About foraging

Although I didn’t agree with the general conclusions of Charlie Gilmour’s piece on foraging in this weekend’s Observer newspaper I’d agree that the craft of foraging can be a great builder of relationship with the natural world. I’ll never forget the sense of gratitude that followed a blackberrying expedition with Madame in which we harvested many pounds of free fruit and subsequently ruined all of them in a truly disgusting chutney. Foraging will always entail a few culinary skills as well as the observational and identification skills that should keep you out of Intensive Care. That said, we have safely foraged and eaten many pounds of field mushrooms and enjoyed them greatly; but even a field mushroom has close relatives and lookalikes that demand identification skills. Most of the folk tales – can you peel it? does it blacken silver? are absolute nonsense and so we come back to experience and prior knowledge. If I can share the single most important question to ask of any fungus (or indeed plant) is – “where’s it growing?” The immediate environment; open field or field edge? maybe woodland but if that, what kind of trees? What kind of soil or underlying rock is it – acid or limestone? Is it growing on dead wood or in the ground? There’s always the possibility, as on the Mendip Hills, that an otherwise harmless edible plant or fungus has absorbed poisonous heavy metals, and many fungi have confusing lookalikes. Fairy Ring Champignons which are edible and dry well; can sometimes even share a ring with Fool’s Funnels – Clitocybe rivulosa which is poisonous.

It’s the kind of breezy confidence that all will be well which short circuits the hard labour of learning plants and fungi; I should know because the only reason I’m here writing this is that on several occasions I’ve prepared poisonous fungi and even started cooking them, when a last minute change of heart saved my/our skin. I even poisoned the cat on one occasion but mercifully after a good heave and a rash, she lived to tell the tale. Even worse, two highly experienced mycologists I know have developed an intolerance for the St George’s Mushroom after decades of eating it safely. There could be long queues of very sick people waiting for liver transplants if foraging became suddenly fashionable. The idea of sending naive collectors out into the fields and forests after a one-day course really scares me.

As does the idea of French style hunting days – otherwise known as circular firing squads – with inexperienced people thrashing around in the woods with no idea how to fire a gun safely. Once again I speak from experience having almost been shot by an overexcited man who – having paid his £500 for a day’s pheasant shooting, forgot the rule about shooting above the trees and gave me and our son the fright of our lives, with lead shot hitting the trees all around us. He was, I’m pleased to say, sent home immediately! Frankly, if you want to eat a pheasant – and spatchcocked mice and roast fox don’t float my boat (see article) – then buy one from a game dealer and save yourself retching over the entrails when you finally find out that most living creatures are full of glistening plumbing, oh and well hung squirrel and other roadkill can give you all sorts of weird diseases that will keep the doctors from their beds. I have no absolute problem with killing and preparing living creatures but the taking of any life should never be done for fun or sport but to meet a genuine need and it requires some skill, so it’s important to seek a good teacher.

When we were at art school we had to work all the vacations to make ends meet, and one summer I worked next door to a slaughterhouse where hundreds of pigs were killed every day. That was my first and best ever lesson in industrial meat production and it left an indelibly negative impression on me. But I learned about gutting and skinning rabbits sitting on the shed step with the head groundsman where I worked another two summers and who made it all look easy. When we kept chickens I got the local butcher to show me how to kill them without cruelty and he showed me why it was never really worth plucking pheasants or pigeons. If, as Charlie Gilmour says, you feel the need for foraged meat protein then you have to take responsibility, be a moral grownup and learn to do the job well. Does all this sound off-putting? Well – it’s the reality – and there’s no escape by trying to pass the responsibility onto someone else.

So that’s fungi and foraged meat dealt with, but what about plants, grains and suchlike? My big fear is that hordes of indiscriminate foragers could do untold damage to precious environments. Already, in Cornwall, professional foragers from outside of the area (obviously they come from Devon or worse still, down from London) have stripped whole roadsides of wild garlic and in Epping Forest mushroom hunters have been caught with upwards of 30 Kg of fungi. People I know well think nothing of harvesting thousands of Psilocybe mushrooms on the Bannau Brycheiniog but maybe that’s a different issue! However – and here I’m with Charlie Gilmour – if the end result is a new generation of naturalists who understand and love the natural world, coming to it via an interest in foraging, then what’s not to like? We should stop being so sniffy about people who ask about edibility on fungus websites and at least point them in the direction of the best help. I appreciate the caution about liability and insurance and all that, but duty of care can be expressed more helpfully than blanket prohibition accompanied by harsh words.

The world of plants is absolutely fascinating but foraging is never going to be capable of feeding the world short of some catastrophic collapse in the population, so let’s just see it as a getting to know you operation where our knowledge spreads out from the focus of interest like the spokes of a wheel and we land up grasping the wonderful interconnectedness of all living things on earth. Perhaps then, and finally, we’d know our place in it.

Singing it like it is

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Big Sky – a lovely local South Wales Band

So yesterday I wrote about telling it like it is and today I want to extend part of that argument to the practice of song. The photo was taken in our garden in 2015 and I asked for the band – Big Sky – in the faint hope they might turn up for my leaving party …. and they did! When I said in the caption that they’re local – there’s no sense in which that could be described as damning with faint praise. They often played for our events and they were always brilliant fun; doing covers crossing decades and whole genres. People loved them and – when they knew the words – sang along with gusto.

I thought of them last night when we went to a concert at the Bath Forum. ‘Show of hands’ is doing a farewell tour for their present lineup because Miranda Sykes is leaving to work with ‘Daphne’s Flight’. The other two members, Phil Beer and Steve Knightley are going to concentrate on solo projects (they say – but don’t bet on it!). You’ll have to forgive a bit of bragging here because all three of them played separately and together in St Helen’s Church (my old gig) where we hosted a mean folk evening. Our idea of a full house was about 120, but last night the Forum was stuffed with 1000 fans. It was, Steve Knightley said, their biggest audience since they played the Albert Hall! We had some fabulous but much smaller events in the church; another supergroup, ‘Gigspanner’ did a memorable show for us. It was a special pleasure for me last night because I didn’t have to turn the building back into a church and act as general help after the concert finished. We were in bed by 1.00.

Music is just about the most life enhancing activity I know. I wore out my joke about the government banning it altogether if they knew how much fun it was – from constant repetition – and it was true every time. From carol services which were always sung in the noisiest pub style, to musicals; we lowered the religious tone to the point where anyone could connect.

Last night – if you’d looked around – you’d have seen around 1000 people and the average age must have been well over 60. Retired middle class people many of whom – like us – would have been touched by the folk revival of the 1960’s, diverse as it was, went from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez through to Sydney Carter (whose son was there last night) and the Watersons who could blast the back wall off the Bathurst Hotel (as it then was) with a single acapella chord. Show of Hands have spent decades weaving these and many other threads into pure cloth of gold.

But there was something else in the air last night. For a start, the majority of people there seemed to be superfans who knew all of the words of most of the songs and who joined in the choruses and occasionally verses of many of the songs once permission was granted (we’re talking polite middle classes here). Many of the songs and much of the linking intros had strongly political undertones. There were heaving shanties, songs of press-ganged soldiers; Cousin Jack is a powerful evocation of the toil of miners. There were several excellent jokes at the expense of the government which were noisily and rapturously cheered. The choruses were sung with such ringing audience commitment it began to feel like a revivalist meeting. One or two of the songs morphed into hymns that carried the audience into a rather different headspace but it wasn’t a religious space at all. There was a tangible longing for a temporal release from this political and economic place of suffering. I’d love to see them play at Gwennap Pit! And running through the audience was an obviously radicalized thread that you never have thought possible, looking at us all, and yet should terrify the wits out of anyone hoping to win an election.

Is there ever a moment at which you can say with certainty that change is in the air? This could have been a small portent, just as Mark Jenkins’ film ‘Bait’ is another. The point here is that creative arts can change the world by working through the imagination and the emotion. When we sing a song in a community of shared values we all derive strength and determination from it. Questions about economics and politics, housing or unemployment can be answered through Royal Commissions and legal enquiries, but mostly we don’t change our minds about the way things are around here by reading reports. Most economic and political questions turn out – on closer examination – to be cultural questions. Last night there were songs forged out of meetings with Chilean refugees from General Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Migrants always bring songs with them and we could learn so much from singing them. Folk music occupies a very distinct and happy place in our culture because it’s not high art and neither is it vacuous pop, but songs about lived experience in a world of poverty, inequality and injustice. True enough the young are more likely to find love on a dating app than wandering beside a river waiting for a tall sailor, but the challenges of trust or the tragedy of abandonment don’t change. Singing it like it is – even if the words have survived from the eighteenth century – gives us historical and geographical anchorage, and provides a fulcrum for action. In a culture that lives in a perpetual state of chaos, one point of anchorage can be the beginning of the end for a whole deranged way of life. That, I’m sure, was the elephant in the concert hall last night.

Telling it like it is

Police searching for a local regular

It’s our friend Charlie’s birthday today so yesterday he came round for coffee and chocolate eclairs – a birthday treat. We’re the same age bar a month, so we’ve shared lifetimes but lived them out entirely differently; he is a distinguished botanist and I was – or rather am – an undistinguished amateur. But our conversation yesterday led us to share a problem we both have with writing; because he was brought up in South Africa during the apartheid era but as a committed anti-apartheid citizen who, by force of circumstances, shared many of the material advantages of the white colonial population. How should he write about such a childhood? I have a similar problem when I write about the deprivations and occasional criminality of some of our neighbours here. Any kind of nuanced and rounded account of living in Bath has to go deeper than gushing about Roman baths, Georgian buildings and Jane Austin. Sometimes I feel that dissing the place does it a disservice, but it’s not just the local businesses that benefit from crowds of visitors; it’s a boon to the street beggars as well, and I’d bet that some of the visitors take advantage of the freely available drugs.

A few days ago I wrote a piece called “The Night Bus” which tried to capture some of the edginess and sense of threat that accompanies late night bus riders. Obviously it would be lovely and possibly earth saving if more of us left the cars at home and caught buses, but until unreliable services and antisocial behaviour get fixed, taxis and cars are a rational choice for some people who don’t share my tolerant attitude. Writing honestly about these problems is an attempt to get people – especially councillors – to do something about it.

Last year I wrote a piece about rats for the Allotment Association. It didn’t get published, probably because the editor would prefer to promote the fantasy allotments of endless pest free summer days. Sadly, in real life, winter comes along and the mice move into our polytunnel. This year they managed to nip off sixteen growing broad bean plants. Even if it’s bad Karma to set traps I’m still willing to take a chance with fate if it gets a crop in April. Gardening and allotmenteering are often challenging; with infestations and infections as well as the joyful harvest.

We’ve just had the first real frost of winter with the temperature down to -4C last night. We fleeced all of the vulnerable plants so hopefully they’ll live to grow another day; but troubles – as the small print on finance forms always mentions – “can go up as well as down”. Writing honestly about it doesn’t create problems, it brings them to the fore. If William Cobbett had confined himself to singing the praises of the beautiful Vale of Pewsey instead of writing Rural Rides, the Reform Acts might never have seen the light of day. If Charles Kingsley had not written the Water Babies, or if Charles Dickens had self censored Hard Times the cruelties of the industrial revolution might not have been exposed. If more people had wondered where the money that built Georgian Bath was coming from, maybe the slave trade would have ended that bit earlier.

Telling it how it is is radical, of course. Why do governments – particularly our own malignant bunch – spend so much time and effort prosecuting people who’ve done nothing worse than tell the truth? But telling it straight doesn’t have to be the fierce radicalism of the stereotypical demonstrator. I’ll just give one example of a conversation I overheard one Easter many years ago. We were in Regents Park Zoo standing in front of an Orangutan enclosure. A woman and her husband were there just in front of us looking at these wonderful apes with rapt attention. She turned to him and said – “Oh look George ………… they’re so realistic!” I’d be thrilled to receive any postcard sized explanations of the meaning of the word realistic in that sentence. The memory of it burrowed into my brain that day and I’ve never forgotten it. There’s a whole philosophy waiting to be unpicked when thinking about zoos and what they mean; the hole in the dam, waiting for the little boy to pull his finger out and go home for tea.

Hello stranger

Jersey Tiger on our front window.

In July 2020 this moth turned up on our front window. I checked it out and came to the conclusion that it was a Jersey Tiger, unaware that this would be an unusual find in North Somerset. I happened to mention this to someone much more experienced than me at identifying moths and he was adamant that I must be wrong. But I wasn’t wrong. It was one of the 30 new species that have turned up here in Bath in the past 8 years, along with Ivy Bees on our allotment and Roesel’s Bush Crickets across in Dyrham Park in large numbers. Great news you might think, but they are rather like the canaries in the coal mine giving notice of dangerous events around the corner; in this case it’s increasingly runaway global climate change. These species are not here because we are kinder to animals than we used to be, but because our climate has changed sufficiently already for them to survive here.

The reason we know they’re here is that a group of – partly amateur – volunteers have been compiling lists of sightings on Bath City Farm’s 38 acre site – 1250 species in eight years; a prodigious effort. What we don’t know quite as much about what species have disappeared, although even as I write this recorders and scientists are searching old (often handwritten) records and double checking identifications. The computerised records are then analysed to give us some idea of what’s gone. The recent BSBI 2020 Plant Atlas gives a dismaying account of lost and extinct plant species in Great Britain and Ireland. This all matters not so much because Jersey Tigers contribute £x to the economy but because we don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to about the contribution they might make to a broader conception of human flourishing. In our crazy – let’s say delusional – world, if things can’t be given a monetary value they are dismissed as unimportant and so not given priority. The car takes precedence over the wildflower meadow because you can ascribe a monetary value to it by producing some deeply dodgy statistics that prove how human thriving depends upon fast roads.

Thirty years ago we knew very little about the extraordinary contribution that fungi make to trees. Now we do know we are obliged to think harder about the desertification of millions of acres of old growth forest in favour of palm oil plantations, and the destruction of Welsh farmland so that it can be used by multinational corporations to offset their poisonous carbon emissions. I could weep at the illiteracy of the very idea of paying to pollute. I’m not against planting trees, I’m against hiding behind forestry using barefaced lies as a means of continuing to render thousands of species extinct.

Anyway here are the crickets – our grandchildren love hunting for them in the grass; and the entirely harmless Ivy Bees; all now within easy walking distance maybe just for a while as we wait for the fury to come!

Night bus

I haven’t yet got any photographs for this piece. There’s a reason. Allotments, fungus forays, natural history field trips all lend themselves to the portable memory of the mobile phone. Parties, bridges, seaside views and tractors do too, because they don’t show any signs of invaded privacy. However city streets at night or dodgy bars full of strangers – and night buses – demand a lot of street wisdom, and consequently floor the photographic brakes most of the time.

We used to love travelling and rarely felt intimidated when we wandered into the kind of places that gave us prickly feelings. “What are the chances?” we’d say to ourselves. On the station at Barcelonetta we were surrounded by a gang of muggers and once I’d made it clear that we’d fight for our cameras they decided not to take the risk. I was once advised that moving back from a threat was the wrong thing to do. “Lean into it and get in their faces”, I was told, “and although you might still get hammered they’ll more likely be intimidated themselves.” I’m sharing this information because my days of love, peace and let’s be reasonable have taught me that bullies and thugs rarely welcome a sensible discussion. As long as I get to walk away in one piece I’m content to let appearances give the false impression of fearlessness.

Anyway, last night we made one of our expeditions to Bristol which Cobbett would have recognised as a suburb of the Great Wen. We were off to an old friend’s birthday celebration in the same restaurant as we’d met in for a similar event 38 years ago. I’m not sure why Bristol enjoys such a high reputation – we both find it pretty sordid in many areas in spite of having lived and worked there for years. It’s noisy, perpetually jammed with traffic and the average age in the central areas during the day is about 25. At night, for those of a nervous disposition it’s best to keep your eyes peeled. Walking past the student hostels near the bus station the smell of weed lingers in the air, and a young woman coming back to the main door of her tower block looked anxiously around before scuttling in like a scared mouse. Nonetheless, once the initial negative impression has worn off I find it tremendously exciting. I’ve always had a thing about arriving at railway stations in places I’ve never been to and where languages are spoken that I don’t understand. Every sense is turned up to ten and it becomes a Brahmsian symphony of sounds, smells, noises, lights and unfamiliar tongues. Every kind, every nationality of food is available. Stokes Croft must have the highest variety of takeaways in the city. It’s not pretty but there’s a sense of community there

We always catch the bus into Bristol because parking is either impossibly expensive or just impossible; and we nearly didn’t make it this time because just as the bus was going down Union street, a young skateboarder slalomed into the bus at speed and the driver made an emergency stop which slammed us all into the seats in front of us. The skateboarder (with one of his lives expended) picked himself up and peered through the windscreen at the driver with a completely non judgemental look, more curiosity than WTF?!

We’d arrived at the bus station with an hour to spare, so we wandered up through the Independent Republic of Stokes Croft inspecting the graffiti which are very good and very dense – intelligent tagging. For such a diverse and alternative feeling area it had more obscurely named churches than a Welsh mining village. Getting saved would be a doddle here; far easier than in the wealthy highlands of Clifton, or the lush pastures of Southville. With time to spare we inspected the bars as we walked on, and settled on one with a big window so we could see what we were letting ourselves in for. At the bar I asked for a couple of lagers and the barman asked if I wanted glasses for them – it was that kind of bar. “Oh yes please,” I said, “I’m old you know …..I like a glass”. Next to me a young man with pinprick pupils asked me if I’d like to go mad? proffering something small and round. I said that I’d been there already and had no desire to go back and he laughed, along with the barman who could see the funny side of dealing to a man with not that much time left to abuse. This is where it all gets confusing because in spite of the slightly feral vibe, it was a very safe feeling. I often find it hard to read young people, but don’t see why they should even try to be understood. It’s their world and god knows we’ve all but ruined it for them. But the dealer was lovely with Madame and showed her where the toilets were and steered her away from the stinkiest areas – see what I mean?

So then to Picton Street which has a lifetime of memories for me because I used to buy all my radio parts from Pitts at the top, opposite the restaurant we were making for which was called Bell’s Diner at the time and is now an Italian called Bianchi’s – and very good it is too; great arancini. Among the guests was someone who spent his childhood in the street and whose family owned two shops there and he also bought bits from Pitts. We had such an animated conversation that Phil, our host, said we looked as if we’d known one another for years. Oh I do love a good party and this one was in honour of our old friend – a bit of an angel – called Ruth who once said something to me that changed the course of my life. It was so good a party, in fact, that we delayed leaving until much later than we’d intended and so, very slightly drunk, we wandered back down Picton Street just as as an imposing looking sound system was being set up. A queue had formed outside a hole in the wall fast food servery and we walked on down Jamaica Street to an almost empty bus station. There was the usual cleaner with a brush and pan sweeping up the day’s rubbish in a desultory manner. It was all quiet,

So only ten minutes later we set off in the 39 bus, but sadly the driver had not been briefed about a road closure so we waited in the canyon also known as Fairfax Street while he made a phone call to someone whose terrible stammer became something of an obstacle to planning the way out. An astoundingly drunk man got on and ricocheted from side to side up the bus to the back. Eventually we returned to the bus station but took a different route at Haymarket roundabout which must have left at least a few people waiting hopelessly in the cold at Wine Street. A few more got on, mostly tired and grey. At Temple Meads another drunk clambered into the front seat as if he were climbing Annapurna and then waved animatedly at his own reflection in the window. He was tidy and well spoken (in a more or less inebriate way) and looked as if he might have sprung unchanged from a 1930’s lodge meeting. At night the bus takes a longer route through Keynsham and the drunk man at the front asked if the bus stopped at Saltford (it does) and the driver declined to take the conversation any further.

Once we got to Keynsham the man in the front demanded to get off – he’d clearly forgotten where he was going. He stepped down from the bus and then took a wonderful tumble; bouncing harmlessly as drunks often do. The driver leapt out of the bus and helped him to his feet and he wandered off into the darkness. The bus pulled away once again and there was a loud crash behind as the other drunk fell off his seat. We stopped. The driver came up the bus and said “Oh I love my job” and reassured himself that drunk number two hadn’t done himself any serious harm. The rest of the journey was uneventful and as we got off I said to the driver that he deserved a medal. He didn’t disagree.

Home then, a glass of wine and bed; very very late – and not a single photo to illustrate our adventure. Next time perhaps …. I love catching the night bus.

A little outdoor therapy goes a long way.

Regulars won’t need reminding that I find autumn difficult. Melancholia would be easy to dismiss as a middle class hybrid of self-pity and dark nights; feedstock for bad poems and self-help Guardian articles. It isn’t the same thing as depression – which is an illness you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. I suggest that melancholia is an attempt at a constructive relationship with the sadness that goes with shrinking days, cold, rain and the senescence of nature. In October and November I often feel that the allotment, instead of being a rewarding and inspiring place is a place where mockery reigns. Where overwintering thugweeds overwhelm the earth in order to gain a destructive head start in spring. The place of serenity, beauty and hope in Spring and early summer, grows old and dies back. Then a pause – the gap between the outbreathing of autumn and the inbreathing that powers early spring; the pause where we stand beside the beds and wonder – is that it? will the sun ever return?

The green bag contains two fleeces for lining the hanging strawberry baskets.

Late autumn and early winter are the times when gardening becomes a test of will – for me at least. Madame is unaffected by all this; she just gets on with it and enjoys every moment and simply doesn’t understand what’s going on with me. So we haggle and negotiate an hour or two here and there and I clear one bed at a time and focus entirely on each limited job – excluding any thoughts of the mountain of other things that need to be done. And amazingly, I always feel better. Close up, I see the spring buds already there on the fruit trees. Each bucket full of the gut-like roots of bindweed removed from a patch of ground represents a tiny victory against the promiscuity of nature. I’ve now almost finished digging over the beds in the polytunnel ready to plant out and sow for the winter. The mood of the month is stolid resistance; spring song will follow.

Even more amazingly, my arthritic joints begin to unlock with the exercise – the bending and stretching and reaching across, the 50 yard and very uneven path to the top of the site feels less steep after a week or two of stopping to catch my breath. I can lift heavy bags of compost and enjoy the complex geometry of muscles and bone. My mood lifts and I catch myself gazing at the drifts of leaves scuttering down in a wind that even drowns out the traffic: gold and yellow and scarlet and brown. Who knows how this change happens? I think of the trees in their complex relationships with the soil and the fungi which we barely suspected thirty years ago and wonder what unsuspected relationships exist between the natural world and our own health. The arrogance of our modern materialistic worldview overlays millions of years of evolutionary history which our whole being expresses in the miraculous workings of our minds and bodies. Sourdough bread and live yoghurt don’t even begin to explain human flourishing.

So here’s the deal. I can’t thrive on a monoculture of allotmenteering; I also need texture in my life – time to think, time to walk, time to read and time to relax and do nothing. I need other subjects to focus my interests – field botany and fungus hunting for instance – both of them offer formidable intellectual challenges. This afternoon, for instance, Madame asked if I could identify a bag of seeds saved off the allotment. At first glance this is an insoluble problem, but knowing where to look made it absurdly simple. I didn’t know the answer but I knew where I could find it and bingo! it was Angelica – easily identified from the firework burst of its dead seed head and a quick look at the seeds. The Carrot family may all look the same in a field, but you don’t have to be particularly brilliant to tell them apart – just organised and systematic.

Speaking of which, I’ve just bought the first volume of Geoffrey Kibby’s marvellous “Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and Europe”. There are three more volumes – so I’m going to have to save up; but this is everything you could wish for in a textbook. It’s far too big and heavy to fit in your pocket, so it’s a reference book. I’m not remotely qualified to comment on its scientific status – plenty of reviewers have done that and it’s definitely a five star purchase. The descriptions and the pictures – all hand painted by the author – are lovely. But what strikes me most is what a good teacher he is. Mycology can be awfully obscure and a bit sniffy at times, but this series manages to be completely thorough without being in the least intimidating. Like all the best teachers he knows that there are challenging conceptual difficulties to overcome but he gives a reader like me – who needs a permanent bookmark in the glossary section – the confidence to think that even I could surmount them with a bit of cheerful energy. There’s hardly a page where I think – Oh I couldn’t do that! The really great experts don’t wear their expertise on their sleeve.

I think this is Laccaria amethystina – Amethyst Deceiver; but I know it’s beautiful. Found near Brecon last year.

Necrobotany!

Deceased Teasel plant.

There’s a fabulous article in the current issue of the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) – magazine – written by Suki Pryce – on plant hunting in winter. In order to contest winter brain fade when we all forget everything we thought we knew about plants; her group – based in Norfolk – carries on hunting and recording plants through the winter when all they have to go by is often dried up remnants like the Teasel in the photo, or rosettes of leaves on the ground. Someone with real flair for words conjured up the term “necrobotany” to describe it.

I read the article with real delight because any excuse to get outside and do some botanising during the winter season is fine by me. I miss the dubious fun of having no idea what a plant is so much that the prospect of photographing it and taking a small sample home for a wrestle with the field guides is marvellous. I get through the long wet season of darkness by doing fungi in late autumn and early winter, and then explore the inexplicable complexity of lichens and bryophytes at any other time when everything else has disappeared. The pleasure – it has to be said – is not just wingnut fodder, it’s also deeply aesthetic. How beautiful is the Teasel with all its spikeyness revealed and ribs dried into a design for a cathedral ceiling by Escher?

When we’re lucky enough to go out with friends who specialize in different passions – insects; butterflies and moths; ferns, birds etc. then the pleasure is even greater, although the weather can be a bit trying. When the wind’s blowing a hoolie and the rain is running down inside your collar some smartass is bound to remind you that there’s no such thing as wrong weather, just wrong clothes. The trouble is, really good breathable and lightweight clothes cost a fortune, and wearing a cheap raincoat can leave you sweating like a jockey the morning before a handicap race. But fashion can even play a part in field trips. Wrong brand of binoculars? Whoooa! Black wellies? My God who does he think he is???? Everyone here wears Royal Hunters. Attempting to identify a fungus from a 1940’s I spy book could get you sent home.

So kit lust can easily grip the most fervent nonconformist. I saw a pair of neoprene insulated wellies in the Rohan shop this week. I watched and circled them several times. Picked them up, weighed them in my hand and had a furtive sniff (doesn’t everybody?). They were exactly the thing for struggling up muddy tracks in winter, or for shovelling snow. Have you any idea how many men land up as cardiac emergencies after shovelling snow? I think the sale of very warm wellies should be banned in order to save lives. Anyway eventually – when I felt safe from potential sales assistance – I hunted through the fifteen attached labels and found the price – £97.00. I put them back on the shelf as fast as if they were about to call the police. My old and very cold wellies will have to do after all.

I’m doing a talk in the spring on how to use sensibly the multitude of available wildlife apps – especially with fungi. At best they get it bang on, but all too regularly they get it just plausibly wrong enough to send you to a premature date with the place where no-one is going to come looking for you when they’re bored.

This is what happens when we try to live in one room!

My temporary workspace

We’ve been paying a great deal of attention to our electricity bills as the winter advances on us. The Government’s Panglossian approach towards other people’s hardships has meant that we’ve turned the central heating off in all but one of the rooms in our flat because not withstanding the unstinting generosity of the press releases, our bills have always been higher that the so called averages quoted by them. Sadly we’ve been twinned with a steelworks for the purposes of averaging out the bill. The fight against black mould is continuing in spite of repeated appeals to our landlord – the Church of England Pensions Board if you’re interested – whose rent increase this year pretty much swallowed up their pension increase. “Well, we all have to do our bit” we say through gritted teeth.

So what to do? The allotment is one way of getting warm. Clearing the beds of last year’s crops and weeds is excellent exercise that apparently rivals wearing lycra for fending off heart attacks. There are just a couple of beds left to clear but this week we turned to the polytunnel because that will be the first area to be planted up. First we clear all the plants, and in normal years that would be the end of it but this year the encroachment of bindweed means that it needs digging. In a perfect world we’d be committed no-diggers, but the Potwell Inn has to make do with living in the real world in which bindweed – if it’s not controlled – will choke out almost any plant, however vigorous. The thick, 2mm diameter rhizomes, can spread amazingly quickly and even the smallest broken bits, left in the ground, can regenerate. Our second – only slightly lesser problem is couch grass which invades every year from the neglected plots next to ours. Then there’s the green mould that gradually builds up on the greenhouse and the polytunnel. We scrub it off with an organic product called Citrox which has an immediate beneficial effect on the light transmission. Yes, most days – if it’s not raining too hard – we spend a few hours up at the allotment keeping warm and fit. Then most days we come home and fall asleep for half an hour. For some obscure reason I’ve always loved digging, so even if it’s only a few selected beds it’s a joy only slightly tempered by protesting joints and muscles.

But the mess on the dining table tells another story. Back in the day when I was writing radio scripts, it would take roughly an hour to write a minute’s worth of broadcastable material. Sermons took the same amount of time when I wrote them out in full; but over time I learned to work firstly with notes and then eventually I could ad lib after a good deal of study and practice. Always, though, a very slow process. The dining table library is all about identifying the things we’ve found whilst out walking. The fungus season has reached its peak a little late this year due to the weather, but being relatively new to fungi it seems to take an eternity to identify them fully. Why it should be that there’s so much intellectual satisfaction from identifying the LBJ’s (little brown jobs) is a task for a psychologist probably; but I love the challenge, and going out with friends looking for fungi is even more fun.

Then of course there’s writing this blog and cooking meals for ourselves and occasional family members and shopping, oh and meetings, drinking coffee, eating too many biscuits and watching the telly (except for news programmes which upset me). On the best days Madame and I share the table and I write while she draws at the other end. As you see in the photograph, I may have encroached on her territory.

I suppose when spring comes and the weather warms up we’ll move back into our respective workspaces but for now – although you might imagine we’ve had a row as we work in silence – the arrangement suits us both. The only loser is the electricity company – well tough!

St Anne’s Well – a lost special place found again.

The remnants of St Anne’s Well Siston

One website I looked at today describes St Anne’s Well as “the most dangerous well in Britain” – and having walked down the now busy road from the Church towards the well, it’s hard to disagree. Nowadays it’s a shadow of its former self. The cast iron sign has disappeared with the stone surround, and if it weren’t for the fact that the sodden ground was wet enough for a flush of water from under a couple of stone lintels I’d never have found it unless I’d remembered exactly where it is. I think I visited it once with Madame in the 1970’s when it wasn’t much more than a muddy puddle filled with debris; but yesterday it was a proper spring, rather than a well.

Sixty five years ago I was searching for books on magic in Bristol Central Reference Library – this was an early teenage obsession – and I found an antique volume which referred to several holy wells within a bike ride of where I lived. So St Anne’s became the first holy well in a long succession of them, beginning a side obsession with OS maps. There is something inexplicable but deeply spiritual about wells and springs. The thought of clear water emerging from underground, often pulsing gently, must lead almost anyone to pause and reflect. Being a determinedly non competitive student I even managed to persuade Jimmy Munn our sadistic PE teacher to let me devise my own cross -country run which took me past the well and excused from him having to cope with my chaotic inability to add anything to team games. Although my knowledge of nature was as spare as it was of the offside rule, it was where I fell in love with solitary walks and natural history.

So on Friday I went back with the other two Musketeers from Bath Natural History Society to check out the the recently designated Forest of Avon (with St Anne’s well at the centre) for a potential field trip next year. It was muddy as hell, but the sun shone for at least part of the day as we searched the fields and hedges for potential bird nesting sites, butterfly food plants, plants in general, spiders and insects as well as fungi. As ever we joked and joshed our way around the site taking photos for later identification and noting hazards for the inevitable risk assessment form. At one point I was kneeling to lift a stone so my companion could search for spiders and I steadied myself by placing my hand in a soft dog’s turd! Should I perhaps put that on the risk assessment? I do wish all dog walkers would pick their dogshit up and dispose of it properly (in some other way than hanging it on trees).

One topic of discussion among us was what precisely had introduced us to natural history. I always feel a bit typecast as a retired vicar but none of us are typically academic, all of us are largely self-taught, and all of us would acknowledge our debt to past mentors – often self-taught volunteers themselves. Of all scientific disciplines, natural history relies on a huge voluntary effort to record what’s on the ground and submit those records to national databases. The challenge these days is how to recruit enough new volunteers to track the environmental disaster of species extinctions in the hope that one day soon we can develop the tools for reversing it.

What struck me was that over the past 60 years what was once a farm has become a ‘site’ or a reserve. The thin line of trees adjoining the brook has thickened to about 20 feet wide, and the fields seemed to have been returned to a regime of mowing once a year. No grazing is going on according to a dog walker we met. Many hundreds of trees have been planted over the past 20 years or so and so the wildlife potential has improved beyond measure. We watched a kestrel making use of a power line that crossed the site and saw magies rooks and carrion crows as well as hearing a raven somewhere near. All the other usual suspects were around. My companions were getting excited about the possibility Brown Hairstreaks in the tall and thick hedges (untouched by the flail mower for years). I was thinking about orchids but loving the architecture of the skeletal remains of teasels.

Anyway, that’s enough wildlife gossip. What surprised me most of all was that in spite of our sceptical and irreligious culture, someone had built a little shrine in memory of their mother, on the edge of the brook and opposite the well. It gave us all cause for a moment of contemplative silence.

In my happy place

Just a brief piece, but I wanted to celebrate the couple of days I’ve been able to spend identifying and cataloguing some of the hundreds of fungus photos that I’ve taken over the past couple of decades. The weather here has been continuously wet and windy – not so much as in the South which has been hammered – but enough to make staying and working indoors a guilt free pleasure.

Fungi can be surprisingly difficult to pin a name to. As time goes by you do get a bit better, but as I’ve sorted through some of the ones I’d already named I’ve found some real bloopers. Somehow I often seem to take the wrong photo; missing out a crucial detail so some will remain un-nameable; but gradually as I’ve gone through them all several times, the list and its attached photos gets satisfyingly longer and more reliable, and I sit in bliss; surrounded by my books, and checking the minutest details. I’ve found that phone apps are far less reliable than manual checking with fungi, but the exercise of close attention is just the habit I need to cultivate if I’m ever going to be any good at leading a fungus foray.

It was a slow start to the season but I’m off with a couple of friends on another recce tomorrow near a place that I’ve known since I was about 12 years old; a holy well dedicated to St Anne that’s now so diminished and overgrown I doubt that even local people know it’s there. I was once chased by an angry cow there and I accomplished one of the most extreme long jumps over a barbed wire fence and a stream that I ever did. I had spotted a newborn calf lying apparently dead in the field. At the time I had no idea that cows often momentarily leave their calves immediately after giving birth. Of course as soon as I came close she chased me with murderous intent and I had to run for my life.

But I’ve had the most lovely day. I know that my passion for cataloguing and lists; keys and databases makes me a borderline wingnut but there we are. My first book was a children’s dictionary and I haven’t looked back. Anyway there are plenty of people in our Natural History Society just like me. I feel almost normal occasionally when I’m at meetings.

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