Four hundred and fifty three thousand, seven hundred and forty four

No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change compost compost bins composting coronavirus deep ecology earth ecology environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany foraging garlic global heating growing chillies herbal medicine hotbed intensive farming lockdown lost gardens of heligan marmalade meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions spring sustainability technology water storage weather weeds wildflower meadows wildflowers

Finding the Potwell Inn – and why it doesn’t matter where you find it.

Plas yn Rhiw – overlooking Hell’s Mouth Bay

So this is not a photo of the Potwell Inn – it’s a photo of Plas yn Rhiw in North Wales; BUT IF I was going to actually give the Inn an address it would serve admirably. Writing this post about the Potwell Inn has become important today because the last week has been almost ridiculously busy on the website for no reason that I can figure out.

Thanks for dropping in – we’re here every day

It started when someone probably posted a link to a piece I wrote on harvesting borlotti beans and it attracted an awful lot of readers. I suppose I should be celebrating, but being a born again self-doubter, I instantly attributed it to some kind of mistake until, that is, another post went even wilder and tripled my readership overnight. OK I’m pleased but also puzzled because I’d like to say thank you to my invisible promoters but I can’t. It’s also a sobering reminder that once you press the ‘publish’ button, your little darlings become public property. So here’s a general thank you to my loyal band of regulars and the new brigade of irregulars who’ve appeared out of nowhere. Thank you for coming, it’s been great!

However I noticed that several searches recently have dug out an old post on “Finding the Potwell Inn” – possibly in the hope of dropping in for a pint in front of the log fire. Back along I had a lovely email from a reader who thought that he’d found, (and had a drink in) the original model for the fictional pub that came to life in H G Wells comic novel “The History of Mr Polly”. Sadly the landlady was not properly proportioned for the part: is anyone I wonder? so I’ll stick with Madame who’s perfect for the job as far as I’m concerned.

…… smelt like a combination of billy goat and cottage pie for most of the summer

So to save putting you to the trouble of sorting through a shoe box full of old papers like an accountant the day before the tax returns are due; I’ll say again that the Potwell Inn is not a place at all. It doesn’t exist and yet it could be anywhere that’s a place of refuge in a world that’s falling apart. Sorry for the gnomic definition but I can’t think of any other way of putting it. It first became a place of refuge for me when, at school and locked in an airless room with thirty other teenagers who (in the days before deodorants) smelt like a combination of billy goat and cottage pie for most of the summer; we studied Wells’s novel ‘Polly’ and I made up my mind that my life’s work would be to escape and find my own Potwell Inn.

Looking back on it I’ve realized that the Potwell Inn doesn’t so much exist as a place, but as an experience or – as some modish philosophers would have it – a process. Not, I mean, the kind of elevated process that leads to great discoveries, but the utterly everyday processes of growing, cooking, eating, cleaning, singing, laughing, remembering, loving and dreaming. A place where such ordinary things are encouraged and not disparaged by those who like to sit in judgement. One of the happiest men I ever met was a pallbearer – he carried coffins in and out of churches with an appropriately sombre air and loved his family. He gave me some china eggs once because we had a broody hen who was making a nuisance of herself; and his idea of paradise was to be on holiday with his huge extended family on a caravan site overlooking the brown and turbid waters of the Bristol Channel.

And so the Potwell Inn – that’s to say my (our) version of it has no postcode (or zip code) but is the culmination of houses, journeys, meals cooked and shared, drunken nights and sober ones, pots pans and knives acquired and treasured (each with its own history), holidays, seasons, gardens, allotments and jobs; children being born, growing up and moving away. It leaves behind a rich furrow of ideas, faiths and skills learned, embraced and abandoned; turned in to the soil of our many places. Dust to dust – I can entertain that thought without feeling sad at all; it’s just the way things have to be. Love can only be love when it’s vulnerable.

This is the Potwell Inn in which the produce and people who come through the door become sacramental and a savoy cabbage (today’s treat) can be a feast that’s unavailable at any fashionable restaurant. The Potwell Inn can be a loaf of bread or a cassoulet made with our own beans. More plausibly it could be the first cut of our asparagus, the taste of an apple fresh from the tree or the smell of a clove of garlic crushed. It can be the sound of the tawny owls calling to one another that we heard on our first night sleeping in the centre of Bath and who told us we were in the right place. It can be the smell of the river on a summer evening or the earth as it warms up in spring. It is a world of signifiers where the signified always hides out of sight. The Potwell Inn is a language that lasts as long as a mayfly lives; the burnt crust at the bottom of a paella; the skin on the rice pudding.

The Potwell Inn is not about public houses

If you’re old enough (I mean seriously old) you might have come across a novel by Richard Brautigan called “Trout Fishing in America”. On the back cover was a sentence – Warning to librarians – this book is not about fishing. I’ve described the Potwell Inn in as much detail as I can muster. I could probably write an entirely different version tomorrow morning, and so I’ll close this piece with a similar warning. The Potwell Inn is not about public houses (although anyone who could run a decent pub would have a head start at finding it or building it).

And please feel free to post links back to this blog, or recommend it to your friends if you like it; but let me know because I’d like to thank you personally.

Sunset, dusk, twilight.

I could have titled this post ‘Nocturne‘ – a bit posey; or – ‘Be careful what you pray for!’ – except that usually applies better to well deserved comeuppances, so I settled on the one it’s got because today we walked through and enjoyed the subtle differences between all three evening states and now as I write this I’m looking through the window at the night – not Van Gogh starry night or Whistler night and especially not Turner night but just the car park, the backs of the terrace and the fast food joint chimney.

We wasted much of the day waiting for a delivery from Royal Mail that never arrived. To recycle a quip from John Mortimer, writer and barrister, “it’s like tantric sex; you’re in all day and nobody comes.” So (moving rapidly on) we didn’t set out on our walk until 3.00pm. Years ago we were walking in Leigh Woods in Bristol when a tramp – ‘rough sleeper’ carries a whole different set of connotations nowadays; this was a man who had chosen to live in the woods for whatever reason. Anyway he came rushing up to us in a state of high excitement and begged us to follow him. “I’ve been living here for ten years and I’ve never seen one before”, he said, and he led us off into the wood where he had found the first thorn apple he, or we, had ever seen there. Jimson weed, devil’s Snare or thorn apple, it’s got a bit of a reputation for being poisonous/hallucinogenic and the RHS entry for it spends almost as much time describing how to kill it as it does to grow it. We, however, were pleased to see it, thanked him and went on our way.

Yesterday I mentioned here that we haven’t yet seen the otters on the river and blow me if we didn’t meet a man who had – earlier today. Yesterday too, I mentioned that we hadn’t noticed the resident heron for a few days and there we were near an improvised shelter (bender) on the bank watching a larger heron that we haven’t seen before when this man came up to us and told us that only this morning he’d seen a female otter with two cubs, swimming at the exact spot we were standing in. It was beginning to feel as if we were on a roll.

What next? Well, a little further on we saw in one spot – without moving – two swans, one cormorant, one kingfisher, our usual heron and two – yes two peregrines. Admittedly the peregrines were about 60 feet up on St John’s Church spire but that was a bit of a moment to savour, and remember; this is all in the very centre of Bath. A group of young men were passing and joined in the peregrine watching. “They’re up there on the nest platform” I said; and one of them replied “I know, my dad made the nest box and two of the little ones have got together and had babies!”

There were hordes of people out walking in the parks and on the canal in spite of the slate grey and rain bearing clouds overhead. Somewhere up there there was rain falling high above us because a rainbow had gathered together all the sunlight that we weren’t seeing and formed an inverted bowl over our heads. Dogs, children, adults, students in careless groups of eight and ten oblivious to the wide birth we were giving them. It was an almost joyful atmosphere as we grabbed what fresh air we could before retreating into lockdown and endless repeats on the television.

As we walked along the river beneath the railway station a long express train pulled in and we noticed for the first time that the lights inside the carriages were glimmering on to the platform. There’s a marvellous sense of inside/outside as it gets darker and the whole townscape slowly changes from day to night. The sky was washed with Paynes Grey, possibly my favourite watercolour; and stationary tree trunks that the spate had brought downstream were riffling the water, making the street lights dance. We quickened our pace to get back where the otters were before it got too dark to see them, but it wasn’t to be. Still; now we know where they are, we can take the binoculars and search for a holt. It was a lovely walk, and completely, unexpectedly rich as walks so often are.

And as I’m writing I remember that among the plants in flower that I listed briefly yesterday, I forgot the hedge woundwort and prickly sow thistle near the canal. The woundwort looks very like a pink/purple nettle, but the killer trick for identifying it is the smell of the crushed leaves that can be anything from mildly unpleasant to almost nauseating. It’s supposed to be effective against boils and such like. I just love the English names of these medicinal herbs; they’re little poems – two or three syllable haiku. Latin names are more useful but I wouldn’t be without Mrs Grieve and Geoffrey Grigson’s lists of local names. I remember an old countryman telling my sister the local name for dandelions – ‘pissabeds’ and giggling as my mother glowered at him. In fact she knew them all very well but never mentioned the more earthy ones.

And then back home, hungry as horses, we fell upon homemade and home grown baked beans; our own borlotti and our own rich tomato sauce mopped up with our own everyday sourdough. Life doesn’t get any better.

Walking with a purpose

I have some dim idea why I love these little characters so much because they were the first gulls I learned to distinguish out of the group which I had always just seen as “seagulls”. I was puzzled enough by their red legs and beaks with black tips to get a bird book and find out what they were called. That was years ago and so now I know they’re black headed gulls – which caused a many a problem because it turned out they were only truly black headed in the summer. But they turn up here most winters; sometimes they stay and sometimes they go on somewhere else, and since I first noticed them I’ve learned a good deal more about them, but I love their delicate flight; the way they make the herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls who also live here look a bit lumpy – and, they’re here at the moment. These two were on the river bank immediately below the church where we often see peregrines – there was one there today. This isn’t unusual, we also saw wagtails, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, moorhen, mute swans and a lone Canada goose. The heron has been missing for a couple of days but he’ll show up again in one of his favourite haunts.

It was here on this walk that I learned to separate the ragworts; to find pellitory of the wall and half a dozen other medicinal herbs growing wild; here I noticed winter heliotrope and not – as I first thought – coltsfoot. Here too the wild lettuce that doesn’t look the least bit like the stuff on your plate. We do the same walk pretty well every day; come rain or shine. It’s about 8 Km which gets us over the 10,000 step line and passes a couple of local shops that we use. That means that we walk around 10 kilometers most days and it’s not in the least boring because it’s never the same two days running.

If I was trying to make it sound a bit posh I’d call it a transect – an ecological technique that helps us to understand an environment by walking the same path as regularly as possible and recording what you find there. It takes a while but eventually you kind of make friends with it, to recognise the old stagers and the newcomers and to rehearse their names so often that they stick in your mind. Depending on the season we could focus on birds or plants; insects (not too sharp on those) or butterflies and if anything the walk becomes more interesting each time we do it. Naturally there are other walks in much sexier places where we can marvel (gawp?) at five star rarities but there’s nothing in the world to beat finding one of them in a dark corner of a familiar place. We know the proper names of some of the fishes that congregate near the surface of the water in the summer, we watch the river in spate and at its lowest time in a dry summer. There are things we’d love to see – like otters – and I’m sure one day we will. The local natural history society – there’s a link on this page – runs a great facebook group where we can see things we’ve never seen ourselves and check out an identification with some hardcore experts if need be.

Walking is the most tremendous activity when you want to think. Our days are pretty standard; two hours of walking, three quarters of an hour of weights, two or three hours of writing and the rest on the allotment, cooking, eating and reading. When I write it down it looks almost monastic and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Walking grounds us, gives us a couple of hours when we can talk or be quiet and where we can find a perspective on the troubles and worries of life, and it provides me with an endless source of reflection – much of which finds its way on to the blog.

Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau, Santayana and a host of deep ecologists, poets, writers and pilgrims have all found comfort and inspiration in walking, so I reckon the evidence is in. I’ve always kept notebooks and sometimes the notebooks became journals and they’ve been the most important source of inspiration for me. So often, reading back on an everyday, common experience can suddenly flood it with light – “oh so that’s what was going on”. A walk can be an almost symphonic experience that might one moment be prayer, or contemplation, or remembering, or just filled with wonder and delight or perhaps a simmering grouse, or an anger that’s needing to be dealt with. Let them come, and let them go. And that’s not to mention the fresh air, occasional sunshine and the natural history waiting to be recorded.

It’s November, almost official winter and yet today we saw herb Robert in flower, winter heliotrope with its odd perfume, so difficult to describe; nipplewort; a couple of vagrant marigolds on the canal bank and the initial rosettes of a dozen pathside herbs that look lovely even as they are. It’s so easy to be sniffy about ragwort but really, its leaves are lovely in their prime condition.

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a piece of lichen that I picked up last year. If I sprayed it with water it would come back to life, and under the microscope it becomes a miniature world; a kelp forest an inch across. There are bits of dried grass and a pencil sharpener; with all the books and apparatus I need to continue the walk in my head later. It’s so much bigger and richer than just boring old exercise; making up the 10,000 steps. Oh yes, walking is good – good for the legs, good for the mind, good for the spirit too. It takes some ordinary – you might say thin – time of course, but renders it thick, rich and deep like good soil. Sure you might add the biochemical changes and dismiss it all as so much dopamine and you’re free to do just that; but I prefer to think of each walk as another voyage of the Potwell Inn Beagle.

*If you want to explore the philosophy and history of walking rather than read books about routes you might like to look at Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust”. I thought it was a superb book when I first read it and I’d recommend it without hesitation.

Britannia lures the waves!

And – as the great ship of state sinks gently to the seabed of reality …….

Sometimes a photo is a ready-made metaphor for something you can’t quite explain! But then, it was such a nice day today for a reflective walk that even the provocations made me laugh. I’ve written before about the way each season carries intimations of the next to cheer us on, and today there was a tremendous sense that spring will come because time and tide bow to no-one, however powerful our inglorious leaders might like us to think they are. There were signs of occasional occupation in this boat until a month or two ago, but now it’s about to join the shopping trolleys and stolen bikes at the bottom of the river. Meanwhile the prophets of Baal (you can look it up, it’s a very funny story) whip themselves up into a froth of evangelical fervour as we stand alone against Johnny Foreigner – ready to show what we’re really made of. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of Elijah anywhere on the horizon – I certainly don’t think Keir Starmer cuts the prophetic mustard. Anyway as a sign of our preparedness for the coming troubles I thought the poor old wreck was a fitting tribute. Johnson’s new £10 billion navy – “Just needs a lick of battleship grey and a union flag and she’ll look as good as she did in the 1930’s”. And we all know how well that went.

So by way of a bit of diversion this two part graffiti on the river bank made me laugh out loud:

I thought the waggish “why?” completely demolished the rather earnest philosophical tone of the original comment. Elsewhere I thought you might like to see this 20th century brutalist response to the foppish grandeur of Georgian Bath.

Yes it’s the Avon Street multi story car park which is about to be demolished – but still much loved by skateboarders. Needless to say the offending building – like most of the truly ugly modern buildings in Bath was erected in Kingsmead – where we now live. This was the area that was most damaged during the Baedeker air raids during the war – the bombers missed the real target back in the day – but instead of grasping the opportunity to restore what was always a poor but vibrant mixed community they built lots of horrors like this and demolished even more small, historic houses across on the London Road on the spurious grounds that they were unfit. The tragedy, of course, is not so much the failure of architectural imagination – I’m not arguing here for mock Georgian multi-story carriage stables – it’s the shocking fact that someone, in an office somewhere, thought this was all we were worth. George Steiner wrote memorably of a critical test for literature – “What measure of [hu]man does this propose?” The architect Richard Rogers has written that buildings embody our idea of human worth, what we’re about and what we’re capable of. We’re not there yet by any means – the Western Riverside Development in Bath, done by Crest Nicholson resembles nothing more than a bonded warehouse or an architectural tribute to a Chernobyl housing project.

There are, however, grounds for hope. The lockdown has created economic havoc among some of the larger companies, but many of the smaller shops and businesses have proved themselves more adaptable; working collectively and capitalising on what feels like a real longing for a new order. The butchers and bakers and for all I know the candlestick makers too have tapped into something significant, exploring the meaning of local and community; and all it could take to demolish the supermarket myth for good will be another food supply crisis – like the one so heedlessly being put together at the moment. It used to be a raise in bread prices that caused riots – maybe this will be the first civil unrest ever caused by a shortage of jackfruit and avocados, but more plausibly – given the middle class aversion to any action bar gentle hand wringing – it will be provoked by the absence of the everyday things; the foodstuffs that (like it or not), most of us have learned to depend upon.

So back to my book of the year (so far). Here’s a section that caught my eye this morning:

We’ve now discussed, however briefly,the human ecology of field crops, gardens, livestock and wood crops with a view to constructing more sustainable farm systems for the future out of this raw material. Earlier I mentioned the idea of people re-wilding themselves in the context of that future – spreading themselves out across the landscape like other organisms to to skim its flows sustainably rather than concentrating so as to mine its stocks, practising the arts of self-reliance, knowing how to fill the larder, and knowing how to stop when the larder is full rather than pursuing an economy of endless accumulation.

Chris Smage – “A Small Farm Future” p 144

Well, Amen to that. The economy doesn’t just need the tyres pumping up or an oil change it needs to be exposed for what it has become, the means of extracting wealth, leisure and humanity from millions of people and throwing millions more into dependency, sickness and poverty. The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek crino – to choose – and so we have to ask who gets to choose when we reach the crossroads? – when the multiple crises facing us come to fruition at the same time because, in essence they are one massive connected crisis.

So to round off a pleasurable walk today, photographs of the two repurposed bridges from the ‘glory days’ of steam. The first the line from the old Somerset and Dorset, which brought coal (remember that) in from Midsomer Norton and the North Somerset coalfield into Green Park Station. The second, the old Midland Railway line. A third one comes in from the West and goes to London and is the only surviving working line. And of course there’s the lovely iron pedestrian bridge over the Kennet and Avon canal which no longer carries coal but pleasure boaters onwards towards London. The latest bridge across the river is for pedestrians and cyclists only. Steam has gone; coal has gone and the old station now houses market stalls, a butchers shop, food outlets and the local farmers market on a Saturday. The owner says he could let another six units today if there was space. Is this a sign of collapse or is it the foretaste of a new future, the first buds of spring that actually appear in late autumn when the leaves fall from the trees? If you look now you’ll see the buds there waiting. Only time will tell what fruits they will bear.

It’s all in the fingers

Off to Shipton Mill for a sack of flour today – which is what passes for a day out during a lockdown. Buying flour in bulk (well, 25Kg anyway) is a bit of an event in my book- it confers a feeling of confidence about coping with the post brexit food shortages that are surely on their way, and helps me to feel that after 50 years of practicing I’ve moved up a rung on the baking ladder. Not so my son, because once – when I struggled down to his pizza shack with a sack of Italian flour, he told me he gets through five a week of them at least. Ten years ago I’d have been driving across to Berkeley to see my old mate Dick England who set up a mill there, where I could see the milling going on and soak up his expertise – how he allowed the grain to ripen properly before he’d mill it and why a millers’ thumb was better than verniers and microscopes for assessing the quality of the flour. In fact, for him smell, taste, feel and even sound were all part of the process. Dick was a singer too, a rare tenor whose voice you could recognise anywhere, cutting through a choir in a way that was thrilling to listen to but extremely annoying to conductors. Anyway, Dick passed away some years ago and most of the time, if I can get it, I use Shipton Mill because it’s local and excellent quality and they don’t mind letting punters like me go and collect a small order. Collecting has become something of a cloak and dagger affair since covid began. I ring them and make the order, pay for it and they give me a time slot; then I turn up at the mill at the appointed time and look for a white van in which my order has been placed. It’s the ultimate covid compliant handover that feels like a spy swop at Checkpoint Charlie and with the added advantage of a wander around the Cotswolds through scenery I’ve known since I cycled around there as an eleven year old. Those were the days.

On the way the way there we spotted an old bottle kiln sitting incongruously by the side of the road near Luckington. The Cotswold landscape is mostly limestone – known as cornbrash and which is used for walls, buildings and even roofs where every course of stones is a different size and has its own name. That was something I learned from a long conversation with a retired roofer in the pub. One of those memorable evenings. As for the kiln, I had no idea there were pockets of clay in Wiltshire large enough to exploit but the evidence was before us. When we got home we found a reference and it turned out that this one was the last survivor of a bank of three and had never been fired.

What came to mind was a thought that so many of the truly important skills are embodied, exercised through all of the senses and deepened by constant practice. It’s almost impossible to describe in words when a dough is just right. Of course you can stick to a recipe as long as your ingredients are standardised, but using local flours, for instance, the protein content and workability can vary from batch to batch, depending on the season and the weather. The recipe is – so to speak – in the hands and fingers. And so with clay, which will sing if you know how to do it. I even knew a plasterer once who could advance or retard the setting of a bucket of mixed plaster as if by magic.

Last night we watched a TV programme on the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was marvellous to see how many women were among the engineers and specialists at the top of their professions; and it was also pretty awesome to see young carpenters learning how to cut the new roof timbers from trees they’d felled themselves by hand. The timbers are selected by shape; curved pieces for curved shapes, making them as strong as steel. At one point there were three young people standing next to one another on a huge baulk of timber, finishing the curve with nothing but adzes and hand axes. I could almost smell the oak chips flying off. My own grandfather was a carpenter and would talk about his days as a bottom sawyer in a saw pit, when he was young, with flakes and sawdust falling into his eyes and his back half broken by the effort. He was the same; he could cut a complex joint by eye and actually came out of retirement in his early 70’s to help restore a medieval timber framed building in Bristol. As we watched these fortunate apprentices I asked Madame if it was too late for me to learn a new craft – OK so you know the answer to that one!

Why is it we so undervalue these skills. Anyone who can count to twenty without taking their socks off is applauded; everything is subject to examinations and tests which skew value towards assessable targets, while a decent gardener will understand how plants talk to us and what they are telling us if we will but listen. How do you assess how a compost heap is going? By touch and by smell.

Young chefs often fail to taste their food, and if they do, but they smoke – which is extremely common it seems – they habitually overseason their food. Experience, texture, smell, visual appearance and taste are far more important to food than photographs and recipes. Like so many working class kids of my generation I first learned to cook good food from Elizabeth David, without any detailed recipes and glossy photos. Then, later on as we travelled in Europe we would spend hours tracking down dishes and discovering whether I’d even got close. Frankly some of my bodges were a good deal less anxiety provoking than the real thing – local delicacies can be a bit in yer face if you know what I mean. My first genuine andouillette (tripe sausage) in a motorway service station near Lyon was a reminder of precisely the bits of the animal I least wanted to think about, and my order of a feijoada near the old market in Lisbon attracted a crowd of waiters as it was served up. Apart from the tooth that had fallen out of what I think was a pig’s jaw, it was marvellous – well, character forming anyway. The market is now a foodie destination but I doubt if you could order feijoada there – too peasant by half; and in another Lisbon restaurant I had to almost fight a waiter to get what I’d always known as stone soup which is basically boiling water, raw garlic and raw egg. “You won’t like it!” he said. He was right. One of my favourite things is to try to recreate something wonderful that we’ve eaten, without a recipe but just a memory. Careful, thoughtful eating often gets you surprisingly close.

I once knew a drystone waller – Herbie Curtis – who was asked by someone how much he charged – “£100 a yard” he said. “That’s a lot of money for a pile of stones” the enquirer said. “Well” said Herbie – “It’s a pound for the stone and £99 for knowing what to do with it”. Yep – that just about nails it.

Trench warfare at the Potwell Inn allotment

The sticky end of the unwanted grape vine

Regular readers of this blog may remember our ongoing struggle with underground streams on the allotment. In many ways we’re very fortunate to have a stream percolating somewhere beneath our feet that is able to supply water to the roots of any our plants with the means to access it. But it cuts both ways when we get very wet weather and the water table rises to about a foot beneath the surface; the clay/loam soil is desperately liable to poach and so many plants hate having wet feet.

The grape vine was on the allotment when we arrived. In fact the whole site is populated by genetically identical black grapes, all of them planted in the heyday of the Italian restaurants when a team of waiters and chefs took over plots and grew food to remind them of home. The very last of them died just this year and well into old age he still browsed our allotments as if he and his friends were still running them. I once saw him take two carrier bags of ripe figs off an allotment that used to be theirs. They would also pick many buckets of grapes to make wine which is, or was, reputed to be pretty good. We’ve got a vine on each side of our plot and one of them looks after itself with a bit of pruning in the winter, and gives us a good crop of small, sweet black grapes rather spoiled by over large pips. The other vine has always functioned better as a windbreak and screen, producing copious growth of leaves and shoots but never setting a decent crop of grapes. We made 25 litres of wine from the other vine a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough sugar in the grapes so it was very ‘thin’, lacking in flavour, and in the end we poured it away. When we decided to stop drinking alcohol 18 months ago it removed one of the reasons for growing these small grapes. Ironically our present allotments are on a site thought to have been a vineyard in Roman times.

So when we rationalised the fruit cage this autumn we decided to dig up the less successful vine to make space for a redcurrant, and today I attempted to dig it out. After a nominal first foot it was clear that the reason for unsuccessful growth was that it’s had its feet in water every winter. In the end I had to give up because the hole was filling with water within minutes and the stump appeared to be sucking itself deeper and deeper into the soil as I squelched around it with a spade and crowbar. I was experiencing the legacy of the wettest October on record – which leaves a question mark over replanting a redcurrant bush there. At the very least the patch will need a lot of grit incorporating to improve drainage. I might be able to redeem it a bit by diverting rainwater from the adjacent row of compost bins into more water butts. The council turned off the water supply today so I’m glad we’ve got about 1000 litres stored already. Over recent years we’ve experienced problems early in the year before the site supply is restored, because we’ve been blessed with fine dry weather.

While I was getting hot and muddy, Madame planted another two rows of broad beans to stand over winter. She was planting them in a bed that we’d augmented with some bought-in topsoil that had an even larger clay component than our own ground and which I had to dig a whole bag of grit into today before she planted it up. In the fruit cage the winter pruning is almost done now, and on the veg plots the garlic is growing steadily as are the peas which are always a bit of a gamble. If they survive the weather and the mice we’ll have an early crop next year. The brassicas were mostly planted on a bed that was well fed with our own compost and now the early purple sprouting broccoli are almost as tall as me. Let’s hope they’re as productive of shoots as they are with leaves.

The rats have returned to the compost heap since I drove them out by turning it repeatedly; so today I had to set one of the powerful spring traps baited with crunchy peanut butter. Hopefully greed will overwhelm their caution and I can get rid of them before they breed. We do have a lovely but rather wild cat on the site but even he can’t eradicate them all on his own. I say a quiet prayer to bring on the hungry peregrines, buzzards and kestrels and multiply the stoats and the owls!

I was thinking during all these labours about the strange way we misrepresent the allotment as if it were a haven of peace, tranquility and rest. An organic allotment may not have anything like as high an energy footprint as a non organic one, but only if you discount the gigacalories of human toil that goes into replacing the chemicals, pesticides and nitrate fertilisers and the very considerable financial expenditure on bringing the soil back into condition. One survey I read claimed that an allotment can be ten times as productive as an equivalent sized plot of farmland – which can only be true of a very intensively managed allotment. Once a plot becomes a significant contributor to the household food supply, it becomes a place of work – good creative, skilled and satisfying work but work nonetheless. I’ve been reading Chris Smaje’s book “A small Farm Future”c Chelsea Green Publishing and I was interested to see (Page 106) a chart that placed gardening in the same category – high labour input + high productivity – as the conventional arable farm. The difference is that the energy input is mostly human toil rather than fuel, fertilizer and chemicals. It’s a great book, well worth reading and presenting a well argued case for small farms and locally sourced food chains. So while I’m in the mood, here are three books I’ve learned a great deal from:

  • Chris Smaje “A small Farm Future” – Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Dieter Helm ” Green and Prosperous Land” – Collins (an economist’s view)
  • Simon Fairlie “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – Chelsea Green

I could add many more, but these three are extremely practical, albeit quite polemical contributions to the debate about the future of food production. One thing’s for sure; this is a debate we’re going to have to engage with whether we like it or not.

And finally we’re off to the flour mill tomorrow to get 25Kg of stoneground wholemeal flour. I was expecting to be turned away but lockdown part deux hasn’t had the same impact on flour supplies as the first round. It’s an excuse to drive 20 miles along the Cotswolds in the most beautiful scenery, so Alleluia – life feels good. This morning after our saintly breakfast of home made muesli, I had a slice of the first loaf of everyday bread and the first teaspoon of marmalade (also home made) in four months. Oh joy!

What goes around ….

River Avon at Widcombe

The river level had fallen slightly today after the weekend storms but it still looked dangerous this morning as we walked past. Falling in, in these conditions, is not a safe option, and this stretch of the Avon has taken more than a dozen lives in the last ten years. That said, we did see a couple of sturdy paddle boarders making very slow progress against the flow. The pleasure boats have all stopped, due to the renewed lockdown, but I wouldn’t even think about taking our inflatable kayak out in conditions more suitable for white water specialists.

It’s a salutary experience to watch the raw power of nature. Our regular riverside walk takes us under the bridge that appears in the video, beneath which the flood levels over the past century have been carved into the plinth. Most of them are well above our heads! This last year, flood prevention work has continued down this length of the river, and a new terraced water storage area has been created while the canalised banks have been raised even further; but canalisation, while protecting the centre of town, still moves the problem downstream. There are computerised side sluices which were in use yesterday, but they occasionally jam open, causing havoc and draining the waterway in the locked section upstream. It’s only when you see a whole tree passing down the river faster than you can walk, that you can judge the awesome strength of the flow – and that’s a chastening thought when you think about the environmental dangers we’re courting at the moment.

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published 50 years ago. I can remember any number of warning signs over the years; acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, typhoons more severe than ever before and the melting of the Arctic ice. It’s been happening for so long we’ve got almost cosy with the idea – “what catastrophe?”, we wonder, when the changes are so slow we can accommodate them easily in our minds. “Climate change?”we say – “it’s like old age creeping up; these are just twinges in the knees, there’s plenty of time to sort things out. So here’s the thing. When nature gets upset or disturbed it’s not like waking a small bear, it’s like opening a pandora’s box of events so unmanageable, so unpredictable and so indiscriminate; that none of them can be summarily dealt with. When catastrophic events that are only predicted to occur once a century turn up three at a time in consecutive years then something’s up – rather like binge drinking for years, when your liver won’t give you the luxury of a gap between “not yet” and “too late”.

Curiously enough – or maybe fortuitously enough – there was another lesson to be learned from the river today. I’ve been saying for months to Madame that I can smell the detergent as we get with 200 yards of Pulteney Weir. Today you could see it as well. This thick layer of grey foam had caught my eye as a useful visual aid for showing the speed of the flow, earlier in our walk. Here, in the backwash next to the flood relief sluice, there was a floating layer of foam a foot deep. Less than a mile upstream we’ve seen people wild swimming below Grosvenor bridge. Here’s why that might be a dangerous idea, because quite aside from the danger of getting into trouble with underwater obstacles – the kind that killed a school friend when I was twelve – this stuff, the detergent, doesn’t make its own way into the river via a separate pipe marked “not too bad”. It comes via the overflows from the sewage works dotted along the banks. When torrential rain comes – as it does ever more frequently these days – the usual legal niceties controlling the treatment works are automatically suspended and raw sewage flows out straight into the river. The detergent foam may be an indicator; it may be a menace in its own right – rich, as it is, with phosphates; but even then it’s not as immediately dangerous as the other chemical, bacterial and viral contaminants that we’ve drained into it from our kitchens and bathrooms.

I mentioned a similar problem in a newspaper column years ago and was unceremoniously chucked out of a fly fishing club for bringing its waters into disrepute. Hi guys – still fishing in your own shit?

So there it is – you can’t escape the worries even during a quiet walk up the river. On the bright side they’ve just installed the first new bridge across the river for 100 years, for walkers and cyclists only which, predictably, has brought out the trolls who call it ‘the bridge that goes from nowhere to nowhere’. In fact it creates a safe route from the South to the North side of the city without using the Mad Max roundabouts along the main car route. Here are a couple of photos: –

The crane that lifted the bridge into place was a 170 ton crawler crane that arrived on over twenty low loaders to be assembled on site. It was awesome – the biggest crane I’ve ever seen; and yet when I was admiring it the security guard said “Oh that’s only a small one – the one at the Hinkley Point Power Station is twice as big”. Unsurprisingly the crane attracted a crowd of admiring men (and their less admiring partners). What is it about hyper-powerful machinery that gets us so excited? On the other had if it came to a tug of war between the crawler crane and the river in full spate I reckon the river would win without even breaking a sweat.

For all the pleasure and education that natural history television has brought us I often wonder whether it has falsely domesticated our sense of the wild. So often we read stories of people getting attacked when they climb over security fences to get closer to the animals in zoos and wildlife parks and it may be that a contributory factor (apart from being an idiot) is the sense that the wild is there for our entertainment. Almost all our attempts to ‘tame’ nature are hubristic. I mentioned Hinkley Point earlier and thought Chernobyl even as I typed it. The last iteration of the flood prevention scheme here broke down, they say, due to a software error, and dozens of residential boats were sunk, leaving many people homeless. Here’s a bigger video of the river at Pulteney Weir today:-

The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

Our neighbouring allotmenteers went on a gardening course with Sarah Raven last week and among the multitude of new ideas they were buzzing about afterwards, one in particular stuck in my mind. The soil is all important – the beginning and the end of any attempt to grow things. Of course that’s right, but it was only as I was turning the compost heaps again today that I remembered how much I enjoyed this time of year when I was working as a groundsman, and we began all the routine maintenance jobs; repairing the wickets, hedging and draining and looking after the machinery. Of course we had to maintain the football and rugby pitches and mark out the white lines every week., but it was the time when all the foundations for the next season were laid.

And on our plot today we were already setting things out for next season. Peas and broad beans are all ready, in fact the first batch of broad beans is already growing in the ground. The fruit trees are ready for their winter pruning and we’ve prepped ready for five new trees. The tall perennial herbs have been divided and moved to their new spot near the pond; the asparagus bed has been cleared, weeded, given a supplement of calcined seaweed , then composted and sheeted. All the beds have been manured or mulched with leaf mould and sheeted even though some of them will be planted up before Christmas. We’ve had rain and then a few days of early morning frost which will help the garlic; the new batch of leaves is stored for next year – there should be about two cubic metres of finished leaf mould.

Then the paths have all been topped up with new wood chips which rot down surprisingly quickly so they swallow up to thirty wheelbarrow loads every autumn to bring them level with the path edging. That’s a lot of trudging up and down the steep site, but when it’s done the plot looks somehow more purposeful if that makes any sense.

Sadly, today I dug out all of the leeks for burning, because they were attacked again by allium leaf miner and were beginning to rot where they stood. That’s the third year we’ve lost them all and so I think we’ll give them a miss now for a few years. although I’m sure the plant breeders will be looking for more resistant varieties. We don’t put the affected leeks into the compost because especially at this time of year we’re unlikely to reach high enough temperatures to kill the pupae, and today I found a cluster of eggs laid near the base of one plant. These obviously need to be destroyed or we’ll just perpetuate the infestations, but the insect now seems to be everywhere in the UK. Our best hope of control is the same as it is for any other pest – physical barriers, good soil, strong plants and masses of predators at the right time. That’s why we overwinter the broad beans – it toughens them up enough to resist the aphid attacks until the ladybirds arrive.

There really is a correlation between abundant insect attractors and improved predation on garden pests, and one of the principal deficiencies of spraying with chemicals is that it often kills the predators as well as the target pest; thus making yet more applications of spray necessary. Modern apple production requires quite staggering numbers of spray applications; every one of which can make the situation worse.

The compost heap still heats up obediently every time it’s turned, and the more often it’s turned the quicker it does its job. One indicator of how well it’s doing is what’s happening to the bean vines which are often quite slow to rot. This year the vines were taken down in mid September and a couple of months later they’ve all but disappeared in the the heap. the worms don’t like it too hot and so they move up and down in the bin until they find a congenial spot – many thousands of them can congregate of a single bin. You just need to keep the heap at the right level of moisture – not too wet and not too dry but just right.

The same goes for plants which prefer their moisture in modest amounts; so this time of year too, when we get heavy rain, we can see which parts of the plot need additional grit to help with drainage. With the exception of bog plants I can’t think of any normal garden vegetables that don’t absolutely hate standing in waterlogged ground. Plants can die from lack of oxyen – they can easily ‘drown’ if they’re left too long.

It would be quite wrong to think that allotments can be ‘put to bed’ in late September and not tended again until spring. These quieter growing months are a marvellous opportunity for planning, remedial work transplanting and new planting of trees, and the odd bit of civil engineering. I wish I could add digging to the list because I absolutely loved doing it and miss it terribly now we’ve given it up; but I honestly can’t think that, aside from keeping me warm and fit, it does anything for the soil at all – and if you miss the exercise, get a bigger wheelbarrow and fill it up – or, if you must, drag a tractor tyre up a hill with chains.

And there we are – a whole posting without a single apocalyptic rant about the environment, but I think our chat with the young smallholder yesterday reminded me that while, as the astrologers might say, our economic and political systems might dispose us towards destructive practices, they really can’t compel us. We can resist and go our own way, knowing that although we may not be saving the planet on our own, we’re at least not making it any worse.

And finally yesterday’s 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf. I’ve eaten my words and unreservedly recant all my previous statements on the impossibility of making a decent 100% loaf. Thinking back, during the first lockdown I changed a large part of the time and temperature settings during baking, none of which changes I’d ever applied to a wholemeal loaf. So the combination of leaving out the second rise – cutting the overall proving time down to 18 hours instead of 26; and shortening the bake by 30%, the first ‘new method’ loaf emerged pretty triumphantly with a soft crumb, open texture and a good crust, not an impenetrable barnacle hard carapace. The flavour was intense – as you’d expect – but with none of the bitterness you sometimes get with a fast, yeast driven wholemeal loaf. And best of all, it tasted of wheat: really wheaty with a rich taste of the granary floor (if that makes any sense). As children my sister and I used to love feeding the chickens at my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns. The grain was kept in a shed, and we would go and fetch an old pot, fill it with grain and go out to feed the hens. The loaf reminded me of, and tasted as good as that experience.

Busy bee

OK its probably a hoverfly, but cherry blossom on the riverside in November is a lovely sight!

By 5.00am I was wide awake and in the kitchen today. Yesterday I resumed breadmaking after a break since August when we put ourselves on a low carb diet; and, notwithstanding all my protests that it’s impossible to make a really satisfying 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, I went ahead and started one anyway.

We survived the first lockdown by cooking (not so bad) but also eating far too many portions of comfort food; bread, cakes, biscuits and preserves and thus it came to pass that we were becoming more generously proportioned than is good for us; in fact we were as fat as Christmas hogs. The last three months of frugality have worked well, we’ve both lost approaching a couple of stone and the threat of nameless but horrible consequences has receded – no doubt like the devil seeking an opportune moment. I won’t bore you with the self glorifying details but there were two particular milestones – rediscovering my waist, and then a joyful reconciliation with a load of clothes that had been folded up and stored with a sigh years ago when it all started. Hilariously, I also discovered that when my old jeans were properly installed around my waist rather than clinging precariously under my belly I no longer needed the shortest leg length. Toulouse Lautrec eat your heart out!

The challenge with wholemeal sourdough is to get it to rise without the sharp edged bran damaging the structure by puncturing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Grant loaf – often as hard and dense as it was possible for a dough to be. But Doris Grant had one thing absolutely right; wholemeals don’t need as much kneading, and they ferment quickly, so leaving them for too long is more likely to lead to a collapsed dough than a life-changing loaf. My idea was to cut out the second rise altogether and see what happened; I just had my illumination at exactly the wrong moment and so I started the batter at a time which ensured I would be awake at 4.00am worrying about the dough overflowing the banneton. The idea is to catch the dough when a poke with a finger creates an indentation that feels springy and mends itself immediately. This morning I missed the optimal moment by a couple of hours and a dangerous looking muffin top was just overhanging the banneton (reminding me of my old jeans) , but mercifully the loaf forgave me and with a good sprinkle of rice flour as lubricant it slid from the peel into the hot oven without collapsing.

Yesterday the sun shone and so we took ourselves for a long walk along the canal and back – about eight miles in all. Aside from the cherry blossom I also spotted winter heliotrope in flower on the canalside. In fact there were intimations of life and growth everywhere, if you took the time to search them out. But the other thing we noticed was how much larger the population of permanent narrow boat residents has become. At a time when decent housing in Bath is beyond reach for so many young people, quite a few have taken to the water in a range of boats from the spick and span to the downright messy. In fact one of the floating homes we saw yesterday isn’t a narrow boat at all but an improvised raft.

Noah’s Ark?

A little further on was another boat stacked so high with stored artifacts and second hand timber it seemed to be anticipating a siege –

Are we supposed to get annoyed about this? To me it shows resilience and, after all, people have to live somewhere and if we allow a housing crisis to develop we have no right to criticise the improvised methods of survival that desperate people are obliged to adopt.

The highlight of our walk was a conversation with a young man who is developing an organic smallholding on an unpromising strip of land between the canal and the railway line. There are several such allotments dotted along the canal and this one was well stocked with pigs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and one or two exotics in the background. A strip of land that would otherwise be producing nothing but brambles is coming to life and producing food in a largely self-sufficient way. What was so nice about our conversation was that notwithstanding maybe fifty years of difference in our ages, we shared the same experiences and enthusiasm for low impact and sustainable agriculture. I’ve just started reading the recently published “A small farm future” by Chris Smaje – you should check it out – it’s a closely argued book that repays slow and careful reading, but if our conversation with the young smallholder yesterday is anything to go by; the ideas that inspired and motivated us in the seventies and which have been so diminished and derided within this grim era of neoliberal economics, have been slowly gathering momentum and heft in the background. There’s a whole community down on the canal and it’s functioning with its own distinct (and distinctly more sustainable) culture. In my darker moments I’ve sometimes feared that everything we believed in and worked for over the past fifty years has been crushed, and that there’s no-one left to pass all the accumulated experience on to. After our long walk we came back to the flat with more of a spring in our step because there are signs of hope along the canal and in many other places. Goodness only knows how this will play out over the coming decades, but yesterday it felt as if the cultural tectonic plates really are moving – too slowly for some, no doubt – but that’s the way of the paradigm shift. For decades there is nothing but almost inaudible questioning of the status quo, the way we do things round here – and then suddenly one day it all clicks. Like sourdough, the best things are worth waiting for – and I think I’m about to have to eat my own words about the impossibility of creating good 100% wholemeal sourdough. Let’s have a taste!

I’ll tell you what it tastes like tomorrow ….