Potwell Inn? – not here mate!

P1080742The owners of this car are on holiday.  We know that because after the signs went up and the heavy machinery rumbled on to the street, and after a large number of men in high viz coats, traffic wardens and council officials had conferred and made telephone calls it became clear that the car would not be moving because its owners were having the time of their lives (we hope) getting away from it all. Reality, however, cannot be got away from so easily, and so when these lucky people return from whatever beautiful and unspoiled part of the world they’ve been rendering slightly less beautiful and unspoiled, they will find their car sitting in a four inch deep patch of the way things used to be round here. Not exactly Roman Bath, but decade of austerity Bath.  There’s an election, possibly two elections coming up and so let’s say the incumbent party (no politics round here please), have promised a new police station, the police have been patrolling very visibly for weeks now, the drug dealers and their customers have been moved on somewhere else and the streets in this electorally volatile part of the city have been paved with gold – or at least tarmac. All this joy and benificence will have passed our happy holidaymakers by as they contemplate how to jack their car out of its heritage hole, being close-parked at both front and rear.

The tarmac gang were almost balletic in their team work. Big- really big – lorries were reversed down the road to discharge tons of hot tarmac into the waiting arms of the laying machine which opened its wings like a butterfly to receive the load.  All this carried out at speed and centimetre accuracy.  Road rollers, white line markers, excavators and road sweepers seemed to work like some great computerised automaton and all this choreographed heavy industry was going on in the streaming rain and wind.

Meanwhile in another corner of un-ignorable reality I took a trip to hospital to have my biennial endoscope – a procedure which I hate having and most of the nurses dislike having to do.  But plentiful sedatives, more great team work and a cup of tea later I emerged into the newly minted sunlight clutching my discharge papers with some grisly looking photos of my oesophagus but otherwise good news. They’ve given me a three year MOT.

I know, I should be describing the idyllic world of the Potwell Inn not writing about tarmac and pre-cancerous conditions but there is a point, and it’s this. Most good things are forged amidst the realities of life.  Of course I could create ……

The Potwell Inn Perfect World Experience

– but it would be a fraudulent unreal place, a place to hide in (like our holidaymakers) and pretend things had never been better. Real life with all its tenderness and, if we’re lucky, love, has to be lived in the real world with all its coughs and sneezes, brutality and greed.  I woke up absurdly early this morning, freed from anxiety about the endo and my head filled with thoughts of the allotment and a new season.

Carpe diem. We melancholics need to be a bit more like Jacob and wrestle a blessing out of the fear without a face.

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Natural – Wild – Ordinary

I photographed these lovely spring wildflowers today, all within a few yards of one another in the bottom of a hedgerow. So clockwise from the top there are Red Campion, Alexanders, Daisies and a Dandelion, a Lesser Celandine most of whose leaves are obscured by young shoots of Cleavers and probably Hedge Parsley, and finally some flowering Gorse. It seems a bit daft to talk about plants being happy, but these are definitely very happy indeed. Through long naturalisation in a setting and climate that suits them perfectly, they thrive in a way that most of us gardeners can ony dream of for our own produce.  Further up the same lane and outside a house there were Daffodils that stood out- I should say shouted out  as unnatural additions to the landscape.

Of the plants I photographed, Red Campion doesn’t seem to be edible but was once used to cure snake bites, and the roots contain saponin which has soap like qualities. Alexanders really is edible, especially when young, but I’ve never eaten it so I couldn’t say whether it tastes good. Daisies – not really, Dandelions make good salad leaves and the flowers make really good wine but I’d beware of collecting any flowers at dog level for obvious reasons, and I should point out that the local name from my part of the world used to be “pissabeds” – you can draw your own conclusions.  Dandelion roots were dried and toasted and used as a coffee subsitute during times of hardship and they’re probably best when only used in desperation. Lesser Celandine is also known as Pilewort due to the acrid sap which was used to shrink hemorrhoids and although I did read somewhere that the leaves are edible I think they look prettier and safer in the ground. Gorse smells heavenly, especially when it’s got the sun on it and the flower buds are reputely good to eat. So I guess if I had been foraging today I could easily have picked a few leaves and flowers and enjoyed eating them, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still been hungry when I got home.  Nature is not our servant and does not exist completely to furnish our needs and so it has always been a basic aim of agriculture and horticulture to improve, encourage and refine those essentials offered to us by the truly wild.

It’s hardly a pearl of wisdom to say that the farming landscape is far from  natural. Here in the UK – excluding the National Parks and wilderness areas – there is hardly any natural landscape left.  The total overuse of the word in advertising gives a clue to its power through appealing to our emotions. My usual retort to those who abuse it is to say foxgloves and arsenic are natural, as is oil and coal, but that doesn’t give them a free pass into general use. The word “wild” isn’t used nearly as much in advertising because its connotations are not so good at shifting product, and shifting product is what our greedy culture is all about.  The only exception to that is when the word can inflate the value of the product beyond measure.  One of my sons – a chef – once had to deal with a whole box of Pignuts, probably dug up from a pristine site and sold at ludicrous prices. Wild sells truffles but probably not dogs or cats; salmon and Ramsons but not Blackberries (unless you’re a highly specialized plant hunter who can distinguish between over 250 hybrids.

In fact farming, horticulture, and even allotmenteering are all attempts to improve on the natural and, in the case of extractive farming, to bludgeon nature into conforming to our greedy desires. The Potwell Inn and the allotment have heated propagators under electric daylight lamps. We have a greenhouse, a hotbed, cloches and fleece – all of which we use to persuade tender plants that the weather is better and the days are longer than they really are – and so we are able to grow tropical and subtropical crops, the like of which you would never encounter in any wild setting in this country. Some we win and some we lose, but I don’t think anyone would argue that aubergines, chillies, peppers, even the humble potato and runner bean, belong in the Flora Britannica.

Organic gardening (and farming) are a wise and timely attempt to mitigate the worst effects of industral farming – and I’m bound to say, of industrial overeating as well.  Permaculture goes a step further and tries to rely more heavily on perennials and, in essence, returning to a foraging lifestyle. Vegetarianism and veganism focus on achieving something of the same ends by focusing on and changing what we consume. Even the most traditional farmers are beginning to see the benefits and opportunities of locally sourced and sustainably produced foods. It’s crazy for those of us who care about the natural world to pick fights with one another and – rather like Brexit – spend our lives in pointless posturing and squabbling about minor doctrinal differences while industrial farming, environmental degradation and climate change go unchallenged.

A friend of mine was in a hospital visiting her uncle when she heard a commotion on the opposite side of the ward. A fierce family row had broken out across the bed, and my friend noticed to her dismay that the occupant had actually died. It was she who called for a nurse to attend to the deceased person, not the squabbling family.

I don’t need to labour the point of telling that story here, the parallels are all too painfully clear. But to finish on a brighter note, I know that many natural historians love to go after the rare specimens, but I want to put in a word for the ordinary. The ordinary is the bit we don’t notice because it’s there all the time – at least it used to be there all the time but now it’s disappearing because of our abusive relationship with the environment. So I want to campaign for the ordinary because that way it can’t disappear without anyone noticing. Recognising, naming and treasuring our wildflowers and native fauna is the most powerful way of energising the fightback against extinctions. The ordinary is special.

 

Thinking space at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4384After a lifetime of being up at 5.30am we’re now a lot gentler on ourselves, and I generally get up at 7.00.  When we were both working full-time, Madame would leave the house at 7.00am and then I would have a couple of hours to think, read and write before the random demands of the day commanded my attention. But now those precious couple of hours have settled into a new routine where I get up and make tea for us both, and then I head for the kitchen or my ‘study’. As long as I supply occasional coffee and stick my head around the door now and again Madame is happy to read while I get on with my thing which is noodling around.

IMG_4272It’s surprising how much time it takes to feed the sourdough starter, check all the seedlings and make sure they’re happy, strain and feed the kefir and, on bread days, knead dough.  Then there’s reading and planning and working out what’s needed on the allotment and what we need to eat most urgently.

Allotmenteers live by a rather different set of food rules because – if we’re not going to waste the things we’ve grown – we need to even out supply and demand either by eating more of the vegetable in surplus, or by preserving it in some way against the day when there’s none of it to be had. In late summer we look at the enormous purple sprouting broccoli plants that have occupied their inordinately large patch of ground for an eternity, and wonder why we bother.  We’re inundated with all the good things the autumn can give us and we find it hard to fast forward to a day like today when we’re longing to have the first taste.

Although we’ve still got kale, savoy cabbages and red cabbage in the ground they represent last season and the broccoli is a foretaste of new, tender growth.  But that leaves the problem of what to do with the laggards of the last season. The answer today is to cut one of the larger savoy cabbages and make sauerkraut. IMG_4828Yes, as Madame pointed out, you normally make it with gigantic summer cabbages that weigh 25lbs and need a whole barrel to themselves; but I don’t see why you shouldn’t make a couple of pounds with a Savoy and see what happens. After all, theoretically, you can ferment anything with enough carbohydrate in it to get the process going. So I’m off to the allotment this morning to check whether the drip watering system in the greenhouse worked earlier on, to take the temperature of the hot bed (they’re like children, you know), and to cut the cabbage and bring it back to the kitchen.

My wonderful cistern watering device needed a tweak first thing because I’d attached the supply strip to the wrong side of the cork and there was too much of it submerged.  This hi-tech gadgetry is very demanding! The weather here at the Potwell Inn in beautiful, but difficult for us gardeners because it combines growth inducing warm days with frost at night – a potentially dangerous combination, but yesterday we had our first picnic of the year on the plot.  Being at the bottom of the slope we get less direct sun than our neighbours at the top but on the other hand we’re protected from high winds by the same trees that take our sun.  The worst problem is that we’re in a frost pocket which demands attention to our earliest crops – we use a lot of fleece. As we left we noticed that the site was busy with allotmenteers but there wasn’t a lot of work going on.  It was catchup time – another of the hidden benefits of growing things.

How to find the Potwell Inn

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I know where the Potwell Inn can be found, because it’s somewhere around me.  It’s what you might call a ‘container’, a fictional construct whose elements are all real. This is all a bit philosophical I know, and as soon as I can I’ll post again and push this one down the queue – BUT – last week I was on the allotment alone, working away at filling several of the new paths with woodchip, a bit of an urgent job because supplies of woodchip are  spasmodic and can disappear within a few hours, carted away by any one of about 100 eager allotmenters.

So there I was in a world of my own (The Potwell Inn) when suddenly, walking down the path, came an old friend from years past who had managed to track me down in a way that I dare not describe for fear of all the regulars turning up in a coach one day.  How weird is that?  Then in the evening a text message from another person I’d been out of touch with – for 30 years at least – appeared on my phone out of the blue. Extraordinarily joyful but it threw me into a tailspin.

I love the freedom of imagination. The Potwell Inn, the bar, the garden, the kitchen and even the distant landscape and weather were – I always thought – mine to play with: like an imaginary friend in whom I could invest my deepest feelings. I hadn’t factored in the obvious fact that sharing involves risk.  The moment I press the ‘publish’ button my private world belongs not just to me but to the people who read it, who relate to it and are kind enough to want to share my space. All this is not simply some dry technical stuff about growing stuff and cooking it.  It’s about what really matters to me and what I believe should matter to everyone else as well. Without our Potwell Inns we shrivel and dry up.

Here we are in the midst of the age of extinctions, of what’s come to be known as the ‘anthropocene’, where we can see what we’ve done to the earth through our compliance with greed, through our own greed too. And part of the purpose of the Potwell Inn is to explore the idea that – in the words of fellow blogger Jon Moore –

we can change the world, one cabbage at a time!

The most radical force in the world is not fear or anger or intellect, but delight. Delight stops us in our tracks, changes the way we see things, changes the way we live our lives. If you want to find the Potwell Inn you must follow the line of delight and there, at the end of the journey, you will find the building with the crooked chimney and the sound of jackdaws playing in the trees. But it’s never an easy journey because so many people find delight annoying, at best, and at worst threatening.  How many times have you seen a beautiful fungus stamped into the earth, as if its very existence were a threat? Delight is the slow-cooking movement of the inner life. Walking anywhere takes a age because there’s so much delight to be found in the ordinary, and once experienced in that rather Blakean way –

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand.

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.

And Eternity in an hour.”

2017-09-05 15.44.28then the ordinary becomes the Ordinary and the most everyday actions like cooking and eating together; growing and harvesting, singing and talking are infused with delight, and it’s precisely that that so pisses authority off because delight is its own authority and its own legislator and defers to no lawyer or religion, and that is why it’s perceived as being dangerous.

 

 

As for the Potwell Inn – it’s an insidious corruptor of commonsense and small mindedness.

When did we get so scared of food?

2018-02-06 14.20.29I can answer that question for us at the Potwell Inn because one of our children suffered from his earliest months from what was thought to be lactose intolerance. It turned out to be something else and he’s now approaching forty and in good health, but that’s not the point.  For us that possibility – in the era before smartphones – meant that shopping became a nightmare in which small print was obsessively pored over and during which we carried a long printed list of safe foods which had to be updated every few weeks because manufacturers would change recipes and what was ‘safe’ one week would contain lactose a month later. Lactose was a cheap and easy recipe component that found its way into the most unexpected places. What that experience did – and this is the takeaway point – was to pathologise food for us. We were in an unusual and rare position and eventually, after several years of  hospital admissions, it became clear that lactose wasn’t the underlying problem and things kind of settled down again.

But once pathologised, food never really recovers and for many of us the relationship with it has become damaged.  ‘Lucky you’ you could justifiably say if you’re a subsistence farmer or relying on food banks to get through the week. What shameless narcissistic self-indulgence to be prattling on about the dangers of food when you’re so rich you can afford to throw it away.  ‘Just give us a share in that dangerous stuff you’re so scared of eating!’  This isn’t just an abstract ethical issue. Last night we were late getting home and I resorted to buying a ready meal (yes really) at the local supermarket just before it closed –  you should try it some time, it’s an eye opener.  There was a significant proportion of obviously poor people snapping up the reduced price food before it went to the bins. I even spotted one man who I know to be a street beggar with a basket of food. It was a big jolt, we mostly prefer poverty to be on the other side of a high cultural wall – who needs concrete and steel?  Wouldn’t we rather they waited an hour and stole it from the waste bins at the back or is it just their pride that stops them?

But for the lucky ones, aided by countless newspaper and television programmes, the message has become imprinted in our minds that food is potentially dangerous and by micromanaging our food intake we can live longer lives.  It’s a no-brainer as we all know, and so whilst we are fortunate enough (most of us) to live in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey [Oh my God, milk? factory farmed and lethal: and honey? – unless it’s manuka honey at £15 a gram – pure lethal carbohydrate]; many who can afford it live on an aetiolated diet that keeps them perpetually anxious and those who can’t, eat manufactured junk that gives you diabetes and makes you fat, and disabled by shame and guilt.  Of course we all smile bravely and tell ourselves we’re really happy but:

We’re secretly as miserable as it’s possible to be!

Having a bad relationship with food, and tap water, and the air we breath, and with any number of ordinary indispensible aspects of our lives is so widespread that we hardly notice it, and when we do notice there’s often an ‘expert’ on hand to help us through. But all too often the experts want to sell us their remedy rather than attack the basic problem.  So we buy processed ‘slimming meals’ – there’s an oxymoron for you.  We lug vast quantities of bottled water around and – if we can afford it – buy organic food not realizing that the major producers have negotiated exemptions on the use of many chemicals we assume we paid extra to be spared from. We buy food supplements and herbal snake-oil in case they can stave off old age. Our behaviour, and especially our children’s behaviour, has been pathologised as well and we medicate five year olds in order to make them more ‘normal’. Our relationships, our culture and family life and sadly our dependence on bacteria (think only of our terror of rotting, even controlled rotting) have all been pathologised too and we’re frightened of a caterpillar on our cabbage and a bit of dirt on a potato, so we’re reduced to buying happiness on interest free credit from some behemoth that knows that the effect wears off when you unwrap it and then you’ll buy some more. Surely this can’t be good?

The Potwell Inn doesn’t actually have a ‘mission statement’ because trying to express the idea of flourishing without getting into psychobollocks, merchandising and quackery is harder to do than you’d imagine. But ironically we all know what flourishing feels like even if we can’t put it into words.  Equally a discussion about ‘being fully human’ is fraught with difficulties in a society that runs away screaming if it senses that even a mention of humanness is attempting to chainsaw the legs off diversity.  When did we get so scared of food? When did we get so scared of getting old? When did we get so scared of germs, or other people, or commitment, or thinking about hard stuff?

The Potwell Inn stands for flourishing and not, most certainly not just happiness which is an ephemeral pleasure that’s always ready to be driven out by the next dark fear. It’s flourishing we’re committed to and in order to flourish we believe that we need to overthrow the tyranny of pleasure altogether. I’m talking about both ancient (how about Aristotle?) and modern – Positive Psychology [feel free to skip a sentence whenever your mind clouds over].  I’m no academic, but if I were, I’d be looking at the work the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham (UK) is doing.

What I am completely committed to doing is discovering through experience – through growing and harvesting and cooking;  through making and thinking, and learning not to be scared of my neighbours, and – to steal a phrase from Ernest Hemmingway in a letter to his daughter, “to recognise bullshit when you see it”; I’m learning about flourishing. What I’m conducting is a very practical experiment with the hope I might be able to share the results with a few other people.  It’s called the Potwell Inn because it’s open to anyone (except if you’re barred by the landlord for being a pain) and it’s a place of joy.

 

 

 

Today’s special

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There used to be  – may well still be – a building supply company down near the fruit and veg market in Bristol. The company was run by the friend of a friend, and they were very particular that they were “a specialist building supplier”  That’s to say although you could buy all manner of obscure and popular things on the builder’s mind, you could not buy sand and cement and other bulk supplies. This led to a good deal of good-humoured banter with customers who would deliberately request these unavailable items just for the fun of a firm but polite refusal – “I’m sorry sir, but we are a specialist building supplier”.

The reason I recall this is that this morning I’m pondering how best to avoid disappointing people who come to the Potwell Inn looking for something we don’t, (or can’t) supply. I suppose in the great Wild West of the blogosphere pretty well anything goes and, after all, a like is a like and a visitor is a visitor so why worry?  But I do worry.

At the top of the page is a carefully considered statement – it says: “A sceptic’s take on being human” . So it’s not a guide to being human in any sense not least because I’m a sceptic and I can’t buy into big systems and I’d be pretty crap at guiding anyone anywhere. But it also suggests that being human is a deeply puzzling business that isn’t just a given, like breathing. The Potwell Inn isn’t the destination but a place I can go to and feel a bit human.  It’s a left luggage office for memories, ideas, experiences and overheard conversations that people can come to to search for something they think they might have lost even though they can’t exactly name it.

And so in this restless business of being or becoming human there are some things I’ve discovered that seem to help. Firstly and above all there’s people, there’s eating and cooking, there’s growing things on the allotment and are books and poetry and the visual arts and there’s French Nouvelle Vague films and botany – and so the list goes on.  But this isn’t a blog about any of those things on the list although it includes them all. So I don’t do recipes or advocate any one particular way of running an allotment I don’t promote vegetarianism, veganism, paleo diets or anything lke that.  I just ramble on about stuff I’ve found that I like and stuff that makes me wonder why I don’t like.

I once worked for a tree man, a forester called Pat McGlyn. Knowing next to nothing about forestry I would help him out in all sorts of totally unskilled ways like directing traffic and dragging tree limbs around.  He was a pretty terrifying character -he had lost an eye blowing up tree roots, and in extremis when he was collecting a bad debt he would remove the glass one leaving a deep and horrifying hole there.  He usually got his money! We lost touch for  couple of decades and then one day he unexpectedly turned up at the door, obviously suffering from some sort of dementia. He said – “I know I know you but I can’t remember your name”. He’d parked his old Volvo outside and he was very proud of the fact that it was full from floor to ceiling with discarded artificial limbs which he was going to send to some war-torn corner of the Balkans where he thought they would be useful. We had several cups of coffee and talked about the various friendship groups he’d set up in troubled parts of the world. He drove away and I never saw him again. Being human comes in all sorts, shapes and sizes and Pat was uncompromisingly human.

On my last day working with him we stopped off for a pint on the way home somewhere near Castle Combe.  The pub was closing down for good that night, and he looked at the long mahogany bar and stroked it and pondered aloud about its beauty, the trees that had provided the timber for it and the history and all the conversations it had been a silent party to over the years. That old bar has become the bar at the Potwell Inn. We serve anybody here – fancy today’s special?  Game terrine, piccallili and sourdough bread and butter, every bit of it prepared in our kitchen and grown on the allotment.

Thank you so much!

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I was wandering around the Potwell Inn this morning, surveying the seasonal carnage, when I glimpsed into the front hall and saw a pile of letters there – thirty or forty of them.  The thing is, no-one opens the front door. It’s very gloomy, the doors are rotten and the hinges are rusted through and haven’t been used in years, –  so the front hall is a sort of improvised storage area full of junk and incomprehensible stuff with a letter box at the back marked “spam”.   Who on earth looks in letterboxes marked “spam”?  Anyway, my curiosity got the better of me this morning and I looked, and among some fairly random stuff about footballers I’ve never heard of I found a number of very supportive and enthusiastic comments on the Potwell Inn.  What a nice surprise! It seems that WordPress are so keen to preserve my sanity that they’ve been sweeping any general comments – ie not attached to a specific posting – into the spam filter.

So thanks to all those who’ve been so positive, I really appreciate it. There were also one or two questions about technical issues that I wouldn’t dare try to answer – when I get stuck I just go onlne, there’s mountains of help out there.  The visual format is one of the “off the shelf” ones that comes with the package and I took the photo of my son walking with my grandson 2 years ago – lucky shot.  Yes this is a WordPress hosted site – basic level but not free. I’m computer literate but the least glimpse of code sends me looking for the smelling salts!

As to “why Potwell Inn?” Please don’t run  away with the idea that there must have been anything so advanced as planning or focus groups (eeoogh).  I must be the only human being on earth to be inspired and radicalised at the age of 14 by an Edwardian (1910) comic novel,  so I’ve spent the rest of my life torn between looking for it and building it for myself. The reason for turning it into a blog was that the journalling software I’d been using daily for three years was upgraded without warning so that the various clapped out old machines here at the Inn wouldn’t talk to one another any more. When I looked around for an alternative I had a moment of inspiration and thought – “why not make it into a blog – there’s nothing in it I couldn’t share ? ” So the Potwell Inn became a virtual place that I already felt comfortable in.

The biggest challenge for writing a blog was the discipline to keep going – a habit which I’d already got, and more importantly, the capacity to treat setbacks, indifference and critical remarks as par for the course and I’ve had plenty of experience of that!  This is a tiny enterprise with a handful or so of regular supporters (I’m old so I don’t need to bull it up!) – so I’d be delighted if anyone wanted to share web the address with anyone they thought might enjoy it. At the moment I’m more likely to be hit by a lump of the Mars Lander than I am to get even 100 supporters.

But above all: Happy 2019 and, once again,  thank you so much.