Less is more

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A friend once told us how isolated his parents were becoming when he noticed that they began to have conversations like – (looking out of the window) – “that green car isn’t there again!”

Well it isn’t there again today and we’re fully occupied finding strategies for staying sane that fall short of car spotting. There’s dogs and drug dealers of course but they don’t change much. British summer time has also thrown a bit of a spanner in the works and we stay up much later than usual but then my inner clock seems not to know that I don’t need to get up at 6.00am. Today I got up early, made tea, read for a bit, made coffee, went to sleep, woke up and read for a bit more – got up at 10.00am. It’s no life, honestly – if it weren’t for the allotment we’d probably be playing ‘I spy something beginning with W’, and the answer would always be ‘window’; – ‘wall’ being disallowed as unpatriotic.

Our other favourite diversion is trying to figure out how to observe the government advice to stay indoors and get shopping delivered when there are no delivery slots to be had at all and every website we go to is shut down due to overload.  Ah well … However just to prove that life goes on outside the bubble, a tractor showed up this morning to give the Green its first cut of the year.  Last year, if you remember, it was agreed to leave an unmown strip around the edge to let wild vegetation grow up – I think ‘wildflowers’ is a bit overheated in our instance, but I like weeds, and more to the point, so do loads of insects. My word, these are powerful machines they use these days. Last year by the second cut the rewilding project lay in shreds because the message about the wild strip failed to get through to the tractor drivers. Today, though, the tractor drove underneath our window and stopped and then the driver consulted some kind of plan in a ring binder and then slowly and deliberately left a wide border all around the green. Early days yet, I know, but there’s elder, burdock and wall barley in them there borders, and a new generation of children might just learn about ‘itchy coos’ and darts.

IMG_20200401_132638Then, among the excitements, a brilliant idea occurred to me this morning regarding the pigs’ cheek surplus. Madame had turned her nose up when I presented them in their unadorned form – too much information I suspect – and so I minced them up, added herbs, sweet pimenton, some softened onions, a little egg and breadcrumbs; rolled them in flour, fried them and then baked them in our own stored tomato sauce et Voila! – as you might say if you were French – they were transformed into meatballs and became today’s meal. Every little triumph adorns the day.

But the pandemic is never far away, and yesterday we were texted by one of Madame’s nieces to say that their father, our brother-in-law, is in intensive care with confirmed coronavirus. Is this it? Is this the spirit of the blitz that people who’ve never even experienced food rationing, let alone bombing – like to evoke. We plough on in spite of the dangers, we dare to make small plans for ‘when it’s over’, we say silent prayers for our loved ones because we don’t like a fuss. There’s nothing inspiring or admirable in any of this and true compassion isn’t ever a public act.

And then just I was about to press the send button on this post I heard the sound of a machine outside, and when I looked, there was a smaller mower removing the violets and celandines outside the house.  Morons!!! – we’re lions led by donkeys.

 

 

 

Something about simmering!

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I realise that pig’s cheeks may not be everyone’s favorite during this time of stress, but I recall exactly why I bought them about two years ago, and as always it was down to the memory of a grocery and delicatessen in Clifton, where we used to live, and which occasionally sold Bath Chaps – which is a local name for pigs’ cheeks, cured like bacon and then coated in breadcrumbs and presumably deep fried  – exactly the sort of dish an ambitious gastronaut ought to be having a go at. The shop window could have come straight out of Mrs Beeton. Needless to say I never actually bought any, and I’ve never eaten one either, but they always looked so good in the window – I’m a sucker for anything coated in breadcrumbs. It was a lovely shop; they cooked their own hams and did all the things that deli’s stopped doing years ago, and the clientele (apart from me) included many of the great and good like the Lord Mayor who used to send his butler round for a swift gammon.  He (the butler) was an immensely large Cornishman, well over six feet tall, who  always wore a morning suit that looked a bit grubby and stained and who spoke with a rich Cornish accent.

So when I encountered these pigs cheeks my gastronomical imagination was aroused and I bought six of them for next to nothing.  The rest of their time at the Potwell Inn was spent in the freezer awaiting the moment which never seemed to come and so they went into yesterday’s stock and after a long braise they came out again and I tasted one rather gingerly because they were in the part of the stock that I normally throw away. It tasted pretty good too but Madame refused to even look at them and so I guess they’re a secret snack for me.

At least, being of no interest to Madame, I’ll be safe to snaffle them. Treats, under lockdown conditions, can be a source of tension – in fact almost anything can be a source of tension when you’re banged up in a first floor flat and your partner the only person in the world allowed closer than two metres. I have filed away her incendiary behaviour over my shortbreads, and even forgiven her through gritted teeth for taking the last cold sausage from the fridge but it takes a saint! Last night we were sitting amicably watching the television when a strangely sulphurous smell crept into the room.  Suspicious glances were made and denials of responsibility were issued but it wasn’t until I came to clean down in the kitchen that I discovered a clove of garlic had stuck to the underside of the stock pot and was caramelising away gently, emitting a horrible burnt garlic smell.

So yesterday’s fruits included a loaf of everyday bread – subtly different in flavour and texture because I’ve run out of rye flour, but still very good.  There’s the stock reduced and stored, and fifteen pounds of new allotment jam in the cupboard as well as space in the freezer available for speculative and impulsive purchases (not including pigs’ cheeks) if the shops ever open again. I was pretty tired by the time we finished, and slept badly so woke up this morning feeling – well – jaded, I’d have said hung over if I’d had a drink but we foreswore alcohol last June and haven’t lapsed. Notice I didn’t say ‘yet’!

This morning I decided a mid-morning nap was allowable but it didn’t work out.  Living in a flat, especially a concrete walled flat, inevitably means a degree of sharing.  This morning I shared my peace with two or perhaps even three radios tuned to different stations and a builder two floors up who was using a hammer drill non-stop for two hours. The sofa is about a foot shorter than I needed for snoozing so I got cramps. Living banged-up can have its irritations.  I remember once reading about a murder (true story this) committed on a sewage farm.  It was a remote site with a house occupied by two men  who didn’t get on to the extent that one killed the other in a fit of rage and chucked his body in the tank. The subsequent trial revealed that the festering tensions between them had all boiled over and the rest was history – at least it was for one of them. I’d have thought there was no better place for festering tensions than a sewage farm.

I hope that the Potwell Inn emerges from this crisis with all its staff intact, but as time goes on the outside world becomes that tiny bit more threatening.  I wonder whether there will be thousands of new cases of agoraphobia after months of this.  We’re lucky to have the allotment to go to  and this afternoon it came as close to being a carnival as conditions allowed.  Everyone seemed to be there and we all hailed each other across the empty space as if we hadn’t seen each other for months.  The council have turned on the water supply at last and so we all observed a thoughtful queue at the required distance as we watered our seedlings.  We’ve been fortunate that our stored rainwater has just about lasted us until now, and during the summer I can install the last two storage butts so we can be even more self-sufficient.

In spite of the record rain during the winter, the recent dry spell and its winds have dried the upper surface of the ground and so seedlings need a lot of attention and watering, but it was the kind of attention we were relieved to be able to give – you could almost feel the young plants saying thank-you. The new season has begun and even in the midst of this pandemic there’s something good emerging. Our GP neighbour said today that the new personal protection gowns they were issued with look as if they’ve been made from bin liners – as always, life is like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts!

Taking stock & making stock

When we took on the first half-allotment four years ago almost exactly, I don’t think we’d considered at all what a big part it was going to play in our lives. We’d always grown things in a series of different houses and allotments –  you’d probably have described us as ‘greens’ for many decades, but over the years the sense of urgency has increased and where once we were content to have a few home-grown treats off our various gardens, by the time we moved here it seemed apparent that growing some of our own food was about to become a necessity. We had much less money once we retired, and there had been straws in the wind when relatively minor events like a bit of snow, or a petrol strike had brought the country to its knees and seen the shops emptied, and especially after the 2008 financial crash we felt that the system could no longer be trusted. Insecurity was becoming embedded in our lives and there was a growing sense of cognitive dissonance between the world as we and our children were experiencing it, and the world as it was being sold to us by politicians and their friends in the media.

So when we signed the first and then the second agreements on our two small plots, we felt that with the aggregate of 250 square metres – a British standard allotment plot – we’d be a good deal safer if the economy tanked. At that stage it was a conceptual move rather than one driven by an immediate threat.  The brexit vote and then the election of the new government did nothing to allay our fears that the future was darkening by the day, and yet never once did it occur to us that the occasion of the collapse would be an escaped virus leading to a pandemic. That was truly left-field.

Until very recently, growing your own has been a kind of lifestyle choice – in fact many allotment and cooking blogs are categorised as lifestyle blogs. Home grown vegetables,  and kitchen gardens tended to feature alongside gingham tablecloths and wicker shopping baskets at the homes and gardens end of the coffee table trade. Bread baking – especially the sourdough loaf – lined up with all manner of artisanal products as forms of conspicuous consumption among the hipster classes. It was all very ‘let’s pretend’ as head scarves worn 1940’s style with dungarees became fashion items allowed us (yes I mean us) to toy with the idea of wartime austerity conditions without actually having to put up with them. For a while offal became the latest trend in high end restaurants and you could show off to your friends by demonstrating mastery over removing 200 tiny bones from a breast of lamb before stuffing it with truffles and gold leaf.

And now it’s happened and everything has changed. Over the past 50 years 65% of the land given over to allotments has been sold off by local authorities for housing development or to be turned into parks – both extremely important social needs, but suddenly allotments are back in vogue because the cracks have opened up and the shelves are empty. The pandemic has demonstrated that our way of life has become so hollowed out that it no longer functions under stress. Four years ago when we signed our first lease you could barely give allotments away and now you’ll probably have to wait for years to get one as they work through the recently extended lists, and those who have taken them on for the first time have to cope with the closure of garden centres and shops and the seizing up of the seed supply chain.

Waking up this morning into a different world was a bit of a strange experience. There was sourdough batter proving in its warm spot on the stove exactly as it has done for years, but I was painfully aware that we’ve only got 1 Kilo of flour left and no idea how to get any more – we may, we may not, but whether this is the last loaf for a while lies outside my control. The freezer was stuffed to capacity but probably 50% of what was in it was only put there because we couldn’t think what to do with it back in the day.

And so I did what I often do when I’m troubled about something, I decided to spend a day on the stove. First up – and wheeze of the month – I decided to take all of the soft fruit out of the freezer, mix it all together and make a batch of jam under the label “allotment jam”. It contains redcurrants, whitecurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries, all picked last year, and it smells lovely. We (I) tend to make far more jams, preserves and pickles than we could possibly eat, but the boys like them very much. However even this simple idea led to a mini crisis, because I’d run out of honey jar lids.  Four years ago I bought a big batch from a wholesaler and proudly boasted that I’d never need to buy another lid – until today, that is. A quick scout around the internet revealed that the mighty Amazon have them at 10 (yes ten) times the price I could get from an old contact in the bee supplies business – so guess who I placed the order with!

Next, from out of the freezer,  came a load of old chicken bones and a bag of unidentified material I think may be pigs cheeks, bought because they were there on display at a time when I had no time.  The freezer can be a bit of a dustbin if you’re not careful. We had all the veg I needed to make stock apart from fresh herbs and leeks and so we went to the allotment and gathered some of each.  Once again, the takeaway point is that the leeks I collected were so small you wouldn’t be able to give them away at the supermarket.  As I’ve mentioned before, they didn’t do well last year, but dug, washed and trimmed they smelt better than anything you could hope to buy and they, and all the other ingredients are simmering away slowly on the stove, along with some more rhubarb. Bread, soup, stock and pudding all in hand.

This whole change of context has changed the way everything feels. In times of shortage, anything we can muster and make something from becomes that bit more precious. Intellectually I’ve known for years that our western way of life is unsustainable, but this painful lesson has taken us back from our focus on the detail to show the bigger picture.  Climate change, global extinctions, dirty air, poisoned land, polluted water, poverty, sickness and obesity are not discrete challenges that we can tackle one at a time when we get around to it – they’re one unified and terrifying challenge.

Yesterday we found the remains of a chicken on the allotment, almost certainly killed by a fox. I could see at a glance that it was (had been) a domestic bird because the remains of its crop were stuffed with maize. The condemned prisoner had enjoyed a hearty meal! Today when we went back every trace of the maize had gone; almost certainly eaten by a fortunate mouse.  The last of the feathers went on to the compost heap. That’s how nature works; endlessly recycling herself with no creature taking more than it needs or can find nearby, until – that is – we came along and tried to take it all.

More reasons for being cheerful

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I’m never quite sure what constitutes the first fruits of the new season because some of our favourite things like leeks and purple sprouting broccoli have been in the ground for a season already. So if you exclude all of last year’s starters, then the first crop has to be one that was sown this year and once again (it never changes) the radish comes in first because it just loves the hotbed and always obliges us in record time.  These were the very first thinnings, but we were so pleased we just blew the loose dirt off, wiped off the rest on my overalls and ate them.  They were delicious and remember, everyone needs to eat their peck of dirt!  The asparagus is putting in a magnificent effort and will certainly come second, but it just needs a few warmer nights. Very soon we’ll be eating the first thinnings of lettuces and then – true joy – the first broad beans. The hungry gap is always much later than most people imagine – it doesn’t come in the dead of winter when there are always roots and a few hardy brassicas to be had – it’s now when you can feel the first heat of the sun on your back and the birds are singing.

Paradoxically, the social isolation policy coupled with millions of people being laid off or working from home, has allowed many people to get on with their allotments and every day sees more work being done.  But there are other fascinating consequences. This morning when our grocery delivery arrived, instead of coming in a big diesel van it arrived on an electric bike – I couldn’t quite believe it – but the boss of a local bike delivery company had lost almost all his work due to shop closures so he offered to help the supermarket out.

Our own plot is a constant source of pleasure. Today we went up early, thinking there wouldn’t be much to do because yesterday we decided to do a bit of weeding and we struggled to finds any weeds! Two people working seven days a week on 250 square metres of ground can defeat even bindweed after 4 years.  Actually I’m a little ashamed that it looks so clinically clean at this time of the year, but give it six weeks and it will look a lot more random. We’ve scattered no end of  “good” weeds around the beds but they’re slow to germinate.

The biggest job today was to plant out the garlic that we’d started off in pots last year.  We experimented by splitting the bulbs into two batches – half were planted straight into the ground and the other half into big pots filled with home made free draining compost. All winter the pots were winning – the ones in the ground were sitting in very wet soil and we were quite concerned for them.  But as soon as the rain stopped the situation reversed completely and the ones in the ground started to pull ahead so convincingly that today we put the rest into the ground.  The original idea was to use the potted ones to move around the plot and sit them on paths to deter pests.  Pots can be a bit tricky though, and even after the wet winter we’ve just had, the pots were drying out even after a week of good weather.  Garlic likes moist soil but hates the wet and hates drying out just as much. The watering regime for garlic is one of the keys to success and we’re still learning how to manage it.  Pots need a lot of attention  – that seems to be the learning point.

As ever we’ve put things into the wrong place and they soon tell you.  I’ve already moved some lavenders into a home made bed that would kill many plants, but we saw a bunch of lavenders planted in what looked like an impossibly dry and sunny spot on the side of the canal last year, and I remember shaking my head sagely at the time – assuming that they’d be dead by the end of the season – but they just loved it there. Now we’ve got to find a new home for another sun lover  – a Clematis armandii that’s on the wrong side of a hazel hurdle. The best laid plans etc ….. Last year I spent many hours planning on the computer, but we altered so many things on the ground that we’ve become a bit less picky.  Rotations are important, but making a fetish of them drives you mad, I promise!

So not much time for reading today but suddenly, as I was reading Thomas Berry the thought popped into my mind that although human slavery was (theoretically) abolished many years ago, precisely the same set of attitudes lies behind intensive farming.  The victim this time is the whole earth and so by extension all of us.  The absolute power that science and technology have gifted us over the processes of nature is not accompanied by any sense of responsibility, or by any spiritual awareness of a debt to the earth which sustains us, out of which we have emerged over unimaginable periods of time, made from the very elements and energies of the moment of origin.

Those grubby hands in the photo are holding a miracle that – rightly considered – should bring us to our knees in gratitude.

Gove says it’s OK to go to the allotment – should we believe him?

For those who watch TV news (I don’t if I can help it because I can’t bear it), Michael Gove’s clarification won’t be news at all, although it may have slipped past them anyway. Allotments aren’t at the top of many peoples’ agenda at the moment, and there’s no particular reason why they should be. More to the point, his clarification bore all the signs of being made on the hoof and could easily be reversed twice before supper, but clutching at the lifebelt, most of us went up to the site today and worked in the sunshine while studiously avoiding any contact with one another.  We’ve yet to invent a social protocol for this kind of thing. Slightly unnervingly, the police helicopter appeared to be flying overhead but there was zero chance of any impromptu gathering; everyone down here is worried sick.

For the Potwell Inn, where we’re also having a bit of a lock-in, so long as we’ve got enough to eat, the absence of shopping malls, night clubs, cinemas and foreign holidays is never going to be a problem. Bookshops and garden centres are another matter altogether – but after a stroke of intuition we stocked up with potting compost and organic fertilizer on our way back from laying up the campervan and before the lockdown was intensified.

The only organisations that seem to be taken completely by surprise were the supermarkets whose websites all crashed yesterday. Either no-one from government gave them a heads-up or they failed to anticipate that telling the entire population they were going to be locked in for three weeks might cause something a bit worse than the Christmas Eve rush. We’re sad, angry, panicked and volatile here. We’ve been told we’re vulnerable and shouldn’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary – for shopping for instance – and yet after hours on the computer I was unable to book anything.  There’s talk of having food delivered by volunteers but first you have to have food in the shops and then you have to find volunteers, either of which could take ages – during which those without the money or the ability to stockpile will have to do without while the wealthy post photos of their wine cellars and larders on the internet.  I knelt beside the asparagus this afternoon, willing it to grow faster! On television last night Jamie Oliver demonstrated how to make pasta with only two ingredients – flour and eggs.  This revelation was greeted breathlessly by a Guardian reviewer who appeared not to be aware that its normally made that way anyway unless it’s in Northern Italy where they leave out the eggs. The really bad news is that it’s almost impossible to get any flour because millions of people have decided to make their own bread.  That’s great news – or it would be except we’ve almost run out and I don’t think pasta made from eggs and water has got much of a future.

This ought to bring the question of food security to the top of the agenda but I’m not holding my breath. We have a cultural problem. We’ve become so focused on profit and ever more elaborate trading and delivery systems, that we forgot the producers and now we’re paying the inevitable price.

But enough of that.  I want to write about Thomas Berry, the American philosopher and what’s gone so terribly wrong with our culture – but I’m not quite ready yet.  I woke up this morning to an anxiety dream and that mood failed properly to shift all day.  When I’m feeling gloomy I often cook and because the National Trust has shut down even its parklands, I decided to make my favourite National Trust cheese scones.  I was going to make some yeast bread, something I don’t often do these days, but when I went through the larder I discovered that some of the odd packets of flour I wanted to use up are very (like 5 years) out of date – surely I’m not the only hoarder who’s making that discovery this week!  The scones were delicious although they could have been a bit cheesier but in my preoccupied mood I measured the milk incorrectly and one thing led to another ….. never mind, they  freeze well.

At home we’re potting on all the seedlings and so we have no propagator space and not a square inch in front of the windows. We shall eat well later I hope, but I’m fearful that allotment raiding will come into fashion as the national food supply dries up.  What a horrible mess we’re all in!

Cheer yourself up – cook something.

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This is going to be a very brief posting because we’ve had a long day – emptying the campervan this morning because somehow I don’t think we’ll be using it this year.  The bad news was having to do it at all, but the good  news was we found loads of food squirreled away in the cupboards, so less shopping (we haven’t been to the shops for over a week). Then this afternoon we went up to the allotment – we’re both concerned that the government may prevent us even from growing our own food – all because so many people have refused to comply with sensible voluntary restrictions *[we’ve just heard Johnson’s address and it looks as if we can justify driving alone to the allotment and working (exercising) as long as we don’t interact with any other allotmenteers – we shall see], but part of the urgency has been to get crops into the ground.

There’s nothing more important than keeping up morale, so tonight we had a pie that included our own leeks and purple sprouting broccoli, with tinned prunes out of the van.  Very good they were too and our morale was appropriately boosted.

More tomorrow

Keeping going

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As promised, a few ideas on staying sane later; but first – and this isn’t a showoff, when I make a discovery, usually not remotely original or clever but just something I never figured out before, I like to share it in case someone else can use it. And so a sourdough tip. I’ve sort of known this for ages but this loaf so perfectly demonstrates the point that I’ll share it now.

Everybody loves a crusty loaf I’m sure, and most of us slash the top of our risen dough before baking. This little trick just helps you to choose what you want the crust to look like. I don’t like the kind of crust that looks a bit like a breaking wave on top of the loaf; it looks great but it’s often very sharp and can be positively dangerous to eat when it’s baked hard. In old money this is often described as a crusty or when it’s rectangular, a split loaf. I prefer the crust in the photo, it looks just as impressive in my view, but it’s less lethal to the mouth and it’s the kind of crust you get on what’s known here as a coburg. The choice between breaking wave and a smoother crust is controlled by the angle of the slash.  If you want a loaf like the one in the photo – and this is a bit counterintuitive – you need to slash the dough vertically, straight into the top, as much as an inch deep. To get the wave look with the raised slash, you cut the dough diagonally at, say, forty five degrees or even less. Try it and see for yourself.

Which takes me neatly to survival mechanisms while we’re all doing our best to avoid social contact because it can be really boring stuck indoors. Why not spend some time learning to bake? If you’ve always wanted to make sourdough the best suggestion I can make is to ignore all the witchcraft and ley-line stuff about making a starter. It couldn’t be simpler, you just mix a couple of tablespoons of rye flour light or dark, doesn’t matter – with enough water, (tap water will do), to make it the consistency of double cream.  Leave it uncovered for a few days in a warm place and it will start to bubble a bit. You don’t need to buy fancy starter kits because – trust me – the very air we breathe really wants you to make sourdough. And then once it’s working well – frothing up – you can throw half of the starter away or give it to a friend, top it up with a couple of tablespoons more rye flour and more water. When it comes to making the bread, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage recipe is as good as any but expect to add or subtract a little flour depending on the brand you bought. And don’t worry it’ll taste fine – don’t overbake it.  I bake it in my steam oven for 10 minutes at 220C and twenty at 180C – that’s half an hour altogether, but it will differ according to your oven – that’s it. If you really want a blow by blow recipe and method, email me on the link on this page and I’ll send it.

And that was a very long winded way of saying use this unexpected gift of time to do something rewarding, because achieving a lifelong ambition really makes your day. We have a lovely breakfast each day using our own bread and preserves.  We read a lot more and we tend hundreds of young plants or go to the allotment where everyone understands the 2 metres of separation rule. I can’t begin to express how a few hours of gardening can compensate for our restricted lives.  The sun shone today and I was able to fill the water butts from the storage barrels.  Madame sowed seeds and I planted cabbages and rhubarb chard – almost everything is under fleece because of the cold nights. We swerve between feeling optimistic and then moments of real panic at the thought of what may happen.  It’s a bereavement for sure, to lose all our freedom, but the sight of so many (mostly young) people crowding the parks, markets, mountains and beaches in defiance of all the advice was a chilling sight.

My final time enriching wheeze is to play back all my botanical photos in a slideshow and try to name them all as soon as they come on-screen. I know I’m a complete propellerhead but there we are.

Be safe.

Going to the wall.

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If I had to spend the next three or four months staring at a wall I wouldn’t mind too much if it was this one at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. However that’s not going to be possible so it’s the magnolia – no, not the tree, the emulsion paint. We don’t actually feel very vulnerable, but everyone, from our children to the Spaffer in Chief keeps telling us both that we are and so I suppose we must be.  

Our individual vulnerability isn’t confined to the prospect of becoming infected with coronavirus, although that would be bad enough, because the effects on our whole society will be much worse. In the last 24 hours two of our three sons have discovered that they’ll probably lose their jobs and in one case his home – they’re both chefs and one of them has three children, one of whom is exceptionally vulnerable due to a genetic disorder. Our third son is working around the clock to try to mitigate the effects of school closure on the most vulnerable children; those who will go hungry, those in violent and abusive homes, those who are self-harming and need daily support – not to mention trying to arrange effective home education for all the others. The National Health Service is coming rapidly to resembling the scenario of MASH (you have to be old to get the reference), and meanwhile our deep dependence on Europe is about to be demonstrated as the lockdowns in France, Italy and Spain cut off the source of much of our fresh produce – and now it seems possible that we shall be trying to keep the family show on the road with one income, two pensions and two allotments which have yet to produce any substantial crops because it’s so early in the season. Even the words “I told you so” taste like ashes in the mouth; there’s little comfort – even in anger.

And so we do the calculations of profit and loss here at the Potwell Inn. We’re pretty much confined to the flat except that we intend to carry on driving up to the allotment where we can self isolate quite effectively while we exercise as per government fiat. Our travel plans are all cancelled for the time being because we’re not supposed even to drive over to the campervan. We’ve booked weekly deliveries from the supermarket for the next month and we’ll rely on the boys for any other supplies. On the plus side I’ve assembled all the books and information I need and so my ‘staying sane’ project – apart from the allotment – is to try get my head around the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) system – not all of it but just the grassland sections. Meadow Foxtail – I’ve got you in my sights, and when we eventually get back out into the fields I hope, at last, to be able to nail the grasses.

There are so many wall-based metaphors I could use here: ‘going to the wall’, ‘turning to the wall’, ‘hitting the wall’ ‘going up the wall’ and they all have their applications within the Potwell Inn. This quote from Lenin was re-posted by a friend this morning.

“there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Perhaps this is the moment, the turning point when we take stock of our place on the earth, of our fragility; the ephemeral nature of our individual lives and of the related and hubristic ideologies that have brought us to the point where nothing seems to be working any more. The economic system has been exposed as a Ponzi fraud, food security is demonstrably broken, health and social care are collapsing and the earth is gripped by an environmental crisis.  The Spaffer in Chief and his courtiers have taken to the beaches.  In previous generations anyone who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Winston Churchill would have been sectioned and looked after in a secure hospital, but enthroned among the union flags, they have commanded the tide to turn. The tide is not minded to obey the commands of any man.

Is there cause for hope? There’s always cause for hope but it lives within human community, love, mutual respect and cooperation, not grandstanding and complacent talk of strong government. Yes we feel vulnerable – for our family this could be a calamity – so we’ll get our heads down and give it everything we’ve got because that’s what the Potwell Inn is all about.  But when it’s all over things will have to change.

 

 

 

 

 

Two swallows don’t make a summer

– but they certainly show that summer’s on the way. Sorry, by the way, for the lamentable joke but I’m cheering myself up because I’ve just discovered that we’re about to be subjected to house arrest for no greater crime than being over 60.  Even worse, we’re being told that we’ll probably be ‘let go’ by the NHS in favour of the more economically active. They say it’s for our own good that we’re being sequestered, but I’m suspicious.  Being made to feel lonely, marginalized and unwanted isn’t that great, but I think I’ll be alright because I’m so angry I’ll survive anything just for the pleasure of being there when the day of reckoning comes for this government, and meanwhile I’ll spend the time studying plants in the concentrated sabbatical I’ve always longed for.

The biggest worry is that we’ll be unable to maintain the allotment unless someone among the brain dead realizes that growing our own food is like going on a very lengthy shopping trip. Otherwise I’ll buy some night-sight goggles, put on my darkest clothes and garden secretly, in the dark – there are only a handful of police left on duty now in the whole city (post austerity) so it’ll probably be alright and I’ll be able to defend the allotment against the people who see a bit of illegal grazing as perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. Our neighbour once had all his pumpkins stolen a few days before hallowe’en.

The good news is in the photo – the asparagus is coming up. Actually, there’s been something to eat every day – not enough to keep us alive, but enough to keep us cheerful. There are still broccoli, leeks and chard and the hotbed is charging along so we’ll soon have some salad veg. I don’t think I’ve seen mention of this, but the complex reaction that keeps a hotbed going does need keeping moist, and we find that occasional watering invariably sends the temperature up by a few degrees 24 hours later.

Having time to calibrate the greenhouse drippers will pay off I’m sure, and by the time the warm spring weather comes and the plants are moved out of the flat, the whole system should work without too much intervention from us.  We’ve got food deliveries booked three weeks ahead and our youngest lives near enough to pick up fresh food and keep an eye on things; our middle son is an allotmenteer (on another site), our neighbours are a great bunch and our oldest son has got the whole family connected for video calls, so we’re very fortunate.

George Peterken’s nook “Meadows” is a delight as well. I have to read it with the laptop, a couple of floras and a notebook to hand because it’s that rich, but every chapter feels like a long rewarding walk and brings back happy memories of botanical expeditions we’ve enjoyed and intend to enjoy again when we get parole.

I had a colleague who was once involved in a deadful car crash.  He was driving on a dual carriageway when he suddenly saw a BMW upside down and in the air, flying towards him. He said it was so completely unexpected he simply couldn’t process the information and try to take evasive action. That’s what this coronavirus outbreak is beginning to feel like here in the UK.  The absence of any compassion, intellectual heft or even basic organisation by the government is terrifying.

Hotting up in the flat, sleet and rain on the allotment!

Outside on the green, the buds on the trees are swelling, lending a faint green haze to the view, although the hawthorn is well ahead of the pack. Not the least reason for celebrating the leaves is that they obscure the riverside housing developments which are not only thoroughly ugly but also poorly built – so much so that after only four years many of these ludicrously expensive buildings are having missing fire protection and non existent waterproof membrane installed at vast expense (I hope) to the developers and even vaster inconvenience to the residents. Of course many of the  Georgian buildings we so admire these days were thrown up in much the same kind of speculative fever, but at least they look good from the outside.

Enough of that, though, because as we approach the equinox, seeds sown during late winter and raised in the propagators are now demanding better lodgings, and like teenage children they have to be accommodated within our rather small flat. Each year at this time we get the camping tables out, one in front of each south facing window, and they rapidly fill with small plants.  Every few weeks they need potting on into even bigger pots, and long before mid-May when we can put plants like tomatoes, chillies, courgette and peppers straight into the ground, we’re struggling to find space for them all. When removal day finally arrives the flat seems uncannily empty, but at least then we can change the early window boxes for their summer equivalents.

The kitchen doubles up nicely as a potting shed but the competition for space is fierce and so this year I’m fixing up the greenhouse to house a dozen trays of the plants as they slip off the end of the production line. It probably doesn’t sound much, but the allotment rules only allow a six by four structure; a rule that’s generally honoured in the breach by our neighbours but it’s a more manageable size for two of us. Incredibly, few of the bigger greenhouses are ever used to their capacity and almost every autumn we see a few over ripe tomatoes clinging to tinder dry brown foliage, roasting in the sun. It’s amazing how the enthusiasm of Easter fades as the season progresses.

Some kind of pattern finally establishes itself for us. It takes a season or two to adjust to the land and to our own needs, for instance we know we need to grow fifteen outdoor (blight resistant) cordon tomatoes to keep us in sauces through the year. In addition we need a handful of salad tomatoes, and a surprisingly large number of roots – ready for winter. We’ve cut down on potatoes, and this year we’re focusing on our favourite earlies. A couple of courgettes are more than enough, and we need more borlotti beans.

Last year we discovered, much to our surprise, that the aubergines and peppers and the less fierce chillies actually preferred it outside. We made far too many pickles, more than even our hungry extended family could help us consume, and so a single gherkin plant would probably do. Which brings us to the big economic question – is it cheaper to buy plants or sow seeds? Well, packets of F1 hybrids often only contain 10 seeds, but if you only want a couple of plants, it might be cheaper to buy them at the garden centre because they don’t last forever and they may not be viable after five years.  The advantage of growing from seeds is access to a far wider range of varieties,  but plants are professionally reared and get you going quicker.  I don’t think there’s an answer  except to put in a word for open pollinated and saved seed.  With a little care, and once you’ve discovered what goes really well on your own patch, this is free source, and sometimes seed will even adapt to your precise environment and soil – just as potatoes and maize have done in South America.

Weatherwise, it’s been continuing in much the same pattern; a day of sunshine and a week of rain, even sleet today. The south west of the UK is fairly mild and they’ve had it much worse further north, but we’ve seen freak frosts and even flurries of snow as late as May.

I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral”. I’ve had it on the shelf for ages and made a start several times but put it aside because I found it – dare I say – a bit intense. This time I soldiered through the first couple of chapters and I think, at last, I can see where he’s going with it and so I’ve sealed my intent to finish it with a bookmark. More to follow, then.