Mayday

This photograph of the allotment was taken on May Day 2016, two months after we took it on.

There was me, writing here a few days ago lamenting the absence of what I chose to call cultus; call it what you will really but it’s about moments of communal celebration – and then today it’s May Day.

Not that anything very discernable happened. No maypole to be seen on the allotments; no May Queen, no carousing and drunkenness; no dangerous and profligate behaviour. All you could say was that the allotments today were busier than they’ve been since last autumn. We’ve endured long periods of solitary allotmenteering as winter extended its grip to a full six months and we wondered whether we would ever see the sun again. Now we have two consecutive bank holidays and a coronation and aside from a meet the street gathering here next Sunday it seems that big and boozy community events were dealt something of a death blow by Covid. Somehow we’ve got out of the habit – out of the habit of harvest festivals, Christmas carols, plough mondays, Whitsun; and beating the parish bounds; other flavours are available if you can remember them.

There are probably many who wish good riddance to the lot of them – Christian festivals are a bit passé now – except for the fact that most of the meaningful festivals that still exist were pinched from the pagans centuries ago. Oliver Cromwell did his level best to ban the lot of them but the moment the Restoration happened they emerged from their brief hibernation as full of energy as before.

When St Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Britain in around 597 he discovered that a fully functioning pagan religion had returned in the period since the Romans left. He sent a desperate email – (OK letter!) – asking the Pope what he should do and in one of the few sensible decisions in the history of Christian evangelism; some months later the Pope replied that it was better to take on the pagan buildings and traditions and give them a Christian backstory. Welcome to Plough Monday, the first Monday after the (Christian) feast of the Epiphany – OK then, Twelfth Night – when traditionally the sowing of crops began after the Christmas lockdown. Plough Monday was the pagan festival celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year. In fact there’s an uncanny tie-in between the surviving Christian festivals and the old pagan calendar; and some, like Wassailing, that were never successfully co-opted at all.

All of which is a rather long winded approach to the fact that today, May Day, is also celebrated as Beltane; the traditional festival celebrating the beginning of summer. Fires, singing and a bit of carousing would once have taken place all over the country. I’ve got a photo of my mother as a child (born in 1918) dressed in white, with a garland of flowers round her head and standing next to a ribbon decked maypole on an Oxfordshire village green. Sadly since the triumph of the Evangelicals – Cromwell’s withered soulmates – most of the Christian Churches see these entirely innocent reminders of the earth cycle as heretical if not as devil worship. If you really want to see devil worship go and stand outside the chemical works in Huddersfield that still produces Paraquat and sells it to poor farmers in India.

The point here is that the earth cycles – the solstices, Winter (Christmas); Summer (Midsummer Day); equinoxes; Spring (Easter); Autumn; (Michaelmas) and the intervening quarters; Imbolc (Candlemas); Beltane (May Day); Lughnasadh (Lammas) and Samhain (Halloween) need to be detached from their captivity within institutional Christianity not because I would like to damage what became my own spiritual dialect but because the context has changed; history has moved on and – in the story shaped universe that we created and now inhabit – the earth cycle has (once again) become the story we desperately need to move us away from the dominant narrative – neoliberal economics and politics – towards an earth centred spirituality, not because it feels like a nice idea, but because our lives depend upon it.

So today we were on the allotment. Madame was mulching our fruit bushes with sheep fleeces given to us by our friends NIck and Kate who live in Bannau Brycheiniog – the old and original Welsh name for the Brecon Beacons. We’re expecting a plot inspection any day now and, to be honest, it looks as if a small flock of Jacobs Sheep has died in the fruit cage, under the blackcurrants and gooseberries. Fleece, which is almost valueless these days, makes an excellent mulch and slug repellent and it’s very good as an additive to the compost heap. Anyway we hope we don’t give our neighbours palpitations.

While Madame was engaged with the fruit cage, I was earthing up the potatoes. Years ago I bought a ridging tool which I only ever use once a year but it’s exactly right for earthing up spuds. The soil is black and friable and smells lovely with a bit of sun on it. It’s worth ridging up this time of year because it protects the emerging leaves from a late frost better than fleece, which allows Jack Frost to do his destructive work wherever it touches the leaf.

Everywhere there are signs of growth. The immense energy of spring drives the plants upwards into our realm and as I hoed the soil, I touched, for a moment that sense of sacredness that occasionally visits a gardener in quiet thought. This moment of inspiration was accompanied by a speaking; not at all an auditory hallucination but the clearest intimation that the soil itself is the mother of all life. We might imagine for a moment that those Buddhist monks who rake gravel temple gardens have, somehow, a higher form of spirituality. It’s not true of course. The sacred is always ordinary; the ordinary seeking us out.

But I can’t leave this thought with any suggestion that the paganism which I have referred to here is in any sense inferior, heretical or dangerous. My point in using it is to suggest that its connection with the earth cycle may be an insight whose time has come again. In 1966 First Nation Canadian, Buffy Sainte Marie, released a song called “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” and it just wouldn’t leave me yesterday. You might like to listen to it – it’s on YouTube music. Fifty seven years on it’s as powerful and prophetic as it was when I first heard it.

Christianity has been a rather poor guardian of the ancient traditions it once co-opted. Maybe it’s time to ask for our ball back? Happy Beltane.

Two swallows don’t make a summer

That’s true alright. On our walk last Saturday we saw several swallows in the valley below South Stoke as we followed the lower part of the Somerset Coal Canal. Sadly the sunshine didn’t last and we’ve had grey skies, cold winds and rain every day since, except for a wonderful (temporary ) reprise yesterday. I’m sad to say that I forgot to mention the Swallows or the abundant Brimstone butterflies which seem to be having a good year. But it was the single plant in the top photo that arrested my attention when we perched on the edge of the abandoned railway line that followed the canal, for a rest. The photos below were taken in July 2019 after the Bath Quays site was cleared and the archaeologists had gone home.

I’d gone to South Stoke with my imagination filled with narrow boats and the railways that put them out of business, but when we got home it was the single Weld plant – Reseda luteola, or Dyer’s Weed that seized my imagination. Of the long abandoned canal there was very little trace, but the plant was a reminder of a much earlier industrial revolution – of wool and cloth that brought great wealth to the Cotswolds and these lovely villages surrounding the town of Bath; smaller and more modest stone buildings, from cottages to tithe barns and grand manor houses that preceded the famous Georgian architecture of the city that was mostly funded by slavery and imperial wealth.

Wealth and squalour have always existed side by side in Bath; we just don’t like to brag about it. Occasionally I’ve written about drug addiction and homelessness in the area in which we live. Sometimes it boils over into county lines battles but most of the time it’s a faintly simmering sense of antisocial behaviour mixed – as in all the best places to live in cities – with a crowd of creative and musical types retired professors, ne’er do wells and radicals of most persuasions. When they cleared the Bath Quays site for a tree lined flood prevention scheme, they found the remains of the old Kingsmead with its brothels and pubs – lots of pubs. The best of the drainage arrangements sent the sewage straight into the river and at the worst just let it find its own way. Not much has changed there then!

I’ve always been interested in the uses to which plants have been put; herbal medicine, foodstuffs and of course dyeing and cloth production. In medieval times three plants reigned supreme for the dyers. Chaucer knew them all and mentioned them some time around 1387 ( he wasn’t keen). They were Weld, Madder and Woad. Weld gave yellow, Woad, blue and Madder gave a red dye. The process of extracting dyes from plants was as filthy, smelly and disgusting as anyone could imagine. If you’ve ever made a liquid compost from Comfrey you’ll know what I mean. Brilliant it may be as a low cost organic fertilizer, but the smell is so nauseating it’s like accidentally stepping on a dead sheep in a ditch – don’t ask! The process usually begins with fermentation and then the dyeing itself requires a mordant solution to fix the colour in the fabric. These days nearly all dyes are synthetic but even they still need to be fixed – usually with a chemical mordant. In the old days they used a lot of urine; the older and more stale the better – all this done at moderately high temperature.

So both ends of the cloth industry depended on water and fuel and both relied upon and produced lots of effluent. South of Bath there is an abundance of brooks and streams flowing down from the hills, a river for transporting the goods, and later on, canals and railways. One further process in the production of woolen cloth was known as fulling in which the woven fibres were pounded with a special form of clay known by geologists as Bentonite and by everyone else as Fullers’ Earth. The power of nature had thoughtfully provided a Fullers’ Earth deposit above South Stoke.

As I said at the top, two Swallows don’t make a summer and a single plant rosette at the side of an abandoned railway line, or second group in flower on a building site don’t constitute a plant record of a whole industry. But they might remind us of the fact that even a beautiful Georgian city like Bath had its filthy industry, its poverty and squalour. Looking back towards an arcadian past of green fields and gambolling lambs is a dangerous kind of self-deception. The river is still filthy and polluted but it’s possibly been like that since the middle ages. In Bristol the dyeing trade was carried out in Redcliffe which is why the wealthy merchants moved up the hill to Clifton to escape the pollution and stink. That’s exactly what they did in Bath too. The weaving and fulling were probably mostly done in the surrounding town and villages with streams and watermills and the dyeing being done in the towns and cities where there was more available mordant – the collection of which known at the time as a separate occupation called taking the piss. The question I haven’t answered – because I can’t – is where the original dye plants were grown at crop scale. A quick check on the BSBI Atlas shows that Weld is still common but Woad and Madder have declined dramatically. I can imagine that the stinking balls of fermented Woad used in producing blue colours would have been transported, like Madder all around the country.

I’ve got a greatly treasured copy of J W White’s “The Bristol Flora” first published in 1912. Madder shows up briefly as an native plant but not in any quantity. Woad was grown in Wickwar; Keynsham and near Frome and White gets quite lyrical about dyeing in Glastonbury. As for Weld, White writes of its greater abundance in this district than in many others and he found it in exactly the spots where you might find industrial remains today. There’s a great deal more work to be done on this thread, but it’s been lovely to speculate on the role of these plants in another revolutionary age.

“Are you one of the Somerset Poles?”

Dundas Aqueduct
Part two of yesterday’s post about the Somerset Coal Canal

I’ve already written about Saturday’s walk along the remains of the SCC which enters the Kennet and Avon via a large pound next to John Rennie’s marvellous Dundas Aqueduct, pictured in the photo. Having got stupidly lyrical about a few rusty nails and some collapsing masonry yesterday I wanted to write something about the Cam Brook, and indeed the several large streams, brooks and rivers that have created a landscape so lovely it puts me in mind of Samuel Palmer’s visionary paintings. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the end of a rainbow wasn’t permanently held there by a flock of Turtle Doves holding it still with golden threads.

Anyway, even a less ecstatic walker would have to agree that it’s a rather magical place notwithstanding the crooks who extracted the wealth of the North Somerset coalfield with levels of neglect and cruelty that this extractive age is only just reinventing.

My father occasionally talked about a motorcycle journey he made to visit a couple of old unmarried great aunts who made cider “somewhere near Wells” – he was never specific apart from the fact that the huge fermenting barrels sounded ‘like a swarm of bees’ – and also that he’d drunk too much of the cider which resulted in his legs becoming paralysed, and left him no alternative but to drive into a hedge bank and wait until he sobered up.

I never knew very much about my dad’s side of the family because he’d had a falling out with his own father and moved into lodgings at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Any contact with his brothers and the older sisters who’d cared for him as a child during the years his father was fighting in Afghanistan (really!) was spasmodic to say the least. So nothing more than hints of a Somerset branch of the family existed in my mind.

I had of course heard of a Pole line in Tudor times when Margaret Pole became a powerful force until she chose the wrong side but apart from the humorous thought that I might be distantly related, I never joined those two bits of information together. Then, one day when I was doing a funeral visit to an elderly lady in my parish she said to me “I think we’re probably related”. She too was a Somerset woman and during a long conversation it became clear that the story about my old cider making relatives rang a bell with her and for a short while we forged a connection which was soon broken by her dementia.

But earlier in my career I’d been asked a strange question which I misunderstood, thinking instantly about the hypothetical Tudor ancestors. “Are you one of the Somerset Poles?” was something I’d never been asked before so I was a bit taken aback when a very smart middle aged woman who looked and sounded as if she might have ridden a horse to church and left it with a groom, approached from out of a large crowd of local dignitaries after a carol service. Of course I had heard of the wealthy and powerful Poles but in the absence of any knowledge of a less lofty branch of the family I think I rather rudely dismissed her with a quip about being one of the Staple Hill Poles.

So our walk on Saturday began in the village of South Stoke and went sharply downhill by a series of footpaths towards the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal and we were completely entranced by the landscape – as I’ve already said. By Sunday we were already planning a return visit and so we were busy researching the area and some of its grand (like £8 million) houses, and went to Toppings Bookshops to buy two of the excellent local guides written by Andrew Swift. But during our mammoth Googlefest Madame stumbled on the PDF of a typewritten manuscript published by the local South Stoke history group. As she read this paragraph out to me it made the hairs on the back of my head stand up.

1794 October 16th Bath Chronicle: Richard Pole at Southstoke has ten hogsheads of last year’s cider for sale at 92 per hogshead.’ (This is an old local name. There were Poles at Monkton Combe and Southstoke before the Reformation).

John Canvin, local historian.

I traced my Mothers side of the family back to the mid eighteenth century without much difficulty – the male line were all carpenters as was my grandfather. But my Dad’s side was much harder partly due to the fact that a Jewish connection had been concealed at some time in the past – I’ve no evidence to suggest why. But this Somerset connection looks and feels absolutely right. I do just remember being taken as a child to a very scary institutional place with green iron railings to see what could have been a great grandmother and I discovered that one of my Dad’s more recent ancestors had died in the Workhouse in Stapleton but details are few and far between.

So there it is; walking can be a perilous activity but – just maybe I might soon be able to establish my credentials as a genuine peasant. More than a few people I know probably came to that conclusion many years ago!

Calendula cream, chef’s ass, the marriage service and a green spirituality

One of the best pub signs I’ve ever seen!

Yesterday was just one of those days that left me almost breathless with pleasure. We were five old friends whose various relationships reach back way over fifty years; five old friendships that have seen and survived all manner of triumphs and tragedies and five human beings sharing a walk (well, more of an amble) on a stunning spring day, while we followed the course of the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal which was built to carry coal from the North Somerset coalfield to the junction with the Kennet and Avon canal, near Dundas aqueduct. For me, a light bulb went on when I realized how much of the old stone structure had survived, but Madame also had it written down as a place to return to – a lot!

It wasn’t a long walk by any stretch but we gave it several hours anyway, soaking up the sun and exploring off the path from time to time, looking at plants and rusting iron lock gate nails with equal interest; catching glimpses of the equally abandoned railway line that forced the demise of the canal. For me it’s a paradise of post industrial relics and possible sites for interesting wildflowers, and by all accounts it has some very interesting geology, which is always good news for plant hunters. But it wasn’t all green wellies and Tilley hats. C and I had a friendly bird app competition with our phones and I realized that the absence of an in-phone database meant that hers identified a Black Cap Warbler much faster than mine which was still looking for a signal. Just for interest I was using Birdnerd and C had Merlin – hers was clearly better for off-grid id’s – mine’s always worked perfectly well but perhaps I’ve just been lucky with phone masts.

Weld – Reseda luteola

There were no rarities spotted, but it was just as reassuring and pleasurable to see Dandelions, Cuckoo Flowers, Cowslips, White Nettles and Ground Ivy all flowering in profusion. The only oddity was what I think must have been Weld – Reseda luteola, AKA Dyers Weed, Dyers Rocket or Yellow Weed. No prizes, then, for guessing what it was once used for. If it was Weld I suppose that would make it a post industrial plant relic from a much earlier historical moment. Lurking up and down these beautiful valleys are the ruins and remains of monastic communities with their medicinal herb gardens and watermills, grinding grain from local farms. Far from being enjoyable just for its remoteness and quietness, you could almost feel the presence of innumerable farm labourers, fishermen, monks, boaters, miners, navvies and railwaymen, all those faint echoes flowing towards the river Avon. The horizons are punctuated by the silhouettes of grand mansions and farms such that we were obliged to consider the source of all that wealth. One of our party had long dead ancestors who were in the cloth trade and who may have furnished the backs of navvies, slaves and workhouse inhabitants. with fustian – rough but hard wearing cloth that combined cotton weft on linen warps.

We finished up – as all good walks do – in the pub where I photographed the hauntingly lovely sign at the top of this post; something I’ll come back to in a moment.

I’ve been struggling for a long time to find a way of expressing what seems to me to be a fundamental difficulty in this post-religious age. A few days ago I wrote this:

the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework? 

The trouble with words like Spirituality and Love is that they’ve been so trampled upon by blowhards, bishops and pornographers they no longer have any meaning at all except for a vaguely felt inflammation of the imagination which could be anything from a vision to a mild virus, and so writing about such things becomes an exercise in frustration; altogether lacking the tools for the job.

For me, best and most creative ideas come when the parts of a solution finally come together for no discernable reason except the relaxed mindfulness of a walk. These ideas, quite often, are not the lofty analytics of a Holmesean three pipe problem. They can seem vulgar, irreverent and occupy worlds so different it’s almost like harvesting the energy of colliding comets.

So here’s the problem – how can we find a contemporary way of expressing the content of words like spirituality and love. What kind of love, from all of the available flavours, would best express our love for the Earth in this age of catastrophe? and secondly, what form of spirituality could provide a language accessible to the religious, the determinedly non-religious and that huge population in the middle who long for a structure, a framework for understanding a way of being human that isn’t part of what’s destroying us all?

And so what about these three components?

  • Chef’s Ass
  • Calendula officinalis
  • The marriage service

These three rather disparate ideas have at least one thing going for them because they include a painful (but not fatal) human condition, a plant that provides a useful remedy, and a form of words that might just provide the beginnings of a framework.

Let’s take Chef’s Ass first. If you’re working in very hot and humid sweaty conditions – for instance in a restaurant kitchen, polytunnel or just walking for long distances in inappropriate clothes you may contract a very uncomfortable form of abrasion rash known colloquially as chef’s ass in the trade. I consulted our son – who’s a chef – on a possible cure, and he said he’d once tried alcoholic hand gel which turned out to be effective but screamingly painful. I hoped I could find a less extreme cure for my similar gardening related problem and turned to our home made Calendula Cream which, to my great surprise and relief worked miraculously well. It’s so cheap and easy to make I wonder why anyone would pay £15 for a tube, or resort to potentially dangerous remedies like hydrocortisones.

Calendula flowers drying in August 2020

Forget God for a moment because there’s absolutely no reason to invoke any kind of higher level supernatural powers here. The earth provides us with a multitude of effective remedies for many unpleasant, painful but non-malignant diseases. Calendula is just one example. Now the application of the cream did the trick for me, but that left me with the odd sense that I should be able to say thank-you for that help. I get exactly the same feeling harvesting our produce, eating it and sharing it with friends. That unchannelled, unfocused gratitude needs somewhere to land but all too often, like a boomerang, it circles back on itself and manifests itself as pride.

I know I’m using a religious term here but bear with me just for a moment while I explain. Pride is a very dangerous thing not least because it blinds us to our own fallibility. But collective pride – for instance in our ability to solve every challenge, even catastrophic climate change, through our own cleverness is a form of idolatry. Our thank-you’s desperately need to be channelled into something less destructive than pride.

So with that in mind I’ll turn to to some words from the marriage service which once seized me so powerfully in the course of a wedding service I was taking, that I had to stop in my tracks and recover my wits before I could continue. Each of the couple (and I’m using this example in a completely secular and non gendered way) say to one another – “All that I am, I give to you, and all that I have I share with you”. From that moment onwards I almost invariably reminded my couples that the second half of the promise was the easy bit. “All that I have I share with you” is the kind of arrangement that any half witted solicitor could organise. It’s a kind of prenuptial clause. But the second half of the promise- “All that I am I give to you” is on a different plane. How many of us have even the faintest clue what “all that I am” means for ourselves, let alone our prospective partner?

And yet the point here is that the earth has made precisely that promise to us. The earth says – “all that I am I give to you” and means it utterly, to the end. But we, in our infinite pride, forget that in this imagined marriage relationship with the earth we secretly and covetously hope to get our hands on the money and say that sentence with our fingers crossed behind our backs. There’s no more destructive relationship than a one sided and selfish marriage. This is not a religious point!

So at last I come back to the pub sign. I’m a sucker for naive paintings and a complete fool for the ones that express in paint something that the painter could never have articulated in words. Our angel, with a look of considerable doubt on her face is taking an anchor from the heavenly (that’s the hope bit) to the earthly ( that’s the anchor). When the rope breaks there’s no guide to the way back and we are lost. So to recap from the top; all those ancient voices flowing down to the river and onward to the sea were the hopes of our ancestors, lived out in the world of nature that provided food and health as best the earth could offer. It was greed and selfishness that fouled things up and because of that idolatrous worship of our own powers we now face an existential crisis.

Ironically (or maybe not), we five walkers all agreed that it wasn’t just the complete ineptitude of our politicians or the continuing impact of lockdown; the war in Ukraine, or even the cost of living that was making us depressed and unhappy. There is something deeper that wrecks our sleep and furnishes our worst dreams. Without finding a new relationship with the earth and all living things we’ll remain delusional, lonely and ultimately doomed.

Meanwhile, back on the farm ….

I rather enjoyed dating the damson vodka “April Fools’ Day”. As spring advances, we feel the urgent need to do something useful with the produce which we abandoned to the freezers last autumn because we were tired and wanted a break. That’s the biggest danger with freezers. We chronically overproduce on the allotment and then use the freezers to hold the surpluses until we can think what to do with them. Consequently the 5 kilos of damsons were removed from cryogenic storage last week and were turned into 2 litres of damson vodka and 11 lbs of damson jam. The last couple of kilos will become damson ketchup early next week. They were a gift from a friend on Severnside who didn’t know what to do with them either. His tree is old and marvellously productive and ours is just two years old and may take 15 years to bear any serious quantities of fruit – by which time I’ll be 91 and possibly too wobbly to climb ladders! I seemed to have inherited from my mother some kind of Jungian shared trauma which impels me/us to bottle, pickle and jam at the mere sniff of a plum, ‘because we might need them one day’ .

Of course there is an upside to this. I curl my lip at recipes for instant pickles in the glossy supplements because they just taste like raw veg with vinegar on them. If you enjoy the feeling of your taste buds doing a Mexican wave inside your mouth then be my guest. I prefer to make chutneys and pickles, label them and pack them away somewhere so hidden they come as a complete and marvellous surprise 2 years later when we find them just coming into their prime. Plums, green tomatoes, mixed vegetables and damsons all make lovely chutney but our absolute favourite is a Delia Smith plum chutney called “Dower House Chutney”. Immediately after it’s made it tastes like paintstripper with chilli sauce, but after a couple of years at the back of a cupboard it’s the go-to for anything with cheese – dark, rounded and perfectly blended. The same goes for the ketchups ( we make all our own).

Damson jam is my favourite breakfast treat after marmalade. I don’t think we made any last year – at least we haven’t found it if we did! – and so it was a joy to have some again. Unlike pickles and chutneys, jam is ready to eat as soon as it’s cool. The vodka is blissful after dinner. The books say to strain the fruit off the vodka and sugar after six months, but once again we’ve sometimes left it for well over a year and extracted some of the almond flavour of the stones – giving a much more nuanced and darker taste. Sloe Gin, which we also make, needs a couple or three years to reach its state of grace so the vodka is an easy standby. The other couple of photos are of some bread and a lemon meringue pie that I was practicing for a family meal on Easter Sunday – (I’ve never made it before).

I haven’t written much about the allotment recently simply because the wettest March since records began was a bit of a deterrent. But a few brighter days have made it possible to almost complete the spring preparations whilst we eat spinach from the polytunnel and parsnips, leeks and parsley out of the ground. The potatoes are chitted ready to go in on Good Friday – that’s tomorrow – as per long British tradition. It’s a bit of a daft tradition because Good Friday – as does Easter Day – wanders around all over the calendar simply because solar and lunar calendars can never quite sync; so for the church festival and for allotmenteers we revert to the lunar calendar for planting potatoes. Kind of Steiner lite, you might say.

The broad beans are in, the asparagus is just shooting and the damson (our damson) is in flower. Gratifyingly, the fruiting buds on the apples are looking hearty and – this is down to Madame – beautifully pruned. So it’s all looking good for another season. As I finished bottling the jam the other day, Madame was musing whether we might be that last generation to have learned these skills. On the other hand, our middle son and his partner are keen cooks and gardeners (well he’s a chef, like number three). And post lockdown there are far more young people on the site – which is marvellous too.

The first Cowslip this year, in Alveston Churchyard.

There’s nothing like a day on the allotment, with the sun on your back. It can lift the heaviest gloom. For some fine weather gardeners being tempted out for the first time this year, the plots may look a bit overgrown and neglected but that’s just nature doing what nature always does – healing its wounds. Although most of the time we don’t dig but just cultivate the surface; some infestations like Couch, Bindweed or Creeping Thistle really do need to be dug out carefully. That can be hard work, but the robins will come and keep you company and a host of birds will visit the turned earth and eat some pests (so long as it’s an occasional digging and not an annual religious ritual). We think too highly of ourselves if we come to believe that the Earth depends upon us for her vitality. Quite the reverse is, in fact, true. It’s we who depend absolutely on the incredible generosity and healing power of the Earth.

In which I reveal the true identity of Uncle Jim.

Lone canoeist on the river at dusk

I picked the photograph carefully by typing “river” into my photos database and going through them carefully, waiting for the spark to happen. This was it; the Potwell Inn expressed in a single image. Incidentally my sister once told me off because, (she said), every time I wrote a lyrical piece I would throw a spanner in the works at the last moment, as if I couldn’t bear the thought of a happy ending. It was a reasonable criticism because, on reflection, that’s something I often do. Yesterday I read a single page of an essay concerning grass written by John Ruskin. I thought it was so gushing and overheated that I counted the adjectives on a single paperback sized page and there were 25. As I wrote a couple of days ago, my inner eye could scan the grasses on Mendip or – let’s say on the Lizard with interest, but alight with joy on a heap of mine spoil or bare serpentine rock. My defence would be that I’m far from being pessimistic by temperament; it’s experience!

The Potwell Inn is, and always was, my safe place. Since I read it as a set text at fourteen years old I’ve never lost the liberating sense of delight when Alfred Polly, the hero of HG Wells comic novel stumbled upon this idyllic pub with its own ferry after running away from his own bungled suicide which (long story) resulted in inadvertently burning his hated shop down and heroically rescuing an elderly woman from the blaze. From that moment all my ambitions centred upon finding my own Potwell Inn and my very own landlady. Someone – was it William Goldman? – once wrote that the structure of all great adventures is the Grail legend; the search for an answer to the question “what ails you?” – the one question in life that can never be answered through introspection.

The fact that sixty years later I chose the Potwell Inn as the name for my imaginary happy place, should be an awful warning to parents, teachers and economists about the power of stories. But there’s another thread that animates all great stories and that’s threat and release. Love is only truly love because it always ends in loss. Bereavement is the price we pay for flying, like Icarus, too close to the sun. If you look carefully at the sidebar you may notice the odd category “Uncle Jim” which I hardly ever use, but refers to the threat of annihilation by the large woman’s drunken brother. His threats are comical, but the menace is very real, and occasional confrontations (and dunkings in the river) only end with Uncle Jim’s accidental death wearing Polly’s jacket; relieving the unhappy Polly of his identity and allowing the new beginning he’d dreamed of.

So in one sense, the idea of the Potwell Inn as a safe place is only partially true. Which brings me back to the photograph. The canoeist in question is not paddling – as you might imagine – towards a magnificent sunset. The light floods across from the huge and mythically unlovely blocks of flats that were built on the old gasworks site across the river from us. Grossly overpriced, jerrybuilt monstrosities that resemble Russian bonded warehouses. The old gasworks site on what’s been named by an overheated copywriter as “The Western Riverside” was an ecological hotspot as well as providing a wide wildlife corridor towards a brief strip of countryside – awaiting ‘improvement’ from an ambitious architect with a couple of prisons under their belt. In my view that’s a crime that unites Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Binsey Poplars” with John Masefield’s “cheap tin trays”. [sorry – this is a rant so no prisoners!]

But the threat element of my story goes further because the Potwell Inn of my imagination is also bordered by the river on which my canoeist paddles; but this real river is carrying more than its share of human effluent – the telltale signs are the ice floes of detergent foam that signify that someone – in a treatment plant somewhere close – has dumped another load of shit into the vicinity of my safe place.

I worry that my frequently elegiac rendering of the Potwell Inn distracts from the reality that Uncle Jim, who regenerates more often than Doctor Who, currently wears an expensive suit and loves to entertain Councillors and Planning officials at party conferences : – ( it’s all in the declarations of interest so no-one need bother denying it).

It’s too much – sometimes – this sense of threat. One of my producers once said that my best writing was in the lyrical style. Well yes – but the lyricism of mine and much current nature writing is in danger of becoming politically useful greenwashing. When was the last time I heard a cuckoo? In North Wales last week we were both startled with joy at the sound of a cuckoo which turned out to be no more lyrical than the dishwasher doing its rhythmic thing. The last real cuckoo was probably five years ago on our friends smallholding on the Brecon Beacons. How long will it be before we forget altogether?

On the other hand I’m having a bit of a fern binge at the moment and we found loads of Wall Rue on the wall outside the flat. How ironic that in my previous post I wrote about the way the plants and insects will outlive us when the catastrophe finally happens. Today I’m thinking how unutterably sad it will be if the only witnesses of the unfolding tragedy are dead?

Life on the edge

Another week on the Lleyn peninsula, at the feet of the Snowdon range and jutting out into the Irish sea. The drive home was an idyllic spring journey through three mountain ranges, Snowdonia, the Cambrians and then the Brecon Beacons. I suppose we could have driven home the quick way via the motorway network but then we’d have missed the superb clear views of the mountains. On one occasion a couple of years ago we took a wrong turn and drove up beside the Arenigs and Lake Bala. It cost us a couple of hours finding our way through the Welsh Marches but it felt as if we were following in George Borrow’s footsteps as he researched for his book “Wild Wales”.

The weather was iffy to say the least, but then it usually is in North Wales, and we found sunshine and time for walking every day – which led to a surprise discovery. Coltsfoot (bottom left) isn’t rare by any means but I haven’t seen it for over a decade. The last occasion was on a bike ride along the Severn estuary when the verges were thinly covered by melting snow. It’s one of those plants which flowers before the leaves emerge and I suspect the contrast of golden yellow against the mud spattered roadside snow caught my eye. I’ve been back to the same place often at this time of the year to see it again, if only because it cheers me up to see it defying the last of winter, rather like Celandines do. It’s possible, though that I haven’t found it because it just wasn’t there – because it’s fussy about its environment, but only in the sense that (like the Twits) it relishes disturbed and unpromising environments like landslides, mudslides disturbed ground and generally mashed up land. Last week there were so many Coltsfoot plants punctuating the wind and sea-lashed mud cliffs of Porthor beach, I thought I’d gone to heaven.

And I really like these places. Madame rolls her eyes and laughs at me when I run rapturously towards a slag heap, but here you can find some of the great survivors of the plant world. Often absolutely tiny, they make a scant living in the most unpromising places; for instance those lumps of dark rock in the bottom right hand photo are actually lead slag and in early spring, Common Whitlowgrass is among the few plants that can tolerate the concentrations of heavy metals like lead. The top right photo is of Danish Scurvygrass growing in pure sand. It’s common all around the coast, and I once chewed some (picked out of dog range) and it tasted pretty horrible – like gone off horseradish with mustard. For sailors however it was once a lifesaver due to its concentration of Vitamin C. Foragers like it for reasons best known to themselves and for them the good news is that salt gritting the roads has created Scurvygrass highways, reaching inland on verges.

Many ferns too can scratch a living on drystone walls and almost bare rocks, and so the list goes on. The adaptations to allow these precarious lives are as varied as the species themselves, and that’s the thing about evolution – it’s got time and sheer weight of numbers on its side; so many combinations and mutations to select from. One seaside favourite is the thickening and toughening of the skin – the description succulent kind of misses the emphasis that should rather lie with the plant’s capacity to resist drought, salt and all the other indignities of marginal life. Some ferns rely on what’s called apomixis – they’re self fertilised and so the minute spores can set up shop almost anywhere without fertilization by another plant – and my goodness they can travel in a favourable wind.

I get bored by formal gardens mainly because their glorious arrays are almost always the result of intensive breeding and human effort. They’re the well bred six footers who always get noticed first at the bar whilst the rest of us poorly bred peasants have to wait.

The most misused concept in farming is the idea of “improved pasture” because it’s not improved in any conceivable way- it’s just more productive in the single sense that it makes cattle fatter quicker. But the fact is that unimproved grassland yields better, stronger, far more biodiverse, health promoting and nutritious food; not just for meat production but also capturing and sequestering more carbon whilst sustaining the intricate web of wildlife – birds, flowers, pollinating insects in balance. Improved grassland is just a wasteful and expensive way of turning soil into dirt!

I don’t blame the farmers for this impasse. Decades of government policy and propaganda from supermarkets and agrochemical businesses have promoted the gods of economy, “progress” and yield, but just as the Canaanite god Moloch demanded child sacrifice, the gods of intensive agriculture have sacrificed the soil; offering only dwindling returns and throwing countless small farmers into bankruptcy and poverty.

Of course, picking up my initial thread, some plants will succeed in the most impoverished and polluted situations – which may be of comfort to those foragers who haven’t yet tried salad leaves contaminated with heavy metals. But there will be no botanists there to record and admire them. You see, to return to the idea of evolution, we have to remind ourselves that evolution carries on whether or not there are any humans around. After the barren earth and the inevitable famines, there will be plants and every other kind of wildlife, doing what my favourite plants have always done; adapting surviving and flourishing. This is the point we’re missing. If we want to survive as a species we need to follow their example and adapt the way we live until balance is restored once again.

There will always be snake oil sellers who offer fossil fuelled shares in going back to the good old days. Laugh at them. Laugh in their faces at their risible stupidity, because if there’s one thing we’ve forgotten in this scientific age it’s encapsulated in this adapted quip.

Q: What’s the difference between God and Nature?
A: You can negotiate with God.

Hell’s Mouth lives up to its name

Porth Neigwl beach in a fierce onshore gale yesterday.

Here on the Lleyn peninsula we’ve had to cut our cloth according to the southwesterly weather systems that (as always) brought periods of blissful sunshine punctuated by rain-bearing fronts that threw everything bar the kitchen sink at us. The gale even found the resonant frequency of the steel chimney and periodically filled the cottage with the sound of a full Brahmsian symphony orchestra tuning up. It was quite unnerving until we worked out what it was.

But it wasn’t the end of the world – or our break – because we both had indoor things to do; sharing the dining table, with me identifying plants from photos and Madame drawing. Just how interesting this is for anyone else is a moot point at the moment because the bill for the next two years of the Potwell Inn blog just arrived and I have been thrown into introspective maunderings as I try to interrogate my own motives.

If raw visitor numbers were the sole criterion the decision would be easy because I know that this is one of those niche blogs that tend to disappear beneath the waves of controversy and narcissism. I’m not, and would never want to be an “influencer” of any sort, neither would I dare to set myself up as an expert in any of the subjects I write about. I’ve covered over the years, for instance, the allotment; cooking – especially baking sourdough bread; growing, harvesting and preserving food; wildlife, especially wildflowers and then a few branches in the road towards art, poetry, philosophy and especially global climate catastrophe and ecological destruction. Not quite in the – “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own” category – I’m rather proud of it in fact – but by no means essential reading for saving the earth. My unspoken aim since I first started this as a private journal nine years ago, was to try to reflect the arduous business of being human at a time when our humanity, our survival is under threat; and lest that sounds too worthy by half I’m bound to say that I just love writing. Three quarters of a million words don’t seem nearly too many to me. I’d like to get up to a million but ………. here’s the thing …….. I wouldn’t want to get there by just focusing on my most popular subjects because – frankly – I’m easily bored. I’m a grown up and I’m sure that my loyal readers are grown-ups as well, and can cope perfectly well with a bit of complexity. I even like to think that my occasional literary or philosophical references are part of the fun. And so my readership increases at the glacial pace that would make a sloth feel pleased with itself, and I’m denied the egotistical pleasures of boasting about my immense popularity.

However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in numbers. The challenge, for me, is to give myself and my interests (OK obsessions!) space to evolve and mature. Right now I’m pretty busy with naming plants, but I’m nowhere near competent enough to set myself up as an expert. I rely on a whole network of fabulously competent people to referee and mentor my efforts. They could easily write their own field botany blogs but my interests are slightly divergent from the mainstream. For instance I’m enchanted by the English common names of plants, and today as we were waving goodbye to our son I caught sight of a ferm I didn’t recognise – a very small thing. So I turned to the books and came up with Black Spleenwort. Isn’t that just beautiful? Just as Vipers Bugloss, or Lungwort and Wolfsbane are beautiful, evocative and poetic words weeping with historical associations. But if I add the Latin names to them is that off putting to non specialists? – or should I press on with them because they add a whole new depth and dimension. As my interest and knowledge deepen I’ve had to learn about huge databases, ecological niches, brownfield and polluted sites – not to mention geology, and so it goes on.

A bellringer once tried to explain method ringing to me. We were in the kind of pub that – back in the day – had nicotine dripping from the ceiling when it got crowded. In order to explain his passion for bellringing, he upturned the ashtray on to the table and drew in the slurry with his finger to illustrate the sinuous complexities of the method. I was utterly lost after the first couple of sentences. That’s just what I don’t want to do! On the other hand I once drove a blind bellringer to a tower in Winford and they rang a method which I probably misremember as Bristol Surprise and which – like the song of a blackbird – almost broke my heart with its beauty.

How far do you go to communicate that intense feeling? Well I think I have half an answer to that question. I’ve never forgotten a “joke” cracked by Canon David Isitt while I was training. We were planning a service soon after our ordination, and he said “I want you each to bring a symbol of your ministry – I’m bringing a condom!” He was so right about all too many people except himself. Too much of any kind of ‘ology’ can shut an audience down in seconds. My (entirely personal) theory is that technique and deep technical understanding are absolutely essential to creative work – BUT they should always remain hidden. No-one needs to be told how clever you are, and showing off is fatal. On the other hand the best teachers draw you into their world and encourage you to try for yourself.

So the future of this blog is under consideration, but meanwhile here are some photos of the Black Spleenwort – Asplenium adiantum-nigrum, but don’t worry too much about that. More to the point is the fact that – with a small magnifier – the world becomes ever more intensely beautiful as you look more closely. British summer time began today. Make the most of every precious moment!

Equinox

Stone wall in Tudweiliog last autumn

It’s been – frankly – the crappest winter I can remember. After the last equinox in September I wrote something about the capacity of language to speak about realities beyond concepts, and I finished up by describing the change in season as a crisis. I had no idea at the time that the rather smartass description failed to grasp that the coming crisis would render me almost speechless. If I’ve written very little in the last couple of months it’s because words felt like dust in my mouth. I could go on but I won’t. Most people with any grasp of the steep slope we’re collectively tottering down will understand.

So one thing I could do, I found, was to go through the hundreds of photos I took last year, to try to identify plants and fungi. Most of them were either fairly straightforward or beyond identification – cue for a return visit.

Today we’re back in Lleyn looking towards a grey and bad tempered Irish Sea. Cold, miserable and damp we stayed indoors and I spent the day botanising the garden. I love ferns – I love any group that gives itself up so slowly and after intense study, and today I embraced the challenge that not all ferns are bracken. After photos, close inspection with a x20 magnifier; surrounded with books and hunting furiously on the new BSBI Flora, I can definitively identify the Soft Shield Fern. If that sounds like a small achievement (and it may well be) it felt like a big one to me.

I’ve spent most of the winter in a state of despair but now the allotment is going again, and I’ve a welcome sense of direction and purpose – no thanks to our appalling government.

Hello world!

Orion over Buckland Hill

This weekend we took the campervan to the Brecon Beacons for a couple of nights – just to test all the repairs we made over the winter. I know I write a lot about Snowdonia and Cornwall and if you follow this blog you’ll know that many of my favourite places are wild, lonely and close to the sea, but there’s another side to my landscape yearnings and it’s right here in Breconshire. I took the photograph from the campsite in Pencelli, just up the road from Buckland Hill. It was so clear I was completely foxed for a while as I tried to find my way around a sky unexpectedly full of thousands of visible and perhaps millions of invisible stars – so numerous and so beautiful they felt like a kind of blessing. I know it’s fanciful but sometimes I can almost hear them singing an ethereal Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis transposed many octaves upwards. I guess I hear them through my heart. You might think that’s all a load of spam in allium but this place has that kind of effect on me. It excites me to know that J R R Tolkien stayed for a time in the village of Talybont, immediately below Buckland Hill – while he was writing “Lord of the Rings”.

Top centre is Pen y Fan in mist

The (definitely non politically correct) smell of wood fires never smells sweeter and more homely than here between the river Usk and the hills and peaks like Pen y Fan. The Buckland of the saga jumps off the page in the narrow strip of small farms between the River and the accompanying Monmouth and Brecon Canal under the shadow of the misty mountain. The sounds of sheep, and the early spring birdsong all add to the music. I saw my first kingfisher here many years ago. The Mallard in their breeding plumage never looked more incandescent and for a few hours, instead of walking head down looking for plants I could have leaned on a gate and just gorged on the sounds. Even as we drove towards Abergavenny we spotted a Kestrel hunting the hedge alongside the road as well as a Buzzard and a red Kite. The three raptors were just a taster of the riches to come. This landscape is far closer to my personal psychogeography than all my other post industrial hotspots, roaring seas and austere mountains. Celandines in abundance announced that Spring really is here and we drank pints of magic to celebrate in the local pub.

Finding any kind of lyrical inspiration these days, demands we mine it from granite with our bare hands. Every dark hole has a poet at the bottom of it.

Royal Oak at Pencelli – highly recommended for paroled melancholics
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