After two years of periodic lockdowns I suppose we should have become used to staying indoors, but this second heatwave in a few weeks felt more than usually punishing. We could only control the temperature inside by following the Met Office advice to close all the windows and shutters, making the dimmed interior of the flat feel like a funeral parlour. By dint of this sacrifice of light and fresh air we were able to keep the indoor temperature to 27C – seven degrees cooler than the outside, but leaving us almost breathless in the thick air. Today, though, normal service resumed so we were able to escape the flat and walk up the canal and when it finally rained a few heavy drops and began to wet my T shirt I felt almost exultant. We’ve grown tired of perpetual early morning watering on the allotment and tired of watching the dust clouds trailing after visiting cars as if they were the Deadwood Stage (if you’re not really old – like 105 years old – think 1953 film about Calamity Jane who, played by Doris Day, had a thing with a stagecoach).
The fitful shower dripped on for an hour – just enough to raise the relative humidity to the point where the sweat was displacing the raindrops but we carried on anyway enjoying the cloudy skies. We thought we’d drop in at the Holburn Gallery to see the David Hockney exhibition but when we saw how much it would cost – £25 – we walked home through town. Has no-one told them there’s a cost of living crisis going on?
So then we wandered over to the allotment and after discovering two very ripe melons hiding in the polytunnel, we picked some plums and apples and had a fruit lunch. Very delicious. This afternoon as I was writing this the police came hammering down the road towards the towpath, blue lights flashing. There’s never a dull moment in genteel Bath! Tomorrow promises decent rain and even thunderstorms which would be such a relief.
Oh and I ordered a new book on the history of Welsh Food. It doesn’t take much to overflow my cup.
Just to explain the heading; I’ve always drilled this mantra into our three boys – “Don’t wake the bear”. It’s sufficiently vague to cover a multitude of the kind of scrapes teenage boys are likely to get themselves into – like mooning at the mayor of a German city during a school exchange visit or attempting to drive a borrowed JCB home from the pub one night. It’s not that they were that much of a crimewave, but clergy kids always have to go the extra mile to appear normal. Now they’re safely approaching middle age the bear can sleep on. As for me I was never much of an enthusiast for bear waking – except my friends might disagree and say that I just had a higher provocation threshold. Wherever the truth lies the fact is I’m wondering whether it might be time to poke the bear with a stick again.
Next season’s seed catalogues have yet to arrive, but even now as we start to clear the early crops away we’re thinking about the coming autumn sowings and beginning to worry about the adjustments we know we’re going to have to make. Heatwave and drought are the first cousins of fierce storms, gales and floods and so we don’t just need to be thinking about seed varieties, but also about infrastructure; water storage, windbreaks and drainage for instance. I can guarantee that two words that will feature in all the seed catalogues will be “drought resistance” . Seed merchants and growers are not quite as stupid as governments when it comes to forward planning and I’m fairly sure that there are trial grounds all over Europe (which is where we source most of our seeds) crossing varieties to see which paragons of drought worthiness can be sold at a premium to worried farmers and allotmenteers. I very much hope that they succeed, but we have to be realistic because 99% of the effort will be devoted to intensive market gardens and arable crops. So for the most part we allotmenteers are going to have to create the conditions that the traditional varieties can still thrive in – and that means paying attention to water storage, soil condition, wind and sun screening and mulching.
On the Potwell Inn allotment we can store up to 1750 litres of water at the moment and it’s hard to see where we could fit any more in without encroaching critically on our growing space. Let’s say that we’ve got around 100 square metres of crop growing space once you’ve taken out the pond, the compost bins and shed. Let’s also imagine that a period of drought might last a month, which would allow 1750 divided by 100 = 17.5, which is slightly less than two full watering cans per square meter for a whole month – which is barely enough for thirsty crops. Then you’d need some eye-watering storms to refill all the butts ready for the next dry spell – storms big enough to cause the underground stream beneath one corner of our plot to flood the roots of the apple trees. Last year I had to dig a drainage trench in order to let it escape. You can see from the numbers that even as abstemious as we are, we are still heavily dependent on the Council supplied water troughs. If those were disconnected during a prolonged drought then we, along with fellow allotmenteers, would lose most of our crops.
Tall crops are especially vulnerable to storms and so we need to construct windbreaks, and again typically a windbreak will protect the ground surface for up to about three times its height. Taller plants need taller windbreaks and so it goes on. Bed design needs to take all this into account. When, as we expect, winter weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme then we have to think about rapid response to snow, or frost or driving rain. Last season was especially mild at times which meant that our crop of purple sprouting came in several months earlier than expected, leaving a longer than usual hungry gap.
Our basic soil is a rich alluvial clay loam, prone to poaching in winter and drying out rock hard in drought summers and so soil modification also comes into the picture; compost, some silver sand and grit in the worst affected areas and deep drains within the paths between the beds all help to mitigate the problem. Sometimes it feels as if we’re battling against common sense by adding compost to aid water retention whilst adding grit to break up the clay. But we muddle through and although we grow vegetables there’s no doubt that we’re in for a rough ride as the climate catastrophe bites.
So is it time to wake the bear? As I look desperately for some sign that politicians are beginning to formulate a plan, my heart sinks when I discover over and over again that the plan always seems to seeking to take us back to the status quo ante – they way things were before the 2009 banking crisis; the way we used to live in complacent comfort while we destroyed the environment. It’s over fifty years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring,
** for some reason the final paragraph of this post was lost in transmission and I’ll add it here as best as I can remember it because (I hope) it completes the thread.
….. and sixty since Vance Packard published “The Waste Makers” and “The hidden persuaders” – all of which three books, as we know to our cost, were a prescient look into the dystopian future we now inhabit. Today I was walking across Sainsbury’s car park in the blazing heat. There’s a 10 mph speed limit because pedestrians have no alternative but to cross the traffic lanes. As I made my way I was approached at speed by a large black Porsche SUV travelling at 20mph or more, an annoying breach of manners in my book, so I just carried on – forcing the driver to stop and wait for me. As I passed the front of the car I was hit by a blast of mercilessly hot air presumably emerging from the SUV air conditioning. I mention this because I’m wondering how many organic cabbages I need to grow in order to offset the amount of carbon and other pollutants being pumped into the atmosphere by one wealthy and selfish car owner. Or to put it another way, is it time now to wake the bear?
For five days a week and over many decades, Brian English – once our village baker and now sadly passed away, set his dough to prove in the early evening after the bakery closed and then got up at around 4.30am to bake. It’s a punishing regime and when he retired he told me how glad he was to escape the grinding routine. You didn’t often see him in the shop unless you went early; he was a great countryman and would take his dogs out for long walks along the banks of the Severn. Sometimes he would emerge into the shop, dusted with flour, wiping his hands on his apron and share a joke or a yarn about the old days when they delivered bread by horse and cart . Jenny, his wife would sell the bread, cakes and buns adding to their value with abundant village gossip. An invaluable source of information for anyone involved in pastoral work.
So with his example in mind I can’t claim any virtue for getting up early to bake. This hot weather – it was above 22C all night – encouraged the sourdough to run away with itself and by 5.00am it was threatening to overtop its banneton like a giant muffin so there was no alternative but to bake or waste the time and flour and start again. Fermentation, being a process of nature rather than the plaything of human will; will have its way and we have no alternative than to respond.
It’s been a tricky few days; unremittingly hot and growing hotter with no respite forecast until the weekend. Hot weather brings its own challenges and out on the green, sunbathers pick their spot as if on the beach; children play all day, their happy sounds echoing around the crescent; dog walkers are out two or three times and not all of them pick up the mess. Later in the afternoon the barbecues are lit and small groups of friends take the opportunity for some alfresco dining. As afternoon turns to evening the parties grow rowdier and after dark the impact of all the alcohol begins to unravel the temporary alliances, and the conversational noise can easily turn to hostile shouting. Yesterday we had a major incident in the house with the police and ambulance attending for a couple of hours. A young man had gone off the rails in the middle of the night and needed help. Dogs bark incessantly and doors slam as the revellers return home. We’re lucky to be able to snooze during the hottest part of the day.
So I’m sitting here wearing next to nothing, drinking tea which I know will prevent me from going back to sleep and writing this post as the timer counts down. The flat is fragrant with the smell of baking. They say that change is as good as a rest – but with the climate breaking down, brush fires blazing, drought gripping the farms, fuel prices going through the roof and poverty stalking the streets with the government indulging itself with an onanistic month away from their desks, it seems like our society is hovering – two cans of cheap cider away from a riot.
I was going to write about our polytunnel tomatoes which have done very well this year – just loving the hot weather. So a piece I was thinking about on the making of panzanella will have to step aside because we were totally gazumped by the blackberries yesterday.
Given the number of privateers who like to climb over the fence and nick our produce without the bother of paying for it or growing it; we’ve capitalized on two of the most useful properties of the blackberry, that’s to say its murderous thorns and its ability to put down roots whenever one of the shoots touches the ground. The third property never really entered our heads, that’s to say the marvellous eating qualities of some wild blackberries. That italicised “some” comes from the fact that the blackberry hybridizes like nothing else, and whilst they all look pretty much the same they vary in palatability from heavenly to a mouthful of sour grit. So what are the chances of choosing a random blackberry to make a fence impregnable and hitting on a bigger, sweeter and more fragrant variety than any of the professionally bred hybrids we’ve all been planting at no little expense.
The downside of this horticultural magic trick, is that word gets around and a polite but steely middle class battle to harvest the fruit is conducted. There are no rules, but the winner takes all. This year we won! And after a dawn raid we came home with a carrier bag and four pounds of sweet blackberries plus a few assorted spiders and grubs.
It was an early encounter with blackberries that introduced me to the spiritual conundrum – that the profound gratitude I was feeling had no home to go to. Who to thank for this outrageous generosity? It’s a question I’m still working on – so please, no easy answers! I’m ashamed to say that we repaid the generosity by making forty pounds of the most disgusting chutney ever, and giving it away to friends. That’s probably why we haven’t got many friends.
Good blackberry bushes, like good spots for harvesting field mushrooms and other fungi are family secrets and never divulged to strangers. Just as when asking farmers how they’re doing you expect nothing more than noncommittal shrug and a mournful shake of the head so too, the passing stranger – asking if the blackberries are any good – will likely be told that they’re very poor indeed, but the rabbit seems to like them; but in the secrecy of the kitchen where the ripe berries have a perfume as fugitive and erotic as truffles, we hug one another and celebrate our great good fortune. In the midst of bad news we’ve pulled a rabbit out of the miserly hat. My uncles were pretty good poachers apparently and doubtless shared the same feelings.
Of course, harvesting them is one thing and locking that exquisite floral perfume into food is another. Blackberry and apple pie never really floats my boat and blackberry jam shares the same pippy texture even when the perfume is there; and so my very favorite way is to make bramble jelly. It’s tricky to make because it needs a bit of pectin to set it and if you add apples you tend to lose the glossy burgundian transparency and so we use proprietary jam sugar which seems to give a better finish.
The other challenge is that the fragrance is really very fugitive and so gentle cooking followed by the shortest possible boil to setting point is the only way to lock in the perfume of the blackberries; but when you bring it off, it’s worth all the faff. Jelly making always seems a bit wasteful but I usually let the initial ingredients drip for at least 12 hours. Our blackberries yielded just under a litre of juice (another reason for finding the best bushes) and with under a couple of pounds of jam sugar it made four and a half small 14oz pots which will only be brought out for special occasions. I remember my grandmother dropping a spoonful of bramble jelly on a rice pudding as a special treat.
And so an intimation of the harvest came early in this season of drought and heat – but it sent us singing into the kitchen where Madame cooked while I assembled the first panzanella of summer. If the Government Scrooges knew how good it felt they’d make it illegal!
Allotments very quickly get out of hand, such is the vitality of nature, and so the photograph of this neighbouring allotment isn’t the product of idleness or long abandonment but simply because the allotmenteers were unable to tend their plot for a couple of months due to circumstances beyond their control. Most interesting to me is the fact that the shot shows two of only seven UK plants which are legally notifiable. They must be removed by law. If Ragwort is incorporated into hay and dried it’s capable of killing livestock – whereas whilst growing in the ground – livestock avoid it. Creeping thistle is a menace because its rhizomes spread aggressively – rather like bindweed – so from an allotmenteers’ point of view it’s the more pernicious of the two. I won’t bother to illustrate the bindweed because anyone who’s ever gardened will instantly recognise those white underground rhizomes. But the Creeping Thistle is tricky because most ordinary gardeners are less likely to recognise it. Here are some more photographs :
It’s all too easy to uproot one of these thistles and, finding something that looks very like a tap root, conclude it’s one of the other less pernicious ones. Unfortunately you have to dig deep – really deep – to find the thick white rhizome that spreads like wildfire. Those plants that grow from seed – and it produces a great number – grow a tap root in the first year and then develop the rhizomes in the second. Fortunately the seeds aren’t that successful, but even a tiny percentage of many thousands can soon turn into a problem. The best way of dealing with them is to uproot them before they flower – as in the left hand picture – when much of their energy has gone into making seeds. The four roots in the middle picture were loosened with a fork and pulled firmly to extract as much as possible, but even so they snapped off leaving much of the rhizome intact and ready to produce more plants. All we can do is hope to weaken it by frequently pulling them up. Madame and I were talking about this yesterday and we thought that the only domestic animal capable of eating thistles is probably a goat. We kept one back in the seventies and she would eat absolutely anything. Brilliant for clearing scrub!
Ragwort is a biennial and, once again, needs careful pulling to reduce numbers; but neither plant will ever be eradicated entirely because they have developed resistance to farm chemicals. Organic control (there’s a good leaflet on the Garden Organic website) is the only option for those of us who opt out of using chemicals.
Of course there’s a downside to controlling these plants because they are both highly attractive to pollinators and they make a lot of nectar ; so removing a weed also removes an important nectar or pollen source as well as a food plant for some of the butterflies and moths we most treasure. Our attitude towards so-called weeds exposes the mindset that places our human needs above the needs of all the other creatures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should let these weeds take over our plots, but I am suggesting that many of the small decisions we make on the allotment have an ethical and philosophical component that make our lives that bit more complicated; more morally responsible.
I’ve spent fifty or so years working with people who’ve got themselves into terrible trouble, because they came to a tipping point through countless tiny steps. Nobody sets out to kill all the bees, but they die anyway because a lot of people making little bad decisions can add up to a crime against the earth. These days we’re all creating wildflower gardens, but we shouldn’t neglect the contribution of less popular weeds. Even couch grass offers a particular niche for the Gatekeeper butterfly, and stinging nettles are vitally important for the Comma. Ragwort too is the foodplant for caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth. While I was taking the photos for this piece I noticed that our Buddleia was devoid of butterflies, whereas I spotted five separate fly/insect/beetle species on the Ragwort. So what I’m suggesting is probably enough to give many gardeners apoplexy, but what is the real danger to an allotment site that would result from a few neglected patches around the edges? Another of our neighbours had an allotment that was truly out of control and, when she got a rude letter from the council, she sprayed it with glyphosate. The grasses and “weeds” all dutifully turned brown and keeled over which, in the present drought, presented a distinct fire hazard. But now after a couple of thundery downpours, they’re nearly all growing again.
So here’s a thought that dropped into my mind yesterday. Many of us enjoy watching gardening programmes on TV. We also love watching celebrity chefs promoting regional foods from across the world and cooking perfectly irresistible dishes. We watch nature via the TV screen and could almost come to believe that all’s well in the world. My challenging thought is this – do television, newspapers and magazines present a falsely rosy view of our situation within global ecological and climate breakdown? And if that’s the case are they functioning as a Panglossian ideological tool which, by presenting a false picture, allows us to think that things aren’t that bad after all?
I spend much of my life in a kind of enervating despair when I look at the present crop of politicians in the UK; the overwhelming majority of them unwilling to act effectively to address the challenges that face us. News bulletins recycle the dangerously stupid ideas dreamed up by politicians so morally corrupt you wouldn’t let them look after your pet dog for an hour. They cry “peace! peace! when there is no peace”.
I even worry that the Potwell Inn, when I write about the way we try to live in the midst of a collapsing culture, might feed the impression that at least some bits of the world are working optimally. They’re really not. We’re lucky enough to live in the centre of a World Heritage City and on some days as we look out over a green space lined with trees we could almost believe that we’re in the grounds of a Georgian stately home. But more often than not we look out on a public space where addicts gather to buy drugs from dealers on bikes (easier to escape on). The air we breathe is dangerously polluted by the constant traffic and the river is polluted to the extent that great rafts of foam float down it during flood conditions. While hundreds of dwellings have been taken out as AirBnb rentals, the waiting list for decent affordable housing in the City grows longer and longer. GP appointments are almost impossible to get; the waiting list for NHS dentistry is a minimum of three years and the local hospital is frequently overwhelmed. Meanwhile the more photogenic parts of the City are regularly closed off to facilitate the filming of endless TV series that draw ever greater crowds to see the places where invented characters do imaginary things. We live in a hallucinogenic haze of Jane Austin, TV soaps and Roman centurions suffused by fast food and the aroma of chip fat.
It’s the political roots of the present crisis that need to be dug out. We’re all too ready to ignore the roots of the pernicious weeds that thread through our political culture, choking out anything that might feed and sustain us. We don’t live the good life. The most we can hope for is to live the best possible life within a broken culture. Our tomatoes are just a tiny skirmish in the battle against climate collapse.
Another day of extreme heat here in Bath keeps us confined to the flat with the shutters and windows closed. We go to the allotment early to water and then sit in the gloom reading and writing. Yesterday – which broke temperature records we tested the “closed windows and shutters” regime with some thermometers and consistently managed the indoor temperature to 10 degrees below the outside.
I hear a lot about our alleged feebleness in confronting temperatures that are quite familiar in, say, Southeast France. These inadequate arguments almost always fail to address the fact that our infrastructure is geared to a temperate climate; so in continental Europe, transport doesn’t grind to a halt because it’s designed not to. And it’s not for lack of warnings. Our privatised utilities have known what’s coming for years but ignored the scientists in favour of dividends to the shareholders. In Southern France, for instance, it’s normal to have very thick insulating tile roofs, thick stone walls and external shutters and the traditional working day embraced a long break at midday. Crops are harvested earlier in the year and the village fêtes occupy much of August. Here, in the UK, farmers and gardeners struggle with the unpredictability of climate change and many homes are not insulated against temperature extremes. Allotmenteering – and also farming- becomes a constant gamble against the unexpected turns of the climate.
The other argument – which is an offshoot of the first – claims that we happily take holidays in hot climates and manage perfectly well. I saw this argument advanced recently by Jeremy Clarkson, the moron’s philosopher. This is a half truth dressed up as a clincher because although it’s true we seek out hot places, we do so to relax, not to work; we often stay in hotels with air conditioning and swimming pools and we have absolute freedom to seek out shady places and cold beers whenever it suits us. Working in impossible conditions is no fun at all. I once unwisely asked a retired South Wales coal miner if he missed it and he said “no I bloody hated every minute of it!”
We’ve been warned for decades about the imminence of global heating and yet our politicians and planners have been pushing back at the kind of changes that we know will need to be made. With a four year electoral cycle there’s always an incentive to avoid climbing the mountain by taking a more pleasant and scenic diversion. So let’s think a bit about the word watershed, as we’re inclined to see those moments when the consultant leans over sympathetically and announces that all those years of overeating, smoking or drinking are demanding their payback.
If sitting in a UK room at 26C (80F) in high summer with the windows and shutters closed and with the electric lights turned on because it’s too hot to venture outside – if that’s not a watershed moment then there’s nothing to do except sit and wait for the end. Among the many things the politicians have remained silent about, there’s been a drought since the beginning of the year and suddenly we’re being told to be careful with our water use because the river levels have fallen too low to replenish the reservoirs.
I’m indebted to the Mashed Radish website for a proper explanation of the term watershed. If, for instance, you drive South through the central spine of France you will reach a signposted point where the rivers which had been flowing Northwards throughout the first part of your journey, suddenly reverse direction somewhere on the Massif Centrale, and shed their water in a southerly direction. A watershed is a place, or an instance of profound and significant change – a paradigm shift if you prefer. “Go with the flow” for too long, and there will be a point at which the direction will, of necessity, change. At the heart of any discussion of watershed moments is an acceptance that resistance is futile. The change, however unpleasant or costly is going to happen and our only path is to adapt. A watershed moment is a non-negotiable fact on the ground. Voila! welcome to the climate crisis – our bridges are well and truly burnt and there ain’t no return to the Promised Land.
If there’s any good news in all this, it’s that no amount of fiddling with the great ship of state is going to help. The media, the corporate lobbyists, the industrial behemoths and above all their plaything politicians have failed comprehensively. Endless growth was a Ponzi scheme heading for disaster, and the bad news for capitalism is that climate disaster is nothing if not democratic. No one can relocate to a more favourable earth. Relying on uninvented technology to save us is like waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to ride over the hill – it only works out well in films. In real life we are left standing to confront the folly of our behaviour. My entirely provocative personal opinion is that not a single drop of oil should be pumped from a new well until the last Range Rover or similarly wasteful SUV has been consigned to a giant scrapheap along with all the products of the weapons industry.
Do I sound a bit cross? I generally try to avoid getting too excited about politics on this blog so you can be thankful I’m not the least bit interested in getting into politics. Complete cultural change, on the other hand, is a different matter.
I’m sick of being told by journalists that because I’m both old, male and white I must, perforce, be a gammon faced right wing climate-denier. It’s not true for me and it isn’t for huge numbers of older people. The Potwell Inn – understood properly – is a provocation; an act of defiance against the politics of the status quo, and a shout-out for a deeply fulfilled humanity, lived in all the huge potential for diverse expression within the earthliness of the “at hand”; the other life forms upon which we depend for food and (dare I say) spiritual growth. Alternatively allotments usually do the trick.
We’re still experimenting with the best position to set the trailcam to get the best shots of passing animal traffic. Obviously the best location is the crossroad through which all visitors have to pass, but these videos suggest that we should create a slightly longer shot by setting the camera about 3 metres further away and looking west rather than east to avoid the morning sun burning out the picture. That would allow us to set the camera a tad higher without losing the smaller creatures.
There have been rumours about deer on the site for years, but no-one’s ever come up with any proof. The circumstantial evidence is there, with sweetcorn being eaten at cob height without breaking the plant off as badgers tend to do. Rats climb up the stalks but leave half the cobs untouched – same as squirrels.
There’s a real dilemma here for us. We’ve worked hard to create a wildlife garden that’s still productive. We think we’ve succeeded in the butterfly/insect/moth/bee/fly/ amphibian department. As I’ve previously written, the competition between prey and predators seems to have reduced insect damage to the food crops; but although it’s delightful to see these larger mammals on the plot, they can wreak havoc there. It’s likely the deer was disturbed by a tremendously loud Michael Bublé concert in front of Royal Crescent on Friday and Saturday, although that’s a pure guess. Roe deer are brilliant as concealing themselves – we once photographed half a dozen of them clearing up windfall apples in our previous garden.
Badgers, of course, are a major predator of hedgehogs which makes it impossible to know whether the reason we’ve never seen hedgehogs on the site is down to predation or the excessive use of slug pellets and rat poison. It’s the age old problem that always occurs when we interfere in an ecosystem. There’s no doubt that hedgehogs would be a tremendous asset in controlling slugs. The blackbirds do a great job hunting the path edges; and robins also help control soil pests as well as worms. We see Buzzards overhead and it’s only a matter of time before the introduced Eastern and Welsh populations of Red Kite meet and become frequent flyers. What with Peregrines nesting on St John’s Church, we’re potentially well ahead with avian predators to hunt our rats – a truly joyful prospect. Pigeons are a major problem on the allotment and any brassicas that aren’t securely netted are likely to be eaten back to the ribs. The thing about animal predation is that animals kill to meet their immediate needs. Even foxes, when they kill a dozen or so hens – which has happened to us at least three times – would come back, drag them away and bury them; especially when they’ve got cubs.
As ever we just have to get out of the way and stop pretending that the earth exists purely for our benefit and give up shooting, poisoning and trapping these creatures. I sometimes have to pinch myself to think that all these wild beings are living in the centre of a busy city like Bath; probably because we have so many parks and gardens, along with significant wildlife corridors along the river and reaching out in other directions, north and south.
Just as an aside, I was astounded to see a BBC report this week that up in the pine forests of Scotland, the foxes eat significant quantities of dog poo. Who knows what cleaning up they do on the green outside the flat! Apparently it has the same calorific value as the usual prey species and it doesn’t run away. Who’d have thought it?
So what do we do about the deer and the badgers? It seems perfectly reasonable to fence our vulnerable crops because neither species is going to disappear as long as there are so many alternative sources of food. I daresay they’ll still come down and mooch about a bit, then hopefully wander off somewhere else having posed for the trailcam. On the other hand I remember watching a badger completely demolish a fence we’d just installed around the Head Groundsman’s garden. In this case there was nothing to eat – he just resented having his customary route blocked . A 24lb male badger repeatedly throwing himself against a fence until it broke was a memorable and chastening sight. The best laid plans of mice and men ….. etc
We were eating lunch today whilst listening to the Food Programme on BBC radio. We’d missed the beginning but it didn’t take long to realize that the theme of mindfulness was everywhere apparent but nowhere expressed directly. Among the contributors was Tom Calver, a local cheesemaker who turns up every two weeks at the local farmers’ market. His stall couldn’t be less ostentatious – a trestle table with a large round of Westcombe Cheddar, another of Duckett’s Caerphilly – also made by him – and some ricotta. You’d have to ask just to find out the maker’s name, because there’s not even a sign. The first time I tasted Westcombe Cheddar I was transported back to my childhood, where we’d never set eyes on industrial cheese because my mother hated the flavour. Our cheese came with cotton scrim still clinging to the rind. Of course there are other fine handmade and raw milk Cheddars around, but Westcombe remains my absolute favourite. Naturally it costs much more than Cathedral City but over the months we’ve discovered it goes much further because it’s not a food that you snack on whilst passing the fridge. It’s definitely a sit down to savour kind of cheese – down to the last scrap of rind.
Many months ago we resolved to buy locally wherever possible and all our milk now comes from Tytherington Farm in Frome which offers a delicious low temperature pasteurised milk from a vending machine in Green Park Station – where the Saturday market takes place. We’ve also found (at last) a butcher there who sells high welfare organic meat from off the farm. Kimbers sell the best Gloucester Old Spot pork you’ve ever tasted and their lamb is produced by their son in law. You can buy fungi of every delightful variety; organic vegetables and so it goes on. The list is impressive. Combined with the vegetables we grow on the allotment we eat better and healthier food than you could buy in most restaurants; and so long as we’re careful we can live within our budget. It just means reducing the amounts of these expensive foods, principally by eating meat much less often.
Of course there’s an argument to be had for cutting out meat, dairy and eggs altogether; an argument that I don’t want to get into here except to say that to claim that all milk, eggs and meat production are equally polluting is to fly in the face of the evidence. How food is produced is crucially important to any discussion about the impact of farming on the environment so we need to move away from false arguments that treat the impact of small mixed farms as being identical to that of enormous industrial feedlots.
Tom Calver made the really interesting comment that cheesemaking can be quite boring if you don’t relish paying minute attention to each part of the process from pasture and herd management through the natural processes of cheesemaking right through to promoting and distributing the finished product. In fact every single contributor to the programme was making the same point. It’s complete dedication to every part of the process that makes the difference between food as a commodity and food as a joyful cultural celebration.
So to get back to today’s lunch at the Potwell Inn, there were new potatoes, peas and French beans all picked or dug this morning ; and beetroot harvested yesterday. None of them had travelled more than a quarter of a mile. We also had cold breast of lamb, rolled and stuffed that has lasted us a week, which was driven up to the market from Frome – all of 20 miles away. If you’ve never eaten peas harvested and then steamed for a couple of minutes, then you’ve never eaten peas. We grow a tall variety called “Show Perfection” by Robinsons and also a better known variety called “Alderman”. They’re big, fat and incredibly sweet.
In previous years our peas have been badly afflicted by Pea Moth but this year, although we’ve lost a few pods, has been quite different. In fact so far as pests are concerned we’ve had one of the best seasons ever. With all deference to the impossibility of any valid controlled trial, our hunch is that the transformation of the allotment from straight rows and bare earth to messy and a bit wild has brought in a host of insects – they’re everywhere. All the agonised discussions about pollinators ignore another huge advantage of getting the insects in. Many of them aren’t much use for pollinating but they’re ferocious predators. Some of the tiny wasp-like hoverflies and their kind like nothing more than to lay their eggs inside their hosts; eggs which hatch into maggots and ….. well I leave the rest to your imagination. So perhaps one of the advantages of our kind of organic messy wildlife gardening is that prey and predators are locked in a grisly battle that keeps us all happy. Even the Blackbirds join in the fun by eating the slug eggs around the path edges. When plants get attacked we leave them in the ground so the attack is confined – one lettuce in a group, for instance.
The borders are all planted with herbs and known pollinator attractors, and where herbs like Lovage and Fennel have flowered and set seed, we leave them in place. The sunflowers perform the same function and so the birds soon figure out where the food is. A rough and unscientific survey conducted from a deckchair suggests that wild Marjoram is one of our most popular nectar plants. This year we’ve seen the largest variety of insects, butterflies and moths, spiders, hoverflies, damselflies and dragonflies ever. But the key question is – “does all this attention on wildlife diminish the overall yield from the allotment?” and the answer is an unequivocal no!
There’s no scorched earth and no bare earth anywhere to be seen on the allotment. The 100% ground cover shades the earth and helps keep it moist, even in a heatwave such as we’re experiencing at the moment. It provides food and cover for a toad, and any number of small mammals from mice, through rats, to foxes, badgers and a ginger cat. We know this because there’s a trail cam that we move around the allotment to see what’s happening at night. The mindfulness demanded of cheese makers and brewers applies equally to us on the allotment. It might look a bit messy but we’re constantly monitoring the crops and the pests to see how things are going along. Some of our allotment neighbours might think that our obsessive attention to detail is a bit much and whilst we respect their right to take a fortnight off now and again, each and every setback through – for instance – too much or too little water accumulates and produces smaller weaker plants, smaller crops and higher pest attacks.
So let’s add the notion of mindful gardening to the equally important idea of messy gardening. My mother used to say “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”. That’s a lovely way to describe gardening. Like music, the beauty is inescapably created by alternation of sound with silence, of mindfulness with activity, and – at the end – a profound sense of gratitude for the thing created. It’s very hard to experience that gratitude for a lump of industrial processed cheese or a packet of frozen peas. It’s always worth the wait for the real thing!
Coming back from the Two Valleys walk I wrote about on Monday, the new edition of Concise Flora of the British Isles by Clive Stace, was in the post box. I ordered it ages ago but publication day must have slipped a bit. The full edition of Stace 4 weighs in at two and a half pounds and this concise edition is both smaller and lighter at just over one pound. Neither edition has either photographs or paintings apart from some severely technical illustrations which, as you learn to use them, are incredibly helpful.
Stace 4 is a kind of botanists’ bible; the final arbiter on the current state of plant ID in the British Isles, and its austerity is something of a challenge. In a sense, you need to know quite a lot about the plant you’re looking at before you turn to Stace – as someone jokingly remarked, plant keys are only any use when you already know the answer. However, as time goes on, most amateurs like me move beyond Buttercups, Dandelions and Daisies to ask “which buttercup?” – there are around ten lookalikes; and don’t even ask about Dandelions. The gleeful pursuit of a better answer is always the ultimate aim, and once you’re bitten you can turn into the annoying child who exhausts you with an ever regressing set of “why” questions. In Stace, the answer is always couched in quite technical language for good reasons, because any ambiguity in a plant description is likely to lead to a poor ID. Consequently there’s no alternative but to learn the technical language. Luckily I’m the sort of weirdo who positively loves to know the difference between proximal and distal, and is ever willing to describe a trowel as being perfectly trullate.
Stace 4 is too back breakingly heavy to cart around in a bag, not least because I’m not completely weaned off the pictorial plant guides and so I would need to carry around two books rather than one. I still need the security of a set of stabilizer wheels on the botanical bike. “One day” I think to myself, “I’ll step out with just the “Concise Flora”. The book goes to bed with me and I study one plant at a time in the hope that something at least will stick to the empty cavity of my mind, and that one day I’ll be able to engage in learned discussions with all the other propellerheads on a field trip. I’m obviously a very needy person!
Anyway, enough of that flowery stuff. I’ve been mulling over the relative merits of my Pixel 5 phone camera against the Panasonic Lumix + Leica macro lens. This ought to be a no-brainer since obviously the Lumix with a fast, purpose built macro lens is going to be better. The downside is that you have to lug it around and make on the spot notes of the location and ID, not to mention negotiating the plethora of decisions about shutter speed, aperture and ISO. The ultimate downside is the shot that demands a tripod and even additional lighting. The only way to decide is to ask “what’s the ultimate aim here?
If the aim is a perfectly exposed image of gallery quality then the camera wins every time. But as a notebook, to record a plant for future reference or identification it’s hard to beat the phone camera. Control over the shutter speed really helps when you’re photographing a plant that’s waving in the wind, or tracking a butterfly and being able to exploit the macro lens capacity for creating a bokeh effect, blurring out the background and foregrounding the central image, makes for a great close-up. So I guess the answer to my question is both.
Further evidence that the wildflowers on the allotment are really working to attract visitors came with finding a Marbled White butterfly inside the polytunnel yesterday. We also noticed what is probably a Frog Spider setting up its stall on the flower of one of the Achilleas near the pond.
It’s hard to overstate the pleasure that these visitors give us. While I was watering early this morning I realized that probably half our energy now is going into feeding them. That said, the smell of beetroot wafting through the flat as it steams in a pressure cooker is a reminder that the peas, raspberries and beets we picked today are both fresher and far tastier than anything we could buy. Sometimes it seems a sin to cook them at all – who doesn’t pick peas or beans and eat them greedily on the spot? I know that I have some readers with a somewhat unhealthy interest in Borlotti beans, judging by the number of hits those posts attract, and so I’m putting up a photo of some Borlotti in full sensuous bloom. Please use them wisely!
Aside from that, everything’s going full throttle on the Potwell Inn Allotment. This is one of those times in the season when we’re being driven by the plants. The Bindweed (we have to contend with two Bindweed species and last week I identified a third on the walk), – so the Bindweed is ramping through everything. We tear it off as near to the ground as we can and then it dies back and its skeletal remains reproach us until next year. There are also photos of the peppers, runner (string) beans, tomatoes and melons. Here in the UK we’re preparing for a heatwave; further evidence of the approaching climate disaster. With the government in chaos the siren voices of the dirty fuel lobby are rubbing their hands at the thought of yet more easy profits with no coherent opposition.
On the day that fuel price protesters were blocking the motorways all over the country, we opted to catch the Weymouth train out of Bath Spa. It’s the small train which leaves the London main line at Bathampton turning right (that’s a technical term) via a set of points and on through the Avon Valley. In these days of diesel trains and welded rails, the characteristic sounds of the steam journey have changed from irregular beat to an even thrumming without interest – except, that is, when the train hits a set of points and clatters off to left or right with a diddley diddley diddley dum and a bit of a wiggle thrown in for good luck. At Bathampton it always feels as if we’re on the Hogwarts Express; veering off to an entirely different kind of countryside where the 1930’s Great Western Railway posters suddenly come to life and men wearing tweed jackets and trilby hats walk their labradors along the riverbank, trailing clouds of Cavendish tobacco smoke from their pipes.
Of course we weren’t going to Weymouth The train stops as often as a country bus; but the fare with our Railcard is cheaper than petrol plus parking; it’s the greener way to travel and we can stop for a pint or two at a country pub and get driven home by someone else. Anyway I love trains so it’s a no brainer. In fact we were only going as far as Avoncliff Halt and planned to do a new circular walk on what’s known as the “Two Valleys Walk” – a clever marketing ploy by the rail company . You follow the River Avon along the riverbank back to its confluence with the River Frome at Freshford. This was an excuse to revisit Friary Wood which we explored for medicinal herbs last Wednesday.
You’d think – with the A36 barely half a mile away and running along the upper half of the valley – that it would be noisy and overcrowded but it’s not. The roads into this stretch of woodland are not much wider than farm tracks and often end with a solitary group of buildings, hardly qualifying even as a hamlet. For once, in this car scorched earth, the best way to arrive is at one of the railway stations, on foot, and take the train. And, should you be lucky enough to alight at Avoncliff Halt, you climb a flight of concrete steps and meet the John Rennie aqueduct which carries the Kennet and Avon canal across the River Avon. It’s along this stretch of the river that road, rail and canal share a contour around the steep sided valley, but here at the lower level, water and peace prevail. There’s even a pub, the Crossed Guns, that does a decent meal and a pint or two; serving walkers, canal-goers and cyclists not to mention those who take the hazardous winding lane by car.
Looking across the lily pads in the river to the pub it could almost pass for the Potwell Inn, but of course – being imaginary – nothing and nowhere ever lives up to the dream.
Naturally the poem that came to mind as we stood on the platform and watched the train clatter off towards Weymouth was Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”. A musing punctured by the cheerful heave ho of the diesel engine’s klaxon.
So off we walked down the southern bank of the Avon. It turned out to be as much a bird day as a plant hunt. Overhead we could hear and then we could see a Red Kite. A song thrush practiced its phrases in the trees where later we heard a Green Woodpecker and a late to bed Tawny owl. At the conjunction of the two rivers at Freshford Mill we turned up the riverside footpath to Friary Wood and on towards the village of Iford. We had never explored the river Frome before and knew very little about it. The village of Iford is so perfect you really feel you’ve stepped back a century and providentially, just as Madame was tackling a stile with a deep drop, the River Bailiff opened the gate for us and later, on the narrow bridge over the river, we had a long conversation about the river, the fishing and a mutual friend called Bob Talbot who ran a tackle shop in my first parish where he and Rene became my firm friends. Bob became my mentor over many an expedition on a Wednesday where I would wear my fishing clothes under a cassock while I took a communion service and scoot through the house discarding the clericals and out through the back gate where Bob would wait behind the high wall in his three wheeler, ready to whisk me away beyond the sharp eye of the Verger who would have grassed me up. The Bailiff – Ed – was a persuasive man and very nearly got me to join his angling club. We peered over the wall and saw multitudes of small Chub congregated there. He reminisced about the times when large Barbel were frequently caught and talked about the voluntary work that members did to maintain the river bank and the fish stocks.
Then a very steep climb to cross back to the Avon Valley and return to Avoncliff and the Crossed Guns – about five miles in all. Later – after lunch – we crossed the aqueduct again and waited for the train home. A perfect day, then!