Cottage Economy

This photograph of Stoke Row hangs over my desk partly as a reminder of another era, but also as a reminder of my grandfather who, apart from a spell working as a carpenter in London, was born and lived there for almost the whole of his life. He was probably the biggest influence in my life; very short and equally short tempered with a creative gift for cursing that I’m fortunate to have inherited. He was a vernacular builder which meant his drawings were almost always on the back of a fag packet and securely in his head. Most importantly he was a natural radical and he had a collection of books that opened my mind to a world of possibilities, and several huge long sheds in which he stored everything he’d ever wanted to repair but never got round to; for instance a couple of penny in the slot pianolas which he would let my sister and me play with. He could make rainbows with a stirrup pump; give us rides in his wheelbarrow and let us feed the hens or look for Charlie the toad in the greenhouse. He also grew and cured his own tobacco which was so smelly he was chucked out of the pub for smoking it. He made carpenter style furniture – he was no Chippendale -hand built the first wireless set in the village and owned the first television. He also helped me to build my first transistor radio and erected a long wave aerial in the garden for me. He was almost entirely self educated and taught me logarithms before he gave me my first slide-rule (a kind of manual calculator for working with big numbers). He introduced me to Dickens and H G Wells and although he was a devout atheist, would secretly repair the benches in a local churchyard.

Much later, long after he died, I discovered the radical writer and pamphleteer William Cobbett; thorn in the side of everyone who annoyed him and whose two books “Rural Rides” and “Cottage Economy” inspired me and reminded me of my grandfather. I think this website owes a great deal to William Cobbett’s writing. In “”Rural Rides” he took up the cudgels on behalf of starving farm workers after undertaking a series of rides on horseback to see for himself the terrible poverty that followed the systematic impoverishment of land workers during the Industrial Revolution. He fought government corruption and campaigned for a more just electoral system – and when I say campaigned – his writings were fierce enough to have him thrown into prison several times. He fled from justice to France in the middle of the revolution; thought better of it and sailed on to America only to find that as a conservative he sat uneasily within the radical movements of the day, I would probably have hated him if I’d ever met him because he was really a backward looking old style conservative but the fire that flows through every sentence of Rural Rides is a model of righteous anger.

Most historians dismiss Cobbett because he advocated a return to the old rural ways. He was a ruralist and farmer himself and although he spent the last years of his life as an elected MP he never gave up campaigning. He wrote at the beginning of the industrial capitalist society and already he could see the cruelty and contradictions inherent in its exploitative and extractive philosophy. Today; as we suffer in the dog days of the same ideology, radical thinkers are again persecuted and imprisoned by powerful interests who can’t tell the difference between criticism and insurrection; and national politics once more is stained by corruption; industrial strength lying and greed.

Cobbett’s other book – “Cottage Economy” is, or should be required reading for anyone interested in 19th century traditional farming and any form of self-sufficiency. In a haze of what might seem to be sentimental idealisation of rural life due to Cobbett’s lifelong conservatism, Cobbett explains brewing, bread baking, building an ice house, the keeping and killing of farm animals and the preserving of them by smoking. He thought that the potato was the work of the devil and that the drinking of tea and the consumption of potatoes made men effeminate(?). Bread and beer were the culinary gods in his canon, and at a time when much water was unsafe to drink, the consumption of “small beer” – brewed from the remaining malted grains after they’d been once sparged – or washed for the making of stronger ale – was much safer having been boiled. Above all the book is a fascinating social history of village life before the industrial revolution. It’s hilariously funny at times – Cobbett was an old fashioned Church of England member and addressed some of his funniest and most excoriating prose to the Methodist Ministers who – in his fertile imagination – would always turn up to visit the poor cottager on the day that the pig was killed. No-one could possibly try to run a 21st century life on the pattern of a 19th century polemic, but his memorable style can make you wish it could still be possible; indeed some survivalists really do try it.

But Cobbett understood and called out injustice and its perpetrators in a fearless way that scared them. He was utterly incorruptible in a way that I would love to see once again. His pen name was Peter Porcupine – you get the joke at his own expense and he never stopped writing, pamphleteering and campaigning on behalf of the poor. Most critics focus on what he was wrong about. I prefer to attend to the things he was absolutely right about.

I wonder what my Grandfather – who was a member of the Independent Labour Party – and my Father who was also a lifelong Labour Party member would think about the present state of British Politics which is so corrupted by the lust for power that we can only look forward to choosing between a wealthy liar and a spineless liar because the electoral system is purpose built to crush radical dissent.

But although I get very sad at times I’m essentially an optimist, and the Potwell Inn and the way we do things around here are essentially my personal project to dig a pollution free well; think as clearly as I can; grow some healthy food to cook and keep us out of the hands of the merchants of sickness; oh and find every occasion to provoke and challenge the knuckle draggers and drool mongers who are driving all life on earth into a wall in the hope of enriching themselves at our expense.

There are, as the saying goes, no pockets in a shroud!

Pleasure delayed – batch cooking.

Madame with aubergines.

Suddenly we have surpluses to deal with – possibly due to the fact that we invested in grafted aubergine and tomato plants this year and they are strikingly vigorous and are both producing fruit at speed. I know that many gardeners avoid spending money on F1 hybrids and grow all their crops from seed, but seeds often decline in their ability to germinate quite quickly and some saved seed may be infected with diseases. Is it worth spending the extra on grafted plants and F1 hybrids? In my opinion, the blight resistant varieties of tomato and potato are worth their weight in gold – they really work. Every year on the allotment site there are gardeners who lose their entire crop when blight strikes. There’s no more depressing sight in the world. Our grafted plants are far more productive than the ones we grow from seed ourselves so we’ll continue to buy them. However they can arrive in a very sorry state when we’ve ordered online and sat for days in a warehouse, and so we prefer to buy them at a garden centre where we can see what we’re getting.

So this weekend it’s been raining and therefore a perfect time for batch cooking. I’ve made bramble jelly with the wild fruit we picked, and a couple of kilos of ripe tomatoes into the first batch of roasted tomato passata. This batch was so powerfully flavoured I bottled it in 250g jars – plenty for a pasta dish for two. The last job was to stuff eight aubergines with a middle-eastern flavoured lamb mixture. We’ll freeze them and get them out for a quick meal on a busy day.

I’ve written before about the pleasures of a full store cupboard; pleasures which are just as flavourful when delayed as they are the day they are made. Some things, of course, don’t store or freeze well and they’re the heart of the seasonal contribution to our meals. Tomatoes are so important that we produce three different sauces – unflavoured straight passata; Hazan number one – a beautifully flavoured passata/sauce with mild onion and indecent amounts of butter; and finally the roasted sauce which is a standby for any dish that needs a tablespoon of rocket fuel – umami on steroids. Most seasons we make enough to feed us throughout the year.

It’s been an uphill struggle to second guess the weather this year. The seasons have been badly affected by climate change and the unwillingness of politicians to address the coming crisis is a shameful betrayal. I was particularly struck by a droll remark by an ex Labour party supporter who adapted one of Blair’s catchphrases to: “Tough on hope; tough on the causes of hope”. Someone needs to show them that sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting la la la la la doesn’t amount to a strategy. Lowest common denominator politics is low and common and I can’t understand why anyone with more than ten brain cells would want to indulge in it in the face of the suffering that economic, climate and ecological destruction is causing already. Shame on them!

The well tempered household

The title, “Well tempered household” is a steal from a gardening classic by Christopher Lloyd called “The Well Tempered Garden” – well worth reading even though he seems to think of a small garden being anything less than three acres. “Tempered” in the sense that he’s using it has nothing to do with bad tempers or good manners because it’s drawing on a process familiar to sword makers when steel is heated and cooled in order to make it less fragile, more ductile and altogether stronger. A well tempered garden in this sense is a garden that’s capable of withstanding the kinds of climatic surprises and shocks that we’re becoming all too familiar with.

So extending the metaphor to a whole household – like the Potwell Inn – seems not to be too far a stretch, at least to me. We’re not tidy, we’re frequently bad tempered but the Potwell Inn is a well tempered household because in amongst the joyful moments we’ve seen a few shocks and many stresses; we’ve endured scary times and sad times; we’ve frequently been hard up, and to borrow another idea from Nietzsche – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I like to think that layer after layer of experience has been forged into the steel of our being, such that our resilience has made us strong.

Of course there are some shocks that experience can’t overcome. Yesterday we went to visit an old friend with Motor Neurone Disease and against all the odds we had a really lovely afternoon together. Any difficulties in listening to his failing voice were overcome, and – not for the first time – I felt the presence of a kind of luminosity which is not unusual among those who are approaching death. We left and drove back to Bath on a warm and sunny evening and I was overwhelmed by a sense of fullness as all my summer evenings were forged into one. It was an unexpected and extraordinary moment.

Back in the kitchen there were jobs to do, and so I kneaded the new batch of dough for the morning and set it into a banneton that I’ve only used a few times before. I don’t think I could ever write a full account of baking bread. It’s so embedded in my memory and my hands that hundreds of micro decisions contribute to the final loaf. There is a recipe stuck to the fridge, but it’s overwritten with so many amendments I rarely even look at it. But when the stars align and the starter, the batter and then the dough come right there’s a feeling that it’s going to be good. But there’s another feeling too because having the starter right, having the flour and then the loaf right are tokens of stability. Well tempered baking is a fundamental part of a well tempered household and so too is the allotment which brings us healthy food. Today we harvested tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, green beans and sweetcorn and Madame picked 2Kg of blackberries from the footpath. Today we’re winning the sweetcorn battle with the badgers six nil. Lunch was good.

The Pyrex bowl in which I’ve proved every loaf I’ve ever baked is so precious and replete with memories that it’s only ever hand-washed. I’m not sure I could cope with losing it. The sourdough starter is more than ten years old and always sulks when we go away and don’t feed it. Recently a couple of American neighbours were in the process of moving away and they entrusted a three generations old sourdough pancake batter to our care.

So yesterday evening we ate late, watched television far too late – binging on “Bear” series two – and then listened to some of the music again while we drank too much wine. The sound track is amazing. A short night, then, and up early with a thick head to bake the loaf.

As the produce floods in, I spend more and more time in the kitchen. Today there were the blackberries to be cooked and strained through a cotton twill bag to make jelly. Bramble jelly is one of the most fragrant of all the jellies, and it always feels like we’re eating summer when we have it. Then today I also made the first batch of roasted tomato passata which we use as a base for many meals throughout the year. I suppose all this is another instance of resilience; of the tempering process that keeps the household on track even during the toughest of times. Without our sack of flour, the bakers yeast and the sourdough starter and a cupboard full of preserved produce from the allotment we’d have felt very exposed, but as it was, our principal enemy was isolation.

Are we self-sufficient? Absolutely not; but are we well tempered and resilient? without doubt!

What have you to do with me?

  • What have you to do with me, Spider?
  • What have you to do with me, Sloe?
  • What have you to do with me, Tomato?
  • What have you to do with me, Wren?
  • What have you to do with me, Bramble?
  • What have you to do with me, Hornet hoverfly?
  • What have you to do with me, Peacock butterfly?
  • What have you to do with me, abandoned mineshaft?
  • What have you to do with me, Coltsfoot?
  • What have you to do with me, lead slag?
  • What have you to do with me, pig?
  • What have you to do with me, field mushroom?
  • What have you to do with me, Wild Madder?

A bit of a cathartic clearout of the Potwell Inn larder

When we were at art school we usually got temporary Christmas jobs at the Post Office. While Madame sorted post I did a delivery round during the day and then at night I worked on Chippenham railway station, loading the mail trains with sorted mail. Every night we fought hand-to-hand with the guard who wanted to sort the mailbags as they came on to the van, whereas all we wanted to do was to get them on there and clear off to somewhere warm. We would stand on the platform with the bags loaded on to a trolley and then the moment the doors opened we would hurl them into the van so fast that the guard would be buried under the pile, cursing us furiously.

I was reminded of this because there comes a time, every season, when we realize that we need to prepare for the onslaught of produce which invariably ripens all at once but in an unpredictable order so – as has happened this year – the glut of aubergines has overtaken the courgettes and there’s no sign of any ripening tomatoes. Ideally we’d prefer them to ripen slowly but simultaneously so we could turn at least some of them into ratatouille which freezes pretty well. There are four – no – five alternatives as the crops come in. Eat them fresh; store them for a short period in the fridge but eat them before they go mouldy; freeze, bottle or preserve them in some way to last the winter; give them away to deserving neighbours who – if it’s courgettes – will secretly feed them into the recycling bin; or feel overwhelmed and give up even trying until they’re only fit for the compost heap. This has, for the third or fourth successive year, been a difficult season for growers. After months of drought I’m considering adding another 1000 litres of rain water storage – just in case. I checked the tanks today and it’s surprising how a day and a half of heavy rain can replenish them – but I need to build a sloping roof over the compost bins to increase the harvesting area.

There’s also the issue of jam jars and here, I confess to a rather silly obsession with uniformity. We have tall jam jars, shorter honey jars and then a whole collection of very lovely looking imported Italian ones in different shapes and sizes. The thought of bottling a single batch of jam in a variety of different jars would stop me in my tracks. However, we always make too much jam (and jellies, chutneys, pickles and preserves), so rather than chuck the elderly batches out I order another box of jars and then we preside over a large quantity of – say – strawberry jam of different vintages. Being human we eat the newest first and so the ancients gradually get paler and paler, possess less and less flavour and sometimes even the sugar begins to crystallize out. I once saw a jar of marmalade in a convent labeled as “King Charles the Martyr” – it rather put me off!

So every few years we have a cathartic clearout of the larder – which extends across three rooms and the garage and we spoon large volumes of anonymous gunk into the recycling bins so the jars can be reused. Washed and sterilized they gladden my obsessive heart as I ponder what to do with them next. So this week I’ve made redcurrant jelly – which we add to mint sauce and other sauces; and Tayberry jelly. The Tayberry is a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry and eaten straight off the vines it’s very tart; but cooked and strained through a jelly bag the pips are all removed and it makes the kind of jelly that sells for nearly £10 a pot in a classy delicatessen. This Tayberry was only planted three years ago and it suddenly produced a decent crop of what a Greek scholar might describe as “wine dark” fruit (that should add at least a couple more quid to the value. So this year we’ve done 20lb marmalade, and about 10 lb each of damson, redcurrant and Tayberry, with blackberries and blackcurrants in the freezer waiting their turn. This is where the problem originates.

Then, the tomatoes will start to flow and they’re the backbone of the kitchen when it comes to sauces, ketchup and passata. The plan is to get all this done before September. Our Borlotti beans took us by surprise because I failed to read the packet or to remember that nano means dwarf. So ours are thriving at ground level, being towered over by a tall set of bamboo canes which they have no need of. Madame is suggesting we sow the proper variety underneath the canes and hope they make it. It’s a risk because dried borlotti are another kitchen staple.

This morning after sulking for a fortnight since our holiday during which it wasn’t fed – the sourdough starter finally gave it up and frothed energetically like an excited spaniel – so I started a loaf that I’ll bake tomorrow evening. 36 hours is a long fermentation but it allows the full flavour to develop. Life is good, but whether I’ll still be saying that after winding the passata machine for hours and hours is another thing. But when winter comes and if I’m feeling sorry for myself I just need to open the cupboards and look at all the food we’ve grown and I’ll cheer up!

You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

The lake at Upper Treginnis today. It looks as if somewhere between 300 and 500 cubic meters of water have been pumped.
The same lake in September 2022
Musk Thistle

There’s a walk we do when we’re in St Davids and it takes us past a small lake – almost certainly dug for irrigation years ago. Since we’ve been coming here it’s been one of those dead cert places for all sorts of wildlife, with a large population of dragonflies, damselflies, birds, insects and marsh plants. It is (or perhaps was) surrounded by several organic farms. Today as we walked past we saw one farmer tilling two fields of old pasture. Our favourite mushroom gathering place was tilled and planted up with rye and another field, badly infested with Musk Thistle had been sprayed with some kind of weedkiller. Worse again, the pond had been drained of 2/3 of its water and apart from some insect hunting reed warblers and a few Wagtails had become a ghastly eutrophic puddle, thick with blanket weed; and what had been the point of all this water being pumped out? – as we continued our walk down to the beach we spotted the reason; several fields planted up with thirsty potatoes. Elsewhere other once-thriving pasture fields were dried out and worthless.

I think this is Chicory sown in the herbal ley mix at Upper Treginnis last year – no longer to be seen in the drought afflicted meadow

I can see the dilemma for the farmers here. This is a very small area with a rich flora and fauna and difficult soil most suited to pasture used mainly in the past for sheep. The government have been completely hopeless in supporting these marginal farms which could, and should, be kept as biodiversity hotspots, and I’m not sure that many farmers either understand the new ELMS environmental subsidy scheme, or indeed trust the government to put enough money into it. Let’s be clear; supporting the environment isn’t a plan for entertaining wildlife enthusiasts it’s essential for food production – for pollination for instance but also to support the incredibly complex food chains where, if one link fails, the consequences can be dire. Nobody is arguing that all agricultural land should be returned to the so-called wild – it’s more like saying if you polish your car every week but never service it or maintain it properly it will break down. Farmers land up trying to pay off the bank with dodgy cash crops; gambling against the system to save their land.

Anyway, that’s enough – there are many interlinking problems here. Farmers are forced into growing the wrong crops because doing the right things would lead them inevitably into bankruptcy; the climate is changing so rapidly that extreme events are becoming almost commonplace; and when food is treated as a commodity, prices are driven down by supermarkets and farmers suffer. I remember an alarming conversation with a retired grain dealer who explained how it was possible to make fantastic returns by harvesting subsidies as a crop was loaded onto a train and passed through several countries without ever being unloaded. Producers and consumers are the innocent victims of this profiteering.

The net result is a rather depressing walk through a once favourite wildlife hotspot. Happily we still managed to find a lovely little Marsh Bedstraw – Galium palustre and the Musk Thistles rising from their chemically damaged rosettes; but the drying out of the pool has allowed hordes of Hemlock Water Dropwort to germinate which, if they continue to thrive, will be a menace to cattle. All this is a part of the rapid march of global heating and environmental breakdown coupled with an inexcusable profiteering food chain. Broken politics makes everything so much worse. Anyway here’s a photo of the Marsh Bedstraw – nature abhors a vacuum! Last night we celebrated our arrival with several bottles of wine and listened to all our favourite music as the sun set and the moon became visible high in the darkening sky. We slept well!

Rain starts play!

Freed from watering the outside allotment by some decent rain last night we lingered in bed reading, watered the greenhouse and polytunnel, shot down to the supermarket to get canned food for the campervan stores and then off to Dyrham Park in search of orchids. It’s been a difficult drought season, demanding all our effort to keep the young plants alive. Apparently the tomatoes don’t set fruit when the temperature rises above 27C, although we’ve not found a big difference so far. It’s a mad year when we have almost ready aubergines and courgettes in the tunnel but the outdoor broad beans have been decimated by blackfly due to the unaccountable absence of their usual predators – almost certainly down to heavy mortality among them in the cold wet early spring. In particular, ladybirds have been noticeably absent. We’ve been spraying with a neem oil and soap mix with limited success on the broad beans, but with a slightly better result on the asparagus which is being attacked by asparagus beetles. Neem oil is certified for organic use but it really stinks and is unpleasant to spray. It also tends to clog the sprayer so it’s far from ideal. Our conclusion is to revert to sowing Aquadulce Claudia beans in October, plant them out in early November and then protect them from strong winds and prolonged frosts. They usually look a mess in early spring but they tiller freely and give a good early crop when there’s almost nothing else to eat.

So once we arrived in the park we very slowly searched all the familiar places for orchids. We didn’t have to look far for Pyramidal orchids – Anacamptis pyramidalis – there were hundreds of them, smaller but substantial numbers of Common Spotted – Dactylorhiza fuchsii , some of them very pale, and just a single Bee orchid – Ophryis apifera – far fewer than last year.

Orchids are lovely of course but with a dozen or so Marbled White butterflies moving about the meadow with several other species it was a close thing which was more exciting.

Madame took this photo

But I’m not afraid to say that I was enchanted by finding some Cock’s-foot grass in full flower and looking like a beauty at the prom, decked in white. On this poor limestone rich meadow, this bully of a grass had been reduced to playing second fiddle to the wildflowers. The whole meadow was alive with Oxeye Daisies, which looked tremendous; but the absolute star of the show was the seed head of Tragopogon pratensis – Goats Beard – whose mind blowing architecture made me shout out for joy.

When the going gets tough …..

The endlessly adaptable Mexican Fleabane – Erigeron karvinskianus spreading along our street year by year
Phew what a scorcher! – says the sub editor for the 10,000th time

The Met Office defines a heatwave as a period of three days or more when the temperature rises above the expected. So no argument then! we’re in a heatwave; something I guess most of us in the UK would have known without the benefit of the definition. However, definitions sometimes throw up potential problems such as this one. In a time of global heating what’s expected? Upon what form of statistical calculation is that decision made. Is it the average temperature? the mean temperature? – and what happens when the temperature is rising year on year? Even if the mean June temperature is calculated over the past five, ten or even fifty years, it will surely rise; and at what point will the media be dutifully reporting a cold snap because the mean June temperature falls below a level that we’ve become wearily accustomed to. Maybe we need an alternative way of expressing the impact of temperature rises – for example excess deaths; the effect on crops; the price and availability of food; the water levels in the reservoirs; pollution in rivers as the reduced dilution effect of dry weather gives the game away ?

Of course, what we usually do in the real world is lament the idiocy of politicians who are too cowardly to address the crisis, and get on with it as best we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re getting up early and going to the allotment soon after seven o’clock so we can get three or four hours in before it’s too hot to work any more. Some jobs are much harder – for instance setting out young plants when temperatures are likely to rise to 30 C (86 F). They need intensive care from day one. The simplest manual jobs like tilling a bed or raking in compost or fertilizer can be exhausting, and watering becomes a test of stamina. At its worst I can walk 10000 steps between the water troughs and the allotment.

But there’s an upside too. After a seemingly endless winter in our flat we both felt thoroughly seedy and out of condition, but now we’re suntanned and as fit as fleas. Allotmenteering is both a physical and also an intellectual challenge – trying to predict what might happen next. I suppose you could say it resembles sailing, inasmuch as reading the weather almost becomes an obsession. We look to see where the wind is coming from. South westerlies can be warm but they also bring rain in from the Atlantic. A cold easterly can decimate fruit blossom and kill tender plants – we lost our Tarragon and Rosemary as well as an established Clematis during the winter and any heavy rain or snow can be destructive of plants or netting. It’s no use thinking “I’m not going out in this” because staying in might cost you your crop or your nets.

So we don’t feel in the least downhearted about this heatwave because, like the Mexican Fleabane in the photo, we can – if we work at it – adapt to all manner of changes. Don’t for a minute imagine that I’m saying we can adapt ourselves out of catastrophic climate change without changing our whole lifestyle. What I am saying is that being hard-up for most of our lives, being prepared to keep the household just about going by earning a living wherever it’s possible is a great training in resilience – I’ve washed up in a hotel, driven buses, been a rather poor welder, a groundsman, a night cleaner in a factory, worked nights on my own in a rat infested factory sawing large blocks of polystyrene foam into sheets, and worked in a prison and a couple of old style mental hospitals. I can cook, clean and grow stuff and of course I worked as a parish priest for 30 years and I think I learned a great deal about being human or how not to be human. Madame has a very similar skill set and so we muddle along contentedly together, knowing that a good life doesn’t depend on having a Range Rover.

I’ve been reading a short article by Prof Massimo Pigliucci in “Philosophy Now” which I picked up from a newspaper stand before I looked at the price. Anyway the article lists six ethical ideals shared by almost all the world’s faiths. This is a long way from religion in the commonly understood sense. These values are:

  • Practical wisdom
  • Justice / morality
  • temperance / moderation
  • fortitude / courage
  • Humanity
  • Transcendence (gratitude, hope, spirituality

This group of dispositions broadly represents what’s usually called Virtue Ethics. To risk simplifying the idea so much it becomes a parody, these kind of dispositions, when internalised and lived out in everyday life, are the most effective guidance we have for flourishing – not for getting rich, or amassing honours and power but simply flourishing, being / becoming human. When you think about it it would be hard to express a better wish list for gardeners, nurses, or so-called captains of industry.

There’s a kind of grim satisfaction in knowing that when the climate catastrophe finally strikes us, the wealthy can only hope to buy a few more years of absolution from the bletted fruits of their behaviour before they realise they’ve got no talent for being human and no skills to change themselves. The snake oil salesmen and the invisible Seventh Technological Cavalry will have fled, and their last moments will be spent howling at a blackened sky like Violet Elizabeth Bot “I’ll thcweam and I’ll thcweam and I’ll make mythelf thick!”

Badgers force a dodgy tactical manoeuvre – strawberries for tea!

Better late than never – Malling Centenary strawberries.

Last summer’s drought wrought havoc in most gardens and allotments and the Potwell Inn was no exception. In the previous season we’d decided to grow early strawberries in the polytunnel with a bunch of Malling Century slips that came as a free gift with the seed order. They did reasonably well in hanging baskets but the hot weather and some gaps in watering meant that they never really flourished, so we took them outside when they finished and grew on as many runners as we could, transferring them, once they were established, to a raised bed. Last year, in their second season they did much better and this year they’ve really come into their own in their fourth home in three years. They weren’t even our first choice for plants because we were after Cambridge Favourite but the Malling were free and so – as always at the Potwell Inn – thrift triumphed over research and we haven’t regretted it because they’re absolutely delicious.

This is the time of year when the battle with weeds is replaced by the one against pests and predators. We’ve never used any form of pesticide apart from pyrethrum or indeed any chemicals at all beyond what’s allowed for organic gardening. We gave up on pyrethrum because it was so expensive and it was difficult to avoid harming friendly predators and pollinators like ladybirds, bees, parasitic wasps and hoverflies – and so hand picking and low cunning are our preferred tactics. There is, (vegans look away!), grim satisfaction to be had from pinching asparagus beetles between the fingers, and washing blackfly with soft soap but it’s slow work and demands constant attention and getting the time of day right.

There are, however, bigger menaces to allotmenteers like squirrels, pigeons, rats and the biggest one of all – badgers. A couple of years ago we found neat piles of podded broad bean shells to one side of the bed. That turned out to be squirrels which are easy enough to keep out with nets, as are the pigeons. So far as the cabbage butterflies are concerned any number of new allotmenteers are caught out by the fact that butterflies can lay their eggs through netting if it’s touching the leaves of your brassicas – so lift it up on hoops, away from the plants.

Badgers, on the other hand, are formidable once they find out where your sweetcorn is. We have a trail cam on the plot and it seems that the badgers make regular patrols around the site and the moment the cobs are ripe – they have tremendous sense of smell – they almost throw themselves against the plants and break them off so they can munch your lunch. Most years we lose 50% of our crops. If you find your sweetcorn stalks intact but the cobs chewed open, suspect rats or squirrels both of which are good climbers.

The long term answer is to surround these vulnerable plants with an inner layer of chicken wire – buried into the soil – and an outer layer of soft net, which badgers seem not to like getting their claws into. We’ve even thought about a Fort Knox bed of weldmesh! The trouble with all of these arrangements is that they also deter the allotmenteer from day to day cultivation – and so we compromise and expect to lose some corn every year.

We did have one not-so-brilliant cunning plan this year which was to grow the sweetcorn inside the polytunnel. As you’ll see from the photograph we even carried it through until we realized that the badgers would still smell the corn and would cheerfully rip through the polytunnel cover to get at them. A new cover would cost about £250 so we contemplated digging up and composting the growing plants until Madame had the unlikely idea of transplanting them even though they were more than two feet tall by now.

So we took a trial batch of six plants, removed them with as large a soil ball as we could, and set them down in a new bed – all this on one of the hottest days of the year! We fed, watered and nurtured them as if they were in intensive care, and blow me they all survived with barely any setback. Nature is so much more resilient than we give her credit for. So now we’ll move the rest of them and think about buying a roll of chicken wire and some strong posts. We don’t actually need all that many cobs so sharing may turn out to be a serious plan because we love having the badgers on the allotment.

As for the asparagus – after threatening to dig it up – this year – we have intensified our efforts to save the bed and tomorrow we’ll apply some diatomaceous earth around the bed and give them a spray of neem oil -they’re not in flower and we couldn’t find any ladybird larvae so it looks like the safest option. We’ve also got nematodes in the fridge but we can’t spray that until a new hatch of larvae coincides with a dull day. The only pest that hasn’t caused as many problems as usual are the slugs. We’ve learned that spot watering the plants and leaving the dry earth everywhere else, deters them from their night rambles.

Oh and joy unconfined! The Saturday market has returned to Green Park Station after a serious fire put it out of action, and we were able to resume our favourite Saturday breakfast of strong coffee and pain au raisins after finishing early morning watering. Madame is scanning the sky for thunderclouds and rain – lots of rain. Pleeeeeease.

“Sumer is icumin in” (3)

This summer’s first batch of elderflower cordial

The suffix (3) in the title is because it’s the third time I’ve used the same title although the content is different as you’ll see if you click here. If you read the piece in the link you’ll also notice – apart from the photo of elderflowers – a useful description of the archaic tobacco enema should that be of any interest.

An opium poppy growing at the entrance to the allotments – paying tribute to the relaxing effect of gardening.

Anyway the three pieces were written at very roughly this time of year in 2019, 2021 and today and they share the sense of liberation that comes with late spring and early summer made especially poignant by the fact that the earlier two postings book-ended the COVID epidemic. We thought it was all over then, but it wasn’t and it still haunts our politics, memories and dreams today. Without wanting for a moment to parallel the trauma of war with the pandemic, I remember my Father and his contemporaries with renewed respect when I try to imagine the thoughts and memories they carried and the impact it had on on our whole family.

Anyway, we treasure our slow emergence from COVID with each moment of joy, and today, making the first batch of elderflower cordial I realized how much it celebrates and marks the early summer for me. We’re lucky to be living on the edge of a patch of public green space that has many Elders amongst the other riverside trees and so yesterday we harvested about 100 flower heads and soaked them overnight with lemon and orange zest. Last year we had a problem with some of the seals on the flip top bottles and about half of one batch went mouldy, so this year we’ve bought all new rubber seals and scrupulously scrubbed and sterilized the bottles before refilling them. Up at the allotment there’s a marvellous purple variety so we’ll harvest another load of flowers from there and make pink cordial. We don’t bother to filter out all the pollen because it takes forever to drip through a jelly bag – and of course the longer it’s exposed to the air the more likely it is to pick up airborne moulds. I hate the taste of sulphite, so we combine a little extra citric acid before simmering it and bottling it. Somehow – in spite of the cost of fruit and sugar – it seems that we’ve received a free gift from nature before the allotment starts properly yielding crops.

On the other hand we’ve been eating rhubarb and digging the volunteer potatoes that were missed when we dug the crop. Miraculously we’ve even eaten a few maincrop potatoes which survived the winter and the slugs unscathed. We’ve had plentiful spinach and swiss chard so although we’re a million miles from self-sufficient, we still have the benefit of fresh veg during the hungry gap.

Yesterday, with watering out of the way, we sat out on the green reading when we heard a loud crash and looked up to see that one of our elderly neighbours had taken a tumble. Within seconds three of us sprinted to help and a passer by stopped as well. Within the constant churn of just passing through residents, there is a core of neighbours who’ve been here for many decades, and we often have impromptu parties on the pavement when the sun shines. It just happened that the first aiders were two nurses, a retired vicar and a retired post office worker – so we were fully equipped for any eventuality! In the end our neighbour suffered nothing worse than a cut on his head and another on his finger, but it underlines the great benefits of a functioning community. On the other hand the constantly changing tides of students, Airbnb’s and just passing through’s can feel a bit alienating at times. Often they do a moonlight flit and leave their rubbish in the basement for someone else to clear up.

The other problem we have is with aggressive dogs and their owners being let loose on the green to crap, bark and intimidate the rest of us. We still have a massive problem with drug dealing, and yesterday I was greatly amused to overhear a conversation between a customer on the street and the dealer in a car. The dealer was protesting that if the customer wanted whatever it was, he’d have to order it and he’d get it in for Saturday. Life’s rich tapestry, I suppose. Enduring over a decade of incompetent, corrupt and greedy government leaves its mark on the communities that we live in and which they rarely see. On the other hand we’ve had to become adept and resourceful; mastering the kind of skills that the clowns in charge will neither possess nor enjoy.

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