Taking the fight to Australia

Today was the day of the cake stall that our seven year old grandson organised for the victims of the Australian bush fires, and in particular he was hoping to raise a substantial sum to support relief work for animals on Kangaroo Island.  He’s pretty dotty about wildlife in general and with an Australian mum he was totally focused on the task, ‘though being a proper pom I don’t know the first thing about Kangaroo Island except that it seems that it’s name doesn’t reflect that it’s the last stronghold of disease free koala bears.  I guess there must be quite a lot of kangaroos as well.  What’s clear is that the climate driven crisis in Australia has become a worldwide cause for environmentalists and animal lovers and it’s reached into the hearts of millions of British people as well.  The parents at his primary school really got on-side today and there were more cakes than you could shake a stick at but better still, hosts of customers willing to buy their own produce back at ridiculous prices, egged on by our grandson who was overheard telling one customer that ‘he didn’t do change’! All the teachers rallied round; the local firefighters turned up to support but then got called away to a fire and between them they all blew my estimate out of the water.  I thought he might make £50, but it looks as if there was over three hundred pounds in notes, so by the time the coins are counted it’s going to go to four hundred if not five.  What a magnificent effort for a seven year old! – even if it was with a bit of help from family and friends and especially Mum who was so nervous about today going well that she looked as if she’d burst into tears if anything went wrong.

I was despatched early this morning to go to a local catering supplier to get paper plates and I looked for paper bags as well, this being in response to an environmental crisis.  I managed to find ample supplies of compostable plates, but paper bags came in 250’s which made them rather pricey. I spotted some reusable paper bags treated with beeswax, sold in tens, but they would have cost twenty times more than the paper ones.  Tickets to the moral high ground are a bit pricey it seems. What was so encouraging was that people, dozens of people – many of them parents were getting it. It didn’t feel like our grandson was pushing at a door, it felt like he’d opened it and the people were pouring through.  I know we get very dispirited by governments and the media for propagating and apparently believing their own lies, but here were around a hundred parents and their children in an ordinary British primary school refusing to buy their guff. I don’t have the bottle to accuse a bunch of bright seven year olds of being ridiculous and idealistic because they’re our hope for the future or, for me perhaps, their future if they’re to have one.

So I really believe that today’s effort was one more small step in the right direction.  We can’t rely on national politics so we’ll ignore them and take on the task locally.

How do I finish off a day like today? Well, I wrote about my favourite breakfast of home made marmalade and home made sourdough, so here’s a picture. My cake baking efforts were unevenly received – I was up against some very stiff and colourful competition, so I bought back most of my cheese scones at a delightfully inflated price, but most of the blueberry muffins found a new home.

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Doing the right thing beautifully

Since the sun shone this afternoon, once I’d finished baking we went over to Dyrham Park for a walk. In fact the park itself was closed because it’s a fairly unique combination of grass and limestone, so quite thin soil and easily damaged by walkers – which didn’t bother us much because we could walk down the main tarmac path to the house, following the course of a stream in full spate after all the rain. There were patches of waterlogged soil in many places, and we couldn’t drive home the back roads because the road was completely flooded at the top of Dyrham Hill. It’s a steep walk down to the house and gardens, and we were met there by one of the terribly efficient welcomers who offered us a leaflet about the gardens parts of which are in the process of restoration to something like the original plans.

I’m not a fan of formal gardens, I don’t like things to be too orderly and sterile, and so my heart sank a bit when this process began. The notices boast something like 40,000 bulbs planted, and new yew hedging no doubt accompanied by finely cut and weed free stripy grass. However once you leave the formal garden, which amount to less than half of the total area, things are altogether more interesting – with a lake, or I think more accurately a large pond with flowing water taken from the stream; a waterfall, and a much more informally planted area of shrubs and flowers. The leaflet described all the exotic plantings but could have made much more of the wildlife potential. Someone, somewhere had made the decision not to deadhead or cut back all of the seed bearing grasses but to leave them over the winter, a marvellous food source for birds and small mammals and very beautiful in their own right. I thought the leaflet had missed an opportunity to show people the potential of wildlife gardening. Dave Goulson’s book “The Garden Jungle” was on sale in the shop, and the subject seems to be rising higher and higher in the consciousness of gardeners everywhere, so why not put up some signage to say “this is what it can look like” – which is very beautiful.

Outside the house the snowdrops are flowering and you could almost have thought spring had arrived if it weren’t for the cold wind blowing steadily up the escarpment. We could see that it’s going to take weeks for the soil to dry out. Apparently things are even worse in Northern France.

On the allotment today Madame followed up on my idea that perhaps our rat trap had not been stolen but dragged off by a fox who’d found a rat in the trap and had carried it off to a more private place to devour the remains. My hunch turned out to be true, and the fox had eaten all bar the tiniest scrap of fur and even cleared out the last remains of the crunchy peanut butter bait, leaving the empty trap in its box about 50 yards away in some long grass. I’ve said before that I don’t in the least mind the foxes eating the rats, but I’d prefer it if they didn’t steal the plates and the cutlery as well – it’s such bad manners.
Naturally we were relieved that it wasn’t another visit by our burglarious predecessor who now just owes us two net cloches, two water butts, two very expensive cold frames and a max and min thermometer. We can solve the fox problem by attaching the rat trap boxes to some long pegs, and on the plus side another neighbour who is moving to a different site has given us an enormous tarpaulin and a storage bench which he doesn’t want to take.

It’s lovely to see our early sowings taking off so well. I was so concerned about the waterlogging in one part of the plot which lies above an underground stream, that I gently mooted the possibility of digging a small pond on it, sealed by puddling it with the plentiful clay. Madame didn’t just disagree, she saturation bombed the whole idea and could see nothing but drowned creatures and malaria infected mozzies. I think I’ll put that one to one side – for the time being!

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Daldinia concentrica – Cramp balls

Back at the park, as we walked up the track I spotted a felled tree trunk – there are lots of them lying around with their associated brash, another sign that the National Trust policy is changing very much for the good. Once again the instinct for tidiness is being restrained to the benefit of the many plants, fungi, bacteria and small creatures who can both eat and shelter under the piles; and this particular tree had an array of turkey tail fungi – Trametes versicolour at one end, and cramp balls, or King Alfred’s cakes – Daldinia concentrica – at the other; neither of them the remotest bit rare but fun to name.

Nothing more to do this evening than bake a loaf and pack the cakes and scones into tins for our grandson’s charity cake sale tomorrow.IMG_20200115_134048

Q – is there a great way to decrease meat consumption?

A: – eat less meat

OK so most of us would agree that living on pasta, marmalade and Cornish pasties would be a tiny bit unbalanced, but the pasties – which Madame made for supper this evening – have additional benefits.  They only have 1.5oz of meat in each one – the rest is pastry, potato and swede.  You don’t have to be working class or wear trainer bottoms to eat one, just the ability to get over yourself – PLUS – they are better at cheering you up than any prescription drug after a rainy day. Obviously the pesto is lovely as well, and the two photos are only there to show how to make a sausage which you put into the freezer for 2 hours before removing it and cutting it up into servings.  Last night we had it with tagliatelle, crushed potatoes and steamed broccoli – positively life affirming! and finally the marmalade which is enough to get us through until next January – that’s 365 breakfasts and 365 slices of our own everyday sourdough toast – possibly 400 if you include the greed.

It has been raining all day again. Last night’s TV  documentary on the Church of England’s cover up of the predatory bishop Peter Ball – who I knew slightly when he came to theological college as an occasional lecturer – depressed me beyond measure, not least because it was so entirely predictable. A church hierarchy that protects its reputation before it protects vulnerable people is utterly unworthy.

Dave Goulson’s book “The Jungle Garden” which I’ve been reading made me gnash my teeth as well, but this time in a good way. You’ll never eat a shiny Cox apple or a Spanish non-organic grape again.

……. and thank you so much for reading this blog.  Yesterday I had my largest number of views ever – completely inexplicable!

This won’t buy the baby a new coat

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After quoting from Cold Comfort Farm a couple of days ago, I couldn’t resist reading it again for the umpteenth time and once again it made me laugh out loud  on almost every page. I mean it’s not as if it’s a piece of great literature, but it’s absolutely joyful  and it feels as if it was written in much the same way that Jack Kerouac is supposed to have  written “On the road” – in one long binge. I’ve read it so many times, now, that I’ve worn it out over and over and my latest copy – bought from an Oxfam shop – started life at 2/6 – that’s half a crown or twelve and a half pence in new money. While I was reading today the spine began to break once more so that’s something else I need to look out for.

But there’s more to it than just the comedy.  The book was written as a riposte to the Thomas Hardy school of literature. I’m a great fan of Hardy but you have to say the unremitting grimness of, say, Jude or Tess does make it something of an ordeal to read them – the grey wraiths of fate hang over them rather like an appointment for a colonoscopy….

But then I suddenly remembered my first ever sermon while I was training when one of the assessors said it was like being immersed in Thomas Hardy – which I didn’t take as a compliment. A rather kinder mentor said gently that it would be best if I didn’t try to say everything that was on my mind at once. Being a Hardy fan is not unlike being an old fashioned Marxist – you know something terrible is going to happen but you just don’t know when: which is precisely why my mind travelled to Amos Starkadder’s sermon after seeing the photographs in Cardiff last week. I needed something to laugh at amid the suffocating thought that something pretty awful is happening to us all.

Reading the whole novel again brought other rewards as well. Madame, for instance, reminded me that it was one of my father’s favourite books – a fact which I’d completely forgotten, and which prompted me to remember that I had seen him laughing until the tears ran down his face and he fell to coughing furiously.  It was a great memory for displacing some of the more gloomy ones as he grew old.

Last night the south westerly wind was in one of those strange moods where it simply blew hard and steadily, without variation, finding the tiniest cracks in the window frames and causing a continuous soughing noise.  We woke up this morning to rain, again the uncommon sound of a heavy and continuous shower, blitzing through the early sunlight as the sun rose over the roofs of the buildings opposite with a fine mist rising up in the intense brightness. All very Hardy-esque I thought. They call it synchronicity when events and thoughts seem to coincide. It happens a lot at the Potwell Inn.  The other memory to bubble up from the silt was the phrase spoken by (I think) Mrs Beetle – “This won’t buy the baby a new coat” – one of my mother’s frequent expressions.

Yesterday I glimpsed a newspaper headline suggesting that the government had decided to treat Extinction Rebellion activists as potential terrorists.  I’m not much of an activist but it amuses me to think that at my ripe old age I’m finally being taken seriously as a threat to the way we do things so badly round here. Good thing too, we need to shake things up a bit if we’re going to survive – this woebegotten bobbery pack of a government can stick their fingers in their ears and shout “lah lah lah” as much as they like but it hasn’t worked in Australia and it can’t work here.

Rats vanquished, Seville oranges in!

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After a somewhat gloomy posting yesterday I think it’s time to put the more positive side of life forward. For instance – today we spent a few hours at the allotment, weeding and gathering dead leaves (they attract slugs).  The sun was shining and as I turned the compost heap I could see that it’s thriving and aerobic in spite of the wet weather and the preponderance of green kitchen waste which makes it rather dense. But the worms don’t seem to mind and they were there in their tens of thousands.  We did nothing at all to introduce worms to the heap, they just moved in and they’re doing a brilliant job of reducing everything down. We’ve put substantial amounts of cardboard in with the waste – in fact all of the cardboard packaging that comes into the flat except the stuff that looks too shiny to be true because we suspect it’s probably got a plastic coating. Biodegradable tea bags go in and quickly reduce to something that looks like slime mould. The so-called green caddy bags are very persistent and so we now take them out.  I think some manufacturers think that breaking big bits of plastic into tiny bits is biodegrading – it isn’t. The other big addition is the large corrugated cardboard boxes that come with furniture and especially bicycles.  We saw the larger sheets up roughly and within a week or two they completely disappear.

The only disappointment was the fact that our persistent thief has stolen one of the rat traps.  We’ve lost so much stuff over the past three years we’ve racked our brains to think who it might be, and we think it’s probably the tenant who was evicted from half of our allotment because he neglected it completely. He seemed to be bearing some kind of grudge against us – I see him often in the street and he gurns at me in a knowing way as if he knows something I don’t. What is it about thieves that makes them want to make their criminality known to the victims? In a thoroughly uncharitable manner I take delight that he’s expending so much spiritual energy trying to get at us and I smile back wondering if it ever penetrates his dull brain that we know and we don’t care. We just bolt things down more carefully.

Anyway the sun was shining and that was enough to redeem the shining hour; so it was a bonus when we found a box of Seville oranges to make this year’s marmalade – that’s a job for tomorrow, I think.  I’ve also got to do some baking because our grandson is putting on a cake stall at his primary school, to raise funds for the victims of the Australian bush fires – his mum’s Australian. He’s only seven years old and we’re all immensely proud of him.

The street weeds are growing about an inch a day and I’m slowly checking and double checking what’s there. With no flowers you’ve only got growth habit, leaf shape and stalk colour and shape to go on which demands a bit more detective work sometimes but saying hello to them by name makes the walk to the shops more fun. Tonight, because the sky was clear, we had an extra half hour of daylight, a lovely feeling.

The other bit of positive news is that we went through the seeds today and we’ve got enough of nearly all the chillies to get them in very soon. Seed doesn’t last forever but four varieties of chilli cost quite a bit if you’re buying them fresh, so there’s just one more to buy.  Last season’s habaneros are so hot that I think we’ve got enough dried to last for years.

And finally, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I took a load of books to a local charity shop last year.  They emailed me today to say that they’d sold them and raised just under £500 for the charity. I think I’ll take another batch.

Bath pavement artist cheats death

 

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Rue leaved saxifrage

I’d never noticed this plant until we moved here – it’s a Saxifraga tridactylides the three fingered or rue leaved saxifrage. I first noticed it growing on our fire escape where, because it was only rooted in about 1 mm of grime, it was a tiny little plant and I thought no more of it until today when I spotted its more fortunate relative growing in a  luxurious crack at the bottom of an old limestone wall. Like most pavement plants it doesn’t exactly draw attention to itself, but unlike many of its posher cousins this saxifrage is an annual, and it survives the yearly baptism of Roundup by flowering and setting seed before the man from the council gets to it. Other pavement artists survive by looking as if they are entitled to be there.  The Mexican fleabane spreads because most people think it’s a daisy and therefore deserves a chance.  The Canadian fleabane plays Russian roulette with the ethnic cleansers (this is a very fertile city) so sometimes it gets hit and sometimes it gets away with it. The sowthistles seem to be resistant to the sprays, so they die back respectfully and then emerge stronger than ever. Ivy leaved toadflax grows on the walls and escapes that way. Let’s be honest, this obsessive tidiness isn’t remotely necessary, and the vagrant plants add a touch of life – even to our hallowed Georgian crescents. I’m just pleased to see anything showing signs of life.

Today started with me feeling a little short of sleep. I seem to be dreaming my entire life in a more or less random manner – my mind is slowly coming to terms with the fact that at last, through the magical surroundings of the Potwell Inn, I’m safe, and so having packed up and moved here four years ago my unconscious is wrapping up the past and packing it away because it (he) knows I don’t need it anymore.

Today’s re-lived experience involved the 8 mm film I once made of the funeral of a gangster who – it was widely thought – had been thrown down a flight of stairs and murdered. The police conducted an unenthusiastic investigation that took best part of a year, but there were no witnesses, no-one was talking and, to be frank, most people thought he had it coming. I was riding behind the horse-drawn hearse when the coffin very nearly slid out on to the road because someone had forgotten to insert the bolts, and the coachman turned to me and said – “he frightened my bloody ‘oss – e’s bin in the freezer for six months”. The surreal picture of a frozen corpse rolling down the hill was an addition to life’s rich tapestry, no doubt, but I spent most of the day in barely suppressed terror. 

So enough of these troubling old memories, I’m wrapping them in newspaper and sticking them in some kind of interior shed – glad to see the back of them.  But there are many more, and I think I’ll be dreaming them for the foreseeable future.

The good news was that on Monday we went to an excellent talk on Giotto’s paintings in the Scrovengni Chapel in Padua – the paintings were in Padua, that is, we were in the inestimable BRLSI. In the days of our pomp, when we had two incomes; most of our half-terms (Madame is an art teacher) were spent in galleries around Europe, sometimes with school parties and sometimes alone.  Now we’re retired our scope is a bit narrower and we haven’t even been to London for years, but the talk reawakened all the old excitement and I suddenly thought – ‘well we live 10 minutes walk from a main line station, why don’t we buy a railcard and book ahead to get cheap train tickets?‘  I mentioned the idea to Madame and she added Glasgow and Edinburgh to the wish  list and after an hour online we had our card and our first ticket – to Cardiff for the National Museum of Wales – great place.  I don’t need to drive, or worry about where to park, and we don’t need to have the obligatory row as we drive in circles when the satnav fails. It’s a win win cultural feast with extra virtue on the side for taking the train. We’re like a couple of kids in a sweet shop when we go to a good gallery.

Back on the allotment (try to keep up – we get around a bit!) I checked the traps and for the first time this week there were no rats.  A little dig around the compost bin suggests that either they have moved out or there were only ever a couple of them. The heap, which has been topped up to the brim three times since October has now rotted down to about 25% of the initial volume and is ready to be turned into the neighbouring bin. Everything looks very dormant apart from the overwintering vegetables which are all doing well.  The garlic that we started in pots about three weeks ago is doing particularly well and even some red onion sets that we’d given up on have thrown up their first shoots. Suddenly I’m very aware that the chilli seeds need to be sown very soon to give them a long ripening season. Next week we’ll be complaining about having no time!

My friend Rose posted to say that she’d been down to Shapwick Heath to see the murmuration of starlings there on the Somerset levels. Lucky her, we’ve not yet been but I’m sure it was awesome.  We used to see murmurations over Redcliffe Church in Bristol when I was there, but I’d be surprised if that still happens now.  We did, however, see a robin on the plot today.  We no-diggers are a bit of a waste of time for a hungry robin, but he he may have just turned up for a chat.

 

 

First field trip of 2020

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Don’t worry – it gets better than this. Everything of any value was removed from this wreck years ago and all that remains is a heap of rusting steel plus an empty can of cider in the boot. The sheer effort of getting it down a muddy track must have been a piece of heroic, almost Fitzcarraldo stupidity, and a fitting memorial to our culture I think. Anyway there was much more to enjoy today apart from my delight in collapsing sheds and old wrecks. There is nothing quite as exciting or challenging as going out on a field trip – OK a long walk – with some genuine experts on hand. Today we were spoilt for choice with a (county recorder level) botanist, a local historian and naturalist, a leading ecologist and an ex president of the British Mycological Society quite apart from some heavyweight birders and a botanical artist. Walking can get quite slow when the objects of interest are so frequent, and so it took us twenty minutes inspecting a passing stream for Signal Crayfish before we even set off. Apparently a local resident has perfected the art of trapping them and eating them for breakfast! – we found his creel lurking there, baited (we were told) with cat food.

From the outset we were away not with just one heron, but a whole heronry of about half a dozen nests with three birds perched high up in the trees overhanging a Honda car dealer. What was it I wrote yesterday about urban wildlife? As we walked on we saw (and heard) all the usual suspects like thrushes and robins, but also a young buzzard, a kestrel, nuthatch, goldcrest and to cap it all we were shown a nesting site for ravens at the end of the walk inside the Bath Abbey cemetery.IMG_20200105_125957

Within the plants, it was good to see rosettes of primrose leaves in the same graveyard (they’re brilliant places for wildlife – you need a PhD to walk through Smallcombe Cemetery with any intelligence). But there were Winter Heliotrope in full perfume for once, and a pair of Arum cousins, one a native – Lords and Ladies and the other its ornamental relative from Italy rapidly making a nuisance of itself in this country and called – surprisingly perhaps – Italian Lords and Ladies.

There were numerous other goodies around, but having someone on the walk who combined expertise on bryophytes and fungi kept us looking at the limestone walls and paths.  Incidentally, he was carrying a second pair of binoculars which he used for close scanning. I tried it on the carpet when we got home but neither of our binoculars would focus down below about 7 or 8 feet.    There’s no point in bigging up your knowledge under these circumstances, the best thing to do is watch and learn with your notebook at the ready. I know a few fungi, and they’re not plentiful at this time of the year but we spotted Wood ear and Yellow Brain fungi.  My photos weren’t very good because I had only taken my mobile phone.

But the biggest excitement of the day was getting close up to some bryophytes. Unlike most humans, they actually look more and more beautiful the closer you look. The thing is they’re often very small and inconspicuous so you tend to overlook them.  That’s not a bad strategy since I’ve just spent over an hour trying to identify one photograph because there are a great number of things that you might (I might) casually describe as ‘moss’, ‘fern’ or ‘liverwort’.  Actually until today I had very little idea what liverworts actually looked like, and there’s the best reason for joining a natural history society and going on field trips, because there will be someone that really does know and the chances are they’ll be a great teacher who’s only too keen to share their expertise. So here’s what a liverwort can look like very close up –

Aren’t they stunning? the textures are unlike anything you can see in most plants. I’m not completely sure about the Targiona hypophylla because I identified it myself, but the other was identified by a national expert so you can bet your boots on it. Even I think I’m sounding a bit breathless about all this but we had such a good time today among some lovely people, we learned a lot from them and, best of all, I discovered that there’s a whole world of winter lists out there to satisfy even my propellor headed tendencies.

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And below are a few things I didn’t manage to identify, apart from the Maiden-hair Spleenwort on the left. I was intrigued by the reason for it being so named.  A quick flick through Wikipedia suggests it was once used to treat diseases of the spleen, but I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence for that use, only for chest complaints and menstruation problems, for which there are many more commonly used treatments.  So it’s a lost etymology as far as I can see.  One other interesting fact popped up, though. There is another plant called maidenhair fern – whose leaves are exactly like miniature versions of the leaves of the Maidenhair tree – Ginkgo biloba. 

So here’s the rogues gallery of today’s unsolved mysteries.  I really like having a few of these because it keeps me going back.

As we say in Bristol – “where’s that to?”

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– and the answer is in our son’s next door neighbour’s garden in the middle of Birmingham.  In fact herons are almost a pest in suburban gardens these days and almost any little pond is likely to be raided. Last time we were up in Birmingham we saw a large heronry alongside a reservoir near Winterbourne House, and a few years back our son saw a peregrine kill a pigeon and eat it on the path outside his kitchen window in the middle of Harbourne.  On our allotment in Bath we see foxes and badgers and one allotmenteer has seen deer there.  The birds are pretty prolific as well, we’ve got one established peregrine nest in the centre of town and if I were a better entomologist  I reckon we’ve a rich collection of insects on the allotments too, not to mention the smaller mammals I wrote about yesterday. In fact Ken Thompson’s work at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, some of which comes up in his book “The Sceptical Gardener” – well worth reading –  and Dave Goulson’s books on bees suggest that suburban gardens are both a resource and a hotspot for depleted wildlife.

So while urban and suburban gardeners (and farmers) pit themselves and their gardens against environmental catastrophe, what’s happening out there in the “real” countryside?  I think we pretty much know the answer to that one – it’s a story of crisis.  I would have said it was a story of decline if I’d been writing this a few years ago, but there are signs of hope, typified by the rewilding project at Knebb but replicated on a much more modest scale in many other places. While we all wish that change could come faster but there’s a lot of inertia and a whole culture to overcome before that can happen, and I know we need action right now,  but with a climate change denying government, banks and multinational pharmaceutical companies still in control, the  responsibility for change, for the time being, has to be on us and our behaviour.

At the AGM of the Bath Natural History Society this afternoon, (Prof) David Goode – in his President’s address – said that he felt that public attitudes towards climate change had changed for the better over the past year, and gave credit to Greta  Thunberg for inspiring the Extinction Rebellion movement and catalysing the sense of urgency.  He also said that he had authored some reports in the late 1970’s in a book trying to predict what was coming during the next decades.  He told us that the editor of the publication had refused to accept the phrase “greenhouse effect” but that every one of his predictions had come to pass before the end of the decade. In my view, with Australia on fire, California in the grip of a prolonged drought and multiple species extinctions across the world it’s become ever more clear that climate change, species extinction and neoliberal politics are all part of the same problem and we can’t choose to fix just one of them.  Having worked in the countryside for 25 years I know only too well the cost to the environment of soil degradation, monoculture, eutrophication of the rhynes (ditches) and the continual application of powerful chemicals, and it’s a cost to the farmers too because as their income is squeezed by falling farm gate prices deliberately forced on them by supermarkets (ask any dairy farmer) they feel they’re being blamed for the state of the environment while the real architects of agribusiness are living high on the hog.

It’s shaming rather than ironic, that suburban and urban green spaces have become places of refuge for wildlife, harried from the countryside by the destruction of habitat and driven by an economics that has no column for the environment in the profit and loss accounts. If you add in the ludicrous farm subsidy system and the lobbying power of the agrochemical industry and it looks like a perfect storm. Ironically I won a signed hardback copy of Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” in the raffle.  I bought the paperback last summer at Heligan, so I’ll pass that copy on to a friend. IMG_20200104_154026One of the greatest advantages of  living in the centre of Bath is the proximity of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which is only 5 minutes walk away and accommodates  most of the Bath Nats indoor meetings. The view through the first floor window was lovely this afternoon. January is the quietest month in Bath, with far fewer visitors and space to walk around the city unhampered.

Up at the allotment this morning we planted out the last batch of overwintering broad beans. The first feed of broad beans and new potatoes is a landmark meal, marking the end of the hungry gap and the hope of good things to come, but the soil is very wet at the moment and the water table is so close to the surface that we’re a bit concerned about the effect on the overwintering plants, so it may be necessary to deepen the soakaways or to raise the beds even more, adding plenty of grit to the soil to improve drainage. Whichever we choose it’s going to be hard work, that’s for sure.

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Luckily we’ve got a second string to our bow because  we started a second batch of garlic in large pots, filled with a free-draining mix of soil, compost and horticultural grit, with a few handfuls of vermiculite thrown in. It’s a similar mix to the one we’ve evolved for growing basil indoors under the horticultural lights and that’s absolutely thrived this winter giving us a year-round supply of full flavoured basil. This variety is called Neapolitan and I like it even more than the Classico.

  • This post was amended on Sunday to restore a displaced paragraph to its proper position.

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Wheat and tares at the Potwell Inn

Wheat and Tares or in plainer terms, the pests, diseases and downright nuisances are just a part of life at the Potwell Inn, and sometimes they can be sorted easily but, sadly sometimes a little harsh intervention is needed. One such fact of life on the allotment is rodents – rats and mice. Squirrels too can lend a destructive hand.  Last autumn we sowed a row of broad beans which failed to materialise. We found them yesterday hidden in a pile – presumably by a squirrel – under the leaves surrounding the rhubarb plants.

It seems paradoxical to say that because we are organic gardeners we don’t use chemicals unless they’re approved by the soil association, but perhaps once a year we might use a pyrethrum spray if the asparagus beetle runs out of control, we’re always very careful to do it when the friendly insects are less likely to be affected.

Garden centres will often try to point you in the direction of  pyrethroids when you enquire, but these are not approved for use on organic gardens.  There’s an exact parallel with herbal medicines here. Conventional medicine often works to isolate what’s believed to be the ‘active constituent’ of a plant and then produces immensely powerful and marketable products; but there’s no history of use in the pure form and so these chemicals can do immense damage before the downside becomes apparent. Pyrethrum has been around for a long time and it can kill pollinating insects if it’s used carelessly but in extremis it’s the lesser evil when faced with the extinction of a crop.  Last season we didn’t need to use it at all because the ladybirds roared into action at the best possible time and we were grateful to accept biological controls fee of charge.

Plant chemistry is immensely complex, and a single plant can contain dozens of active ingredients, all in symbiotic relationship with one another in the host plant.  Often the combination is more effective and less dangerous than the individual components. All of which is a long winded way of saying that artificially manufactured pyrethroids are far more persistent and dangerous than the plant extract that inspired them.  The downside is that pure pyrethrum is extremely expensive!

But of course the whole discussion of organic culture is fraught with the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe. The old and humorous definition of a weed as a plant in the wrong place has it exactly right, and this year we’ll be growing a few well known weeds deliberately, not to spite our neighbours but in order to continue my experiments with herbal medicine. While it’s perfectly acceptable to be found harvesting leaves and flowers around and about on our walks, it’s actually illegal to dig the roots up without the owner’s permission. I suspect that wandering around the countryside armed with my beautiful pointed spade would be considered as going equipped  and so there are some plants it’s best to gather from your own patch.

The distinction between weeds and vegetables can be very flexible, as can the nuisances of insects and animals. In the autumn our neighbours are troubled by the alarming number of ivy bees which, as it happens are perfectly harmless and lack a sting.  I’ve laid on the ground nose to nose with a mating ball to get a photograph before now.  Every year too, our sweet corn is ravaged by badgers – who absolutely love it, but don’t like soft netting because it gets in their claws – and so there’s a more or less effective remedy. Rats, being brilliant climbers, also clamber up to take the corn and, on a really bad day, a couple of the local wild population of deer will take it as well. In the complicated way that we do our ethical sums, we accept the damage from some animals but not others. Most of us carry a mental hierarchy of potential pest mammals from hedgehogs, deer and badgers at the cuddly end  and at the bottom of everyone’s list comes the rat. Mice seem altogether more benign until you sow a row of peas or beans -which is a pity because there don’t seem to be any effective deterrents apart from trapping and killing them and yet they carry some awful diseases, so you really don’t want their urine anywhere near your organic veg.

Naturally the moral difficulty doesn’t end there because you can use poison – where you never have to see or touch the casualties but when they are eaten by scavengers, then foxes hedgehogs and crows may well become secondary victims. The only other alternatives are live trapping them and then releasing them on someone else’s patch – not nice – or despatching them yourself – which is too troubling to contemplate or, finally, using strong spring traps that kill the rat instantly. Which means that every day I have to check the traps and dispose of the victims – which I leave out to feed the foxes, badgers and all the rest. I know it’s daft to feed the very creatures that will be attacking our allotment in a few months but there it is.  I’d rather have to look one dead rat in the eye than lie awake at night worrying about the hedgehogs.

And then, this week there’s the other kind of high-tec mishap that can cost a great deal of money to remedy.  The heating controller on our campervan has been slowly dying for the last five years, and yesterday it finally gave a last pathetic glow and faded into darkness. I knew it would be expensive to replace so I disconnected it and brought it back to the Potwell Inn, and set-to with my tiniest screwdriver. As the cover came off I found a printed circuit board that could have come out of a laptop. Worse still there were two more layers and a screen – all equally complex. The controller turned out to be a small computer that monitors and controls every aspect of the heating and hot water in the van. In fact it was £350 worth of pure German engineering in a box not much more than 3″ by 2″. There was only one thing to do because the van is the crucial component in all our natural history expeditions. “Rats!” I said, neatly compartmentalizing it as I pressed the send button on the order.  Now I can’t wait for the new one to arrive so we can heat the van and the water without an hour-long cat and mouse (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) game with the display.

Tomorrow there’s the Bath Nats AGM and a talk on wildlife photography, and then – on Sunday – the first field trip of 2020. Life is good – as long as you’re not a rat!

More auguries of spring

If I’m honest, I’ve always thought of this period of the year as  a kind of winter gap, and our enforced absence from the allotment due to almost continuous wet weather echoes the historical pattern of farming. These days, with massive and heavy farm machinery the idea of ploughing and sowing in wet soil at the turn of the year  is a non-starter. I’ve seen it suggested that seed can be sown in frost hardened ground, but for most farmers if it’s not sown during the last good weeks of autumn it’ll have to wait until February or March at the latest. That’s where the much lighter horse drawn plough gained valuable extra time notwithstanding its limitations. A horse drawn plough can cover one acre a day whereas a modern tractor can plough 24 acres – and do quite a bit of damage in the process.  Mercifully, the trend is towards no-till methods which is a step (just one step) in the right direction.

IMG_20200101_120038Historically there was little work done on the land around Christmas but there was always hedge laying, which was one of my favourite jobs when I was a groundsman. So with a pause, let’s say,  between the solstice and Epiphany on January 6th, work in the fields could resume. We used to celebrate Plough Monday in one of my parishes – always the first Monday after 6th January, and the Young Farmers would carry an old Ransomes plough into the church, along with some hand tools and lanterns and I would bless  it before it was returned once again to a gloomy corner in someone’s barn. The plough was slightly too long to manoeuvre down the aisle of the church so the handles were reduced in size and welded back on again, probably making it the shortest Ransomes plough in the country.

Given that I was vicar in a cider making area, the other great pagan festival was the Wassail where we blessed the orchard, drove away the evil spirits with a great deal of noise accompanied by volleys of empty 12 bore black powder cartridges, fired into the sky with an exciting amount of smoke and flame. I should say that a good deal of Littleton Lifesaver cider was also drunk, along with folk singing, a mummers play and the election of a king and queen for the night who, after their elevation, would be borne past the huge bonfire and into the orchard on a chariot made by welding two bicycle wheels and an axle on to a more or less lethal platform. Sometimes, over the years, my efforts have been rewarded with a terrible crop – like 2018 for instance when the ‘Beast from the East’ just about killed all the blossom. Last year. on the other hand, was a bumper crop and my invitation to take part again arrived two days ago so I appear to be forgiven. It’s a cause of great satisfaction that Madame provided the budwood for the orchard when it was first planted about 45 years ago. The less said about the cider the better except to note that if Admiral Nelson had been returned home in a barrel of Lifesaver rather than brandy he’d have dissolved before he arrived.

I think my successor in the parish has reservations about the outrageous and completely open paganism, but it’s never troubled me in the least and so – with his permission – it’s the one service I still perform, and if I weren’t performing I’d still be there just to meet up with all my old friends. The great advantage of Littleton was that hardly anyone went to church – they never bore me the least ill will, and were happy as long as I confined my attention to weddings, funerals, harvest, Christmas carols, wassailing and and fetes and met them all in the pub regularly. Madame also ran a life-drawing class there and the the day when her (male) model turned up sporting a Prince Albert piercing is still spoken about by the village ladies!

So that’s a date then, 7.30 at the White Hart, Littleton on Severn, on January 17th. There are some photos of the event on my posting for Jan 1st Last year, and coincidentally we went for a New Years Day walk along the canal (where else?) and as we walked back through Widcombe we caught up with the finish of the Widcombe Mummers performance. Earlier I’d spotted the first hazel catkin of the new season, along with a groundsel plant in full flower. Cow parsley and cleavers are also gathering strength as they push out their early leaves.  I couldn’t be more pleased to see these signs of the new season amidst the gloom of the last weeks.  Today we walked in a fine mizzle of rain among dozens of walkers and cyclists taking the chance of a bank holiday break.