It’s New Year’s Eve, and as you can see from the photos we’ve had a grand old time with family, friends and neighbours. There’s always a hint of the black dog sidling along somewhere close behind me at this time of the year but, as one of my spiritual directors said many years ago – “There’s nothing wrong with you that a bit of sunshine won’t put right”. I think the dominant mood has to be defiance – of the winter, of the politics and of all that tries to diminish us and keep us in shadow. Fear and despair are the devil’s tools and it’s always possible to raise a finger against the tyranny of the machine.
Anyway, enough of that, we have bigger fish to fry at the Potwell Inn and in any case the sun broke through for a couple of hours yesterday. Plan A was to go over to Dyrham Park for a walk, but slow moving traffic on the A46 was a bit of a clue that plan B was a better bet. In the end we drove into the park and straight out again, passing many hundreds of cars and crocodiles of walkers. There was no peace to be had anywhere, and we wondered at what point the overwhelming popularity of the place would become a serious threat to the environment. I had the horrifying thought that the whole of White Field might be turned into an overflow car park – all those stunning meadow plants mown off in pursuit of a few more visitors to fund the spoliation of yet more land.
And so we returned to a bit of unfinished business on the canal. I’ve written about the big patch of Winter Heliotrope we found – no great shakes, I know, but it was a cheerful sight. However there was one thing I forgot to log, and the latin name Petasites fragrans is a bit of a clue, because apparently it has a perfume although experts seem unable to agree on what it is – some say vanilla, others cherry pie,liquorice or aniseed. A bit inconclusive, then! So there was nothing to do but go back and flare the nostrils a bit in search of the elusive fragrance. I thought it might help that the sun was shining and it’s true that there was a distinct fragrance but you could only get it by standing back from the individual flowers and embracing the whole bed. It was nice to confirm the name, but I couldn’t say that the perfume was any other than itself – the perfume of winter heliotrope.
Here’s a photo above that just about sums up the time of year. I love the appearance of Clematis vitalba – old man’s beard, traveller’s joy – among other English names – when it reaches the final stage of its seasonal cycle. It’s winter in a picture, but almost at its feet we found new leaves of dandelion, tansy and yarrow in full spring growth. I’m always surprised at just how specific the habitats are. You’ll see loads of a particular plant in one small length of the towpath, and then it seems to be replaced by something entirely different. As I looked at the yarrow leaves I suddenly remembered another of our childhood names – we called it ‘fish paste’ for no particular reason I can think of.
The canal itself was a beautiful sight in the winter sunshine, but even there we found a bit of human tragedy. We’d noticed that one rather dishevelled looking boat was tilting dramatically the other day. Yesterday we found the distraught young couple whose home it had been, trying to rescue their belongings from the sunken hull. They’d obviously gone away for Christmas and returned to find their home underwater. There are so many people living within a whisker of destitution on these old boats. The wealthy owners of waterside homes are constantly agitating to have them removed, but the look etched on to their faces would have told you all you need to know about being poor and homeless in this, one of the richest countries in the world.
But the sun truly brings Bath stone to life, and as we took our usual walk, looping back through the town center I took a few photos of the canal and some of its buildings. The water was flat calm, and I was fascinated by the appearance of what seemed an exactly parallel world in the reflection. Cleveland House – newly restored – looked as if it was sitting on a giant’s cave, and the mature plane trees’ reflections were stunning. From Laura place, looking down Pulteney Street the sun – low in the sky – made the houses glow with a kind of inner light. Mercifully the river level is falling and narrow boats were at last able to join the Avon through Widcombe Deep Lock. It’s a kind of secret Bath that draws us back again and again – and we’ll need to keep it up because I can see that within a week or two the wildflowers will move into a new gear altogether.