The Potwell Inn dispensary

Well, it was a rainy day so there was nothing for it but to spend it at the stove, catching up on the list of to-do’s, the first of which was to turn the calendula flowers, harvested from the allotment in the autumn and infused in sweet almond oil – into a most useful cream to use at home. Among herbal remedies, calendula is a reliable go-to for eczema and itchy dry skin. Bought from commercial suppliers it’s pretty expensive – the best brands cost around £6 a tube, and so we decided that this year we’d make our own. There is, however, something of a dilemma to be addressed in making it because almond oil is way beyond the resources of our allotment so we have to buy it. But there’s a choice to be made that turns out to be quite an expensive one. Our usual supplier lists two types of sweet almond oil – the organic and non organic, and the standard non organic oil costs £12.59 a litre. The organic oil, on the other hand, costs £52.85. So on price alone, the non organic wins hands down – but wait – because if you look up the source country you discover that the organic oil is produced in Spain and processed in Germany. The country of origin of non organic oil is not listed so it’s probably a blended generic oil from many places ……… including California?

So what’s the problem with California? you might ask and the answer is that according to Tom Philpott’s excellent new book “Perilous Bounty” it’s not just the fires that have brought disaster to California. In the Central Valley there is a massive industrial scale almond farming enterprise. The valley has always been fed by the meltwaters of the Sierra Nevada snows until, that is, drought and global warming began to take their toll and so the farmers started to pump groundwater at an increasing rate – it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond. The result has been fairly catastrophic. As the wells deepen, the water becomes more saline. The aquifers are emptying rapidly because they are being drawn on far more quickly than they can be refilled by the melting snow and so the land is literally sinking – up to two feet a year; causing havoc with the local infrastructure – roads, pipes aqueducts and canals. A second problem has affected the industry because the margins are so tight, it can only make a profit by employing migrant labour at the lowest possible wages. Before the long drought began in 2011, this area produced $20.7 billion worth of fruit, vegetables and nuts – 53% of the US total (all these figures are from Tom Philpott’s book).

So it turns out that the cheaper almond oil comes at a cost that is simply not reflected in the price. Cheap almond oil depends upon cheap labour and the overuse of cheap water – and it’s destroying the environment. For all we know, precisely the same slow destruction is taking place in Spain. One of the great unspoken problems with the organic movement is the way in which it is being slowly industrialised. However, that’s why we bought the expensive organic oil which, of course, will be much more expensive again after brexit if (when) tariffs are applied. That’s how politics, economics and ethics are hanging together when we think about a Green New Deal. There’s no way of building a greener future without changing our political, economic and ethical assumptions. As I wrote yesterday, it amounts to such a profound change it will feel like a bereavement as long as we refuse to embrace the evidence that’s before our eyes.

Anyway, the home produced organic calendula cream still came in at 50% of the price of the commercial products and there was nothing whatever added; just the flowers extracted into the oil, and some beeswax. As for the method, you simply melt the beeswax slowly in a double boiler and stir in the strained oil. It’s best to check that the cooled ointment is the right density, so we tested it like jam – on a cold plate. Then we bottled and labelled it …. ta da!

But that’s not enough to keep us out of mischief for a whole day, so I made a favourite old stager from the Potwell Inn book of borrowed delights. This one came initially via a friend (and occasional diner) at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny – just one of the huge list of marvellous restaurants we could never afford to eat in – but who needs a restaurant when you’ve got a recipe? – after all I can do my own washing up. This dish comes up all over the place so it’s hardly a scarce and exotic signature dish; just plain Italian cooking whose flavour is like the brass section in a Brahms symphony.

Then there was stock to be finished. This time it was a proper pot au feu with a whole chicken and a small piece of beef plus all the usual herbs and vegetables. The beef gets turned into Salade Parisienne with a spicy salsa verde of gherkins, capers, shallots, parsley and oil. The chicken is picked and will make at least three meals and a soup, with stock to spare. We always freeze surplus meat rather than leave it in the fridge until it has to be wasted. On a cooking day it seems like a lot but this batch will last us the whole week if not longer, served in as many ways as we can think of. But there is just as much of an ethical and economic challenge with our diet as there was with the almond oil. I’m also re-reading Michael Pollan’s brilliant book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Pollan is one of the best writers around on food and its constellation of issues and I’d happily recommend this book as an excellent starting point for a big think on living responsibly. Dieter Helm, Simon Fairlie, Tim Laing and James Rebanks have all written about the ethical issues surrounding food and food production and they’re worth the effort as well.

So, (lecture over), finally I baked a wholemeal sourdough loaf – our everyday bread. Let’s be honest, it’s never going to win any prizes against a bloomingly adolescent loaf made with white flour but if flavour counts at all, this loaf is a constant pleasure. You can look in vain for a 100% wholemeal recipe for sourdough bread, and there’s a reason. It can never compete in the crisp crust and open texture competition. It won’t rise to the same degree without adding a significant (say 50%) amount of white flour – which we’re not eating at the moment. But it’s not a competition, silly. Cooking at home means you can eat exactly what you want at a fraction of the price – it’s a no-brainer. Happy days!

Velvet bottom – following the way!

So this post comes in two unequal parts – part one is the walk we went on today and part two is the fruit of the walking meditation that went on at the same time.

The sun was shining when we got up today, and there was every prospect that our usual walk around Bath would take us into the company of thousands of rugby supporters, plus many more Bristolians and visitors from our surrounding tier three areas who seem to imagine that you can’t catch covid here because we’re only in tier two. This is (forgive me) a grave error of judgement, but there we are – believing six impossible things before breakfast is what we now do here in la la land.

And so we went for a brief drive and a long walk on Mendip where, we were sure, asymptomatic walkers would all be at a safe distance in a fiercely cold wind. Velvet Bottom (how could you not love a place with a name like that?) is a place I’ve written about before (have a search and see) so I won’t repeat myself except to say that the moment you leave the warmth of the car and step out into the fresh air, you also enter a place of unique silence – a reflection perhaps of its location in Charterhouse – the site of a long gone Carthusian monastery where generations of monks wrestled through song and prayer in the silence; always bearing the fear that no-one was listening . And it’s a place where millennia of history underlies the present day almost visibly in the lead mining slag unexpectedly gleaming against the grass and trees. But there’s another secret hidden beneath the earth here, the only evidence of which are small depressions in the ground, gated with steel sheets and padlocks and forming the entrances to cave networks that can be extensive in both depth and distance. I explored many of the easier caves many years ago when I was much younger, but the exploration has continued and now there are many caves whose names I’ve never known. Rhino Rift, Upper Flood Swallet and many others dug out by cavers who would have been the first humans ever to set eyes upon their secrets. Anonymous entrances into underground labyrinths formed by torrents of slightly acidic water percolating through the softer carboniferous limestone over the same millennia that saw Roman miners excavating for lead. The silence of the valley is one thing; the silence of being 100 feet underground is something else entirely. The history of Velvet Bottom is even expressed in the flora which includes a wealth of heavy metal tolerant plants. In fact during our walk we passed half a dozen places where real botanical treasures grow. It’s a place that repays the slow and purposeful walk as well as the challenge of running from bottom to top which seems to be a favourite as well.

We walked down Velvet Bottom and there at the junction with Black Rock the path was closed due to work to remove trees affected by ash dieback disease. So we turned right and instead of walking, as we often do, up the course of Longwood Valley, we took the path that forks to the left and forms part of the West Mendip Way – one of our target long distance walks. It was cold and windy but it was a good to be alive day and after an energetic series of steepish climbs we arrived back at the car after about two hours. My new walking boots had thrived on grass, mud and rock and I was feeling pretty good about it -so to the next part which you might think is a slightly odd conclusion to a very contented walk – but you need peace to think properly.

An entirely un-morbid reflection on death the climate emergency and ecological crisis.


We find it difficult to imagine a world without ourselves in it, and much of the concept of ‘ourselves’ is built on our whole culture – the way we do things round here. So paradigm changes like the ones we now face -climate destruction, ecological crisis, health and food crises, zoonotic diseases – are very difficult to address because we have to learn to imagine a world which would be so utterly different from the one we know that it amounts to the emotional equivalent of embracing our own death.


The Greek word ‘epiousios’ is the mysterious term that gets translated as ‘daily bread’ in the Christian Lord’s Prayer, but since that’s the only place in which it’s used in the whole of ancient Greek writing, the translation – as all translations must be – is a creative, culture bound guess at what it might have meant. Literally it means something like ‘the around and about us things’ the ‘at hand’ things, so not just food perhaps, but all the other stuff that defines us as who we are.

Losing our epiousios things is what happens when catastrophe comes upon us. Nothing means what it did any more; none of the structures that frame our lives and our self understanding are available to us and we are obliged to contemplate having to start over from nothing; nowhere. It’s a profound bereavement not a day without treats.

If you’ll stay with me here for just a few sentences more; this is the greatest challenge of any faith. In Christianity it’s the cross, (and here I move into the new place of no-meaning), – so if a faith uses belief in some kind of posthumous resurrection to elide the dreadful reality of death it’s like playing a “get out of jail free” card, and avoiding the life-changing struggle of genuine rebirth.

So – and I know this is a very first attempt at expanding the present group of economic, political and ecological crises to include a spiritual dimension which, if we fail to embrace it, will lead us into the endless repetition of the same mistakes until we, and eventually perhaps all living species become extinct. Failure to embrace the arduous path of letting go of ourselves as we presently define ourselves – which is a kind of death – will make the probability of our extinction as a species inevitable.

But it’s vital to understand that this isn’t an argument for the individual solitary path. The most important challenge we face is collective, and the mess we’re in can’t be undone one individual at a time, however attractive an idea that might be. Any programme or strategy for saving the earth has to embrace a communal sense of contrition for the state we’re in and, because throughout history we have so wilfully participated in the destruction of other human belief systems and their unique ‘epiousios’ (which we may now need to build over again if we want to save ourselves), we have to own our responsibility. Any exercise in planning a journey – especially a spiritual/material journey like this one – depends absolutely on knowing where you’re setting out from.

So – if you’ve managed to reach this point – I’m sorry for the absence of recipes, allotment tips and anecdotes from this post but doing a bit of hard thinking is as much a part of being human as cooking and eating the borlotti beans that are in the oven right now. For the extreme masochists I’m tagging the very last sermon I ever preached which, if you’re into these things, you may agree takes me over some kind of line. I finished writing it in tears because I knew it was taking me away from a very important part of my own epiousios – I was feeling the fear of setting sail from what had always seemed a safe harbour. It was at a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the ordination of my friend Nev who, over ten years of Friday lunches (it wan’t for the food, they were mostly terrible) taught me how to be – and not to be – human, and how to read the Lord’s Prayer properly..

Birthday Boots

This is just a photo taken on Black Rock nature reserve – one of our favourite Mendip walks – it’s only a quarry and the rock doesn’t look exactly black – but there …. we still love it.

Yesterday was my birthday (please don’t ask) and since we’ve reached the age where surprises are usually unwelcome ones, we normally choose something for ourselves – an extravagance perhaps. Outside the flat there’s a line of walking boots of varying vintage which are only thrown away when they actually fall apart. The line is vaguely sorted in order from decent for a good walk – down to gardening only, however my most recent pair (5 years old) suddenly died on me a couple of weeks ago. The fabric part started leaking and the soles were worn to the point where, as my knees were thrown out of kilter I looked as if I’ve got rickets. They fitted like slippers, but not in a good way. The next in line were a pair of old Scarpas which are amazingly comfortable still, but again very with very worn soles. The soles in any case have always been lethal. I discovered this on Tryfan with my son when our scramble to the top of what always feels like a rather bad tempered mountain was made more exciting still when my boots refused to connect safely with the rock, and so since then I’ve only ever used them on less rocky routes. It turns out that the soles in question developed quite a reputation for turning wet rock into a skating rink. Don’t misunderstand, they’re lovely boots and I trekked 25 miles a day for several weeks, carrying a big pack on the Camino, crossing the Aubrac hills in south east France. Actually that day on Tryfan we were about to go up the final scramble when we met a man hovering there as if unable to make up his mind whether to carry on. “We’ll go up with you” we said cheerfully, and we’d barely climbed ten feet when he said lugubriously “Three of my friend died on here”.

It’s fun buying boots – the research, the reviews and finding a supplier; but in many ways it’s more like buying a car because it’s impossible not to be thinking about where you’d like to go in them …. let the daydreaming begin! What I really needed was a pair as comfortable as the Scarpas but with vibram soles that could grip wet rock a bit better. Then the thought occurred to me that I might lash out on a pair of full leather boots; a proper extravagance – well, twenty quid more anyway. Boots are like bikes. In fact they’re like any conceivable bit of kit (especially men’s kit); they elicit strong loyalties and a multitude of unevidenced opinions. So I sought advice from anyone who would talk to me about it and then ignored it because I didn’t really care what anyone else thought, I wanted a pair of posh leather trekking boots so there!

I phoned the shop ahead to reserve a pair of the exact size, make and model and made an appointment assuming I would have the exclusive attention of someone who had a PhD in boot fitting. It wasn’t quite like that because the poor man was on his own and no-one had told any of the customers coming through the door that there was an appointment system in place. So it didn’t take long to find out, between his long absences, that they didn’t have my size in store. He tried desperately to reassure me that the measurements were coming out at size nine (which they had in stock) and it seemed there was nothing I could say that would communicate to him the very simple fact that I’d been wearing Meindl boots for years – ever since the Scarpas – and I’d always been ten and a half. In the end we agreed that he would get some boots in for me to try as long as I paid a (large) deposit. We went to the till and then a kind of beatific light dawned across his face – “You didn’t make an appointment did you?” “Yes I did” I replied. “Oh ………….” he said, as the ground refused to swallow him up. “These must be yours then …”. he said as he peeled the label with my name and the time of the appointment away from the box sitting next to the till.

It turned out that I’d got the size right after all and after that the fitting went well and we left the shop with my birthday present under my arm. That night I fabricated a ludicrous excuse to wear them into town to buy milk from a marvellous new vending machine, put there by a local farm. Then we did a couple of our usual 5 mile walks with me, rather self consciously, wearing the absurdly new looking footwear. They were lovely – they’re definitely seven league boots and so I’m free to dream of ever longer walks.

Tryfan – the old monster

Madame doesn’t know this yet but in matters of mountains and walks I’ve found it’s best to keep the details a bit vague until we’ve already set off. We have had a few barneys as a result, and on one occasion I thought I was going to have to call mountain rescue because I’d forgotten that the walk I’d planned past Tryfan took us past a precipitous waterfall which was way beyond her pain threshold. In the end it was me who slipped and fell, so it was a relief when my son told me that his partner had slipped and fallen in exactly the same place. No harm was done in either case and we walked off the mountain without having to call for help. On another occasion I forgot to mention that there was a much easier approach to Pen y Fan via Cribyn than the path up from Bryn Teg ridge. My word she was angry – so much that she went up it at a sprint. I could hardly keep up.

A wintry Cribyn and Pen y Fan photographed from our kayak on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal

These last few days I’ve sorted out my rucksacks, dug the super lightweight cooker out of a cupboard along with the titanium dixie and wondered – not for the first time – whether we might use the Hilleberg tent a few more times. All these are honourable graduates of the school of desire, and I’m firmly resisting the thought that I ought to know better at my age. Dreaming is the wellspring of a fulfilled life, and as long as you don’t waste a moment lusting after impossible dreams (like being tall and athletic in my case) there’s no reason to shut your life down voluntarily. Being old, short and tough as old boots is a lot better than giving up, sitting in an armchair and looking at the wall. Anyway, enough of this introspection because I can already smell the mountain air after three seasons in lockdown. During these dog days, when the daylight seems so fugitive, the allotment is sulking, rain soaked and surrounded by dead wet leaves under a leaden sky, and so daydreaming about new adventures is a tempting relief. Neither of us is the least heroic and the world is full of more adventurous adventurers than us, but we’re less than 100 miles from some of the most spectacular places for walking, birdwatching and botanising. We’ve got the Mendip Hills, Exmoor, Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons all within easy reach.

Later, after all three of our children rang and and asked how my birthday was going, Madame pointed out that I’d described it entirely in food – breakfast, lunch and supper. I think that must be a family trait because we’re all either cooks or professional chefs. My birthday leaves just eleven days until the solstice – oh joy!

Searching for my lyrical voice

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that sometimes the lyrical voice comes to find me. Back in the day I wrote a couple of short stories for the radio, and the eagle eared producer said that the pieces of mine she liked best were the lyrical ones- we’d worked together on some religious and World Service programmes as well so she’d seen a range of my work . The problem was (and still is) that I can’t just turn my lyrical voice on and off at will. What usually happens is that an experience of some sort sticks in my mind – it might be anything from finding a new plant to an overheard remark – and when I write about it the voice just emerges, as if it came from behind a door with no handle. The echo with the Holman Hunt “Light of the World” painting is a fair way of describing what is always a kind of visitation.

Then, in one of those intense conversations that Madame and me have sometimes, we were discussing whether Tracey Emin could have been influenced by Edvard Munch’s work – there’s obviously a kind of affinity there – and I recalled that an influence isn’t always an intellectual thing at all. Sometimes a memory finds its way into your being in a more tactile way; through the eyes and fingers. The senses – like – Proust’s madeleine – have their own language and logic.

So I’ve been staring at this photograph for days now, wondering what it was trying to say to me; I knew it was significant, or should I say it had legs but I didn’t know why. The boring answer would be that it was a good shot of a powerful cold front bearing down from the north east, presaging wind and rain overnight. So the most obvious and least interesting inference was that tomorrow we’d be wearing raincoats for our walk. Then, an hour ago I noticed the Abbey in front of the approaching storm; in fact both the church and the surrounding city looked as if they were about to be engulfed by a rather malign darkness.

If I tried to explain how it came to be that these days I find it so difficult to enter a church after all the years of preaching and pastoral work I’d probably crash out in flames. I didn’t so much lose my faith as find a better one, and the most painful part of that process was the growing realization that the golden cockerel that tops so many spires and towers wasn’t so much about chanticleer greeting the sun but was a powerful symbol of betrayal; about denial and cowardice. “Come here” – it seemed to be saying – “and see Christianity betrayed; in the endless processions and minute doctrinal disputes, in the overweening ambition, ludicrous dressing up and the mediocre oratory of preachers with nothing to say“.

So possibly the impulse that flooded through my eyes and into my fingers as I spotted this shot which I took three versions of, and then chose this one – perhaps the sense of the Abbey and the city being overwhelmed was carrying some personal freight for me; enough for my finger to press the shutter without quite knowing why.

But then there are trees in the foreground as well; bare leafless, winter trees, with twilight rapidly approaching. A time for huddling into your collar and jamming your hands into pockets: and as I digest this little gift; revelation, visitation, I realize that the moment encapsulated almost exactly, a whole cats cradle of ideas, experiences, memories and above all fears. The single moment draws to a meniscus; like a shockwave, and disperses instantly. No wonder they call it a shot.

This wasn’t a photograph of Bath Abbey at dusk with an approaching storm. It was an unconscious and instantaneous self portrait, because I am prone to sadness and these last months have been like an endless winter, and – to use a prison phrase – we’ve been “doing our bird” – trying not to get sucked under by lament or longing and clinging fiercely to the daily routines of allotment, cooking, walking and writing.

And then with the announcement of the vaccine our parole hearing hove into view and I got the maps out, blew the tyres up on the bikes, took out the kayak and got the trolley ready again and felt just a bit more alive again. We’ve developed this curious habit of watching films in the evenings – not for their artistic merit at all but for their settings. We’ve watched all the series of Montalbano – many of them are complete stinkers but who’s listening? We’re just enjoying the Sicilian landscape. Maigret (three series) for a bit of Paris – although the Michael Gambon versions are certainly not stinkers but don’t ask me to remember the plots. The whole new aesthetic of the Potwell Inn has been centred around locations; mountains, hills and rivers get stars as long as the script doesn’t intrude -although we also watch hours of psychopathic murders, torture and betrayal as long as it’s got some decent landscapes in it to leaven the darkness.

So I see how my lyrical voice falters. If I were a plant I’d be chlorotic after months sitting in the endless winter, deprived of light and food. People are going crazy here, flooding into the shopping centre looking for the only kind of hope this etiolated culture can offer, even despite knowing that this will give the virus new and enticing opportunities. Greater love hath no man – than what? to lay down their life for an Xbox or some new trainers? Spare me, but I’m too busy clinging to the legs of my disappearing voice. When the music and poetry and song die that’s real death.

I say to myself a hundred times a day – this will end and we’ll be able to celebrate the sacramental simplicities of life once more. Hugging our children, kissing our grandchildren, eating with friends, not being scared of crowded places but enjoying being a part of the crowd, not misting over with hatred when we’re lied to and when journalism has betrayed its fundamental principles for the umteenth time in exchange for a backdoor pipeline into the machine.

And on the promise of that glorious day, we’ve bottled up last year’s damson vodka – although we still don’t drink alcohol ourselves. But that’s another story! Be safe.

Old Nog

“What’s your movie?”

Is a the title of a song written by Mose Allison; I’ve got a (possibly bootleg) recording of him singing it at Ronnie Scott’s and I only mention this because Henry Williamson cornered the anthropomorphic market in herons with Old Nog, (who came to life in Tarka the Otter), and I hesitated to name my first thought when we passed this heron on the canal today. Anyway, the song asks a question that’s often asked of literary portrayals of animal life. The worst of them – dare I suggest Watership Down – simply transposes human emotions and dispositions into more or less cuddly animals – which utterly diminishes both the reader and the subject.

“What’s your movie” asks what film character we most identify with or act out – I often listened to its merciless takedown of human weakness on my way to therapy sessions. It always served its purpose in getting me in the right frame of mind for lying on the couch (oh yes) waiting for a word in the silence. A bit like saying your prayers except God was sitting behind you.

What’s your movie?

Are you the artist that’s misunderstood?

The bad guy tryin’ to do good?

Or just the nicest fella in the neighborhood

Mose Allison

So I really enjoy(?) the song but at the risk of trespassing on Henry Williamson’s territory, sometimes another life form – a heron for instance – irresistibly brings someone human to mind. Snakes, donkeys, foxes and butterflies are two a penny but I confess that this bird instantly became a member of an extreme Baptist denomination known as “the strict and particular Baptists“. Heaven only knows what remote root of the luxuriant tree of heresy divided the already strict from the not particular enough members of the original congregation but it must have been fun. I passed what could easily be their only church, driving to Southend one day. But I can find no hope in this heron’s unsparing gaze. He sits absolutely motionless for hours on one or another of his fishing grounds and strikes mercilessly at some poor dace like Amos Starkadder spotting a sinner in the third row of the quivering brethren; gripping the edge of the pulpit and growling “you’re all damned”.

Some animals; dogs for instance but not cats; robins but not peregrines; tench but not pike, can almost convince me that some communication is happening – some thread of negotiable common ground; but not so the heron whose launch into flight seems to defy the possibility of lifting off and yet makes a far better job of it than a mute swan that needs to run on the water before launching. I guess I’ve got nothing that a heron needs enough to bother learning how to flatter me.

I’d have said the the octopus was another creature that failed the common ground test, until we saw recently the remarkable documentary “My Teacher the Octopus” (on Netflix) which seems to suggest that we’re not trying hard enough. If you haven’t seen it you should try, but be warned, you’ll probably never want to eat another octopus. Craig Foster, who made the film (and another equally disturbing/stirring one about tracking animals for food in the Kalahari desert) is apparently now a vegan.

If we’re ever going to find our proper place on this planet we’re going to have to learn a great deal more humility in the face of all its other occupants, from moulds to mountain lions. I don’t, by the way, go for the conventional graphic of evolutionary progress from protozoa to humans, we’re so inextricably part of one another that once you start to zoom in it’s hard to see where one life form begins and another one ends – just ask my gut bacteria! So the poor old heron would have every right to resent being compared to a human preacher.

The daily walk continues to challenge and delight us as the very earliest foliage begins to emerge, intensely green, like a promissory note from the future. More and more of the winter heliotrope are coming into flower and so their elusive fragrance often has you wondering whether it’s the plant or a passer by wearing a tiny trace of perfume. I should stop and watch which insects are visiting, but kneeling down on the towpath risks the danger of being flattened by runners and cyclists locked in their musical islands and breathlessly pursuing their 10K dreams. There are loads of other sturdy beggars of the plant world strutting their stuff in the cold and mist. We’re so lucky to have this all so close.

We were looking at some crime statistics this morning and it appears that 70% of the recorded crimes in Bath are committed in our district. If you include the area immediately across the river it goes closer to 80%. Obviously the figures don’t include undeclared taxable income on property, or white collar fraud. Strangely we feel perfectly safe here and it’s a wonderfully diverse community where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken just while walking into the centre. We’re what happens when you cut whole sections of society adrift. Today we passed Ken Loach – film maker – remember Kes? on our walk. Madame said hello and the poor man looked startled although he’s seen us at any number of meetings. If we lived in the posher parts of Bath we’d have nothing but bedding plants and weed free grass to remind us of nature, but here – down amongst the social housing we can tell a ragwort from a tulip – although you’re more likely to see a red kite than a house sparrow, sad to say.

I notice that the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) at their virtual AGM had a session on a year of plants growing in the pavement. I think I caught a radio programme on the same theme a couple of months ago – absolutely fascinating. Sadly only 66 people had accessed the BSBI video on YouTube. Does that say something about our national priorities?

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness Hotbeds intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown lost gardens of heligan meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Four hundred and fifty three thousand, seven hundred and forty four

No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness Hotbeds intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown lost gardens of heligan meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Finding the Potwell Inn – and why it doesn’t matter where you find it.

Plas yn Rhiw – overlooking Hell’s Mouth Bay

So this is not a photo of the Potwell Inn – it’s a photo of Plas yn Rhiw in North Wales; BUT IF I was going to actually give the Inn an address it would serve admirably. Writing this post about the Potwell Inn has become important today because the last week has been almost ridiculously busy on the website for no reason that I can figure out.

Thanks for dropping in – we’re here every day

It started when someone probably posted a link to a piece I wrote on harvesting borlotti beans and it attracted an awful lot of readers. I suppose I should be celebrating, but being a born again self-doubter, I instantly attributed it to some kind of mistake until, that is, another post went even wilder and tripled my readership overnight. OK I’m pleased but also puzzled because I’d like to say thank you to my invisible promoters but I can’t. It’s also a sobering reminder that once you press the ‘publish’ button, your little darlings become public property. So here’s a general thank you to my loyal band of regulars and the new brigade of irregulars who’ve appeared out of nowhere. Thank you for coming, it’s been great!

However I noticed that several searches recently have dug out an old post on “Finding the Potwell Inn” – possibly in the hope of dropping in for a pint in front of the log fire. Back along I had a lovely email from a reader who thought that he’d found, (and had a drink in) the original model for the fictional pub that came to life in H G Wells comic novel “The History of Mr Polly”. Sadly the landlady was not properly proportioned for the part: is anyone I wonder? so I’ll stick with Madame who’s perfect for the job as far as I’m concerned.

…… smelt like a combination of billy goat and cottage pie for most of the summer

So to save putting you to the trouble of sorting through a shoe box full of old papers like an accountant the day before the tax returns are due; I’ll say again that the Potwell Inn is not a place at all. It doesn’t exist and yet it could be anywhere that’s a place of refuge in a world that’s falling apart. Sorry for the gnomic definition but I can’t think of any other way of putting it. It first became a place of refuge for me when, at school and locked in an airless room with thirty other teenagers who (in the days before deodorants) smelt like a combination of billy goat and cottage pie for most of the summer; we studied Wells’s novel ‘Polly’ and I made up my mind that my life’s work would be to escape and find my own Potwell Inn.

Looking back on it I’ve realized that the Potwell Inn doesn’t so much exist as a place, but as an experience or – as some modish philosophers would have it – a process. Not, I mean, the kind of elevated process that leads to great discoveries, but the utterly everyday processes of growing, cooking, eating, cleaning, singing, laughing, remembering, loving and dreaming. A place where such ordinary things are encouraged and not disparaged by those who like to sit in judgement. One of the happiest men I ever met was a pallbearer – he carried coffins in and out of churches with an appropriately sombre air and loved his family. He gave me some china eggs once because we had a broody hen who was making a nuisance of herself; and his idea of paradise was to be on holiday with his huge extended family on a caravan site overlooking the brown and turbid waters of the Bristol Channel.

And so the Potwell Inn – that’s to say my (our) version of it has no postcode (or zip code) but is the culmination of houses, journeys, meals cooked and shared, drunken nights and sober ones, pots pans and knives acquired and treasured (each with its own history), holidays, seasons, gardens, allotments and jobs; children being born, growing up and moving away. It leaves behind a rich furrow of ideas, faiths and skills learned, embraced and abandoned; turned in to the soil of our many places. Dust to dust – I can entertain that thought without feeling sad at all; it’s just the way things have to be. Love can only be love when it’s vulnerable.

This is the Potwell Inn in which the produce and people who come through the door become sacramental and a savoy cabbage (today’s treat) can be a feast that’s unavailable at any fashionable restaurant. The Potwell Inn can be a loaf of bread or a cassoulet made with our own beans. More plausibly it could be the first cut of our asparagus, the taste of an apple fresh from the tree or the smell of a clove of garlic crushed. It can be the sound of the tawny owls calling to one another that we heard on our first night sleeping in the centre of Bath and who told us we were in the right place. It can be the smell of the river on a summer evening or the earth as it warms up in spring. It is a world of signifiers where the signified always hides out of sight. The Potwell Inn is a language that lasts as long as a mayfly lives; the burnt crust at the bottom of a paella; the skin on the rice pudding.

The Potwell Inn is not about public houses

If you’re old enough (I mean seriously old) you might have come across a novel by Richard Brautigan called “Trout Fishing in America”. On the back cover was a sentence – Warning to librarians – this book is not about fishing. I’ve described the Potwell Inn in as much detail as I can muster. I could probably write an entirely different version tomorrow morning, and so I’ll close this piece with a similar warning. The Potwell Inn is not about public houses (although anyone who could run a decent pub would have a head start at finding it or building it).

And please feel free to post links back to this blog, or recommend it to your friends if you like it; but let me know because I’d like to thank you personally.

Walking with a purpose

I have some dim idea why I love these little characters so much because they were the first gulls I learned to distinguish out of the group which I had always just seen as “seagulls”. I was puzzled enough by their red legs and beaks with black tips to get a bird book and find out what they were called. That was years ago and so now I know they’re black headed gulls – which caused a many a problem because it turned out they were only truly black headed in the summer. But they turn up here most winters; sometimes they stay and sometimes they go on somewhere else, and since I first noticed them I’ve learned a good deal more about them, but I love their delicate flight; the way they make the herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls who also live here look a bit lumpy – and, they’re here at the moment. These two were on the river bank immediately below the church where we often see peregrines – there was one there today. This isn’t unusual, we also saw wagtails, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, moorhen, mute swans and a lone Canada goose. The heron has been missing for a couple of days but he’ll show up again in one of his favourite haunts.

It was here on this walk that I learned to separate the ragworts; to find pellitory of the wall and half a dozen other medicinal herbs growing wild; here I noticed winter heliotrope and not – as I first thought – coltsfoot. Here too the wild lettuce that doesn’t look the least bit like the stuff on your plate. We do the same walk pretty well every day; come rain or shine. It’s about 8 Km which gets us over the 10,000 step line and passes a couple of local shops that we use. That means that we walk around 10 kilometers most days and it’s not in the least boring because it’s never the same two days running.

If I was trying to make it sound a bit posh I’d call it a transect – an ecological technique that helps us to understand an environment by walking the same path as regularly as possible and recording what you find there. It takes a while but eventually you kind of make friends with it, to recognise the old stagers and the newcomers and to rehearse their names so often that they stick in your mind. Depending on the season we could focus on birds or plants; insects (not too sharp on those) or butterflies and if anything the walk becomes more interesting each time we do it. Naturally there are other walks in much sexier places where we can marvel (gawp?) at five star rarities but there’s nothing in the world to beat finding one of them in a dark corner of a familiar place. We know the proper names of some of the fishes that congregate near the surface of the water in the summer, we watch the river in spate and at its lowest time in a dry summer. There are things we’d love to see – like otters – and I’m sure one day we will. The local natural history society – there’s a link on this page – runs a great facebook group where we can see things we’ve never seen ourselves and check out an identification with some hardcore experts if need be.

Walking is the most tremendous activity when you want to think. Our days are pretty standard; two hours of walking, three quarters of an hour of weights, two or three hours of writing and the rest on the allotment, cooking, eating and reading. When I write it down it looks almost monastic and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Walking grounds us, gives us a couple of hours when we can talk or be quiet and where we can find a perspective on the troubles and worries of life, and it provides me with an endless source of reflection – much of which finds its way on to the blog.

Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau, Santayana and a host of deep ecologists, poets, writers and pilgrims have all found comfort and inspiration in walking, so I reckon the evidence is in. I’ve always kept notebooks and sometimes the notebooks became journals and they’ve been the most important source of inspiration for me. So often, reading back on an everyday, common experience can suddenly flood it with light – “oh so that’s what was going on”. A walk can be an almost symphonic experience that might one moment be prayer, or contemplation, or remembering, or just filled with wonder and delight or perhaps a simmering grouse, or an anger that’s needing to be dealt with. Let them come, and let them go. And that’s not to mention the fresh air, occasional sunshine and the natural history waiting to be recorded.

It’s November, almost official winter and yet today we saw herb Robert in flower, winter heliotrope with its odd perfume, so difficult to describe; nipplewort; a couple of vagrant marigolds on the canal bank and the initial rosettes of a dozen pathside herbs that look lovely even as they are. It’s so easy to be sniffy about ragwort but really, its leaves are lovely in their prime condition.

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a piece of lichen that I picked up last year. If I sprayed it with water it would come back to life, and under the microscope it becomes a miniature world; a kelp forest an inch across. There are bits of dried grass and a pencil sharpener; with all the books and apparatus I need to continue the walk in my head later. It’s so much bigger and richer than just boring old exercise; making up the 10,000 steps. Oh yes, walking is good – good for the legs, good for the mind, good for the spirit too. It takes some ordinary – you might say thin – time of course, but renders it thick, rich and deep like good soil. Sure you might add the biochemical changes and dismiss it all as so much dopamine and you’re free to do just that; but I prefer to think of each walk as another voyage of the Potwell Inn Beagle.

*If you want to explore the philosophy and history of walking rather than read books about routes you might like to look at Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust”. I thought it was a superb book when I first read it and I’d recommend it without hesitation.

Britannia lures the waves!

And – as the great ship of state sinks gently to the seabed of reality …….

Sometimes a photo is a ready-made metaphor for something you can’t quite explain! But then, it was such a nice day today for a reflective walk that even the provocations made me laugh. I’ve written before about the way each season carries intimations of the next to cheer us on, and today there was a tremendous sense that spring will come because time and tide bow to no-one, however powerful our inglorious leaders might like us to think they are. There were signs of occasional occupation in this boat until a month or two ago, but now it’s about to join the shopping trolleys and stolen bikes at the bottom of the river. Meanwhile the prophets of Baal (you can look it up, it’s a very funny story) whip themselves up into a froth of evangelical fervour as we stand alone against Johnny Foreigner – ready to show what we’re really made of. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of Elijah anywhere on the horizon – I certainly don’t think Keir Starmer cuts the prophetic mustard. Anyway as a sign of our preparedness for the coming troubles I thought the poor old wreck was a fitting tribute. Johnson’s new £10 billion navy – “Just needs a lick of battleship grey and a union flag and she’ll look as good as she did in the 1930’s”. And we all know how well that went.

So by way of a bit of diversion this two part graffiti on the river bank made me laugh out loud:

I thought the waggish “why?” completely demolished the rather earnest philosophical tone of the original comment. Elsewhere I thought you might like to see this 20th century brutalist response to the foppish grandeur of Georgian Bath.

Yes it’s the Avon Street multi story car park which is about to be demolished – but still much loved by skateboarders. Needless to say the offending building – like most of the truly ugly modern buildings in Bath was erected in Kingsmead – where we now live. This was the area that was most damaged during the Baedeker air raids during the war – the bombers missed the real target back in the day – but instead of grasping the opportunity to restore what was always a poor but vibrant mixed community they built lots of horrors like this and demolished even more small, historic houses across on the London Road on the spurious grounds that they were unfit. The tragedy, of course, is not so much the failure of architectural imagination – I’m not arguing here for mock Georgian multi-story carriage stables – it’s the shocking fact that someone, in an office somewhere, thought this was all we were worth. George Steiner wrote memorably of a critical test for literature – “What measure of [hu]man does this propose?” The architect Richard Rogers has written that buildings embody our idea of human worth, what we’re about and what we’re capable of. We’re not there yet by any means – the Western Riverside Development in Bath, done by Crest Nicholson resembles nothing more than a bonded warehouse or an architectural tribute to a Chernobyl housing project.

There are, however, grounds for hope. The lockdown has created economic havoc among some of the larger companies, but many of the smaller shops and businesses have proved themselves more adaptable; working collectively and capitalising on what feels like a real longing for a new order. The butchers and bakers and for all I know the candlestick makers too have tapped into something significant, exploring the meaning of local and community; and all it could take to demolish the supermarket myth for good will be another food supply crisis – like the one so heedlessly being put together at the moment. It used to be a raise in bread prices that caused riots – maybe this will be the first civil unrest ever caused by a shortage of jackfruit and avocados, but more plausibly – given the middle class aversion to any action bar gentle hand wringing – it will be provoked by the absence of the everyday things; the foodstuffs that (like it or not), most of us have learned to depend upon.

So back to my book of the year (so far). Here’s a section that caught my eye this morning:

We’ve now discussed, however briefly,the human ecology of field crops, gardens, livestock and wood crops with a view to constructing more sustainable farm systems for the future out of this raw material. Earlier I mentioned the idea of people re-wilding themselves in the context of that future – spreading themselves out across the landscape like other organisms to to skim its flows sustainably rather than concentrating so as to mine its stocks, practising the arts of self-reliance, knowing how to fill the larder, and knowing how to stop when the larder is full rather than pursuing an economy of endless accumulation.

Chris Smage – “A Small Farm Future” p 144

Well, Amen to that. The economy doesn’t just need the tyres pumping up or an oil change it needs to be exposed for what it has become, the means of extracting wealth, leisure and humanity from millions of people and throwing millions more into dependency, sickness and poverty. The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek crino – to choose – and so we have to ask who gets to choose when we reach the crossroads? – when the multiple crises facing us come to fruition at the same time because, in essence they are one massive connected crisis.

So to round off a pleasurable walk today, photographs of the two repurposed bridges from the ‘glory days’ of steam. The first the line from the old Somerset and Dorset, which brought coal (remember that) in from Midsomer Norton and the North Somerset coalfield into Green Park Station. The second, the old Midland Railway line. A third one comes in from the West and goes to London and is the only surviving working line. And of course there’s the lovely iron pedestrian bridge over the Kennet and Avon canal which no longer carries coal but pleasure boaters onwards towards London. The latest bridge across the river is for pedestrians and cyclists only. Steam has gone; coal has gone and the old station now houses market stalls, a butchers shop, food outlets and the local farmers market on a Saturday. The owner says he could let another six units today if there was space. Is this a sign of collapse or is it the foretaste of a new future, the first buds of spring that actually appear in late autumn when the leaves fall from the trees? If you look now you’ll see the buds there waiting. Only time will tell what fruits they will bear.

Busy bee

OK its probably a hoverfly, but cherry blossom on the riverside in November is a lovely sight!

By 5.00am I was wide awake and in the kitchen today. Yesterday I resumed breadmaking after a break since August when we put ourselves on a low carb diet; and, notwithstanding all my protests that it’s impossible to make a really satisfying 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, I went ahead and started one anyway.

We survived the first lockdown by cooking (not so bad) but also eating far too many portions of comfort food; bread, cakes, biscuits and preserves and thus it came to pass that we were becoming more generously proportioned than is good for us; in fact we were as fat as Christmas hogs. The last three months of frugality have worked well, we’ve both lost approaching a couple of stone and the threat of nameless but horrible consequences has receded – no doubt like the devil seeking an opportune moment. I won’t bore you with the self glorifying details but there were two particular milestones – rediscovering my waist, and then a joyful reconciliation with a load of clothes that had been folded up and stored with a sigh years ago when it all started. Hilariously, I also discovered that when my old jeans were properly installed around my waist rather than clinging precariously under my belly I no longer needed the shortest leg length. Toulouse Lautrec eat your heart out!

The challenge with wholemeal sourdough is to get it to rise without the sharp edged bran damaging the structure by puncturing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Grant loaf – often as hard and dense as it was possible for a dough to be. But Doris Grant had one thing absolutely right; wholemeals don’t need as much kneading, and they ferment quickly, so leaving them for too long is more likely to lead to a collapsed dough than a life-changing loaf. My idea was to cut out the second rise altogether and see what happened; I just had my illumination at exactly the wrong moment and so I started the batter at a time which ensured I would be awake at 4.00am worrying about the dough overflowing the banneton. The idea is to catch the dough when a poke with a finger creates an indentation that feels springy and mends itself immediately. This morning I missed the optimal moment by a couple of hours and a dangerous looking muffin top was just overhanging the banneton (reminding me of my old jeans) , but mercifully the loaf forgave me and with a good sprinkle of rice flour as lubricant it slid from the peel into the hot oven without collapsing.

Yesterday the sun shone and so we took ourselves for a long walk along the canal and back – about eight miles in all. Aside from the cherry blossom I also spotted winter heliotrope in flower on the canalside. In fact there were intimations of life and growth everywhere, if you took the time to search them out. But the other thing we noticed was how much larger the population of permanent narrow boat residents has become. At a time when decent housing in Bath is beyond reach for so many young people, quite a few have taken to the water in a range of boats from the spick and span to the downright messy. In fact one of the floating homes we saw yesterday isn’t a narrow boat at all but an improvised raft.

Noah’s Ark?

A little further on was another boat stacked so high with stored artifacts and second hand timber it seemed to be anticipating a siege –

Are we supposed to get annoyed about this? To me it shows resilience and, after all, people have to live somewhere and if we allow a housing crisis to develop we have no right to criticise the improvised methods of survival that desperate people are obliged to adopt.

The highlight of our walk was a conversation with a young man who is developing an organic smallholding on an unpromising strip of land between the canal and the railway line. There are several such allotments dotted along the canal and this one was well stocked with pigs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and one or two exotics in the background. A strip of land that would otherwise be producing nothing but brambles is coming to life and producing food in a largely self-sufficient way. What was so nice about our conversation was that notwithstanding maybe fifty years of difference in our ages, we shared the same experiences and enthusiasm for low impact and sustainable agriculture. I’ve just started reading the recently published “A small farm future” by Chris Smaje – you should check it out – it’s a closely argued book that repays slow and careful reading, but if our conversation with the young smallholder yesterday is anything to go by; the ideas that inspired and motivated us in the seventies and which have been so diminished and derided within this grim era of neoliberal economics, have been slowly gathering momentum and heft in the background. There’s a whole community down on the canal and it’s functioning with its own distinct (and distinctly more sustainable) culture. In my darker moments I’ve sometimes feared that everything we believed in and worked for over the past fifty years has been crushed, and that there’s no-one left to pass all the accumulated experience on to. After our long walk we came back to the flat with more of a spring in our step because there are signs of hope along the canal and in many other places. Goodness only knows how this will play out over the coming decades, but yesterday it felt as if the cultural tectonic plates really are moving – too slowly for some, no doubt – but that’s the way of the paradigm shift. For decades there is nothing but almost inaudible questioning of the status quo, the way we do things round here – and then suddenly one day it all clicks. Like sourdough, the best things are worth waiting for – and I think I’m about to have to eat my own words about the impossibility of creating good 100% wholemeal sourdough. Let’s have a taste!

I’ll tell you what it tastes like tomorrow ….