Time for some soup

Let’s be honest, some of our produce isn’t going to win any prizes, but the fact that it tastes so good and we know it’s proper organic rather than ‘organish’ means we don’t want to waste a single leaf. Today we harvested celery, carrots, beetroot and a load of herbs.  We even discovered a hyssop plant that we’d given up on, quietly thriving under the French tarragon. As the allotment matures, we get lots of those kinds of surprises – like the coriander and caraway that are growing away vigorously after self-seeding. Marigolds and nasturtiums are just as bad, but does it really matter? There’s space for everything and we can always dig up and move, or just cut down anything that’s in the wrong place, because we know we’ll be growing them every year in any case. The key is recognising the plants when they’re still in the seedling stage, an operation that’s greatly helped by the fact that most herb seedlings smell just like their parent plants from very early on – and of course when spring comes along they’ll be up and running without any intervention on our part.

Last night I was browsing in a catalogue of medicinal herbs and I was greatly amused by seeing “Dactylis glomerata” seeds on sale for £2.50. The English name is cock’s foot, and the thought of buying seeds for such a common weed never occurred to me.  On the other hand I could probably put a few clumps up on ebay – I could even throw a bonus offer of “goutweed” in for the real enthusiasts – as long as they don’t plant it anywhere near our plot.

Today was one of those greasy days where it never quite rains and yet it never really stops either. Misty dampness clotted the sky with grey and we pretty much had the whole site to ourselves.  So it was mostly pruning for me – cutting the autumn raspberries back hard and pruning the grape vine, while Madame sowed seeds and weeded. The greenhouse is almost full with autumn sown vegetables and outside the overwintering garlic and shallots are all now planted in their beds. There’s a risk of a particularly late spring leaving these premature sowings leggy and poor after too long under cover, but it’s always worth having a go. The compost heap has risen to 30C so there’s lots of action there and I’ll probably turn it as soon as the temperature starts to drop; and even the leaf bay feels warm to the hand – it’s amazing how much good gardening gets done without any work on our part.

IMG_6313At home the summer window boxes are all inside now  and we’ll be taking cuttings for next year. Tomorrow looks set to be wet from the outset. Before we left this morning, I sorted out a corner of my room because we’ve decided to have a ‘drawing day’. I aim to spend an hour or so doing the colour swatches tonight so that I can begin the first draft paintings tomorrow. It’s fascinating to see how different “daylight” lamps can be from one manufacturer to another. I prefer to work with quite high light levels to bring out all the subtleties of colour, and for very fine work I use a big desk magnifier, so you can see three distinct ‘daylight colour’ sets on my desk, and I have to negotiate my way through the various options.

Then there were more

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Madame was off life drawing at the university today so I thought I’d better put my money where my mouth is and make a start on painting that leaf. There’s an algorithm, a way of getting on with a painting that side-steps all those anxious moments when you doubt whether you’re up to it. I say this because from time to time I get very blocked with negative thoughts and this is the way that I deal with it. I break the task down into easy steps and in the process I render the subject ‘strange’ – I transform it into something I’m not in love with or in awe of in order to get on. So I start with lots of photos, because these ephemeral subjects can change very quickly – they curl up and dry out and they change colour dramatically. You can already see that happening above, in just a couple of days the leaf has got substantially more brown. The good news is that I’ve already got the colour set that attracted me to it in the first place.

So photos – lots of them to refer back to, and then I make a tracing of just the outline and the main features on to tracing paper, strengthen the image with indian ink, grid it up for later in case I change the size, and then reverse the tracing paper so I can transfer the image to a sheet of watercolour paper. The next stage is to carefully draw in any areas like holes, that need to remain completely white, with drawing gum – that includes the entire outline. At this stage I’m working on an increasingly remote stage of the original image, turning the page around to work – which all helps with the distancing process, because the painting that will be is not a leaf but a painting with its own set of rules, rituals and standards. I can move things around slightly, emphasise some parts and move some back in the interests of clarity.  I can even alter colours just a bit on aesthetic grounds.

When all that’s done I can start painting, in this case mostly wet-in-wet which demands good quality paper. The first few trys might well be practice runs, clarifying any methods I’m not sure of and practicing the colour mixes.  When I first started a couple of years ago, Julia Trickey – our marvellous tutor – had us do a colour exercise using only three primary colours – printer’s primaries – cyan, magenta and yellow which can all be bought in warm and cool hues according to your taste. I’ve stuck with the same three colours ever since, because it saves lugging around a massive collection of dried up tubes. As ever the better the quality the easier it goes. Oh and a tube of lamp black is sometimes useful right at the end.

Why am I writing all this here – well it’s certainly not because I’m an expert because I’m not one of those by a country mile, but I enjoy it and I notice things – structures, textures, colours and minute details that really help me to get a better purchase on field botany – and I’m not an expert in that either.

I don’t hold much with notions like exceptional talent in painting and music, writing, or green fingers in allotmenteering. It’s not about luck it’s about practice and I think it’s one of the great crimes of our education system that so many young people leave full-time education having been talked out of their creative potential. So I’d say to anyone have a go! – no-one dies if your early attempts aren’t very good and you’ll get better as long as you don’t talk yourself out of even trying, it’s much better to be an amateur painter than a professional charlatan. Just think – if the thought of watching politicians lie in their teeth, unchallenged by spineless journalists gives you the creeps, redeem the shining hour by doing a painting or writing a letter, anything. Pay no attention to them, they’re not worth it, but vote well; vote carefully because global heating and species destruction are symptoms of a corrupt ideology.

And speaking of trying, the Christmas puds survived their spell in the pressure cooker and they’re all packed away in the cupboard. The allotment is looking very stripped back now but there are a lot of seeds germinating and quite a few winter vegetables just about to come into their own. I took the temperature of the compost heap just to see if it was feeling well, and it’s running at 25C – so there’s obviously some microbial action going on, but not so hot as to drive the worms down. I even put a temporary hard roof over the first bay to keep the rain off.

Oh but I do hate these dark nights!

 

 

Rainy day – I hate rainy days!

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_1080345“Hello” – I say, as I shuffle up the garden in my baggy corduroy trousers with my two ancient laboradors following – “I’m worrying about my hyacinth.”

I daydream in bed, listening to the wind and rain buffeting the windows and knowing from the outset that this is it for the day.  All there is to do is to watch the hyacinth growing in its special pot and know in the depths of my heart that it will flower sooner or later and I shall have to paint it, or rather finish painting it. Madame is peacefully asleep but I make tea anyway open the shutters and muse aloud about the weather. More tea, then strong coffee – why on earth do I drink stimulants when what I need is something to send me to sleep until the sun shines? Back in bed I read fitfully and take a wild and fruitless leap at a conversation.  “It’s like living with a tornado when you’re in one of these moods”, she says.

Every rainy day needs a plan. The campervan battery needs replacing but I can’t do that in the wet. We need to go to the garden centre to get more seed sowing compost and some extra modules but the Christmas bonanza has started in earnest and you have to fight your way past Father Christmas and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon candles to get to the gardening bit – bah humbug! Finally the idea of baking the Christmas cake floats into my mind.  Up again, I discover a huge cache of half-full packets of dried fruit none of which is full enough to make a Christmas cake and much of which is beginning to crystallise – this is what happens every year and instead of throwing the old ones away and buying new, I will get lumbered with another stash exactly the same size next year. Wouldn’t it be good to buy them loose?

And then in a typical bit of mission creep, I decide to make a Dundee cake as well and so it goes …..

Sainsbury’s, it’s clear, is suffering from brexit already. Things are unexpectedly missing and there are notices appearing about supply interruptions. Barring the possibility that the identical aspiration to make Christmas cakes today has struck half the population simultaneously, I’d say that some shelves were suspiciously empty. I set out in search of dried porcini mushrooms.  They were missing from their usual spot and even the customary label was missing. I asked one of the assistants who did a search for me on her handset – “They’re on hold” – she blurted out; not “sold out” or “impounded by customs” but “on hold”.  Which sounds suspiciously like one of those sharp suited London types is frantically trying to renegotiate a post-brexit supply from the porcini groves of Putney.  This will end in tears. 

And so, for a breath of reality to the Farmers Market in Green Park Station.  We like going there because it’s a good place to get some sense of what our vegetables are worth – quite a bit is the answer – although one farmer is still selling sweetcorn on the cob – probably not very sweet today, more like fodder maize.  Farmers markets aren’t the complete answer to all our woes, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction. We’ve three independent bakers, two really good butchers, a man who sells game, a fishmonger, artisan cheesemongers and any number of value added food stalls.  You can even buy cannabis oil products but I hate queuing. Today there was a newcomer with a fabulous display of fungi. It was like being in France again, and he had dried porcini mushrooms.

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The dreadlocked couple on one of the bread stalls had obviously struggled with the effect of the wind on their wood fired oven because all their loaves were baked several steps beyond perfection, but it didn’t seem to matter to the crust loving customers.

Farmers markets are a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the upside is that you can talk to the producers and get the measure of them before you buy, and the difference in the price could probably be expressed in animal welfare and/or organic standards. But the biggest advantage is that they’re local – I think the furthest travelled food on sale today was the kimchi – up from Salisbury.  What it all boils down to is a personal choice, would I prefer to eat organic free range beef maybe a couple or three times a year, accepting it as an occasional luxury? or carry on as usual turning a blind eye to the abuse of animals, the environmental impact of intensive food production and the terrible quality of mass produced food.  Local and small scale food production creates many more real skills and jobs for local people who spend their money locally. And I’m not away with the fairies imagining that we can change the world by thinking nice thoughts – we must make the polluters pay for their mess and pay their taxes like the rest of us.  We will have to legislate too, if it’s going to work, and of course the industrial farmers and their chemical industry supporters won’t be very happy about it – tough!

Without wanting to pick a fight, the choice isn’t binary – either vegan or feedlots, but exploring the possibility of less impactful lives and engaging with (willing) food producers to discover what we can jointly do as producers and consumers. The face to face interaction of a farmers market is exactly the right place for this to happen and I would dearly love to see the whole of the undercover part of Green Park Station turned into a giant continental style food market. But for now, there’s no choice but to go to a supermarket for some more currants and sultanas because I didn’t get enough.  The Dundee cake is just out of the oven and smells fantastic, and when we get back we can put the rest of the fruit into a bowl to soak with some brandy until I make the Christmas cake tomorrow, when the clocks go back and it gets dark at lunchtime but at least the sun’s going to shine.

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Go on – sneeze!

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Well, Mr Wordsworth, you were right about emotion recollected in tranquility. Our trip to Cornwall was entirely unexpected, and so, with no more travel plans in place, this is the beginning of the rest of the Potwell Inn autumn and today we sat down and reviewed all our summer photographs on a big screen. I was taken aback at quite how intense an experience it was, and this picture of a Sneezewort plant just about had it all for me. As we went through all the new plants, I remembered the exact spot we found this one.  It’s not particularly rare and no-one apart, perhaps, the painter Giorgio Morandi, would write poems to its beauty.  He’d love it for its restrained colours and I can just see the buff and white flowers somewhere in the background of one of his still-life paintings.

It was the colours that first caught my eye, and then the fact that I’d never seen it before. The identifications you have to work hard for are by far the most memorable and as time goes on I can usually place a plant somewhere in the right family. But once I knew its name I realized I knew a little bit about its medicinal uses in the past and instead of being a stranger it was a friend at the first meeting.

There were lots of meetings like that during the summer and I took hundreds of photographs in which I could instantly recall where they were taken and then refer back to my waterproof notebook to find the name. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes there are a sequence of letters or numbers that mean I had to key it out by answering a series of questions exactly correctly to take me to the right place in the book.

But there was more, because many of the plants had features that just cried out to be painted; the brilliant hues of blackberry leaves, the exact texture of the skins of sloes, the sealing wax red of hawthorn berries and rose-hips. Some of them also stood astride more than one field of interest – illustration, medicine, abstract structure and form, folk names. The natural world suddenly becomes a far richer, more precious place. As I’ve written often before, it populates it with friends whom the prospect of losing fills me with sadness and the resolve to stop that from happening.

I saw at once what I need to get done during the winter months when the allotment takes up less time and I can set up my tiny cramped drawing space once more. I feel blessed and inspired to be back at the Potwell Inn.

 

Working landscape

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I woke up this morning listening to horses passing.  Their hooves were sounding  on the cobbles outside, except they weren’t because it didn’t take long to realize that these horses were big clots of rain falling from the blocked gutter into the yard below.  We’re staying in an old net-loft, once used as an artist’s studio, and the gutters in the building opposite (so close you could reach out and touch it) are completely clogged with a wonderful array of grass and ferns – very Cornish! I’d  been having one of those dreams that you can chase down to an event during the previous day. My dream concerned a pair of wellington boots – black and very ordinary looking – but which I knew were known as “recording boots” – and which I desperately wanted to own.  They were (needless to say) very expensive. At this point, amateur Freudians, Jungians and my properly professional therapist would be saying – “What were you supposed to be recording?”  I’d gone to bed after reading from John Wright’s new book on foraging, so the obvious (but wrong) answer would have been that I wanted to record plants.

As I often do, when Madame and I sit in bed with a cup of early morning tea, I mentioned the dream to her in the knowledge that it would be hard for her to find any sinister interpretation in my harmless desires. We chatted for a bit and then there was one of those therapeutic silences and it occurred to me that I had spent an amount of time on the bus stop outside the old fishermen’s institute in Newlyn yesterday, regarding a young man – or more precisely – regarding his wellingtons.  I promise that this is not some homoerotic/rubber confession, at least not mine.

And so, with a bit of clarity beginning to dawn, I explained the origin of the dream and Madame launched into one of her revelatory discourses.  Our conversations often seem to possess unexpected emergent qualities.  Suddenly we were back on the quayside in a Newlyn harbour some time between 1880 and 1900.  The young man I observed yesterday, the one with the slightly too large, green, steel toecapped safety boots was obviously a fisherman returning from a spell at sea.  He looked tired out.  On his back was a rucksack that contained very little – I could see a bottle of shower gel, so probably his work had taken him away for several days.

“It hasn’t changed very much”, Madame said. “Not from the Stanhope Ford paintings.”  And it was true. With a different set of clothes he could have been one of the eponymous “Jack” models from the paintings, which were revolutionary at the time, with their focus on a rather romanticised view of working lives. The fishermen, smokng their pipes as they mended their nets and their wives, sometimes grieving wives, gutting fish or hauling them off in huge baskets to sell.  The beautiful young girls not yet eroded by the weather of a harsh life – all there then, and all still here now.  Stanhope Forbes, Walter Langley and the others had found their recording boots.  The herring and pilchard have gone, long since but the young men still put to sea.  In the pub a group of older men came in – down fishing, but not local men – among them one from the Shetlands, one from Ireland.  We eavesdropped on their conversation. They were talking about boats and about the cost of gear.  One remained silent, keeping his counsel and sipping his single pint where two of the others were downing them.

Out on the street there was a lot of ordinary life going on. Young mothers out with their children in pushchairs, a couple of men outside another of the pubs, one saying to another – “She’s not speaking to me so I might as well ….”. There’s work, but it’s often poorly paid and seasonal just like it always was.  Nowadays the catch goes off in lorries while the remaining boats play cat and mouse games with the Spanish and Dutch factory ships out there hoovering up everything including the sea-bed. The fishwives have morphed into an army of cleaners who look after the holiday cottages whose owners live elsewhere. Not much of the money comes into Cornwall.

The Newlyn School painters, if they were able to come back, would find plenty of familiar scenes to paint.  The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their original models are probably still here somewhere. They’d be able to buy their favourite French cheeses in the upmarket shops  and get some sourdough bread too – that would have pleased them, no doubt. They never lost their London ways. But here, life’s a gamble – only the bookmakers get rich, and hardly anyone can afford a pair of recording boots.

Anyone for angelica?

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IMG_6212Sometimes the success or failure of a day out hinges on something essentially random – like finding a shop that sells crystallised angelica.  We last bought it in Penzance at least three years ago, and so as we set off up Causeway Head I had little hope of finding the shop, which even then had the air of a pop-up, still in business. But there it was, very much in business and pleased to sell me enough for three Christmas sherry trifles at least.  I’d despaired of ever finding it again but somewhere there’s a person with the energy to simmer angelica stalks in increasingly strong sugar solution for days, until the tender stalks are preserved ready to add a touch of green to contrast with the morello cherries floating on whipped cream atop the trifle.  The Potwell Inn always produces Christmas puddings as well, but we rarely eat them until well into the year because sherry trifle made according to a recipe given to us by an old friend has become a Christmas fixture.  As you can see my thoughts have turned instinctively to Christmas for no better reason that the preserving and pickling are all but finished.  Once upon a time, Gill made us the trifle as a gift every year, but when she became too old I took on the task as a tribute.  No Christmas could be complete without it, and because she always aded angelica it never looks right without it.

When I think about it, most of the canonical tasks of Christmas involve quite inexplicable feats of endurance. We know perfectly well that the puddings, cakes and treats are ridiculously rich and life-threateningly full of fat and sugar but a good life deserves a bit of occasional feasting as well as fasting. We are far from the mindset of a couple known to Madame whose idea of the perfect Christmas lunch was to warm up an Iceland frozen turkey dinner and eat it on their laps. Somehow the angelica is even worth a trip to Cornwall, and  always tastes better as a happy accident.  IMG_5459

We grow it on the allotment – it’s a magnificent sight in the summer as it grows to six feet tall – each plant producing enough of the leaf stems to decorate a hundred trifles – but once again this year, we didn’t find time to create our own store in the kitchen. The little shop is, in itself, a model. There is virtually no packaging to be found in it, you could bring your own containers and buy a huge range of ingredients from bulk.  How strange that even in cosmopolitan foodie Bath there isn’t an equivalent shop – I’m sure it would do well.

We walked up and down the pedestrianised street and found an excellent bookshop (Barton Books) the contents of whose bookshelves closely resembled our own at home.  I think I’d read about a third of the stock, and would happily have read the rest.  I joshed the owner a little and asked him if he’d only stocked his favourite books and he responded that good booksops always reflected their owners’ tastes. I couldn’t agree more, and I came out with John Wright’s latest book on foraging which I’ve already started reading.

Penzance is a place of contrasts  – three years ago I’d have been glad never to visit again after we watched an unhinged young woman pouring abuse and beating her dog in the street.  Today we were in Newlyn buying some fresh fish and the fishmonger said he lived in Penzance but it had become “a hole” over the years. Exactly as if we were at home, we watched a couple selling drugs on the street – both obviously addicts themselves, both hollowed out by drugs and life in general and with no provision for any help out of their mess.

Mousehole, where we’re staying, is stuffed with ludicrously pretty cottages which are all that remains of a once thriving fishing community.  Next door in Newlyn there is still a big fishing fleet but Moushole, with its tiny harbour, confines itself to selling souvenirs and doing a bit of occasional crabbing. The purpose has gone out of the place. In Newlyn the fishmonger said he’d voted for Brexit.  I sincerely hope for the town’s sake that he doesn’t get his wish. Virtually all the fish we eat as a nation we buy in, and virtually all that’s caught here is sold abroad, overwhelmingly in Europe. If tariffs were applied to the catch, the fishing would become as unprofitable as the tin mining and that would leave tourism – which only really pays for a third of the year – as the principle industry, bringing even more poorly paid jobs, homelessness and unemployment, helplessness, anger, drugs and alcohol abuse.

But the incomers seem to be taking up at least some of the slack by driving up house prices and providing work for an army of builders, painters and plumbers. The landscape and its wonderful light are largely untouched by change and the granite landscape of West Penwith is as magical as ever it was.  Am I too hard on this place?  We lived in Falmouth for a year as students and were both captivated by it whilst, at the same time, being wary.  You’re always an ’emmet’ here, one of the teeming hordes of ant-like tourists who come, as if to a left-luggage office, looking for something you’ve lost but can’t quite describe. The little battery lit serpentine lighthouse you used to be able to buy from the turners’ shacks on the Lizard has come to stand as a lament for that loss.

We walked to Newlyn today and passed the memorial on the original site of the Penlee Lifeboat station from which the Solomon Browne set out in 1981 in a hurricane force storm to try to rescue the crew of the Union Star coaster. Both crews were lost in the 60 foot waves, and the tradition of Christmas lights here must surely reflect and bring to mind that terrible tragedy as the lights shine out across the sea as if to welcome back the men who will never come.

IMG_6206There’s nowhere to park here: the village was fully formed before the car was invented and the old fishermen’s cottages form a maze of narrow alleyways but there’s an excellent bus service back and forth to Penzance and from there onwards to anywhere in the county. On the roadside facing the sea there are allotment gardens, with some sculptural and whimsical scarecrows.

So, as always we celebrate a few days in Cornwall with mixed feelings. Loss and tragedy are never far below the surface and yet there are few places quite so likely to get the creative sap rising. The railway line to Penzance brought with it not just the tourists, but the painters of the Newlyn School, and later the St Ives artists who, for a while, changed the course of art history.  It’s a culture that’s never quite at ease with itself, often feeling isolated and angry with the ‘upcountry’ politicians who have served it so badly.  If ever a place needed strong regional government this is it. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Wales where the mineral wealth was extracted by a semi colonial economics leaving the place sucked dry.  Love it?  Hate it? It’ll still be here long after we’re all dead!

Chilli round-up+

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This little boxful was the third crop of chillies this season and I’m properly pleased with the way they’ve gone.  All five varieties provided a crop, and following James Wong’s advice to stress them a bit has paid dividends in the heat department as they’ve all reached somewhere near their potential. What’s been so interesting is the difference in flavour between the varieties, and the fact that some of the milder ones did better out in the sheltered parts of the open allotment than in the greenhouse. So next year I’ll look around for perhaps one new variety but I think I’ve found a good range of heat and flavour with an abundant crop. We’ve made chilli oil, chilli sauce; we dried some and we’ve eaten some raw. When I first thought of growing them, like most people I suspect, I thought they’d be far more difficult than they turned out to be.  I didn’t use any special compost and they only got fed with liquid seaweed.  The only specialist kit we used was the propagator with its daylight lamps to get them going in the late winter so we could give them the longest possible season. Looking back over the past two years the only real failures have been in germination – I think in the first year I had the temperature set far too high, in nervous anticipation of the supposed difficulty, because a steady 20 – 25C brought more reliable results in our set-up. The organge ones in the photo are Habaneros and the smaller red ones are the third flush of F1 Apache – much smaller than their earlier flushes. The organic farm shop in the market were selling these at 35p each, so they’ve more than earned their keep.

But much of today was spent at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath where we went to see an exhibition of ceramics by James Tower, and very fine it was.

It’s great to see a finished piece with its preparatory drawings – this one’s called “Copse” and I think it’s very beautiful.  Yesterday’s RWA Open was a selling exhibition and as always, very densely hung. I often find one or two pieces in a show that I really like, but the Open left me stone cold and I couldn’t quite figure out why. The pieces of work were often very competent (that sounds like faint praise, I know) but seen en masse it felt like gorging on sweets.  The James Tower exhibition gave the work (and us) room to breathe and we loved it. Suffering as I always do, from morbid introspection, I wondered why this work  seemed so much better. One awful possibility is that I’m old and set in my ways and unwilling to accept new media and ideas.  But really I don’t think that’s the case so much as the difficulty I have with much recent work that’s trying to teach me something. Didactic, concept driven art often lacks the contemplative and quiet side that I prefer.  I sat once in the Rothko room in Tate Modern, I was there for about 3/4 hour and during that time dozens of people walked in, walked around and out again. The work demands, and repays time spent with it. The much derided practice of copying favourite paintings is actually a rather good way of understanding them, and the sheer discipline of drawing is all-but disappearing from the curriculum. Does that make me an old fogey? I’m sure there’s a great deal of recently produced art that emerges from the kind of obsessive study and contemplation I’m talking about and, in fact, it’s possible think that those artists who are still pursuing drawing as a means of understanding, are still carrying the flame. We always make a point of going to the Jerwood Drawing Prize exhibitions, obviously only possible if you’re in the UK.

Anyway, there we are – I expect I’ve annoyed quite enough people by mixing up allotments and art but tough.  I’m also interested in philosophy, the price of fish, heading off the coming ecological and climate crisis and (consequently) economics.  I’ve spent a lifetime refusing to be simple and so should anyone who cares about thriving. Our culture wants us all to live as if we could fit life into a small shed, but I’ve discovered (with a great deal of help) that I actually live in a large, rambling and poorly maintained stately home which I choose to call the Potwell Inn. There are still rooms I haven’t been in yet; we’re not subsidised by the National Trust; it’s open all hours, and we’re always happy to have a lock-in with the right company. Tonight’s special is toasted cheese on sourdough.

Back home we were left counting sheep

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I don’t think we’ve ever had a nicer drive back from Lleyn than yesterday.  The full sun gave the mountains an extra degree of grandeur, and some we’d only guessed the names of previously made themselves known at last by their crystal clear outlines. A couple of days ago I wrote about the way local people sometimes refer to the land beyond Porthmadog as ‘the mainland’ and yesterday it was easy to see why.  The whole horizon to the east, the north and the south was taken up by mountains, and the only way into mid Wales was either over them or around the coastal edges, and that made it clear why there are so many tiny abandoned coves and ports around the coast – the sea was the only viable way of moving goods in and out of the area. Out went the spoils of quarrying and mining and in came anything that coudn’t be grown or produced locally.

I also had am interesting conversation with the man who delivered bottled gas to the cottage as we left. I had totally forgotten that like most people on Lleyn his first language was Welsh, and so as we were chatting I asked him how the farmers were doing and what the crops had been like this year.  I could sense a pause in the conversation and I assumed it must have been because he didn’t have an ear for my speech, but fully a minute later he answered my question completely – it had been a good year all round for grain, straw and hay.  The awkwardness had come as we talked about nothing in particular while he translated my English question into Welsh and his answer back into English. Later in the day I read in the newspaper that Welsh speaking patients in hospitals are greatly inconvenienced and even endangered when the doctors only communicate in English.

I also noticed the Welsh slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn (remember Tryweryn – a village flooded to build a dam) painted on walls in a couple of places  – one at the end of the lane leading down to the cottage. RS Thomas would have approved, but I was surprised to see the old slogan being wheeled out again in support of the justifiable feeling of being left behind. The language is making slow progress, but the whole culture is under economic attack as never before.

Back home in six hours including a couple of breaks (it’s 240 miles across three mountain ranges)  we unpacked, filled the washing machine and went straight up to the allotment where we discovered that our two toughened glass cloches had been dismantled and stolen while we were away. No-one seemed to know anything, but whoever stole them must have been there for at least 3 or 4 hours because it took me twice that time to assemble them.  They cost us £250 and they were an integral part of our plant raising in the spring, but we can’t afford to replace them. Needless to say we were upset at this invasion of our quiet lives and neither of us slept well, but entertaining thoughts of bloody revenge is a great waste of energy and desperately bad for the soul. I can’t think of a single religious philosophy that doesn’t see thieving as as destructive of the thief as it is distressing for the victim. We’ve had stuff stolen before  – it’s a fact of life on allotments – and it would be nice to think that fellow allotmenteers would refuse to buy our cloches as a knockdown price unless their provenance could be proved, but it always takes two to tango and without honest upstanding customers prepared to look the other way, thieves would be out of business in a week.

At the end of a sleepless night, by which time it was almost dawn, we decided that the empty foundations could be extended upwards to make a new and much larger hotbed – another job for the early winter. It’s a fabulous source of re-energised soil for the rest of the plot, and it grows crops even earlier than coldframes with the bonus that stealing two tons of hot horse crap is much harder than unscrewing aluminium bolts.

We have two other categories of allotment nuisance in addition to outright thieves. There are the browsers who wander around indiscriminately plucking a strawberry here or an apple there.  Then there are the grazers who will take a vine load of grapes, or a tree load of figs – we know who you are Mr Jaguar driver! One of our jobs this winter is to remove the vulnerable vine which is massively productive of inferior grapes, and replace it with something else a bit more useful to us.

But notwithstanding the upset, we carried home another twenty pounds of ripened tomatoes for preserving, with at least as many again left.  The wisdom of growing the more expensive but blight resistant F1 hybrids has been demonstrated for a third successive season.

Dealing constructively with loss is a fact of life for gardeners and allotmenteers, but I first learned the lesson when I was making pots.  If I say I like watercolour painting, rapid drawing, and making raku and saltglaze, you’ll see that I’m completely energised by the risk and uncertainty of these media.  There’s no second chance and no going back. The first time I realized I was going to have to learn a new life-skill was one day at art school when I opened a saltglaze kiln containing two months work which I had overfired so much that the entire contents were fused together and had to be removed with a sledgehammer. It took a couple of days to get my head around it but I got there. It’s a skill I’ve had to use a lot.

 

Barely ten yards from where I’m sitting

 

That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important  – it’s everything!

Every summer, as soon as the solstice passes and the nights begin to lengthen I know that I’ll resolve once again to capture the intensity of these colours in a painting.  I did it  today as I wandered around the garden of our borrowed cottage and photographed some of the wild fruits growing here.  The trickiest subject by far was the hawthorn tree which resisted every attempt to capture its brilliance against the blue sky.  Painting is a very tactile experience, from the texture of the paper, the sensation of freedom in a running line and the intense concentration of mixing and applying colour.  The smell of the paint, even the resistance, heft and suppleness of a good brush can be exciting, as can the accidental granularity of the paint as it spreads on the rough surface of good paper.

But talk is cheap and whereas I can write easily,  painting doesn’t come naturally at all. I have an uncompleted painting of a hyacinth that’s three years old, alongside a folder full of drawings, tracings and macro-photos but still it defeats me. The intoxicating complexity of the petals, lit as they are from every angle around the stem; their intense waxy blue; the stiff lanceolate leaves with their almost invisible longitudinal grooves make the process of painting into a profound and humbling experience. Far from envisaging the artistic process as flowing from an exceptionally gifted mind to the paper, I’ve come to see it as a challenge from the subject – the plant, flower or whatever – to the artist; an act of discovery through enchantment. Any kind of ego is an absolute barrier to understanding, and the greatest moments in my creative life have been more like meditations in which I am able to step aside and allow the work to happen.  It doesn’t happen often, but then I have no deadlines or quotas to meet. That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important  – it’s everything! – and then you can forget about it.

I was painting in a group a couple of years ago and using a bit of a technical wrinkle to create the highlights in a painting of a decaying leaf.  One of my class asked me what I was doing and so I explained what I’d been taught by our teacher who is always worth paying attention to. “So it’s just a trick” she said disparagingly.  “No it’s a trick but not just a trick, it’s a technique”. I think she was under the impression that learning technique somehow interferes with the artistic process.  You can’t blame her, art schools are full of lecturers who believe the same thing. It’s not a matter of being  – not everybody who wears a beret and smokes Gauloises is going to become Jean Paul Sartre! It’s a matter of sheer bloody minded doing.

So here I am at the moment full of aspirations that must be defended at all costs from the siren temptations of cooking, gardening and loving our family. About once a year I pull off something worth looking at, but the process is as slow as a sloth’s bowel movements and we need to eat. Today we went for a walk but mistimed the high tide due to my inability to read a 24 hour timetable.  So we went to a gap in the clifftop bushes and leaned on the fence gazing at the view. We agreed that you can do too much walking and so we thought we’d just lean on the fence and take in the smell and sound of the sea. Then we went to the shop and bought some cake.  A perfect day.

 

 

Amateur botanist fails to notice breakfast

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I can hardly believe that while I was getting down and dirty with this Sheeps bit – Jasione montana and a macro lens, there was a field mushroom, about twenty times bigger, right behind me, and which I failed to notice until I looked at Madame’s photo. She thinks my tendency to lie down on public footpaths draws unnecessary attention and strikes fear into the heart of innocent ramblers who think they’ve found a corpse.  No-one has actually poked me with a stick yet but I’m sure it’ll happen one day. With warmer weather kicking off again we’re seeing more and more edible mushrooms and they really do taste better than the ones you can buy.  When we lived in South Gloucestershire there was a field next to the church where mushrooms always grew prolifically. There was an undeclared race between me and the village milkman to get to them first.  We never spoke about it as a competition except to brag quietly when we’d had a good haul and I think in the end we came out pretty equal.00100lPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20190914114544753_COVER

Here on Lleyn we’ve found an equally reliable spot near the cottage but our main rival is the sheep. There are plenty of other edibles around like the Shaggy Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota rhacodes which, I confess, I’ve never eaten, and various puffballs -which I have.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we think about couplets like ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’, and yesterday we were in one of those puzzling places which on one measure was about as wild as it gets, and yet on another had signs of human occupation back to the bronze age, field boundaries almost as ancient, an ancient holy well, the remains of what looked very like a medieval rabbit warren, and a hard concrete road lingering from the second world war and ascending to a derelict observation post, scanning the Irish Sea.

For me, the knowledge that the Uwchmynydd headland, overlooking the pilgrim island of Bardsey feels all the richer for its millennia of human occupation. Neither pristine wilderness (whatever that means) nor intensively cultivated, but populated mainly by sheep and walkers, this is a landscape that puts us in our place, reminds us of just how fleeting our fourscore years are. As we were coming back along the coast we passed the rusting remains of a large pulley lying in the corner of a field and just beyond it the ruins of a winding house, probably used to move whatever was being mined there down to the sea. P1080824At the start of our walk, looking down at the spring that constitutes St Anne’s well, you could see the ancient remains of a settlement that would have given access to fertile south facing soil, security and a good view of the sea and its potential harvest. The landscape has become a palimpsest whose history can be both sensed and actively read through its overlapping scars, whilst still being a rich ecosystem for wildlife, plants and birds.

The temptation to try to press the replay button on a landscape and return it to some notional wild state seems completely misguided to me, particularly if the motivation is to set up some kind of ghastly nature reserve/visitor attraction. The gathering climate catastrophe and the terrible impact of chemical/intensive farming can be addressed better not by doing nothing at all but by doing less of some things and much more of others.  At its simplest, we need to be caring for what we’ve got; caring with every ounce of commitment we can summon up. There’s no technological ‘fix’ around the corner that’s going to allow us to continue in our selfish ways as if the earth existed purely at our disposal.

History and its traces are good for us because they recount both triumphs and failures, the cruelties of child labour, the poisoning of the streams by mining waste, the wealth and poverty side by side, the shame of the enclosures and the theft of common land – all these are written in the landscape and it’s as important to preserve them just as it’s important to protect the wildlife that lives in the remains. This is a landscape for artists and poets as well as farmers, walkers, and birdwatchers.

This poem by RS Thomas must be one of the most commonly quoted on blogs with any interest in spirituality (of any denomination or none), and it’s a personal favourite especially today since we’re staying within a few miles of his parish in Aberdaron.

The Moon in Lleyn
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.
But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
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