Deja vu?

Looking down from the iron bridge above lock 3 of the Kennet and Avon canal

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.

A cowslip in our friends’ meadow yesterday

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!

Ten top tips for bloggers

You know how it always takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but surely (at least in the UK) we can agree that it’s a cold spring – and I don’t mean that we’ve had some cold weather because that goes without saying, but after being lulled into a sense that winter is over by a couple of balmy days, we’ve gone backwards by what feels like six weeks; chilled by a seemingly immovable wind from the northeast which only occasionally swings around to the west to gather some more sleet. Over in France and Spain too they’ve experienced some very extensive damage to crops, including grape vines. It’s difficult to make a direct link to the climate emergency but these extreme events have every appearance of being the smoking gun. Something’s wrong when the average temperature is way below normal and yet we’re having to water because the earth is so dry. “That’s gardening” we say to ourselves hopefully – “… you win some and you lose some”; but are we just kidding ourselves? In Bath we’ve had to cope with illegal levels of atmospheric pollution for years because local politics has been torn between reducing traffic and increasing income from students, businesses and tourism. Now, to add to the evil mix, the SUV has become the vehicle of choice for city centre aspirationals. It seems we all agree that something must be done, but the proposals for reducing traffic have been so watered down by the tourism and transport lobbies that the politicians are running scared. Councillors elected on a green manifesto to reduce traffic have crumpled under the pressure and there are rumours of palace revolutions while local bloggers have poured out their bile on those of us who challenge their so-called ancient freedoms – like driving a three litre Range Rover 1/4 mile to collect Tarquin and Cressida from school.

Anyway, all this cold weather presents us with a storage problem at the Potwell Inn, because a traffic jam of tender plants has built up and is now occupying every conceivable space in the flat, leaving nowhere to germinate the next wave of cucurbits; the cucumbers, squashes and melons – not to mention the sweetcorn and the runner (pole) beans. We’ve hatched a plan to construct a third unheated propagator under our original daylight fluorescent lamps because they give out far more heat than the newer LED’s. Desperation inspires ingenuity and we can probably get by.

Not all ingenuity seems to work, though, and I have to report that my genius attempt to lure the rats into the traps with exceptionally smelly camembert cheese fell upon deaf nostrils, as it were, and the hoped for carnage did not come about. It was at least reassuring that the trailcam worked perfectly. Alas we’ve yet to find a reliable way of controlling their numbers.

If you look very closely you’ll see the rat emerging fit and healthy from the trap before exiting down the path.

Much of the week has been taken up by getting the campervan ready for a single night on the Mendips to make sure all the systems are working properly. Our last trip – over a year ago – saw the electrics collapse in domino fashion and we spent the week reading by torchlight and huddled in the sleeping bags to keep warm. When the electrics go in a campervan nothing works – water pump, stove ignition, lighting and heating all go into a sulk. All this was replaced and patched up a year ago but during lockdown we’ve never had a chance to test it out under normal conditions. I’m almost anxious about taking the van back on to the road but, on the other hand, it’s spring and I’ve got a year’s botanising to catch up with. I think I’ll get back to grasses and try to identify the early risers. Goodness why I find it so exciting to know the latin name of a clump of anonymous green stuff with almost invisible flowers – but I do, and yes, Madame finds it inexplicable as well. Glory be! a new book on UK grasses is on its way to me and I’ve already polished the hand lens (this is not a euphemism). It’s called “Grasses A Guide to Identification Using Vegetative Characters” published by the Field Studies Council – end of plug, except to mention that you can get it from the NHBS bookshop which carries an amazing collection of titles on every aspect of natural history, and not so much as a third cousin seven times removed has links to them.

Finally, I’m publicly registering my ferocious dislike for any newspaper or magazine article headed “Ten top ****” I remember one of the chief reporters on a local paper telling me once that most journalists are irredeemably lazy and the best way of getting your copy into print is to do the job for them. A whole industry has grown up around this character defect; it’s called lobbying – and/or – dare I say – influencing in which winsome young people earn money by making videos of themselves promoting various kinds of snake oil. These videos readily supply ten best anything stories about anything from parma ham to windscreen wipers. In this way I was provoked by a “ten best” on the subject of growing veg.

As a potter, way back, I was often penalized for my passionate interest in technique. Somehow a whole generation of art schools managed to make a distinction between “technique” – which you had technicians for; and “talent”. The outcome of this lamentable attitude was that many students completed their degree courses without the least idea of how the elements of their pieces were conceived of and built, and how they all fitted together to make a finished piece. I remember visiting a degree show where I spotted a glaze that I’d designed as a favour to the technician in that department. The student, not knowing me from Adam, was astounded when I gave her the outline of the recipe. The very best students had a firm grasp of technique as well as the creative competence to carry out their ideas.

This need for technique applies just as much to gardening or cooking as it does to ceramics, and one thing I’ve learned over the years by watching really inspirational potters, gardeners and chefs is that there are always more and different ways of achieving what they’re doing. Being trapped by any sort of ten best ideology is like handing over your brains to a stranger. I’m miles too old and ugly to be a persuader but I’ve been tempted. However I’m constrained by the terrifying thought that someone might have been so impressed by my fluent and articulate promotion of camembert cheese as a rat bait that they actually bought shares in in a cheese company and created an online rat bait outlet with its own logo.

I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s comment to his daughter that the purpose of education is to teach us to recognise bullshit. I would hate to think that my epitaph might read “Dave Pole – he couldn’t tell shit from pudding!” – so please pay no attention at all to anything I write. My life is a work in progress – until it’s not.

Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Perennials – the gift that goes on giving

Sweet Cicely emerging

I know the history of this plant because I picked a pocket full of seeds one day on a long walk with friends near the top of Nidderdale, Yorkshire, somewhere close to Pateley Bridge. Sweet Cicely grows wild everywhere in Yorkshire but hardly at all down where we live in the South West. In fact it even appeared in a TV thriller the other night when a London based forensic botanist, no less, told detectives that they should look for an allotment to find the murder scene along with the sweet cicely that had found its way onto the shoes of the deceased.

Back home, I sowed the harvested seeds in the ground immediately and nothing happened. I tried sowing some more again in pots and still nothing. I even ordered a packet in the misguided hope that because I’d paid for them they’d be more likely to work. They didn’t either. Then I read something about the seeds needing to undergo a prolonged period of cold – known as vernalisation – so I picked the last few survivors out of my coat pocket with all the associated fluff and bunged them into the fridge inside a vitamin tablet bottle and then forgot about them for a couple of months. When I remembered them I sowed them in another pot and before long there were half a dozen seedlings which I duly planted in the perfect spot on the allotment. By the next morning slugs had eaten all but two – at which point I gave up with tears in my eyes until several weeks later a blob of furled green appeared from under a water butt and there it was – alive and surprisingly vigorous. Over the next two seasons it grew larger and larger and our neighbour said he’d grown it once and it had become a nuisance.

So why – apart from the delightful name – did I so want to grow it? Well, simply because it’s ready at the same time as early rhubarb and, added to the cooking liquid it adds sweetness and a faint aniseed flavour to my favourite pudding. Every year it thrives and then dies back completely, appearing again in early spring. The photo was taken today and I can’t tell you how pleased we were to see it.

Out on the green, the buds on the trees are beginning to open – no surprise there I suppose, they’re doing what trees always do in the spring. But they’re not opening for us. Their annual cycle seems one step removed from us, however beautiful it may be because, with exception of the elders whose flowers and fruits we’re grateful to harvest, we lead slightly parallel lives.

Two weeks ago during the last big storm, a whole branch split off from one of the largest trees on the green. The brash and cordwood was rapidly sawn up and taken away by a homeless man who lives in a bender on the river – so I guess it was a gift for him. But suddenly the remaining trunk became our trunk. It was almost continually occupied by resting people for the first week and then it was dragged across the green to a new position where it’s been in use as a seat and exercise bench ever since. The Council had started to put benches out on the green but a coalition of nimbies started a petition alleging that seats would encourage antisocial behaviour and the plan was dropped. Curiously, until now, we’ve had parties – at least three of them organised by the petitioners – machete attacks, domestic violence, drug dealing and dogging without the aid of any seats at all. Free street theatre – what’s not to like? I hope the tree trunk isn’t dragged off by the police as a threat to public safety!

Back on the allotment the reappearance of the perennials is always a cause for celebration and gratitude. This period of early spring can be hard work, but the perennials come back for us year after year without our doing anything very much at all. We cut them back in the winter, put a marker cane in and for a while the allotment looks very bare – and then we start look forward to seeing them in March. Today the first two shoots of asparagus finally appeared. I wandered around the plot photographing all our old friends as they break through the warming soil or burst into bud. Our unstoppable collection of mints is coming through; the strawberries are looking hearty in the tunnel; the fruit bushes are all in leaf now and looking perky after their winter under mulch and a spring feed of organic fertilizer; our apple trees are all breaking buds; autumn raspberries are pushing through their covering of leaves like the resurrected villagers in Stanley Spencer’s painting of Cookham churchyard. The hollyhocks are racing away – often in places we didn’t put them; French sorrel, rhubarb, rosemary, fennel, chives and marjoram are all up again; the overwintering parsley is starting to bulk up, lovage too is pushing out of the ground with its pink stalks. We scan the ground looking for any self-seeded angelica but we’ve got a tray of seedlings just in case. Summer wouldn’t be the same without their giant presence in the borders – I could go on but you get the point. These perennials are the backbone, the continuity members of the community of allotment plants. The best planned allotment in the world would be a poor thing if it had to start from scratch every year.

Our perennials are the old friends we haven’t seen since before the lockdown and my goodness it’s good to greet them, to pick a leaf and remember their taste and fragrance. Last year’s apple harvest was a bit of a disappointment with only the ribstone pippin producing prolific quantities of slightly scabby fruit which we ate anyway. A year on and the row of five apples in our ultra mini-orchard look all the better for their winter rest and we think a hard pruning has done them the world of good. As ever we’re interplanting nasturtiums among the fruit trees, and we hope the grease bands will discourage at least some of the moths.

That’s my 1000 words, then. It’s stopped raining and as soon as Madame finishes her drawing we’ll be out again. I’ve waxed my walking boots for the umpteenth time in hope and anticipation of being freed on Monday to finish walking the West Mendip Way. It’s always better to live hopefully than to get old and sour. (That was a note to self btw!)

Measuring the marigolds

Miracle cures abound in the organic gardening world, and the marigold is a top tip for all sorts of duties. However, it’s a bit more complicated than the stories usually suggest and like most people we’ve bought a packet of marigolds at the garden centre and discovered too late that they weren’t the ones we should have bought. So here’s a very quick disambiguation of the minefield.

  • Two kinds of Marigold share a common English name, and even look similar but they belong to two separate ‘tribes’, so let’s look first at the Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis* which has a country cousin called – unsurprisingly the Field Marigold – Calendula arvensis which is rather uncommon so we needn’t worry too much about it. The Pot Marigold is a lovely plant; easy to grow and it’s a good pollinator attractor. It self-seeds freely so it’s best to harvest the flower heads before they mature unless you want to save the seeds. It’s also the source of the flowers from which calendula cream is made – it’s got to be one of the safest and easiest home medicines to make and it really works. The picture at the top is a part of last year’s crop of flowers that we turned into a wonderfully fragrant ointment last autumn by steeping the flowers in sweet almond oil and then adding beeswax to form a firm cream. It’s great for skin problems – although the price of organic almond oil will make your eyes water – but even using the best ingredients it’s half the price of the commercial product.

The other ‘tribe’ of marigolds are the Tagetes; and these are the ones whose roots are said to exude a chemical that deters or even kills some of the nematodes that can cause problems in the garden. There are three members of the family you’re likely to meet in the UK (the US has at least one additional member that I know nothing at all about).

The first of the three is Tagetes erecta which is very confusingly known as the African Marigold in the UK in spite of originating (as they all do) in South America.

The second is Tagetes patula – the French Marigold – which is a smaller plant and is the one that’s most often interplanted for its suppose effects as a pest deterrent. We use these all the time because, being quite small they’re easy to run in between tomatoes and other crops. As to its effectiveness it’s hard to say, but they’re very pretty and if they deter pests then all the better.

The third is Tagetes minuta the Southern Marigold which – again confusingly – is actually taller than the other two. The minuta in the name refers to its very small flowers. This one hardly appears in the seed catalogues because it’s not much of a looker, but ironically it may be the most potent of the three, because aside from its capacity to see the nematodes off it’s also said to be capable of getting rid of some of the most pernicious weeds like couch grass and bindweed. Anything that can achieve such a miracle is worthy of a mention but apart from a paper published by the HDRA I haven’t found much evidence. It has certainly been widely used in South America as a herbal medicine. My only caveat would be that if it does possess the magical powers that are attributed to it, it might be a very poor companion plant if its secretions attack the very plants you’re trying to grow. However I’m sufficiently interested to try to grow a small patch so I can try out its insecticidal effects against the asparagus beetle that regularly attacks our asparagus bed. This time last year we were cutting our first spears, but after such a cold and wet winter and early spring there was no sign of any spears today when we peeped under the fleece.

So I hope that’s of some interest. This is a short piece because we’re so frantically busy on the allotment. The polytunnel is already showing us new possibilities. Some containers of very early potatoes have needed earthing up twice in the last week, and our seedlings just love the warmth and light- although we’re still covering them at night. Happy days!

  • * Having posted this piece yesterday I was reading John Jeavons’ marvellous book “How to grow more vegetables ..” which I’ve only just been able to get a hard (ie real) copy of, and he unequivocally lists the pot marigold Calendula officinalis as a companion plant to tomatoes.

Something to celebrate

Lesser Celandines on the river bank yesterday

At the risk of losing your attention altogether I want to add one further comment to the last two posts: Religiously planting potatoes and Ghost signs in which I’ve strayed off the subject of the allotment plan to explore the seasonal rhythms and implicit spiritualities of the allotment year.

You can check back on the previous posts to see how I managed to get from figuring out when to plant overwintering crops in the polytunnel to arrive at the significant overlap between the solar (everyday) calendar and the so-called pagan, let’s say pre-Christian and Christian calendars. I gave up on trying to incorporate the lunar calendar because – although I’ve no particularly strong opinions about it – the crucial difference between the lunar year of 354 days and the solar calendar of 365 days means that they only reconcile every thirty years . While I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there’s something very significant about the lunar cycle, what small amount of science I’ve remembered suggests that for an experiment to yield any meaningful data you need to reduce the number of variables as much as possible. The simple act of sowing a seed on the Potwell Inn allotment at the optimum time involves day length – whether spring or autumn, soil temperature, weather forecast, whether under cover or outside and probably many more obscure factors. To add the phase of the moon, whether waxing or waning for instance let alone the zodiac sign at new moon, would add a level of complication that would render any possible results meaningless. This doesn’t however imply that the sight of an autumn moon or the splendour of Orion in winter isn’t both mysterious and utterly compelling. One of our deepest human compulsions is to turn such moments into stories. Myths, I often think, are the way we try to tell the truth about mysteries we can’t fathom.

Not all our stories are equally benign, though, and during phases of fundamental change in a culture, stories can become weaponized and profoundly dangerous. At this moment we’re facing three of the most destructive stories the human race has ever concocted; the story that says for every problem there’s a technological fix; the story that evolution is a secular and linear progression towards the perfect society and another one that claims all our troubles are the fault of strangers. I don’t for a moment believe that our present crisis can be resolved by withdrawing and growing carrots because I’m neither a prepper (but) nor am I prepared to abandon hope in favour of realpolitik. The key thing is to remember that paradigm changes come slowly and are very patchy to begin with, and the attention span of politicians and journalists is easily exceeded by the goldfish. We are poorly adapted to perceiving extremely slow changes.

So I’ll leave that sort of pondering for the long winter nights because right now we’re frantically busy on the allotment and back at the flat shuffling plants in and out of the propagators on to window sills; pricking out seedlings, re-potting them as roots appear to have filled their latest accommodation and (most time consuming of all) looking for permanent markers that actually work! As we approach the vernal equinox on Saturday we find ourselves taken by surprise once again at the workload. If my wonderful new mandala could speak it would say – ‘well I did warn you!’

So the final life lesson from drawing the growing year as a wheel, comes from wondering at the way in which these seasons and their festivals have survived for so many thousands of years with different names but in so many different cultures. Isn’t it most likely that they meet some kind of deep human need that won’t be extinguished by the growth and decline of whole civilisations and their ideologies. We now understand, after a year of lockdowns, that isolation is a kind of hell – and that we are, at our very deepest levels, social beings. As I listen to the news it’s heartbreaking to listen to the way in which we’ve become divided from one another by anger and suspicion. The thing about nature is that it it’s one of the few aspects of our lives whose stock has risen during the pandemic. Without any kind of theology or explanatory apparatus we overwhelmingly agree that the natural world commands both respect and love. This at least is something we can gather together and celebrate, and we even have a servicable ancient timetable.

The simple act of sowing a seed is the beginning of understanding the generosity of the earth. It’s risky, it means learning to bend to, and accept the forces of nature – many of which we can’t begin to fathom. There is loss but often there is gain in the form of a harvest that I never quite feel I deserve and most particularly I want to say thank-you for without any ready made template to turn to. The cycle of festivals is our most powerful means of channeling these instinctive responses. Over the years I’ve led many harvest festivals, wassails, plough services, Christmas carols and rogation services where we once had a go at beating the parish bounds. It was a long walk! All of these festivals pre-date their appropriation by the Christian church which, ironically – you might think – kept them going for a couple of millennia because they couldn’t be suppressed.

If I’d quizzed the participants at those events why they were there I don’t suppose one in twenty would have come up with a theological reply. Why did we, year after year, walk a forty something mile pilgrimage across the fields between Malmesbury and Littleton on Severn to celebrate what was probably a mythical story about a murdered monk? Anyone who knows me will have heard me describe these endlessly re-enacted ancient festivals as left luggage offices where you don’t even need to know exactly what it is that you’ve mislaid somewhere in a long life, because surprisingly often it will just turn up.

There are very good reasons for being respectful of nature as we are now discovering with the threefold catastrophe of global heating, species extinction and economic chaos. For centuries – millennia even – humans put our trust in negotiations with the supernatural because there was nothing else. Then science and technology swaggered on to the street and for a while it looked as if they’d cracked it. We came to believe that, given time, there was no problem or threat that couldn’t be solved by science. Time was given – lots of time – and we discovered that science and technology were as much part of the problem as they were part of the solution.

We’ve been cynically divided and set apart by the spirit of an age which has run its course and whose beneficiaries are frantically trying to secure their wealth and power by dividing us into ever smaller and less powerful monads. But it’s so lonely being in a community of one where no-one understands or cares.

So when this is all over; those of us who love the earth and can glimpse a way of living less destructively should turn off the mobiles and bring on the festivals and feasts; bring on the gatherings for mourning and marking the great life changes, bring on the bonfires and lanterns and especially the songs and dances and community plays, bring on the strangers and the dressing up, bring on the cider (although we won’t all be drinking it) and the ash wands and the well dressing. Bring on the singers and the musicians, the sun, the moon and the stars and let the astronomers talk to the astrologers and discover that they both like daffodils; let the hydrologists talk to the dowsers and see what they can learn and the herbalists talk to the medics and see if they can swap useful ideas. Let granny talk to the historians so she can put them right on all their most egregious mistakes and finally let the politicians and journalists come on strict condition that they don’t speak but just listen – carefully for once. Tear down the shutters, pull back the curtains and open the windows wide. Let’s have the greatest ever festival to bring to reflect on all the things we don’t understand and to re-enchant and celebrate the sacred earth for taking care of us in spite of us behaving like ungrateful hooligans.

Next time – back to the allotment, I promise.

Ghost signs

The first rough draft of the chart with calculations

Bath is full of ghost signs. One of my favourites is the faded trace of Hands Dairy sign, still visible on the wall above a shop adjacent to the Abbey courtyard. In the early 70’s we were students at Bath Academy of Art which, at the time had its home in Corsham, a few miles east along the A4. However we came into Bath, to Sydney Place, for some design lectures and it was only a short walk to Hands – which by that time was a café, a bit of a greasy spoon place but it did a wonderful steak and kidney pie and chips. The cafe has long since disappeared but the ghost sign for the dairy is still there today. In fact there are several ghost signs for dairies dotted around Bath, and Jane Austin mentions walking along Cow Lane on her way to Weston. The lane is still there but the cows are long gone.

The point of this excursus is that the signs seem to do more than simply announce the name of a defunct business. To me they always trigger thoughts of the whole history and culture of the era they came from. I could never think of Hands Dairy without hearing the sound of the steel tyres of the milk cart on the cobbles, and the steady clip clop of the horse in front. Ghost signs are faded portals into another age. But you often need a particular angle of the light to spot them. Otherwise they lie there obscured until the season or the angle of the setting sun reveals them.

So it’s been with my sudden interest in pagan seasons. I loathe the word pagan because it’s so piously dismissive of a vast accumulation of human insight and practice – but I find myself using it because its intended target is so diffuse it hardly ever lands a blow. I wrote two days ago about finding Eliot Coleman’s comments about the way in which the familiar Christian seasons seem to be an echo of something more ancient. Anyone who’s ever studied the Old Testament properly (ie with an open mind) will have noticed that there are some epic borrowings from ancient literature. If God dictated the first five books of the Old Testament verbatim to Moses it merely demonstrates that God was a great reader and not afraid to throw in a few unattributed quotations. Eliot Coleman doesn’t really extend the discussion about the overlap of the seasons but I was sufficiently interested to put aside the allotment plan for a few hours, get up unspeakably early and draw up a circular plan – a great wheel – if you like for our particular spot in the northern hemisphere.

The intention was twofold. Firstly I wanted to avoid the flat earth scenario in which each allotment year is a linear sequence of events that ends by falling off a metaphorical cliff. The linear model gifts every January to us like an absolution from the errors of the past; a clean slate complete with seed catalogues ready for the New Year. Of course it’s not like that. By Christmas the buds are on the trees already and the purple sprouting broccoli and all the other biennials stubbornly refuse to vacate their places in the garden. The only way to represent it adequately is to join the ends in a circle so that December and January can speak to one another, and the equinoxes can embrace one another as kindred moments. The second, more prosaic reason was that I wanted a chart that plotted the days with less than ten hours daylight because those are the times, (the Persephone months as Eliot Coleman says), during which plant growth slows to a standstill. Developing a workable plan for sowing and harvesting throughout the year involves a good deal of counting the days forwards and backwards to arrive at the optimum time for sowing.

Actually constructing the chart turned out to be quite challenging because the ‘pagan’ and the Christian cycle of festivals are a bit out of synch; so the chart demanded some interesting calculations of chord lengths because inaccuracies with a childrens protractor get seriously magnified when the circle is 30 cms across, and I found myself blowing sixty years of dust off my trigonometric memory. A day is one three hundred and sixty fifth of three hundred and sixty degrees, and months come in several lengths including thirty, thirty one, twenty eight and twenty nine days. The solstices and equinoxes with their cross quarter days are easier to plot because they’re regular. So after drawing the solar calendar with its traditional names and the slightly displaced conventional calendar on the same circle in months, I then plotted the major Christian festivals around the same circle. Three ways of counting time around the same still point. It was about then that I realized that this was no mere diagram, it is much closer to a mandala; and when I filled in the sub ten hour days with some blue watercolour paint I was overwhelmed by the way in which the systems corresponded like ghost signs from the past. My joy was complete when December dutifully shuffled in and shook hands with January. I was so excited I momentarily considered plotting the lunar months as well but then my brain exploded at the thought of all those thirteenths galumphing around the chart and that I would need a transparent sheet and a drawing pin to construct a sort of tatty flat astrolabe. So I made some coffee and delivered it somewhat Tiggerishly to Madame, who was reading in bed.

The great circle seems to me to be offering something much greater and more powerful than a simple planning tool. It really is a mandala, a means of contemplation and meditation that calls upon us to align ourselves with the way things truly are. Our modern materialistic culture leads us into the dangerous trap of thinking that if something in nature doesn’t please us we can change it with technology. Day length? – get some LED’s; soil temperature? – burn some oil: insects? – blast ’em with chemicals!

An additional gift of the great wheel is that it marks the turn of the seasons with celebration, thanksgivings, mourning and hope. I suppose this all relates to my questioning of exactly why our immersion in the natural world seems to be good for us in a quite such a transcendent way; lifting us out of ourselves into something infinitely bigger. You just need to blow the old orthodoxies and shibboleths away and regard the pattern. It achieves the small miracle of re-enchanting the earth.

Anyway, I think I’ll work on a fair copy of the chart and maybe illustrate it but meanwhile – in case you’re wondering if I’ve become a bit of a Druid – I noticed these walls while we were out walking down by the river yesterday. I think they’re both fun, and rather beautiful.

How sweet!

Apropos of nothing in particular, a true story – told to me by my son – came to mind today while I was connecting the two water butts that will be the irrigation supply for the polytunnel. It’s been a bit of a saga, which I’ll come back to in a moment; but I wanted to fill out some of the science behind my piece yesterday on manure and greenhouse gases and, in particular, the relative virtues of so-called hot and cool composting. I’ve already written about being careful to locate manure from a trustworthy source. We once bought a couple of tons of so-called horse manure from a local farmer with an awful reputation for his management of the land. One year, for instance, he ploughed one of his fields straight down a steep slope towards a brook at the bottom. Needless to say, the next severe rainstorm took most of his topsoil away. He eked out a living by renting his fields for horses – far too many of them – and we discovered later that their principal diet must have been creeping buttercups which pass undaunted through their digestive system and infest any land they’re spread on.

Enthusiastic hot composters will tell you that you can put weeds of any type into their heaps and they will be killed by the heat. They will also tell you that you can compost trees, stones, and a whole bicycle in a fortnight. While it may be true that hot composting is a fast and efficient of turning green waste into something, it’s not altogether clear what that something is; and how much of something else – like methane, sulphur dioxide or ammonia is dispersed into the atmosphere at the same time. Here’s the science if you’re interested. The other thing worth mentioning is that worms and other insects and microorganisms can’t survive the high temperatures generated in hot composting and so the eventual product may not be as biologically rich as cool composted waste which seems to comprise a great proportion of worm casts. It may well be that the slow road is better for the allotment and garden and better for the atmosphere as well.

However, hot composting has its passionate followers and I’ve enjoyed watching some hilarious willy waving moments as its acolytes compare temperatures; competing for the killer degree centigrade that puts them at the top of the hot composting hall of fame. It’s no surprise that the same gardeners also compete to breed the hottest chillies – I think it’s a man thing.

Sadly, greenhouse gas generation increases with the temperature of the heap or windrow which suggests that although hot composting is probably a lot better than sending waste to landfill – because that’s where the waste is composted anaerobically, generating huge amounts of methane – it’s better to be patient and accept that you have to exclude your noxious weeds from the compost heap and watch it heat up quickly to 30C or 40C as you turn it in the early stages and then cool down to let’s say 20C when the worms, insects, bacteria and moulds will love you for providing perfect conditions for them to feast on your garden waste and turn it into compost in a month or so rather than a week or so. This, unfortunately, will exclude you from the A team – which brings me back to the story my son told me.

He was at a party in Birmingham when he chanced to hear a conversation between a young man and a rather attractive woman who was quizzing him on his occupation. “I’m a physicist”, he said; “I work on the hadron collider in Cern. “On the large one – she asked him with gathering interest. “No” – he said “- the smaller one”. “Oh” she replied, losing interest and turning away. “How sweet!” I was mulling over the pulling power of a hot heap, thrumming away at the Potwell Inn allotment, surrounded by muscular men drinking Jack Daniels neat and exchanging stories of vegetable derring do, when the thought of her magnificent put-down turned my thoughts back towards our quieter regime and I whispered a quiet “thank -you” to our heaps as I inspected the new tanks for leaks.

Joining two or three water butts together has taken me right out of my comfort zone. What I know about plumbing could be written on a postage stamp, but all I wanted to do was to join the tanks so I could pump water from the whole array rather than moving the pump from tank to tank. This involves joining them at the bottom rather than conventionally at the top – which means that there is a good deal of pressure on the connections when the tanks are full. The bits of push fitted plastic pipe that allow tanks to overflow into one another, just leak when they’re subjected to pressure. This simple objective has led me into a world of different dimensions, materials and fittings and four visits at least to purchase the wrong spares and return them for the right ones. I feel privileged to have acquired a dim understanding of the relationship between 3/4 BSP fittings and 22mm MDPE pipe – enough to hold my head up high in Screwfix anyway. Today I finally plugged them all together and pumped water in to test them. There was a moment of doubt when a couple of beads of water gathered on the joint and dripped down, and then – nothing. Job done. A wholly disproportionate flow moment followed – the psychological sort, not the watery one! Now all I have to do is build the sloping roof on the compost bins and install the guttering.

While all this was going on a female blackbird that seems almost hand tame was digging around the edges between the paths and the beds. She seems to have decided that we’re not a threat and feasts on the slugs, insects and eggs that she finds there. The polytunnel is warming the soil beautifully and so while the outside soil temperature is still 8C, the polytunnel soil is near 15C and the woodchip hotbed is 20C, as is the newest compost heap which is just waiting until I put the oldest heap through a riddle so it can go on to the beds and then I’ll turn the newer heap into the old space for a period of rest. The whole site was alive with activity in the sunshine today. It’s looking more loved and cared for than we’ve ever known – marvellous stuff.

Early blight?

Yesterday we were woken at 6.30am by the kind of groaning and grinding noises that you just know are not being generated by migrating birds or horny foxes. We’re slowly but relentlessly being gentrified here. In the past five years there has barely been a day that wasn’t accompanied by pile drivers, heavy equipment, jackhammers, scaffolders and speculators, who aren’t noisy but then, neither are covid viruses. We welcome our new neighbours, mostly wealthy absentee buy to let landlords who have slowly but surely blotted out every glimpse of the surrounding hills with their babel towers. The arrival of the cranes is the first clue we get as to the eventual height of their monstrous invasion. We protest to the planners, but these companies have big budgets and the legal artillery to beat down any local authority that dares to reject their advances. We are bombarded with emailed sweeteners that promise much but never deliver because they can wriggle out of their commitment to community infrastructure by paying a pitifully small sum into the cash strapped council’s account – on the grounds that they can’t make a big enough profit if they actually build all those promised schools, surgeries and community centres.

By way of absolute contrast see this –

This is our allotment site. To the left you can see the approaching armies of moloch. They would have us believe that their palaces of assisted community living for the wealthy are the way forward for a modern progressive city but I’m not even remotely convinced. These new buildings are bonded warehouses for etiolated souls.

the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

Yesterday also – but on the allotments – we experienced the glorious possibilities of The Commons. Anticipating the onset of spring by one day, and tempted by the glorious sunshine, the allotmenteers piled on to the site with spades and forks, picnics and children. Even the groaning of the cranes and the sirens of passing ambulances were unable to diminish the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

They were playing;

  1. Playing tag
  2. Making patterns with stones
  3. investigating ponds
  4. looking for frogspawn
  5. Making mud pies
  6. building dens
  7. building swings in a tree
  8. meeting school friends
  9. helping parents on allotments
  10. wheelbarrowing woodchip and leaves
  11. watching the grownups gardening
  12. learning how to thrive as humans
  13. even sowing a few seeds in their own garden patch

Many of the new allotmenteers live locally, often in gardenless flats, and know one another through their children at local primary schools – so they’re friends already and bring those friendships along to the site. Many of them are in front line occupations and their children are attending school in any case, but other parents have grabbed the opportunity offered by furlough to offer their children a much broader curriculum than barebones literacy and numeracy; introducing them to food production, natural history and getting to know a wider range of adults and our very different cultures than they would ever meet at school.

The allotmenteers represent the broadest spectrum of humans you could imagine. Just by walking down one footpath they might meet a lead trainer in gender diversity, a retired professor of French history, a retired vicar, several ex teachers, a professional musician, two nurses and a GP; male, female, straight gay and ‘haven’t a clue mate!” Not so long ago we had the retired director of the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. They might meet a Russian gardener, or someone from one of half a dozen Eastern European countries, several Afro Caribbeans who were born here or who’ve lived in Bath for longer than the vast majority of us; and an Indian national who’s travelled all over. Some of us are probably very well off and others not so, but we don’t worry to much about our differences and focus on what unites us, which is the love of gardening. It’s not perfect but it’s manageable.

During the afternoon, a fascinating pattern of distributed parenting developed where, without any obvious organisation (and certainly without a rota), responsibility for the children passed from adult to adult. The gates were locked by common consent and we all felt empowered to shoo them off if they were in danger of causing damage, without fear of reprisals from their mums and dads. When lockdown first started the whole site was tenanted very quickly and I think some of the younger ones worried that the old guard would not make them welcome. Eight months on and the integration of new members has been a blessing – they soon worked out that old age isn’t catching! The addition of children’s voices to the other wild sounds cheers everyone up.

When we – rather too easily – suggest that contact with nature is good for us, I’d suggest that the allotment offers a lot more to combat loneliness, isolation and poor mental health than any one off visit to a nature reserve. We are the new commons. The one place left that can give us access to a bit of shared land at an affordable rent; where a sense of community thrives organically rather than being organised by a committee of local councillors and property developers. For eighty quid a year we get not just our own fresh, organic produce; we get fresh air, exercise and access to a whole community of new friends. What you pay for is good, but what comes for free is priceless.

The penthouse flats in the riverside development cost over a million pounds. You can see the allotments from their balconies except it’s so windy up there you rarely see anyone using them. The roof garden is similarly empty for the same reason.

We don’t need any more unaffordable homes. We need allotments – lots of them – and soon; because they don’t just grow vegetables, they grow thriving human communities and happy human beings; and you can’t put a price on that – just a value.

Our improvised second stage seedling care – central heating and south facing window supplemented by a studio lamp with a daylight LED bulb.

Tomorrow is spring – except it’s not.

Bright sunshine, frogspawn, daisies and a small tortoiseshell butterfly bathing in the sun. We’re out on the allotment every day and the flat is full of seedlings as the propagators encourage them into dangerously precocious growth under artificial lights. That’s the easy bit. Keeping them all alive and thriving for the next few weeks is a harder job altogether.

Every year we suffer from traffic jams for the simple reason that plants get bigger and we’re left trying to find space near a warm window to compensate for the move out of the ITU. The slow procession from the propagators to the ground on the allotment is one of the absorbing challenges of gardening. We’re always trying to steal a march on nature by persuading our late January chilli seeds that it’s really May in the tropics – i.e. warm, humid and with a constant 12 hours of sun – which, being a first floor flat in Bath requires a degree of cunning coupled with a few bits of kit. But once the plantlets move from their snug beginnings into our living room. the only thing they’ve got going for them is the fact that we have three large south facing windows; the spring equinox is only three weeks away and as long as we keep the room temperature at around 21C they seem to do well. We, on the other hand. soon reach the point where for two months we can’t close the shutters because they’re behind a wall of green.

However, with the polytunnel up and running (I put up a large suspended shelf yesterday), the progression will be propagator – living room – unheated hallway – greenhouse – polytunnel – and then wherever they’re intended to grow. It’s hardening off at a glacial timescale but happily it works for us.

I was pondering all this in the week when we happened to watch a TV programme on Cornish fishermen and I realized that, just like them, 90% of our skill (if we have any) is in obsessively reading weather forecasts, looking at the sky, feeling the temperature of the earth, flaring our nostrils in the late winter air and being willing to venture it all on a kind of informed hunch that this is the moment. We like to pretend that we’re flowing with the Tao, but our unspoken purpose is to beat the Tao at its own game. One year in four we win some; but then a late frost or an unexpected snowstorm gives us a massive reproachful slap and our humility knows no bounds. Winter and spring are locked in a battle over custody of the weather and they can both be spiteful. The balmy protective warmth of the greenhouse can become both freezer or furnace in the few hours snatched to go for a walk without opening/closing the doors. The tunnel is an unknown quantity in terms of its response to the weather, but we already know that the protection offered by warmer nights as the soil radiates back its stored heat can be followed by a temperature rise to 25 C in the morning sun – even with a cool wind blowing.

We’re so busy at the moment that it’s hard to find an hour to write, and I’m writing this with one ear on the sounds from the kitchen where Madame is potting out tomato seedlings. Later I’ll be turning the compost bins again, ready for a new start in a couple of months. We’re not yet self-sufficient in compost and neither do we have the amount of land we’d need to grow crops just for composting. I think John Jeavons, living in a country where space is plentiful, underestimates the challenge. So we buy in composted horse manure and also hot fresh manure in normal times – so not this year. But with anything bought-in there’s a risk of chemical residues than can harm tender plants or soil life like worms – and so we’re careful but we have to accept that we don’t garden in a perfect world.

With the big civil engineering projects on the allotment all finished – pond, irrigation and water storage and the tunnel are complete – we’re back to delightful pottering. More later – as my old friend Joan Williams would have said – God willing and a fair wind!