This is the season when most of the allotment is the kitchen

That’s a bit of an exaggeration because we’re still harvesting an abundance of broccoli, leeks, chard and parsnips from the open ground, and lettuce, coriander, parsley and spinach from the polytunnel; but these are the last of the winter crops and we’re just entering the hungry gap; the period between the past and the coming season when there’s not much about. Most people would assume that the hungry time is in midwinter but it’s not. This is the time when the stores come into their own. The jams, preserves, pickles and the food in the freezer are what get us by even though the temperature may be in the late teens and we’re dressed in T shirts. Revelation of the year is the wonderful flavour and texture of our own home-grown borlotti. So plump and soft and full of goodness. This year we’ll grow even more, because they store so well. But in reality it’s that time when the myth of self sufficiency is punctured by the cold logic of the seasonal year. The last frost can be as late as May 6th here and it’s heartbreaking to see prematurely exposed plants wilt and die.

The strawberries from last year’s runners, that I moved to their new bed a few weeks ago are flourishing under a fleece covering and even showing a few flowers. Angelica, lovage and French sorrel are all going well and the first asparagus tips are poking gingerly through the soil. Broad beans are safely under bird nets and every bare patch of ground is eagerly covering itself with opportunist weeds. The saddest casualty of winter is my beloved Sweet Cicely which is at best a short lived perennial. It’s a devil to get going but we’ll try again in the autumn. Last year we doubled the number of dwarf fruit trees and they’re all looking good with the apples in flower. Even the speculative planting of tiny rhubarb stools (Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise) have come good; but we’ll leave them to gather strength this season. There are now three successional varieties of rhubarb to supply us from March through summer.

In the kitchen, though, it’s all going well with the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, lettuce, melons, courgettes and peas all potted on, and there are seed potatoes out on the landing. So this is Spring; the season of hopefulness and big dreams.

More on foraging

The glossy magazines continue to publish articles on foraging; some even daring to suggest that foraged food might help bridge the poverty trap for some people. I’m a foraging cynic. Recently we had reports of professionals stripping Cornish lanes of wild garlic. In Epping Forest the foraging of fungi had to be banned after entrepreneurs were found taking tens of kilos of fungi for sale to flashy restaurants. Nearly all the articles I see are written by people who make a living either by stripping the land themselves, or by running courses on how to do it. The idea that taking huge amounts of food away from its habitat – because it’s ‘free‘ – is somehow more “green” than growing some, (but never all) your food, is a dangerous fantasy that draws on precisely the same selfish and greedy instincts that underpin factory farming and fossil fuel extraction.

If, and when, we find something wild and delicious – field mushrooms for instance – we take enough for one feed and that’s it. I’m absolutely not arguing that picking a few blackberries, elderflowers or sloes is going to drive the trees to extinction but I’d apply a test that was suggested to me many tears ago by one of my mentors. Take (or give) enough not to be ashamed, but never enough to be proud.

The very moment in a foraging expedition where you have enough is the moment to stop. When gratitude for the gift slips into pride, the gift becomes toxic. One of my books on herbal medicine makes the admirable suggestion that the harvesting of plants and flowers for our healing should always begin with an act of thanksgiving. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely right, and I often find myself saying thank you out loud when we’re harvesting from the allotment. My maternal grandmother had a little saying that I hated when I was young because it always seemed to go with not being allowed any more pudding. She would say “enough is a feast” .

The single most awe inspiring thing about nature is not the big televisual stunts but her sheer undeserved generosity. When we abuse that generosity we become the prodigal children who want to spend the family inheritance in excess and then come back when it’s all gone and beg for more with a mumbled and insincere apology.

Good hunting!

Sweet Vernal Grass – Anthoxanthum odoratum

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things ….

Gerard Manley Hopkins; “God’s Grandeur”.

Yesterday I set out with the target of finding one single grass species, and we were on a 270 acre site where there’s an awful lot of the green stuff, so it was a test of patience mixed with good luck and Madame’s extraordinary eye. She was the first to spot the tiny flowers amongst the ruffians, not knowing at all what it was. Our minds converged and I had my plant.

It’s not that it’s the least uncommon – just that it’s very small; flowers very early in the year before the other grasses and then lingers as a dried skeleton for the rest of the season. I don’t suppose anyone in the UK could justly say that they’d never seen it but it’s also true that very few indeed would have noticed or known what it was. It’s all in the name; or very nearly all. It’s probably known as sweet more for its perfume than its taste. The thing about it is that it really is the smell of fresh hay; and that’s down to the alkaloid coumarin that gives the same perfume to Meadowsweet: a kind of delicious and evocative vanilla fragrance. The second part of the name, verna, comes from being one of the earliest grasses to flower. Most of the perfume resides in the roots and, as is so often the case, smelt close-up, to me it’s more like Dettol than vanilla. It’s also true that although it was once sown in meadows, Coope and Gray say that it’s neither very productive nor palatable to cattle and so it’s out there on its own.

We also went back to the dark rings in the grass to see if we could find any St George’s mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa and we were lucky that overnight a clump had emerged. They’re the easiest of fungi to identify as long as it’s spring. The white gills and the strong mealy smell are vanishingly unlikely to be anything else. Later on in the season, however you need to be very careful indeed because there are some truly dangerous nasties out there. Here’s an unexpectedly atypical Death Cap we photographed in September 2019 in Cumbria. As always, the devil’s in the detail and – just like all the other plants – you have to consider tiny details of shape and form; smell; season and habitat. That single death cap would certainly be enough to kill you!

Later on we trudged back to the Meadow Foxtails to see what other successional grasses might be on their way and found Yorkshire Fog in leaf there. I really should go back and do a full inventory but my grass I/D skills are still quite rudimentary and I fear it would be a slow job. It occurred to me while we were looking that I may not have noticed the Meadow Foxtail growing there before because until recently there was a free ranging herd of deer that would have eaten the tops off as soon as they emerged. Sadly they became infected with Bovine TB and had to be slaughtered, and so the grazing has had a two year rest. Preparations are obviously being made to reinstate the herd with hundreds of yards of new deer proof fencing going in. Hopefully they’ll soon restore the grass to its previous state.

One brilliant little find was a quantity of Flattened Meadow Grass; the same species that I found in Cornwall recently and which I’m still waiting to get signed off for the record. A double check on the BSBI database later confirmed that it’s known in that 10K OS square, and that’s good enough for me. Once you’ve sweated for hours over a plant you tend to remember it in the future!

Revisiting the scene of a crime.

I thought I remembered writing about this several years ago, but a search failed to deliver. I was thinking back to a Bath Nats fungus foray when a visitor harvested an entire stand of Parasol mushrooms behind the back of the group leader who, moments earlier, had asked us to leave them for others to enjoy. Anyway that memory has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s a bit of an argument for the so-called tragedy of the commons; the pernicious (to my mind) argument that the peasants couldn’t be trusted not to take more than their share of the commons and so enclosure was the only humane solution. More humane, it transpired, for the landlords than the peasants who were driven off the land and into the towns and cities. The afternoon was made all the more poignant by the fact that the larcenous offender was the daughter in law of one of the biggest landowners in one of my parishes.

Anyway that patch of land has always stayed in my mind and what with lockdown and closure of the grassland we haven’t been able to see whether any permanent damage was done. Fungi are very seasonal and you have to be there at the right time. However on the back of this doleful memory I taught our grandson how to look for patches of darker grass in the field where, if you were lucky, you would find fungi at the right time. He was a quick learner and was eventually sprinting from patch to patch, finding fungi. In this instance they were St George’s mushrooms; one of the simpler ones because they fruit early in the year, around St George’s Day, 23rd April.

So today after a frosty start we went back to the same walk and before long I spotted a clump of much greener grass amidst the winter colours. Poking through were what looked (from a distance) like the flower heads of Ribwort Plantain – which would be a very odd time for them to flower. A closer look immediately showed that the grass was Meadow Foxtail; handsome with its roots in a nitrogen rich fungal feast. I looked around and it seemed that there was some sort of association between the grass and what I know will be St George’s mushrooms within the next few weeks, because the Foxtail was entirely limited to the the darker green patches in the field.

Anyway with that little question/project hovering in the back of my mind, we wandered on down through the terraces and spotted a clump of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Trachystemon orientalis) growing in the shade of a wall and gate as we entered the formal gardens. Slowly; too slowly, learning your flowers moves from the starting point of answering the “what’s that” question with a blank mind, towards a much better starting point – that’s to say – “I know I don’t know that one, but I know what family it belongs to.” I knew that I didn’t know what this pretty borage – looking plant was called. I should say I’ve got into the habit of naming plants we pass (silently) and trying to remember as much about them as I can. It’s a great way of learning and shortens the recognition process greatly.

The big decision to come from our spontaneous visit today was that we should adopt the circuit of the park, including Whitefield the magical wildflower meadow, as our regular walk. Even though the car park can be hideously crowded the fact is most folks don’t stray far from the house and formal gardens; dogs are banned, so apart from arriving and leaving we’re pretty much on our own.

In the back of my mind at the moment – jogged by a new series of a popular TV series – is the idea of pilgrimage. I’ve had some experience of pilgrimages since I invented a 45 mile walk from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn and led yearly pilgrimages for years. I also walked a 200 mile stretch of the Camino. I need to think some more about this but it seems to me that the difference between hiking and pilgrimage concerns intention and reflection. Pilgrimage, in my mind, is a form of liturgical walking; expressing rhythmically through legs and feet what’s more normally expressed in music and song. What I can say with absolute certainty was that an accidental and very short pilgrimage to St Non’s Chapel in St David’s yielded more spiritual insight that any of the tougher walks I’ve done; so it’s absolutely not about blood, sweat, tears and suffering. It’s about vulnerability.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

All too often this quotation from Robert Burn’s poem “To a mouse” is trotted out as bleak comfort offered to someone who probably had it coming. In fact it comes some way into the poem which includes this thought provoking phrase:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion

Has broken Nature’s social union

An’ justifies that ill opinion

Which makes thee startle,

Robert Burns – To a Mouse.

The poet (and farmer) has just disturbed the mouse in its nest whilst ploughing and pauses to reflect on the cost to the wild world of our illicitly claimed sovereignty over the earth.

In the photograph above the poem, the third year of an expensively and poorly conceived piece of planners’ greenwashing in the centre of Bath. Nature – some daft city-born architect must have thought – can be bought by the metre, just as books can be bought by the metre by the illiterate rich, to dignify a patch of bare land. If I could land one blow for common sense amongst town planners it would be to teach them that meadows and their flowers are quite different from arable wildflowers. They’re highly specific habitats and attempting to transplant either group into an alluvial spoil heap by way of a seed impregnated membrane is just about as magical as magical thinking gets. Of course the developers didn’t give a flying fish about the wildlife, but a bit of greening always plays well with planning committees.

The first year the poor things germinated they were almost immediately suffocated by their thuggish neighbours. I was pleased to photograph some corncockles there a couple of years ago but now there are nettles and rough grasses which would have grown anyway. These meadow specialists would never be grazed, and neither would the arable weeds enjoy their brief moment in the sun at harvest or in spring; but grossly overfed by the alluvial soil on the riverside would succumb to their sturdier neighbours. The only survivors were some Comfrey and some rather lovely Vipers Bugloss which will be lucky to survive the redevelopment about to be unleashed upon them.

But not to exempt ourselves and the Potwell Inn from the possibility of hubris -I have to confess that the very day our illustrious leader, the Smirking Codpiece, announced that he had personally abolished Covid in fierce hand to hand combat; Madame and me caught it good and proper and had to shut the Potwell Inn down for ten days while we coughed, sneezed, sweated, wept and dribbled in ways too terrible to describe. We too – our son was quick to point out – had it coming because we went up to London to see the Who in the Albert Hall, and everybody knows that pensioners are the principal vectors of infection and five thousand of them croaking and puffing on their ventolin inhalers whilst singing Pinball Wizard in weird old peoples’ voices was bound to lead to trouble. I felt one step away from being compelled to sign an enduring power of attorney agreement!

The photograph was taken today while we went out for a long therapeutic walk along the river and the canal. It was great to be out again after our negative tests, until – that is – we were caught in the most tremendous winter storm. The sky turned to Paynes Grey and a clap of thunder preceded a truly magnificent hailstorm that went on for ages. We managed to find a bit of shelter behind a wall and under an Elder tree with no leaves, on the canal side. But while Madame had a rather posh hydrophilic fleece on, mine was filled with old hens feathers and collapsed into a soggy heap after a couple of minutes.

I had hoped by now to have done at least one more trip to Velvet Bottom, having got hold of some fascinating geological maps to sort out what’s going on under the surface and in the soil. In the process of gazing at the maps I had one of those moments of sudden intuition that illuminated to me the reason I’m so in love with these places. It’s because I’ve spent most of my life living in them and the plants are childhood friends. I never knew their names and my mother couldn’t really help because she’d been born on the Chilterns and her foundational plants were quite different, but a bare field of fescues shimmering in the wind can reduce me to near tears. Everywhere I’ve loved has been post industrial; mostly post mining. The house I was born in was in what was once a mining area; part of the South Gloucestershire Coalfield. Opposite my primary school was the Cossham Hall – a community centre and once a library, founded by Handel Cossham. Cossham Hospital which we all made use of was also paid for by him. He was everywhere. A few weeks ago we visited Greyfield Wood with the Bath Nats, and again it was a strange meeting that I couldn’t put a name to – until we got home and I discovered it was the site of a huge coal mine which, in the nineteenth century, produced hundreds of thousands of tons of coal. Only the subtle traces remained but they were sufficient to make the neural connections that constitute a kind of cultural memory. Lizard, Pembrokeshire, Dartmoor, South Wales, Mid Wales and Snowdonia all bear the same scars and carry their unique heritage of half recognised plants.

So as soon as we get over the post-covid exhaustion we’ll go back to Mendip armed with a list of heavy metal loving plants that appear on the BSBI maps of the area. I’ve already found one and I can remember several more from pre-recording days which I can’t claim until I’ve found them again. I’m slowly turning into a trainspotter – heaven help me!

Buddle pits, settling ponds and slag will give you a Velvet Bottom and very beautiful it will be!

This is a dam wall for a settling pond

Need I say a word about my emotional attachment to Velvet Bottom? This post, by the way, refers to lead mining rather than some kind of cosmetic procedure sold by Gwyneth Paltrow. You would be very disappointed in what follows if you were in search of that kind of amusement. The good people of Shipham may not be as enthusiastic about these old mine workings as me because some years ago they were ordered to stop growing and eating their own garden vegetables on account of the dangerous levels of cadmium in the soil -some of it, without doubt, washed down from here. The ponds are the industrial remains of a previous technical solution to a pollution problem caused when inefficient settling of the crushed ore in the buddle pits resulted in lead finding its way into the waters of the several underground rivers that spring from the limestone rock further down the Mendip escarpment; killing the fish quickly and (probably) the residents slowly. The mines have been worked and reworked since Roman times so there’s been ample time for havoc to accumulate, and this should be a salutary reminder to those who think there’s always a technical solution to every environmental problem. The effluent still contained lead, cadmium and goodness knows what other heavy metals. Just to be clear, most of this came from Victorian workings. In earlier times, back to the Romans, there was almost certainly still pollution, because mining and smelting are intrinsically polluting activities. It’s just that when they’re scaled up as they were during the industrial revolution, that they become truly dangerous. With coal from the nearby North Somerset coalfield, and probably in earlier days abundant wood, mining and smelting came together like the Kray twins of industrial growth.

But now there is peace and silence. Where lead ore was once settled in ponds, now adders warm their blood in the sun. Underground a very large system of caves was first exposed in modern times by the 1968 floods; but pioneering cavers like Willie Stanton soon found that in some places the miners had preceded them, leaving their footprints in the mud. Here and there as you walk down the valley you’ll see trial pits and occasionally swallets, gated to keep out reckless and ill equipped explorers.

However, parts of the soil here are so polluted that the whole flora has had to adapt. While we create clean air zones and fight environmental battles that may yet save us from our own historic folly, there was no-one here for the flowers and plants and when you look closely you can soon see the glittering lead slag from which some of the tracks have been made. There are places where almost nothing grows now, or ever will grow in the future. It’s so rare a habitat that it’s even got its own name – Calaminarian grassland – and there are only 450 hectares of it in the whole of the UK. The name comes from a continental violet – Viola calaminaria – that doesn’t even grow here but has the gift of thriving on soil, highly polluted with heavy metals in the parts of Europe from which the UK has detached itself; i.e. the rest of it! The calaminaria part of the name comes from the zinc containing ore, calamine with/from which calamine lotion is somehow made which is very good for calming itchy chicken pox.

So am I telling too bleak a tale about one of my favourite landscapes in the world? I really hope not, because there is an extraordinary beauty in the way that ecosystems can heal themselves. It takes time, sometimes it takes centuries; but slowly nature reclaims what we have damaged because that’s what nature does best, and bare soil is sick, unbalanced soil.

I’ve been walking up and down Velvet Bottom for something like sixty years and every time, it seems to embrace me in its remote quietness. Occasionally the trail runners and dogs owners can be a bit much. The leftovers from picnics and barbecues can be an eyesore but as landscapes go, the high Mendips – never that high – remains off the beaten track if you avoid the hotspots. But close attention to the flora there makes every walk a treat. Here’s a single example. The edges of the buddle pits and settling ponds are particularly heavily polluted but there are a handful of species that have carved out a living there. Last week we got lucky because the flower in the photos below is a very short lived annual, the flowers only open in full sun and by the time its more glamorous and eye catching cousins come along there’s nothing to see. Unless the flowers are open it’s all but invisible, but miraculously it makes a living on the bare slag, helped along I imagine by plentiful rabbit poo. It’s called Common Whitlowgrass – Erophila verna, and is found locally in these bare patches of gravel, pavements and neglected ground across the UK, mainly in the South. The flowers are barely 2-3mm across if they’re open so these photos show them greatly enlarged. You’ve probably got it growing unnoticed on your allotment or in your garden; but here in this hostile environment it’s a token of the healing power of nature.

The name Whitlowgrass comes from the fact that it was apparently used in the past as a treatment – most likely a poultice – for the infected fingernail bed that bears the same name. But not these specimens – please! They’ve got a much more important healing function; they take up heavy metals into the leaves and are potentially poisonous, and in any case it’s illegal – however common they may be. After I’d posted this I did a bit of searching and came up with this quotation from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal . Modern herbals probably don’t mention it because whitlows are a viral infection caused by the herpes virus. As an astringent it may have helped to clean any resulting bacterial infection. Any port in a storm!

“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives this plant an alternative name of Nailwort and tells us that ‘it is held to be exceedingly good for those imposthumes* in the joints and under the nails, which they call Whitlows, Felons, Andicorns and Nail-wheals’. The plant was carried to North America by the first British settlers where it was found to be a most useful plant in herbal medicine. “

‘Wildflowers of Ireland’ website

* Archaic term for abscesses.”

Blue skies thinking?

Looking up towards Blackdown from Charterhouse

Yes I know I’ve been quiet lately and it wasn’t because I had nothing to say; quite the reverse. Having too much to say is a far worse problem – especially when it’s all whirling incoherently around in my head. In a perfectly ordered world I’d have been pupating quietly and then suddenly emerge in a splendour of coherent thoughts. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. Our emergence from the lockdowns was gradual and then very sudden. We’ve spent almost as much time away in Cornwall and on Mendip in the campervan as we have at home; we’ve been on our first outdoor meeting of the Bath Nats; been wildflower hunting several times around Velvet bottom; gone to our first proper party and our first concert for years – in the Royal Albert Hall, no less. We’ve caught up with many of our friends, sown our vegetable seeds for the coming season, and I’ve come to the unsettling conclusion that it’s time for another iteration of myself. I believe that the capacity to reinvent yourself is fundamental to growing old happily (if not gracefully!)

Italian 6/7th century uncials – from “Writing, Illuminating and Lettering”

So rather than too much boring detail we were on our way to a Who concert at the Albert Hall when we stopped off for a pub lunch. Strictly speaking the concert turned out to be more of a spiritual love-in between the surviving members of the band and their adoring fans, but I’ll get back to the music in a moment. It happened that we were walking along Hammersmith Terrace and then Black Lion Lane towards the Black Lion, alongside the river, when I noticed a blue plaque dedicated to Edward Johnston. These 18th century riverside house now cost millions but they’re essentially rather modest terraced houses. Edward Johnston wrote possibly the most inspiring book of my teenage years called “Writing, Illuminating and Lettering” – from which I taught myself to write uncials, the most beautiful of the 7th and 8th century scripts; and I’ll bet I’m the first person in History to to get the Who and Edward Johnston into the same paragraph. Anyway it was a blast to see the house in which he’d lived and also a salutary lesson that we should always treasure our personal histories but never allow ourselves to be trapped by them. To pinch a remark by James Callaghan, it’s not just politicians but all of us who need a big hinterland if we want to thrive.

The concert was a fundraiser for the Teenage Cancer Trust – Roger Daltrey is a patron. It was a big, blowsy and often hilarious night that occasionally felt like more of a rehearsal than a performance; a rehearsal that we felt privileged to watch. I first came across the Who when I was working in one of the old style mental hospitals where the residents were frequently abused and caged like beasts. Someone gave me a bootleg cassette copy of the Who Live at Leeds and I wore it out. However neither of us ever saw them perform live, until this Friday where a much diminished lineup was supported in an all acoustic set. I think, for some of the super-fans there, it was more like worship when occasionally mobile phone flashlights were waved like candles in a procession. Sometimes I wonder if my scepticism is more of a hindrance than a gift.After the concert we downed a bottle of wine with our friends, (you have to be rich to buy a drink at the Albert Hall), back at the hotel and grabbed all of five hours sleep before Saturday morning.

Chinese grave figures

Since we thought £25 each was a bit steep for breakfast, we settled for some pains au raisin and ate them in the sun next to the Albert Memorial which manages to be both hideous and memorable at the same time. I had much the same feeling about the V & A which (for me) is a tableau of insupportable wealth and misappropriation but which is full of mind-blowingly lovely objects, most of which probably belong somewhere else. We’ve been often enough to know that the only mentally sustainable way of visiting is to limit yourself to a couple of rooms. The rooms housing some of the Chinese and Japanese collection is a go-to for me, not least because I’ve never been able to find again the Chinese silk robe that once stopped me in my tracks while we were on our way somewhere else. That day, the hand woven silk and the exquisite embroidery seemed to come from another world. In the same room was a very old carved wooden Buddha that seemed almost reproachful; condemned to be passed by in favour of flashier, more approachable artifacts. It would be wonderful if they could find him a quiet space somewhere nearby, where he could become again a focus for quiet meditation. In the Japanese room a young Japanese woman -possibly a bride to be – was minutely scrutinising some kimonos. There’s a paradox that gets to me every time I imagine the cultural loss if the collections were broken up and repatriated.

But there was something more personal for me to celebrate because earlier in the week I’d been fitted with a new pair of (NHS) hearing aids that are so much better than the old ones I almost went into shock when I left the hospital and experienced for the first time the awesome noise of a building site. When I talked to the audiologist I’d casually bragged that I’d put the last pair on and they’d been perfect from the off. She said that I’d probably take a few days to adjust to the new ones, and she wasn’t wrong. For the first time in years I can locate where sounds are coming from, I can hear birds singing and today the sound of Pulteney Weir was so disturbing I had to cross the road and see where it was coming from. For the first couple of days I was absurdly emotional about the simplest sounds, and the Who concert was so loud I had to turn them off altogether!

My workroom is now ablaze with propagator lights and we’re ready for the new season on the allotment, but we’ve resolved to make the most of the campervan so we’re going to minimise the growing of the kind of crops that need constant care and attention. There’s so much else on the field botany front that I’ll share later but for now it’s time to start making supper.

Walking through nature and walking in it.

Falconer with a Harris hawk – taken 2 years ago

An intriguing couple of minutes yesterday. I heard a familiar commotion out on the Green and when I saw a crowd of very agitated seagulls circling in the air and filling it with alarm calls, I knew a once what was happening. It took a moment or two to spot the cause of the din and I saw the falconer with his gauntlet walking up the pavement before I saw the hawk flying from tree to tree, jesses trailing, but always keeping an eye on the fist that held the food. This was exercise with a difference because we see them fairly regularly working the green together and they may be taking part in an experiment to make the gulls feel too unsafe to build nests. The hawk never kills – is never allowed to kill – the gulls. Trust me, nesting gulls start their din at four a.m. in the summer and apart from the noise, they make a thorough nuisance of themselves in the tourist areas, hoovering up discarded fast food and leaving impressive quantities of crap as a receipt. The council have tried pretty well every conceivable tactic for discouraging the gulls, but this seems to be less cruel and much cheaper than climbing up to the nests and oiling or removing the eggs before they hatch.

even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she never once looked up

But to get back to the point; whilst I was watching this moving spectacle I saw a young woman walking down the pavement dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her and carrying another bag in the free hand. She never once looked up to see the cause of the commotion, and even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she kept her head down, loaded her case into the boot (trunk) and drove off.

Hawking purists rather look down on the Harris because it’s not a native UK hawk and it happens to be rather easier to train than some of the natives. We British are never happier than when we’ve got someone to look down on and so the Harris is generally thought to be a bit minor league – if only for the purists. Most UK bird books don’t even include it. As for me the sight of any hawk working is a thrill and the Harris is a big bird. You couldn’t confuse it with anything other than a hawk, but then its white tail stripe is an obvious giveaway.

I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, a marvellous naturalist, evolutionary biologist and past president of the Bath Nats for the title of this post. We were out on a field meeting once and he used it to describe people who are too self absorbed, too quick, and too busy looking at their mobiles or fitness trackers meaningfully to enjoy an encounter with nature. Not to mount my soapbox yet again; I’ll just say that powering flat out down a towpath trying to walk twenty miles in six hours is unlikely either to result in a real encounter or a measurable change of mood.

There are many first encounters I’ll never forget. The first kingfisher on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal; the first heron that rose up from the pool behind behind a cornish hedge like a creature from the Jurassic age. The first red squirrel skitting along the horizontal branch of an old beech tree on my Grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns (back in the 1950’s) and then nothing until we went camping in France about ten years ago and there they were; oh and I should mention the first sighting of Madame at a CND meeting. We both long for a first sighting of the otters that we know patrol the river near to the Potwell Inn, but we haven’t yet dragged ourselves out of bed at dawn or stayed out leaning on the fence after dusk. Maybe we’ll fix a trail cam on one of the trees at the water’s edge where there’s a likely spot.

Coming back after one of our trips is always an odd time. The weather in Cornwall was getting fiercer by the day, and the campervan – being old and temperamental like me – was playing up. The long dark nights during which we had all the lights and heating running so we could carry on working was inexorably draining the batteries towards the point of no return and so we came back two days early and humped the batteries upstairs to recondition and charge them. Aside from nailing a couple of relative rarities (yet to be adjudicated) the new miFi system worked brilliantly, so for the first time ever on that campsite we were able to keep in touch by phone. My hopes of keeping tabs on the plants down the field path were raised greatly when we booked another two weeks down there in May. Back home the plants are nonetheless fascinating but perhaps a little less glamorous. However, beggars can’t be choosers and urban botany is all the more rewarding because the plants themselves are real survivors, eking out a living in the most unpropitious circumstances.

The journey home was pretty eventful too. We saw a car which had cut us up earlier , pulled over by no less than four police cars. Later one of the unmarked cars passed us at well over 100 mph shortly before we passed a mini engulfed in flames. Luckily the occupants were standing further up the motorway looking bewildered. Next up we saw five police cars perform a rather balletic stop by surrounding and slowing another car until it was forced to concede. The fifth car then blocked the motorway whilst a sixth, further up, led a slow traffic jam of cars and lorries to avoid a massive pile up.

So now there’s lots to do on the allotment and lots also to learn on this new computerised recording site. I haven’t yet given up on paper records, though. That would be to tempt providence!

Postscript

The air ambulance landed on the green a few minutes ago and already it’s gathered a crowd of onlookers. Sadly, these days it takes a helicopter and a seriously hurt human being to get our heads up.

First fruits

It’s a bit of a cheat to call these first fruits I suppose, but the parsley has thrived in the polytunnel along with strawberry plants, peas, lettuces and spinach. I’m sure we could have done much better in the tunnel but it’s been our first season and it’s a steep learning curve. The rhubarb is one of the treats of the early season and we eat it greedily, but there’s not a sign of the sweet cicely yet but the faint sweetness and aniseed flavour of sweet cicely really is the cherry on the cake – and since it was planted it’s appeared regularly. We’re really quite a long way from its home in the north so there’s always a possibility that it will give up on us, but it’s always lovely to see it poking its head above the earth.

Here’s another sign from a different setting. Away from the vegetable gardens the more decorative ones are just beginning to gather strength. During our stay on the Roseland peninsula we walked from Gerrans down the field lanes to Place – yes that’s the name of the place – Place. One purpose of the walk was to look for flowering wild plants, of which more later, but as we walked the last hundred yards down the narrow road we came across the splendid sight of the lodge cottage surrounded by camellias in full flower. Trad english countryside on steroids!

Place has a rather lovely house which is now in use as a wedding venue – there’s a photo left – which is built in such a way as to have the high tide reach the retaining wall of the lawn twice a day. Apart from that it’s a mud flat with a stream flowing down the middle, but it’s where we saw our very first Little Egret some years ago. On Tuesday we saw two there with a heron and the usual cohort of more familiar herring gulls having occasional scraps with the local crows. There’s also a ferry here in the summer that will take you to St Mawes where, if you like, you can catch a further ferry to Falmouth. Great for South West Coast Path walkers who don’t want to get too fussy about walking every little creek up and back.

The third setting for enjoying the early signs of spring is to watch the emerging wildflowers, and that was the main purpose of our walk. The final tally of plants in flower was around twenty. I’ve already written about my travails with the iRecord system which is quite difficult to master. I have learned to successfully add single records and I’ve even figured out the little triangular warning signs that accompany some of my (either) fanciful or ( remotely possibly) brilliant sightings. I reckon a little four inside a triangle is a clue that there will be some tooth gnashing going on somewhere.

Cow Parsley

My biggest problem has been to submit a whole list of all twenty five species in one go. They are, after all, on the same footpath. But this time the system defeated me and I appeared to accidentally delete all of my list twice! Ho hum. I thought I bore it very philosophically but I dropped a mild email to the overworked minders of the scheme and although no formal reply arrived back, I noticed this morning that they had been restored. It was very kind of them but unfortunately their helpful gesture resulted in a bit of double entry which could make the whole lot pretty useless for researchers. So I think I’ll probably have to delete the lot again and start from scratch having learned the point at which the software can’t follow my random approach any more. I will learn it! I really will – because there isn’t a better way of putting something back into the community than recording its natural assets. I’ll always be a footsoldier in the enterprise but going out and doing some field botany is all the more absorbing if you happen on something a bit different. It’s no use anyone saying “stick to dandelions and you’ll be OK” because you need a PhD to sort them out beyond the wretched “agg (regate)” status. An acquaintance in the Bath Nats was one of the authors of the standard monograph on the blackberry whose promiscuous sexual habits have resulted in hundreds of subspecies. Sadly it is not mentioned which ones are the best to eat. For that you have to go blackberrying and find a secret spot or plant a delicious variety in your allotment. The most ordinary things are boundlessly fascinating.

As we walked down the lane I noticed a tiny white flower shining through the undergrowth. I knelt down to photograph it from half a dozen angles so I could ID it properly back in the campervan. It was hairy bittercress – a very common weed, you might say – personally I don’t believe in weeds – but blow me down when we went up to the allotment this morning there were hundreds of them. They’d obviously been there all along but until I’d taken the trouble to look minutely at a single one them they’d escaped my attention. Hairy Bittercress – very good for improving your eyesight, but not by eating it; just knowing its name.

If there isn’t a tradition for this we should invent it!

Looking up Perquil river with Polingey Creek off to the right.

Winter always does this; luring us into dreams of long warm days before slamming the door shut with icy fingers. The clue was in the wind all along. As it moved around from southwest, the rainy quarter, a finger of high pressure on the map brought first the sunshine – but before we could rejoice, it carried on cycling through northwest, north and northeast until finally today it blew hard and freezing cold from due east. We dressed up like deep sea divers and waddled down to Portscatho to get some supplies; but once we were back at the van we got itchy feet and put on our boots and down jackets and walked the track down alongside the Percuil river and after mooching about for a bit near the boatyard we retraced our steps. We once paddled up the river on a rising tide in the kayak, but mistimed the tide and forgot a fierce onshore wind; paddling back all but spent. At one point it started to hammer down with rain and we laid in the boat and laughed ourselves silly; much to the consternation of our guide who clearly thought we were a pair of geriatric escapees.

Percuil – especially at this time of the year – is preternaturally quiet. The boats are all laid up for the winter and the summer sailors have gone. As we walked along the river we stopped frequently just to immerse ourselves in the silence. The deep sided valley sheltered us from the wind and even the rigging on the few boats left at anchor in the water was listless. All I could hope for was the song of a curlew, but we were denied that thrill until later in the walk when we were almost home. We did, however see a little egret feeding in the low tide shallows on the far side. We are the only campers on the site at the moment. Two others left this morning which was just as well because the cold weather and the fact that the days are still shorter than the nights has meant we’ve hammered the leisure batteries without which there’s no light or heat. So as the last van pulled out, we ran the engine for an hour to pump some juice back in.

But there was a surprise as we walk the last hundred yards to the boatyard because the blackthorn bushes there have started to blossom. Today there were only a handful of flowers but in a couple of weeks the abundant thorns will look as if they are covered in snow. For me they’re the real sign of winter’s ending and – as I’ve argued before – it’s more likely to coincide with the equinox than the first day of March. The couple of gallons of sloe gin we make; (for overseas readers it might help to know that sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn; tiny, hard and bitter as gall) – so the couple of gallons of sloe gin we make in the autumn have been steeping for almost exactly six months. The sloes go into the freezer for a week or so and are steeped in a mixture of gin and sugar. The skins break and the clear liquid becomes the richest purple. Initially the sloe gin is undrinkable and bitter. But after six months – like today, for instance, you can have a first taste. Fortunately for us – because we’re enjoying a period of abstinence at the moment – sloe gin goes on getting better and better for the next three or four years, So I suggest we invent a totally spurious tradition which, for the sake of making it sound truly authentic, we could call “Wettings”, and all get jolly and hammered at the equinox and share our plans for the summer. The person who brags the most gets thrown into the pond and has to say cuckoo instead of hello until the autumn equinox – for which I haven’t thought of a suitable ritual yet.

So it’s been a quiet but lovely day under grey skies and true to recent form I idly picked a stalk of grass that caught my eye on a stone gatepost and it turned out yet again to be a difficult one that hasn’t been seen hereabouts for maybe thirty years. So I dutifully took the diagnostic photos, filled in the record and paused for an hour before I pressed send – wondering if I really did want to make a fool of myself again.

So here are some more pictures I took today and one a couple of years ago to show the glory of full-on blackthorn flowering. The other two are the male and female flowers from a row of Corsican Pines above Percuil harbour. They certainly know how to strut their stuff!

Blackthorn in full flower – April 2021

Sunken lanes

There were 21 species of wildflowers that we found in a rapid count along our favourite lane here in Cornwall on Thursday. Today we took a long loop around the coast path and then finished by walking back up the same lane and I identified four more – ground ivy, hairy bittercress, germander speedwell and common fumitory. I have to say the fumitories are a bit of a monster to identify, but I think I got there in the end and there are now 25 entries in my list. Of course there are many more to come because plants sensibly arrange themselves to emerge in sequence through the growing season. Sadly we’re unlikely to be here to identify them all unless we come back every month – and with the allotment demanding attention that’s not likely to be possible.

Sunken lanes – and there are lots here in Cornwall – are an absolute joy to walk along and to look for wildflowers. We were blessed with a strong northeasterly wind today and although the sky was clear and the sun shone without interruption, it was bitterly cold along the coast path where there was no shelter. Northeast being an offshore wind, however, we were able to sit at the base of a rather dodgy cliff and enjoy the sea. When we turned up the lane we entered an entirely different microclimate. Sheltered from almost every direction and yet wide enough to be in sunshine for much of the day, it’s hardly surprising that many of the flowers we were finding are very quick out of the gate; stealing two or three weeks of early spring.

When I used the metaphor of an earth-sized PV cell yesterday I could have explained the idea better. Without the sun there would be no life on earth. Every blade of grass and every leaf of every tree is busy converting sunshine into carbohydrates – that’s to say that water plus sunshine plus essential minerals transported to plants by subterranean fungi make food for us and for every other living creature; and so at this time of the year I always sense the prodigious energy gathering within the earth ready to burst into new life. You can almost hear it on a day like today.

Winter wheat

I’m not going to nag about this. The way we abuse this annual gift is creating huge problems that we’ll have to answer for – soon and painfully; but the pain of giving up some of the things we’ve learned to rely on – mostly fossil fuels – could be offset to a degree by the re-enchantment of the earth. Wandering around bent over looking for mostly tiny plants might seem like a rum way of enjoying yourself on holiday, but don’t knock it if you’ve never tried it. The earth and her fruits get more lovely, more complex and more full of joyful discovery the closer we look.

It’s often a pain to identify a plant, but the exercise takes us deeply into their structures and processes; it is – if you like – a meditation on the thusness of nature. Drawing is another way. Gardening reminds us that at best we do best when we walk with the earth and her processes. It puts us in our proper place, and that place turns out to be very good.

While I was writing this Madame was drawing some cones from a Corsican Pine that we picked up on the walk. The two of us in the campervan, so absorbed in our work we didn’t even notice that it was getting dark.

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