How to find the Potwell Inn

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I know where the Potwell Inn can be found, because it’s somewhere around me.  It’s what you might call a ‘container’, a fictional construct whose elements are all real. This is all a bit philosophical I know, and as soon as I can I’ll post again and push this one down the queue – BUT – last week I was on the allotment alone, working away at filling several of the new paths with woodchip, a bit of an urgent job because supplies of woodchip are  spasmodic and can disappear within a few hours, carted away by any one of about 100 eager allotmenters.

So there I was in a world of my own (The Potwell Inn) when suddenly, walking down the path, came an old friend from years past who had managed to track me down in a way that I dare not describe for fear of all the regulars turning up in a coach one day.  How weird is that?  Then in the evening a text message from another person I’d been out of touch with – for 30 years at least – appeared on my phone out of the blue. Extraordinarily joyful but it threw me into a tailspin.

I love the freedom of imagination. The Potwell Inn, the bar, the garden, the kitchen and even the distant landscape and weather were – I always thought – mine to play with: like an imaginary friend in whom I could invest my deepest feelings. I hadn’t factored in the obvious fact that sharing involves risk.  The moment I press the ‘publish’ button my private world belongs not just to me but to the people who read it, who relate to it and are kind enough to want to share my space. All this is not simply some dry technical stuff about growing stuff and cooking it.  It’s about what really matters to me and what I believe should matter to everyone else as well. Without our Potwell Inns we shrivel and dry up.

Here we are in the midst of the age of extinctions, of what’s come to be known as the ‘anthropocene’, where we can see what we’ve done to the earth through our compliance with greed, through our own greed too. And part of the purpose of the Potwell Inn is to explore the idea that – in the words of fellow blogger Jon Moore –

we can change the world, one cabbage at a time!

The most radical force in the world is not fear or anger or intellect, but delight. Delight stops us in our tracks, changes the way we see things, changes the way we live our lives. If you want to find the Potwell Inn you must follow the line of delight and there, at the end of the journey, you will find the building with the crooked chimney and the sound of jackdaws playing in the trees. But it’s never an easy journey because so many people find delight annoying, at best, and at worst threatening.  How many times have you seen a beautiful fungus stamped into the earth, as if its very existence were a threat? Delight is the slow-cooking movement of the inner life. Walking anywhere takes a age because there’s so much delight to be found in the ordinary, and once experienced in that rather Blakean way –

“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.”

2017-09-05 15.44.28then the ordinary becomes the Ordinary and the most everyday actions like cooking and eating together; growing and harvesting, singing and talking are infused with delight, and it’s precisely that that so pisses authority off because delight is its own authority and its own legislator and defers to no lawyer or religion, and that is why it’s perceived as being dangerous.

 

 

As for the Potwell Inn – it’s an insidious corruptor of commonsense and small mindedness.

Moon vindicated (possibly)

IMG_4246So there’s idiocy and confirmation bias. Idiocy is thinking that I possess some sort of magical power to make things grow, and confirmation bias is when I do an experiment and skew the interpretation of the result towards my preferred, or expected conclusion. For instance, many years ago when I was a curate one of my jobs was to take emergency calls from the local hospital on Saturday nights so I could say a prayer for people as they were they dying – (only if they’d asked, I hasten to add). Three times I was called out to someone who, when I went back on Sunday morning to take communion to the wards, I found sitting up cheerfully in bed. I began to suspect (hope) that my prayers were being more effective than I had previously believed.  When I mentioned it to the doctor he patted me on the arm and said he thought it was more likely to be the blood transfusions. So to backtrack a bit, idiocy would be to believe that I possessed supernatural powers, and confirmation bias would happen if I used my very limited data to prove the claim.

And so to the Habanero chillies:

 … this year I’m determined to germinate at least one Habanero after not getting any at all last season.

Habaneros (Scotch Bonnet) and the other members of the Capsicum chinense varieties have something of a reputation for being slow and tricky to germinate. This could be a rumour spread by specialist growers to inflate their sales of plants, but in my experience they can be – well – difficult.  So exactly a week ago I sowed all my chilli varieties in the propagator in my office/study/junk room. In the light of last year’s experience I changed several of the variables, making the drawing of conclusions almost impossible.  I changed the seed-sowing compost and  I increased the propagator temperature significantly to 25C and I used a different model of lamp which seems both whiter and more intense, and after I’d done all that and watered them with a very dilute seaweed growth stimulant I remarked in this blog that coincidentally the moon was waxing in its first quarter.

Even the seed packet notes that the ‘chinense’ varieties can take up to a month to germinate.  This morning – Oh Joy – they were germinating, not quite like mustard and cress on blotting paper, but lustily, vigorously, beautifully. Sensibly the little voice in my head says – don’t count your chickens – but I’ve not only counted them, I’ve mentally written to Tesco to offer a contract.  They’re going to be very short of chillies if we leave Europe. So – seven days and three of five varieties are poking their tiny heads up into my artificial chilli paradise, and the question is – is it the moon? to which the answer can only be where’s the evidence?  I’m such a hardboiled sceptic but between idiocy and confirmation bias there’s a rolling expanse of comfort blankets, lucky charms and pixie dust and I’ll buy into anything that keeps them going and avoids them all damping off, because I’m human and when I woke up today and looked at them I was so on fire with joy I made a gallon of stock, strained the raspberry vinegar and cooked meatballs in tomato sauce – our own of course – and all before Madame stirred – so the Potwell Inn will be living high on the hog for a while.

I forgot to mention yesterday that when we took the fleece off the asparagus bed, the deep layer of very smelly seaweed we mulched it with in the autumn has almost completely disappeared into the soil.  This is exactly what the gardener at Heligan said would happen – in fact she said there would be just a few bits of crispy seaweed lying on the surface. Her prediction was completely correct, so many thanks for the idea.

I said to Madame – “you’re quiet”

IMG_4964And she replied – “Well if you’d stop cursing for a minute maybe I could speak to you”. Honestly it really showed that she had never attempted to build a two tier greenhouse staging from a set of photocopied instructions (poorly) translated from the Martian. Thirty six bolts – painstakingly inserted and tightened  – had to be removed because I had got part number 1463 upside down, twice. In my defense I would say that I was taught to do these sorts of jobs by my beloved grandfather who would curse large and beautiful buildings into existence on the basis of 70 years of experience and so – much as it pains me – I thought a bit of cursing might help. My knees were hurting and my back ached and I just wanted to share the suffering a bit because I’m generous.

It had not been a great day anyway. First thing we drove over to B&Q to buy the 8′ X 6′ polycarbonate sheeting to cover the hotbed. I had not properly thought through the logistics of getting it into the back of our very small car and so we had to drive home crouched in the brace position and relying on the wing mirors because there was no rear view mirror on account of the large sheet of plastic resting on it. It was a tricky drive but we got home perfectly safely, or at least perfectly undamaged.

So after the staging was successfully erected (whatever was all the fuss about?) we cut the sheet roughly, very roughly to size with a razor knife and then I attemped to breathe some energy into the hotbed which was stuck moodily at 20C. I made about 10 dibber holes down to the serious muck and then administered a gallon of human activator thereby evicting a beautiful iridescent beetle  and a number of brandling worms who didn’t much care for being pee’d on. This is the bit they never tell you about in the allotmenteering coffee table books. There, it’s all gingham dresses and roses, except in real life it’s not – we could feel the coming season growling at us and we were barely ahead.

Yesterday was spent wheelbarrowing woodchip down to fill the paths.  It only arrives intermittently and although in public we all pretend we’re utterly committed communards, we would happily commit murder if anyone else got there first. And so we left today – contented at winning several small skirmishes – and ready for some serious sowing tomorrow.

On the menu – squid poached in a red wine and tomato sauce with mushrooms, flavoured with garlic (loads), cardamon, mace, coriander seed and basil with a dash of lemon juice and some creme fraiche at the end. Yesterday two old friends I haven’t seen in years made contact via this blog. I was deeply touched.

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Raspberry vinegar


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There was a time, not so long ago, when raspberry vinegar was dismissed – along with Abegail’s Party and prawn cocktail – as a relic of the seventies, best forgotten as soon as possible – however it’s swung back into fashion in the last few years. Here at the Potwell Inn it’s never gone out of fashion for the obvious reason that its very good. It’s mostly suggested as a component of vinaigrette, adding both fruit and sweetness to the dressing, but we use it in other ways as well. It’s especially good, for instance, in preserving small beetroots – the later thinnings – when they’re still smaller than a table tennis ball. I wouldn’t recommend it for long storge because the acidity is a bit low to be completely safe, but for a couple of weeks in the fridge during the summer it’s absolutely fine and you can still pickle the old football sized beetroot, sliced in paint-stripper strength pickling vinegar in late autumn. You can use any vinegar you like to steep the raspberries – we like organic cider vinegar, but white wine vinegar works just as well. There are so many recipes out there you can just choose the one you like but they’re all much of a muchness  Yesterday we cleared out the last 2.5Kg of frozen raspberries from the freezer and started steeping them in just under 1.5 Litres of cider vinegar. We’ll give them a stir now and again and after 4 or 5 days we strain it through a jelly bag and measure the quantity.  Then we’ll add 450g sugar for each 600ml of strained vinegar, boil it for 10 minutes and bottle it in sterile bottles.  It regularly features in our Christmas presents for the family (along with sloe gin) and they all return the bottles quite soon afterwards in the hope of a top-up.

But why were there 2.5 kilos of raspberries in the freezer anyway? I’m bound to wonder. It’s all too easy to use the freezer as storage for surpluses from the allotment you’ve no idea what to do with, and a bit of discipline with planting along with extra generosity along the way can stop the freezer being stuffed with deteriorating food. If there’s a general rule about food preservation it’s the fact that it only improves (pickles and chutneys especially) up to a point after which it goes downhill. Late last year I had the chastening experience of throwing away pounds of ancient and flavourless jams and preserves that we’d not had the sense to give away when they were still good to eat.

Aside from that, the chillies, peppers and aubergines are all sown and sitting in their propagators, and as soon as the hotbed has properly heated up I think we’re going to sow early salad crops.  Storm Eric has gone its destructive way and after today we look forwards to a couple of weeks of more settled weather when we can complete all the winter work on the allotment.  But today is a celebration day with the family – two birthdays and a meal together.

Hot stuff in the study

IMG_4952Sorry about the utterly naff heading but I keep getting advice from Mr WordPress that suggests snappy headlines reap many benefits in the circulation department. Truth to tell, I think I almost prefer the Potwell Inn the way it is because it’s easier to get to know the locals. Anyway, as planned, the timber for the compost bins all arrived today amidst gale force winds and driving rain and for the third time in as many weeks I got soaked to the skin.  But the driver from the sawmill is so cheerful it’s almost a pleasure to talk about not very much with the rain running down your neck.  Sensibly he prefers to wear shorts because when you’re out delivering all weathers you don’t have to put up with wet trousers flapping around your legs.

Back at the Potwell Inn with the wind moaning through the windows it seemed like a perfect day for a bit of armchair gardening and so I spent a happy hour browsing the fruit tree catalogue and making a list for another line of cordon fruit trees. I think we’ll get a damson, a Victoria type plum, an old style greengage, a pear of some sort and then maybe three more if we extend the bed to the bottom of the plot. But that sent me straight back to the computer because it would mean relocating some of our planned crops and then I wondered if we could plant a stepover espalier along the bottom and catch twenty two played out in its usual way –

However much land you’ve got you always need just a bit more

But really, I was just like a child delaying opening the last present because today was ordained for the sowing of chillies. There’s something profound about putting the first seeds into the dirt, and this year I’m determined to germinate at least one Habanero after not getting any at all last season. So the propagator was warmed and set up in my study, the new lights installed and the compost warmed and watered with a very dilute seaweed solution. And there it is behind me as I type, glowing daylight in the depths of winter and daring the local police to pay us a visit!  I love it.  I love looking after them, reading them a story at night and turning the light off at a sensible time (I made some of that up). When I finished with the chillies I had one half-tray left and so I sowed a few Corno Rosso red peppers – a bit early and possibly a bit hot for them, but nature is a constant surprise and with an early start they may well fruit just a bit earlier too. Anyone who’s ever grown an allotment will know that the real skill (which I don’t possess) is to space things out a bit. It’s great having a cornucopia in late july, but it’s better to have a constant supply of goodies through the seasons.

Looking at the enormous pile of wood waiting to be built into a three bay compost bin, it’s not hard to feel slightly uneasy at the expense.  I’ve no idea why allotmenteers seem to regard it as a point of honour to furnish the entire plot with old pallets and carpets and refuse to buy a tomato seed if they can scrape one out of the morning’s bacon and eggs. I’ve never met a birdwatcher who boasted that they’d built their binoculars out of a couple of tin cans and the bottom of a wine bottle; or a runner who would run a triathlon in two left shoes they’d just salvaged from the tip. We recycle a lot – today we liberated a large polystyrene fish box that will protect our tender plants from late frosts. The compost bins, the hotbed and the cold frames are the beating heart of the whole setup because they provide the food and the nurture for what feeds us.

It takes me twenty minutes to sow and label fifty seeds which, in my imagination I can already see ripening.  Apart from the usual TLC which really isn’t that onerous, the whole miracle is accomplished within nature and handed back to us as a gift.  Surely a few pounds to pay our respect to the soil isn’t an extravagance? When we moved on to the first plot we found an old bicycle in the compost heap. I’ve no idea how long it takes to compost a bike, or a piece of carpet underlay but I’ll guarantee it would still have been there long after I re-enter the carbon cycle!

So no I don’t feel bad about spending out on making the plot work as well and as easily as possible. As one of my mentors once said to me after I commiserated with him about having to do an awful visit, he replied “it was my duty”. That’s not a word we hear too often round here.

And finally – I just closed the shutters and noticed that we have a first quarter waxing moon. Since my seeds are in darkness under artificial light they won’t be affected by any light but ……. who knows?

 

My life in a landscape

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This photograph embraces the landscape I’ve spent much of my life working in, walking in, cycling around and variously exploring. It looks looks across to the Forest of Dean and in the flesh, as it were,  you can just see the pillars of the old Severn bridge so all my old parishes are there. To the left is the place where I was born, and the whole of East Bristol towards Clifton where we also lived and all our children were born. The depression on the horizon contains the Avon Gorge through which the River Avon (which flows past our flat in Bath) enters the River Severn and the Bristol Channel. Our flat lies on the cycle path that traces the abandoned railway line between Bristol and Bath and if I follow it I can pass the house I was born in. I first went into Dyrham Park when I was about 11 years old and was allowed to go cycling on my own. I explored all of this landscape and often climbed over the wall of Dyrham Park and rested there.  In fact I still feel as if I’m trespassing although the house was virtually derelict at the time.

Whenever we go to Dyrham Park we ignore the bypass and the motorway, which I loathe for having gutted and broken up the landscape of my childhood. There is, or rather was a powerful sense of place that came from the style of buildings and the stone many of them were made from. There were old connecting routes like the dram road – even the name “dram” is, I think a soft mutation of “tram” which is very characteristic of the dialect of my childhood. The road which has almost disappeared now, was the tramway that brought coal from the South Gloucestershire Coalfield – Parkfield Colliery, Coalpit Heath and so on, to the river Avon for onward transportation. I think I’ve written about the sense of rootedness I had from just talking to an assistant at Bendrey’s Sawmill who spoke with exactly my own dialect and which placed us both within a few square miles. The dialect is gradually ebbing away and the explosion of housing estates and their infrastructure of roads and services has eroded what sense of belonging once existed except for a few eccentrics and die-hards who, like me, are apt to be taken for idiots because we refuse to jettison our accents. As I’ve often had to remind people ‘the fact that I speak with an accent doesn’t mean I’m stupid’, but such is the power of the stereotype. To get back to the point, though, we sometimes take the route I might well have cycled as a child; through Keynsham and then past Fry’s old factory now renamed “The Chocolate Quarter” and converted into attractive flats too expensive for the people who lost their jobs at Frys to buy. Progress my ass! North Common, Bridgeyate, Siston Common , Wick, and Dyrham were, I suppose, just about the catchment area for Rodway School. One of my first girl friends used to catch the train from Yate to Mangotsfield along with maybe twenty others. It was a human sized patch of territory within which many remained and I’ve returned from living only twenty miles but a whole civilisation away. I remember saying when I retired from parish ministry – I think it was my last service at Elberton – that I was afraid I had become hefted in Severnside. Well, if it was ever true, the territory of my childhood has proved the stronger force. Each place is embedded and enchanted by memories. The brickworks at Shortwood where Eddy and I would play in the old flues, crawling through the underground passages to gaze up at the sky through the chimneys. The capped mineshaft at Parkfield where you could still peer down the mineshaft and see the harts tongue fern marking the boundary between the known and the terrifying depth of the shaft.  All this in a landscape.

And so today we took a break from the allotment and went for a walk in Dyrham Park and by the strangest coincidence we met a couple of Rangers one of whom was the daughter of the Deputy Head of my primary school, so we’re talking sixty years ago. It’s always the voice, you see. Between us we remembered not only all the teachers, but their idiosyncracies and the colour of their hair. A whole cast of characters came back to life.IMG_4946Then as we zig-zagged down the Terrace to the formal gardens we were admiring this pruning on the espalier pears in front of the main house, when one of the gardeners came along and he then called over the full-timer who had actually pruned them so beautifully. As soon as he knew that Madame had once worked at Long Ashton Research Station they were away, talking about growing virus-free budwood and grafting and, of course, pruning. So then we had a marvellous impromptu seminar on the Modified Lorette pruning system, and he’d actually visited the gardens at Versailles to see the method being used.  Apparently they are quite happy to allow nine years for the lower branches to reach full length before they allowed any rising shoots to establish a second tier. So back home and a glass of perry from the orchard while we reflected on the day. As we were checking out at the shop I had a jokey exchange with the woman on the till.  I asked her if I’d live longer if I collected enough of their ‘bags for life’ she instantly swtitched into metaphysical mode and asked me intently “would you really like to live for ever?” No, absolutely not” I said – but I thought to myself “can I have a few more more days like this first?” 

 

On resilience

IMG_4931No prizes for guessing that this was our local Sainsbury’s the day after the snow fell. To be fair it was a combination of equipment failure and panic buying but the same thing happens every time we get a period of severe weather.  The system collapses, people get angry and we realize that there is no slack, no resilience in it at all. I had a quick look on Google and I could see that there were people complaining everywhere – broken by the fact that they’d been forced to buy brown bread instead of white! This kind of event is almost designed into the system. Some time in the 20th century the notion of public good was set aside by the food industry in favour of profit. One kilo of asparagus is flown from Peru at the cost of 8 kilos of carbon released into the atmosphere Our passion for fresh, out of season vegetables and fruits may not (like meat production) be releasing methane into the atmosphere but it’s making up for that with all the other greenhouse gases  involved in transporting it a thousand miles overland, and even if you buy local produce, when the infrastructure collapses because it’s not properly maintained, the milk, the fresh seasonal veg and everything else that needs to be brought to market stays put and sometimes even rots in the ground.

I had a hilarious conversation with someone at the Lost Gardens of Heligan harvest meal last autumn.  He was a Cornishman, and he said he’d asked at the local Tesco if they were selling locally caught fish.  “Oh yes” he was told, “It all comes from Newlyn [about five miles away] but it has to go to the distribution depot first”. This isn’t the fault of the producers, it’s the result of a ‘designed for profit’ but completely sclerotic distribution system, designed in such a way that it has no resilience at all.  There’s nothing in storage,  and we’re only saved from serious disorder by the fact that the events that cause breakdown don’t usually last very long. Yet.

The alarming fact is that we’re not facing a number of separate  problems – climate change, ecological destruction, food security, poverty, migration, social breakdown, artificial intelligence and war.  They’re one big one!

You’d  have to be pretty old to remember this, but some of us may recall the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue back along, as we say in the West Country.  The cover was one of the first pictures taken of  Earth from space, with the slogan “We can’t put it together, it is together” .

Here we are, all looking for ways to save the earth by eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream once a week, when what we really need to be doing is thinking in a different way altogether. When the big man in the shiny suit comes around offering to take the load off us we need to consider his (or her) offer carefully. It comes with strings attached – read the small print!

Lets take a look at the Potwell Inn store cupboard:

Last night was one of the coldest I can remember. Our first floor window ledge went down to -3C. That poses a problem for us because we live in a 1970’s concrete building that grows black mould on the interior walls as soon as it gets cold. Yesterday we tried to go out but the pavements were covered with sheet ice and lethal and in any case the shelves in the shops would probably be stripped bare.  But here in the Potwell Inn – this is what resilience looks like. We have food – not exotic by any means, but plenty.  We have oats and bread flour and I suppose we could even broach the barrel of wine we made in the autum.  We could walk a quarter of a mile to the allotment and pick fresh vegetables, even winter lettuce. We’re not self-sufficient, in fact I think that whole idea is a dangerous myth.  If there’s a way forward out of this mess then it’s not going to happen if we separate from our neighbours, it’s ‘dog eat dog’ economics that has brought us to this place. The way forward will involve more trust, more dependency on neighbours and a lot more generosity of spirit. As the American cartoonist Walt Kelly said in his second Earth Day poster back in 1971 – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Thinking globally and acting locally is the only way we can make this work. There’s nothing we can ‘pass a law’ about that will work faster or more powerfully than our local choices.

  • Would it be hard work? – yes
  • Would we have to do without some stuff we enjoy? – yes
  • Would it change the way we need to live? – yes
  • Would it be difficult to understand?  See Michael Pollan’s rule – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg”
  • Wouldn’t it be going backwards? – no –  going forwards into a sustainable future rather than one blighted by hardship and starvation.

Is this a nag? Well let’s say this kind of stuff keeps me awake at night. But I’m an optimist and there’s a crocus in flower right next to where I’m writing and I’m driven by the thought that we don’t own the earth, we just borrow it from our children and grandchildren.