Boom and bust on the allotment

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In a perfect world – i.e. not the one we’re actually living in, crops would come along like parts in a car factory, perfect, exactly on time and in just the right quantities. The Potwell Inn allotment, on the other hand, is a boom and bust operation subject to the vagaries of weather, impulse buying and whatever pests happen to blow, creep or slither in. Therefore we are unable to impress anyone with photographs of complete gourmet meals straight off the allotment with no more than a rinse in our private springwater supply. The potatoes, which were worryingly slow to get going have now all flowered at once.  The strawberries are in the midst of producing a glut, as are the Hungarian hot wax chillies, and don’t even mention salad leaves, but the onions were a lost cause, the tomatoes grew leggy while we waited for it to warm up and most of the squashes died at the seed leaf stage. We are – categorically – not experts

Apart from the glamorous world of coffee table gardeners, this time of year is relentless in its demands. The ground, which was thick with bindweed three years ago, is still capable of growing a towering six foot specimen in a week even after we thought we had picked every tiny piece of root out. Couch grass is easier to tame – provided you conduct a vengeful campaign of uprooting every time it pokes a leaf out above ground. But the worst ones are the annuals that grow from seeds blown across from the unlet plots. Willowherb is a particular and common villain, but we have a problem with a much less common plant which, notwithstanding its name – “common ramping fumitory” is not at all common in our area and so uprooting it seems like a small crime except for the fact that it has secret plans to take over the world – hence the “ramping” bit of the name.

In the winter I was slaving over the ‘civil engineering’ of beds, paths and bins and longing for the summer. Now it’s almost the solstice and every day, it seems, we’re unable to complete all the jobs that need doing because there just isn’t time and so neither are we able to doze in the deckchairs and listen to the bees humming – which is what most people think gardening is for, although – to paraphrase Ghandi – it would be a good idea.

IMG_5520AND – I’ve also been trying to sort out my study which, as I’ve already written, involves getting rid of several hundred books that I’d been clinging to in case I forgot who I was. Consequently the twin planets of the allotment and the study have swung into malevolent alignment.  That said, though, the business of handing over boxes of books at the Oxfam shop and then rearranging the survivors in proper order on the shelves has had a very happy effect. I hadn’t realised how reproachful a shelf of unread books can be, and if – like me – you’re an olympian self-doubter, the constant look of unread-ness relating to a past enthusiasm can sap the will dreadfully. I’m sure this is the blindingly obvious core of the decluttering movement  – old stuff ties you down, keeps you looking backwards. I’ve had persistent images of my (suitably sad) children taking the exact same books to the same Oxfam shop after my death and, frankly, I’d rather spare them the pain and reward myself with the sense of release that comes from sitting at my desk and being surrounded by books I use constantly and love.

Of course there are many that I’ll hang on to – Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” which I bought when I was about thirteen;  Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” which I chanced on accidentally when I was nineteen and which changed the course of my life – just two of the milestones that I could never part with. My Grandfather’s copy of “The History of Mr Polly” where I found the Potwell Inn, has been promoted to glory among the very special novels.

Back on the allotment it’s pleasing to be able to say that the seaweed mulch that we applied in the winter to the asparagus bed has had the most astounding effect, and it’s growing taller all the time – I mean over five feet tall and climbing!  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it because last year it was ravaged by asparagus beetles, but all we’ve been finding is lacewings which must have got there first. One painful lesson learned once and (hopefully) never forgotten is that asparagus beetles are not the same as lacewing larvae – so look before you squeeze. Luckily the presence of the adult lacewings and innumerable other pollinators working the flowers has prevented us from any spraying with soft soap, and so no harm was done by the misidentification.

Is this what I’m supposed to do?

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My favourite shed on the allotment site.  I’ve been photographing it regularly as it slowly collapses and it occurred to me that perhaps this is what I’m supposed to do.  Well I’m not!

My study is a tip; it’s been that way for ages (for ever as my friends know) and I realized that it’s becoming alarmingly like that shed – full of memories but gradually sinking into senescence.  I’ve already posted about getting rid of my piano which I can’t play anyway because we live in a concrete biscuit tin and you can hear someone opening a can of beans four floors up. Sound carries alarmingly well and soon after we moved here I played it just once and our downstairs neighbour was kind enough to say he’d heard me playing and it was rather nice. How typically English to use kind words to send a warning, and so I’ve never played it since.

In fact my room was becoming a kind of memorial to what I’d done in the past. When we moved here we got rid of hundreds of books, we even burned masses of old radio scripts that I knew I’d never read again.  Years of bank statements, receipts, correspondence all went into the incinerator, and I wore a car out driving back and forth to the recycling centre.  I burned thirty years worth of diaries – full of meetings that seemed important at the time, but full of the pain of illnesses and bereavements as well as weddings and baptisms  I’d taken.

But there were many things I brought to Bath, not least yet more books.  So many books, in fact, that they were stacked two deep on the shelves.  The question is – was I ever going to read them again? They were comforting, they reminded me of times and enthusiasms past and yet they began to feel like a load that was cluttering up my future, and so today they started to go down to the Oxfam shop in order to make way for new books, new projects and enable me to open the shutters and let the light in.  So first thing we walked down with two bags of books and the women at the Oxfam shop said they’d be delighted to take as many more as I’d like to bring.

All this all involved a division of labour at the Potwell Inn and Madame went up to the allotment to pick four and a half kilos of broad beans and two kilos of garden peas, the first strawberries, a tiny taste of very sour blackcurrants and some new season garlic, while I battled with my instincts to cling on to the books to the point where I reliquished another five boxes. Naturally my room looks worse than ever now, but when the piano goes I’ll have space to set up my botanical painting worktable.  Lest this all sounds terribly worthy, I have to confess that I also ditched five boxes of absolute junk including a lifetime collection of old mains connectors and several heritage satellite TV boxes and broadband routers – oh and some power tools that died years ago and a load of rusty screws and bolts that I have no recollection of acquiring.

I think I’m supposed to say that I experienced some kind of catharsis and suddenly felt energised. Well no, as I took the last load of books down to the car, I had to fight the urge to go through them all again and my back ached.  Yesterday we had a horrible drive back from RHS Rosemoor, with standing rain on the motorway reducing visibility so much one van driver had somehow managed to drive up a bank on the inside of the crash barrier.  I don’t think they were much damaged, except in the pride department, but it was suprising how many drivers were ploughing up the outside lane at over 70mph.

Does any of this matter to anyone else? I truly don’t know except I do know that I’ve no intention of going quietly.

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

At last, the right kind of rain.

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After weeks of near misses, with the rain slipping past us up the Bristol Channel and into South Wales, today the rain gods smiled on us.  Only 8.9 mm – less than half the forecast amount but nonetheless the best we’ve had for ages and when it dried up after lunch, we could almost hear the allotment gratefully guzzling it down.

However much you water by hand, it’s never as good as a natural soaking. I don’t know whether plants are affected by chlorinated water – it used to be the case that if you stood the water in a trough or even in a watering can overnight, the chlorine would evaporate leaving pretty much pure water (apart from the innumerable chemicals that couldn’t be filtered out). However I read recently that there are new ways of treating water with chlorine that persists for a longer period. I suspect that chlorine in any form has a deleterious effect on soil micro-organisms – the ones it’s used to kill in the pipes drrrr..

So rainwater is good and thunderstorm rainwater is even better as long as it’s not heavy enough to beat the plants flat. In fact, gardeners could probably furnish a whole vocabulary of rain types based on their usefulness. This occurred to me this morning as I looked out of the window at the Green and was faintly disappointed with the rain at first, until it increased a little and suddenly I could hear it falling on the leaves.

We instinctively judge rain and its qualities by sound and smell as much as by any other more scientific quality. Compare, for example the first few drops of rain falling in a summer storm – big fat, heavy drops, with – let’s say – the sound of misty rain drifting down on to a window, or driven rain coming in almost horizontally in a winter storm.  Any gardener would opt for a prolongued spell of the gentle but continuous rain that falls on a windless day, followd by warm sunshine – perfect growing weather.

And it was while I was imagining those big fat drops I remembered a pub we used to drink at, on a busy crossroads opposite a stand of very tall elms – before Dutch elm disease took its toll. There was a big rookery up in the trees, and if you were lucky enough to be sitting on the bench outside the pub on a hot summer day when the raindrops started to fall, whack, whack, whack on the leaves and then gathered in intensity as the sky turned to Paynes Grey straight from the tube, and the agitated birds called and chattered, and that unique smell of rain on hot tarmac and parched grass rose into the air, then you might have been transported to the Potwell Inn for a moment, until the rain drove you inside. The very thought of it left me pining for a lost age, and given half a chance I’d have got ino the car with (protesting) Madame and driven straight there.  But the pub has shut down, the elms have all gone and a housing estate covers the fields almost to the edge of the road. Nostalgia eh? rubbish emotion!

And so the allotments have been properly watered at last with the right kind of rain. The rain you don’t want is the stuff they get in North Wales where it rains sideways and each drop is encrusted with industrial diamonds that saw you in half; or in Cornwall where it rains every day, but only just enough to be annoying, or up the M5 along the ridge north from Bristol where it often doesn’t rain at all but just sits there in a cloud sulking in a fog. You don’t want the rain that comes with gusting winds, or anything that comes with hailstones, and especially not snow that breaks your nets and snaps off branches.

Moderation in all things is the name of the game, and the only way to do that is to protect the crops as best you can with nets and windbreaks and if you’re luckier than us, polytunnels, and save every drop of rainwater you can.  Oh and concentrate on drought resistant varieties species and varieties. There’s always a way: except there isn’t when things get past the tipping point, and then it all gets ugly. But unlike buses, you can save rain until you neeed it.

 

Sumer is icumen in

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Sing loudly, cuckoo! – Well at least I heard one cuckoo on our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago and I found it unbelievably moving, thinking that with the climate catastrophy upon us I might never hear it again.

But sumer most certainly is icumen in and so today we picked a load of elderflowers and started the first 3 litres of  cordial. We felt almost secretive about picking it, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t spot us and join in – picking is best done in the sun for maximum flavour and there’s plenty for everyone but I fear very few people would go to the trouble any more even though the difference between our own home made cordial and the commercial stuff is striking.

IMG_5466Summer is as much a smell as anything more meteorological. Yesterday evening we were sitting in the living room when Madame said, “I can smell chewing gum”. I wrinkled my nose up in mimed solidarity and it was true but it wasn’t chewing gum it was cats’ pee.   It was the smell of summer.  There were the elderflowers infusing on the stove, and several different kinds of basil gently sunning itself in the propagator, along with a sink full of fresh spinach and a salad spinner loaded with newly picked lettuce. Oh yes summer is good.

We spent the morning at two exhibitions in Bath.  The annual open exhibition of the Bath Society of Artists is always worth seeing several times. In some ways, although it’s a lot smaller, it’s better than the RWA open. Several friends and acquaintances had pictures in, and there’s less of the gulf between ‘high art’ and village show about it.  Many of the artists necessarily earn their living from other things, but their work is really good – the product of a lifetime’s labour without the deadly grip of the Arts Council. As we left we hubristically resolved to submit some of our own work next year

Then we dropped in at BRLSI (Bath Royal LIterary and Scientific Institution) where there was an exhibition of artifacts and books from the permanent collection.  The headline catcher was a small phial of liquid taken from the barrel in which the body of Lord Nelson was brought back from Trafalgar. Not terribly interesting really, the value was all in the caption. My own favourite things in the exhibition were the botanical books, pressed flowers and drawings which were all on the subject of medical herbs. But one exhibit was truly bizarre –

The other gadget, the tobacco smoke enema, has no modern parallel.  At first an ordinary clay pipe was used and someone administered the smoke enema by poking the stem through the anus and blowing on the bowl.  The risk of burns led to the invention of safer apparatus.

Well thank goodness for that! The afternoon was spent at the allotment as the flat is gradually emptied of plants.  Much of my time was spent in energetic watering, but I did manage to find 20 minutes to sit with my back to a compost heap, measuring and inspecting our mystery fumitory with a copy of Rose at my side. Then in the evening we worked in tandem in the kitchen, prepping spinach, elderflowers and tomorrow’s family BBQ and cooking supper.  We had inspected the peas earlier, hopng for a first taste, but they’re not quite ready.  Next week maybe.

This last few days I’ve been tempted to say that I’ve been feeling the same kind of energy and excitement I had when we first went to art school, everything seems inflected with possibilities.  But I’m a melancholic and I’ve read Tolstoy and Iris Murdoch so I won’t tempt fate by saying I’m happy.  Maybe ‘pretty happy‘?

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“where’s too far? said he/ where you are said she”

Why on earth this ee cummings poem dropped into my mind just then is a mystery for later. Some days are apocalyptic in the manner of a Hollywood epic, and others are apocalyptic in a much quieter way.  You get the feeling that the walls are crumbling and that, somehow, things will never be the same and yet it’s hard to say why.

I suppose a quixotic journey in search of a crowbar might be a beginning for such a day. We’d not long moved to the Potwell Inn and taken on the allotment.  Back at the Inn things weren’t going well.  The windows were rotten, the landlord was making a herculean effort to do nothing about it, and I was struggling to orientate myself in a life stripped of pastoral responsibilities and lukewarm ceremonial.

We, or rather I, needed a big heavy crowbar so we could get long fenceposts into the ground. I’m quite short and the effort required to stand on tiptoe with a wobbling post and hammer it two feet into the ground was more than I could manage. Being obsessive about getting things level and vertical was gradually making me a bit crazy, and so the idea of a big heavy crowbar floated into my mind as the solution to both allotment and mental state, two birds – as it were – with one stone. However the way my mind works, the image ‘crowbar’ was immediately followed by the image ‘old fashioned ironmonger’ shortly pursued by the memory of a shop called Hine and Collinson who, forty years ago, had a four story building on the London Road and who could be relied upon for the most obscure objects of desire. I went there once wanting to buy a relacement lamp glass for an old paraffin lamp.  All I could remember was that my mother had said it was called a ‘double duplex’. I went into the shop and amid the tottering skyscrapers of ancient hardware and flypapers I found a man in a brown warehouse coat and asked my question.  Not in the least phased, he disappeared for ten minutes and emerged with the lamp glass still wrapped in its original brown paper. Sadly Hine and Collinson have long since disappeared in favour of a fast food shop.  That alone should have been a clue.

And so it seemed obvious that we should drive to the nearest old fashioned ironmonger where, no doubt, I could choose from a wide selection of traditional models, weigh them in my hand and try their heft before bringing home the exact right model wrapped in sticky greased paper.  Sadly the only ironmonger’s shop I could think of was in Hay on Wye – about sixty miles away.  And so we drove there on a freezing cold day, through the remnants of some filthy weather which had left rivers and their nearby land flooded, paying scant attention even to Pen-y-Fan in the distance with a dusting of snow.

In short, the ironmonger was a disappointment. You could buy a wicker basket with a dog mat or a contemporary teapot.  You could even buy a box – not a bag – of nails or screws if you penetrated the darker areas to the rear. Bedding plants and alarm clocks were abundant but not a sign of a slater’s ripper, a box-handled firmer chisel, a sash cramp, a sash weight, or especially a crowbar. There were small, very small, wrecking bars of the kind a burglar might conceal under their coat – but I wanted more, much more.  It was beginning to dawn on me that this crowbar had become a kind of grail quest. There was a wound that wouldn’t heal, and I needed something more than a bloody crowbar.

And so we went for a walk to the river which was in full spate.  There’s a path that takes you down beneath the bridge and there we stood, watching and listening to the gurgling, glooping and sucking of the river as it muscled its way between the piers. “What ails you?” it was saying to me.  And I knew what it was – I was filled with hopeless longing for something gone forever, which probably had never existed except as an artifact in my memory.

Good bye job. Good bye God. Good bye Mills the grocer with their broken custard creams, goodbye Palmers seed store and Sprackman’s the hay and straw dealer, good bye Hubert Harris the undertaker with his black horse and even blacker coat with dusty shoulders, good bye Darke in A minor – it’s time to move on.

I watched them, one by one, tumbling in the mudstained water and racing one another beyond my sight. It’s strange because the River Wye always feels as if it’s travelling in the wrong direction at that point, but it’s just enjoying one of its long oxbows before finally turning south towards the sea. There’s nothing anyone can do to make the illusion fit the facts and so you just have to accept the way things are and start walking in what, at first, feels like the wrong direction. When we eventually got home I went online and ordered the crowbar from B&Q with click and collect; there and back 12 miles, crowbar exactly what I wanted.

The only place to move on from is exactly where you are, without illusion.

Prettiest wash boiler in wales

IMG_5308The water flowing into this old wash boiler comes straight out of the hill and serves as the water supply for the house.  It’s clear, pure and tastes a lot better than the stuff that comes out of most taps. It also happens that the spring makes the most wonderfully relaxing sound; I could sit and listen to it all day. I’ve strip washed in it in the past, when the possibility of being surprised by a passer by was almost infinitesimally small.  As a precaution, 30 odd years ago, we used to boil the water before drinking it. Over the years it’s proved completely safe and so nowadays no-one bothers. IMG_4159We were first brought to this place all those years ago, when it was a holiday cottage and painting studio  – it’s pretty inaccessible, although the faciliies are much improved from the days when the stream, when it was in spate, would flow into the cottage under the living room wall and out again under the door. Now it’s in full occupation as a smallholding. Hill farming doesn’t pay any more and so its full-time flock of sheep and hens, and a part time herd of fattening pigs are subsidised by two incomes from work outside the holding – this is not a place for the faint-hearted. More than 250 metres higher than our allotment, the spring sowings need to be best part of a month later, and the winters are much fiercer.

Within minutes of arriving we were watching nuthatches, yellowhammers and dunnocks along with the better known lowland birds all competing with a tiny field mouse on the bird tables.  There are cuckoos here, and green woodpeckers too – more often heard than seen, but which always lift the spirits. Our friends, Kate and Nick would be the first to acknowledge that they’re hardly self-sufficient, but this morning, mid-morning after a late night at a blues concert in Brecon, we feasted on eggs, bacon and sausages all produced on their land. There’s excellent cider here, and there’s a whole shed full of stored and preserved food of every kind.  It’s a ‘good to be alive’ place.  Outside our small bedroom in what, not so long ago, was the toolshed, the bees were working the cotoneaster from early in the morning. The air is rich with the sounds of insects but apart from the odd plane overhead there is no traffic noise at all. The nearest road is a small ribbon of grey through the landscape at the bottom of the valley.  Bryn, the dog, is so accustomed to wandering the landscape chasing foxes that he will travel 15 kilometres a night – we only know that because he’s fitted with a tracking transmitter so he can be found again.  He’s rather deaf, blind in one eye and fourteen years old.

There are two gardens here – the garden which is nearest the cottage is like any cottage garden, except for the views.  Further up the bridle path there’s a proper allotment where potatoes are planted with a small tractor and plough, the tractor designed to be safe to use on the steeply sloping fields.  There are peas and runner beans and root crops on a rather grander scale than we could ever contemplate at the Potwell Inn. Taller crops like runner beans have to be grown on almost industrial grade frameworks to resist the fierce winds. Most of the carpentry is done on site – it’s a very self-contained sort of place sustained by an informal local network of friends and neighbours, always up for a bit of bartering.

But let’s not get too carried away by the rural idyll. Hard choices have to be made, and sometimes they have to cull animals like grey squirrels to protect their young saplings Things go wrong sometimes, animals – especially hens – can die for no discernable reason. Thistles and bracken are a constant battle at this height and war is still waged using some chemicals.  “Never let the perfect drive out the best” is a good motto for this sort of extreme marginal farming, but looked at as a whole, this inefficient profit-free enterprise has created a haven for wildlife however the industrial agricultural industrialists might shake their heads in disbelief. Hundreds of native trees have been planted over the past decades, and this has had a real impact on the wildlife. If you think of the economics of farming in a different way and start to count natural capital as a public good rather than as a resource to be plundered, packed and resold for a profit, then the profitability of this tiny farm with its inbuilt capacity for carbon capture and  recycling of waste – the unsaleable wool is recycled into compost and as mulch, grazing animals return their waste into the improving soil – all this adds up to profit of a different kind – a profit that might be counted in birdsong, biodiversity and beneficial impact on the earth.

Every Wednesday, Kate sets up her moth trap to check out the local population of theseIMG_4149 bafflingly confusing and often invisible creatures and sends reports in to the County Recorder because knowing what you’ve got is the essential first step in knowing whether you’re in the process of losing it. These photos, taken last year show Madame and Kate unpacking the trap and sorting the moths into jars so they could be identified and released again. We were  absolutely amazed at the diversity and sheer beauty of some creatures we’d never seen before.  Where there are only relatively few (between 50 and 70 including migrant) butterfly species, the moths make up for it with over 2500 species including a whole set of micromoths which are tiny and brown and need expertise way beyond my paygrade. As always, the world gets more complicated the closer and more carefully you look.

So that’s why this is one of my favourite places to be.  It’s easy to read, to write and to doze in the garden or to plan the next move for the Potwell Inn garden. We’ve gathered firewood, planted carrots and shared all sorts of expertise, over the years, and I’ve gathered enough stories to write a book if I ever wanted to.  If I have a wish, it’s that we will soon come to the understanding that if we treasure the environment an it inhabitants, including ourselves, we have to stop worshipping the gods of profit and growth, and start to recognise the true value of the marginal mixed farms that create the landscape we crave and that’s so good for our souls.

 

Some housekeeping

IMG_5073I’m always on the lookout for simple ways of making this blog a bit more interactive without compromising its security, and so for the past 24 hours I’ve been beating my head against a wall of techie talk and failing to get a contact form to work. If, by any chance you used the form to contact me during any of its iterations since yesterday evening, then I’m sorry but your message is out there in limbo.

I’m aware that some readers have made comments or asked questions that aren’t specifically connected to a posting – which means they go directly to the spam filter. Given that (if I catch them in time) many of these comments have been very nice it’s a shame that I’m not able to respond, and it probably feels a bit churlish if you’ve taken the trouble to write. I can’t see any way of getting back except through public comments on the blog – which may not always be appropriate. If I just put my private email address up I’ll drown in spam – see the dilemma?

So I’ll keep trying to set up something that’s both interactive and secure for all of us, and the only way I can do that is to master a language that’s so obscure it makes the Athenasian Creed look simple. It seems that the blogosphere is a bit like the wild west – there are a lot of hucksters and snake oil sales reps out there. In answer to one of the anonymous questions, no I can’t give much help on technical issues because my usual way of dealing with them is to keep going round in circles uttering threats and curses until I finally (and accidentally) press the right button – at which point I slam down the lid and get on with the writing. Meanwhile I’ve removed the offending form so I can get on with what I really enjoy.

Just add flowers

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Even a concrete blockhouse constructed in brutalist neo-Georgian can benefit from a few window boxes and the Potwell Inn fits that description pretty well.  This line of thought was prompted when we dropped off at a country pub yesterday, after a bruising encounter with the till at a garden centre.  It happened that we’d just spent (as always) more than we intended on filling our window boxes for the summer.  They always look as lovely from the inside as they do from the road, and it’s our little gift to the neighbours, so window boxes join the other protected budgets like books, art materials and the campervan. Oh and wine too, I suppose.

However, the pub was clearly in trouble since their hanging baskets were pretty much dead and there was an advert on the door appealing for bar staff, a chef, in fact anyone prepared to throw themselves under the oncoming train of HMRC and all the other creditors.  Best bitter – flat; crisps – not available (“we had a busy weekend”). Negotiations with an agency chef were being conducted in the empty bar but we were far too polite actually to crane our necks in order to listen in.  Sad, isn’t it, to see a fellow licensee going under even when your own pub is virtual?  We could have planted up their window boxes in an hour and the place would have looked like a going concern.

IMG_5298Back at the Potwell Inn we too have deceased window boxes, hence the trip to the garden centre, and the generally decrepit look outside the Gulag. Dead daffodils don’t have the same attraction as their younger selves. Inside, on the other hand, is a different matter.  It looks like the morning after a student party but the mess comprises hundreds of plants in different stages of development, and unsteady piles of garden reference books – far too many of both.  The kitchen is all but unuseable except for picking the supply of basil and brewing tea. IMG_5299The simplest meal involves a tremendous amount of moving  – gravel trays, root trainers and any receptacle that can be pressed into service cover the table and much of the floor.  This period is always a great boon to the freezer which needs emptying in the next couple of months ready to store fresh produce. Truth to tell however, there’s only so much chard, broccoli and frozen borlotti beans a person can cheerfully consume – even in a good cause – and I found myself looking lustfully at a ready meal in the supermarket today.

Meanwhile back at the ranch

Yesterday while I was adding some kitchen waste – tea leaves, peelings and discarded leaves – nothing cooked – to the compost heap.  I pulled off the layer of cardboard on top, and there was a scurrying of little feet followed by a dirty great rat that leapt upwards and away in one athletic bound. I don’t know which of us was more scared. It’s almost impossible to eradicate them entirely but the danger of leptospirosis is very real and so strong measures have been taken to discourage them. Vegetarians please look away now, although I doub’t anyone would eat a rat except from dire necessity!

IMG_5303So today at the allotment I extracted the first victim from a trap with a tinge of sadness mitigated by the knowledge that this one at least wouldn’t be peeing on our lettuces. Elsewhere, with the help of a decent amount of rain, the potatoes have roared ahead. It is a true conundrum, the way that however hard we water, a couple of hours of rain brings on the allotment far better.  What is the magic ingredient in rainwater that trumps the expensively processed stuff that comes out of the tap? Or is it precisely the expensive chlorine enriched processing that holds tapwater back from giving our plants what they really need?  Yesterday I planted some companionable nasturiums amongst the apples. They’d been languishing in a half tray in the cold frame but had never thrived. I transplanted them with no great hope of success but the alternative was to throw them away.  This afternoon we took another look and an unbelievable transformation had taken place. In fact everything in the fruit cage looked as if it had been given a dose of steroids during the night.  The strawberries had drawn up to their full height and were seeming to invite me to ‘step outside’ if I even mentioned the possibility of straw to hold their fruit above the ground. The nasturtiums had picked up so much I wondered whether we’d be spending the rest of the summer getting them under control.  Plants have this way of talking to us – if only we’d listen. Perhaps that’s all that ‘green fingers’ amounts to, the capacity to listen to what they’re saying.

And so the summer window boxes are all planted up.  The logistical problems of taking the spent ones down two floors to the garage and carrying the new ones up the same way are a tiny bit intimidating when your knees are shot, but the rewards are immense. When those trailing plants get underway they can go right down the wall and past the lintels of our downstairs neighbour’s windows too. All good, then.

 

Something unfolding?

IMG_5177I don’t care for ‘Misery Lit’ or – (sorry) – blogs that describe ‘battles against’ this or that horrible disease.  I’m absolutely not prepared for going down that route anytime soon, and that’s that. However – and imagine me saying that ‘however’ slowly, stressing all three syllables and ending in an upspeak question mark ….  Having had a bit of hand-to-hand combat wth the idea of mortality these last couple of months, I thought that getting all positive test results would pick me up and set me down exactly where I started.  It didn’t!

You don’t, it seems, *wrestle with the anonymous angel during a sleepless night or twenty and get away with it altogether.  Jacob didn’t, and I’m no Jacob, so after a couple of days of sheer relief I got completely fired up at the thought of what kind of world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren – which was the prompting for yesterday’s rather anguished posting. The Potwell Inn, since it’s imaginary, has no cash-in value and we’re perpetually hard-up so there’s no stately home, not even the flat we live in, or anything much else to leave our descendants except an earth capable of sustaining them.

So we need to get on with it because we’re not going to last forever

Look at that angelica at the top of the page. Like all its cousins in the genus Apiaceae from alexanders to hogweed it is staggeringly beautiful in the early spring as it emerges from its winter sleep. Same too for the crozier like leaf forms of emerging bracken and ferns – they make you stop and fill you with wonder and they can, if you let them, suggest that the natural condition of the earth is beautiful. You might say that hemlock water dropwort isn’t beautiful because it’s deadly poisonous, and so is every part of the yew tree except the red fruit surrounding the seed, so too the foxglove. But of course none of them are in the least dangerous so long as you recognise them and treat them with respect. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t recognise them and respect for the wild increases the more we understand about it; and that’s a shame because the very things we need most, may be quietly hiding there in the immensity of the natural world.

I write about the allotment because it brings me face to face with the food we eat.  Often on my knees, I weed quietly between the rows and I try to know the name of every wild plant I’m discarding in favour of our preferred crops. In fact I absolutely love spending a contemplative hour hand weeding, almost lying at ground level pinching them out between thumb and finger. Lovely, but also a great teacher of the basic ethic of proper gardening which is that we only possess the capacity to dispose, never to compel. But agribusiness has no time for disposing.  Money in a hurry needs results, predictability and certainty.  Humility in the face of nature is a sign of weakness and weeds are considered as ‘overheads’ – even people, the ones who work in the fields, are regarded as ‘overheads’ – no more than cells on a spreadsheet. We see the results in the earth.  After decades of intensive cultivation, the stones stick out through the earth like the bones of a starving human being. Hedges are torn up and so the birds no longer sing, and gigantic tractors stride across the fields microdosing chemical insecticides and fertilizers under the instruction of their satnavs.

I write about food because at the Potwell Inn we regard the growing, the preparation of food and eating it together around a table as a sacramental activity.  I write about art because – to pinch a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus – “without worship you shrink”.

I’m struggling to find words for this new mood. but there is a connection. Maybe an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality has brought the vulnerability of the earth into much sharper focus.  In the same way we take our own existence for granted until some accident or illness reminds us otherwise, so we comfortably assume that the earth on which – from which – we derive our existence, is always there.  It’s one of those givens like gravity and tides. But it’s not and if we really think about it we know that’s the case.

But how do we change anything? The starting point, I’m sure, is to ease back on the nagging and move forwards on wonder. Maybe what we need is not to spread the understanding of the present linked crises of climate change and environmental degradation but to re-enchant the natural world – because what we revere and love, we protect. Which brings me back to the allotment.

What’s the point of herbs? Look – mint, chives and rosemary.  Elsewhere on the allotment in various beds and corners there are angelica, lovage, dill and fennel; several thymes, sage, coriander, tarragon, other flavours of mint and parsley.  They’re amongst the most resilient plants in the garden, getting on without any great attention while we fuss over keeping the chillies and aubergines warm.  They enliven our food and provide inumerable oils and essences whose healing properties have been studied and used for millennia. Scientists come and go, along with their theories, but in the background and within the immense diversity of the plant world, trillions of rather beautiful and tiny leafy-laboratories have been syththesising substances beyond our dreams since the beginnings of life on earth. They have no marketing departments, no PR budgets, patents or guardians except us.

IMG_5178Being old often means being invisible.  You get used to being walked off the pavement by much younger people so absorbed in their mobile phones and their busy lives that you feel you’re an obstacle. And yet yesterday I went into a local bookshop and was struck forcibly by the fact that Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” was selling by the dozen to those selfsame people. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘more allies’, and yet you couldn’t blame them for thinking that we baby boomers are at least a part of the problem, because it happened during our years of vitality. There was a vegan food fair at Green Park station yesterday and although I was a bit puzzled by ‘vegan fish and chips’ and vegan hot dogs’, I refuse to be scornful and dismissive because long after we’ve left the scene, these beautiful, idealistic young people will have their chance to roll back the damage of industrial food production. Meanwhile the best thing we can do is to supplement the TV natural history documentaries with real hands-on experience of the wild. Nature’s not a safari park, and we learn more about nature by squeezing a mint leaf from a plant we’ve grown on the windowsill than watching any number of films – and that mention of mint leads me to think about peas.  The douce Provence peas we sowed in the autumn are coming into flower even though they’re barely six inches tall.

  • and the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at the edge of the river he’d just crossed, leaving behind everything he’d known and striking out into the future is one of my absolute favourite Old Testament stories. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be inspired by it.

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Lunch at the Potwell Inn

IMG_5176And very nice it was too.  Madame and me had gone for one of those most dangerous of things – a wander around town, passing by the lovely veg stall outside M & S where prices all seem to be negotiable. “Come on” shouts the barker with a voice so loud you can hear it across town.  “Weeee-ve got rainy day reductions on fruit”……. “Weeee’ve got purple sprouting – which is what we call broccoli when it’s purple!” – You get the picture, he’s a comic with a dry sense of humour but for £10 you can fill two carrier bags with fresh veg. Six people working flat out on the stall. Our perambulation took us through several favourite shops and we arrived back at the Potwell Inn HQ with a bag of mussels, a bottle of Pecorino and a loaf of sourdough bread because I was feeling too lazy to start a loaf yesterday and anyway the oven door is falling off and creaks dreadfully when you open and close it. More expensive repairs I fear.

As for mussels, as always keep it simple.  Today I fried some finely chopped bacon before adding chopped shallots but often I leave the bacon out.  When everything is softened I chuck in a glass or perhaps two of white wine and a handful of chopped parsley with the mussels, slam the lid on and cook it hard for a couple of minutes until the mussels are all open. Voila – job done. Eat the mussels with your fingers then drink the rich stock with a slice of decent bread and finish the bottle of wine while you set the world to rights.

Today we were talking about how to join up the local with the global. It’s a constant challenge to many of us to see how our tiny efforts at the local level will ever make the kind of difference we need to head off the twin disasters of ecological degradation and climate change. Does our tiny effort at composting our kitchen waste ever amount to anything more than virtue signalling?  Does our individual refusal to use chemicals on the allotment ever make more than a nanopercentage of the thousands of tons being poured on the earth by agribusiness? And at a time when the government has its eyes firmly fixed on retaining the patronage of the few, who’ll look after the rest of us? Or – to put it another way – have all these years of campaigning and lobbying for ‘green issues’ been wasted?

Oddly enough, I think, this time of political turmoil has had some unintended consequences which could lead to real change. It’s rapidly dawning on a generation of the kind of people who might never previously have counted themselves as ‘politically active’ that they’ve been cheated, and they’re getting cross about it – I suppose I’m one of them. Let me give an example. This year you’ll know, if you’re been on board for a while,  I built a manure-fired hot bed.  It works, it’s been an education. Then the other day I discovered that some manure is contaminated with an insecticide .  Environmentalists have once again been thwarted by the use of exemptions following lobbying by the powerful agrochemical industry. The chemical is called Dimilin and it’s used to control insect infestation in intensive rearing units – themselves a morally dubious operation. And here’s the bit that got me spitting fire – it’s been listed as a food additive, even though it’s clearly a systemic insecticide. So conceivably, the manure that we allotmenteers have been applying to our precious soil, has been contaminated with a systemic insecticide which is persistent enough to pollute soil and run-off water and, worse still, my be contributing to the disastrous decline in insects. Whose brilliant idea was that? We thought that neonicotinoids had been totally banned, but it turned out that they’re  still in use for some crops. It’s also emerged that many thousands of protected wild birds have been slaughtered through the liberal use of exemptions provided by Natural England to landowners, and these weren’t all pigeons and seagulls – the linked article quotes “at least 40 species, including the skylark, blackbird, great tit, bullfinch, robin, wren, red kite, moorhen, mute swan, kestrel, peregrine falcon and golden plover.”

My question is – how many other pieces of hard fought-for environmental legislation are being quietly undermined and made mockery of by powerful interests who know how to use their financial muscle and connections?

“Think global and act local” is a good slogan, but I’m much preoccupied with the interaction between the two. Yesterday this chain of thought was provoked by a new green initiative  called Natural Climate Solutions and fronted up by George Monbiot among others. Most of the initiatives proposed there are on a large scale, not the kind of thing you can do in a single garden or allotment.  So there’s the conundrum in a nutshell – think globally because some solutions to the unfolding crisis can only be addressed at the larger political level.  But acting locally needs to be linked to it in a way that we know will make more difference than helping us to feel we’ve just done something. If we think of what kind of campaign we need to conduct, as a kind of lever that can magnify the effects of the local in order to lift a heavy load in the larger sphere, what will the fulcrum be? What could be the single cause around which sufficient people at the long end of a lever, could coalesce around an idea, a dream that would move the mountain of vested interest?