Midsummer sky – China Blue

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I have a very particular name for this sky that I can’t explain and I can’t bring myself to change. “China Blue” is a very potent complex of meanings for me that evokes all manner of happy times and places. There isn’t a watercolour name for it, although cerulean blue comes a bit close – it’s a cool blue that lends the pale summer clouds a faintly rose-violet hue and it’s filled with faint longing and melancholy.  It’s the sky that goes away and the season that can’t last after the carnival colours of late spring. The days grow shorter, the hay and silage have been cut, and the harvest is almost upon us.  Maybe I should call it the sky of the holiday romance, the smell of suntan oil and ice creams. Or maybe I should just say that yesterday was a lovely day.

Not today, though.  We knew the rain was coming and set up the campervan for a 24 hour siege with a full water tank and empty cludger, milk and bread, a barra brith loaf and a couple of projects.  Madame had gathered a bag of shells and seaweed from the beach to draw and I was going to complete the plant records for the last three days. When the rain finally came at around three am – beating loudly enough on the roof to wake us it lasted for only two hours and then diminished to a fine drizzle that brushed rather than rattled the van in the brisk winds. It was slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  On several occasions in the past, the roof has leaked just enough to drip on to the bed, allowing us to be heroically galvanised with bowls and paper towels while thunder and lightning shook the van. The only consolation was to wake up in a thick, glowering mist (I know it’s a cliché, but mists have their moods and this one was decidedly edgy).

So yesterday was as blue and expansive as today is clenched grey. First thing we took our favourite bus to St Davids to stock up at the supermarket.  We used to shop in the bijou artisanal organic sourdough deli which survives by charging twice as much as anybody else; but now we have joined the local middle classes in sneaking around to the supermarket and pretending we’re ‘just looking’. Along with the staples I’ve already written about I was charmed by a display of very retro ‘pastes’ – sardine and tomato, tuna and mayonnaise (an upstart) and beef.  My heart pounded at the thought of paste sandwiches and so I brought them back to the van. I wouldn’t normally check the ‘best by’ dates on canned and bottled food, but there was a thick layer of dust on the top of the beef paste and so I became suspicious and checked.  It was over a year out of date! Naturally I was too fired up not to make the sandwich but it had no flavour, in fact it probably never did have any flavour even sixty years ago when it was a treat. Packed lunch was abandoned in favour of another walk in the sunshine.

This time we took the footpath across to Treginnis and on to Porthlysgi Bay past a pond that was alive with large powdery grey-blue dragonflies – I haven’t got the field guide here so no name I’m afraid, but elsewhere there were abundant electric blue damselfiles. As we walked we heard a very loud voice in conversation with another, quieter one. we paused for a bit but there was no alternative but to overtake them. She of the very loud voice was taking a photo and so – out of politeness I asked if she was photographing the dragonflies. No, and then she laboured at great volume and length to explain that in fact she was photographing the reflections that were ……. my eyes glazed over – anyone with a milliwatt of social radar could tell I was exchanging a pleasantry not asking for a tutorial. Madame had taken the wiser course and waited by a stile for me to escape. Porthlysgi Bay was alive with a different sound, the joyful screams and shouts of about twenty children who were having the time of their lives, courtesy of a local adventure centre. Onwards then to Porthclais via the coast path and back home on the brilliant little bus that always has Radio Wales playing at full volume, and a driver so used to the road that he takes the idea of slowing down as an affront to his skills.

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However, field botanists, even extremely lowly ones like me, walk very slowly with eyes swivelling wildly from side to side, as if we’ve forgotten our medication. Keen walkers crash by thinking only of the twenty miles ahead. Some people pause to see what I’m doing, some even ask what I’m looking at- the honest answer is usually ‘no idea but I’m keen to find out”. On one remarkable occasion in Marloes I inadvertently gathered a party of five together and they followed me on an impromptu guided walk. I thought they’d soon find me out and rough me up a bit before handing me over to the Warden to have my binoculars confiscated, but no such luck.  I was barely a sentence ahead of them in the textbook, but, come the end, they were having such a good time I feared they would pass the hat around and give me a tip.

Finally then, back to the walk, and what about plants?  Well Tuesday yielded 31, Wednesday 33 more and yesterday another 27 making a grand total of 91 plants recorded and that’s about 15% of the total on the recording card. Is it wrong to be a bit proud of that?  Favourites of the day were the large patch of Dodder – Cuscuta epithymum,  on the clifftop, and which is a ‘vulnerable’ species not recorded on the county list; Scented Mayweed – Matricaria camomilla, which looks like a garden weed but smells heavenly; Greater Sea Spurry – Spergularia media, because I’d never heard of it – let alone seen it which made it a laborious plant to identify; Betony – Betonica officinalis, because I saw it for the first time two weeks ago in a very similar location on a clifftop in Cornwall. Although it’s also a heathland plant, it’s described as a plant of ‘woodland rides, grassy rides and hedgerows – very definitely not windswep clifftops.  I was delighted to read in Stace that when these plants find themselves in unfavourable situations they can become quite dwarfed.  And finally I was pleased to see Buckshorn Plantain – Plantago coronopus, just because it’s always nice to find one of the more unusual plantains. It’s always possible to make identification mistakes, and mortifying when you’ve already published them, but I feel pretty secure about this list because I’ve checked it so carefully and even been back for second look. Anything doubtful went back to Stace (3rd edition).

IMG_5781That’s it for now.  The internet connection here is very temperamental, and the phone signal pretty spasmodic too. I snatched a photo of Madame’s drawing in progress  and then took another of my notebook – “Rite in the Rain – Model 973T – as previously drooled over, as proof that I actually do write things down. Finally some pictures of yesterday’s finds.

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Sometimes life requires log-rafting skills

I’m still not completely sure I’m doing the right thing by passing so many of my books on, but the decision stands and the total I’ve disposed of is in excess of 350 – or nearer 750 if you count the ones I got rid of when we moved here. But they were the easiest ones, and now it feels like I’m eating ino my own history as box after box goes into the car boot. The ‘disposed of’ group includes a surprise hoard of college library books that I’d completely forgotten I ever had, but felt obliged to return to their rightful owner – which I did yesterday, and then discovered another four stowaways.

It’s feels like a rather revealing thing to do, as I hand them over a box at a time to the woman in the Oxfam shop. She was kind enough to say what interesting books they were, and inadvertently threw me into a bit of a tail spin because I felt I’d handed over something immensely personal – like a secret diary – to a complete stranger who would be listing them in some kind of inventory. No different than Google or Amazon and every other internet company who steals my most revealing information and then sells it on, but this was more personal and almost intimate.  When I was an early teenager and because I was incredibly shy, buying books or clothes became an absolute torment because I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I’d be judged by what I was buying.  It was only through the kindness of a bookseller called John- he was a bit of a legend – that I was given permission to browse all day if I wanted and buy whatever I wanted, but  I never realized that disposing of my books would land me in the same place.

So now each book that goes into the boxes leaves me second guessing what the reaction will be – goodness knows what today’s four boxes of rather arid theology will have done to my street cred – especially after four similar ones on Monday. So not for the first time I blurted out the first thing that came into my head, and I wondered aloud why on earth I’d kept them all, and postulated that it was in case I forgot who I was. I could almost see her thinking I was trying to tell her I’d got some sort of dementia, not least because on Monday I’d said (in another moment of brain fade) that I was doing this so our children wouldn’t have to “when I popped my clogs”.  I’m half expecting a letter of condolence from Oxfam and then my pointless shyness will turn into a clusterblurt.

So four more boxes of books and two guitars gone today, and my oldest son has contacted a removal company to take the piano to his house, while enquiring anxiously about the philosophy books which I promised I wouldn’t get rid of because I know that (eventually) he’ll give them  good home. Meanwhile Madame has jokingly accused me of fancying the woman in the Oxfam shop, but I think I’m suffering a bit from some weird variant of Stockholm syndrome.

So the reason for the reference to log rafting in the title is that the raging flume of my unconscious has also to allow for the fact that this is busy busy time on the allotment. Now the crops are coming in earnest, and we’re struggling to cope with the pace of things.  The overwintered broad beans have, at last, all been harvested and so we’ve had two sessions in which the Potwell Inn kitchen is transformed into a freezer production line. The three experimental plantings of garlic have now also been taken up and it’s clear that of the three varieties we tried the early purple bulbs were far and away the most successful.  The batch of five elephant garlic yielded four real lunkers.

As the beds are emptied and become clear, our aim is to hoe the weeds off, give the beds a covering of composted manure and a handful of chicken pellets or fish blood and bone and get them back into production as soon as we can.  This year we’re able to try the no-dig idea more easily because after three seasons of hand weeding we’re pretty much on top of most unwanted perennials, and the annuals are hoed off as they germinate. Today while I prepped the beds, Madame planted more runner beans raised in root trainers and also some modules of celery. After a bit of a wobble with the weather last week, the sun shone and after a few hours we were able to celebrate the solstice with the allotment looking at its most productive. “Blimey” – said Madame – “this feels more like a market garden”.

And as I type the title ‘Madame’ once again, I’m reminded that a friend said recently that she didn’t like me calling her by that name because it made her sound like a brothel keeper. Although nothing would delight me more than the thought of the Daily Mail reporting something like “retired priest found dead in Bath brothel” I’m afraid the explanation is much simpler.  Madame prefers not to have her name published in the blog because she doesn’t want to lend her implicit imprimatur to the words I publish before she’s seen them, any more than I would suggest improvements to her drawings before they’re finished. There are certain subjects over which we do allow forceful dissenting views – not least the planting, disposition and maintenance of the allotments because we are both very srong willed and neither of us wants to assign agency to the other.  It must work pretty well beause so far I’ve never had to remove a sharpened fork from my back, and it’s never got beyond the withering look and toss of the head stage.

And so  we’re in ‘second crop” mode while we’re feasting on the first, almost at the stage of being able to choose what to eat off the allotment and then taking it home, while the autumn harvest is beginning to take shape in the ground. When I built the line of compost bins I was convinced they were far too big and we’d never fill them – but as you see the first bin is now pretty much full and in a couple of weeks it will be ready to turn.

A curate’s egg of a day – good in parts.

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We’ve planted five varieties of potato this year –

  • Jazzy (first early)
  • Arran Pilot (first early)
  • Pink fir apple – maincrop but we dig them early for the best potato salad ever
  • Red Duke of York – again a later potato and fabulous roaster, but also good early
  • Sarpo Mira – which, being highly blight resistant, we leave in the ground.

The reason we try to get the vulnerable varieties out of the ground early is because the allotment site is plagued with blight. The problem with doing it this way is that we can be overwhelmed with new potatoes early in the season – but then, better overwhelmed than stuck with tasteless supermarket potatoes.  But this season – need I say – has been very odd, with a dry early period followed by some pretty cold weather and now almost continuous rain for a couple of weeks. The rain has come just in time for the early potatoes which looked set to be a tiny crop, but they’ve plumped up nicely this week.  The photo shows Jazzy at the back, and a few Arran Pilots next to the beetroot. It’s only when you see them together that the whiteness of the Pilots shows up.  We’ve never grown them before but they’re the ones my grandfather and my parents always grew, and I remember what a wonderful flavour they had from my childhood, so I can’t wait to get them into a pan.

As for the rest of the vegetables, the weather is causing a mixed bag of results right across the site. Only the overwintered broad beans have survived the aphid onslaught, but at least the ladybirds peaked at exactly the right time and we’re seeing six plus larvae on a single plant.  It’s the larvae, not the hatched ladybirds with the prodigious appetite for blackfly.

Tender plants have all suffered stress in the cool wet conditions, and the onion crop has been hit hard everywhere, but the cabbages have enjoyed every moment of the weather and made steady growth.  So I suppose that’s the whole challenge of allotmenteering – no season is ever the same as the last one and with global heating playing the wild card, we just have to duck and dive and ride the weather.

However that was only a part of the day because this morning I took the first car-load of books down to the Oxfam shop.  This is turning into a bittersweet time as I declutter my study to make space for new projects. Today’s books weren’t just old novels, some of them had been very important at the time for all sorts of reasons, and I could almost remember where and why each one was bought. When I came home I made a start on the serious collection of music books, which seemed more unsettling and painful than ever. I’ve been flunking this moment for four years – I knew I should have sorted through them when we moved here, but we ended up only letting the painless ones go.  These latest ones represent a huge investment of time and money during the period I was deeply involved in music, and I had to summon up every ounce of resolve to pass them on to new owners. Music kept me sane for a very long time, especially during the most stressful periods. Anyway that’s enough, and I’m saying to myself that I was really using them as a comfort blanket – something I could define myself by during the period of introspection and loss of role after I retired.

By lunchtime we’d cooked soup for supper and then went for a second look at the Bath Society of Artists show. Julia Trickey – who taught me – has sold a magnificent painting of leaves found in the Bath Botanical Garden.  Among the leaves was a Harts Tongue fern, and when I looked carefully there was even dry brush detail in the sporangia.  Epic stuff. In the photo below the horizontal pile of books in the foreground has been resting on the lightbox for months now and that’s why I’m clearing up.

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Down in Devon in the rain

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We’re in Devon in Little Torrington for a couple of days at RHS Rosemoor, but after a sunny drive down, the promised weather closed in and we enjoyed a magnificent thunderstorm coming in from the north west. The last two days have been very exciting and challenging and I’ll probably write more about them tomorrow, but several days of gallery visits, and a wonderful afternoon at one of my old parishes plus some pretty ruthless gardening by Madame have precipitated a good crisis – the origin of the word is a Greek word ‘crino’ –  to choose.  And so yesterday I gave an old friend most of my church music and today I gave away my piano and all my other music. Then I think there are many other books that need to go to the Oxfam shop. I need space and (because I’m pretty ancient) I need to focus on the things I really want/need to do. Time to let go of some precious things so I can focus on even more precious things. Far from being sad about letting these things go, I’m quite exhilarated.

I once met a man on a tram in Lisbon.  In the course of a five minute conversation he told me how he had become very ill and he had given everything – and I mean everything away, and started to travel in faith that things would work out for him.  I’ll never forget the end of the ride when he entreated me to pay attention. He meant it, I remember his eyes and the way he held my hands.

So we’re here in the rain in Devon and I’ve brought the laptop, a camera, three pencils, a notebook and some good paper and we’ll see what happens. Instead of coming down all the way on motorways, we split off and came down the B roads.  Now we really understand the idea of the rolling hills of Devon, but the rivers we crossed were running red with soil, presumably being washed from fields – most likely fields growing maize. The whole soil-wealth of this place seems to be in the process of being washed into the sea.

Gardeners of the imagination

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This is a pretty rubbish photo taken in a basement exhibition with my phone – the best way of getting an idea of this piece is to visit Fiona Hingstons website.

We spent yesterday with friends, eating, drinking wine, gossiping and then later trying to visit as many of the Fringe Arts Bath venues as we could. It turned out to be a more challenging and exhilerating day than I could have anticipated, and somehow this piece (there are two from the same series on display) really fired up my imagination. It’s a bit unfair to pick just one piece from four whole galleries worth of work, but it was the last exhibition we visited, so I think what finally clicked in me was an almost euphoric sense that something quite unexpected is happening.

First, a small confession.  Before I started to search online for some of the artists whose work I’d liked, I made the assumption that they were all young and post art-school at the beginnings of their journeys.  It’s true there were quite a few in that category and I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment, but one of the ‘gallery minders’ gave me the answer in the first exhibition and it took 24 hours to mean anything to me.  We’d been in the first gallery in Walcot Street and I’d been excited by the work I’d seen.  Grasping for an explanation I said to her that it was good to see that some of the idealistic ethos of the seventies hadn’t been crushed by the grim apparatus of austerity, and she said ‘oh no, the hippy ethos is still alive and well!’

After decades of the dead hand of the Arts Council, now shrunk to the skeletal remains of a sponsorship agency for big business, we’re beginning to see the re-emergence of the ‘underground’, the ‘counterculture’ – both utterly tainted and compromised in the way they were co-opted to shift product,  but regaining something of their old strength.  All of which is a rather long way of saying that there were artists of all ages and dispositions being shown.

That’s absolutely not to say that the exhibitions were living in a world wholly detached from the way we ‘do things round here’. These artists didn’t seem to be in any sense separatists, dreaming of a better place somewhere unreachably beyond where we are now.  In fact I kept thinking of Anne Frank, Charlotte Salomon, Louise Bourgeois and for some reason Francesca Woodman.  Madame made a hugely perceptive remark when I mentioned this on our way around.  She said that some of the exhibits reminded her of Francesca Woodman in the way that it seemed the artist had passed through the room and left a ghostly trace of herself. For instance there was one group of works gathered together under the title “Enshrine”. Many of the objects were very small, the kind of thing you might make when there’s not much space to work in, no grand studios for rent – maybe living with parents.  So they were being shaped  by the brutal economics of the artistic life, but also there was something poignant in the background.  The tiniest hint that these precious objects, filled with recovered memories and imagined worlds , could be hidden at short notice, stuffed into a bag when the knock on the door came.

There was a pervasive sense of threat to the environment which was being challenged by intense engagement. I found Fiona Hingston’s website I laughed out loud to see the title of one of her postings – “Making = Remembering”. Making, in this case, means making by hand using wire and masking tape.  Obsessive reflective, meditative and faintly disturbing, remembering becomes a subversive act when it points out what’s been lost.

I think I’d fallen into the sad conclusion that all the dreams, prophecies and visions of the past had dried up and that we are condemned to live (and in our case probably die) in the frozen steppes of corporate greed. “Not so soon” was the reply. The pervasive feeling was that these artists’ work was a challenge to the ‘way we do things round here’. A challenge with force, with heft.

It’s a shame so few politicians ever visit a gallery except to rub shoulders with the wealthy and powerful. Culture is a far bigger force than a gallery with some free wine, and if I were in public office right now, I’d be nervous.  These gardeners of the imagination have been working away, against the odds, and they’re not going away any time soon.

 

 

Sumer is icumen in

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Sing loudly, cuckoo! – Well at least I heard one cuckoo on our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago and I found it unbelievably moving, thinking that with the climate catastrophy upon us I might never hear it again.

But sumer most certainly is icumen in and so today we picked a load of elderflowers and started the first 3 litres of  cordial. We felt almost secretive about picking it, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t spot us and join in – picking is best done in the sun for maximum flavour and there’s plenty for everyone but I fear very few people would go to the trouble any more even though the difference between our own home made cordial and the commercial stuff is striking.

IMG_5466Summer is as much a smell as anything more meteorological. Yesterday evening we were sitting in the living room when Madame said, “I can smell chewing gum”. I wrinkled my nose up in mimed solidarity and it was true but it wasn’t chewing gum it was cats’ pee.   It was the smell of summer.  There were the elderflowers infusing on the stove, and several different kinds of basil gently sunning itself in the propagator, along with a sink full of fresh spinach and a salad spinner loaded with newly picked lettuce. Oh yes summer is good.

We spent the morning at two exhibitions in Bath.  The annual open exhibition of the Bath Society of Artists is always worth seeing several times. In some ways, although it’s a lot smaller, it’s better than the RWA open. Several friends and acquaintances had pictures in, and there’s less of the gulf between ‘high art’ and village show about it.  Many of the artists necessarily earn their living from other things, but their work is really good – the product of a lifetime’s labour without the deadly grip of the Arts Council. As we left we hubristically resolved to submit some of our own work next year

Then we dropped in at BRLSI (Bath Royal LIterary and Scientific Institution) where there was an exhibition of artifacts and books from the permanent collection.  The headline catcher was a small phial of liquid taken from the barrel in which the body of Lord Nelson was brought back from Trafalgar. Not terribly interesting really, the value was all in the caption. My own favourite things in the exhibition were the botanical books, pressed flowers and drawings which were all on the subject of medical herbs. But one exhibit was truly bizarre –

The other gadget, the tobacco smoke enema, has no modern parallel.  At first an ordinary clay pipe was used and someone administered the smoke enema by poking the stem through the anus and blowing on the bowl.  The risk of burns led to the invention of safer apparatus.

Well thank goodness for that! The afternoon was spent at the allotment as the flat is gradually emptied of plants.  Much of my time was spent in energetic watering, but I did manage to find 20 minutes to sit with my back to a compost heap, measuring and inspecting our mystery fumitory with a copy of Rose at my side. Then in the evening we worked in tandem in the kitchen, prepping spinach, elderflowers and tomorrow’s family BBQ and cooking supper.  We had inspected the peas earlier, hopng for a first taste, but they’re not quite ready.  Next week maybe.

This last few days I’ve been tempted to say that I’ve been feeling the same kind of energy and excitement I had when we first went to art school, everything seems inflected with possibilities.  But I’m a melancholic and I’ve read Tolstoy and Iris Murdoch so I won’t tempt fate by saying I’m happy.  Maybe ‘pretty happy‘?

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More lists?

No I can’t inflict another list – but carrying on from yesterday I found 18 more plants in flower, bringing the total up to 55. I’m completely aware that my sense of pride and joy makes me a total propellor head, but today we took an appropriately slow and stately walk around the coast path so I could find a few more flowers and it made me very happy. Why on earth photographing and identifying plants should bring such intense pleasure, I don’t know except that knowing the names of things really does. I suppose you could liken it to moving to another town, like we did when we retired. After living in a village for 25 years we knew pretty much everyone, but when we moved to Bath we had to start all over again, learning names, figuring out relationships and understanding where every one lived. Three and a half years on we’re slowly getting there.

So imagine going for a walk in a beautiful place like St Davids and not knowing the names of any of the flowers. You could certainly get around the coast path quicker than we do, but we have the pleasure of greeting old friends. Doing just a bit of botany enables us to recognise families and relationships, to enjoy the successions of the flowers through the seasons and to see how well, or badly, the landscape is doing. So one reason for knowing the names is that you’re always surrounded by friends.

But another, equally good reason is that if you don’t know the names, you’ll never know when they start disappearing. Caring for the environment is just about the most important thing we can do at the moment because it’s ailing. At home we care for it in the way we grown things and the things we eat. Here we care for the things that – because they’re simply beautiful in their own right – make us richer. Knowing the name of a plant means we’re in some kind of relationship which brings responsibilities.

Learning to identify plants involves a level of attention that makes the world infinitely richer. The differences between members of the same family sometimes demands profound attention to tiny details – the shape of a leaf, the disposition of the flowers or a row of hairs on the stem that can only be seen with a hand lens.

Finally, although there are many more reasons for doing a bit of botanising, there’s the aesthetic dimension. Flowers and plants are simply beautiful. They can be enjoyed with most of the senses – by sight obviously, but by smell and taste and even sound. It makes me want to paint them in order to understand them better.

So no list today, but this has been a lovely day.

Ivy Leaved Toadflax

Our moment in the sun is over and we get back to work on the allotment

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With three days almost completely taken up with the exhibition in Bristol, we came down to earth yesterday – quite literally – with less of a bump than a sigh of relief. IMG_5365We had the greatest of times, met so many people, and it was fun but I went into extreme extrovert mode which, I’ve discovered is a kind of protective device. I’m much shyer than I appear to be – especially in big crowds of strangers. The benefits of sailing through the occasion and having a wonderful time are always offset by the payback. I was greatly assisted by the little pendant I was given that said I was an artist.  Although I had a painting in the show I’ve never felt able to describe myself as an artist so the badge helped save me from trying to explain.

Luckily an early bus gave us a chance to wander around Bristol Docks on Sunday morning.  Sadly St Nicholas Market (above) was closed but quite apart from team loyalties – we were both born and brought up in Bristol – any comparison between the dockside development in Bristol and Cardiff, which I wrote about last week, would come down in favour of Bristol just for the sheer diversity on offer. It’s more than 30 years since we lived on the docks, but we were there for 20 years in a succession of different flats and I have to pay tribute to Peter Ware, the architect, who almost single handedly started the fight to preserve the Georgian buildings in Hotwells and the character of the whole area. Consequently Bristol has retained and repurposed hundreds of old buildings that set the context for the new ones.

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But time and seasons wait for no-one and so we went up to the allotment at the crack of lunchtime to see what needed attention. Our first job was to remove the protective netting on the garlic and shallots which seemed to give a sigh of relief and stretch towards the sky.  I swear they were six inches taller after a feed with liquid seaweed which also gave them a good watering.

The fleece also came off the peas, and we put a net over the whole bed to protect it from the birds.  Birds, especially pigeons, are a particular menace on the allotments and without wishing them any ill will, we do everything we can to persuade them to go elsewhere. The other most frequent visitors are jackdaws which are great eaters of grubs.  Some people shoo them off, but I think they’re irresistable in their glossy black coats and grey capes. Robins, come too when we’re digging and we even once spotted tiny goldcrest which came and then went, never to be seen again.

Gradually we’re taking the propagated plants up to the allotment and we’ve regained one of the windows.  The chillies are all doing very well and I’ve been snacking on the Hungarian Hot Wax as they slowly turn yellow.  The tomatoes are due their last re-pot before going out and the greenhouse aubergines are flowering.

Down on the coldest patch, the potatoes have shrugged off any frost under their fleece which is being lifted upwards on the shoulders of their haulms.  Suddenly the allotment is taking on its summer form once more.  We spend a lot of time weeding and watering which are both jobs I really enjoy – unlike many people, I know. But allotments, while they can be sometimes very domineering and far from the cliché of outdoor therapy, have many sides to them. They aren’t just about the satisfaction of growing food.  They certainly feed the spirit, but there’s also a strongly aesthetic feel about them as well. Like works of art in themselves, they are expressive of their gardener’s personality. So maybe I really do deserve the little pendant with an A on it?

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

IMG_5343It was always going to be a bit of an odd day divided into several parts, and things turned out pretty much as expected. The grandchildren came over for the morning and while I was up at the allotment strimming, Madame went with the Brigade of Mischief for a trip around Prior Park (a National Trust  property) after which we all met up at Uncle Jo’s pizza place for lunch, where they lined up to watch him turning their foraged ramsons into a garlic flavoured pizza. There, in a single photo, is the reason why we’re so driven to secure a future for them.  How could we hope to be remembered with any affection if we hand them the rags of a devastated environment?

So after lunch and some writing for me, we caught the bus to Bristol for the opening night of the exhibition. A couple of old friends from art school days celebrated their annversary by renting the Centre Space Gallery and inviting thirty of their artist friends to submit some work. It was a brilliant evening and the gallery was packed with people we either knew or wanted to get to know.  Names and faces were put together after decades of never getting around to meeting.  I guess if we’d met fifty years ago, someone would have got drunk, someone would have started a fight and someone would have rushed out in tears –  (actually I could have done any, or all of the three) – but now in our mature(ish) years there were fewer sharp edges and less easily bruised egos.

I continue to be obsessed with the way that age alters our faces but leaves us somehow the same, and so I have to be careful not to stare (almost forensically) at people who find it disturbing. It was hardly surprising, then, that my painting was a watercolour illustration of a purple sprouting broccoli leaf rescued from the compost heap and absolutely stunning in its decomposing colours of green, yellow and brown. Generally leaves don’t get offended by staring, but I’d love to find a model prepared to put up with it. One of the guests told me a story about failing to recognise one of his old models because he’d never seen her with clothes on.

We caught a late bus back –  an extraordinary experience because we almost never stay out late, especially in Bristol. And so the bus was absolutely rammed with as big a cross section of life as you could imagine.  There were chancers and inebriates of every age, edgy looking teenagers trying to look cool and one club bouncer who pulled his hi-viz jacket over his head and tried to sleep.  There was a dog that barked randomly at those who failed an unspoken test, a freemason in pinstripes with his regalia in a leather case, and a couple of young women conducting a mobile phone feud with an unknown recipient. Someone smelt pretty bad and so the windows were opened to let cold air in, and someone with nowhere to go was going nowhere in particular, eating his supper out of a rucksack.  We spend so much time in our own isolated lives it’s a proper shock to be nose to nose with complete strangers in a noisy bus – we should do it more often.

Anyway, part two of the party today with a meal together in Bristol and then tomorrow hand-to-hand combat with a BT engineer, and then bliss.  A couple of weeks with no commitments except the allotment and possibly a short trip to Wales.

Trad bean sticks

Even managing to get this photo on to the laptop seems like a major triumph of hope over BT, who, for approaching 2 weeks, have not only failed to provide any broadband service but have convinced themselves that they’ve actually done something. They’ve already sent out three engineers on two separate occasions who have all eventually confessed to not being sufficently trained or equipped to do the job. They sent the first mini hub to the wrong address and the second never appeared at all and so I’ve been completely dependent on my phone connection and a big overspend on extra data. The sales people claimed that we had fibre to the building when it fact it’s finished at the green box up the road and is dependent on copper wire for the crucial final 250m.  The company was split up into three to encourage competition, but although they work with identical customer bases the IT systems don’t talk to each other which leads to the sort of tooth gnashing conversations that make it clear that no-one has the faintest idea what’s going on.

Enough already –  get on with it! – I hear you cry  – so I shall. On Monday morning I am promised positively smoking digital speeds. We’ll see, I’m already eyeing up the contract to see if they’ve broken their part.

So yesterday we had to take some of our artworks by bus to an exhibition in Bristol, which is an infrequent pleasure.  Later we went up to the allotment and I set up the wigwam supports for the runner beans. I hesitate to get all philosophical about it, but it does seem that the simplest gardening jobs can attract a good deal of unconscious baggage, and none much more powerfully than hazel bean sticks. We cut and gathered these at our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons last year which makes then both free of cost and simultaneously greater in value. Now that hazel is hardly ever coppiced, the sticks have become a bit of an expensive rarity, having been replaced by imported bamboo, or worse still plastic. But in a more environmentally conscious world they could provide a subsidiary source of income on a mixed farm with a bit of woodland. But honestly that’s not the thing that shouts at you, it’s the sense of tradition that comes with them.

So today has been a mixed bag with grandchildren visiting.  The oldest picked wild garlic in the woods and we took it to Uncle Jo who runs a pizza hut, and he made a special pizza using the harvested ramsons – how’s that for a life lesson in foraging?  I managed to get a couple of hours parole on the allotment and I finally got the strimmer out to cut all the paths. I once worked for several years as a school groundman, and I picked up some terrible habits like wanting to eliminate every weed in sight. With a powerful tool like a strimmer I have to order myself to leave clumps of weeds – especially nettles – around the plot for the butterflies. I also leave the long cut grass lying because it’s full of seed for the birds. Slowly I’m conquering the demon of excessive tidiness!  Doesn’t the herb garden look splendid, with the asparagus behind? The big umbellifer is angelica which is stunningly sculptural, and contrasts with the darker greens of lovage and dill. I guess that among all the plant families the Apiaceae, the carrot family have most to offer a gardener and cook. Underneath you can see our 1000L of stored rainwater which I hope to at least double during the year. I can only see a future full of water shortages if we don’t do something to curb our excesses soon and so, although I’m no survivalist, a couple of tonnes of water in store is likely to be useful. To that end I’m going to put a roof over the compost heaps to capture water from 60 extra square feet, and I’ve half a mind to build a solar heater from an old radiator to provide underground heat for the coldframes or even the greenhouse.  I saw it demonstrated at the Alternative Technology Centre in Machynlleth, and it worked impressively well considering it was entirely constructed from waste materials. What I don’t know is whether the winter sun would be hot enough to provide any heat benefit.  But even a marginal gain might protect from a cold snap, and maybe it could be constructed around some thermal ballast for storage, after all the cold frame alone offers some protection from all but prolongued cold spells.

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