Singing it like it is

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Big Sky – a lovely local South Wales Band

So yesterday I wrote about telling it like it is and today I want to extend part of that argument to the practice of song. The photo was taken in our garden in 2015 and I asked for the band – Big Sky – in the faint hope they might turn up for my leaving party …. and they did! When I said in the caption that they’re local – there’s no sense in which that could be described as damning with faint praise. They often played for our events and they were always brilliant fun; doing covers crossing decades and whole genres. People loved them and – when they knew the words – sang along with gusto.

I thought of them last night when we went to a concert at the Bath Forum. ‘Show of hands’ is doing a farewell tour for their present lineup because Miranda Sykes is leaving to work with ‘Daphne’s Flight’. The other two members, Phil Beer and Steve Knightley are going to concentrate on solo projects (they say – but don’t bet on it!). You’ll have to forgive a bit of bragging here because all three of them played separately and together in St Helen’s Church (my old gig) where we hosted a mean folk evening. Our idea of a full house was about 120, but last night the Forum was stuffed with 1000 fans. It was, Steve Knightley said, their biggest audience since they played the Albert Hall! We had some fabulous but much smaller events in the church; another supergroup, ‘Gigspanner’ did a memorable show for us. It was a special pleasure for me last night because I didn’t have to turn the building back into a church and act as general help after the concert finished. We were in bed by 1.00.

Music is just about the most life enhancing activity I know. I wore out my joke about the government banning it altogether if they knew how much fun it was – from constant repetition – and it was true every time. From carol services which were always sung in the noisiest pub style, to musicals; we lowered the religious tone to the point where anyone could connect.

Last night – if you’d looked around – you’d have seen around 1000 people and the average age must have been well over 60. Retired middle class people many of whom – like us – would have been touched by the folk revival of the 1960’s, diverse as it was, went from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez through to Sydney Carter (whose son was there last night) and the Watersons who could blast the back wall off the Bathurst Hotel (as it then was) with a single acapella chord. Show of Hands have spent decades weaving these and many other threads into pure cloth of gold.

But there was something else in the air last night. For a start, the majority of people there seemed to be superfans who knew all of the words of most of the songs and who joined in the choruses and occasionally verses of many of the songs once permission was granted (we’re talking polite middle classes here). Many of the songs and much of the linking intros had strongly political undertones. There were heaving shanties, songs of press-ganged soldiers; Cousin Jack is a powerful evocation of the toil of miners. There were several excellent jokes at the expense of the government which were noisily and rapturously cheered. The choruses were sung with such ringing audience commitment it began to feel like a revivalist meeting. One or two of the songs morphed into hymns that carried the audience into a rather different headspace but it wasn’t a religious space at all. There was a tangible longing for a temporal release from this political and economic place of suffering. I’d love to see them play at Gwennap Pit! And running through the audience was an obviously radicalized thread that you never have thought possible, looking at us all, and yet should terrify the wits out of anyone hoping to win an election.

Is there ever a moment at which you can say with certainty that change is in the air? This could have been a small portent, just as Mark Jenkins’ film ‘Bait’ is another. The point here is that creative arts can change the world by working through the imagination and the emotion. When we sing a song in a community of shared values we all derive strength and determination from it. Questions about economics and politics, housing or unemployment can be answered through Royal Commissions and legal enquiries, but mostly we don’t change our minds about the way things are around here by reading reports. Most economic and political questions turn out – on closer examination – to be cultural questions. Last night there were songs forged out of meetings with Chilean refugees from General Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Migrants always bring songs with them and we could learn so much from singing them. Folk music occupies a very distinct and happy place in our culture because it’s not high art and neither is it vacuous pop, but songs about lived experience in a world of poverty, inequality and injustice. True enough the young are more likely to find love on a dating app than wandering beside a river waiting for a tall sailor, but the challenges of trust or the tragedy of abandonment don’t change. Singing it like it is – even if the words have survived from the eighteenth century – gives us historical and geographical anchorage, and provides a fulcrum for action. In a culture that lives in a perpetual state of chaos, one point of anchorage can be the beginning of the end for a whole deranged way of life. That, I’m sure, was the elephant in the concert hall last night.

This is what happens when we try to live in one room!

My temporary workspace

We’ve been paying a great deal of attention to our electricity bills as the winter advances on us. The Government’s Panglossian approach towards other people’s hardships has meant that we’ve turned the central heating off in all but one of the rooms in our flat because not withstanding the unstinting generosity of the press releases, our bills have always been higher that the so called averages quoted by them. Sadly we’ve been twinned with a steelworks for the purposes of averaging out the bill. The fight against black mould is continuing in spite of repeated appeals to our landlord – the Church of England Pensions Board if you’re interested – whose rent increase this year pretty much swallowed up their pension increase. “Well, we all have to do our bit” we say through gritted teeth.

So what to do? The allotment is one way of getting warm. Clearing the beds of last year’s crops and weeds is excellent exercise that apparently rivals wearing lycra for fending off heart attacks. There are just a couple of beds left to clear but this week we turned to the polytunnel because that will be the first area to be planted up. First we clear all the plants, and in normal years that would be the end of it but this year the encroachment of bindweed means that it needs digging. In a perfect world we’d be committed no-diggers, but the Potwell Inn has to make do with living in the real world in which bindweed – if it’s not controlled – will choke out almost any plant, however vigorous. The thick, 2mm diameter rhizomes, can spread amazingly quickly and even the smallest broken bits, left in the ground, can regenerate. Our second – only slightly lesser problem is couch grass which invades every year from the neglected plots next to ours. Then there’s the green mould that gradually builds up on the greenhouse and the polytunnel. We scrub it off with an organic product called Citrox which has an immediate beneficial effect on the light transmission. Yes, most days – if it’s not raining too hard – we spend a few hours up at the allotment keeping warm and fit. Then most days we come home and fall asleep for half an hour. For some obscure reason I’ve always loved digging, so even if it’s only a few selected beds it’s a joy only slightly tempered by protesting joints and muscles.

But the mess on the dining table tells another story. Back in the day when I was writing radio scripts, it would take roughly an hour to write a minute’s worth of broadcastable material. Sermons took the same amount of time when I wrote them out in full; but over time I learned to work firstly with notes and then eventually I could ad lib after a good deal of study and practice. Always, though, a very slow process. The dining table library is all about identifying the things we’ve found whilst out walking. The fungus season has reached its peak a little late this year due to the weather, but being relatively new to fungi it seems to take an eternity to identify them fully. Why it should be that there’s so much intellectual satisfaction from identifying the LBJ’s (little brown jobs) is a task for a psychologist probably; but I love the challenge, and going out with friends looking for fungi is even more fun.

Then of course there’s writing this blog and cooking meals for ourselves and occasional family members and shopping, oh and meetings, drinking coffee, eating too many biscuits and watching the telly (except for news programmes which upset me). On the best days Madame and I share the table and I write while she draws at the other end. As you see in the photograph, I may have encroached on her territory.

I suppose when spring comes and the weather warms up we’ll move back into our respective workspaces but for now – although you might imagine we’ve had a row as we work in silence – the arrangement suits us both. The only loser is the electricity company – well tough!

The taste of magic in the Bannau Brycheiniog

Pen y Fan hiding in clouds from the Monmouth and Brecon canal on an icy February morning in 2017

Just out of interest, Bannau Brycheiniog translates as Brychan’s Kingdom; Brychan being the fifth century king of this mountainous area. I’ve written frequently about this place because I love it to the core of my being. It’s a National Park but by no means a huge one; near to the Eastern border with England, more or less defined by the River Severn; a contested border which includes the Welsh Marches and Offa’s Dyke. A wayward and wandering line that’s been fought over for centuries as armies marched back and forth from Roman times onwards in search of gold and latterly for slate and coal, but whatever the quarry, the spoils were taken out of Wales and only the spoil heaps were left. The reversion to Welsh place names is one more skirmish between the Welsh and the colonisers; less spectacular than the burning of holiday cottages but no less fiercely fought for.

But we’re not here to pursue old rivalries. We’re here at the foot of the Bannau to rest and recuperate from hard work on the allotment and to adjust to a change in medication that’s left me feeling as if I’m recovering from the Flu. We have close friends who now live about 1000 feet up in the hills above Llangorse lake and we’ve been coming to this area for more than 30 years and watched as they worked a smallholding while working full time, and improving the cottage from an abandoned bothy to a family home.

So yesterday we lazed in the sun and then in the evening we went with our friends over to to the Three Horseshoes in Groesffordd for a meal and a couple of pints of a local light beer. Needless to say we had a brilliant evening because our interests overlap almost completely and predictably we talked about growing food, keeping animals, the relative merits of lamb (3/10) hogget (7/10) and mutton (10/10). We talked about beer and vegetables and favourite recipes and families and we all reassured ourselves that we hadn’t changed a bit in decades and laughed as if we would all live forever. We took one of the outdoor sheds with a spectacular view between the roofs of the village, across the valley to Pen y fan. The food was excellent and almost too unusual for pub food, we left with a couple of good recipe ideas and feeling that the expense of eating out was justified. The Three Horseshoes, predictably next door to a long closed smithy makes a good living in the most inaccessible spot, hidden deep in the middle of the village where it’s almost impossible to park. We chatted to the owner and he said it was because of their good reputation – and he was right. A delightful and affable landlord who thinks enough of his chefs to name them on the website.

We arrived home (at the campervan) as it was getting dark and sat outside watching the stars come out and listening to the evening sounds. To our great joy there was a wheezy snuffling and a couple of hedgehogs appeared, paused to take a look at us and shuffled off into the hedge again. We haven’t seen hedgehogs for something like 10 years. Way across there were tawny owls and all the usual roosting birds. It felt as if the thin thread holding us down to time and place, had broken and we were wandering in a more ancient time which came with all its literary associations.

Firstly, of course, Buckland Hill which is just down the road will be known to any lover of Tolkien who stayed here at Buckland whilst he was writing Lord of the Rings. We’ve walked miles of Offa’s Dyke, and I’ve loved Geoffrey Hill’s “Mercian Hymns “ set in the time of King Offa and which gets less difficult as I get older and feel the music rather than concentrate on the words. Madame has just finished reading A J Cronin’s “The Citadel” which is partly set just across the hills in the mining valleys. And then on an impulse I dug Bruce Chatwin’s book “On the Black Hill” out of the Kindle Library this morning. This has been one of my must-reads for decades, and I’ve actually got two paperback copies at home. Each of the three I’ve bought while we were up here and never got past about chapter three for the oddest reason. There’s a real “Vision Farm” below Offa’s Dyke facing Capel y Ffin and we once had a long and hard walk up Hatterall Hill, along the dyke and down past The Vision (you’ll need to take a map and a GPS to find the track down) and after crossing the Honddu river, back up past the ruins of the church built by Joseph Lyne, Father Ignatius, back along the opposite ridge and then dropping down the steep path turning left at a hawthorn tree, to Llanthony Abbey.

But I mentioned the fact that I’d always abandoned “On the Black Hill” after a couple of chapters, for an odd reason. It’s simply that the writing is so rich I never want to move on with the narrative, and so each page is an object of meditation. I finish the first couple of chapters and it’s if I’ve eaten a huge banquet and don’t want or need to eat for a week. Obviously this is a bit disruptive to the narrative flow. Cheap fiction does the exact opposite, using a narrative torrent to hurry you across the ludicrous improbabilities of the characterisation. Give me Bruce Chatwin any day, but I’d love to have the stamina to finish it.

One of my parishioners had a Welsh farmer as a distant relative, and she told me that this irascible man had married in a local church, started to drive his bride to the new marital home in the pony and trap . Somehow, on the way they’d had a fierce quarrel and she had got down from the trap and walked back to where she came from, leaving the bridegroom for good. A very Chatwin-esque yarn. I wonder if he’d heard that story independently?

Christmas Steps

It’s been an interesting few days because we’ve been over to Bristol – our city of birth- three times, and each time we’ve been able to revisit familiar places. This one is particularly important to me because when Christmas Steps was virtually rebuilt many decades ago, my Grandfather, who was over 70 at the time, came out of retirement to work on the medieval timbers because he was one of very few carpenters who actually knew how these timber framed buildings worked. So I always feel a particular affinity with this important remnant of the City, most of whose medieval buildings were destroyed by bombing during the 2nd world war; and those that weren’t were mostly demolished by planners, just as they were in Bath.

But these few buildings are surrounded and dwarfed by all the usual canyons of undistinguished glass and steel towers. Bristol, a creative boom city, is from a pedestrian’s street level point of view, noisy and rather shabby. There are many empty shops in what were once important shopping centres. Plato thought that cities were a work of art but he’d have held his tongue if he’d been here. Here’s a photo of the now derelict original Bristol Royal Infirmary – the revamped modern hospital is just across the road but why on earth they don’t do something about this ghastly mess is a mystery.

The lettering over the door includes the words “Charity Universal” – Hmmm!

But we couldn’t resist revisiting the Museum and Art Gallery where we found one of the pieces of pottery that most inspired my interest in Chinese ceramics. This Chün dynasty bowl is inspirational in its restraint – an object of meditation,

Later we had lunch at Watershed and were greatly amused to see that so many apparent pitching meetings were going on in the cafe. We felt a bit odd; actually talking to one another with no anticipation of a future commission whilst sharing a bottle of wine and keeping our mobiles in our pockets without a single laptop between us. Most of our fellow diners wore furrowed brows for fear of being suspected of slacking, drank water and spoke of going forward, hiding behind their de rigeur screens. Later again as we walked to the bus station and passed the foot of Christmas Steps again, Madame pointed out the rather elaborate birthday cake she would like me to bake for her. Very well Madam!

Slow Down!

Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve, 3rd November 2019
The ubiquity of the unnoticed

In an idle moment this morning I did a search of my photos using the search term “fern” – really just to see how much Artificial Intelligence the Google Pictures search engine uses. I was expecting to see all the ferns I’d identified, of course, although the indexing of my pictures sometimes takes quite a while; but what I didn’t expect was page after page of thumbnails of the ones I’d photographed intentionally but never identified – or photographs where ferns just happened to be in the frame. Nowadays, of course, I am consciously interested but two possible explanations come to mind. Firstly (and I know this is true) I’ve always loved ferns for their architecture but was never brave enough to even try to identify them. The second thought is that they’re ubiquitous, absolutely everywhere. If you’re in almost any landscape from mountain to mineshaft, you’re likely to find ferns, but of course you often don’t see them because they all look more or less like bracken, they’re not interesting to birds and insects and they don’t have colourful flowers.

However this isn’t going to be either a dissertation or an evangelistic tract on ferns. What I want to think about in this post is the underrated spiritual practice of attentiveness. When our first two children were toddlers we lived in Hotwells in Bristol, at the bottom of Hope Chapel Hill. We had no car, and bicycles were no use at the bottom of one of the steepest hills in the city, and so we walked up to Clifton to do most of our shopping. The walk would often take twice as long as it needed because the boys were absolutely fascinated by the flotsam that collected in the deep cracks between the cobbled gutters. Theirs was a wonderful non-discriminatory curiosity and included the whole compass of litter from dog-ends to bottle tops, twigs, stones, feathers, ring-pulls from cans, broken bits of plastic, mirrors, bits of string and soggy ink-run love letters and final demands. I always admired them for the joy they were able to derive from simple ordinary things and let them get on with it. My intervention moment came somewhere between dogs turds and dead pigeons and we always had a packet of wet wipes somewhere about us, just in case.

The point of that excursus on why our children should probably have been taken into care is that the process of instilling discipline, obedience and so-called grown up distinctions between right and wrong; clean and dirty; appropriate and inappropriate, interesting and unimportant, are the prison chains of our culture. We all know about the blowhard critic of so-called modern art, shaking their purple wattles and declaring that “any child could have done that!” and it makes me want to weep for the loss of my own innocent eye; the paralysis I used to experience in the face of a sheet of empty paper; the toleration of my subconscious prison warder who said no to every intuition. For years, in my late teens and early twenties I could only write with a cheap fountain pen on sheets of kitchen paper, torn into approximate A4 sheets. The paper sucked the ink off the pen and trapped the thought before it could be crushed by the censor.

Attentiveness isn’t – to my mind – the exact equivalent to mindfulness because although it focuses equally on the moment, it goes further than merely noting the present without judgement but includes a strongly purposive engagement with it. Imagine taking a walk in the woods and purposefully engaging with nature; glimpsing the sky through the trees and reading the clouds for rain; keeping a sharp eye on the plants you pass and looking for anything that’s the least bit unexpected or out of the ordinary – a patch of lighter green; a grass that’s taller than its companions and looks just a bit different; a fern gr,owing like a shuttlecock instead of randomly like bracken; a purple flower that looks like an orchid – but which orchid? a dandelion that turns out on closer inspection not to be a dandelion at all, but something different; the seed head of what turns out to be a Goatsbeard that blows your mind with its intricacy and mathematical exactitude; the little weed with no petals that lives in a gateway and smells like a pineapple when you squeeze it; the bright sulphur yellow butterfly in the early spring; the sound of an owl – but which owl? – at dusk; the heart stopping moment on the riverbank when a hare leaps a fence at great speed within feet of you; the bright red mushroom, flaked with white scales that looks like the ones that fairies sit on in children’s books.

In essence, attentiveness forces you to slow right down because you’re drinking in the sights and smells and sounds. There’s no element of inner struggle to calm the mind because it’s working at full stretch – just not on the stuff that keeps you awake at night. And of course the imagination is working in conjunction with the five senses – looks like; sounds like; smells like; feels like; although I’d give tastes like a miss in the absence of a skilled guide. Attentiveness can become an intellectual challenge too; demanding further study in order to unravel the mysteries.

But the practice of attentiveness also awakens a profound awareness of the sheer beauty of the natural world; so beautiful in fact that it sometimes seems gratuitous sometimes erotic in its sensuousness – and that’s occasionally reflected in the local names for plants. English names, for example of Cuckoo Pint- Arum maculatum are unashamedly vulgar. The ‘pint’ for instance refers not to the standard glass of beer, but to “pintle” – the socket into which the rudder on a boat fits and a Scottish slang word for a penis. Put the two together and you get the reference to cuckoo in the nest and also the allusion to the pintle being – well, in someone else’s nest. Two other local names for the same plant are Preacher in the Pulpit and Lords and Ladies; I hope you won’t need me to explain!

Often when we’re walking slowly we get startled by runners busily breaking records; dog walkers chatting in groups who could walk past a small war and not notice and even botanists who – GPS in hand – rush to the next rarity, missing the beauty of the everyday and the ordinary. But the ordinary almost always turns out to be extraordinary when you take a closer look – especially if you’ve got a magnifying glass. Ubiquity doesn’t or shouldn’t imply not worth bothering with.

A couple of ideas worth holding on to, or better perhaps stealing back from religious orthodoxy are wonder and glory. I think we shy away from them because of their associations or perhaps they make us afraid our friends will think we are a bit mad. Slowing down and practicing attentiveness in nature will almost inevitably lead to that surging joy (which could still be surges of natural endorphins – but so what)? There’s nothing like a good surge of joy for lifting you out of despondency!

And as for the confusing plants …. vive la difference! Below, some finds for today. I recognised the Sea Plantain and the Rock Sea Spurry, living dangerously on a busy path, but as for the interesting brown lump exposed on the rocks at very low tide – who knows? ……. but it was completely fascinating.

An evening benediction after the storm

We were in the middle of making up the bed in the campervan when the whole interior was suddenly suffused with golden light after a stubbornly grey day. After ten more minutes of sunset it was dark; the wind finally gave way and the leaky windows stopped singing.

It’s not just us. We stand at the edge of the campsite and see doors and tents opening everywhere as shadowy dusk-darkened campers take photographs they may never look at again. The feeble flash of the phone cameras is an ironic commentary on our hubristic relationship with nature. It’s a scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” enacted every time the sky clears as night falls. We wonder whether the Green Ray will momentarily flash across the sea but it never does and it doesn’t matter, because if it did, every sunset afterwards would feel like a disappointment. So we stand there like penitents at the edge of the land, waiting for a blessing ; a sign that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

“Isn’t that just so beautiful” we murmur without quite understanding how the earth seems to stand still at these moments which, strictly speaking, are the moments of extreme dynamism when day gives way to night and we, in our exact place and time, experience the loss of the sun with nothing more than faith and hope to keep us safe through the night. Of course we rarely reflect on this but turn to go back indoors and open another bottle, but perhaps a holiday – there’s a clue in the name – is the time when time is made for wonder.

When we are at the far western edge; in Cornwall,in Pembrokeshire and on the Lleyn peninsula, we see the sun setting over the sea. The last word of each day, you might say, is emptiness and silence with no human structure or invention intruding. The setting sun is silent but strangely the Moon always seems to me to have an ethereal sound trailing behind her. The sunsets here unite the elements of earth, air, fire and water which, in the West, are the constituents of life itself. The Taoists add wood and metal and take away air but that seems to me to spring from another, equally valid conception of our place in the world in which we are makers. What defines us as human is not so much thinking as detached observers of what the Taoists call the Ten Thousand Things; but our capacity as makers. Wood; Fire: Earth; Metal and Water – the elements that lie at the heart of the forge, the pottery, the farm and the building.

Air, though, as the medium of sound, has to fall still for there to be silence. St Davids Cathedral, in the absence of the crowds, is one of the most silent places I know save for the Jackdaws whose chatter almost enhances the absence of sound. Early in the morning and late in the evening the Cathedral sits in a protected valley – out of sight of seaborn raiders – so deep that uniquely, from my limited experience, the passer-by looks down on the roof and tower; so the sounds of ice cream queues, the pasty and souvenir shops and the constant flow of buses, coaches and minibuses barely intrude. The silence seeps into your bones and it’s good. The silence searches your inmost being and occasionally – if you wait long enough and quietly enough – will even speak; say something important. You needn’t even go into the building, in fact it may me more of a distraction to go through the great wooden door and be dazzled by the work of human hands. Any old seat outside in the sun or the wind and rain will do but it’s fine to wait for a sunny day because that makes it easier to wait.

And if you find, like me, that hordes of people are a bit off putting, try St Non’s Well about a mile’s walk away and the traditional birthplace of St David, but perhaps more importantly a place to take off your walking boots and bathe your tired feet in the cool water. The well itself is almost invisible to coastal path walkers with their eyes and hearts set on a personal best target, so you can sit there in silence for ages without being disturbed. Those that do see you usually hurry away in case you’re a threat to civilized human life!

That St David’s is a holy place is without doubt; but I doubt whether any religion has more than squatters’ rights to its benedictions.

Restharrow time

I guess that the harrowing of a field, even with a team of horses, would come to a halt when the tines dug into a mat of this plant. We’ve seen it before but always near the coast; I think the last time was in Portscatho in Cornwall but that was before my phone camera days – now my Pixel 6a does it all + lat & long which with a bit of fiddling yields a National Grid reference and a searchable database as well.

But I also love the name, because resting and harrowing have such wide fields of reference and the plant name Restharrow conjures up a ploughman calling his team back by name with a loud whooooa and pondering his next move. Wood engravings by Thomas Bewick, paintings by Samuel Palmer and the writing of George Ewart Evans come to mind and I’m plunged into rural history by a small but very pretty plant and a name with a cloud of meanings.

These words, the ones that trail clouds of meanings are useful but also tricky. On Friday night I was sleepless for hours. A southwesterly gale was blowing; rocking the campervan and soughing noisily through the leaky windows and I caught sight of the moon through a small gap at the top of the blind. But the moon wasn’t about to lend herself to any of the usual associations. For a start she was pale golden yellow rather than silvery and her usual progress across the sky seemed – well – vagrant, furtive under interrogation by my sleepless mind. Is it even possible to imagine a vagrant moon, stealing across the sky over Ramsey Sound with a haul of sunshine from somewhere always beyond the western horizon and then sinking quietly behind the clouds, or behind the brightening sky, in the dawn?

I lay awake for a while more and had one of our nocturnal chats with Madame, then fell asleep eventually attempting to disambiguate the highly ambiguous Male-ferns we’d found and photographed. It’s like counting sheep without ever arriving at a conclusion and sleep came as a relief

I think I must be addicted to the west; to sunsets and South Westerly storms and to the sunny days that always feel like a gift rather than a right. Here we watch the fierce tides flow through Ramsey Sound, intermittently covering and revealing the Bitches, a dreadful reef to any unwary sailor or canoeist – not that it ever seems to deter them. During the daytime the peace is rent by the ribs which offer so-called wildlife tours around the island but which seem to be extreme water adventures in anything but name, probably terrifying the wits out of any seals unfortunate enough to have hauled up on an inaccessible beach. I really cannot imagine any less viable way of seeing wildlife than travelling in a (f) bucking rib at 30 mph.

The gale hasn’t let up for days, but we get intermittent spells of sunshine and it’s been good for plant hunting and then cataloguing in the stormy intervals. That’s a good holiday – arriving with a suitcase full of worthy books, encountering the mental equivalent of a clump of Restharrow and being forced to slow down or take a break.

A redemptive bus ride to the supermarket

This campsite in Pembrokeshire has the huge advantage of being about a quarter of a mile from a bus stop that’s part of a circular route around the local coastline. It’s called the Celtic Coaster and for £4 you can buy a day ticket that allows you to get on and off as many times as you like and at any of the stops. It’s ideal for walking and also ideal for shopping in St Davids because it runs every half an hour so if you get your skates on you can catch the bus to the centre, do a lively run around the shops and be back on the City Hall bus stop in time to catch the same bus back to the campsite. The lanes here are really narrow and often congested and parking in St Davids is as far from the shops as we are from the bus stop so it’s an environmental no-brainer to leave the campervan behind. Another plus is that the drivers are so cheerful and obliging that we usually get dropped off at the campsite entrance and yesterday we were such a merry bunch of passengers I thought we might even start singing. To be honest, the thought of that kind of atmosphere on one of our local city buses is a faraway dream; but a sense of community, shared values and belonging will have to be a part of any emergent culture to replace the hostile and suspicious communities of one that constitute the smouldering remains of culture wars.

But aside from that little redemptive challenge to the status quo, there was something else on my mind as we cut through Gospel Lane and down New Street towards the supermarket, because this wasn’t just about shopping but is also the scene of my ecological idiocy in 2019 when I uprooted a chunk of the plant which I subsequently discovered was the second of only two previous sightings. I’ve never shared the photos I took back in the van because I knew that the obvious question would be “why did you take this away to photograph it?” But I think I dare show one of them today because I found redemption on the car park wall! It’s not even a very good photograph – the lighting’s rubbish and it really doesn’t show enough of the key features, but that’s something you learn as you go along. Any way, if you scroll up to the top of this piece you’ll find what we found yesterday. That little solitary plant has now grown into the handsome stand we found yesterday. I could have done a celebratory jig but I lacked the nerve.

Rough Chervil seeds

Photographing plants is a skill that takes a while to develop and I’m only just getting a grip on it. The Catch 22 is that you never know what the important features are until you know what the plant is. As some wag once said – the keys in the floras are only any use if you already know what you’ve got. So not being an expert I just take lots of photos from different angles, using a macro lens to capture fine detail and using a small ruler to measure some of the parts that I know will be important. With the Carrot family, for instance, the exact shape and dimensions of the seeds are crucial to getting an ID. The payback is that the closer you look, the more intensely beautiful the seeds become. You could spend a lifetime making handbuilt pots based on them and you’d never run out of inspiration. This is the point where science and art overlap. Here, for example, are the seeds of Rough Chervil that I photographed this week on the campsite. These days all my photos are taken on a Pixel 6a phone with an add on macro lens that costs less than £50. It’s a joy not having to lug a huge bag of kit around and all my stuff for an excursion fits into a small shoulder bag.

As we walked down to the bus stop I also caught sight of what turned out (after a lot of head scratching) to be Black Spleenwort. I really wanted it to be Lanceolate Spleenwort which would be a first record, but my selfish desires were trumped by good science. With ferns you really need to look at the shapes but also in microscopic detail at the way the spores are carried at the back of the leaves. If you’re at all interested in ferns – and I think they’re addictive – the little green swellings called “indusia” contain the “sori” the almost microscopic bundles of spores called sporangia, and which contain the spores themselves – millions of them! Here’s a selection of photos I took near the bus stop. It’s not all about glamorous adventures in the jungle!

Mindfulness. “Walking in nature rather than through it”

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

Henry Reed, “Naming of parts” 1942

I love the way that, when I’m writing, images and ideas surface in my mind. My first thought when I sat down to write this post was that these four Cranesbills would have been exactly the species which inspired William Morris in his designs. Next I pondered for a while (it’s 5.00am after a sleepless night) on the extraordinary fact that in nature these closely related species are so plentiful. Do we really need twelve of them (Harrap’s “Wild Flowers”). Colin French’s “Flora of Cornwall” lists 34 species and subspecies; such an abundance that the only possible conclusion is that abundance, excess and diversity are somehow hardwired into nature. To return to a previous thought, if Nature is structured like a language then this abundance represents the dialects; the regional and environmental inflections of the same idea – like each one of us; all (potentially) beautiful if only we could break out of the prison we create when we each see ourselves as the only show in town.

And then Henry Reed’s poem plopped into my mind and I had the clearest recollection of myself in my early teens, sitting in a hot and airless classroom and gazing longingly out of the window as our teacher struggled to interest us in this poem. Not me, though. The poem sold itself to me in an instant. Here was another human being, feeling exactly like me at that moment and I took it to constitute permission to daydream. I’m quite sure that our teacher had no such aim in mind, but that’s the dangerous and disruptive power of poetry.

Peacock butterfly resting on a Charlock plant.

I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, by the way, for the idea of walking in nature rather than through it. It came up during a long conversation on a Bath Natural History Society field outing when we were overtaken by a runner pounding by us and seeing nothing at all. This last fortnight the experience repeated itself endlessly as we stood and watched a Kestrel hovering, or knelt in the grass delicately uncovering Spring Squills or – in this specific instance paused to photograph no less than four species of Geranium along a quarter of a mile of sunken lane bordered on both sides by Cornish walls as butterflies jazzed around tracing marvellous curlicues in pursuit of rivals, mates or nectar.

Without that special kind of relaxed mindfulness none of this diversity would have been visible. I suppose you could go out after a specific quarry – some rare or interesting plant – and cover more ground – eventually dragging your photographic elk back to the cave; but my favourite way of walking in nature is to move slowly, turning up all the senses to ten and let the plants do the talking. I’m not sure what practical use this kind of meditation has, other than cleansing the mind of thoughts about the endless dishonesty and stupidity of some politicians or the grinding anxiety that all this beauty is being threatened by the greed and selfishness of war and oil. Perhaps that’s the link with the poem about sitting in a stuffy room and learning how to assemble and fire a rifle in the context of the Second World War.

A wild Strawberry ripening on the warm top of a wall

Looking, seeing and beholding seem to me to constitute a hierarchy of mindful attention. For all the superficial similarities, each one of the Cranesbills is quite distinct. The shape of the leaves, for instance is crucial; compare the deeply incised lace-like divisions of the Cut-leaved Cranesbill in the larger photograph with the more modest Dove’s-foot Cranesbill in the centre of the strip of three to the left. Notice the fern like leaf of Herb Robert and the unusually pale flowers of the other * Dove’s-foot Cranesbill – each one an expression of the irrepressible creativity of Nature, and each one asking of us to name them because naming something – in a strange but powerful way – brings it into existence for us. The more we can name, the bigger the world becomes and the more intense our relationship with it. Even the word “Cranesbill” tells us something about the history of our language. If you look at the forming seed behind the flower at the top left – the Herb Robert – you might see the resemblance to a bird’s head and beak. But when was the last time that the sight of a Crane (the bird, I mean) was sufficiently commonplace to attach its name to a plant? Some centuries, I guess!

So it was farewell to Cornwall on Wednesday as we woke early and packed the campervan. This time we were on the Roseland peninsula, a very different place from the Lizard and a very different feel to the natural history as well. But we’ve already booked to return in September. Curiously, we were talking to our allotment neighbour when we got back and we discovered that without ever meeting one another we had been staying on the same campsite for over a decade. He was planning to drive down today for the half-term week. It’s a small world – worryingly and vulnerably small!

Back home, though, we turn our full attention to the allotment which – thanks to some good neighbours – survived the very hot weather, but urgently needs weeding and TLC.

*I submitted just one of what I initially thought were four species to the local BSBI Recorder – the marvellously skilled Ian Benallick for verification – and he corrected my identification earlier today, so apologies for any apoplexy caused by my mistake. His kind correction led me to double check all my ID’s in Tim Rich and A C Jermy’s “Plant Crib”. Geraniums, it seems, are a difficult group. Yet another example of the way we learn so much more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.

Having enjoyed every moment of sunshine on holiday, we spent some of today working at 35 C in the polytunnel which is now almost planted up with summer residents and looks lovely.

Towan Beach

Another postcard from paradise

Looking down the mouth of the Percuil river towards St Mawes and Falmouth

After my exhausting battle with language in the last post I thought, maybe, that I, along with any readers who follow this blog sequentially, needed a bit of a lie-down. Unfortunately most readers clearly don’t read it sequentially and so a very long and slowly unfolding idea will only be found by searching on the tag “green spirituality”.

I just need to add one further dimension to a rather one-sided discussion by suggesting that the aesthetic is, in a peculiar way, another sense to add to the five more commonly accepted ones – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. At its most basic, the aesthetic embraces all of the five, and often makes sense where the logical mind fails. I never could understand Madame’s passion for art until (I was nineteen and she was fifteen) I suddenly got it in front of a semi abstract painting of the back of a Georgian terrace in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. My conversion felt like a several gigabyte data dump constituting the key, and taught me in an instant the difference between seeing and beholding. That’s all I wanted to add to the previous post. If our unconscious minds really are structured like a language then the language is more likely to be musical, poetic or artistic than logical and scientific. To drag an ancient canard out of the confit, truth is beauty and beauty is truth – ask any mathematician.

Anyway one of the most visible plants around down here at the moment checks in at best part of six feet tall; it’s Charlock and in terms of beauty it’s way down the scale. The Book of Stace describes it as an archaeophyte and denizen. I had to look denizen up and it’s a plant that can compete with native plants and generally act as if it is a native. For goodness sake don’t let the Daily Mail get hold of this information or they’ll be organizing vigilante Charlock squads.

So Charlock is no beauty and yet if you should want to distinguish it from its multitude of close cousins who have been stowing away on grain ships since Roman times in order to pollute our pristine land with foreign genes; one thing you can do is stroke the stem and the leaves and if it’s five or six feet tall, let the sense of touch flush it out. It’s very bristly and rough. You have to look at the sepals – the tiny little leaves poking out directly beneath the flowers (which should be yellow) and if they stick out at right angles you can toss your head in disdain at this wretched jumped up weed. Or alternatively you could say “Good luck mate, I wish I had half your energy” .

I much prefer talking to plants and birds because there’s always the possibility of a silent conversation beginning, and who knows where that will lead? These moments of intense contemplation can be almost erotic in their intensity. I’ve spent days trying to capture the texture and form of a single Hyacinth blossom in watercolour. In the early days of my artistic adventures I remember seeing a drawing of Clevedon Pier by Peter Lanyon; a completely relaxed charcoal line that perfectly expressed the pier in a way that a prissy architect’s drawing could never have achieved.

So never neglect the aesthetic power of plants and flowers. They don’t have to be rare. I suppose there is a bit of the trainspotter in all of us, but the pleasure of finding (top left clockwise) Kidney Vetch and Sea Carrot growing in full spring colours was only marginally less than finding the Spring Squill and the Cut Leaf Cranesbill; or the little pathside explosion of Primrose, Buttercup, Soft Shield Fern and Ivy; the Cuckoo Flowers which I climbed over a fence to photograph and found a couple of hours later had all been mown off. A little bereavement. And then, finally the Pale Flax whose flower is so intense that you could spend an afternoon gazing into its depths and pondering how long it is since it was part of a valuable cloth industry.

So it’s been a wonderful couple of weeks. Yesterday we were sitting outside the campervan drinking a cup of tea and we recorded no less than seven birds strutting their stuff nearby. We heard a Robin, a Blackbird, House Sparrows, a Dunnock, a Wren, a remarkably faint Curlew, and the usual garrulous cries of Crows, Magpies and Jackdaws. During our walk we watched House Martins scooping mud up from a drying puddle to build their nests and saw sparrows having a noisy dust bath on the tinder dry coast path. All this on a day that I completely failed to find a single Sea Spleenwort after thrashing sweatily along every cliff and sea facing Cornish wall I could find – in spite of all my attempts to research it beforehand. That’s the other thing about nature: it’s always surprising.

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