An unexpected excitement

A spur of the moment walk into the city centre tonight took us past Pulteney Bridge where the arches and surrounding street lights were reflected beautifully in the water. The river level has fallen over the past few days and the icebergs of detergent foam have now gone as the flood ease and the terraces of the weir reappear. The streets were all but empty on this last night of meteorological autumn. We traversed the centre passing quietly through all the usual tourist hotspots, knowing that this was probably our last chance to do so before the bars and restaurants reopen and the shops, about to be licenced to stay open as long as they wish, flood the air and the winter nights with their desperate appeals for last minute customers.

It feels almost unpatriotic to admit it, but we’ve enjoyed the quiet city; and during the first and more closely observed lockdown in the warm spring weather we often walked at dusk through empty car parks, and crossed streets that would normally be like the river in spate; an impassable flood of visitors tumbling down Milsom Street towards Southgate.

This afternoon, in a moment of pure serendipity just one unsolicited remark in a news feed dropped a moment of excitement into my mind. The article in question mentioned the Mendip Way – a long distance footpath that I don’t think I’d ever seriously thought about walking. But I love Mendip – I have done since I was a teenager and went caving there. After a quick peep I could see that the path takes a winding route West from Uphill on the Bristol Channel to Frome at the Eastern edge of the Mendip Hills – about fifty miles in all.

When I was working in South Gloucestershire I devised a forty mile pilgrimage from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn, across the fields wherever possible. We walked it every year, a small group of seven or eight of us and took a couple of days to complete it. It was a kind of re-enactment of the journey that the monks at Malmesbury Abbey would have made to my little parish church overlooking the River Severn which was a part of their huge land holding. One of these days I’ll tell the story of the murdered monk, killed for the chalice he was carrying, and the story of St Arilda and her fateful meeting with Muncius, a Roman soldier – just two of the events we commemorated as we walked. Coincidentally, both murders were marked by springs, running red once a year, as if with blood. Actually it’s algae but …. we visited both sites just in case.

The longest walk I’ve ever done was a 200 miler across France with my son, between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors on the route of the Camino. It was springtime and as we walked across the Aubrac Hills we were caught up in the transhumance of cattle up to the high mountain pastures – it was an extraordinary sight accompanied by village parties that seemed to go on for days.

I love long distance walks, but haven’t had much of a chance to indulge them recently so I was overjoyed when I hesitantly mentioned the idea of splitting the Mendip Way into small sections to Madame and she jumped at the idea. Within about a minute I’d ordered up the maps and my head is full of thoughts of connecting up some of our favourite places in one long walk. I camped at Uphill as a teenager, and Madame spent most of her holidays with an aunt in Frome. In between we know and have visited most of the places on the route but never in the way that a long distance walk can illuminate them. Your sense of terrain changes profoundly when you get it under your feet, and it will be wonderful to unite the Somerset Levels with High Mendip, crossing Crookes Peak and possibly even stopping for lunch at the Hunters Lodge Inn in Priddy; walking down Ebbor Gorge again.

And of course the natural history across such a walk will be astounding – I’m already packing my kit in my head. Oh glory! it feels like this enervating, never ending confinement is lifting at last.

Four hundred and fifty three thousand, seven hundred and forty four

No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change compost compost bins composting coronavirus deep ecology earth ecology environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany foraging garlic global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness intensive farming lockdown lost gardens of heligan marmalade meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions spring sustainability technology water storage weather weeds wildflower meadows wildflowers

Walking with a purpose

I have some dim idea why I love these little characters so much because they were the first gulls I learned to distinguish out of the group which I had always just seen as “seagulls”. I was puzzled enough by their red legs and beaks with black tips to get a bird book and find out what they were called. That was years ago and so now I know they’re black headed gulls – which caused a many a problem because it turned out they were only truly black headed in the summer. But they turn up here most winters; sometimes they stay and sometimes they go on somewhere else, and since I first noticed them I’ve learned a good deal more about them, but I love their delicate flight; the way they make the herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls who also live here look a bit lumpy – and, they’re here at the moment. These two were on the river bank immediately below the church where we often see peregrines – there was one there today. This isn’t unusual, we also saw wagtails, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, moorhen, mute swans and a lone Canada goose. The heron has been missing for a couple of days but he’ll show up again in one of his favourite haunts.

It was here on this walk that I learned to separate the ragworts; to find pellitory of the wall and half a dozen other medicinal herbs growing wild; here I noticed winter heliotrope and not – as I first thought – coltsfoot. Here too the wild lettuce that doesn’t look the least bit like the stuff on your plate. We do the same walk pretty well every day; come rain or shine. It’s about 8 Km which gets us over the 10,000 step line and passes a couple of local shops that we use. That means that we walk around 10 kilometers most days and it’s not in the least boring because it’s never the same two days running.

If I was trying to make it sound a bit posh I’d call it a transect – an ecological technique that helps us to understand an environment by walking the same path as regularly as possible and recording what you find there. It takes a while but eventually you kind of make friends with it, to recognise the old stagers and the newcomers and to rehearse their names so often that they stick in your mind. Depending on the season we could focus on birds or plants; insects (not too sharp on those) or butterflies and if anything the walk becomes more interesting each time we do it. Naturally there are other walks in much sexier places where we can marvel (gawp?) at five star rarities but there’s nothing in the world to beat finding one of them in a dark corner of a familiar place. We know the proper names of some of the fishes that congregate near the surface of the water in the summer, we watch the river in spate and at its lowest time in a dry summer. There are things we’d love to see – like otters – and I’m sure one day we will. The local natural history society – there’s a link on this page – runs a great facebook group where we can see things we’ve never seen ourselves and check out an identification with some hardcore experts if need be.

Walking is the most tremendous activity when you want to think. Our days are pretty standard; two hours of walking, three quarters of an hour of weights, two or three hours of writing and the rest on the allotment, cooking, eating and reading. When I write it down it looks almost monastic and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Walking grounds us, gives us a couple of hours when we can talk or be quiet and where we can find a perspective on the troubles and worries of life, and it provides me with an endless source of reflection – much of which finds its way on to the blog.

Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau, Santayana and a host of deep ecologists, poets, writers and pilgrims have all found comfort and inspiration in walking, so I reckon the evidence is in. I’ve always kept notebooks and sometimes the notebooks became journals and they’ve been the most important source of inspiration for me. So often, reading back on an everyday, common experience can suddenly flood it with light – “oh so that’s what was going on”. A walk can be an almost symphonic experience that might one moment be prayer, or contemplation, or remembering, or just filled with wonder and delight or perhaps a simmering grouse, or an anger that’s needing to be dealt with. Let them come, and let them go. And that’s not to mention the fresh air, occasional sunshine and the natural history waiting to be recorded.

It’s November, almost official winter and yet today we saw herb Robert in flower, winter heliotrope with its odd perfume, so difficult to describe; nipplewort; a couple of vagrant marigolds on the canal bank and the initial rosettes of a dozen pathside herbs that look lovely even as they are. It’s so easy to be sniffy about ragwort but really, its leaves are lovely in their prime condition.

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a piece of lichen that I picked up last year. If I sprayed it with water it would come back to life, and under the microscope it becomes a miniature world; a kelp forest an inch across. There are bits of dried grass and a pencil sharpener; with all the books and apparatus I need to continue the walk in my head later. It’s so much bigger and richer than just boring old exercise; making up the 10,000 steps. Oh yes, walking is good – good for the legs, good for the mind, good for the spirit too. It takes some ordinary – you might say thin – time of course, but renders it thick, rich and deep like good soil. Sure you might add the biochemical changes and dismiss it all as so much dopamine and you’re free to do just that; but I prefer to think of each walk as another voyage of the Potwell Inn Beagle.

*If you want to explore the philosophy and history of walking rather than read books about routes you might like to look at Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust”. I thought it was a superb book when I first read it and I’d recommend it without hesitation.

Silence comes in many shapes

So instead of spending Wednesday hanging around in a secure campervan compound, we were able to charge the batteries properly while driving the round trip of about 100 miles to Hay on Wye and back again. I have no idea why we’re so passionately attached to Hay – we don’t attend the festival or even camp there very often, but it’s very close to some of our favourite places like Hay Bluff, Capel y Ffin and Kilvert’s parishes, not to mention Offa’s dyke and some of the best (and longest) hill walks in Wales; and it does have a very good ironmonger – so good we once drove there to buy a crowbar. They didn’t have one.

I don’t do endorsements, but our journey was only made possible by an extraordinary piece of technology. LIke most of us, the campervan had developed a flat battery this summer during the lockdown when we weren’t able to go anywhere; and our usual way of dealing with this problem would be to drive 20 miles with our genny to where it’s stored, and spend hours charging it up – sometimes meaning we had to make two journeys and waste most of a day. I’ve always avoided the idea of getting a battery booster set because in my memory they were extremely cumbersome, and lugging one of them up and down three flights of stairs at the flat is a bit of a pain. However, after a lucky online search, I found the most wonderful lithium ion booster which weighs just over 500 grammes (one and a quarter pounds), fits in your pocket and will deliver 1000A; enough to crank up a 3 litre diesel or 6 litre petrol engine. No – I didn’t believe it either – but I charged it overnight via a USB socket and this morning we went down to the van and after a couple of minutes getting it attached,started the engine without so much as a hint of battery problems.

But this post isn’t a touristy piece on the Brecon Beacons; it’s about something rather different – more psychogeographical than topographical, and more literary than I’d expected: think Kilvert’s Diary, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On The Black Hill’ and …… forgive me …. JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. But first, Adlestrop.

So …. sunny autumn day; the leaves turning golden on the trees and as we crested the top of the hill leading down to Raglan we could see Hay Bluff in the far distance, the atmosphere was so clear. We always go by the the back roads, eschewing the motorway and sticking to the quieter and shorter route which, notwithstanding the continual nagging of the satnav, takes exactly the same length of time – give or take the occasional tractor. The car park at Hay was only a third full and visitors were pretty thin on the ground by the looks of it, so we drove down to the bottom and parked up in the sunshine to brew tea.

Silences are difficult to describe because they can often be defined by sounds. As I sat on the van step, soaking up the warmth and listening to a robin singing in its birdish minor key, I suddenly thought of Adlestrop in Edward Thomas’ poem. There the silence is defined by the sound of escaping steam. In my parents’ garden the silence was always defined by house sparrows. We were once walking in Clun where there was the most lovely silence I think I’ve ever experienced, it was so warm and embracing. Tawny owls do good night silences here in Bath and once in Corsica we were kept awake by the silences, bookended by the sound of the Scops owls. Urban silences are always brief and punctuated at each end by the sound of traffic and aeroplanes, or perhaps ambulances. You have to snatch them out of the still air as if you were attempting to catch a butterfly in your hands. The silence you can find in the Brecon Beacons is different again, accompanied by wind and grass but yesterday in Hay on Wye, the silence was modulated by the sound and smell of a petrol mower somewhere close by, and by the quarreling jackdaws in the trees. It was a silence pregnant with all the other lost silences of my life. Robin, my last therapist, was good at silences. He could create a silence like a rich medium in which my hidden thoughts could germinate and grow and, once established, would follow me up the lanes and steps as I walked back to Clifton with my ghosts.

This silence, once evoked, stayed with me even above the noise of the van as we drove back. Pen y Fan never looked lovelier or more challenging as we drove towards Bwlch and then, on the right, there was Buckland Hill and Tolkien joined my thoughts. Despite his protestations that the Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with the war, he had started the writing Hobbit in 1939, and it’s infused with melancholy for a lost and comfortable world that’s always made me feel that when push comes to shove, I’m a hobbit too. Utterly attached to my own place and all too fond of a good meal and a gossip. The Tolkien obsessives have often associated the Buckland of the book with the Buckland hill overlooking the River Usk near Bwlch. There have always been rumours that Tolkien stayed at Buckland Hall as a child, although no-one has absolutely nailed it, but the c0-location of fictional Buckland with the fictional ‘Crickhollow’ is hard to ignore when you’re about to drive through the entirely real Crickhowell with the ‘old forest’ of the beacons looming above.

And in this thoughtful mood we drove on in the noisy, roaring and rattling silence of the van, and I thought about Louis MacNeice’s marvellous ‘Autumn Journal’ and the ominous sense that its lines, written in 1939, are like the leaves of a tree suddenly illuminated by the intense light that sometimes precedes a storm.

Something has broken. Was it Mircea Eliade that said we ‘live in a story shaped universe’? Yesterday it seemed as if ‘losing the plot’ might be a trivial way of expressing the fact that we’ve lost the story. Goodness knows I’m not a fan of all those dwarves and elves in Tolkien but the fact that Lord of the Rings became almost canonical for several generations of us, does suggest that some kind of story can be a better guide to being human than the predigested idiocy of the politicians who suggest that the way forward is, in fact, the way back. I remember being very struck by something George Steiner wrote more than 50 years ago in relation to literature. He suggested that we should ask the question “what measure of man [sic] does this propose?”.

Buckland Hill, for all its powerful imagery, both exists in the mind as a fictional landmark and also in its geographical embodiment overlooking the River Usk. Of course the two are not separable, and who in their right mind would wish to do so? Perhaps that’s what Philip Pullman was pointing at in ‘His Dark Materials’. The destruction of stories is an act of barbarity and violence.

The silence followed me home and back in the flat, I took down the Lord of the Rings and my maps from the bookshelves; just in case I could find a way out of this plague somewhere within them.

Dead Prime Minister fails to get it up!

Palmerston – later on and run out of steam!

I just couldn’t leave Wales without a piece on our day trip on the Ffestiniog Railway on Tuesday. Last year we travelled the Welsh Highland Railway line from Porthmadog to Caernarfon which climbs through the mountains past Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa, if you will) and down again to the sea – a magical five and a half hours there and back, with mugs of tea and Welsh rarebit to keep body and soul together. This year with Covid restrictions there are only half journeys available so we opted for the Ffestiniog Railway up to Tan y Bwlch.

anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve

We’ve got history with the railway -well more of a one night stand actually – because when we lived in a self described commune in Bristol we spent a weekend working there as ‘volunteers’. The word volunteers is italicised because anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve. That was John then, and probably still is. The pith helmet and khaki shorts of his childhood were invisible to most people but always rankled with me and so, with the certainty that winter follows spring we clashed. He was born to be a district agent in the great days of the Empire when Palmerston was Prime Minister and I could only aspire (in his mind) to be that insolent little chap – what was his name again? -who served the tea. Funnily enough he brought two of his admirers into a cafe I was in a few years ago and I recognised his booming voice immediately – I was so troubled by it I had to get up and leave.

Anyway this mountain adventure was an entirely ‘voluntary’ weekend event with the usual unspoken three line whip. Most of the commune members were doing office or teaching jobs, so a weekend breaking stones in Wales was probably more attractive to them, but we dutifully went along and even took two friends – Mike and Di – along with us. It was the weekend I first saw – rather heard – a Hydram (hydraulic ram pump) in action. I followed the camp water supply down the steep hillside towards the sound of the pump, each rifle shot crack sending a pulse of water up the pipe. Eventually I found the source in a walled off dam at the end of an old drift mine shaft, and I fell instantly in love with a machine that could raise water at least a hundred feet, free of charge and all day, every day. Sustainability in an elegant lump of cast iron with no more complex engineering than a pressure chamber and a couple of flap valves.

So that was it really. It snowed heavily and the bunkhouse felt like a scene from a Russian gulag. The occupants regarded us with suspicion; several of them were explosives experts who seemed to prefer to make a cutting through the mountain by reducing it to vapour. Others were living in the dream of the completed railway line so completely they were socially unavailable to the present moment and so like all bored twenty somethings we found our own fun and climbed the neighbouring mountain Moelwyn Bach in our wellies – cue major ticking off for irresponsibility, but the view was worth it! Then we rode a truck down the mountain from the end of the line and lost control of it completely, jumping off and watching it roll down the hill. After that no-one spoke to us, can’t blame them really, and mercifully we were never invited again. On our way back down the line on Tuesday we caught sight of the same kind of (refurbished by now) truck.

But that was then! On Tuesday we joined the socially distanced mini throng of travellers, and an elderly guard locked into our sealed compartments: third class with bench seats, to play with the leather window straps while we waited. Our engine – called Palmerston after the previously mentioned Prime Minister of the British Umpah era was steaming copiously at the front – possibly a tad too copiously as it turned out. The Ffestiniog railway was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. It’s a narrow gauge railway run almost entirely by volunteers and they run it well. The line climbs steeply uphill on its way to the mid point at Tan y Bwlch and the little engine was straining at every valve on the steeper bits. Then half a mile before the station the engine gave up the ghost altogether and we stopped in silence. For a while it was like Adlestrop, just the engine wrapped in a cocoon of steam, a few sheep and the sound of the drizzle. Welsh Mountain drizzle could fill a small lake in five minutes; it’s the only kind that you can actually hear drumming on the windows. Rebellious noises from passengers began to mount and the ancient guard trudged up and down the line trying to explain through the windows without having much of clue himself what was going on.

Eventually they sent a replacement engine to tow us up the last section of the line and Palmerston, humbled, was brought into Tan y Bwlch station three quarters of an hour late. At this point communications seemed to break down entirely with railway volunteers on their mobiles and engineers of all genders poking and pointing. A diesel (if I was making this up it would have been number 666 and called Harold Wilson – but that wouldn’t be true) so a diesel engine came along and shuffled two lots of abandoned carriages around the station until they were in the right order and yet another steam engine came and pulled the first train down the hill while we drank tea from paper cups and took lots of photographs under a temporary canvas canopy. Then they brought yet another engine and we set off back to Porthmadog.

I’m not a steam engine enthusiast in the usual sense. My dad was a railwayman and I was born next to the railway and so the sounds of trains been a part of my whole life – they still are, we can hear the engines passing through Bath Spa station quite clearly. Then there’s the coal to think about. How do you balance the desire to see the back of coal as a fuel with these hundred year old engines, restored and in regular use. I can’t see it attracting many visitors if they put electric motors in the engines and stuck red light bulbs in the fireboxes!

Steam trains have all the features needed to become a true addiction; a uniform, a private language (who knows what a top link man is these days?) and a proper set of exams to pass. Then there’s the sound. I once heard a recording of the foetal sounds that are the soundscape we all inhabited before we were born. You can’t tell me the similarity doesn’t trigger an aching sense of familiarity in the mind. But I remember my dad having to memorise miles of railway line when he went for his guard’s promotion. He would put a woollen blanket on the table and cover it with file cards filled with the esoteric language of the track. But he hated the railway, hated the shifts and the hours and the constant threat of redundancy during the Beeching era. So no, I’m not the least romantic about the railways. But I love Snowdonia and I love those trains – a beautiful paradox.

At last, some sea.

Back on Lleyn after almost a year of pining. We were up at 5.00am but despite all our preparations we didn’t actually get away until 9.30 laden with food, cameras, trail cam, books and drawing equipment. It’s only 150 miles but it always takes about six hours, driving across country from South East to North West Wales, taking in the Brecon Beacons, the Cambrian mountains and the Snowdon range on the way; and here we are facing the sunset across the Irish Sea.

And we missed the spring and the summer, so the thrift – briefly reignited by the setting sun – has withered and died back. The silverweed has been shriven by the fierce weather the sloes are small but ripening slowly and to the North an approaching cold front was heavy with broiling clouds, the colour of Payne’s Gray – a colour I love so much I’d be happy to spend an hour painting great swaths of it on watercolour paper. One or two brave field mushrooms were showing their button heads, but with the temperature dropping overnight I don’t think we’ll be having any of them for breakfast for the next few days. When they do come in numbers the flavour is so good you want to eat them on your knees.

Tonight we’ve set up the trail cam looking down the valley towards the sea. It’s thick with impenetrable thorns and a haven for wild birds. As we left the cottage a sparrowhawk flew low overhead, hunting down the length of the valley and as we walked back up from the sea a robin flitted invisibly from tree to tree, singing as if we were playing a game of tag. I’m hoping we’ll at least film a fox during the night, but we won’t get any good results until we’ve prospected the wood for animal tracks.

The devil is in the detail – small is beautiful.

A red letter day

-and so either of those two headings would have done. Firstly, though – oh joy – they opened the Welsh borders for day trips (not for overnights) again and so we fetched the van and did a socially distanced triumphal entry into God’s own country without fear of being cast into outer darkness. I can’t begin to express how good it was to cross the Severn Bridge again and although we crossed back into England no more than five miles up the road, it felt as if we’d crossed a line in our heads as well. This was our first trip out in the van since our disastrous adventure in February when the charger controller and the batteries all failed and we sat it out for a week with no heating or lighting; and so – although I’d repaired and replaced them all – we were unable to take the van on to the road to test it until the lockdown was eased.

When we stand at the high point of Dyrham Park we can look across to the Forest of Dean as it forms the opposite line of hills beyond the River Severn. It’s a favourite view and so the Forest was our destination for the first trial run. The border between England and Wales threads through the two countries in a more or less random way as it moves northwards towards the Marches, and there’s a kind of transitional culture as you move up the Severn Valley; the accent a curious mixture of Gloucestershire and Welsh intonation. Welsh language is hardly spoken in this part of the world, though the language is compulsory for Welsh schoolchildren. Here, rugby rather than football is the game of choice. Ancient river fishing by nets is still clinging on, although the elvers that used to be caught and added alive to breakfast eggs have become such a delicacy in Japan that the waters are almost fished out. Thirty years ago the salmon putchers caught few fish, but now as the Severn is becoming cleaner, the salmon are returning . We’ve spent so many happy hours over in the Forest it was wonderful to drive over there again after a very long wait. Our last two camping trips were abandoned due to the torrential rain we had during the winter.

But the day also felt special because we were able to step outside our confines for the first time – in our case since early March. I’m certain we’re not alone in finding the first steps outside in the wider world just a little scary, knowing that Coronavirus is still with us and likely to remain so.

Anyway, the drive was uneventful, the weather remained dry and the sun even shone from time to time. This was never going to be a walk – that’s for next time – just a check on the campervan with a cup of tea and a sandwich in the car park at Speech House.

And so to the small and beautiful. I’m discovering that one of the best things about learning to identify as many grasses as possible is that they’re absolutely ubiquitous and so the merest layby is an excuse for a botanizing expedition. Grass, I’ve discovered – although it’s everywhere in the UK – is infinitely more various than you’d ever notice from a car window, and it’s terrifyingly easy to become a kind of wild eyed grass twitcher. This is my first in depth look at a specific family of plants – the Poaceae – and because wherever you are there’s going to be grass (no not that sort!), it’s as addictive as crack cocaine.

I only started this malarky because _

  • I was challenged by a proper field botanist who said they were easy, and –
  • Knowing the most familiar grasses would instantly add a dozen species to every expedition

So the Speech House car park was fair game and after a decent interval for tea and biscuits I searched a small patch of rough grass and found two new grasses I’d never keyed out before, and this is where the devil and the beauty are absolutely in the detail. This is the activity to die for! an arcane language, specialized equipment (well, a decent hand lens), loads of incomprehensible books to buy and a field that not many people get into, and also – for all of the above reasons – it has the great advantage of letting you show off just a bit (carefully) on field trips.

All grasses look the same until you look properly and then they’re different. However many almost identical looking grasses are also different when you look at them very closely indeed and then they sprout a multitude of identifying features like shiny knees and bearded ones or even modestly hairy ones – almost always less than a millimeter in size. Being a promiscuous lot, some of them can only be identified by DNA analysis- but that’s a whole series of Jeremy Kyle beyond my modest capabilities. Who’d have thought that serious examination of a grass’s naughty bits needs a low powered microscope. However a good phone camera with a macro capability can capture a huge amount of information I can take home for later. I’m astounded by the quality of these pictures taken with a Google Pixel 3.

So that was today – a dusty old patch of grass and weeds on a car park, but tremendous fun. Here are some more pictures of the ragwort that unsurprisingly was growing in the same spot. Was it jacobaea or squalidus? To be honest I’m never quite sure but I think these were Senecio jacobaea because although the tips of the leaves look pointed with the naked eye, the photo shows them to be distinctly rounded. As I said, the devil’s in the detail.

What to look our for in an artists’ garden

Tony and Glen Eastman have been our friends over many years – well coming on for fifty years, and this is their garden. I’ve wanted to write something about it for some years since a TV company attempted to make a film about it without having the first idea what an artists’ garden might be about. So all they saw was a tall banana tree growing in a city centre garden in Bristol. Hooked by the unexpected novelty, and in spite of Tony’s strenuous efforts to get them off the subject, the resulting film was a disappointment to all of us.

The tiger, by the way is a part of a very large collection of tiger artifacts and drawings brought together over decades. There are also O gauge railway toys and drawings, paintings and sculptures everywhere. They are a great lesson to aspiring artists who expect to be household names before they’re thirty (and consequently hitch a ride on the latest artistic fashion) – in that they’ve survived on small scale commissions and occasional exhibitions. Tony is fascinated by the Japanese culture and they have both travelled there, soaking it all up.

The garden reflects all of these interests . You might think there’s a touch of Henri Rousseau in the exact placing of the tiger. There are glimpses of Eastern art there, places for meditation, shelter from the sun and the rain and it’s all in what most people would think of as a tiny backyard. We were there today and notwithstanding the strenuous efforts of a team of builders working next door to reduce a similar town house to Trump Tower by digging out a huge hole in the ground and painting the breeze block walls with intensely blue paint, you could still sense some peace. Every living thing had been evicted from the building site next door and mercifully some of the invertebrates and birds have moved in. There are a number Echium pininana there, not exactly natives but brought to Cornwall from the Canaries they thrive in the sheltered climate.. In this garden the tallest is seventeen feet and today a procession of ants was ascending and descending as they feasted on the honeydew. Being a member of the borage family it’s hardly surprising that it was alive with bees.

There’s a sense that there’s nothing here by accident. Just as I’ve written about allotments saying something about their allotmenteers, gardens always tell a story about their gardeners – not by shouting but by inviting you to sit and see what comes along. Ask anyone who knows about gardening and they’ll tell you that the sense of the natural and the wild is the most difficult thing to accomplish in any garden – and just to remind you that this is not in the least “natural” there’s a repurposed lavatory pan in one corner. This is not a po faced, self consciously aesthetic garden, but it’s a place of prolonged meditation over many years, even decades.

This was our first trip to Bristol since March 14th so it was lovely to catch up with two of our oldest friends. We met them at a “happening” at Avebury Henge in 1972 when all the art schools in the country were circulated with a date, time and grid reference. How could we resist? There were about twenty people there plus a handful of rather obvious special branch officers who thought we might be up to no good. We all hoped they enjoyed the walk as much as we did. Later as we walked back from Fyfield Down the whole country was plunged into blackout as the electricity was turned off during the three day week brought about by a miners strike. We could see across to the Severn in the gathering darkness and it was one of the most special moments of my life. Life without power stations and coal mines would have its beauties!

So peace, tea, cake, cream and strawberries today and all in a most beautiful garden. Even a sparrow came to join us – a rare sound these days. Here are some more photos.

It was Madame made me do it

The view from what the landlady called “The romantic room” on the dockside in Sète. “It’s where all the businessmen bring their girlfriends” she said. Hm!

And now we’re stuck in the south of France and she’s reading me chunks from Simenon’s “My friend Maigret” as we eat breakfast back at the Potwell Inn. This all started yesterday evening when we examined the fridge – a regular lockdown highlight – and she asked ‘what shall we eat today darling?’ – and found a couple of salmon fillets. There were fresh new potatoes from the allotment and sugar snap peas as well, so it sounded like a sensible idea. “Oooooh …” she said – “know what I’d really like? …..” – my heart is murmuring like the loudspeaker in a lift: – ‘ground floor, funerary monuments’ it calls quietly as it plunges into the gloom. “I have no idea,” I said, “what would you really like?” there was a pause, and she said – “Aioli”.

I see it. A fish stew, a bourride, that I once ate in Corsica when the proprietor took an interest in me and gave me minute instructions as to how to eat it properly. I didn’t mind because she was being helpful in the way that anyone might help a hapless foreigner struggling to eat a soup with bones, in a loud sort of voice. Anyway, Corsicans are a bit like Bristolians, they often sound a bit rude when they’re just being friendly with a local accent.

So once the thought had dropped into my mind I wasn’t so much making aioli as recreating a whole remembered experience without most of the ingredients. I certainly couldn’t make a bourride or a bouillabaisse; but I could make the aioli – inflected by lockdown shortages; for instance I wouldn’t normally use olive oil but I had a bottle of cheap oil that we’d bought in desperation during the shortages, and aioli is so strong you could probably make it with Castrol engine oil and no-one would notice. I was revving up in a cheffy sort of way, and so I decided to add a bit of sweet pimenton to add a smoky note, and then a good pinch of saffron that would have to stand in for the rest of the stew – a big ask, I know, but it played out well. We have fresh green garlic from the allotment so I had an enjoyable minute or two with the garlic (lots), some salt, the pimenton and saffron; grinding them to a paste in my biggest mortar. In with the egg yolks and then, because I have no shame, out with the electric whisk. Drip, drip, gloop, trickle, pour and five minutes later we had the golden mayonnaise.

Of course it totally upstaged everything else on the plate but that didn’t seem to matter. It was fierce and powerfully reminiscent of eating in France and Spain along the Basque coast. Engorged with happy memories we would have turned immediately to an episode of Montalbano if we hadn’t seen them all three times before. We only watch them for the scenery and the food – the plots are terrible except for the way in which they’re so humane and non judgemental – rather like Simenon you might think – which is how we got to Madame’s breakfast recital of the Maigret story, which was when things got a bit out of hand.

“This book had six pages – honestly – that mentioned nothing at all except sounds and smells” – she said, and I believed her. That led into a minefield of mild eroticism as she told me about JoJo the maid, and the way that Simenon allows Maigret to notice that she smells a bit sweaty and has underarm hair which, just as I was just getting into the toast and marmalade, allowed the emergence from hiding of the memory of walking into a French supermarket once with Madame and having a bit of a supercharged moment passing a similarly interesting woman; the memory, which I shared, led us into a conversation about human odour and thence to perfume and thence to Annecy where great danger was lurking that, due to the momentum of the conversation, I was unable to prevent.

“Do you remember that perfume shop in Annecy?” “Oh shit” I thought as I plunged into the millrace. It was a beautiful day with friends and we were treated to a spectacular lunch at the Cottage and then wandered into town where we found this little perfumery and Madame spent an hour with the lollipop sticks and fell in love with the kind of perfume that makes people stop her in the street. Among the many passions we share we both love really good perfumes. And there I was suspended between a memory and the laptop and an online order.

We went for a walk, back to the Bathwick Meadows today where we found more marbled whites and Madame became monosyllabic and answered ‘oui’ or ‘non’ to my questions so I called her Marie, and rather hoped she would call me Henri and we could have a fun role play, but no; just a cloud of very French thoughtfulness.

I knew what I had to do.

That was the most expensive aioli I’ve ever made!

‘Larger than a wolf, smaller than an elk’

IMG_20200217_161502Walking in the centre of Birmingham yesterday I was stirred by the sheer scale of redevelopment going on. They’re building a new tram system, cutting through the old roads and streets to route a much cleaner transport system into and through the city.  It’s partly working already, and just for fun we caught a tram that took us on a long loop through the centre, dividing the gathering numbers of commuters on their way home from work. It’s everything to like about bold planning.  The trams were cheap, clean, efficient  and quiet and already cover the twenty miles between Birmingham and Wolverhampton.  Our tram was quickly full – people only adopt new ways of doing things when they work well. Of the hundreds of passengers I suspect very few had the climate crisis in mind but we could sense the future.  Public transport in the city is already highly efficient.

But as we were walking we passed areas where they were still digging for the tracks.  Down through heaven knows how much overburden of old roads and houses and factories , how many tangles of cable, lines of old drains and sewers and down into the rock and clay; how many buried secrets?  The noise and smell of the excavators and drills was overwhelming; construction workers in hi-viz jackets swarmed over the scar and I felt guiltily excited at the sheer ambition of the scheme. This old and worked over earth is long lost to nature in its idyllic coffee table book sense; but still offers its plasticity to human ingenuity. This is what reaching out the technological way will look like.  The choice is stark: do we scale back dramatically – rewind the clock? or do we use technology to achieve sustainability?

Reading the morning with our son’s cat attacking my glasses – she was as attracted to them as a jackdaw might be – I came across this passage from the essay ‘Larger than a wolf, smaller than an elk’:

As for towns and cities – they are (to those who can see) old tree trunks, riverbed gravels, oil seeps,landslide scrapes, blowdowns and burns, the leavings after floods, coral colonies, paper wasp nests, beehives, rotting logs, watercourses, rock cleavage lines, ledge strata layers, guano heaps, feeding frenzies, courting and strutting bowers, lookout rocks, and ground squirrel apartments. And for a few people they are also palaces.
Gary Snyder – from Blue Mountains Constantly Walking – in “The practice of the Wild”