Boom and bust on the allotment

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In a perfect world – i.e. not the one we’re actually living in, crops would come along like parts in a car factory, perfect, exactly on time and in just the right quantities. The Potwell Inn allotment, on the other hand, is a boom and bust operation subject to the vagaries of weather, impulse buying and whatever pests happen to blow, creep or slither in. Therefore we are unable to impress anyone with photographs of complete gourmet meals straight off the allotment with no more than a rinse in our private springwater supply. The potatoes, which were worryingly slow to get going have now all flowered at once.  The strawberries are in the midst of producing a glut, as are the Hungarian hot wax chillies, and don’t even mention salad leaves, but the onions were a lost cause, the tomatoes grew leggy while we waited for it to warm up and most of the squashes died at the seed leaf stage. We are – categorically – not experts

Apart from the glamorous world of coffee table gardeners, this time of year is relentless in its demands. The ground, which was thick with bindweed three years ago, is still capable of growing a towering six foot specimen in a week even after we thought we had picked every tiny piece of root out. Couch grass is easier to tame – provided you conduct a vengeful campaign of uprooting every time it pokes a leaf out above ground. But the worst ones are the annuals that grow from seeds blown across from the unlet plots. Willowherb is a particular and common villain, but we have a problem with a much less common plant which, notwithstanding its name – “common ramping fumitory” is not at all common in our area and so uprooting it seems like a small crime except for the fact that it has secret plans to take over the world – hence the “ramping” bit of the name.

In the winter I was slaving over the ‘civil engineering’ of beds, paths and bins and longing for the summer. Now it’s almost the solstice and every day, it seems, we’re unable to complete all the jobs that need doing because there just isn’t time and so neither are we able to doze in the deckchairs and listen to the bees humming – which is what most people think gardening is for, although – to paraphrase Ghandi – it would be a good idea.

IMG_5520AND – I’ve also been trying to sort out my study which, as I’ve already written, involves getting rid of several hundred books that I’d been clinging to in case I forgot who I was. Consequently the twin planets of the allotment and the study have swung into malevolent alignment.  That said, though, the business of handing over boxes of books at the Oxfam shop and then rearranging the survivors in proper order on the shelves has had a very happy effect. I hadn’t realised how reproachful a shelf of unread books can be, and if – like me – you’re an olympian self-doubter, the constant look of unread-ness relating to a past enthusiasm can sap the will dreadfully. I’m sure this is the blindingly obvious core of the decluttering movement  – old stuff ties you down, keeps you looking backwards. I’ve had persistent images of my (suitably sad) children taking the exact same books to the same Oxfam shop after my death and, frankly, I’d rather spare them the pain and reward myself with the sense of release that comes from sitting at my desk and being surrounded by books I use constantly and love.

Of course there are many that I’ll hang on to – Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” which I bought when I was about thirteen;  Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” which I chanced on accidentally when I was nineteen and which changed the course of my life – just two of the milestones that I could never part with. My Grandfather’s copy of “The History of Mr Polly” where I found the Potwell Inn, has been promoted to glory among the very special novels.

Back on the allotment it’s pleasing to be able to say that the seaweed mulch that we applied in the winter to the asparagus bed has had the most astounding effect, and it’s growing taller all the time – I mean over five feet tall and climbing!  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it because last year it was ravaged by asparagus beetles, but all we’ve been finding is lacewings which must have got there first. One painful lesson learned once and (hopefully) never forgotten is that asparagus beetles are not the same as lacewing larvae – so look before you squeeze. Luckily the presence of the adult lacewings and innumerable other pollinators working the flowers has prevented us from any spraying with soft soap, and so no harm was done by the misidentification.

Is this what I’m supposed to do?

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My favourite shed on the allotment site.  I’ve been photographing it regularly as it slowly collapses and it occurred to me that perhaps this is what I’m supposed to do.  Well I’m not!

My study is a tip; it’s been that way for ages (for ever as my friends know) and I realized that it’s becoming alarmingly like that shed – full of memories but gradually sinking into senescence.  I’ve already posted about getting rid of my piano which I can’t play anyway because we live in a concrete biscuit tin and you can hear someone opening a can of beans four floors up. Sound carries alarmingly well and soon after we moved here I played it just once and our downstairs neighbour was kind enough to say he’d heard me playing and it was rather nice. How typically English to use kind words to send a warning, and so I’ve never played it since.

In fact my room was becoming a kind of memorial to what I’d done in the past. When we moved here we got rid of hundreds of books, we even burned masses of old radio scripts that I knew I’d never read again.  Years of bank statements, receipts, correspondence all went into the incinerator, and I wore a car out driving back and forth to the recycling centre.  I burned thirty years worth of diaries – full of meetings that seemed important at the time, but full of the pain of illnesses and bereavements as well as weddings and baptisms  I’d taken.

But there were many things I brought to Bath, not least yet more books.  So many books, in fact, that they were stacked two deep on the shelves.  The question is – was I ever going to read them again? They were comforting, they reminded me of times and enthusiasms past and yet they began to feel like a load that was cluttering up my future, and so today they started to go down to the Oxfam shop in order to make way for new books, new projects and enable me to open the shutters and let the light in.  So first thing we walked down with two bags of books and the women at the Oxfam shop said they’d be delighted to take as many more as I’d like to bring.

All this all involved a division of labour at the Potwell Inn and Madame went up to the allotment to pick four and a half kilos of broad beans and two kilos of garden peas, the first strawberries, a tiny taste of very sour blackcurrants and some new season garlic, while I battled with my instincts to cling on to the books to the point where I reliquished another five boxes. Naturally my room looks worse than ever now, but when the piano goes I’ll have space to set up my botanical painting worktable.  Lest this all sounds terribly worthy, I have to confess that I also ditched five boxes of absolute junk including a lifetime collection of old mains connectors and several heritage satellite TV boxes and broadband routers – oh and some power tools that died years ago and a load of rusty screws and bolts that I have no recollection of acquiring.

I think I’m supposed to say that I experienced some kind of catharsis and suddenly felt energised. Well no, as I took the last load of books down to the car, I had to fight the urge to go through them all again and my back ached.  Yesterday we had a horrible drive back from RHS Rosemoor, with standing rain on the motorway reducing visibility so much one van driver had somehow managed to drive up a bank on the inside of the crash barrier.  I don’t think they were much damaged, except in the pride department, but it was suprising how many drivers were ploughing up the outside lane at over 70mph.

Does any of this matter to anyone else? I truly don’t know except I do know that I’ve no intention of going quietly.

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Pale Rider of the flower beds

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This is a white crab spider – I’ve never seen one before and neither had the gardener at Rosemoor who found it. I think it’s not so much rare as difficult to see, since it’s a bit of a pirate, ambushing its prey by sitting on a white flower and blending in until the unfortunate victim alights and gets more than it bargained for. If I’ve got the ID wrong blame me and not the gardener, I just googled “white UK spiders” and came up with this elegant assassin.

IMG_5498So our first day at Rosemoor was not nearly as wet as the forecast promised, although we kept our waterproofs on all day.  Last night’s rain was prolonged and heavy so we weren’t taking any chances. Our main interest was in the vegetable gardens because I wanted to find someone who could help us to understand what happened to our onions this year.  So I trailed around with the pictures on my mobile, accosting gardeners and largely discovering that they were no wiser than we were.  Aphids were mentioned, as were all the usual suspects – flies, fungi and eelworm, but none quite fitted the bill. In the end Madame suggested that it could have been that the sets, which arrived early and had to be stored for ages, had simply deteriorated before we planted them out.  The idea made sense to both of us, although it would mean that almost everyone else on the allotment site stored them badly as well. Anyway we’re getting an email address for a free ID service for members and I’ll send off the photos to see if there are any more suggestions.

As ever there were some wonderful things to look at – alliums were everywhere, as befits their recent ‘must have’ status; and as wide a range of plants as you could hope to see, but I’ll never be a gardener in the Gertrude Jekyll sense.  Notwithstanding the efforts to make borders and beds look “natural”, there couldn’t be anything less natural than this kind of English garden, absolutely stuffed with non natives and hybrids it reminded me of the way the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford used to be, apart from the fact that the labelling is a lot better. Two large tulip trees were still in flower, the photo on the right above is pretty much real size, and very spectacular they are.

I think the biggest question I came away with centred on the idea of nature. I have to confess right now that I’m a bit of a fundamentalist, and it’s not something I feel particularly happy about but my default position is that the less human intervention there has been, the better I like it. I can see a million reasons why that’s an unhelpful mindset because if anything is dynamic and ever-changing it’s the natural world and there’s no point in railing against Himalayan balsam, for instance because it’s here for good.

Much of the area occupied by Rosemoor is a relatively recent (1989) addition to the older gardens and involved digging out 13,000 tons of heavy clay and redistributing it around the gardens to achieve level beds.  That’s a lot of dirt being turned over and moved around, enough to keep a ‘no-digger’ awake for a week. So you just have to accept that this is a blank canvas garden of the kind beloved by hard landscape contractors, big flower shows and TV gardening programmes.

And I think I just have to accept that gardens like this are showcases where you can go and look at national collections of your favourite plants, and exquisite displays of plants from all over the world, and I’m sure that if I raised this with the RHS they would say ‘we’re not trying to recreate a natural landscape we’re creating a natural looking one’.

_1080773However, there came a moment when the dilemma became acute for me and that, ironically, was when the garden started to offer something I really wanted to see. There are now some quite large areas of wildflower meadow which I fell upon with joy. There were southern marsh orchids in flower, ragged robin, knapweed, oxeye daisies, umpteen grasses like crested dogs tail and so on, yellow rattle and an unexpected white flower that I don’t think I’ve noticed before which turned out to be Star of Bethlehem – Ornithogalum angustifolium . It was all too good to be true, surely? There, in a patch half the size of a football field, was a collection of plants I’d expect to find one at a time in a day’s search over a much wider range. All this in an area that had been turned over by earthmovers less than 30 years ago. It’s a wonder, a triumph of science and the gardener’s art.  A horticultural Las Vegas in the depths of a Devon valley.  I’ve never seen a better display of plants in a wildflower meadow; it exactly fits our current anxieties about biodiversity, and I don’t suppose the birds, the insects, moths and butterflies that flock to it will give a hoot whether it was there in 1930 . Compared with the usual miserable sowing of ‘wildflower mix’ that developers ususlly throw around their bleak gulags to persuade the planners that they really care about nature, this was xanadu. So why was I troubled? I think a large part of it was my stupid attachment to authenticity – whatever that means – and the truth is, starting from where we are (which is a pretty dreadful starting point) there’s no other show in town except the Las Vegas route, re-creating at great expense and with enormous skill, the flora and fauna of the environment we’ve allowed to decline to the point of no return. There’s no way back to the good old days before we lost nine tenths of our wildflower meadows, because simply abandoning a patch of ground to ‘nature’ can’t possibly succeed.

So my takeaway point is that there’s no cheap way of restoring these habitats.  If we’re serious about restoring them, throwing around a handful of imported and non-native wildflower seed is a dangerous distraction.  It will take time, skill and an abundance of resources.  Notwithstanding my reservations, I think the RHS have cracked it, bless them.

IMG_5512And just one more little joy – they’re developing a new orchard here and it’s dedicated to one of Madame’s old bosses – George Gilbert, a delightful man who probably knew more about apples than anyone else alive. We also saw a plaque in his memory at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, commemorating his contribution to the gardens there. He died in 2007, and took with him a lifetime of experience. His students are a big part of the future if we’re ever to rediscover and recreate the lost varieties of apples, pears and soft fruit, lost to careless agricultural policy, and that’s another star for the RHS who do so much to train the next generation of gardeners with apprenticeships, courses and such like.

 

Down in Devon in the rain

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

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

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

Gardeners of the imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why the delight? Part II

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So here’s the 2019 onion crop in a bag and waiting to go to the bin. Generally we recycle everything we grow on the allotment except where plants appear to be diseased – which the onions certainly did. In fact all the alliums this year, autumn and spring planted alike, semed to keel over to the same problem.  Possibly eelworm, white rot who knows.  My theory is that either the sets were the result of a very stressed growing season last summer, or that after planting they suffered more stress in the ground on the allotment.  Who can tell? But it’s infuriating that this so-called “easy crop” has failed twice in two years. Which leads me to the Part II title.

Yesterday I went big on the pleasures of gardening and its effect on our sense of wellbeing, but there’s another side to gardening that we simply can’t ignore. Crops fail, pests invade and consume them, and monster micro-organisms like blight can destroy a crop in days. Gardening/allotmentering isn’t a primrose path – even at the Potwell Inn.

So is this just the counterbalance to too much ‘delight’? Is every ointment obliged to have a fly in it? Can failure and disease ever make a contribution to our wellbeing?

The clue, I think, lies in the very last words from yesterday’s posting – the quote from Neitzsche – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Suffering can never be good for you, and aside from some fairly specialised preferences will hardly lead to delight – but – when things go wrong on the allotment they’re rarely if ever going to do you any huge damage.  It can make you sad, uncomfortable or even ashamed if, like us, you prune a grape vine too late and it starts to bleed sap, pints of the stuff!

But I’ll put my money on gardening increasing our resilience and therefore able to help us ride the more serious stuff that happens to us. On the allotment, often I think we’re practicing a set of emotional skills that we can apply elsewhere.  Add to that time to think, time to meditate if you like and the argument that gardening increases our wellbeing becomes overwhelming. Somewhere within it there’s a spirituality that I’m content to leave unnamed.

I’ve always tried to keep this blog real. I can’t stand the style maazines and seed catalogues that suggest it’s all a breeze use uses the word ‘fantastic’ in every sentence.  For me ‘fantastic’ is first cousin to ‘fantasy’, and what we create in a garden is real, not fantasy.

To finish, though, on a brighter note, when the vegetables start to ripen and we get to taste them the question inevitably comes up – do they taste better? By the time we got back from the allotment yesterday we were too tired to cook, but earlier – in the morning I’d made a big batch of pesto and so I cooked some linguini and that was supper. Whenever food scientists try to answer the flavour question I’m pretty sure they grab a bag of organic whatever, and a bag of its non-organic equivalent and test them against one another. Both will have travelled hundreds if not a thousand miles in a refrigerated lorry and sat around in a supermarket distribution warehouse and, surprise surprise, you can’t tell the difference.

They should do the comparison with today’s pesto, or fresh peas straight off the vine.  There’s the delight!

Why the delight?

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It’s good to be in contact with the natural world ….. isn’t it? Everywhere I look I’m being told it’s good, even I bang on endlessly about the pleasures of the allotment, and (they say) it’s not just good – it’s a miracle cure for just about any affliction you could name – and if you put that particular claim on a herbal remedy you’d be in real trouble with the law.

What’s interesting to me is not that it’s good to be outside, but to wonder why it’s so good. Why do people with mental health issues feel so much better when they walk or garden? Why so, people with life-changing illnessses or those who are going through bereavements?  I think we can discount any sort of natural ‘miasma’, some undiscovered radiation that affects our dopamine levels, but in my unscientific way I do believe that our moods are linked to quite tiny physical changes.  Without making it sound as if this is a pitch for PhD funding, the question is – what’s the link between experiencing the natural world, in gardening for instance, and mood – and the subtle changes in our brain chemistry. If I were an academic – I haven’t got the patience in real life – but if I were, I’d quickly move on after I’d listed fresh air, sunshine and excercise … because they’re all very good and we know it.

But while I’m building a raised bed, weeding, planting out and watering there’s always a dialogue going on in my head.   Talking to the plants doesn’t make me certifiably crazy, it makes me more human. Having a chat to the robin that sits waiting for titbits to emerge from the soil when I’m digging feels like the most normal thing in the world. Examining the rows and clumps and trying to figure out if all’s well or whether I should look for a troublesome pest – that’s about relationship.  And so the first area I’d look for the answer to my question “why?”  would be in the relational. Of course allotmeteers are (by and large) a friendly lot but actually quite a few of us find relationships with other humans far more tricky than relationships with robins and runner beans. There are people on our site that I’ve never spoken to because they clearly don’t want to complicate their day by talking to me – far too risky – and I don’t hold it against them, they’re completely free to be themselves.

And that leads to the second promising avenue for research. We’ve looked at relational factors but what about the sense of agency that comes with allotmenteering? Being ill, being sad, being under-appreciated or jobless can send you into a vortex where you feel absolutely helpless.  Tending the allotment, or even a walk through the woods, can give you back a sense of purpose. There’s a link between what you you do and what you get back and so you begin to regain the sense of agency that’s so important to our wellbeing.

Yesterday we took some beetroots from the hotbed and while Madame planted out leeks for the winter, I finished planting the outdoor tomatoes and I put a screen around them to protect them from the expected winds on Saturday.  One of the problems with propagating plants indoors is that they can be quite leggy and soft and so they can be easily damaged by wind or rough handling or even sudden changes in temperature. That’s why we harden things off, gradually introducing them to ‘real’ life on the allotment. Of the sixteen plants, fifteen survived their first night in the rough and tumble and they’ll quickly develop more strength as the roots go down and the stems toughen up.

It’s the sheer generosity of the earth that heads my list of the healing properties of gardening. There is no explanation for the variety, the vitality, the colourfulness, the exquisite shapes and patterns, the medicinal uses, the food they provide.  Time without number I come away from the allotment with a trug full of food and a sense of thanksgiving. Even on the winter days when the bird nets are collapsing under the weight of snow and I drag myself up there to clear them, I get back exhilerated by the cold and the sense of adventure but perhaps more than anything esle by the sense that I matter, that my existence makes a difference, if only to a patch of purple sprouting broccoli!

That’s why the delight.

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English or Latin

IMG_5401I learned to love the names of common wildflowers from my mother who never used anything else.  I totally understand why having three plants with the same name and one plant with ten names drives proper field botanists mad, but there’s so much pleasure to be got from the English names which frequently point to a medicinal use like, for instance, fleabane, or refer to an immediately recognisable characteristic.  They can even be downright funny.  Check out Arum maculatum for raunchy English names like ‘lords and ladies’ ‘cuckoo pint’ where the second word is, or should be pronounced to rhyme with mint and refers to a pintle which is the shaft on which the rudder of a boat is fitted. Cuckoo, as in ‘cuckoo in the nest’ needs no further explanation I hope. A supremely naughty plant whose latin name merely tells us what it is.

Anyway, as predicted we went for a stroll around the clifftop below St Davids and in order to facilitate actually going anywhere instead of grovelling around on my hands and knees, I just took my iPhone, a notebook and pen. These coast paths are the most joyful places in spring, with enough wildflowers to keep anyone happy. You’ll see from the list that we began our walk by crossing through a marshy area before we got to the coastpath.  So here they are in no particular order because I started the list halfway round and had to remember quite a few.

 

  1. Red campion
  2. Sea campion
  3. Scurvy grass
  4. Southern Marsh orchid
  5. Yellow iris
  6. Dandelion
  7. Celandine
  8. Buttercup
  9. Ragged robin
  10. Herb Robert
  11. Common Mouse ear
  12. Marsh marigold
  13. Cowslip
  14. Navelwort
  15. Lady’s Mantle
  16. Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
  17. Primrose
  18. Dog violet
  19. Spring squill
  20. Tormentil
  21. Gorse
  22. Stichwort – forgot to check which one
  23. Bucks horn plantain
  24. Sea plantain
  25. Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
  26. Red clover
  27. Oxeye daisy
  28. Fumitory
  29. Sheeps sorrel
  30. Upright hedge parsley
  31. Alexanders
  32. Cut leaved cranesbill
  33. English stonecrop
  34. Sheeps bit
  35. Foxglove
  36. Bluebell
  37. Kidney vetch

Isn’t that lovely? – 37 wildflowers – in flower – in a walk that can’t have been more than a couple of miles, and I’m sure that could have been fifty if I’d taken a day over it and carried my mighty copy of Stace and a magnifier. Oh and if I’d not chickened out of the grasses, although I could confidently add cocks foot to the list.

The day started badly, though, with a knackered water pump on the van. We’ve been nursing it along for a year with a leaking gasket, but today one of the spade connectors finally gave up the ghost, having corroded away in the leak. Two faults in two days, but the flat battery may have been connected to the wet contacts.  At least it’s a repair I can carry out myself, and a replacement pump costs about £50 so not the end of the world.

Back to the wildlife, and it’s been a sunny but cool day in a brisk northerly wind. Back on the headland we saw a brief skirmish between a common blue butterfly and a small copper.  I would have loved to be able to say it was a small blue, because the foodplant for the small blue is the kidney vetch which was there in abundance. However the small blue prefers a more sheltered site and is not recorded here. The small copper has plenty of common sorrel and sheeps sorrel to lay its eggs on, and the common blue has a feast of birds foot trefoil at its disposal so enough said. I am condemned to wander the earth encountering and recording the ordinary and everyday, hoping desperately that these ordinary objects of joy  are not about to vanish.

I’ve just finished reading Dieter Helm’s excellent book “Green and prosperous land”. It’s the first book I’ve seen that considers the economic case for what he describes as “natural capital” that’s to say, the natural assets of the world, wildlife, water, clean air which are being destroyed by our present way of life.

Some of the alexanders we saw here were very sick, with every appearance that spray drift from the adjacent field had killed them. It’s difficult to be sure, because it could as easily have been frost damage with such confusing spring weather.  What is certainly true here is that intensively farmed land is butted up against these last strongholds of wildflowers. Surely we have to stop paying farmers simply for owning land, and start re- assessing our entire apporoach to subsidy.

 

 

 

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

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

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

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

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

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

“where’s too far? said he/ where you are said she”

Why on earth this ee cummings poem dropped into my mind just then is a mystery for later. Some days are apocalyptic in the manner of a Hollywood epic, and others are apocalyptic in a much quieter way.  You get the feeling that the walls are crumbling and that, somehow, things will never be the same and yet it’s hard to say why.

I suppose a quixotic journey in search of a crowbar might be a beginning for such a day. We’d not long moved to the Potwell Inn and taken on the allotment.  Back at the Inn things weren’t going well.  The windows were rotten, the landlord was making a herculean effort to do nothing about it, and I was struggling to orientate myself in a life stripped of pastoral responsibilities and lukewarm ceremonial.

We, or rather I, needed a big heavy crowbar so we could get long fenceposts into the ground. I’m quite short and the effort required to stand on tiptoe with a wobbling post and hammer it two feet into the ground was more than I could manage. Being obsessive about getting things level and vertical was gradually making me a bit crazy, and so the idea of a big heavy crowbar floated into my mind as the solution to both allotment and mental state, two birds – as it were – with one stone. However the way my mind works, the image ‘crowbar’ was immediately followed by the image ‘old fashioned ironmonger’ shortly pursued by the memory of a shop called Hine and Collinson who, forty years ago, had a four story building on the London Road and who could be relied upon for the most obscure objects of desire. I went there once wanting to buy a relacement lamp glass for an old paraffin lamp.  All I could remember was that my mother had said it was called a ‘double duplex’. I went into the shop and amid the tottering skyscrapers of ancient hardware and flypapers I found a man in a brown warehouse coat and asked my question.  Not in the least phased, he disappeared for ten minutes and emerged with the lamp glass still wrapped in its original brown paper. Sadly Hine and Collinson have long since disappeared in favour of a fast food shop.  That alone should have been a clue.

And so it seemed obvious that we should drive to the nearest old fashioned ironmonger where, no doubt, I could choose from a wide selection of traditional models, weigh them in my hand and try their heft before bringing home the exact right model wrapped in sticky greased paper.  Sadly the only ironmonger’s shop I could think of was in Hay on Wye – about sixty miles away.  And so we drove there on a freezing cold day, through the remnants of some filthy weather which had left rivers and their nearby land flooded, paying scant attention even to Pen-y-Fan in the distance with a dusting of snow.

In short, the ironmonger was a disappointment. You could buy a wicker basket with a dog mat or a contemporary teapot.  You could even buy a box – not a bag – of nails or screws if you penetrated the darker areas to the rear. Bedding plants and alarm clocks were abundant but not a sign of a slater’s ripper, a box-handled firmer chisel, a sash cramp, a sash weight, or especially a crowbar. There were small, very small, wrecking bars of the kind a burglar might conceal under their coat – but I wanted more, much more.  It was beginning to dawn on me that this crowbar had become a kind of grail quest. There was a wound that wouldn’t heal, and I needed something more than a bloody crowbar.

And so we went for a walk to the river which was in full spate.  There’s a path that takes you down beneath the bridge and there we stood, watching and listening to the gurgling, glooping and sucking of the river as it muscled its way between the piers. “What ails you?” it was saying to me.  And I knew what it was – I was filled with hopeless longing for something gone forever, which probably had never existed except as an artifact in my memory.

Good bye job. Good bye God. Good bye Mills the grocer with their broken custard creams, goodbye Palmers seed store and Sprackman’s the hay and straw dealer, good bye Hubert Harris the undertaker with his black horse and even blacker coat with dusty shoulders, good bye Darke in A minor – it’s time to move on.

I watched them, one by one, tumbling in the mudstained water and racing one another beyond my sight. It’s strange because the River Wye always feels as if it’s travelling in the wrong direction at that point, but it’s just enjoying one of its long oxbows before finally turning south towards the sea. There’s nothing anyone can do to make the illusion fit the facts and so you just have to accept the way things are and start walking in what, at first, feels like the wrong direction. When we eventually got home I went online and ordered the crowbar from B&Q with click and collect; there and back 12 miles, crowbar exactly what I wanted.

The only place to move on from is exactly where you are, without illusion.