After a drought we shouldn’t complain – but secretly we do

The view through the windscreen when we woke up today

We know exactly where they are – Ramsey Island, St David’s Head and the dragon backed hills beyond, but they’re invisible; crouched under a blanket of cloud and rain. The van shudders and rocks now and again in the blustery wind and it seems that everyone else has left the campsite. The big group of young people left, bedraggled, this morning. They tried their very best to party last night, circling their cars like covered wagons in the mist. The music started quietly and worked to a climax as one of the lads demonstrated his car’s special trick of flashing the headlights to the rhythm- but the light show only lasted ten minutes at most and the music soon died down to the point where we could hear them talking quietly. I was sad for them because there was no heartbreakingly beautiful sunset to watch and it was cold, damp and hostile to youthful dreams that so often come apart in the cold light of reality. Friendships and relationships strong, fragile or merely desired were untouched by lightning bolts and revelations and the lecking ground that the boys had created was more often deserted by the girls who preferred their own company. I remember it all so well; the temptation to settle for less and let go of the dreams.

Or maybe that’s all just part of my personal psychogeography – the sadness I sense seeping from shores and strandlines, especially out of season. Maybe it’s to do with the sound of the waves which taunt us and say – “no; ‘eternal’ is the wrong word. Times and seasons, rise and fall, spring and neap – this is what ‘forever’ really feels like. Eternity is a suburban religious concept born out of the fear of change.

A confession

Anyway, there are bigger fish to fry this holiday, well botanical fish anyway, because in an email exchange with the local Vice County Recorder a couple of years ago – (they’re the first line volunteers who make sure that beginners and idiots like me don’t submit wrongly identified records) – he verified a record I’d sent and then wished me well; suggesting that I might have a look for three modestly unusual plants, growing right next to the campsite. I never properly thanked him for his encouragement because I knew that I’d committed a grave sin out of sheer ignorance. We were in a hurry to catch the bus back to the campsite and I spotted something I’d never seen before and carelessly ripped a lump away so I could identify it later. This is the shadow sin to the more normal one of thinking that every plant I don’t recognise must be vanishingly rare. Anyway, after a bit of a struggle I managed to photograph the bit of the plant I’d taken and key it out and – to my great embarrassment – it really was very unusual. Only one previous record of it growing wild in St Davids city. The karmic punishment for this is that every time we go to the supermarket to stock up I search the wall fiercely in search of survivors and cry inwardly “out damned spot.” If that kindly VC Recorder ever reads this story – I’m truly sorry and I’ve never removed so much as a leaf since that day. I just take photos of all the parts of the plants that clinch the identity.

So these three plants, then – Wormwood, Dwarf Mallow and Corn Parsley – well the Wormwood seems just the ticket for an act of atonement if I can find it, but I’ll excuse myself the gall. Corn Parsley is one of those declining plants that once thrived in the different world that we’ve hubristically destroyed and Dwarf Mallow will be a doddle to identify if I can but find it. I shall send the three records as compensation, wash my feet in St Non’s Well and then do a jig.

Every time we come here I’m struck by how very different the mix of plants is. For the first few days I feel utterly incompetent until I get my eye in. Climate, geology, wind, rain and salt shape the coastal plant life in a unique way and I’m always awestruck by nature’s capacity to adapt and change. By the way, I’m well aware that calling nature some kind of thing is a kind of category error. The other day I photographed a Ribwort Plantain on the allotment site. It just shouted at me – “Look at me; I’m different!”

Would it be impolite to say to the plant – “My goodness, those are the longest flower stalks I’ve ever seen on a Plantain!” – Again I sent the photo off to the North Somerset Vice County Recorder and she was quite sure it was both unusual but also no more than a genetic variation; an intellectual bridge too far for me. The thought that plants and other organisms merrily go through life as if they were at a car boot sale picking up bits of DNA that – as my grandfather would say – “might come in useful one day”. I can imagine Madame balking at me trying to smuggle an electron scanning microscope on to the van – and as for DNA I discovered that hand DNA scanning devices really exist at fabulous expense so I’m afraid it’s back to the Book of Stace for me.

So here we are in West Wales but strangely my mobile phone thinks for the purposes of weather reports we’re in County Wexford in Ireland. I’m hoping that doesn’t mean they’re imposing roaming charges on the data SIM. It’s raining almost continually after weeks of punishing sunshine so we’re in no position to grumble, but naturally we lament the fact that after all the watering and nurturing of our infant crops; and after assisting with watering on eight other allotments whose owners were sunbathing languidly on holiday; and after packing almost no cold-weather clothes we’re confined to the campervan; and I’m writing rather than pottering around in the sunshine. “Never mind” – we say “Life’s an ever flowing well of interesting events”, and it’s true but as I wrote earlier in this post, it sometimes refuses to live up to our expectations.

Sunset – last September

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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