I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun.
When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths.
What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs.
But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more.
Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.
Aparently tonight’s full moon is called – who knows where?- a worm moon. It’s also a super moon, which is to say it’s very close to the earth and so appears very large. Possibly it’s a worm moon because this is the time of year when the worms come up from their hidey holes deep in the earth and make their presence felt on the surface. But today there wasn’t much time for gardening or anything else because both Madame and me were at the local hospital – Madame overnight and me for some tests – neither of us needing overmuch concern.
So things to be grateful for today:
It’s the spring equinox.
We love the NHS and feel very cared for.
We love our bus passes and the wonderful bus service here.
People are so much bigger, better, kinder than we’re led to imagine by the media.
The trees are in bud.
As I walked home tonight from the bus stop the moon was peeping through the clouds and it was very beautiful.
The word ‘orthodox’ is rooted in the idea of ‘right glory’ and not ‘right belief’.
Tomorrow the Potwell Inn will be functioning on a full staff – even if we’re a bit creaky.
Q: What do you do with a bucketful of the last gasp, last season crop of carrots?
A: Cook em.
Q: What do you do with a bucketful of last gasp etc. misshapen carrots?
A: Scrub em and cook em.
Q: What do you do with the aforementioned when you’re feeling fed-up?
A: Make stock!
So that’s half the carrots gone, and there’s 1/2 gallon of lentil soup, 1litre of super concentrated chicken stock and three meals worth of casserole in the freezer. Doubtless Madame will compete with her carrot soup, and one way and another we’ll eat them all up. There is something very special about your own veg – honestly they taste so much better and you know exactly what went into their production, so there’s no worrying about pesticides and insecticides. I’m not taking a cheap shot at farmers, goodness knows they’ve plenty to worry about and if there’s a vegetable we need but can’t grow I’d buy it (preferably organically grown) without hesitation, this is an allotment not a religious institution.
One great failure in the kitchen, however, was the last batch of sauerkraut. It was doing fine in its tall fermenting jar, but that was too tall to get into the fridge while we went away so I split the batch into two jars but left the pressure valves open, and then kept them in the fridge. I knew (don’t you always?) that the brine level was too low and so inevitably the fermenting sauerkraut was exposed and dried out. Then it went genuinely mouldy and when I opened the jars the dreadful smell of dead sheep filled the kitchen. It was all laid to rest in a double sealed bag and – as people always say when they’ve screwed up – “lessons will be learned”. No, really they will. So sauerkraut and the Mark 5 watering device joined each other in the bin.
Good news, however, from the hot bed. We sowed the same salad veg in the unheated greenhouse a week in advance of sowing them in the hotbed. Nonetheless, the hotbed plants are now twice the size of the greenhouse sown. It’s not that the hotbed is dramatically hot – it chugs along at 12-15C but of course the temperature remains the same, day and night. The early crops of broad beans and peas are looking well, and the cordon apples in their second season are also coming to life along with the asparagus. It’s all very exciting but with so many perennials in their first fruiting season we’ll need to hold back and give them every chance to get their roots down.
The bad news is that the slugs have woken up too and so we’ll need to take up the cudgels again. Most gardeners will be aware that metaldehyde slug pellets are being withdrawn from the market and so if it’s pellets you want, they’ll have to be ferrous phosphate about which there are still some worries. We’ve found that beer traps are brilliant as long as you tend them regularly, emptying and refilling them with fresh beer. They’re not cheap but used properly they’re killing machines.
But stock? It’s so healing to make, and the closest thing you can get to pixie dust in the kitchen. I could make the recipe available freely in the certainty that I’ve been making it for so many years no-one else could quite replicate it. All our three sons have cooked ragu to my recipe and yet it never quite tastes the same. There’s no mystery there, I’m sure, but just the thousand and one tiny decisions and adjustments that happen unconsciously when you’re cooking a dish that’s evolved over decades. Sadly though the oven door is broken and I’m waiting for a phone call from an engineer with the bad news about the cost of repairing it.
It’s not particularly difficult to compost a bicycle, but there are certain special compost heap designs that favour the process. Obviously this can be a very slow form of composting and so it’s important not to rush the process since partially composted bicycles can make the formation of a fine tilth for seed sowing very difficult. The easy ingress of air and rainwater is known to favour rusting, and of course the addition of iron to the soil is of some benefit to maintaining colour in hydrangeas. The impact of aluminium and rubber is less well, known but leather saddles are favoured by some species of worm.
Fortunately most dedicated allotmeteers have innumerable old wooden pallets lying around awaiting a purpose and so I have photographed a number of suitable designs below. Please note in the above illustration that the bicycle tyres have been deflated for safety reasons.
Bicycles also make excellent supports for summer displays of bindweed.
As you may be able to see, storm Gareth has wrought his worst with some of these sheds on the site. The new one that just blew over was so heavy I couldn’t even lift it a single inch. The rest – to be fair – had seen a bit of life previously but the storm delivered what’s probably the coup de grâce for most of them. What’s surprising is that most of the damage was done the day after the worst of the storm was supposed to have passed by. Even today there were some thumping gusts but the sun shone brightly. The place was half deserted because of the the Bath half marathon which puts us in lockdown between 10.00am and 3.00pm. Anyone planning to drive there would have to have to have come very early or waited until later. We walked up at 9.00am but the stewards were all in position already. We watched thousands of runners pass us just the other side of the trees while a rock band on the skateboard park played its entire repertoire over and over. We must have heard “Losing my religion” about 100 times. Somewhere a long way away a thundrous drum ensemble celebrated the fastest and encouraged the slowest runners – and quite a few walkers too as they entered the second lap.
Having been kept off the ground for much of the last fortnight, we spent the morning and most of the afternoon planting out sowing and netting the succession crops and the overwintering peas. At last it’s OK to sow carrots and leeks straight into the ground, and while Madame was doing that I cleared the carrot patch ready for a salad catch crop. I dug up a bucket full of a mixture of Nantes and Chantenay carrots. It seemed a good idea to clear them out before the carrot fly arrives again. There wasn’t a trace of fly in last season’s crop which we grew under Enviromesh from sowing to harvesting. The succession broad beans have rooted wonderfully well in the root trainers and they went in during the afternoon. By lunchtime we’d installed the pea netting and supplemented the mouse and slug eaten gaps in the overwintering plants with healthy ones grown in the greenhouse. Then there were innumerable little jobs that we needed to catch up with. It was a lovely day but we’ve both come home with backache!
Yesterday, before the news of the Christchurch killings came in, I was hunting for something in my room and I found a watercolour brush that had fallen on the floor. I don’t know, because I’ve never painted in oils or acrylic, whether painters in those media treasure particular brushes, but I know watercolourists do. Brushes for particular purposes, there’s one brush I only use for correcting and removing paint, it’s a cheap as chips student range brush but it’s perfect for the job. The brush on the floor was a top of the range sable brush. When I picked it up it seemed to speak to me – use me. I put it back in its tube and thought no more of it until this morning. Then the hate words started spilling into the room through the internet and I felt suddenly that words – the medium I’ve lived and worked with all my life – had become tainted by association. There’s no more devilish weapon than the tongue, and its works. Words have consequences, but drawing and painting are silent, contemplative and so much more eloquent about the experiences that lie beyond language.
So, with due consideration for the weather forecast, we took the bus into Bristol today to see a couple of exhibitions. On the bus stop there was a person dressed in fatigues, with a bedouin style scarf completely covering their head and the whole assemblage topped by a pair of blue-tinted motorcycle googles. There was not a square centimeter of human being exposed anywhere. They were genderless and without any clue as to who they were. They got on to the bus carrying a snooker cue and got off the bus at Temple Meads. Puzzling.
We went to see an exhibition of new sculpture and one of Henri Gaudier Brzeska’s drawings and sculpture at the RWA. Sculpture, after years of playing second fiddle to almost any other visual art form seems to be in rude health at the moment, and Gaudier Brzeska’s drawings have not dated in the same way as his sculptures. Does that sound like faint praise? It’s not meant to. We agreed that his drawings are really wonderful. One of the faintly condescending comments on the wall suggested that he was “self taught” – as if that accounted for some deficiency in his work. Come on – all great artists are self-taught, only the mediocre ones rely on tricks they learned at art schools.
The Leonardo drawings at the City Museum were so small, and the gallery so crowded that you’d have done better with a decent book. As we left we were directed into the inevitable ‘experience room’ where there were drawing materials and books available for anyone to have a go. I was absolutely ready to dismiss this as yet another attempt to make art relevant and educational at the same time until I spotted a man who didn’t fit at all into the usual suspects category (like us) who was copying a drawing with rapt attention. If I eat my hat can I spit the label out? I should have remembered the extraordinary gifts of some of the men I taught in prison. As I write this I can see him, completely unselfconscious and absorbed in his task, putting me and my selfconciousness to shame.
Back down then to the bus station via Christmas Steps where we stopped for me to photograph a building that my grandfather came out of retirement to work on when he was 72. He was what’s known as a ‘generic builder’ – a carpenter by trade, for whom timber framed buildings were familiar from decades of experience. At the base there used to be a very good chippie but it’s gone now. Bristol was our ‘home city’ for many decades but now it’s easier to catch a bus than to negotiate its ever more sclerotic traffic system. When we got home I found a box of Jiffy 7 modules on top of the piano so while I cooked, Madame sowed seeds. Tomorrow we’ll be marooned in the flat for most of the day by the Bath Half Marathon, but if we defy the stewards and run across the road we might be able to get to the allotment for a few hours.
This photo of our first real garden was taken in 1970. We were students at Bath Academy of Art and we rented this cottage on a farm in Corsham, Wiltshire for two and a half years. The art school was a twenty minute walk across the fields. You can just see through the doorway to the back garden where we kept a goat. We had an outside toilet, a very deep well which must once have been the water supply and a gigantic water cistern which we discovered by accident when we were ploughing there and the plough caught on a large metal ring which, when we levered the stone up led to a two chamber storage cistern big enough to swim around. The connection betwen the two chambers involved diving through a small hole – I was thin in those days!
There may be some small correlation between the garden and the fact that I was on probation for the whole of the second year for failing to attend! These were magical gardening days that all came to an end when a herd/drove/drift/sounder of pigs somehow got in and rooted it all up in an hour. It was a good training in philosophical patience! – and I resumed my studies in ceramics in the nick of time.
A wet and windy day day today – the opportunity for searching through the albums this afternoon – but the temperature stayed in double figures so we managed a couple of hours on the allotment where we installed the insect mesh over the overwintering onion sets. It’s been so windy we haven’t worried too much about allium leaf miner, but this is the beginning of the season when the females lay their destructive eggs. Storm Gareth has had a very long tail but the forecast is for improving weather after a last wet weekend and so we felt that regardless of the weather we needed to protect the alliums. The insect mesh is expensive but since we took to protecting all our vulnerable crops with it we’ve been mercifully spared the maggots that cost us our entire crop of leeks in the first season. It should be said that we’re also growing from seed now, meaning the young plants are not out in the open and exposed to the flies in garden centres. Madame checked the stakes on the tallest brassicas to protect them from the wind.
The biggest point of interest now is the possibility of a small crop of asparagus quite soon. Storm Gareth seems to have slowed things down but the Mondeo – the early variety is showing signs of producing its first spears. We’ll harvest each variety for a month, enough for a few tasters we hope, and then let the plants continue to establish themselves. We’re hoping that the thick mulch of seaweed over the winter will help them to grow vigorously. Elsewhere we’re harvesting purple sprouting broccoli, savoy cabbages, kale, carrots Swiss chard and rhubarb. Next week the weather looks fine and we’re hoping to get a good number of seeds in.
Every time we go to the supermarket now we buy any variety of pears we can find because we’re taste testing them before ordering some container grown cordons in the summer. At the moment the front runners are Doyenne du Comice and Conference but there’s a cross, bred from the two parents, called Concorde. I’ve never seen it in the shops but it’s billed as a heavy yielding pear with the best qualities of flavour and texture from both its parents. We’re looking to plant five more cordons and a damson, a plum and a greengage are the fruits I’d most like to grow.
Here’s a photo I took when we stayed up in the hills on Cap Corse at the northern end of Corsica a few years ago. I suddenly thought of it during the night as I listened to the relentless sound of the wind outside. Of course, here in the South West we’re used to winds, but the Atlantic fronts usually rattle through for a few hours or maybe a day or two. However we’ve had this particular group of storms for two weeks now and the experience on the ground – as opposed to the weather charts – suggests that this is a bit of an outlier.
On Corsica we had our only experence of the Sirocco. For two weeks a 20C (my guess) – wind blew continuously across the island. We had access to a swimming pool but the wind was so unpleasant we barely used it. Down in South East France they have the Mistral which apparently drives people quite crazy. Elizabeth David wrote this in ‘French Provincial Cooking’.
“Provence is not without its bleak and savage side. The inhabitants wage perpetual warfare against the ravages of the mistral; it takes a strong temperament to stand up to this ruthless wind which sweeps Provence for the greater part of the year. One winter and spring when the mistral never ceased its relentless screaming round our crumbling hill village opposite the Lubéron mountain we all seemed to come perilously near to losing our reason, although it is, of course,only fair to say that the truly awful wine of that particular district no doubt contributed its share”
The fact is, too much wind can be pretty oppressive wherever you live. But it’s 15th March today and the spring equinox is in five days time on the 20th so could this spate of storms come under the umbrella of ‘equinoctial winds’? Not according to the meteorologists who seem to be a bit sceptical about the whole idea that this wind is a seasonal visitor. Looking out over the green outside I can see that two waste bins have been blown fully 50 yards across the grass during the night. Yesterday on the allotment a neighbour’s greenhouse rooflight had been bent back over itself as if it were made of butter. In north Wales, where we were staying last week, the Guardian reported on Storm Gareth with this story:
“Meanwhile, the residents of Llandudno in north Wales had unexpected visitors as a result of the storm when a 122-strong herd of Kashmir goats were seen wandering into the town centre by local residents, having been driven from their home of Great Orme Park by the bad weather.
The animals were spotted eating flowers in people’s gardens, as well as walking out in front of traffic. A spokesperson for Conwy council said there was nothing it could do to keep the goats away from the town: “Goats going into town is nothing unusual, particularly at this time of year. There is no way of stopping them. It is more likely in foul weather as they look for lower ground and shelter.”
Probably the simplest explanation is that – having experienced a few days of warm sunshine – we lazily assumed that the winter was over when, in fact, we’ve barely entered the spring. We still had frost fierce enough to kill off our first sowing of runner beans here in the first week of May last year, so it’s not over yet. For us the weather raises the usual questions. The potatoes are out in the hallway chitted and ready to plant and the bed is prepared, but when do we plant them out? Some of our neighbours have already planted and others are adamant they won’t plant theirs for two or three weeks yet. The two propagators are now filled with the re-potted long-season capsicums and aubergines and we’ll have to get them out soon in order to sow tomatoes. As always the south facing windows in the flat will be brought into service as an improvised greenhouse and we won’t be able to move or close the shutters until May without moving them all. Life’s rich tapestry!
Yesterday we were on our way up to the allotment in our tatty gardening clothes. We filled the lift with pots, ready sown half-trays, a potting tray, green kitchen waste (two small bins), and sack truck with a large bag of compost. The lift was so full I volunteered to take the stairs, but we managed to arrange ourselves and went down together. As the lift descended Madame said “do you wonder if the neighbours think we’re eccentric?”. We travelled in silence, praying that when the lift doors opened the hall would be empty. Later we dined on on an improvised shepherd’s pie (clanger pudding in our family, because it includes any leftovers you can find in the fridge) with our own carrots, purple sprouting broccoli and rhubarb. The allotment is surviving the weather, the beds are all ready to go – what’s a bit of wind?
Groundhog day at the Potwell Inn as we turn the kitchen into a temporary potting shed for the third year running. Madame (who prefers not to have her name or photograph in the blog) pricked out basil seedlings while I potted on all the chillies, peppers and aubergines which had all begun to outgrow their small pots. As I was doing that it became clear that my haphazard watering device last week had caused a certain degree of stress, and although I only lost one seedling, others had suffered a bit. Chillies seem to grow to fit their pots and then stand still until you pot them on. Last year when I potted them on they shot away as if I’d given them a dose of steroids. One stressed out pepper plant perked up within a hour of being moved into a new pot, and others had become very dry. I suppose as the leaves grow the transpiration rate increases and the small pots can’t hold enough water to keep up. Anyway it was a satisfying morning’s work indoors.
After lunch we went up to the allotment. Ironically in spite of the weather forecasts we must have had the worst wind gusts yet during the night and we found anything that wasn’t actually tethered down blown here, there and everywhere, so all the preparatory work turned out to be worthwhile. While Madame sowed leeks I spent an hour weeding the brassica bed and feeding the purple sprouting sprouting broccoli which seems to appreciate some food when it’s in flower. We’ve been using pelleted organic poultry manure which gives a fairly concentrated dose of general fertilizer. When we got back home Madame said “Isn’t it lovely how we learn something every time we go up to the allotment?” So what did we learn today? Despite our misgivings about the Jiffy Seven coir modules we’ve been using, largely because the outer netting doesn’t seem to be compostible, we’ve decided to give them another year. All my experiments suggest that the outer casing is made from some kind of resistant plastic mesh, but a recent article by Sarah Raven suggested that they could be cut off before the modules go into the ground. That’s an idea worth trying because we’ve no problems at all with the modules themselves, and we really do try to eliminate peat if we possibly can. We’ve also opted to use Sylva Grow compost for another year. You need to follow the instructions because there aren’t enough nutrients in it to sustain a plant for more than five or six weeks, however its a very good – if rather expensive – compost. Sometimes doing the right thing is a bit more expensive I suppose.
Otherwise it’s all going well – photos below. Very pleased with the hotbed.
The owners of this car are on holiday. We know that because after the signs went up and the heavy machinery rumbled on to the street, and after a large number of men in high viz coats, traffic wardens and council officials had conferred and made telephone calls it became clear that the car would not be moving because its owners were having the time of their lives (we hope) getting away from it all. Reality, however, cannot be got away from so easily, and so when these lucky people return from whatever beautiful and unspoiled part of the world they’ve been rendering slightly less beautiful and unspoiled, they will find their car sitting in a four inch deep patch of the way things used to be round here. Not exactly Roman Bath, but decade of austerity Bath. There’s an election, possibly two elections coming up and so let’s say the incumbent party (no politics round here please), have promised a new police station, the police have been patrolling very visibly for weeks now, the drug dealers and their customers have been moved on somewhere else and the streets in this electorally volatile part of the city have been paved with gold – or at least tarmac. All this joy and benificence will have passed our happy holidaymakers by as they contemplate how to jack their car out of its heritage hole, being close-parked at both front and rear.
The tarmac gang were almost balletic in their team work. Big- really big – lorries were reversed down the road to discharge tons of hot tarmac into the waiting arms of the laying machine which opened its wings like a butterfly to receive the load. All this carried out at speed and centimetre accuracy. Road rollers, white line markers, excavators and road sweepers seemed to work like some great computerised automaton and all this choreographed heavy industry was going on in the streaming rain and wind.
Meanwhile in another corner of un-ignorable reality I took a trip to hospital to have my biennial endoscope – a procedure which I hate having and most of the nurses dislike having to do. But plentiful sedatives, more great team work and a cup of tea later I emerged into the newly minted sunlight clutching my discharge papers with some grisly looking photos of my oesophagus but otherwise good news. They’ve given me a three year MOT.
I know, I should be describing the idyllic world of the Potwell Inn not writing about tarmac and pre-cancerous conditions but there is a point, and it’s this. Most good things are forged amidst the realities of life. Of course I could create ……
The Potwell Inn Perfect World Experience
– but it would be a fraudulent unreal place, a place to hide in (like our holidaymakers) and pretend things had never been better. Real life with all its tenderness and, if we’re lucky, love, has to be lived in the real world with all its coughs and sneezes, brutality and greed. I woke up absurdly early this morning, freed from anxiety about the endo and my head filled with thoughts of the allotment and a new season.
Carpe diem. We melancholics need to be a bit more like Jacob and wrestle a blessing out of the fear without a face.
Another storm from the Met Office alphabetical list rattles up from the Atlantic today, so yesterday saw us on the allotment preparing. Our plot is partially sheltered from all but due easterly winds because it’s at the bottom of the site with a row of trees to the south and west. This makes it a frost trap, and it doesn’t get nearly so much sun at this time of the year as the plots at the top. By the equinox things even out a bit and the sun is high enough in the sky to fool the trees. But there’s always two sides to ill fortune, and we gain a great deal from our sheltered position, for instance in the higher plots polytunnels are shredded and even sheds sometimes overturned. Our sheltered position doesn’t, however, protect us from gusts of 60mph and all the turbulence that these storms bring and so yesterday we fixed a windbreak around the broad beans, and battened down the hatches on the coldframes with a layer of fleece. It’s not really very cold, so the response of the beans to their pampered existence is to produce even more flowers. We shall either emerge as cunning horticultural whizzkids or hopelessly over-optimistic amateurs and we shan’t deserve either label because to garden well you need to take a few risks and enjoy a good deal of luck.
Sad day too, when we discovered that one of the stalwarts of the site had died at the weekend. We could see that he was in failing health, but he managed to conceal the extent of his illness from everyone. He had wicked nicknames for everyone on the site, and usually managed to nail them in a word or two. He was quick to befriend us when we first took on our plot, and I’ll miss our exhange of friendly insults when I pass his shed. His allotment was an extension of his personality and it will be awful if the next person on the plot clears away all his unusual perennials without even knowing what they are.
The most enjoyable part of the day was the first turning of the new compost bins. After years of building cylinders that needed to be dismantled before you could access the compost, it was a joy to wield the big manure fork and turn the heap into the next section in no more than ten minutes. When I first turned the compost into the new bins the temperature shot up and I was fearful that the brandling worms would desert the heap altogether. But they must have retreated to a lower, cooler layer and yesterday they were back in their thousands. This, of course, has been a slow winter heap and shortly we’ll be adding loads of fast decomposing green material to the new one so having the sections in a row means the population of worms can find which bin works best for them and set up permanent residence. It’s quite wonderful the way they found their way into the original heap.
Back at the Potwell Inn, the sole casualty of our holiday appears to have been the sauerkraut which we stored in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. It appears that the drying atmosphere of the fridge has sucked a lot of the juice out. Sadly I left the valves open on the jars to allow any gas to escape. I haven’t had time to taste it yet, but there are a couple of large savoys left on the plot and if needs be I’ll just start again. We need to clear out the last of that brassica bed ready for planting the potatoes in the next ten days when this sequence of storms has blown through. On another bed, though, we’ve started to harvest the purple sprouting broccoli, and we’ve still got lots of carrots in the ground. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had something to put on a plate right through the hungry gap?