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.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness didn’t quite cover it today. I always associate the Keats poem with Herefordshire – don’t ask me why -but when I woke to the first day of British Standard Time (otherwise known as the dark nights), the weather obviously hadn’t read the forecast and the day was bright and clear; altogether too good to miss, and so I left Madame reading the new Rose Tremain novel and got to the allotment just after eight.
I needn’t bore you with the details, I turned the two compost heaps as planned and augmented the newest one with a mixture of grass mowings and dead leaves that the Parks Department had left – perfect mixture of carbon and nitrogen. The older heap was still running at 30C but I turned it anyway.
The light in autumn always feels that much brighter, and being lower in the sky it brings out the texture of plants like chard in a way that high summer sunshine never does. All the while as I was working I was listening to the sound of a couple of crows kicking off at something. I stopped and walked towards them as they bobbed in a thoroughly agitated way, and chattered warning calls loud enough to mask the sound of traffic. As I got closer I saw a familiar grey cat hunting in the long grass at the edge of the site. He looks for all the world like a pet, but he spends his life prowling around the allotments. Occasionally we find a pathetic bundle of feathers and we’ve often attributed them to one of the foxes who live in the northeast corner of the site; but I wondered today if it wasn’t more likely to be the cat – all innocence in his long grey coat but fiercely predatory by nature.
So after a couple of hours with the stable fork I went back for a late breakfast and then we both went back up so I could empty the leaf mould bin ready for the new season’s arrivals. I spread the leaf mould around the plot while Madame sowed seed and so we harvested the last of the chillies from the greenhouse and gathered up the borlotti crop, now crisp and dry, so we could shell them and put them into store for the winter; making space for the seed trays and root trainers. The greenhouse is now in overwintering mode and the broad beans have sprouted, ready to be planted out next month. Strangely, that sense of ennui that always comes with September for me, has altogether gone and has been displaced by the buzz of optimism for the new season.
Later, as we were thinking about packing up, Madame went for a wander around the site looking for plants that might go well in the tall herb border and came back with a sprig of vervain. It’s a plant that’s probably hardly used these days, but gets mentioned in all my herbals. We both agreed it would look very well and so we’ll try and grow some.
Talking to our neighbour, Pete – (retired professor of French history, we’re a very select bunch) – it looks as if we’ll have to wait until spring before we can plant up the new pond. He built his last autumn, but found that the garden centres were more interested in selling smelly candles and Christmas trinkets than actual plants.
The seed order will have to wait until tomorrow. I think a family decision has been made not to risk celebrating Christmas together for the first time in over forty years. I’m not sure how I feel about that – I know it’s the right thing to do but I feel pretty angry that the pandemic has been allowed to get beyond control by our incompetent government.
I should have made a video really, but today the weir steps had all but disappeared under the flow of the river. You might have thought that this would deter the crowds, but a quick look across the water towards Southgate suggested that our rapidly increasing Covid infection numbers was not enough to deter Christmas and half-term shoppers. Cognitive dissonance is alive and shopping in Bath! As ever we skulked along the far side and out through Henrietta Park and Sidney Gardens to the canal which, unsurprisingly I suppose, had its own traffic jams.
Yesterday’s allotmenteering focused on getting the strawberry bed finished. This was really part two of the pond building because the surplus soil was transferred from the hole to the raised bed; but with the storm glowering in the skies I had to work like stink to get it finished – cue rather stiff back! I don’t think we will be seeing the plants until early spring, but they may come with the tree order which I made yesterday before we set out to work.
The idea was that today’s predicted heavy rain would keep us at home all day today but what we saw was a fairly continuous drizzle and some very strong gusts of wind. According to my phone we’re still owed about 15mm rain today, but Bath sits in a bowl, surrounded by hills and so we tend to get the rain courtesy of the river. The wind, however stripped the leaves off many of the trees and next week I’ll be hoarding them as the Council sweeps them up and dumps them at the allotment site. This is an incredibly useful (and much sought after) resource, and stacked under weights in one of our line of compost bins, we can make finished leaf mould in a year – a brilliant soil conditioner, especially for the raspberries which enjoy a low pH mulch. So that means come rain or shine I need to be up at the plot, emptying last year’s supply ready for the new.
The fallen leaves are also useful as a source of ‘brown’ material in the other compost heaps, so if there’s any opportunity I’ll turn the two heaps and add layers of leaves to step up the carbon content. The plan is to turn the heaps regularly and get them heating up – one of them recently reached 60C – so that’s another backbreaker.
It was a tremendous pleasure to get the first two bits of civil engineering done, but there are still several more to complete including installing new terracing boards at the bottom of the plot along with posts and wires to support the Tayberry and blackberries that are also on order. Then there’s a pergola and sheltered area for us between the greenhouse and the shed and finally I’m going to build removable cold frame lights to sit on top of the compost bins. I want to see whether I can create a warm bed by capturing waste heat from the compost. Last season we grew cucumbers and squashes very successfully on top of the leaf mould – they just thrived there.
But in case you thought the Potwell Inn allotment never ever experienced the shadow of pests and diseases, I’m sad to say that we forgot to put the fine insect mesh over the leeks at the end of September and they’ve been badly infested with allium leaf miner (again). It’s a pain – particularly because it was down to my own carelessness; but every problem is a lesson and it’s obvious that the smaller and weaker the plant the more it was damaged. This is the third season we’ve been attacked and so I think we’re going to have to find a way of growing them that avoids the worst of this relatively new pest, but sturdy plants in healthy soil seems to be one part of the answer.
The rest of the day was spent pondering over the seed order. I’ve downloaded the latest RHS list of what are known as ‘Award of Garden Merit’ (AGM) fruit and veg. If you’re wondering which variety to choose from a catalogue with fifty options it’s a good resource to refer to. When in doubt we grow the AGM variety because it’s been independently tested for everyday, ordinary gardens and allotments. We don’t always agree because every plot is pretty much unique and we’ve discovered a few varieties that for whatever reason, really thrive on our plot – but I still check against the list. It’s all too easy to turn to the old favourites and ignore the fruits of more recent breeding trials. I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the blight resistant tomatoes and potatoes that have come on to the market in recent years. No-one who’s lost an entire crop overnight would want to have the experience again. This year we’re going to try fly resistant carrot varieties.
So hopefully we’ll have the seed order off tomorrow and then we can relax. Last year we had to subsist on old and saved seed because the garden centres and seed merchants we so disrupted. Meanwhile a few more photos from today’s walk.
Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.
I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.
Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!
The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.
Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.
My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.
Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.
We have a friend – Harry -who’s a retired orthopaedic surgeon; and an all round good guy. On his 90th birthday he gave a truly witty after dinner speech in which he tried to account for his long life and 60 years of happy marriage by listing the virtues that he thought might have contributed. The virtue I remember most clearly was thrift, which he illustrated by telling a story about apples. Harry has a large garden and orchard and he said that he had the utmost difficulty in leaving windfalls on the ground – it just seemed wrong to waste them, he said – and the consequence, he noted, was ” …. of course you never eat a decent apple!”
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that all these synonyms have a faintly negative air about them – but I know exactly what Harry meant. We’ve got a load of really nice, almost perfect, Lord Lambourne apples stored in the meter cupboard; but those aren’t the ones we’re eating because we like to finish up the windfalls and blemished ones first. And so every morning when I prepare our muesli I cut the bad bits out of yesterday’s windfalls and grate the rest – they still taste just as good and, pound for pound, they contain exactly as many nutrients as their smooth cheeked cousins in the cupboard. The point. though, is that we couldn’t even give them away. When we go (infrequently) to the fruit and veg stall in a supermarket, we see nothing but perfect examples of each variety, flying off the shelves complete with all the residue of the repeated sprays that have bestowed their cosmetic perfection on them. “Another slice of organophosphate and neonicotinoid pie?” is the one question we’re most unlikely to ask at the dinner table.
But simply by working the allotment our worldview has changed. Because we’ve planted and nurtured our own vegetables; tended and watered them through drought, storm and snowfall; pruned, fed and picked the fruits we’re a lot less inclined to discard them because they don’t look like the ones in the supermarket (or especially the seed catalogue). Yesterday I was writing about how pleased we were to have a small crop of Florence fennel and I forgot to take a picture to share – so here it is – and, as you can easily see, although I extolled the flavour and texture yesterday, it’s hardly a textbook example of the genre; on the very edge of bolting and not about to win any prizes at any flower and produce show I’ve ever been to. When you grow your own veg, you’ve got to learn to love them in rather the way you love your children – seeing nothing but sheer beauty and giftedness in them in spite of all the evidence to the contrary!
There’s an old saying that says “everyone should eat their peck of dirt”. and equally if you’ve never seen a slug or an earwig on your plate you’re probably part of the reason that our rivers are so heavily polluted by runoff from farms. It wasn’t for nothing that the Edwardian gardeners at the Lost Gardens of Heligan called their stirrup pump sprayer the widowmaker.
Isn’t it a supreme irony that we’re so scared of insects or a bit of dirt, or especially the idea of composting toilets and using urine as a fertilizer; while we are quite prepared to tolerate some of the most dangerous nerve-gas derived chemicals ever invented, all over our lettuce or fruit. How on earth did that happen? Well I guess it’s because we can’t see it, and a lot of money has been spent on persuading us it’s perfectly safe.
Allotmenteering teaches so much more than a few horticultural tricks. It teaches some of those virtues that Harry was praising on his 90th birthday. It teaches us to value diversity, stop dreaming about the perfect and above all to stop wasting the good things that the earth has given us. And, how could we leave this one out? – allotmenteering gives us a sense of awe and gratitude that’s so easily lost in this era of mendacity and stupidity. That’ll do for us.
The new pond – which Madame rather acidly refers to as ‘the lake’ is all but finished now. We’re just waiting for the membrane to arrive and it should be filling with rainwater within a week. I suggested that perhaps a wave machine might add something but she wasn’t biting on that one and merely asked when the fish were arriving.
Enough of the Potwell Inn domestics – we’re nowhere near as much fun as the landlord of one pub we used to go to. He would lurk in the lounge bar and his wife was in charge of the busier public bar; and they would hurl abuse at one another through the connecting passage: it was the best show in town. Every night at ten o’clock on the dot Mr Rossi would turn up in his chef’s apron smelling of heavenly Italian food and we would vie with one another to sit next to him because we could never afford to eat in his restaurant.
And speaking of Italian food; his year- at last- we’ve had success with the Florence fennel. We’ve tried often before but it tends to bolt very easily and so, when we read somewhere that it’s best to delay sowing until after the equinox – as the day length declines – we decided to give it a go and it’s paid off handsomely. Tonight we feasted on onion soup, followed by a pear and fennel salad and I have to say in all modesty (ho ho) that it was the best and most tender fennel we’ve ever eaten. It’ easy enough to buy it in the supermarkets, I know, but we often find it rather tough and sometimes quite stringy, as if it’s spent a long time on a lorry – which of course it usually has. Our own fennel, not as big as the supermarket ones but with a properly formed bulb, had a sweetness behind the aniseed flavour and best of all, sliced very thinly, it was as tender as a cos lettuce . We ate in respectful silence enjoying every mouthful. I guess it’s one of the strengths of seasonal food that when it appears it’s always at its prime; and when there’s none left there’s usually something different but just as good coming along.
The related job on the allotment is to use the soil from the pond to build up a new strawberry bed. There’s been a good deal of to and fro with the wheelbarrow, but it’s all coming together and we’re now ready to order some new strawberry plants. The fruit cage is almost clear and at last the apple cordons have been given more space to breathe by relocating some redcurrants and gooseberries.
It’s been hard work, and there’s a lot more construction still to go. It would be easy to think of an allotment as a rather static entity; but as we learn more about the soil and the microclimate on the plot we move things around and add new features. This winter we’re planning for pollinators, insects, reptiles and small mammals – that’s for the earth, and for us a sheltered level area to sit and enjoy the wildlife.
Three years ago to the day we took on our second half plot and, as you can see, it needed a little TLC.
We cleared it by a repeated combination of strimming and flame gunning – it took several weeks to do, and although it wasn’t the greenest way of clearing it it was much more effective than weedkiller, and left no residue apart from the potash and phosphate from the ash.
Now, as it gets close to its finished form, we’ve spent most of the week getting ready for next season and digging out the new pond.
Right now it’s all pretty heavy work but all the major civil engineering jobs are linked and so it needs a bit of project management. By my rough calculation I’ve bagged about a ton of topsoil ready to complete the strawberry bed, and while I was digging Madame was pruning the cordon apples and clearing the fruit cage which is looking pretty end of season. All the while, in the background our incinerators were barely steaming but once you’ve got them going they’ll eat up barrow loads of the most noxious weeds like bindweed.
But is there a better feeling than nursing aching muscles and knowing that we’ve done a good job. Rather than write a long piece I thought I’d post a few photos of the road we’ve travelled – hopefully encouraging enough to get you past the despair of an apparently untameable new plot.
A grace day today because we were expecting rain all day and instead, the sun shone.
I would quite like to be the kind of gardener/allotmenteer who is so on top of things that they’re never surprised at the way a project turns out, but on the other hand a bit of serendipity adds a certain excitement to life. Last season when I built the compost bins I thought they were miles too big; but in the light of experience they’re just about right. In fact they’re pretty much perfect for the amount of green waste we can compost each year. The water storage supports looked miles over spec until the water butts filled up and the whole lot collapsed; so I’ve had to completely rebuild them and add extra strengthening; and then when I first thought of building a new raised strawberry bed I didn’t really think through what an enormous amount of soil I’d need to fill it.
The same sense of surprise will probably go for the pond as well. I had thought that I could find much of the soil I needed for the strawberries when I dug the hole for the pond, but, having started to remove the topsoil, I realized that the pond would need to be about 6′ deep to get enough subsoil to raise the level of the strawberry bed. The net result of all my (mis)calculations is that the whole plot is beginning to take on the general appearance of a building site: not – I should say – at all unusual for our plots in October, because this is the time where we figure out where everything needs to go, and we’re doing some fairly wholesale hard plantings of trees, involving a rebuild of one side of the fruit cage.
But I love it; the sense of possibilities that comes at this time each autumn. We think back how the various varieties we’ve grown have done, and base the seed order on our experience. The strawberries, for instance, have never really lived up to their catalogue descriptions so today Madame ripped the lot up and added them to the compost. You have to be ruthless with allotments sometimes. Better to lose a year and replant than stick with the old ones and lose five. When the new bed is finished, we’ll replant with some (hopefully better)choices. By Christmas we’ll have four or five new cordon fruit trees, three replacement soft fruit bushes and we’ll have created new boundaries with some hard woven hazel fencing, and some vigorous blackberries and maybe tayberries trained on wires, with a rambling dog rose trailing over the shed.
All of the tall biennial and perennial herbs will have been divided and moved to an entirely new bed, and replaced with a row of lavender bushes and finally (so far) I’ll have built an open extension connecting the shed and the greenhouse with a rather complicated roof to give us somewhere dry to sit. I’m too embarrassed to show you a photo of inside the shed! Next season we’ll also be growing a bed of cut flowers for the first time. We’ve been able to release some of the vegetable space because our son now has his own allotment; and so next year we’ll be sharing our plot with the birds, the insects and pollinators and still grow enough to keep ourselves fed. All this, I should add, on under 250 square metres of land. Allotments can be very intensive even if they are organic!
But as I dug out the topsoil for the pond, I was delighted that in less than three years it’s gone from being waterlogged clay, largely subsoil – because the previous tenant had left two layers of carpet on it – to deep and rich loam. Mind you, we’ve cosseted that patch with grit, leaf mould and goodness knows how much compost. It’s good to see how quickly you can turn around a plot that we were told ‘wouldn’t grow anything’. The pond will complete the greening works this year, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye out for some new amphibian residents. We already know we’ve got at least one toad living in the specially created void under the water storage.
I don’t doubt that all the challenges will be resolved by next spring and that next season will be the best ever (fingers crossed on that one). One small disappointment is that so many of the keen new allotmenteers who joined us during the lockdown and worked so hard on their plots, have melted away now that they’re back at work. In the unlikely event that any of them will read this, I’d beg them to hang on in there. Allotments can very quickly look terrible at this time of the year, but a bit of blood, sweat and tears and a great deal of guile can soon win them back. It was absolutely evident that the sudden influx of newcomers represented a genuine longing for a richer, more fulfilling life than endless meetings, deadlines and school runs. We run our allotment on the basis that we’re available pretty much every day to tend it, but it would be easy enough to design a minimum intervention plot – lots of soft fruit and cordon trees with perennial crops and herbs. Anything that contributes even something to the kitchen and gives you an outdoor space to enjoy has got to be good. If our plot demonstrates anything it’s that allotments begin to take on the personalities of their allotmenteers just as dogs look like their owners – they say; I couldn’t possibly comment.
I’ve never quite understood how fine words could fail to butter at least a couple of parsnips – as long, that is, as someone is paying you to write them. Sadly, though in my case nobody pays me to write anything and so the Potwell Inn parsnips are only ever buttered thanks to our extremely modest pensions. Still; what’s the price of a pat of butter against the pleasure of eating our own organic parsnips straight off the allotment.
Yes it’s parsnip time again; having seen off the last of the summer vegetables. Parsnips and all the other roots shuffle modestly to the front of the queue and surprise us as they do every year. I imagine you could (just about) eat them boiled with a knob of butter; or mashed with the aforementioned and a bit of pepper but for me the glory of the parsnips is roasted until they’re golden – in olive oil rather than butter which burns too easily. For even greater transports of delight (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) I’d roast them with carrots, squash, and possibly beetroot in the meat juices left in the pan while the joint is resting, but that, for us these days, is a very occasional extravagance (and all the more enjoyable for it). But really any which way is good, and with care and attention you can even achieve the chef’s holy grail and possibly mythical quality – balance. Balance, I think, is how you describe a perfect culinary chord in which (to carry on the musical analogy) neither the first violins or the horns are getting all their own way.
Parsnip soup is one of those dishes beloved of pub chefs with a limited budget, who want to honour local sourcing without lashing out on salt marsh lamb. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved by a bit of TLC. I’ve tasted some truly grim versions. Don’t rush it; get the best fresh ingredients and give it time. Parsnips, especially shop bought ones, can be a bit woody towards the end of the season; so preparation should include cutting out the woody cores, because however long you blitz the resulting soup for, it will still taste as if you dropped a corner of the kitchen table into the pan. Your guests will not be impressed as they pick the splinters from their teeth if you extol the rustic virtues of their lunch. And finally, don’t over season it – let it speak for itself – and give it a swirl of sage oil and a dollop of crème fraiche. There isn’t a better way of marking an otherwise dull day.
It’s mid October and the daylight hours are shortening dramatically. When the sun shines, the autumn colours of the leaves are wonderful; but on a day like today when it’s drizzling; the allotment stares back at us like an estranged teenager and the earth is cold. It’s hard to see beyond the moment if the rain’s running down your neck and even the grass has taken on the blue green hue that’s an autumn speciality. Any pause in the traffic and you can almost hear the slugs munching. So we drifted off to a garden centre to get supplies of potting compost, sand and fine grit for a new garlic bed which needs to be well drained. We could make our own potting compost, but if the lockdown goes on we’ll have run out by the busiest time in March.
If you think that my occasional forays into philosophy or poetry, environmental politics, or spirituality are unexpected or random, I’d have to push back a bit and say that being human – I mean really human – can’t be boiled down to cooking and eating parsnips (thank goodness) or, for that matter, growing them. The allotment and the kitchen are two of the most important spaces in the (imaginary) Potwell Inn; but only two of them. Neither the natural history of Bath nor the contents of the bookshelves or the paintings on the walls, finish crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I couldn’t even begin to make a list of my favourite marks of humanness and neither would I dare to suggest that my list enjoyed any kind of privilege in the great order of things. But the unique and glorious bird’s nest of borrowings and learnings that furnish my/your/anyone’s inner life is a symphony, a work of art.
And on the wet days and the ones where nothing seems to go right, it helps to have that precious bird’s nest. Goodness knows I was fed up today – so fed up I started reading Rilke! What I wanted to say is that full humanity needs its stories and poems and pictures and perhaps above all, its spiritualities, songs and music. It’s only through these shared arts that good and bad can be held together in hope. So although fine words may butter no economic parsnips, they can raise two fingers to the gods of chaos, war and destruction. And without those internal resources, there’s no symphony, no texture; just a solitary busker with a hat full of rain.
So instead of spending Wednesday hanging around in a secure campervan compound, we were able to charge the batteries properly while driving the round trip of about 100 miles to Hay on Wye and back again. I have no idea why we’re so passionately attached to Hay – we don’t attend the festival or even camp there very often, but it’s very close to some of our favourite places like Hay Bluff, Capel y Ffin and Kilvert’s parishes, not to mention Offa’s dyke and some of the best (and longest) hill walks in Wales; and it does have a very good ironmonger – so good we once drove there to buy a crowbar. They didn’t have one.
I don’t do endorsements, but our journey was only made possible by an extraordinary piece of technology. LIke most of us, the campervan had developed a flat battery this summer during the lockdown when we weren’t able to go anywhere; and our usual way of dealing with this problem would be to drive 20 miles with our genny to where it’s stored, and spend hours charging it up – sometimes meaning we had to make two journeys and waste most of a day. I’ve always avoided the idea of getting a battery booster set because in my memory they were extremely cumbersome, and lugging one of them up and down three flights of stairs at the flat is a bit of a pain. However, after a lucky online search, I found the most wonderful lithium ion booster which weighs just over 500 grammes (one and a quarter pounds), fits in your pocket and will deliver 1000A; enough to crank up a 3 litre diesel or 6 litre petrol engine. No – I didn’t believe it either – but I charged it overnight via a USB socket and this morning we went down to the van and after a couple of minutes getting it attached,started the engine without so much as a hint of battery problems.
But this post isn’t a touristy piece on the Brecon Beacons; it’s about something rather different – more psychogeographical than topographical, and more literary than I’d expected: think Kilvert’s Diary, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On The Black Hill’ and …… forgive me …. JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. But first, Adlestrop.
So …. sunny autumn day; the leaves turning golden on the trees and as we crested the top of the hill leading down to Raglan we could see Hay Bluff in the far distance, the atmosphere was so clear. We always go by the the back roads, eschewing the motorway and sticking to the quieter and shorter route which, notwithstanding the continual nagging of the satnav, takes exactly the same length of time – give or take the occasional tractor. The car park at Hay was only a third full and visitors were pretty thin on the ground by the looks of it, so we drove down to the bottom and parked up in the sunshine to brew tea.
Silences are difficult to describe because they can often be defined by sounds. As I sat on the van step, soaking up the warmth and listening to a robin singing in its birdish minor key, I suddenly thought of Adlestrop in Edward Thomas’ poem. There the silence is defined by the sound of escaping steam. In my parents’ garden the silence was always defined by house sparrows. We were once walking in Clun where there was the most lovely silence I think I’ve ever experienced, it was so warm and embracing. Tawny owls do good night silences here in Bath and once in Corsica we were kept awake by the silences, bookended by the sound of the Scops owls. Urban silences are always brief and punctuated at each end by the sound of traffic and aeroplanes, or perhaps ambulances. You have to snatch them out of the still air as if you were attempting to catch a butterfly in your hands. The silence you can find in the Brecon Beacons is different again, accompanied by wind and grass but yesterday in Hay on Wye, the silence was modulated by the sound and smell of a petrol mower somewhere close by, and by the quarreling jackdaws in the trees. It was a silence pregnant with all the other lost silences of my life. Robin, my last therapist, was good at silences. He could create a silence like a rich medium in which my hidden thoughts could germinate and grow and, once established, would follow me up the lanes and steps as I walked back to Clifton with my ghosts.
This silence, once evoked, stayed with me even above the noise of the van as we drove back. Pen y Fan never looked lovelier or more challenging as we drove towards Bwlch and then, on the right, there was Buckland Hill and Tolkien joined my thoughts. Despite his protestations that the Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with the war, he had started the writing Hobbit in 1939, and it’s infused with melancholy for a lost and comfortable world that’s always made me feel that when push comes to shove, I’m a hobbit too. Utterly attached to my own place and all too fond of a good meal and a gossip. The Tolkien obsessives have often associated the Buckland of the book with the Buckland hill overlooking the River Usk near Bwlch. There have always been rumours that Tolkien stayed at Buckland Hall as a child, although no-one has absolutely nailed it, but the c0-location of fictional Buckland with the fictional ‘Crickhollow’ is hard to ignore when you’re about to drive through the entirely real Crickhowell with the ‘old forest’ of the beacons looming above.
And in this thoughtful mood we drove on in the noisy, roaring and rattling silence of the van, and I thought about Louis MacNeice’s marvellous ‘Autumn Journal’ and the ominous sense that its lines, written in 1939, are like the leaves of a tree suddenly illuminated by the intense light that sometimes precedes a storm.
Something has broken. Was it Mircea Eliade that said we ‘live in a story shaped universe’? Yesterday it seemed as if ‘losing the plot’ might be a trivial way of expressing the fact that we’ve lost the story. Goodness knows I’m not a fan of all those dwarves and elves in Tolkien but the fact that Lord of the Rings became almost canonical for several generations of us, does suggest that some kind of story can be a better guide to being human than the predigested idiocy of the politicians who suggest that the way forward is, in fact, the way back. I remember being very struck by something George Steiner wrote more than 50 years ago in relation to literature. He suggested that we should ask the question “what measure of man [sic] does this propose?”.
Buckland Hill, for all its powerful imagery, both exists in the mind as a fictional landmark and also in its geographical embodiment overlooking the River Usk. Of course the two are not separable, and who in their right mind would wish to do so? Perhaps that’s what Philip Pullman was pointing at in ‘His Dark Materials’. The destruction of stories is an act of barbarity and violence.
The silence followed me home and back in the flat, I took down the Lord of the Rings and my maps from the bookshelves; just in case I could find a way out of this plague somewhere within them.
I had a bit of a comments discussion with one of the Potwell Inn regulars yesterday, concerning what she called ‘covid fatigue’, and then someone else joined in – in the way that these spontaneous conversations pop up – you know, cold wet day outside (at least for us, ‘though not in her part of the US) and we chewed over the awfulness of it all for a bit and agreed that constant bad news and bad politics is sapping our energy. We were, all three, leaning in a virtually socially distanced way, on the imaginary bar, lamenting jobs not done and feeling a bit lethargic.
And later as I wandered around the flat, picking things up and putting them down again and sharing the umpteenth cup of green tea with Madame, I noticed – or rather paid proper attention to the fact that we’ve got one heated and one unheated propagator going, with basil, coriander, winter hardy lettuce and parsley all germinated, and the overwintering broad bean seed (Aquadulce Claudia) had just arrived in the post and we’d managed to clear most of the allotment for the winter crops. As often happens, it seems, our lethargy had been rather upstaged by our seasonal autopilot. I wrote a couple of days ago about linear versus cyclical time, and there’s no doubt that for farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners it’s a no-contest. The rhythms of the annual cycle of sowing, tending, harvesting and clearing get embedded in our minds and sink, like chi energy into our fingers.
So it was off to the computer for me, and I spent most of the daylight hours watching the rain running down the windows, and renewing the growing plan for the coming season. By the magic of the software, a single click can transfer last year’s plan to 2021 and (provided you’ve put the dates in properly) clear the beds in another click and declare that the game is on once again. Of course virtual allotmenteering is a good deal less physical than the real thing, but at least you get a big red warning when your rotations go awry – which warnings you’re free to ignore because allotments on 250 square metres are not so easy to rotate as a 400 acre farm.
The next challenge was to match our physical seed store with the virtual one, and that’s always a bit of an eye opener. If I could make a helpful suggestion to new allotmenteers it would be to steer clear of garden centre seed displays. This is advice we never take ourselves, of course, so the result of this disobedience is the annual search for out of date seeds. Yes, the second most important bit of information on the seed packet is the bit we most frequently cut off and discard – the ‘sow by’ date. Seeds, like gardeners, only stay viable for a time. If you only wanted to grow poppies you could probably bulk buy as a teenager and carry on sowing them until they cart you off; but there are other more sensitive seeds that are only viable for a year, some that need a rest in the fridge before they’ll germinate and some that won’t germinate unless they’re resting in daylight.
I used to work on a radio station in which, posted in huge letters over the desk, was the legend “In the event of equipment failure RTFM”. I asked someone what it meant and he answered(testily) ‘read the manual!’. Seed packets seduce with their photos but disappoint if you don’t read the small print. Every single word.
All of which failure to take our own advice leads every autumn to the clear out of un-viable seed, and we’re ruthless because you can lose a whole crop if you miss the optimum sowing time. So any packet with a missing date goes out regardless of whether it’s got seeds in it. There’s a picture (top right) of yesterday’s haul above, and if you were to examine the contents you’d discover that 80% of them were garden centre impulse buys.
Next comes the seed order; so last year’s order is reprinted as a starter, and then we go through it to remove some things we didn’t like and add some that might do better. Then we check the box(es) of seeds against what we want to grow and eventually – after a lot of argy bargy and a sheaf of notes – I get to type out the definitive seed order for – in this case – 2021, along with suppliers etc. We shall, as ever, almost certainly ignore the list as soon as we leave the virtual world and set foot on the dirt!
But it all filled a rainy day and we spent a few hours together around the table enjoying the prospect of the Promised Land in all its unrealised potential. The allotment will never look better than it does in October, inside our heads, and suddenly we realised as we sat down later that we’d crossed the Rubicon, notwithstanding covid fatigue and all the provocations. We’d strayed over the border into 20121 without intending to and it felt very good.
This morning the sun is shining as Storm Alex slowly passes, leaving floods and damage everywhere but our refurbished water stores brimming. Last season (dare I say that now?) was a huge challenge, undertaken in the most difficult circumstances. We couldn’t get new seed so we had to busk it. We couldn’t buy most of the sundries we rely on and at times we felt terribly isolated from our friends and family. Our government seemed incapable of seriously addressing the challenges and even today we have no idea how this will all turn out, but that’s all linear time. The fact is, in spite of everything we grew food, adapted, changed our whole diet to fit our circumstances and stayed better friends than ever! Nil carborundum we say, and carpe diem too, but we usually say it in some form of English as we exercise the inheritance of resilience and resourcefulness. that our parents and grandparents passed on, along with the time to plant potatoes. It’s OK to be human too.