The water flowing into this old wash boiler comes straight out of the hill and serves as the water supply for the house. It’s clear, pure and tastes a lot better than the stuff that comes out of most taps. It also happens that the spring makes the most wonderfully relaxing sound; I could sit and listen to it all day. I’ve strip washed in it in the past, when the possibility of being surprised by a passer by was almost infinitesimally small. As a precaution, 30 odd years ago, we used to boil the water before drinking it. Over the years it’s proved completely safe and so nowadays no-one bothers. We were first brought to this place all those years ago, when it was a holiday cottage and painting studio – it’s pretty inaccessible, although the faciliies are much improved from the days when the stream, when it was in spate, would flow into the cottage under the living room wall and out again under the door. Now it’s in full occupation as a smallholding. Hill farming doesn’t pay any more and so its full-time flock of sheep and hens, and a part time herd of fattening pigs are subsidised by two incomes from work outside the holding – this is not a place for the faint-hearted. More than 250 metres higher than our allotment, the spring sowings need to be best part of a month later, and the winters are much fiercer.
Within minutes of arriving we were watching nuthatches, yellowhammers and dunnocks along with the better known lowland birds all competing with a tiny field mouse on the bird tables. There are cuckoos here, and green woodpeckers too – more often heard than seen, but which always lift the spirits. Our friends, Kate and Nick would be the first to acknowledge that they’re hardly self-sufficient, but this morning, mid-morning after a late night at a blues concert in Brecon, we feasted on eggs, bacon and sausages all produced on their land. There’s excellent cider here, and there’s a whole shed full of stored and preserved food of every kind. It’s a ‘good to be alive’ place. Outside our small bedroom in what, not so long ago, was the toolshed, the bees were working the cotoneaster from early in the morning. The air is rich with the sounds of insects but apart from the odd plane overhead there is no traffic noise at all. The nearest road is a small ribbon of grey through the landscape at the bottom of the valley. Bryn, the dog, is so accustomed to wandering the landscape chasing foxes that he will travel 15 kilometres a night – we only know that because he’s fitted with a tracking transmitter so he can be found again. He’s rather deaf, blind in one eye and fourteen years old.
There are two gardens here – the garden which is nearest the cottage is like any cottage garden, except for the views. Further up the bridle path there’s a proper allotment where potatoes are planted with a small tractor and plough, the tractor designed to be safe to use on the steeply sloping fields. There are peas and runner beans and root crops on a rather grander scale than we could ever contemplate at the Potwell Inn. Taller crops like runner beans have to be grown on almost industrial grade frameworks to resist the fierce winds. Most of the carpentry is done on site – it’s a very self-contained sort of place sustained by an informal local network of friends and neighbours, always up for a bit of bartering.
But let’s not get too carried away by the rural idyll. Hard choices have to be made, and sometimes they have to cull animals like grey squirrels to protect their young saplings Things go wrong sometimes, animals – especially hens – can die for no discernable reason. Thistles and bracken are a constant battle at this height and war is still waged using some chemicals. “Never let the perfect drive out the best” is a good motto for this sort of extreme marginal farming, but looked at as a whole, this inefficient profit-free enterprise has created a haven for wildlife however the industrial agricultural industrialists might shake their heads in disbelief. Hundreds of native trees have been planted over the past decades, and this has had a real impact on the wildlife. If you think of the economics of farming in a different way and start to count natural capital as a public good rather than as a resource to be plundered, packed and resold for a profit, then the profitability of this tiny farm with its inbuilt capacity for carbon capture and recycling of waste – the unsaleable wool is recycled into compost and as mulch, grazing animals return their waste into the improving soil – all this adds up to profit of a different kind – a profit that might be counted in birdsong, biodiversity and beneficial impact on the earth.
Every Wednesday, Kate sets up her moth trap to check out the local population of these bafflingly confusing and often invisible creatures and sends reports in to the County Recorder because knowing what you’ve got is the essential first step in knowing whether you’re in the process of losing it. These photos, taken last year show Madame and Kate unpacking the trap and sorting the moths into jars so they could be identified and released again. We were absolutely amazed at the diversity and sheer beauty of some creatures we’d never seen before. Where there are only relatively few (between 50 and 70 including migrant) butterfly species, the moths make up for it with over 2500 species including a whole set of micromoths which are tiny and brown and need expertise way beyond my paygrade. As always, the world gets more complicated the closer and more carefully you look.
So that’s why this is one of my favourite places to be. It’s easy to read, to write and to doze in the garden or to plan the next move for the Potwell Inn garden. We’ve gathered firewood, planted carrots and shared all sorts of expertise, over the years, and I’ve gathered enough stories to write a book if I ever wanted to. If I have a wish, it’s that we will soon come to the understanding that if we treasure the environment an it inhabitants, including ourselves, we have to stop worshipping the gods of profit and growth, and start to recognise the true value of the marginal mixed farms that create the landscape we crave and that’s so good for our souls.