Is there a cunning plan?

It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.

Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.

I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.

Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.

One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.

If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.

Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.

They would say that wouldn’t they?

Mandy Rice Davies

But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?

Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.

  • I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.

Four hundred and fifty three thousand, seven hundred and forty four

No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global climate crisis global heating green new deal growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown lost gardens of heligan meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Trench warfare at the Potwell Inn allotment

The sticky end of the unwanted grape vine

Regular readers of this blog may remember our ongoing struggle with underground streams on the allotment. In many ways we’re very fortunate to have a stream percolating somewhere beneath our feet that is able to supply water to the roots of any our plants with the means to access it. But it cuts both ways when we get very wet weather and the water table rises to about a foot beneath the surface; the clay/loam soil is desperately liable to poach and so many plants hate having wet feet.

The grape vine was on the allotment when we arrived. In fact the whole site is populated by genetically identical black grapes, all of them planted in the heyday of the Italian restaurants when a team of waiters and chefs took over plots and grew food to remind them of home. The very last of them died just this year and well into old age he still browsed our allotments as if he and his friends were still running them. I once saw him take two carrier bags of ripe figs off an allotment that used to be theirs. They would also pick many buckets of grapes to make wine which is, or was, reputed to be pretty good. We’ve got a vine on each side of our plot and one of them looks after itself with a bit of pruning in the winter, and gives us a good crop of small, sweet black grapes rather spoiled by over large pips. The other vine has always functioned better as a windbreak and screen, producing copious growth of leaves and shoots but never setting a decent crop of grapes. We made 25 litres of wine from the other vine a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough sugar in the grapes so it was very ‘thin’, lacking in flavour, and in the end we poured it away. When we decided to stop drinking alcohol 18 months ago it removed one of the reasons for growing these small grapes. Ironically our present allotments are on a site thought to have been a vineyard in Roman times.

So when we rationalised the fruit cage this autumn we decided to dig up the less successful vine to make space for a redcurrant, and today I attempted to dig it out. After a nominal first foot it was clear that the reason for unsuccessful growth was that it’s had its feet in water every winter. In the end I had to give up because the hole was filling with water within minutes and the stump appeared to be sucking itself deeper and deeper into the soil as I squelched around it with a spade and crowbar. I was experiencing the legacy of the wettest October on record – which leaves a question mark over replanting a redcurrant bush there. At the very least the patch will need a lot of grit incorporating to improve drainage. I might be able to redeem it a bit by diverting rainwater from the adjacent row of compost bins into more water butts. The council turned off the water supply today so I’m glad we’ve got about 1000 litres stored already. Over recent years we’ve experienced problems early in the year before the site supply is restored, because we’ve been blessed with fine dry weather.

While I was getting hot and muddy, Madame planted another two rows of broad beans to stand over winter. She was planting them in a bed that we’d augmented with some bought-in topsoil that had an even larger clay component than our own ground and which I had to dig a whole bag of grit into today before she planted it up. In the fruit cage the winter pruning is almost done now, and on the veg plots the garlic is growing steadily as are the peas which are always a bit of a gamble. If they survive the weather and the mice we’ll have an early crop next year. The brassicas were mostly planted on a bed that was well fed with our own compost and now the early purple sprouting broccoli are almost as tall as me. Let’s hope they’re as productive of shoots as they are with leaves.

The rats have returned to the compost heap since I drove them out by turning it repeatedly; so today I had to set one of the powerful spring traps baited with crunchy peanut butter. Hopefully greed will overwhelm their caution and I can get rid of them before they breed. We do have a lovely but rather wild cat on the site but even he can’t eradicate them all on his own. I say a quiet prayer to bring on the hungry peregrines, buzzards and kestrels and multiply the stoats and the owls!

I was thinking during all these labours about the strange way we misrepresent the allotment as if it were a haven of peace, tranquility and rest. An organic allotment may not have anything like as high an energy footprint as a non organic one, but only if you discount the gigacalories of human toil that goes into replacing the chemicals, pesticides and nitrate fertilisers and the very considerable financial expenditure on bringing the soil back into condition. One survey I read claimed that an allotment can be ten times as productive as an equivalent sized plot of farmland – which can only be true of a very intensively managed allotment. Once a plot becomes a significant contributor to the household food supply, it becomes a place of work – good creative, skilled and satisfying work but work nonetheless. I’ve been reading Chris Smaje’s book “A small Farm Future”c Chelsea Green Publishing and I was interested to see (Page 106) a chart that placed gardening in the same category – high labour input + high productivity – as the conventional arable farm. The difference is that the energy input is mostly human toil rather than fuel, fertilizer and chemicals. It’s a great book, well worth reading and presenting a well argued case for small farms and locally sourced food chains. So while I’m in the mood, here are three books I’ve learned a great deal from:

  • Chris Smaje “A small Farm Future” – Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Dieter Helm ” Green and Prosperous Land” – Collins (an economist’s view)
  • Simon Fairlie “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – Chelsea Green

I could add many more, but these three are extremely practical, albeit quite polemical contributions to the debate about the future of food production. One thing’s for sure; this is a debate we’re going to have to engage with whether we like it or not.

And finally we’re off to the flour mill tomorrow to get 25Kg of stoneground wholemeal flour. I was expecting to be turned away but lockdown part deux hasn’t had the same impact on flour supplies as the first round. It’s an excuse to drive 20 miles along the Cotswolds in the most beautiful scenery, so Alleluia – life feels good. This morning after our saintly breakfast of home made muesli, I had a slice of the first loaf of everyday bread and the first teaspoon of marmalade (also home made) in four months. Oh joy!

The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

Our neighbouring allotmenteers went on a gardening course with Sarah Raven last week and among the multitude of new ideas they were buzzing about afterwards, one in particular stuck in my mind. The soil is all important – the beginning and the end of any attempt to grow things. Of course that’s right, but it was only as I was turning the compost heaps again today that I remembered how much I enjoyed this time of year when I was working as a groundsman, and we began all the routine maintenance jobs; repairing the wickets, hedging and draining and looking after the machinery. Of course we had to maintain the football and rugby pitches and mark out the white lines every week., but it was the time when all the foundations for the next season were laid.

And on our plot today we were already setting things out for next season. Peas and broad beans are all ready, in fact the first batch of broad beans is already growing in the ground. The fruit trees are ready for their winter pruning and we’ve prepped ready for five new trees. The tall perennial herbs have been divided and moved to their new spot near the pond; the asparagus bed has been cleared, weeded, given a supplement of calcined seaweed , then composted and sheeted. All the beds have been manured or mulched with leaf mould and sheeted even though some of them will be planted up before Christmas. We’ve had rain and then a few days of early morning frost which will help the garlic; the new batch of leaves is stored for next year – there should be about two cubic metres of finished leaf mould.

Then the paths have all been topped up with new wood chips which rot down surprisingly quickly so they swallow up to thirty wheelbarrow loads every autumn to bring them level with the path edging. That’s a lot of trudging up and down the steep site, but when it’s done the plot looks somehow more purposeful if that makes any sense.

Sadly, today I dug out all of the leeks for burning, because they were attacked again by allium leaf miner and were beginning to rot where they stood. That’s the third year we’ve lost them all and so I think we’ll give them a miss now for a few years. although I’m sure the plant breeders will be looking for more resistant varieties. We don’t put the affected leeks into the compost because especially at this time of year we’re unlikely to reach high enough temperatures to kill the pupae, and today I found a cluster of eggs laid near the base of one plant. These obviously need to be destroyed or we’ll just perpetuate the infestations, but the insect now seems to be everywhere in the UK. Our best hope of control is the same as it is for any other pest – physical barriers, good soil, strong plants and masses of predators at the right time. That’s why we overwinter the broad beans – it toughens them up enough to resist the aphid attacks until the ladybirds arrive.

There really is a correlation between abundant insect attractors and improved predation on garden pests, and one of the principal deficiencies of spraying with chemicals is that it often kills the predators as well as the target pest; thus making yet more applications of spray necessary. Modern apple production requires quite staggering numbers of spray applications; every one of which can make the situation worse.

The compost heap still heats up obediently every time it’s turned, and the more often it’s turned the quicker it does its job. One indicator of how well it’s doing is what’s happening to the bean vines which are often quite slow to rot. This year the vines were taken down in mid September and a couple of months later they’ve all but disappeared in the the heap. the worms don’t like it too hot and so they move up and down in the bin until they find a congenial spot – many thousands of them can congregate of a single bin. You just need to keep the heap at the right level of moisture – not too wet and not too dry but just right.

The same goes for plants which prefer their moisture in modest amounts; so this time of year too, when we get heavy rain, we can see which parts of the plot need additional grit to help with drainage. With the exception of bog plants I can’t think of any normal garden vegetables that don’t absolutely hate standing in waterlogged ground. Plants can die from lack of oxyen – they can easily ‘drown’ if they’re left too long.

It would be quite wrong to think that allotments can be ‘put to bed’ in late September and not tended again until spring. These quieter growing months are a marvellous opportunity for planning, remedial work transplanting and new planting of trees, and the odd bit of civil engineering. I wish I could add digging to the list because I absolutely loved doing it and miss it terribly now we’ve given it up; but I honestly can’t think that, aside from keeping me warm and fit, it does anything for the soil at all – and if you miss the exercise, get a bigger wheelbarrow and fill it up – or, if you must, drag a tractor tyre up a hill with chains.

And there we are – a whole posting without a single apocalyptic rant about the environment, but I think our chat with the young smallholder yesterday reminded me that while, as the astrologers might say, our economic and political systems might dispose us towards destructive practices, they really can’t compel us. We can resist and go our own way, knowing that although we may not be saving the planet on our own, we’re at least not making it any worse.

And finally yesterday’s 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf. I’ve eaten my words and unreservedly recant all my previous statements on the impossibility of making a decent 100% loaf. Thinking back, during the first lockdown I changed a large part of the time and temperature settings during baking, none of which changes I’d ever applied to a wholemeal loaf. So the combination of leaving out the second rise – cutting the overall proving time down to 18 hours instead of 26; and shortening the bake by 30%, the first ‘new method’ loaf emerged pretty triumphantly with a soft crumb, open texture and a good crust, not an impenetrable barnacle hard carapace. The flavour was intense – as you’d expect – but with none of the bitterness you sometimes get with a fast, yeast driven wholemeal loaf. And best of all, it tasted of wheat: really wheaty with a rich taste of the granary floor (if that makes any sense). As children my sister and I used to love feeding the chickens at my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns. The grain was kept in a shed, and we would go and fetch an old pot, fill it with grain and go out to feed the hens. The loaf reminded me of, and tasted as good as that experience.

Returning to a visitation at Damery Lake

My religious upbringing began in a Primitive Methodist Sunday school – don’t get hung up on the primitive word, it was anything but that, but it’s been a long road to escape the pervading sense of imminent punishment for inadvertently breaking one of the many and mostly unwritten rules. It didn’t seem to trouble some of the members much that they broke the rules themselves when it suited them. One of the leaders was outed in the local papers for selling flick knives in his shop (his defence was that if he didn’t sell them someone else would). Among the close families of the devout faithful were more black sheep than you could shake a stick at. Jack, the local baker, was OK as long as he drove a horse and cart after he stopped off at the Foresters at lunch time for a few (no, a lot of) rough ciders because the horse would take him home. In an electric float he was a menace. In fact alcohol was the principal demon that needed exorcising. I even once saw Gilbert the grave digger sitting swigging from a bottle with his feet dangling in a half-dug grave.

The Sunday School was tucked in, up an alley and next door to a small slaughterhouse behind the church and so we could hear the sheep being driven up the lane and then listen to an endless sermon that always involved a lot of smiting and the sacrifice of lambs. There was even a very large image of a lamb – more of a tup, I’d say, waving a flag and with a rather smug face that regarded us from the big window with a superior glint in its eye. The smiting often had a surprisingly modern set of references; mostly outing everyday sins which, although we were children, made us understand that an infinitude of suffering in the fiery furnace was all there was to look forward to. Amongst the eternally damned, it seemed, were any number of local people who’d pissed off the minister. Later I discovered that many of the congregation were predestinarians who believed themselves to be saved whatever they did. I never had that confidence. Once, when one of the local shopkeepers died in the night I just thought he must have had it coming.

Then there were the worms that would surely consume us; although I was never sure whether we would be eaten alive before or after the fiery furnace bit. I’ve spent much of my life trying to find a kinder way of understanding God. This post isn’t entirely off piste even for me. If I need to find an explanation for my occasional silences, one reason is that the Calvinistic silt at the bottom of my subconscious occasionally breaks out in a debilitating fog. Well furnished dystopian visions come easily to me, so be warned about what follows.

“Hell is full of amateur musicians: music is the brandy of the damned.

George Bernard Shaw

I think Shaw was being a bit unfair there. We might remember that one of the stories told about Robert Johnson was that he’d sold his soul to the devil in return for his prodigious talent as a guitar player. Music gets a bad press but we only get really good at it by going through the really bad stage first – like gardening and cooking; but what sets it apart is that at any level it has such power to move and inspire that it almost invites occult explanations.

After thirty years of complete immersion I gave up making and listening to music when I retired, because at some unconscious level I thought I could purge myself of it. It scared me; opened doors I wanted to keep firmly closed. Bach felt like the mind of God and – to level the metaphor just a bit – so did Patti Smith and countless others. A falling cadence in the Paolo Conte song “Max” felt so good it was like pressing the button on the excessive pleasure machine. So after five years of abstinence I decided it was time to risk it once again, and so – once again – the Potwell Inn is full of music.

Which is how I found myself listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams 3rd, aka Pastoral – symphony. It was as if I’d never heard it before – so full of darkness, loss and foreboding; enough properly to stir the mud in my pond. I did a quick search and discovered that even the composer had thought its presumed association with lambs gambolling in the fields was truly off the mark. What it did for me was to remind me of a strange visitation I’d once experienced in Gloucestershire. I was standing on a narrow packbridge and looking up through the woods towards Damery Lake when I became aware of an invisible presence. Specific as these visitations always are, it was an army officer – a captain – who was both in the midst of a first world war battle somewhere in Northern France, and simultaneously standing next to me. These were his woods and in particular this was his lake, and his remembrance of them in the hell of the battle had imprinted themselves upon the place and revealed themselves to me almost a hundred years later. By an almost Jungian coincidence, Ralph Vaughan Williams had first conceived of the music that was to become the Third Symphony – serving as a medical orderly in Northern France in 1916.

In this past week, waiting for the results of the US elections that sense of foreboding was everywhere. Thank goodness there’s been a chink of light at last, but in darkest Sunday School mode as I was by then, I have been fighting off the feeling that we’re not taking this crisis seriously enough. Yes of course we’ve been busy on the allotment but it somehow feels that our frantic horticultural activism is a form of displacement activity. Writing about the seed order or making stock seems such an inadequate response to what’s happening.

Populism as it’s become known is like bindweed – it can’t be eradicated by covering it with a bit of plastic or an old carpet. There are no nostrums, no easy ways or short cuts because the only thing that will remove the infestation is the slow careful removal of every fragment of root. Empty blowhard patriotism needs to be called out for the dangerous fraud it’s become, because the bridge back to any sort of imaginary golden age has been blown up for ever. Even Elgar hated the way that ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ had been hijacked and pressed into service as a jingoistic anthem to British superiority. There’s no point in pretending that with a few minimal alterations and a couple of byelaws we can go back to our old comfortable ways. It’s over.

Suddenly it feels like the autumn of 1939 all over again. I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been reading Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and that seems like a poetic reprise on the theme of Ralph Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony. Then yesterday I listened to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl”. Even as I write this the radio is trumpeting a successful Covid vaccine and I can hear the cheer going up across the world.

Let’s get back to the good old days and buy some Pfizer shares. Let’s crack open another bottle of champagne and do some deals; fill our barns with chlorinated chicken and soya beans and build more walls – walls against disease, against migrants, against starvation, against rising tides, and let’s throw that communist Jeremiah into the pit again.

But it won’t do. The awful fruits of our greed and – let’s be honest – stupidity are slouching towards Jerusalem once more and the sky is dark with (organic) chickens, coming home to roost. Years ago, late one evening just before Christmas I went to Temple Meads railway station to collect one of the waifs and strays that occasionally crossed our path (she still owes me the twenty quid I loaned her to buy a ticket back to Ireland). I was standing alone on the empty platform, when a drunk man approached out of nowhere (I must have that kind of face) and ranted at me for fully half an hour about his perfidious and about to be ex wife and her unreasonable behaviour. Every few minutes he would interrupt his torrent of hatred and ask the time. I would tell him and he would rejoin his bilious monologue. Eventually he said – “How come you always know the time without looking at your watch?” I replied that if he looked up, he would see that the station clock was immediately above his head.

The facts of our dangerous situation are directly in front of us – we just need to pause and look.

Digging in for the winter

Could there be a more boring photo than three Ball preserving jars in a pressure pan? I’ve always thought of cooking as a rampart against creeping despair and, curiously enough I was comparing notes with one of our (chef) sons and he felt exactly the same way. It turned out we’d both been spending hours at the stove, and both of us fighting off the onset of November.

Madame has been pining – well I have too – missing any real contact with our sons and grandchildren and so, with the prospect of another big lockdown in our minds we grabbed a chance of sharing a socially distanced walk with them. It was hammering down with rain, and the footpaths were nightmarishly slippery but we were all so overjoyed to see one another we’d have walked over embers to be there. Later we finished up at their allotment and they’re experiencing the same kind of thing as us. Their allotment site too was alive with activity during the furlough, and now as people have returned to work the plots are rapidly reverting to grassland. We found a cleared plot in exactly that condition, and in the middle was an apple tree groaning with fruit, and with dozens of windfalls on the ground surrounding it. None were being harvested and so we gathered up a couple of carrier bags of windfalls and took them to our respective kitchens. I should have photographed them, but we’re pretty sure they are Newton Wonder – a cooking variety that’s quite the equal of a Bramley in flavour but extremely vigorous. The fruits were very large too and we set too, peeled and chopped them and, after a small trial batch, added a little lemon juice, clove, a cinnamon stick and about a quarter pint of elderflower cordial with a bit more water. The apples took up rather more fluid then a Bramley would have done. And that was it – after 10 minutes in the pressure cooker to sterilize them they’ll go into store along with all the other preserves – six 750g jars in all.

The question of food security was on my mind today because an email arrived from a young friend in Guatemala, full of concern for her UK parents. And I think she’s entirely right to be concerned because the initial stages of the lockdown were marked by a collapse in food distribution here, with long queues and empty shelves everywhere. If, as we fear, the UK leaves Europe without a trade agreement things will get much worse, and with a gathering worldwide economic depression there’s a general feeling that the present economic structure has reached an impasse; greedily consuming far more resources than the earth can provide. I constantly want to shout out – “There’s no Seventh Cavalry about to charge over the hill and save us!” – like they used to do in the Westerns. I’m a very reluctant revolutionary, but – we don’t have decades for politicians to try to find ways of appearing radical while doing nothing.

I know I often quote poetry or poets here, but that’s because when they’re good they manage to cut through all the verbiage and tell it like it is. Recently I’ve been reading Louis MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal” and it affects me so much I tried to read a section to Madame the other day and scared the living daylights out of her by bursting into tears. MacNeice was writing about that period in 1939 that’s become known as the phony war; the months when nothing was actually happening but the tsunami was gathering strength just across the channel in Europe, and people were so desperately hoping that the politicians could lead the country back to something that looked and felt normal. That’s how it feels here right now, and I’ve no confidence that there is the leadership we need here to address the hydra headed monster of covid; economic and social collapse plus an impending ecological disaster. Only a new vision will do and it’s nowhere to be seen.

So we cook, and store, and get our gardens and allotments ready for a new season. We pine for our distanced families and friends and lay in stores and playlists of films and music to console us and remind us that although we may be deeply flawed – “glorious ruins” as one theologian described humanity; we are capable of being glorious, creative and loving to one another. November has broken in our hearts before its appointed time and this first week of Greenwich Mean Time has been as mean as hell.

But we harvested some rather lovely fennel, and the resident heron along the river obliged us by posing rather miserably in the rain and in a brief appearance by the sun the trees in Henrietta Park we remembered that this is – or can be – one of the most beautiful seasons of the year. And, of course, there’s about ten pounds of stewed Newton Wonder apples to raid in the February lean times.

“My name is Dave and I’m in a pickle”

The realisation that I might have a bit of a problem came about unexpectedly during a conversation with our son. “You remember” – he said – “that preserve you made with brined aubergines a couple of weeks ago?” Frankly I didn’t remember; not even the faintest glimmer of a memory shuffled into my mind. Alcoholics have this kind of experience, I believe. Evenings or weeks disappear and they have no idea where they went except people they thought were friends start crossing the road to avoid them and they find a hideously large till receipt for a club they didn’t know they’d ever visited.

Madame corrected my forgetfulness immediately. “Of course you did!” she said – “The thing with the aubergines”. Hm. That wasn’t much help. So we (or rather she) hunted around for ten minutes looking for the evidence which eventually we found in one of the cupboards; at which point the memory cleared like a Cornish sea mist and I knew what everybody had been talking about. “Oh that one ” I said, hoping to cover my shameful lapse. But it was too late, and the realisation that I have a problem, not just with pickling but with jams, preserves, ferments, sauces, ketchups, chutneys, marmalades and bottled fruits flooded into my consciousness.

I rang our son back and told him I’d found it, which relieved him of the possibility that he’d dreamed a whole conversation with me, and I said that I thought I might be overdoing it on the preserving front. “Good” he said – “I’ll always eat the spares”. Not on this scale, I thought to myself; but it’s comforting to know that I’ve got one fan outside the flat.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. I have a memory of a huge crop of blackberries that I harvested with Madame when we were young (we’ve been together for a very long time), and I’ve written here before at the resulting blackberry chutney that was so full of pips you could have used it for scouring burnt saucepans. Many people would have given up preserving at that point and taken up something sensible like fretwork or morris dancing, but I had been bitten by the thrill of making food last beyond the green and hairy stage. And so every cupboard in the flat has its complement of stowaways, and the overflow is stored in cardboard boxes awaiting the arrival of the next great famine, or a no deal brexit – whichever comes first.

Whether any of this frantic preserving activity has any purpose is a moot point. This thought crossed my mind when we had to move a redcurrant bush in the fruit cage. Every year we pick twice as many currants as we could ever eat and rather than just giving the surplus away I make stuff with it which involves the expense of fuel, sugar and jars. I must also confess to being slightly obsessive about jars too and the thought of having produce in a medley of different sized pots would keep me awake at night. My antidote to industrial preserves has to look as uniform as a supermarket display, and yes – I probably do need (more) counselling. Rationally, it would be better to dig up the surplus redcurrant bush and plant something different but then my obsessive thrift kicks in and ……..

Madame has not left me over my pickling peccadillos, but I notice the cold looks when the boxes invade her studio. The best I can do is limit the production levels on the allotment to meet our needs plus sharing a smaller surplus with anyone who needs some.

Today’s contribution to the pickle mountain was a single bottle of fermented chilli relish – absolutely heavenly, ‘though I say it myself! But my insight is timely. Once again, I over-ordered on the garlic, but I’m going to lop two of the three blackberry plants off the list before I send the next order off, and we’re going to have that conversation about the seed order. The solution to my woes is to control my impulses, but my nemesis won’t be an old girlfriend or a new shirt. It’ll be a £2.00 seed packet or a fabulous new recipe for hot smoked and pickled raspberries.

Up with the lark

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness didn’t quite cover it today. I always associate the Keats poem with Herefordshire – don’t ask me why -but when I woke to the first day of British Standard Time (otherwise known as the dark nights), the weather obviously hadn’t read the forecast and the day was bright and clear; altogether too good to miss, and so I left Madame reading the new Rose Tremain novel and got to the allotment just after eight.

I needn’t bore you with the details, I turned the two compost heaps as planned and augmented the newest one with a mixture of grass mowings and dead leaves that the Parks Department had left – perfect mixture of carbon and nitrogen. The older heap was still running at 30C but I turned it anyway.

The light in autumn always feels that much brighter, and being lower in the sky it brings out the texture of plants like chard in a way that high summer sunshine never does. All the while as I was working I was listening to the sound of a couple of crows kicking off at something. I stopped and walked towards them as they bobbed in a thoroughly agitated way, and chattered warning calls loud enough to mask the sound of traffic. As I got closer I saw a familiar grey cat hunting in the long grass at the edge of the site. He looks for all the world like a pet, but he spends his life prowling around the allotments. Occasionally we find a pathetic bundle of feathers and we’ve often attributed them to one of the foxes who live in the northeast corner of the site; but I wondered today if it wasn’t more likely to be the cat – all innocence in his long grey coat but fiercely predatory by nature.

So after a couple of hours with the stable fork I went back for a late breakfast and then we both went back up so I could empty the leaf mould bin ready for the new season’s arrivals. I spread the leaf mould around the plot while Madame sowed seed and so we harvested the last of the chillies from the greenhouse and gathered up the borlotti crop, now crisp and dry, so we could shell them and put them into store for the winter; making space for the seed trays and root trainers. The greenhouse is now in overwintering mode and the broad beans have sprouted, ready to be planted out next month. Strangely, that sense of ennui that always comes with September for me, has altogether gone and has been displaced by the buzz of optimism for the new season.

Later, as we were thinking about packing up, Madame went for a wander around the site looking for plants that might go well in the tall herb border and came back with a sprig of vervain. It’s a plant that’s probably hardly used these days, but gets mentioned in all my herbals. We both agreed it would look very well and so we’ll try and grow some.

Talking to our neighbour, Pete – (retired professor of French history, we’re a very select bunch) – it looks as if we’ll have to wait until spring before we can plant up the new pond. He built his last autumn, but found that the garden centres were more interested in selling smelly candles and Christmas trinkets than actual plants.

The seed order will have to wait until tomorrow. I think a family decision has been made not to risk celebrating Christmas together for the first time in over forty years. I’m not sure how I feel about that – I know it’s the right thing to do but I feel pretty angry that the pandemic has been allowed to get beyond control by our incompetent government.

End of summertime – Storm Barbara obligingly removes leaves.

I should have made a video really, but today the weir steps had all but disappeared under the flow of the river. You might have thought that this would deter the crowds, but a quick look across the water towards Southgate suggested that our rapidly increasing Covid infection numbers was not enough to deter Christmas and half-term shoppers. Cognitive dissonance is alive and shopping in Bath! As ever we skulked along the far side and out through Henrietta Park and Sidney Gardens to the canal which, unsurprisingly I suppose, had its own traffic jams.

Yesterday’s allotmenteering focused on getting the strawberry bed finished. This was really part two of the pond building because the surplus soil was transferred from the hole to the raised bed; but with the storm glowering in the skies I had to work like stink to get it finished – cue rather stiff back! I don’t think we will be seeing the plants until early spring, but they may come with the tree order which I made yesterday before we set out to work.

The idea was that the predicted heavy rain would keep us at home all day today but what we saw was a fairly continuous drizzle and some very strong gusts of wind. According to my phone we’re still owed about 15mm rain today, but Bath sits in a bowl, surrounded by hills and so we tend to get the rain courtesy of the river. The wind, however stripped the leaves off many of the trees and next week I’ll be hoarding them as the Council sweeps them up and dumps them at the allotment site. This is an incredibly useful (and much sought after) resource, and stacked under weights in one of our line of compost bins, we can make finished leaf mould in a year – a brilliant soil conditioner, especially for the raspberries which enjoy a low pH mulch. So that means come rain or shine I need to be up at the plot, emptying last year’s supply ready for the new.

The fallen leaves are also useful as a source of ‘brown’ material in the other compost heaps, so if there’s any opportunity I’ll turn the two heaps and add layers of leaves to step up the carbon content. The plan is to turn the heaps regularly and get them heating up – one of them recently reached 60C – so that’s another backbreaker.

It was a tremendous pleasure to get the first two bits of civil engineering done, but there are still several more to complete including installing new terracing boards at the bottom of the plot along with posts and wires to support the Tayberry and blackberries that are also on order. Then there’s a pergola and sheltered area for us between the greenhouse and the shed and finally I’m going to build removable cold frame lights to sit on top of the compost bins. I want to see whether I can create a warm bed by capturing waste heat from the compost. Last season we grew cucumbers and squashes very successfully on top of the leaf mould – they just thrived there.

But in case you thought the Potwell Inn allotment never ever experienced the shadow of pests and diseases, I’m sad to say that we forgot to put the fine insect mesh over the leeks at the end of September and they’ve been badly infested with allium leaf miner (again). It’s a pain – particularly because it was down to my own carelessness; but every problem is a lesson and it’s obvious that the smaller and weaker the plant the more it was damaged. This is the third season we’ve been attacked and so I think we’re going to have to find a way of growing them that avoids the worst of this relatively new pest, but sturdy plants in healthy soil seems to be one part of the answer.

The rest of the day was spent pondering over the seed order. I’ve downloaded the latest RHS list of what are known as ‘Award of Garden Merit’ (AGM) fruit and veg. If you’re wondering which variety to choose from a catalogue with fifty options it’s a good resource to refer to. When in doubt we grow the AGM variety because it’s been independently tested for everyday, ordinary gardens and allotments. We don’t always agree because every plot is pretty much unique and we’ve discovered a few varieties that for whatever reason, really thrive on our plot – but I still check against the list. It’s all too easy to turn to the old favourites and ignore the fruits of more recent breeding trials. I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the blight resistant tomatoes and potatoes that have come on to the market in recent years. No-one who’s lost an entire crop overnight would want to have the experience again. This year we’re going to try fly resistant carrot varieties.

So hopefully we’ll have the seed order off tomorrow and then we can relax. Last year we had to subsist on old and saved seed because the garden centres and seed merchants we so disrupted. Meanwhile a few more photos from today’s walk.

The pond completed

Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.

I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.

Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!

The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.

Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.

My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.

Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.