Hiding from Storm Brendan

Well, not quite hiding but certainly not going outside.  The weather has been filthy and looks determined to get filthier and so Madame made a large batch of pesto and then we worked together prepping what should be around 30lbs of Seville orange marmalade by the time it’s finished.

We’ve been intending to make a stock batch of pesto for ages – partly because we’ve almost run out, (it freezes very well), but also because we need the propagators empty in order to get chillies going fairly soon.  For the sake of convenience we combined the two types – ‘Bolloso Napolitano’  and ‘Classico’ – both from Franchi – because we had them ready to harvest, although I think I prefer the first more, it’s got a hint of aniseed somewhere.  These plants were grown in a home made compost mixture combining 40 topsoil, 40 composted manure, 10 vermiculite and 10 Perlite. The seeds were germinated and kept at around 20 C until the plants were ready to harvest and they were grown under 12 hours daily of overhead artificial daylight.  They were only watered from below and once they’d got their feet down we fed them regularly with dilute seaweed feed. We’ve previously tried growing them in compost only, but these have been the best plants we’ve ever produced and the pesto today was absolutely delicious. It’ll be rolled and part frozen, cut into individual portions and wrapped.  One important point is to sow thinly and then thin again to stop the plants competing and exhausting themselves.

The marmalade reminded me (again) that it’s always good to read even a familiar recipe twice, because we’d peeled, deseeded and knife cut six pounds of peel into fine shreds before I realised that we were going to have to add 12 pints of water for the initial cooking.  That brought it almost to the top of our biggest preserving pan with no room to add the sugar so we’re going to have to share the big batch between two pans.  I made the same mistake last year and there was a discernible difference between the two batches – both were very nice but just different in texture and set.  I also need to climb up to the top cupboard to make sure we’ve got enough jam jars. When we first moved here I bought what I thought would be a lifetime supply of screw top lids from a wholesaler, but I think we’ll have used them all up with this batch of marmalade.

Meanwhile storm Brendan has spared us the worst of the wind and rain because we’re sheltered here in the Avon valley, but we cancelled a proposed overnight stay in the Forest of Dean because the campervan can rock and roll a bit in high winds. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the kitchen baking for our grandson’s cake stall.  I’ve bought a muffin mould especially, but I’ve never made a muffin in my life so it could all go terribly wrong.

My friend Rose has texted to say that she’s modelled her whole life on Flora Poste (see previous posts) and Emma Woodhouse. It would be churlish to comment!

Where can I get some Sukebind seeds?

IMG_6154

This is positively the last tiny runnel of the Cold Comfort Farm oxbow, so it’s going to be a short post.  Firstly, Hardy did write one cheerful, and funny novel – “Under the Greenwood Tree” – which is required reading for anyone wanting to change anything at all in a church – especially the music.

Secondly, although Hardy isn’t well known as a poet he wrote some wonderful and very technical stuff in rhyme schemes that have proper Latin names. Generally speaking, technically dazzling poetry is a bit disappointing in the ideas department but his isn’t – although he shares the dubious honour (with RS Thomas) of writing his most powerful love poems to the dead partners whom they’d neglected to the point of abuse during their lives.

Thirdly (I’m stopping counting now) there’s one really interesting moment in CCF when a darker note creeps in.  Flora’s eventual soulmate, Charles, is described as being unable fully to enjoy a party because he cannot shake off the sense of guilt he has at having survived his time as a wartime soldier in Afghanistan when so many of his friends had died. It’s only one tiny sentence – barely even that – but the book was published in 1932, almost exactly midway between two catastrophic wars, and it’s clear that amid all the merriment of the novel, history is biting at Stella Gibbons’ heels.

And finally – I think I want to go into the sukebind business.  We could all do with a bit of cheering up, and what with everyone having children later and later and worrying constantly about identity and other imponderables, not to mention the government and the environment, I thought it might be diverting to sow lots of sukebind among the wildflower meadows of Putney and Nempnet Thrubwell in order to encourage more frolicking. I’m reading Dave Goulson’s excellent new book on *wildflower gardening and I can’t find any reference to sukebind – I expect big pharma is working on synthesizing it even as I write this – and probably Dominic Cummings has slapped a D notice on even mentioning it, but I was thinking of making a tincture to sell to Potwell Inn customers at £50 for 10 ml.   I’m ready for the knock on the door.

*Dave Goulson – The Garden Jungle – Jonathan Cape £16.99

 

This won’t buy the baby a new coat

IMG_20200112_102746

After quoting from Cold Comfort Farm a couple of days ago, I couldn’t resist reading it again for the umpteenth time and once again it made me laugh out loud  on almost every page. I mean it’s not as if it’s a piece of great literature, but it’s absolutely joyful  and it feels as if it was written in much the same way that Jack Kerouac is supposed to have  written “On the road” – in one long binge. I’ve read it so many times, now, that I’ve worn it out over and over and my latest copy – bought from an Oxfam shop – started life at 2/6 – that’s half a crown or twelve and a half pence in new money. While I was reading today the spine began to break once more so that’s something else I need to look out for.

But there’s more to it than just the comedy.  The book was written as a riposte to the Thomas Hardy school of literature. I’m a great fan of Hardy but you have to say the unremitting grimness of, say, Jude or Tess does make it something of an ordeal to read them – the grey wraiths of fate hang over them rather like an appointment for a colonoscopy….

But then I suddenly remembered my first ever sermon while I was training when one of the assessors said it was like being immersed in Thomas Hardy – which I didn’t take as a compliment. A rather kinder mentor said gently that it would be best if I didn’t try to say everything that was on my mind at once. Being a Hardy fan is not unlike being an old fashioned Marxist – you know something terrible is going to happen but you just don’t know when: which is precisely why my mind travelled to Amos Starkadder’s sermon after seeing the photographs in Cardiff last week. I needed something to laugh at amid the suffocating thought that something pretty awful is happening to us all.

Reading the whole novel again brought other rewards as well. Madame, for instance, reminded me that it was one of my father’s favourite books – a fact which I’d completely forgotten, and which prompted me to remember that I had seen him laughing until the tears ran down his face and he fell to coughing furiously.  It was a great memory for displacing some of the more gloomy ones as he grew old.

Last night the south westerly wind was in one of those strange moods where it simply blew hard and steadily, without variation, finding the tiniest cracks in the window frames and causing a continuous soughing noise.  We woke up this morning to rain, again the uncommon sound of a heavy and continuous shower, blitzing through the early sunlight as the sun rose over the roofs of the buildings opposite with a fine mist rising up in the intense brightness. All very Hardy-esque I thought. They call it synchronicity when events and thoughts seem to coincide. It happens a lot at the Potwell Inn.  The other memory to bubble up from the silt was the phrase spoken by (I think) Mrs Beetle – “This won’t buy the baby a new coat” – one of my mother’s frequent expressions.

Yesterday I glimpsed a newspaper headline suggesting that the government had decided to treat Extinction Rebellion activists as potential terrorists.  I’m not much of an activist but it amuses me to think that at my ripe old age I’m finally being taken seriously as a threat to the way we do things so badly round here. Good thing too, we need to shake things up a bit if we’re going to survive – this woebegotten bobbery pack of a government can stick their fingers in their ears and shout “lah lah lah” as much as they like but it hasn’t worked in Australia and it can’t work here.

Bath pavement artist cheats death

 

IMG_20200108_133516
Rue leaved saxifrage

I’d never noticed this plant until we moved here – it’s a Saxifraga tridactylides the three fingered or rue leaved saxifrage. I first noticed it growing on our fire escape where, because it was only rooted in about 1 mm of grime, it was a tiny little plant and I thought no more of it until today when I spotted its more fortunate relative growing in a  luxurious crack at the bottom of an old limestone wall. Like most pavement plants it doesn’t exactly draw attention to itself, but unlike many of its posher cousins this saxifrage is an annual, and it survives the yearly baptism of Roundup by flowering and setting seed before the man from the council gets to it. Other pavement artists survive by looking as if they are entitled to be there.  The Mexican fleabane spreads because most people think it’s a daisy and therefore deserves a chance.  The Canadian fleabane plays Russian roulette with the ethnic cleansers (this is a very fertile city) so sometimes it gets hit and sometimes it gets away with it. The sowthistles seem to be resistant to the sprays, so they die back respectfully and then emerge stronger than ever. Ivy leaved toadflax grows on the walls and escapes that way. Let’s be honest, this obsessive tidiness isn’t remotely necessary, and the vagrant plants add a touch of life – even to our hallowed Georgian crescents. I’m just pleased to see anything showing signs of life.

Today started with me feeling a little short of sleep. I seem to be dreaming my entire life in a more or less random manner – my mind is slowly coming to terms with the fact that at last, through the magical surroundings of the Potwell Inn, I’m safe, and so having packed up and moved here four years ago my unconscious is wrapping up the past and packing it away because it (he) knows I don’t need it anymore.

Today’s re-lived experience involved the 8 mm film I once made of the funeral of a gangster who – it was widely thought – had been thrown down a flight of stairs and murdered. The police conducted an unenthusiastic investigation that took best part of a year, but there were no witnesses, no-one was talking and, to be frank, most people thought he had it coming. I was riding behind the horse-drawn hearse when the coffin very nearly slid out on to the road because someone had forgotten to insert the bolts, and the coachman turned to me and said – “he frightened my bloody ‘oss – e’s bin in the freezer for six months”. The surreal picture of a frozen corpse rolling down the hill was an addition to life’s rich tapestry, no doubt, but I spent most of the day in barely suppressed terror. 

So enough of these troubling old memories, I’m wrapping them in newspaper and sticking them in some kind of interior shed – glad to see the back of them.  But there are many more, and I think I’ll be dreaming them for the foreseeable future.

The good news was that on Monday we went to an excellent talk on Giotto’s paintings in the Scrovengni Chapel in Padua – the paintings were in Padua, that is, we were in the inestimable BRLSI. In the days of our pomp, when we had two incomes; most of our half-terms (Madame is an art teacher) were spent in galleries around Europe, sometimes with school parties and sometimes alone.  Now we’re retired our scope is a bit narrower and we haven’t even been to London for years, but the talk reawakened all the old excitement and I suddenly thought – ‘well we live 10 minutes walk from a main line station, why don’t we buy a railcard and book ahead to get cheap train tickets?‘  I mentioned the idea to Madame and she added Glasgow and Edinburgh to the wish  list and after an hour online we had our card and our first ticket – to Cardiff for the National Museum of Wales – great place.  I don’t need to drive, or worry about where to park, and we don’t need to have the obligatory row as we drive in circles when the satnav fails. It’s a win win cultural feast with extra virtue on the side for taking the train. We’re like a couple of kids in a sweet shop when we go to a good gallery.

Back on the allotment (try to keep up – we get around a bit!) I checked the traps and for the first time this week there were no rats.  A little dig around the compost bin suggests that either they have moved out or there were only ever a couple of them. The heap, which has been topped up to the brim three times since October has now rotted down to about 25% of the initial volume and is ready to be turned into the neighbouring bin. Everything looks very dormant apart from the overwintering vegetables which are all doing well.  The garlic that we started in pots about three weeks ago is doing particularly well and even some red onion sets that we’d given up on have thrown up their first shoots. Suddenly I’m very aware that the chilli seeds need to be sown very soon to give them a long ripening season. Next week we’ll be complaining about having no time!

My friend Rose posted to say that she’d been down to Shapwick Heath to see the murmuration of starlings there on the Somerset levels. Lucky her, we’ve not yet been but I’m sure it was awesome.  We used to see murmurations over Redcliffe Church in Bristol when I was there, but I’d be surprised if that still happens now.  We did, however, see a robin on the plot today.  We no-diggers are a bit of a waste of time for a hungry robin, but he he may have just turned up for a chat.

 

 

Wheat and tares at the Potwell Inn

Wheat and Tares or in plainer terms, the pests, diseases and downright nuisances are just a part of life at the Potwell Inn, and sometimes they can be sorted easily but, sadly sometimes a little harsh intervention is needed. One such fact of life on the allotment is rodents – rats and mice. Squirrels too can lend a destructive hand.  Last autumn we sowed a row of broad beans which failed to materialise. We found them yesterday hidden in a pile – presumably by a squirrel – under the leaves surrounding the rhubarb plants.

It seems paradoxical to say that because we are organic gardeners we don’t use chemicals unless they’re approved by the soil association, but perhaps once a year we might use a pyrethrum spray if the asparagus beetle runs out of control, we’re always very careful to do it when the friendly insects are less likely to be affected.

Garden centres will often try to point you in the direction of  pyrethroids when you enquire, but these are not approved for use on organic gardens.  There’s an exact parallel with herbal medicines here. Conventional medicine often works to isolate what’s believed to be the ‘active constituent’ of a plant and then produces immensely powerful and marketable products; but there’s no history of use in the pure form and so these chemicals can do immense damage before the downside becomes apparent. Pyrethrum has been around for a long time and it can kill pollinating insects if it’s used carelessly but in extremis it’s the lesser evil when faced with the extinction of a crop.  Last season we didn’t need to use it at all because the ladybirds roared into action at the best possible time and we were grateful to accept biological controls fee of charge.

Plant chemistry is immensely complex, and a single plant can contain dozens of active ingredients, all in symbiotic relationship with one another in the host plant.  Often the combination is more effective and less dangerous than the individual components. All of which is a long winded way of saying that artificially manufactured pyrethroids are far more persistent and dangerous than the plant extract that inspired them.  The downside is that pure pyrethrum is extremely expensive!

But of course the whole discussion of organic culture is fraught with the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe. The old and humorous definition of a weed as a plant in the wrong place has it exactly right, and this year we’ll be growing a few well known weeds deliberately, not to spite our neighbours but in order to continue my experiments with herbal medicine. While it’s perfectly acceptable to be found harvesting leaves and flowers around and about on our walks, it’s actually illegal to dig the roots up without the owner’s permission. I suspect that wandering around the countryside armed with my beautiful pointed spade would be considered as going equipped  and so there are some plants it’s best to gather from your own patch.

The distinction between weeds and vegetables can be very flexible, as can the nuisances of insects and animals. In the autumn our neighbours are troubled by the alarming number of ivy bees which, as it happens are perfectly harmless and lack a sting.  I’ve laid on the ground nose to nose with a mating ball to get a photograph before now.  Every year too, our sweet corn is ravaged by badgers – who absolutely love it, but don’t like soft netting because it gets in their claws – and so there’s a more or less effective remedy. Rats, being brilliant climbers, also clamber up to take the corn and, on a really bad day, a couple of the local wild population of deer will take it as well. In the complicated way that we do our ethical sums, we accept the damage from some animals but not others. Most of us carry a mental hierarchy of potential pest mammals from hedgehogs, deer and badgers at the cuddly end  and at the bottom of everyone’s list comes the rat. Mice seem altogether more benign until you sow a row of peas or beans -which is a pity because there don’t seem to be any effective deterrents apart from trapping and killing them and yet they carry some awful diseases, so you really don’t want their urine anywhere near your organic veg.

Naturally the moral difficulty doesn’t end there because you can use poison – where you never have to see or touch the casualties but when they are eaten by scavengers, then foxes hedgehogs and crows may well become secondary victims. The only other alternatives are live trapping them and then releasing them on someone else’s patch – not nice – or despatching them yourself – which is too troubling to contemplate or, finally, using strong spring traps that kill the rat instantly. Which means that every day I have to check the traps and dispose of the victims – which I leave out to feed the foxes, badgers and all the rest. I know it’s daft to feed the very creatures that will be attacking our allotment in a few months but there it is.  I’d rather have to look one dead rat in the eye than lie awake at night worrying about the hedgehogs.

And then, this week there’s the other kind of high-tec mishap that can cost a great deal of money to remedy.  The heating controller on our campervan has been slowly dying for the last five years, and yesterday it finally gave a last pathetic glow and faded into darkness. I knew it would be expensive to replace so I disconnected it and brought it back to the Potwell Inn, and set-to with my tiniest screwdriver. As the cover came off I found a printed circuit board that could have come out of a laptop. Worse still there were two more layers and a screen – all equally complex. The controller turned out to be a small computer that monitors and controls every aspect of the heating and hot water in the van. In fact it was £350 worth of pure German engineering in a box not much more than 3″ by 2″. There was only one thing to do because the van is the crucial component in all our natural history expeditions. “Rats!” I said, neatly compartmentalizing it as I pressed the send button on the order.  Now I can’t wait for the new one to arrive so we can heat the van and the water without an hour-long cat and mouse (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) game with the display.

Tomorrow there’s the Bath Nats AGM and a talk on wildlife photography, and then – on Sunday – the first field trip of 2020. Life is good – as long as you’re not a rat!

A feast – this time for the birds

IMG_20191231_133620

When we lived in South Gloucestershire, occasionally – during the autumn – we would get flocks of Redwing gorging themselves on the fallen apples in our small orchard.  One year we even photographed half a dozen roe deer which must have walked brazenly up the drive past the churchyard unless they jumped over the wall. Our chickens too, before they became foxy takeaways, absolutely loved them; and apart from larger birds and mammals the windfalls fed countless insects for weeks. But apples don’t persist, unless – that is – they’re crab apples like these I photographed on the river bank this morning. In recent days I’ve focused on winter looking forward to spring, but this tree – still bearing a significant amount of fruit – is some kind of Malus sylvestris – probably an ornamental cultivar and takes me back to the warm days of autumn. Stripped of all its leaves this tree is two seasons in one and makes a decent food-bank for the local wildlife.

IMG_20191231_133254While thinking of food-banks, yesterday I mentioned the sorry state of some of the boats being pressed into service on the canal.  This one is actually on the river just downstream of the weir and terribly vulnerable to flooding. The sheeting is all that seems to be sheltering a human being in this cold weather. The combination of public holidays and sales reductions in the shops has brought an unprecedented number of apparently homeless people into the city centre where they beg for money from crowds of visitors.  The police claim they they do very well out of it but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that many of them have intractable mental health problems. The Julian Trust – a local homeless charity – have weighed in against another charity which has distributed temporary shelters, claiming that there is plenty of  emergency shelter already available and if people can be persuaded to attend they can receive all sorts of support and healthcare including help with addiction problems. Homeless people can be very difficult to help.

Years ago I opened the vicarage door, late one winter evening, to see a young woman – clearly a rough sleeper – who announced “my waters have broken”. I have to admit it crossed my mind that this was a spoof but she was very pregnant so I yelled for Madame and we took her in, shoved her in a warm bath and called the maternity hospital. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to persuade them even to send out a midwife to check her over but eventually, at about 2.00am a midwife turned up and confirmed that she was about to have the baby but not that night. The girl’s partner was very hostile and refused to come into the house and she too refused a bed but insisted on sleeping in the bus shelter on the A38.  It turned out that they had met while they were residents in a psychiatric unit. We gave them some blankets and some food, and I managed to wring a promise out of her that she would come back in the morning, but it became clear that the reason for her fear of the authorities was that she had already had one child taken away and so she had decided to have this one “in a hedge somewhere”.

I spent half the next day trying to find emergency accommodation and when eventually I found somewhere in Bath I even offered to drive them over to see it, but they refused all offers of help, and the last time I saw them that afternoon they were walking off in the direction of the Severn Bridge. I never heard of them again, and there aren’t many months when I don’t think about them.  The line of my pastoral failures is longer than I care to think! The earth in all its fullness can be a cruel place, and any transect of my little geographical area of concern has to include the culture, the people, the dependencies and cruelties as well as pretty pictures of apple trees and my endless lists of wildlife. The same malign economic and political forces that are killing the environment and heating the climate are also destroying human lives, and not just in faraway places.

So where do we snatch joy from in the midst of all this?

Well, I think we need to take and celebrate joy wherever we find it. I had a real moment of joy in the bookshop today. I was waiting to collect my new edition of Stace and I had a browse in the poetry section  and picked up a copy of Louis MacNeice Collected Poems. Although I was only killing time (what a dreadful expression) I got so excited about the beginning of Autumn Journal – written in 1939 (there’s ominous!) – that I started to whisper the words aloud so I could feel them in my mouth. I was getting some funny looks  from other customers and so my only real recourse was to add the book to my already extravagant copy of “New Flora of the British Isles” Ed 4. When a book makes me hungry I have to have it, and this one started to blow me away in the shop! So there it is; on the last day of the year I mange to bind up every contradiction in my life into a mare’s nest of conflicting demands, and conclude 2019 with a flourish of extravagance.

Stuff it anyway – that’s what being human seems to be all about. Love, art, laughter and tears too – we can’t make it up, we have to live it. Happy New Year!

IMG_20191231_161740

 

All work and no play make Jack a dull boy

 

It’s New Year’s Eve, and as you can see from the photos we’ve had a grand old time with family, friends and neighbours. There’s always a hint of the black dog sidling along somewhere close behind me at this time of the year but, as one of my spiritual directors said many years ago – “There’s nothing wrong with you that a bit of sunshine won’t put right”. I think the dominant mood has to be defiance – of the winter, of the politics and of all that tries to diminish us and keep us in shadow.  Fear and despair are the devil’s tools and it’s always possible to raise a finger against the tyranny of the machine.

Anyway, enough of that, we have bigger fish to fry at the Potwell Inn and in any case the sun broke through for a couple of hours yesterday. Plan A was to go over to Dyrham Park for a walk, but slow moving traffic on the A46 was a bit of a clue that plan B was a better bet.  In the end we drove into the park and straight out again, passing many hundreds of cars and crocodiles of walkers.  There was no peace to be had anywhere, and we wondered at what point the overwhelming popularity of the place would become a serious threat to the environment. I had the horrifying thought that the whole of  White Field might be turned into an overflow car park – all those stunning meadow plants mown off in pursuit of a few more visitors to fund the spoliation of yet more land.

IMG_20191228_141316And so we returned to a bit of unfinished business on the canal. I’ve written about the big patch of Winter Heliotrope we found – no great shakes, I know, but it was a cheerful sight.  However there was one thing I forgot to log, and the latin name Petasites fragrans is a bit of a clue, because apparently it has a perfume although experts seem unable to agree on what it is – some say vanilla, others cherry pie,liquorice or aniseed. A bit inconclusive, then! So there was nothing to do but go back and flare the nostrils a bit in search of the elusive fragrance. I thought it might help that the sun was shining and it’s true that there was a distinct fragrance but you could only get it by standing back from the individual flowers and embracing the whole bed. It was nice to confirm the name, but I couldn’t say that the perfume was any other than itself – the perfume of winter heliotrope.

IMG_20191230_135837

IMG_20191230_144103Here’s a photo above that just about sums up the time of year. I love the appearance of Clematis vitalba – old man’s beard, traveller’s joy – among other English names – when it reaches the final stage of its seasonal cycle. It’s winter in a picture, but almost at its feet we found new leaves of dandelion, tansy and yarrow in full spring growth. I’m always surprised at just how specific the habitats are. You’ll see loads of a particular plant in one small length of the towpath, and then it seems to be replaced by something entirely different. As I looked at the yarrow leaves I suddenly remembered another of our childhood names  – we called it ‘fish paste’ for no particular reason I can think of.

IMG_20200101_130145The canal itself was a beautiful sight in the winter sunshine, but even there we found a bit of human tragedy.  We’d noticed that one rather dishevelled looking boat was tilting dramatically the other day. Yesterday we found the distraught young couple whose home it had been, trying to rescue their belongings from the sunken hull. They’d obviously gone away for Christmas and returned to find their home underwater. There are so many people living within a whisker of destitution on these old boats. The wealthy owners of waterside homes are constantly agitating to have them removed, but the look etched on to their faces would have told you all you need to know about being poor and homeless in this, one of the richest countries in the world.

But the sun truly brings Bath stone to life, and as we took our usual walk, looping back through the town center I took a few photos of the canal and some of its buildings.  The water was flat calm, and I was fascinated by the appearance of what seemed an exactly parallel world in the reflection. Cleveland House – newly restored –  looked as if it was sitting on a giant’s cave, and the mature plane trees’ reflections were stunning. From Laura place, looking down Pulteney Street the sun – low in the sky – made the houses glow with a kind of inner light. Mercifully the river level is falling and narrow boats were at last able to join the Avon through Widcombe Deep Lock.  It’s a kind of secret Bath that draws us back again and again – and we’ll need to keep it up because I can see that within a week or two the wildflowers will move into a new gear altogether.

 

 –  

Potwell Inn (Christmas) sherry trifle recipe

IMG_20191224_112715

Sponge fingers
1 bottle sherry, (or to taste – probably less)
Frozen raspberries from the allotment
Raspberry jelly (jello)
Crême Anglaise
Whipped cream
decorations  – must include crystallised angelica + glace cherries
non alcoholic version for grandchildren – leave out sherry but they’ll still eat yours if they get a chance.

So after 4 days at the stove, the last of the guests has departed, the Potwell Inn has returned to its usual quiet existence and I feel as if I’m a stone heavier. The sherry trifle is such a favourite with everyone that I usually wish I’d made two, but we even managed to eat one of the Christmas puddings this year, which means there are only three left to look reproachfully out of the cupboard until we eat them during the year.  Christmas cooking is as much liturgy as it is cooking; traditions to be observed and rituals to be followed to the letter. From the moment the turkey arrives the die is cast, and the familiar sequence begins once again.  The difference this year was that I cooked the turkey in Bath  and we drove it over to Bristol in a pile of pre-prepped trays, boxes and bags so our chef son could have a break from cooking. The thrill of the Christmas roast palls after the first thousand have gone out to the pass, but I’m an amateur so I never get bored with it. All that remains today is the stockpot simmering away very slowly on the stove, filling the flat with its aroma.  We both agree, (as we always do), that a period of  restraint would be rather good.

We ignored the stupefying dolt-fest of television and our oldest son continued our film education by force-feeding us Tarantino films, although we managed to negotiate a brief respite with Naked Gun for the 200th time. So all reigned peaceful and no-one got upset for the whole period although we all enjoyed a jolly good moan about our sad lives under the cosh of our incompetent superiors. It’s Christmas for goodness sake, if you can’t feel sorry for yourself at Christmas there’s no hope for humanity, and that suits us very well – bah humbug.  The revelation of the week was that our son is very good at extracting broken keys from locks – it was (stone cold sober) me that broke it this time – and we had to go to Timsons to get another cut.  The young man there did a brilliant job in the face of imminent collapse after looking after eight guests – our hearts ached for him. The most amusing event was meeting our upstairs neighbour on the stairs on Christmas morning. I thought he was behaving a bit strangely, and then he produced a set of flash cards one of which said “I’ve lost my voice” and another “Happy Christmas”.  He managed a weak smile and stumbled off upstairs.

And so we rehearsed our tour of the town this afternoon, using the tourist minimising route, and although the bottom of Milsom Street resembled the Mississippi in flood, we skipped across like loggers and enjoyed a quiet walk along the rather damp side streets. I feel completely exhausted and all I can dream of is some sunshine and a few plants in flower, but having struggled past the solstice, the weather continues wet and miserable. I’m sure we’re breaking records – just not very good ones.

IMG_20191227_152356

 

 

 

 

 

Fine words butter no parsnips

IMG_20191207_164441

These were grown on a piece of the allotment that the previous tenant said nothing could be grown on and demonstrates two points at once.  Firstly, there’s no saying what a piece of ground will grow once you’ve removed not just one, but two layers of carpet and weed control mat separated  by a four inch layer of soil and weed roots; and secondly that the old tale that parsnips fork when they’re grown in recently manured ground may be a bit more complicated than it seems.  There’s some evidence, apparently, that parsnips and other roots fork as a result of eelworm infestation, so it may be that the forking eelworms (dare I say?) like manure. Who can tell?  This ground was absolutely inundated with well-rotted horse manure  after we discovered what the problem was, and then uncovered and removed it- well, sort of rolled up!.

So that’s the parsnips almost dealt with except to say that roasted with carrots, one of our ukichi kuri squashes and some of our potatoes and rainbow chard made the most lovely treat. The difference in quality and flavour between shop bought veg and our own is beyond dispute.

So that leaves butter and fine words.  A couple of days ago I ran out of olive oil when I was baking, so I substituted the same weight of butter in my everyday sourdough and it worked perfectly well.  However there’s a difference in the texture that I can’t quite put my finger on, so I probably won’t do it again unless I run out of oil.

And finally, fine words. LIke all bloggers I pay attention to the stats, and like everyone else I love it when they go up and I wonder what I’ve done wrong when they go down. When a whole continent disappears for three days I do worry a bit – and if anyone says they don’t care about things like that, they’re telling fat porkies. The Potwell Inn would be simpler to describe in terms of what it isn’t than what it is. In particular it isn’t a feelgood site, a natural history site, a life coaching site, a spirituality site or a cookery site although, confusingly, I write about all these things. So I have to expect that sometimes when people follow the Potwell Inn because they have an allotment, they might be disappointed when – especially in the winter – there’s not much to write. “Went to allotment to take up the kitchen waste, very muddy” is not going to butter any parsnips or, indeed, crack any pots in Warrington.

In fact, yesterday we took the kitchen waste up to the allotment and dug a few parsnips. I uncovered the compost heap, which I’ve been turning frequently to bury the rat attracting food under the older stuff.  I don’t mean cooked food scraps – they go into general waste because the council won’t collect food waste from our block of flats; but rats also love to chew a lump of raw cauliflower trimming or a sprouted potato. As I turned the waste in, a sleek brown rat jumped out from somewhere near the bottom and scuttled around looking for a way of escaping.  I was holding a murderous looking four pronged stable fork but the sight of the rat’s rather lovely shiny fur softened my heart and I stood back while it went on its way.

The winter heap is very different from the summer heap.  Apart from the rats, the worms love a winter heap and multiply in their thousands if you keep it aerated and warm.  You can almost hear them chomping away at the kitchen waste, and as long as I keep the heap from going anaerobic and smelly it consumes kitchen waste, shredded paper and cardboard faster than we can put it in.

Winter compost and summer compost are very different. Winter words and summer words are very different too. Life at the Potwell Inn has its seasons, and as it moves on, my interests, experiences and outlook change as well.  At the moment there are over 250,000 words in this blog.  Sometimes – it’s lovely when it happens – someone will come on to the site and read fifteen or twenty pages at one sitting.  Many readers seem to dip in and out and as the blog has grown I’ve realized that people access it in different ways and for different reasons. I’m looking to change and re-index the categories and tags to make it easier for readers to access the bits they’re interested in. But the core purpose of the Potwell Inn blog is to reflect on the whole tricky business of being human and staying human in whatever ways catch my attention from day to day.

I’d like to reach more people.  The Potwell Inn is, hopefully, a sanctuary for the alternative, the bewildered, the joyful and the curious – against the onslaught of the free market vultures. If you’ve read H G Well’s novel you’ll know that the Potwell Inn has a river running through its grounds. There were once fish in it and a ferry to make the crossing. The brewers are desperate to close it down and sell it for redevelopment as a gated housing development. I’d love it if you passed the link to the site on to your friends – I’m confident that if you like the site I’d like your friends too, so do press the button. Small is beautiful but a bit bigger would carry more weight in the fight against all that diminishes our humanity.

 

 

 

 

Everyday sacred

IMG_20191205_113353

Writing about baking bread the other day I was casting around for a way of expressing just how important ordinary actions and objects can be. I’ve written in the past about the ‘ordinary’ and I’ve no doubt I’ll keep coming back to it. Ordinary is a word inflected by its use by the church to describe the authority of regularity, of obedience, of order, but in  institutional hands it came to mean repetitiveness, blind obedience and hierarchy. Sometimes it’s possible to blow the dust off an old word and restore it to its full meaning, but maybe ‘ordinary’ has been taken to the charity shop once too often and so it just means ‘a bit meh’.

So my loaf of bread, ordinary though it is to me, because it embodies a whole network of responsibilities and regularities – and great beauty too, aside from its utility as a shared food – ‘ordinary’ doesn’t quite stretch to it.  So I tried another word. ‘everyday’.   Everyday bread perhaps, for some people, conjures up a faint memory of ‘daily bread’. The word stuck in my mind and although I’ve tried writing on a number of other subjects I keep coming back to the idea of ‘everyday sacred’.

I’m really worried about using these kind of words because they’ve been so hijacked and starved by by their association with organised religion with which I’ve had a long relationship in the past.  But that leaves me with a problem because if ‘spirituality’, ‘sacred’, and all their associated concepts are put beyond reach by the institutions that hold the concession at the moment, we have to start from scratch in describing what for many of us is a deeply felt connection with the earth, and with one another, that transcends the ‘selfish gene’ nonsense peddled by Old Testament atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I no longer have a belief in the supernatural.  I dreamed about losing it and then it just happened one day as I stood watching the River Severn in flood, and I saw it float away in the fierce water.  It wasn’t at all dramatic; I wasn’t as much ‘losing my faith’ as being set free to find it again in another place, free of the rigidity and dogma. I’ve never spoken about this before and it may come as a bit of a shock to some of my friends so I’ll have to pace up and down  a bit before I press the ‘publish’ button, but there we are – it’s a relief to have written it.

So now I can write about everyday sacred without any ambiguity about my intentions. This blog isn’t about selling anything it’s about being human – delightfully, stupidly and increasingly decrepitly human.  When I’m in the kitchen making bread I feel connected.  When I’m on the allotment I feel it too.  On my way through the park today I stood face to face with a pair of long tailed tits in the hedge who seemed as curious about me as I was about them, and the urge to thank somebody, something, surged inside me.

Everyday sacred is that sense of gratitude because the earth provides so much that we need. The photo is of a sketch I made of a garlic bulb – this was a more successful one, I did dozens of others that turned out like schoolboy phallic graffiti – it’s hard to get it right. Knowing that it’s so good for us to eat and knowing something about the quite amazing molecular transformations that go on within garlic, within so many plants whose secondary metabolites can cure our diseases and put us back together again – that induces the same sense of the everyday sacred.  The hawthorn – we called it ‘bread and cheese’ as children and ate the leaves when they were new and not full of tannin – hawthorn has an outrageous array of natural gifts to offer.

So the Potwell Inn is for: dancing, singing, making music, eating together, telling jokes, falling in love, breaking the rules, growing our food and listening to each others troubles; healing, challenging and forgiving – these are the everyday sacred, and I say to the churches – “thank you for looking after the ball for so long,  but please can we have it back now.”