopping towards high standard and locally produced organic food as soon as we could. It’s been a year but after a lot of research we’ve found an organic farm shop that’s only ten minutes drive away and sells fresh meat and fish too on Wednesdays. These all come from the immediate locality. The veg are not so local because there are a lot more livestock and dairy farms locally than there are market gardens, but then they’re all labelled with their place of origin and we grow a great proportion of our own veg in any case. There are two organic veg outlets five minutes walk from the flat. The fish come either from West Country inshore fisheries or further afield for the offshore catches. Staples like grains and beans can easily be found in Bath which has a strong alternative food tradition. Is it all more expensive? – honestly yes – but that’s because the hidden cost of intensive food production and distribution are never counted in the ticket price, (although still we pay through the nose in terms of poor health, environmental damage and pollution), and of course we still buy a significant amount of food in a supermarket that’s worker owned and demands high welfare standards from its suppliers. You can’t let the perfect drive out the good, as the saying goes, and to an extent the higher price is mitigated by the fact that we never willingly waste any of it. Our tiny food waste recycling bin is only emptied a couple of times a week at the very most and one of these days when funds permit we’ll try out bokashi composting and/or build a worm farm up at the allotment. What’s for sure is that eating is – or at least should be – as much an ethical issue for omnivores as it is for the most committed vegan.

But there I go sounding a bit worthy. The best news about shopping locally is the fact that it creates a lot of local jobs and you can have a conversation with a person who really cares about what they’re selling. Today we joined the queue for the fish van and overheard a conversation he was having with a customer about the way the Brixham trawler skippers were re-jigging their markets after brexit. Then, when our turn came he was delighted to tell us that our smoked mackerel – the darkest I’ve ever seen – were smoked in Arbroath, and the smoked haddock (OK I love smoked fish) was processed in Peterhead where this particular supplier would only smoke the largest fish. In the butchery no-one even raised an eyebrow when I asked about mutton, and the butcher told me they only occasionally get hogget. You’ve really never tasted lamb until you’ve eaten hogget – lamb in its second year. We were given a leg by a smallholding friend and it was simply the best flavoured lamb I’ve ever tasted. We even found out that they make all their own faggots; no-waste butchery on the very farm the animals are raised on, and the great thing about a proper butcher is that you can often buy the cheapest cuts at incredibly good prices. In the food section there’s even a refrigerated Jersey milk dispenser, and unless this sounds like a bit of a promo, we tried the sausages last week and neither of us particularly liked them. However there’s another local butcher on our river walk and he makes the best we’ve ever tasted. Ask yourself when was the last time that food shopping was this much fun?

As we left the shop we found this family of pigs with a whole paddock to themselves. The piglets were a little shy and scooted off behind the ark when they saw me, but it seems to me that if you’re going to eat meat at all it should be produced on farms like this and lead a naturally fulfilled life in the open air before being humanely slaughtered. Traditional mixed farming is certainly one part of a sustainable farming future; producing excellent food while returning fertility to the ground. I go back often to Michael Pollan’s excellent advice – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg!”

In Parenthesis

Today is the first anniversary of the first Covid 19 lockdown, although Madame and me anticipated it by several weeks because we could sense in our bones that something very bad was about to come upon us. And unsurprisingly, I suppose, every news programme today was full of remembrances and silences and pictures of victims and nurses. I’m too much of a curmudgeon to want to join in minutes of silence, mainly because grief is an intensely private business for me. Notwithstanding the years of conducting funerals I don’t believe my inmost and saddest thoughts can be organised by anyone and I especially resent being told how I should be feeling. In my bleakest moments I sense that even to attempt to construct a narrative around these terrible events is to diminish them. And so we fled the garden centre at eleven fifty with ten minutes to spare and came back to the Potwell Inn.

By strange (or synchronistic) coincidence, last night we watched a marvellous TV documentary about David Jones’ poem “In Parenthesis” – probably the finest World War One poem ever written. I grew up knowing him as an artist because the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has a number of his drawings. In my teens and early twenties I struggled with his poetry, entirely lacking the life experience to understand what it might feel like to go through what he endured during the Battle of the Somme. The programme touched us both deeply. Many of the places he lived in were places we know well. After a year of isolation at home, the sight of the phone box in Capel y Ffin; the fact that he lived in the house that, at the time was the home of a small community of artists including Eric Gill, and which we pass directly on one of our favourite walks up to Hay Bluff reminded us of all that we’ve missed. Even his gravestone, carved by Jonah Jones, was a reminder of a marvellous exhibition we saw in Cardiff, and two others – one on Lleyn and another on Anglesey, In fact it’s been a week of Welsh Artists – some kind of season featuring many of the finests artists and poets of God’s Own Country.

The sense of the anniversary was hanging over us and early this morning I read through the two segments of the poems in my ancient edition of the Faber Book of Modern Verse which had once baffled me. Sixty years on I could see more clearly. I could hear other voices speaking – especially Gerard Manley Hopkins – and some much more ancient; the voices of the mountains and hills, and I could understand why he didn’t write the poem until long after the war. Our attempts to memorialise events before the ink has dried seem trivial and futile. Covid will take many years and many sleepless nights away from us before we can see it straight, as Jones finally confronted his memories of a dreadful battle in a French wood.

So we did what we often do, we went to the allotment to tend the living things. The sun was shining and we found ourselves taking layers of sweaters off as we sowed seeds and prepared the plot for the coming season. I love the way that seedlings often emerge in a green loop like a dropped stitch and then, within an hour, unfurl their cotyledons like tiny flags – I’m here! look at me! Sometimes the best way to cope with grief is to seek out the tiny signs of life with its sheer dogged persistence. Our son gave us two logs at Christmas, inoculated with the mycelium of oyster mushrooms and shitake mushrooms. Today I constructed a cool and dark shelter for them behind the shed so they can brood there in the quiet.

Our brother in law was among the first victims of Covid. His wife of fifty plus years is living in a silence that seems unlikely to be lifted by displays of public piety. It’s spring by every measure and yet for many the first opportunity to articulate that familiar and terrible cry of loss is a long way off. Pestering the grief stricken with our concern isn’t helping. Job’s friends – in the Old Testament story – were brilliant until they opened their mouths and broke the silence by seeking someone to blame.

Meanwhile we garden in companionable silence, haunted by the fear that we might lose one another.