A rainy day brings me face to face with my chaotic records.

Until quite recently I’ve been rather dismissive of record keeping. I’ve seen so many people sitting hunched in front of screens, entering data for hour after hour, and thinking to myself that such ant-like industry was a bit tame compared with having the wind in your face in some wild and remote corner of the countryside. However I had a sort of Damascus Road conversion this week when I realized how much I rely on my fallible memory.

So, for instance I recently came across a single Corn Marigold growing at the edge of the coast path. It’s one of those species that’s slowly disappearing because it contaminates grain crops and can make them go mouldy; and so farmers can get exemptions to spray them with weedkiller. OK I recognised it because I’d seen it before and took all the photos necessary to send it to the local Vice County Recorder for verification. All very laborious but the record was accepted and I was extremely pleased with myself.

Pleased, that is, until I tried to find the photos I’d taken of the same plant in Pembrokeshire, which was where the farmer explained to me the paradox of needing to spray off a vulnerable plant in order to make a living. I’m pleased I didn’t have to adjudicate in that case, but it was – he insisted – a very involved process. He was no cowboy; he played his farming by the book. This all took place in 2016, and in spite of a lengthy and time consuming search through thousands of photos I couldn’t find them. In fact, of the thousands of photos I’ve taken of plants, I’ve always relied on memory to find them again. There are no grid references, just dates – and no notes or I/D’s. So to verify a ten year old photo I just have to hope that the photo was good enough to convey the essential details, and with some plants that might mean a 3mm long seed. Usually they aren’t that good. I’ve tried using a very expensive Panasonic camera with an even more expensive Leica macro lens but it weighs a ton and slows down our walks to divorce speed. It’s been a steep learning curve to make the best of my Pixel 6 phone with an add-on macro lens.

Anyway, enough technical talk. The nub of the problem is that I don’t take the necessary notes on the spot, and I’ve never made my photos searchable by using keywords. Even worse, now I’ve started successfully submitting records to the BSBI I don’t have a personal copy of the plants I’ve recorded, along with all the other useful information. If it takes an optimistic one minute to make a record, it’ll take somewhere in the region of 200 hours to enter the data; and realistically it could take twice or three times that because many of the records would need identifying all over again. My respect for those industrious ants hunched over their laptops has soared.

Of course I’ve got handwritten notebooks going back fifty and more years; but they’re spasmodic, unsearchable and without photos. Worse still they contain stacks of shopping lists and phone numbers and references to books – you know the kind of thing. The only sensible option is digital and after a lot of searching through applications that monitor your mood, send you inspiring messages and increase your productivity I came back to the beginning and Google Photos where they’re all stored already with their EXIF data which in the case of the Pixel 5 stores location, although in an incomprehensible and difficult to convert form. Phew.

Hedge Woundwort

I think the heart of the problem is that I’m a bit of a Tigger; always on to the next thing, and because I’m a writer I use photographs as much to record feelings as for raw data. I love writing; I love writing this blog – but behind the scenes there are two almost conflicting aims. The writerly aim is to capture and hopefully convey the inspirational beauty of the earth. The scientific aim is to understand and to record the things I see in a way that can add to our knowledge and understanding of the earth. The conflict is expressed neatly in the names of flowers. Will it be the English names; imprecise and sometimes downright misleading, but often poetic and expressive of historical uses and ancient magic; or will it be the Latin? Will it be Hedge Woundwort or Stachys sylvatica? I would never want to choose because both English and Latin names are indispensable to me. The poetry and beauty of Eyebright, with its intimation of ancient usage carries so much metaphorical freight, we’d be all the poorer if it were shoved aside by the pedantic application of its scientific name – unless – that is, you’re trying to figure out whether it’s thriving or failing when getting the name exactly right for the species is a matter of real importance.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

There are literally millions of records of British and Irish wildflowers, all searchable and nearly all down to the ant-like industry of thousands of volunteers recording and entering the data and the handful of poorly paid professionals who struggle to keep the whole show on the road. Why is it important? Mostly because the only weapon we have left to oppose the destruction of the earth or the gifting of our land to extractive industrial agriculture is strong and reliable evidence of the biological diversity of the land they covet. There’s no credible argument against this. The future is either green or it’s Goodnight Irene for all of us and our putative descendants. Governments will argue in bad faith that there is no evidence for X or Y, knowing full well that there is no evidence because they starved these essential scientific bodies of the funding they needed to gather the evidence.

My chaotic records, I’m ashamed to say, are of no use at all in this threatened world unless I get them organised. I get it. This blog is just one thread of my fascination with what makes us human. It’s the visible conversation about the relationship between the Potwell Inn and being fully human; our lived experience in all its partiality and confusion. The other thread is the urge to identify, record and understand what is here in order that we can make a reliable inventory of what we have, what we are losing and what we have lost. Hard nosed and factual, industrious and perhaps a bit dull; except that I spent a couple of hours yesterday dissecting and photographing some Cow Parsley and comparing it with some Rough Chervil. I can’t begin to tell you how enjoyable it was!

Once again, walking down to Percuil, our hearts are lifted.

Potwell Inn regulars will know that I get a bit grumpy when people take the therapeutic powers of nature as the fixed and immutable reward for stepping outside the door. Hand on heart I suspect I’m a victim of the protestant work ethic that guarantees there’s no gain without plenty of pain. I lay the blame for that disposition squarely on the Primitive Methodists who were rather keen on rewards but much more on punishments. Then, like today, we occasionally go for a gentle stroll with no particular quarry in mind, and we return almost breathless with joy.

Cornish lanes are never lovelier than they are in Spring and the footpath down to Percuil from Gerrans was as lovely as any lane ever has been.

We walked this way six weeks ago and the change has been astonishing. One of the most intriguing features of our walks is to see the successional drifts of flowers following one after another. You can no more hold back the emergence of the next wave of plants than you can hold an eel in your bare hands. I took this photograph because the combination of colours: the pink of the Campions, the white of the Stitchworts and the blue of the bluebells looked so beautiful in the sunshine against the green vegetation. You don’t even have to know the names of the plants to appreciate their beauty. Looking more closely you can spot Navelwort, Dock, Herb Robert and Hogweed. Further down the path we spotted a patch of Early Purple orchids – some with spotted leaves and others without; plants don’t read textbooks.

As we went down the path we could see the successions working out. Six weeks ago there was a mass of Winter Heliotrope, mostly finished flowering. with Alexanders emerging through them. Today the Alexanders were almost finished and the Cow Parsley has thrust through them, closely followed by Hogweed. Already the Cleavers (Goosegrass if you prefer) is threading up through the competition and even showing some tiny white flowers. There’s something wildly, needlessly extravagant about nature – like a Sufi dance – that can lead, (I say grudgingly), into direct awareness of the Power, the Spirit, the Tao; whatever you want to call it.

Percuil harbour

Down at the harbour we perched on the concrete wall of the chandlery come boatyard and laughed about the time we got beaten by the tide and the wind as we paddled back in our kayak and had to be towed in by the instructor. One of the boatyard workers drove past us on a tractor and as he walked back I asked if they were busy. “Yes,” he said, “The season always takes you by surprise”, and he graced us with a friendly smile. Behind the wall an invisible woman was having a loud conversation on a mobile and a hundred yards away the sound of a conversation on the verandah of a holiday let, skimmed across the hard sand towards us. We’d hoped for the sounds of Curlew or Cuckoo but today we were content to listen to a whole choir of other species. Upstream on the creek, a Heron and an Egret eyed each other cautiously over a patch of territory.

We walked back up the road with Madame’s rucksack stuffed with Corsican Pine cones for her to draw. I think she’d scaled the fence of a rather grand house to snaffle them under the gaze of a dog walker who she’d confused with me. That’s the joy of a meandering stroll with no particular purpose in mind.

On the other hand there’s serious work to be done and I’d spotted a couple of plants of what I think is Smith’s Pepperwort – Lepidium heterophyllum on a footpath. I checked on the BSBI database and although it’s been recorded all around us on the map, it’s not been seen here. Distribution maps can sometimes tell you more about the distribution of field botanists than they can about the private life of plants. Anyway, with the prospect of filling the last missing square in the jigsaw I was like a dog with a bone and sent a preliminary enquiry with a couple of poor photos to the local Vice County Recorder. That cost me £35 because in all conscience I couldn’t continue relying on the BSBI, (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), for help without at least joining. And so I proudly present the evidence below with very little expectation that anyone else will be interested. Little things please little minds.

This little lot cost me four visits, one of which was to sniff a crushed leaf. The fact that it didn’t smell foetid or of garlic turned out to be important. So were the hairy leaves and the tough old perennial rhizome, not forgetting the purple stamens.

Culture war on the allotments

After an exhausting couple of busy weeks on the Potwell Inn allotment we’ve come down to Cornwall for a break. Luckily we were blessed with some decent rain as we left and although it made for unpleasant driving on the motorway it was a joy to think that the allotment was getting a thorough soak. Happily too, we’ve got brilliant neighbours who are always willing to lend a hand with watering the greenhouse and the polytunnel. Although the greenhouse has an automatic watering system, it’s very difficult to calibrate because the pressure goes down as the water level in the tank decreases, and occasionally a bit of gunk jams the inlet valve open so it floods the plants and does as much harm as drought does. There’s no doubt that personal attention is the least foolproof way of going on, but we all need a break occasionally and so we help each other out.

In fact, half the joy of allotmenteering is the community of interest that it builds. The gardeners on our site are a pretty fair representation of the hugely diverse and polyglot population of Bath. When we talk of culture we need to remember that the root of the concept comes from the uniqueness of our highly local ways of living, growing, talking and celebrating. You can either treat diversity as a threat, or (so far as I’m concerned) a marvellous melting pot in which everyone becomes both teacher and student. To use a slightly academic phrase, what diversity offers is the prospect of emergent properties; insights and techniques of the utmost importance in a time of huge threat.

So it came as something of a surprise when, after a hiatus of two years, the council announced that plot inspections would take place in early May and, rather than acknowledging that the site has never looked better with so many newcomers taking on empty and neglected plots; started to send out letters threatening eviction for quite trivial and, in one case, quite imaginary infringements of the rules. Sheds, one allotmenteer was informed, were not permitted to have windows. No trace of any such regulation can be seen in the 27 pages of mostly sensible rules but suddenly we are all in danger of being evicted as a result of rogue windows. The Potwell Inn allotment will probably get away with it because since the vandalism on Christmas Eve our shed hasn’t had one and the void has been covered with an empty manure bag, tacked on. We may, I suppose, still be turned off under a newly invented rule that advertising is not permitted. Another member was threatened because they were using an old cast iron fireplace as a firepit.

We were, however, warned that “non fruit bearing trees” with a trunk diameter of more than 3/4″ are not permitted. This is an (unwritten) extension of the sensible rule that standard fruit trees are prone to shading neighbours’ allotments. All of our trees are on highly dwarfing rootstocks, but Madame stuck a small piece of pruning from a bay tree in the ground in the hope it might preserve the leaves better than hanging it in the kitchen. We got an email detailing the ferocious and land grabbing propensities of bay and were “advised” to remove it. Our experience of bay trees is that they can get out of hand, but over pruning will often kill them.

So what on earth is going on? It seems to me that there’s an intriguing allotment culture war going on between an official with a very rigid historical view of what constitutes a proper allotment and a bunch of new gardeners who are entirely free of any preconceptions about double digging, National Growmore fertilizer and finely calibrated straight rows. On the one hand there is the stereotypical Mr Digwell with his trilby hat and pipe and on the other a new culture of recycling, upcycling and acute environmental awareness. The 25% of land on which we are allowed to grow flowers is more likely to be occupied by more recently sanctified “weeds” than cut flowers destined for the church porch.

I propose a test case with the lovely Echium pininana (photo above) which fails the regulations in every way being way more than three inches in girth, as much as ten feet tall, but which dies at the sniff of a frost and in summer is always alive with bees and other pollinating insects including armies of ants. And in any case, what on earth constitutes a non fruit-bearing tree. Without winter berries many of our overwintering birds would simply die and so – are cotoneaster bushes (in sensible numbers) friend or foe? Whose idea of fruit or food are we meant to be protecting?

Ironically the Council has announced a whole raft (I like that word because it implies imminent flooding, which is all too true), so a whole raft of green measures including green corridors which, truth to tell, is exactly what we need since Crest Nicholson were allowed to build houses for the wealthy on the southern riverbank which, before the construction of flats which resembled Russian bonded warehouses, was a post industrial urban wildlife haven. Of course we need houses, but not just for the wealthy!

So there we are – away in the wilds of Cornwall with the campervan; hunting for plants and – to be strictly accurate – guzzling wine and snoozing in the sunshine too. Will there be a menacing letter waiting for us when we get home? Time will tell I suppose, but this battle isn’t really about windows or trees it’s about dreams, it’s about saving the planet, it’s about listening to new ideas and new ways of doing things and it’s about widening the slit in the sentry post of petty regulations to see the wider picture.

There’s a huge difference between looking and beholding

My old music teacher AF Woodman had an assortment of names for me. Sometimes he would address me as “rod, pole or perch“, and on others he would extend my name by stressing every letter into a strangulated “poe-ill”. I didn’t care what he called me because he gave me a lifelong love of music. One of his pet phrases was – “I know you heard it Poe-ill; but were you listening?

Much later in life I was on a retreat at the La Retraite convent in Clifton, and we were invited to take the hands of a complete stranger but rather than something easy like telling them what we had for breakfast, we were instructed to behold one another. This turned out to be incredibly hard for me because it involved letting my guard down. It was, in its own small way, a life changing experience, because it uncovered a complexity and depth of possibility in an encounter with a stranger that eventually became the key to my pastoral work. Dangerous, messy and (in a very limited sense) erotic beholding, enabled a form of listening which involved all of the senses.

It took its toll, of course, and eventually I just ran out of steam. Too many bereavements; too much grief. I needed to get out before I burned out.

Anyway, that was then and as I’ve written here before, the key to surviving crises is a capacity to reinvent yourself using the strengths that are left after the broken bits have been laid up; all of which maunderings lead to a further look at the alleged healing powers of nature. The italicized “alleged” is not there to knock the idea but it’s just asserting that the healing powers of nature are a hypothesis not a natural law.

On Monday last we went back up to Velvet Bottom in a further search for Spring Sandwort – Minuartia verna. Our recovery from Covid – which we caught a month ago – has been very slow. The acute phase was pretty horrible, but that was followed by all sorts of symptoms that seemed more psychological than physical. Combined with a really busy time on the allotment it was as much as we could do to keep up with the routine work because any physical effort seemed to drain us both completely. So our trip to Mendip was compromised by my incapacity to focus, or draw any inspiration at all from what would normally excite and engage me. Madame was kind enough to keep her counsel, but I must have been a miserable companion. All I could think of was to lie down on the grass and sleep. Fortunately, a week on, we both feel almost normal again.

The urge to lie down on the warm grass, though, was inspired by an experience in my early teens when I lay on the grass on Rodway Hill and had what Romain Rolland described to Freud as the oceanic feeling. I’ve no idea how long it lasted but I seemed to be completely absorbed into the earth and her processes. From my point of view it was a completely passive experience and even though I was very young I just gave myself up to it. It was a completely unasked for healing that I’ve never forgotten. I lay there looking up at the blue sky, dappled with summer clouds and listened to the wind riffling through the drifts of grass. Now, with hindsight, I would include this in a description of the healing powers of nature only with the proviso that it can never be sought – it’s an experience of undeserved grace that can’t be guaranteed in any particular place, and which only fell to me a couple of times despite many attempts to force its hand.

But there’s another way of engaging with nature that’s quite different and is capable of and responsive to being sought; and it involves a kind of beholding, directed at natural rather than human subjects. Yes of course it’s possible to reduce field botany to a kind of trainspotting, and I’m certain that there are people out there who ask nothing more of nature than a new record. But when I go out on a field trip with some people, I sense that their engagement with the tiniest of nature’s gifts is far deeper; a two way engagement that both speaks and listens. To walk with such a person is – to quote a favourite heretic

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour

From Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

For them a tiny rope of mycelium tracking across a dead tree; the elaborate hieroglyphic of Graphis scripta lichen a couple of inches in diameter on a tree trunk , the little Moschatel with its cubic flower head giving it the name Town Hall Clock; these are not ticks in a box but true encounters – beholdings, if you like – engagements with nature that have spiritual power and maybe even (if the seeing becomes a true beholding) an offer of healing. So in this sense too, it means something more than wishful thinking to speak of the healing powers of nature.

I hesitate to introduce terms like dangerous, messy and erotic to the pursuit of field botany, but if they have any use, it’s to move the heart of the enterprise away from the rational calculations of the identification key, spreadsheet and grid reference towards something more akin to wonder. Perhaps the healing powers of nature could be more easily embraced after her re-enchantment.

How to change the world

If only it were so easy. I was originally going to call this post “The morning after”, if only because, having done a fair bit of research and finding several target species I wanted to emphasise the fact that as sure as night follows day, there’s always a stack of work to do. I was feeling mightily pleased with myself and I envisaged myself cantering towards the finishing line and pressing the send button on the reporting software. Pleased, that is, until I started to look more closely at the photos.

I’m very used to the dead hand of confirmation bias when I’m out and about looking for a particular plant. I find something that looks a bit like it and instantly every nerve strains towards putting the tick in the box; even – or perhaps especially when there’s something that doesn’t quite fit the frame. As I was writing that sentence I thought of one of my most forensic, and therefore valuable tutors at theological college who would seize on the slightest mention of any hard work that had gone into the draft sermon I’d just delivered and say – “really Dave; no-one wants to listen to you pissing from the pulpit!”

Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Indeed not, but I hope I’m making a point of general interest here. Point one is that there are an awful lot of little white flowers around at this time of the year. They’re often quite tiny and inconspicuous and I usually have to prostrate myself with a hand lens and take a closer look. Point two is that a phone camera with a decent zoom capability is the most useful gadget in the world for recording a pile of information you didn’t notice at the time you were squinting at the specimen, but discover you desperately need when you start leafing through the 1266 pages of Stace 4 (no pictures) at home. Macro photos are so immensely useful for identification that I even bought a little clip-on macro lens which makes life even easier.

Nonetheless, the morning after feeling creeps in like mental wet rot as you stare at the photos and realize that in the cold light of day, Hairy Bittercress; Alpine Pennycress, Dwarf Mouse Ear, Common Whitlow Grass and even Barren Strawberry look like – how shall I put this delicately? – cousins, and my report if I ever send it will be seasoned with doubts. Today at a Bath Nats meeting I shared some of those doubts with a really ace botanist; so good he can enlarge at any length you like on the 275 plus subspecies of Blackberry. I say I shared, but as soon as he discerned the drift of the conversation he paled visibly and offered to look at my emails in the same tone of voice you might use to say ‘you must come round for supper some time’ – with not the least intention of specifying an actual date.

So maybe it would be better to have walked on by and enjoyed the lovely skies last week; but here’s the point. After you’ve sat and struggled with an ID for a while, the world becomes an infinitely richer place. Instead of noticing the little white flower and passing by, you now understand that it could be one of … who knows; it could be hundreds! Suddenly the world needs to expand to accommodate this new piece of knowledge because now there are five new friends where there was once only one.

Changing the world, especially at the moment, seems like a fruitless and depressing waste of emotional energy but changing it just by making it bigger, more diverse and more beautiful than it was before, is achievable. These little white flowers aren’t especially rare, although they can sometimes survive in a place that no other living thing could survive in. However they are under threat and whilst I’ve no pretensions about my own modest abilities, we footsoldiers; the botanical infantry if you like, can record them so that they can’t become rare or even extinct without someone noticing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course we talk to the allotment – how else would we know how to keep it happy?

It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.

Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.

As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.

But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.

We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.

Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?

Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!

Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.

So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.

This is the season when most of the allotment is the kitchen

That’s a bit of an exaggeration because we’re still harvesting an abundance of broccoli, leeks, chard and parsnips from the open ground, and lettuce, coriander, parsley and spinach from the polytunnel; but these are the last of the winter crops and we’re just entering the hungry gap; the period between the past and the coming season when there’s not much about. Most people would assume that the hungry time is in midwinter but it’s not. This is the time when the stores come into their own. The jams, preserves, pickles and the food in the freezer are what get us by even though the temperature may be in the late teens and we’re dressed in T shirts. Revelation of the year is the wonderful flavour and texture of our own home-grown borlotti. So plump and soft and full of goodness. This year we’ll grow even more, because they store so well. But in reality it’s that time when the myth of self sufficiency is punctured by the cold logic of the seasonal year. The last frost can be as late as May 6th here and it’s heartbreaking to see prematurely exposed plants wilt and die.

The strawberries from last year’s runners, that I moved to their new bed a few weeks ago are flourishing under a fleece covering and even showing a few flowers. Angelica, lovage and French sorrel are all going well and the first asparagus tips are poking gingerly through the soil. Broad beans are safely under bird nets and every bare patch of ground is eagerly covering itself with opportunist weeds. The saddest casualty of winter is my beloved Sweet Cicely which is at best a short lived perennial. It’s a devil to get going but we’ll try again in the autumn. Last year we doubled the number of dwarf fruit trees and they’re all looking good with the apples in flower. Even the speculative planting of tiny rhubarb stools (Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise) have come good; but we’ll leave them to gather strength this season. There are now three successional varieties of rhubarb to supply us from March through summer.

In the kitchen, though, it’s all going well with the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, lettuce, melons, courgettes and peas all potted on, and there are seed potatoes out on the landing. So this is Spring; the season of hopefulness and big dreams.

More on foraging

The glossy magazines continue to publish articles on foraging; some even daring to suggest that foraged food might help bridge the poverty trap for some people. I’m a foraging cynic. Recently we had reports of professionals stripping Cornish lanes of wild garlic. In Epping Forest the foraging of fungi had to be banned after entrepreneurs were found taking tens of kilos of fungi for sale to flashy restaurants. Nearly all the articles I see are written by people who make a living either by stripping the land themselves, or by running courses on how to do it. The idea that taking huge amounts of food away from its habitat – because it’s ‘free‘ – is somehow more “green” than growing some, (but never all) your food, is a dangerous fantasy that draws on precisely the same selfish and greedy instincts that underpin factory farming and fossil fuel extraction.

If, and when, we find something wild and delicious – field mushrooms for instance – we take enough for one feed and that’s it. I’m absolutely not arguing that picking a few blackberries, elderflowers or sloes is going to drive the trees to extinction but I’d apply a test that was suggested to me many tears ago by one of my mentors. Take (or give) enough not to be ashamed, but never enough to be proud.

The very moment in a foraging expedition where you have enough is the moment to stop. When gratitude for the gift slips into pride, the gift becomes toxic. One of my books on herbal medicine makes the admirable suggestion that the harvesting of plants and flowers for our healing should always begin with an act of thanksgiving. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely right, and I often find myself saying thank you out loud when we’re harvesting from the allotment. My maternal grandmother had a little saying that I hated when I was young because it always seemed to go with not being allowed any more pudding. She would say “enough is a feast” .

The single most awe inspiring thing about nature is not the big televisual stunts but her sheer undeserved generosity. When we abuse that generosity we become the prodigal children who want to spend the family inheritance in excess and then come back when it’s all gone and beg for more with a mumbled and insincere apology.

Revisiting the scene of a crime.

I thought I remembered writing about this several years ago, but a search failed to deliver. I was thinking back to a Bath Nats fungus foray when a visitor harvested an entire stand of Parasol mushrooms behind the back of the group leader who, moments earlier, had asked us to leave them for others to enjoy. Anyway that memory has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s a bit of an argument for the so-called tragedy of the commons; the pernicious (to my mind) argument that the peasants couldn’t be trusted not to take more than their share of the commons and so enclosure was the only humane solution. More humane, it transpired, for the landlords than the peasants who were driven off the land and into the towns and cities. The afternoon was made all the more poignant by the fact that the larcenous offender was the daughter in law of one of the biggest landowners in one of my parishes.

Anyway that patch of land has always stayed in my mind and what with lockdown and closure of the grassland we haven’t been able to see whether any permanent damage was done. Fungi are very seasonal and you have to be there at the right time. However on the back of this doleful memory I taught our grandson how to look for patches of darker grass in the field where, if you were lucky, you would find fungi at the right time. He was a quick learner and was eventually sprinting from patch to patch, finding fungi. In this instance they were St George’s mushrooms; one of the simpler ones because they fruit early in the year, around St George’s Day, 23rd April.

So today after a frosty start we went back to the same walk and before long I spotted a clump of much greener grass amidst the winter colours. Poking through were what looked (from a distance) like the flower heads of Ribwort Plantain – which would be a very odd time for them to flower. A closer look immediately showed that the grass was Meadow Foxtail; handsome with its roots in a nitrogen rich fungal feast. I looked around and it seemed that there was some sort of association between the grass and what I know will be St George’s mushrooms within the next few weeks, because the Foxtail was entirely limited to the the darker green patches in the field.

Anyway with that little question/project hovering in the back of my mind, we wandered on down through the terraces and spotted a clump of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Trachystemon orientalis) growing in the shade of a wall and gate as we entered the formal gardens. Slowly; too slowly, learning your flowers moves from the starting point of answering the “what’s that” question with a blank mind, towards a much better starting point – that’s to say – “I know I don’t know that one, but I know what family it belongs to.” I knew that I didn’t know what this pretty borage – looking plant was called. I should say I’ve got into the habit of naming plants we pass (silently) and trying to remember as much about them as I can. It’s a great way of learning and shortens the recognition process greatly.

The big decision to come from our spontaneous visit today was that we should adopt the circuit of the park, including Whitefield the magical wildflower meadow, as our regular walk. Even though the car park can be hideously crowded the fact is most folks don’t stray far from the house and formal gardens; dogs are banned, so apart from arriving and leaving we’re pretty much on our own.

In the back of my mind at the moment – jogged by a new series of a popular TV series – is the idea of pilgrimage. I’ve had some experience of pilgrimages since I invented a 45 mile walk from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn and led yearly pilgrimages for years. I also walked a 200 mile stretch of the Camino. I need to think some more about this but it seems to me that the difference between hiking and pilgrimage concerns intention and reflection. Pilgrimage, in my mind, is a form of liturgical walking; expressing rhythmically through legs and feet what’s more normally expressed in music and song. What I can say with absolute certainty was that an accidental and very short pilgrimage to St Non’s Chapel in St David’s yielded more spiritual insight that any of the tougher walks I’ve done; so it’s absolutely not about blood, sweat, tears and suffering. It’s about vulnerability.

Buddle pits, settling ponds and slag will give you a Velvet Bottom and very beautiful it will be!

This is a dam wall for a settling pond

Need I say a word about my emotional attachment to Velvet Bottom? This post, by the way, refers to lead mining rather than some kind of cosmetic procedure sold by Gwyneth Paltrow. You would be very disappointed in what follows if you were in search of that kind of amusement. The good people of Shipham may not be as enthusiastic about these old mine workings as me because some years ago they were ordered to stop growing and eating their own garden vegetables on account of the dangerous levels of cadmium in the soil -some of it, without doubt, washed down from here. The ponds are the industrial remains of a previous technical solution to a pollution problem caused when inefficient settling of the crushed ore in the buddle pits resulted in lead finding its way into the waters of the several underground rivers that spring from the limestone rock further down the Mendip escarpment; killing the fish quickly and (probably) the residents slowly. The mines have been worked and reworked since Roman times so there’s been ample time for havoc to accumulate, and this should be a salutary reminder to those who think there’s always a technical solution to every environmental problem. The effluent still contained lead, cadmium and goodness knows what other heavy metals. Just to be clear, most of this came from Victorian workings. In earlier times, back to the Romans, there was almost certainly still pollution, because mining and smelting are intrinsically polluting activities. It’s just that when they’re scaled up as they were during the industrial revolution, that they become truly dangerous. With coal from the nearby North Somerset coalfield, and probably in earlier days abundant wood, mining and smelting came together like the Kray twins of industrial growth.

But now there is peace and silence. Where lead ore was once settled in ponds, now adders warm their blood in the sun. Underground a very large system of caves was first exposed in modern times by the 1968 floods; but pioneering cavers like Willie Stanton soon found that in some places the miners had preceded them, leaving their footprints in the mud. Here and there as you walk down the valley you’ll see trial pits and occasionally swallets, gated to keep out reckless and ill equipped explorers.

However, parts of the soil here are so polluted that the whole flora has had to adapt. While we create clean air zones and fight environmental battles that may yet save us from our own historic folly, there was no-one here for the flowers and plants and when you look closely you can soon see the glittering lead slag from which some of the tracks have been made. There are places where almost nothing grows now, or ever will grow in the future. It’s so rare a habitat that it’s even got its own name – Calaminarian grassland – and there are only 450 hectares of it in the whole of the UK. The name comes from a continental violet – Viola calaminaria – that doesn’t even grow here but has the gift of thriving on soil, highly polluted with heavy metals in the parts of Europe from which the UK has detached itself; i.e. the rest of it! The calaminaria part of the name comes from the zinc containing ore, calamine with/from which calamine lotion is somehow made which is very good for calming itchy chicken pox.

So am I telling too bleak a tale about one of my favourite landscapes in the world? I really hope not, because there is an extraordinary beauty in the way that ecosystems can heal themselves. It takes time, sometimes it takes centuries; but slowly nature reclaims what we have damaged because that’s what nature does best, and bare soil is sick, unbalanced soil.

I’ve been walking up and down Velvet Bottom for something like sixty years and every time, it seems to embrace me in its remote quietness. Occasionally the trail runners and dogs owners can be a bit much. The leftovers from picnics and barbecues can be an eyesore but as landscapes go, the high Mendips – never that high – remains off the beaten track if you avoid the hotspots. But close attention to the flora there makes every walk a treat. Here’s a single example. The edges of the buddle pits and settling ponds are particularly heavily polluted but there are a handful of species that have carved out a living there. Last week we got lucky because the flower in the photos below is a very short lived annual, the flowers only open in full sun and by the time its more glamorous and eye catching cousins come along there’s nothing to see. Unless the flowers are open it’s all but invisible, but miraculously it makes a living on the bare slag, helped along I imagine by plentiful rabbit poo. It’s called Common Whitlowgrass – Erophila verna, and is found locally in these bare patches of gravel, pavements and neglected ground across the UK, mainly in the South. The flowers are barely 2-3mm across if they’re open so these photos show them greatly enlarged. You’ve probably got it growing unnoticed on your allotment or in your garden; but here in this hostile environment it’s a token of the healing power of nature.

The name Whitlowgrass comes from the fact that it was apparently used in the past as a treatment – most likely a poultice – for the infected fingernail bed that bears the same name. But not these specimens – please! They’ve got a much more important healing function; they take up heavy metals into the leaves and are potentially poisonous, and in any case it’s illegal – however common they may be. After I’d posted this I did a bit of searching and came up with this quotation from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal . Modern herbals probably don’t mention it because whitlows are a viral infection caused by the herpes virus. As an astringent it may have helped to clean any resulting bacterial infection. Any port in a storm!

“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives this plant an alternative name of Nailwort and tells us that ‘it is held to be exceedingly good for those imposthumes* in the joints and under the nails, which they call Whitlows, Felons, Andicorns and Nail-wheals’. The plant was carried to North America by the first British settlers where it was found to be a most useful plant in herbal medicine. “

‘Wildflowers of Ireland’ website

* Archaic term for abscesses.”

%d bloggers like this: