I’m not quiet I’m thinking!

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Actually that’s not totally true because like many grandparents find, school holidays offer lots more opportunities to be with grandchildren and this last couple of weeks we’ve also got together with all our grown up children. However that’s not where most of my energy has been going, because I’m in the process of changing my mind. This isn’t a small matter of believing X rather than Y, but a fundamental problem with the way X and Y have been understood. LIke the vast majority of people who are interested in natural history I’ve gone along with the prevailing view that the preservation of threatened species of all kinds hinges on re-creating the precise ecological communities – if necessary behind high fences –  that once allowed them to flourish. The vocabulary of conservation is spattered with words like ‘virgin’ and ‘pristine’ that imply that nature was OK until we messed it up and so we need to rewind the programme to the point where it went wrong and then press the freeze button for the rest of time. It implies that there is some kind of evolutionary plan that resulted in everything being the way it used to be before we spoiled it, and, even worse, that these ecological relationships were somehow ‘right’ and any deviation from them – for instance when so-called ‘alien’ species (the very word gives the game away), move in, they need to be removed, or perhaps ‘cleansed’ in order to return to the pre-lapsarian state of grace. Forgive the religious language but it’s actually a religious thought wearing a white lab coat, but it’s all wrong, and that’s where I’ve been stranded, reading furiously (in every sense of the word) and trying to catch up with a field I know very little about.

At the very moment I was finally getting settled into my botanical studies, I started to get interested in weeds because there are a lot more of them nearby to study; one thing led to another and now I’m in limbo trying to figure out what it’s all for.  What’s the direction we need to travel in in order to repair the ecological damage we’ve done, without  reducing the natural world to a desert with a few gated reserves dotted around to remind us what we’ve lost? What does a healthy and productive earth look like? – feel like? How can we live our lives fruitfully without making things worse? How did we get to the point where we defined the best interests of a tiny part of the human race with the interests of the whole earth? … and I don’t have any answers at all yet. Doubtless they’ll come along eventually but in the meanwhile I’m prowling around the Potwell Inn in a mist of self doubt needing to examine a large part of my experience and memory, paying special attention to the presuppositions that have been pit props and retaining walls to my inner world for decades.

Of course there’s a wider context for all this.  The political chaos that hangs over us like a black cloud is an inescapable source of anxiety, but personally too, things have happened that threw me off kilter.  A farmer I’d known well in one of my parishes fell down the stairs at the weekend, broke his neck and died the next day. It’s a heartbreaking event for his own family, but it leaves us all feeling that life is fragile, fugitive. What with the morons in charge and accidents and illness threatening, what’s the context in which we can  understand the earth, its tides and weather in the broadest sense.

It feels like grief.  Cooking and gardening feel like going through the motions, displacement activities. Yesterday I went to the local stationers and to my great surprise I was able to buy a card index – the beginnings of the Flora of Muckyannydinny Lane.  It’s a card index because you can’t design a database until you are able to define it detailed purposes and I’ve no idea yet what that purpose might be so it’s back to the technology of the quill pen.

But now I’m off to try to mend the fridge on the campervan before we take a break driving as far North and West as we can in England. Yet again we were drawn to the West, and we’re going further North too – right to the Scottish borders, completing the last link from Cornwall in the South and catching up with friends on the way.  There’s nothing systematic in this, just happenstance and curiosity and a big pile of books of which the latest is Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild”. Read it – it’ll explode your mind!

 

Unravelling a bit

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There I am, nose firmly stuck in Richard Mabey’s book “Nature Cure” to which I turned the moment I finished his “Weeds – the story of outlaw plants”, when Madame says to me – “I wish I could find more books like that for you” – the subtext reading something like -‘then you’d sit quietly occasionally’.

The books that have been most important in my life have all shared a number of characteristics in that they set me off on a binge reading spree of the author’s other books; I always read them twice or more; I also read the footnotes; I read the bibliographies and finally I then continue the reading binge by reading the sources.  In this instance many of Richard Mabey’s other books were already on the bookshelf, bought years ago and for reasons only peripherally connected to my present interests.  “Flora Britannica” was bought to supplement the books on botanical art, for instance. First time round the books were interesting and, if you like, out there in the sense that they didn’t get under my skin like they are now; all of which is a rather long introduction to the fact that I woke up this morning feeling cross and after reading in bed for half an hour I felt even crosser – mostly with myself. The phrase, a quotation, really crystallised a sense of unease I’d been failing to unravel or confront for weeks. I realized that I was feeling slightly miffed by the fact that Richard Mabey had perfectly articulated in 2005 a difficulty that I had steered around using a very sophisticated evasion.

But first I need to introduce a new term that I’ve not used before because I’ve tried to avoid using challenging language on this blog.  However this term (which I’ll explain once and then use the less provoking acronym PFTP) was a piece of advice regularly given to his students by Canon David Isitt who was Canon Theologian at Bristol Cathedral and one of my best ever teachers.  PFTP stands for “pissing from the pulpit”and it’s what you do when you explain how harrowing and difficult your sermon has been to prepare and preach. ‘Nobody wants or needs to know about your suffering!’ He would rage when some hapless student had broken his rule.

I have the gretest affection for everything David Isitt taught me, but in the particular instance I’m writing about now, I think a dash of PFTP is allowed. The process by which you unravel a difficulty is of interest if it might be of any help to someone else confronting the same problem. So was Richard Mabey indulging in PFTP when he quoted this phrase from Jonathan Bate, concerning the Romantic movement? :-

The price of this intoxication with with the spirit of things is a definite break with the human community. Pantheism displaces philanthropy, communion with nature stands in for social awareness.

He (Mabey) goes on to write – (see chapter 3 – Commonplaces) – to write brilliantly about the dangerous defects of almost all natural history television and books, their cutie cutie anthropomorphism and fabricated narratives. The question I couldn’t avoid asking myself, crystallised as a challenge.  “Isn’t your blog in danger of adding to that selfsame false consciousness that creates an entirely bogus world in which runner beans cavort in an organic paradise, and rare wildflowers (accompanied by lofty thoughts) spring up in your path as they did for the great saints.  Or to put it another way, is it ever OK to write when you’re angry or will that put off the readers, the people you’ve gulled along with your lovely word pictures and photos?

I can almost guarantee before I press the ‘publish’ button that this will receive less views and less likes than a piece of the same length about sourdough bread or interplanting Nasturtiums, and it concerns me that I’m so worried I self-censor, but it concerns me more that I could end up publishing stuff that implies “I’m quite the cleverest and happiest person in the entire world – just look at how beautiful my world is!”

So when I’ve written about the drug dealers, the machete attacks, the homelessness and the problems associated with living even in a small city –  problems like air pollution, unenforced planning regulations and such like, it’s not because I want to hint what an edgy existence we lead here at the Potwell Inn so readers can admire our tenacity, it’s because that’s the way life is around here, and the orchids have to set up shop in the midst of all this, just as we do. If I’m drawn to talk about the weeds it’s because the urban environment is – in its own way – just as fascinating as the pristine meadow. Can I escape from anything by creating the perfect allotment and going off to explore the western coasts in the campervan ? – of course not, and neither can anyone else.

This is a sceptic’s guide to being human and, to quote Jonathan Swift in his 1732 poem “the Lady’s Dressing Room” – “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”. (Sorry that extra vulgarity slipped in, but it expresses in a line what I’d struggle to write in a paragraph). Being fully human is – to quote Francis Schaffer, to be “a glorious ruin”, and more than anything else I think the greatness of human life lies in being able to live fully in the midst of the bigotry and stupidity of moronic politicians and their poisonous effluvia.  I don’t want to use (Wordsworth’s) daffodils as a distaction from my moral and ethical obligations to my neighbours and I’d be heartbroken if anything I ever write became a substitute for real action.

Life is a work in progress – until it isn’t any more – and there’s a lot more I’m trying to get my head around (sorry, more PFTP), but what’s shouting at me is that I can’t be an objective and detached observer of the natural world, however rhapsodic that might make me sound, because the best I can manage is to notice it from the inside. There’s no part of me, not a single cell or thought that’s not embedded, hefted in this mess – and, to quote Dylan Thomas – ” – I am dumb to tell the crooked rose / My youth is bent by the same wintry fever”.

Near where we used to live there’s a difficult place to find, called Damery Lake.  It’s hardly a lake any more but a small trout stream runs through it and it’s crossed by a narrow lane that winds for four or five miles between a farm shop I knew well, and a canoe showroom – so naturally I often found an excuse to take the long way home and go from one to the other. I stopped once on the small pack-bridge crossing the stream and I was struck by the most painful waking dream, that one day a century ago, a young officer, fighting in the midst of one of the terrible First World War battles came back to the lake in his imagination and escaped the horror for just a moment as he remembered his childhood nearby, and that some part of his consciousness had become attached to the place like a ghostly presence, filling my mind too, and so the scene ever since has been engraved in my imagination.  Two very small, very expendable human lives separated by a century and united by a place of great natural beauty.  I wonder if he ever found his way back to the lake, or even fished there? Writing the natural world has to embrace all these dimensions of life if it’s not to become escapist and dangerous, and I salute Richard Mabey for encouraging me to take the risk.

 

 

 

 

Sunny day kitchen rituals

One of the most frustrating things  found when I was learning to cook was that so many recipes depended either on specialised bits of kit that I didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy, or on the immediate availability of things like “a light chicken  stock” or “a tablespoon of pesto”.  This could turn what was billed as a ‘quickly prepared light supper” into a prolongued campaign spread over several days and involving a great deal of improvisation. There were no glossy photographs to show what the dish was meant to look like and so there was always an element of doubt as to whether I’d nailed it or failed it. Well-travelled friends always seemed to know what to do with a scallop or what ‘al dente’ meant, but being entirely self taught was fraught with dangers. With Elizabeth David’s recipes for instance all you had to go on was a rough guide of the ingredients and method accompanied by a wonderfully evocative John Minton line drawing which, taken together, made you feel as if you were sitting on a shady terrace in Avignon. When, decades later, we could finally afford to get there we disovered that French cafes were a very mixed bag indeed, and that often the dishes I’d improvised at home were rather better.  There’s an ocean of difference betwen a cook and a chef.

That said, I remained faithful to Miss David and her ‘battery de cuisine’ and over fifty years I’ve managed to acquire most of the really useful bits of kit, and by buying the best quality I can afford, they’ll mostly see me out. Knives are one exception to the rule that you get what you pay for.  You can spend an absolute fortune on them, but I’ve discovered that the top of the range cooks knives sold by Ikea are more than equal to some fancy knives sold at ten times the price.

As for staples, having the allotment is obviously the best way of growing exactly what you need and cooking it at peak freshness – it really does make a perceptible difference. The stock has evolved over the decades but there’s always some in the fridge, condensed down so that a tablespoon will transform a litre of water and a teaspoon will lift an ordinary dish into something special. Cooking is an act of love and skimping on the ingredients sends a message to to those you cook for, that you don’t care very much about them. And reading that sentence back to myself, I can say that very few people – in fact only the ones who should really matter – will appreciate the care you’ve put in and reciprocate the feelings.

So there are mornings when I wake up and go into the kitchen and I know there are routine but essential jobs that have to be done.  Check the stock in the fridge – is there enough or is it time to make more? Does it need simmering for five minutes to make sure it doesn’t go off? – it doesn’t keep for ever! How about the sourdough starter? does it need feeding? Is there bread or should I bake more?  In an emergency I can bake some Scottish morning rolls and get them on the table in 90 minutes, but if it’s sourdough then it will need 24 hours at least. Check the fridge – it isn’t just professional kitchens that need to keep an eye out for the mouldy monsters lurking at the back. Make a list of ingredients in the cupboards that need replacing- there’s nothing more frustrating than going for the plain flour and realizing there’s none left.

Then, this is the month when the jamming, pickling and preserving move to the top of the agenda. Last year’s experiments with dill pickles were a bit of a mixed bag.  Although nothing went off, some of the textures and flavours left a lot to be desired and so this year we’ve grown  special variety of gherkins intended for pickling.  The three plants are incredibly prolific, why wouldn’t they be? they’re growing on the remains of the hotbed and they’ve got their roots into about 300lbs of horse manure! So the sheer quantity makes more experiments possible.  Of the recipes we tried last year the most successful – ie the ones we ate – came from Diana Henrys book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” – so this morning I sorted a pile of similar sized gherkins and once we’ve been up to the allotment to dig some horseradish and collect dill – lots of it –  we’ll start this year’s pickles.  It’s all too easy with preserving to make much more than you’re ever likely to need, and we give lots away to our hungry and delightfully greedy family.  This is an area of preserving I’m not very familiar with, but for sure you need lots of flavour, lots of herbs and such like.  Rather like making pâté it seems that what feels like overseasoning works best.

I think there must be something in the air because today I had my very first thoughts about Christmas: must be those Boxing Day pickles! Autumn is around the corner and we’re feasting now.  My head is full of thoughts of pâtés and confits and now the potatoes are in full spate I might have a go at aligot again. We first came cross it at a summer fête in South East France.  People were queueing for dollops of almost indecently rich potatoes creamed with cheese, butter cream and garlic served with a lump of sausage. It was clearly a local favourite but a single plateful was probably a day’s worth of calories for anyone except a manual labourer. I cooked it years ago for our son and his girlfriend who was obviously more figure concious than any of us. She ate one delicate mouthful and pushed the plate away – too rich!

I know I ‘go on’ a bit but this blog is all about being human and although I range over a lot of topics, I keep coming back to the fact that growing food, cooking and eating it is at the very heart of the Potwell Inn philosophy. Gathering, sharing, eating, talking, having fun, telling stories, sharing troubles aren’t luxuries or extras, they’re it, they’re the point of being human.

 

Muckyannydinny Lane

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Muckyannydinny Lane was the name we used, as children, for a narrow, wet, rubbish filled and overgrown short cut from “The Lane” to halfway down Seymour Road. It was such an uninspiring dump that, so far as I know, no-one ever actually used it except couples who in those far off days needed somewhere out of sight to consummate their relationships. Consequently it became imbued with an almost erotic overtone for me as a child – which may or may not explain a great deal!

Moving rapidly on, I think it’s time to remind everyone that the Potwell Inn is not a real place but a fictional creation of H G Wells whose leading character Alfred Polly had more influence on me growing up than a whole garrison of teachers freshly returned from the 2nd World War, many of them suffering from the same sorts of depressions and mental disturbances that afflicted my Dad. Mr Polly, in the course of the novel, burns down half the town in which he lives unhappily, by setting fire to his stairs while attempting to commit suicide. He becomes an inadvertent hero by rescuing a trapped elderly lady and in the ensuing chaos slips away to search for something better – which turns out to be the Potwell Inn where he only has to get rid of the psychopathic Uncle Jim in order to find his paradise.  Uncle Jim, being vanquished in an act of bungled heroism quite as daft as the suicide bid, washes up dead some time later wearing Polly’s jacket, therefore allowing the hero to be declared dead and consequently free to pursue an idyllic life with the plump landlady of the establishment.  So not quite the story of my life but tremendously resonant for a teenager living in a house haunted by PTSD, falling for Madame who, though she was as slender as a whippet had plenty of  crap to leave behind as well.

So after those two oxbows and the confluence of  several small streams in the great journey of life, I want to say that yesterday was something of a disappointment. “What you want and what you’ll get is two different things” my Granny (who could start a fight in an empty room) would often say.  I was missing the campervan, missing the coastal path walks, missing the botanising and feeling mightily grumpy about it.  Madame, noticing the dark cloud moored over my head, suggested a walk up to Prior Park to look at the plants. Absolute bomber direct hit! that was exactly what I needed to do.  And so all fired up I downloaded a new plant recording app for the phone, packed pocket magnifier, notebook, copy of Rose and even a six inch steel ruler and we set out.

Setting out involved passing the astroturfed bankside, but I did notice one or two dodgy looking plants that might have stepped right over from Muckyannydinny Lane.  Prior Park has become a bit of a building site because they’re repairing one of the dams that’s been tunnelled into by marauding Signal Crayfish. The new app refused to work and after my third attempt to log in I had a huffy message to say I’d been barred and needed to email the management. The Cafe was shut, and there were nothing but weeds and Cabbage Whites to look at and so we turned back and walked home again.

As we walked back with my dudgeon level set to nine, I began to think a bit more rationally about what was going on. Not all of the plants along the bankside were Bohemian interlopers.  There were some that looked like – well, proper weeds which had emerged from the builders rubble and the subsoil, briefly resurrected from their tarmac tombs. There’s a certain muscularity about these plants.  Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as it abhors architects’ fancy wildflower mix, and the bankside has become a grudge match between the flowers introduced for their attractive colours, and the native weeds. Milwall versus the local croquet club. Guess which was winning?

IMG_5883And so a new project began to form in my mind.  Obviously I’d really love to spend my life in places of outstanding wildness and beauty, recording stunningly lovely and rare orchids.  However I actually live right next to the Bath to Bristol Cyclepath which is much loved by commuters on foot, runners, lycra louts on their handbuilt racing bikes, drunks, homeless people and drug dealers who rather appreciate the opportunity of a swift exit if the police arrive. That’s why all our local dealers ride bikes, because they’re over the river and away before the police can do a thirteen point turn and chase them. The litter bins have proved particularly useful for hiding stashes of drugs by taping them up under the lid, like a kind of unofficial click and collect service.

The path is a unique environment all of its own.  There’s the river bank on one side, parks, houses and factory buildings on the other.  It’s much altered and constantly dug up for building work and it enjoys heavy traffic most of the day. If dogs’ turds and discarded cans and bottles contribute any nourishment it must be highly fertile.  Graffiti add a certain edginess to the flat surfaces, but in real life, notwithstanding the fact that the Council like to boast about it as a great achievment for the environmentalists, it’s a frog and no amount of kissing is going to make it into a prince.

But it’s my frog and I like it. This morning I was up at the crack of ten o’clock to take some photos.  I’ve already ID’d three native plants I’ve never seen before and I can feel a big list coming on. Prickly Lettuce and Weld are hardly going to draw in the twitchers, but as I’ve said so often – if you don’t know that it’s there you won’t know when it’s gone. One day, I hope, the Natural History of Muckyannydinny Lane will stand with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Meanwhile a few photos to whet the appetite.

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.