You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

Of course we talk to the allotment – how else would we know how to keep it happy?

It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.

Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.

As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.

But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.

We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.

Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?

Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!

Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.

So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.

This is the season when most of the allotment is the kitchen

That’s a bit of an exaggeration because we’re still harvesting an abundance of broccoli, leeks, chard and parsnips from the open ground, and lettuce, coriander, parsley and spinach from the polytunnel; but these are the last of the winter crops and we’re just entering the hungry gap; the period between the past and the coming season when there’s not much about. Most people would assume that the hungry time is in midwinter but it’s not. This is the time when the stores come into their own. The jams, preserves, pickles and the food in the freezer are what get us by even though the temperature may be in the late teens and we’re dressed in T shirts. Revelation of the year is the wonderful flavour and texture of our own home-grown borlotti. So plump and soft and full of goodness. This year we’ll grow even more, because they store so well. But in reality it’s that time when the myth of self sufficiency is punctured by the cold logic of the seasonal year. The last frost can be as late as May 6th here and it’s heartbreaking to see prematurely exposed plants wilt and die.

The strawberries from last year’s runners, that I moved to their new bed a few weeks ago are flourishing under a fleece covering and even showing a few flowers. Angelica, lovage and French sorrel are all going well and the first asparagus tips are poking gingerly through the soil. Broad beans are safely under bird nets and every bare patch of ground is eagerly covering itself with opportunist weeds. The saddest casualty of winter is my beloved Sweet Cicely which is at best a short lived perennial. It’s a devil to get going but we’ll try again in the autumn. Last year we doubled the number of dwarf fruit trees and they’re all looking good with the apples in flower. Even the speculative planting of tiny rhubarb stools (Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise) have come good; but we’ll leave them to gather strength this season. There are now three successional varieties of rhubarb to supply us from March through summer.

In the kitchen, though, it’s all going well with the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, lettuce, melons, courgettes and peas all potted on, and there are seed potatoes out on the landing. So this is Spring; the season of hopefulness and big dreams.

More on foraging

The glossy magazines continue to publish articles on foraging; some even daring to suggest that foraged food might help bridge the poverty trap for some people. I’m a foraging cynic. Recently we had reports of professionals stripping Cornish lanes of wild garlic. In Epping Forest the foraging of fungi had to be banned after entrepreneurs were found taking tens of kilos of fungi for sale to flashy restaurants. Nearly all the articles I see are written by people who make a living either by stripping the land themselves, or by running courses on how to do it. The idea that taking huge amounts of food away from its habitat – because it’s ‘free‘ – is somehow more “green” than growing some, (but never all) your food, is a dangerous fantasy that draws on precisely the same selfish and greedy instincts that underpin factory farming and fossil fuel extraction.

If, and when, we find something wild and delicious – field mushrooms for instance – we take enough for one feed and that’s it. I’m absolutely not arguing that picking a few blackberries, elderflowers or sloes is going to drive the trees to extinction but I’d apply a test that was suggested to me many tears ago by one of my mentors. Take (or give) enough not to be ashamed, but never enough to be proud.

The very moment in a foraging expedition where you have enough is the moment to stop. When gratitude for the gift slips into pride, the gift becomes toxic. One of my books on herbal medicine makes the admirable suggestion that the harvesting of plants and flowers for our healing should always begin with an act of thanksgiving. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely right, and I often find myself saying thank you out loud when we’re harvesting from the allotment. My maternal grandmother had a little saying that I hated when I was young because it always seemed to go with not being allowed any more pudding. She would say “enough is a feast” .

The single most awe inspiring thing about nature is not the big televisual stunts but her sheer undeserved generosity. When we abuse that generosity we become the prodigal children who want to spend the family inheritance in excess and then come back when it’s all gone and beg for more with a mumbled and insincere apology.

Good hunting!

Sweet Vernal Grass – Anthoxanthum odoratum

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things ….

Gerard Manley Hopkins; “God’s Grandeur”.

Yesterday I set out with the target of finding one single grass species, and we were on a 270 acre site where there’s an awful lot of the green stuff, so it was a test of patience mixed with good luck and Madame’s extraordinary eye. She was the first to spot the tiny flowers amongst the ruffians, not knowing at all what it was. Our minds converged and I had my plant.

It’s not that it’s the least uncommon – just that it’s very small; flowers very early in the year before the other grasses and then lingers as a dried skeleton for the rest of the season. I don’t suppose anyone in the UK could justly say that they’d never seen it but it’s also true that very few indeed would have noticed or known what it was. It’s all in the name; or very nearly all. It’s probably known as sweet more for its perfume than its taste. The thing about it is that it really is the smell of fresh hay; and that’s down to the alkaloid coumarin that gives the same perfume to Meadowsweet: a kind of delicious and evocative vanilla fragrance. The second part of the name, verna, comes from being one of the earliest grasses to flower. Most of the perfume resides in the roots and, as is so often the case, smelt close-up, to me it’s more like Dettol than vanilla. It’s also true that although it was once sown in meadows, Coope and Gray say that it’s neither very productive nor palatable to cattle and so it’s out there on its own.

We also went back to the dark rings in the grass to see if we could find any St George’s mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa and we were lucky that overnight a clump had emerged. They’re the easiest of fungi to identify as long as it’s spring. The white gills and the strong mealy smell are vanishingly unlikely to be anything else. Later on in the season, however you need to be very careful indeed because there are some truly dangerous nasties out there. Here’s an unexpectedly atypical Death Cap we photographed in September 2019 in Cumbria. As always, the devil’s in the detail and – just like all the other plants – you have to consider tiny details of shape and form; smell; season and habitat. That single death cap would certainly be enough to kill you!

Later on we trudged back to the Meadow Foxtails to see what other successional grasses might be on their way and found Yorkshire Fog in leaf there. I really should go back and do a full inventory but my grass I/D skills are still quite rudimentary and I fear it would be a slow job. It occurred to me while we were looking that I may not have noticed the Meadow Foxtail growing there before because until recently there was a free ranging herd of deer that would have eaten the tops off as soon as they emerged. Sadly they became infected with Bovine TB and had to be slaughtered, and so the grazing has had a two year rest. Preparations are obviously being made to reinstate the herd with hundreds of yards of new deer proof fencing going in. Hopefully they’ll soon restore the grass to its previous state.

One brilliant little find was a quantity of Flattened Meadow Grass; the same species that I found in Cornwall recently and which I’m still waiting to get signed off for the record. A double check on the BSBI database later confirmed that it’s known in that 10K OS square, and that’s good enough for me. Once you’ve sweated for hours over a plant you tend to remember it in the future!

First fruits

It’s a bit of a cheat to call these first fruits I suppose, but the parsley has thrived in the polytunnel along with strawberry plants, peas, lettuces and spinach. I’m sure we could have done much better in the tunnel but it’s been our first season and it’s a steep learning curve. The rhubarb is one of the treats of the early season and we eat it greedily, but there’s not a sign of the sweet cicely yet but the faint sweetness and aniseed flavour of sweet cicely really is the cherry on the cake – and since it was planted it’s appeared regularly. We’re really quite a long way from its home in the north so there’s always a possibility that it will give up on us, but it’s always lovely to see it poking its head above the earth.

Here’s another sign from a different setting. Away from the vegetable gardens the more decorative ones are just beginning to gather strength. During our stay on the Roseland peninsula we walked from Gerrans down the field lanes to Place – yes that’s the name of the place – Place. One purpose of the walk was to look for flowering wild plants, of which more later, but as we walked the last hundred yards down the narrow road we came across the splendid sight of the lodge cottage surrounded by camellias in full flower. Trad english countryside on steroids!

Place has a rather lovely house which is now in use as a wedding venue – there’s a photo left – which is built in such a way as to have the high tide reach the retaining wall of the lawn twice a day. Apart from that it’s a mud flat with a stream flowing down the middle, but it’s where we saw our very first Little Egret some years ago. On Tuesday we saw two there with a heron and the usual cohort of more familiar herring gulls having occasional scraps with the local crows. There’s also a ferry here in the summer that will take you to St Mawes where, if you like, you can catch a further ferry to Falmouth. Great for South West Coast Path walkers who don’t want to get too fussy about walking every little creek up and back.

The third setting for enjoying the early signs of spring is to watch the emerging wildflowers, and that was the main purpose of our walk. The final tally of plants in flower was around twenty. I’ve already written about my travails with the iRecord system which is quite difficult to master. I have learned to successfully add single records and I’ve even figured out the little triangular warning signs that accompany some of my (either) fanciful or ( remotely possibly) brilliant sightings. I reckon a little four inside a triangle is a clue that there will be some tooth gnashing going on somewhere.

Cow Parsley

My biggest problem has been to submit a whole list of all twenty five species in one go. They are, after all, on the same footpath. But this time the system defeated me and I appeared to accidentally delete all of my list twice! Ho hum. I thought I bore it very philosophically but I dropped a mild email to the overworked minders of the scheme and although no formal reply arrived back, I noticed this morning that they had been restored. It was very kind of them but unfortunately their helpful gesture resulted in a bit of double entry which could make the whole lot pretty useless for researchers. So I think I’ll probably have to delete the lot again and start from scratch having learned the point at which the software can’t follow my random approach any more. I will learn it! I really will – because there isn’t a better way of putting something back into the community than recording its natural assets. I’ll always be a footsoldier in the enterprise but going out and doing some field botany is all the more absorbing if you happen on something a bit different. It’s no use anyone saying “stick to dandelions and you’ll be OK” because you need a PhD to sort them out beyond the wretched “agg (regate)” status. An acquaintance in the Bath Nats was one of the authors of the standard monograph on the blackberry whose promiscuous sexual habits have resulted in hundreds of subspecies. Sadly it is not mentioned which ones are the best to eat. For that you have to go blackberrying and find a secret spot or plant a delicious variety in your allotment. The most ordinary things are boundlessly fascinating.

As we walked down the lane I noticed a tiny white flower shining through the undergrowth. I knelt down to photograph it from half a dozen angles so I could ID it properly back in the campervan. It was hairy bittercress – a very common weed, you might say – personally I don’t believe in weeds – but blow me down when we went up to the allotment this morning there were hundreds of them. They’d obviously been there all along but until I’d taken the trouble to look minutely at a single one them they’d escaped my attention. Hairy Bittercress – very good for improving your eyesight, but not by eating it; just knowing its name.

If there isn’t a tradition for this we should invent it!

Looking up Perquil river with Polingey Creek off to the right.

Winter always does this; luring us into dreams of long warm days before slamming the door shut with icy fingers. The clue was in the wind all along. As it moved around from southwest, the rainy quarter, a finger of high pressure on the map brought first the sunshine – but before we could rejoice, it carried on cycling through northwest, north and northeast until finally today it blew hard and freezing cold from due east. We dressed up like deep sea divers and waddled down to Portscatho to get some supplies; but once we were back at the van we got itchy feet and put on our boots and down jackets and walked the track down alongside the Percuil river and after mooching about for a bit near the boatyard we retraced our steps. We once paddled up the river on a rising tide in the kayak, but mistimed the tide and forgot a fierce onshore wind; paddling back all but spent. At one point it started to hammer down with rain and we laid in the boat and laughed ourselves silly; much to the consternation of our guide who clearly thought we were a pair of geriatric escapees.

Percuil – especially at this time of the year – is preternaturally quiet. The boats are all laid up for the winter and the summer sailors have gone. As we walked along the river we stopped frequently just to immerse ourselves in the silence. The deep sided valley sheltered us from the wind and even the rigging on the few boats left at anchor in the water was listless. All I could hope for was the song of a curlew, but we were denied that thrill until later in the walk when we were almost home. We did, however see a little egret feeding in the low tide shallows on the far side. We are the only campers on the site at the moment. Two others left this morning which was just as well because the cold weather and the fact that the days are still shorter than the nights has meant we’ve hammered the leisure batteries without which there’s no light or heat. So as the last van pulled out, we ran the engine for an hour to pump some juice back in.

But there was a surprise as we walk the last hundred yards to the boatyard because the blackthorn bushes there have started to blossom. Today there were only a handful of flowers but in a couple of weeks the abundant thorns will look as if they are covered in snow. For me they’re the real sign of winter’s ending and – as I’ve argued before – it’s more likely to coincide with the equinox than the first day of March. The couple of gallons of sloe gin we make; (for overseas readers it might help to know that sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn; tiny, hard and bitter as gall) – so the couple of gallons of sloe gin we make in the autumn have been steeping for almost exactly six months. The sloes go into the freezer for a week or so and are steeped in a mixture of gin and sugar. The skins break and the clear liquid becomes the richest purple. Initially the sloe gin is undrinkable and bitter. But after six months – like today, for instance, you can have a first taste. Fortunately for us – because we’re enjoying a period of abstinence at the moment – sloe gin goes on getting better and better for the next three or four years, So I suggest we invent a totally spurious tradition which, for the sake of making it sound truly authentic, we could call “Wettings”, and all get jolly and hammered at the equinox and share our plans for the summer. The person who brags the most gets thrown into the pond and has to say cuckoo instead of hello until the autumn equinox – for which I haven’t thought of a suitable ritual yet.

So it’s been a quiet but lovely day under grey skies and true to recent form I idly picked a stalk of grass that caught my eye on a stone gatepost and it turned out yet again to be a difficult one that hasn’t been seen hereabouts for maybe thirty years. So I dutifully took the diagnostic photos, filled in the record and paused for an hour before I pressed send – wondering if I really did want to make a fool of myself again.

So here are some more pictures I took today and one a couple of years ago to show the glory of full-on blackthorn flowering. The other two are the male and female flowers from a row of Corsican Pines above Percuil harbour. They certainly know how to strut their stuff!

Blackthorn in full flower – April 2021

I’m no expert!

Well let’s be clear, I’m not an expert – not in any of the subjects that I write about in these posts. All 624,378 words – if strung together – would probably not represent enough expertise to grow a hyacinth in one of those glass thingamajigs. In fact the whole idea of being regarded as some kind of guru fills me with horror. This blog isn’t about sharing expertise, it’s about the endlessly puzzling business of being conscious and trying to make some kind of sense of it. My best hope is that I can share some of the little epiphanies that unexpectedly arrive in the course of gardening, cooking, baking, pickling and fermenting , walking and botanising; oh – and loving of course.

The photo is of the asparagus bed – covered for the winter; the garlic which I finished planting out from November pots yesterday and the new strawberry bed (the longer of the two) which I dug out entirely and added four barrow loads of wood chip; then replaced the soil and a layer of compost. Wood chip makes a good substrate when there’s not enough soil to raise a bed; but it rots down quite fast so needs replacing every year or so. I know that the experts say wood chip can acidify the soil but we use it for paths, mulch and raising beds with no discernable ill effects. The strawberries – which are all offsets from the original six special offer plants, have overwintered in the polytunnel.

The smaller of the wooden raised bed is the old hotbed which we’re not heating this year because of fears of persistent vermicides in the stable manure we used to use. So it’s got four foot of first class topsoil in which we have grown lovely carrots but to rotate this season it’ll be cucumbers or squashes. I’ve now got a tremendous backache!

“Do not go gentle into that good night” – first, clear up the mess in your head!

The vandalizing of the allotment at Christmas knocked the stuffing out of us. Aside from the feelings of vulnerability which are inevitable, I suppose, the replacement toughened glass for the greenhouse has been difficult to source and the whole area inside and out needs clearing of broken shards. The polytunnel – less than a year old – is now patched with tape. In fact we were so knocked off course I mooted the idea of giving up the allotment and working as volunteers in a community garden – it’s fair to say that one didn’t go well with Madame. We discussed whether to step back and grow more perennials and fruit, which need far less attention, so we could spend more time away in the campervan. That was one of the underlying reasons for trial renting the cottage in Cornwall; selling the van would pay for a lot of holidays.

On the other hand, the campervan brings us the freedom to travel as and when we feel like it, without booking months ahead; and it’s bought and paid for – although storage, maintenance, tax and insurance can mount up unpredictably. A van is a very costly bit of kit – especially when it’s sitting outside in the rain rotting away gently at roughly the same speed as we’re getting older. Two years of lockdown had given us plenty of time to reflect on what the van gives us, and it’s clear that it’s become essential to us. When we’re away we sleep better, walk and explore more. I treasure the time and space to turn on my botanical eyes so that plants I’ve never seen before suddenly become visible. We find time to talk and reflect and – if I’m honest – carouse and drink wine and abandon the ghastly effort of acting our age. You can’t do this when your children (and grandchildren) are around because it makes them cringe!

The net result of the holiday was a kind of mixture because we decided that we would keep the van and try to take much more time away in it, as well as carrying on with the allotment and on meeting up with friends we’ve not seen for two years. Last week we lashed out on 4 new tyres and windscreen wiper blades – they hadn’t been replaced in over a decade, and a new (yet to be installed) WiFi aerial and router to get over the constant lack of signal when we’re out in the wilds. In any case the old satellite dish is so enormous we look like a TV outside broadcast van in spite of the fact that – large as it is – it can’t see past a tree with leaves on.

I think any allotmenteer will recognise that feeling when the plot isn’t going well and you almost dread the thought of going to it. As a seasonal (winter) melancholic I often have to force myself to get off my backside and do some work. On the other hand any allotmenteer will recognise that once the work is in progress there’s a tremendous sense of wellbeing: why ever did I make such a fuss? you ask.

Truth to tell, though, I think it was the greenhouse bringing me back to life

Yesterday the sun shone and we went to the plot where I cleaned up the mess in the greenhouse while Madame weeded and tended the polytunnel. Safety glass shatters into a million fragments and so kneeling in a confined space with so many sharp edges around needed extra care; however after a couple of hours the greenhouse was clean, safe, and relatively tidy and I was surrounded by reminders of past seasons like root trainers – empty and stacked neatly in their containers. Is there a psychological term for that warmth that spread through me as I worked there? Previous notions to replace the glass with polycarbonate sheets seemed to fade and I began to think – ‘let’s replace and restore it properly, otherwise the vandals win. It’s depressing seeing the greenhouse, shrink wrapped in weed control mat, bits of black polythene and duct tape, so let’s bring it fully back to life.’ Truth to tell, though, I think it was the greenhouse bringing me back to life. As we worked there in our usual contemplative silence it was obvious that the allotment was as essential to us as the campervan. Madame had a long conversation with a fellow allotmenteer whose home built polytunnel had also been slashed and he told her that watering for us while we were away in the summer was an especial pleasure because the perfume of the ripening melons, basil and tomatoes filled the tunnel. As soon as we got home I turned to the photos on the laptop and I knew that there’s no way we we can thrive without growing food. Without the allotment we shrink; our souls starve.

We’re growing old, so there’s not so much time left we can afford to waste any of it. We’ve been inseparable since we met when Madame was fifteen and the prospect of our eventual infirmity and even separation hangs over us. The earth, our earth, becomes more precious as we share in her processes and dimly understand her grace and complexity, and although this might sound counterintuitive to a much younger person, it gives us comfort. We can’t win the environmental battle without a revolution fired by collective action. So long as we’re governed by wilfully stupid, squalid, and greedy governments none of the actions we know we need to carry out, will happen. Lying awake at night in a fury because they have just licenced the use of poisonous neonicotinoids to protect sugar beet – and who needs reminding that excess sugar consumption is killing and maiming millions of people? – well, it’s a waste of emotional energy.

So long as we have our wits, and enough physical energy to do it we’ll grow food and travel whenever we can so that we can record and enjoy the natural world in all its ludicrous generosity; write about it, photograph it and draw it. What’s happening to the earth demands witnesses because without witnesses there will be no time of reckoning. So no – we won’t be going anywhere quietly, thanks!

Meanwhile – back at the Potwell Inn

They say that fine words butter no parsnips so I thought that – amidst the philosophising -it would be good to show that even while we’re away the allotment goes on producing. If ever there was a defense of no-dig gardening it would look something like this. With a bit of frost on it from last week, this parsnip will be sweet and delicious – as will the leeks and the other winter veg which just get on with it. In the polytunnel we’re cutting radishes and fresh lettuce; parsley and coriander too. Winter veg are so much less fussy than summer ones. This week will see the propagators in action again as we prepare for the spring. The just in time principle which emerged along with lean thinking in Japanese car plants of all places, is especially suited to allotment planning because we need the plants at (as nearly) the right moment as we can manage; climate change permitting. So we haven’t overwintered broad beans this year because for the last two years severe east winds in March have decimated them. What we don’t want is a load of stressed out plants being kept in pots long after they were ready for transplant. So the annual gamble begins tomorrow, having received all the seed orders and planned (almost) where everything is going to go.

But allotments and more in-depth study are only a part of this year’s plan because I’m determined also to get out and do some serious botanising after a two year enforced layoff. I also want to do some serious work on the insects that visit us around the house and on the plot and so I’ve just shelled out on a macro lens adaptor for my Pixel 5 camera. Although I’ve got a very fine Leica macro lens it takes an eternity to set up shots and you almost always need a tripod and flash units. This 25g treasure arrived yesterday and I had a brief chance to play around with it. Some initial photos of random things on my desk are below. I also took a photo early yesterday of one of our orchids in flower. It’s entirely by natural light – there’s an abundance that floods in through the south facing windows in the flat, and as I walked into the room the sheer beauty of it grabbed me and so I just took the picture. It’s not edited or altered in any way.

And here are a few of the test shots with the macro lens. I can’t wait to get out there!

Marmalade, damson ketchup and dodgy arguments fill my days

In don’t usually write in the kitchen but there’s no option because I’m reducing some damson ketchup in a pan that’s incredibly prone to burning. Yesterday it was the great marmalade re-boiling after it failed to set on Wednesday. That was entirely my own fault because conned into three for two deal at the supermarket I ended up making – or rather not making – 27 lbs of marmalade in one batch. This is not something I’d recommend because it was far too much to cook in one pan and I finished up like a man dancing on hot coals – racing, thermal probe in hand, between one pan and the other which diluted my attention to detail. I love my thermometer because 104.5C is a number that feels pleasingly precise. However boiling marmalade – I would have known if I’d thought about it – always displays a variety of temperatures depending on how recently I stirred the pan, and which part of the pan I plunged it into. Normally – i.e. with an acceptably sized batch – I would check the set with a cold saucer.

I knew something was wrong even while I was filling the jars. It was all too liquid for my liking but sometimes when you’re tired it’s easier to rise above the facts and so it all went out to the chilly hallway last night and when I checked early in the morning it was almost as liquid as when it went in. I must have undershot the setting point by at least 4C. Nothing for it, then, than to laboriously scrape the whole lot out of its jars; wash and dry them all with their lids and then do the job properly. One cold night later, they’re perfectly good and properly set after removing at least a couple of pints of excess water during the second boiling.

The damson ketchup was down to Madame who pretty much used the last remaining couple of spoonfuls on her scrambled egg this morning, and reminded me that we had some bags of damsons in the freezer. The bait was dangled and I took it! Damsons are, what my mother used to call a bit of a beezer when it comes to removing the stones, but once they’ve been frozen you can much more easily remove the stones with a squeeze between thumb and finger. The stick blender that we got ten or more years ago as a £5 special offer, has become one of the most indispensable tools in the kitchen. It’s much better for soups and purees than the Magimix which is so old now, the bowl is held together with black gaffer tape to prevent it spraying hot liquid out through the cracks.

And so here I am, eyes watering as the vinegar evaporates, and waiting for the sauce to reach just the right consistency for getting it out of the bottle without resorting to skewers and long spoons. It’s really worth the effort, this sauce. When I first saw the (Delia Smith) recipe I thought it was a bit counterintuitive, but you can always measure the success of a recipe by the speed it gets eaten. Cornish pasties, for instance, go Premier League with a splash of it. And so there it is, bubbling away quietly on the stove behind me while I meditate on whether jamming, chutney and sauce making and pickling come under the heading of cooking, or ritual.

I write the distinction down because (due to the generosity of the Chelsea Green Publishing Co’s Christmas discount) I’ve come across a writer I’d never heard of. His name is – or rather was – David Fleming and somehow he seemed to have been writing about about sixty odd years of my life experiences. I fell first on the shorter book – assembled from the much larger dictionary, which I also bought. I would, by the way, nominate Chelsea Green as my personal publisher of the year because I’ve read so many of their books and learned so much from them. Anyway the shorter book is called “Surviving the Future” and my experience of reading it was rather like meeting a complete stranger at a party and getting on so well with them you’re finishing their sentences after an hour. However – and here’s the catch – what if that compelling new acquaintance suddenly, and out of the blue, makes a shocking remark. In this instance it was a quotation from Roger Scruton a profoundly irritating right wing philosopher who said this:

….. Mass immigration of people who actually don’t identify with the surrounding community would take [the local culture] away, and of course that is a problem we’re all facing.

Roger Scruton on Any Questions – BBC Radio 4, 2006.

Where to start? The Potwell Inn – even though it’s an entirely fictional conceit – has a context. It’s in the City of Bath, UK and we’re about as polyglot a community as you could ever hope to live in. I won’t even try to list the nationalities of our neighbours because it would be a long and tedious retelling of a marvellous cultural mix. Do we feel in the least diluted by the fact we can buy and eat ingredients from, let’s say, a dozen cultures all within walking distance? No! Is language so very much of a barrier? No! Do I want to regress to the kind of fantasy sovereignty dreamed of by brexiters? Not on your nelly! Our immigrant neighbours add immeasurably to the richness of life here and we love having them around. Nuff said then?

Here’s the thing. If a book is 98% full of brilliant and insightful material but quotes one wholly unacceptable philosopher (I use that word loosely) – should I stop reading? Well I think not; but before I join the adoring band of followers I’ll certainly want to read the rest of the book with my critical faculties turned on, because one thing I am completely sure of is that as the climate catastrophe builds, we’re going to accept responsibility for our role in it and that will mean welcoming many more immigrants. I for one will be pleased to share my recipe for damson ketchup with anyone that can teach me how to make falafel without them exploding in the oil!

Actually I do think of jamming, pickling and preserving as an annual ritual that holds the year together. Solstice and equinox, seasons and carnivals have their place too, and as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. I could have mentioned similarly upsetting quotations about hunting but Madame thinks that would be opening a wholly unnecessary battle. The fact is, not all traditions, rituals and so-called ways of life should be taken forward into the future. We need to choose which bits of the old ways we need for a very different kind of future from the last two hundred years of extractive extravagance. Going back to the good old days (which were never that good anyway) won’t be on the menu.

Three pints of damson ketchup cooling down. The glass of wine is not a prop – or perhaps it is!
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