Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch

IMG_5042More commonly known locally as Llanfair PG, this photograph is at the seaward edge of the Newborough National Nature Reserve which my mobile tagged as being near to the place with a very long name – actually dreamed up in the 1860’s by an enterprising local wit who thought it would attract visitors to spend their money in the village. The platform tickets on the village railway station probably sold pretty well too.

Back to the photo which is of some dead pines at the edge of the beach, which represent a long ecological story that almost qualifies for ‘shaggy dog’ status.  This is one of the largest natural dune systems in the UK, and an incredibly important site for some rare wildlife. The dune system began in the 14th century after a series of violent storms inundated the coastal farmland. The system was stabilised by marram grass and was soon occupied by a huge population of rabbits (introduced by the Normans) that provided a living to the local people who reputedly culled 100,000 a year for sale until the 1950’s. Back in the day, when they weren’t catching rabbits they were weaving the marram grass into saleable items like seagrass mats. Fishing, pilotage through the Menai Straights, farming – local, sustainable, what’s not to like?

Soon after the war, in 1947, a large part of the area was forested with Scots and Corsican pine in an attempt to keep the ever shifting sands away from the village  and to create employment in the area to meet a supposed national need. Then, in a well meaning but disastrous intervention in 1953, myxomatosis was introduced into the UK (probably illegally) and rapidly killed tens of millions of rabbits including the ones on the warren. The consequence across the UK was a rapid change in vegetation with huge effects on local flora. The forest, however – apart from the seaward edge – thrived, and it’s one of the few places outside Scotland where red squirrels can still be seen. On the seaward side, the part which is now a national nature reserve, is being managed to preserve the conditions once maintained by the rabbits. The photograph at the top is as good an illustration as I’ve ever seen of the unequal match between human ingenuity and the power of the wind and the sea.

When we talk about climate change and farming practices, and their effect on local ecologies, it’s all too easy to talk in generalised terms, but in reality the effects are nuanced and local. Pointing to the disappearance of a plant most people will never have seen doesn’t have the same emotional impact as a massive moorland fire, and it’s all too easy (austerity?) to take the line that its better to lose a few rare species than to hold back ‘progress’ – whatever that means! Sadly we’re often more willing to relinquish what we don’t value – which is precisely why I’m arguing for living with dirty hands and full-on curiosity.

Finding plants is an emotional experience

Saying that something is worth treasuring because it’s satisfying, exciting – even thrilling – seems pretty puny by comparison with The Greater Good, or The National Interest – whatever political lipstick the politicians and agrochemical industrialists put on the pig they’re attempting to foist on us – chlorinated or not. But here are some photos taken yesterday, along with some taken on September 6th 2017 that – I hope – stand for something important.

IMG_5039Just as we were coming down the steep path off Ynys Llanddwyn I found a tiny little spot with its own microclimate tucked into the side of the path, sheltered from the sea and the wind, and I recognised an old friend, or at least I recognised the leaf. The rule for new botanists is that it really does get easier eventually and after a mighty tussle with the identification keys in Rose – “The Wildflower Key” or even worse in Stace’s “New Flora” the plant will be engraved in your memory along with the associated pain of naming it.  In my experience the name will often flee away, but like a familiar face, you’ll know that you know it. In this instance it was doubly complicated in the way that it feels when you meet your neighbour in a completely unexpected place.  This particular neighbour lives on the back steps of our flat and I had to do a quick double take when I spotted it on a sand dune 250 miles away. So its English name is Rue Leaved Saxifrage – Saxifraga tridactylides there’s a bit of a clue in the latin name, and it’s a great survivor in urban Bath because it manages to flower and seed before the official chemical street warfare begins.

And that’s a common factor with all the plants that I spotted yesterday – they’ve all learned the art of surviving in a hostile environment. Extreme heat, drought, salt winds and occasional inundation mean nothing to these tough plants which have carved out a niche for themselves on the seashore.

 

These two, on the left, Danish Scurveygrass – Cochliaria danica and on the right, Sea Spurge – Euphorbia paralias, were the ones I stopped to photograph. 2017-09-05 15.44.28Madame sometimes gets restless if I spend too much time rooting around on my hands and knees when we’re suposed to be going for a walk.

Last September I found loads more species I’d never identified in the same reserve, including the extremely priapic looking Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia, one of the rarer plants I’ve spotted in my short life as an extremely amateur field botanist. It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods (mostly Corsican Pine, I think).

2017-09-05 17.00.14Left – Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below. This is (I’m sure) Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum . The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoidesbut checking the current BSBI list it doesn’t apear there or in Ellis’s Welsh Flora whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploides, a highly specialized environment, I think,  on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.

 

2017-09-05 15.40.45I had no idea what this fungus was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdon. I had to wait until I got back to base to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.

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Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima

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This is Vipers Bugloss – Echium vulgare again on the island. And that reminds me of one of the reasons, contrary to almost all right-thinking botanists, that I cherish the English names of plants.  Isn’t there something extraordinarily evocative and powerful about colloquial plant names? “Restharrow” for instance.  You can almost see the sweating ploughman trying to extricate the share from the matted remains of the plant. To have discovered all these lovely plants, most of them ‘ordinary’ in my special sense of the word, is to enter a world of poetry and insight.  It’s to immerse yourself in an ancient culture where a knowledge of plants and their properties was not some extracurricular stimulation for retired clergy but essential to life and health. “Hedge Woundwort” for instance – does it have that name because it’s used to treat cuts or because it stinks like a suppurating wound? – trust me, I’ve tried it, and it must be an example of the old ‘doctrine of signatures’ which taught that plants carried a clue about their usefulness as a medicine in their appearance or perhaps, in this instance, smell. 

Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint. there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cottages, several prominent crosses. The present building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland across the Menai Staits. Yesterday we could see the remains of the snow at the summit of Snowdon. 

All this, then, in a couple of hours on the reserve, and – as we left – we passed the sad stand of dead Corsican Pine at the edge of the beach. We humans are clever, but not that clever. Ever since the primal forests were cleared for farming, we have tried to alter the balance of nature in our favour. That cluster of dead trees looks like one of the battlefield paintings from the First World War by John Nash, only this time the implacable enemy is not the bomb but the power of the sea and the salt winds. We should learn to be more modest in trying to shape the earth as if we were gods.

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Natural – Wild – Ordinary

I photographed these lovely spring wildflowers today, all within a few yards of one another in the bottom of a hedgerow. So clockwise from the top there are Red Campion, Alexanders, Daisies and a Dandelion, a Lesser Celandine most of whose leaves are obscured by young shoots of Cleavers and probably Hedge Parsley, and finally some flowering Gorse. It seems a bit daft to talk about plants being happy, but these are definitely very happy indeed. Through long naturalisation in a setting and climate that suits them perfectly, they thrive in a way that most of us gardeners can ony dream of for our own produce.  Further up the same lane and outside a house there were Daffodils that stood out- I should say shouted out  as unnatural additions to the landscape.

Of the plants I photographed, Red Campion doesn’t seem to be edible but was once used to cure snake bites, and the roots contain saponin which has soap like qualities. Alexanders really is edible, especially when young, but I’ve never eaten it so I couldn’t say whether it tastes good. Daisies – not really, Dandelions make good salad leaves and the flowers make really good wine but I’d beware of collecting any flowers at dog level for obvious reasons, and I should point out that the local name from my part of the world used to be “pissabeds” – you can draw your own conclusions.  Dandelion roots were dried and toasted and used as a coffee subsitute during times of hardship and they’re probably best when only used in desperation. Lesser Celandine is also known as Pilewort due to the acrid sap which was used to shrink hemorrhoids and although I did read somewhere that the leaves are edible I think they look prettier and safer in the ground. Gorse smells heavenly, especially when it’s got the sun on it and the flower buds are reputely good to eat. So I guess if I had been foraging today I could easily have picked a few leaves and flowers and enjoyed eating them, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still been hungry when I got home.  Nature is not our servant and does not exist completely to furnish our needs and so it has always been a basic aim of agriculture and horticulture to improve, encourage and refine those essentials offered to us by the truly wild.

It’s hardly a pearl of wisdom to say that the farming landscape is far from  natural. Here in the UK – excluding the National Parks and wilderness areas – there is hardly any natural landscape left.  The total overuse of the word in advertising gives a clue to its power through appealing to our emotions. My usual retort to those who abuse it is to say foxgloves and arsenic are natural, as is oil and coal, but that doesn’t give them a free pass into general use. The word “wild” isn’t used nearly as much in advertising because its connotations are not so good at shifting product, and shifting product is what our greedy culture is all about.  The only exception to that is when the word can inflate the value of the product beyond measure.  One of my sons – a chef – once had to deal with a whole box of Pignuts, probably dug up from a pristine site and sold at ludicrous prices. Wild sells truffles but probably not dogs or cats; salmon and Ramsons but not Blackberries (unless you’re a highly specialized plant hunter who can distinguish between over 250 hybrids.

In fact farming, horticulture, and even allotmenteering are all attempts to improve on the natural and, in the case of extractive farming, to bludgeon nature into conforming to our greedy desires. The Potwell Inn and the allotment have heated propagators under electric daylight lamps. We have a greenhouse, a hotbed, cloches and fleece – all of which we use to persuade tender plants that the weather is better and the days are longer than they really are – and so we are able to grow tropical and subtropical crops, the like of which you would never encounter in any wild setting in this country. Some we win and some we lose, but I don’t think anyone would argue that aubergines, chillies, peppers, even the humble potato and runner bean, belong in the Flora Britannica.

Organic gardening (and farming) are a wise and timely attempt to mitigate the worst effects of industral farming – and I’m bound to say, of industrial overeating as well.  Permaculture goes a step further and tries to rely more heavily on perennials and, in essence, returning to a foraging lifestyle. Vegetarianism and veganism focus on achieving something of the same ends by focusing on and changing what we consume. Even the most traditional farmers are beginning to see the benefits and opportunities of locally sourced and sustainably produced foods. It’s crazy for those of us who care about the natural world to pick fights with one another and – rather like Brexit – spend our lives in pointless posturing and squabbling about minor doctrinal differences while industrial farming, environmental degradation and climate change go unchallenged.

A friend of mine was in a hospital visiting her uncle when she heard a commotion on the opposite side of the ward. A fierce family row had broken out across the bed, and my friend noticed to her dismay that the occupant had actually died. It was she who called for a nurse to attend to the deceased person, not the squabbling family.

I don’t need to labour the point of telling that story here, the parallels are all too painfully clear. But to finish on a brighter note, I know that many natural historians love to go after the rare specimens, but I want to put in a word for the ordinary. The ordinary is the bit we don’t notice because it’s there all the time – at least it used to be there all the time but now it’s disappearing because of our abusive relationship with the environment. So I want to campaign for the ordinary because that way it can’t disappear without anyone noticing. Recognising, naming and treasuring our wildflowers and native fauna is the most powerful way of energising the fightback against extinctions. The ordinary is special.

 

Celebrating the last afternoon of Winter!

 

It just wouldn’t be right to keep Christmas cake beyond the end of winter, that’s to say, beyond today because:

Oh frabjous day, calloo callay

This is the last day of winter and I woke up predictably gloomy because I said I would yesterday – and I always keep my word. Madame, however, seemed very motivated and after a morning tidying up the garage, (OK man cave if you must), in the pouring rain – we loaded up an unfeasibly large number of wine bottles, which in truth we were never going to fill with home made wine, along with a car load of other junk and took it all to the tip where she unloaded the wine bottles as silently as possible in order to avoid us being breathylized as we left.  I should add that after years of austerity, living on a stipend in the parishes, we have developed an ethos of hoarding anything that might even conceivably become useful at some point in the future. Therefore no hawk-eyed scavengers ever follow us to the bins to filch our pre-loved belongings. When I say junk I mean proper ram-stamped rubbish!

Shortly afterwards we finished some repurposed leftovers from roast belly of pork – turned into fabulous soup – we do live well – Madame took me off into town where we spent a pile of money on new walking boots ready for our next trip to Snowdonia. I loved my old ones as if they were my children, but they were worn down to next to nothing after hundreds of miles of tough walking and in truth they’d always been a bit lethal on wet rock. Socks followed swiftly – why is it so hard to buy socks and pants for yourself when you are a man? I can’t remember the last time I ever bought any without being escorted to a shop.  It always seems criminal to put them in the bin when you might get a couple of days more out of them (see paragraph above!).

During this whole time there was not so much as a raised eyebrow from her angelic goodness.  No labels were examined, no cheaper alternatives even hinted at – I should have smelt a rat but I was completely oblivious.  Then we walked around to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition. She is probably the most important artist of all – for me. There is something about her work that puts me straight back on the couch in analysis, and breaks down my barriers as if I’d just arrived in Robin’s room. I constantly have to surreptitiously wipe away tears when I’m around her work. Next, to Waitrose and ten scallops with a bottle of nice wine.  By now I knew something was up, but it felt good so I wasn’t arguing.  “This is nice” I said as we went through the checkout.  “I thought you needed cheering up” she replied.

Which is how we came to celebrate the last day of winter with a cup of tea and the very last slice of Christmas cake. Tomorrow is a whole new season.

 

How can a patch of earth be so beautiful?

IMG_5015It was a day for catching up with old friends and big hugs for the family, so we were up at the plot early to check that the greenhouse, the hot bed and the coldframes were ready for another unseasonably hot day. Our children may not appreciate the analogy but seeing the sun shining on the allotment, watching seedlings develop and  feeling the wamth of the earth is not a million miles away from the sheer pleasure of being loved – for no discernable reason – by your children and grandchildren.  Our youngest said to us once, after a day out with his first nephew, “It’s really strange the way they look at you, decide you’re OK and just love you”.

So that was today really. Lunch at Rosemarino’s our favourite Italian café/restaurant in Bristol where our youngest once worked as a chef and with old friends we’ve known for years and travelled together with.  I had a lovely lamb ragu with pasta and we shared a bottle of cheap Italian white while we ate and talked. Later, after crossing the city,  big hugs and cuddles with the grandchildren and their Aussie Mum who’s brought so much to our expanding family. Oh and the fact that everything just seems to be working. Pride, I know, comes before a fall – but stuff it – the Potwell Inn is the place to be – “point” as Whacker Allan my old French teacher used to say.  He was a sadist but he’d lived in Paris which was pretty exciting. Tomorrow the weather turns and we shall be gloomy again but today we are filled with delight.

It’s not Easter yet!

IMG_4949One of my earliest memories is of potato planting on Easter weekend.  Traditionally, in the UK potatoes would be planted on Good Friday and, as I remember it, the intoxicating smell of freshly dug earth would follow me all the way as I walked a couple of miles down to my mate Eddy’s house. Bear in mind, of course, that I’m thinking of a time 60 years ago when growing vegetables was an almost universal preoccupation among what Channel Four News likes to describe as “ordinary people” – I prefer a less patronising way of describing the vast majority of us. There are – or were- things that were done with no real idea why, apart from the fact that they needed to be done and they’d always been done. I think that’s a pretty good definition of culture – the way we do things round here –  that’s to say right here in the West Country and not the way someone who lives in a flat in central London might see it. And so horiculture is a subset of culture as a whole and concerns the growing of things where we are.

But memories fade and cultures evolve away from the old preoccupations with putting food on the table and so we’re left with the urge to sow seed but not the accompanying local knowledge inherited from parents and grandparents.  Which is a very wordy way of addressing the fact that crowds of allotmenteers on our site have been enjoying the unprecedented sunshine and warm weather this week.  Last Easter the garden centres were facing bankruptcy and were only saved by the equally unprecedented hot summer. I wonder if we shouldn’t rather be worried than celebrating this latest evidence of climate change.

The earliest date for Easter – which is the only Christian festival tied to phases of the  moon – is March 22nd, and the latest is April 25th. That’s almost 5 weeks, which is a very long time in the spring.  Last season we had our last frost at the beginning of May and we would have lost all our tender runner bean plants if we hadn’t kept a large number in reserve. It was a gamble we lost decisively! So our response to the tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday would need to be “it depends when Good Friday falls”, but the takeaway point is that in this part of the UK the answer has to be not yet! They’re safer being chitted. 

It’s so distressing for new allotmenteers to experience the way that after all the winter digging and preparation the weeds appear to come back with renewed vigour, and it’s even worse to lose an entire crop to a late frost. Every year we see newly fledged allotmenteers losing heart and walking away from their plots. You can almost hear the bindweed laughing. I don’t want to make it sound more daunting than it is, but the best gardeners have patience and resilience built in to their DNA. Forget the ‘magical’ chemicals that do more harm than good. There are certain weeds that are desperately hard to eliminate, but resilience, patience and low cunning will see the back of all of them.  Find out what they like most and deprive them of it – that’s the way. Often a winter under plastic sheeting or weed control mat will weaken them, but then if we pile on the pressure by hoeing and hand weeding and especially mulching, we can tip the balance in our favour. Better wait a year than waste a crop, and no-one will criticise you for it, in fact your neighbours will probably share their surplus with you in grateful thanks that your plot is no longer exporting noxious weeds on to theirs.

So for all those who are starting out on the adventure – good luck, and if enough of us share our accumulated knowledge, who knows? Maybe our children and grandchildren will know when to plant potatoes.

 

 

 

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.