This both is and is not a photograph of the Potwell Inn. Let’s just say that the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw are very close to my heart. Rhiw is pronounced a bit like the sound a buzzard makes when it’s circling in the sky. Welsh is a very beautiful language! Notice the chestnut fence which is so economically constructed, and notice also how quiet it is, presided over by the spirits of the Keating sisters and their mother. There are some places, some hills, some groves, even the smallest of things, that can function as portals if you’re paying attention. What floored me on our very first visit to the Plas was the stove in the kitchen. It was a paraffin powered stove complete with an oven, each burner having its own primus style pump; the exact stove that my grandparents had in their cottage in the Chilterns. I can only have been four or five years old, but I have the clearest memory of having it drilled into me that the stove was dangerous and that I should never ever touch it. Continue reading “Small crisis at the Potwell Inn”
The great thing about the Potwell Inn is because it’s imaginary it’s always very close to wherever you are; and so organising a staff outing was a relatively straightforward business – mostly working out what to do, and shelling out a substantial amount of cash for the fare. It seemed to Madame and me that life is more than RS Thomas, Elsi Eldridge, the Keating sisters, gardening and searching out almost extinct apple varieties, so we decided on a steam train ride from Porthmadog to Caernarfon on the Welsh Highland Railway.
Gwynedd’s county town, home to Wales’s most famous castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mighty Caernarfon Castle commands the lion’s share of attention, but the town’s narrow streets and stylishly redeveloped waterfront also merit a visit. The castle, built in the 13th century by Edward I as a royal palace and military fortress, was at the core of a medieval walled town.
Thus reads the publicity blurb on the Visit Snowdonia website, and it goes on to stake a claim for the town’s historic importance.
More of that in a moment, but “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” goes the saying, and this posting is really about play because I don’t think we do enough playing and it’s having a terrible impact on our health and on our inner lives – and, further, it’s not long before what’s crippling our inner lives is also damaging the whole culture too. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and since I’m reading an excellent book by Peter Marren, called “Chasing the Ghost” I’m including a single line from the book, describing a naturalist friend hunting for a flower:-
“[Chris} has the thoughtful, slightly quizzical expression of a dedicated naturalist. If a Bedfordshire flower had eyes, it is that look of intense curiosity that it would see, as the hand lens descends.”
We tend to think of play as being a bit mindless, but the opposite is true. Real play is intensely mindful and focused, whilst all the time being wholly open to the wonder of the unexpected. Real play demands that we put to one side “the way we do things round here” – an excellent shorthand description of culture I once read – and open ourselves wide to the possibility of being someone else in a different world. Field botany, achaeology, drawing, gardening and cooking are among hundreds of ways of playing that are gradually being eroded by our Gradgrind society – and the results are everywhere to be seen
And when it comes to playing there’s not much to beat a 25 mile ride through Snowdonia on a proper steam train. Everyone’s playing! obviously me, playing at being about seven years old again lurking around the engine waiting for a burst of steam and hanging out of the window (strictly forbidden) to feel the smuts and grit in my face. But everyone else seemed to be at it as well; the driver and fireman were properly dressed up and were having the best game of all, especially when the vacuum failed in a narrow cutting and applied the brakes – then we were all playing. The driver was playing the resourceful hero walking back down the line, and we were all playing being abandoned in the mountains. The conductor was playing at raising our spirits with her announcements while the fault was fixed. Of course it was fixed, but when we pulled into the next station there were a small group of people having the time of their lives playing at being engineers and having manly conversations in their hi-vis jackets while a shed was unlocked and a mysterious component was found and seemed to make everyone happy again. And all that didn’t even begin to describe the bliss of rattling and clanking up the climb towards Snowdon with the wheel flanges squealing against the rails in all the twists and turns. And then there was the silence.
The steam hissed, someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name
At the very first stop, Edward Thomas’s poem came flooding back to me, it was almost overwhelming, and it occured to me that no-one whose life had not begun in the steam age would quite understand the poem because these days, the station name-board would be accompanied by the loud thrumming of the diesel engines under your seat. Real unexpected silence was the best teacher of that poem anyone could hope for – a truly magic moment!
And it’s impossible to describe the mountains adequately even though I know the area fairly well. The reason is that – unlike a map – the mountains change shape with every yard the train heaves upwards towards the summit. You realize how partial your understanding of any landscape must be until you’ve got it under your feet. I know very well what Tryfan looks like on a map, and even as I climb up it, but I don’t even know what it looks like from the Glyders or indeed from almost any other distant aspect. That majestic and slightly menacing outline may well look quite benign from some viewpoints but I don’t know that because I haven’t got the ground under my feet properly. I’m just not local enough.
But agricultural policy in the UK has been decided for years by people who haven’t got the landscape under their feet at all. All this landscape and all its beauty has been compromised by farming policies decided largely by politicians and unelected boards 280 miles away and more; compromised by ignorance and greed and little understanding of a whole way of life that doesn’t fit into a homogenised culture. Am I sounding a bit William Cobbett here? The name on the cinema lets the cat out of the bag because deep down I think the politicians in London still see Wales as a colony. First you attack the language and then you take everything you can.
It turns out that Caernarfon is probably best seen from Angelsey because it gets seedier the closer you are. We only had an hour and I was on the lookout for the bookshops I’d googled up but the only two I saw were W H Smith and another that seemed to specialise in Welsh language books. Yelp boasted nine bookshops but we walked around the castle and the pretty bits in about ten minutes and the other seven must have disappeared. There was a pub called the Black Boy Inn with a sign that would make you blush for shame at the lack of irony or self-awareness, and just up the road a cafe that offered sausage and mash with onion gravy in a giant yorkshire pudding, with several rather depressed individuals eating something else. Somewhere near the waterfront was a large statue of David Lloyd George who’s ubiquitous in these parts (there’s a museum in Llanystumdwy). I kicked myself when we got back for not paying more attention to the modelling of the trousers to see whether the sculptor had managed to make any covert reference to the member for Caernarfon which was, by all accounts, wielded to great effect. The bingo hall just about sums it all up.
What can you say about Caernarfon? It seems to have lost its raison d’etre. Stone, slate and coal are no longer shipped out to the world, hill farming is on its knees and the only industry (if you discount doing up second homes and holiday lets) would be tourism. It’s a sad and lost place that reminded me a bit of Milford Haven; and as we were walking around I was thinking of H G Wells’ Mr Polly walking on the beach at Fishbourne and saying “Beastly silly hole of a place”. You could imagine the vast majority of young people with any vision at all having to leave the area and move to one of the larger cities.
But enough mournful introspection. The authorities are working hard to make things better and they’re spending £2.5 million on a new terminus for the Welsh Highlands Railway – right in the centre of town, and the Potwell Inn works outing still had the journey back to Porthmadoc to look forward to. And for once the summit of Snowdon was not wreathed in cloud and we even saw the little steam train making its way up to the top. I’ve got mixed feelings about that one. Whose bright idea was it to build a railway line up there of all places?
And back to Porthmadog we went with our company of day trippers, picking up walkers and adventurers as we went – imagine the fun of flagging down a whole steam train on a request stop. Finally we passed the Moelwyn Hills as we approached Porthmadog. Many years ago we went on a weekend working party on the Ffestiniog Railway which was then more of a dream than a reality. There was some serious playing going on there, not least with seemingly vast amouts of explosive used to blast a new link that had been broken by the construction Tanygrisiau Hydro Electric Power Station. It was winter and we got a bit bored and so we climbed Moelwyn Bach, the smaller of the two mountains, in deep snow and in our wellies. Deeply irresponsible I know, and we got properly told off by the ‘grown ups’ when we got back but they were a strange lot – they believed in the railway as fervently as they might have believed in the Second Coming. It was all too serious for us and we finally disgraced ourselves by crashing a truck. I imagine they breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of us. Now, decades later it’s easier to give them credit for their single-mindedness in building the railway. They were absolute pioneers and achieved their railway line in the teeth of a thousand difficulties. I wonder what the original volunteers think, now that the railway is a successful commercial enterprise. Knowing when to let go and allow the second and third generations take over is a real challenge, but only today it was announced that the slate region of Gwynnedd which includes the Ffestiniog Railway is to be nominated as a Unesco World Heritage site which, if it comes off, may bring even more visitors to the area. Something needs to replace the lost industries but it will create yet more stress on the culture and landscape if it’s not managed carefully and locally.
So back into Porthmadog with the sun going down and the last train from Ffestiniog steaming on the far side of the station. As staff outings go it was pretty good – no-one got drunk, started a fight or got locked in the toilet. I think we might do it again next year.
A lively exchange of emails after my last posting with my good friends and Potwell Inn regulars Kate and Nick who run a smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Apart from establishing that they do have a Goose Arse apple tree on their patch, Kate was telling me about an experiment they are planning using birch tar to discourage the slugs and snails that are a constant problem on their allotment patch.
This year they were using sheeps’ wool which had some deterrent effect, Kate says. They’ve got mountains of the stuff because the economics of sheep farming are frightening. Last year it cost £70 for shearing them and they made £3.81 for the wool. They’ve never made more than 50% of the shearing cost on the wool, and last year’s is stacked up in the barn with little hope of a return except by composting and digging it in to the bean trenches. The pictures show how Kate is experimenting with it as a means of slug control, but whichever way you look at it the hours and the expense of lambing, day to day feeding, abattoir fees, vet’s fees, and fencing can only represent a very poor return on investment. They do it because they love it but the hill farmers are almost all gone now because, in reality, you can’t do it without subsidising it yourself by working. I know buying woollen shirts won’t change the world, but it’s a great example of the way that our countryside is being deformed by our shopping habits.
Anyway, during the winter Nick will be attempting to make some birch tar from their plentiful supply of trees. Over the years they’ve replanted hundreds of the native trees that would once have formed much of the landscape and they’re beginning to come to the point where some of the less long-lived can be harvested. Apparently the birch tar is waterproof, and when mixed with vaseline it can be smeared on fences (or perhaps raised bed boards) where it is effective for some weeks. This year we used nematodes on some of the beds, but it’s very expensive and in any case in such a dry season we didn’t have any real problems. We also use ferrous phosphate when we’re forced to but none of us like – or can afford – any sort of chemicals, even when they’re approved for organic systems, but we have agreed to give the tar a try on our allotment. Kate wonders whether it would be better known if it really worked, but the licensing regulations are so stacked in favour of big pharma, smaller companies will never have the money or the facilities to test them to meet the regulations and so they’ll linger on as folk remedies. If it deterred foxes, badgers, rats, pigeons, cabbage white butterflies, carrot and onion flies and human browsers too it would definitely be a winner!
I guess we’ve all got a list of writers we know we ought to read but somehow never get round to it. For me, it’s all too often someone I’m slightly frightened to read because I’m a bit afraid I’ll be overwhelmed, and Wendell Berry fell firmly into that category. Some of the most influential books I’ve read came to me accidentally, before I’d been able to think of a reason not to read them. Wendell Berry was one of those slightly terrifying characters who wore dungarees and represented all the stuff I felt most uneasy about in America and so I steered a wide course around him whilst all the while trying to find a way of living that he could have helped me with if only I’d not been so stubborn. Continue reading “Reading Wendell berry”
I harvested the very last strawberry today and it was delicious. We also pulled a few of the beetroots that are ready now and we continued picking the runner beans and French beans that we only planted as a gamble against the frost. It was a gamble that’s paid off and although the tomatoes and the more temperature sensitive crops are beginning to show their age and vulnerability, we’ll still get a few more treats before we turn to the winter veg in earnest. But on the plus side, the garlic and shallots have all burst into leaf since I planted them and today we went up to the allotment in pouring rain to check that the cold-frame lights were still in place and (inevitably) to have a good look around. The only problem that Storm Callum seems to have caused was to displace part of the Enviromesh cover on the alliums, guarding against allium leaf miner. Continue reading “It’s always local”
I’ve written quite a bit already about the ethos of Heligan, but there’s something else I want to explore, and that’s the need for proper celebration in our lives. Now I know that “proper” is a weasel word that usually means ‘the way I think it ought to be done’, but there’s more to it than trying to force my own sense of ‘the way things should be’ on to everyone else. Many years ago we had one of those extraordinary autumn seasons when the blackberries were so prolific that we picked forty pounds, which we took back to my parents house without having any idea what to do with them. What I remember most clearly from the occasion was the overwhelming urge to give thanks for the generosity of the uncultivated hedges. Continue reading “Lost Gardens of Heligan III: Celebration”
There’s a reason for changing the usual name of these gardens. We’ve just got back from 5 days in Cornwall which we spent entirely in exploring the gardens – they’re that good. We first visited in the summer with some of our family including the three grandchildren. They raced around having fun and doing what happy children do and we would not begrudge them a single moment of that mad ecstatic reception of a new place -in truth I wish we could all recover it for ourselves. But there was much more than novelty and ‘visitor experience’ going on there, and that was what we spent last week exploring. So this posting may well turn into several as I turn the days over in my mind. Continue reading “Lost Garden(ers) of Heligan”
It snowed here in Lleyn last night. It doesn’t usually snow in this maritime climate, it usually waits for another ten miles until it hits the mountains and falls there, but last night it snowed a bit and the surrounding hills were dusted with white when we woke up.
But the thought that woke with me was a nebulous sense of vulnerability associated with growing old and, from there in one of those strange leaps that the mind makes, to writers who share their everyday lives with us whether we like it or not, and from there to the legions on Facebook and other social media. Why is it so important to share everything? Or to include myself among the guilty, why do we do it?
Maybe my waking sense of vulnerability makes a starting point. Possibly it was the news that A has been ill with repeated UTI’s and in bed for a fortnight. Perhaps it was the story of a heroin addict son (written by his father) that we talked about before we went to sleep: these things have a habit of resurfacing in some way. The unexpected idea that, in a sense, everyone suffers from ‘locked in syndrome’ to a degree, came into my mind as I wondered what this strange waking mood was all about. Stripped down to the most basic level isn’t being human necessarily being lonely? -and what was that lovely quote from Chekov? – “If you’re afraid of loneliness don’t marry!” . It sounds harsh but it’s the unpalatable truth we rarely want to address. The starting point for our humanity is a terrible aching isolation. Love, laughter, joy and ecstacy are acts of defiance; and all art – painting, drawing, writing – are a declaration of war. Like Jacob at the Jabbok Brook, we wrestle with the angel who refuses a blessing and we always emerge from the encounter more or less damaged. Art dares to grasp the ephemeral and render it. By painting his rotting leaf in its glorious colours I have snatched it from the same oblivion that awaits me. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age” That’s it Dylan Thomas – although the fuse metaphor always seems a bit contrived. “If only you could bottle it” say the emotionally illiterate who can’t be arsed to join the resistance.
And so ecstacy – being out of oneself – is the release from that primordial isolation. The stupidity of trying to describe the furniture in the afterlife and to write the seating plan for the heavenly banquet is precisely that in order to materialise it you’d have to import the very thing it was designed to replace. If I’d had five lovers I would presumably feel five times as lonely in the heavenly kingdom. Thanks, but I’ll take oblivion.
But let’s, for a moment, take the side of the ‘bottlers’ who may have a point. We’ve all had moments that we’d love to be able to hold on to. This journal, for instance, is a way of holding on to the ephemeral that works for me. I’m not offering it up as any kind of exemplar for others to follow, in fact I’m its only reader. But what would it add if I published it? It might add a degree of self censorship, although that always exists in some form. Please meet my superego, my own personal policeman who seems never to go off duty. I think its principal benefit to me would be the assurance that I’m alive. My little protest against isolation and loneliness is no longer the equivalent of a message in a bottle thrown into the raging sea; it’s being heard, it’s being read by six people? by a million people? Does this help me to feel less lonely? Does it give me a friendly hug in a friendless world? Well yes and no. The friends and the hugs are virtual, they’re not real and when I turn my phone off they’re not there any more. The ‘likes’ are not the unconditional ones of sweat and blood relationships, but electronic gestures.
And so I wonder whether there’s a sense in which blogging is the bastard child of ecstacy. That ecstacy is deformed from the sense of being lifted out of oneself, of mysteriously losing oneself as we do when we truly love someone, to the entirely banal sense of sharing what pleases us and makes us feel good. Getting (it) out of oneself, for good or ill, like a form of mental cleansing, thoughts, feelings and emotions – especially when it’s hatred, fear and anger – can be swept into the app and flung into space, and the reward is a handful of emoticons and ticks that can reassure us for an instant that we’re not dead, not forgotten, not alone. I’ve seen it described as a form of narcissism but that’s just a little off target. Yes there are full-on narcissists who waste their time gazing at themselves in a mirror and enjoying it but most of us who have narcissistic tendencies (that’s everyone else, I think) are far more sad and desperate than we are self-satisfied.A few years ago ecstacy stopped being a Greek term and became a drug you could take to feel ‘loved up’ among a bunch of strangers at a club. That’s almost as sad as being alive.
It’s too cold and wet to get out today so apart from going to Nefyn to get some milk I’ve spend all day writing or thinking. From time to time we’re getting intense flurries of sleet and snow and as I was typing I noticed these fine mammatus clouds outside the window. They’re very odd and striking. Beyond them the sea is paynes grey and disturbed. By about 3.00pm patches of blue sky had begun to appear and although the wind is still a fierce and bitterly cold north westerly gale, and where the birds emptied the feeders yesterday, today they spent much of the time sheltering and periodically appearing as small flocks of one species or another.
Tomorrow we must pack up and go home, our drawing pads are untouched. Perhaps next time, we say, and next time there may be flowers or more likely leaves on the blackthorns that edge the little valley that runs down to the sea. Their dense thickets of branches and fierce thorns would be a worthy challenge for an artist with the necessary skills. Deeper down there are clouds of willows whose thin twigs reach upwards towards the light and, at this time of year take on a reddish hue. If I could be bothered to fight my way down there I would find them in bud, I don’t doubt.
Picking up my earlier thread, the other constant factor in our humanity is change. We age, and for years we ignore it or perhaps welcome the changes. We count it as maturity in our powerful days and then we cling to wisdom as the reward for our energy until we notice that our skin and sinews are less resilient than they once were. I once had a dream about being followed by two elephants. i woud occasionally catch sight of them, often a street away. I talked about it to Robin [my psychoanalytic psychotherapist] and he said “I’m a Freudian. They’re sex and death.”
And the Heraclitian theme of endless irrevocable change is what motivates and challenges a gardener too. I didn’t mention gardening as a means of challenging the loneliness, but I should have . Gardening and the love of the natural world teach us how to snatch something from the jaws of the monster. When we sow seeds we raise a finger of defiance to the forces of decay. We think, but never articulate the thought, that we shall live to reap the harvest. And the study of nature what’s that? My endless lists are my way of trying to nail down what’s there, just for a moment. Plants in flower on 2nd August 2017? I identified my first Vipers Bugloss on the cliff at Tenby that day and later I wrote about feeling an almost godlike sense of engagement in naming things.
I have a pen, designed for astronauts, that will write in any weather, upside down, on wet paper and I have notebooks that I can write in under the same conditions. They’re very precious and contain the record of the things I noticed that day. They’re not comprehensive – how could they be? – and to a more accomplished botanist or birder than me they would probably seem rather commonplace. Yesterday I watched sparrows and chaffinches – so what? – well because I really did see them and consequently they were noticed, cared about, recorded. Is that the primordial need that lies at the heart of our humanity? Our need to be noticed, cared about and even recorded?
And isn’t it the case that we are betrayed by a culture that only values the rare and the extreme at the expense of the ordinary? We surrendered the complex metaphor concerning God that had taken thousands of years to perfect and substituted Facebook, Instagram and the TV talent show. No winners, all losers. We each go back at night to our lonely one-room conciousnesses aware that there’s everything to do tomorrow. So by 4.00pm we were feeling a bit housbound and we drove to Porth Dinllaen for a walk along the beach but we were thwarted by a hailstorm that we could see sweeping across the bay towards us. There was a hopeful patch of blue behind Trefor cliffs but soon after we got back from our aborted walk the sleet was coming past the house sideways.