Walking 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”
The thing about the centre of Birmingham is that it seems to reinvent itself at least once a decade – which means it’s now in the middle of its fifth reinvention since Dr Who began time travelling, and daleks were made of wobbly cardboard. But I love its self confidence. I love the fact that so many really great public buildings were not inherited from wealthy families fallen on hard times, but especially built for for the people. I love that they don’t mind blocking main roads for a year or so to build a tram system. I love the way that when a building in the centre doesn’t work any more they knock it down and build a better one. I love that it’s a shared cultural space where everybody gets to join in. I love the fact that the museum and art gallery put on such edgy exhibitions and manage to express the local community rather than uphold the status quo from somewhere else.
– and finally I love that I can still do a bit of field botany – with a fingernail – by scraping moss off a bus shelter
The title of this blog isn’t some kind of random conceit; the River Severn is a kind of spiritual home to me. For all its ugly brown tides, and industrial development it rules majestically over the ephemeral, human landscape, putting us in our place. It’s the liminal and contested space between England and Wales, with a border that loops so much you’re likely to find yourself entering and leaving one kingdom for another without any apparent rhyme or reason. East of the river runs my home county of Gloucestershire, and the western edge swerves in and out between Gwent and the western part of Gloucestershire. I served here as a Parish priest for 25 years and I could stand in the churchyard at Littleton on Severn, just a little bit north of here and look across the river to see the sun setting over the Welsh hills. I hope that my remains will rest within sight of the river when the time comes – not too soon I hope.
Thirty years ago you could still see salmon putchers and nets stretched across the river in places. There was a regular but dwindling supply of salmon running the river. Higher up there were an abundance of elvers, now sadly overexploited and endangered by their extraordinary popularity in Japan. They’re worth a lot of money and so they’re almost fished out, but I knew the man who caught the last salmon in a putcher on our side of the river, and I knew several others who had eaten elver omelettes not so many years ago. Doughnut (the nickname given to him when he wore a white T shirt with a red horizontal stripe, to primary school; it was a name that stayed with him for the rest of his life), Doughnut who also made cider like his father, told me once that the salmon had started to develop ulcers and lesions on their flanks as a result of the chemicals being pumped into the river further downstream.
When I was 17 I worked with some of the men who built the first Severn Bridge. They were as hard as hell, and quite fearless on the steel. Almost exactly on the spot where the photo was taken today, there used to be an amusement arcade run by a traveller family who I got to know well many years later. There was also a bathing lake called the Blue Lagoon which (incredibly) was a massively popular place. A little further downstream again there was a line of brightly painted beach huts on the promenade where fortunate Bristolians could come on their half-days and holidays. I used to take communion to an elderly lady in Knowle who had a picture of her family bathing hut on the mantlepiece – she always spoke very warmly of it. The Second Severn Crossing was built during the time I was working in the area.
We had two nuclear power stations – now decommissioned but still “hot”, and more cider orchards than you could shake a stick at. But – and here’s the thing – it’s a hotspot for migrating birds, once again dwindling, but the sound of a skein of geese flying upriver at dusk would make your blood run backwards. I first went there, to the amusement arcade, as a young teenager – driven there on the pillion of a motorbike driven by a man who turned out to be well dodgy, and that’s enough on that subject! I did my only burial at sea at a point just above the first Severn crossing where the Balmoral, an old paddle steamer paused a mile upstream of their usual turning point and allowed me to scatter the ashes of a man called Peter, a Severn Pilot who knew the river as well as anyone alive. As we laid him to rest the skipper gave three long moaning blasts on the steam whistle to send him off. In his younger days during the war, he would walk the banks on his days off in order to navigate what’s always been a treacherous river in the darkness of the blackout. You’d have to have the heart of a bishop not to be moved by it.
And so these wild, semi industrial places seared their way into my heart and although I love the mountains and the more conventionally romantic views, for me there’s no greater joy than finding a couple of common scrubby plants eking out a living on the sea-wall battered by salt and wind.
We were there today because we needed to charge the batteries on the campervan. While we were waiting for the gennie to do its work, we went for a stroll along the prom and then for what was supposed to be a short drive acros the bridge into Wales. As we crossed into Wales we noticed that there was no oncoming traffic because they were resurfacing and so we were obliged to take a thirty six mile drive up the Welsh Side to Gloucester and back down the English side to where the campervan is stored. But it was a lovely day and we enjoyed the unexpected trip.
Where we live now, next to the river Avon, is still connected to the Severn Estuary which it joins about twenty miles downstream at Avonmouth. We’re also on a track that leads directly in fifteen miles to the back garden of the house I was born in. I’ve spent most of my life within the landscape that can be seen from the top of Dyrham Park. Hefted, I suppose, and tied by my dialect into an instantly familiar culture. It’s home.
Well, Mr Wordsworth, you were right about emotion recollected in tranquility. Our trip to Cornwall was entirely unexpected, and so, with no more travel plans in place, this is the beginning of the rest of the Potwell Inn autumn and today we sat down and reviewed all our summer photographs on a big screen. I was taken aback at quite how intense an experience it was, and this picture of a Sneezewort plant just about had it all for me. As we went through all the new plants, I remembered the exact spot we found this one. It’s not particularly rare and no-one apart, perhaps, the painter Giorgio Morandi, would write poems to its beauty. He’d love it for its restrained colours and I can just see the buff and white flowers somewhere in the background of one of his still-life paintings.
It was the colours that first caught my eye, and then the fact that I’d never seen it before. The identifications you have to work hard for are by far the most memorable and as time goes on I can usually place a plant somewhere in the right family. But once I knew its name I realized I knew a little bit about its medicinal uses in the past and instead of being a stranger it was a friend at the first meeting.
There were lots of meetings like that during the summer and I took hundreds of photographs in which I could instantly recall where they were taken and then refer back to my waterproof notebook to find the name. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes there are a sequence of letters or numbers that mean I had to key it out by answering a series of questions exactly correctly to take me to the right place in the book.
But there was more, because many of the plants had features that just cried out to be painted; the brilliant hues of blackberry leaves, the exact texture of the skins of sloes, the sealing wax red of hawthorn berries and rose-hips. Some of them also stood astride more than one field of interest – illustration, medicine, abstract structure and form, folk names. The natural world suddenly becomes a far richer, more precious place. As I’ve written often before, it populates it with friends whom the prospect of losing fills me with sadness and the resolve to stop that from happening.
I saw at once what I need to get done during the winter months when the allotment takes up less time and I can set up my tiny cramped drawing space once more. I feel blessed and inspired to be back at the Potwell Inn.
Sometimes the success or failure of a day out hinges on something essentially random – like finding a shop that sells crystallised angelica. We last bought it in Penzance at least three years ago, and so as we set off up Causeway Head I had little hope of finding the shop, which even then had the air of a pop-up, still in business. But there it was, very much in business and pleased to sell me enough for three Christmas sherry trifles at least. I’d despaired of ever finding it again but somewhere there’s a person with the energy to simmer angelica stalks in increasingly strong sugar solution for days, until the tender stalks are preserved ready to add a touch of green to contrast with the morello cherries floating on whipped cream atop the trifle. The Potwell Inn always produces Christmas puddings as well, but we rarely eat them until well into the year because sherry trifle made according to a recipe given to us by an old friend has become a Christmas fixture. As you can see my thoughts have turned instinctively to Christmas for no better reason that the preserving and pickling are all but finished. Once upon a time, Gill made us the trifle as a gift every year, but when she became too old I took on the task as a tribute. No Christmas could be complete without it, and because she always aded angelica it never looks right without it.
When I think about it, most of the canonical tasks of Christmas involve quite inexplicable feats of endurance. We know perfectly well that the puddings, cakes and treats are ridiculously rich and life-threateningly full of fat and sugar but a good life deserves a bit of occasional feasting as well as fasting. We are far from the mindset of a couple known to Madame whose idea of the perfect Christmas lunch was to warm up an Iceland frozen turkey dinner and eat it on their laps. Somehow the angelica is even worth a trip to Cornwall, and always tastes better as a happy accident.
We grow it on the allotment – it’s a magnificent sight in the summer as it grows to six feet tall – each plant producing enough of the leaf stems to decorate a hundred trifles – but once again this year, we didn’t find time to create our own store in the kitchen. The little shop is, in itself, a model. There is virtually no packaging to be found in it, you could bring your own containers and buy a huge range of ingredients from bulk. How strange that even in cosmopolitan foodie Bath there isn’t an equivalent shop – I’m sure it would do well.
We walked up and down the pedestrianised street and found an excellent bookshop (Barton Books) the contents of whose bookshelves closely resembled our own at home. I think I’d read about a third of the stock, and would happily have read the rest. I joshed the owner a little and asked him if he’d only stocked his favourite books and he responded that good booksops always reflected their owners’ tastes. I couldn’t agree more, and I came out with John Wright’s latest book on foraging which I’ve already started reading.
Penzance is a place of contrasts – three years ago I’d have been glad never to visit again after we watched an unhinged young woman pouring abuse and beating her dog in the street. Today we were in Newlyn buying some fresh fish and the fishmonger said he lived in Penzance but it had become “a hole” over the years. Exactly as if we were at home, we watched a couple selling drugs on the street – both obviously addicts themselves, both hollowed out by drugs and life in general and with no provision for any help out of their mess.
Mousehole, where we’re staying, is stuffed with ludicrously pretty cottages which are all that remains of a once thriving fishing community. Next door in Newlyn there is still a big fishing fleet but Moushole, with its tiny harbour, confines itself to selling souvenirs and doing a bit of occasional crabbing. The purpose has gone out of the place. In Newlyn the fishmonger said he’d voted for Brexit. I sincerely hope for the town’s sake that he doesn’t get his wish. Virtually all the fish we eat as a nation we buy in, and virtually all that’s caught here is sold abroad, overwhelmingly in Europe. If tariffs were applied to the catch, the fishing would become as unprofitable as the tin mining and that would leave tourism – which only really pays for a third of the year – as the principle industry, bringing even more poorly paid jobs, homelessness and unemployment, helplessness, anger, drugs and alcohol abuse.
But the incomers seem to be taking up at least some of the slack by driving up house prices and providing work for an army of builders, painters and plumbers. The landscape and its wonderful light are largely untouched by change and the granite landscape of West Penwith is as magical as ever it was. Am I too hard on this place? We lived in Falmouth for a year as students and were both captivated by it whilst, at the same time, being wary. You’re always an ’emmet’ here, one of the teeming hordes of ant-like tourists who come, as if to a left-luggage office, looking for something you’ve lost but can’t quite describe. The little battery lit serpentine lighthouse you used to be able to buy from the turners’ shacks on the Lizard has come to stand as a lament for that loss.
We walked to Newlyn today and passed the memorial on the original site of the Penlee Lifeboat station from which the Solomon Browne set out in 1981 in a hurricane force storm to try to rescue the crew of the Union Star coaster. Both crews were lost in the 60 foot waves, and the tradition of Christmas lights here must surely reflect and bring to mind that terrible tragedy as the lights shine out across the sea as if to welcome back the men who will never come.
There’s nowhere to park here: the village was fully formed before the car was invented and the old fishermen’s cottages form a maze of narrow alleyways but there’s an excellent bus service back and forth to Penzance and from there onwards to anywhere in the county. On the roadside facing the sea there are allotment gardens, with some sculptural and whimsical scarecrows.
So, as always we celebrate a few days in Cornwall with mixed feelings. Loss and tragedy are never far below the surface and yet there are few places quite so likely to get the creative sap rising. The railway line to Penzance brought with it not just the tourists, but the painters of the Newlyn School, and later the St Ives artists who, for a while, changed the course of art history. It’s a culture that’s never quite at ease with itself, often feeling isolated and angry with the ‘upcountry’ politicians who have served it so badly. If ever a place needed strong regional government this is it. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Wales where the mineral wealth was extracted by a semi colonial economics leaving the place sucked dry. Love it? Hate it? It’ll still be here long after we’re all dead!
I’m inclined to think that we bloggers are better at talking than listening, and having banged on for a year at some (130,000 words) length on any subject that interested me, I realized this morning that if this blog is to be any more significant than a bunch of egotistical blah blah blah it needs to offer the opportunity for more engagement and more feedback.
I’ve long wanted the site to have its own email address so that readers could respond privately without having to use public comments or likes, but I’ve been wary of compromising our privacy by handing out my own addresses and being swamped. I realize that this could be risky but I’ve taken every precaution to keep the ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ channel separate, and I hope and anticipate that this will add something to the whole experience of the Potwell Inn. After all, whoever heard of a pub where you had to listen to the landlord without being able to join in a conversation. So now there will be two ways of joining in, the ‘comment’ button for stuff you don’t mind sharing with everyone, and the ‘contact’ button for anything else. I can’t promise anything more than a slow response, but I will try and respond and I’m always pleased to receive constructive ideas, criticism and further thoughts.
That, at least, was the intention when I woke ‘on a mission‘ this morning. “It’s time” – I thought and I charged into action. Not being a computer geek I should have realized that nothing is as easy as it seems and I finally made it work ten hours later, which rather took the shine off my glorious optimism.
I’ll put up a ‘proper’ post later if I can find the energy, but meanwhile I hope you’ll find this a useful opportunity. Do let me know if you agree, I get the sense that there’s a community out there which is struggling, like me, to make a lucid and useful response to our climate and ecological crises by living differently – hence the endless reading, the allotment and the emphasis on food.
We’re now in North Wales for a little while in our exploration of the regions and their different farming challenges. We seem to have been (I suppose we have been) travelling for weeks, but nothing has shaken my conviction that there is a way through this mess.
We were birdwatching down on the estuary today when I caught sight of this curious object. From 20 yards it looked like a fungus, but sadly it turned out to be just another piece of plastic waste – in this case a polyurethane foam canister leaking foam as the canister degrades in the salt water. I’d have carried it home if it weren’t for the fact that it appeared to still have enough propellant left to make it explode.
Strangely, I looked up from taking this photograph just as the sun came out further up-river and I caught sight of the chimneys at Sellafield a source of much less visible but even more deadly waste. However, far from making me more melancholic than usual, the sight of the chimney stacks and the squelching mud under my feet reminded me of the Severn estuary alongside which I spent 25 years as a parish priest. The paradox of these industrialised estuaries is that notwithstanding the nuclear power stations, (two on the Severn), chemical works and endless industrial sprawl the migrating birds kept on coming, albeit in smaller numbers as the years went on. All this, I’m anxious to say, is not to say a word in defense of these industries whose existence is a painful monument to our anthropocentric culture. In the case of the nuclear power stations we can’t demolish them anyway because they’re going to be dangerous for decades if not centuries, but the chemical works and some at least of the huge industrial complexes should perhaps be left once they’ve been cleaned up, as memorials to and reminders of the time when we nearly destroyed the earth. I can imagine schoolchildren on educational visits looking with horror at the relics as their function is explained, while all the while waders of all kinds will re-populate the cooling ponds and peregrine falcons nest in the steelwork. The people who worked on the sites will be commemorated not as the perpetrators of these ecological crimes but as the expression of a failed culture, egged on by all of us.
Meanwhile, we ambled along the familiar landscape stopping from time to time to look at distant birds and abandoned boats half-submerged in the mud while the grey clouds broke from time to time to let a patch of sunlight through.
Later we cut back inland and climbed to a higher vantage point to look back towards the sea which is normally hidden by the sand dunes of the Drigg nature reserve. So we walked accompanied by mixed feelings. The relative abundance of curlew was a real tonic for us because in our part of the world, like the cuckoo, they’re rarely heard.
We’ve been up here for a fortnight now and the only thing we’re getting used to is the weather – it rains, it seems, most of the time. The upside is that we’ve become very used to packing our waterproofs and disregarding the weather. We’ve learned a lot about local walls – you could almost work out what county you’re in just by looking at the walls, and we’ve enjoyed being spoken to by complete strangers, it’s true what they say. Tomorrow we’re crossing back across Yorkshire for our last overnight stop. And here are some local wall styles to puzzle out –
I suppose this photo might have all sorts of hidden gems in it – there may be a rare moss or liverwort there but what caught my eye were the innocent loking Amanita phalloides var alba which could look a bit like ‘wild mushrooms’ but are really Death Caps. They’re usually a vaguely yellow or greenish on the cap but this is the variety that looks most like a field mushroom. Two things ought to warn you of danger immediately – firstly Field Mushrooms don’t have that name by accident, they grow in fields. Secondly, Death Caps have white gills, not brown.
We were in Eskdale, walking back down from the spectacular Stanley Force which lies on on a tributary steam to the River Esk. “Force” seems to be the local name for waterfalls – and when you see one with this power it’s altogether appropriate. It’s about 60′ according to the guidebooks, but I’d put the depth from the lip at nearer 40′, maybe 60′ from the top of the gorge. Either way round you wouldn’t want to fall from there. When you look up at it there’s a tremendous sense of exposure, but actually the path isn’t nearly as bad as it looks, notwithstanding the warnings everywhere. The biggest challenge was driving rain; the whole gorge looked and felt like a chillly tropical forest. Fabulous bryophytes there. I don’t know much about them except that when you look at them through a pocket magnifier they’re absolutely beautiful. The last climb up to the viewpoint was a bit of a scramble but what with the noise and the height it was properly exciting. One of Wainwright’s favourite places, they say – but then everyone who wants to sell an ice cream in the lakes makes the same claim. There are a number of newish footbridges in place to cross the beck, and without them the whole enterprise would be a bit of a desperate scramble unless you were prepared to wade across. As we were walking up someone spotted a red squirrel, but despite moving as quietly as we could we never found any. On the way back we met a man who’d been up the fell in May and had found Mountain Ringlet butterflies there – sady, life’s just too short for me to do it all! The Western Fells are very beautiful, it’s a shame they’re so far from our home.
But that wasn’t all we did today because we’re staying in Ravenglass and that’s at one end of the narrow gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale railway line that runs up Eskdale to Dalegarth, the starting point of our walk. We’d chosen to go today because it was forecast to be sunny and dry. However we’re in the Lake District which has its own climate, and it rained heavily on and off all day – luckily we took our waterproofs and enjoyed the challenge.We travelled up the line in a little carriage, but coming back we rode in one of the open trucks which was much more fun, open to the weather and the spectacular views. I was born and brought up next to the main line north from Bristol and the sheer smell of engine smoke and steam sets of a firework display of childhood memories.
I suppose I should own up to the fact that my attachment to these bleak and windy seaside places is probably the responsibility of Charles Dickens, and in particular the character of Ham Peggoty who drowned while trying to rescue the appalling Steerforth, (the inspiration for the character of David Cameron who found in politics the perfect outlet for his gifts). I grudgingly admit that Dickens’ tendency to big-up the qualities of the deserving poor while monstering the undeserving rich is – well, a bit overblown – but my malleable young mind was filled with heroism, and the melancholic thought that an end-of-terrace post war house fell a long way short of an upturned boat on a beach.
If the Gradgrindian tendency ever understood the power of literature and music to mould and move us, they’d outlaw it in an instant, but mercifully I was free to be corrupted by Dickens and HG Wells and – because television is, or can occasionally be an art form too, by Ted Willis and Dennis Potter; as great a bunch of lefties as you could hope for.
So here we are near another beach that’s about as far away from Yarmouth as it’s possible to be; the wind is blowing a hoolie and we’ve been kept in the campervan by continuous rain – so I can write to my heart’s content on the free wifi and even try out some of the features of the programme that I’ve never used before, for instance linking to Google pictures and justifying the type. It’s almost exactly a year since I started writing this blog so (statistically at least, and 130,000 words later) I must be a survivor. It’s also exactly four years since I handed back the keys of the church where I was vicar for 25 years with the words of the bishop ringing in my ears – “I didn’t really know you, but I hear that you’re a bit of a legend” . Who believes gossip? I ask. It’s enough to drive a man to take on an allotment.
Back in the real world we’ve got two pubs here, and the oldest (so they say) postmaster in the country who regularly falls asleep in his chair after lunch so it’s best to buy stamps in the morning. What’s especially good is the fact that we have four environments wrapped into one place.
We have the epic big-sky estuary, the convergence of three rivers, with sand dunes and mud flats – a birder’s paradise; then there’s the saltmarsh specialist plants around the edge mostly past their prime now; the farmland surrounding Muncaster Castle which has been tended for so long that the mature woodland reminded me of my grandparents smallholding in the Chilterns; and finally there are the the fells pressing in all around us. There are even the remains of a Roman bathhouse.
However I was reminded once again that plants don’t read textbooks and can change dramatically with different environments. If you read the previous post you’ll know I was feeling a bit disconnected from field botany as we drove across, but yesterday we couldn’t walk along the coast because of the high tide so we turned inland and walked up part of the Eskdale Way towards Muncaster Castle. Apart from the unexpected stand of mature beeches, I found and identified many of the usual suspects but was stumped by a much leggier and taller Tormentil than usual, growing in the hedge, and a clump of tall daisy-like plants I don’t remember seeing before. Back at the van I quickly identified them as Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) which gave me a burst of sheer pleasure quite out of proportion to a bunch of rather faded daisy lookalikes with downturned petals and odd, buff coloured centres. I honestly don’t think I’d be any more pleased if I’d found a Ghost orchid – well perhaps a little bit more pleased, but the real joy is in knowing the everyday. As someone said on the telly the other day – you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince. Most of my princes have turned out to be garden escapes anyway. The everyday is where I mostly live and we’re surrounded by everyday plants, insects and animals that most of us are unaware of. I’ve developed the habit, every time I see a plant whose name I know, of saying hello. I don’t find it alarming, but passers by sometimes give me strange looks. I can’t get that moment of recognition out of my mind; a new friend amongst a host of strangers. Now I can name the Sneezewort it will call out “Hi” to me wherever I see it and I will say “Hi Sneezewort” back and I will feel a little more at home, wherever I happen to be.
Later in the day a Facebook album appeared with pictures of the vegetables our son had gathered on our allotment in our absence. Hope there’s some left for us!
“All my life I have been in and around wild nature, working – exploring, studying and even living in cities. Yet I realized a few years ago that I had never made myself into as good a botanist or zoologist or ornithologist as so many of the outdoor people I admire have done. Recalling where I had put my intellectual energies over the years it came to me that I had made my fellow human beings my study – that I had been a naturalist of my own species. That I had been my own object-of-study too.”
Gary Snyder – in ‘Blue mountains constantly walking’ from his collection “The practice of the wild”.
Twobooks were very much at the top of my mind as I was writing this post. First, as the title suggests, I was remembering William Cobbett’s book describing rural poverty in 1830, (and incidentally, citing a book doesn’t mean I agree with all the writer’s sentiments. Cobbet was probably a very unpleasant man who, in this instance, had his finger on the pulse because he went and saw for himself). But secondly I was reading Gary Snyder’s book “The Practice of the Wild” while I was writing it and I’m sure it’s leaking through every line. This is a truly important and inspiring book for our times although it was published in 1990, and I can’t recommend it too highly.
The net result of this reading and the reason for the quotation from Gary Snyder was that I found myself putting aside my hand lens and county lists in favour of pondering just what we’re doing to ourselves and how and where we allowed our humanity to be so diminished. I had to become “a naturalist of my own species”.
Holidaying together on the border between Cumbria and Yorkshire, we are one of those temporary communities that forms and re-forms from time to time in different places. Our extended family flows like a busy stream around the large kitchen table in this eighteenth century farmhouse. Noise and conversations are continuous – everyone talking at once and nobody listening, children tugging at me and racing about with swords and shields enacting a fight I hope they never see for real. I play the elder, and I am straining to understand who is cross with whom today, who had too much to drink last night, where are the cracks in the family brickwork. The big range at the end of the kitchen is in constant use as we take it in turns to cook according to the rota and so the whole symphony is punctuated by cries of “hot!” and “watch out!” as we swirl like advancing and retreating waves, occasionally pausing to eat and clear and wash up once again. The children have their own cycle between excited chatter in the mornings as they visit us all in our bedrooms to steal biscuits and cuddles, and howls of anguish and rage as they are put to bed in the evening and the first bottles are opened. Yesterday it was announced that the government intended to suspend parliamentary democracy in order to force through the plan to leave the European Community. Here in the depths of the Yorkshire Dales the news was filtered through a shaky and ancient portable radio.
When the news came on Madame’s little radio I lost it completely and hurled bad tempered abuse at the radio. I’m truly scared by what’s happening. Fear and powerlessness are nasty and unproductive emotions and I was reproached for my outburst for frightening the children. There was nothing for it but to retreat to the river and sit there on a rock watching the peat stained water for half an hour imagining terrible acts of violence and revenge and struggling to allow the river to take the unwelcome thoughts away. It worked, as it always does, and so, sufficiently shriven, and after a supper of bacon, cheese and potatoes accompanied by anxious looks from my family, I consoled myself with Gary Sneider’s book for a while before rejoining the throng.
I never see myself as being particularly patriotic. I think I love this country as I love my family, mindful of all its faults but leaning on the assumption that ultimately we are one. It is only when it is threatened that I become fierce and defensive.
Outside the conservatory window we’ve been watching three brown hares, one much larger and two of them smaller – possibly a doe and her leverets as they relax in the sun and occasionally eat. Up on the hill we found a dead and half rotten raptor beyond identification – possibly shot – this is grouse country. While we followed the river down to a bridge that has been damaged for the umpteenth time by a passing lorry, we heard the thrilling liquid song of curlew and watched lapwing flying across. These remote places are the breeding grounds for many threatened species of bird. Down by the river we watched a yellowhammer, a bird I haven’t seen in ages. Here the landscape and its inhabitants look familiar enough from a distance but when I get my eyes down to ground level I discover that my knowledge of natural history is more appropriate to the western coastal regions. There are strangers here among the flowers and wildlife, just as there are among the “larger than wolf, smaller than elk” humans who work this landscape and speak in a totally unfamiliar dialect that can speak Slaithwaite as ‘Slough’it’ which makes me feel like a stranger.
This could read rather like a Cobbettian travelogue in the bad-tempered mould of Rural Rides, because much as I’d like to bathe in the silent beauty and rustic charm of it all, it’s impossible not to be alarmed at the fragility of both communities and landscapes. To drive from the West Country to Huddersfield, and thence across this huge county to the Yorkshire Dales is to experience all the contradictions that are throwing this country into a civil war whose deadliest weapon is passive aggression. We fear the climate crisis and yet we cannot manage without the cars and lorries that turn traffic jams into toxic clouds. Just to get here we queued for miles on slow moving motorways that turned our journey time on both of the first two stops from four hours to six. Last year it took us longer to drive from Cornwall To Bristol than it used to do 50 years ago before the A38 was relegated to history by the M5 and extensive dual carriageways.
Our friends in Huddersfield share a great part of our history and values. They are highly active in the community, avid gardeners and implacable in their opposition to destructive chemical use by farmers, even going so far as to engage with one of the largest producers face to face. They describe the efforts of these companies to justify their noxious products as “greenwashing” and it’s hard not to agree when you read the notes taken at the meetings. ‘S’ has made several poncho’s by ironing together plastic supermarket bags, an operation which she says is best carried out carefully and outside because of the smell.
There are many signs of hope and they have helped the MASTT build a lovely community orchard complete with its own complement of bees. The bees were the idea of a Syrian asylum seeker who has now moved on to run a community beekeeping project close by. Why this delightful man and his family with so many gifts to offer should be regarded as a threat, escapes me altogether. We never needed writers so much as we need heirs to Cobbett and Dickens to lead the charge against the mendacity of the politicians who are leading the country into catastrophe.
As if to drive home the point we spent part of a day walking on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, built in the heat of the last industrial revolution, and which never really turned a profit. These days its principal use is for tourism, and even that is limited by narrow width, daunting sequences of locks and the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in the UK. We drank tea outside the entrance to Standedge tunnel and talked to a man with an intimate knowledge of the feeder lakes and reservoirs, who told us that the recent collapse of Whateley Bridge dam, a canal feeder reservoir in Derbyshire, was the direct result of the management failure to respond to weather forecasts by lowering the reservoir level. We were told that they are absolutely paranoid about running the reservoirs low for fear of negative publicity if a prolongued drought should increase the demand for water in the canals. We were also told that this was not the only nineteenth century dam liable to collapse after sudden floods, and that other centres of population are equally under threat from old dams being subjected to excessive loads by keeping them full. Whether any of this will emerge during the enquiry is doubtful as the more senior levels fight to cover their arses and blame the weather as if it were a surprise. No doubt “lessons will be learned” but there is no hope that among those lessons the government will put any extra money into averting a disaster. One day, perhaps, dozens or even hundreds of people will be killed, and a minister will visit for a photo opportunity in a hi-viz jacket, but the facts on the ground will not change – nature is not there to be controlled and farmed for our own benefit.
After an equally testing drive westwards to the other side of the county (it was a bank holiday weekend) we came into the Yorkshire Dales. We had rented a cottage right alongside the upper reaches of the River Swale, miles from anywhere and entirely without phone signal or internet, which made it so much easier to unwind. But the news every day is so awful that even in this peaceful setting I woke in the night with the horrors after dreaming about the situation. Driving through the much diminished places that were once centres of industry, mill and mining towns where houses can be bought for next to nothing because there is no work is so obviously depressing that it hardly warrants attention any more. We’ve got used to poverty, food banks and Pound Stores.
But anyone who comes to the Dales, which still seem the same as ever, and thinks the landscape – which really does take your breath away – is ‘natural’ in any way at all, is deluded. These dales are the product of not one but many forms of agriculture over the millennia. The ancient landscape was not so long ago buried under hundreds of metres of ice and with no flora at all; there’s nothing immemorial about it, and it could change again in the blink of an eye or the stroke of a pen far away in London. The farmers here rely on public subsidy for 80% of their income and, trust me, they are not rich. Were it not for the support they get, the land – which is marginal and unproductive – would be left ungrazed and would swiftly become scrub. Woodland and forest, desirable though they may be in the right place, are not ‘free’. In historical terms the whole landscape was intensively managed and if it is to remain in the form that we love, open and available to us with its biodiverse communities, and able to achieve the balance between sustainable food production and intensive farming leading to ecological breakdown, we will need to invest money, and farmers will still have to do the work. When a whole farming community disappears we lose the skills that have been honed over centuries and built into common life. The media like to fret about disappearing tribes in the Amazon, but don’t get sufficiently excited about the prospect of losing the hill farming communities in our own country.
Here the becks and rivers seem eternal. The landscape is sculpted by forces we can barely conceive of, and at the human level everything seems uncompromising. When it rains, it rains with a scale and intensity that sends hack journalists towards words like ‘biblical’, except it isn’t. It could never be tamed and put in a box with Jesus and the others. What the journalists never want to mention is that in the Genesis myth, the flood was a punishment for the over-reaching greed and promiscuity of the human race. But rain is rain, that’s it – fierce, driving, scarifying, clarifying rain gathered from the oceans and hurled back at the hills that gout it back at us. Hills that float on water, notwithstanding their great age and mass. The wind searches at the doors of the farmhouse and rattles the doors at night as if seeking entry to level us to dirt again.
But stuff happens and things do change. The circus has moved on and it’s appallingly obvious why people here voted as they did to leave the EU. The collapse of heavy industry was no less predictable than the onslaught of unpredictable weather that presages the climate catastrophe. But the politicians, safe and well-rewarded inside their closed communities had no inclination to think ahead while they profited from strip mining human communities of every shred of extractable wealth: of housing, education, health care and self-respect but more wickedly they destroyed whole cultures.
It’s almost too late as the farmers contemplate the cost to their livelihood, but one thing is sure. We need to reinstate democracy from the ground up. From citizens’ assemblies to parish and district councils, to county councils, regional assemblies, constituencies and only finally government, we must learn to engage democracy for the good of all – and that includes the earth that sustains us. It’s philosophical dualism that’s led us to this – me and ‘it’, the worthy and the unworthy, the future and the past, human and nature, God and servants, rich and poor, clever and stupid.
For the first three days we had almost continual sunshine, and then the weather closed in and reverted to its stereotype, but nothing kept us indoors, and several of the nights were clear enough for stargazing. There are no artificial lights for many miles and so old and familiar constellations and planets (well, Saturn at least) were surrounded by multitudes of stars we’d never seen before. One of our party had brought a telescope and after an abortive attempt when we forgot to put in one of the lenses(?) the boys finally found Saturn’s rings. There’s a huge difference between knowing things in your head and knowing them with your senses. They were completely energized when they told us at breakfast the next day.
As we left after a week, we struggled to get the van up the steep and narrow track leading to an equally precipitous and narrow road. I had to reverse the whole 3 ton truck back down and around a sharp corner and then take it at a run with only a tap on a wing mirror as I roared through the first set of gates. As we turned towards civilization we were accompanied by a small flock of half a dozen lapwing who could easily have flown to the left or right on to the fell, but flew in front like a miniature honour guard or possibly they were fighter planes escorting us away from their territory. We all went our separate ways, and with the benefit of a phone signal, photos were exchanged and progress reported. Our journey took us north and west, looping around the Lakes to the coast at Ravenglass past Bassenthwaite Lake where we once almost went to live save for the rainfall – which has subsequently proved to be monumental.
The journey, once again, took us past several depressed mining towns and villages that demonstrate all too painfully that tourist money only sticks in a few places in the Lakes. This was once a great centre for the mining of coal and iron ore and which supported a prosperous and skilled workforce. There had been fitful attempts to build industrial estates and business parks on the abandoned sites but it all seemed too much like sticking plaster. As we approached the coast the looming buildings of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant hogged the landscape. Was this where the politicians learned to lie on an industrial scale. Was this where the idea that it was morally acceptable to lie to the population “for the good of the country” was conceived? A large sign on the roadside proclaims “The Energy Coast” without a trace of irony or self-awareness. The radioactive beaches tell a different story.
I want to stop looking and worrying. What I’d really like to do is go back to botanising and growing plants on the allotment and forget all this, but I can’t. The union jacks and crosses of St George flying in the gardens of so many run-down homes and businesses give testimony to the lie – the great lie – that we can have it all. The mainstream political parties still don’t get it – they each peddle the snake oil remedy that they alone possess, to run the country better without changing anything. Best stop here, I think, before I start ranting on (like Cobbett) about turnips. We’re in Ravenglass now on the third leg of the journey and at the point where the Cumbrian fells of the Western Lake District drop from the heights of Scafell down to the sea. It’s mournfully beautiful, a melancholic’s pick-me-up.