Storm Dennis forces indoor gardening

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. When we first heard the wind soughing through any gaps in the windows it sounded suitably mournful, almost lovely. It felt good to pull up the bedcovers and entertain ourselves with thoughts of the driving rain and crashing waves outside the door. But that’s just an indulgence.

Actually being flooded is quite a different experience as we discovered one evening alongside the tidal Avon almost underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  We’d been living there for some years and we were used to the occasional inundation of the Portway, but this particular night a west wind was heaping up a spring tide and driving it upstream at the same time as a snow melt was travelling in the opposite direction. What was most unnerving about it was just how quiet it was.  The water just kept on rising, over the dockside, across the low wall and then began to move across the road towards our house. We stood there in disbelief for an age, before Madame called a taxi to take the children to a safer place as I wondered how to stop the water flooding the basement. Mercifully the tide turned and the water retreated, but I’d never experienced water as malignant before.  Dark, relentless and malignant.  I think of the hundreds of people in the North for whom the water hasn’t stopped.

And now we live much further upstream on the same river – we haven’t moved far – but the river hasn’t lost its capacity to threaten and bully its way through the city. We know when it’s high when we can see the surface gleaming through the trees across the green, and still it’s largely silent when it’s at its most dangerous. There’s no theatrical roar, no whitewater, it’s just dark; swirling silently and sliding past as fast as a cyclist could keep up on the towpath. Global climate change is one problem we’re not going to be able to export to a place we don’t have to look in the eye. Which is perhaps an overly melodramatic way of cueing the fact that we didn’t go out today.  We’d made safe the allotment as best we could, and we just waited for storm Dennis to blow it (him)self out over the weekend while we got on with sowing seeds for the propagators.

It seems a bit ironic to be sowing chillies and peppers this weather, but they need a long season and so we always seem to land up sowing them when the winter weather is demonstrating that there’s still time for frost and snow. Each year we juggle the dates to try to get them ready to go up to the allotment at the exact moment the weather changes for the better. It’s called gambling, and the odds are always in favour of Nature having the last laugh, which is why you need to develop plenty of resilience, and a sense of humility to be any good as a gardener. If I had one piece of advice – or rather two pieces – for a novice allotmenteer they would be

  1. Get your seeds in early
  2. Don’t get your seeds in too early

See what I mean? That’s why this blog is about being human, rather than being clever. My guess is that in about eight weeks we’ll be trying to keep a load of very leggy and tender capsicum plants alive in the flat until the snow melts at last. Anyway, this is the time of year when almost everything you’re planning to do on the allotment is virtual; aspirational.  A few cotyledons here and there; some unopened seed packets along with some empty beds in which – we hope – remarkable vegetables will grow.

Outside the flat, the window boxes are being thrashed by the wind and rain, and I’m not sure they’ll ever reach their full potential this year. All across the UK people are enduring this seemingly endless sequence of Atlantic storms, and I’d like to think that the light is gradually dawning in the collective mind.  But then I think back to how long it took for the science around the dangers of smoking to take us to the point of giving it up.  There were huge commercial pressures and vast fortunes were spent by the tobacco industry to prop their lethal product up, and successive governments delayed any genuine action – probably because of the huge tax revenues they were gaining. We must expect that common sense will only prevail after every other option has been investigated – the trouble is we don’t have fifty years.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m very interested in finding out how farmers are responding to the climate challenge. I don’t think anyone – even farmers – believe that nothing needs to change, but I do think that some of their critics have been cherry picking the evidence against farming. So here’s another random article that landed in my inbox today.  This one is another defence of traditional mixed farming over and against feedlots and chemicals.  I found it very interesting although I can’t vouch for all the data it’s based on.  But whatever solution we reach for has simply got to gain the support of farmers and landowners if it’s going to work. I have no confidence in the capacity of the present government to challenge its own funding sources so it’s going to have to be a battle for public opinion.  The information, all of it, is out there and we need to collate and understand what it’s saying and not reach for scapegoats to carry the blame. The future of life on the earth depends upon us reaching the correct conclusion and then acting on it.

 

Like dragging an elk back to the cave

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Actually the photo is a bit of a cheat because I took it exactly a year ago to the day.  On the other hand after a few days of work this week, the allotment looks uncannily – or rather – exactly the same, because in truth there’s nothing at all uncanny about the yearly routine since with small variations from year to year it just happens that way.

A friend emailed today with a link to an Imboic celebration she’d taken part in.  I’d never heard of Imboic before but it’s described both as a Wiccan and a Celtic festival to celebrate the beginning of spring and takes place at the beginning of February, coincidentally the date when Candlemas is celebrated in the Christian church. The religious are a larcenous lot with regard to festivals and this is obviously an ancient, probably pre-Christian festival that’s been repackaged to suit successive orthodoxies. What it does achieve is to touch the very deep need in our lives to recognise and celebrate the seasonal turning points. Looking at the YouTube video it’s clear that everyone was having a grand time and that, in my usual latitudinarian way I don’t give a stuff if they all believe different things; the fact is, the crowds knew why they were there and what they were celebrating.

And the crowds were entirely right. The year has turned decisively and even if there were no humans left to celebrate it (a distinct possibility if we don’t change our ways) the plants and wildlife certainly would. Today on the allotment we heard and saw –  wrens and robins, jays, magpies, rooks, and a green woodpecker; all without making the least effort. We allotmenteers seem to have an instinctual drive to make ready for the new season and Madame and me have been afflicted by the urge to work all day and think about work all night. The beds are all ready, bar a tiny bit of weeding, and the second propagator will be switched on tomorrow (rainy day job).  The pile of pernicious weeds and roots – mostly bindweed and creeping buttercup since the couch has been vanquished – has not dried out, and so the vexed issue of whether to burn them in a couch fire or drive them to the tip and let someone else burn them, hasn’t arisen – but it will.  The battle of the composts has been resolved, and a new bag of Sylva Grow is in the back of the car. I would have tried to get a bag of Carbon Gold, about which I’ve heard good things, but it’s not widely distributed in garden centres yet.  We are astonished that they are still apparently selling mountains of peat based composts, and it occurred to me this morning that it’s no use grumbling about the way things are; this is a capitalist society and the one thing, the only thing agribusiness is interested in is the bottom line. So if we’re concerned about peat extraction we just stop buying it, and put the garden centres on notice that we’ll take away their greenwashed credentials if they don’t stop.

Anyway, enough bolshy gardener stuff – I really wanted to write about the absurd pleasure of prepping the ground.  Our allotment is at the bottom of a steep slope, probably about 30 vertical feet below the access track, and that means that wheelbarrowing materials down the grass path is pretty hard work. In the last few days I’ve trucked down 20 bags of horse manure, 4 bags of topsoil, 2 bags of horticultural sand, a week’s kitchen waste and maybe ten loads of wood chip. Then today as I surveyed the flattened remains of the autumn leaf pile, I realized that there was a good eight inches of almost black topsoil, full of old leaf mould and it was calling out to me – take me now! When we took on our hillside allotments, the only thing we could do was terrace them. Timber is expensive, but we bit the bullet and gradually built proper beds as funds permitted. Some topsoil was salvaged as we dug out deep paths for drainage, but our so-called raised beds have spent much of their lives being a bit sunken. Filling them with topsoil would have been outrageously expensive and so our strategy has been to recycle every gram of dirt, every plant pot’s worth of compost and to acquire more whenever the chance arose.  A neighbour over ordered and so I bought the surplus from him.  Today yielded four full barrow loads of marvellous topsoil and at last the most needy bed is genuinely raised.  The hotbed is fully charged and has reached 13C at the surface of the earth layer, and I added the surplus horse manure to the compost bin as a bit of extra nitrogen, and turned it all in. This was truly hard work and yet it gave me the most absurd amount of pleasure. It was, in the words at the top of this post, dragging the elk back to the cave kind of work. The purple sprouting broccoli is ready to harvest, and we’ve still got potatoes and parsnips- we dug the last today. I swear if the government ever found out how much joy and pleasure this gives, they’d tax it or ban it.

And then to the garden centre to look for seeds and (inevitably) we spent more than we should because to an allotmenteer a packet of seeds or a new garden tool has more than paid for itself before you even reach the till! So a new draw hoe attached itself to me and begged me to buy it – how could I refuse?

Is gardening good for your mental health? of course it is! It’s good for your spiritual health as well, oh and your physical health too, provided you steer clear of the sirens on the chemical stands. We shall dine on parsnips and elk tonight and I’ll put on my best bison skin to impress Madame. Just to cap it all, I’ve been reading Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seabird’s Cry” – I like to take a break from frightening myself now and again. This is a wonderful book and it would make a birdwatcher out of a stone. If you take my advice and buy it, you’ll never look a sea bird in the eye again without awe and respect.

Feel the pulse

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I know I’ve been a bit remiss over the last few days, but things are hotting up on the allotment and – because the evenings are lighter – we tend to forget the time and arrive back at the flat late, leaving an unholy rush to get food organised.  But the beds are looking good and the broad beans have survived the latest storm with another on the way.  The hotbed is now full and has gained 6C over the past 48 hours, so now it’s capped with soil it will romp away. The infrastructure jobs like moving and plumbing the water butts are at last looking possible.  There’s a whole list of things to do, but at least we’re not chafing at home.

We are, however, chafing a bit up at the allotment because the annual challenge of seed compost has made its appearance and we’re unable to agree on what to do.  It really is difficult to find well made peat free seed composts.  We use coir modules for many things, but there are some vegetables that need to be pricked out.  We’ve experimented with SylvaGrow and it’s not the best for seed sowing.  We use it for many other purposes but we’ve not been successful with some.  Home made peat free compost – unless we buy in all the ingredients – uses soil and compost that haven’t been sterilised and so could in theory lead to damping off and other fungal problems. I’m sure a solution will eventually be found but it’s been a headache.

But I was browsing this morning, thinking about borlotti beans – which we really like.  I was musing on whether we really do need to move towards synthetic or manufactured proteins as we decrease our meat consumption.  A very little bit of research showed that the kind of pulses we can grow easily in the UK – like borlotti beans, lentil, dried peas and so on – are packed with protein and rich in no end of other important vitamins and minerals.  This is important because the preferred route for many in the food industry is to grow and almost always import soya and high protein wheat to use as a feedstock, not just for animals but for manufactured foods as well.   So it seems a perfectly possible and well  tolerated way forward for all of us to eat less meat and more pulses – not only are they rich in protein and nutrients but they’re also high in fibre – that’s got to be a double whammy and the best thing of all is it locks out the industrial food manufacturers. From what I can discover this makes a perfect diet for vegetarians and vegans.  No need for tofu and Quorn, and fake burgers and bacon; no need for spirulina products to be allowed to flood the market.

This, of course can only address the climate and species crises if at the same time there’s a total change of heart over farming policy and the subsidy system. For decades farmers have been paid to remove hedges, invest less in labour and more in machinery, and increase productivity at the expense of both soil and wildlife habitat. by dousing the land in poisons. I was completely taken aback this morning when I turned up an opinion  piece by George Monbiot, written in 2010, in which he accepted that his previous position of advocating universal veganism is, or rather was wrong and that the way forward could be to allow some meat production in small and ethically run farms and smallholdings. Now to be fair he seems to have changed his mind since, but surely there is room for a less polarised discussion on meat production with a view to contributing to a solution to the present crisis.

All power to vegetarians and vegans for pointing out the ethical issues in meat (and fish) eating; but it remains an ethical choice and not a pantechnicon solution to be imposed at the expense of many thousands of jobs and without any guarantee of success. There’s no reason we couldn’t bear down on the cruel treatment of animals, and the reopening of many more (properly supervised) local slaughterhouses would make a big difference. We need to support local initiatives through the way we buy food. We used to keep chickens in our orchard some years ago, and although I never enjoyed killing them I got myself trained to kill them quickly and humanely by a local butcher. It’s not an act to be undertaken lightly or thoughtlessly but I believe it was an ethically justifiable thing to do.  We gave up because foxes took to raiding in the daytime and trust me – they don’t kill chickens quickly or humanely at all. If you find the very thought of this disgusting or appalling then I’m sorry.  I respect your principled stance as I hope you will accept mine.

There are other – many other – actions we’ll need to take, but the key point is that we can do it locally and sustainably and without relying on food manufacturers and agribusiness to feed us. The only green thing about the green revolution were the countless people who swallowed the lie.  Bring on the lentils!

 

Muck, but no mystery!

….. and suddenly, at last, the sun shone, the rain stopped and were able to get out on to the allotment.  In spite of the cold wind we took a chance on filling the hotbed, and so we drove over to one of my old parishes to sack up and bring back the first of two car loads of fresh, hot, horse manure. Most gardeners want the well rotted kind but for this purpose we need about twenty bags of strawy stable manure as fresh as possible.  Last year being the first time we’d tried this technique we asked my friend Annie to keep out as much straw as possible, but that proved a bit of a mistake because the bacteria that heat the heap don’t just need nitrogen they need carbon too – and that’s what the straw provides.  The theory is that this mixture will heat the bed quicker and hotter – but we shall see.  Our car is quite small and even with the seats down it’s difficult to get more than 10 full bags in at a time.

So as each bag was tipped into the deep frame – it’s a spade depth below ground level – we trod it firm and watered it.  We continue that process of topping, firming and watering until the heap is around 3 feet deep, and once it’s started to heat up we cover the manure with a home made mixture of topsoil, well rotted compost and horticultural sand.  This not only gives a good well drained bed for sowing, at the end of the season the whole lot of soil, compost, sand and manure go back on to the beds – about a cubic metre of it.  It’s most useful where we’ve terraced the beds, and every year we’re able to raise them a little more. Since our cold frames were stolen the hotbed will take over the work of germinating and bringing on early tender plants.

It’s amazing what a pleasurable experience a few hours of hard physical work can be after months of moping about indoors.  Annie was saying that they’ve been unable to let the horses out even for a taste of grass because the land is so wet.  As we drove across Lansdown on Friday we saw a herd of cows grazing on the few shreds of grass that have survived the wettest winter in memory.  When I mentioned it to Annie she said “he probably ran out of silage – he must have been desperate”. Desperate or not they were back indoors again today but that’s a measure of how hard this winter has hit farmers.

I read a lot about the impact of farming on climate change and so much of it is almost sectarian in its hatred of any opposing opinions. As we were filling the bags today, I was thinking about the way in which these small farms of a few hundred acres are maligned when they’re lumped together with enormous feedlots which really do create problems. Our half ton of manure is produced by horses which aren’t ruminants and don’t make the same methane contribution as cattle do. It’s a rich source of soil nutrients and helps to build up soil structure while it captures carbon in the process.  We use the soil to grow healthy organic food in a completely sustainable way.  After we’re gone the soil will be in a much better state than when we took it on. There’s a kind of virtuous circle going on here.  All our veg trimmings are recycled back into the same ground, and we even use our own urine as a liquid fertilizer.  Good, small scale farming operates the same virtuous circle. Crops are grown, the soil is enriched and the animals are fed.  Our southwest UK climate favours grass above all else, and so dairy and beef farming are the obvious way of using the ground. Grass fed beef – that’s to say beef that’s not been fattened on a high protein diet of expensive soya and grain – is far superior to feedlot beef. Animals that are free to roam in natural herds outside in the fresh air and with the sun on their backs are not, on the face of it, being cruelly treated. Any old-school farmer will tell you that  stressed animals get sick more often and don’t make either good milk or fine tasting beef. The snag, and there’s always a snag, is that we can’t have it both ways. High welfare, grass fed organic beef is bound to cost much more money and for most of us that means eating a good deal less of it.  The same goes for almost any meat, whether chicken, pork or lamb, we simply can’t go on eating it in the quantities and at the price we’ve become used to, if we want to tackle global climate change. As for species extinction the same kind of argument applies.  The price of cheap food is always going to be pollution, widespread use of chemicals, soil erosion animal cruelty and agribusiness. But to blame all forms of farming without discriminating between more and less harmful practices is counterproductive. Just to give one example from coastal restoration, the choughs that are slowly reappearing on the western coasts are doing so because they feed on grubs that feed on cattle dung.  Free ranging cattle on the clifftops have enabled the reappearance of this charming and acrobatic member of the crow family. The dung is dropped by ruminants in small and manageable quantities and is quickly broken down. That’s a far cry from spreading vast volumes of evil smelling anaerobic liquid manure on the land where it quickly runs off and pollutes streams and rivers.

A less meat based diet would be better for us.  Farmers could experiment with tree planting their expanses of grass, a technique that looks very promising. The trend for ever larger fields monocropping feed maize could be phased out, as could the relentless removal of hedges to make space for bigger and heavier machinery.  Less could really be more; better for us, better for the wildlife and better for the planet. At the moment it’s the poorest people on the planet who are paying the true cost of cheap food. That could end, but not until we – farmers, growers and consumers alike – are prepared to make some sacrifices ourselves.

 

This is my happy place

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I’ve been feeling just a bit curmudgeonly this last few weeks – a combination of living in political chaos, fag end of winter blues, problems with the campervan, rising damp, reading too many books about climate change and wondering how on earth we’re going to sort this mess out.

I do have an antidote for it all  – and it’s getting back to the stove – making stock, baking bread, baking cakes, that sort of thing. I also notice that when I’m feeling a bit glum I also eat really badly, and suddenly, cakes, biscuits, toast made from white bread,  convenience food and general junk look endlessly fascinating, so getting back to the stove sorts that particular temptation out, well –  all except for the cakes. The other antidote, the one Madame favours, is sowing seeds, and so once again I’m sharing the kitchen with a busy propagator.

The last remedy is going through my photos and looking at all the lovely things I spotted last year – and that’s what I was doing when I found this photo, taken by Madame, of me skulking the cliff path at St Davids and making a list. That’s my waterproof notebook in my hand, my stick and my new hat and my old space pen, Swiss  army knife, X10 pocket magnifier in my pocket.  In the bag too is a copy of Rose, “Wildflower Key” and a couple of fold out keys for grasses and lichens. If you want to know what paradise looks like this is it – although possibly a less knobbly pair of legs would improve it a bit. I couldn’t be more happy than I am when I’m out in the sunshine amongst the plants and insects and birds.  Just a little way further down the path last autumn we picked enough wild mushrooms to make the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.

Oh and we’ve got miniature tulips flowering in the window boxes – along with the irises and daffodils – I think that’s quite mad but it’s true. The remnants of storm Ciara are still howling through, and looking out of the window just now, the sky had that yellowish hue that looks like sleet or snow on the way.  Our son just rang from Birmingham to say that it’s snowing hard there. These certainly are confusing times, but I try not to let it get to me too much. This week  we’ll go and collect a load of hot horse manure for the hotbed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be flat out again on the allotment.

 

Behold – the thunderbox

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Otherwise known at the Potwell Inn as the Seat of Mercy

I’m not a complete stranger to this form of cludger – that’s three euphemisms so far in a single piece – because a friend built what’s become known as a composting toilet (3) for a party on his smallholding near Brecon; and very comfortable, efficient and non smelly it was –  considering it was serving best part of fifty people.  The next time  we went there no trace existed – the epitome of low impact – and so convenient (4), that I even thought about digging one on the allotment, which is probably against the rules. Both my grandfathers had similar facilities (5), and my mother, when she was a child,  was so used to the earth closet (6) that the first time she encountered a water closet (6) she was unable to go because it was so clean and shiny. We enjoyed an outdoor toilet (7) for three years when we were at art school and we had a fabulous seated view of the Wiltshire countryside. My paternal grandfather had an impressive double seat one, but I can’t imagine myself ever being able to share my private moments with another human being. They must have been built of stronger stuff in those days.

The one in the photo, needless to say, is the one used by the gardeners at Heligan and was known as the Thunderbox. One of the reasons I so dislike costume dramas is that, being a peasant,  I know perfectly well that it would never be me strutting around upstairs – I’d be the poor devil who had to dig out the cludger once a month. However I’m delighted it’s still here, if not in use, because it reminds me of my family and their history.

But today brought the inevitable trip to an industrial estate outside Truro, to buy some new batteries for the van and then, after installing them, some more tooth gnashing when I realized that the previous set had probably taken the charger unit with them when they expired in a feverish sort of way and plunged us into darkness on Monday night. Last night was a bit of a trial too because we had no electrics of any sort and the temperature inside the van dropped to 5C. We slept on and off between bouts of.  synchronised shivering. Anyway today, with a bit of a lash up, we restored some heat and light and set off for a wander around the gardens again.

Madame pointed out as we walked around that we always make for the vegetable garden first.  It’s true, we have learned so much from Heligan simply by noting what they do there but also by talking to the super friendly gardeners who all seem to take their teaching roles very seriously. Today they were planting out garlic and some of the biggest onion sets we’ve seen.  Tomorrow we’ll try to find out if they’re growing from seed and try to get a few tips – we didn’t like to interrupt today because these three days of sunshine have given them the chance to get some sowing and planting done. Otherwise, naturally, there wasn’t a lot going on at this time of year but I spotted this little hummock in a bed that hasn’t yet been cleaned up – I so hope they leave it because it’s absolutely beautiful.  I can’t say what the species are but they were a tiny little system of bryophytes and lichens like a Wardian case of specimens.

I’ll have fun with identifying them when I get home.

Elsewhere the arched pathway lined with apples has never looked more sculptural, and I couldn’t resist a taking a photo of the stacked crocks in the potting shed which had the air of an ancient ossuary, all of a piece with the memory of the lost gardeners. In the bright winter light, even an old brick wall looked especially beautiful. We sat in the sun on one of the seats in the walled garden and felt intensely peaceful. That’s the thing about visiting gardens – no matter how often you go they look different every time and you’re never more than a whisker away from a state of meditation.  As we walked back we discussed our thoughts on all sorts of mundanities about the allotment – where to put the beans, how to improve the onions, and whether it’s worth trying leeks again after three seasons of failure. Allotmenteering always seems to start in the imagination and unfurl from there. We never get all our own way because the earth, the climate, the soil and the pests have their say too and at the end of each season there’s always something to celebrate and something to be learned.

 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ….

Yesterday being taken up with working on the campervan, when the sun shone today – well, glowed a bit  – we set off for the allotment to plant some of the early veg that have been sitting out the winter in the greenhouse. So we planted out winter hardy peas and spinach which had been growing on in coir modules.  We’ve had mixed experience with the Jiffy 7 modules, because although the coir seems as good as peat for germination, the outer mesh looks to be virtually indestructible in the soil and can cramp crops like beetroot. Many plants just grow straight through so we’re happy on the whole, but today Madame removed the nets on half of the peas to see if there is any difference in subsequent growth. We love peas, but so do hungry mice, and our first sowing in the autumn disappeared completely until we found the seeds heaped up under the large pot protecting the rhubarb.  Growing them in modules has meant there were no losses to rodents at all. The shallots and garlic are all thriving and a peep under the cloche protecting the herbs was encouraging.  Even the tarragon seems to be alive and well. Until we started to grow it ourselves we rarely used it but I  wouldn’t be without it now.

Because we’re in a frost trap, we tend to protect most of our plants with cloches of one sort or another.  For some reason spinach – especially in the early summer – does much better under the open mesh cloches, probably because it likes a bit of shade.  The other reason for covering up is the abundance of hungry pigeons on the site. Unwary allotmenteers can find a whole crop of broccoli or kale stripped to the ribs in a night.

This time of year can look a bit desolate on the plot, and so today I planted an early flowering clematis in the sheltered spot between the shed and the greenhouse.  We’ve decided to plant more flowers, not just to attract insects but to encourage us humans when we’re tired of rain and early sunsets. The window box daffodils at the flat are just about to burst into flower – it really does feel like spring is on the way.  We’ve even got the potatoes chitting in the cool hall outside the flat, and it won’t be long before the propagators are full with tomatoes, aubergines and chillies again. Last year we were a bit too early so we’ll leave them for a week or two yet.

We rarely talk much when we’re gardening except, perhaps, about where to put things – always contentious in my experience – and so I drop into a meditative frame of mind very easily.  Hours can pass because, in essence, the work is simple and repetitive – but that adds to the potential for fruitful thinking. I don’t think I ever come back from the allotment without feeling better than when we arrived.

California, the gold rush and the F word.

IMG_20200126_161359Just in case you read my piece yesterday where I got a bit lyrical about the old South Gloucestershire coalfield here’s a teaser for what I’m thinking about today.  What links California Farm, the gold rush and the F word? OK here’s a clue about the last term – I’m not talking about Gordon Ramsey’s favourite word, but fracking.

I was mulling over my piece when I remembered I had a book in the shelves, a reprint of the 1873 monograph on the coalfield written by John Anstie. I bought it for a pound about thirty years ago, and so I had a flick through again and realized that the geography of my childhood – you might call it the psycho-geography, almost exactly coincides with the limits of the coalfield.  You could lay the two maps on top of one another and see the place names I wrote about on both of them. All very comforting you might think, and I thought it was pretty cute too at first, until I thought about California Farm.

In 1876 the Cowhorn Hill Colliery was purchased by Abraham Fussell.He deepened the old Blowbottom Shaft to 640 yards where he reached the valuable Smiths coal, only 18 inches thick but in great demand.  He renamed the shaft – CALIFORNIA. Fussell thought that, like the gold mines in California, it would make his fortune. 

The paragraph above was copied from the excellent local website DistrictWeb.

Note the date – three years after the book was written. The mine prospered but in 1904 the workings were flooded and the mine abandoned and sold to a water company who pumped and sold the water. Another fortune was made when the land was sold for building development in the second half of the 20th century, and now much of the area is built over as the California Farm estate, the coal wharves on the river and the dramway have all but disappeared and the abandoned mill became the hub of the small nature reserve I wrote about.

I’ve always assumed that the age of coal has gone, not least here, where the seams are narrow and difficult to mine but especially because the whole world is supposed to be trying to cut the use of carbon based fuels.  But my assumption is wrong for a number of reasons. The greed that allowed land to be bought and sold as a commodity, and allowed mineral extraction without regard to the consequences hasn’t gone away. We have the most ecologically illiterate government in many decades, and the fracking licences for the whole area have been quietly on sale for years. But finally the principle that the polluter pays is largely understood as extremist propaganda. In short, the Klondike could return to South Gloucestershire any time soon, because there is far more coal and methane left in there than was ever taken in the past.  

Fracking! The local authorities oppose it, the residents oppose it and almost anyone with a grain of common sense would oppose it, but ….. there are fortunes to be made, even at the expense of global heating and species extinction.  This is not a time for complacency!

Anyway, enough grumpy, because today I found this at the back of the garage ….. (see below)

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It isn’t an alien life form but a bag of last year’s early potatoes that I harvested, put in the garage and promptly forgot.  When I said recently that they were pink fir apple I was quite wrong.  I found those today and they’ve stored perfectly. These were almost certainly Arran Pilots and, driven by their biological imperative they were seeking fresh air and sunshine from the most disadvantaged place you could imagine – in a hemp shopping bag in an underground garage. The Sarpo Miras and the Pink Fir Apples – both main-crops,  have stored perfectly with no sign of premature chitting. What it does show is just how important the differences between varieties can be, and – another important lesson – chitting potatoes need light and cool conditions if they’re not to get leggy or dry out. It’s nowhere near time to get them going here, although the seed merchants are desperate for the space in their warehouses. The best advice is to wait until you can see the seed potatoes in the garden centres and snap them up before they all go.

Turning over an old leaf

It’s a bit of a funny time on the allotment, especially for no-dig allotments, because where in the past we’d be using up every suitable occasion during the winter to dig the last few patches of ground, now there’s not so much of the warming work to be done. That’s with the exception of path making and mulching. We’re lucky to have supplies of free leaves and woodchip provided by the Council, and it can be hot and heavy work taking it all down in the wheelbarrow. The paths are nearly all finished.  When they were made, it took many barrow loads of woodchip because they were 18″ deep so they could function as drains to the beds. They function very well, but the chippings rot down surprisingly quickly and we need to add at least a couple of inches every year to keep them full.

The leaves, taken from all the parks in Bath and shared between the sites are incredibly useful for building humus in the soil.  Most of us put anything up to six inches on any empty beds, and then cover them with some kind of membrane. It’s amazing how they seem to disappear before spring, taken down by the worms and chewed into small pieces by woodlice, earwigs and all the other insects, but the impact on soil structure is profound, and even after four years there’s no comparison with the heavy and dense clods of clay that used to be there.

So today we moved a couple of gooseberry bushes into better positions, made possible by removing the strawberry bed to another plot outside the cage. If there’s one lesson that comes up over and again with gardening, it’s the negative effect on yields of overcrowding the plants. Then, after a weeding session I started trucking the leaves down while Madame spread them around the cage in a thick layer. There was no-one else working on the site and no competition for the leaves, so I was able to hunt around at the bottom of the heap to get the ones that had been compressed and begun breaking down.  I find my ancient stable fork perfect for the job, and the leaves go into a council cardboard sack which, when full weighs a ton (figuratively speaking) but  I can get three barrow loads into one bag.  Five full loads later the job was almost finished and I had a backache.  That’s the point at which you say to yourself “we’ll be glad we did it in the spring” which is true but no consolation.

Our departing neighbour also bequeathed us his storage bench and half a dozen office water cooler bottles which have been outside in the frost, sun and rain for at least four years functioning as mini cloches. They work brilliantly with newly planted sweet corn, but at the moment they’re encouraging some chard.  There’s a load more stuff in the greenhouse waiting but after weeks of rain and a few nights at -2C we’re waiting for the soil to dry and warm up a bit. Now’s one of the weird times when the weather can go from wonderful to frightful and back again in a day.  In previous years we’ve sown seeds too early and had to protect tomatoes and chillies while they grew leggy and weak.  This year we’ll be more careful – this is where a diary is particularly handy.

The potatoes have all gone now.  The sack of Pink Fir Apple I was storing in the garage have all chitted too early to be of any use for eating or growing, but in any case we’ve lost the big chunk of land which we borrowed from our neighbour, so we’ll grow far less potatoes this season. But the other roots are still in production  – Madame would love to know how to dig a parsnip without putting the fork through it somewhere! The roots in general have done well, the alliums were disappointing and we’re still holding our breath hoping that the purple sprouting will deliver.  Every year we discuss whether it’s a waste of space and every year it comes good at the last possible moment and we have our feast. The other crop we’re eagerly awaiting is the asparagus which we’ve mollycoddled for two full seasons while it got its feet down.

The weeds are all under control at the moment, although I noticed a few acer seed propellers in the leaves, so I daresay they’ll all germinate. The couch grass is all but vanquished in the beds but the bindweed never gives up.  They don’t call it devils guts for nothing, although that’s a name that’s used traditionally for all kinds of pernicious weeds like dodder which we hardly see these days. We worked quietly until about 4.30, appreciating the growing day length, and then misty rain and gathering darkness drove us off and, because we were the last people on site, we came home and wolfed down a couple of mugs of tea and some biscuits.

Our youngest son, who’s a chef like his older brother, has just inherited a new general manager who can’t say a sentence without management-speak creeping in. He’s full of the kind of inspirational garbage that makes you want to chew your own arms off, but our son entertains us with such wicked impressions of him – it would make a tremendously funny novel!

Believing and belonging

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – on Karl Marx’ gravestone.

I have met some people for whom even the mention of Karl Marx would lead to the paroxysms of tooth grinding and frothing, so for the sake of sanity, and to save anyone the bother of frothing, the quotation is not a wholesale endorsement of  everything Marx said or wrote; but he’s an important thinker and deserves better than being wildly misquoted at every turn.

So simply knowing that there are some people in government who think that demonstrating against environmental damage and species extinction amounts to a form of terrorism is a chilling thought. Just as a ludicrous overreaction, it could be laughed off if it weren’t backed up by hard state power. I’m quite sure that there are many more people in this country and across the world who believe the evidence that a global catastrophe is looming up on us but feel powerless in the face of the ideological onslaught that tells us every day, and in a million subtle ways, that there is no alternative. Since the brexit referendum and in particular since the UK general election I no longer listen to news broadcasts and I don’t read the newspapers which are part of the problem. I choose my sources carefully and I try as best I can to verify what they’re saying – especially if I really want their stories to be true. As a result I have no idea who the members of the Cabinet are, for instance, but I’ve a pretty good hunch that they’re a dangerous bunch of charlatans and chancers.

Which is all very well except it raises the dilemma of how to respond effectively in a particularly challenging way. Let’s assume that there’s no point in writing letters about it to MP’s who, it seems to me, have no horizon beyond the next election or being appointed to profitable directorships. Successive prime ministers have learned the art of ignoring demonstrations, however huge, and convincing themselves that they know what “the people” are thinking even when best part of a million of them are walking peacefully past the houses of commons suggesting that they don’t. The principal opposition parties all seem to be clutching their favourite parts of a potential policy jigsaw but refuse to collaborate with anyone else in order to put something workable together. Waking up every day feeling powerless and lonely is a bad place to be.

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about direct personal action. I’d wonder – sometimes out loud – how wearing organic cotton T shirts or making your own soap was supposed to change the world. I suppose in part it’s my age, what with being a first generation hippie and seeing our dreams of a better world crushed relentlessly. I’ve written before about my own moment of enlightenment at a free festival in Bath, when I saw a young mother scraping the crap off her baby’s nappy against the only standpipe and water tap on the site. People have always misunderstood St Augustine when he said “love and do what you will” What he meant was that if you love, then you will make better moral choices – like, for instance, not threatening hundreds of people with salmonella because you can’t be arsed to clean your baby up safely.

Although the language changes, selfishness, greed and idolatry – in our case the worship of profit and the neoliberal economy – have always been the real problem. That’s my belief and it brings me no comfort whatever. Even if I were able to convince millions of people that my belief is correct, it wouldn’t do anything to get us off this self destructive path.  The only way to do that is to change our behaviour and – I’m finally beginning to understand – that it begins with me. It may not change the world if I wear an organic cotton T shirt or eat more veg, but if I do –  I’m part of the solution and not part of the problem. Change from the bottom up is the only show in town now and we at the Potwell Inn have been thinking about it for ages.  The allotment, our diet, our choices when we replace our worn out clothes, the way we get about, how we wash and what we wash with, what goes down the sink, how effectively we recycle – all these things are part of the fight back. I suppose you could say “that’s just virtue signalling”  – I’ve said the same many times as a defence against changing.

The most encouraging thing is that when we change our own lives we inevitably start to interact with other people who are doing the same thing. Just like the way you notice when you’ve got a baby on the way that the world is full of pregnant women, so it is that the allotment site is full of people who feel the same way about organic farming and gardening. Today we were continuing our search in Bath for somewhere we could buy food staples without packaging, and reading the small print on the back of re-chargeable shampoo bottles – it takes all sorts! – and we found just the shop we’d been looking for and it was like coming home.  We even met a fellow allotmenteer who works there.

The signpost in the photo at the top stands in a guerilla garden on Walcot Street and when I spotted it I felt the presence of a mass of people who also want to change the world. The new community crosses all the barriers that artificially divide us – age, gender, orientation WTF?

Any half decent evangelist, for any cause whatever, will understand that belonging is far more important than believing. Environmental change will happen when our collective imagination reaches the tipping point where not to change becomes unthinkable.  So the most powerful strategy for change in the face of a hostile government is having more fun, being better neighbours and refusing the limits that their edited version of human possibility try to impose on us. They’ll  tell us that we’ll only survive if we build a better machine, invent a new technology, build a higher wall. And we’ll show them what human flourishing really looks like. When you look at it that way there’s no contest.