The millpond of our lives is disturbed by ten burly policemen.

I had intended to write a post about the – shortly to be ended – peace and quiet of the city while the tourists have gone. I hardly need add to the thousands of words that have been written about nature and its beneficial effects and it’s mostly true, save for the reservations I mentioned a few days ago. We’ve had wonderfully quiet walks along the river and up the canal – undisturbed by hen parties on narrow boats or young men dressed as pirates.

There was a tremendously amusing moment a couple of days ago as we were sitting on the canalside enjoying the sunshine when we heard a very loud voice performing one half of a conversation, the other being in her earpiece. Why people find it necessary to hold the phone three feet from their face and shout at it is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it’s so they can watch the other participant on the video screen- who knows? But anyway this young woman, dressed entirely in black slowed down when she saw us and taking a wide path around us hissed into the phone “I’m just passing two elderly people!”

The canal, and the river too, was like a millpond

  • and the inverted reflection of the trees, houses and the sky blessed the whole view with perfect symmetry. You felt you were looking beyond the surface of the water into an infinite depth. Cleveland House never looked more Georgian or more stately as it straddled the canal above a tunnel which was dug purely to protect the wealthy patrons of Sydney Gardens from having to see the bargees. It was built as a toll house above the canal and the tolls were collected by means of a basket lowered through the floor of the house.

Pellitory of the wall - Parietaria judaica
Pellitory of the wall

Alongside Cleveland House I spotted a patch of pellitory of the wall – Parietaria judaica growing as you might expect, on a wall. It’s not the kind of plant that you’d likely notice, with its inconspicuous flowers but it once had some fame as a useful medicinal herb for urinary problems. Culpeper really rated it and I dried a bunch last year but haven’t had occasion to try it out!

Crossing the canal by way of an iron bridge, we found a group of love token padlocks each one, no doubt, carrying a story that only the lovers will know. Sydney Gardens was full of sunbathers – it was lovely.

Bath felt really strange when the lockdown began but we’ve so enjoyed being able to cross the centre of town with all the shops closed and streets virtually empty. Sixty years ago, in Bristol, the shops in Whiteladies Road and the rest of Clifton all closed on Saturday afternoons and that was when Clifton village (where the Brunel suspension bridge is), was at its Georgian best. That’s what it was like here for a few weeks, but if the non-stop carnival on the green outside is anything to go by, most of our neighbours think it’s all over. I think to myself, it’s not over until people stop dying, but the shopkeepers and hoteliers are getting quite wet-lipped at the prospect of “putting it behind us”.

But back in the Potwell Inn, the work on the allotment has been relentless. This weather – very hot and dry for a couple of weeks now – means watering every day. The tender plants are fairly rattling out of the greenhouse, and the first wave of broad beans has almost all been harvested. The overwintering Aquadulce Claudia have given us about 30 lbs of beans in their pods, which translates into around five pounds of shelled beans.,and they freeze really well. Elsewhere the frost damaged runner beans and borlotti beans have all been replaced (we always grow spares) and are beginning to climb their poles at about six inches a day. The earliest asparagus is now being allowed to develop its leaves and we’re harvesting the middle and late varieties. Once again, the 12′ by 4′ bed provides all that we need. The first flowers are setting on the outdoor tomatoes and we’ve abundant pollinators arriving constantly on the allotment, attracted by all the nectar rich flowers we’ve scattered everywhere.

The view of the green from our front window.

These warm nights have made sure I was awake with the lark, and first thing in the morning the green is usually quiet aside from our regular martial arts couple, training and perhaps a dog walker or two. For the rest of the day it’s becoming busier. It’s used a lot for drug dealing because there are so many escape routes inaccessible to cars and some properly dodgy looking characters pass through every day. We also have (hardly a coincidence) a very large number of homeless people with multiple mental health and addiction issues who sit in noisy groups on the green. Many people find them intimidating, but moving them on isn’t helping to solve their problems and they leave us alone.

Yesterday we noticed two police cars parked up on the main road and right opposite where we live we saw a young woman hiding behind a tree clearly watching for someone. She didn’t look at all like the usual drug customer but we thought no more of it until this morning when all hell was let loose and ten police, three police cars and two ambulances converged on the green, pursued a young man into the woods, and brought him back out again protesting loudly. I’ve no idea what they were detaining him for, but they should, perhaps, have thought about bringing along a sniffer dog because this afternoon the same young man walked boldly into the woods at exactly the point he’d gone in earlier – presumably to retrieve his stash and jump over the fence, never to be seen until next time. I tell you there’s never a dull moment at the Potwell Inn – very edgy, you might say.

The flavour is in the ingredients not the recipe.

We were sitting in bed this morning and Madame was reading out recipes to me from the newspaper. Every ingredient, it seemed, had one or two adjectives attached to it – I’m growing used to it but I do tend to froth at the mouth at the word – “succulent” which always grates terribly – I’ll be the judge of that, I think. Many recipes have got twice or three times as many adjectives as they do actual ingredients, rather like those desperately silly restaurant menus that offer ‘trios’ of sausages or cheese – which always make me wonder whether they can play any Bach. But then she read out a recipe that included some “Isle of Wight tomatoes” and I thought to myself – if they were picked on Friday and get to the supermarket some time mid-week you’d do better to wait a week or two and gather some you’d grown yourself. That way they’d taste far better than the most expensive tomato that had just been on a long journey and badly needed a shower and a rest.

Sincerity is the key – said Sam Goldwyn – once you’ve learned to fake it you’re made

Which is going to taste better – an apple that looks like the real deal but which has been sprayed fifteen times and stored in an artificially cooled and nitrogen enriched atmosphere for weeks or even months, and then driven, flown or shipped for hundreds of miles? or – a rather knobbly one with bad skin, that you’ve just picked off the tree and in which the hydrostatic pressure is so great it squirts delicious sweet juice at you if you indent it with your thumbnail? I hope the answer to that question was the local option.

Food, (I’m not talking about manufactured food here) is, by its very nature, seasonal, and seasonal vegetables always taste best when they’re straight off the vine or out of the ground. The instinctive response to this is to claim that you would need to be wealthy to enjoy food in its prime all the time. This is only true up to a point. Asparagus from Peru, for instance, may taste reasonably good but if you could see the cloud of pollution that accompanies it it might not be quite so palatable.

But there is a way to eat the finest food every day without being wealthy – but there are a couple of restrictions we have to embrace first of all. The first of these is that seasons are brief, and the second is that growing your own food is hard work. However allotments are wonderful value for money – our 250 square metres costs about £2.50 a week and is thought to be large enough to feed a family of four throughout the year – it’s a standard plot. Brief seasons mean that we can only eat asparagus for about a month, but my word – it’s the best asparagus you’ve ever tasted.

So there are the exotic vegetables like peppers, chillies and aubergines which we’ve grown successfully but they need a lot of TLC and sunshine. But today’s star is the early potato – we grew two varieties this year, Lady Christl and Red Duke of York. Shop bought new potatoes are very expensive and often disappointing – even the ever reliable Jersey Royals have diminished in flavour over the past couple of years since they started to worry about the salt build up from composted seaweed. I have a childhood memory of the first earlies in the year – my dad and my grandfather were totally loyal to Arran Pilots – and their flavour is imprinted in my memory. All vegetables that are sweet when fresh deteriorate rapidly when picked, because the natural sugars that we prize so much turn to starch – same number of calories but not the same flavour at all.

Every time we start eating the new season potatoes I want to eat them completely simply – maybe a bit of butter but they’re ruined by strongly flavoured sauces. We dig them while they’re small and steam them for 15 minutes or even less. In fact many home grown veg are at their best when you pass them by the stove but barely warm them through. Broad beans are in season and they’re almost better raw than cooked and carrots need the tiniest steaming. These are intense but fleeting pleasures. If you’re rich I suppose you can always buy the freshest ingredients but I’ll guarantee that you won’t eat fresher vegetables than the ones you grow yourself. Not in a four Michelin starred restaurant and not even if you’re a Duke or a media mogul.

And some treats are almost free. We started our third batch of elderflower cordial today – and this time we raided a pink flowered variety for fifty of its saucer shaped flowers. Their perfume was overwhelming and they’re on the stove now infusing with lemon, lime and orange zest. Money can’t buy that intensity of flavour – it’s like drinking summer from a glass and the pink flowers yield a very pretty cordial. Here are the flowers waiting to be steeped overnight.

The hungry gap is officially over.

Today we picked the very first of our new potatoes and harvested broad beans for freezing as well as spinach. We found the first flowers on the outdoor tomatoes and the runner beans are merrily climbing up their supports. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure that gave us.

The rats have been busy

But our pleasure was tempered by the fact that first the broad beans and then the potatoes had been found by rodents – almost certainly rats – before we could harvest them. The same creature – judging by the tooth marks – had found some potatoes as well; something for which I’m grateful because it encouraged me to dig a haulm and take a look and there they were, just big enough for an early treat.

Pests have an uncanny knack of arriving at your crops one nanosecond before you do. Badgers seem to roam the allotments at night waiting until the cobs on each plot reach perfection and then take them. You can even tell what predator has done the deed. Badgers crash around and drag them down – along with any protective wire and sticks, making a terrible mess but eating all of the cobs. Deer use their height to reach over the wires and take them daintily, but rats climb the plants, damaging them as they go and swing on them (I imagine) until they rip off. Messy eaters – rats! Pigeons, squirrels and passers by all like to have a go and the prospect of harvesting 100% of the crop is vanishingly small. It’s said that badgers don’t like loose nets because they get their claws caught up in them, but the best method we’ve found it to keep the whole sweetcorn patch inside a fruit net and nail it down with as many long pegs as we can lay your hands on.

But I always think of the first potatoes as a sign of the plenty to come; the true end of the hungry gap. We’ve been harvesting individual vegetables for weeks but when there are potatoes it seems that we’ve got all we need for a good meal. Much as I love purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus I wouldn’t want to live on either of them. Variety and texture are as important in the kitchen as they are in any other creative discipline from architecture to painting.

Pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age.

However, plenty brings a whole new bunch of challenges and we’ve already started phase two of the kitchen year by making 12 months worth of elderflower cordial. All the books say it only keeps for a couple of months and it’s true the powerful fragrance is a fugitive pleasure, but it does keep. The very last bottle of last year’s bottling now tastes almost like honey syrup and so we’ve been using it to sweeten rhubarb. It seems a crime to pour it down the drain. Two deliveries of glass bottles and preserving jars are sitting in the corner here in my room, waiting for the first bunch of berries from the fruit cage to be turned into jams and preserves, and with the first cabbages big enough to harvest I’m going to have another go at sauerkraut after last year’s failures. Even the fermented gherkins survived the winter and as long as you’re not squeamish and don’t mind sorting through the dross to find the survivors, they still taste pretty good. Of course, pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age. The smoked aubergine chutney I made last summer tasted pretty raw for months, but nine months later it’s heavenly.

Broad beans

So we spent the whole afternoon scalding, chopping and freezing and it felt good. But what to do about the rats? I wonder. They’re ubiquitous and although I have no scruples about trapping them if they become too much of a nuisance – they do after all carry some pretty unpleasant diseases – I’m not going to get too fussed, after all they never eat more than a very small proportion of our produce.

I mentioned in a previous post the idea of putting a false roof on top of the two compost bins currently finishing loads of compost and leaf mould. They won’t be opened until autumn and so I thought we might get a crop off the space. So here’s a photo of the new arrangement. Hopefully the squashes will trail over the sides and down. They often get a bit out of control and spread all over the place, but we seem to manage stepping over them and finding ways around them and so we tolerate them because they taste good. They’re a bit like teenage boys (we had three of them so I know what I’m talking about) – they occupy vastly more space than you’d ever think, but when they’re gone you miss them.

Split level gardening

Losing my religion II – a visitation

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So I’m in a familiar church where I once worked and there’s a communion service going on. The celebrant who is an old friend and mentor comes across to me and mumbles a few incomprehensible words over my chalice. I ask where I’m supposed to take it and he says something like “oh, go and find someone” but when I look down at the chalice it’s filled with milk and not wine. I know that I need to find some wine so I go down the stone stairs into the vestry which is thick with dust; a long abandoned room, and everywhere I look there are empty wine bottles as if a party had been taking place but which has been over for many years.

It turns out, then, that growth and change in personal faith – if it involves discarding some previously important positions is – far easier than letting go of the religion and its rituals.  I don’t miss the constant anxiety about heresy and I certainly don’t miss bishops and what an old friend once called “stamp and circumponce” , but I still occasionally ache for the beauty of the music and the way the worship could draw people together, even in the most terrible circumstances.  It is worship in its truest sense when it reaches beyond the words and into a place without the restrictions of language, a place where theological orthodoxies become redundant.

I don’t analyse all my dreams but this is clearly another significant one, following so closely after my earlier posting “Kaddish” a week ago. You may think that dreams are just a load of random stuff, auto generated by an idling brain, but then you you might be missing out on ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ – as Freud put it. The dream tells me that the sacramental wine is spent and there’s nothing in the old way left to share. So what’s to replace the unbearable absence without compromising?

As the French poet Paul Valéry said

“A difficulty is a light ; an insurmountable difficulty is a sun .”

I’m not trained to take the problem by siege, and so I have to take the poet’s path – stalking the quarry for months, following its signs and leavings. As R S Thomas put it, to put my hand into the depression of the empty hare’s form and, feeling its warmth, know that it was there; edging along by inference with the occasional bold step. 

Yesterday morning, on the allotment, Madame was picking broad beans and there he was, drying his moist wings in the sun; slowly unfurling them in the warm light. She called over to me and we both spent minutes watching the emerging emperor  – the largest UK dragonfly and not one you bump into every day. In fact, short of finding one in this semi torpid state, I doubt if you’d ever actually bump into one. It would be so tempting to reach for the alien metaphors; there’s not much we share in common, looks-wise, with a dragonfly. But my thoughts hovered around the question of who, or what exactly was playing the part of the alien in this meeting.  He’d been around vastly longer than me and looked far better adapted to our broad beans than we do, even though he was several hundred yards away from the river or more likely the large pond on the other allotments beyond the lane. He was the emperor, and we can normally only watch his imperious cruising from a distance as he snaps up his lesser prey. He has the power and presence greatly to enrich our world and we, in our arrogance, usually diminish his.

I used to think that this was a reason for requiring some sort of god – someone to say thank you to, as well as someone to clean up the mess when we screw up, someone to come galloping over the horizon like the Seventh Cavalry and smite our enemies.

Madame and me once collected thirty pounds of blackberries – far more than we could possibly eat – but we couldn’t seem to stop ourselves. It was one of those occasions when I felt the overwhelming desire to thank someone for this generous gift, but since they were growing wild and without human intervention we could not.  I wish I could weave a morally improving tale around this snippet of history but in truth we made a very large quantity of the worst chutney ever confected from a surplus and a bad recipe. Then, to make matters worse, we gave it away as gifts to friends who deserved better.

I suppose our instincts generally lead us to invent an invisible but useful entity to thank and cajole for the way things are but I’ve increasingly come to believe that we don’t need to look beyond the created universe. Maybe the great spiritual challenge of this age is to bring to science – which can only deal with mathematics, measurements and testable hypotheses – an opening for wonder and worship that can takes the whole of creation for its object without resorting to gods, whether kindly or malevolent; because humans are not just vulnerable to viruses but to the idolatry of wealth and power. We suck up nature and turn it into electric light, and cars, and plastic and murderous weapons of destruction.  We turn the basic matter of creation into chemicals and fertilisers because we are besotted with power and have no eyes or ears for the suffering earth.

So maybe we do, after all, need to repurpose some of the old things. Maybe we need structures for penitence, thanksgiving and reconciliation. Maybe we need to recover the sense that the food we grow and prepare is properly seen as sacramental rather than instrumental.  Just imagine the impact that nontheistic prayer and meditation might have on our behaviour.  Imagine the impact of compassion as a basic human virtue taught to us all as children. In fact none of the traditional virtues require enforcement by omniscient and omnipotent gods and their agents.

But enough.  Spring drives on, and we are struggling to keep up. We re-pot seedlings and in days they double in size; this extraordinary vitality in which we share and which feeds us – and could house and clothe us too if we could find our right minds – this huge encompassing force in which we live and breathe is vulnerable and there is no invisible Seventh Cavalry to ride over the horizon and save us.  We have seen the enemy – it is us. 

Today we ordered more glass bottles and jars for the preserving season. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything it is that subcontracting our food supply to the supermarkets was a deadly error. For us at the Potwell Inn and, we hope, for many others, we won’t be going back to the old normal. We’ll grow and save and store, buy locally and try not to waste, but not from fear but from a bigger vision, one that transcends extreme materialism and ancient dualisms, and is is content to say that the whole of creation, including the earth, is our mother and father and our grand and great grandparent back to the beginning of time. One family that includes all that is, all that has been and all that will be.é

Oh strimmer man – where you gonna run to?

I fell asleep last night clutching a new wildflower book – I would have called it a flora but that would have been misleading since Madame’s name (which is a closely guarded secret) is not Flora. But it’s a sign that the natural world, in the course of a couple of riverside walks, has got me back in her grip.  I was lamenting the impossibility of botanising in Cornwall or Wales for weeks, but the last two days on the riverbank have energised me in much the same way – the sheer pleasure of recognising old friends that I never knew grew here in the middle of a small city; here today, wintercress and broomrape growing within a few hundred yards – neither of them rare.  The slightly mad abundance of plant life is a telling sign that nature doesn’t need us half as much as we need her. Over the river in the Crest Nicholson gulags they left a wildflower meadow in one corner of a field of hard-wearing perennial ryegrass – no ball games permitted – which struggles in the teeth of the siberian winds generated by the tall buildings. The grounds are maintained by a company with a cunning plan to mow another inch off the meadow with every cut.  It will then disappear; the last sop of ecological reparation for the destruction of the old gasometers and abandoned industrial buildings that really were a wildlife haven. But we still have the anarchic, weed infested verges; the real eco-deal thriving under their neglect by the strimmer army – long may their funding be neglected!

IMG_20200511_095741At home, energised by thoughts of weeds, I woke with cheese scones on my mind. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur  but there’s nothing quite like baking to calm you down, and so I baked a batch of the ultimate comfort food.  I really should have baked a Dundee cake but there wasn’t time because we wanted to go to the allotment to see how our wind and frost preparations had survived. The max and min thermometer in the greenhouse showed that the inside temperature had dropped to 5C during the night, so that meant the outside got down to around 2 or 3C – too close for comfort for the tender plants, so we were pleased that we’d gone to the trouble of wrapping them all up and building new screens. I’m beginning to sound a bit manic here, I know, but life’s too good to waste a minute – even in lockdown.

So everything in the garden was lovely (ish) and we added a new screen attached to the grapevine training wires. The bad news was that thieves had dropped by again and stolen our neighbour’s new shed which was waiting to be assembled and so rather vulnerable.  I find it really difficult to connect with a mindset like that – and even if  *’hell and heaven and all that religious stuff’ is abolished now, should we keep just a tiny corner of hell going for allotment thieves – just for old times sake?

Coming home we overheard a conversation about roasting rhubarb in the oven. I’m ashamed to say we’d never heard of it, but we promptly roasted half a kilo of our own Victoria, with some light brown sugar, and it’s delicious. We’ve eaten so much rhubarb in the last few weeks I think if you shoved a chimney pot on my head I’d lose weight and turn pink – I’d settle for being tall!

  • is a quotation from a rather fun poem by ee cummings

As an addendum, today we found a shop selling bakers flour, rye flour and yeast. The threat of torture wouldn’t induce me to say where it is, but for those in the know, if you flare your nostrils and search out the perfume of patchouli and listen carefully for Joni Mitchell you’ll know where I mean.

 

Seasonal earthly delights

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It’s funny how other people see allotmenteering as a kind of gentle therapy in which you potter about the garden very ……. very ……..  slowly ……. and mindfully …… taking in the sights and scents and sounds whilst healing your mind with thoughts about the beauty of nature. In my experience you can only do that in other peoples’ gardens, and then only if they’re very good gardeners. It’s amazing how catching your silk meditation robes on a rusty nail can disrupt the pattern of good thoughts!

This is one of those times in the gardening year when meditation has to give way to the huge list of jobs to be done.  Plants can be very restful but at times they spend their time shouting at you – have you seen my leaves wilting? Will you please re-pot me immediately or I’ll expire and then you’ll be sorry ……!” And it’s hard to keep your zen composure when you’re pouring five litres of your own carefully saved urine on to the compost heap. Slugs can destroy a row of seedlings in a single night and so you have to deal with murderous thoughts of revenge.  One vegan allotmenteer on our site told us she was gathering slugs on her allotment and then roasting and grinding them up to make a deterrent powder.  Even I’d never thought of that one! The weather can turn on you like a banshee and confound the forecasters by shriveling the leaves on your beans  – oh my – it’s nature red in tooth and claw out there, and so I’m inclined to growl at people who insist that it must be therapeutic.  Really it’s up there with playing a musical instrument, writing a blog or painting landscapes – very hard work that occasionally offers intense rewards. 

So the delights of gardening could be over-egged if you focus entirely on the hard work aspect, but the real pleasure comes with harvesting. I never quite know whether to describe purple sprouting broccoli – which is effectively a biennial – as the final delight of last year or the first in the current year. It’s been there on the plot taking up space since it was sown in March or April of the previous year, and it really does take up space. Half a dozen plants is far more than we really need, but when it comes to planting out we usually put in a couple of spares – just in case – and that’s about thirty square feet taken up for a little over 12 months.  Every year around October we mutter about not growing it any more and then by the following March we’re urging it on, desperate to taste the first sweet florets. Then – and this is one of the great ironies of allotmenteering – after let’s say three weeks or a month of cropping, the pleasure begins to pale a little and we’re eyeing up the space. Seasonal foods are like holiday romances – intensity followed by – let’s be honest – boredom.  Who hasn’t looked at the 500th courgette and wondered what to do with it?

So this week the purple sprouting plants (trees) came out and the plot was immediately re-sown.  Once the flowers start to open it becomes a losing battle and so off they went to the compost heap complete with their intractable woody stems, smashed into fibres and pulp with the back of a small axe. Now the asparagus is gathering momentum and we have far more lettuces than we could possibly eat, will we ever get bored with them? The answer of course is yes, because seasonal food is – well – seasonal! Our tiny savoy cabbage seedlings wouldn’t cut the mustard in midsummer, but come the autumn they’ll be objects of desire. Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its fruits away – but they come back next years as fresh and beautiful as ever. Seasonal food, if I dare be serious for a moment – teaches us something about love and loss.  If there’s a therapeutic lesson in gardening it’s probably something to do with carpe diem – seizing the moment. Supermarket food is stale and dull; costly to the earth, fatal to the digestion and it’s unreliable as we now understand only too well as we (well, not me) stand in endless queues separated by an ocean of anxiety.

IMG_20200507_074922Last night, after a hard day gardening, I was baking and decided to try to imitate the old split tin loaves I went up the road to buy, as a child. It’s curious but just as everyone else seems to have turned to making sourdough, I’ve spent more time baking with yeast and trying to recapture the loaves of my childhood. I was particularly pleased with the results of the deep slash. To get that effect you need to prove the loaf under a tea towel rather than in a sealed and moist atmosphere so that the rapidly expanding loaf, when it goes into the hot oven, finds it easier to expand through the slash than by lifting the slightly toughened top. This was largely white flour with a handful of wholemeal spelt to liven up the flavour and texture. I’ve yet to produce one of those exuberant cottage loaves that resist rational slicing so have to be torn apart so everyone can get a piece of crust.

IMG_20200507_154625The closure of the garden centres has left us to improvise our own potting composts from whatever ingredients we can find. Today I wanted to fill some large planters to put on the patio area, and so I emptied all the spring window boxes on to a polythene sheet mainly to get access to the grit and sand in them and then mixed in new soil and compost with a few handfuls of chicken manure pellets, and filled lots of big pots.  It was great fun and represented another step towards the allotment as it was first imagined.

This is the time of year when inattention can cost us dearly. We scan the weather forecast morning and night to see what might catch us out. This weekend, for instance, we’re expecting high winds and a ten degree drop in temperature – enough to unsettle  and set back some of the plants we’ve already got in the ground. As I type this I’m looking across my study to a propagator full of replacement borlotti and runner bean seedlings – just in case. Earlier in the week I set up some improvised wind screens with some jute sacks and insect netting to protect the strawberries from the anticipated east wind. Later in the year I think we’ll invest in some hazel wattle fence panels because although our prevailing winds are south westerly; east and north easterlies are almost always bad news. Earlier I finally got the water storage organised but there’s no sign of rain for the next two weeks so as the temperature hits 23C we have to hand water.  Every morning  we unpack the greenhouse to give the plants some sunshine therapy and then we put them back at night.

There are brief seasons where an allotment can run away with you, and this is one of them. Bindweed, which is never truly vanquished, can grow two inches a day; and annual seedlings blown from neglected patches can germinate in green drifts overnight. I can almost hear our plot thinking – thank goodness for the lockdown, there’s no prospect of them going off in the campervan for a fortnight! I’m not entirely sure I agree.

 

 

Figs

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If ever you needed a demonstration of the extravagant dynamism of nature this is it. This cluster of figs didn’t exist a fortnight ago but yesterday we noticed them in all their come and get me  beauty; pristine, glossy and crowned by leaves so new that if they were lambs they’d be jumping for joy. I quickly run out of superlatives for these young fruits, not least because if they make it to full ripeness they’ll be the stars of any table.  I didn’t really like figs until we went to Corsica where they grow wild and ripen properly in the fierce summer sun, and there I discovered how good they can be. I brought the taste for them back with me and, although I wouldn’t go quite so far with a metaphor as D H Lawrence, there’s enough about a well ripened home grown fig  to make them a fleeting treat in the autumn – so long as you can pick the precise moment to pick them, which is about thirty minutes before the flies get there.

But there’s another reason for stopping to look, because these figs are squatters; vagrants escaped from the mother tree about twenty yards away and completely self-sufficient. Where we have to grow most of our crops, these we can forage because they’ve set up home in the demilitarized zone between our allotment and our neighbour’s so they don’t really belong to either of us. Neither, incidentally, are they fed, mulched or primped in any way. The only principle adopted for pruning them is to keep the path between us clear; so there is no counting of buds or consideration of shape.  We just hack them back to the point where a wheelbarrow can pass. As they approach ripeness we feign even-handedness about picking them, but we still mutter darkly when more distant neighbours are spotted giving them a squeeze as they pass. I once spotted the most brazen grazer of all slipping away with two carrier bags full of ripe figs from the mother tree – an act of larceny he excused because the tree was planted thirty years ago by a long deceased friend. There’s a PhD to be written on the ethics of the allotment site.  Occam could sharpen his razor on the distinction between a single bay leaf, picked for some stock or the complete removal of all the fixtures and fittings on an abandoned plot. We’d all agree that there is a distinction to be made but we’d probably place it just a little way beyond our own secret removals.

But how can we be so pleased with our little horticultural triumphs which involve hours of work and no little expense, when this fig demonstrates its independence so beautifully. I’m not a permaculturalist, mainly because the cost of making it universal would be depopulation on a huge, even monstrous scale; but that doesn’t mean that I’m not deeply interested in those resources that the earth provides and which we neglect as we stuff ourselves with rich processed food to the detriment of our health and the entire ecosystem. I read last night that the leaves of red valerian – Centranthus ruber – are delicious in salads.  Aside from the fact that one of our sons is horribly allergic to it, I’d never thought of eating it because however botanically sophisticated I may have become as I grow older, I still instinctively divide plants into ‘food’ and ‘weeds’ and I suspect my mother placed border guards in my head to warn me off inviting strangers into the kitchen. Recently I laughed heartily at a seed catalogue offering couch grass for money, in spite of the fat that I readily rub an ointment containing its roots into my skin when I get small patches of eczema. That said, maybe I should start a rumour that the figs are escaped from a deadly plant breeding experiment aimed at quietly exterminating Italian waiters.

Today it’s been raining again so I redeemed the shining hour by making bread and baking another Dundee cake. Life at the Potwell Inn is ever challenging and so today we turned the mattress on the bed and put some clean sheets on; such is the nature of the ordinary – you have to wrestle a blessing out of it

Rain allows play after a month of Sundays

After getting close to two months of confinement in the flat, with only daily visits to the allotment to leaven the monastic isolation, we were beginning to feel as if every day was Sunday – even more dangerously it was always the same Sunday! When the sun shone the young woman opposite would clamber precariously through her window over a precipitous 30′ drop to sit in sunshine on the roof of a kitchen extension, the professional rugby player – also opposite – would come out into the car park and skip for an hour at a time at such a speed you could hear the rope whistling. On the other side of the house we could watch 30 minutes of something like Tai Chi at just after nine in the morning, and after that it was just drunks, junkies and the deranged sitting around while large gannetrys of young men on expensive bicycles flew past, clad in the latest skin-tight Lycra. At times one of them would spot a sunbathing woman and the noise and speed of the peloton would increase significantly as they strained every impressive sinew over their imaginary Mont Ventoux, ignoring the 20mph signs.  One of our neighbours has told us that one of the several local drug dealers is now running his own homeless delivery round from a semi derelict narrow boat that’s just capable of puttering up and down the river. 

But yesterday it rained and after a quick trip to the almost deserted allotments Madame suggested risking a walk. The simple fact that a little walk demanded thought and planning just goes to show how agoraphobic we’re becoming during the lockdown.  Leaving the front door and turning right to go down to the river never seemed as transgressive as it did yesterday. Oncoming pedestrians were avoided as anxiously as large dogs on bits on string for leads – it was an entirely mutual avoidance.  I found myself scanning everyone (it didn’t amount to double figures in well over an hour) for signs of disease or even the least touch of grubbiness, and all the while I was rehearsing in my head the lecture our children would give us about taking unnecessary risks. Who knew that simple pleasures like going for a walk once in nearly seven weeks could drag along so much baggage, from public opprobrium against old people being outside, to the risk of being challenged by the police over the validity of our outing.  

After skirting along the river and meeting almost no-one, we went up to the canal, greeted by an expensively unwelcoming sign telling us to go away, but after about a quarter of a mile we dropped back down under the railway line and walked back into town. Our son had told us how deserted it’s become, with for sale notices everywhere and several retailers and restaurants boarded up; but it wasn’t that as much as the deserted silence of the key tourist sites.  The Abbey, the Roman Baths, the Spa and virtually all of the shops were closed.  The bus station was deserted apart from a man reaming his nose out thoroughly, oblivious of just how disgusting that suddenly seemed, and there were one or two street beggars drying out from the rain. The city seems to have lost its entire purpose. In the past we’d fantasised about life here without the tourists and hen parties, but this was proof that you should be careful what you pray for. The only activity we saw was building work.  They’re still building hundreds of flats for students in spite of the fact that the business model of the universities (we’ve got two) was a model of unsustainable growth, with grossly overpaid Vice Chancellors conducting sales campaigns all over the world to attract foreign students who were in any case becoming wary of living in our state sponsored hostile environment. Now we’ve won our first international competition in decades but sadly it’s for having almost the highest mortality rate for coronavirus!

So the good news was that spring has proceeded without us doing anything very much and all along the edge of Green Park was a magnificent display of borage and green alkanet in flower. On the river’s edge smoke was rising lazily from an improvised tarpaulin bender on the blocked off footpath. Of the floral interlopers that survived from the ‘wildflower mix’ sowing nearby, alongside the flood prevention scheme, the campions seem to be establishing a permanent place for themselves, but most of the others have been choked off by burly locals.

The fear is that the local economy may never recover.  Already there are too many independent traders closing down and the supermarkets have made more enemies than friends with their failure to sustain a rational service. The independents – from quirky stationers to pizza places, bookshops, deli’s, health food stores, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers were what made Bath different.  Without the pubs, theatres and music venues; the art shop and the wool shop and the cheesemonger, a trip into town becomes ever less attractive, not just for us locals but also I’m sure for our hundreds of thousands of visitors. 

Weeks ago I mentioned Tim Lang’s new book on food security which was published almost on the same day as the system began to collapse. This has been a painful demonstration of the truth of his contention that we’re dangerously dependent o a handful of supermarket chains and their vulnerable supply lines. Local, local and more local, sustainable, environmentally safe and non intensive food production linked to local suppliers is better in every way than our present profit driven system. Of course local shopkeepers want to make a living, and one of the plusses these past months is the heroic contribution that independent corner shops have made – especially for old and vulnerable people who have no chance of help from supermarkets, but whose neighbours have proved beyond doubt that contrary to what Margaret Thatcher asserted there really is such a thing as society. 

Last week’s sunshine brought the elderflower to the brink of blossoming, and yesterday there were some in bloom. Now we need a dry day to collect the flowers, and then lemons and sugar to make cordial. I used every scrap of sugar making ‘allotment jam’ a couple of weeks ago so an expedition to find more is needed.  We just finished our last bottle of last year’s production so we need to be ready.

Seasonal stocktake

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At last, with a supply of spring vegetables coming in we can make a seasonable vegetable stock with produce straight from the ground.  Obviously the stalwarts are there the year round, but as our youngest chef/son pointed out yesterday, there’s a sweetness in the early veg that you can’t easily find in winter. This one, aside from onion, carrots and celery – all the usual suspects – had spring onions, the very last of the overwintered leeks, Swiss chard, the runts of last year’s garlic crop, fennel and fresh herbs wherein lay a lesson. We’ve never used lovage before in a stock but we did yesterday and we discovered that, like nutmeg and saffron it’s a flavouring that needs using with discretion, because if it’s not it can be a bit overwhelming.  Yesterday’s stock had a single leaf the size of a hand in it and I’d say that’s about the limit.

The other early job, aside from cooking breakfast, was to put a slow braised piece of topside (a very occasional treat at the Potwell Inn)  in the oven for the whole day in a wine and stock sauce. It’ll do us for at least three meals but yesterday evening I cooked a proper ‘Sunday meal’ to replace the calories I’d burnt off earlier in the day. When Madame prepped the veg I protested that there were far too many for us to eat, but (I think to our joint amazement) we cleared the lot.

Earlier we went to the allotment to take a delivery of topsoil.  The bed system works very well most of the time, but when it comes to earthing up potatoes you need quite a lot of soil, and in any case we needed extra soil to top the beds up. I created a one metre cube store with pallets to keep it tidy but as it was brought down in barrow loads I had to extend the store twice and by the end I think I had around one and a half tons – which sounds a lot but doesn’t go that far in practice – enough to make a couple of deep beds, from scratch, that’s all.  I decided to spread the soil out before the rain arrives on Tuesday but it was a very hot day, and By the time I’d top dressed three beds I’d shifted the whole load and I ached.

This morning we went up to the allotment to clear up, feed and weed before the rain and also to test the new water butt pump to make sure it would be capable of raising stored water from the bottom to the top of the slope. Happily, apart from having to lug a heavy generator down to the plot, it worked seamlessly and with sufficient pressure to generate a decent spray after travelling about 60 feet along a pipe. Once I’ve finished the last bit of civil engineering there should be enough stored water to keep the plants alive for several months in an emergency. I keep asking myself if we’re being ridiculously pessimistic, but climate change brings flood and drought conditions – neither of which are conducive to good growth.

But all the while there’s a certain weariness with the lockdown. There’s the constant fear of being overwhelmed by a miasma which by now is as much psychological as it is physical, but none the less real for that. We seem to alternate days of vitality and optimism with days of gloom – living like lighthouse keepers with no relief crew in prospect.

Oh the grand old Duke of York

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No – nothing to do with the photo or the present royal family but more of a mea culpa because yesterday, having thought about it, we marched back down the hill and put the tomatoes back into the greenhouse where they should be safer. Tomatoes don’t really like going below 10C and night time temperatures at this time of the year are inclined to drop a little below that. On sunny days like today and under a cloche, the plants would almost certainly make do with the radiated warmth of the earth; but we’ve got a grey and cooler week coming and we can’t rely on good fortune getting the plants through.  All of which reversal of the previous strategy leads me to warn that I’m no gardening guru – just muddling through the perplexities of growing crops in strange times like everyone else!

The asparagus in the photo represents the amount we’re able to cut every other day on our small patch at the moment.  It’s the third season and so we’re allowing ourselves the luxury of cutting for a few, maybe three, weeks before we let the plants grow and feed their roots for one more year before we crop them properly. Over the last two weeks the production has grown steadily, but it’s clear that asparagus is more of a seasonal treat than a staple.  On the other hand, after the first few rather skinny fronds that can be a little bitter, the flavour is (to borrow a line from ee cummings) as big as a circus tent. There’s only one other luxury that comes close and that’s our artichokes, but they too take up a lot of space for which they repay us by being astoundingly beautiful. Allotments are as good at feeding the soul as they are at feeding the body.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, our indoor basil crop had matured and we were able to cut 200g of leaves, which is quite a big pile, and so Madame made a big pot of pesto that filled the flat with the fragrance of the mediterranean – and was very good later on a slice of toasted sourdough brushed with oil and grilled on a big ribbed cast iron pan, topped with salad greens and the asparagus – much of which was our own produce.

But now, apart from the propagators, the flat is free of young plants; the greenhouse is full once more and we were able to dismantle the array of improvised tables that filled every south facing window – so now we can close the shutters after dark. The allotment is looking fine, but our gentle terracing is expensive of topsoil, and having ridged up the potatoes twice, there was nothing left to cover them with so I’ve ordered a ton of topsoil which is arriving today and will need wheelbarrowing down the site. A whole ton sounds like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly the allotment swallows it up. Someone suggested yesterday that we pinch the soil we need from the vacant plot below us.  I was stunned to hear it!  This was a perfectly law abiding and very pleasant person suggesting that we steal the fertility from another plot, depriving its future tenant of its goodness. No doubt the soil that’s delivered will have come from some poor paved-over garden, or maybe bulldozed off from a pristine woodland standing in the way of the HS2, but at least we’ll give it a new life, like a liberated battery hen. There’s a sermon to be preached there which I’ve no intention of burdening you with – but it’s a wonderful example of the way an ideology, in this case the way of thought that the earth is no more than an exploitable resource, can warp and corrupt our whole view of life. Breaking out of the cage is a struggle, but the change of perspective is exhilarating, like being reborn – if I dare say so.

We like to blame agribusiness, intensive farming or the chemical industry for the plight of the earth, but we all play our part in patrolling the ramparts of the ideological prison; buying the products, buying the big story and imagining that life inside the prison is the only show in town.

Enough! and praise be for the sunshine today. At last all the beds will be pretty much level with enough topsoil to grow championship parsnips – not that growing championship parsnips is a particular ambition.