Natural – Wild – Ordinary

I photographed these lovely spring wildflowers today, all within a few yards of one another in the bottom of a hedgerow. So clockwise from the top there are Red Campion, Alexanders, Daisies and a Dandelion, a Lesser Celandine most of whose leaves are obscured by young shoots of Cleavers and probably Hedge Parsley, and finally some flowering Gorse. It seems a bit daft to talk about plants being happy, but these are definitely very happy indeed. Through long naturalisation in a setting and climate that suits them perfectly, they thrive in a way that most of us gardeners can ony dream of for our own produce.  Further up the same lane and outside a house there were Daffodils that stood out- I should say shouted out  as unnatural additions to the landscape.

Of the plants I photographed, Red Campion doesn’t seem to be edible but was once used to cure snake bites, and the roots contain saponin which has soap like qualities. Alexanders really is edible, especially when young, but I’ve never eaten it so I couldn’t say whether it tastes good. Daisies – not really, Dandelions make good salad leaves and the flowers make really good wine but I’d beware of collecting any flowers at dog level for obvious reasons, and I should point out that the local name from my part of the world used to be “pissabeds” – you can draw your own conclusions.  Dandelion roots were dried and toasted and used as a coffee subsitute during times of hardship and they’re probably best when only used in desperation. Lesser Celandine is also known as Pilewort due to the acrid sap which was used to shrink hemorrhoids and although I did read somewhere that the leaves are edible I think they look prettier and safer in the ground. Gorse smells heavenly, especially when it’s got the sun on it and the flower buds are reputely good to eat. So I guess if I had been foraging today I could easily have picked a few leaves and flowers and enjoyed eating them, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still been hungry when I got home.  Nature is not our servant and does not exist completely to furnish our needs and so it has always been a basic aim of agriculture and horticulture to improve, encourage and refine those essentials offered to us by the truly wild.

It’s hardly a pearl of wisdom to say that the farming landscape is far from  natural. Here in the UK – excluding the National Parks and wilderness areas – there is hardly any natural landscape left.  The total overuse of the word in advertising gives a clue to its power through appealing to our emotions. My usual retort to those who abuse it is to say foxgloves and arsenic are natural, as is oil and coal, but that doesn’t give them a free pass into general use. The word “wild” isn’t used nearly as much in advertising because its connotations are not so good at shifting product, and shifting product is what our greedy culture is all about.  The only exception to that is when the word can inflate the value of the product beyond measure.  One of my sons – a chef – once had to deal with a whole box of Pignuts, probably dug up from a pristine site and sold at ludicrous prices. Wild sells truffles but probably not dogs or cats; salmon and Ramsons but not Blackberries (unless you’re a highly specialized plant hunter who can distinguish between over 250 hybrids.

In fact farming, horticulture, and even allotmenteering are all attempts to improve on the natural and, in the case of extractive farming, to bludgeon nature into conforming to our greedy desires. The Potwell Inn and the allotment have heated propagators under electric daylight lamps. We have a greenhouse, a hotbed, cloches and fleece – all of which we use to persuade tender plants that the weather is better and the days are longer than they really are – and so we are able to grow tropical and subtropical crops, the like of which you would never encounter in any wild setting in this country. Some we win and some we lose, but I don’t think anyone would argue that aubergines, chillies, peppers, even the humble potato and runner bean, belong in the Flora Britannica.

Organic gardening (and farming) are a wise and timely attempt to mitigate the worst effects of industral farming – and I’m bound to say, of industrial overeating as well.  Permaculture goes a step further and tries to rely more heavily on perennials and, in essence, returning to a foraging lifestyle. Vegetarianism and veganism focus on achieving something of the same ends by focusing on and changing what we consume. Even the most traditional farmers are beginning to see the benefits and opportunities of locally sourced and sustainably produced foods. It’s crazy for those of us who care about the natural world to pick fights with one another and – rather like Brexit – spend our lives in pointless posturing and squabbling about minor doctrinal differences while industrial farming, environmental degradation and climate change go unchallenged.

A friend of mine was in a hospital visiting her uncle when she heard a commotion on the opposite side of the ward. A fierce family row had broken out across the bed, and my friend noticed to her dismay that the occupant had actually died. It was she who called for a nurse to attend to the deceased person, not the squabbling family.

I don’t need to labour the point of telling that story here, the parallels are all too painfully clear. But to finish on a brighter note, I know that many natural historians love to go after the rare specimens, but I want to put in a word for the ordinary. The ordinary is the bit we don’t notice because it’s there all the time – at least it used to be there all the time but now it’s disappearing because of our abusive relationship with the environment. So I want to campaign for the ordinary because that way it can’t disappear without anyone noticing. Recognising, naming and treasuring our wildflowers and native fauna is the most powerful way of energising the fightback against extinctions. The ordinary is special.

 

Just me and the robin

This is the same patch of land separated by two and a half years, and the part that comes in between is best represented by this next photograph:

img_4865

There’s a conundrum in the middle of all this work that came to a bit of a head yesterday when I was preparing the third of the raised beds in that part of the plot which is shown in the first two photographs. I was up at the allotment early, grabbing as much as possible of this warm and dry weather before the weekend when it’s likely to get  very cold once again.The earth is in good heart and easy to dig at the moment.  It’s curious to think that the beginning of the “no dig” beds is some pretty profound moving around of the earth, but the plot was infested with couch and bindweed and the only way to get on top of them is to dig in search of the roots and remove as many as is humanly possible. It’s hand-to-hand combat that’s lasted for three years now, but yesterday showed that the battle is all-but won with barely half a trug of roots. The most pernicious weeds have slunk back to the edges where they can be controlled by regular mowing.

So it was me and the robin. He was only too pleased to help me by darting in at my feet to pluck a grub from the ground and every very now and then he would perch on one of the grapevine posts and sing his little song to encourage me. I was profoundly glad of his company and kept up a very one sided conversation with him as I dug. I’ve explored the reasons for creating the beds before, but in summary, drainage is an issue and the slope of the ground invites some gentle terracing which is best accomplished by the beds.  The deep woodchip paths function as drains, and the soil which is displaced – many cubic feet of it – is used to level the beds.

So between the natural but limited abundance of the groundcovering weeds, and the productivity of the allotment when it’s in full swing, there’s also a responsibility to to the earth and to its biodiverse inhabitants from nematodes to buzzards.  yesterday, when I’d finished the third bed, it all looked very empty and anything but biodiverse. The next step is to add a great deal of compost and some seaweed meal before covering it until spring. Let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no pleasure to be had from digging.  Healthy outdoors work with immediately visible rewards is not to be sneezed at, and most of us allotmenteers derive a good deal of pride from getting our plots cleared during the winter. But with our soil in particular, apart from clearing the deep rooted weeds, digging does more harm than good. In winter the soil which is a highly productive clay/loam balls up on the wellingtons and easily gets poached.  You wouldn’t want to let livestock anywhere near it. img_4869So beds it is, and no-dig beds it’s going to be.  As I was clearing the last of the parsnips from one bed it was very pleasing to see how straight and unforked they are, and I wish we could claim some responsibility for the success of the crop but they were thrown in much too late as an experiment. Next season we’ll do it properly.

Then when I got home (aching a bit) I found an article in the Guardian reporting some new research on the best habitats for wildlife. Now I know that our allotments can take delight in (wary about) the foxes and badgers which are a delight to watch but a blessed nuisance in the summer.  Badgers have a sixth sense about when you’re going to harvest the sweetcorn and always get there 24 hours earlier! We have a wide variety of birds – again a mixed blessing – and butterflies (ditto) and so it goes on.

The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, found allotments and gardens often had 10 times more bees than parks, cemeteries and urban nature reserves. Baldock said nature reserves were important for other wildlife but were often less suitable for pollinators, being dominated by trees rather than meadows.

I wrote about this on  8th January this year to almost no response, so I changed the title which helped just a bit – It’s there under the title “Dig for Victory”. I’m not being a snowflake about this, I just think it’s really important and we need to get the message out there.  Ground clearing and war on weeds can only be an environmental step forwards if it supports biodiversity.  I don’t think bindweed and couch are in any danger of becoming extinct – not least (If you read Richard Mabey’s excellent book on weeds) – because bindweed has the most devious and cunning ways of reproducting itself. cropped-img_4357But the collapse in pollinating insects is the really big worry  – not just for gardeners and allotmenteers but for the multitude of small mammals and birds who rely on them for food.  So the next stage on our allotment, after ground clearing is the establishment of food plants not just for the Potwell Inn but for all the insects and small mammals we need to support.  The earth isn’t just there for our convenience. So this year we’re having a big push on foodplants, nectar flowers and companion plants. We only ever share our land, and we’ve got nets and fleece and (for sweetcorn) hard barriers to preserve the bits we really need, but that brings the responsibility to look out for the needs of the other inhabitants of the land. An allotment is a pretty intensively cultivated environment but that doesn’t mean we have to regard the rest of the natural world as a threat. The link to the article is below.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/14/city-bees-allotments-gardens-help-arrest-decline-study

 

 

 

 

Midwinter – but spring peeps out.

We went for a walk today – along the river Avon which runs past the flat and then up the Kennet and Avon Canal as far as Sydney Gardens, The gardens are the only remaining eighteenth-century pleasure gardens in the country.  It was a grey day with the sun threatening but never actually coming out. The river was calm but flowing briskly enough to keep us away from the edge when we were passed by cyclists. As we were walking we were discussing the possibility of building a hotbed on the allotment to get an advantage in the spring when suddenly within a few yards we came upon hazel catkins  – Corylus avellana, and Butterbur – Petasites hybrida .  A humbling reminder that nature needs our reverence much more than she needs our assistance.

Compost bin? Wormery? who knows?

IMG_4254I’m not sure what to call this beast any more. It doesn’t seem to obey any of the rules that  I thought we’ve been following for years, but goes on it its own sweet way consuming everything we put into it.  It’s supposed to be a compost heap, and at the beginning that’s how we treated it. A compost heap is an exercise in managing cycles – loading, turning and eventually extracting the finished compost, and that’s how ours has always worked in the past.  But this one seems to be different.  We began it back in the summer when we relocated it from some neighbouring unused ground.  We didn’t really pay too much attention to it apart from makng sure that it was kept moist through the dry summer. We compost all of our suitable household waste  (probably 5Kg a week) – peelings, eggshells, cardboard, tea leaves (not bags) plus anything that comes off the allotment. It’s not huge, it’s 1m diameter by about 1.5m tall which is just over 1 cubic metre – about the maximum size we can manage.  Any bigger and it’s difficult to remove the wire frame to get to the compost.  It couldn’t be simpler to make, you just make two cirular cages with sheep wire, one about 25 cm larger than the other and line the gap with heavy cardboard.  The boxes bicycles are delivered in are easy to scavenge in town. Then you fill the wire and cardboard tube with whatever comes along.

In the summer we started to feed the heap with urine diluted 10:1 with water and it heated up considerably, not to the 60C claimed by some systems but above 40C which, at 10C above ambient even in the hottest weather, showed that something microbial was happening. While this was happening I noticed that very large numbers of brandling worms were moving to the top, presumably to avoid the heat. We’d never added any worms to the heap, they just seemed to find their own way there. As autumn came on they moved down again and I expected that the heap would slow down and not do much until the spring.  I was mindful of the fact that it was now very full and would need turning as soon as I could build a second container. But whatever process is going on seems not to have diminished at all, and each time we top the heap up, within days it’s reduced once again, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the primary process is driven now by worms.  So has it turned from being a compost heap to a wormery?  I’m really concerned about disturbing it while it’s working so efficiently so I think I’m going to leave it alone over the winter, maybe wrap it up a bit with some insulation and see what happens. I’ll just build a second compost heap alongside it.

If it has turned itself into a wormery, then extracting the compost is going to be a bit more difficult because the cages don’t permit the easy removal of material from the bottom, and so I might just build a proper worm bin with a means of extraction and then try to move the original contents, complete with worms, across to it.  I don’t know exactly what the weight would be but 1 cubic metre could be 500-600Kg depending on the moisture content.  I’d always thought that I’d need to buy worms to start the process, but as always nature needs very little help in doing what it always does. I guess I’ve created an ideal environment for brandling worms to breed in and they’ve just done their thing. I’m delighted, hopeful, grateful and I feel properly put in my place once again.

IMG_4715

The timber has arrived for the new batch of raised beds and so the next couple of weeks are going to be devoted to civil engineering. There are a lot of outstanding jobs to be done, not least plumbing together the four water butts because the mains water supply has now been turned off and we need to get all 1000 litres of rainwater gathered over the winter. I also now need to get a wormery constructed and finally I want to do some experiments with a moveable hot-bed next season. Our second LED propagator light has now arrived so soon it will be time to sow chillies ready for an early start. Yesterday we removed all the window boxes to the greenhouse to protect the geraniums from the frost, and we’ve replaced them with another six boxes planted with spring bulbs.  For a while it looked very bare through the windows, but there’s something hopeful about seeing the green spears poking through the soil. It all sounds easy but everything has to be lugged up and down three flights of stairs and across the sloping allotment site and my knees are complaining.

After the celebrations, back to the vines

IMG_4742It’s been a week of celebrations at the Potwell Inn with a fortieth and a ninetieth birhday and a lot of catching up with old friends. Our oldest son’s fortieth has spread itself over two weekends of reciprocal trips between Birmingham, Bristol and Bath with a good deal of modestly riotous fun. The ninetieth birthday belonged to an old friend and parishioner whose anniversaries and birthdays along with those of her ninety one year old husband are celebrated by friends and family from all over the world at gatherings that are filled with what can only be described as grace. When I said in a recent posting that we inherit more than genes from our grandparents, I can think of no more powerful instance of it in these gatherings of brothers, sisters, nephew nieces and a multitude of cousins and so many friends brought together by love and affection and generosity. We came away from it with a couple of brace of pheasants and a frozen partridge (another ethical dilmma to ponder) given to us by a friend who carries on alone on her small farm. We drove back with the setting sun in our faces and it was truly glorious, and then we turned towards the East and there was a three quarter moon to light the last miles home.

And so Monday began with a bit of game preparation and the meat is now in the freezer until it’s incorporated into a Christmas terrine.  Later we went up to the allotment and while Madame weeded and cleared away the dead leaves among the cabbages, I made a start on restoring the posts and wires supporting one of the two grape vines. When we took the plot on it had been neglected for years and I’ve replaced a couple of posts piecemeal, but it’s time it’s replaced in its entirety especially after such a generous crop this last season. So after a good deal of pondering and measuring I set the first, and largest post and drove it two feet into the ground with a huge rammer, that weighs about 20 kilos. Tiring work, followed by four more subsidiary posts that took me almost until it was dark.  Then we packed up and carried two of the newly planted spring window boxes up to the car.

It was another superb sunset, and just as we were leaving I spotted another fox about twenty feet away regarding us coolly.  He was a big , thickset dog fox with the same white tip to his tail as the younger one we saw on our plot recently.  But here was an older, wiser animal who stood his ground with no fear of us at all. We see their leavings all over the site and it’s clear by the darker colour that these animals are living largely on what they can find around the allotments rather than going off into town after discarded human food. At this time of the year there’s a preponderance of berries, but it looks as if they’re finding plenty of small mammals.  The chickens on the site are all well protected by high fences buried into the ground. Leave a door open or any vulnerablity in the defences for even one night and the foxes will take the lot.  We’ve seen the results when well -meaning beginners forget that basic fact, and over the years we’ve lost enough birds to wonder if we were running a takeaway service!

So an ‘everyday’ day and a celebration of the ordinary that even the news of our continued descent into political and economic chaos couldn’t quite dent.

Ever seen a cow smile?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think these must be the happiest cows I’ve ever seen.  I took the photo in May 2010 when I walked 200 miles of the Camino between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors with my son Andrew. Purely by chance we were crossing the Aubrac hills just as the transhumance was going on.  Cattle were being walked back up to the high pastures with real ceremony and all the surounding villages were decked out for a party that seemed to go on for days.  This was “La France profonde” and we were pitching our tiny tent wherever we could because we couldn’t afford even the hostels. But these cattle had just arrived and they were so happy I swear they were smiling. We were too. The local cheese was wonderful and made a change from our terrible diet – we had no means of cooking with us and so we plumbed the depths of cold cassoulet eaten straight out of the tin. Most character forming.

They came to mind today when the (British) government released yet another report on bovine TB suggesting that lax bio-security, inadequate fencing, poor diagnostic tests and excessive movement of cattle between farms was at least as responsible for the spread of the disease as the badger which has taken most of the blame so far. The debate – if you can call it that – has become very polarized between the advocates of culling and those who put the welfare of the badgers at the forefront.

You can’t blame the farmers for wanting to do something about this hideously expensive disease, but they’re between a rock and a hard place. The consumers, the supermarkets and the government have pursued a ruthless policy of “cheap food at any price” and now we see the results. We have an ecological crisis in which we’re losing species at an unprecedented rate.  We have a crisis of obesity caused by junk food.  We have an environmental crisis which is being stoked by our overconsumption of meat. Farmers are stuck in the middle, with pretty well everyone blaming them, rather than the rest of us who made it happen.

Badgers love maize. For us at the Potwell Inn, that means they love our sweetcorn. Every year they drop in once a day during July and August to check how ripe it is and then they calculate when we’re likely to pick it and eat the lot the night before. This season we saved half of ours by netting it, but the badgers had the rest. So that’s why I feel competent to discuss this issue at all. I’ve lived and worked in farming areas for decades and I can see the problem from both sides.  TB isn’t just ’caused’ by a bacteria. We’re surrounded by bacteria and without them life on earth would cease, but the bacteria become a problem when they invade a host that’s stressed and unable to fight them off; and cattle on many farms are really stressed. Intensive farming on the scale we’re seeing it now, produces highly stressed animals that are vulnerable to all manner of diseases including TB. Bio-security is a hopeless attempt to carry on the way we are by locking the stressed animals in sterile prisons. We get the same problem on the allotment.  Plants that are stressed by drought, heat or over/under feeding are the first ones to get attacked by diseases and predators.

One of the contributory factors in this mess is almost certainly the increase in fodder maize.  It’s a very high value food but it’s not the same as grass – especially the old kind of pasture in which ‘weeds’ add to the value rather than having to give supplements.  Badgers love fodder maize and wherever it’s grown the badger populations seem to rise. Isn’t it just posible that the link between badgers and TB isn’t a causal link at all but nothing more than an association.

So if I were a farmer I’d be screaming at the government – “Well want do you want us to do, then?!!” Culling badgers – forgive the pun – isn’t a magic bullet. Vaccination could help, and it would be cheaper and less impacting on an ancient species, but if the underlying engine driving this is government/public encouraged overproduction, then by moving towards a more sustainable regime farmers could make a contribution to ecology, environment change and the national diet all at once. But they do need to make a living.

IMG_0112So back then to Aubrac and those wonderful smiling cows. We didn’t see any rich farmers on the whole walk, but we saw a lot of farms and villages doing their best to preserve a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries. and so it seems we can have happy cattle and wonderful cheeses, and we can have wonderful meadows too, decked in spring with every kind of orchid and alive with insects.  But if we get rid of the farmers we won’t have any of those things, and if we want them badly enough the change we shall have to embrace will be to live more simply. If we really insist on eating Big Macs and smoked ribs every day for next to nothing, then we can’t expect to have anything except a degraded environment and a legacy of debt to the land that our grandchildren will have to pay.

 

The fox puts in an appearance

IMG_4670

But more of the fox later, the number one priority on the allotment today was to clear away all the crops that had been damaged by the weekend frost. Incidentally it was strangely comforting to receive news that American allotmenteers were experiencing their first frost too – I like a bit of solidarity!

IMG_4666As we all know, the merest sniff of a frost is enough to make a cucumber sick, but our late and speculative crops of runner beans and French beans were also hit, along with the last few green tomatoes.  It a shame, not least because this last few days has seen the coldest October weather since 1997 – this time the gamble didn’t pay off quite as well.  But think; we’re still eating the last of the fresh tomatoes and we’ve rescued enough of the frost intolerant things to make a big batch of piccallili and even some green tomato chutney.  So today we cleared the remains away ready to hoe the weeds off and apply a thick layer of winter mulch to the ground that we’re not replanting immediately. The asparagus is slow to turn yellow so we’re leaving it a day or two more before we cut the fronds back, weed the whole area and apply the seaweed  straight from the big sack we brought back from North Wales. It was a struggle getting it into the car because it weighed about 100lbs, but we tied the sack tight to prevent any maggots(!) escaping, and there was no smell to speak of notwithstanding the gloomy predictions of our friends.  All the while the sun shone, but as it dropped towards the horizon a real chill set in. There were a surprising number of allotmenteers about this afternoon and so some lively sharing went on as we compared surpluses.  That’s one of the best thing about the allotments – the community – it has its ups and downs but basically it’s rooted in sharing not in grabbing what you can.

Then, just as we were packing up, the fox appeared.  We’ve seen him often before but never quite so close. Even he was joining in the last minute hunt for food.  We’ll all soon be looking for something to eat during the winter months and I don’t begrudge him a share of the surplus at all. It was a young dog fox in fine fettle with no sign of mange and of a good weight I’d think. We looked at each other for a while and he allowed me to get out my phone and take a couple of pictures while he regarded me warily. It was a very joyful moment.

Later we brought the produce back to the flat and cooked some of it.  We’re thrilled with our carrots, parsnips and turnips, the first we’ve grown successfully in some years. The only downside of coming back to the city is the noise of the traffic.  It’s incessant, noisy and pollutes the atmosphere so that, for asthmatics like me, November can be a tricky month.

IMG_4669

 

How to make a crab sandwich

IMG_4652

Yesterday we made a spur of the moment decision to stay in North Wales for a couple more days rather than rush home to rescue the runner beans.  We were up here in the spring when the ‘beast from the East’ felled our early sowings, but we were ready for the challenge because we’d already got a spare set propagated.  This time the forecast is for temperatures just above freezing in Bath – so we may or may not get away with it, but in any case this is the time of year when we strip back almost all of the summer season’s tender plants and get down to winter jobs.  In fact we’re up here still eating our own fresh runner beans, French beans and tomatoes.

With an extra three days to play with, my thoughts turned immediately towards getting some crabs. It’s incredibly difficut to buy fresh fish at the seaside these days.  I was talking to a fellow allotmenteer in Cornwall a few weeks ago and he told me he’d quizzed the local supermarket about whether they sourced their fish from Newlyn.  Oh yes, they assured him, but it has to go to their central depot before being shipped back again to the place where it was caught!

We have a couple of sources of fresh crabs up here but we decided to try one we’ve not been to before, and after a depressing drive past a massive dairy farm surrounded by fields of drab, chemical fuelled uniformity and devoid of any wildflowers; with every gateway barred by notices warning us to keep out from this biosecure bovine lock-in, we found the place we were looking for at the end of a narrow lane. They had no crabs, only frozen crabmeat and there was no prospect of getting more in because they’d missed the tide and what with the strong winds ……

On then another five miles to Rhiw where there is a house at the side of the road with a roughly painted sign outside the door. Put all thoughts of cosy cottages away, this house is a 1950’s style new build, fully equipped with Crittall windows.  We’ve bought delicious crabs there before and so we pulled up and I tapped on the door. Yes there were crabs, and they were in a fridge in the garage, freshly caught and cooked. Ten minutes later after after an impromptu seminar on how to sex crabs and the best way to judge them (weigh them in your hand) and whether the meat tastes better in some seasons than others I felt like a crab expert and when the economy collapses after Brexit I’m going to set myself up as a consultant crab sexer. Anyway I bought two lovely hen crabs at £6 the pair and we drove back after stopping at the local Spar shop to get some cider and some wholemeal bread.

By this time it was a bit late for lunch so we went for a walk down the coast path. Last year, on September 4th, I counted 37 plants actually in flower on the same stretch of coast path. Now, in late October and with a fierce north easterly wind there were only very few survivors.  IMG_4654We did however find a nice clump of Rock Samphire down near a little cove where we watched a female seal playing with her cub for about half an hour – close inshore – it was enchanting. We also put up a snipe who waited until we were almost upon it before it shot into the air like a clay from a trap.  All the usual cast of gulls, shags, crows, jackdaws and chough were either sitting on rocks looking out across the slate grey Irish Sea, sporting ecstatically in the updraught from the cliff or congregating noisily in the fields behind. A tough looking ram sporting a fetching harness of blue raddle had been about his tupping with enthusiasm if the sheeps’ behinds were anything to go by, but he was taking a break and grazing contentedly with the others.  We found a solitary field mushroom whose neighbours had been trodden into the grass, and when we were thoroughly cold we walked back.

So after all those hours of careful preparation here’s how to make a crab sandwich. You need, apart from the crabs, a small hammer (or a wooden rolling pin works well).  You need a skewer or a sharp pointed kitchen knife, a large piece of newspaper to collect the bits and a bowl to put the meat in – that’s it. I always break all the claws off first and get the meat out of them first because that’s the most boring bit and I like to get it out of the way. The technique is to twist and pull. If you need to, give the claws a gentle whack to crack them, you don’t want to be eating bits of shell. If you’re lucky you can gently pull some of the meat out with your fingers but if not you prise it out with the little knife.  When all the claws/legs are done you’ll have a surprising amount of white meat if you’ve chosen your crabs well. Next comes the bit where you prise the main shell apart. It can be a bit of a struggle, but it will almost always come apart if you apply enough firm pressure.  Inside you’ll see some greyish green feathery looking things – these are the ‘dead mens’ fingers’ and you wouldn’t even eat them for a dare so chuck them out and get on with extracting as much meat as you can. The red meat is the gloopy bit, and that’s where a lot of the flavour is, so don’t be squeamish – get it out into the bowl.  Then mix it all gently together with a fork and add some black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Butter some brown bread and heap on as much crab as you dare and then slap another slice of bread on top. Pour youself a glass of cider and and eat the sandwich with the filling running down your chin in the most disgusting way. If you want to spoil it completely you could make a salad with exhausted lettuce, lumps of red onion and slices of red pepper, but you can get that in a pub any day for about £15 a shot.

Preparation time 6 hours, cooking time zero, eating time –  five exultant minutes!

 

 

Small crisis at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4646

This both is and is not a photograph of the Potwell Inn. Let’s just say that the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw are very close to my heart. Rhiw is pronounced a bit like the sound a buzzard makes when it’s circling in the sky. Welsh is a very beautiful language! Notice the chestnut fence which is so economically constructed, and notice also how quiet it is, presided over by the spirits of the Keating sisters and their mother. There are some places, some hills, some groves, even the smallest of things, that can function as portals if you’re paying attention. What floored me on our very first visit to the Plas was the stove in the kitchen.  It was a paraffin powered stove complete with an oven, each burner having its own primus style pump; the exact stove that my grandparents had in their cottage in the Chilterns. I can only have been four or five years old, but I have the clearest memory of having it drilled into me that the stove was dangerous and that I should never ever touch it. Continue reading “Small crisis at the Potwell Inn”

Potwell Inn staff outing to Snowdonia

,IMG_4611

The great thing about the Potwell Inn is because it’s imaginary it’s always very close to wherever you are; and so organising a staff outing was a relatively straightforward business – mostly working out what to do, and shelling out a substantial amount of cash for the fare.  It seemed to Madame and me that life is more than RS Thomas, Elsi Eldridge, the Keating sisters, gardening and searching out almost extinct apple varieties, so we decided on a steam train ride from Porthmadog to Caernarfon on the Welsh Highland Railway.

Gwynedd’s county town, home to Wales’s most famous castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mighty Caernarfon Castle commands the lion’s share of attention, but the town’s narrow streets and stylishly redeveloped waterfront also merit a visit. The castle, built in the 13th century by Edward I as a royal palace and military fortress, was at the core of a medieval walled town.

Thus reads the publicity blurb on the Visit Snowdonia website, and it goes on to stake a claim for the town’s historic importance.

More of that in a moment, but “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”  goes the saying, and this posting is really about play because I don’t think we do enough playing and it’s having a terrible impact on our health and on our inner lives – and, further, it’s not long before what’s crippling our inner lives is also damaging the whole culture too. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and since I’m reading an excellent book by Peter Marren, called “Chasing the Ghost” I’m including a single line from the book, describing a naturalist friend hunting for a flower:-

“[Chris} has the thoughtful, slightly quizzical expression of a dedicated naturalist. If a Bedfordshire flower had eyes, it is that look of intense curiosity that it would see, as the hand lens descends.”

We tend to think of play as being a bit mindless, but the opposite is true. Real play is intensely mindful and focused, whilst all the time being wholly open to the wonder of the unexpected. Real play demands that we put to one side “the way we do things round here” – an excellent shorthand description of culture I once read – and open ourselves wide to the possibility of being someone else in a different world. Field botany, achaeology, drawing, gardening and cooking are among hundreds of ways of playing that are gradually being eroded by our Gradgrind society – and the results are everywhere to be seen

And when it comes to playing there’s not much to beat a 25 mile ride through Snowdonia on a proper steam train. Everyone’s playing! obviously me, playing at being about seven years old again lurking around the engine waiting for a burst of steam and hanging out of the window (strictly forbidden) to feel the smuts and grit in my face. But everyone else seemed to be at it as well; the driver and fireman were properly dressed up and were having the best game of all, especially when the vacuum failed in a narrow cutting and applied the bIMG_4604rakes – then we were all playing. The driver was playing the resourceful hero walking back down the line, and we were all playing being abandoned in the mountains.  The conductor was playing at raising our spirits with her announcements while the fault was fixed. Of course it was fixed, but when we pulled into the next station there were a small group of people having the time of their lives playing at being engineers and having manly conversations in their hi-vis jackets while a shed was unlocked and a mysterious component was found and seemed to make everyone happy again. And all that didn’t even begin to describe the bliss of rattling and clanking up the climb towards Snowdon with the wheel flanges squealing against the rails in all the twists and turns. And then there was the silence.

The steam hissed, someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop – only the name

P1080703At the very first stop, Edward Thomas’s poem came flooding back to me, it was almost overwhelming, and it occured to me that no-one whose life had not begun in the steam age would quite understand the poem because these days, the station name-board would be accompanied by the loud thrumming of the diesel engines under your seat. Real unexpected silence was the best teacher of that poem anyone could hope for – a truly magic moment!

And it’s impossible to describe the mountains adequately even though I know the area fairly well. The reason is that – unlike a map – the mountains change shape with every yard the train heaves upwards towards the summit. You realize how partial your understanding of any landscape must be until you’ve got it under your feet. I know very well what Tryfan looks like on a map, and even as I climb up it, but I don’t even know  what it looks like from the Glyders or indeed from almost any other distant aspect. That majestic and slightly menacing outline may well look quite benign from some viewpoints but I don’t know that because I haven’t got the ground under my feet properly. I’m just not local enough.

But agricultural policy in the UK has been decided for years by people who haven’t got the landscape under their feet at all.  All this landscape and all its beauty has been compromised by farming policies decided largely by politicians and unelected boards 280 miles away and more; compromised by ignorance and greed and little understanding of a whole way of life that doesn’t fit into a homogenised culture. Am I sounding a bit William Cobbett here? The name on the cinema lets the cat out of the bag because deep down I think the politicians in London still see Wales as a colony. First you attack the language and then you take everything you can.

It turns out that Caernarfon is probably best seen from Angelsey because it gets seedier the closer you are. We only had an hour and I was on the lookout for the bookshops I’d googled up but the only two I saw were W H Smith and another that seemed to specialise in Welsh language books. Yelp boasted nine bookshops but we walked around the castle and the pretty bits in about ten minutes and the other seven must have disappeared. There was a pub called the Black Boy Inn with a sign that would make you blush for shame at the lack of irony or self-awareness, and just up the road a cafe that offered sausage and mash with onion gravy in a giant yorkshire pudding, with several rather depressed individuals eating something else. Somewhere near the waterfront was a large statue of David Lloyd George who’s ubiquitous in these parts (there’s a museum in Llanystumdwy). I kicked myself when we got back for not paying more attention to the modelling of the trousers to see whether the sculptor had managed to make any covert reference to the member for Caernarfon which was, by all accounts, wielded to great effect.  The bingo hall just about sums it all up.

What can you say about Caernarfon? It seems to have lost its raison d’etre. Stone, slate and coal are no longer shipped out to the world, hill farming is on its knees and the only industry (if you discount doing up second homes and holiday lets) would be tourism. It’s a sad and lost place that reminded me a bit of Milford Haven; and as we were walking around I was thinking of H G Wells’ Mr Polly walking on the beach at Fishbourne and saying “Beastly silly hole of a place”. You could imagine the vast majority of young people with any vision at all having to leave the area and move to one of the larger cities.

But enough mournful introspection.  The authorities are working hard to make things better and they’re spending £2.5 million on a new terminus for the Welsh Highlands Railway – right in the centre of town, and the Potwell Inn works outing still had the journey back to Porthmadoc to look forward to. And for once the summit of Snowdon was not wreathed in cloud and we even saw the little steam train making its way up to the top. I’ve got mixed feelings about that one.  Whose bright idea was it to build a railway line up there of all places?

And back to Porthmadog we went with our company of day trippers, picking up walkers and adventurers as we went  – imagine the fun of flagging down a whole steam train on a request stop.  Finally we passed the Moelwyn Hills as we approached Porthmadog.  Many years ago we went on a weekend working party on the Ffestiniog Railway which was then more of a dream than a reality. There was some serious playing going on there, not least with seemingly vast amouts of explosive used to blast a new link that had been broken by the construction Tanygrisiau Hydro Electric Power Station. It was winter and we got a bit bored and so we climbed Moelwyn Bach, the smaller of the two mountains, in deep snow and in our wellies. P1060355Deeply irresponsible I know, and we got properly told off by the ‘grown ups’ when we got back but they were a strange lot – they believed in the railway as fervently as they might have believed in the Second Coming. It was all too serious for us and we finally disgraced ourselves by crashing a truck. I imagine they breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of us. Now, decades later it’s easier to give them credit for their single-mindedness in building the railway. They were absolute pioneers and achieved their railway line in the teeth of a thousand difficulties. I wonder what the original volunteers think, now that the railway is a successful commercial enterprise. Knowing when to let go and allow the second and third generations take over is a real challenge, but only today it was announced that the slate region of Gwynnedd which includes the Ffestiniog Railway is to be nominated as a Unesco World Heritage site which, if it comes off, may bring even more visitors to the area. Something needs to replace the lost industries but it will create yet more stress on the culture and landscape if it’s not managed carefully and locally.

So back into Porthmadog with the sun going down and the last train from Ffestiniog steaming on the far side of the station. As staff outings go it was pretty good – no-one got drunk, started a fight or got locked in the toilet.  I think we might do it again next year.