Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Well yes, Captain Kipper (OK actually Ludwig Wittgenstein) – but what if there’s something you’re trying to articulate that’s so liminal, so at the boundary of a concept, yet to be properly mastered, that words and their meanings need to be forged anew? Surely that’s the work of the poet? and can’t be shirked in favour of silence. Language is endlessly adaptive; always finding ways to speak the previously unsaid, and one of those ideas that’s slowly being forged into speech is the curious relationship we have with nature.

We arrived back from our family get-together in Cornwall and went straight to the allotment, as you might expect. Then we prowled around to see the state of things; set up the trail camera and made plans for today – and today it rained; so we put on our waterproofs and got on with picking out the courgettes that had swollen to blimp size during the week; harvesting tomatoes, aubergines, runner (pole) beans, potatoes, peppers, summer squashes and masses of herbs. As you will know there are only two of us so this season of plenty has to be matched with a positive frenzy of pickling, preserving, boiling, reducing, freezing and fermenting. It’s been a crazy weather year and right now with the jetstream moored south of the UK we’re stuck in a series of lows, bringing cold winds and rain in off the Atlantic – it feels like autumn already.

So today we got wet and yet we both felt completely content just to be there. After finishing harvesting, Madame got on with summer pruning the fruit trees while I wheelbarrowed down enough woodchip to level the path in the polytunnel. There’s a reason for this because our plan is to clear the tunnel completely by the end of August and then we’ll need easy access with a wheelbarrow to bring compost in to feed the beds ready for the winter crops. Later in the kitchen I made stock and prepped a dozen half litre jars ready for tomorrow’s new batch of roasted tomato passata while Madame prepared to cook a bulk batch of ratatouille which freezes very well. All the while I was making sourdough bread and attending to the starters after their week in the fridge.

Perhaps one reason for the rather philosophical opening paragraph was some marvellous video footage of our friend the badger failing to find the sweetcorn beyond two layers of soft net and a maginot line of tagetes and mint – which we make portable by growing it in pots. Badgers hunt by smell and we aim to confuse them as much as possible. The three sisters experiment is exceeding our expectations and we have corn ten feet tall with borlotti plants climbing to the very top, whilst below some fat winter squashes are developing nicely in the shade. It looks a mess but it also looks like a success. The only predator likely to get to them before us is the badger; but since we invested in the trail cam we’ve grown to love the nocturnal intruders. We want to deter them of course but we wish them – with the foxes, squirrels, magpies and even the rats – no harm and the reason for that is that we have begun to see them as having their own inalienable rights over the land. The thought that they’re out prowling during the night gives us as much pleasure as the sound of a tawny owl calling does. We share their taste for the vegetables we grow, but perhaps value them more in their appetite for the slugs, snails and rodents that trouble us. The old binary division between crop and pest is dissolving and it’s that disappearance which demands a new language. The actors haven’t changed at all – badgers love corn and that’s unavoidable. What’s changed is that we are beginning to accept that if we want to save the earth; all those binary distinctions will have to be overcome through an unprecedented change in the way we understand, and therefore speak of our place in nature .

Wheelbarrowing woodchip with the rain running down our necks; stacking the compost heap with a mixture of green waste and wood chip and feeling its rising heat the next day; summer pruning, rooting strawberry runners and sowing chard for the autumn is done not though the domination of nature with powerful tools and chemicals but by attempting to think like a fox or a badger or – more oddly still – to think like a compost heap, or like the earth in a raised bed. It demands that we learn to think like a tomato or a potato; to ask what ails you? as we did today when we were examining what might have been tomato blight but turned out to be (in all probability) didymella stem rot, caused by stress – in turn caused by a poor watering regime. Failure often brings knowledge. Yes we talk to our plants; but more mysteriously – and only when we listen with complete attention – they speak to us in a language we have barely begun to understand, and which stands on its head, centuries of binary thinking through which we believe ourselves to be independent, separate subjects moving through a sea of resource objects. In this new state of being we are (imperfectly) in what Gary Snyder described thirty years ago as a “trans species erotic relationship” with nature; which sounds clumsier today than it did when it was written – but the word erotic captures the sense that this relationship transcends the instrumentality of the old ways and enables powerful feelings for nature which offer a pathway out of imminent destruction. Talking to the trees – it turns out – is a two way conversation as long as we are willing to get over ourselves and listen.

Something’s broken and it’s not just the weather

Common red soldier beetle – AKA hogweed bonking beetle!

The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.

Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.

The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.

So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.

The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.

The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.

There follows a short unedited video …….

Bath – the World Heritage destination.

Despair at my incapacity to crop and join together three short video clips is eating away at me. You’d think that in a community of millions of potential users, someone would come up with a simple and useable app, but it seems that feature rich is the way to go. I can insert clouds of dancing cherubs around my tomato plants, I can turn beetroot to the colour of a cholera patient’s cheeks and I can have the alleluia chorus playing over/under/through my commentary which – if I’m feeling in the flow I can even have read for me in expressionless gibberish by a robot voice. It’s all too much – and the only thing I can think of is to record the whole thing on my phone in one faultless take without once screwing my face terrifyingly at the lens to see if it’s working. The chances of not losing my thread and not tripping over anything – oh and not experiencing a painful cramp in my phone hand are a zillion to one. The thing is I’m constitutionally clumsy and I find geeky computer language even more incomprehensible than the doctrine of double predestination. Unlike my oldest son who is always discovering new tricks in his laptop, I’m a writer; that’s the bit I enjoy. I don’t enjoy ferreting around in the fox’s entrails of my little Chromebook looking for a way of unzipping videos that I never thought I’d zipped in the first place. The bit I enjoy is turning thoughts into words – it’s like herding cats – or rather it’s like herding cats with an overexcited spaniel. Neither the words or the thoughts lend themselves to a linear approach and so writing 1000 words for a post is mostly hand to hand combat in the labyrinthine corridors of my mind.

I also love taking photographs because they can often communicate whole fields of meaning at once. Putting the two together is powerful enough, and I guess adding videos would be even better but I don’t need the doric columns and all the other blather. I’m definitely an A+B+C person in the video department. Any helpful suggestions other than telling me to go and boil my head would be gratefully received.

So at the end of this piece there will be exactly one third of a trip around the Potwell Inn allotment complete with camera shake and a contribution from the endless flow of cars, lorries and emergency vehicles. The piece will be a quick trip around the polytunnel where, at last, the aubergines have started to produce fruits, along with the exuberant tomatoes and Minnesota Midget melons. To be honest, the tomatoes this year have been very sweet and lacking the acidity that I think is really important – so we have a huge crop of beta plus fruits – probably due to the extreme weather conditions. They’ll make plenty of the passata and sauces that we need the year round, but fresh and on the table, they’re a bit of a disappointment. As the temperature has reached 30+C every day, we’ve had a lot of watering to do.

As I was mentioning the traffic noise in the last paragraph a little think bubble popped into my mind and reminded me of a remark made by someone (probably a producer) who said that that I could write a passage of real lyrical depth, but that I would often deliberately destroy the mood in the next paragraph. Now if I was doing that unconsciously that would be troubling but I’m afraid I’ve always had my balloon firmly tethered to the ground and so for me the lushness of the allotment and the sound of the ambulances racing past belong in the same frame. I’m not peddling a version of the way we do things round here (the best definition of culture I ever read). The awful truth is, the torrent of visitors who visit Bath’s wonderful architecture and historical depth also offer a considerable source of income to the beggars and blaggers. Behind many of the Georgian facades are tiny flats and bedsits and a great deal of social housing that supports some very vulnerable people who self medicate and occasionally overdose on cheap alcohol and street drugs.

Yes this is a blog about allotments, and cooking and being human; and like it or loathe it, being human means being human in a place and a culture that will, indeed must, include the transcendently beautiful as well as the ugly. “Bath’s best bits” won’t do at all. The Assembly Rooms and the (soon to be demolished) Avon Street car park are equal parts of the story. As George Steiner once wrote of the work of a critic – “What measure of [sic] man does this propose?” What did John Wood the Younger think was the measure of humanity? What too did the designer of Avon Street car park think of us? Did John Wood include within his view of humanity the millions of enslaved people who generated the wealth that paid for his buildings?

I often think of William Cobbett – truth to tell, an appallingly opinionated old Tory – but who recorded for us an angry portrait of greed and rural poverty in the rural economy of the 1820’s. He peeled back the facade of a corrupt culture and recorded the suffering that lay out of sight beneath it. Out of sight in the Vale of Pewsey – quite near here – and definitely a highly desirable place to live today.

So if I sometimes mention the sight of a wretched shadow of a human being smoking crack on the green; or if I mention a stripper surrounded by screaming and drunken party goers in the same paragraph as I might record a musk mallow or an unexpected orchid, it’s because that’s what being human is. We’re all a bit morally dog eared and if we manage to snatch a few glimpses of the divine in the midst of all the untruths of our culture, then we’ve done well.

We sat and watched the last four episodes of the first series of “Baptiste” last night in the suffocating heat. Three throats cut, one decapitation with a chainsaw and innumerable smaller acts of cruelty were the lowlights of a script so threadbare and full of improbabilities that it was almost funny. But the eponymous hero Baptiste had at least one sensible line at the very end. Speaking about one of the victims who had been a collector of seashells, he said that perhaps one motivation of such obsessive collectors was to try to make sense of an otherwise chaotic world. Perhaps we urban allotmenteers and street botanists too, try to make sense of the chaos by growing plants and naming them.

If I have one wish in writing this, aside from offering the odd bit of dodgy advice, it would be to make an honest record of what it feels like to be human in this particular place and at at this moment of crisis – perhaps for my grandchildren to read – who knows?

Inside the polytunnel yesterday

Gotcha!

Some of this season’s garlic harvest hanging inside the shed to dry

At last we’ve captured a video of the badger on our plot. It’s a very poor but unmistakable image, just from the shuffling gait alone, but it was almost touching the camera so it was rather out of focus – I’ve put it at the end of this post. The existence of the badgers is well known because there’s a sett at the top of the site. They have a reputation for sniffing out the ripe sweetcorn on the very day we plan to cut it and so over the years we’ve had to devise ways of keeping them out.

I once used to watch badgers at night when I was working as a groundsman and they were plaguing the boss’s kitchen garden. One day we put a strong chicken wire fence around the plot and to our amazement the same evening a big boar badger threw himself at it until it collapsed and then sauntered into his domain. There’s no doubt that badgers love sweetcorn, and the constant growing of fodder maize on dairy farms has led to an increase in the badger population just at the time the farmers are trying to blame them for the rise in bovine TB. It’s not that I doubt TB is a constant problem for dairy farmers; but I’d love to see some research done on whether there’s a connection between the occurrence of the disease and the intensity of the farming method being used. I’d be interested in discovering if low intensity grass fed herds are less susceptible to the disease. In human populations TB is associated with poverty and stress and although it may seem strange we’re becoming more and more familiar with the idea that among humans, poverty and stress diseases are greatly increased by cramped and substandard living conditions coupled with a calorie rich junk food diet. Intensive farming is based on the premise that we know better than the cattle what’s good for them.

Anyway, we also know that badgers love our sweetcorn and we were amused that the one we filmed last night is out researching the local corn already. Ours is in full flower and just touching the flowers releases clouds of pollen. There are three principal poachers – not counting the two legged ones – it’s not just the badgers. Rats are great climbers – and so are the squirrels – and they generally attack the cobs by gnawing through the sheaths without breaking the main stalks. Badgers blunder over the whole plant and smash it down to eat the cobs and all we can do to stop them is to protect the beds. It’s said that they don’t like soft netting because they get their claws caught in it and generally we use both hard and soft barriers to deter them. There is another ghostly thief but I’m not sure whether the rumour is true. Apparently deer have occasionally been spotted on the site and maybe one day they’ll show up on the trail cam. We also know that rats and squirrels also love the broad (fava) beans but again it’s fairly easy to sort out the offenders. Rats seem to gnaw at the lower, easy to reach pods; eating a small part of both the seed and the pod; but squirrels really go for them and we have often found little piles of empty pods next to the beds, left very tidy and bereft of their beans which may well have gone off for storage. We’ve got video of both a rat and a squirrel jumping up on to a bed of broad beans that had been cleared the previous day – they must have been disappointed.

So that’s foxes, badgers, domestic cats, squirrels, field mice and rats we’ve now videoed with deer as kind of ghostly reserves. Sadly there are no hedgehogs but that may be down to the badgers which are their big-time predators. The closer we look, the more we see the sheer complexity of the natural history of our urban allotment. At best we’re just (hopefully) considerate participants in the great cycle.

We’re not allowed to connect hoses to the mains supply on our allotments, but today we rigged up our 240V generator with an electric pump and gave the whole plot a good soaking from our own stored water – we’ve got 1500 litres, around 300 gallons of water stored around the place and with a promise of heavy storms on Sunday we thought we’d give the plants a good soak in anticipation of refilling the butts over the weekend. It’s still oppressively hot here but the plots are bursting with life.

The polytunnel tomatoes are ripening thick and fast now so today I’m making the first panzanella of the summer. I got the recipe from Anna Del Conte’s wonderful “Gastronomy of Italy” and it was love at first taste. She writes that recipes for panzanella are as numerous as the people the Nonnas – who pass them on down through the family – I guess that’s exactly what a food culture is all about. Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”; Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” and Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” are some of my favourite and most indispensable cookery books because they turn the cooking and eating of vegetables into an adventure. In high summer we luxuriate in the sheer variety of food on the allotment. The best of Italian cooking completely sidesteps the endless debates between carnivores, vegetarians and vegans because absolutely everybody deserves the best of vegetables, cooked or prepared in such lovely ways that meat becomes a minor side issue in the midst of a feast. Sustainable living is so much easier to promote when it’s couched in terms of taking up rather than giving up. Our cultural obsession with rarity and expense has blinded us to the beauty of simple and slow; and if you want to know when to eat your sweetcorn at its absolute peak of perfection, just follow a badger – he’ll know!

Whadda you mean – what am I doing!

Just the ticket – sweating it out in the kitchen!

It couldn’t be helped! With temperatures in the shade going above 30C again, the prospect of working on the allotment in full sun paled a little bit. So after watering early – it’s not easy to get up at 6.00 when you’ve hardly slept because of the heat – we retreated to the relative cool of the Potwell Inn and I settled down to a day at the stove.

It’s so important to do justice to the vegetables we spend so much effort on growing. Occasionally we wonder whether some of our fellow allotmenteers actually enjoy eating their produce when we see plants going to seed, but I guess their pleasure is in the growing. However we’re far too greedy to let anything slip through our fingers; in fact I’m not entirely sure whether cooking and eating actually preceded our love of growing things. It probably did. We both escaped from the monotony of five meals in rotation and post war rationing, and read cookery books as if they were soft porn – our fantasy lives inflamed with tales of roast garlic and tarragon. So from such weird beginnings the conjunction of growing, cooking, eating was the inevitable outcome.

Luckily we share the oddness with friends and allotment neighbours and yesterday our neighbour Monika gave us a handful of gherkins and promised to send her family recipes for sauerkraut and dill pickles. My previous experiments with cucumber have been mixed – in the sense that the British government has has mixed success. I remember helping to strain a five gallon barrel of cider vinegar with a friend and having the mother slide through my fingers like five pounds of finest ectoplasm. I’m sure it’s terribly good for the gut biome but it wasn’t a happy feeling and when all my fermented cucumbers went the same way last year I gave up.

However, another day another cucumber, and so we kicked off this pickling season with a non-fermented quick Scandinavian pickle with some fresh horseradish gathered from a neighbour who welcomes thieves because he can’t think how else to get rid of it. It won’t last long but wine vinegar shortcuts the lactic acid produced in fermentation.

Then it was an old stager from the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny. Foods go in and out of fashion but we pay no attention to fads and if something tastes marvelous we keep on cooking it. So this one comprises halved red peppers, tomatoes, garlic, basil, capers, anchovies and good oil – roasted for about 40 minutes. And then this afternoon I made Tabbouleh using some of the tomatoes we’ve just started harvesting in the polytunnel. The difference in flavour between the home made – using freshly harvested tomatoes, mint and parsley with decent olive oil – and the shop bought version, is astonishing.

It’s midsummer and we’re living like kings. The autumn broccoli – confused by the weather – has started flowering already, but we’ve also got French beans and runner beans just beginning. The three sisters experiment is looking good. with the painted mountain corn plants in flower.

Today is so-called freedom day but we’re not celebrating because it’s a shambolic mess that’s wholly down to our government’s incompetence (I always give credit where it’s due!). Our beloved leader seems to have banked the future of the country on a seven horse accumulator bet and the first three horses have lost – but – like all gamblers he keeps on betting in the hope his luck will change. We’ll carry on carrying on at the Potwell Inn and enjoy the sunshine while it’s here but we won’t be out clubbing any time soon – Madame says never!

Sunset, twilight, dusk, night

I love the summer. Last night, we spent our evening with a friend – a rare enough delight in itself, these days. We sat in her garden and talked about the past year; about grieving and about mutual friends as well as wildflower gardening and ponds. We talked through sunset and twilight until the first bats appeared, and then we walked back in the late evening with a bag of yellow rattle seeds in my pocket (exchanged for a jar of redcurrant jelly) – as the remnants of red faded in the West. As we passed over the railway bridge, looking westwards, the signals, at green, were the brightest objects – shining along the lines towards us. Behind us to the east, a couple of distant helicopters were flying silently in formation; but above our heads the sky was tinted from an inky Paynes Grey through the darkest purples as it reached the afterglow. It would be too lazy to describe the texture of the sky as velvet. It seemed more as if we were gazing into the dark wing of a moth – iridescent and deep, as if turning your head a little might cause it to flash with blue .

These city evenings are incredibly special and rare. With the temperature still above 2oC the air was thick with the perfume of weed, jasmine and hot tarmac; an atmosphere made for moths and young people; a nightfall capable of inspiring rash promises and rash acts. By eleven, after walking a mile across town, we reached the allotment to close the polytunnel. We were probably the oldest people on the streets by at least three decades. For no particular reason I asked Madame whether she ever felt old. “No” she said – “Do you?”. “No”.

News from La La land

To be honest, the last several days of silence on the blog are best accounted for by the feeling that I might be inhabiting a parallel dystopian universe where words have ceased to have any meaning at all – or at any rate they can mean anything you want them to mean. Even a simple blog like this one, about being human; growing things; cooking them; sharing them and struggling to find the Tao – has to use the selfsame words that make up the lies and distortions promoted by politicians and the dark money that keeps them in luxury. So in order to harness a simple idea like freedom, I need to pick the word up with a long stick and boil it in bleach for a couple of hours just to get the contamination off.

I don’t want to go on too much but when Bayer promote their new form of Roundup as being “glyphosate free” – they seem rather coy about admitting that the principal active ingredient is now vinegar, which you can buy at a fraction of the price at your local supermarket and, like its carcinogenic namesake, doesn’t kill pernicious perennial weeds either. Just for the record there is no evidence that the Potwell Inn tomatoes have any trace whatever of kryptonite and they are 100% natural. As it happens, most deadly nightshade berries are 100% natural and organic so that’s nice. “There is no evidence” is a favourite weapon of the lobbyists who spend billions making sure that the gathering of any evidence (especially the damaging kind) is discouraged.

This week the sun has, at last, started to shine again and through the wonders of AI my phone has started to taunt me with photographs of previous adventures in Europe (remember that?). So as we toted watering cans around the allotment my mind was driving down to southeast France where farmers seem to down tools in July and spend the next two months getting drunk and chasing bulls around the streets. I was so overwhelmed by memories of our visits to Uz├Ęs that I felt compelled to go out and buy a Panama hat, shake the moths out of my linen suit and drag Madame on a five mike walk around Bath pretending to be tourists. I’ve always resisted the Panama but as I approach 75 I think I’ve earned the right to be as silly as I like; and so I’ve shaved my designer stubble off and I’m growing my hair back until I can’t stand it any more. Sadly my attempt to provoke the neighbours on the allotment resulted in a single response – “you look very summery today”.

As we sweated it out with the watering yesterday morning, I realized that growing even a small proportion of our food demands a great deal of commitment. When we watch celebrity gardeners on TV, gliding effortlessly between rows of designer veg it doesn’t really convey the backache that hand weeding gives us (it works better than overpriced vinegar by the way), and it misses out the hours we spend constructing and dismantling windbreaks; clearing snow, digging emergency drains, turning compost and humping things like planks and paving stones around. The TV pundits never mention their failed crops and the incredible surpluses that courgette plants produce every year. Neither do they explain how they manage their impressive gardens without small armies of unpaid interns and helpers. I’ve tried telling the allotment that I’d like a couple of weeks off (I mean for a rest, not for making a new TV series) but it appears not to understand. Far from being a kind of restful interlude, it’s this time of year that harvesting and freezing soft fruit takes over, while the abundance of other crops means I’m constantly wondering what can be preserved and what needs to be cooked right now. The upside, of course, is that we can eat the freshest conceivable vegetables, bursting with flavour and goodness – no I mean really bursting – not the kind of PR bursting with flavour that refers to flaccid and exhausted, intensively grown lettuces driven a thousand miles from their impoverished lives under plastic.

As the photo shows we’ve also started harvesting the calendula flowers and drying them in the sun before extracting a golden essence from them in almond oil. Calendula cream really works and it’s so easy to make it’s plain daft to spend a fortune on tiny tubes of the stuff.

The trail cam has been a blessing, and we’re getting a much better idea of our many visitors, including a couple of different foxes, rats, magpies and a ginger cat who turns out to be a lethal predator of birds. I’ll put some shots up as soon as I’ve found a video editing application that allows me to do simple things without being inundated with ads. One of the unexpected outcomes of our move towards wildlife friendly gardening has been a loss of control – which has turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse. The wild plants and animals can’t be divided any more into friends and foes. We’re trying to leave things alone when unexpected volunteers pop up; so the carefully planned crops sometimes have to share their space with an interesting looking “weed”.

Some of the night shots from the trail cam show the presence of hundreds of small moths which it would be fun to identify, except it would be difficult to install a light trap that didn’t draw attention to itself – making it vulnerable to theft. We solved the problem with the trail cam by mounting it inside a padlocked steel box, and although it’s set almost at ground level we can often identify the human visitors to the allotment from their shoes!

Anyways here’s a short video of one visitor you’ll certainly recognise!

Hiding in plain sight

On Monday we watched this heron from the iron bridge over the Kennet and Avon Canal in Sidney Gardens. We’ve often watched herons across the river before and they tend to stand out against a leafy bankside, but looked at from above you can see how perfectly the heron blends into the surface of the water. I can’t believe herons have many overhead predators, but I can imagine a fox stalking one, when of course it would be watching its prey at water level, and the heron’s habit of standing stock still for minutes on end would make it all but invisible. I imagine its camouflage would be just as effective from below. This bird extended and shortened its neck so slowly it was wonderful to watch. It didn’t catch its supper while we were there but flew off down the canal towards the river.

It’s been a strange couple of days at the Potwell Inn. It’s almost six years to the day since we both retired and moved to another city. I’m sure there are many careers from which you could cheerfully walk away without a backward glance but it’s been very different for me. For more than forty years my workplaces were deeply emotionally challenging. Mental hospitals, prisons, outer urban fringe estates – both wealthy and very deprived; in fact the well-to-do villages were way more challenging. It was a high commitment, high adrenaline and massively challenging environment with no script at all. My working days were mostly demand led – the telephone could convey news as daft as a cat stuck up a tree at three in the morning, or a call from a stricken partner to tell me that the love of their life had been killed in an accident. I had worked as an art therapist with women who had been incarcerated in a mental hospital (read asylum) as “moral degenerates” because they’d had babies. They were extremely elderly and completely institutionalised so there was no hope of redress for them. Every day was a cliffhanger and I loved it but the pace meant there was rarely any time out to recuperate before the next wave hit – and being a bloke I shoved it to the back of my mind. As a community worker I worked among guns and knives not to mention drugs, and before I was ordained I taught pottery in a prison and took convicted killers out on resettlement visits.

To be any good at all as a parish priest you have to be prepared to be fragile;

After that the church should have been a doddle, but anyone who imagines that a parish church is a haven of hope and goodwill has never known one. People will be appallingly rude and aggressive (knowing that you can’t answer back) – without a thought of how damaging they can be. To be any good at all as a parish priest you have to be prepared to be fragile; not to know all the answers and to risk condemnation from some of your congregation for “mixing with the wrong sort” or from your ‘superiors’ for treading too close to the invisible and infinitely flexible line of orthodoxy. In every one of those situations I was supported, taught and and inspired by the people I worked with, but there were always a few who treated the status quo as an idol to be worshipped. We were destined to clash, and we did.

And so the years of stress piled up and took their inevitable physical and mental toll. I first found the Potwell Inn whilst reading “The History of Mr Polly” at school in an English class, and carried the idea of a place of beauty and safety – just like it – with me all those years. For the first three years of my retirement I kept a private journal as I struggled to discover what I was for if it wasn’t work. The allotment came along and it’s been such a place of dreaming and consolation that the title of the blog gave itself to me. The Potwell Inn was born three years ago, almost to the day. The photo was of our youngest son and our first grandson walking hand in hand down an avenue of limes in Dyrham Park.

When I read the little biography that I added to the site, I realize that it’s all true but it doesn’t convey the sense that the Potwell Inn is also a hostel for the broken. The tagline about being human didn’t come from any hoard of communicable knowledge on my part. I’d spent so much of my life patching up other people I wasn’t sure any more that I knew how to be human myself.

Perhaps the previous paragraphs make more sense of why I spent most of yesterday in A & E with a racing heart that just wouldn’t slow down and worrying that it might stop altogether! A little spate of coincidences (perhaps what Jung would have termed synchronicities) – several people I’d known and cared about had died; the funeral director called me to tell me about one of them and the moment heard his voice I went into auto pilot, fending off the fear of yet more grief. I started to dream vividly at night – sometimes nightmares about being locked out and rejected – standard stuff I suppose; bread and butter psychotherapeutic issues, but it was enough to kick off an AFib attack that just wouldn’t go away. The self protective shell that I’d built up around myself had become a prison – I used to (half) jokingly refer to my clerical collar as “my prison clothes”, and breaking up that carapace has turned out to be both liberating and incredibly challenging. All of which means there’s a lot more to the Potwell Inn than I’ve allowed out before. The allotment has been central to that process, but I’ve still got reservations about the concept of the “nature cure”. For me, today for instance, the mindless pleasure of weeding, watering and planting out helps me to stop the carousel of dark thoughts. The photos express moments of joyfulness and thoughtfulness that I find around and about. The heron – still and silent like a preacher; the teasel whose sepals remind me of a lyre; the melon swelling in the tunnel, crops gathered and eaten and the flower borders alive with insects. They’re all little shout-outs from creation that say – or sing – come and join the dance!

The glory (as well as the devil) – is in the detail

Sorry to use the same photo twice, but as I was making our second batch of elderflower cordial last night I was having a think about the way our prior understanding frames our perception of nature. The tree from which we harvested all our elderflowers this week, is an ornamental cultivar – that’s to say it’s got an extra name; not just Sambucus nigra but Sambucus Nigra “Guincho Purple”; which makes it – let’s be frank – not wild. Strangely in some circles the appellation “wild” confers an extra patina of grace. The tree is extraordinarily beautiful; so much so that one day when I was up at the allotment working I came across a fashion photographer plus assistants surrounding a model clad in the most expensive clothes including a purple leather coat that exactly reflected the colour of the flowers. As I passed the team of a dozen or so people, they parted to let me through and someone asked me in a faintly imperious (lord of the manor to peasant) tone, whether there were any lavatories on the allotments. “No” – I said – but offered the loan of a bucket if the need should be urgent. My offer was not taken up.

So – wild being necessarily good; does the fact that we picked our elderflowers from this effete suburban tree make the resulting cordial taste less authentic? Don’t be silly – it tastes every bit as good and looks superb in sparkling water and I’m planning to make an exotic dessert using the cordial, some prosecco and a couple of leaves of gelatine.

“Wild” and “cultivated” have become a bit of a battleground recently. Wild salmon, for instance, might well be wild in one sense, but if they’re unsustainably fished by industrial trawlers they might not be such a good thing. Almost every vegetable we grow is a cultivar of some sort; carefully cross bred to achieve a particular style of plant. Brussels sprouts for instance have had much of their traditional bitterness bred out of them. But there is one sense in which the closer a vegetable is to its origin, the more robust it’s likely to be. Robust, but not necessarily high yielding. The devil is always in the detail.

I once worked in a satellite radio station back in the wild west days, and over the mixing desk was a large notice saying – “In the event of equipment failure please RTFM”. I asked one of the technical people what it meant and he responded (I’ll paraphrase) -“Read the manual”. I guess it’s our ultimate responsibility to pay attention to the details and make a decision based on the fullest possible information. My much missed friend Don Streatfield always refused to label his honey as “organic” on the grounds that bees foraged wide and far and there was no way you could guarantee that they hadn’t been feeding on chemically treated flowers. The price premium – for him – didn’t justify a barefaced lie.

If I were to describe our elderflower cordial as ‘natural’ I’d be wondering if beet sugar – which I used because I couldn’t find any cane sugar – is as ‘natural as any other. Beet sugar is, after all, produced here but cane sugar has to be shipped around the world. It’s no wonder we throw up our hands and take the easiest course of action.

The glorious aspect of detail comes from a different perspective. Sitting on my desk is a small microscope and pretty well wherever I go I take a hand lens. Passing a very ordinary looking weed and stopping to look more closely often reveals a wonderland of unseen insects and inner structures of breathtaking complexity and beauty. Close attention to details – and especially in reading, close attention to the text – is a marvellous way of getting to know things we don’t understand. Who’d have thought, for instance, that growing wildflowers and digging a pond on the allotment would introduce a whole range of pests I’ve never seen before. In the photograph is the grub of an iris sawfly. We never had any such thing until we dug the pond and planted irises around the edge and now we do. We left them there, of course, because hopefully they’ll provide a meal for a hungry predator.

Another surprise came yesterday as we walked along the river. I was looking at a patch of brambles and wondering if it was going to be a good year for blackberries, when I spotted a leaf that looked completely wrong. Following the peculiar leaf back to the stem I discovered the most blackberry looking prickles you could hope for. So a quick search told me that this was a close relative of the blackberry – not a native so probably a garden escape – known in the US as a dewberry. A new plant I/D for no better reason than paying close attention to a weedy wall in an industrial area of Bath.

Hen party season is back with a vengeance here. Walking down the river a noisy boatload of bride plus friends were enjoying a male striptease dancer, cavorting in a thong on the deck. Two boat dwellers in a total drunken pickle were attempting to swim in the river so the police and an ambulance had been called out. Back home we settled for a sandwich because we were too tired to eat, and looking out we saw four addicts scoring and then injecting themselves – just across from the Potwell Inn. Then one of them lifted up his shirt and another knelt in front of him and tenderly injected whatever it was straight into his belly. Life’s rich tapestry you might say. These young men weren’t disturbing anyone while they destroyed their own lives; but they aren’t getting the help and support they need either.

People ask where we live sometimes and we say “Bath”. “Oh – Baath!” they say, imputing a social class far above where we live. They don’t know the half of it. After a noisy and vitriolic battle to reduce traffic in the city because of our illegal pollution levels, a much weakened Clean Air Zone was introduced a few months ago, pretty well confining its ambitions to pedestrianising the most popular tourist areas. The car lobby had worked day and night to win exemptions for all and sundry and so when the first set of traffic data was released last week we discovered that our traffic had decreased by just about 1%. The devil was in the detail as always, and I guess the majority of readers barely pushed past the triumphalist headline. One of the leading lights of the campaign to cut pollution has been sidelined by her party and has now resigned and joined the Greens. The last thing I want to do is alarm anybody, but is there a hole in the hull of this magnificent ship of state?

Thieves, rust and moth

I think we’re mostly agreed that growing as much of our own food as possible in a garden or allotment is a Good Thing – not least because there’s normally a shop somewhere close to make up the inevitable deficiencies. But it’s the very existence of these backup strategies that mark the profound difference between elective and subsistence food production. This unremarkable thought came into my head after re-watching Bruce Parry’s four part documentary on the people who live on and near the Arctic Circle. Filmed ten years ago (nothing’s improved) they’re all on the BBC’s iPlayer at the moment. A series of sequences that could have been designed to provoke the social media – hunting caribou and whales for instance – framed the fact that in subsistence cultures there are always powerful cultural forces that prevent taking more than people need. The hunting season provides not just food, but draws the whole community together; sharing the work and the produce against the inevitable shortage season that follows.

Coming back to the allotment, it also reminded me of the way in which feast and famine are an inevitable feature for us as well. Our society manages this in the worst way possible by combining extractive agriculture with wastage. We produce more than we could possibly eat and then throw the surplus away when it passes its best before date – millions of tons of food every year. If we aspire to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem; drying, smoking, fermenting , bottling and freezing should be as fundamental to the allotment as they are to the most off-grid Canadian or Alaskan.

Yesterday at the Potwell Inn, a few bottles of elderflower cordial became a metaphor and a cause of something close to joy. Snatched from the laws of entropy we gave these flowers another year of life. Sunshine, nectar, the scents of spring -bottled with a minimum of effort, and there to comfort us in November and remind us that in addition to the mindfulness of the moment it often cheers us up to recall the seasonal cycle.

To paraphrase Pam Corbin’s invaluable River Cottage Handbook “Preserves” , July is the month that the wooden spoon and the preserving pan come off the kitchen shelf. However hard we try to plan for successional crops to ease the problem of gluts and shortages; nature is generous – often more generous than we need her to be. Of course there are other, smaller appetites to feed because birds, small mammals and insects are all members of the family. Even rats – and I say this hesitantly – are part of the family. We wage continuous war on them on the allotment and this year it was made much worse by the shutdown of the cafes and restaurants on whose waste bins they normally feed. Faced with famine they did exactly what we’d have done and moved on to the compost heaps and rubbish bins of the suburbs. I struggle to trap them because they’re extremely wily and learn fast; and when occasionally I succeed, or watch them scurrying around I can’t help admiring their sleek grey/brown coats. It’s a paradox but it’s one I can comfortably live with.

Most of our produce comes by the bucketful when we only want enough for a meal, and so preserving the surplus is essential. We look forward to making jams and preserves, pickles and chutneys (Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has a recipe for what he calls “glutney” – an adaptable recipe for whatever’s glowering at you from the kitchen table. However, what’s pickled still needs to be eaten up within a certain time frame and it’s both easy and expensive to turn your surplus of fruit and veg into another surplus of unwanted preserves. Last year I cleared out the garage and there were jams there that had crystallised and whose original fruit was no longer identifiable. Once again, the ancient subsistence communities are ahead of us, because built in to their food culture is the practice of sharing. Since all of our sons are cooking and gardening in their own right, for a time we got into the daft habit of sharing our surplus preserves as gifts. We’ve now learned that it’s best to share what’s actually needed – a surplus flows into a shortage and the problem is solved – and of course the family is an infinitely extendable notion.

So, looking back at the many times I’ve written about this it seems that we should promote a food culture which embraces the whole cycle from sowing to composting through cooking, eating, preserving, sharing and hopefully a bit of community celebration as well. Not just slow food but perhaps slow living – extending the food culture into time itself, leaving plenty of it for savouring the whole process.

Of course this involves re-learning a multitude of lost skills and changing the priorities of a culture that’s lost its teeth to industrial food; but every part of that journey is the most enormous fun and deeply rewarding. Just because you’ve spotted a neglected surplus somewhere it doesn’t mean you have to set up a business to exploit it. Maybe a bit of community-enhancing sharing would be a better idea in the long run.