A sceptic's take on being human – or should that be virtuous?
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.
We’re back in Cornwall; this time on the Roseland Peninsula and in the campervan. We were pretty knackered when we arrived but after an excellent 9 hours and 44 minutes sleep we felt rested and ready for Madame’s favourite walk ever. This is a campsite we’ve stayed in for years and between the site and the sea there’s a bridle way about 2.5Km long lined on both sides for the majority of the way by Cornish hedges. It’s a very special environment – partly at least because you rarely see anyone on it apart from the occasional walker or horse rider.
Today we saw Red Admiral, Small Blue, Small White and Orange Tip butterflies; we saw a buzzard hunting at a little distance and later we saw a Kestrel no more than 25 m away. It was a wonderful and inspiring sight with its capacity to keep its eyes completely still over the prey, whilst fluttering and gyring in the sky.
On the way down to the sea I kept on seeing such a variety of wildflowers I decided to record them whilst walking back up the hill. There were way more than I recorded, but I made a list of forty species in the gathering rain. I was never more grateful for the waterproof pen and notebook. Many of them require further exploration but that’s half the fun. For instance I caught sight of a single Geum urbanum, that’s to say Wood Avens or Herb Bennet in the UK. The word “Bennet” caught my eye because Benedict was often shortened to Benet. So Herb Benet has a history in herbalism – probably because this ‘Blessed Herb’ found a use in herbal medicine, probably because of its aromatic root. There were also large numbers of Pellitory of the Wall – Parietaria judaica – used to treat urinary infections. Of my forty plants, twelve were either traditionally used as foods or medicines – excluding the Foxglove which will damage your heart!
They’re all common enough plants; for instance the Broadleaf Plantain travelled to the US in migrants’ boots and spread wherever they went – hence the First Nation name “White Man’s Foot”. It’s apparently a remedy for foot pain – you just wear a fat leaf inside your socks. I really should try it some time. A guide at the Lost Gardens of Heligan once showed us how you could peel off the outer skin of Navelwort – Umbilicus rupestris -with your thumbnail, and apply the sticky side of the leaf to your skin as a kind of natural plaster. I’ve often wondered whether Stitchwort is a cure for the kind of stitches you get when you run?
Anyway, on our return to the van, and when the real work began, I began to wonder whether my Fumaria could possibly be F. capreolata but, like the Polypody, that ID might demand a microscope.
I was especially pleased that my list of forty species was as long as my previous best but which took a fortnight to complete, but the price you pay for speed is a bent back and a compulsive swivelling of the eyes; not a good look.
On tuesday our grandchildren’s school was shut for a teachers strike, and it was the tail end of a NHS nurses strike. As it happens, our grand daughter was booked in for some reconstructive orthopaedic surgery on her foot; notwithstanding any strikes (which incidentally we fully support). Her operation was carried out without delay or problems and she was home again by tea time, grumpy but hopefully fixed. As we drove past their school with the other two I tooted at the pickets who waved back cheerfully at the sight of two of their young students out for a day trip with granny and grandad.
Dyrham Park is close and (for National Trust members) cheap and the children love the freedom to race about and build dams in the streams. No-one has ever objected to them so we let them get on with it. Of course they also get a free natural history lesson – here are a couple of St Mark’s flies we photographed while they were mating. They’re the dozy black flies with dangly legs that seem not to mind flying into you – which makes them faintly scary to some people. They’re called St Mark’s because they emerge from their burrows in the grass in their tens of thousands in late April around the feast of St Mark; who – if you’re not a Christian and a full-on churchgoer – probably means nothing at all. On Tuesday they were present in many hundreds of thousands. We also hunted for St George’s mushrooms without luck (I’ve already made the point about saints days!) and enjoyed the peak dandelion period. We saw Cuckoo flowers, Maidenhair ferns and Harts Tongues. We talked about everything we saw and taught them to listen for birdsong and how to use a mobile phone app called “Merlin” to help identify them. Oh and we talked about the way barley straw is used to clear murky ponds and found some tadpoles and enjoyed the huge views out towards the Severn and the Mendip Hills. I absolutely defy anyone to say that a family day out is no substitute for a day in school.
Then, wandering around we came across a lonely maypole (this being the day after May Day) but you’ll see that the grass surrounding the pole looks pretty untroubled by even little feet. Clearly we haven’t yet embraced paganism with any enthusiasm in spite of the dark forebodings expressed by the Strict and Particular Brethren.
When we got back the children taught us how to order a Deliveroo from a mobile and then ordered all their favourite things. The oldest said afterwards “We love coming to you because you spoil us!”. So we all learned something new although ours was by far the more expensive lesson.
On Wednesday we were walking back from the allotment when we came across a bunch of people on the A4 protesting about the 20mph speed restrictions, the clean air zone and all things associated with wokery, 5G telephones, vaccinations and communism. Passing motorists tooted their horns enthusiastically without the tiniest thought illuminating their bewildering prejudices. I’m glad to say that the local elections 24 hours later saw the eviction of a raft of councillors who’d campaigned against the clean air zone and the new speed limits. Overwhelmingly the voters of Bath see the virtue of slowing down and breathing unpolluted air. Of course that won’t stop the campaigners (who are associated with all manner of far right causes), from telling us that they know better than we do – what we believe.
There was me, writing here a few days ago lamenting the absence of what I chose to call cultus; call it what you will really but it’s about moments of communal celebration – and then today it’s May Day.
Not that anything very discernable happened. No maypole to be seen on the allotments; no May Queen, no carousing and drunkenness; no dangerous and profligate behaviour. All you could say was that the allotments today were busier than they’ve been since last autumn. We’ve endured long periods of solitary allotmenteering as winter extended its grip to a full six months and we wondered whether we would ever see the sun again. Now we have two consecutive bank holidays and a coronation and aside from a meet the street gathering here next Sunday it seems that big and boozy community events were dealt something of a death blow by Covid. Somehow we’ve got out of the habit – out of the habit of harvest festivals, Christmas carols, plough mondays, Whitsun; and beating the parish bounds; other flavours are available if you can remember them.
There are probably many who wish good riddance to the lot of them – Christian festivals are a bit passé now – except for the fact that most of the meaningful festivals that still exist were pinched from the pagans centuries ago. Oliver Cromwell did his level best to ban the lot of them but the moment the Restoration happened they emerged from their brief hibernation as full of energy as before.
When St Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Britain in around 597 he discovered that a fully functioning pagan religion had returned in the period since the Romans left. He sent a desperate email – (OK letter!) – asking the Pope what he should do and in one of the few sensible decisions in the history of Christian evangelism; some months later the Pope replied that it was better to take on the pagan buildings and traditions and give them a Christian backstory. Welcome to Plough Monday, the first Monday after the (Christian) feast of the Epiphany – OK then, Twelfth Night – when traditionally the sowing of crops began after the Christmas lockdown. Plough Monday was the pagan festival celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year. In fact there’s an uncanny tie-in between the surviving Christian festivals and the old pagan calendar; and some, like Wassailing, that were never successfully co-opted at all.
All of which is a rather long winded approach to the fact that today, May Day, is also celebrated as Beltane; the traditional festival celebrating the beginning of summer. Fires, singing and a bit of carousing would once have taken place all over the country. I’ve got a photo of my mother as a child (born in 1918) dressed in white, with a garland of flowers round her head and standing next to a ribbon decked maypole on an Oxfordshire village green. Sadly since the triumph of the Evangelicals – Cromwell’s withered soulmates – most of the Christian Churches see these entirely innocent reminders of the earth cycle as heretical if not as devil worship. If you really want to see devil worship go and stand outside the chemical works in Huddersfield that still produces Paraquat and sells it to poor farmers in India.
The point here is that the earth cycles – the solstices, Winter (Christmas); Summer (Midsummer Day); equinoxes; Spring (Easter); Autumn; (Michaelmas) and the intervening quarters; Imbolc (Candlemas); Beltane (May Day); Lughnasadh (Lammas) and Samhain (Halloween) need to be detached from their captivity within institutional Christianity not because I would like to damage what became my own spiritual dialect but because the context has changed; history has moved on and – in the story shaped universe that we created and now inhabit – the earth cycle has (once again) become the story we desperately need to move us away from the dominant narrative – neoliberal economics and politics – towards an earth centred spirituality, not because it feels like a nice idea, but because our lives depend upon it.
So today we were on the allotment. Madame was mulching our fruit bushes with sheep fleeces given to us by our friends NIck and Kate who live in Bannau Brycheiniog – the old and original Welsh name for the Brecon Beacons. We’re expecting a plot inspection any day now and, to be honest, it looks as if a small flock of Jacobs Sheep has died in the fruit cage, under the blackcurrants and gooseberries. Fleece, which is almost valueless these days, makes an excellent mulch and slug repellent and it’s very good as an additive to the compost heap. Anyway we hope we don’t give our neighbours palpitations.
While Madame was engaged with the fruit cage, I was earthing up the potatoes. Years ago I bought a ridging tool which I only ever use once a year but it’s exactly right for earthing up spuds. The soil is black and friable and smells lovely with a bit of sun on it. It’s worth ridging up this time of year because it protects the emerging leaves from a late frost better than fleece, which allows Jack Frost to do his destructive work wherever it touches the leaf.
Everywhere there are signs of growth. The immense energy of spring drives the plants upwards into our realm and as I hoed the soil, I touched, for a moment that sense of sacredness that occasionally visits a gardener in quiet thought. This moment of inspiration was accompanied by a speaking; not at all an auditory hallucination but the clearest intimation that the soil itself is the mother of all life. We might imagine for a moment that those Buddhist monks who rake gravel temple gardens have, somehow, a higher form of spirituality. It’s not true of course. The sacred is always ordinary; the ordinary seeking us out.
But I can’t leave this thought with any suggestion that the paganism which I have referred to here is in any sense inferior, heretical or dangerous. My point in using it is to suggest that its connection with the earth cycle may be an insight whose time has come again. In 1966 First Nation Canadian, Buffy Sainte Marie, released a song called “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” and it just wouldn’t leave me yesterday. You might like to listen to it – it’s on YouTube music. Fifty seven years on it’s as powerful and prophetic as it was when I first heard it.
Christianity has been a rather poor guardian of the ancient traditions it once co-opted. Maybe it’s time to ask for our ball back? Happy Beltane.
This is going to be a very short post but I think it’s important to think aloud occasionally, if only to begin to set out some kind of a stall. My aim here is to tease out a couple of missing threads in the environmental movement; threads that – if we could fill them with life – might release enough energy to get this heavy stone to the top of the mountain.
The only data I really understand is myself and my feelings which seem constantly to suck the life out of any hope. Despair is utterly destructive. I’ve mentioned before (often) that any kind of earth spirituality needs a structure, a framework in which to function, to act, to think and to conduct our daily lives. This doesn’t seem to me to require the invention of any supernatural entities; there’s more than enough awe in nature to inspire the biggest of thoughts and responses and even to drive to our knees from time to time. That’s the first missing link – a structure or framework which will need to be maintained and expanded by our best thinkers.
This would be the first task of what I’ll call the geologians – the earth philosophers who know how to ask good questions and frame good answers. Theologians do God which is a good deal easier since “because I say so” is a circular argument which I’ll come to with the next missing link. Geologians will help us to think sensibly, coherently and truthfully without waving big sticks like damnation and purgatory.
The second missing link after the framework begins to take shape will be to form a canon – a collection of writings that can command general acceptance. This wouldn’t be too hard, there are loads of books on my shelves that call themselves “readers”- selections of writings that seem to demand our attention because they help us to think more clearly. I’m certainly not proposing we turn our geologians into a high priesthood. A canon is a collection of trustworthy writings that come with the assurance that they won’t lead us into the wilderness – and I’m sorry for the occasional reference to more biblical notions but they’re handy shortcuts sometimes. However, as I hinted before, even canonical literature needs to be constantly examined and revised if it’s not going to die and become putrid. That’s why “because I say so” ican never be on the agenda.
The third, and possibly the trickiest component will be what we have to describe as the cultus – without for a moment implying a derived cult. The cultus might involve – for instance – thanking a plant for meeting some of our needs before we dig it up; community harvest or planting festivals and so forth.
These three threads already exist extensively within native, first nation and ancient cultures. They have elders and wise people who maintain the culture and guide actions, they have highly refined structures of belief and they abound in ceremonies and rituals which enfold communities and hold them together. However this can’t mean that we could just take a system off the shelf and apply it to ourselves. Many of the existing systems are highly localized – to plains communities; herding communities or forest communities. We in the overdeveloped and greedy west have obliterated the concepts of theology, cultus and canon in order to remove any opposition to neoliberal capitalism. The vision I’m talking about refers more to a possible post apocalyptic future. The driving force is the hope that the most thoughtful and creative minds of our generation; artists, poets, scientists engineers and philosophers (well not my generation perhaps; I’m pretty ancient!) – may forge a new vision that can act as a bridge towards a new sustainable future.
Most revolutions are fought without much of a vision of what happens afterwards and this is what leads to populism and dictatorship; easy to fall into and hard to dispense with. Lashing out might feel good for a moment but the bad actors have all the power and they won’t hesitate to use it. What they don’t have is the power to eradicate a contagious vision. Faith – as the evangelists often say – is caught and not taught. Belonging is far more powerful than believing. We’ve got local elections in the UK in a few days time and I’m immensely disheartened by the fact that the Greens have the right policies expressed in the style of a university seminar reading. To borrow and adapt an idea from Monica Furlong; feminist theologian “anger is hope overwhelmed by despair”. Only visions can express theories with sufficient power to change “the way we do things round here”.
That’s true alright. On our walk last Saturday we saw several swallows in the valley below South Stoke as we followed the lower part of the Somerset Coal Canal. Sadly the sunshine didn’t last and we’ve had grey skies, cold winds and rain every day since, except for a wonderful (temporary ) reprise yesterday. I’m sad to say that I forgot to mention the Swallows or the abundant Brimstone butterflies which seem to be having a good year. But it was the single plant in the top photo that arrested my attention when we perched on the edge of the abandoned railway line that followed the canal, for a rest. The photos below were taken in July 2019 after the Bath Quays site was cleared and the archaeologists had gone home.
I’d gone to South Stoke with my imagination filled with narrow boats and the railways that put them out of business, but when we got home it was the single Weld plant – Reseda luteola, or Dyer’s Weed that seized my imagination. Of the long abandoned canal there was very little trace, but the plant was a reminder of a much earlier industrial revolution – of wool and cloth that brought great wealth to the Cotswolds and these lovely villages surrounding the town of Bath; smaller and more modest stone buildings, from cottages to tithe barns and grand manor houses that preceded the famous Georgian architecture of the city that was mostly funded by slavery and imperial wealth.
Wealth and squalour have always existed side by side in Bath; we just don’t like to brag about it. Occasionally I’ve written about drug addiction and homelessness in the area in which we live. Sometimes it boils over into county lines battles but most of the time it’s a faintly simmering sense of antisocial behaviour mixed – as in all the best places to live in cities – with a crowd of creative and musical types retired professors, ne’er do wells and radicals of most persuasions. When they cleared the Bath Quays site for a tree lined flood prevention scheme, they found the remains of the old Kingsmead with its brothels and pubs – lots of pubs. The best of the drainage arrangements sent the sewage straight into the river and at the worst just let it find its own way. Not much has changed there then!
I’ve always been interested in the uses to which plants have been put; herbal medicine, foodstuffs and of course dyeing and cloth production. In medieval times three plants reigned supreme for the dyers. Chaucer knew them all and mentioned them some time around 1387 ( he wasn’t keen). They were Weld, Madder and Woad. Weld gave yellow, Woad, blue and Madder gave a red dye. The process of extracting dyes from plants was as filthy, smelly and disgusting as anyone could imagine. If you’ve ever made a liquid compost from Comfrey you’ll know what I mean. Brilliant it may be as a low cost organic fertilizer, but the smell is so nauseating it’s like accidentally stepping on a dead sheep in a ditch – don’t ask! The process usually begins with fermentation and then the dyeing itself requires a mordant solution to fix the colour in the fabric. These days nearly all dyes are synthetic but even they still need to be fixed – usually with a chemical mordant. In the old days they used a lot of urine; the older and more stale the better – all this done at moderately high temperature.
So both ends of the cloth industry depended on water and fuel and both relied upon and produced lots of effluent. South of Bath there is an abundance of brooks and streams flowing down from the hills, a river for transporting the goods, and later on, canals and railways. One further process in the production of woolen cloth was known as fulling in which the woven fibres were pounded with a special form of clay known by geologists as Bentonite and by everyone else as Fullers’ Earth. The power of nature had thoughtfully provided a Fullers’ Earth deposit above South Stoke.
As I said at the top, two Swallows don’t make a summer and a single plant rosette at the side of an abandoned railway line, or second group in flower on a building site don’t constitute a plant record of a whole industry. But they might remind us of the fact that even a beautiful Georgian city like Bath had its filthy industry, its poverty and squalour. Looking back towards an arcadian past of green fields and gambolling lambs is a dangerous kind of self-deception. The river is still filthy and polluted but it’s possibly been like that since the middle ages. In Bristol the dyeing trade was carried out in Redcliffe which is why the wealthy merchants moved up the hill to Clifton to escape the pollution and stink. That’s exactly what they did in Bath too. The weaving and fulling were probably mostly done in the surrounding town and villages with streams and watermills and the dyeing being done in the towns and cities where there was more available mordant – the collection of which known at the time as a separate occupation called taking the piss. The question I haven’t answered – because I can’t – is where the original dye plants were grown at crop scale. A quick check on the BSBI Atlas shows that Weld is still common but Woad and Madder have declined dramatically. I can imagine that the stinking balls of fermented Woad used in producing blue colours would have been transported, like Madder all around the country.
I’ve got a greatly treasured copy of J W White’s “The Bristol Flora” first published in 1912. Madder shows up briefly as an native plant but not in any quantity. Woad was grown in Wickwar; Keynsham and near Frome and White gets quite lyrical about dyeing in Glastonbury. As for Weld, White writes of its greater abundance in this district than in many others and he found it in exactly the spots where you might find industrial remains today. There’s a great deal more work to be done on this thread, but it’s been lovely to speculate on the role of these plants in another revolutionary age.
Part two of yesterday’s post about the Somerset Coal Canal
I’ve already written about Saturday’s walk along the remains of the SCC which enters the Kennet and Avon via a large pound next to John Rennie’s marvellous Dundas Aqueduct, pictured in the photo. Having got stupidly lyrical about a few rusty nails and some collapsing masonry yesterday I wanted to write something about the Cam Brook, and indeed the several large streams, brooks and rivers that have created a landscape so lovely it puts me in mind of Samuel Palmer’s visionary paintings. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the end of a rainbow wasn’t permanently held there by a flock of Turtle Doves holding it still with golden threads.
Anyway, even a less ecstatic walker would have to agree that it’s a rather magical place notwithstanding the crooks who extracted the wealth of the North Somerset coalfield with levels of neglect and cruelty that this extractive age is only just reinventing.
My father occasionally talked about a motorcycle journey he made to visit a couple of old unmarried great aunts who made cider “somewhere near Wells” – he was never specific apart from the fact that the huge fermenting barrels sounded ‘like a swarm of bees’ – and also that he’d drunk too much of the cider which resulted in his legs becoming paralysed, and left him no alternative but to drive into a hedge bank and wait until he sobered up.
I never knew very much about my dad’s side of the family because he’d had a falling out with his own father and moved into lodgings at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Any contact with his brothers and the older sisters who’d cared for him as a child during the years his father was fighting in Afghanistan (really!) was spasmodic to say the least. So nothing more than hints of a Somerset branch of the family existed in my mind.
I had of course heard of a Pole line in Tudor times when Margaret Pole became a powerful force until she chose the wrong side but apart from the humorous thought that I might be distantly related, I never joined those two bits of information together. Then, one day when I was doing a funeral visit to an elderly lady in my parish she said to me “I think we’re probably related”. She too was a Somerset woman and during a long conversation it became clear that the story about my old cider making relatives rang a bell with her and for a short while we forged a connection which was soon broken by her dementia.
But earlier in my career I’d been asked a strange question which I misunderstood, thinking instantly about the hypothetical Tudor ancestors. “Are you one of the Somerset Poles?” was something I’d never been asked before so I was a bit taken aback when a very smart middle aged woman who looked and sounded as if she might have ridden a horse to church and left it with a groom, approached from out of a large crowd of local dignitaries after a carol service. Of course I had heard of the wealthy and powerful Poles but in the absence of any knowledge of a less lofty branch of the family I think I rather rudely dismissed her with a quip about being one of the Staple Hill Poles.
So our walk on Saturday began in the village of South Stoke and went sharply downhill by a series of footpaths towards the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal and we were completely entranced by the landscape – as I’ve already said. By Sunday we were already planning a return visit and so we were busy researching the area and some of its grand (like £8 million) houses, and went to Toppings Bookshops to buy two of the excellent local guides written by Andrew Swift. But during our mammoth Googlefest Madame stumbled on the PDF of a typewritten manuscript published by the local South Stoke history group. As she read this paragraph out to me it made the hairs on the back of my head stand up.
1794 October 16th Bath Chronicle: Richard Pole at Southstoke has ten hogsheads of last year’s cider for sale at 92 per hogshead.’ (This is an old local name. There were Poles at Monkton Combe and Southstoke before the Reformation).
John Canvin, local historian.
I traced my Mothers side of the family back to the mid eighteenth century without much difficulty – the male line were all carpenters as was my grandfather. But my Dad’s side was much harder partly due to the fact that a Jewish connection had been concealed at some time in the past – I’ve no evidence to suggest why. But this Somerset connection looks and feels absolutely right. I do just remember being taken as a child to a very scary institutional place with green iron railings to see what could have been a great grandmother and I discovered that one of my Dad’s more recent ancestors had died in the Workhouse in Stapleton but details are few and far between.
So there it is; walking can be a perilous activity but – just maybe I might soon be able to establish my credentials as a genuine peasant. More than a few people I know probably came to that conclusion many years ago!
Yesterday was just one of those days that left me almost breathless with pleasure. We were five old friends whose various relationships reach back way over fifty years; five old friendships that have seen and survived all manner of triumphs and tragedies and five human beings sharing a walk (well, more of an amble) on a stunning spring day, while we followed the course of the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal which was built to carry coal from the North Somerset coalfield to the junction with the Kennet and Avon canal, near Dundas aqueduct. For me, a light bulb went on when I realized how much of the old stone structure had survived, but Madame also had it written down as a place to return to – a lot!
It wasn’t a long walk by any stretch but we gave it several hours anyway, soaking up the sun and exploring off the path from time to time, looking at plants and rusting iron lock gate nails with equal interest; catching glimpses of the equally abandoned railway line that forced the demise of the canal. For me it’s a paradise of post industrial relics and possible sites for interesting wildflowers, and by all accounts it has some very interesting geology, which is always good news for plant hunters. But it wasn’t all green wellies and Tilley hats. C and I had a friendly bird app competition with our phones and I realized that the absence of an in-phone database meant that hers identified a Black Cap Warbler much faster than mine which was still looking for a signal. Just for interest I was using Birdnerd and C had Merlin – hers was clearly better for off-grid id’s – mine’s always worked perfectly well but perhaps I’ve just been lucky with phone masts.
There were no rarities spotted, but it was just as reassuring and pleasurable to see Dandelions, Cuckoo Flowers, Cowslips, White Nettles and Ground Ivy all flowering in profusion. The only oddity was what I think must have been Weld – Reseda luteola, AKA Dyers Weed, Dyers Rocket or Yellow Weed. No prizes, then, for guessing what it was once used for. If it was Weld I suppose that would make it a post industrial plant relic from a much earlier historical moment. Lurking up and down these beautiful valleys are the ruins and remains of monastic communities with their medicinal herb gardens and watermills, grinding grain from local farms. Far from being enjoyable just for its remoteness and quietness, you could almost feel the presence of innumerable farm labourers, fishermen, monks, boaters, miners, navvies and railwaymen, all those faint echoes flowing towards the river Avon. The horizons are punctuated by the silhouettes of grand mansions and farms such that we were obliged to consider the source of all that wealth. One of our party had long dead ancestors who were in the cloth trade and who may have furnished the backs of navvies, slaves and workhouse inhabitants. with fustian – rough but hard wearing cloth that combined cotton weft on linen warps.
We finished up – as all good walks do – in the pub where I photographed the hauntingly lovely sign at the top of this post; something I’ll come back to in a moment.
I’ve been struggling for a long time to find a way of expressing what seems to me to be a fundamental difficulty in this post-religious age. A few days ago I wrote this:
the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework?
The trouble with words like Spirituality and Love is that they’ve been so trampled upon by blowhards, bishops and pornographers they no longer have any meaning at all except for a vaguely felt inflammation of the imagination which could be anything from a vision to a mild virus, and so writing about such things becomes an exercise in frustration; altogether lacking the tools for the job.
For me, best and most creative ideas come when the parts of a solution finally come together for no discernable reason except the relaxed mindfulness of a walk. These ideas, quite often, are not the lofty analytics of a Holmesean three pipe problem. They can seem vulgar, irreverent and occupy worlds so different it’s almost like harvesting the energy of colliding comets.
So here’s the problem – how can we find a contemporary way of expressing the content of words like spirituality and love. What kind of love, from all of the available flavours, would best express our love for the Earth in this age of catastrophe? and secondly, what form of spirituality could provide a language accessible to the religious, the determinedly non-religious and that huge population in the middle who long for a structure, a framework for understanding a way of being human that isn’t part of what’s destroying us all?
And so what about these three components?
The marriage service
These three rather disparate ideas have at least one thing going for them because they include a painful (but not fatal) human condition, a plant that provides a useful remedy, and a form of words that might just provide the beginnings of a framework.
Let’s take Chef’s Ass first. If you’re working in very hot and humid sweaty conditions – for instance in a restaurant kitchen, polytunnel or just walking for long distances in inappropriate clothes you may contract a very uncomfortable form of abrasion rash known colloquially as chef’s ass in the trade. I consulted our son – who’s a chef – on a possible cure, and he said he’d once tried alcoholic hand gel which turned out to be effective but screamingly painful. I hoped I could find a less extreme cure for my similar gardening related problem and turned to our home made Calendula Cream which, to my great surprise and relief worked miraculously well. It’s so cheap and easy to make I wonder why anyone would pay £15 for a tube, or resort to potentially dangerous remedies like hydrocortisones.
Forget God for a moment because there’s absolutely no reason to invoke any kind of higher level supernatural powers here. The earth provides us with a multitude of effective remedies for many unpleasant, painful but non-malignant diseases. Calendula is just one example. Now the application of the cream did the trick for me, but that left me with the odd sense that I should be able to say thank-you for that help. I get exactly the same feeling harvesting our produce, eating it and sharing it with friends. That unchannelled, unfocused gratitude needs somewhere to land but all too often, like a boomerang, it circles back on itself and manifests itself as pride.
I know I’m using a religious term here but bear with me just for a moment while I explain. Pride is a very dangerous thing not least because it blinds us to our own fallibility. But collective pride – for instance in our ability to solve every challenge, even catastrophic climate change, through our own cleverness is a form of idolatry. Our thank-you’s desperately need to be channelled into something less destructive than pride.
So with that in mind I’ll turn to to some words from the marriage service which once seized me so powerfully in the course of a wedding service I was taking, that I had to stop in my tracks and recover my wits before I could continue. Each of the couple (and I’m using this example in a completely secular and non gendered way) say to one another – “All that I am, I give to you, and all that I have I share with you”. From that moment onwards I almost invariably reminded my couples that the second half of the promise was the easy bit. “All that I have I share with you” is the kind of arrangement that any half witted solicitor could organise. It’s a kind of prenuptial clause. But the second half of the promise- “All that I am I give to you” is on a different plane. How many of us have even the faintest clue what “all that I am” means for ourselves, let alone our prospective partner?
And yet the point here is that the earth has made precisely that promise to us. The earth says – “all that I am I give to you” and means it utterly, to the end. But we, in our infinite pride, forget that in this imagined marriage relationship with the earth we secretly and covetously hope to get our hands on the money and say that sentence with our fingers crossed behind our backs. There’s no more destructive relationship than a one sided and selfish marriage. This is not a religious point!
So at last I come back to the pub sign. I’m a sucker for naive paintings and a complete fool for the ones that express in paint something that the painter could never have articulated in words. Our angel, with a look of considerable doubt on her face is taking an anchor from the heavenly (that’s the hope bit) to the earthly ( that’s the anchor). When the rope breaks there’s no guide to the way back and we are lost. So to recap from the top; all those ancient voices flowing down to the river and onward to the sea were the hopes of our ancestors, lived out in the world of nature that provided food and health as best the earth could offer. It was greed and selfishness that fouled things up and because of that idolatrous worship of our own powers we now face an existential crisis.
Ironically (or maybe not), we five walkers all agreed that it wasn’t just the complete ineptitude of our politicians or the continuing impact of lockdown; the war in Ukraine, or even the cost of living that was making us depressed and unhappy. There is something deeper that wrecks our sleep and furnishes our worst dreams. Without finding a new relationship with the earth and all living things we’ll remain delusional, lonely and ultimately doomed.
We know you can buy asparagus at almost any time of the year, but our own asparagus bed is only just beginning to throw up a few spears and we don’t – on principle – buy it from other parts of the world with all its attached air miles. So today our eyes lit up when we saw some bunches of Hereford grown (Chinns – praise where it’s due) and although it was expensive it’s as iconic a sign of spring as Easter, or Oestre which gives a better clue as to what it’s all about.
You can look up the recipe (which comes from Simon Hopkinson – one of our finest cookery writers) – it’s freely available if you Google it. From my point of view it combines four of my favourite elements; pancakes, asparagus, air dried ham and hollandaise sauce. All in all our special treat supper cost just over £10 which compares favourably with any takeaway and tastes ten times better. I know this because we always eat them in silence -like Montalbano on the television.
Years ago, hollandaise took me several tries to make at first – mainly because I didn’t read the precise instructions closely enough. Our son Jo used to make it by the gallon in one of the restaurants he worked in – he said it was easier in bulk. It’s like mayonnaise and all those other emulsion sauces; a bit of practice makes perfect.
Spring is sprung, the grass is riz …
So today we completed the last of the infrastructure work on the allotment and soaked the polytunnel with 250 litres of our stored rainwater. The paths are all topped up with wood chip; every bed is now ready or already planted up and this morning I unscrewed the retaining boards to give us easier access to about 1.5 cubic metres of leaf mould and the same of compost. At last the compost production line is beginning to deliver as we planned.
Now, with broad beans and potatoes in the ground we can ease back on the hard work as the seedlings get stronger and we wait for the last chance of frost. Our ever obliging French Sorrel has reached its prime so I think a French soup is called for. We are content, replete and celebrating with a bottle of Provenĉal rosé (don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it). The Potwell Inn is ready for the season!
I should open my Severnsider mailbox more often, I know, but mostly it’s full of technical stuff that I don’t understand – which is why I only found a polite note concerning the proper Welsh spelling of an author I’d written about – it ran – “Not a massive typo – you have Carwyn down as ‘Carwen’ on this post which is the female rendition of the name.” The post, from many months ago was titled “This is beginning to look like my mother’s siege larder” – and I’ve just amended the spelling by placing Carwyn in the correct gender.
Blog posts are ephemeral of course, but books last forever so I thought I’d give Carwyn Graves another plug for his two books; the first was (I think) published in both Welsh and English and it was called “The Apples of Wales”. If you’re at all interested in the innumerable local varieties of apple which result from its promiscuous cross pollinations, then this is a really interesting book offering marvellous insights into the local histories of some of these varieties. And if you’re really interested there’s a whole orchard of Welsh apple varieties behind Plan yn Rhiw on the Lleyn peninsula, and we were also able to visit an orchard at Cwmdu in the Brecon Beacons which was planted by the Marcher Apple Network – a society for reviving old varieties of apples and pears. We’ve planted a number of traditional varieties on the allotment, and our friends in the Beacons have planted many more.
Carwyn Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories” is equally engaging and informative, so much so that I was tempted into following up on some of the books he mentions and I’ve managed to buy two or three of them secondhand. So I hope this mention makes up for my inadequate knowledge of the Welsh language; long may it prosper!
Anyway, while I’m in the mood I’ll also mention a piece I stumbled on yesterday called “Failing nature on Dartmoor – why its protected areas are in such poor condition and what needs to be done” by Tony Whitehead, analysing the heated debate on successes and failures in preserving Sites of Special Scientific Interest on farmed land on Dartmoor. It’s a subject that I’ve written about before and it’s been much clouded by misreporting and exaggerated accusations. I won’t attempt to paraphrase it but if you’re interested in getting a better grasp of what’s at stake it’s a really useful summary.
Back on the allotment an instinctive starting pistol was fired over the Easter holiday and the site was swarming with allotmenteers. For once it seemed sensible to be planting the potatoes on Good Friday, and the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework? Nonetheless, not everyone is as engaged with nature as we are. We were expecting a delivery of plants which eventually turned up yesterday, three parts dead, after sitting in a courier’s warehouse for six days. The boxes were festooned with notices that warned they contained live material.
Now we’re sitting indoors waiting for Storm Noa to pass over while Madame sorts the wheat from the chaff in the seed box. This is such typical spring weather. Southwesterlies laden with moist air bring pulse after pulse of rain and sunshine to us in the west country, gifted by the Atlantic. The warmer the sea gets the more extreme the weather gets.
Lennie died a few years back, after we left Severnside. To say he was a character would be a massive understatement. He was, for instance, the last person in the village who still spoke in a Gloucestershire dialect so thick and uncompromising that I had to dredge the silt of my childhood speech to remember the subtle but occasionally life saving difference between ‘thee‘ which was friendly and ‘you‘ which wasn’t. The texture and cadence of his speech was pure King James bible, but not as spoken by a posh London type so much as a hefted peasant; the vowels stretched and broadened by fag smoke and cider. His cap was a permanent fixture – bolted on against inclement weather but worn equally indoors and out. His wellingtons were equally joined on to his feet, but turned over at the top as a kind of one fingered salute to the village incomers with their green Royal Hunters. I never quite understood the complications of his family life but his later marriage to Beck, who brought her own extended family, was rock solid. She was always smiling and unlike Lennie, never swore – ever. But when Beck had her stroke she suddenly started to introduce extraordinary swear words at quite the wrong places in her sentences. The local middle classes were appalled of course, and gratefully retired from patronising her. After she died – we filled the church with balloons and there was a real party atmosphere at her funeral (another black mark I’m afraid). Lennie would come to her grave twice or three times a day and talk to her; tell her all the news and hope for some news back from her. We wondered if he would step back from his gardening but he carried on much as before, winning all the prizes at the Flower Show (another black mark) and modestly accepting his place in the sun as the best gardener in the village.
I loved talking to him and had ample opportunity because I allowed him carte blanche to take away as many wheelbarrow loads of manure and topsoil as he wanted. There are very few perks to being a country parson but the regular marrying, baptising and burying of those who never came to church but liked it to be there when they needed it, attracted the kind of loyalty which could stop you in your tracks. I came back one day to find twenty tons of farmyard manure dropped off in the car park outside our front door. Wood chip appeared in huge piles after I mentioned that we’d be glad to have it – and one remarkable day I drove back and saw the outline of a giant quarry lorry depositing another twenty tons of topsoil; overburden from the local quarry – courtesy of a bellringer friend. Lenny made full use of the bounty and was always up for a chat because he was probably quite lonely after Becks was gone, and also because he was tickled pink at being able to wind me up without being told off.
When I say that Lenny was a good gardener I mean a really really good gardener. A single one of his prizewinning onions heavily filled two cupped hands. The skin was polished to satin, the roots pure white and the stalks neatly tied off with raffia. It was bewildering to see three or four apparently cloned vegetables side by side in their baskets at the show; identical in every way. Runner beans at exactly fifteen inches and all ramrod straight; potatoes perfectly true to variety and tomatoes, strawberries ………. I could go on! He was generous to a fault when it came to gardening but his secrets went to the grave with him because they always do.
But the village was changing. In fifty years it had grown from a small hamlet to a suburbanized dormitory village. The old-timers were disappearing one by one and the Flower Show – Lennie had always been on the committee – was taken on by an incomer who had no sympathy for the tradition and saw the way forward as a moderniser. The day we won all the prizes was a sad day for all of us. Lennie had had a falling out – he never uttered a word on the subject to me – and he failed to enter a single class, in fact he didn’t even turn up for the show. It felt as if the world had shifted in its orbit and the prizes we won that day had “dust” written all over them. We didn’t mind being second or third best – we never minded it because Lenny was so obviously better. He was the standard we all aspired to. It was the beginning of the end for the produce section and I wished we’d told him what an epic role model he was.
There are a handful of those gardeners who inspired our lives. Perhaps one day I’ll write about my grandfather Tommy Cox; Trev; Mr King and Mr Monks, but meanwhile we’re itching for the rain to stop so we can go up to the allotment. On Saturday we top-dressed the asparagus bed with a mixture of sand and leaf mould and today we’ll give it a small feed of blood and bone in the hope it will do better this year. I’m afraid the asparagus is dining in the Last Chance Hotel. Did I mention utter ruthlessness as one of the qualities all allotmenteers need?