I abandon all my principles to bake a blimp.

My excuse – do I need to make excuses? – was that I was worrying that my aged supply of dried yeast was beginning to play up. There’s not much that can go wrong with a loaf after all. Water, salt and a bit of olive oil are vanishingly unlikely to give problems so it’s almost always down to the yeast or the flour. I’ve had dried yeast give problems before and so when I open a tin I always write the date on the lid because the use-by date really is important. With flour, it’s usually 100% wholemeal that gets problems – apart from weevils that will get into any flour if you leave it uncovered. Wholemeal flour, kept in a warm and damp place – i.e a kitchen – will occasionally go rancid, which is why I never buy it in large quantities.

So yeast then. A few weeks ago, and bearing in mind the possibility of a second wave of the Covid pandemic I stocked up on yeast by buying a 500g pack of professional bakers yeast online. This morning I decided to test it because there were absolutely no instructions on the packet, and so I just made a white loaf in exactly the same way as normal – 500g flour, 350mls water, 15g salt, 15mls oil. But staying in experimental mode, the flour I used was part of the 16Kg sack of commercial white that I managed to buy off a local baker during the shortages. I’ve already said, it made a perfectly good sourdough and an OK yeast bread. If I say that the brand name was “Tornado” it may be a clue to what it was especially good at.

The mixture was so fast it almost doubled in size while it was sitting in the bowl for 1/2 hour before I kneaded it. The kneading was harder than usual because it felt quite tight. So much of breadmaking expertise is in the hands, and I could feel the difference. In the first proving it went completely bonkers while we were up at the allotment, so it was more than ready for the second rise, in the tin. This can be bad news because the dough can be exhausted if it’s left too long and you don’t get the spring in the oven. In this case, though, it was barely forty five minutes and it was fighting its way out of the tin again. I’ve never seen a meaner batch! So I slashed it and it opened cleanly like a flower; this is a really good sign. In the oven and with full steam it just went on growing – so bags of spring there. It’s cooling down now but I can’t wait to cut it – I fear it may be very open textured, but from the outside it looks just like the white bread of my childhood!

If I’m absolutely honest I was rather pleased. We spend so much time knocking white flour and yeast bread – perhaps we forget that most people want their bread to be neutrally flavoured so they can spread stronger flavours on it. But the take home point is that there’s a direct trade-off between speed and flavour. ‘Though I say it myself, my 24 hour sourdough method will make far better flavoured bread than this – but that’s not the point. The fun of baking at home is that you get to make bread exactly the way you like it to be. I love all kinds of bread and it’s great to be able to make a range of shapes, tastes and textures – just like you’d find in France for instance.

So I’m not going to get sniffy about commercial flour and yeast – if that’s what you like go for it and enjoy it. Then you won’t have to inflict tooth breaking, gum shredding pain on your partner as they try to reduce your finest razor crusted doorstop to a swallowable condition. Tomorrow morning I’m going to make toast with this one – just on the point of being burnt – and eat it with slices of butter. We shall eschew all jams, marmalades and spreads in favour of life threatening indulgence, just this once.

On a gloomy day with rain threatening we had a few hours on the allotment but the rewarding bit was cooking zucchini al forno for the first time this summer. I also found a marvellous YouTube video on grass identification by made by a real enthusiast who goes by the name of “Dr M”. He teaches at the University of Reading and if I was eighteen again I’d be banging on his door to join one of his courses. Anyway in case you’re interested here’s the link – but I’d advise you to make notes, it’s really worth it.

Don’t food photos always look messy? Mine always do anyway. This is supper before it was coated with parmesan and fresh breadcrumbs and baked in the oven. The lumpy things that look like potatoes are actually hard boiled eggs. It tastes lovely – honestly!

Zucchini al forno – from a recipe by Patience Gray in “Honey from a Weed”

The devil is in the detail – small is beautiful.

A red letter day

-and so either of those two headings would have done. Firstly, though – oh joy – they opened the Welsh borders for day trips (not for overnights) again and so we fetched the van and did a socially distanced triumphal entry into God’s own country without fear of being cast into outer darkness. I can’t begin to express how good it was to cross the Severn Bridge again and although we crossed back into England no more than five miles up the road, it felt as if we’d crossed a line in our heads as well. This was our first trip out in the van since our disastrous adventure in February when the charger controller and the batteries all failed and we sat it out for a week with no heating or lighting; and so – although I’d repaired and replaced them all – we were unable to take the van on to the road to test it until the lockdown was eased.

When we stand at the high point of Dyrham Park we can look across to the Forest of Dean as it forms the opposite line of hills beyond the River Severn. It’s a favourite view and so the Forest was our destination for the first trial run. The border between England and Wales threads through the two countries in a more or less random way as it moves northwards towards the Marches, and there’s a kind of transitional culture as you move up the Severn Valley; the accent a curious mixture of Gloucestershire and Welsh intonation. Welsh language is hardly spoken in this part of the world, though the language is compulsory for Welsh schoolchildren. Here, rugby rather than football is the game of choice. Ancient river fishing by nets is still clinging on, although the elvers that used to be caught and added alive to breakfast eggs have become such a delicacy in Japan that the waters are almost fished out. Thirty years ago the salmon putchers caught few fish, but now as the Severn is becoming cleaner, the salmon are returning . We’ve spent so many happy hours over in the Forest it was wonderful to drive over there again after a very long wait. Our last two camping trips were abandoned due to the torrential rain we had during the winter.

But the day also felt special because we were able to step outside our confines for the first time – in our case since early March. I’m certain we’re not alone in finding the first steps outside in the wider world just a little scary, knowing that Coronavirus is still with us and likely to remain so.

Anyway, the drive was uneventful, the weather remained dry and the sun even shone from time to time. This was never going to be a walk – that’s for next time – just a check on the campervan with a cup of tea and a sandwich in the car park at Speech House.

And so to the small and beautiful. I’m discovering that one of the best things about learning to identify as many grasses as possible is that they’re absolutely ubiquitous and so the merest layby is an excuse for a botanizing expedition. Grass, I’ve discovered – although it’s everywhere in the UK – is infinitely more various than you’d ever notice from a car window, and it’s terrifyingly easy to become a kind of wild eyed grass twitcher. This is my first in depth look at a specific family of plants – the Poaceae – and because wherever you are there’s going to be grass (no not that sort!), it’s as addictive as crack cocaine.

I only started this malarky because _

  • I was challenged by a proper field botanist who said they were easy, and –
  • Knowing the most familiar grasses would instantly add a dozen species to every expedition

So the Speech House car park was fair game and after a decent interval for tea and biscuits I searched a small patch of rough grass and found two new grasses I’d never keyed out before, and this is where the devil and the beauty are absolutely in the detail. This is the activity to die for! an arcane language, specialized equipment (well, a decent hand lens), loads of incomprehensible books to buy and a field that not many people get into, and also – for all of the above reasons – it has the great advantage of letting you show off just a bit (carefully) on field trips.

All grasses look the same until you look properly and then they’re different. However many almost identical looking grasses are also different when you look at them very closely indeed and then they sprout a multitude of identifying features like shiny knees and bearded ones or even modestly hairy ones – almost always less than a millimeter in size. Being a promiscuous lot, some of them can only be identified by DNA analysis- but that’s a whole series of Jeremy Kyle beyond my modest capabilities. Who’d have thought that serious examination of a grass’s naughty bits needs a low powered microscope. However a good phone camera with a macro capability can capture a huge amount of information I can take home for later. I’m astounded by the quality of these pictures taken with a Google Pixel 3.

So that was today – a dusty old patch of grass and weeds on a car park, but tremendous fun. Here are some more pictures of the ragwort that unsurprisingly was growing in the same spot. Was it jacobaea or squalidus? To be honest I’m never quite sure but I think these were Senecio jacobaea because although the tips of the leaves look pointed with the naked eye, the photo shows them to be distinctly rounded. As I said, the devil’s in the detail.

Sometimes, eating out of the cupboard can be a revelation.

In fact the photo – of a prickly sow thistle on the allotment today – has nothing whatever to do with my subject – except perhaps to say that just as weeds have their unique beauty. (this one looks to me like a dragon landing on the earth to me), so too can meals made from leftovers.

Or not exactly leftovers. Yesterday I mentioned that I was reducing four bottles of stored passata to a thick tomato sauce. With this year’s tomatoes ripening on the vines we really need to clear the cupboard, and we have a whole case of passata stored amongst the pencils and paper in Madame’s studio. If you’ve got a good memory you’ll remember that our favourite recipe is labelled Hazan number one. It’s the go-to recipe for tomato sauce at the Potwell Inn. It’s in Marcella Hazan’s book “The essentials of classic Italian Cooking”– as simple as could be, but devastatingly good. At its most basic it’s tomatoes passed three or four times through the passata machine, a dollop of butter and a few onions. We grow around 60 lbs of tomatoes a year and they’re all made into sauce and passata for stores. Last night I modified it a bit and threw in some of this season’s green garlic and – right at the end – a handful of basil.

When I first tasted it I thought I’d blown the sauce completely. It had a real acidity, and initially I thought I’d over salted it but it was done and we would eat it anyway. On with a large pan of water, then, and some linguini and then I united the sauce with the pasta and – well, it was stunningly rich; like a D Major chord played by a full symphony orchestra. We ate in silence and licked the bowl clean. Too rich off the spoon, it was extraordinary on the pasta.

So that was the first third of the pan of sauce. Today I made a goulash – just an ordinary one but instead of using the usual tinned tomatoes I added the second third of yesterday’s sauce. Once again the transformation was complete. The usual notes were modulated and there were sevenths, ninths and thirteenths, and so again we ate greedily- this lockdown is turning us into a pair of porkers! Sorry, by the way, for the musical metaphors but they’re the only ones that come close to flavours.

Tomorrow the last third is going into the zucchini al forno recipe from Patience Grey. I’ve never properly appreciated the tomatoes as functioning like a stock. We make stock all the time and we freeze blocks of it because running out is a bit of a catastrophe. When they work they’re there but not there – they liberate and accentuate all the other flavours without dominating themselves. The flat is stuffed with bottles, preserving jars and jam jars all waiting to be used over the next few weeks. Our sugar purchasing during these summer months is almost embarrassing, but the eating of it is spread out over a whole year and in any case quite a lot of the produce is given away.

I feel sad for people who don’t, or can’t cook. For me, the stove is a marvellous place and eating our own produce is almost sacramental in the way it binds together the collaboration with the natural world on the allotment and brings it to our table as we share and eat together. That’s been one of the worst aspects of the lockdown for us – we haven’t been able to share food with our family and friends. Slowly, though, we’re inching back towards a different kind of life where perhaps we’ll be able to address the pressing problems that we, as a whole worldwide culture, have created for ourselves and the earth.

A stranger on the allotment causes great consternation

I was just settling down to planting out some leeks for the winter when Helen came across with disturbing news. She had been poking about – although that’s not quite how she put it – on a disused plot when she had discovered what she thought might be Japanese Knotweed growing. This would be exceptionally bad news because it’s an incredibly difficult plant to eradicate without dousing the entire site with several tons of agent orange and keeping it under armed guard for six months. The treacherous thought passed through my head – look on the bright side it might be Himalayan Balsam which is almost as invasive but has prettier flowers. So we trekked across to the offending plot and had a look. Thankfully at this point she hadn’t rung the council, although she had mentioned it to the site rep. Anyway, whatever it was it wasn’t either of the nasty plants but I had no idea at all what it was, so I took some photos and promised I’d have a go at identifying it. Later on I had a scout around on the internet and discovered that it’s a golden kiwi vine – Actinidia chinensis. It’s a big and energetic looking plant so we’ll see if it bears any fruit this year; but people plant the wackiest things on their allotments and then when they leave, the next tenants often dig them up for fear that they’re weeds. We’ve seen many mature plants destroyed by newcomers who think they need to cluster bomb their plot and start again. Sometimes it’s a good idea to wait and see for the first year. Our vines and one of the white currants are both incredibly productive and neither of them cost us a penny apart from a bit of work. The same goes for the Lord Lambourne apple that was quickly escaping its espalier form from neglect when we took it on, but after a couple of hard prunings it’s looking the part once again and producing dozens of delicious apples for us.

Anyway, my forensic adventure revealed another useful neglected resource – a rampant patch of post flowering borage, which is a marvellous addition to a compost heap. So later I popped back and took a cut. It’ll grow back and flower again this summer with ease, and so we’ll share the spoils with the bees.

This is another of those transitional times on the allotment when we’re busy taking spent crops out and replanting the beds immediately. I harvested the last of the first earlies, around 28lbs of new potatoes. There’s just one more bed to clear because we like to get them safely out of the ground before the risk of blight. So spuds out and leeks in – that’s what I was in the middle of doing when helen shipped up. They’re lovely looking plants this year so we’re optimistic about a good crop. The peas, on the other hand, have been not been good. They came late and rather erratically and so the pea moth was able to invade before we got to eat them. There were a few pounds but nothing to get excited about – so, sadly, they’ll be coming up tomorrow if the rain lets up, and we’ll get something else planted in there.

One crop that’s totally reliable is the courgette. There are only two of us and we usually have far more than we need. To be honest it’s never been one of my favourite vegetables but growing them turns them into a wholly new treat. Often I sauté them and give them a splash of lemon juice just before serving them – maybe with a bit of finely chopped parsley. Lemon lifts the flavour in a way that salt never can, so it’s a perfect substitute. Another favourite way is to cut the courgettes in lengthways slices, dip them in beaten egg and flour and then fry them. OK it’s a bit of a faff, but then you alternate layers of courgette with pieces of mozzarella cheese and good, rich (home made) tomato sauce, pop in some hard boiled eggs and top it with bread crumbs and bake in the oven. It’s a recipe I got from Patence Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a weed” – look for zucchini al forno. We cook it with aubergine as well. Finally I’m trying something new today; you might best think of it as an Italian antipasti – courgettes , fried golden brown and then marinaded with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and mint leaves. They’re maturing in the fridge right now.

And on the subject of tomato sauce, we make litres of it every year, along with passata; treating the passata as a base ingredient which almost always needs turning into something else – like proper tomato sauce. I must have been in a hurry last year because while I was checking the stocks today I found about 10 litres of very thin passata and so I tipped four bottles into a pan and I’m reducing it with a couple of onions, a couple of cloves of garlic and a big lump of butter. It’ll sit there simmering very very slowly until I can almost stand a spoon up in it, and then I’ll put on a pan of boiling water for the pasta.

The crops are coming off the plot so fast that it’s a job to keep up; but after a four hour stint on the allotment this morning we unloaded the trug and everything looked so beautiful my tiredness evaporated and I went back to the stove hungry and almost singing. Just occasionally you can feel a bit stale – especially being as confined as we’ve been for months – but the constant changes on the allotment adds enough texture to our lives to keep us upbeat.

And finally, I’ve bought a new hand lens; a 20x achromatic job with LED and UV illumination built in. I was so pleased with its capacity to reveal the smaller parts of grasses I put it around my neck on its lanyard today and tucked it inside my T shirt. When I got home and changed out of my overalls I noticed a strange swelling under my T shirt, around my navel. My God! I thought I’ve got a hernia ….. but it was just the hand lens. No wonder Helen was looking askance at me this morning.

What to look our for in an artists’ garden

Tony and Glen Eastman have been our friends over many years – well coming on for fifty years, and this is their garden. I’ve wanted to write something about it for some years since a TV company attempted to make a film about it without having the first idea what an artists’ garden might be about. So all they saw was a tall banana tree growing in a city centre garden in Bristol. Hooked by the unexpected novelty, and in spite of Tony’s strenuous efforts to get them off the subject, the resulting film was a disappointment to all of us.

The tiger, by the way is a part of a very large collection of tiger artifacts and drawings brought together over decades. There are also O gauge railway toys and drawings, paintings and sculptures everywhere. They are a great lesson to aspiring artists who expect to be household names before they’re thirty (and consequently hitch a ride on the latest artistic fashion) – in that they’ve survived on small scale commissions and occasional exhibitions. Tony is fascinated by the Japanese culture and they have both travelled there, soaking it all up.

The garden reflects all of these interests . You might think there’s a touch of Henri Rousseau in the exact placing of the tiger. There are glimpses of Eastern art there, places for meditation, shelter from the sun and the rain and it’s all in what most people would think of as a tiny backyard. We were there today and notwithstanding the strenuous efforts of a team of builders working next door to reduce a similar town house to Trump Tower by digging out a huge hole in the ground and painting the breeze block walls with intensely blue paint, you could still sense some peace. Every living thing had been evicted from the building site next door and mercifully some of the invertebrates and birds have moved in. There are a number Echium pininana there, not exactly natives but brought to Cornwall from the Canaries they thrive in the sheltered climate.. In this garden the tallest is seventeen feet and today a procession of ants was ascending and descending as they feasted on the honeydew. Being a member of the borage family it’s hardly surprising that it was alive with bees.

There’s a sense that there’s nothing here by accident. Just as I’ve written about allotments saying something about their allotmenteers, gardens always tell a story about their gardeners – not by shouting but by inviting you to sit and see what comes along. Ask anyone who knows about gardening and they’ll tell you that the sense of the natural and the wild is the most difficult thing to accomplish in any garden – and just to remind you that this is not in the least “natural” there’s a repurposed lavatory pan in one corner. This is not a po faced, self consciously aesthetic garden, but it’s a place of prolonged meditation over many years, even decades.

This was our first trip to Bristol since March 14th so it was lovely to catch up with two of our oldest friends. We met them at a “happening” at Avebury Henge in 1972 when all the art schools in the country were circulated with a date, time and grid reference. How could we resist? There were about twenty people there plus a handful of rather obvious special branch officers who thought we might be up to no good. We all hoped they enjoyed the walk as much as we did. Later as we walked back from Fyfield Down the whole country was plunged into blackout as the electricity was turned off during the three day week brought about by a miners strike. We could see across to the Severn in the gathering darkness and it was one of the most special moments of my life. Life without power stations and coal mines would have its beauties!

So peace, tea, cake, cream and strawberries today and all in a most beautiful garden. Even a sparrow came to join us – a rare sound these days. Here are some more photos.

Jamming

just when it seemed safe to contemplate a short break from our longstanding routine, the longed for rain came along at the very moment we needed some sunshine for us to pick the soft fruit. So we’ve been glued to the weather apps every day and grabbing any couple of hours we can, to gather the crop. There’s a moment every year when we wonder whether we’ve got enough of one particular crop or another. Every year we worry that we’ve got the strawberries in the right place and the answer is always no – and so they continue their perambulation around the plot. The red and black currants are on relatively new bushes and so they’re beginning to crank up production. One of the the gooseberries was moved in the winter, but they’ve put up a decent showing; the strawberries haven’t been helped by the weather and the slugs but as ever the old faithful white currant bush has produced a lovely crop.

The red and white currants are best used as jellies, and it always seems a wasteful process except for the fact that the pips are quite large and the resulting jelly – particularly the whitecurrent – is beyond good; the rich intense acidity is more like wine than anything else. We try to be self sufficient with our produce, so it was good to open the last of the 2019 jars of jelly this week and have them replaced with another year’s supply. The gooseberries were divided into two batches with some bottled and some jammed. Then we kept a bit of everything back in a mixture for summer pudding fillings and eating with ice cream. So I’ve been spending a lot of time at the stove and that meant I could also bake cakes and bread while other things were cooking. It was all going swimmingly until first thing this morning when my juggling all went wrong and I landed up with a large quantity of very wet yeast dough as a result of my lack of attention; and so we have a loaf rising and some unexpected bread rolls waiting to go into the oven. As soon as the bread’s out I’ll have to make the blackcurrant jam – so it’s going to be a long day. However, there’s a marvellous ‘harvest home’ feeling as the cupboards fill for another year.

Up at the allotment everything is flying at the moment, with the silks out on the corncobs and trusses of tomatoes setting, courgettes and squashes clambering everywhere and even the risky outdoor chillies, aubergines and sweet pepper setting fruit. All the regulated tidiness of the early season has disappeared into a riot of marigolds nasturtiums and chamomiles which we more or less throw into the beds. We’ve been feasting on broad beans and early potatoes so yes – apart from the small matter of a deadly epidemic being fanned along by our beloved narcissistic sociopath – we’ve been living high on the hog – well, high on the mixed veg??

Life in the neighbourhood continues in its usual anarchic way. A tame jay seems to have taken up residence, and our previously quiet green has been the scene of regular revels involving dozens of mostly young people who (also mostly) clear up after themselves. A couple of nights ago after a particularly boisterous night there was a lot of litter left behind. While we harrumphed as we surveyed the damage, the most unlikely person on the entire square came out and cleared up the mess – which ought to be a warning about judging books by their covers.

The other source of entertainment this weekend was a couple who very drunkenly made love in full view of – and being discretely spied upon – through the hundreds of delicately drawn curtains behind which we all wondered if they’d ever get it together and then after about four hours wondered whether they’d ever finish. Dog walkers, stumbling upon the couple made dramatic alterations of course and even a group of young men gave up their game of football after being distracted by the frolicking. I tell you, it’s nature red in tooth and claw in our neighbourhood.

Mercifully I was able (honestly) to concentrate on some grasses I’d gathered on the path up from the allotment. I won’t bore you with a list, but there were eight species. I’m concentrating on grasses at the moment because I’ve finished doing the car park and most of the riverside, but mainly because back last year when there were field trips, I mentioned in passing to a very distinguished botanist in our group that I found grasses difficult. “Oh” she said, “Grasses are easy!”. Oh well, maybe my grasses are difficult, I consoled myself, and over the past twelve months or so I’ve been climbing a mountain of auricles, glumes and awns to the point where I can key out a new species with reasonable expectation of being right. I’ve even had to buy a x20 hand lens because some of the features I’m trying to look at are so tiny. I very much hope that I shall have my return match at some time in the future when I can ask her the name of some fiendishly difficult plant and experience the great joy of helping her out with the answer; revenge being best served cold.

These are strange times, as everyone keeps saying, but we already miss the quietness of the lockdown. There’s a rather theatrical and exhibitionist side to the partying that seems symptomatic of something broken. The lack of concern or preparation for this crisis is absolutely mortifying and even though we find ourselves really busy, and in truth our lives aren’t so very different from the way we lived six months ago; there is something missing. The trust has gone, and without it you have to wonder how society will continue to function.

A purple variety of broad bean – delicious

Slow down

Jim Reynolds, an old friend and brilliant songwriter, has a song about a hyperactive friend of his (not me) and it’s called “slow down”. I know exactly what he means. When I look at posts by my young friends on Facebook they all seem ceaselessly busy and I’m sometimes tempted to feel a bit superior; tempted that is, until I think about my own restless approach to life. Madame takes a different line. For her there is nothing more important in life than another Simenon novel. I wish I could do it too, but try as I will I can’t. If my bottom stays still for more than ten seconds an undetectable micro switch goes off in my brain and I have to look for something to do. Not just anything, though, but something important.

So, in a massively convoluted way, I’ve had to make slowing down important. I’ve had to turn it into a kind of practice like Tai Chi, in order to replace the mindlessness of restless and unfocused activity for the mindfulness of kneading dough, cooking, botanising, drawing or gardening. I’ve discovered along the way that, although I find silence uncomfortable, I really need it, at least a bit of it, every day. My longest ever period of silence was a full week at a Franciscan convent in Dorset. I nearly went crazy and eventually hiked across the fields to the nearest village to find a telephone box. But I profited enormously from the exercise – it was like a detox for a cluttered mind.

More recently my therapy sessions had significant periods of silence. Both in group and individual settings psychoanalytic psychotherapists, like mine, could remain silent for the whole session if no-one spoke. At first it was very uncomfortable but I found it became a warm and secure place, my safe place. I went to Robin- whom I’ve never adequately thanked – completely blocked, and over a period of several years he gave me a space in which to unravel the knots. Since my sessions ended I’ve written in excess of half a million words, about a half of which I’ve published here, in over 500 posts. That’s not a boast as much as a plea to anyone who feels they’re churning their life away in pointless time filling. Do something about it; get some professional help – it’s expensive but wasted lives are much more expensive. This is not an advert for psychotherapy – I haven’t been holding back about my undisclosed occupation or anything like that. But I have spent many years working with people who never seem to reach their full potential. Life’s a bit of a project, if you see what I mean, and every project risks failure.

For example, you might get quite eccentric. Last night, walking back from the allotment with my head full of the latest plant I/D book I found myself counting species of grass – five, if you’re at all interested – and now they’re in a little vase by my desk waiting for me to examine their ligules and auricles. I could go on with all sorts of examples of mindfulness, Brother Lawrence; door handle theology and so forth but I won’t because it might sound as if I’m trying to be an expert. For me, slowing down is all about paying minute attention to something; getting completely absorbed in some tiny particular of life. For the young Korean (I think) couple on the Green it’s about getting the flick of the fingers exactly right at the end of a fluid movement, for the two kick boxers we saw last night it seemed to be about making wonderful sweeping and interconnected movements like dancers, without colliding. I’m too old for that so it’s ligules and auricles for me.

But when we walk along the canal, for instance, the more plants I recognise and can name, the richer and the more outrageously beautiful the earth seems. Our grandson has spotted a puss moth and a garden tiger on their allotment in the last two days and we’re totally proud that he’s taking an interest already. It’s amazing what you can find out there if you just take your foot off the throttle.

Back on the allotment

Meanwhile, and notwithstanding the darker tone of the recent posts; things are going well on the allotment, although this year it’s become ever more evident than ever that the stately procession of the seasons has been one of the early casualties of global heating. We’ve moved into an era of ‘all or nothing’ weather which means that unseasonably hot and dry weather is punctuated by fierce storms that need a rather different sort of rain harvesting.

In the past the steady drip of rain running down the greenhouse panes into tiny gutters and thence through small pipes into the water butts, was rarely enough to overwhelm the system. This year we’ve had to modify the gutters and downpipes to cope with the short bursts of very heavy rain which, otherwise, would overtop them and overflow on to the ground beneath. Even then it takes a lot of rain to replenish 1250 litres (250 gallons) of rainwater. Luckily we have access to a couple of water troughs connected to the mains water supply. We also have several underground streams running through the site and flowing out across the pavement below us. In a perfect world we’d dig a massive tank at the bottom to capture the water and then pump it up the hill to another tank at the top, but in the present economic climate, anything beyond two days is long-term planning. That’s to say it goes on to a long list and stays there, even though the payback through saved water bills would be pretty quick.

So today’s job, yesterday’s job and likely tomorrow’s too is to water. In order to get the maximum benefit from the land area we made wood chip paths and beds, but at this time of the year the paths are populated with large pots and any other temporary containers we can press into service. These need watering every day when the temperature is in the 30’s, and the inside of the tiny greenhouse can be like a furnace – good news for the hot chillies as long as they don’t dry out completely. Anything else needs a lot of TLC.

And so just at the time the allotment is absorbing a great deal of energy, the produce is demanding more by way of cookery and preparation and with added ingenuity since ingredients rarely come off the allotment in recipe form. We have courgettes but no tomatoes or aubergines yet so ‘rat’ is off the menu. At the same time much of the soft fruit is ripening and so the question of what to do with it arises, as it does every year.

One useful discipline is to check the cupboard before we make any more of anything. We have a surplus of redcurrant jelly already so there doesn’t seem much point in making more. On the other hand we eat shed-loads of blackcurrant jam so that’s worth replenishing, but much of the other soft fruit is going to be processed into multi purpose fruit compote for summer puddings and ice cream. This year we made a generic “allotment jam” which was very good, but freezer space is limited so the gooseberries are going to be bottled. The biggest overproduction offenders are chutneys and pickles which need to be made circumspectly if you’re not to land up with a garage full of chutney because you didn’t know what else to do with an impulse buy of plums at the roadside. We find that jams last longer than a year, and chutneys can easily last three if they’re properly stored – but eventually they deteriorate and although they probably won’t kill you they won’t enhance your table either.

So we’re very busy but not too busy to keep an eye open for new plants. Today I spotted a common blue sowthistle on the site. It wasn’t too hard to identify but it uncovered the subtle distinction that most floras make between natives and incomers. Plants and flowers escape from gardens and railway lines, even on the wheels of cars and quarry lorries, and if they find a suitable spot they can settle down and grow. This one is a 19th century escapee that’s doing well but – because it’s not a genuine native – isn’t featured in most of my wildflower floras. Even the Book of Stace refuses to acknowledge it, although he will often give a line or two to my seventh cousin from Devon .

Identifying wildflowers can become a bit of an obsession, but it’s harmless and gets me out. I’ve been pacing the allotment and the canal recently trying to sort out the ragworts and, trust me, it can be a challenge. But!- there is a book and a method that’s immensely useful and it’s just been published in a revised second edition. It’s called “The vegetative key to the British flora” by John Poland and Eric Clement and it does exactly what it says on the tin – it helps you to identify plants that aren’t in flower – and even better, different plants whose flowers all look the same but which can be sorted out by closely examining the shape, disposition and minute details of the lower parts, the leaves and stems.

A massively useful tool, you might say, unless I’m trying to identify an escapee like a blue sow thistle, when the Google app on my android phone at least gets me most of the way home. I suppose if it (the sow thistle, that is), continues to do well – and it probably will – a massively suntanned botanist with a gigantic souwester for storms will give it a grudging mention in the 2050 appendix to a slim volume of all the plants that are left. Anyway, thanks to a good magnifier, a copy of Poland and Clement, and a tolerant partner I now know what a hydathode is, and consequently what is definitely an Oxford Ragwort; but the common ragwort which I have known all my botanical life as Senecio jacobaea has changed its name in the hope of escaping detection and is now known as Jacobaea vulgaris. Taxonomists can be very snotty.

Last night there was a massive party on the green. The police have been out in force on Royal Crescent, and so those in the know have come down to the Green which, being in a much less salubrious area, is less likely to generate complaints from important people. Aside from feeling a bit left-out because we’re still self isolating and ignoring the government, whom we wouldn’t believe if they told us the date; it was lovely to hear the young people having so much fun and this morning – contrary to stereotypes – there wasn’t as much as a sweet paper left on the grass because they tidied up so well. I do so hope their optimism won’t be crushed by a second wave of the Covid 19 virus.

Sleeping with the enemy?

30C all day – and so, counterintuitively perhaps, I spent the day batch cooking and making bread in the kitchen. It was hot!

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian today, asks why it is that the RSPB, the largest wildlife charity specialising in birds in the UK has joined with the Woodland Trust, an equally large and well supported charity, in giving support to an enormous scheme to build a new town twice the size of Birmingham between Oxford and Cambridge. This project was universally opposed by residents and wildlife groups until now when these two significant charities have reversed their position to support the scheme. The full article is here .

I think I know a part of the answer to this because I recall reading in Mark Cocker’s book “Our Place” that the RSPB have got serious form in this area. When the proposal to build an M4 relief route was being contested vigorously by environmentalists because it would have destroyed five out of nine protected areas in the Newport wetlands, an RSPB spokesperson is reported as saying:

As far as she was concerned the motorway would not affect their site and might actually increase visitor numbers

quoted in Mark Cocker “Our Place” page 65

With friends like the RSPB who needs enemies? you might wonder. But in the free market freewheeling culture of charities competing for favours and contracts from government and big businesses trying to greenwash their activities we should hardly be surprised.

I well remember resigning from a homeless charity because as they began to grow and take on more and more managerial and administrative workers they put pressure on us – the volunteers who actually took food out to rough sleepers at night – to stop handing out a couple of cigarettes to them “because it encouraged them to sleep rough”. I think anyone who imagines that they would put up with the squalour and privation of life on the streets for the sake of a couple of free fags a week needs to get out more. But there we are – ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ and the most effective method of neutralizing any campaigning charity is to fund it. Outright persecution is far less effective, but once the campaign is ‘on the payroll’ a quiet word is all that’s needed.

All this would be OK if, as in Candide, ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds‘ , but it isn’t. The world is in crisis and the time for quiet words is gone – if it ever truly existed. Another couple of news stories fed into my laptop today. Yesterday I mentioned the pollution of the River Wye by intensive organic chicken farming. I also read that there’s a serious cluster of Covid 19 cases centred on a chicken processing plant (slaughterhouse) in Anglesea North Wales. There’s another larger cluster in a similar plant in Bavaria, Germany. The resurgence in Beijing is centred on ….. need I go on. This catastrophe all started in a wet market where animals are slaughtered in unhygienic conditions, and it’s thought that the virus passed into humans as a result of the trade in wild animals for human consumption driven by the growth of intensive foreign owned meat companies which leads to peasant and small farmers migrating to the edges of the remaining forests where they forage for wild animals or raise domestic animals on a small scale even though there is a constant danger of viral mutations, because that’s the only way left to make a living. But it isn’t all farming that causes these problems it’s bad farming.

The common factor in all these incidences is poverty, poor wages, frequent appalling hygiene (less so in this country it should be said) and intensive agriculture that drives traditional farmers out of business. All these crises; environmental degradation , economic collapse, health problems, epidemics, migration and social unrest are merely symptoms of a single cause; the idolatry of the unrestrained free market. To go back to where I started this piece, a new concrete city twice the size of Birmingham (UK) isn’t part of the solution it’s just another part of the problem, and when governments and environmental charities alike are feted and funded by lobbyists then they’re playing the same old gradualist, ‘leave it to me’ game. Shame on them.

The idyllic world of my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns is about to be trashed by another enormous government scheme for a high speed rail link, the economics of which have been shown from the outset to be spurious. Surely we need to call time on this madness – after all it’s our money that they’re spending in order to to make the world impossible for us to live in at all; let alone well.

What should be the role of environmental charities in all this? Surely – at the least they should remain independent even at the cost of contracts, power and influence. The cost of their discreet silence is much greater.

Ponds, urban ecology and a few doubts

In my last post I wrote about the undoubted benefits of even small ponds in gardens and on allotments. We’re lucky here because our allotments are no more than 50 yards away from the river Avon and we have a number of large ponds almost as close; but that doesn’t in the least seem to lessen the impact of the tiny ponds that I photographed yesterday, and all within yards of our allotment.

As you can easily see, these aren’t all the tidy and expensive preformed fibreglass ponds bought from garden centres and neither are any of them apparently lined with expensive thick butyl. For the most part they’re a hole in the ground lined with builders polythene all apart from the one that’s not a pond at all but a horse trough. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all full of water, most of them have a few plants around them and they’re all teeming with life.

Starting with the horse trough that’s the source for much of our our watering, there’s never an occasion, it seems, when you can’t find at the least, a few water boatmen. The others vary in maturity but even the one that was built this spring by a couple of children raised a crop of tadpoles which they generously shared around all the other ponds. The murkier ones have larvae in them, and all are visited by a variety of dragonflies and damselflies which, when they’re not eating smaller insects are becoming snacks for birds. What the ponds are doing of course is drawing these interesting and beautiful invertebrates into places we can see and enjoy them, and as their natural habitat is eroded, ponds become a matter of survival for some species.

As you will know if you’ve been following the Potwell Inn blog recently, I’ve been reading David Goode’s contribution the the New Naturalist library – “Nature in towns and cities”. A brilliant collection of books for anyone interested in natural history in any case, and this one’s particularly caught my attention because it’s on a subject close to my heart.

When we moved to Bath almost five years ago I wasn’t prepared for the richness of the wildlife to be found here. Having lived and worked in what most people would think of as the countryside, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the natural history of our adopted home. But far from being less diverse, our immediate neighbourhood slowly yielded its secrets. Not just badgers and foxes but otters! Not just buzzards but a peregrine’s nest; and enough unfamiliar plants to keep me perpetually bewildered. On the very first night here we heard a tawny owl; it was strange to say the least. Now we’re almost blasé about bats and we can name the species of gull on the green outside.

And so I’ve been writing enthusiastically about all this wildlife and, if you live near here you really should join the Bath Natural History Society (Bath Nats) because they’re the quickest and easiest way to learn what’s here. If you live anywhere else and don’t fancy moving to Bath, I urge you to investigate and join your local natural history group – it’ll be full of fabulous, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who just love sharing their interests.

Yesterday after a hot couple of hours on the allotment we wandered along the river to see the peregrines and we got especially lucky because the recently fledged young did a quick flight while we were there. I’ve been to Symonds Yat and not seen a peregrine and yet our son saw one eat its kill on his back doorstep in the middle of Birmingham, and I saw my first less than half a mile from home.

So there’s the good news and here are the doubts. Although it’s a joy to have this diversity outside the door, isn’t it just a bit weird that so many species, being displaced from their normal habitats, are evolving to live here? Isn’t it sad that I’ve learned so much more about plant diversity since we moved to the city? I go on about the rogues and vagabonds but corncockle? vipers bugloss?

The greatest sadness is that when I look for them where the old floras said I’d find them; all too often the habitat is gone. Seabirds can’t find a living in fished out polluted seas and so the canny ones have moved inland to our rubbish tips. Those species that can’t adapt are diminishing rapidly. Invertebrates and plant species that once made the meadows beautiful at this time of the year have been poisoned out of existence. So the take-home point is that however thrilling it is to have the early adapters and early adopters here in the city; they’re in the minority. There’s still every point in cleaning up the rivers and creating inner city wildlife corridors and green spaces. There’s every point in asking gardeners to think about pollinators but it’s not enough.

Grateful for small mercies?

One thought provoking piece in yesterday’s papers made me sit up. There are so many organic and free-range chicken farms setting up on, or near the upper reaches of the river Wye that the accumulating load of excess nitrogen and phosphorous from their droppings is leading to eutrophication of the river – killing it slowly. So even eating organic chicken isn’t going to let us off the hook. It’s intensive farming that’s causing the problems – whatever label you put on it to make it sound like it’s saving the earth.

Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

Think about it for a moment. If even two percent of the vertebrates, invertebrates and plant species could be persuaded to live here in green spaces and derelict industrial sites it would only take one inappropriate development to wipe out a species altogether. Much as I treasure urban ecology, it’s never going to be more than a tiny part of the answer.

We need to change the way we live and the way we produce our food, the way we move about, the way we enjoy our leisure time and the way we shop. We cannot let the free market politicians urge us to live within our means when the real means of our lives are being destroyed for profit. They love to talk about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by which they make the unsupported assertion that land cannot be managed equably without ownership. Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

No amount of information boards, nature reserves and feeding stations will make up for the loss of the earth. This is an ethical problem, a religious problem, a problem of vision. The one thing it is not is an economic problem. The economists with their pseudoscientific theories have acted as the heavy artillery of the free market. We see the damage they have done every day and I, for one, am not grateful for very small mercies.