I thought I remembered writing about this several years ago, but a search failed to deliver. I was thinking back to a Bath Nats fungus foray when a visitor harvested an entire stand of Parasol mushrooms behind the back of the group leader who, moments earlier, had asked us to leave them for others to enjoy. Anyway that memory has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s a bit of an argument for the so-called tragedy of the commons; the pernicious (to my mind) argument that the peasants couldn’t be trusted not to take more than their share of the commons and so enclosure was the only humane solution. More humane, it transpired, for the landlords than the peasants who were driven off the land and into the towns and cities. The afternoon was made all the more poignant by the fact that the larcenous offender was the daughter in law of one of the biggest landowners in one of my parishes.
Anyway that patch of land has always stayed in my mind and what with lockdown and closure of the grassland we haven’t been able to see whether any permanent damage was done. Fungi are very seasonal and you have to be there at the right time. However on the back of this doleful memory I taught our grandson how to look for patches of darker grass in the field where, if you were lucky, you would find fungi at the right time. He was a quick learner and was eventually sprinting from patch to patch, finding fungi. In this instance they were St George’s mushrooms; one of the simpler ones because they fruit early in the year, around St George’s Day, 23rd April.
So today after a frosty start we went back to the same walk and before long I spotted a clump of much greener grass amidst the winter colours. Poking through were what looked (from a distance) like the flower heads of Ribwort Plantain – which would be a very odd time for them to flower. A closer look immediately showed that the grass was Meadow Foxtail; handsome with its roots in a nitrogen rich fungal feast. I looked around and it seemed that there was some sort of association between the grass and what I know will be St George’s mushrooms within the next few weeks, because the Foxtail was entirely limited to the the darker green patches in the field.
Anyway with that little question/project hovering in the back of my mind, we wandered on down through the terraces and spotted a clump of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Trachystemon orientalis) growing in the shade of a wall and gate as we entered the formal gardens. Slowly; too slowly, learning your flowers moves from the starting point of answering the “what’s that” question with a blank mind, towards a much better starting point – that’s to say – “I know I don’t know that one, but I know what family it belongs to.” I knew that I didn’t know what this pretty borage – looking plant was called. I should say I’ve got into the habit of naming plants we pass (silently) and trying to remember as much about them as I can. It’s a great way of learning and shortens the recognition process greatly.
The big decision to come from our spontaneous visit today was that we should adopt the circuit of the park, including Whitefield the magical wildflower meadow, as our regular walk. Even though the car park can be hideously crowded the fact is most folks don’t stray far from the house and formal gardens; dogs are banned, so apart from arriving and leaving we’re pretty much on our own.
In the back of my mind at the moment – jogged by a new series of a popular TV series – is the idea of pilgrimage. I’ve had some experience of pilgrimages since I invented a 45 mile walk from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn and led yearly pilgrimages for years. I also walked a 200 mile stretch of the Camino. I need to think some more about this but it seems to me that the difference between hiking and pilgrimage concerns intention and reflection. Pilgrimage, in my mind, is a form of liturgical walking; expressing rhythmically through legs and feet what’s more normally expressed in music and song. What I can say with absolute certainty was that an accidental and very short pilgrimage to St Non’s Chapel in St David’s yielded more spiritual insight that any of the tougher walks I’ve done; so it’s absolutely not about blood, sweat, tears and suffering. It’s about vulnerability.
All too often this quotation from Robert Burn’s poem “To a mouse” is trotted out as bleak comfort offered to someone who probably had it coming. In fact it comes some way into the poem which includes this thought provoking phrase:
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle,
Robert Burns – To a Mouse.
The poet (and farmer) has just disturbed the mouse in its nest whilst ploughing and pauses to reflect on the cost to the wild world of our illicitly claimed sovereignty over the earth.
In the photograph above the poem, the third year of an expensively and poorly conceived piece of planners’ greenwashing in the centre of Bath. Nature – some daft city-born architect must have thought – can be bought by the metre, just as books can be bought by the metre by the illiterate rich, to dignify a patch of bare land. If I could land one blow for common sense amongst town planners it would be to teach them that meadows and their flowers are quite different from arable wildflowers. They’re highly specific habitats and attempting to transplant either group into an alluvial spoil heap by way of a seed impregnated membrane is just about as magical as magical thinking gets. Of course the developers didn’t give a flying fish about the wildlife, but a bit of greening always plays well with planning committees.
The first year the poor things germinated they were almost immediately suffocated by their thuggish neighbours. I was pleased to photograph some corncockles there a couple of years ago but now there are nettles and rough grasses which would have grown anyway. These meadow specialists would never be grazed, and neither would the arable weeds enjoy their brief moment in the sun at harvest or in spring; but grossly overfed by the alluvial soil on the riverside would succumb to their sturdier neighbours. The only survivors were some Comfrey and some rather lovely Vipers Bugloss which will be lucky to survive the redevelopment about to be unleashed upon them.
But not to exempt ourselves and the Potwell Inn from the possibility of hubris -I have to confess that the very day our illustrious leader, the Smirking Codpiece, announced that he had personally abolished Covid in fierce hand to hand combat; Madame and me caught it good and proper and had to shut the Potwell Inn down for ten days while we coughed, sneezed, sweated, wept and dribbled in ways too terrible to describe. We too – our son was quick to point out – had it coming because we went up to London to see the Who in the Albert Hall, and everybody knows that pensioners are the principal vectors of infection and five thousand of them croaking and puffing on their ventolin inhalers whilst singing Pinball Wizard in weird old peoples’ voices was bound to lead to trouble. I felt one step away from being compelled to sign an enduring power of attorney agreement!
The photograph was taken today while we went out for a long therapeutic walk along the river and the canal. It was great to be out again after our negative tests, until – that is – we were caught in the most tremendous winter storm. The sky turned to Paynes Grey and a clap of thunder preceded a truly magnificent hailstorm that went on for ages. We managed to find a bit of shelter behind a wall and under an Elder tree with no leaves, on the canal side. But while Madame had a rather posh hydrophilic fleece on, mine was filled with old hens feathers and collapsed into a soggy heap after a couple of minutes.
I had hoped by now to have done at least one more trip to Velvet Bottom, having got hold of some fascinating geological maps to sort out what’s going on under the surface and in the soil. In the process of gazing at the maps I had one of those moments of sudden intuition that illuminated to me the reason I’m so in love with these places. It’s because I’ve spent most of my life living in them and the plants are childhood friends. I never knew their names and my mother couldn’t really help because she’d been born on the Chilterns and her foundational plants were quite different, but a bare field of fescues shimmering in the wind can reduce me to near tears. Everywhere I’ve loved has been post industrial; mostly post mining. The house I was born in was in what was once a mining area; part of the South Gloucestershire Coalfield. Opposite my primary school was the Cossham Hall – a community centre and once a library, founded by Handel Cossham. Cossham Hospital which we all made use of was also paid for by him. He was everywhere. A few weeks ago we visited Greyfield Wood with the Bath Nats, and again it was a strange meeting that I couldn’t put a name to – until we got home and I discovered it was the site of a huge coal mine which, in the nineteenth century, produced hundreds of thousands of tons of coal. Only the subtle traces remained but they were sufficient to make the neural connections that constitute a kind of cultural memory. Lizard, Pembrokeshire, Dartmoor, South Wales, Mid Wales and Snowdonia all bear the same scars and carry their unique heritage of half recognised plants.
So as soon as we get over the post-covid exhaustion we’ll go back to Mendip armed with a list of heavy metal loving plants that appear on the BSBI maps of the area. I’ve already found one and I can remember several more from pre-recording days which I can’t claim until I’ve found them again. I’m slowly turning into a trainspotter – heaven help me!
An intriguing couple of minutes yesterday. I heard a familiar commotion out on the Green and when I saw a crowd of very agitated seagulls circling in the air and filling it with alarm calls, I knew a once what was happening. It took a moment or two to spot the cause of the din and I saw the falconer with his gauntlet walking up the pavement before I saw the hawk flying from tree to tree, jesses trailing, but always keeping an eye on the fist that held the food. This was exercise with a difference because we see them fairly regularly working the green together and they may be taking part in an experiment to make the gulls feel too unsafe to build nests. The hawk never kills – is never allowed to kill – the gulls. Trust me, nesting gulls start their din at four a.m. in the summer and apart from the noise, they make a thorough nuisance of themselves in the tourist areas, hoovering up discarded fast food and leaving impressive quantities of crap as a receipt. The council have tried pretty well every conceivable tactic for discouraging the gulls, but this seems to be less cruel and much cheaper than climbing up to the nests and oiling or removing the eggs before they hatch.
But to get back to the point; whilst I was watching this moving spectacle I saw a young woman walking down the pavement dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her and carrying another bag in the free hand. She never once looked up to see the cause of the commotion, and even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she kept her head down, loaded her case into the boot (trunk) and drove off.
Hawking purists rather look down on the Harris because it’s not a native UK hawk and it happens to be rather easier to train than some of the natives. We British are never happier than when we’ve got someone to look down on and so the Harris is generally thought to be a bit minor league – if only for the purists. Most UK bird books don’t even include it. As for me the sight of any hawk working is a thrill and the Harris is a big bird. You couldn’t confuse it with anything other than a hawk, but then its white tail stripe is an obvious giveaway.
I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, a marvellous naturalist, evolutionary biologist and past president of the Bath Nats for the title of this post. We were out on a field meeting once and he used it to describe people who are too self absorbed, too quick, and too busy looking at their mobiles or fitness trackers meaningfully to enjoy an encounter with nature. Not to mount my soapbox yet again; I’ll just say that powering flat out down a towpath trying to walk twenty miles in six hours is unlikely either to result in a real encounter or a measurable change of mood.
There are many first encounters I’ll never forget. The first kingfisher on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal; the first heron that rose up from the pool behind behind a cornish hedge like a creature from the Jurassic age. The first red squirrel skitting along the horizontal branch of an old beech tree on my Grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns (back in the 1950’s) and then nothing until we went camping in France about ten years ago and there they were; oh and I should mention the first sighting of Madame at a CND meeting. We both long for a first sighting of the otters that we know patrol the river near to the Potwell Inn, but we haven’t yet dragged ourselves out of bed at dawn or stayed out leaning on the fence after dusk. Maybe we’ll fix a trail cam on one of the trees at the water’s edge where there’s a likely spot.
Coming back after one of our trips is always an odd time. The weather in Cornwall was getting fiercer by the day, and the campervan – being old and temperamental like me – was playing up. The long dark nights during which we had all the lights and heating running so we could carry on working was inexorably draining the batteries towards the point of no return and so we came back two days early and humped the batteries upstairs to recondition and charge them. Aside from nailing a couple of relative rarities (yet to be adjudicated) the new miFi system worked brilliantly, so for the first time ever on that campsite we were able to keep in touch by phone. My hopes of keeping tabs on the plants down the field path were raised greatly when we booked another two weeks down there in May. Back home the plants are nonetheless fascinating but perhaps a little less glamorous. However, beggars can’t be choosers and urban botany is all the more rewarding because the plants themselves are real survivors, eking out a living in the most unpropitious circumstances.
The journey home was pretty eventful too. We saw a car which had cut us up earlier , pulled over by no less than four police cars. Later one of the unmarked cars passed us at well over 100 mph shortly before we passed a mini engulfed in flames. Luckily the occupants were standing further up the motorway looking bewildered. Next up we saw five police cars perform a rather balletic stop by surrounding and slowing another car until it was forced to concede. The fifth car then blocked the motorway whilst a sixth, further up, led a slow traffic jam of cars and lorries to avoid a massive pile up.
So now there’s lots to do on the allotment and lots also to learn on this new computerised recording site. I haven’t yet given up on paper records, though. That would be to tempt providence!
The air ambulance landed on the green a few minutes ago and already it’s gathered a crowd of onlookers. Sadly, these days it takes a helicopter and a seriously hurt human being to get our heads up.
Gosh we’ve been busy getting ready for the next trip. I think I’ve finally got the courage to start officially recording some of the plants we hope to find and so it’s been a rush to gather together all the tools and to figure out how to use them. So I hope you’ll forgive me for failing to find a ghost orchid or anything remotely rare but settling on an ubiquitous weed like couch grass simply to check on some ID keys and test out the macro extension lens on the phone; and I’m feeling ever so pleased.
There’s a bit of a knack to taking photographs for plant ID’s because they need to capture as much as possible of the kind of technical information you’ll definitely wish you’d recorded when you get back to base; things like grid references and what kind of soil and light conditions not to mention – in the case of grasses – all manner of obscurities concerning ligules, auricles, lemmas glumes, stolons, rhizomes and spikelets. So while we took a break from planting out broad beans I pulled a lump of the revolting weed out of one of the allotment beds and tried to remember all this stuff as I took the photos. I know it’s all a bit technical but there’s something very lovely about grasses because they hide their differences so completely. Half a millimetre can be important. This reminds me of one of my theology tutors who used to run what he called CAT sessions – close attention to text. We discovered that the really important understandings demanded time, attention and focus. Drill down hard enough and what appears to be a uniform field of grass can become a garden of delights. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!
The other bit of plant recording I’ve had to learn is the software. There’s a mountain of data out there in databases which must have taken millions of voluntary hours of recording and checking. OK I’m a complete nerd but I think I’m happier growing and examining plants than I am frothing at the mouth while I scream at the television. So couch grass became a rehearsal for the really good stuff which I’m so looking forward to finding this season.
Later, just for fun, I dug into the herbals and discovered that however much we gardeners loathe the stuff there are people out their who are prepared to pay £10 for 100 grammes of the offending roots. By all accounts (and lacking any scientific proof as far as I could find out) couch roots have some healing properties. By my reckoning there must be many thousands of pounds worth of herbal remedy underground at the allotment site but the sheer agony of digging it up would need the price to go a lot higher than that. It is, however, the most tremendously vigorous plant. I read later about an experiment where 20 week old couch tillers grew 5 metres – 15 feet in a few weeks while throwing up over 200 buds. Oh to think that it’s an incomer brought in centuries ago. My mum was an inveterate smuggler of purloined cuttings from every garden she ever visited – perhaps it was an ancestor of hers that brought the wretched weed here.
Anyway, the kit is assembled, tested – and we’re ready to rock and roll this season. Fortunately while I crawl around in the dirt in lovely places, Madame will be bingeing on drawing with ink and bamboo pens; inspired by David Hockney’s latest book. In the background I can hear our waterproofs taking an interminable time to dry in low heat after being re-proofed. We’re optimistic but not reckless.
Rather impulsively, perhaps, as soon as new year was over we decided to rent a cottage on the Lizard in Cornwall for some R & R after a very challenging few months. It’s significant that over the last 50 odd years we’ve always gone as far west as we could manage, whether it’s down in Cornwall, or in West Wales and more recently on the Lleyn peninsula. So we arrived on the 10th January after deliberately taking the motorway free route which is slower but much more more scenic, crossing, the Blackdown Hills – even if it does amount to around 200 miles. Interestingly we swapped the hills for the motorway on the way home and used 30% more petrol! We were staying in a National Trust converted cattle byre which was a perfect fit for us – perched, as it is, on top of a cliff with the South West Coast Path virtually running through the garden. I won’t bore you by rambling on about the magical landscape; you’ll just have to take it from me that even in the dead of winter but with the benefit of six consecutive days of full sunshine this is a very special place indeed.
For a start it’s around three or four weeks ahead of Bath for signs of the beginning of spring. The Alexanders are forging ahead; we’ve seen primroses, Red Campions, jonquils and today even a solitary hogweed beginning to flower. Down at the beach I found a thriving community of Butchers Broom – (Ruscus aculeatus) which I’ve never seen before. While we were wandering along we saw a group of people, noses to the beach, hunting for tiny pieces of amethyst which apparently washes out of the mineral rich rock. Eschewing semi precious stones, Madame concentrated on finding beautifully marked dog cockle shells. In a month or so this place will be a botanist’s paradise with Spring Squill and all sorts of rare flowering plants. This week we’ve watched common seals in the sea, and a kestrel hovering, hunting over the cliff path today.
Clockwise from the top left, Lesser Celandine, Bladder Campion, Thrift, Butchers Broom, Alexanders, Red Campion and Gorse – known locally as Furze.
But this is also a post industrial landscape. Further up the coast beyond Lands End are the remains of many tin mines. North of Lizard there are huge quartz pyramids left by the China clay works. Here on the Lizard there were two principal industries, fishing and the quarrying and finishing of Serpentine rock. In fact down at Poltesco the two industries coexisted on the beach side by side. The serpentine works, now ruined but still visible was situated alongside a vigorous stream that fed an overshot wheel via an overhead aquaduct and powered huge toothless circular saws that utilised sand and water to cut the slabs of rock. Next door to it is a circular building that housed a human powered windlass which enabled the fishermen to haul in their huge seine nets containing (on a good day) many thousands of pilchard. Cheap imports of Italian marble, a change in Italian fasting habits and the disappearance of the pilchard shoals put a sudden end to both industries leaving nothing but ruins and unemployment. We sat on the boulder strewn beach, soaking up the sun beneath the abandoned buildings. The whole scene had a mournful air. In the strong onshore wind, each withdrawing wave turned even the largest boulders making a sound that could have been the rattling of bones or occasionally like rapid small arms fire. Part of the magic of these Cornish landscapes is the way they seem to contain memories of a disappeared culture – and I’m using the word as an active verb. It was an extractive and greedy culture that was able to suck the marrow out of Cornwall and turn it into huge fortunes and stately homes – a culture that, as David Fleming would have argued, is about to collapse. Who knows? Perhaps the extraordinary price of oil and gas at the moment are the beginning of what he terms “the climacteric”; the brutal end of a brutal system.
When the tin mines finally closed at the end of the twentieth century it marked the end of the industrial revolution in Cornwall and this is now a shamefully impoverished county, depending absolutely on tourism. Second homes have become a major political issue. There may be some new jobs if the experimental lithium mines become profitable but then again, I’m not sure whether the effluent from the process will cause more pollution problems than the tin mines did. There are still old mine workings holding lethal levels of arsenic. But who will dare to say to the unemployed that the possibility of well paid work must be withdrawn for fear of environmental damage. There are no easy answers here. What they need is some plan – any plan – to reinvigorate the local economy. For the moment it seems to be sustained by small builders who, at this time of the year can be seen everywhere maintaining and improving empty second homes. There’s a large RAF station that has enough workers to generate a very small traffic jam outside Helston when they leave in the evening and the usual cluster of industrial units around the towns. It ain’t beautiful! Meanwhile, up on the north coast of Cornwall two European registered supertrawlers have been spotted. These leviathans can scrape every living thing out of the sea, making a mockery of the promises that convinced the local fishermen to vote for brexit. The sense of betrayal here is palpable.
All of which glum observations lead me into something more positive. I’ve mentioned these books in a couple of previous postings. The full title of the condensed edition is important – it’s “Surviving the future – culture, carnival and capital in the aftermath of the market economy – A story from Lean Logic”. Selected and edited by Shaun Chamberlain from David Fleming’s much larger book “Lean Logic”.
My mother, who was a dressmaker, had a small tea chest that we called the button box which (unsurprisingly) contained hundreds of buttons that were endlessly fascinating to me and my sister. There were a dozen ways we could play with it; treating the buttons as toy money, sorting them by size or colour; stringing them on thread. We could create an almost infinite number of “narratives” from the same box. Rather like the buttons, the original creation of “Lean Logic” was the never quite finished work of many years, comprising hundreds of short and longer entries on the topics that exercised David Fleming’s mind. All attempts by friends and admirers of the unpublished text to get them published were met with the argument that it wasn’t quite ready. LIke Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, his woven cloth it was endlessly unravelled, revised and improved but never finished. Finally, just as he was beginning to prepare the manuscript, he died unexpectedly leaving his great work unpublished. It takes the form of a dictionary, or encyclopaedia of terms relating to the central concept of “Lean Logic” and it’s rather like my mother’s button box because it’s so well cross referenced you can drop in on any one of the articles and then follow several alternative threads according to your particular line of enquiry. What the smaller book does is develop one possible thread – a story – from the larger. I bought both the complete and the concise versions (available from Chelsea Green Publishing) before coming down to Cornwall, relishing the prospect of some serious reading.
You will know if you follow this blog sequentially – (does anyone do that? I’ve no way of telling) – that I was extremely put-out by the use of a quotation from Roger Scruton that read like the sub racist, dog whistle nonsense that he was so good at. I just couldn’t see the point of using it – especially next to a far wiser quotation from Wendell Berry. This was in the context of a section on the dangers of “mass immigration” – so you’ll see the danger of publishing material that will inevitably be twisted into the service of a dangerous cause. I mused on this in the blog and resolved to finish reading the shorter book with my critical faculties dialled up to nine!
Chatting with Madame about this on one of our coastal walks, the conversation (as conversations do) took on its own momentum, and a new dimension to the offending words appeared. My instinctive reaction to Scruton’s remarks was to focus on the terrible human cost of racism, and that alone would have made me excise those words had I been editing the book. However there’s no doubt that the environmental breakdown we’re causing, added to the wars being fought over oil and energy, not to mention rare minerals; will lead to huge numbers of displaced refugees moving towards a safer future. That’s not a phenomenon that can be avoided by building walls and weaponised borders.
But at a far more local level, what about the effects of second homers and ‘upcountry’ incomers on the lives and cultures of settled communities like the inshore fishermen of Cadgwith where we were staying? The village itself is almost empty in the winter in spite of the fact that it’s so beautiful, almost every fisherman in the cove has appeared on television. The fishing culture is being held together by a handful of mostly older men while the threatened sale of the building in which their gear is stored was met with an appeal that raised thousands of pounds from both locals and supporters across the UK. The building was saved but the cafe, the local fish shop and the pub are all closed until spring. Aside from the small number of active boats, the place is deserted apart from walkers like us – very much of a certain age. It’s the same problem in Pembrokeshire, and in the Welsh speaking areas of North Wales there’s the added problem of a disappearing language. Schools are closed, local services depleted and ways of life that could fairly qualify as ancient are slowly lost as young people move away, unable to borrow the prices of houses inflated by London prices; and these communities could be beacons of truly resilient ways of life in a collapsed economy.
And just to join that thought to the concept of lean logic, we were walking the coast path towards Lizard Point a couple of days ago and we passed a volunteer lookout post. Some years ago the national Coastguard service decided to close all of its coastal lookout posts and withdraw to centralised offices run on information gathered by radar, VHF radio and all the other sources of electronic information, and it probably works pretty well as long as you’re in a large vessel, or at worst a lone individual spotted by a passer by with a mobile phone that has a signal – that’s to say, not me. My phone hasn’t worked at all .
So I was reading the poster below the station and the figures are jaw dropping. The lookout is run throughout the year by thirty trained volunteers and costs five thousand pounds a year to run. That’s right – £5000 a year, less than the wages of a part time cleaner. The window opened and a cheerful man hailed us with a “good morning”. We chatted for a bit about the need for the lookout – he was on first name terms with all the local fishermen and was even able to tell us that one of the boats ‘Scorpio’, photographed above, was line-fishing pretty well in front of us. Clearly the skipper of Scorpio was a friend. The volunteers keep a lookout for anything that’s passing through this dangerous spot, from tankers and container ships to kayaks and including walkers on the coast path. Invaluable eyes-on information being fed back free of charge to a windowless office somewhere in Cornwall and all for £5000 a year none of which came from state money. But there was more. Madame asked “so where can we buy fresh fish here?” – he laughed and pointed us in the direction of a local farm, Treleague Farm, where the fishermen sold some of their catch in the winter months. So off we went to the farm shop where we discovered that apart from fresh local fish, the dairy business has started several milk rounds, bypassing the piratical pricing of the supermarkets. They make their own cream too, and stock any number of locally produced foods. This is lean logic in action – simple, sustainable and local solutions to local challenges. And the landscape with its magnificent flora is an endless series of delights. On Sunday, walking the coast path between Porthleven and Loe Bar, we saw a couple of brave thrift plants in flower and stopped to admire a fabulously aggressive devil’s coach horse beetle crossing the footpath. As we bent to look it raised its tail and looked very like a scorpion. I decided not to to take a close up photograph as I didn’t want to get within squirting range – they also bite! When we got back to the cottage we discovered – from a local newspaper – that there had been an all night rave near the bar the previous evening – yet more wild life!
On our 8th day on the Lizard we had a literary walk up the length of Frenchman’s Creek near Helford. The tide was fully out so the creek looked as muddy as the footpath we followed, but we spotted a little egret fishing on the edge of Helford River; Madame saw from a distance what looked very like a Peregrine, and we listened to the call of tawny owls somewhere out of sight. There was a crazy and joyful group of schoolchildren playing in the woods under the supervision of their teacher and a couple of volunteer parents. We diverted through St Keverne on the way back and saw that the local fire station is run by volunteers. If you ask me if we’re ready to embrace the idea of a lean economy I’d say that this part of Cornwall – largely through government neglect – is halfway there already.
So, would I recommend shelling out for the larger book? I absolutely love it and it’s so well referenced you can follow up almost any topic. the author admits when the evidence is lacking or based on a single source as he does when accounting the overall energy costs of nuclear power. What you won’t find there – because he specifically excludes the topic on the grounds that anything he could write in, say, 2009 would be rapidly overtaken by new developments – is much about renewable energy. Go find out for yourself – he says. But as a resource for anyone wanting to consider the challenges facing us it’s unique – as you would expect from someone who was largely responsible for the first manifesto of the Green Party, known at the time as the Ecology Party. That is in itself one of the contradictions of a avowed Tory voter who kept his support up even through the Thatcher years but offered his heft to a rival green vision. It’s full of insights; often laugh out loud funny, and not afraid to take on the more Cromwellian wing of the Green Movement with a few sharp barbs. If I have a reservation at all, it’s about the occasional breakthrough of an almost hobbit like vision of the local. I recommend reading the shorter book first. It’s a really good plan because it presents the central ideas of lean thinking in a far more concise way, and it will enable a new reader to embrace the implicit overarching ethic. It’s not a manifesto in itself rather in the same way that Patrick Whitefield’s “The Earth Care Manual” is not a step by step guide to permaculture. Both books are about new and challenging ways of re-visioning a sustainable life after the coming crisis without resorting to magical thinking about yet to be invented technology.
I get the impression that we’re in for another record breaking season of Atlantic storms – this one’s called Arwen but it might be better to name it COP1 and then carry on through to COP26 or more if needed. Down here in the relatively mild Southwest of England the main problem was wind overnight which, rather than battering the windows in gusts, seemed to seep through any gaps like a prolonged polyphonic sigh. These gigantic air masses fascinate me as they flow across the earth’s surfaces, competing, invading and clashing with their neighbours like ethereal versions of the tides, and just as potentially dangerous. Elsewhere there was snow, but here the drifts comprised leaves piled around the parked cars. The trees have taken on their winter form and the wet trunks gleam in the rain. The fabulous colours of the tulip tree beyond the window are now shining briefly on the grass before they’re gathered up. Some of them will end up on the allotment as leaf mould. Walking down to the farmers market today we suffered a bitingly cold northeasterly wind that, to our surprise, hadn’t deterred the crowds at all although some of the stallholders had moved pitches to get out of the bite of it as much as possible.
I haven’t written yet about our trip to Cardiff last week. Madame woke up at three o’clock last Sunday morning and said “I’m bored – I’m just so bored!” – which I took to be an announcement of lockdown fever rather than a premonition of impending divorce. We both feel more vulnerable now that the crowds are back, than we did when the streets were deserted and the shops closed, even though we’re both triple vaccinated. Anyway, I can take a hint so I renewed our lapsed railcards as soon as we got up, and booked a trip to the National Museum of Wales. It’s a brilliant place, and they run some really excellent and challenging exhibitions. They also have fine collections of ceramics and art. We’ve been watching a series called “The Story of Welsh Art” – actually we’ve seen all three episodes three times because they’re so interesting. Presented by Huw Stephens they show what a powerful and neglected tradition of art has existed in Wales. Coincidentally, Huw Stephen’s father Meic was the poet who first inscribed the slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn on a wall near Aberystwyth and which became the most memorable text associated with a very brief arson campaign aimed at holiday cottages. These two words were, he later said – ( a little ruefully perhaps), the best known two words he’d ever written. Trywern was the village flooded in order to provide a water supply for Liverpool. Whatever you think about that old campaign, the fact is that the artificial inflation of house prices by wealthy incomers has made it all but impossible for many young people to establish themselves in Wales – at great cost to the communities and the language.
Our train ride was made even more interesting than usual because I booked the tickets from memory and inexplicably I asked for returns to Grangetown rather than Cathays which is four stops in the opposite direction. We only thought about it when we got off the local train on a totally unfamiliar platform in a place we’d never visited before. Luckily there was a friendly woman who pointed us in the right direction.
The present exhibitions include one called “The rules of Art?” – the question mark is an essential part of the title and it addresses a question that always drops into my mind whenever we go there. The grand building and its huge collections – however priceless and rare they are – was enabled through the terrible exertions of men and women who created wealth out of coal and steel. Wealth that they never shared. It’s pretty much first cousin to the travails of the National Trust in England who are just beginning to address the fact that many of their grandest properties were built on slave money. I’ve never yet been inside Dyrham Park House, although we often visit the estate and gardens, because until recently the source of its opulence was never even captioned. Fortunately that’s now changing. I was delighted to see a collection in Cardiff of small paintings by William Jones Chapman who was a third generation member of an extremely wealthy steelworks family who took himself out of the grand family pile and lived in a small cottage near the steelworks and befriended and painted portraits of some of the workers there. These are thought to be the only named portraits of working people in the eighteenth century – isn’t that extraordinary? The exhibition really squares up to the dominant artistic traditions of the past and sets them against an alternative historical backdrop – it’s marvellous stuff! When the winds begin to blow, who knows where they will take us ?
Here’s my absolute favourite among the portraits – it’s of Thomas Euston – the Lodge Keeper at Hirwaun – I guess from his apparent age, a retirement job. The artist, William Jones Chapman was greatly liked by the workers who addressed him as Mr William – which seems to combine respect with familiarity and affection; a rare commodity, I imagine, in those rapacious days.
The good thing about coming away to this beautiful place to walk, read and try to put together all my thoughts in words is space; sheer space to expand into, free from distractions and chores. The bad thing about it could almost be the same sentence. There’s a point at which the way forward becomes so problematic a kind of paralysis sets in. The remedy, in this instance is to accept that the Jacques Ellul book I’ve been struggling with is not going to help, because its source materials and analysis are now sixty years out of date . Magnetic North moves about by a good bit and trying to find your way to the pole (no pun intended) without the right correction isn’t likely to end happily.
What exactly is the real world anyway? I sometimes wonder, since it seems to be a contested area of knowledge at the moment; but anyway I’ve forsworn any philosophy in this brief post and I’ll talk about the weather in the most descriptive and non blaming way I can manage.
The fierce south westerly gales haven’t given over for days and in the cottage the chimney roars, the vents flap and the occasional sheets of rain hammer at the windows. It’s all very cosy until, as we did this morning, you get a power cut. Yesterday’s photos of the beach at Porth Neigwl missed a couple of shots that would have needed a telephoto lens which in our case we have not got because it’s at the bottom of a bog on Mendip. Apparently there are exceptionally rare mason bees in the dunes there, except I’m not sufficiently experienced as an entomologist to recognise them. But on our way back down the narrow road we spotted around 30 curlew feeding on the marsh – enough to gladden anyone’s heart. When I say this place is a birders’ paradise I’m not exaggerating. Something else worth noting is the light. The good citizens of St Ives in Cornwall like to claim that their light is brighter and more clear than anywhere else on earth. Obviously they would say that because it keeps the artists rolling in; but the light here is equally if not more pure and luminous and it’s so much quieter. The south westerlies rattle the cold fronts across, and each time the rain is followed by glorious movements of intense light that bless the landscape, caressing and intensifying the autumn colours and leaving the artist in us joyfully mystified as to how it could ever be expressed.
Tomorrow morning at the crack of eight o’clock we’re off to Porthmadog to catch the wonderful Welsh Highland Railway up through the Snowdon range to Caernarfon and back. Last time we made the trip in brilliant weather but tomorrow’s forecast is makes grim reading with 20mm rain expected and 50 mph gusts of wind. In normal times you can wander about and get a very good Welsh rarebit from the buffet car but because of covid we’ll be locked into our perspex divided carriages and probably see almost nothing except rain and mist for the whole journey. It’s the last trip if the year so expect it will be crowded with steam train enthusiasts who may not have noticed that we’ll be taken across the hills by a diesel locomotive tomorrow. In the absence of any food from the buffet I’ve ordered a couple of hampers – which each contain a small bottle of prosecco, and so we’ll celebrate the autumn like a couple of budget class swells.
I’m sorry there are so many Welsh sounding names in these posts but Wales is a country with its own precious language. Luckily, Welsh is a completely phonetic language and so once you’ve learned the basics it’s pretty straightforward. The stress usually comes in the penultimate syllable. The only one I haven’t used is the proper name for Snowdon which is Yr Wyddfa which looks unapproachable but sounds like uhr-with-va. Welsh is the queen of languages and I’ve always wanted to learn to speak it properly but haven’t had the chance or anyone to practice with. Anyway it’s a courtesy to the people who cherish their language to be able to ask for directions, sounding as if at least you care.
If I’ve been quiet for a few days it’s for no more sinister reason than the fact that we’re in the campervan in a place where there’s no internet and only a very occasional phone signal – about as far west as it’s possible to go in Wales. However the Gods have smiled on us today and a half decent but incredibly slow signal appeared out of nowhere. We’re in Pembrokeshire, west of St Davids and overlooking Ramsey Island – most of the time. The rest of the time we’ve been in thick sea mist without even being able to see the sea, let alone the island. So we’ve been reading and walking and I’ve been writing too but that will have to wait until there’s a more reliable signal.
Six or seven years ago we were on holiday near here with our extended family and we went into the Cathedral. Generally speaking I’m not a great fan of churches and cathedrals, because after thirty odd years of working on the inside of the institution; I always hope for something powerful to happen and it rarely does – it’s a long story. But on this particular day I was standing outside the main door waiting for the others and I had the strangest intuition that there was something for me there. I was intrigued, but couldn’t see any way that whatever the gift was, it could come in the midst of the hordes of tourists who were in any case being shooed out so that a rehearsal could take place. But as we climbed up the long flight of steps towards the town I pondered on the thought of developing a cross-country pilgrimage to St Davids beginning from home – around 140 miles, probably much longer if we used footpaths and tracks. That’s me – typically thinking that gifts always need to be earned!
So fast forwarding to today, we decided to walk around the coast path past St Non’s Chapel. St Non was the mother of St David, and the chapel was always said to be at the place she gave birth to him on the clifftop one night during a terrible storm. I had absolutely no expectations other than purely antiquarian ones regarding the trip, and as we walked the cliff path we could see a small building in the distance. The site was in three parts. There is a chapel, built in 1937 but containing many fragments of much older buildings found in the vicinity. Then there are the ruins of the far older chapel, and finally there’s the well.
The little chapel is everything that the cathedral is not – tiny, empty, unpretentious but full of – let’s say – presence. What was even stranger was that as we walked in, there were two house martins fluttering around above in the roof space, near their nest. The chapel was a very powerful place in its own quiet way. Then on the way to the ruined remains of the chapel we passed the well. It was as if the peaceful moments inside the chapel had laid the foundations for a second, more powerful experience.
I’m used to being disappointed by wells too. It’s not that I’m in any way obsessive about them, but ever since my early teens I’ve been fascinated by them. Mostly they’re overgrown, completely neglected and hard to find; but this one is a big stone cistern, housed within a romanesque stone arch with descending steps. The well is reputed to have healing properties and so after a brief chat with a women who was only too pleased to take her boots off and bathe her swollen ankle in the cool water, I did the same – encouraged by Madame who offered her T shirt to dry my foot – I used my own. I think it was the gift I’d been promised all those years previously; but stumbled on accidentally and thwarting my need to earn it. Foot bathing is, of course, a pretty powerful symbol.
Having dried my foot and put my boots back on, we walked on a few yards to look at the ruins of the old chapel; but then it came to me that I’d forgotten to leave anything behind in thanks. I’d pricked my hand on a bramble while I was scrambling to stand safely on the slippery stone shelf, but I thought that leaving my blood behind was a pretty glum sort of thanks. Then I remembered the coins. I always carry some small coins in my pocket to cast the I Ching – but I don’t carry just three, I carry five from which I choose three. So I left one there, both in thanksgiving but also to establish a kind of connection. This is the kind of heterodox behaviour that gets you into trouble, I thought – without a trace of remorse.
In some of these healing places there are piles of crutches and sticks. Once, in Les Saintes Marie down on the Camargue there was a whole artificial limb we saw, but of course this wasn’t about my sore ankle. It was about an older, deeper pain. We followed a footpath back across the meadows, barely half a mile to the Cathedral. The whole walk was no more than six miles – nowhere near enough for me to be able to stride up full of self importance and demand my mysterious gift after 140 or 150 miles on the road. Bah humbug! – you might say it’s all in your imagination and that’s exactly right – where else would it be except in my imagination. That’s how the landscape and the plants and our allotment speak – so thanks, no really thanks!
But then, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that if you’re from this part of the UK. It’s a stack of hurdles, used for the annual Priddy Fair and with its own thatched roof. After last week’s overnight stay here, we decided to come back for some more healing magic on the Mendips. A neighbouring allotmenteer has offered to keep an eye on the plot for a couple of days so we hope all will be well when we get back. The reason for being here is that the Potwell Inn bathroom is being refurbished and, since the flat is – shall we say – compact, we thought it was best to leave the builder to it. We shall return (we hope) to a proper walk-in shower which will be easier on the knees than the present daunting arrangements which involve a grade three scramble over the edge of the bath. Not that our need is imminent; today we did a 10K round trip over the fields to Ebbor Gorge and back again via the Queen Victoria where I had a pint – the first after eighteen months of abstinence. It was the first time we’d been to that pub in over fifty years. The last time was a memorable lock-in when the landlord offered us a room if we we wanted to stay. We didn’t.
An air of celebration has followed me around all day because I’d been to hospital for another echocardiogram yesterday morning and the results were good. Any leaking in the heart valves was, in the nurse’s words, ‘trivial’ and no worse than last time. I thanked her warmly and said I’d never been so pleased in my life to be described as trivial. To my great surprise she said she’d never been to Mendip, but she loved Dartmoor. So do I, I said, but Mendip is closer and less crowded.
So what with hospital, going to the supermarket for the first time in over a year (to stock the van), and driving to Priddy, I was tired but exhilarated. Books, hand lenses, camera and all the usual botanical paraphernalia are here with us and I slept for an amazing ten and a half hours. I have no idea why I can sleep so well in the van when I have trouble in getting beyond seven hours at home, and Madame is equally perplexed. But there’s something in the air here – quite literally because we’re camping next to a stable; but I think it’s the quiet. It’s not completely quiet of course, but all the sounds are embedded in a matrix of rare silence: a rookery just down the road, the horses in the nextdoor field, robins, chaffinches and sparrows singing, the wind in the beech trees. Then there’s the dangerously non-pc perfume of wood fires in the early evening. Campsites have their odd moments. When we arrived I left the electric hookup lead unwound on the grass. During the night, a silent and invisibly tidy minded (did I say tidy?) – camper had coiled it neatly. I know who it must have been because opposite us is a caravanner who has a strategically placed bucket painted red and marked “FIRE” behind his van. If I were really cruel I’d pile on the pressure and uncoil it again – or perhaps leave an empty wine bottle on the grass – but I’m so full of happiness at being out amongst the wildflowers again I’ll say hello to him tomorrow and compliment him on the way his socks and sandals match so beautifully.
Up here on high Mendip is probably not the best place for arable farming because the soil is rather thin. It’s better for grazing, but almost all the fields we saw have been “improved” and grazed mostly by sheep – which has had a baleful effect on the wildflowers and grasses. One footpath was speckled with wasted nitrate fertiliser granules which had been sprayed over it by a careless farmer. The soil up here, between 600 and 900 feet above sea level, overlays carboniferous limestone which drains freely into the many cave complexes. We’ve had a couple of field trips up here in the past, and we’ve visited some of the nature reserves that have escaped improvement and the wildflowers in those small protected areas are both marvellous and often rare.
All our sightings today were as common as muck, but not the least unwelcome for it. I had a go at identifying the crop in an arable field from the tillering leaves. It was a trick taught to me by a retired grain salesman called Richard Hiscock and it’s dead simple when you know what you’re looking for. You need to find out what ligules, auricles, sheaths and blades are and then have a proper look at the plant in question. In this case the fact that there were no auricles and it had short ligules so it was a crop of oats – easy peasy!
So here are a few of today’s everyday beauties. Nothing rare, in fact most of the flowers we saw today are ubiquitous, but after a year in lockdown it was like meeting long lost friends. The butterflies too were out and about- again nothing rare, but who could not like the sight of a Brimstone butterfly going about its busyness. At Ebbor Rocks we stood and watched a buzzard using the thermals above the escarpment over Wookey Hole to quarter the ground looking for prey. There were yellow archangel – Lamium galeobdolon; ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea; violet (don’t know which because I left the guide at home but probably sweet violet – Viola odorata; cuckoo flower or lady’s mantle – Cardamine pratensis; and finally the dandelion which – due to its propensity for interbreeding with its cousins, requires a PhD to identify fully and so it enjoys the latin name Taraxacum officinale agg. Dandelion peak season is around St Georges day – April 23rd and that being the case we’ll be keeping a close eye open for some St George’s mushrooms while we’re here. They used to grow in the (grievously unimproved) garden of our previous house.
Walking down the canal a few days ago we reached exactly this point on the towpath when I found – in the sky, the clouds and the opening buds of the trees – a feeling; a sensation near to joy that was out of all proportion to its dimensions and properties as a view in the ordinary sense of the word.
Naturally it was a welcome change from lockdown ennui but it caused me to wonder how it can be that sense experiences (like Proust’s madeleine for instance), can carry such a huge metaphorical load. I could, if there was time, draw a mind-map with the scene at its centre, and which would embrace dozens if not hundreds of deeply personal associations, many of which could generate further mind-maps. Just to give this a bit of an anchor I could mention wild garlic which is just coming into its glory. My subsidiary mind-map would embrace childhood memories of walking by the river Frome and on from there.
I have no idea whether all this can be adequately explained by brain chemistry unless the scientists would concede that human memory simply stores and recovers these experiences through the workings of brain chemistry, like a biological hard drive – the means don’t matter to me very much but the experience lies at the root of all creative processes, including science. As an allotmenteer and as a rather incompetent amateur botanist I understand that the stimulus which drives us on; enables us to tolerate frost and wind and the loss of a whole crop or drives me to immerse myself in the minutest details of a plant’s structure for hours just so I can give it a name; that stimulus is wonder.
When we’re visiting new places – especially gardens – or walking in unfamiliar environments; meeting new people, the imagination is alive; fired up. Somewhere in the mind the sense impressions are finding places, associations, pre-existing memories, experiences and cultural thought-paths; and the inner workings of memory stores them – each in their right place like roosting hens finding their place on a perch at dusk; each discrete experience tagged and keyworded so that later, many years later perhaps, the precise configuration of a landscape, a flower, a gesture, a sound releases releases the whole stored, aggregated complex. If you were looking for a non-supernatural explanation of the déjà vu experience it’s right there.
Why the sudden outbreak of philosophy? – Well, this week we’ve been partially released from lockdown. We’ve spent proper time with our children and grandchildren after a year of hermetic isolation and we hugged and clung to each other like shipwrecked sailors. We went to the campervan full of trepidation and replaced the dead battery and took ourselves off for our first night away from home in many months. We camped up at Priddy which is a place soaked in teenage memories of caving expeditions; watched rooks squabbling over nests and ate up the silence. Notwithstanding a terrible night’s sleep, as we were kept awake by a series of power cuts that had the heating unit cycling noisily on and off ; we came back to Bath feeling that we’d begun to emerge from emotional winter again.
Which brings me to our walk when (at my suggestion) we found the entrance to Swildons Hole which I’d not seen in fifty or more years but which is still full of memories. I’d spent so much time down there cold, wet, tired, fearful and occasionally completely panicked but always blown away by the powerful sensation of being underground and by the occasional bursts of sheer beauty hidden from human eyes for millennia.
A few years ago I met an outdoor pursuits instructor at the climbing wall in St Werburghs who offered to take me down again, but somehow we never got around to doing it. One glimpse of the entrance was enough to convince me that it would be a miserable and possibly dangerous experience for a septuagenarian! But that in itself was enough to remind me that however powerful the memories, not all experiences are repeatable however appealing the thought might be. The sense of our own mortality sharpens and intensifies these remembered experiences which linger in the mind like ghosts.
On the other hand, if you look closely at the third photo from the left, you’ll see something of a line of trees above the pill box entrance. I had no recollection of them from the past. In fifty years or so they’ve grown into a magnificent beech hanger and the sound of the wind rustling through the branches was unmistakable and worthy of a ten minute stop for a free symphony. You can see the leaf buds about to break as they turn from chestnut brown to green. At last a recoverable and re-liveable memory from my childhood trips to Stoke Row in the Chilterns. No I hadn’t really been here before, because on my last visit the trees were so much smaller and yet my memory was able to recover more from my grandparents smallholding to furnish and make sense of this new and powerful experience.
So what about the allotment? Well, we’re in suspended animation as the pampered indoor plants grow like cuckoos while we wait for the present icy spell to end. The earth is a dry as dust and we’re having to continually water in the polytunnel because daytime temperatures soar in the spring sunshine. Slowly, slowly, enough tough old stagers are emerging to break the illusion of winter and the apple blossom sits, clenched in bud waiting for the spring as a child waits for Father Christmas. It will come soon, but evidently not yet and not soon enough for some of the wind tormented broad beans. Inside the tunnel with an additional layer of fleece we’re just coming to terms with its capacity to advance the season. Every time we look at the spinach and lettuces or the young cabbage plants we have to pinch ourselves. The container grown potatoes are growing so vigorously I seem to be constantly mixing soil and compost to earth them up, and I think we’ll have a crop by early May.
Between the flat, the greenhouse, the tunnel, the hotbed, various cloches and the open ground we find ourselves managing half a dozen quite different seasonal microclimates. One little moment of joy came when Madame opened the crown of one of the cauliflowers and found the white curds just beginning to form – and that’s the first time we’ve grown them successfully. The asparagus is beginning to accelerate into life and the newly planted trees and soft fruit all seem to have taken. There are tadpoles in the pond and the Hidcote Giant lavender plants have arrived ready to be planted out and ready to attract insects and bees.
So it’s all good. Confusing, frustrating and good – as life usually turns out to be. Any prolonged silences over the next few weeks will probably be down to sheer busyness!