Back on the allotment

Meanwhile, and notwithstanding the darker tone of the recent posts; things are going well on the allotment, although this year it’s become ever more evident than ever that the stately procession of the seasons has been one of the early casualties of global heating. We’ve moved into an era of ‘all or nothing’ weather which means that unseasonably hot and dry weather is punctuated by fierce storms that need a rather different sort of rain harvesting.

In the past the steady drip of rain running down the greenhouse panes into tiny gutters and thence through small pipes into the water butts, was rarely enough to overwhelm the system. This year we’ve had to modify the gutters and downpipes to cope with the short bursts of very heavy rain which, otherwise, would overtop them and overflow on to the ground beneath. Even then it takes a lot of rain to replenish 1250 litres (250 gallons) of rainwater. Luckily we have access to a couple of water troughs connected to the mains water supply. We also have several underground streams running through the site and flowing out across the pavement below us. In a perfect world we’d dig a massive tank at the bottom to capture the water and then pump it up the hill to another tank at the top, but in the present economic climate, anything beyond two days is long-term planning. That’s to say it goes on to a long list and stays there, even though the payback through saved water bills would be pretty quick.

So today’s job, yesterday’s job and likely tomorrow’s too is to water. In order to get the maximum benefit from the land area we made wood chip paths and beds, but at this time of the year the paths are populated with large pots and any other temporary containers we can press into service. These need watering every day when the temperature is in the 30’s, and the inside of the tiny greenhouse can be like a furnace – good news for the hot chillies as long as they don’t dry out completely. Anything else needs a lot of TLC.

And so just at the time the allotment is absorbing a great deal of energy, the produce is demanding more by way of cookery and preparation and with added ingenuity since ingredients rarely come off the allotment in recipe form. We have courgettes but no tomatoes or aubergines yet so ‘rat’ is off the menu. At the same time much of the soft fruit is ripening and so the question of what to do with it arises, as it does every year.

One useful discipline is to check the cupboard before we make any more of anything. We have a surplus of redcurrant jelly already so there doesn’t seem much point in making more. On the other hand we eat shed-loads of blackcurrant jam so that’s worth replenishing, but much of the other soft fruit is going to be processed into multi purpose fruit compote for summer puddings and ice cream. This year we made a generic “allotment jam” which was very good, but freezer space is limited so the gooseberries are going to be bottled. The biggest overproduction offenders are chutneys and pickles which need to be made circumspectly if you’re not to land up with a garage full of chutney because you didn’t know what else to do with an impulse buy of plums at the roadside. We find that jams last longer than a year, and chutneys can easily last three if they’re properly stored – but eventually they deteriorate and although they probably won’t kill you they won’t enhance your table either.

So we’re very busy but not too busy to keep an eye open for new plants. Today I spotted a common blue sowthistle on the site. It wasn’t too hard to identify but it uncovered the subtle distinction that most floras make between natives and incomers. Plants and flowers escape from gardens and railway lines, even on the wheels of cars and quarry lorries, and if they find a suitable spot they can settle down and grow. This one is a 19th century escapee that’s doing well but – because it’s not a genuine native – isn’t featured in most of my wildflower floras. Even the Book of Stace refuses to acknowledge it, although he will often give a line or two to my seventh cousin from Devon .

Identifying wildflowers can become a bit of an obsession, but it’s harmless and gets me out. I’ve been pacing the allotment and the canal recently trying to sort out the ragworts and, trust me, it can be a challenge. But!- there is a book and a method that’s immensely useful and it’s just been published in a revised second edition. It’s called “The vegetative key to the British flora” by John Poland and Eric Clement and it does exactly what it says on the tin – it helps you to identify plants that aren’t in flower – and even better, different plants whose flowers all look the same but which can be sorted out by closely examining the shape, disposition and minute details of the lower parts, the leaves and stems.

A massively useful tool, you might say, unless I’m trying to identify an escapee like a blue sow thistle, when the Google app on my android phone at least gets me most of the way home. I suppose if it (the sow thistle, that is), continues to do well – and it probably will – a massively suntanned botanist with a gigantic souwester for storms will give it a grudging mention in the 2050 appendix to a slim volume of all the plants that are left. Anyway, thanks to a good magnifier, a copy of Poland and Clement, and a tolerant partner I now know what a hydathode is, and consequently what is definitely an Oxford Ragwort; but the common ragwort which I have known all my botanical life as Senecio jacobaea has changed its name in the hope of escaping detection and is now known as Jacobaea vulgaris. Taxonomists can be very snotty.

Last night there was a massive party on the green. The police have been out in force on Royal Crescent, and so those in the know have come down to the Green which, being in a much less salubrious area, is less likely to generate complaints from important people. Aside from feeling a bit left-out because we’re still self isolating and ignoring the government, whom we wouldn’t believe if they told us the date; it was lovely to hear the young people having so much fun and this morning – contrary to stereotypes – there wasn’t as much as a sweet paper left on the grass because they tidied up so well. I do so hope their optimism won’t be crushed by a second wave of the Covid 19 virus.

Sleeping with the enemy?

30C all day – and so, counterintuitively perhaps, I spent the day batch cooking and making bread in the kitchen. It was hot!

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian today, asks why it is that the RSPB, the largest wildlife charity specialising in birds in the UK has joined with the Woodland Trust, an equally large and well supported charity, in giving support to an enormous scheme to build a new town twice the size of Birmingham between Oxford and Cambridge. This project was universally opposed by residents and wildlife groups until now when these two significant charities have reversed their position to support the scheme. The full article is here .

I think I know a part of the answer to this because I recall reading in Mark Cocker’s book “Our Place” that the RSPB have got serious form in this area. When the proposal to build an M4 relief route was being contested vigorously by environmentalists because it would have destroyed five out of nine protected areas in the Newport wetlands, an RSPB spokesperson is reported as saying:

As far as she was concerned the motorway would not affect their site and might actually increase visitor numbers

quoted in Mark Cocker “Our Place” page 65

With friends like the RSPB who needs enemies? you might wonder. But in the free market freewheeling culture of charities competing for favours and contracts from government and big businesses trying to greenwash their activities we should hardly be surprised.

I well remember resigning from a homeless charity because as they began to grow and take on more and more managerial and administrative workers they put pressure on us – the volunteers who actually took food out to rough sleepers at night – to stop handing out a couple of cigarettes to them “because it encouraged them to sleep rough”. I think anyone who imagines that they would put up with the squalour and privation of life on the streets for the sake of a couple of free fags a week needs to get out more. But there we are – ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ and the most effective method of neutralizing any campaigning charity is to fund it. Outright persecution is far less effective, but once the campaign is ‘on the payroll’ a quiet word is all that’s needed.

All this would be OK if, as in Candide, ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds‘ , but it isn’t. The world is in crisis and the time for quiet words is gone – if it ever truly existed. Another couple of news stories fed into my laptop today. Yesterday I mentioned the pollution of the River Wye by intensive organic chicken farming. I also read that there’s a serious cluster of Covid 19 cases centred on a chicken processing plant (slaughterhouse) in Anglesea North Wales. There’s another larger cluster in a similar plant in Bavaria, Germany. The resurgence in Beijing is centred on ….. need I go on. This catastrophe all started in a wet market where animals are slaughtered in unhygienic conditions, and it’s thought that the virus passed into humans as a result of the trade in wild animals for human consumption driven by the growth of intensive foreign owned meat companies which leads to peasant and small farmers migrating to the edges of the remaining forests where they forage for wild animals or raise domestic animals on a small scale even though there is a constant danger of viral mutations, because that’s the only way left to make a living. But it isn’t all farming that causes these problems it’s bad farming.

The common factor in all these incidences is poverty, poor wages, frequent appalling hygiene (less so in this country it should be said) and intensive agriculture that drives traditional farmers out of business. All these crises; environmental degradation , economic collapse, health problems, epidemics, migration and social unrest are merely symptoms of a single cause; the idolatry of the unrestrained free market. To go back to where I started this piece, a new concrete city twice the size of Birmingham (UK) isn’t part of the solution it’s just another part of the problem, and when governments and environmental charities alike are feted and funded by lobbyists then they’re playing the same old gradualist, ‘leave it to me’ game. Shame on them.

The idyllic world of my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns is about to be trashed by another enormous government scheme for a high speed rail link, the economics of which have been shown from the outset to be spurious. Surely we need to call time on this madness – after all it’s our money that they’re spending in order to to make the world impossible for us to live in at all; let alone well.

What should be the role of environmental charities in all this? Surely – at the least they should remain independent even at the cost of contracts, power and influence. The cost of their discreet silence is much greater.

Ponds, urban ecology and a few doubts

In my last post I wrote about the undoubted benefits of even small ponds in gardens and on allotments. We’re lucky here because our allotments are no more than 50 yards away from the river Avon and we have a number of large ponds almost as close; but that doesn’t in the least seem to lessen the impact of the tiny ponds that I photographed yesterday, and all within yards of our allotment.

As you can easily see, these aren’t all the tidy and expensive preformed fibreglass ponds bought from garden centres and neither are any of them apparently lined with expensive thick butyl. For the most part they’re a hole in the ground lined with builders polythene all apart from the one that’s not a pond at all but a horse trough. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all full of water, most of them have a few plants around them and they’re all teeming with life.

Starting with the horse trough that’s the source for much of our our watering, there’s never an occasion, it seems, when you can’t find at the least, a few water boatmen. The others vary in maturity but even the one that was built this spring by a couple of children raised a crop of tadpoles which they generously shared around all the other ponds. The murkier ones have larvae in them, and all are visited by a variety of dragonflies and damselflies which, when they’re not eating smaller insects are becoming snacks for birds. What the ponds are doing of course is drawing these interesting and beautiful invertebrates into places we can see and enjoy them, and as their natural habitat is eroded, ponds become a matter of survival for some species.

As you will know if you’ve been following the Potwell Inn blog recently, I’ve been reading David Goode’s contribution the the New Naturalist library – “Nature in towns and cities”. A brilliant collection of books for anyone interested in natural history in any case, and this one’s particularly caught my attention because it’s on a subject close to my heart.

When we moved to Bath almost five years ago I wasn’t prepared for the richness of the wildlife to be found here. Having lived and worked in what most people would think of as the countryside, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the natural history of our adopted home. But far from being less diverse, our immediate neighbourhood slowly yielded its secrets. Not just badgers and foxes but otters! Not just buzzards but a peregrine’s nest; and enough unfamiliar plants to keep me perpetually bewildered. On the very first night here we heard a tawny owl; it was strange to say the least. Now we’re almost blasé about bats and we can name the species of gull on the green outside.

And so I’ve been writing enthusiastically about all this wildlife and, if you live near here you really should join the Bath Natural History Society (Bath Nats) because they’re the quickest and easiest way to learn what’s here. If you live anywhere else and don’t fancy moving to Bath, I urge you to investigate and join your local natural history group – it’ll be full of fabulous, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who just love sharing their interests.

Yesterday after a hot couple of hours on the allotment we wandered along the river to see the peregrines and we got especially lucky because the recently fledged young did a quick flight while we were there. I’ve been to Symonds Yat and not seen a peregrine and yet our son saw one eat its kill on his back doorstep in the middle of Birmingham, and I saw my first less than half a mile from home.

So there’s the good news and here are the doubts. Although it’s a joy to have this diversity outside the door, isn’t it just a bit weird that so many species, being displaced from their normal habitats, are evolving to live here? Isn’t it sad that I’ve learned so much more about plant diversity since we moved to the city? I go on about the rogues and vagabonds but corncockle? vipers bugloss?

The greatest sadness is that when I look for them where the old floras said I’d find them; all too often the habitat is gone. Seabirds can’t find a living in fished out polluted seas and so the canny ones have moved inland to our rubbish tips. Those species that can’t adapt are diminishing rapidly. Invertebrates and plant species that once made the meadows beautiful at this time of the year have been poisoned out of existence. So the take-home point is that however thrilling it is to have the early adapters and early adopters here in the city; they’re in the minority. There’s still every point in cleaning up the rivers and creating inner city wildlife corridors and green spaces. There’s every point in asking gardeners to think about pollinators but it’s not enough.

Grateful for small mercies?

One thought provoking piece in yesterday’s papers made me sit up. There are so many organic and free-range chicken farms setting up on, or near the upper reaches of the river Wye that the accumulating load of excess nitrogen and phosphorous from their droppings is leading to eutrophication of the river – killing it slowly. So even eating organic chicken isn’t going to let us off the hook. It’s intensive farming that’s causing the problems – whatever label you put on it to make it sound like it’s saving the earth.

Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

Think about it for a moment. If even two percent of the vertebrates, invertebrates and plant species could be persuaded to live here in green spaces and derelict industrial sites it would only take one inappropriate development to wipe out a species altogether. Much as I treasure urban ecology, it’s never going to be more than a tiny part of the answer.

We need to change the way we live and the way we produce our food, the way we move about, the way we enjoy our leisure time and the way we shop. We cannot let the free market politicians urge us to live within our means when the real means of our lives are being destroyed for profit. They love to talk about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by which they make the unsupported assertion that land cannot be managed equably without ownership. Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

No amount of information boards, nature reserves and feeding stations will make up for the loss of the earth. This is an ethical problem, a religious problem, a problem of vision. The one thing it is not is an economic problem. The economists with their pseudoscientific theories have acted as the heavy artillery of the free market. We see the damage they have done every day and I, for one, am not grateful for very small mercies.

We are not alone …

These are just a few fairly random photos I’ve taken on the allotment this season – some of them I’ve posted previously, including the emperor dragonfly, the ladybird larva and the comma butterfly on the bottom row. The two at the top were taken yesterday – a violet ground beetle – Carabus violaceus, and a hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus, apparently sometimes known as ‘the footballer’, although that sounds rather strained to me. They should remind us that there’s a good deal more important work going on behind the scenes on an allotment than we (who like to take all the credit) can claim to be responsible for.

We know, of course, that the allotment is a bit of a war zone, with pigeons stripping our brassicas to the ribs if the caterpillars haven’t got there first. Phytophthora infestans – or potato blight -is a tiny micro-organism but it can reduce a healthy crop of potatoes or tomatoes to a slimy mess almost overnight; and our local badgers wait patiently until the sweetcorn reaches perfection and then take it the night before we were due to harvest it. Squirrels, rats, mice, slugs and snails all disrupt our best laid plans and occasionally scythe our seedlings down before they’ve got their roots down.

In our compartmentalised way we tend to divide the rest of the natural world into friends and enemies and, even more dangerously we can begin to divide it up on aesthetic or emotional criterias – what looks nice or frightening, or what makes me feel good and what repulses me, for instance bunnies and slugs. Worse still you might divide the natural world by applying economic criteria – what’s a valuable resource and whats’s economic deadweight? – profit and loss.

But if you believe – as increasing numbers of us do – that the health of the whole earth depends on an intricate network of relationships, then the only criterion that makes any sense is the long term welfare of the earth upon which we’re utterly dependent, because contrary to polarised thinking, most curses bring their blessings and vice versa. It’s hard to think of a good side to potato blight, but the pathogen that causes it is a part of a whole bunch of microorganisms, many of which are indispensable to us. Squirrels distribute the seeds of the trees they raid, rats dispose of the hazardous food waste that we leave lying around; flies, or rather maggots dispose of the millions of dead little furry things, worms, slugs and earwigs chew up squillions of dead leaves for us and turn them into in-situ compost and all of them together tend to do the sorting out of the weakest individuals ensuring that Mr Darwin’s theories have never been effectively challenged. In the natural world of the allotment, for instance, predation is almost always fairly inefficient.

The hoverfly in my photo isn’t a bee it’s a fly, but it’s a marvellous pollinator. Just under half of the other hoverflies are also blackfly predators in their larval stage – like ladybirds. But because their adaptive defence is to look like bees or wasps we often regard them as enemies. In fact far more crops are pollinated by flies than are pollinated by honeybees. The violet ground beetle, believe it or not, is an effective predator of small slugs and other beasties. The fact is, we have to be content to share nature with a host of life-forms that we may not care for very much but which may be keystone species in the self regulating natural world.

Ponds really help

But there’s something else about the two species I noticed yesterday and that’s the fact that they both associate with water. We’ve got a river and a couple of large ponds near us on the allotments but in the way that things go in and out of fashion, there’s also been an explosion in the number of small, even tiny ponds on people’s plots. All sorts of vessels up to bath tubs have been pressed into service and you might wonder whether they’ll ever make a contribution to the local ecology. This year has shown that without doubt they do. There are three very small ponds on plots adjoining ours and we’ve seen the emperor dragonfly, several sorts of darters and chasers, not to mention the hoverflies who need water – preferably very stinky water – to lay eggs and pass through their larval stage as rat tailed maggots. All these in turn attract larger predators, and the knock on effect is noticeable. Little things really do make a difference.

I read in a magazine somewhere recently that scientists are developing robots to pollinate crops. Are they completely mad??? Many of the most intractable illnesses in hospital are known as ‘iatrogenic’ diseases, that’s to say they are a side-effect of the indiscriminate use of treatments for other things altogether. The same case exactly can be made against industrial agriculture. The pointless and inappropriate use of chemicals and heavy machinery has created a whole series of new problems that could be solved much more quickly by stopping doing the things that cause the problem rather than wasting millions of pounds developing robots to pollinate crops when you’ve killed all the natural and free pollinators.

Our response need not be to allow pests to run riot over or destroy our crops as the industry often claims, but to become inefficient predators ourselves. Thumb and finger predators, in fact. Just wash your hands afterwards.

Please welcome Eric – he needs your help.

Admittedly this is a pretty terrible photograph, but since I lost my telephoto lens when it fell out of my camera bag and into a bog somewhere up on the Mendip Hills, I haven’t had much luck with long shots. The macro lens on my camera helps a bit, being dual purpose, but in my efforts to get a picture of my dear friend Eric the herring gull I managed to knock over a jam jar full of parsley that was perched on the window and by the time I’d cleared up the mess there wasn’t time to find the camera, change the lens and blah blah blah – so there was just the phone.

Gulls are not, by their nature, the kind of creatures you can normally feel an attachment to. If you’ve ever looked into the cold eye of a greater black backed gull, you’ll know what I mean. I think it was Adam Nicholson who most accurately described these birds as being from a different world. Theirs was the ocean and ours was the land; or at least that was the way of it until plastic rubbish bags and fast food came along at which point they moved in. Noisy, garrulous, thieving creatures as they are, their principal virtue in cities was that at least they cleared up some of our mess before the rats moved in – although in our neighbourhood the sight of the ripped open bags with their contents strewn across the streets on a Thursday morning became the kind of issue that gets councillors elected.

In years past, the council removed nests and eggs, and recently they’ve taken to using a falconer who annoys the nesting birds with a beautiful Harris hawk. Most recently the absence of tourists has led to the quietest breeding season in many years. Where there were once dozens of gulls strutting their stuff on the roofs and parapets, now there are no more than a handful and – of course Eric.

I won’t bother with the whole sorry story of my interest in gulls except to say that it started in St Ives one January morning when I realized to my shame that there were any number of seabirds out there and I hadn’t the faintest clue what any of them were. There’s a link to it here, if you’re interested. Maybe it would have been quicker, easier and far far cheaper to have categorised them all as “seagulls” and moved on to something more obviously important, but I didn’t and – as a result of my resolution that day, I am able to say with confidence that Eric is a herring gull. If he were a lesser or great black backed, a black headed or anything else in that line I’d also be reasonably certain of not making a fool of myself. I should qualify that by saying that I have give him a gender but my knowledge of gull sexing is sparse to non existent so he/she could be an Eric or an Erica. But in my long history of accidental pastoral work it was usually angry men who, spotting my dog collar, would approach me on bus stops and railway stations and harangue me as if it was my fault that their partners had seen the light and dumped them. So on that entirely circumstantial evidence, I think Eric is a male

So – gull schmull – you might think; Eric is a solitary. Something terrible has happened and he wanders disconsolately around the green every day being mobbed occasionally by jays and sidling up to young rooks who really aren’t interested.

Back in the day, Hercules would have dealt with him. Hercules was an enormous tabby cat who kind-of belonged to the whole street. He had an owner, but when she moved to Greece she left the flat, and Hercules, in the care of her son who appeared not to care whether the cat lived or died. Maybe he just got fed up with clearing up the remains of Hercules’ last hunting adventure. Hercules was streetwise, independent and fierce and could probably take down a bull terrier, god willing and a fair wind. And so he took to patrolling our street and living on handouts from just about everyone. Every doorstep had empty tins of tuna (this is an upcoming area) and someone even made him a comfortable bed on the step. Then his owner returned from Greece, by which time the cat weighed about three stone, and she posted angry signs all down the street forbidding us to feed him and so we stopped. Shortly afterwards our beloved piratical moggie disappeared forever – he probably died taking on an otter for a laugh.

At least Eric the herring gull is safe – but not in a nice way. These most sociable of creatures have excluded him for some unimaginable breach of gullish etiquette. Sans partner, sans flock, sans everything – he wanders about on the green alone and my pastoral heart goes out to him. People feed robins and blue tits, but random gulls never get a look in. I wondered for a brief conspiratorial moment if the council has set up a top secret experiment to try to stop them breeding and Eric is the first graduate – I really hope not.

In these months of lockdown I can occasionally lean out of the window when the other gulls are circling and playing; shut my eyes and imagine we’re back in St Ives on holiday. Then I open them again and it’s the same old grey world. The Brazilian woman working out with her collection of rubber bungees, the dealers hanging about on the corner, the couple who meet up secretly everyday in an earnest huddle, the smokers, the drinkers and the sturdy beggars in from town because the tourists have gone, the couple practising their strange martial arts routine, the deranged, the homeless and the affluent; the cyclists whizzing past on their way to somewhere they can be important. They’re all part of the natural history of being human. And there’s Eric. What can we do to make him happy!

Home sweet home

Just a brief post tonight because time has almost run out, but I thought I’d just share what may or may not turn out to be a bright idea that I had in the middle of the night. Madame had taken down the 8′ high angelica yesterday because it was beginning to strew its seed everywhere, and much as we love it we prefer to choose where to plant it because it can be a bit of a monster. So the seed heads went into a bucket where we could finish ripening and drying some of them for sowing again, while the leftover stalks all went into the compost heap.

As I wrote yesterday I’ve been reading David Goode’s book on urban ecology and I suddenly remembered he’d written that some invertebrates like to nest, or overwinter in the hollow stems of dead plants. So after a several hours of routine campervan maintenance we slipped over to the allotment and I retrieved the angelica stalks from the heap; cut them into 12″ sections with hole diameters varying from and eighth of an inch to to a couple of inches – more than enough variety for pretty well any kind of homeless creature to find something that suits later on, and then bound them together very untidily with string and attached them to the main stalk which was thick enough to bury a foot into the earth. Every little helps, I hope, because we’ve been waging war on blackfly and asparagus beetle grubs while we wait for the other predators to come to our aid. We pick them off – dozens of them, and squeeze them – which is messy but therapeutic in a strange way.

Rough riches

I’ve been passing a very rainy day reading David Goode’s book “Nature in towns and cities” and comparing it with George Peterken’s monograph “Meadows” – both superb books but dealing with the alpha and omega of the botanical world. There’s nothing I like more than a bit of ‘proper’ nature, you know the whole Marlborough Downs and fifty exceptionally rare downland species to hunt for – kind of experience, and I’m not knocking it but it feels a bit too special. Anything less than a pair of Swarovskis round your neck and you feel a bit underdressed, and the worshippers (is that what you call them?) can be a bit clanny if you’re too obviously out of your depth.

Or is it just familiarity with the other kind of landscape that makes me feel more at home? It’s not that we kept coal in the bath or that my mother thought books were untidy and my brother killed the budgie out of spite, but I’ve said before I’m hefted and my familiar landscape is post war and post industrial. Apart from the beechwoods that surrounded my grandparents smallholding in the Chilterns, I never had much contact with posh wild. My familiar landscape was old mines and brickworks, claypits, dramways and railway lines; and so the flowers I knew and loved were things like buddleia, willowherb and ragwort. We collected sticklebacks and newts in the local ponds and cinnabar moth caterpillars from the bombed houses up the street. Even my most treasured wild places on Mendip are places like Charterhouse and Velvet Bottom where adders warm themselves on the remains of Roman lead mines. ‘Gruffy ground’ they call it.

I played in the flues of the old brickworks, trespassed with my friend Eddie as we followed the abandoned dramway across fields and barbed wire fences and played games of dare near the mineshaft at Shortwood. Wall barley seed heads, cleavers and burdocks were useful resources for games rather than objects of contemplation. We brewed ‘wine’ over campfires with elderberries in tin cans, and nicked apples from an abandoned orchard up the road. We ate ‘bread and cheese’ which was the local name for the young hawthorn leaves.

So David Goode’s book seems more familiar. It’s a kind of psychogeography of my childhood whereas George Peterken’s is full of beauty and longing, almost melancholic for a lost world that – apart from haymaking as a child – I never experienced. My heart sings when we explore old wildflower meadows, but they don’t feel like “home” to me.

And what riches there are. Since we moved to Bath from what I used to call ‘suburbia with fields’ I’ve been blown away by plants I’ve never seen before that grow freely here. One of the biggest takeaway points of the book is the huge ecological richness of these post industrial and often inner city reserves and abandoned places. For instance the 24 species of plants in our small tarmac car park outside.

But this raises all sorts of issues to do with the environmental challenges we’re facing. We want, for instance, to stop building on agricultural land and use so-called brownfield sites which can involve the destruction of hugely important wildlife environments. We want to minimise car journeys and get people living nearer to their jobs, but how do we balance that with the preservation of green spaces? Simply to preserve the tidy parks and gardens and to build on the rest would involve a huge loss of habitat. Here in Bath we know only too well that mixing cars, pedestrians and cyclists is a constant source of aggression and a good deal of danger.

Sadly the default appreciation of the natural world that springs from so many excellent TV programmes stresses the exotic at the expense of the everyday. I’ve not yet seen a programme entitled “The wonder of weeds” and there’s the problem. If we unconsciously divide the natural world into cuddly animals and then wasps, spiders and scary things it’s all too obvious which species we would sooner lose forever. Same goes for ‘flowers’ and ‘weeds’. Even the hedge bindweeds – ‘devils guts’ to the gardener are plants of great beauty (and cunning) when you look closely.

When property developers want to build they always stress community amenities, schools, health centres and shops but rarely actually build them, pleading that they would make the site unprofitable. So too they stress the need for affordable housing that all too often is abandoned once planning permission is granted. In fact the reason for the chronic shortage of housing is an artificially inflated market that relies on shortage to drive up profits. In a city like Bath the reason for homelessness is nothing to do with a battle with sentimental environmentalists holding back progress and everything to do with greedy developers focusing on the most profitable (ie most expensive) sectors.

We need to broaden the focus on green field environmental improvements and learn to treasure some of the real – if rather unattractive – environmental hotspots on old industrial sites. Bats and birds rather care for a bit of a mess, derelict buildings and fences to keep cats and dogs out. Even orchids thrive on some of these sites and it would be hideously misjudged to sacrifice them in favour of spec built and crazily expensive riverside apartments, for example. The ones we got here look like Russian bonded warehouses!

This can only happen if we teach our children to recognise and treasure the simplest and roughest and most common things and not just the cuddly and rare. They hardly allowed out to play as we did and so these young naturalists will have to be taught with passion and enthusiasm and weaned away from their TV’s and laptops into the fresh air where genuine 3D insects that look just like the ones on the telly can be found under stones. Wild is not a product, and wilderness is not always on the far side of a pay desk.

Adelina – tell me your secret, please?

Midsummer is almost with us, and the food is coming off the allotment at speed now, and so the centre of action is moving back to the kitchen, egged on by Madame’s Mediterranean moment . I sometimes wonder what’s the point of growing all this lovely food without eating it? I’ve never understood why some allotmenteers seem to enjoy the growing more than the eating, and when I see a broad bean muscling its way out of the pod like a bodybuilder’s biceps I think what a waste! – and don’t try to kid me they’re next year’s seed, for goodness sake you have to eat some of them surely?

So yesterday after the perfume was ordered for Madame and tranquility was restored, we settled on a mushroom risotto with some asparagus off the allotment and a couple of pan fried duck breasts. My mind immediately turned to leftovers and the mention of the Montalbano series prompted me to think about making some arancini – which was a good idea because I don’t sleep very well on these long warm nights so I was up at six and baking.

I have made arancini before but it wasn’t always a great success because once, when I made them small and dropped them into a deep fat fryer, they all exploded! So today I made them much larger – tangerine size. They’re awfully easy to do – you make a half, make a dent in it and drop in a teaspoon of mozzarella and them put the ‘top’ on and form them in your hands like a small scotch egg. Then you roll them in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and today I fried them in an inch of oil, turning them constantly – thereby avoiding explosions. We had them cold for lunch, with dollops of the fierce aioli I made yesterday. I’m quite sure the fictional detective would protest loudly because Adelina’s are a bit more of a performance; filled with a meat ragu in which the beef must absolutely not be minced or food processed but reverently chopped with a sharp mezzaluna; and somehow she manages to work some bechamel in too. Plus they’re the proper Sicilian conical shape. But – hey – life’s too short and one day when I’ve got all the ingredients to hand I might give them a try. They’re meant to be simple street food, not a Michelin workout.

When there are the freshest ingredients coming into the kitchen, cooking becomes an intense, contemplative pleasure; evoking memories of places we’ve visited and meals we’ve eaten. There does seem to be a strong link between cooking and the sense of belonging. Montalbano has the greatest difficulty in deciding between a weekend with Livia and the chance to scoff Adelina’s arancini. The arancini win, needless to say.

“A good restaurant is an extension of home cooking, without that restaurant taste that makes people feel full to the eyebrows. There is also that wonderful French kitchen maxim, rien se perd : it’s a wise restaurateur who never cooks a dish without having a plan for it if it’s not eaten. Never buy anything in bulk. Otherwise, you’ll have to find a use for it, whether it’s good or not.”

George Perry Smith

There’s something else about leftovers that came to mind today as I was cooking, and that’s the way that George Perry Smith who almost single handedly rescued restaurant cooking from its cordon bleu chains after the war, and trained some of today’s best – if not best known – chefs, (working as he did in the shadow of food rationing), would never waste any food. He was famous for the way he used leftovers creatively. Apparently the menu at the Hole in the Wall in Bath which he owned and in which he cooked had this sentence printed on it: –“Oddly enough, we are interested at least as much in doing our job well, that is to give you pleasure, as in making money out of it.”

When Madame talked me into making aioli on Monday, my first thoughts turned to bouillabaisse and other French fish stews. But actually, the gold standard fish soup for me was the one that Stephen Markwick produced almost every day in Bristol. We only ate it once in his Corn Street restaurant (when someone else was paying) but we frequently had it at the little bistro called Culinaria that he ran in Redland, later on. Stephen Markwick, and Joyce Molyneux both trained with George Perry Smith. Out middle son trained with Markwick as a commis chef and joined the succession of influence. He remembers when once he dropped an egg on the floor of the kitchen and Stephen threatened to dock the cost from his wages. But Markwick’s fish soup was made from the simplest ingredients, all of which you could buy in any local fishmonger. There were no rare and bony Mediterranean fish, no rascasse or unobtainable rarities, but I’d kill for a bowl of it any day and even now whenever I see fish soup on a menu I have to try it because I know it will immediately show the measure of the kitchen and the chefs who work in it.

Just as a Tai Chi teacher will advertise the lineage of their own teachers, so too chefs all come from somewhere if they’re any good. You’ve only got to look at a recipe by – say – Simon Hopkinson and you can feel his friendship with Elizabeth David. It was her books, almost certainly, that George Perry Smith learned from, he never trained formally himself. His pupils and the younger chefs that they influenced have been rather eclipsed by younger and showier media personalities who’ve often become wealthy and left the cooking to others.

So I’m profoundly grateful to the writers and cooks who gave me so much more than recipes; they gave me whole cultures, and when I’m in the kitchen they’re all in there with me – the cooks and the cultures; a whole world in a pan.

It was Madame made me do it

The view from what the landlady called “The romantic room” on the dockside in Sète. “It’s where all the businessmen bring their girlfriends” she said. Hm!

And now we’re stuck in the south of France and she’s reading me chunks from Simenon’s “My friend Maigret” as we eat breakfast back at the Potwell Inn. This all started yesterday evening when we examined the fridge – a regular lockdown highlight – and she asked ‘what shall we eat today darling?’ – and found a couple of salmon fillets. There were fresh new potatoes from the allotment and sugar snap peas as well, so it sounded like a sensible idea. “Oooooh …” she said – “know what I’d really like? …..” – my heart is murmuring like the loudspeaker in a lift: – ‘ground floor, funerary monuments’ it calls quietly as it plunges into the gloom. “I have no idea,” I said, “what would you really like?” there was a pause, and she said – “Aioli”.

I see it. A fish stew, a bourride, that I once ate in Corsica when the proprietor took an interest in me and gave me minute instructions as to how to eat it properly. I didn’t mind because she was being helpful in the way that anyone might help a hapless foreigner struggling to eat a soup with bones, in a loud sort of voice. Anyway, Corsicans are a bit like Bristolians, they often sound a bit rude when they’re just being friendly with a local accent.

So once the thought had dropped into my mind I wasn’t so much making aioli as recreating a whole remembered experience without most of the ingredients. I certainly couldn’t make a bourride or a bouillabaisse; but I could make the aioli – inflected by lockdown shortages; for instance I wouldn’t normally use olive oil but I had a bottle of cheap oil that we’d bought in desperation during the shortages, and aioli is so strong you could probably make it with Castrol engine oil and no-one would notice. I was revving up in a cheffy sort of way, and so I decided to add a bit of sweet pimenton to add a smoky note, and then a good pinch of saffron that would have to stand in for the rest of the stew – a big ask, I know, but it played out well. We have fresh green garlic from the allotment so I had an enjoyable minute or two with the garlic (lots), some salt, the pimenton and saffron; grinding them to a paste in my biggest mortar. In with the egg yolks and then, because I have no shame, out with the electric whisk. Drip, drip, gloop, trickle, pour and five minutes later we had the golden mayonnaise.

Of course it totally upstaged everything else on the plate but that didn’t seem to matter. It was fierce and powerfully reminiscent of eating in France and Spain along the Basque coast. Engorged with happy memories we would have turned immediately to an episode of Montalbano if we hadn’t seen them all three times before. We only watch them for the scenery and the food – the plots are terrible except for the way in which they’re so humane and non judgemental – rather like Simenon you might think – which is how we got to Madame’s breakfast recital of the Maigret story, which was when things got a bit out of hand.

“This book had six pages – honestly – that mentioned nothing at all except sounds and smells” – she said, and I believed her. That led into a minefield of mild eroticism as she told me about JoJo the maid, and the way that Simenon allows Maigret to notice that she smells a bit sweaty and has underarm hair which, just as I was just getting into the toast and marmalade, allowed the emergence from hiding of the memory of walking into a French supermarket once with Madame and having a bit of a supercharged moment passing a similarly interesting woman; the memory, which I shared, led us into a conversation about human odour and thence to perfume and thence to Annecy where great danger was lurking that, due to the momentum of the conversation, I was unable to prevent.

“Do you remember that perfume shop in Annecy?” “Oh shit” I thought as I plunged into the millrace. It was a beautiful day with friends and we were treated to a spectacular lunch at the Cottage and then wandered into town where we found this little perfumery and Madame spent an hour with the lollipop sticks and fell in love with the kind of perfume that makes people stop her in the street. Among the many passions we share we both love really good perfumes. And there I was suspended between a memory and the laptop and an online order.

We went for a walk, back to the Bathwick Meadows today where we found more marbled whites and Madame became monosyllabic and answered ‘oui’ or ‘non’ to my questions so I called her Marie, and rather hoped she would call me Henri and we could have a fun role play, but no; just a cloud of very French thoughtfulness.

I knew what I had to do.

That was the most expensive aioli I’ve ever made!

If I told you I’d have to kill you!

This is really an extension of the posting on May 25th – “The flavour is in the ingredients” – because if ever there was a vindication of slow food and local food networks it’s this. The problem is that I don’t want to give away too many of the details because slow and local also means there’s not very much available; certainly not enough to cope with a sudden rush.

Flours, and I mean bread flours, are very personal and I’d never want to get into the “best X in the world” kind of discussion because slow and local absolutely demands variability. All you can do is keep searching for the ingredient that makes your perfect loaf; and this one I’m pretty sure, is mine. I found a similar one years ago with Bacheldre Mill, when in their early days they produced what I called an 81% flour; a buff white with some but not all of the bran taken out and based on the old wartime “National Loaf” flour; but I believe they were selling up and anyway they stopped milling it.

Meanwhile I’ve tried all sorts; organic if I could get it, but most of it came from imported wheat. They said that only the Great Plains could grow the kind of high protein wheat that bakers need. Well they would say that wouldn’t they. For my part I’ve learned that too much protein is a bit of a no no with sourdough if you want that lovely open textured crumb; and often I’ve resorted to adding cake flour or spelt flour to get the best results. Over the past months of the crisis I’ve gratefully worked my way through a sack of commercial “Tornado” white flour and it’s been perfectly good. The sourdough made with it always tasted better than the yeast bread even when I slowed it right down. So don’t knock the big millers too much even if their only virtue is consistency.

But I’ve kept my ear to the ground – so to speak – and finally I’ve found a flour that ticks all the boxes: organic, stoneground, locally grown wheat, small producer; and the result proves beyond doubt that slow and local can also be unequivocally better as well.

I don’t advertise here and in any case I don’t want to compromise my supply but the big point is that wherever you live there are almost certainly local millers and local farmers who could work together to produce flour that’s fresher, good to bake with, good to eat and doesn’t need driving and shipping around the world. One of the blogs I subscribe to is a cooperative food group up in North Wales where they’ve taken exactly this approach and it seems to be working.

The loaf in the photo is my perfectly standard “everyday” loaf. The starter is about 10 years old and is fed (when I can get it) with dark rye flour. It’s a 24 hour bread from start to finish and it’s very un-temperamental, keeps well and toasts beautifully. There’s nothing difficult or secret about making good bread it’s 99% common sense once you’ve got the hang of it and, as I’ve said before, sourdough especially and bread generally thrives on a bit of neglect. I would be prepared to sell the pyrex bowl in which I’ve been proving dough for 53 years if someone made a suitable six figure offer. I know the internet is groaning with pictures of loaves made by the sort of people who call themselves master-bakers after standing next to a bread machine for ten minutes, and it’s true there are a lot of master-bakers around on the internet, (fear not, I shall eschew the double entendres immediately).

So give it a go; check out a farm shop or food co-op near you and you could be baking the kind of bread for a pound that you used to pay a fiver for.