A quiet start to the day in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins

I was padding around the kitchen until a moment ago, rehearsing a kind of ritual. It’s enormously comforting – especially when the nights are dark and long – to spend a while in a fixed routine as the day cranks into life. I’m always up early, long before Madame surfaces. Those two hours in the kitchen are the anchor; the point of departure and the landing stage for everything that happens later. I make builder’s tea for both of us before I start and take a mug in to Madame who may or may not wake up. Later I’ll make strong coffee, empty the dishwasher, make up muesli or sometimes a smoothie, strain the kefir, add the second batch of flour to the overnight starter if it’s an everyday bread day, sort out a pile of tablets, capsules and supplements ready for breakfast. Every day I wonder if I really need to be taking them all but when I asked our GP neighbour if I could stop taking them he replied “only if you want to die” – OK point taken. Although most of me is extremely healthy but there are parts that need propping up; so I swallow the pills so I can pretend to myself that I’m still 35. Madame reads while I shuffle things around in the kitchen – at this time of the day it’s my kitchen – occasionally she’ll call me and we’ll talk about the book she’s reading, or the latest covid figures, or today a recipe for arancini that evoked memories of hot summers and cicadas and we stopped talking and were quiet for a while, remembering. Sometimes in a burst of energy I’ll start a stock on the stove or prep something for lunch. There’s something comforting about wrestling the uncertainties of the day in the dark; clearing a space and a structure – a palisade against the phone, the post and emails.

A kitchen is more than a small room with a cooker in it. It’s a place of contemplation, a laboratory, a library, a scene of triumph and disaster. It’s the tap root of the household conjuring nourishment from cupboards, fridges, baskets, boxes and shelves. It’s an alchemist’s den and in our case an indoor greenhouse. The pots, pans and tools were accumulated over decades but they’re not merely functional because I can remember exactly where and when I bought each piece of kit – like the day I winced when I saw the price of the chinois I’d unhooked from the display above the stairs in Kitchens; the blue cast iron patė mould I bought one Christmas for the big family meal. The cazuelas I found in the remotest corner of a shop in Bath – cheap as chips. There’s nothing extravagant in the kitchen but everything is the best quality we could afford at that moment – not that there’s ever any danger of saying “I’ve got everything I need”. Having the right tools is the difference between easy success and a failed struggle against the ingredients. I’ve even got a barding needle for goodness sake! -how outrė is that?

Cooking is a kind of ascetic discipline. I mentioned a couple of days ago that we were holding the prevailing covid gloom at bay by watching cookery programmes. There’s a particularly good series on Netflix called “The Cook’s Table” – we binge watched three of them last week and like all the best programmes it made me want to cook. Coincidentally I’m reading the second of two biographies of Elizabeth David at the moment – when I read the first I had to entirely recast my image of her, and this newer volume has done little to change my mind. There is almost no point of contact or similarity between our two lives, so I am profoundly grateful for her books which introduced me to an integrated understanding of cooking within its cultures; but I know that if we’d ever met we would have hated one another.

the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons

But the TV documentaries, while they were inspirational in the way they presented the work of the chefs, drove home the point that the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons. We could never in our wildest imaginings have been able to afford to eat in their restaurants. Later, after watching Michel Troisgros at work I searched for the cost of a meal in his restaurant and it was just over £500 per person; part of which expense must be accounted for by the fact that at one point a dish of salmon and sorrel was being plated up by no less than four chefs working in choreographed harmony without tripping over one another.

When our son was looking for a commis chef’s job after catering college, his head of department said to us – “He should go to Stephen Markwick – he puts all his profit on the plate.” Cooking at that level is inherently expensive but my goodness it was in another league from anything I’d ever managed. I’ve never dared to make Markwick’s lovely fish soup, although the recipe is there in one of his books; mainly because I’d almost certainly be disappointed with my efforts. So much of cooking is instinctive, built into the fingers and the reward of constant practice. Our son spent a couple of years in that kitchen and he’s shared a great deal of what he learned there with me – little things like how to push a tomato puree through a chinois with the back of a spoon. There are techniques in the kitchen that it’s all but impossible to learn without being shown – then they’re often blindingly obvious.

Now our youngest son too is a chef who’s worked all over Europe and occasionally we cook together as well. It’s always a joyful experience, especially when he calls me ‘chef’. We often land up cooking Italian because it’s so much fun, and it gives us the chance to let the allotment vegetables shine. Cooking makes me feel human, and yet professional kitchens can be the most dehumanising places on earth. Bullying, shouting and intimidation, tantrums, low pay and impossible hours are all too common; and don’t even mention the drinking and drugs. Our youngest was shouted at so much by one well known chef that he shaved his hair off and had “I’m the boss” tattooed on the back of his head. That didn’t go well.

And so, like our oldest son, I became a cook and not a chef. After many years of practice, and with the culinary gods behind me, I can put food on the table day by day that we could never afford to eat in restaurants. One of my favourite challenges is to try to recreate something we once ate on holiday. Occasionally I get a picture in my mind of something I’ve never tried to do. At the moment I’m trying to work out how I might make a single leaf of savoy cabbage into a wrap for a vegetable stuffing – like a vegetarian faggot. I mentioned this on the phone to my son earlier and he waved away my enthusiasm with “oh yes we used to do that at college”. I just love the way that Massimo Bottura made a whole dish out of the crunchy bits at the edges of a lasagne. I was inspired by his sense of fun – like a dish that looks exactly like a painting by Jackson Pollock.

– even a miss is something of a triumph

So doesn’t that make me presumptuous – to put myself and the three star greats in the same sentence? Well who cares? you might as well aim high and then – well – even a miss is something of a triumph; after all I’m not expecting anyone to pay for my food, and too much of the emphasis in mid level restaurants is on presentation rather than substance. Not only that, it seems that almost all of the great chefs learned their love of cooking from their mothers or grandmothers – who didn’t learn their skills from Escoffier!

We diminish cooking by dismissing it as a domestic art, and anyone who disdainfully uses the term amateur to describe those of us who cook for love has entirely missed the point. Baking bread, making preserves and pickles, putting good food on the table using produce from the allotment has a kind of earthy completeness. It can be life affirming; a way of caring for the people you love – but it can also be dreadful. I remember someone who mistook a grim attachment to peasant food for style, by boiling a sheep’s head with a bayleaf and presenting it to us unadorned on a plate as an hommage to simple values. Her partner begged us to eat as much as we could to save him from a week of sheep’s head sandwiches. When she’d picked off all the bits that wouldn’t make you gag she smoked a cigarette and flicked the ash on to her plate as if she’d somehow penetrated the heart of regional cooking. Not so easy I fear!

Sitting here now as the sounds of the day intensify, car doors slam down in the car park; cyclists and pedestrians pass the flat and we can hear the house waking up through the resonant concrete floors; I reflect that quiet start in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins – is that some kind of secular proverb?

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Old Nog

“What’s your movie?”

Is a the title of a song written by Mose Allison; I’ve got a (possibly bootleg) recording of him singing it at Ronnie Scott’s and I only mention this because Henry Williamson cornered the anthropomorphic market in herons with Old Nog, (who came to life in Tarka the Otter), and I hesitated to name my first thought when we passed this heron on the canal today. Anyway, the song asks a question that’s often asked of literary portrayals of animal life. The worst of them – dare I suggest Watership Down – simply transposes human emotions and dispositions into more or less cuddly animals – which utterly diminishes both the reader and the subject.

“What’s your movie” asks what film character we most identify with or act out – I often listened to its merciless takedown of human weakness on my way to therapy sessions. It always served its purpose in getting me in the right frame of mind for lying on the couch (oh yes) waiting for a word in the silence. A bit like saying your prayers except God was sitting behind you.

What’s your movie?

Are you the artist that’s misunderstood?

The bad guy tryin’ to do good?

Or just the nicest fella in the neighborhood

Mose Allison

So I really enjoy(?) the song but at the risk of trespassing on Henry Williamson’s territory, sometimes another life form – a heron for instance – irresistibly brings someone human to mind. Snakes, donkeys, foxes and butterflies are two a penny but I confess that this bird instantly became a member of an extreme Baptist denomination known as “the strict and particular Baptists“. Heaven only knows what remote root of the luxuriant tree of heresy divided the already strict from the not particular enough members of the original congregation but it must have been fun. I passed what could easily be their only church, driving to Southend one day. But I can find no hope in this heron’s unsparing gaze. He sits absolutely motionless for hours on one or another of his fishing grounds and strikes mercilessly at some poor dace like Amos Starkadder spotting a sinner in the third row of the quivering brethren; gripping the edge of the pulpit and growling “you’re all damned”.

Some animals; dogs for instance but not cats; robins but not peregrines; tench but not pike, can almost convince me that some communication is happening – some thread of negotiable common ground; but not so the heron whose launch into flight seems to defy the possibility of lifting off and yet makes a far better job of it than a mute swan that needs to run on the water before launching. I guess I’ve got nothing that a heron needs enough to bother learning how to flatter me.

I’d have said the the octopus was another creature that failed the common ground test, until we saw recently the remarkable documentary “My Teacher the Octopus” (on Netflix) which seems to suggest that we’re not trying hard enough. If you haven’t seen it you should try, but be warned, you’ll probably never want to eat another octopus. Craig Foster, who made the film (and another equally disturbing/stirring one about tracking animals for food in the Kalahari desert) is apparently now a vegan.

If we’re ever going to find our proper place on this planet we’re going to have to learn a great deal more humility in the face of all its other occupants, from moulds to mountain lions. I don’t, by the way, go for the conventional graphic of evolutionary progress from protozoa to humans, we’re so inextricably part of one another that once you start to zoom in it’s hard to see where one life form begins and another one ends – just ask my gut bacteria! So the poor old heron would have every right to resent being compared to a human preacher.

The daily walk continues to challenge and delight us as the very earliest foliage begins to emerge, intensely green, like a promissory note from the future. More and more of the winter heliotrope are coming into flower and so their elusive fragrance often has you wondering whether it’s the plant or a passer by wearing a tiny trace of perfume. I should stop and watch which insects are visiting, but kneeling down on the towpath risks the danger of being flattened by runners and cyclists locked in their musical islands and breathlessly pursuing their 10K dreams. There are loads of other sturdy beggars of the plant world strutting their stuff in the cold and mist. We’re so lucky to have this all so close.

We were looking at some crime statistics this morning and it appears that 70% of the recorded crimes in Bath are committed in our district. If you include the area immediately across the river it goes closer to 80%. Obviously the figures don’t include undeclared taxable income on property, or white collar fraud. Strangely we feel perfectly safe here and it’s a wonderfully diverse community where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken just while walking into the centre. We’re what happens when you cut whole sections of society adrift. Today we passed Ken Loach – film maker – remember Kes? on our walk. Madame said hello and the poor man looked startled although he’s seen us at any number of meetings. If we lived in the posher parts of Bath we’d have nothing but bedding plants and weed free grass to remind us of nature, but here – down amongst the social housing we can tell a ragwort from a tulip – although you’re more likely to see a red kite than a house sparrow, sad to say.

I notice that the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) at their virtual AGM had a session on a year of plants growing in the pavement. I think I caught a radio programme on the same theme a couple of months ago – absolutely fascinating. Sadly only 66 people had accessed the BSBI video on YouTube. Does that say something about our national priorities?

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Strictly between ourselves

I was slightly relieved when by brief few days of incomprehensible popularity ended. I like to think of the Potwell Inn as a fairly intimate sort of place, and when literally hundreds of readers suddenly flooded in I felt paralysed – having no idea why they were there and what they were expecting of me. This situation has happened a couple of times now, when (I imagine) someone with a big following likes a piece I’ve written and then links it to their blog. It’s all well and good, but I’ve no idea who these new readers are and – (whether or not it’s down to my history) – I feel a kind of pastoral responsibility to my regular readers that I can’t press into service when the bar is packed with people I’ve never met. I don’t know much about most of you but over a long period I know from your likes, for instance, which pieces are likely to be enjoyed by certain readers, even if I only know your website names. I know who prefers the gentle and lyrical pieces to the scabrous political ones; and who likes a bit of philosophy along with the cooking. I know I can always write about the allotment without causing offence, but not about killing rats. I still write about the darker issues because the Potwell Inn is about being human not being perfect. The environmental crisis is safer territory than the economic one. In fact as I write this I’m amazed at what a strong picture I have of my readers. It reminds me very much of choosing music back in the day when I was a parish priest. “Here’s one for Barri” – I’d think as I put something on the Sunday list.

So there we are, back to normal; slogging on through the mist and fog of Covid, weary of listening to politicians who don’t know the difference between an aspiration and a policy, and (in our case) steering well clear of the kind of TV that keeps us awake at night. We watch cookery programmes mostly, and once a week we watch “saving lives at sea”- (about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution if you’re not in the dis-UK) to remind us that the devil doesn’t always have the best tunes.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the continuing presence of brownish white foam in the River Avon. As I mentioned a few days ago it can only get there via the sewers and the perfume of detergent is so strong at Pulteney Bridge you might be forgiven for wondering if the water company was giving the river bed a bit of a clean up – you know it can get very grubby down there and so a couple of thousand gallons of Persil non bio might be a good thing. In a parallel dystopia. Personally I think we should put a notice on all our toilets, sinks and showers to remind us that when it leaves the house it doesn’t leave the earth!

The canal, on the other hand is both clean and quiet. The heron was back on his beat near Deep Lock today; keeping an eye on a couple of workmen who were removing bits of scrap iron (including a child’s bicycle) from the canal bed with a grappling hook and a big magnet. This heron has a number of alternative ways of feeding himself, including paddling the mud at the edge of the flow to stir up potential titbits and also browsing the brambles down there as well. There are just a few ripe fruits still on display, but amusingly the heron stalks the blackberries in exactly the same stealthy way he fishes – as if they might dart off the brambles and hide if they spotted him. The peregrines at St Johns were absent, possibly due to the fact that a bunch of scaffolders were working alongside the tower where they nest . Why are scaffolders so noisy always? I mean postmen don’t go around hollering all the time.

Due to a dozen mutually contradictory message streams in the media it’s either the end of phase 2 or the beginning of phase 3 – but whatever …… it all means it’s lethal to breathe but they hope we will all go and shop until our credit cards spontaneously combust and the economy is saved. We will celebrate the end of the crisis at Christmas by kissing lots of people and not having to make love while maintaining social distancing. Meanwhile the funeral directors are planning their summer holidays in the knowledge that they, at least, will have a good year. With luck the Airbnb hen party house opposite will re-open to young idealists to celebrate love and fidelity by getting drunk, going off with strangers and getting the male strippers back – Madame gets very concerned for them when they take a break on the patio outside with nothing on, apart from a velvet neckband and a large joint – not that, sort honestly! “They’ll catch their death” she says; to which I can only reply that she’ll catch her own if she falls off the dressing table.

So life’s rich tapestry continues here in Bath. Please don’t mention the smelly river or the hen parties to anyone in case it upsets the Tourist Board and definitely not the street beggars; back on the streets now that the milk of human kindness supply has dried up. All’s well that ends well – even if it hasn’t ended by a long mile. It’s a time of magical thinking when we can all have what we want just by wanting it (terms and conditions apply). Meanwhile here’s a photo of the canal today with a hard frost and misty air, and there are more links to older entries below. I was touched to see that yesterday someone read the very first entry I ever wrote. How lovely – as my old friend and mentor Don Streatfield might have said.

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Four hundred and fifty three thousand, seven hundred and forty four

No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.

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Finding the Potwell Inn – and why it doesn’t matter where you find it.

Plas yn Rhiw – overlooking Hell’s Mouth Bay

So this is not a photo of the Potwell Inn – it’s a photo of Plas yn Rhiw in North Wales; BUT IF I was going to actually give the Inn an address it would serve admirably. Writing this post about the Potwell Inn has become important today because the last week has been almost ridiculously busy on the website for no reason that I can figure out.

Thanks for dropping in – we’re here every day

It started when someone probably posted a link to a piece I wrote on harvesting borlotti beans and it attracted an awful lot of readers. I suppose I should be celebrating, but being a born again self-doubter, I instantly attributed it to some kind of mistake until, that is, another post went even wilder and tripled my readership overnight. OK I’m pleased but also puzzled because I’d like to say thank you to my invisible promoters but I can’t. It’s also a sobering reminder that once you press the ‘publish’ button, your little darlings become public property. So here’s a general thank you to my loyal band of regulars and the new brigade of irregulars who’ve appeared out of nowhere. Thank you for coming, it’s been great!

However I noticed that several searches recently have dug out an old post on “Finding the Potwell Inn” – possibly in the hope of dropping in for a pint in front of the log fire. Back along I had a lovely email from a reader who thought that he’d found, (and had a drink in) the original model for the fictional pub that came to life in H G Wells comic novel “The History of Mr Polly”. Sadly the landlady was not properly proportioned for the part: is anyone I wonder? so I’ll stick with Madame who’s perfect for the job as far as I’m concerned.

…… smelt like a combination of billy goat and cottage pie for most of the summer

So to save putting you to the trouble of sorting through a shoe box full of old papers like an accountant the day before the tax returns are due; I’ll say again that the Potwell Inn is not a place at all. It doesn’t exist and yet it could be anywhere that’s a place of refuge in a world that’s falling apart. Sorry for the gnomic definition but I can’t think of any other way of putting it. It first became a place of refuge for me when, at school and locked in an airless room with thirty other teenagers who (in the days before deodorants) smelt like a combination of billy goat and cottage pie for most of the summer; we studied Wells’s novel ‘Polly’ and I made up my mind that my life’s work would be to escape and find my own Potwell Inn.

Looking back on it I’ve realized that the Potwell Inn doesn’t so much exist as a place, but as an experience or – as some modish philosophers would have it – a process. Not, I mean, the kind of elevated process that leads to great discoveries, but the utterly everyday processes of growing, cooking, eating, cleaning, singing, laughing, remembering, loving and dreaming. A place where such ordinary things are encouraged and not disparaged by those who like to sit in judgement. One of the happiest men I ever met was a pallbearer – he carried coffins in and out of churches with an appropriately sombre air and loved his family. He gave me some china eggs once because we had a broody hen who was making a nuisance of herself; and his idea of paradise was to be on holiday with his huge extended family on a caravan site overlooking the brown and turbid waters of the Bristol Channel.

And so the Potwell Inn – that’s to say my (our) version of it has no postcode (or zip code) but is the culmination of houses, journeys, meals cooked and shared, drunken nights and sober ones, pots pans and knives acquired and treasured (each with its own history), holidays, seasons, gardens, allotments and jobs; children being born, growing up and moving away. It leaves behind a rich furrow of ideas, faiths and skills learned, embraced and abandoned; turned in to the soil of our many places. Dust to dust – I can entertain that thought without feeling sad at all; it’s just the way things have to be. Love can only be love when it’s vulnerable.

This is the Potwell Inn in which the produce and people who come through the door become sacramental and a savoy cabbage (today’s treat) can be a feast that’s unavailable at any fashionable restaurant. The Potwell Inn can be a loaf of bread or a cassoulet made with our own beans. More plausibly it could be the first cut of our asparagus, the taste of an apple fresh from the tree or the smell of a clove of garlic crushed. It can be the sound of the tawny owls calling to one another that we heard on our first night sleeping in the centre of Bath and who told us we were in the right place. It can be the smell of the river on a summer evening or the earth as it warms up in spring. It is a world of signifiers where the signified always hides out of sight. The Potwell Inn is a language that lasts as long as a mayfly lives; the burnt crust at the bottom of a paella; the skin on the rice pudding.

The Potwell Inn is not about public houses

If you’re old enough (I mean seriously old) you might have come across a novel by Richard Brautigan called “Trout Fishing in America”. On the back cover was a sentence – Warning to librarians – this book is not about fishing. I’ve described the Potwell Inn in as much detail as I can muster. I could probably write an entirely different version tomorrow morning, and so I’ll close this piece with a similar warning. The Potwell Inn is not about public houses (although anyone who could run a decent pub would have a head start at finding it or building it).

And please feel free to post links back to this blog, or recommend it to your friends if you like it; but let me know because I’d like to thank you personally.

Walking with a purpose

I have some dim idea why I love these little characters so much because they were the first gulls I learned to distinguish out of the group which I had always just seen as “seagulls”. I was puzzled enough by their red legs and beaks with black tips to get a bird book and find out what they were called. That was years ago and so now I know they’re black headed gulls – which caused a many a problem because it turned out they were only truly black headed in the summer. But they turn up here most winters; sometimes they stay and sometimes they go on somewhere else, and since I first noticed them I’ve learned a good deal more about them, but I love their delicate flight; the way they make the herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls who also live here look a bit lumpy – and, they’re here at the moment. These two were on the river bank immediately below the church where we often see peregrines – there was one there today. This isn’t unusual, we also saw wagtails, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, moorhen, mute swans and a lone Canada goose. The heron has been missing for a couple of days but he’ll show up again in one of his favourite haunts.

It was here on this walk that I learned to separate the ragworts; to find pellitory of the wall and half a dozen other medicinal herbs growing wild; here I noticed winter heliotrope and not – as I first thought – coltsfoot. Here too the wild lettuce that doesn’t look the least bit like the stuff on your plate. We do the same walk pretty well every day; come rain or shine. It’s about 8 Km which gets us over the 10,000 step line and passes a couple of local shops that we use. That means that we walk around 10 kilometers most days and it’s not in the least boring because it’s never the same two days running.

If I was trying to make it sound a bit posh I’d call it a transect – an ecological technique that helps us to understand an environment by walking the same path as regularly as possible and recording what you find there. It takes a while but eventually you kind of make friends with it, to recognise the old stagers and the newcomers and to rehearse their names so often that they stick in your mind. Depending on the season we could focus on birds or plants; insects (not too sharp on those) or butterflies and if anything the walk becomes more interesting each time we do it. Naturally there are other walks in much sexier places where we can marvel (gawp?) at five star rarities but there’s nothing in the world to beat finding one of them in a dark corner of a familiar place. We know the proper names of some of the fishes that congregate near the surface of the water in the summer, we watch the river in spate and at its lowest time in a dry summer. There are things we’d love to see – like otters – and I’m sure one day we will. The local natural history society – there’s a link on this page – runs a great facebook group where we can see things we’ve never seen ourselves and check out an identification with some hardcore experts if need be.

Walking is the most tremendous activity when you want to think. Our days are pretty standard; two hours of walking, three quarters of an hour of weights, two or three hours of writing and the rest on the allotment, cooking, eating and reading. When I write it down it looks almost monastic and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Walking grounds us, gives us a couple of hours when we can talk or be quiet and where we can find a perspective on the troubles and worries of life, and it provides me with an endless source of reflection – much of which finds its way on to the blog.

Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau, Santayana and a host of deep ecologists, poets, writers and pilgrims have all found comfort and inspiration in walking, so I reckon the evidence is in. I’ve always kept notebooks and sometimes the notebooks became journals and they’ve been the most important source of inspiration for me. So often, reading back on an everyday, common experience can suddenly flood it with light – “oh so that’s what was going on”. A walk can be an almost symphonic experience that might one moment be prayer, or contemplation, or remembering, or just filled with wonder and delight or perhaps a simmering grouse, or an anger that’s needing to be dealt with. Let them come, and let them go. And that’s not to mention the fresh air, occasional sunshine and the natural history waiting to be recorded.

It’s November, almost official winter and yet today we saw herb Robert in flower, winter heliotrope with its odd perfume, so difficult to describe; nipplewort; a couple of vagrant marigolds on the canal bank and the initial rosettes of a dozen pathside herbs that look lovely even as they are. It’s so easy to be sniffy about ragwort but really, its leaves are lovely in their prime condition.

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a piece of lichen that I picked up last year. If I sprayed it with water it would come back to life, and under the microscope it becomes a miniature world; a kelp forest an inch across. There are bits of dried grass and a pencil sharpener; with all the books and apparatus I need to continue the walk in my head later. It’s so much bigger and richer than just boring old exercise; making up the 10,000 steps. Oh yes, walking is good – good for the legs, good for the mind, good for the spirit too. It takes some ordinary – you might say thin – time of course, but renders it thick, rich and deep like good soil. Sure you might add the biochemical changes and dismiss it all as so much dopamine and you’re free to do just that; but I prefer to think of each walk as another voyage of the Potwell Inn Beagle.

*If you want to explore the philosophy and history of walking rather than read books about routes you might like to look at Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust”. I thought it was a superb book when I first read it and I’d recommend it without hesitation.

Britannia lures the waves!

And – as the great ship of state sinks gently to the seabed of reality …….

Sometimes a photo is a ready-made metaphor for something you can’t quite explain! But then, it was such a nice day today for a reflective walk that even the provocations made me laugh. I’ve written before about the way each season carries intimations of the next to cheer us on, and today there was a tremendous sense that spring will come because time and tide bow to no-one, however powerful our inglorious leaders might like us to think they are. There were signs of occasional occupation in this boat until a month or two ago, but now it’s about to join the shopping trolleys and stolen bikes at the bottom of the river. Meanwhile the prophets of Baal (you can look it up, it’s a very funny story) whip themselves up into a froth of evangelical fervour as we stand alone against Johnny Foreigner – ready to show what we’re really made of. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of Elijah anywhere on the horizon – I certainly don’t think Keir Starmer cuts the prophetic mustard. Anyway as a sign of our preparedness for the coming troubles I thought the poor old wreck was a fitting tribute. Johnson’s new £10 billion navy – “Just needs a lick of battleship grey and a union flag and she’ll look as good as she did in the 1930’s”. And we all know how well that went.

So by way of a bit of diversion this two part graffiti on the river bank made me laugh out loud:

I thought the waggish “why?” completely demolished the rather earnest philosophical tone of the original comment. Elsewhere I thought you might like to see this 20th century brutalist response to the foppish grandeur of Georgian Bath.

Yes it’s the Avon Street multi story car park which is about to be demolished – but still much loved by skateboarders. Needless to say the offending building – like most of the truly ugly modern buildings in Bath was erected in Kingsmead – where we now live. This was the area that was most damaged during the Baedeker air raids during the war – the bombers missed the real target back in the day – but instead of grasping the opportunity to restore what was always a poor but vibrant mixed community they built lots of horrors like this and demolished even more small, historic houses across on the London Road on the spurious grounds that they were unfit. The tragedy, of course, is not so much the failure of architectural imagination – I’m not arguing here for mock Georgian multi-story carriage stables – it’s the shocking fact that someone, in an office somewhere, thought this was all we were worth. George Steiner wrote memorably of a critical test for literature – “What measure of [hu]man does this propose?” The architect Richard Rogers has written that buildings embody our idea of human worth, what we’re about and what we’re capable of. We’re not there yet by any means – the Western Riverside Development in Bath, done by Crest Nicholson resembles nothing more than a bonded warehouse or an architectural tribute to a Chernobyl housing project.

There are, however, grounds for hope. The lockdown has created economic havoc among some of the larger companies, but many of the smaller shops and businesses have proved themselves more adaptable; working collectively and capitalising on what feels like a real longing for a new order. The butchers and bakers and for all I know the candlestick makers too have tapped into something significant, exploring the meaning of local and community; and all it could take to demolish the supermarket myth for good will be another food supply crisis – like the one so heedlessly being put together at the moment. It used to be a raise in bread prices that caused riots – maybe this will be the first civil unrest ever caused by a shortage of jackfruit and avocados, but more plausibly – given the middle class aversion to any action bar gentle hand wringing – it will be provoked by the absence of the everyday things; the foodstuffs that (like it or not), most of us have learned to depend upon.

So back to my book of the year (so far). Here’s a section that caught my eye this morning:

We’ve now discussed, however briefly,the human ecology of field crops, gardens, livestock and wood crops with a view to constructing more sustainable farm systems for the future out of this raw material. Earlier I mentioned the idea of people re-wilding themselves in the context of that future – spreading themselves out across the landscape like other organisms to to skim its flows sustainably rather than concentrating so as to mine its stocks, practising the arts of self-reliance, knowing how to fill the larder, and knowing how to stop when the larder is full rather than pursuing an economy of endless accumulation.

Chris Smage – “A Small Farm Future” p 144

Well, Amen to that. The economy doesn’t just need the tyres pumping up or an oil change it needs to be exposed for what it has become, the means of extracting wealth, leisure and humanity from millions of people and throwing millions more into dependency, sickness and poverty. The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek crino – to choose – and so we have to ask who gets to choose when we reach the crossroads? – when the multiple crises facing us come to fruition at the same time because, in essence they are one massive connected crisis.

So to round off a pleasurable walk today, photographs of the two repurposed bridges from the ‘glory days’ of steam. The first the line from the old Somerset and Dorset, which brought coal (remember that) in from Midsomer Norton and the North Somerset coalfield into Green Park Station. The second, the old Midland Railway line. A third one comes in from the West and goes to London and is the only surviving working line. And of course there’s the lovely iron pedestrian bridge over the Kennet and Avon canal which no longer carries coal but pleasure boaters onwards towards London. The latest bridge across the river is for pedestrians and cyclists only. Steam has gone; coal has gone and the old station now houses market stalls, a butchers shop, food outlets and the local farmers market on a Saturday. The owner says he could let another six units today if there was space. Is this a sign of collapse or is it the foretaste of a new future, the first buds of spring that actually appear in late autumn when the leaves fall from the trees? If you look now you’ll see the buds there waiting. Only time will tell what fruits they will bear.

Trench warfare at the Potwell Inn allotment

The sticky end of the unwanted grape vine

Regular readers of this blog may remember our ongoing struggle with underground streams on the allotment. In many ways we’re very fortunate to have a stream percolating somewhere beneath our feet that is able to supply water to the roots of any our plants with the means to access it. But it cuts both ways when we get very wet weather and the water table rises to about a foot beneath the surface; the clay/loam soil is desperately liable to poach and so many plants hate having wet feet.

The grape vine was on the allotment when we arrived. In fact the whole site is populated by genetically identical black grapes, all of them planted in the heyday of the Italian restaurants when a team of waiters and chefs took over plots and grew food to remind them of home. The very last of them died just this year and well into old age he still browsed our allotments as if he and his friends were still running them. I once saw him take two carrier bags of ripe figs off an allotment that used to be theirs. They would also pick many buckets of grapes to make wine which is, or was, reputed to be pretty good. We’ve got a vine on each side of our plot and one of them looks after itself with a bit of pruning in the winter, and gives us a good crop of small, sweet black grapes rather spoiled by over large pips. The other vine has always functioned better as a windbreak and screen, producing copious growth of leaves and shoots but never setting a decent crop of grapes. We made 25 litres of wine from the other vine a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough sugar in the grapes so it was very ‘thin’, lacking in flavour, and in the end we poured it away. When we decided to stop drinking alcohol 18 months ago it removed one of the reasons for growing these small grapes. Ironically our present allotments are on a site thought to have been a vineyard in Roman times.

So when we rationalised the fruit cage this autumn we decided to dig up the less successful vine to make space for a redcurrant, and today I attempted to dig it out. After a nominal first foot it was clear that the reason for unsuccessful growth was that it’s had its feet in water every winter. In the end I had to give up because the hole was filling with water within minutes and the stump appeared to be sucking itself deeper and deeper into the soil as I squelched around it with a spade and crowbar. I was experiencing the legacy of the wettest October on record – which leaves a question mark over replanting a redcurrant bush there. At the very least the patch will need a lot of grit incorporating to improve drainage. I might be able to redeem it a bit by diverting rainwater from the adjacent row of compost bins into more water butts. The council turned off the water supply today so I’m glad we’ve got about 1000 litres stored already. Over recent years we’ve experienced problems early in the year before the site supply is restored, because we’ve been blessed with fine dry weather.

While I was getting hot and muddy, Madame planted another two rows of broad beans to stand over winter. She was planting them in a bed that we’d augmented with some bought-in topsoil that had an even larger clay component than our own ground and which I had to dig a whole bag of grit into today before she planted it up. In the fruit cage the winter pruning is almost done now, and on the veg plots the garlic is growing steadily as are the peas which are always a bit of a gamble. If they survive the weather and the mice we’ll have an early crop next year. The brassicas were mostly planted on a bed that was well fed with our own compost and now the early purple sprouting broccoli are almost as tall as me. Let’s hope they’re as productive of shoots as they are with leaves.

The rats have returned to the compost heap since I drove them out by turning it repeatedly; so today I had to set one of the powerful spring traps baited with crunchy peanut butter. Hopefully greed will overwhelm their caution and I can get rid of them before they breed. We do have a lovely but rather wild cat on the site but even he can’t eradicate them all on his own. I say a quiet prayer to bring on the hungry peregrines, buzzards and kestrels and multiply the stoats and the owls!

I was thinking during all these labours about the strange way we misrepresent the allotment as if it were a haven of peace, tranquility and rest. An organic allotment may not have anything like as high an energy footprint as a non organic one, but only if you discount the gigacalories of human toil that goes into replacing the chemicals, pesticides and nitrate fertilisers and the very considerable financial expenditure on bringing the soil back into condition. One survey I read claimed that an allotment can be ten times as productive as an equivalent sized plot of farmland – which can only be true of a very intensively managed allotment. Once a plot becomes a significant contributor to the household food supply, it becomes a place of work – good creative, skilled and satisfying work but work nonetheless. I’ve been reading Chris Smaje’s book “A small Farm Future”c Chelsea Green Publishing and I was interested to see (Page 106) a chart that placed gardening in the same category – high labour input + high productivity – as the conventional arable farm. The difference is that the energy input is mostly human toil rather than fuel, fertilizer and chemicals. It’s a great book, well worth reading and presenting a well argued case for small farms and locally sourced food chains. So while I’m in the mood, here are three books I’ve learned a great deal from:

  • Chris Smaje “A small Farm Future” – Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Dieter Helm ” Green and Prosperous Land” – Collins (an economist’s view)
  • Simon Fairlie “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – Chelsea Green

I could add many more, but these three are extremely practical, albeit quite polemical contributions to the debate about the future of food production. One thing’s for sure; this is a debate we’re going to have to engage with whether we like it or not.

And finally we’re off to the flour mill tomorrow to get 25Kg of stoneground wholemeal flour. I was expecting to be turned away but lockdown part deux hasn’t had the same impact on flour supplies as the first round. It’s an excuse to drive 20 miles along the Cotswolds in the most beautiful scenery, so Alleluia – life feels good. This morning after our saintly breakfast of home made muesli, I had a slice of the first loaf of everyday bread and the first teaspoon of marmalade (also home made) in four months. Oh joy!

The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

Our neighbouring allotmenteers went on a gardening course with Sarah Raven last week and among the multitude of new ideas they were buzzing about afterwards, one in particular stuck in my mind. The soil is all important – the beginning and the end of any attempt to grow things. Of course that’s right, but it was only as I was turning the compost heaps again today that I remembered how much I enjoyed this time of year when I was working as a groundsman, and we began all the routine maintenance jobs; repairing the wickets, hedging and draining and looking after the machinery. Of course we had to maintain the football and rugby pitches and mark out the white lines every week., but it was the time when all the foundations for the next season were laid.

And on our plot today we were already setting things out for next season. Peas and broad beans are all ready, in fact the first batch of broad beans is already growing in the ground. The fruit trees are ready for their winter pruning and we’ve prepped ready for five new trees. The tall perennial herbs have been divided and moved to their new spot near the pond; the asparagus bed has been cleared, weeded, given a supplement of calcined seaweed , then composted and sheeted. All the beds have been manured or mulched with leaf mould and sheeted even though some of them will be planted up before Christmas. We’ve had rain and then a few days of early morning frost which will help the garlic; the new batch of leaves is stored for next year – there should be about two cubic metres of finished leaf mould.

Then the paths have all been topped up with new wood chips which rot down surprisingly quickly so they swallow up to thirty wheelbarrow loads every autumn to bring them level with the path edging. That’s a lot of trudging up and down the steep site, but when it’s done the plot looks somehow more purposeful if that makes any sense.

Sadly, today I dug out all of the leeks for burning, because they were attacked again by allium leaf miner and were beginning to rot where they stood. That’s the third year we’ve lost them all and so I think we’ll give them a miss now for a few years. although I’m sure the plant breeders will be looking for more resistant varieties. We don’t put the affected leeks into the compost because especially at this time of year we’re unlikely to reach high enough temperatures to kill the pupae, and today I found a cluster of eggs laid near the base of one plant. These obviously need to be destroyed or we’ll just perpetuate the infestations, but the insect now seems to be everywhere in the UK. Our best hope of control is the same as it is for any other pest – physical barriers, good soil, strong plants and masses of predators at the right time. That’s why we overwinter the broad beans – it toughens them up enough to resist the aphid attacks until the ladybirds arrive.

There really is a correlation between abundant insect attractors and improved predation on garden pests, and one of the principal deficiencies of spraying with chemicals is that it often kills the predators as well as the target pest; thus making yet more applications of spray necessary. Modern apple production requires quite staggering numbers of spray applications; every one of which can make the situation worse.

The compost heap still heats up obediently every time it’s turned, and the more often it’s turned the quicker it does its job. One indicator of how well it’s doing is what’s happening to the bean vines which are often quite slow to rot. This year the vines were taken down in mid September and a couple of months later they’ve all but disappeared in the the heap. the worms don’t like it too hot and so they move up and down in the bin until they find a congenial spot – many thousands of them can congregate of a single bin. You just need to keep the heap at the right level of moisture – not too wet and not too dry but just right.

The same goes for plants which prefer their moisture in modest amounts; so this time of year too, when we get heavy rain, we can see which parts of the plot need additional grit to help with drainage. With the exception of bog plants I can’t think of any normal garden vegetables that don’t absolutely hate standing in waterlogged ground. Plants can die from lack of oxyen – they can easily ‘drown’ if they’re left too long.

It would be quite wrong to think that allotments can be ‘put to bed’ in late September and not tended again until spring. These quieter growing months are a marvellous opportunity for planning, remedial work transplanting and new planting of trees, and the odd bit of civil engineering. I wish I could add digging to the list because I absolutely loved doing it and miss it terribly now we’ve given it up; but I honestly can’t think that, aside from keeping me warm and fit, it does anything for the soil at all – and if you miss the exercise, get a bigger wheelbarrow and fill it up – or, if you must, drag a tractor tyre up a hill with chains.

And there we are – a whole posting without a single apocalyptic rant about the environment, but I think our chat with the young smallholder yesterday reminded me that while, as the astrologers might say, our economic and political systems might dispose us towards destructive practices, they really can’t compel us. We can resist and go our own way, knowing that although we may not be saving the planet on our own, we’re at least not making it any worse.

And finally yesterday’s 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf. I’ve eaten my words and unreservedly recant all my previous statements on the impossibility of making a decent 100% loaf. Thinking back, during the first lockdown I changed a large part of the time and temperature settings during baking, none of which changes I’d ever applied to a wholemeal loaf. So the combination of leaving out the second rise – cutting the overall proving time down to 18 hours instead of 26; and shortening the bake by 30%, the first ‘new method’ loaf emerged pretty triumphantly with a soft crumb, open texture and a good crust, not an impenetrable barnacle hard carapace. The flavour was intense – as you’d expect – but with none of the bitterness you sometimes get with a fast, yeast driven wholemeal loaf. And best of all, it tasted of wheat: really wheaty with a rich taste of the granary floor (if that makes any sense). As children my sister and I used to love feeding the chickens at my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns. The grain was kept in a shed, and we would go and fetch an old pot, fill it with grain and go out to feed the hens. The loaf reminded me of, and tasted as good as that experience.

Busy bee

OK its probably a hoverfly, but cherry blossom on the riverside in November is a lovely sight!

By 5.00am I was wide awake and in the kitchen today. Yesterday I resumed breadmaking after a break since August when we put ourselves on a low carb diet; and, notwithstanding all my protests that it’s impossible to make a really satisfying 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, I went ahead and started one anyway.

We survived the first lockdown by cooking (not so bad) but also eating far too many portions of comfort food; bread, cakes, biscuits and preserves and thus it came to pass that we were becoming more generously proportioned than is good for us; in fact we were as fat as Christmas hogs. The last three months of frugality have worked well, we’ve both lost approaching a couple of stone and the threat of nameless but horrible consequences has receded – no doubt like the devil seeking an opportune moment. I won’t bore you with the self glorifying details but there were two particular milestones – rediscovering my waist, and then a joyful reconciliation with a load of clothes that had been folded up and stored with a sigh years ago when it all started. Hilariously, I also discovered that when my old jeans were properly installed around my waist rather than clinging precariously under my belly I no longer needed the shortest leg length. Toulouse Lautrec eat your heart out!

The challenge with wholemeal sourdough is to get it to rise without the sharp edged bran damaging the structure by puncturing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Grant loaf – often as hard and dense as it was possible for a dough to be. But Doris Grant had one thing absolutely right; wholemeals don’t need as much kneading, and they ferment quickly, so leaving them for too long is more likely to lead to a collapsed dough than a life-changing loaf. My idea was to cut out the second rise altogether and see what happened; I just had my illumination at exactly the wrong moment and so I started the batter at a time which ensured I would be awake at 4.00am worrying about the dough overflowing the banneton. The idea is to catch the dough when a poke with a finger creates an indentation that feels springy and mends itself immediately. This morning I missed the optimal moment by a couple of hours and a dangerous looking muffin top was just overhanging the banneton (reminding me of my old jeans) , but mercifully the loaf forgave me and with a good sprinkle of rice flour as lubricant it slid from the peel into the hot oven without collapsing.

Yesterday the sun shone and so we took ourselves for a long walk along the canal and back – about eight miles in all. Aside from the cherry blossom I also spotted winter heliotrope in flower on the canalside. In fact there were intimations of life and growth everywhere, if you took the time to search them out. But the other thing we noticed was how much larger the population of permanent narrow boat residents has become. At a time when decent housing in Bath is beyond reach for so many young people, quite a few have taken to the water in a range of boats from the spick and span to the downright messy. In fact one of the floating homes we saw yesterday isn’t a narrow boat at all but an improvised raft.

Noah’s Ark?

A little further on was another boat stacked so high with stored artifacts and second hand timber it seemed to be anticipating a siege –

Are we supposed to get annoyed about this? To me it shows resilience and, after all, people have to live somewhere and if we allow a housing crisis to develop we have no right to criticise the improvised methods of survival that desperate people are obliged to adopt.

The highlight of our walk was a conversation with a young man who is developing an organic smallholding on an unpromising strip of land between the canal and the railway line. There are several such allotments dotted along the canal and this one was well stocked with pigs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and one or two exotics in the background. A strip of land that would otherwise be producing nothing but brambles is coming to life and producing food in a largely self-sufficient way. What was so nice about our conversation was that notwithstanding maybe fifty years of difference in our ages, we shared the same experiences and enthusiasm for low impact and sustainable agriculture. I’ve just started reading the recently published “A small farm future” by Chris Smaje – you should check it out – it’s a closely argued book that repays slow and careful reading, but if our conversation with the young smallholder yesterday is anything to go by; the ideas that inspired and motivated us in the seventies and which have been so diminished and derided within this grim era of neoliberal economics, have been slowly gathering momentum and heft in the background. There’s a whole community down on the canal and it’s functioning with its own distinct (and distinctly more sustainable) culture. In my darker moments I’ve sometimes feared that everything we believed in and worked for over the past fifty years has been crushed, and that there’s no-one left to pass all the accumulated experience on to. After our long walk we came back to the flat with more of a spring in our step because there are signs of hope along the canal and in many other places. Goodness only knows how this will play out over the coming decades, but yesterday it felt as if the cultural tectonic plates really are moving – too slowly for some, no doubt – but that’s the way of the paradigm shift. For decades there is nothing but almost inaudible questioning of the status quo, the way we do things round here – and then suddenly one day it all clicks. Like sourdough, the best things are worth waiting for – and I think I’m about to have to eat my own words about the impossibility of creating good 100% wholemeal sourdough. Let’s have a taste!

I’ll tell you what it tastes like tomorrow ….