Another day, another journey.

The kitchen sink is just out of shot.

The Potwell Inn, remember, is a moveable experience. When we go away in the campervan we normally prepare and pack it the day before we go, so we can drive to where it’s stored and then set off straight away. Leaving the flat to drive down to a rented cottage on the Lizard means we have to take everything down in the lift and load the car, and given that it’s a 20 mile round trip to the nearest supermarket in Cornwall we take as much as we can with us. Because we’re a pub at heart we took with us a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a bottle of Mount Difficulty pinot noir which were meant to be a treat for our combined 55th wedding anniversary and my 76th birthday. However it was not to be because the hotel in Hay was so awful we couldn’t bring ourselves to open them in a cramped room that smelt so strongly of sewage we had to leave the window open and allow the -3C air to clear the air. I’m ashamed to say that we could have had three weeks in the campervan for the cost of three nights in a cramped room and eating terrible food cooked – at best – by a kitchen porter with a hangover whose partner had just left him.

So today, back on the Lizard, we dined on boeuf bourguignon which I cooked last week and froze, and drank the champagne while we toasted our out of date anniversaries. Yesterday we drank the Mount Difficulty after an hilariously easy drive down with me, well fortified with CBD oil. It’s a new attempt at taming my chronic anxiety and it seems to have some effect. My routine GP tests on Friday appeared to show I have become diabetic, but the nurse failed to explain that severe stress can cause blood glucose to rise and I had just spent three days attempting to upgrade my phone, connect the wonderful portable router through which I am now able to write this at all (no signal normally) and upgrade Madame’s phone at the same time – (pending the remembrance of a critical password) . The nurse didn’t tell me about the life threatening properties of customer helplines, but anyway I had the blood glucose test kit (I’ve been here before) and over three days my glucose has been perfectly normal -so in celebration we bought a packet of biscuits. As a bank manager once said to me – people like you make my life impossible – well hooray! – because I have no intention of going gentle into that good night.

I will write tomorrow about our first stroll around the village and the flowers we saw – a bit unexpectedly, because nature doesn’t read textbooks; but I leave you with the evidence that the fishing industry still lingers on here on the Lizard – three or four cod, obviously filleted on the boat with the carcasses left on the beach for the gulls to pick clean. And a final thought. The last time I wrote I was thinking about the power of nature to regenerate when left to her own devices. Given that it’s all but impossible to imagine how we could return to the imaginary good old days; the pilchard are gone and a global climate catastrophe is stalking us. So what shape could the future hold for the places I love most other than a hopeless longing for the past? Answers on a postcard??

Neoliberal politics
fillets everything in its path!

Pristine? Virgin? – is it time to give these concepts a break?

Mine rake on the Mendip Hills

Reading Fred Pearce’s book “The New Wild” again this week I felt uncomfortable. As he listed some of the less glorious attempts of some conservationists to turn back the clock in the hope of recovering the pristine environment, a voice in my head was shouting – what about Whitefield in Dyrham Park? what about those glorious wildflower meadows in North Yorkshire or – closer to home the hills surrounding Bath? The main thrust of his book is to say – look here, nature is fast, adaptive and highly dynamic. Trying to hold back change by micromanaging nature reserves and SSSI’s is an expensive path to nowhere, so we should maybe step back and give evolution a chance.

But then, as I pondered my instinctively hostile reaction, I thought of Eddie Cox – my first and best childhood friend – and our adventures and exploits out in the wild as children. Wild, for us, was post industrial; brownfield and, on reflection, very dangerous; but if our inner landscape is furnished by early memories then my young imagination was furnished by crumbling nineteenth century buildings, an abandoned dram road running back from the river to abandoned coal mines; paths hard packed with waste from the nearby fireclay pipeworks; mineshafts we could drop stones down, the old Cattybrook brick kilns whose flues we could wriggle up and watch the sky above the chimney and surrounded by spare and half starved soil. There were rows of miners’ cottages whose original occupants were long since dead.

Our environment – although we were far too young to understand it – was a palimpsest; one historical layer superimposed on another. At the surface were us baby boomers navigating the fragile demilitarized zone between our parents’ wartime experiences and our own unknown futures among the remains of an industrial revolution that had run its course. Below us and also around us were the remains also of a wealthy woollen industry; the unrestored magnificent houses of slave owners and place names which went back to the Domesday Book. Amidst the burgeoning post-war housing estates where we lived, were sacred wells and ancient footpaths. The older local people knew the plant names but often worked in the last of the factories; Douglas motorcycles, Vespa motor scooters and the ubiquitous small workshops supporting the local shoe industry – all now gone.

Rodway Hill

So what was my pristine? Well as sure as hell it wasn’t rare orchids and wildflower meadows. My grandparents left their smallholding in rural Oxfordshire and came to Bristol before I was old enough to name a plant. My first ecstatic memories of plants were all from Rodway Hill; a gruffy outcrop of sandstone where I would lie amongst the tussocky grass and inspect the Harebells. The memory has its own inscrutable hot links and my idea of the pristine was forged from these unpromising elements. Orchids and wildflower meadows came much, much later.

So what I dredged up from the sediment of my mind as I pondered Fred Pearce’s book was the reason for my attachment to these post industrial landscapes and their flora. When we walk down Velvet Bottom or almost anywhere else at Charterhouse I feel at home because in that complicated subconscious way I am at home. When I look through the albums of photographs of plants I’ve taken, less than half are what you might call proper wildflowers; the rest are the waifs, strays, stragglers and thugs of the plant world who’ve learned how to live with little light, food or soil, or being constantly trampled by walkers, peed on by dogs and strimmed off by zealous council workers. Some of these plants have developed the capacity to live on mine waste polluted by heavy metals. They’re often tiny little things with tiny un-showy flowers but you can’t help but admire them for their tenacity.

When I run over the list of our favourite places like mid Wales, Lizard in Cornwall and so the list goes on; they’re all post apocalyptic post industrial landscapes. Yes of course, walking through a meadow and totting up twenty plants in flower is a wonderful experience, worth a day of anyone’s time – but according to Fred Pearce and many others including Richard Mabey, the old post industrial brownfield sites have become haven and home to multitudes of flora and fauna which can no longer survive the inundation of their native habitats by the plough and with chemicals. The point is – nature is showing the way to adaptation. We humans, who created the anthropocene and can’t survive a day without our mobile phones, need to accept that there are no good old days because the peregrines nesting on the spire of St John’s church here in Bath have made the transition already.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was right – nature is not a steady state phenomenon constantly needing repair – it’s a Heracletian fire”.

What do we need most urgently, a green philosophy? a green spirituality? or a green ethic?

The great ship of state is sinking fast!

OK so this quotation looks a bit chewy but don’t panic, in fact skip it altogether rather than give up because it’s profoundly important that we understand what’s at stake. There are essentially three points here. I’ve shortened the quotation from its original length by cutting out the proposition that music, poetry, art, spirituality and drama are all ways of thinking, and I’d argue more broadly that the whole of human culture – (including doing botany and allotmenteering), embodies tools for doing so. The second point follows – that shutting down philosophy is a pretty moronic thing to do when we need to practice thinking clearly in order to stay alive. The third point is that waiting for technology to come over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save us from all our problems is plain wrong.

In the 1980s, as one philosophy department after another was closed under a Conservative government led by former Somervillian Margaret Thatcher, Mary [Midgley] led a campaign to rescue hers. Though unsuccessful, she never gave up in her mission to defend philosophy. Philosophy is not a luxury, Mary insisted. Philosophy is something we humans need in order for our lives to go well. She argued trenchantly against the mythical idea that we can entrust our future to technology and artificial intelligence. This is a comforting sedative, but when it comes to figuring out what to do next about climate, war, environment or education – it is ultimately suicidal. She ends her final book, What is Philosophy For?, with a warning and an imperative:

“[W]hat actually happens to us will surely still be determined by human choices. Not even the most admirable machines can make better choices than the people who are supposed to be programming them. So we had surely better rely here on using our own Minds rather than wait for Matter to do the job.

And, if this is right, I suspect that… philosophical reasoning-will now become rather important. We shall need to think about how best to think about these new and difficult topics – how to imagine them, how to visualize them, how to fit them into a convincing world-picture. And if we don’t do that for ourselves, it’s hard to see who will be able to do it for us.”

Metaphysical Animals – How four women brought philosophy back to life. Chatto & Windus 2022. Page 298

The River Avon, 50 metres from our flat, is running at its highest level for 20 years and may well go higher as the last two days of heavy rain run off into it. I’ve run out of metaphors for its sheer power. The speed and intensity of the flow defies description. Ideas such as malignant are way off because rivers don’t bear us any grudge, they just do rivering. Rivers have moods of course but these are not human sulks or bursts of sudden rage; these moods are morally neutral. On a balmy day in Spring it’s possible to kid yourself that nature has been “put on” just for us; a kind of revelation or – as Mother Julian might have written – a shewing; a manifestation of something divine. But if that’s true; is the river today a sign of divine anger? Is it smiting us in some sense? Is there an intelligence behind it all that we’ve insulted?

I don’t think that inventing supernatural beings, especially humanoid ones, settles any arguments at all. We’re still always left with a ‘WTF are we supposed to do?? ‘ which usually ends by throwing some poor individual or group under a bus. But if this awe-inspiring flood is humbly accepted as an instance of natural forces, it loses none of its power to contextualise us within nature. Nobody’s showing off here. We’re not here to learn lessons, we’re here to think with all judicious haste how to respond to the song of the river, and it does have a song if you stand and listen. The bare earth and yellow grass had a song last summer, a dry and rustling song. The East wind has another song as it shrives the plants for day after day until their cells have burst and they collapse. The unseasonable weather has a song; a lament if you prefer, that that we are adrift. The seasons, by which we once navigated as if they were a kind of compass, have become anomalous and untrustworthy; our seeds fail to germinate and our crops fail.

Much of our predicament is marked – not by presence but by absence. The Cuckoo, the House Sparrow, the insects and bees and butterflies. Slowly, bit by bit, the complex dialect of our sense of place – the voices, the histories and memories, the regularities, the fragmentary graffiti of everyday life – are all gone. The environmental catastrophe, understood just as bad science and failed technology is missing great continents of meaning. The same catastrophe taken a simple legal battle with the guilty in the dock and the innocent as complainants edits all the complexities out.

We are in the midst of a growing catastrophe of being. Culture – the way we do things round here – has been so eroded, let’s be clear, by the theocratic madness of neoliberal economics, that we have had the joy; the spirituality; the heftedness; the manual labour; the cooking; the teaching; the nurturing; the everyday poetry and song, the sense of belonging to something so big that it could never be traversed in a lifetime; the ebb and flow of the seasons and their celebrations; the capacity to love and be loved back without reserve or fear …….. all bled out, reprocessed and sold back to us as simulacra.

So to return to the title of this post, my answer would be that we need them all – green philosophy; green spirituality and green ethics – the trinity of disciplines that will enable us once again to find our true place in nature, and to hear the Song of the Earth once more.

Uncle Jim drops by

The shed – damaged by vandals two years ago

Our hearts sank when a post on the allotment group Facebook page alerted us to the fact that once again we’d had intruders on the site who had broken into about 15 sheds. Luckily, this time we had escaped their attention. It’s impossible to overstate how insecure this made us feel. Theft and vandalism are almost universal on allotment sites and the emotional damage is enormous. There’s a huge difference between a garden and an allotment plot because your garden is usually attached to, and part of your home – whereas an allotment is often several miles away and also open to all comers. It’s almost impossible to insure your tools for that reason, and of course vandalism and theft of crops puts your plans back by a whole season.

A couple of nights ago I couldn’t sleep. My mind was churning over some big issues when I had a flash of inspiration about one aspect of the Potwell Inn that I’d never really articulated. The reasoning behind the name of this fictitious place comes from the HG Wells novel “A History of Mr Polly” and the campervan is called Polly for that reason. I first read the novel as an English set book when I was at school. I’d reached that awkward stage in life – my early teens – when nothing seemed to work. Nothing fitted or suited me and I felt bolshy and shy in equal measure. Most of my teachers had fought in the war and their various traumas were all too apparent – often rude, domineering and gimlet eyed when it came to any deviation from the straight and narrow of a lesson plan that could never ever accommodate my restless mind. There were exceptions of course. Bill Williams could make maths into an intellectual adventure; Chris Levinson introduced me to modern American poetry and literature. Whacker Allan, notwithstanding his considerable and violent canings never dimmed my determination to get to France; but Punch Neesham thought that a headlock was the best way to facilitate the removal of a sweet from a fourteen year old’s mouth. So reading “Polly” was a bit of a revelation to me – offering an escape route from all that. I didn’t identify with Polly, because for a while I became him. I wanted to fall in love – anyone would do. I wanted to clown around and, if need be, burn down the crippling suburban prison in which I felt trapped.

When eventually aged 17 I was escorted out of school by the scruff of the neck by a Headmaster who had a great deal to be modest about, it felt like a kind of liberation. Whatever crap I found myself wading through, I knew that it was my crap; my choice and I could endure it because the alternative was to fall into a pit of mediocrity in which you were promoted for not threatening the system.

The thought of finding or creating my own version of the Potwell Inn never left me. Sometimes it came to me as a kind of vision – like the memory of drinking a pint of Exmoor Gold leaning on the sea wall outside the Griffin at Dale. If ever anyone saw my eyes drifting away during times of particular hardship it was because I’d have taken a temporary absence in my mind. Back to the pub and the sea. Once I’d got together with Madame – I was 18 and she was only 15 – we were able to break away and create the first of many iterations of the Potwell Inn together.

But there was always Uncle Jim to contend with. In the novel he’s the landlady of the Potwell Inn (AKA the plump woman’s) nephew. He’s a violent drunk who believes he has been cheated of his inheritance – the pub – and occasionally turns up in the midst of their little paradise threatening terrible things. In our own lives there were lots of Uncle Jims and you never knew when, or in what disguise, they were going to turn up; often in the form of someone claiming to want to help, and especially as people who thought my whole purpose as a parish priest was to do exactly what they required of me and act as some kind of chaplain to their mysterious status quo.

My restless night suddenly reminded me that that Potwell Inn – that’s to say this particular version of it – is a very precious and visionary place that somehow overlaps our real lives and sometimes for a few hours or even days actually becomes our real lives. Most of the time, living in the centre of the city where in winter the sun really does set over the needle exchange we need the Potwell Inn to help us recover. In our souls we take it everywhere, especially in Polly the campervan.

Today, across the Green, the river is running higher than we’ve ever seen over the past seven years. The riverside paths are covered by up to a couple of feet of muddy water travelling faster than I could run, and Pulteney Weir has all but disappeared. We’ve had drought and record summer temperatures, a vicious cold spell, unduly warm winter weather and now days and days of heavy rain. We’re at a bit of a loss to decide what to grow next year because this global climate catastrophe is galloping up on us. A less than divine visitation by an all too humanly created Uncle Jim. And suddenly the Potwell Inn takes on a whole new dimension and becomes a kind of Ark.

December 2020 – this year the water is two rails higher.

How to be a foreigner – and why MFK Fisher is such an inspirational food writer

The scorpion, by the way, was in our rented apartment in Uzès in Provence. Fortunately it was dead when we found it. But that’s another story.

I discovered MFK (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher by chance when I was reading about Julia Child, the famous American food writer and author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking . This enormous 2 volume opus became hugely influential in the US after the first volume was published in 1961 but when it was later published in the UK, Elizabeth David had already pretty much seized the narrative. I’d never even heard of MFK Fisher until very recently, and if you share my abject ignorance on her work then I’d recommend the book “Provence 1970” written by her great nephew Luke Barr, who also directed an excellent biographical film which is available on YouTube. In his book he writes about one summer when Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard were all in Provence at the same time and talked cooked and ate together regularly. Richard Olney and Elizabeth David were also in and out of France at the time but it seems that they thought that as a cookery writer, Fisher was a bit of an imposter – they were absolutely wrong in the sense that Fisher could write them both into a cocked hat. David, of course, introduced the whole mediterranean food culture to the UK and for that she claims the laurels, but she was by no means the only one. Before David, Patience Gray was the better selling food writer, and remains one of my favourites. Each one of them brought something important to the table, as it were, and between them they changed the course of culinary history of both America and the UK.

So how can these writers, publishing so long ago, ( Fisher was born in 1908) still seem so critically important? In my view that’s a daft thought because Fisher is every bit as alive and relevant today as RL Stevenson, whose “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevenne” is as fresh and modern today as it was when first published. They all have something to say about being human, and Fisher across 25 books and countless magazine and newspaper articles, not to mention television appearances seems set to become closer to my heart than any of the others. She writes like a 21st century woman; she’s a forensic analyst of human cultures and as always Richard Olney and Elizabeth David – in their rather bitchy way – had something of the truth. She wasn’t such a great cook but she was a brilliantly perceptive eater. When you read her accounts of living in Aix, Arles and Marseilles – especially if you’ve spent time there; and when you read about her youthful life in Dijon with her first husband you feel that even as a foreigner she managed to see behind the triumphs, evasions and stubborn conservatism of the French culinary scene of her day.

Her life wasn’t all wine and roses, and yes, she had money which enabled her extensive travels in Europe, but her first marriage ended when she met the love of her life who was suffering from a terrible illness that took him away after only very few years. A third long term relationship was distant and dwindled away after the birth of her two daughters; and so she brought them up as a single mother. There were other relationships about which she remained discreetly silent. As I said earlier a surprisingly modern life for a woman born in 1908.

And she wrote like an angel. Madame would tell you, if you met her, that my enthusiasm for a book can be measured in the amount of time I spend reading passages aloud to her. Reading together in bed at the Potwell Inn can be a surprisingly noisy and competitive business. “Two Towns in Provence” in the chapter “The Foreigner” would serve more than adequately as a set text for a graduate course in anthropology – it’s just laugh out loud funny as she deals with an arrogant French lunchtime host who wastes no opportunity to compare unfavourably American food with French cuisine. MFK’s response – sending a coffin shaped basket of flowers, ending the acquaintance forever with a funeral gift – is one I’ll treasure and perhaps even borrow if the need ever arises. Here’s another taster:

There are myriad facets to invisibility, and not all of them reflect comfort or security. Often I have been in pain, in my chosen role of The Stranger. Just as often I have counted on being so, and was not. Learning to be invisible has, of course, some moments worse than others. Perhaps I felt them most fiercely during the first months of my stay in Aix in 1954. I was alone in Europe for the first time in my life really; always before I had been the companion of some- one well loved, who knew more than I did about everything, even things like tickets and monies. I had been younger, too, and full of confidence. Now I was single, with two small daughters, and a world war and some private battles had come between the two women of myself, so that I felt fumbling and occasionally even frightened.

Perhaps it was a little like learning to walk again: I must try hard to trust my weakened muscles, my halting tongue, and most of all the dulled wits in my graying head, so that my children would not suspect me and lose confidence.

MFK Fisher “Two Towns in Provence”

Of the writers I’ve mentioned only Patience Gray comes close in her understanding of the whole culture through its food. Where Olney and David were always difficult and insecure in spite of their fame, Fisher was obviously a writer who didn’t need to be liked. “This is what I found” – I can imagine her saying – “and if you don’t like it you can shove it!”. Her editors must have despaired at her unashamed openness. She had an erotic connection to food and life and it perfuses all her writing. I beg you to explore this body of work. The only book I haven’t enjoyed is a bit of a potboiler called “How to feed a wolf” which was commissioned to meet a market for a severely rationed wartime food supply. I sensed her heart wasn’t in it but her celebrity never paid the bills and she was a proper writer!

A lovely meal and then a lurch into the unknown

Bath Natural Theatre Company strutting their stuff in the early 70’s

We were there – well not there in the photograph, but around at the time and living near Bath – which made lunch last week with one of the original provocateurs and his partner a total joy. Most young people probably think we’re a bunch of old farts who never did anything interesting – after all the world was only invented when they came along – but here’s the evidence – complete with incriminating photos and only mildly bowdlerized accounts of the fun and games that went on. There was a serious side to the counterculture because it helped mobilize public opinion against the Buchanan Plan which was contemplating the destruction of one of Bath’s most historic neighbourhoods in order to build a huge road. As it was, a great chunk of old Bath was demolished in favour of ugly flats – now a local crime hotspot – a habit which has continued with the recent Crest Nicholson Western Riverside development which would make a Russian bonded warehouse look good. There’s a well known polemic called The Sack of Bath written in 1973 by Adam Fergusson which also threw a spanner into the planners’ designs and undoubtedly helped save Bath from wholesale destruction. Interestingly we bumped into his daughter in a bar in Hay on Wye in December. She was very proud of her Dad who’s still alive. We need him back here!

A lot of last week was taken up haggling with recalcitrant software. As ever the obvious problem with my mobile router never occurred to me until I’d tried everything else out and wasted vast amounts of energy shouting fruitlessly at a lump of space junk whose only fault was an expired SIM card. Of course, somewhere at the back of my disorderly mind I’d known it all along, but – hey ho. The router will soon be needed as we get the campervan back on the road. After a couple of years of Covid when we often couldn’t use the van, we’d seriously considered selling it. It costs a lot of money just to leave it standing in a compound doing nothing and we thought it might be better to spend the money on trips. For one whole evening we even thought we’d buy an interrail pass and spend six months back in Europe. The downside to these utopian plans was always that we have a family, an allotment, the Bath Nats and a pile of friends we like to keep in touch with. In the cold light of morning and whilst putting the empties out, Plan A sounded a bit naff because what we really really enjoy is to park the campervan up on a site somewhere quiet and remote in the midst of a wildlife hotspot – like Mendip or mid Wales for instance – and go walking, birdwatching and plant hunting. So the plan was shelved with the two of us in complete agreement that we needed to keep the van.

The campervan’s been standing idle since we got back from St Davids in September and whilst we agonised over it we also neglected it a bit, so as well as software wars we also took ourselves down to the edge of the Severn to get the batteries recharged and to empty out the cupboards and generally get it ready for spring. We soon found that the upholstery had got very damp, the sink needed repairing (again!) and the mice had raided for nest building materials although a thorough search failed to find any nests; cue much more irritable spluttering and rummaging through tiny spaces at the expense of bashed elbows and a sore head. Ah – life’s rich tapestry – we thought as we lumped an 80lb generator and our dehumidifier into the car along with a spare battery and a heap of tools.

However, amidst all these distractions I also managed to spend time getting my head in gear for plant hunting in a few weeks time; checking out useful databases and maps and scouring lists. I do love a good list – this may be some kind of symptom. The upshot of all this botanical fantasising was that at the AGM on Saturday I volunteered to join the Council of the Bath Nats, thereby turning my retirement resolution never to join another committee – on its head. Naturally (it’s a voluntary organisation) my offer was warmly accepted and after a brief moment of undeserved pride I fell into a pit of self-doubt, bordering on imposter syndrome. The members of the Council are just so much more experienced and knowledgeable than me, they’ll find me out in a moment. Another sleepless night.

The van’s called Polly – it’s a he!

And so today has two tasks; to go back to the van and figure out how to carry out the necessary repairs and to run the dehumidifier for a few hours now we’ve remembered to put some petrol into the generator. Then I need to get a new data SIM and get the router working and sit down with Madame and plan the seed order for the allotment. We’ve already agreed to simplify and to concentrate on low maintenance plants to give ourselves more time for the other things we like to do. Then there’s marmalade to make as well. Who knew retirement could be so exhausting?

2022 Review part 1 – my descent into terminal nerdery.

The highlight of my year may seem a bit weird

I know exactly how I got here. The seeds of this addiction were sown on the day I realized that not all Dandelions were in fact Dandelions because there were plants like Hawkweeds and Hawkbits and such great multitudes of other lookalikes that I despaired of living long enough to name a tenth of them. Then, when I was working as a groundsman – (all graduating art students have to find some kind of job to pay the rent) – it was in the playing fields of Clifton College that I got lost in the Speedwell zone and gave up. Then 24/7 work took over for 45 years because, believe me, the gig economy was alive and well in the 1970’s (I only got my first proper full-time job when I was 40) and at times Madame and me were each doing three part-time jobs. Then with three boys to feed and clothe, any plant hunting was confined to holidays in Pembrokeshire. I loved my work but I also longed for some space to devote to the natural world and especially plants and fungi.

So when we retired we brought my big collection of underused field guides and a head filled with the extraordinarily evocative names of plants I’d never actually seen. I can still remember coming across Vipers Bugloss for the first time on a clifftop in Tenby and being completely bowled over by its beauty.

As soon as we moved here we joined the Bath Natural History Society – which was the best move we could have made because by going on field trips and attending lectures by real nationally recognised experts our understanding began to increase exponentially; not least because we found that the experts we got to know were eager to teach anyone who showed an interest. Added to that, a course in botanical illustration reconnected me to my artistic background and reawakened my interest in intense observation, plus my longstanding interest in herbal medicine which I’d never been able to explore in depth. These three factors combined: drawing and painting, really good mentors and a passion for wildflowers and their uses, set me on the road which four years ago finally resulted in a head on collision with a plant that’s universally known as a bit of a heart sinker. It was on the allotment site just a single plot up from us on an abandoned plot.

This is not a tale of derring-do on a precipitous cliff face or hacking my way through a jungle. This pretty plant practically threw itself at me about five feet from our path. It was tall – a couple of feet tall anyway, rambling, fragile and faintly resembled a sweet pea flower but the leaves were wrong. I got the genus name right off – it was a Fumitory, a Fumaria ‘something or other‘. but to get the species was a world of woe away. Once I’d spun my head a few times in the field guides I knew that getting the species right was way above my level of competence. The differences between the ten British and Irish species are very small and demand experience, accurate measurements and even a low powered microscope. So I turned to a friend – Rob – who’s way better than me and – bless him he wandered up to the allotment and his ID was pretty provisional, plus I didn’t think he was keen on volunteering to carry a burden that was rightly mine. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had cause to be grateful to someone who has given me the confidence that I’ll eventually be able to solve a problem.

Happily we had a lovely holiday in Cornwall this year and the coast path yielded two slightly different Fumaria species which, by that time, I’d learned to key out for myself. I photographed, inspected and measured them before submitting them to the County Recorder who to my great surprise accepted both ID’s. By this time I knew which parts of the plant demanded that intense attention to detail I wrote about earlier, so I sent off for the BSBI monograph on Fumitories and suddenly the light began to dawn. However there was one further obstacle to overcome. Confirmation bias afflicts keen amateur botanists as much as it wrecks the judgement of players in any other discipline. There’s no point in picking the rarest of a bunch of species and then only looking for evidence proving the hypothesis. But refusing on principle to believe that your specimen is that rare plant is equally daft because – well, it might be. My Fumaria by this time had migrated into the garlic bed and was wreaking havoc in the leeks. The word “ramping” attached to some of the species is more than appropriate.

Eventually, after much head scratching it occurred to me that it might (just) be Fumaria bastardii – a thought that I squashed immediately because even a cursory glance at the map showed that it just didn’t grow here. So I sent the photos and measurements to the North Somerset County Recorder suggesting it might be Fumaria Capreolata. She emailed back and said she thought it was more likely Fumaria Muralis but also suggested I send the details to the National Referee for Fumarias and very quickly he replied that it was Fumaria bastardii var. hibernica – the very one that doesn’t grow here. So – going back to the photo at the top, there’s now a list for this area on the national database which includes my solitary record which I’ve highlighted. There’s also a single red square on the map that gives the approximate location – this is done to protect vulnerable plants like orchids from predation by collectors. And finally I had an email saying my find had got on to the Somerset Rare Plants list as well as on the annual Bath Nats report.

The key point in all this is that if I can make a small difference, then trust me – anyone can. My little find is only rare here in Bath – in Ireland for instance – it’s everywhere; and I couldn’t have got near it without the knowledge and skills of three volunteers who gave me the time to finally get the ID. My biggest contribution is in noticing the plant and then banging on about it. I’m stubborn and I don’t like being beaten!

So my main – possibly entire – indelible contribution to field botany might well turn out to be a single dot on a map, and I’ll settle for that. Nerdery has its own rewards and my sense of pride in getting that dot on the map more than vindicates the hours I spent achieving it.

All’s well on the canal

Winter Heliotrope – Petasites fragrans

Exactly as I predicted there was a really good showing of Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon canal today. As we walked to the first deep lock the river was in full spate and at its most dangerous as we went along, and in places the banks were flooded. At Pulteney Weir the steps had disappeared and water was shooting upwards like a fountain as it curled back at the river bed. Heaven help anyone falling into that maelstrom – they’d have no chance at all. The eddies and deep currents seem to illustrate constantly changing anatomical illustrations of the musculature of unknown beasts. Fallen logs lifted helpless arms into the air, like Excalibur, and all the while there was a dangerous sound – far from the comfort of waves and waterfalls but the fretting water feeling for any weakness along the bank. The boats moored alongside the footpath were lifted high on their moorings. Any higher and they’d start to list into oblivion as the water flooded in. The canal, of course, is at one remove from all the mayhem and there’s a more peaceful regime altogether.

Once again we revisited the walk that kept us sane during the lockdowns, and in Henrietta Park an ever reliable tree stump was growing Oyster Mushrooms and what I think was almost certainly Silverleaf Fungus as well as the usual Turkey Tails. Further back in the park the magnificent trunk of an old pine looked especially beautiful. Hundreds of walkers were out and about celebrating New Year. We were passed by one crocodile comprising upwards of 20 walkers – no doubt a rambling club. It’s crazy how easy it is in England to assign social class to whole groups. I remember once taking a midweek communion service which usually had about four or five communicants but on this particular Wednesday the Lady Chapel was full to the brim with identically dressed, late middle aged men in tweed jackets and flannel trousers. It could have been a Monty Python sketch. Afterwards I asked them who they all were and they told me they were all High Court judges on a course in the hotel next door. Today’s walkers were equally monocultural. Several of them wished us a happy new year in clipped received pronunciation and I relapsed into full churl, willing my cheek muscles into a rigid smile as I responded with imperceptible grace.

It was a joy to find plants and fungi to identify at this time of the year. Even the vivid green of new foliage brought a foretaste of plants just waiting in the earth for the kairos – the appropriate time. Alongside the river a large group of Long Tailed Tits kept themselves busy in the branches of trees overlooking the cricket ground. On the other side at St John’s Church we not only saw a pair of Peregrine falcons on the tower but also heard their unmistakable voices. Before we’d even taken that unusual sight in, a pair of herons fled downstream in their prehistoric way, and later a couple of cormorants flew downstream as well. All this in the very centre of the city.

Back home again I cooked the last of the Christmas leftovers and we had an early supper. Below are some of the things we saw.

Spring in my step at last

Sea Campion, Silene uniflora -photographed near Gunwalloe church 18th January 2022

It really shouldn’t be a surprise because it happens every year, but suddenly the thought of another year’s joyful plant hunting is filling my mind. The photograph – taken in Cornwall – is proof that spring is just around the corner and I am so looking forward to it; sorting out the books and maps and planning our visits to try and maximise our chances of finding one or two rarities amongst the old friends. When we go out plant hunting in the company of the vastly experienced Bath Natural History Society leaders I can only marvel at their sharp eyes and encyclopaedic knowledge, but they are so willing to share their expertise I’ve realized that half the battle is learning to access the databases that are available to anyone with an interest in plants, so now we go out equipped with maps and lists which save endless wasted time looking for plants that just aren’t there.

Is this sudden shift in mood just down to day length? Is there – somewhere in my brain – a sensor that, just eleven days after the winter solstice, sends a signal to somewhere else in my brain, telling it (telling me) to clear the decks? Is there a causal relationship between day length and the fact that I just opened Google Photos and searched for images taken in January? Is there an underlying hormonal link between this rain soaked day which lasts just a few minutes longer than it did a fortnight ago? – because I’m quite certain that it wasn’t opening the application that led to the shiver of anticipation but the reverse. Opening the photo album merely confirmed what I already knew – somewhere deep inside – that Coltsfoot, Celandines and Sea Campions will be there waiting in a couple of weeks when we return to Cornwall. I remember, one December, visiting my Spiritual Director, a truly radical Roman Catholic Sister. I was full of woe and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself and she told me that I probably just needed some sunshine.

Now we’ve moved into a (very small) city there won’t be any Plough Monday celebrations and I’ve no idea whether the Littleton Cider Club will organise a Wassail in the orchard behind the White Hart that Madame once helped to plant; although I have heard that the cider apples were very small this year, and so full of sugar the resulting cider is fearfully strong. I’m sad that I’m no longer involved in all those ceremonial markers of the farming year but it seems that my mind is still ahead of the game without any need for dressing up or handmade prayers.

It’s New Year’s Eve. We shan’t be up late – but tomorrow morning the old year will be vanquished in all its economic and political stupidity. Half our Christmas cards this year have contained critical remarks about the state we’re in, and that’s something I don’t think I can ever recall happening before. Is the serpent awakening? Tomorrow looks grey, with more seasonably cold weather returning, but Monday will be sunny, briskly cold and we’ll be out like plant hounds – sampling the air with cold noses and thick sweaters and greeting each tiny promise of new growth with hoots of pleasure.

I’m tempted at this point to quote Mother Julian’s “All will be well and all manner of things will be well”, but there’s got to be a caveat because of course unless we change course, things will not be well at all. The government will tell us that there’s no alternative but only a fool would believe them. Madame and I have the tremendous advantage of being old enough to have lived some of the alternatives to the way we do things around here (one of my favourite definitions of culture). There’s no state sponsored cure for the challenges we face because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas (or Thanksgiving)! The answer may feel as if it’s occluded by anxiety and sorrow but it’s there, waiting to be rediscovered and it looks a lot like a successful human community rescued from the debilitating clutches of the Gradgrinds, the curators and gallerists and all the other gatekeepers defending the system against artists and poets. We’ll banish the ambitious and the greedy and those who have never even discovered their own shadows, let alone learned to live with them. We shall only escape the tyranny of spreadsheets, efficiency curves and economic growth when we refuse to play that game and return to joyfully experiencing of the riches of nature without giving anything an economic value. We’ll get back to singing, dancing and feasting together in ways that defeat all the categories of sponsored division and to a community where Jacob Rees Mogg and his pals will have to make a thin living as pantomime dames, being laughed at in village halls and impromptu community centres all over the country: what a wonderfully cheerful thought.

Here are some more January 2022 photos – Happy New Year.

Staunching pancheon expansion lust.

There – I thought that the headline would attract some small interest! The loaf, by the way, is a fifty fifty wholemeal/white sourdough mix that I made last year. As you see, it makes a lovely – if rather close textured loaf – but I rarely bake it because the flavour is so intense it tends to overwhelm whatever you eat it with. Our everyday recipe is a combination of rye starter with organic white flour which, over 36 hours, develops a lovely rich wheat flavour without shouting at you. Barely a week passes without me learning something new about baking and although occasionally when I’m in a tearing hurry I’ll use the bread machine (I’m not a fundamentalist Sourdough Savonarola), slow is always best, and if – through lousy organisation or sheer idleness – I resort to the supermarket, I invariably experience buyers’ remorse.

Any sort of food, but particularly bread, seems to embrace far more than calories and glycaemic index. It forms a cultural space where memories and experiences jostle with history; even sociology and anthropology. Hearth, home and heritage; journeys abroad or even unexpected food closer to the kitchen all combine in a cloud of metaphor, where cooking and eating become a performance that can wake you out of lethargy or melancholia and set you on your feet again.

Last night we watched a lovely Greek film called “Green Sea” which explains perfectly what I’m struggling to write. It concerns a woman who has completely lost her memory apart from being able to cook despite having no sense of taste. She washes up at a working peoples’ seaside cafe and cooks food so beautiful that it brings alive, occasionally to tears, the people who eat it. It not only recovers the memories of the customers but it eventually restores her own when she has an epiphanic experience with a teaspoon of honey!

You may have noticed that I read a lot of books. On my desk at the moment are MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me”; “Welsh Food Stories” by Carwyn Graces, “Welsh Fare” by S Minwel Tibbott; “Beard on Bread” by James Beard and the recently published “English Food” by Diane Purkiss. On the shelves there are many dozens more. These are all books that explore so much more than recipes – but express cultures too. Films, in many ways, have a unique part to play in this exploration. I could – off the tip of my tongue – name ‘Couscous’, ‘Chocolat’, and Stanley Tucci’s ‘Big Night’ in which there’s a wonderful single shot scene involving his character cooking an omelette from scratch whilst conducting an argument with his brother. There’s ‘Babette’s Feast’, ‘Julie and Julia’ also starring Stanley Tucci with Meryl Streep and more recently ‘Bear’. Then there’s ‘Bagdad Cafe‘ – I could go on for ages. One day when I’m in the mood I’ll make a list.

So now, finally, I get to the pancheon thing. For fifty five years to the month, every loaf I’ve baked was proved in a Pyrex bowl. It was a wedding present given to us by my mother’s closest wartime friend. It’s grown into an icon for me; scratched to the point where I can barely see through it. But I’ve recently become so paranoid about breaking it that I’m finding it increasingly hard to use. It’s the only object whose use spans our entire marriage and I’ve got this irrational fear that something terrible will happen if I drop it. I’ve written before about my mother’s “little sharp knife” – a unique piece of bone handled but otherwise inconsequential wartime utility ware – that does it too. The few dressmaking knick knacks I still have from her working years – thimble, pincushion and so on have the same quality – and the sound of a sewing machine in the next door flat send me into rapturous childhood memories.

I need a new proving bowl, but finding one has become faintly obsessive. Fifty years ago I visited one of the few surviving local slipware potteries in the country at Wrecklesham. It finally closed down about ten years later after the claypit was sold off for housing land and the market for traditional slipware collapsed under the competition of pyrex, melamine and more glamorous (?) kitchenware, oh and the complete absence of skilled throwers . I’ll write more about that visit another day. They were still – just about – making a few pancheons for trendy interior decorations but they were way above what we could afford.

I’ve looked on and off for years for one, but the problem is that they’re very expensive when bought from antique shops and – not knowing when they were made – there’s always the suspicion that they’re lead glazed. Any acidic food left in them could lead to lead poisoning. It’s a shame because that glorious amber coloured and unctuous glaze is quite difficult to replicate without lead flux. But then, miraculously and almost certainly due to the surge of interest in home baking during Covid, one or two potteries have seen the gap in the market and begun to produce hand thrown slipware pancheons once again. Why bother? Well, for all the reasons at the top of this piece. Of course you can prove your dough in any old container, but bread making occupies a cultural space as well as the usual culinary one; and those of us who bake get tremendous pleasure from working within that almost extinct culture using traditional tools and equipment, and of course I trained as a potter when I was young – which is why I visited Wrecclesham all those years ago. Buying a new pancheon joins two of the threads of my life together. Best of all I’ve found a pottery less than twenty miles away that’s making them and as soon as they reopen in January I’ll be down there to check them out (fussy customer!) and if they’re good – and they look very good online – I’ll retire the Pyrex bowl and start afresh. It won’t do anything for the bread but it’ll do a lot for me.

More recently we found a potter called Nathalie Hubert down in St Quentin la Poterie in Provence and we bought some of her lovely oven/tableware which radiates sunshine into our flat whenever we use it, and then we invariably begin to talk about our travels there. Cooking, eating and sharing memories over a few glasses is at the heart of human thriving – not an optional extra for the wealthy. In fact the wealthy always lose out because they don’t have to struggle to learn the skills and find the money, they just flash the wad and it all falls into their laps, and straight out again. Of course it’s hard work excavating history, reading, practising, watching, talking and learning from the people who really know. But as Aneurin Bevan once famously said to a heckler – “If you’d just shut up and listen you might leave this place slightly less stupid than when you came in”

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