Ichabod

This is a long post and it’s possibly more open about some fairly personal stuff than you may feel interested enough to read. It deals with the challenges of retirement and the emotional impact of health problems. Normal service will, I promise, be resumed immediately so if you skip this one that’s fine, but it’s here in case anyone else might find it helpful.

I was maybe fourteen years old when I first read this passage and allowed it to take up residence in my mind, along with Peggoty and Duffy Clayton (you’ll have to look that one up).

“A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and
slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to
a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between
Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and
greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human
memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in
a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer
stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his
lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland
across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived
and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.
Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular”

The History of Mr Polly – H G Wells

It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock, coming back to Bath after ten days in the most idyllic and secluded place you could imagine, overlooking the Irish Sea in North Wales; and in the way that astrologers write about trines, and other unusual alignments of the planets and astronomers plot eclipses and consequential movements of the planets; my own little solar system threw up a large spanner in the form of an anniversary. In fact the fifth anniversary of my retirement.

I remember asking my old friend Mags, whose partner had retired three years previously, how long it had taken for her to settle. The answer – “three years at least” took me by surprise – I’d come to think of my retirement in rather conventional terms, you know – big party; warm words (mostly exaggerated); a few glasses and off into the sunset and a new life – just like Mr Polly. Then Rose, another friend, warned us that one of the biggest perils was that every night became Friday night. They were both right but both underestimated the length of time it would take for the dream of my/our retirement fantasies to morph into a much deeper reality.

On Monday last, (a beautiful late summer’s day), we drove across the mountains once more and six hours later arrived home. Nothing had happened particularly in the meanwhile: the flat hadn’t burned down and the allotment was pretty much as we’d left it; but the city – lying in its natural basin – was airless, thronged with visitors taking a chance with COVID; students moving towards their new independent lives, armed with implausibly large amounts of alcohol and – of course – the Easy Jet planes were overhead, bringing Typhoid Mary and her mates back from their holidays. Ambulances as always were crawling through the traffic, setting out from and returning to the Royal United Hospital.

One thing however was very different. A large stretch of the river had drained by a depth of about five feet – due to a problem with one of the sluices – and dozens of boats, some of them peoples’ homes, had dropped, one-sidedly, on their mooring ropes and filled with filthy water. This much photographed riverside area, worth millions to property developers began to look like a 1970’s photo of the old Caldon branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal; cluttered with abandoned and stolen metalwork – bikes, a stolen motorcycle, dozens of supermarket trolleys, old computers and general rubbish….. Hm!

The bottom right photograph (just about) shows the rarely seen overflow from the hot springs that drains warm water into the river after passing through the official Roman Baths and also through the rather expensive and privately run Spa. All the newly exposed river bed needed was a few dead dogs and Morris 1000 complete with skeletal passengers to complete the dystopian vision.

So what to do? Snowdonia ached in our memories and we were facing an enforced desensitisation back into our normal lives; living like urban foxes, avoiding unnecessary human contact and constantly COVID watchful. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but then he was a relatively wealthy and well educated man who probably lived in the better part of town. While Bath is, doubtless, a work of art – it’s more Bosch than Leonardo. The city looks great on a sunny evening when you’ve come in a coach and the buildings glow like ripe apricot as you are driven along London Road and back up to the motorway; but living here is very different.

Enough! We’ve forged our lives here now – I chose the word carefully – and much of the time our lives are so full we hardly notice all this. A therapeutic trip to the allotment surprised us. The first of the parsnips was a giant, the chillies, peppers and aubergines had all flourished in the days of our neglect. Another 5 kilos of tomatoes to prep, chillies to brine and ferment and more good things to eat. All good news there.

Our re-entry strategy was to revisit our favourite walks. The local ones are all calculated take us around the quiet edges of the city; be around five miles long, and capable of being taken at a bit of a challenging pace. There are no walks here that don’t involve hills.

To put all this exercise in some kind of context we both finished the first lockdown seriously overweight – my bread baking was probably the engine of much of it, but being indoors so long didn’t help, and comfort food was our principal survival mechanism. But there was more – Madame had endured a knee replacement; we’d both scored badly on blood glucose (pre diabetic) in the last set of tests and I’d had a series of troubling encounters with endoscopes, followed by a separate diagnosis of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. My heart would go into uncontrolled pointless and ineffectual racing leaving me feeling faint and (so I discovered) very likely to have a stroke or a heart attack. Our visits to the gym were more dangerous than I’d ever realized.

My medical issues were quickly resolved by medication to control the wayward heart rhythms and reduce my blood pressure, but emotionally the effect was deeper and more difficult to budge. Looking back, I began to make accommodations, telling myself it was only natural to slow down at my age, and all that blah blah blah. Fear of becoming a wreck was making things worse, and introducing negative feedback can only go one way, putting the brakes on life. We were shrinking in ambition even while we grew slower and bigger and so we did something about it. Long before the lockdown; we gave up alcohol – it’s fourteen months now with no more seven Friday nights a week and – (this is not a nag) – after a few months we felt so much better it was difficult to understand why we hadn’t done it sooner. Some of the worrying symptoms disappeared, and then six weeks ago we put ourselves on a low carb diet; I lost 20lbs and all my other stats – blood glucose, blood pressure, body fat, BMI and resting heart rate dropped quickly into the normal or even optimal levels. After a lifetime of never listening to good advice we bit the bullet and it worked. The diet is demanding but we soon got used to it. One of the biggest obstacles was getting past the pharmacists who seemed to think it was wrong for me to check my own blood sugars in case I “wore my finger out” taking samples, or (more likely) was too stupid to get medical help if self-testing showed up a problem.

The rescued sculpture in M’s farmyard

But accompanying the appearance of these promising new shoots; the reappearance of my waist, and the clothes I never thought I’d ever be able to wear again, there was something else lurking in the background that came so from from left-field it knocked me flat because the way in which the inner world inflects our experience of the outer world is always present whether we notice it or not. The dystopian experience of coming home from the unsustainable idyll should have been a warning that something needed sorting.

So we took the campervan for its annual MOT at a garage in one of my old parishes and while we waited I thought we’d drive around for a while, near some of the places we’d both loved during the time we lived there. We turned off up a narrow lane from the main road for no reason that I could explain and then in a moment of completely clear insight I knew two things. Firstly that I’d been trying to forget, to push to the back of my mind, the whole 25 years of work in the parish, although much of it was pure joy, because there were some bits of it that had been terrible and that had inflicted real damage on me. But the second insight was that it was OK to own all the good things. I needed to remember them safely because they represented a third of my life. So two insights in a narrow lane that (who’d have thought it?) led directly to a farm and to someone who’d been good to me in a completely unaffected way, and we banged on the door and were welcomed as old friends.

A lot of my life has been taken up with unravelling birds’ nests of memories. We say casually that so-and-so ‘was in pieces‘ and that’s often truer than we think. Years of helping other people to put their lives back together demanded that I took my own puzzle just as seriously – it’s a work in progress, you might say.

Anyway that could be the longest imaginable introduction to a couple of walks – one of them a restorative stroll around Bannerdown where we were delighted by two usurpers, both probably garden escapes but Michaelmas daisies are so much a part of autumn, and the Canadian goldenrod was just as pretty, neither of them the least rare or even genuine native wildflowers but hey! The real ram-stamped native was the plant gall known colloquially as a robin’s pincushion.

Then yesterday we went across to the Mendips to walk down the length of Velvet Bottom and instead of turning back up the Longwood Valley, we carried on down through the Black Rock nature reserve as far as Cheddar Gorge – who could resist those names? I’ve talked a lot about the peculiar geology of the place which, due to lead pollution from mines that have been operated since Roman times, has its own very specialised flora. I’ve written about it, but some of the plants are harder to spot than you’d think. Not, however meadow saffron – sometimes known as ‘naked ladies’ because the spectacular flowers appear after the seeds have been set and the leaves have disappeared for the winter.

Meadow saffron -now a two star rarity but once almost ubiquitous in wildflower meadows

And there’s another reason for writing at such length. I once taught a young South Wales man doing an incredibly long prison sentence for affray. He used to joke and say that if I crossed him he might have ‘one of his blackouts’. Let’s call him Owen. Apart from a gift for throwing furniture and televisions through windows, he knew more about Romano British settlements in South Wales than anyone I’ve ever met. If anyone ever demonstrated the fact that you can’t stuff a real life into a bag marked ‘historian’ or ‘botanist’ it was Owen. As Stephen Blackpool was inclined to say in “Hard Times” – ‘it’s all a muddle’ – and in real life, as opposed to the relentlessly (artificial) successful and happy bloggers’ persona, for every meadow saffron there’s an awful lot of ragwort that can’t be swept under the carpet. The Potwell Inn remains committed to life in all its fullness, richness and joy – allowing for the fact that some idiot could leave the sluices open at any time.

Fasting and feasting

I like the way they do harvest in Provence where everything ripens by the end of July and for the next six weeks it’s too hot to work the land so there’s nothing but fêtes, bull runs and general mayhem. The bull runs are especially good fun because they get a fairly safe bull with blunt horns and all the village lads dress up, douse their white shirts in red paint, put on their red neckerchiefs and get completely hammered before they dash drunkenly up the main street between walls of steel barriers, being chased by the bull. No-one seems to get hurt but it seems to work like pheromones with the local girls. In Uzės, on the other hand, it’s a big deal where the local Camarguais cowboys (and girls, but cowpersons sounds like a secret Bayer agri project) drive a genuinely scary bull down the main street, galloping flat out on either side of it out while the young men try to dive between the horses and wrestle the bull away from its escorting riders by grabbing it by the tail – that’s serious! It’s an extraordinarily moving spectacle, especially because the riders are all dressed in traditional costume and they’re ferociously good riders, and the competing young men are completely fearless. Hundreds of spectators line the street and some of the drunker ones even squeeze between the barriers at great risk.

Back at the Potwell Inn it’s a bit more prosaic. Harvesting the last of the tomato crop today we reckoned we’ve picked around sixty or seventy pounds which have been preserved as sauces (3 recipes), passata and dried; while there are still two trays of green tomatoes and one of immediate eaters. We’ve got jams in three or four flavours, damson vodka and sloe gin (even though we don’t drink), and pickles and couli and I’ve spent days on the stove, bottling and preserving and there’s still more to do – and so today as we carried the latest trays back up to the car Madame said “It’s harvest festival”, and she’s almost right. It’s been the weirdest season ever but as the summer crops come to an end we’re pleased that we coped as well as we did. Everything about the weather has been hyperbolic – wettest, coldest, windiest and hottest, sunniest and most disappointing – and yet we coped and learned a great deal and began to plan for next season when we’ll be introducing far more wildflowers and a pond.

But as for a harvest festival, well that’s a different thing altogether. We spoke to a couple of fellow allotmenteers as we carried the last tomatoes up and laughed about the weather (it was raining) but as for any kind of community thanksgiving – not necessarily religious – there’s none. Religious or not it seems churlish not to give thanks for the sheer generosity of the earth, and I’m perfectly sure that I’m not in a minority of one. Maybe it’s because it feels weird to offer thanks to an invisible power without any apparent content to get a handle on. On the other hand I’m perfectly at home with the experience of thankfulness without attributing my good fortune to any particular branch of the God franchises on offer. Perhaps that’s the answer to my own question “who, or what should we thank?”, and it’s this: It’s the thankfulness that matters much more than the address you send it to.

The autumn – which we’ve just entered untidily – is one long occasion of thankfulness, and nothing dents my enthusiasm for it; not long hours at the stove with a backache, not turning the compost or watching plants you’ve tended all season die back, because the joy is the way we can preserve food and ourselves against the coming winter.

But that doesn’t answer the other part of the question. While I can find thankfulness in my own, or our own few square yards of the earth it’s hard not to be sharing it with others. There used to be a big flower show in Bristol, in fact they happened in almost every village in the country and they’re dying out. The Bath allotmenteers used to have a show until the council imposed insurances and form filling made it no longer viable. The Church of England used to be another kind of place you could take your bit of thankfulness and share it with all the other lukewarm or absolutely non- Christians; just bring the courgette that grew and grew and that was your ticket with no fear of any theology spoiling the occasion. Now they’ve taken out the back row and it’s full of gimlet eyed enthusiasts.

The big flower shows and harvest festivals were the last survivors of an age when a full larder and good friends was the difference between surviving the winter and starving. We’ve been sold the lie that we can feast every day and forget about famine, except that there are tens of millions of children in the UK who know differently. Our inner lives have been broken up and sold off in lots to private enterprise along with the air we breathe and the water we drink and there are powerful people who think that protesting against the injustice is the same as terrorism. Am I beginning to sound like William Cobbett? In “Cottage Economy” he wrote that the only time you could rely on a visit from the local minister was after you’d killed the fattened pig for the winter.

So what does that make a harvest festival? is it a worrying far left demonstration against the food industry? A sign of how far we have to go to escape the clutches of irrationality? A sales opportunity for artisan producers of pickle and gin? Or is it an enormous freewheeling gale of gratitude from those of us who have grasped the essential fact that our culture, our agriculture and our food industry are on the road to ruin, and who are trying to live differently.

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’

Proverbs 15:17 (you’d better believe it – no faith required!)

Heaven is kitchen shaped

Thankfully, glass milk bottles are at last popping up in Bath!

More rainy days, and so the Potwell Inn kitchen becomes the centre of the universe again. Summer has fled but in compensation we are bringing back so much food from the allotment we’re almost glad it’s raining today. Early this morning, before the rain came, we went up to collect more tomatoes and before we’d finished picking the clouds darkened and the rain began sheeting down. Ironically that just made it more fun and we larked about and laughed with the water running down our necks as we picked tomatoes, apples, beans and figs to fill the preserving jars. We’ve used up so many jars this year I’ve had to order more, and now, as I’m writing this, the flat is full of the perfume of roasting tomatoes, shallots, herbs and oil which I’m about to turn into a batch of rich passata.

Bottling and preserving is one of the greatest compensations for the loss of summer, and storing food for the winter becomes a fulfilling challenge. Freezers are all very well, but brining, pickling, fermenting and bottling all add complex flavours to their raw ingredients, and can bring a taste of summer to a February meal, and in any case glass preserving jars can be stored without using electricity or gas and they can be used over and over. We use different types of jar for different purposes – Kilner jars, for instance are good for pickles because there’s no metal to come into contact with the vinegar fumes, and we always keep a supply of new rubber rings for them, and lids for jam jars because we avoid using them more than once. A fresh top costs much less than a whole jar of spoiled preserved fruit, and if you bulk buy jars and lids from a beekeeping supplier rather than a kitchen shop they’re miles cheaper. Of course you can recycle old jam jars too, but I find that cellophane tops held on with elastic bands and waxed discs won’t protect the contents nearly as well as a new lid, although my mother and grandmother used nothing else.

As you can see, the Potwell Inn kitchen is a bit of a galley really – nothing big or grand about it but we’ve always bought the best equipment we can afford because it lasts so much longer. The oldest Pyrex bowl, which is used several times a week, is 53 years old, full of warm roasted tomatoes right now, and still going strong.

I’ve written often about the fact that growing, cooking and eating your own produce is much more significant than saving a few pennies. It’s no accident that so many of the world’s religions celebrate their key moments through gathering and eating. Day by day we see people passing our window on their way into work – heads down or talking into their mobiles – drinking coffee, eating snacks on the hoof and engulfed by their headphones in a solitary world. When our family were young we had instances of their school friends who came to our house and had never eaten a meal at the table before. Tables are great! gatherings are great too, and eating together is a constant joy through which we renew relationships and share meals that express continuity. Arguing, laughing and joshing one another around a table is one of life’s great pleasures and while I’m cooking for such a gathering I’m always thinking of the people who will eat the food and trying to remember what they love and what they don’t. In restaurants they call it “service” and that’s not a nod to an obsequious tradition of waiters and customers – it’s about treating a customer as well as you would your best friend. Ready meals eaten in front of a quiz show on the telly simply don’t do it for me.

Maybe there should be a slow eating movement to complement the slow cooking one. Growing your own food and, where you can’t, buying locally from growers and farmers you trust and living well but frugally, means you can live better, eat better and waste less while doing something for the environment at the same time.

And so, today in the kitchen I’ve been in heaven. You might disapprove of the way I use vegetables that might be thrown away by cutting off the bits that have been chewed by slugs or grubs and using the rest, or the fact that I try to think of something to cook with leftovers, but if you’d spent months growing them and dealing with their problems, or gone out in six inches of snow to make sure they were well covered maybe you’d see waste differently. What’s really left after all the re-purposing can still be recycled; “leave no trace” applies as much in the kitchen as it does on a weekend, camping on Dartmoor.

Anyway that’s enough about the Potwell Inn kitchen. Our flat is quite small, and every nook and cranny is filling up with winter stores. Leaving our European neighbours in an acrimonious divorce will (not “could” – will) lead to food shortages in the new year, let alone the disruption that will almost certainly be caused by a surge in Covid 19 infections, and so I feel like I’m channelling my parents and grandparents who knew what food rationing felt like; although I don’t think we’ll be keeping a pig secretly. However our friends with the damson tree phoned this morning and invited us over for a socially distanced picking, so there will be more jam, vodka and even – if there are enough – some chutney to be made. I’m sure the family will be pleased to help us out with the forbidden carbs at Christmas

Finally, on the allotment yesterday, while the sun shone, we cleared away the remains of the sweetcorn to leave access to both sides of the borlotti beans. We’ve had a first taste of the new crop of borlotti in one of Madame’s thick beany soups and they’re lovely – well worth eating young. As soon as they’re harvested we can clear the bed and start to prepare for the new pond. Weather permitting there’s a good deal of carpentry to be done before winter sets in. Life really is good at the Potwell Inn.

Tortured by damsons

Yesterday belonged to Storm Francis which, following so quickly behind Storm Ellen, raged about us with intermittent heavy rain and shed-busting gusts. It’s impossible not to feel just a bit excited in the thick of a storm but maybe it’s easier when you know that your allotment is sheltered from South Westerly storms when the lucky ones at the top of the site who grab all the sunshine and only half of the frosts are getting the full force of the weather. When the rain eased for an hour we went up to see how things were, and I couldn’t resist making this short video of an old cherry tree being battered by the wind – it gives some impression of it at least.

However, that wasn’t the highlight of the day at all because just when I thought it was safe to sit down and watch the rain running down the windows we were given a bag of ripe damsons that looked as if they needed some instant attention. Now I love damsons – however they’re cooked. We make damson jam, damson vodka – there’s about a gallon of it maturing in a cupboard waiting to see if we’ll start drinking alcohol again – there’s damson chutney which is delicious and the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten was some home made …… need I go on. Why I am so passionate about the damson is a mystery except that I think my Granny used to make it using damsons from their orchard. They also had greengages which also make the loveliest and most fragrant jam, but however the obsession began, it’s never gone away. We haven’t got any damson trees on the allotment. We didn’t plant any four years ago because they can take 15 years to come into full fruit; but we have friends who, in normal times, would let us pick a few pounds of fruit from their trees, but these aren’t normal times and visits are out of the question. So damson jam suddenly became a possibility even though we’re on a very low carb diet and can’t eat it.

You wouldn’t think, after three weeks of successfully and painlessly avoiding bread and sugar and all things carbohydrate, that it could be so challenging to make five pounds of jam for the store cupboard -but it was.

What follows is hardly a recipe, possibly an entirely new form of psycho-recipe, since a list of actions and ingredients hardly does justice to the damson. The biggest problem is getting rid of the stones. Almost all the books tell you to remove the stones before you cook them. That’s just about the daftest idea ever and I don’t believe for a moment that anyone would sit and stone a big bag of damsons. Although they’re a kind of plum, ripe plums will release their stones far more easily than damsons will. Damson stones can only be removed with a great chunk of lovely flavourful flesh, so I cook them down until they’re just soft; give them a bit of a pummel with a potato masher to loosen the stones from the flesh and then take out the stones with a skimmer, leaving the maximum quantity of flesh in the pan. Don’t, though, be tempted to sieve the stones out because those gorgeous whole skins are a huge part of the aesthetic of the jam. They furl like dark leaves in the finished jam which, with a bit of luck, will be all the clearer for your trouble when you spread it on a slice of bread.

The jam

In, then with the sugar. You might be tempted to use raw sugar, but really I prefer refined cane sugar to let the maximum flavour come through, and then bring it to the boil stirring all the time to stop it from catching. Then you chuck a knob of butter on to deter scum from forming and boil it until it gets to setting temperature or wrinkles on a cold plate – whatever. Yesterday the boil brought to mind Homer’s often used line about the wine dark sea. As the pan seethed and bubbled, the wind and rain shook the Potwell Inn windows and howled through the cracks, and the jam – which is the colour of rich burgundy – moved like a troubled sea in my imagination. But like Odysseus, tied to the mast to escape the temptations of the Sirens, I was adamantine in my determination not even to taste the forbidden fruit, except when the murderously hot jam bubbled and splashed on to my arms and hands, and the only way I could ease the pain was to lick it off. In fact I had to move closer to the pan to make sure I had plenty of occasions to do so.

Once the jam was finished and bottled I scraped every possible morsel into the last jar when Madame appeared and grabbed the wooden spoon – I have the photo to prove it. And all the while I was cooking, my heart was broken at the lack of a loaf of everyday sourdough – also off the list – and a lump of butter and a slathering of damson jam which would amount to half a day’s allowance blown in a moment of madness. Madame, however smirked as she licked the spoon into the unprecedented whiteness of a gull’s bone left on the seashore of the wine dark sea.

That’s what I mean about recipes and cooking – there’s always more going on than meets the eye. If you have a mind to, you could read William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say” – I’ve always loved it. I’d print it here, but writers and their descendents deserve their royalties – I don’t know of many rich poets. I do know a blogger, though, who’s lost more than half a stone – which didn’t come from a damson. I’ll escape the clutches of the diabetes nurse and her threatened medications yet!

Something hot?

Habanero – the hottest one we grow!

Well, in the midst of this strangest of seasons we have managed to grow enough chillies to keep us going through the winter, although taking the extraordinary weather into account it looks as if ripening the last few stragglers is going to be a problem. For the first year since we’ve been on the plot, we managed to eat all our sweetcorn before the badgers/rats/squirrels and possibly deer got to them. We only managed this by planting them in the most inaccessible place and surrounding them with sheep netting barriers – it was, however, worth the hassle because home grown corn (like most veg) is so much better than the shop version. You wonder if they’ve been 3D printing them from cardboard.

The chillies seem to be a bit of a blokey enthusiasm, with fierce competition to grow a chilli hot enough to heat a small town for a week – a sort of vegetable willie waving, if that’s not too lively a metaphor for a Tuesday morning. We don’t even eat anything much hotter than a Jalapeño, so my Apache chillies are dutifully frozen, and the Habaneros respectfully avoided. The pleasure it seems is in the achievement of getting them to bear fruit and ripen – which in a season that’s swerved between the biblical extremes of flood, fire and storm is a bit of a problem. *Even the frogs have done exceptionally well this year but the boils have mercifully stayed away.

However the cherry tomatoes have suffered terribly from brown rot, and that’s down to the erratic rain and sunshine and exacerbated by water splash on the leaves. But we’ve gathered enough from the rather sad looking bushes to make a couple of litres of oven dried tomatoes in oil. It’s a skill to balance dryness with sheer toughness because once they’ve gone to far, no amount of olive oil will bring them back to life. I like to give these tomatoes twenty minutes in their oil at around 110C in the oven after drying them overnight at 65C because low acidity bottled fruits can, in exceptional circumstances, develop botulinus contamination.

The same problem happens with figs if you dry them in their skins. To be fair, nearly everything is better eaten fresh, straight out of the ground or off the tree. I’d make some fig compôte except we’re cutting out sugar at the moment and all of my favourite preserves are close to pure carbohydrate. As Oscar Wilde said – “I can withstand anything except temptation”, and DH Lawrence got positively aroused by them, but I think they’d both be quite safe with this year’s efforts in the Potwell Inn kitchen.

So this year has been pretty good. I love the fact that the old, unglamorous plants like savoy cabbages, brussels sprouts, and especially leeks are all loving it. The autumn leeks are stout and sweet and the succession ones are coming along far better than they have for the past four years, which – I guess – is what allotmenteering is all about. You have to embrace and enjoy success when it comes, but never get blown off course by failure. Once you’ve renounced the chemicals and given up the extractive attitude then you’re in a one on one relationship with the earth which has its own ways and is a far better teacher than any book. In many ways, ‘though I can’t claim any deep knowledge of the subject, the earth teaches a form of Tai Chi, or Taoist spirituality. I don’t mean all that stuff about being ‘closer to God in a garden’ which completely misunderstands what happens when merely looking at something miraculously becomes beholding. Forgive me, I’m digging deep here but it’s a crucial distinction.

There really is a huge difference between hard gardening that wants to bully and harry the earth into submission, and contemplative gardening that opens intangible channels through which we can ‘hear’ and even ‘understand’ what response is asked of us.

Don’t cling! Don’t strive! Abandon yourself! Look beneath your feet!

Ryōkan

* Biblical joke, sorry. Old habits die hard.

Its feels as if summer is over

Here’s a photo I took during our Sunday morning walk across the canal and up over Bathwick Fields and then down into Smallcombe Valley, up the other side and down again to Widcombe. I’m only mentioning these places because their names are so delightful. The walk in itself is a long haul with over 150 metres of climbing and scrambling down. The footpath down to Smallcombe was particularly slippery after the recent spells of rain. We’re exploring the hinterland of Bath in a series of 5 mile loops and Madame is immersing herself in the history of our adopted city.

Everywhere, the hedgerows are filling the air with the heady, almost alcoholic scents of autumn. The bees are still busy pollinating the late flowers, but fruit is ripening on the trees. Apples, plums and damsons; sloes and lesser known delights like medlar. The allotment took a bashing as weeds relished hot weather followed by torrential rain and so today we spent the afternoon doing some urgent hand weeding. The compost bin that was far too large when I built it has now been full twice this season; but by tomorrow it will have heated again and sunk by six inches. The leaf mould in a neighbouring bin has shrunk by over a half now, and so has the hot bed – the capacity of our wonderful worms and micro organisms to reduce waste to compost exceeds our capacity to create it, it almost growls out loud when I walk down with a bucket of waste; and it also has a huge appetite for cardboard which simply disappears within a month or two.

It’s just a matter of experience with compost. We’ve read all the books and in the end, it seems everybody is right. There are very few systems that can’t create good compost, but I emphasis the word system because a neglected heap of weeds with an old bicycle on top at the end of the plot is not a system, it’s a dump. With compost at over £5 a bag in most garden centres, making your own is a massive money saver. The secret is regular and vigorous turning and keeping an eye on it – wet through is bad and so is dried out, as ever the middle way works best – moist; that’s the word! and now and again a bag of horse manure, or some fish blood and bone scattered in or – if you don’t care for animal byproducts, some comfrey leaves or liquid work as well as anything else.

With the air so full of the smells of ripening and over-ripening fruit it’s amusing to remember that John Masefield, the poet, liked to have a box of rotting apples under his desk for inspiration! The painter Stanley Spencer had much a weirder taste in under easel smells – but we won’t go there, except to say it wasn’t a madeleine. However, moving rapidly on, the Potwell Inn kitchen does smell pretty wonderful at the moment. Food is coming off the allotment at such a rate we’ve been delivering veg parcels to anyone that will take them. It’s a strange time to be dieting, I know, but with so many good things to choose, keeping to 800 KCal a day is a breeze. No vegetable is safe at the moment, and while we lose weight we’re laying up sauces and preserves for the winter. The tomatoes are producing trays of fruit which we’re converting to passata, sauce base, and today oven dried cherry tomatoes in oil which are like sweets. A couple thrown on a salad are wonderful little flavour bombs. Yesterday we baked figs with orange zest and juice and fennel seeds – delicious! I also whipped up a coulis with wild blackberries and James Grieve apples. I had to put it through a sieve to get the pips out – there’s no added sugar so it’s sharp, but it goes really well with plain full fat yoghurt or kefir.

Anyway, enough kitchen talk- we’re sad the summer has passed us by as far as trips in the camper van are concerned, but we’re hopeful of getting some winter camping in when the crowds have gone home – Madame said today “I don’t care if it’s raining, I just want to sit in the van and look at Ramsey Island.” The autumn is my time for a bit of civil engineering on the allotment – quite a lot of it in fact because we’re building a pond, creating a small open meadow space and a shelter for ourselves, as well as planting more fruit trees and bushes. It’s amazing what can be packed into 250 square metres.

Meanwhile I’m wondering why I let myself in for making a short video on urban botany. The biggest problem with being completely self taught is the ever present danger of mispronouncing a name or mistaking an i/d. But I don’t want to be an expert; I just love getting into the natural world and sharing my disconnected bits of knowledge with anyone who might be tempted to have a go themselves. So I’ve got to get the selfie stick out and ramble on for a couple of minutes without freezing, swearing or tripping over ….. what could possibly go wrong?

Washes all your sins away

The temporarily increased tempo of our morning walks to implement our fitness binge precludes any detailed botanising, and so I’ve resorted to noticing a new plant on the first morning and, if necessary, returning to it the next day. That way I can do two or three new i/d’s a day without slowing down too much and annoying Madame. This works really well – for instance I’ve got my eye on a tiny grass which has emerged from the ruins of a recent strimming and set seed at no more than a couple of inches high near the edge of the canal, and I’ll gather a sample tomorrow. Today, however, the soapwort – Saponaria officinalis – in full flower didn’t need much more than a quick photo. This one, like most of them is almost certainly a garden escape because there’s a well tended cottage style garden close by. The name is a bit of a giveaway and apparently (I’ve never tried it) the macerated leaves contain sufficient saponin to make a froth and wash clothes or whatever. Nowadays, soap nuts claim to do much the same thing and are gilded with virtue. I know they’re natural but so are arsenic, foxgloves and (dare I say) syphilis; which brings me back to soapwort because Nicholas Culpeper and Mrs Grieve swear by it for that complaint. I can hardly imagine anyone asking their teenage children to “pop out to the garden and pick some soapwort for you father’s syphilis – the mercury hasn’t worked at all this time!” But I can imagine the unflappable Mrs Grieve striding into the garden in tweeds and brogues and sweeping the herb into her basket for application to the dishonourable member.

So with that thought provoking start to the day, and a trip to the Farmers’ Market to get some onions – because our small crop is already used up. Then a few press ups and squats on the landing reminded me that I’m not thirty any more, and the main work of the day began. The first pickings of the tomatoes have begun and today we brought out the passata machine, cleaned down the kitchen and set up our respective workstations so we could plunge, peel, chop and puree the first six kilos of tomatoes. This lot were to be made into a rich tomato sauce – hence the onions and a rather large quantity of butter. We’re a good team and these days we can knock off six kilos in half an hour. The random quantity is because the pulp fills our biggest pan to exactly the right height to prevent too much splashing as it bubbles down for hours. We make it without any further flavourings or seasoning so that it can be used as a base for any number of more complicated sauces. Thankfully we’re pretty much self sufficient in tomatoes which we preserve and bottle rather than freeze, because our freezer is so small. We also make a good deal of straight passata which bottles very successfully.

During the lockdown tomatoes and all the subsidiary products became almost unavailable here, so it was just as well we were well stocked. I’d definitely recommend getting a cheap, manual passata machine, though, because once you’ve put six kilos of pulp through a chinois you’ll never want to do it again. By all means – if you can afford it – get a fancy stainless steel and electric one, but quite honestly cranking it through is fun and the cleaning takes as long whether it’s a manual or an electric machine.

The Farmers’ Market is gradually coming back to life but it’s much smaller than it once was, and it’s organised for maximum safety so it’s a one-way browsing experience. There are a couple of non organic veg stalls there, and often the organic group make an appearance as well. We were queuing for the onions when a man in a loden coat and a tweed cap pushed directly in front of us, quite oblivious of his lack of manners. I thought I dealt with it pretty well, and bit my lip and waited until our turn came up again. But then the two press-ganged teenage helpers on the stall worked in extraordinarily slow motion, clearly wishing they were anywhere but where they were. We loaded the rucksack and left but as we went down the ramp to Green Park I noticed that my heart was beating furiously. I’m in no position to criticise anyone else for allowing themselves to get so stressed, and I imagine it’s almost ubiquitous in this post lockdown phase when anyone could be a threat.

And it’s been getting busier on the Green, with homelessness and drug dealing more apparent every day. A couple of days ago we tried to help an unconscious young man lying in front of the flat. He was completely lifeless to all intents, but a couple of off duty nurses came out to help and they found a pulse. However the moment an ambulance was mentioned he got up and stumbled off into the woods – we’ve seen him several times since, alive but very unwell. Then, to crown an inglorious week, a young man was killed on the towpath about a mile down river and two people have been arrested.

All the businesses here are desperate to get back to normal, but if this is the new normal then there’s no way we want to live normally any more. The dam holding back all that pent-up anger and aggression is leaking through a crack already and it’s deeply concerning. Thank goodness for the Potwell Inn kitchen.

Finally some rain

If there’s a quieter, more beautiful or more remote place than this, I want to be there.

Bearing in mind that this photo was taken a year ago in the Yorkshire Dales, a couple of miles away from the border with Cumbria; the storm here, was very similar but the setting a million miles away. It was a long time coming, and after days at 36C there was a false start in the early evening when the clouds gathered so densely that a party on the Green began packing up. But at around 11.00pm the rain started properly and you can choose your own metaphor – biblical, if you must; stair rods? – but who knows what a stair rod is these days? – or cats and dogs? none of the usual clichés comes close. On the television yesterday we saw a derailed train, cars floating down rivers and I don’t doubt there will be crops beaten to the ground and ruined. Mercifully, the allotment is made of sterner stuff and seems unscathed after an urgent inspection in the morning. Yes, the rain was welcome but the intensity of weather events this year is an ominous sign of what’s coming and there’s little sign yet that our wretched government, which failed to prepare for Covid even after months of warnings, is prepared to listen to the fifty years of warnings since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and species began to disappear under the onslaught of oil, chemicals and extractive agriculture.

So being human, which is – and always has been – the principal area of interest for the Potwell Inn, is getting harder but more important with every breath. The environmental catastrophe which is bearing down on us, is a result of losing our sense of what it means to be human in nature. Even the Shooting Times, for goodness sake, forty years ago, used to acknowledge that our responsibility towards nature was one of stewardship. It may have been down to self interest in preserving habitat for animals to be killed in for sport, (and I’d have that ethical discussion with them any day), but we might be better off thinking that at least some of the assumed enemies of change, are halfway towards us already. Now’s not the time for division and name calling. I remember once spending a day at an army camp in Wiltshire talking to the chaplaincy team and to some of the young soldiers who were training there, and being astonished at their moral maturity. During the run up to the Gulf war I noticed that the number of service personnel attending church suddenly increased dramatically as they approached deployment. I didn’t meet a single one who thought that it was a just war in any sense at all.

I don’t want this to be gloomy, and so I’ll stop there with the thought that being human is a desperately difficult road to walk, and to do it well we need to be aware of ourselves and our deepest needs. As you get older (and I’ve got a lot of experience in that subject) you can take a longer view, freed from timetables, busyness, childcare and then parent care; and things begin to become more clear.

I’ve been pondering for ages whether to take the blog down this track, but I fear that without the underlying philosophy, without a spirituality which is so essential to being human; all my talk of the allotment, of field botany and cooking and making bread, the junkies on the street, the environmental crisis and our beloved grandchildren might be taken as a number of separate disconnected interests that I happen to pursue. That’s not the case, and it’s essentially not the case. What I’m trying to tease out, because I don’t know the answer myself, are the threads, the warp and weft of being fully human. What are the essential aspects of a fulfilling and fruitful life, lived well?

I’ve tried religion (and I mean tried! thirty years of intense work is a bit more than a dalliance!), but as time went on I found myself more drawn towards Taoism and Buddhism. I was exhausted by trying to fit myself into a system that pretended it could make everything fit, but only by excluding so much of my whole being that I felt I hardly existed. Let’s not go there except to say that somewhere near the top of my list of crucial qualities is a thoroughgoing scepticism. Scepticism is a greatly underestimated strength.

Personal well being depends on relatively well understood factors. The problem is that resisting the spirit of the age can make you sound like a gimlet eyed extremist. A good diet, physical exercise, strength, heart health and time to stand and stare, contact with nature, love and friendship – human community, dreams and projects, curiosity, the love of science and creative art and some kind of spirituality that grows our ability for all these threads to work in harmony – this is what being human is all about.

Today I turned up an ebook of class notes by my old Tai Chi teacher Alan Peck. I was a pretty useless student, too busy to practice properly; endlessly missing sessions because of meetings and yet I always, without exception, felt better after a session and found some peace in the midst of all the demands being made on me. I opened the book on my laptop today and in a strange way I heard his voice as I read the familiar phrases from his sessions and I noticed an idea that positively jumped off the page at me. He was saying that it didn’t much matter which form you were learning, or how advanced you had become. All that really mattered was letting go into the practice and only then would you be able to receive. No amount of straining and grabbing would ever get you there. I can’t think of a better description of being fully human.

To “let go of everything” refers to an experience of understanding beyond concepts. Usually we label everything either consciously or unconsciously and experience very little that is fresh to our mind without previous conditioning. “To let go of everything” refers to a level of experiencing that does not rely on previously formed patterns of response. In this case, there is less judgement and more potential for creative response. It is an act of surrender.

Alan Peck teacher of Natural Way Tai Chi who died in 2010.

It was all going to be so easy

The weather forecast was pretty clear – the present heatwave would end in the usual thunderstorms and torrential rain earlier this week, and the plan was to get on with jobs in the Potwell Inn kitchen – like processing tomatoes into sauces, and passata for the winter. This is the third day we’ve scanned the sky and not spotted a single cloud, and so with the temperature climbing to 34C in the shade, watering has become an exhausting necessity. Plants in pots, even large ones, suffer from stress very quickly. The only plants truly loving the heat are the greenhouse chillies, and there are enough ripened now to freeze and keep us going until next year.

But at the top of this post is a picture of some calendula flowers that we’re wilting before extracting from them in almond oil. We’ve never done this before but the calendula is so useful as a companion plant on the allotment it makes perfect sense to get an effective second benefit from it and so we have oil, beeswax and jars waiting to store this first attempt. We find the commercial cream incredibly effective, and so we’ll soon know whether our home-made version is worth the expense – organic almond oil isn’t cheap. They’re wilting well enough to move to the next stage tomorrow. I really hope it cools down a bit because the thought of reducing 10 kilos of tomato pulp in a kitchen that’s already airless and at 30C is a bit daunting, although the fruit is ripening in a box on the kitchen floor and there’s at least as much again ripe on the vines.

The decision to put ourselves on a pretty savage diet has been helped in one respect by the heat. Who wants to eat in this weather? But the other half of the plan – doing a brisk five mile walk every day before breakfast – has been a struggle, but a fight that’s worth winning. Got to get rid of the lockdown lard!

So we’ve been hiding from the heat indoors most of the day and I’ve been redeeming the shining hour by watching a series of webinars organised by the BSBI – (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) – on the Irish grasses and grassland. There’s plenty of overlap with the UK to make them very useful indeed, and I’m gradually discovering just how useful a knowledge of the grasses is, in searching for their more glamorous relatives. Grass looks like grass, and fields – from a distance – can all look the same, but imagine how powerful it would be to go in to a meadow, take a look at the grasses and the easily identifiable flowers and know that it’s worthwhile searching for something special like orchids. If you search for BSBI on You Tube you can watch them all.

Botanising in this heat has been a no-no, and so the photos are a selection of bridges in Bath, taken in the last 2 days. The still air and unruffled water have created some lovely reflections along our morning route. The odd one out is the heron that likes to perch on Bath Deep Lock. It’s pretty tame, and this is the closest I’ve ever got. I really love this place, but it’s hard to escape the fact that the heatwave, which is affecting gardeners, allotmenteers and farmers, not to mention the people who have to work indoors in it; is a symptom of something terribly wrong with our climate. Our clean air zone has been postponed until next year, and today a white van driver ran his engine outside our flat for at least an hour, to use his air conditioning – like that’s going to help!

Nothing in nature is without purpose

This beautiful scientific drawing by Margaret Tebbs is from the BSBI handbook “Grasses of the British Isles” by Tom Cope and Alan Gray.

A mea culpa is called for on my part. A couple of days ago I was writing about my excitement at seeing the seed of a false oat grass under the microscope and how I got tremendously excited at its rather extravagant beauty. Now at one level there’s nothing wrong with such a strongly aesthetic response to nature. The sense of wonder is at the heart of our response and it’s been getting a bit of a push at the moment, with so much media coverage of the psychological benefits of being in nature. There’s a slightly creepy feel to some of the quasi religious stuff being promoted, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see instances of miraculous healing being claimed, and no doubt there will be therapists too ….. But the originating emotional response is quite genuine.

Beyond the oohs and aahs, anyone who’s tried their hand at botanical illustration will know how incredibly difficult it is to do justice to the observational science and at the same time capture the sheer beauty of plants. The best I’ve ever managed is to capture them in a small part of a drawing. I’ve got one on the wall in the flat, and although I can see nothing but flaws in the greater part of it, there’s one small passage at the bottom that gets it right – and I often look at it and wonder how did I do that?

So yes – the aesthetic response is good, but it’s never the whole, and as I ploughed my way through the BSBI handbook, I came across the most wonderful explanation of why the awns, the spiky appendages to the seeds of this grass and some of its cousins are as they are. Coincidentally, yesterday I was reading some of the biography of Joseph Banks who was the pioneering botanist on the voyage of the Discovery with Captain Cook and whose work was rather frowned upon by many leading scientists of his day because he had taken up the Linnaean system of classification, and Linnaeus was thought to be all too interested in the sexual activity of plants. For the delicate constitutions of the devout, the thought of fields, full of fornicating plants, was all to much.

But plants (and all nature) are very much concerned with – shall we say – putting it about? and the difficulties of doing so have been addressed by different plants in different ways over evolutionary time. Getting into field botany commits you to a life of examining the naughty bits of plants – how they work, and in this case how they spread their little darlings.

“an object of admiration to all grass lovers”.

Plues “British Grasses” 1867

So lets go back to the picture and notice that there are two awns – one straight and the other with a twist and a bend about half way up. The thing about the twist (which I compared with a fairy blacksmith forging it in gold) is that it isn’t gold, it’s living tissue, and crucially, it’s hygroscopic – it absorbs moisture and as it does so the spirally shaped part of the awn slowly rotates, unwinds. Imagine a time lapse video, and as the relative humidity of the air ebbs and flows, you’d see it waving back and forth like an angry adder. So you’ve got one waving awn and one stiff one. When the ripe seed falls to the ground the first thing it needs to do is to get itself into the earth, so it can germinate and immediately grow some roots. And so, in a tiny evolutionary miracle, this particular seed is able to use the two awns to walk its way into the earth. Self burying seeds no less. For me that adds to the aesthetic experience under the microscope – glory upon glory if you like.

That’s about it at the moment. The Potwell Inn has gone on a rather severe diet and so the last three days have been etched with suffering – well that’s a slight exaggeration, but 40 days in the desert is, by all accounts, a good way of fending off decrepitude and I’ve no appetite for testing my own self-burying skills – there are too many things I still want to do!

Finally a photo, taken on Bannerdown, that I published in a gallery a few days ago – It’s a wild carrot and I thought it deserved to find a place in a bigger format. I just loved the way the sun is shining through it.