The hungry gap is officially over.

Today we picked the very first of our new potatoes and harvested broad beans for freezing as well as spinach. We found the first flowers on the outdoor tomatoes and the runner beans are merrily climbing up their supports. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure that gave us.

The rats have been busy

But our pleasure was tempered by the fact that first the broad beans and then the potatoes had been found by rodents – almost certainly rats – before we could harvest them. The same creature – judging by the tooth marks – had found some potatoes as well; something for which I’m grateful because it encouraged me to dig a haulm and take a look and there they were, just big enough for an early treat.

Pests have an uncanny knack of arriving at your crops one nanosecond before you do. Badgers seem to roam the allotments at night waiting until the cobs on each plot reach perfection and then take them. You can even tell what predator has done the deed. Badgers crash around and drag them down – along with any protective wire and sticks, making a terrible mess but eating all of the cobs. Deer use their height to reach over the wires and take them daintily, but rats climb the plants, damaging them as they go and swing on them (I imagine) until they rip off. Messy eaters – rats! Pigeons, squirrels and passers by all like to have a go and the prospect of harvesting 100% of the crop is vanishingly small. It’s said that badgers don’t like loose nets because they get their claws caught up in them, but the best method we’ve found it to keep the whole sweetcorn patch inside a fruit net and nail it down with as many long pegs as we can lay your hands on.

But I always think of the first potatoes as a sign of the plenty to come; the true end of the hungry gap. We’ve been harvesting individual vegetables for weeks but when there are potatoes it seems that we’ve got all we need for a good meal. Much as I love purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus I wouldn’t want to live on either of them. Variety and texture are as important in the kitchen as they are in any other creative discipline from architecture to painting.

Pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age.

However, plenty brings a whole new bunch of challenges and we’ve already started phase two of the kitchen year by making 12 months worth of elderflower cordial. All the books say it only keeps for a couple of months and it’s true the powerful fragrance is a fugitive pleasure, but it does keep. The very last bottle of last year’s bottling now tastes almost like honey syrup and so we’ve been using it to sweeten rhubarb. It seems a crime to pour it down the drain. Two deliveries of glass bottles and preserving jars are sitting in the corner here in my room, waiting for the first bunch of berries from the fruit cage to be turned into jams and preserves, and with the first cabbages big enough to harvest I’m going to have another go at sauerkraut after last year’s failures. Even the fermented gherkins survived the winter and as long as you’re not squeamish and don’t mind sorting through the dross to find the survivors, they still taste pretty good. Of course, pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age. The smoked aubergine chutney I made last summer tasted pretty raw for months, but nine months later it’s heavenly.

Broad beans

So we spent the whole afternoon scalding, chopping and freezing and it felt good. But what to do about the rats? I wonder. They’re ubiquitous and although I have no scruples about trapping them if they become too much of a nuisance – they do after all carry some pretty unpleasant diseases – I’m not going to get too fussed, after all they never eat more than a very small proportion of our produce.

I mentioned in a previous post the idea of putting a false roof on top of the two compost bins currently finishing loads of compost and leaf mould. They won’t be opened until autumn and so I thought we might get a crop off the space. So here’s a photo of the new arrangement. Hopefully the squashes will trail over the sides and down. They often get a bit out of control and spread all over the place, but we seem to manage stepping over them and finding ways around them and so we tolerate them because they taste good. They’re a bit like teenage boys (we had three of them so I know what I’m talking about) – they occupy vastly more space than you’d ever think, but when they’re gone you miss them.

Split level gardening

Nature as prophylactic?

Once again today, in the newspaper, an article spelling out how uplifting and mentally stabilising is a dose of nature. I’ve seen dozens of these pieces recently and I recall reading somewhere that John Seymour has expressed some regret that his book “Nature Cure” had been rather misunderstood as a self-help guide for the depressed – it isn’t at all, but that didn’t stop someone writing and expressing their disappointment that there were only a couple of pages in the whole book devoted to the subject. I’ve read loads of excellent books describing an author’s recovery or self-discovery through engagement with the natural world, but that engagement has always been much greater than a walk in the woods. My first thought was to make a list of all the books that I think fall into the category but it would have been huge, and the first one that came to mind – Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” – which I loved – has disappeared into the chaos of my bookshelves.

I’d be the last person to criticise outdoor exercise and I’m sure that a bit of fresh air and sunshine can lift the spirits in a way that almost nothing else can, but the natural world isn’t a one-a-day prophylactic for all the derangements of life in the lockdown when it’s passively consumed – especially by way of television programmes! What most people discover is that it’s deep engagement that triggers the endorphins and gets all of those crazy biochemical events going.

Four years ago I made a hubristic resolution not to walk past a plant I couldn’t identify without at least trying to give it a name. It was a bonkers idea and Madame nearly killed me from frustration that our brisk walks turned into 100 yard crawls as I dragged along a bagful of books and a hand lens – but pretty soon I could get quite a few yards without having to stop and walking became a deeper pleasure than it had ever been before. My suggestion is not to go for a walk without choosing a common plant as a target (make sure it actually grows in your area) and going to look for it. Dandelion – tick; hawkbit – tick; cat’s ear – umm – tick? I think natural history works because it takes you out of yourself which, strangely, is what the word ecstasy is derived from. It’s hard to be worrying about getting old and fat when you’re face to face with a water vole in a ditch (mind you I was pretty drunk that time!)

As for allotmenteering and gardening being good for your mental health, try telling our neighbour who had one of the pots stolen from outside his front door last night. My second contribution to the prophylactic qualities of gardening is that it teaches you resilience.

Overnight the rats, or maybe mice, raided our broad beans and ate maybe fifteen pods, scattering the remains all over the path. Merciless traps have been set but they seem to recognise them and use them as a kind of table. The slugs too have visited the strawberries – so no, allotments do give joy but it’s always well seasoned with disappointment.

Is there a third prophylactic quality? Well I think it links to my theme of the week, as it were because growing things is always a dialogue in a language you haven’t quite learned. We can dispense with Dorothy Frances Gurney’s awful doggerel about being ‘closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth‘ – and say that the best we can ever hope for in gardening is a successful relationship with nature. And finally, I really enjoy the mindless repetitions of gardening. Hand weeding, pricking out and planting out, tying in, taking out side shoots. It’s hard to brood when you’re fully occupied, even in a very simple task.

But I suspect that some of my friends are quietly concerned that I’ve been brooding – perhaps it’s something I wrote – because I’ve received two books by post in the last 24 hours. So thank you Rose for sending me Patrick Barkham’s book “Islander” and thank you Mags for F G Brabant’s 1920 pocket guide to Snowdonia – both now perched at the top of the bedside stack, although I couldn’t resist a look at Barkham’s chapter on Bardsey and Brabant’s photos of places we’ve been to often. I’m really not depressed or anything like it; I was born with a restless, questioning temperament and a complete inability to relax – ask Madame!

And there’s always something new to try – like, for example – the new WordPress block editor which is miles better than the old one, with many more features but is a bit of a step up. Things aren’t where they were and adding photos to the media directory is much harder than it was. Well actually, it was pretty much automatic before but now it demands planning. This was all prompted by a solemn warning that there would be a switchover in ten days time. This has happened to me before and bitter experience teaches that getting your head around the new software is best tackled in advance. But I like it very much and this posting is the first I’ve written and edited in the new software. I’m a writer and anything that gets in the way of the process of writing is a terrible nuisance so I’m feeling quite pleased with myself.

Outside it’s blissfully sunny with high gusting winds bending the trees so that, if you closed your eyes, you could hear a sound like the sea in Cornwall or on a beach on Lleyn. Yesterday we staked and tied in all the tomato plants and the sunflowers in anticipation of the wind today. We’ve had a couple of sharp showers too, enough just to wet the ground and prove that the revised guttering on the shed roof is finally sending the rainwater where it’s meant to go.

Clay pipe bowl – possibly Richard Tylee of Widcombe and made in the 1690’s

And finally, another piece of archaeology from the plot. We often dig up clay pipes. There was a factory in the centre of town and another across the river in Widcombe where we think – from the incomplete stamp – this one was made. There are apparently signs that the site was a vineyard in Roman times, and here’s evidence of workmen in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. It been a market garden too, but since the war – an allotment site. It gives us a sense of history, linking us into the past as well as into the future. Our little plot gives us history, spirituality, natural science, organic food, great neighbours, fresh air and exercise. Not bad for less than £100 a year.

Losing my religion II – a visitation

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So I’m in a familiar church where I once worked and there’s a communion service going on. The celebrant who is an old friend and mentor comes across to me and mumbles a few incomprehensible words over my chalice. I ask where I’m supposed to take it and he says something like “oh, go and find someone” but when I look down at the chalice it’s filled with milk and not wine. I know that I need to find some wine so I go down the stone stairs into the vestry which is thick with dust; a long abandoned room, and everywhere I look there are empty wine bottles as if a party had been taking place but which has been over for many years.

It turns out, then, that growth and change in personal faith – if it involves discarding some previously important positions is – far easier than letting go of the religion and its rituals.  I don’t miss the constant anxiety about heresy and I certainly don’t miss bishops and what an old friend once called “stamp and circumponce” , but I still occasionally ache for the beauty of the music and the way the worship could draw people together, even in the most terrible circumstances.  It is worship in its truest sense when it reaches beyond the words and into a place without the restrictions of language, a place where theological orthodoxies become redundant.

I don’t analyse all my dreams but this is clearly another significant one, following so closely after my earlier posting “Kaddish” a week ago. You may think that dreams are just a load of random stuff, auto generated by an idling brain, but then you you might be missing out on ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ – as Freud put it. The dream tells me that the sacramental wine is spent and there’s nothing in the old way left to share. So what’s to replace the unbearable absence without compromising?

As the French poet Paul Valéry said

“A difficulty is a light ; an insurmountable difficulty is a sun .”

I’m not trained to take the problem by siege, and so I have to take the poet’s path – stalking the quarry for months, following its signs and leavings. As R S Thomas put it, to put my hand into the depression of the empty hare’s form and, feeling its warmth, know that it was there; edging along by inference with the occasional bold step. 

Yesterday morning, on the allotment, Madame was picking broad beans and there he was, drying his moist wings in the sun; slowly unfurling them in the warm light. She called over to me and we both spent minutes watching the emerging emperor  – the largest UK dragonfly and not one you bump into every day. In fact, short of finding one in this semi torpid state, I doubt if you’d ever actually bump into one. It would be so tempting to reach for the alien metaphors; there’s not much we share in common, looks-wise, with a dragonfly. But my thoughts hovered around the question of who, or what exactly was playing the part of the alien in this meeting.  He’d been around vastly longer than me and looked far better adapted to our broad beans than we do, even though he was several hundred yards away from the river or more likely the large pond on the other allotments beyond the lane. He was the emperor, and we can normally only watch his imperious cruising from a distance as he snaps up his lesser prey. He has the power and presence greatly to enrich our world and we, in our arrogance, usually diminish his.

I used to think that this was a reason for requiring some sort of god – someone to say thank you to, as well as someone to clean up the mess when we screw up, someone to come galloping over the horizon like the Seventh Cavalry and smite our enemies.

Madame and me once collected thirty pounds of blackberries – far more than we could possibly eat – but we couldn’t seem to stop ourselves. It was one of those occasions when I felt the overwhelming desire to thank someone for this generous gift, but since they were growing wild and without human intervention we could not.  I wish I could weave a morally improving tale around this snippet of history but in truth we made a very large quantity of the worst chutney ever confected from a surplus and a bad recipe. Then, to make matters worse, we gave it away as gifts to friends who deserved better.

I suppose our instincts generally lead us to invent an invisible but useful entity to thank and cajole for the way things are but I’ve increasingly come to believe that we don’t need to look beyond the created universe. Maybe the great spiritual challenge of this age is to bring to science – which can only deal with mathematics, measurements and testable hypotheses – an opening for wonder and worship that can takes the whole of creation for its object without resorting to gods, whether kindly or malevolent; because humans are not just vulnerable to viruses but to the idolatry of wealth and power. We suck up nature and turn it into electric light, and cars, and plastic and murderous weapons of destruction.  We turn the basic matter of creation into chemicals and fertilisers because we are besotted with power and have no eyes or ears for the suffering earth.

So maybe we do, after all, need to repurpose some of the old things. Maybe we need structures for penitence, thanksgiving and reconciliation. Maybe we need to recover the sense that the food we grow and prepare is properly seen as sacramental rather than instrumental.  Just imagine the impact that nontheistic prayer and meditation might have on our behaviour.  Imagine the impact of compassion as a basic human virtue taught to us all as children. In fact none of the traditional virtues require enforcement by omniscient and omnipotent gods and their agents.

But enough.  Spring drives on, and we are struggling to keep up. We re-pot seedlings and in days they double in size; this extraordinary vitality in which we share and which feeds us – and could house and clothe us too if we could find our right minds – this huge encompassing force in which we live and breathe is vulnerable and there is no invisible Seventh Cavalry to ride over the horizon and save us.  We have seen the enemy – it is us. 

Today we ordered more glass bottles and jars for the preserving season. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything it is that subcontracting our food supply to the supermarkets was a deadly error. For us at the Potwell Inn and, we hope, for many others, we won’t be going back to the old normal. We’ll grow and save and store, buy locally and try not to waste, but not from fear but from a bigger vision, one that transcends extreme materialism and ancient dualisms, and is is content to say that the whole of creation, including the earth, is our mother and father and our grand and great grandparent back to the beginning of time. One family that includes all that is, all that has been and all that will be.é

Losing my religion – 1

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My sourdough starter is happy. This is the kind of statement that drives philosophers crazy, but to me – and hopefully to you – it makes complete sense.  When dogs wag their tails, we say they’re happy too; inviting philosophical sceptics to raise their eyebrows and turn away.

For weeks, during this lockdown, I couldn’t get any rye flour – which is what my starter was ‘conceived’ in (sorry, that’s another one) and what it’s been fed on ever since – for years and years. For almost two months I was only able to feed it with refined white bread flour at first and wholemeal spelt flour later on.  The white flour was not a success.  the starter fizzed up for a few hours and then slowed right down and began to settle into a sludgy mess at the bottom and a dark liquid on top. It also smelt quite different. One of the distinguishing features of my starter is that it smells strongly of apples, but fed with white flour it began to smell vinegary. I should add that it still worked perfectly well but never quite felt the same. The spelt flour was better but still tended to settle out. But this week, back on the rye flour, the starter has begun to thrive again, bubbling away for several days without needing a feed and has also returned to its old apple smell. In short, it was happy.

Sourdough can be happy; plants – we gardeners all understand – can be happy and so can soil and even cattle.  I once saw a herd of local cattle which had been led up to the Aubrac hills in France, during the transhumance, and I swear they were happy too – smiling broadly in a contented sort of cowy way. The local cheeses – made by the farmers – were fabulous as well.

So there’s a conundrum here. We, in our careless linguistic way, ascribe feelings to dogs cats and cows. We stretch the concept to include plants, trees, butterflies, sourdough starters and even – if you’re into that sort of thing – rat tailed maggots and, in our careless sort of way we ascribe some form of consciousness to them. If rat tailed maggots can be happy they must have feelings and must, ergo, be conscious.  We gardeners and allotmenteers are always happy to see their hoverfly stage eating our pests. 

There’s a philosophical conundrum lurking in the middle of all this that’s pretty complex and it affects the whole way we look at the earth and creation.  If we say that only humans possess consciousness then it’s harder to make a moral or ethical case against exploiting another part of creation that (we believe) – doesn’t, because it only exists for our benefit. You see where this is leading – all human societies have their theoretical underpinning – call it common sense if you must – and the worst of this one is that it separates humans from the rest of creation. If you want to read a whole lot more about this I recommend Philip Goff’s book “Galileo’s Error”.

The takeaway point is that consciousness could be a fundamental quality of nature – from the tiniest subatomic event to the formidable consciousness of the human mind. The argument’s all there in the book, and it’s a bit disintegrating if, by that, you understand that we tend to lean on a whole set of assumptions to get through the day and when those assumptions are demolished, the simplest actions get more complicated. We think that trees, by our standards, lack consciousness – but they not only communicate with one another, they share sustenance – favouring immediate relatives, warn one another about pathogens and insect attacks over wide areas but – get this – they accomplish this by collaborating with fungi, using their network of microscopic threads as a kind of natural cable network. But, of course – if all of nature is talking but we stand aside, contemptuously refusing to join the conversation, we can’t hear what all nature is trying to tell us – that we are rapidly destroying ourselves. Tree hugging, it seems, is not so silly when the tree and its inhabitants are trying to warn us about the oncoming train.

All this, of course is a first draft.  It may be that it’s a quirk of my own nature that I’m always asking ‘why?’ but my scepticism isn’t one of those smart things I might say when I’m trying to impress, it’s hard wired into me – examining gift-horse teeth, examining the entrails of common sense and being generally annoying. Socrates, after all said that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living, and it cost him his life.  I hope to get away with a few sleepless nights and a headache, but ‘because I say so’ has never got me to sign a direct debit form!

There’s much, much more I want to write but for the moment I need fresh air – and the allotment is perpetually thirsty. As for Naomi Klein, I can only read her in small doses because I find her so disturbing, but here’s a cheerful photo I took a couple of days ago in the centre of Bath. It’s a hoary plantain – not really rare, but let’s say unusual.  You might pass it by but it’s a tiny, inconspicuous gem – the only one among its cousins that’s pollinated by insects rather than by the wind. Why’s that? I wonder.IMG_20200516_181322

 

Kaddish

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I fell asleep reading a new book – ‘Galileo’s Error’ today – absolutely no criticism of the author Philip Goff, I was just feeling exhausted, for no obvious reason save for the fact that we feel lost, confused, abandoned by our government; and my son had sent me the book after several of our long philosophical telephone discussions about materialism and consciousness.  One of the cruelties of the pandemic is being separated from our family. It’s been my mission. all my life, to find ways of talking about, and being, fully human; and the allotment, cooking, natural history, remembering and celebrating are all a part of the picture.

But being fully human seems to involve other, more controversial elements which can often become points of division. There are words I dislike using – like ‘spirituality’ or ‘soul’, for instance – not because they don’t correspond to anything meaningful but because the settings in which they’ve been developed and discussed have been fatally compromised. They became keywords in the history of religious slaughter and abuse. However, it seems almost impossible to do without them if we want to embrace life in all its fullness. My son recommended the book as a possible way towards a solution of the difficulty – ‘”it’s a popular book” – he said – “A four hour read, but a real challenge” 

I always find the very best books get me on my feet, pacing about; thinking carefully.  Sleeping isn’t normally a way of pacing around, but today – in a throwback to a previous life – I dreamed a part of the way out. Until today I would have associated the word Kaddish with Allen Ginsberg the American poet.

My dream took place exactly where I was, in fact, lying asleep but I seemed to be fully conscious of all the sadness surrounding us; and somewhere in the background was the sound of the Kaddish being sung.  I’ve never heard the Kaddish being sung but I knew for certain that this was it – glorious, defiant, haunting. There were dream tears running down my face and then I heard the altogether closer sound of a cat purring just behind my head.  I reached behind to the arm of the sofa where it was sitting and stroked it. And then I woke in the absolute certainty that this was what the Jungians would regard as a significant dream needing to be brought into the light of day.

If ever there were a more telling dream lesson of what we’ve neglected through our greedy materialism I’ve yet to hear it. We’ve had anger in abundance; we’ve had politics and economics, and every half-wit with a computer has offered their theory.  But there’s been no lament; no Kaddish for the dead but merely statistics, theories and the counting of money.

What about the cat? Well, the thing about a cat, or a dog or whatever other pet is that essentially there’s a relationship – even a relationship of love. But materialism has even turned big nature into a paid-for TV experience. We could perhaps do well to emulate our love for pets in our love for weeds and birds and insects and wildflowers.

I’ve no idea what to do with this insight – yet – but I guess I will one day.

 

 

Oh strimmer man – where you gonna run to?

I fell asleep last night clutching a new wildflower book – I would have called it a flora but that would have been misleading since Madame’s name (which is a closely guarded secret) is not Flora. But it’s a sign that the natural world, in the course of a couple of riverside walks, has got me back in her grip.  I was lamenting the impossibility of botanising in Cornwall or Wales for weeks, but the last two days on the riverbank have energised me in much the same way – the sheer pleasure of recognising old friends that I never knew grew here in the middle of a small city; here today, wintercress and broomrape growing within a few hundred yards – neither of them rare.  The slightly mad abundance of plant life is a telling sign that nature doesn’t need us half as much as we need her. Over the river in the Crest Nicholson gulags they left a wildflower meadow in one corner of a field of hard-wearing perennial ryegrass – no ball games permitted – which struggles in the teeth of the siberian winds generated by the tall buildings. The grounds are maintained by a company with a cunning plan to mow another inch off the meadow with every cut.  It will then disappear; the last sop of ecological reparation for the destruction of the old gasometers and abandoned industrial buildings that really were a wildlife haven. But we still have the anarchic, weed infested verges; the real eco-deal thriving under their neglect by the strimmer army – long may their funding be neglected!

IMG_20200511_095741At home, energised by thoughts of weeds, I woke with cheese scones on my mind. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur  but there’s nothing quite like baking to calm you down, and so I baked a batch of the ultimate comfort food.  I really should have baked a Dundee cake but there wasn’t time because we wanted to go to the allotment to see how our wind and frost preparations had survived. The max and min thermometer in the greenhouse showed that the inside temperature had dropped to 5C during the night, so that meant the outside got down to around 2 or 3C – too close for comfort for the tender plants, so we were pleased that we’d gone to the trouble of wrapping them all up and building new screens. I’m beginning to sound a bit manic here, I know, but life’s too good to waste a minute – even in lockdown.

So everything in the garden was lovely (ish) and we added a new screen attached to the grapevine training wires. The bad news was that thieves had dropped by again and stolen our neighbour’s new shed which was waiting to be assembled and so rather vulnerable.  I find it really difficult to connect with a mindset like that – and even if  *’hell and heaven and all that religious stuff’ is abolished now, should we keep just a tiny corner of hell going for allotment thieves – just for old times sake?

Coming home we overheard a conversation about roasting rhubarb in the oven. I’m ashamed to say we’d never heard of it, but we promptly roasted half a kilo of our own Victoria, with some light brown sugar, and it’s delicious. We’ve eaten so much rhubarb in the last few weeks I think if you shoved a chimney pot on my head I’d lose weight and turn pink – I’d settle for being tall!

  • is a quotation from a rather fun poem by ee cummings

As an addendum, today we found a shop selling bakers flour, rye flour and yeast. The threat of torture wouldn’t induce me to say where it is, but for those in the know, if you flare your nostrils and search out the perfume of patchouli and listen carefully for Joni Mitchell you’ll know where I mean.

 

Elderflower

I can’t say that making the first batch of elderflower cordial was one of those wonderful spontaneous moments – it wasn’t – it’s been planned really carefully because the best flowers need to be picked in the sunshine and just as they’re opening from the bud stage and so weather forecasts played a big part in the decision to pick the first lot yesterday. Here in lockdown there’s another factor because we’re surrounded by competitors with the same idea. Even then, there are other factors.  Elderflowers can be fragrantly (flagrantly?) evocative of lazy summer days or they can smell like tomcat marking which is an acquired taste. So out we whizzed on to the secret harvesting site in full view of several hundred flats, wielding a trug and two pairs of scissors.  It’s difficult to be furtive when you’re carrying a trug. By the time we got home the front of my hat was bright yellow with pollen and we had something over fifty flower heads.

IMG_20200510_213339After much zesting and squeezing of lemons and oranges the mixture was submerged in boiling water to rest for 24 hours while it absorbed all the flavour.  This morning the straining began and it’s been quite vexing because the flowers are so full of pollen they’re clogging the linen jelly bag.  I think we’ll have to accept that this first batch is going to contain a lot of pollen which – after all – tends to settle out when the bottles are left standing.

The next challenge is finding enough clean and empty clip top bottles.  Normally if we were short I’d pop along the road and buy some more; but this year we have to be self-sufficient.  Cleaning, scrubbing and sterilising takes a while, and finding useable rubber washers, hidden all over the kitchen takes ages too. So that’s a job for later this evening.

Once all the preparations were done we went for a walk along the canal and discovered that there are areas where the rewilding project is working beautifully. After an initial burst of (often inappropriate) wildflower meadow seed a couple of years ago, the local botanical bullies took over last year and I’d thought that it was all over for the rarer species; but the native wildflowers are nothing if not resilient and so this morning, parts of the riverside were groaning with interesting plants which have – at last – been left unmolested by the strimmers. I just love the feeling of greeting old friends like the greater celandine and the burdocks as well as a lovely stand of vipers bugloss which must have come from the re-seeding because I’ve never seen it there before, but which has obviously found a small site greatly to its liking. It was so lovely to walk alongside the river and then the canal with almost shoulder high plants – as if we were walking in a country lane.  Ragged robin, lady’s smock, green alkanet, wall valerian, cow parsley, winter hellebore pretending to be coltsfoot.  Don’t ever dismiss them as ‘weeds’! I don’t think the towpath was ever more beautiful – or quieter.

And so to the allotment where we needed to make preparation for a threatened frost, and once again – hopefully for the last time this season – the plot looks like a Christo sculpture. We should see the night time temperatures rise consistently above 10C in about a week’s time, and then we can really start to get the plants out into their final positions.

 

Rain allows play after a month of Sundays

After getting close to two months of confinement in the flat, with only daily visits to the allotment to leaven the monastic isolation, we were beginning to feel as if every day was Sunday – even more dangerously it was always the same Sunday! When the sun shone the young woman opposite would clamber precariously through her window over a precipitous 30′ drop to sit in sunshine on the roof of a kitchen extension, the professional rugby player – also opposite – would come out into the car park and skip for an hour at a time at such a speed you could hear the rope whistling. On the other side of the house we could watch 30 minutes of something like Tai Chi at just after nine in the morning, and after that it was just drunks, junkies and the deranged sitting around while large gannetrys of young men on expensive bicycles flew past, clad in the latest skin-tight Lycra. At times one of them would spot a sunbathing woman and the noise and speed of the peloton would increase significantly as they strained every impressive sinew over their imaginary Mont Ventoux, ignoring the 20mph signs.  One of our neighbours has told us that one of the several local drug dealers is now running his own homeless delivery round from a semi derelict narrow boat that’s just capable of puttering up and down the river. 

But yesterday it rained and after a quick trip to the almost deserted allotments Madame suggested risking a walk. The simple fact that a little walk demanded thought and planning just goes to show how agoraphobic we’re becoming during the lockdown.  Leaving the front door and turning right to go down to the river never seemed as transgressive as it did yesterday. Oncoming pedestrians were avoided as anxiously as large dogs on bits on string for leads – it was an entirely mutual avoidance.  I found myself scanning everyone (it didn’t amount to double figures in well over an hour) for signs of disease or even the least touch of grubbiness, and all the while I was rehearsing in my head the lecture our children would give us about taking unnecessary risks. Who knew that simple pleasures like going for a walk once in nearly seven weeks could drag along so much baggage, from public opprobrium against old people being outside, to the risk of being challenged by the police over the validity of our outing.  

After skirting along the river and meeting almost no-one, we went up to the canal, greeted by an expensively unwelcoming sign telling us to go away, but after about a quarter of a mile we dropped back down under the railway line and walked back into town. Our son had told us how deserted it’s become, with for sale notices everywhere and several retailers and restaurants boarded up; but it wasn’t that as much as the deserted silence of the key tourist sites.  The Abbey, the Roman Baths, the Spa and virtually all of the shops were closed.  The bus station was deserted apart from a man reaming his nose out thoroughly, oblivious of just how disgusting that suddenly seemed, and there were one or two street beggars drying out from the rain. The city seems to have lost its entire purpose. In the past we’d fantasised about life here without the tourists and hen parties, but this was proof that you should be careful what you pray for. The only activity we saw was building work.  They’re still building hundreds of flats for students in spite of the fact that the business model of the universities (we’ve got two) was a model of unsustainable growth, with grossly overpaid Vice Chancellors conducting sales campaigns all over the world to attract foreign students who were in any case becoming wary of living in our state sponsored hostile environment. Now we’ve won our first international competition in decades but sadly it’s for having almost the highest mortality rate for coronavirus!

So the good news was that spring has proceeded without us doing anything very much and all along the edge of Green Park was a magnificent display of borage and green alkanet in flower. On the river’s edge smoke was rising lazily from an improvised tarpaulin bender on the blocked off footpath. Of the floral interlopers that survived from the ‘wildflower mix’ sowing nearby, alongside the flood prevention scheme, the campions seem to be establishing a permanent place for themselves, but most of the others have been choked off by burly locals.

The fear is that the local economy may never recover.  Already there are too many independent traders closing down and the supermarkets have made more enemies than friends with their failure to sustain a rational service. The independents – from quirky stationers to pizza places, bookshops, deli’s, health food stores, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers were what made Bath different.  Without the pubs, theatres and music venues; the art shop and the wool shop and the cheesemonger, a trip into town becomes ever less attractive, not just for us locals but also I’m sure for our hundreds of thousands of visitors. 

Weeks ago I mentioned Tim Lang’s new book on food security which was published almost on the same day as the system began to collapse. This has been a painful demonstration of the truth of his contention that we’re dangerously dependent o a handful of supermarket chains and their vulnerable supply lines. Local, local and more local, sustainable, environmentally safe and non intensive food production linked to local suppliers is better in every way than our present profit driven system. Of course local shopkeepers want to make a living, and one of the plusses these past months is the heroic contribution that independent corner shops have made – especially for old and vulnerable people who have no chance of help from supermarkets, but whose neighbours have proved beyond doubt that contrary to what Margaret Thatcher asserted there really is such a thing as society. 

Last week’s sunshine brought the elderflower to the brink of blossoming, and yesterday there were some in bloom. Now we need a dry day to collect the flowers, and then lemons and sugar to make cordial. I used every scrap of sugar making ‘allotment jam’ a couple of weeks ago so an expedition to find more is needed.  We just finished our last bottle of last year’s production so we need to be ready.

Country cousins

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One of the things I’m missing greatly during this lockdown is the chance to go for a botanical mooch around Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park, and one of the plants I won’t be seeing this year is the goat’s beard – Tragopogon pratensis – otherwise known as “Jack go to bed at noon” – whose name comes from the way the flower closes up at around midday. It’s hardly a rarity but I really like it and look forward to meeting up in a hay field most years, but not this one it seems.

However our allotment neighbour is growing its posh cousin, salsify  – Tragopogon porrifolius – and it has exactly the same lazy habit of turning in at lunchtime. The flower is a rather grand episcopal purple in contrast to its country cousin, sometimes known as ‘meadow salsify’, which has yellow flowers. By coincidence, both plants crop up in Patience Gray’s “Honey from a weed” when she is writing about edible weeds. Nowadays it would be illegal to forage here for wild plants in the way Gray describes it on Naxos, but she writes that foragers there only take a small portion of the root in order to leave the plant to recover for another year.

This brings to mind one of the arguments used to defend the enclosure of common land, on the grounds that – according to ‘the tragedy of the commons’ – greedy peasants act against the good of the whole community by taking more than their share. Not on Naxos, they don’t, and if anyone gets a bit greedy there’s tremendous community pressure to put things right. In the UK, similarly, the so-called tragedy of the commons remained a bit of a Daily Mail fantasy in the style of – brazen foreign peasants steal our birthright – because a whole common law tradition would be invoked against any offenders. Isn’t it true that they’re always greedy peasants that spoil the arcadian bliss, and the only remedy is for the wealthy landowners to enclose the land and take it all for themselves?

Anyway, salsify and goat’s beard both get a mention in Patience Gray; Geoffrey Grigson’s “Englishman’s Flora” and in almost all the herbals for their astringent and blood cleansing properties. Our neighbour’s small crop on the other hand was a bit disappointing with forked roots that were impossible to peel and a rather woody texture. Mrs Grieve in her 1921 “Modern Herbal” says it doesn’t grow well on stony clay soils (like ours) and doesn’t like manure.  Culpeper says it’s not as good as Scorzonera, another exotic  Victorian favourite that’s having a bit of a revival at the moment in the seed catalogues.

So there you have it. If it’s a bit of springtime blood cleansing you’re after, the more unapproachably bitter the food is the more good it does you. I once worked with twin brothers who would eat raw onions for lunch in the same way I might eat an apple.  They were as fit as fleas, but afternoon conversations were best avoided. But not all of Patience Gray’s advice should be taken as canonical.  I’ve got some misgivings about sea squill, or sea onions, that crop up in all the herbals and yet seem quite dangerous, also  local (Greek) hyacinths – and as for eating foxgloves (“but only the yellow ones”), that seems more like a downright suicidal spring tonic.  It’s true that in this country during famines and food shortages people would eat the roots of lords and ladies – Arum maculatum – but only after careful preparation and instruction from a long line of grandmothers who no longer exist to keep us out of trouble.  It’s a mercy that most foraging handbooks are full of warnings about being able confidently to identify the quarry, but another one I see often is alexanders, which may be the country cousin of celery but which also looks a bit like some of the more lethal members of the carrot family and I can vouch for the fact that in Pembrokeshire at least they can be found growing within yards of one another.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, and on the subject of subtle differences in flavour, I’ve baked quite a few loaves with the bag of standard bakers flour, and it works well with yeast bread and in sourdough alike, but somehow lacks the flavour of the organic flour I normally use.  Certainly the sourdough starter seems to dislike being fed with white flour and there’s a distinct swing from its usual apple flavour when fed with organic rye towards a more vinegary acetic acid smell. All the breads benefit from a bit of my dwindling supply of spelt flour.

Flavours are tricky to describe, but with bread – as with the rhubarb flavoured with sweet cicely – there’s an indefinable richness as if a whole bunch of new instruments have joined the orchestra.  Growing, cooking and eating your own food is an education.

We do things a bit differently in Bath!

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Once again this morning we heard a commotion outside as hundreds of gulls circled in a noisy flock.  There’s only one cause of that sound and here it is – a lovely Harris Hawk being flown to deter the gulls from nesting on the gullies and chimneys around us.  To us they look like Georgian, terraces but to a gull they’re just another cliff with easy access to an endless supply of food, courtesy of the refuse sacks.  The council have tried gels, wire spikes and even gathering the eggs from high platform lifts, but this looks like a new strategy to make them feel uncomfortable.  I hope very much that it works – the egg collecting seemed to promote a great deal of distress among the birds and the other methods didn’t seem to make much difference.  The hawk is very well trained and doesn’t attack the gulls at all – its mere presence is enough to upset them and, perhaps, compel them to look for a safer nesting site. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of this magnificent bird and his/her handler.

Sad news this morning as we heard that our brother in law had died with coronavirus during the night.  Like so many victims he was suffering from multiple life threatening conditions already, but he was a great family man and we’ll all miss him.  Funerals, of course, are becoming a big problem and I wonder what form public funerals will begin to take now – I guess tribute pages are bound to feature, it’s the kind of situation where new cultural forms begin to take root.

So not much to write today – it’s a thoughtful time.