California, the gold rush and the F word.

IMG_20200126_161359Just in case you read my piece yesterday where I got a bit lyrical about the old South Gloucestershire coalfield here’s a teaser for what I’m thinking about today.  What links California Farm, the gold rush and the F word? OK here’s a clue about the last term – I’m not talking about Gordon Ramsey’s favourite word, but fracking.

I was mulling over my piece when I remembered I had a book in the shelves, a reprint of the 1873 monograph on the coalfield written by John Anstie. I bought it for a pound about thirty years ago, and so I had a flick through again and realized that the geography of my childhood – you might call it the psycho-geography, almost exactly coincides with the limits of the coalfield.  You could lay the two maps on top of one another and see the place names I wrote about on both of them. All very comforting you might think, and I thought it was pretty cute too at first, until I thought about California Farm.

In 1876 the Cowhorn Hill Colliery was purchased by Abraham Fussell.He deepened the old Blowbottom Shaft to 640 yards where he reached the valuable Smiths coal, only 18 inches thick but in great demand.  He renamed the shaft – CALIFORNIA. Fussell thought that, like the gold mines in California, it would make his fortune. 

The paragraph above was copied from the excellent local website DistrictWeb.

Note the date – three years after the book was written. The mine prospered but in 1904 the workings were flooded and the mine abandoned and sold to a water company who pumped and sold the water. Another fortune was made when the land was sold for building development in the second half of the 20th century, and now much of the area is built over as the California Farm estate, the coal wharves on the river and the dramway have all but disappeared and the abandoned mill became the hub of the small nature reserve I wrote about.

I’ve always assumed that the age of coal has gone, not least here, where the seams are narrow and difficult to mine but especially because the whole world is supposed to be trying to cut the use of carbon based fuels.  But my assumption is wrong for a number of reasons. The greed that allowed land to be bought and sold as a commodity, and allowed mineral extraction without regard to the consequences hasn’t gone away. We have the most ecologically illiterate government in many decades, and the fracking licences for the whole area have been quietly on sale for years. But finally the principle that the polluter pays is largely understood as extremist propaganda. In short, the Klondike could return to South Gloucestershire any time soon, because there is far more coal and methane left in there than was ever taken in the past.  

Fracking! The local authorities oppose it, the residents oppose it and almost anyone with a grain of common sense would oppose it, but ….. there are fortunes to be made, even at the expense of global heating and species extinction.  This is not a time for complacency!

Anyway, enough grumpy, because today I found this at the back of the garage ….. (see below)


It isn’t an alien life form but a bag of last year’s early potatoes that I harvested, put in the garage and promptly forgot.  When I said recently that they were pink fir apple I was quite wrong.  I found those today and they’ve stored perfectly. These were almost certainly Arran Pilots and, driven by their biological imperative they were seeking fresh air and sunshine from the most disadvantaged place you could imagine – in a hemp shopping bag in an underground garage. The Sarpo Miras and the Pink Fir Apples – both main-crops,  have stored perfectly with no sign of premature chitting. What it does show is just how important the differences between varieties can be, and – another important lesson – chitting potatoes need light and cool conditions if they’re not to get leggy or dry out. It’s nowhere near time to get them going here, although the seed merchants are desperate for the space in their warehouses. The best advice is to wait until you can see the seed potatoes in the garden centres and snap them up before they all go.

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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