Small crisis at the Potwell Inn

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This both is and is not a photograph of the Potwell Inn. Let’s just say that the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw are very close to my heart. Rhiw is pronounced a bit like the sound a buzzard makes when it’s circling in the sky. Welsh is a very beautiful language! Notice the chestnut fence which is so economically constructed, and notice also how quiet it is, presided over by the spirits of the Keating sisters and their mother. There are some places, some hills, some groves, even the smallest of things, that can function as portals if you’re paying attention. What floored me on our very first visit to the Plas was the stove in the kitchen.  It was a paraffin powered stove complete with an oven, each burner having its own primus style pump; the exact stove that my grandparents had in their cottage in the Chilterns. I can only have been four or five years old, but I have the clearest memory of having it drilled into me that the stove was dangerous and that I should never ever touch it. When the whole family was assembled for Sunday lunch a couple of extra Valor room heaters were also pressed into service for keeping food warm and the preparation of the meal was always accompanied by clouds of steam and an air of menace which could have been either the stove or waiting for the men to get back from the pub – both were unpredictably threatening.

And with that discordant note in my memory came the small crisis, in the Greek sense of compelling a choice. And so I followed (literally) in the steps of the masters and hoped that the question could be answered through solitur ambulando – a bit of a walk and a think. Actually that bit only came after I’d tried two more of my favourite strategies, that’s to say cooking some cheese scones  and buying a new hat.  The cheese scones worked a treat and cheered me up no end – I do love them and this was a recipe from the National Trust Cookbook so what could go wrong? As for the hat, there’s something about buying a hat that lets you play identity games. Being both melancholic and extremely shy means that I spend a lot of my time trying to be invisible.  I can do “heart and soul” so well that most of my friends think I’m an extrovert, but if I do too much of it I feel drained and need a lie-down. Hats are a big statement and I’d love to be able to walk around Bath in a ten gallon hat, but I can’t. Anyway I saw a tweed flat cap that I really liked a few days ago and after putting the idea to Madame, who snorted and said I’d look like a garden gnome, I saw it again and bought it. She was either gracious in defeat or determined to spare my feelings, so the hat has been firmly on my head ever since and I have been able to explore a new set of ideas brought to me by the hat.  Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!

So here is the crisis in a nutshell. The Potwell Inn is a very complicated idea but it’s the only concept that I’ve come up with that gives me a broad enough arena to explore being human in something approaching fullness. I know – because I look at the stats – that the posts that get most likes are the ones that are (or appear to be) straightforward. Engaging stories about the allotment or winemaking have a real constituency, and so does anything ‘organic’ or ‘ecologically’ aligned, or ‘cooking’. Transgressing those limits might feel like an insult. If you like, it’s not a million miles from treating the Potwell Inn as if it were real and thinking about changing the menu. Not an image I’d want to push too far because it implies a frustrated chef simmering with discontent at the customers, and I’m not frustrated at all. But when you’ve got a loyal clientele who just love your fish soup you might think twice about adding something new. In several blogs I’ve moved into the area that’s usually thought of as being political and far from feeling pleased with myself I actually feel quite threatened  – this paragraph, by the way was always described by one of my mentors as “pissing from the pulpit” but I’m not asking anyone to sympathise with my pain, what I’m doing is trying to show is the process, the ‘workings out’ that took me to a point where I had to make a choice. So what do I do? Cue new hat, cheese scones and a walk.

It wasn’t like solving Fermat’s Theorem, but the answer came in a sentence from the 1970’s that was very powerful in its day.  “The personal is political”. Far from ethical grandstanding and ‘humblebragging’, the way things are around here is inscribed in, but often perpetuated by the choices that we make.  How we relate to people, how we ascribe value, what we buy, what our priorities are, how we promote community or discord. Growing an allotment, becoming a vegetarian or cycling to work are not, in themslves, going to change the world. But when our individual choices are aggregated they do begin to count, and they work especially powerfully when we leave our little ego-bubble and join with our neighbours in saying ‘we want something better’. So I might write about growing heritage vegetables organically – I probably will – but I’m not inviting you to admire me.  By publishing that intention in a blog I’m issuing a kind of challenge – “Here’s something I’m keen on, how would you feel about doing it too? shall we share our experiences? are two better than one, and a thousand better than a hundred?”

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Here’s a picture of the new orchard at Plas yn Rhiw. Most of these varieties had become almost extinct because successive governments had paid farmers to grub them up. Now there’s a growing movement of small scale artisan producers making cider and bringing just a bit of employment.  Even after a few years of this the big cider manufacturers have been forced to respond by raising their game.

My answer to the dilemma of whether to continue with mixing personal with politics is simple. It all fits together, the personal is political, everything big starts with something small. Stick a fork in the ground and stick a finger up to the forces that tell us what’s good for us. We haven’t got that long.  Below a picture of a fungus with a grisly name.  I’m not totally certain of the full name but it’s Xylaria  ?polymorpha found in the woods at the Plas yesterday.  Dead Men’s Fingers if I’m right.  Hope that’s not prophetic!

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Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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