Dead Prime Minister fails to get it up!

Palmerston – later on and run out of steam!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At last, some sea.

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

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

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

The devil is in the detail – small is beautiful.

A red letter day

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

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

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

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

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

I only started this malarky because _

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

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

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

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

What to look our for in an artists’ garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Madame made me do it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew what I had to do.

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

‘Larger than a wolf, smaller than an elk’

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Birmingham – 2nd City – provisional format

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.

IMG_20200217_134435– and finally I love that I can still do a bit of field botany – with a fingernail – by scraping moss off a bus shelter

Moody old Severn day

IMG_6246

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.

IMG_6245When 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.

Go on – sneeze!

IMG_6028

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.

 

Anyone for angelica?

IMG_6215

IMG_6212Sometimes 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.  IMG_5459

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.

IMG_6206There’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!