The suffix (3) in the title is because it’s the third time I’ve used the same title although the content is different as you’ll see if you click here. If you read the piece in the link you’ll also notice – apart from the photo of elderflowers – a useful description of the archaic tobacco enema should that be of any interest.
Anyway the three pieces were written at very roughly this time of year in 2019, 2021 and today and they share the sense of liberation that comes with late spring and early summer made especially poignant by the fact that the earlier two postings book-ended the COVID epidemic. We thought it was all over then, but it wasn’t and it still haunts our politics, memories and dreams today. Without wanting for a moment to parallel the trauma of war with the pandemic, I remember my Father and his contemporaries with renewed respect when I try to imagine the thoughts and memories they carried and the impact it had on on our whole family.
Anyway, we treasure our slow emergence from COVID with each moment of joy, and today, making the first batch of elderflower cordial I realized how much it celebrates and marks the early summer for me. We’re lucky to be living on the edge of a patch of public green space that has many Elders amongst the other riverside trees and so yesterday we harvested about 100 flower heads and soaked them overnight with lemon and orange zest. Last year we had a problem with some of the seals on the flip top bottles and about half of one batch went mouldy, so this year we’ve bought all new rubber seals and scrupulously scrubbed and sterilized the bottles before refilling them. Up at the allotment there’s a marvellous purple variety so we’ll harvest another load of flowers from there and make pink cordial. We don’t bother to filter out all the pollen because it takes forever to drip through a jelly bag – and of course the longer it’s exposed to the air the more likely it is to pick up airborne moulds. I hate the taste of sulphite, so we combine a little extra citric acid before simmering it and bottling it. Somehow – in spite of the cost of fruit and sugar – it seems that we’ve received a free gift from nature before the allotment starts properly yielding crops.
On the other hand we’ve been eating rhubarb and digging the volunteer potatoes that were missed when we dug the crop. Miraculously we’ve even eaten a few maincrop potatoes which survived the winter and the slugs unscathed. We’ve had plentiful spinach and swiss chard so although we’re a million miles from self-sufficient, we still have the benefit of fresh veg during the hungry gap.
Yesterday, with watering out of the way, we sat out on the green reading when we heard a loud crash and looked up to see that one of our elderly neighbours had taken a tumble. Within seconds three of us sprinted to help and a passer by stopped as well. Within the constant churn of just passing through residents, there is a core of neighbours who’ve been here for many decades, and we often have impromptu parties on the pavement when the sun shines. It just happened that the first aiders were two nurses, a retired vicar and a retired post office worker – so we were fully equipped for any eventuality! In the end our neighbour suffered nothing worse than a cut on his head and another on his finger, but it underlines the great benefits of a functioning community. On the other hand the constantly changing tides of students, Airbnb’s and just passing through’s can feel a bit alienating at times. Often they do a moonlight flit and leave their rubbish in the basement for someone else to clear up.
The other problem we have is with aggressive dogs and their owners being let loose on the green to crap, bark and intimidate the rest of us. We still have a massive problem with drug dealing, and yesterday I was greatly amused to overhear a conversation between a customer on the street and the dealer in a car. The dealer was protesting that if the customer wanted whatever it was, he’d have to order it and he’d get it in for Saturday. Life’s rich tapestry, I suppose. Enduring over a decade of incompetent, corrupt and greedy government leaves its mark on the communities that we live in and which they rarely see. On the other hand we’ve had to become adept and resourceful; mastering the kind of skills that the clowns in charge will neither possess nor enjoy.
I hesitated for a while before writing the first part of the title because I’m very aware that scripture quotations have a very high cringe factor for many readers; so I’ll summarise and say that rust – or perhaps rot, moths and thieves – play a very real and challenging role in running a garden or allotment. The second part of the title is a traditional saying which reminds us that just being on the allotment, walking around slowly and taking everything in means that invasive weeds get pulled up and pests are identified long before they become a threat. So basically, stuff grows better and stronger when it’s well looked after. Dousing plants with chemicals when the problem’s escalated out of hand is a poor substitute for attention to detail. In gardening terms, “laying up your treasures” often means waiting for seasons – even many seasons – before gaining your reward. A deep understanding of your patch of dirt is both the precondition and the fruit of all that attention to detail. Calling it Green Fingers rather misses the point.
So today Madame found the caterpillars on our apple trees and carefully removed them to stop them from sapping their energy by chomping on the leaves. Later on I’ll be spraying the asparagus plants with a nematode mixture to kill off the asparagus beetle larvae – they’re completely harmless to other pollinating insects and other creatures. As for today I was using the thumb and finger technique which is only about 50% effective because the moment you kill one of them the others all drop to the ground. I wrote on Monday that he asparagus is dining in the last chance saloon, but we’ve decided to leave it for another couple of seasons while we prepare and plant up a new bed with what we hope will be a more productive variety.
All these tough decisions are a reminder that we live on a challenging earth. Our upstairs neighbour texted today asking what to do about a pigeon which had somehow got into his flat, built a nest and even laid eggs in it. How on earth they came not to notice all that home preparation escapes even my imagination, but I could see that there was an ethical dimension to destroying the nest, the eggs and possibly the pair of pigeons as well. All I could think of was to drive out the pigeons, remove the nest and leave the eggs out on the green where the magpies would soon find and eat them. For me it’s always better to do the tough work yourself than to farm it out to others and try to forget it ever happened.
Not everyone agrees of course. Later on we were chatting to a fellow allotmenteer who’s a vegan and Madame mentioned that we were using sheep’s fleece in the fruit cage to deter weeds and to mulch around the stems (very successfully). She was horrified at the very idea of using fleece even though it would otherwise be discarded as valueless. For her it seemed desirable and possible to avoid all these moral difficulties but I’m not so sure. I recall that she was happy to catch and kill slugs when they attacked her vegetables. Somehow it seems to me that a virtuous life is better lived by embracing the hard choices than by avoiding ever having to make them.
Anyway, yesterday was also momentous for rather different reasons. Our neighbour is a distinguished South African botanist who once ran a national botanical garden. He’s also very good company and so we were gossiping in his garden when he brought out a plant which – being unfamiliar with British plants, he couldn’t name; giving me the chance to show off just a bit. I perhaps failed to mention that it was one I’d often looked for unsuccessfully so that was a find– not on a rocky outcrop in a remote place but on a wall next to the dentist in the centre of Bath. Then he brought out a Rock Geranium growing in a pot which explained in a glimpse why it’s called Geranium macrorrhizum – fat root. Another first for me. Finally, at my first Council meeting of the Bath Nats the local recorder mentioned that she’d seen a Sea Spleenwort growing in the city centre . We’d spent hours looking for it along the cliffs when we were last in Cornwall and because I now know where to find it, I can claim three ticks in a day. In return I showed off even more by showing her how to use Google Photos as a searchable database. Cue for a date to give one of the indoor talks to the society this winter. Good day!
Madame and I are definitely no-diggers, but not in a religious sense and so there are some occasions when we resort to the fork because we share a thirty yard border with several untended plots which constantly test our defences with daring raids. Sometimes they’re aerial – dandelions and sow-thistles are regulars, but also underground – particularly bindweed (hiss) and couch grass. Both of them, especially bindweed, spread underground rapidly; I think I read somewhere that they can grow a metre a week. Anyway, every two or three years we have to dig it out and dispose of it. There’s no point in composting it and we’re all much more circumspect about garden bonfires now we know how dangerous the smoke is. In the intervening years when it’s not a problem, it’s usually enough to run a three tined cultivator hoe, or a sharp draw hoe across the beds and slice them off at ground level. What’s particularly irritating is that our then neighbour allowed us to grow potatoes on a part of one of the plots. We could still keep the ground clear and even improve it but the Council wouldn’t hear of it. However often the plots are offered, there are no takers, it seems, and meanwhile we listen to the bindweed growling at the gate!
It’s been a difficult year for growing so far. We were late getting on to the ground with spells of very wet and very cold weather so we decided to go with the flow, sowing and planting whenever we could. Many of our veg will be later than usual, but fellow allotmenteers who stuck to the textbook timetable have been caught out. We lost some old friends during the winter; the Achillea, the Calendula and Salvias all gave up and a quick trip to a garden centre showed a huge increase in prices so we’ll have to do without for the time being. However the always reliable angelica and some second year parsnips are flying the flag for the insects. We also lost two rosemary bushes down at the cold end of the allotment, so we’ll have to replace them with cuttings somewhere out of the frosts.
The polytunnel has given us great fun and tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and a long row of basil are all thriving. This year – purely as an experiment – we’re growing a patch of sweet corn in the tunnel, hopefully out of reach of the badgers. So notwithstanding a fortnight’s camping in Cornwall; between the kindness of neighbours and the lateness of the season the plot came through for us.
A bit of a post-covid tree planting binge has shown its first fruits in the shape of ten victoria plums while the others all flowered for the first time. We bought them just after the lockdown eased and they were pretty poor, but loads of TLC has helped them along. A Tayberry has grown tremendously fast and looks like it will be providing a good crop later on. All in all, our resolution to cut back last autumn has been comprehensively trashed, so maybe next year. We both ache in every muscle after having to water the vulnerable plants so much in this mini-summer. On the other hand, seven years of regular composting and leaf-mould spreading have left the soil in good condition with decent amounts of moisture at about four inches down.
The asparagus bed is under a final warning because it’s not really producing nearly as well as we’d hoped. Our immediate neighbour grows Connover’s Colossal and he gets great crops, so maybe it’s another example of the old saying – “Right plant, right place”. After a rather lonely winter, the site is finally buzzing again. A few of the newcomers who started during Covid have discovered that Liz Leendertz’s book about a “one hour allotment” doesn’t stand up well to the reality of jobs, children and all the other distractions. Hopefully they’ll return to gardening later in life.
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day, Today we have naming of parts. Japonica Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens, And today we have naming of parts.
Henry Reed, “Naming of parts” 1942
I love the way that, when I’m writing, images and ideas surface in my mind. My first thought when I sat down to write this post was that these four Cranesbills would have been exactly the species which inspired William Morris in his designs. Next I pondered for a while (it’s 5.00am after a sleepless night) on the extraordinary fact that in nature these closely related species are so plentiful. Do we really need twelve of them (Harrap’s “Wild Flowers”). Colin French’s “Flora of Cornwall” lists 34 species and subspecies; such an abundance that the only possible conclusion is that abundance, excess and diversity are somehow hardwired into nature. To return to a previous thought, if Nature is structured like a language then this abundance represents the dialects; the regional and environmental inflections of the same idea – like each one of us; all (potentially) beautiful if only we could break out of the prison we create when we each see ourselves as the only show in town.
And then Henry Reed’s poem plopped into my mind and I had the clearest recollection of myself in my early teens, sitting in a hot and airless classroom and gazing longingly out of the window as our teacher struggled to interest us in this poem. Not me, though. The poem sold itself to me in an instant. Here was another human being, feeling exactly like me at that moment and I took it to constitute permission to daydream. I’m quite sure that our teacher had no such aim in mind, but that’s the dangerous and disruptive power of poetry.
I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, by the way, for the idea of walking in nature rather than through it. It came up during a long conversation on a Bath Natural History Society field outing when we were overtaken by a runner pounding by us and seeing nothing at all. This last fortnight the experience repeated itself endlessly as we stood and watched a Kestrel hovering, or knelt in the grass delicately uncovering Spring Squills or – in this specific instance paused to photograph no less than four species of Geranium along a quarter of a mile of sunken lane bordered on both sides by Cornish walls as butterflies jazzed around tracing marvellous curlicues in pursuit of rivals, mates or nectar.
Without that special kind of relaxed mindfulness none of this diversity would have been visible. I suppose you could go out after a specific quarry – some rare or interesting plant – and cover more ground – eventually dragging your photographic elk back to the cave; but my favourite way of walking in nature is to move slowly, turning up all the senses to ten and let the plants do the talking. I’m not sure what practical use this kind of meditation has, other than cleansing the mind of thoughts about the endless dishonesty and stupidity of some politicians or the grinding anxiety that all this beauty is being threatened by the greed and selfishness of war and oil. Perhaps that’s the link with the poem about sitting in a stuffy room and learning how to assemble and fire a rifle in the context of the Second World War.
Looking, seeing and beholding seem to me to constitute a hierarchy of mindful attention. For all the superficial similarities, each one of the Cranesbills is quite distinct. The shape of the leaves, for instance is crucial; compare the deeply incised lace-like divisions of the Cut-leaved Cranesbill in the larger photograph with the more modest Dove’s-foot Cranesbill in the centre of the strip of three to the left. Notice the fern like leaf of Herb Robert and the unusually pale flowers of the other * Dove’s-foot Cranesbill – each one an expression of the irrepressible creativity of Nature, and each one asking of us to name them because naming something – in a strange but powerful way – brings it into existence for us. The more we can name, the bigger the world becomes and the more intense our relationship with it. Even the word “Cranesbill” tells us something about the history of our language. If you look at the forming seed behind the flower at the top left – the Herb Robert – you might see the resemblance to a bird’s head and beak. But when was the last time that the sight of a Crane (the bird, I mean) was sufficiently commonplace to attach its name to a plant? Some centuries, I guess!
So it was farewell to Cornwall on Wednesday as we woke early and packed the campervan. This time we were on the Roseland peninsula, a very different place from the Lizard and a very different feel to the natural history as well. But we’ve already booked to return in September. Curiously, we were talking to our allotment neighbour when we got back and we discovered that without ever meeting one another we had been staying on the same campsite for over a decade. He was planning to drive down today for the half-term week. It’s a small world – worryingly and vulnerably small!
Back home, though, we turn our full attention to the allotment which – thanks to some good neighbours – survived the very hot weather, but urgently needs weeding and TLC.
*I submitted just one of what I initially thought were four species to the local BSBI Recorder – the marvellously skilled Ian Benallick for verification – and he corrected my identification earlier today, so apologies for any apoplexy caused by my mistake. His kind correction led me to double check all my ID’s in Tim Rich and A C Jermy’s “Plant Crib”. Geraniums, it seems, are a difficult group. Yet another example of the way we learn so much more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.
Having enjoyed every moment of sunshine on holiday, we spent some of today working at 35 C in the polytunnel which is now almost planted up with summer residents and looks lovely.
After my exhausting battle with language in the last post I thought, maybe, that I, along with any readers who follow this blog sequentially, needed a bit of a lie-down. Unfortunately most readers clearly don’t read it sequentially and so a very long and slowly unfolding idea will only be found by searching on the tag “green spirituality”.
I just need to add one further dimension to a rather one-sided discussion by suggesting that the aesthetic is, in a peculiar way, another sense to add to the five more commonly accepted ones – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. At its most basic, the aesthetic embraces all of the five, and often makes sense where the logical mind fails. I never could understand Madame’s passion for art until (I was nineteen and she was fifteen) I suddenly got it in front of a semi abstract painting of the back of a Georgian terrace in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. My conversion felt like a several gigabyte data dump constituting the key, and taught me in an instant the difference between seeing and beholding. That’s all I wanted to add to the previous post. If our unconscious minds really are structured like a language then the language is more likely to be musical, poetic or artistic than logical and scientific. To drag an ancient canard out of the confit, truth is beauty and beauty is truth – ask any mathematician.
Anyway one of the most visible plants around down here at the moment checks in at best part of six feet tall; it’s Charlock and in terms of beauty it’s way down the scale. The Book of Stace describes it as an archaeophyte and denizen. I had to look denizen up and it’s a plant that can compete with native plants and generally act as if it is a native. For goodness sake don’t let the Daily Mail get hold of this information or they’ll be organizing vigilante Charlock squads.
So Charlock is no beauty and yet if you should want to distinguish it from its multitude of close cousins who have been stowing away on grain ships since Roman times in order to pollute our pristine land with foreign genes; one thing you can do is stroke the stem and the leaves and if it’s five or six feet tall, let the sense of touch flush it out. It’s very bristly and rough. You have to look at the sepals – the tiny little leaves poking out directly beneath the flowers (which should be yellow) and if they stick out at right angles you can toss your head in disdain at this wretched jumped up weed. Or alternatively you could say “Good luck mate, I wish I had half your energy” .
I much prefer talking to plants and birds because there’s always the possibility of a silent conversation beginning, and who knows where that will lead? These moments of intense contemplation can be almost erotic in their intensity. I’ve spent days trying to capture the texture and form of a single Hyacinth blossom in watercolour. In the early days of my artistic adventures I remember seeing a drawing of Clevedon Pier by Peter Lanyon; a completely relaxed charcoal line that perfectly expressed the pier in a way that a prissy architect’s drawing could never have achieved.
So never neglect the aesthetic power of plants and flowers. They don’t have to be rare. I suppose there is a bit of the trainspotter in all of us, but the pleasure of finding (top left clockwise) Kidney Vetch and Sea Carrot growing in full spring colours was only marginally less than finding the Spring Squill and the Cut Leaf Cranesbill; or the little pathside explosion of Primrose, Buttercup, Soft Shield Fern and Ivy; the Cuckoo Flowers which I climbed over a fence to photograph and found a couple of hours later had all been mown off. A little bereavement. And then, finally the Pale Flax whose flower is so intense that you could spend an afternoon gazing into its depths and pondering how long it is since it was part of a valuable cloth industry.
So it’s been a wonderful couple of weeks. Yesterday we were sitting outside the campervan drinking a cup of tea and we recorded no less than seven birds strutting their stuff nearby. We heard a Robin, a Blackbird, House Sparrows, a Dunnock, a Wren, a remarkably faint Curlew, and the usual garrulous cries of Crows, Magpies and Jackdaws. During our walk we watched House Martins scooping mud up from a drying puddle to build their nests and saw sparrows having a noisy dust bath on the tinder dry coast path. All this on a day that I completely failed to find a single Sea Spleenwort after thrashing sweatily along every cliff and sea facing Cornish wall I could find – in spite of all my attempts to research it beforehand. That’s the other thing about nature: it’s always surprising.
If you’re interested in food – especially in the slow food movement, you may well have read John Barlow’s excellent book “Everything but the squeal” – which is an account of a year in Spain during which he attempted to track down and eat the whole of the animal as expressed in the wide range of Spanish pork cooking. The title says it all; it’s a not for the faint hearted guide to not wasting a single scrap of a living creature after it has been slaughtered for our benefit.
Vegetarians and Vegans may, by this time, have decided to abandon this post but I’d argue that wastefulness afflicts us all. As a meat eater I entirely accept that I bear a moral profound responsibility for my choices and one of the ways I try to live that out is to eat meat less and then usually the cheapest cuts and make sure that they are sourced from farmers with high welfare standards. In fact, that point alone means that we could never afford the kind of daft offer that Waitrose came up with this weekend, inviting us to celebrate Coronation Weekend with a rib of beef joint costing £185.00.
Meat eating is a kind of in your face introduction to the earthiness of food and the biggest problem for our culture is that we are not (generally speaking) cooks and so prefer any engagement with meat to be as fast and painless as possible -which in turn obliges us to eat the leanest and most expensive cuts. Coupled with that is our fear and aesthetic loathing of raw meat because it shouts mortality at us and finally because we have no time left after our neo capitalist culture has eaten up any fragment of it there’s none left either for cooking or – tragically – for eating together.
So let’s take a look at sheep meat. These days we all know about sheep because of the glut of TV programmes in which we can easily see half a dozen lambs born before Sunday supper. Ah …. baby lambs we coo. In the spring we are bidden by the supermarkets to eat Spring lamb for Easter just as we are bidden to eat turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Our culture demands that we eat meat as frequently as possible whilst not counting the cost in suffering and methane production in the industrial fattening units. Boning a piece of pork belly is a meticulous operation that brings us irrevocably to the moral issue of meat eating. We can’t face eating tripe these days, nor chitterlings nor any of the 80% of the animal that we are far too sophisticated and fastidious to eat. “Stuff a heart? – I’d rather starve!”
So the meat industry – and that includes the restaurants as well, needs to find a way around our aversions and we came across a particularly egregious example here in Cornwall this week. To begin at the beginning, sheep meat comes in various forms. Spring lamb is the youngest and possibly the least flavoursome of the trio, but almost anyone can chuck a piece on the BBQ and make something of it. The next stage is the one to two year old lamb which is called hogget and if you can find it, is lovely. The third stage is mutton which is meat from a sheep that has had lambs but is no longer productive. It could be almost any age depending on when successive pregnancies have worn it (or rather its teeth) out. The trouble is, mutton has a bad rep because it’s the quintessential slow food and so – unless the chef or cook knows what they’re doing it can be as tough as old boots and taste like cardboard. So how do we get around this insuperable obstacle? The answer, of course, is to promote mutton for its real strengths and train chefs and cooks to deal with it properly. Naturally that’s never going to happen because it costs money. So the PR poets barge in with a cunning plan. “Let’s” – they say – “call it Cull Yow! – nobody knows wtf it is but it sounds pretty ethnic “
Obviously they’ve been watching too much TV because ‘Yow’ – anywhere in the country except Cumbria which is entirely populated by warrior models who cut hay in miniskirts – means ‘yew’ – everywhere else. So it’s a slam dunk win for the industry. Distancing from the real name of the meat which is really ‘dead old sheep’ we now have the entirely virtuous name “Cull Yow” – local; slow food and entirely life enhancing.
I don’t mind a great mutton revival – for reasons I’ve already explained -but I do loathe the sheer dishonesty of putting mutton on the menu at an up and coming gastro pub as if it were some hitherto undiscovered delicacy. We’re actually booked in for lunch there next week as a holiday treat and I will report back on whether the mutton was any good!
On tuesday our grandchildren’s school was shut for a teachers strike, and it was the tail end of a NHS nurses strike. As it happens, our grand daughter was booked in for some reconstructive orthopaedic surgery on her foot; notwithstanding any strikes (which incidentally we fully support). Her operation was carried out without delay or problems and she was home again by tea time, grumpy but hopefully fixed. As we drove past their school with the other two I tooted at the pickets who waved back cheerfully at the sight of two of their young students out for a day trip with granny and grandad.
Dyrham Park is close and (for National Trust members) cheap and the children love the freedom to race about and build dams in the streams. No-one has ever objected to them so we let them get on with it. Of course they also get a free natural history lesson – here are a couple of St Mark’s flies we photographed while they were mating. They’re the dozy black flies with dangly legs that seem not to mind flying into you – which makes them faintly scary to some people. They’re called St Mark’s because they emerge from their burrows in the grass in their tens of thousands in late April around the feast of St Mark; who – if you’re not a Christian and a full-on churchgoer – probably means nothing at all. On Tuesday they were present in many hundreds of thousands. We also hunted for St George’s mushrooms without luck (I’ve already made the point about saints days!) and enjoyed the peak dandelion period. We saw Cuckoo flowers, Maidenhair ferns and Harts Tongues. We talked about everything we saw and taught them to listen for birdsong and how to use a mobile phone app called “Merlin” to help identify them. Oh and we talked about the way barley straw is used to clear murky ponds and found some tadpoles and enjoyed the huge views out towards the Severn and the Mendip Hills. I absolutely defy anyone to say that a family day out is no substitute for a day in school.
Then, wandering around we came across a lonely maypole (this being the day after May Day) but you’ll see that the grass surrounding the pole looks pretty untroubled by even little feet. Clearly we haven’t yet embraced paganism with any enthusiasm in spite of the dark forebodings expressed by the Strict and Particular Brethren.
When we got back the children taught us how to order a Deliveroo from a mobile and then ordered all their favourite things. The oldest said afterwards “We love coming to you because you spoil us!”. So we all learned something new although ours was by far the more expensive lesson.
On Wednesday we were walking back from the allotment when we came across a bunch of people on the A4 protesting about the 20mph speed restrictions, the clean air zone and all things associated with wokery, 5G telephones, vaccinations and communism. Passing motorists tooted their horns enthusiastically without the tiniest thought illuminating their bewildering prejudices. I’m glad to say that the local elections 24 hours later saw the eviction of a raft of councillors who’d campaigned against the clean air zone and the new speed limits. Overwhelmingly the voters of Bath see the virtue of slowing down and breathing unpolluted air. Of course that won’t stop the campaigners (who are associated with all manner of far right causes), from telling us that they know better than we do – what we believe.
There was me, writing here a few days ago lamenting the absence of what I chose to call cultus; call it what you will really but it’s about moments of communal celebration – and then today it’s May Day.
Not that anything very discernable happened. No maypole to be seen on the allotments; no May Queen, no carousing and drunkenness; no dangerous and profligate behaviour. All you could say was that the allotments today were busier than they’ve been since last autumn. We’ve endured long periods of solitary allotmenteering as winter extended its grip to a full six months and we wondered whether we would ever see the sun again. Now we have two consecutive bank holidays and a coronation and aside from a meet the street gathering here next Sunday it seems that big and boozy community events were dealt something of a death blow by Covid. Somehow we’ve got out of the habit – out of the habit of harvest festivals, Christmas carols, plough mondays, Whitsun; and beating the parish bounds; other flavours are available if you can remember them.
There are probably many who wish good riddance to the lot of them – Christian festivals are a bit passé now – except for the fact that most of the meaningful festivals that still exist were pinched from the pagans centuries ago. Oliver Cromwell did his level best to ban the lot of them but the moment the Restoration happened they emerged from their brief hibernation as full of energy as before.
When St Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Britain in around 597 he discovered that a fully functioning pagan religion had returned in the period since the Romans left. He sent a desperate email – (OK letter!) – asking the Pope what he should do and in one of the few sensible decisions in the history of Christian evangelism; some months later the Pope replied that it was better to take on the pagan buildings and traditions and give them a Christian backstory. Welcome to Plough Monday, the first Monday after the (Christian) feast of the Epiphany – OK then, Twelfth Night – when traditionally the sowing of crops began after the Christmas lockdown. Plough Monday was the pagan festival celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year. In fact there’s an uncanny tie-in between the surviving Christian festivals and the old pagan calendar; and some, like Wassailing, that were never successfully co-opted at all.
All of which is a rather long winded approach to the fact that today, May Day, is also celebrated as Beltane; the traditional festival celebrating the beginning of summer. Fires, singing and a bit of carousing would once have taken place all over the country. I’ve got a photo of my mother as a child (born in 1918) dressed in white, with a garland of flowers round her head and standing next to a ribbon decked maypole on an Oxfordshire village green. Sadly since the triumph of the Evangelicals – Cromwell’s withered soulmates – most of the Christian Churches see these entirely innocent reminders of the earth cycle as heretical if not as devil worship. If you really want to see devil worship go and stand outside the chemical works in Huddersfield that still produces Paraquat and sells it to poor farmers in India.
The point here is that the earth cycles – the solstices, Winter (Christmas); Summer (Midsummer Day); equinoxes; Spring (Easter); Autumn; (Michaelmas) and the intervening quarters; Imbolc (Candlemas); Beltane (May Day); Lughnasadh (Lammas) and Samhain (Halloween) need to be detached from their captivity within institutional Christianity not because I would like to damage what became my own spiritual dialect but because the context has changed; history has moved on and – in the story shaped universe that we created and now inhabit – the earth cycle has (once again) become the story we desperately need to move us away from the dominant narrative – neoliberal economics and politics – towards an earth centred spirituality, not because it feels like a nice idea, but because our lives depend upon it.
So today we were on the allotment. Madame was mulching our fruit bushes with sheep fleeces given to us by our friends NIck and Kate who live in Bannau Brycheiniog – the old and original Welsh name for the Brecon Beacons. We’re expecting a plot inspection any day now and, to be honest, it looks as if a small flock of Jacobs Sheep has died in the fruit cage, under the blackcurrants and gooseberries. Fleece, which is almost valueless these days, makes an excellent mulch and slug repellent and it’s very good as an additive to the compost heap. Anyway we hope we don’t give our neighbours palpitations.
While Madame was engaged with the fruit cage, I was earthing up the potatoes. Years ago I bought a ridging tool which I only ever use once a year but it’s exactly right for earthing up spuds. The soil is black and friable and smells lovely with a bit of sun on it. It’s worth ridging up this time of year because it protects the emerging leaves from a late frost better than fleece, which allows Jack Frost to do his destructive work wherever it touches the leaf.
Everywhere there are signs of growth. The immense energy of spring drives the plants upwards into our realm and as I hoed the soil, I touched, for a moment that sense of sacredness that occasionally visits a gardener in quiet thought. This moment of inspiration was accompanied by a speaking; not at all an auditory hallucination but the clearest intimation that the soil itself is the mother of all life. We might imagine for a moment that those Buddhist monks who rake gravel temple gardens have, somehow, a higher form of spirituality. It’s not true of course. The sacred is always ordinary; the ordinary seeking us out.
But I can’t leave this thought with any suggestion that the paganism which I have referred to here is in any sense inferior, heretical or dangerous. My point in using it is to suggest that its connection with the earth cycle may be an insight whose time has come again. In 1966 First Nation Canadian, Buffy Sainte Marie, released a song called “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” and it just wouldn’t leave me yesterday. You might like to listen to it – it’s on YouTube music. Fifty seven years on it’s as powerful and prophetic as it was when I first heard it.
Christianity has been a rather poor guardian of the ancient traditions it once co-opted. Maybe it’s time to ask for our ball back? Happy Beltane.
Part two of yesterday’s post about the Somerset Coal Canal
I’ve already written about Saturday’s walk along the remains of the SCC which enters the Kennet and Avon via a large pound next to John Rennie’s marvellous Dundas Aqueduct, pictured in the photo. Having got stupidly lyrical about a few rusty nails and some collapsing masonry yesterday I wanted to write something about the Cam Brook, and indeed the several large streams, brooks and rivers that have created a landscape so lovely it puts me in mind of Samuel Palmer’s visionary paintings. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the end of a rainbow wasn’t permanently held there by a flock of Turtle Doves holding it still with golden threads.
Anyway, even a less ecstatic walker would have to agree that it’s a rather magical place notwithstanding the crooks who extracted the wealth of the North Somerset coalfield with levels of neglect and cruelty that this extractive age is only just reinventing.
My father occasionally talked about a motorcycle journey he made to visit a couple of old unmarried great aunts who made cider “somewhere near Wells” – he was never specific apart from the fact that the huge fermenting barrels sounded ‘like a swarm of bees’ – and also that he’d drunk too much of the cider which resulted in his legs becoming paralysed, and left him no alternative but to drive into a hedge bank and wait until he sobered up.
I never knew very much about my dad’s side of the family because he’d had a falling out with his own father and moved into lodgings at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Any contact with his brothers and the older sisters who’d cared for him as a child during the years his father was fighting in Afghanistan (really!) was spasmodic to say the least. So nothing more than hints of a Somerset branch of the family existed in my mind.
I had of course heard of a Pole line in Tudor times when Margaret Pole became a powerful force until she chose the wrong side but apart from the humorous thought that I might be distantly related, I never joined those two bits of information together. Then, one day when I was doing a funeral visit to an elderly lady in my parish she said to me “I think we’re probably related”. She too was a Somerset woman and during a long conversation it became clear that the story about my old cider making relatives rang a bell with her and for a short while we forged a connection which was soon broken by her dementia.
But earlier in my career I’d been asked a strange question which I misunderstood, thinking instantly about the hypothetical Tudor ancestors. “Are you one of the Somerset Poles?” was something I’d never been asked before so I was a bit taken aback when a very smart middle aged woman who looked and sounded as if she might have ridden a horse to church and left it with a groom, approached from out of a large crowd of local dignitaries after a carol service. Of course I had heard of the wealthy and powerful Poles but in the absence of any knowledge of a less lofty branch of the family I think I rather rudely dismissed her with a quip about being one of the Staple Hill Poles.
So our walk on Saturday began in the village of South Stoke and went sharply downhill by a series of footpaths towards the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal and we were completely entranced by the landscape – as I’ve already said. By Sunday we were already planning a return visit and so we were busy researching the area and some of its grand (like £8 million) houses, and went to Toppings Bookshops to buy two of the excellent local guides written by Andrew Swift. But during our mammoth Googlefest Madame stumbled on the PDF of a typewritten manuscript published by the local South Stoke history group. As she read this paragraph out to me it made the hairs on the back of my head stand up.
1794 October 16th Bath Chronicle: Richard Pole at Southstoke has ten hogsheads of last year’s cider for sale at 92 per hogshead.’ (This is an old local name. There were Poles at Monkton Combe and Southstoke before the Reformation).
John Canvin, local historian.
I traced my Mothers side of the family back to the mid eighteenth century without much difficulty – the male line were all carpenters as was my grandfather. But my Dad’s side was much harder partly due to the fact that a Jewish connection had been concealed at some time in the past – I’ve no evidence to suggest why. But this Somerset connection looks and feels absolutely right. I do just remember being taken as a child to a very scary institutional place with green iron railings to see what could have been a great grandmother and I discovered that one of my Dad’s more recent ancestors had died in the Workhouse in Stapleton but details are few and far between.
So there it is; walking can be a perilous activity but – just maybe I might soon be able to establish my credentials as a genuine peasant. More than a few people I know probably came to that conclusion many years ago!
Yesterday was just one of those days that left me almost breathless with pleasure. We were five old friends whose various relationships reach back way over fifty years; five old friendships that have seen and survived all manner of triumphs and tragedies and five human beings sharing a walk (well, more of an amble) on a stunning spring day, while we followed the course of the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal which was built to carry coal from the North Somerset coalfield to the junction with the Kennet and Avon canal, near Dundas aqueduct. For me, a light bulb went on when I realized how much of the old stone structure had survived, but Madame also had it written down as a place to return to – a lot!
It wasn’t a long walk by any stretch but we gave it several hours anyway, soaking up the sun and exploring off the path from time to time, looking at plants and rusting iron lock gate nails with equal interest; catching glimpses of the equally abandoned railway line that forced the demise of the canal. For me it’s a paradise of post industrial relics and possible sites for interesting wildflowers, and by all accounts it has some very interesting geology, which is always good news for plant hunters. But it wasn’t all green wellies and Tilley hats. C and I had a friendly bird app competition with our phones and I realized that the absence of an in-phone database meant that hers identified a Black Cap Warbler much faster than mine which was still looking for a signal. Just for interest I was using Birdnerd and C had Merlin – hers was clearly better for off-grid id’s – mine’s always worked perfectly well but perhaps I’ve just been lucky with phone masts.
There were no rarities spotted, but it was just as reassuring and pleasurable to see Dandelions, Cuckoo Flowers, Cowslips, White Nettles and Ground Ivy all flowering in profusion. The only oddity was what I think must have been Weld – Reseda luteola, AKA Dyers Weed, Dyers Rocket or Yellow Weed. No prizes, then, for guessing what it was once used for. If it was Weld I suppose that would make it a post industrial plant relic from a much earlier historical moment. Lurking up and down these beautiful valleys are the ruins and remains of monastic communities with their medicinal herb gardens and watermills, grinding grain from local farms. Far from being enjoyable just for its remoteness and quietness, you could almost feel the presence of innumerable farm labourers, fishermen, monks, boaters, miners, navvies and railwaymen, all those faint echoes flowing towards the river Avon. The horizons are punctuated by the silhouettes of grand mansions and farms such that we were obliged to consider the source of all that wealth. One of our party had long dead ancestors who were in the cloth trade and who may have furnished the backs of navvies, slaves and workhouse inhabitants. with fustian – rough but hard wearing cloth that combined cotton weft on linen warps.
We finished up – as all good walks do – in the pub where I photographed the hauntingly lovely sign at the top of this post; something I’ll come back to in a moment.
I’ve been struggling for a long time to find a way of expressing what seems to me to be a fundamental difficulty in this post-religious age. A few days ago I wrote this:
the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework?
The trouble with words like Spirituality and Love is that they’ve been so trampled upon by blowhards, bishops and pornographers they no longer have any meaning at all except for a vaguely felt inflammation of the imagination which could be anything from a vision to a mild virus, and so writing about such things becomes an exercise in frustration; altogether lacking the tools for the job.
For me, best and most creative ideas come when the parts of a solution finally come together for no discernable reason except the relaxed mindfulness of a walk. These ideas, quite often, are not the lofty analytics of a Holmesean three pipe problem. They can seem vulgar, irreverent and occupy worlds so different it’s almost like harvesting the energy of colliding comets.
So here’s the problem – how can we find a contemporary way of expressing the content of words like spirituality and love. What kind of love, from all of the available flavours, would best express our love for the Earth in this age of catastrophe? and secondly, what form of spirituality could provide a language accessible to the religious, the determinedly non-religious and that huge population in the middle who long for a structure, a framework for understanding a way of being human that isn’t part of what’s destroying us all?
And so what about these three components?
The marriage service
These three rather disparate ideas have at least one thing going for them because they include a painful (but not fatal) human condition, a plant that provides a useful remedy, and a form of words that might just provide the beginnings of a framework.
Let’s take Chef’s Ass first. If you’re working in very hot and humid sweaty conditions – for instance in a restaurant kitchen, polytunnel or just walking for long distances in inappropriate clothes you may contract a very uncomfortable form of abrasion rash known colloquially as chef’s ass in the trade. I consulted our son – who’s a chef – on a possible cure, and he said he’d once tried alcoholic hand gel which turned out to be effective but screamingly painful. I hoped I could find a less extreme cure for my similar gardening related problem and turned to our home made Calendula Cream which, to my great surprise and relief worked miraculously well. It’s so cheap and easy to make I wonder why anyone would pay £15 for a tube, or resort to potentially dangerous remedies like hydrocortisones.
Forget God for a moment because there’s absolutely no reason to invoke any kind of higher level supernatural powers here. The earth provides us with a multitude of effective remedies for many unpleasant, painful but non-malignant diseases. Calendula is just one example. Now the application of the cream did the trick for me, but that left me with the odd sense that I should be able to say thank-you for that help. I get exactly the same feeling harvesting our produce, eating it and sharing it with friends. That unchannelled, unfocused gratitude needs somewhere to land but all too often, like a boomerang, it circles back on itself and manifests itself as pride.
I know I’m using a religious term here but bear with me just for a moment while I explain. Pride is a very dangerous thing not least because it blinds us to our own fallibility. But collective pride – for instance in our ability to solve every challenge, even catastrophic climate change, through our own cleverness is a form of idolatry. Our thank-you’s desperately need to be channelled into something less destructive than pride.
So with that in mind I’ll turn to to some words from the marriage service which once seized me so powerfully in the course of a wedding service I was taking, that I had to stop in my tracks and recover my wits before I could continue. Each of the couple (and I’m using this example in a completely secular and non gendered way) say to one another – “All that I am, I give to you, and all that I have I share with you”. From that moment onwards I almost invariably reminded my couples that the second half of the promise was the easy bit. “All that I have I share with you” is the kind of arrangement that any half witted solicitor could organise. It’s a kind of prenuptial clause. But the second half of the promise- “All that I am I give to you” is on a different plane. How many of us have even the faintest clue what “all that I am” means for ourselves, let alone our prospective partner?
And yet the point here is that the earth has made precisely that promise to us. The earth says – “all that I am I give to you” and means it utterly, to the end. But we, in our infinite pride, forget that in this imagined marriage relationship with the earth we secretly and covetously hope to get our hands on the money and say that sentence with our fingers crossed behind our backs. There’s no more destructive relationship than a one sided and selfish marriage. This is not a religious point!
So at last I come back to the pub sign. I’m a sucker for naive paintings and a complete fool for the ones that express in paint something that the painter could never have articulated in words. Our angel, with a look of considerable doubt on her face is taking an anchor from the heavenly (that’s the hope bit) to the earthly ( that’s the anchor). When the rope breaks there’s no guide to the way back and we are lost. So to recap from the top; all those ancient voices flowing down to the river and onward to the sea were the hopes of our ancestors, lived out in the world of nature that provided food and health as best the earth could offer. It was greed and selfishness that fouled things up and because of that idolatrous worship of our own powers we now face an existential crisis.
Ironically (or maybe not), we five walkers all agreed that it wasn’t just the complete ineptitude of our politicians or the continuing impact of lockdown; the war in Ukraine, or even the cost of living that was making us depressed and unhappy. There is something deeper that wrecks our sleep and furnishes our worst dreams. Without finding a new relationship with the earth and all living things we’ll remain delusional, lonely and ultimately doomed.