Forget what these plants are and think what artists they may have inspired.

Exploring the links between nature and art.

If you asked me to nominate one invention that changed the world irrevocably for the better it would be the lens. My friend Chris Lee uses a telescope lens and some pretty fancy software to make the most thought provoking images of space. Most of us use cameras of one sort or another and they’re dependent on lenses of course, but today I was using nothing more sophisticated than a clip-on macro lens attached to my Pixel 6a to reveal some of the secrets of the Common Polypody fern. Those are the pictures at the top and I ran out of magnifying power at the last one which really needs at least a x100 microscope.

The others are all photos I’ve taken in the last ten days and as we looked at them we were both excited by their capacity to surprise and inspire us – not as botanical specimens at all but as objects of beauty. So the fern makes me think instantly of the Victorian fashion for the terrarium and the wonderful images of ferns made by botanical artists across the centuries. The middle row has an impenetrable blackthorn bush at Kynance Cove today which surely must have influenced Graham Sunderland in his tapestry of the crucifixion in Coventry Cathedral, but equally seems uncannily close to Jackson Pollock. The stonecrops could be models for the roof bosses of a thousand churches and if ever William Morris needed inspiration for his wallpaper designs surely the Buckshorn Plantain and the leaves of Mugwort would have served him well. The little Sea Campion has an uncanny resemblance to Tiffany glass; the rosettes of emerging Hedge Mustard are a glorious reminder of symmetry and the catkins – well I just love the colour. Nature’s palette is incredibly restrained and yet limitless in its applications. Whilst I was learning some botanical illustration, we did an exercise of limiting ourselves to three colours and I never subsequently saw the point of using more.

Almost exactly seven years ago I set myself the challenge of painting a Hyacinth in flower. I took hundreds of photos and practiced drawing the flowers from every angle; above, below and from the side and with light falling on them from different directions. I still have the practice drawings and paintings but I abandoned the painting because it was just too complex.

The take home point for me was that minute attention to the detail of a plant, whether flower or leaf was both meditation and scientific exploration and linked deeply with the creative process. Hard, then, not to attribute natural form to some benign guiding hand. But these days I think that’s a shortcut and a cop-out. I’m happy with not knowing because for me, doubt was always the beginning of faith. The lens takes us to places we never even suspected to exist and that’s why it’s my nomination for the world’s greatest invention.

  • and a postscript to this piece. As we walked up the valley from Kynance Cove we spotted what looked like a (too) small buzzard sitting high on the crest of the rocks. We tracked up the footpath and came level and behind it and we could see from its beautiful chestnut brown back that it was actually a kestrel as it set off in a zigzag hunting flight across the valley. There was a bitterly cold northwest wind and it must have been puffed out viewed from below, but there was no mistaking its colour as it set out with what Gerard Manley Hopkins described as its “wimpling wing”. Cue “Windhover” – one of his finest poems.

Spring in my step at last

Sea Campion, Silene uniflora -photographed near Gunwalloe church 18th January 2022

It really shouldn’t be a surprise because it happens every year, but suddenly the thought of another year’s joyful plant hunting is filling my mind. The photograph – taken in Cornwall – is proof that spring is just around the corner and I am so looking forward to it; sorting out the books and maps and planning our visits to try and maximise our chances of finding one or two rarities amongst the old friends. When we go out plant hunting in the company of the vastly experienced Bath Natural History Society leaders I can only marvel at their sharp eyes and encyclopaedic knowledge, but they are so willing to share their expertise I’ve realized that half the battle is learning to access the databases that are available to anyone with an interest in plants, so now we go out equipped with maps and lists which save endless wasted time looking for plants that just aren’t there.

Is this sudden shift in mood just down to day length? Is there – somewhere in my brain – a sensor that, just eleven days after the winter solstice, sends a signal to somewhere else in my brain, telling it (telling me) to clear the decks? Is there a causal relationship between day length and the fact that I just opened Google Photos and searched for images taken in January? Is there an underlying hormonal link between this rain soaked day which lasts just a few minutes longer than it did a fortnight ago? – because I’m quite certain that it wasn’t opening the application that led to the shiver of anticipation but the reverse. Opening the photo album merely confirmed what I already knew – somewhere deep inside – that Coltsfoot, Celandines and Sea Campions will be there waiting in a couple of weeks when we return to Cornwall. I remember, one December, visiting my Spiritual Director, a truly radical Roman Catholic Sister. I was full of woe and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself and she told me that I probably just needed some sunshine.

Now we’ve moved into a (very small) city there won’t be any Plough Monday celebrations and I’ve no idea whether the Littleton Cider Club will organise a Wassail in the orchard behind the White Hart that Madame once helped to plant; although I have heard that the cider apples were very small this year, and so full of sugar the resulting cider is fearfully strong. I’m sad that I’m no longer involved in all those ceremonial markers of the farming year but it seems that my mind is still ahead of the game without any need for dressing up or handmade prayers.

It’s New Year’s Eve. We shan’t be up late – but tomorrow morning the old year will be vanquished in all its economic and political stupidity. Half our Christmas cards this year have contained critical remarks about the state we’re in, and that’s something I don’t think I can ever recall happening before. Is the serpent awakening? Tomorrow looks grey, with more seasonably cold weather returning, but Monday will be sunny, briskly cold and we’ll be out like plant hounds – sampling the air with cold noses and thick sweaters and greeting each tiny promise of new growth with hoots of pleasure.

I’m tempted at this point to quote Mother Julian’s “All will be well and all manner of things will be well”, but there’s got to be a caveat because of course unless we change course, things will not be well at all. The government will tell us that there’s no alternative but only a fool would believe them. Madame and I have the tremendous advantage of being old enough to have lived some of the alternatives to the way we do things around here (one of my favourite definitions of culture). There’s no state sponsored cure for the challenges we face because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas (or Thanksgiving)! The answer may feel as if it’s occluded by anxiety and sorrow but it’s there, waiting to be rediscovered and it looks a lot like a successful human community rescued from the debilitating clutches of the Gradgrinds, the curators and gallerists and all the other gatekeepers defending the system against artists and poets. We’ll banish the ambitious and the greedy and those who have never even discovered their own shadows, let alone learned to live with them. We shall only escape the tyranny of spreadsheets, efficiency curves and economic growth when we refuse to play that game and return to joyfully experiencing of the riches of nature without giving anything an economic value. We’ll get back to singing, dancing and feasting together in ways that defeat all the categories of sponsored division and to a community where Jacob Rees Mogg and his pals will have to make a thin living as pantomime dames, being laughed at in village halls and impromptu community centres all over the country: what a wonderfully cheerful thought.

Here are some more January 2022 photos – Happy New Year.

A ray of light

Hazel catkins beside the River Wye at Hay on Wye

I haven’t written for more than two weeks, which is an unusually long silence. There’s no particular reason apart from seasonal ennui and the slow collapse of our culture into angry senescence – OK so that’s a rather big reason, and the most dangerous of all. Whilst in Hay on Wye this weekend we scoured the bookshops and I came across a marvellous volume of essays titled “The Welsh Way – Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution” – which I devoured mostly sitting in bed in our hotel room because the drains in the building were blocked and the trenchant smell of sewage forced us us keep the window open, in spite of the outside temperature being -3C. It all somehow reflected my mood. Even on the drive home the sun struggled to shine and just hovered us like a black and white pastel drawing of a poached egg. Our dirty weekend had turned out dirtier in a different way than either of us ever imagined.

The book, on the other hand, is brilliant and gave me much food for thought hinging, as it does, on the continued fantasy of Welsh radicalism examined against its actual deployment over the past 50 years. “Could do better” hardly describes it. But the book also brought home how the individual and separate crises of our time are nothing more than related symptoms of the single malignant disease known as Neoliberalism. The book also gave me an unexpected metaphor expressing two ways of living with the crisis drawing on a structure I know well from the inside. Huw Williams writes of the contrast between the old independent and baptist churches that they were:

…… reformed beyond recognition by the Methodists. To [Iorwerth Peate] the Methodists performed a corruption of tradition, in particular in their aspiration to engage with the world, reform it and transform it. The true spirit of the original nonconformity was to distance oneself from the world, seek salvation in the next life, and carry the burden of this life with dignity and patience.”

Huw Williams; The New Dissent: Page 105. Neoliberal Politics and the Welsh Way

I was almost born into Primitive Methodism and later moved into the Wesleyans and from there to low church and then Anglo Catholic Anglicanism. A long path through the traditions that taught me a great deal about the ancient rift between the activists and the withdrawers. I learned well that withdrawal from the world, whilst it might feed the religious ego, just allowed the devil free range. Where’s the virtue in finding some new cruelty or horror to turn away from and ignore every day?

So the photograph at the top was taken – as the caption says – on the banks of the River Wye; now polluted almost to extinction by intensive chicken farms which have proliferated along her banks and which pour many tons of phosphorus and nitrogen from poultry manure into her water every day. The ray of light is that the tree was growing just a few yards upstream from the bridge under which I finally and suddenly realized that I had lost my faith somewhere along that long journey.

It’s December 14th and in just a week we’ll celebrate the winter solstice which signals the return of the earth from the darkness of the declining days and I remember the words of Mother Julian of Norwich ; ” … all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

Advice for bloggers. There’s always the shop that sells expensive notebooks and watercolour paint

Sunset, looking west across the northern tip of Ramsey Island

That’s certainly true in Bath where you can easily spend over £100 on a posh notebook and fountain pen and release your inner Jane Austen during the length of a single rainy day.

I write – as ever – of myself; and my inner Jane Austen who remains captive in spite of the deskloads of notepaper and must-have pens which I’ve bought over the years to no effect at all. Even a set of six French manufactured coloured inks failed to remove the large stone rolled in front of the creative sepulchre.

For a while I convinced myself that it was the sheer expense of these accessories that was holding me back and so I started writing on torn up sheets of absorbent lining paper. There you go! we all have our little rituals which – although they have no impact at all on what we write – are strangely enabling of the act itself. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair and Stanley Spencer memorably enjoyed the smell of human poo which seemed to get his creative juices going. Not for me, thanks. The seaside, with its smells of tar, salt and suntan lotion usually does it for me but these days I eschew all the tics of the past and write on my Chromebook wherever I happen to be.

For ten years I taught creative writing in the Welsh Valleys and in a notorious outer urban fringe estate, and it was there I learned that absolutely anyone can write. If there’s a problem it doesn’t lay with the (worker) writers but with the education system and the publishing business that sets the parameters of what we’re allowed to experience, think or express in writing. Of course the greatest enemy of many writers is self-doubt, but again this has its good side. Words don’t often come easily and it’s no bad thing to hesitate before putting your turds of wisdom before the public at large.

My own approach to writing was developed by having to meet deadlines. When you’ve got a deadline – even a self imposed one – you can forget all the faff and self delusion about waiting to feel the creative flow before committing. Sit down, turn on the laptop, write something and as it emerges you can correct, revise and edit as you go along. Oh and although it’s a good idea to have some thoughts on your potential audience, don’t let that be a straightjacket. In a blog format like this you can write for more than one audience and hope that some readers will like a bit of green spirituality as well as gardening tips. Never be afraid of pissing your followers off by failing to pander to their prejudices. You win some. And don’t pay too much attention to blogging advice on how to monetize your pages or get more hits. If you make the audience king you’ll land up being a servant.

For years I’ve honed my technique to deliver around a thousand words of reasonably stimulating, challenging ideas, backed up by experience and a lot of hard reading. What I haven’t learned is the very different skill set of gathering and editing those ten minute pieces into a larger format. Developing the significant themes into theses requires a larger view and a longer focus than I’m used to working with.

So we’re taking a two week post-harvest break in the campervan near St Davids, overlooking Ramsey Sound, and with a weather forecast that only differs in the predicted intensity of the rain for the next fourteen days. What could be better than repurposing some of that reading time to try out a larger format – say 10,000 words long? Well, coincidentally I packed Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess” to re-read, and this morning I made a start on it. Apart from his poetry and the book I have a single point of contact with him because I took the funeral service for a woman in his Majorcan circle who typed up some of the draft copies of the “White Goddess”. By the time I got to meet her she was near to death and not going gentle into that good night. Not that she ever spoke, but she was passing restlessly into unconsciousness. I sat with her daughter as her mother lay dying and asked the obvious question – “Why don’t you read her some poetry?” She was aghast at the very thought. Her mother – who sounded like a real martinet had always hated and criticised the way that her daughter read poetry aloud. Cue for a lifetime of repressed longing for someone, anyone, to offer any small praise.

As I started to read the book again I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind. Graves comes across as a slightly paranoid, obsessive old monster; absolutely determined to have his say and drive his point home like a stake through the heart. It’s my way or the highway. Anyway I soldiered on through the introduction and eventually found an example of an old Welsh poetic form called Cynghanedd that Graves had written to illustrate what he calls a “burdensome obsession”. I thought it was an absolutely wonderful use of words:

Billet spied,

Bolt sped.

Across fields

Crows fled,

Aloft, wounded

Left one dead

Robert Graves in a footnote in “The White Goddess”

That’s a wonderful encouragement to be bold with words; but the real takeaway point is that in his eagerness to press home every single obsessive point by wrestling it into the ground, Graves managed to write what even he thought was a difficult book that would be completely unintelligible to the “stupid and silly” people who would never be able to understand – because they weren’t proper poets. That should be a warning to anyone attempting to write in longer forms. Good writing flows like a river not a stream with prostate problems, and being right will in no way protect us from being bad.

Is botany nothing more than a science?

The Pilgrim church of St Maelrhys Church, Llanfaelrhys, near Aberdaron, Lleyn.

Buried in this churchyard are Elsi Eldridge, who was the wife of the poet RS Thomas; with their son Gwydion. RS married again after Elsi died and is buried near the door of St John’s Church Porthmadog. Also buried here is the lovely radical priest Jim Cotter who wrote the most wonderful prayers and liturgies. Needless to say the church Authorities had no idea what to do with him but he was an inspiring teacher and marvellous company and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Church of England gave him (and me) space to breathe. And finally the Keating sisters, friends of the Thomas’s, gardeners of their house Plas yn Rhiw – now owned by the National Trust – and scourges of coastal caravan sites are buried here too. All of them were artists. This churchyard is a powerful place for quiet reflection.

Well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!

The quote came from a Gloucestershire stonemason I knew who was once asked how much he charged for a yard of drystone walling. When he gave the price the enquirer reacted with some scorn. “Forty pounds for a load of old stone?” – he replied. “well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Another secondhand book arrived in the post today. It’s called “Welsh Fare” and it was written by the anthropologist and researcher of tradition Welsh life, S. Minwel Tibbott who worked in the Welsh Folk Museum gathering and curating oral traditions. I found it in the bibliography of Carwyn Graves book, “Welsh Food Stories” which I mentioned last week. As soon as I opened the book and started to read through the recipes, the memory of the stonemason’s reply flooded into my mind, and it wasn’t so very long before the image of the churchyard on Lleyn joined him. Why so? well it was because the recipes list the very simplest ingredients without giving the slightest clue what to do with them, and knowing what to do with them has largely disappeared. Here’s a recipe for

Teisen Ddim – buttermilk scones

  • One pound plain flour
  • Quarter pound lard
  • A little salt
  • buttermilk

Rub the lard into the flour, and work in the other dry ingredients. Mix with buttermilk and knead to a soft dough. Roll out on a floured board and cut into small rounds, approximately a quarter of an inch thick. Bake on a moderately hot bakestone spread with butter and serve warm.

Llandeilo’r-fân and Heol Senni, Breconshire.

It’s all perfectly clear – except that unless you keep cows and make butter in the traditional manner by allowing the milk to separate overnight when it begins to ferment naturally, and then churn the butter in the traditional manner to separate butter from buttermilk; and unless you have a traditional bakestone and have learned what “moderately hot” feels like even assuming you have the means of heating it – well you’re not going to be able to bake the buttermilk scone.

Of course you can buy buttermilk from Tesco – except it’s not proper buttermilk but a factory made imitation – and the butter if it’s like the farmstead butter actually produced in old Welsh farmstead dairies, won’t be nearly as salty; like 3.5% salty – keeps better! And as for the lard you’d probably keep a large pot of pork lard which you could add to as you cooked joints from the fattened pig. Coincidentally it was Madame’s birthday yesterday so we had an extended family gathering and I slow cooked a whole shoulder of pork to make pulled pork for the boys and their partners. Even from a free range Gloucester Old Spot pig, shoulder is remarkably cheap and when you cook it very very (12 – 14 hours) slowly overnight it releases a huge amount of fat – dripping – which is ten times as rich and tasty as the bleached and purified block you slip into your shopping basket when you think no-one’s looking on disapprovingly. Finally the locally milled flour would have been rather darker and much more flavoursome than supermarket white. I used to bake with a marvellous 81% extraction white(ish) flour milled by Bacheldre Mill, now sadly no longer made. I hope I’ve made my point here. The simple list of ingredients tells us almost nothing if it’s become detached from its culture; and so – finally – I can leave the churchyard whose occupants once embodied a culture that’s largely disappeared, buried under second homers and Airbnb lets, and switch the topic to the so-called science of botany.

TV programmes on botany are as rare as hens’ teeth these days so we were filled with hope and excitement as we watched the first two episodes. The pleasure didn’t last. The unspoken assumption that ran through it like the writing in a stick of rock was the faintly smug and self congratulatory thought that traditional knowledge of plants was mostly held by deficient traditions which only needed some solid reductive science to reveal the truth. It reminds me of a story told to me about Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi – who according to legend, reproached a tour guide near to the Victoria Falls who had foolishly asserted that the Victoria Falls were discovered by the explorer David Livingstone. ” I think” – he said – “You’ll find that we knew about them long before Livingstone got there!” Bishop Henry visited us once when one of the boys was in peak teenage rebellion, and he so charmed the angry rebel (I just love your green hair) he almost curled up in his lap and purred like a cat.

So the programme rambled on in a more or less predictable way through the history of scientific botany without so much as a mention of traditional herbal medicinal wisdom and without any sense of the vast contribution of the ancients from Dioscorides onwards. The plant kingdom was just treated as another exploitable resource to be catalogued, analysed and turned into a profitable enterprise. No sense of wonder, no mention of the inter-relatedness of all living things, no mention of the profoundly important role of plants in synthesising complex compounds beyond the reach of organic chemistry (which is by far the more interesting thing about photosynthesis and fungal networks). The last programme comes out tonight and I’m dreading the triumphal moment when the presenter announced that we’ve cracked some sort of code – probably gene editing – and finally we can exploit the poor old plants in any way that turns a profit. Wheat berries as big as pineapples or some such nonsense.

It rather reminds me of a line from Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus” – “Without worship you shrink”. To approach nature without humility, armed with scanning electron microscopes and DNA analysis misses a large part of the point. Of course I’m pleased when science discovers a new cure for malaria, or breast cancer or whatever else by understanding plants better. But plants aren’t just there for us to exploit – and misunderstanding that essential point is leading us towards extinction.

*** I just watched the last programme – it exceeded my misgivings so now I’m really scared.

At last the heatwave begins to break down!

A tremendous storm blowing up during August 2019 in Swaledale near Keld, North Yorkshire

After two years of periodic lockdowns I suppose we should have become used to staying indoors, but this second heatwave in a few weeks felt more than usually punishing. We could only control the temperature inside by following the Met Office advice to close all the windows and shutters, making the dimmed interior of the flat feel like a funeral parlour. By dint of this sacrifice of light and fresh air we were able to keep the indoor temperature to 27C – seven degrees cooler than the outside, but leaving us almost breathless in the thick air. Today, though, normal service resumed so we were able to escape the flat and walk up the canal and when it finally rained a few heavy drops and began to wet my T shirt I felt almost exultant. We’ve grown tired of perpetual early morning watering on the allotment and tired of watching the dust clouds trailing after visiting cars as if they were the Deadwood Stage (if you’re not really old – like 105 years old – think 1953 film about Calamity Jane who, played by Doris Day, had a thing with a stagecoach).

The fitful shower dripped on for an hour – just enough to raise the relative humidity to the point where the sweat was displacing the raindrops but we carried on anyway enjoying the cloudy skies. We thought we’d drop in at the Holburn Gallery to see the David Hockney exhibition but when we saw how much it would cost – £25 – we walked home through town. Has no-one told them there’s a cost of living crisis going on?

So then we wandered over to the allotment and after discovering two very ripe melons hiding in the polytunnel, we picked some plums and apples and had a fruit lunch. Very delicious. This afternoon as I was writing this the police came hammering down the road towards the towpath, blue lights flashing. There’s never a dull moment in genteel Bath! Tomorrow promises decent rain and even thunderstorms which would be such a relief.

Oh and I ordered a new book on the history of Welsh Food. It doesn’t take much to overflow my cup.

You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

Blue skies thinking?

Looking up towards Blackdown from Charterhouse

Yes I know I’ve been quiet lately and it wasn’t because I had nothing to say; quite the reverse. Having too much to say is a far worse problem – especially when it’s all whirling incoherently around in my head. In a perfectly ordered world I’d have been pupating quietly and then suddenly emerge in a splendour of coherent thoughts. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. Our emergence from the lockdowns was gradual and then very sudden. We’ve spent almost as much time away in Cornwall and on Mendip in the campervan as we have at home; we’ve been on our first outdoor meeting of the Bath Nats; been wildflower hunting several times around Velvet bottom; gone to our first proper party and our first concert for years – in the Royal Albert Hall, no less. We’ve caught up with many of our friends, sown our vegetable seeds for the coming season, and I’ve come to the unsettling conclusion that it’s time for another iteration of myself. I believe that the capacity to reinvent yourself is fundamental to growing old happily (if not gracefully!)

Italian 6/7th century uncials – from “Writing, Illuminating and Lettering”

So rather than too much boring detail we were on our way to a Who concert at the Albert Hall when we stopped off for a pub lunch. Strictly speaking the concert turned out to be more of a spiritual love-in between the surviving members of the band and their adoring fans, but I’ll get back to the music in a moment. It happened that we were walking along Hammersmith Terrace and then Black Lion Lane towards the Black Lion, alongside the river, when I noticed a blue plaque dedicated to Edward Johnston. These 18th century riverside house now cost millions but they’re essentially rather modest terraced houses. Edward Johnston wrote possibly the most inspiring book of my teenage years called “Writing, Illuminating and Lettering” – from which I taught myself to write uncials, the most beautiful of the 7th and 8th century scripts; and I’ll bet I’m the first person in History to to get the Who and Edward Johnston into the same paragraph. Anyway it was a blast to see the house in which he’d lived and also a salutary lesson that we should always treasure our personal histories but never allow ourselves to be trapped by them. To pinch a remark by James Callaghan, it’s not just politicians but all of us who need a big hinterland if we want to thrive.

The concert was a fundraiser for the Teenage Cancer Trust – Roger Daltrey is a patron. It was a big, blowsy and often hilarious night that occasionally felt like more of a rehearsal than a performance; a rehearsal that we felt privileged to watch. I first came across the Who when I was working in one of the old style mental hospitals where the residents were frequently abused and caged like beasts. Someone gave me a bootleg cassette copy of the Who Live at Leeds and I wore it out. However neither of us ever saw them perform live, until this Friday where a much diminished lineup was supported in an all acoustic set. I think, for some of the super-fans there, it was more like worship when occasionally mobile phone flashlights were waved like candles in a procession. Sometimes I wonder if my scepticism is more of a hindrance than a gift.After the concert we downed a bottle of wine with our friends, (you have to be rich to buy a drink at the Albert Hall), back at the hotel and grabbed all of five hours sleep before Saturday morning.

Chinese grave figures

Since we thought £25 each was a bit steep for breakfast, we settled for some pains au raisin and ate them in the sun next to the Albert Memorial which manages to be both hideous and memorable at the same time. I had much the same feeling about the V & A which (for me) is a tableau of insupportable wealth and misappropriation but which is full of mind-blowingly lovely objects, most of which probably belong somewhere else. We’ve been often enough to know that the only mentally sustainable way of visiting is to limit yourself to a couple of rooms. The rooms housing some of the Chinese and Japanese collection is a go-to for me, not least because I’ve never been able to find again the Chinese silk robe that once stopped me in my tracks while we were on our way somewhere else. That day, the hand woven silk and the exquisite embroidery seemed to come from another world. In the same room was a very old carved wooden Buddha that seemed almost reproachful; condemned to be passed by in favour of flashier, more approachable artifacts. It would be wonderful if they could find him a quiet space somewhere nearby, where he could become again a focus for quiet meditation. In the Japanese room a young Japanese woman -possibly a bride to be – was minutely scrutinising some kimonos. There’s a paradox that gets to me every time I imagine the cultural loss if the collections were broken up and repatriated.

But there was something more personal for me to celebrate because earlier in the week I’d been fitted with a new pair of (NHS) hearing aids that are so much better than the old ones I almost went into shock when I left the hospital and experienced for the first time the awesome noise of a building site. When I talked to the audiologist I’d casually bragged that I’d put the last pair on and they’d been perfect from the off. She said that I’d probably take a few days to adjust to the new ones, and she wasn’t wrong. For the first time in years I can locate where sounds are coming from, I can hear birds singing and today the sound of Pulteney Weir was so disturbing I had to cross the road and see where it was coming from. For the first couple of days I was absurdly emotional about the simplest sounds, and the Who concert was so loud I had to turn them off altogether!

My workroom is now ablaze with propagator lights and we’re ready for the new season on the allotment, but we’ve resolved to make the most of the campervan so we’re going to minimise the growing of the kind of crops that need constant care and attention. There’s so much else on the field botany front that I’ll share later but for now it’s time to start making supper.

The earth is the most wonderful photovoltaic cell – and it’s a gift.

Earlier today – after days of heavy rain – we drove about fifteen miles west along the coast from Mevagissey to Portscatho, via a diversion to the outskirts of Truro for a visit to the Great Cornish Food Store where we stocked up on some lovely local cheeses. By the time we’d stowed everything away the sky had cleared and we took a chance on a walk down to a local beach

So here’s my first list of the season; not a hands and knees search by any means but a simple stroll down the lane that runs from Gerrans down through Rosteague and on to Towan beach – no more than 3 miles down and back, that gave us 20 species of wildflower, and an interesting fungus; 17 of which were flowering. There were many more in full leaf and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were in excess of 50 species of flowering plant if you were able to walk the track throughout the year.

Starting from top left, and snaking down the rows from left to right – we found

  • Dandelion
  • Lesser celandine
  • Primrose
  • Common dog violet
  • Greater stitchwort
  • Polypody fern
  • Herb robert
  • Alexanders
  • Cow parsley
  • Snowdrop
  • Greater periwinkle
  • A Tremella indecorata (I think) brain fungus
  • Small flowered geranium
  • Red campion
  • Navelwort
  • Mind-your-own-business
  • Winter heliotrope
  • Three cornered garlic
  • Daisy – growing amongst cleavers and lords and ladies

There can’t be many more tranquil and inspiring setting for a bit of spontaneous botanising than lanes and tracks. Most of them aren’t designated in any way; they’re open access and you can find them all over the country. Of course wildflower meadows are the Royal Opera but I’m more of a folksong fan myself. Ordinary and local – like peasant – are praiseworthy in my phrasebook.

Yesterday was at the opposite end of the spectrum because I found a couple of plants – one in the wrong habitat altogether and the other either very rare or very underrecorded. I’ll write more about these later. A week of rain gave me time to visit the websites of the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) and iRecord to discover how they could help me be a better amateur field botanist. Until I gave it a full three days of practice I had no idea how useful and how huge their databases are.

The greatest revelation of all is that you can research a favourite area and discover what plants grow there. You can discover where to find a plant you particularly want to see and you can check the distribution of every living thing to see whether the flower you’ve found even grows in the place you’re searching. Think of it – instead of stumbling around (like I’ve been doing) hoping to chance upon something special; you can search with a reasonable hope of success. That’s not cheating – it’s science! It doesn’t mean that your find isn’t what you think it might be – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (as they say). It does mean that you need to be thoroughly sure of your ground before you make a claim you can’t stand up.

So I’m in heaven and full of Trelawney cheese. Madame is sitting next to me drawing and the last two hours have flown by in silence. Something odd happens when we’re in the campervan; I sleep happily for nine, even ten hours and feel completely free from stress. The world is going to hell in a handcart; we’re governed by liars and morons and the news is so distorted we don’t even bother to listen. I’d like to say I’ll pray for the people of Ukraine but I don’t think anybody is listening.

%d bloggers like this: