There are several ways of driving back from Llŷn but we’ve settled on the shortest by distance, the longest by time and the one that surpasses any other route for sheer beauty. Naturally the sensible way would be to drive across to the M5 and plough down the motorways, concentrating grimly on not being trapped in a long line of lorries attempting to overtake one another with a 0.1mph speed advantage. Not being sensible but loving mountains, the scenic route takes us through Snowdonia past Cadair Idris, through the Cambrian Mountains and the Brecon Beacons, finally entering Bath via the last remnants of the Cotswold Hills. Somehow the drive through the landscape effects a similar transition in the mind. Leaving and arriving need time if they’re not to jolt.
The weather last week was pretty stormy and in consequence we hunkered down to writing and drawing, sharing a table in companiable silence for hours at a time and punctuating our days with trips to the local Spar shop (8 miles away!) and further afield to visit galleries. We had a lovely time, but at the back of our minds we knew we’d left a load of very young plants in the heated propagators with only my Heath Robinson watering device to keep them going Outside on the allotment we were concerned about the broad beans in the high winds and all the seedlings in the greenhouse.
The Mark V watering device proved a complete failure. Every modification I had introduced had increased the level of complexity and the possibility of failure. What never even crossed my mind was that the string with the key tied to the end as a counterweight to keep the corks from turning turtle – bear with me here – would dry out and stick to the side of the repurposed kitchen waste bucket thereby suspending the business end of the apparatus in mid air over the reservoir. Happily the young plants were entirely indifferent to my care-plan and got on with getting bigger anyway. If there’s a lesson in that I’m determined to ignore it!
The allotment turned out to be in great heart – not only had all the seeds in the hotbed germinated, but the broad beans had survived the winds that had been so strong as to lift the (toughened) glass panels from the top of the coldframes and throw them several feet away. The beans are very securely netted and supported with string, so that must have saved them. Far from being damaged, a couple of the plants have come into flower which, we were inclined to think, wasn’t a great idea. The meteorologists might call this early spring but it’s not too late for a dose of severe cold. The hotbed is mooching along at a constant 15C: not as hot as I expected but plenty hot enough to germinate spring onions, radishes, lettuce and beetroot. It would have fed my pride if it had shot up to 65C, but then we’d have needed to wait so long for it to cool down we’d have lost all the early advantage.
As if to underscore the resilience of nature and the indomitable will of young plants to survive, the Sweet Cicily that survived my clumsy attempts to germinate them plus repeated slug attacks last spring, is beginning to romp away in its inauspicious corner next to the water butts. Eight seeds – one plant.
On the aparagus bed the first couple of spears of Mondeo are peeping through, needing to be covered with fleece once more I think, and back at the Potwell Inn the potatoes are chitting very well. I took a tip from Alys Fowler in the paper and I’ve sprayed them a couple of times with very dilute seaweed solution. It probably stimulates the growing shoots, but possible keeps the tubers moist as well so they don’t shrivel up too much.
Bearing in mind everything I said about words and drawings yesterday, today we visited the Porth y Swnt exhibition in the National Trust building in Aberdaron and for the umpteenth time in a week we were blown away by the vigour of artists in Wales. Yesterday it was Jonah Jones, today Pandora Vaughan and all the other artists who contributed to the installation who managed to remind me that even Tracey Emin managed to combine words and images with great power. In fact she may be one of the exceptions to my criticisms of the rather bloodless artworks that have stolen the foreground in the UK over the past decades. Consider my hand slapped. In the light of our total cultural immersion this week I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that there is no more English poet than RS Thomas and, if I’m pressed I’ll explain why I’m coming to think it.
But I wanted really to lament the fact that yesterday when I went to get some propane gas I didn’t take a photograph. Like most real places, Lleyn has it’s share of breeze block and corrugated asbestos buildings, and any such building used as a garage is pretty much bound to be surrounded by more or less rusty cars and caravans turned green with mould; abandoned to perpetual storage by the almost dead on their last ever holiday. I say this with no malice, how could I? – I’m shuffling to the front of the queue myself. (Thanks, Rose for that most evocative phrase). In high season the aspiring saints only have a couple of miles to drive to the point of departure for the Bardsey ferry, but on a point of information, the churchyard is almost certainly closed.
The key thing about isolated rural places is that everyone knows you’re there whether you know them or not. We once caught a bus from Cork to Clonakilty and by the time we arrived we were greeted by someone on the bus stop as ‘the English people from the ferry’. The second of those words was the most worrying, given that the Troubles were raging at the time. So today when we turned up at the local garage to buy a bottle of gas for the cottage – we were expected. Having rehearsed the pronounciation of the address which – being extremely remote – needs triangulating from three nearby places – my linguistic efforts turned out to be completely unnecessary from the moment the owner said “Frank said you’d be coming”.
He was wearing the usual dark blue boiler suit and holding a broken numberplate as a palette on which a pile of freshly mixed filler paste was resting. The aromatic perfume of fibreglass filled the garage as he prowled the perimeter of a very old pickup truck, applying large quantities with a flexible palette knife. “I’ll just finish this mix” he said, and I was only too pleased to watch him working. All the lights had been taken off along with a busted wing panel, and the grey filler occupied more than a third of the remaining panels. “Seen a bit of life then?” I asked. No reply invited or received. The pickup was a kind of motoring palimpsest, with the earliest trace of its original owner, the word cenedlaethol, barely visible under layers of more recent paint. That was the moment at which I should have taken the photo – it would have made a wonderful, almost abstract drawing. Long pause……. “Selling it on?” I added…… “Yes”. He was no great conversationalist, but sensing the remote possibility of a sale he said “How do you like it here?” . “Oh I love it but I couldn’t live here.”
And then he said it – “There we are”.
I fell into a pool of delight. That, I thought, must be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. ‘There we are’. uttered by a Welshman for whom English is almost certainly a second language and meaning ” I really can’t understand why anyone would not want to live here but he’s making an effort to be honest, bless him, and so I’ll sell him some gas and make him feel welcome, before he drives back to that dreadful place beyond the rivers of Babylon, the place without song……. “There we are”. “There’s nothing else I can say.”
It’s impossible to be insulted or annoyed by there we are . It’s a phrase so pregant with patoral care that it can turn a canoe around at the top of the Niagara Falls and send it safely back to dry land. As he said it, inflected by his local accent, I felt myself being cared for, and when the gas arrived just now he tapped on the window and gave me a thumbs up with not least least clue I was writing about him as I waved back.
Last night I used the phrase myself. I had to explain to an old friend how, inexplicably, I had believed her to be dead for forty years because of a mistaken message, and having attempted to write the unwriteable I ended my message “There we are – I’ve said it”.
The best exhibitions are the ones that make you want to work, send you out into the daylight filled with determination and – so the gallery hopes – with a new sketchbook and some rather expensive pencils, bought at the shop through which you are always obliged to pass on the way out. That’s one of my two measures of the success of a show – how much does it make me want to work? The second measure is more larcenous than aesthetic – is there anything here I’d like to take down and walk out with under my coat. In my defence I’m bound to say I do not have a collection of very small paintings filched from the walls of galleries, because if if I was willing to deprive artists of their proper income I’d be an art dealer.
On the same day we visited the nature reserve at Newborough (blogged on Tuesday 5th March) we kicked off in the morning by visiting Oriel Môn which translates – minus any resonance – to “Anglesey Gallery”, and which doesn’t sound half so much fun nor a fraction as erudite. I’ve used a lot of Welsh this week because we’re in one of the remaining strongholds of the Welsh language and I applaud every effort to keep it alive and kicking. In a very small way I understand how the deprivation of a language can drain a culture of meaning. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I was brought up in an area with a strong local – really local – dialect. Away from home and school, where they were punished, we still used ‘thee, thou, and you’ in the distinct subtle meanings you can find in Shakespeare. When I went to work as a (very bad) welder at Jordan Engineering when I was seventeen I knew that when Brian – who was a brilliant welder – addressed me as ‘you’ – he was putting a distance as wide as the Bristol Channel between us. There was no other way of expressing that subtly insulting tone. The nuances of local dialects and languages are irreplaceable. A language helps you to think differently and so I find the only way of even beginning to understand what’s going on here is to engage with the Welsh language in my own embarrassed and fumbling way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m too shy even to say ‘diolch’ when I leave the local shop.
Anyway, like my good friend Samuel Beckett (OK I made that bit up) I sometimes wonder whether the ease with which I can write is as much a curse as a blessing. Familiarity with the language comes with a big price. I have absorbed the clichés, the lazy habits and the spent and lifeless rhythms so well that they can slip past me on to the page. And after an hour with Kyffin Williams’ drawings, prints and paintings I was wondering whether it would be possible to give up writing for a month or so and just draw. There was a large drawing of a garden by another artist at the end of the gallery and it seemed possible that instead of writing about the allotment I could draw it for a while. A daunting prospect for me, but the very condensed capacity of a drawing to express far more than hundreds of words is appealing. It’s as if wordiness can be boiled down in some kind of alchemical experiment resulting in a lyric poem and, returned again to the fire, can become a sonnet, then a haiku and finally a drawing. The very writing of which sentence makes a kind of argument aganst conceptual artists who – peering up their own arses – can see nothing and then write a long essay about it. The essential beauty of the drawing over the word is that it eschews the concept. Anyway, enough of that.
So filled with transcendental artistic desires we went off to the nature reserve and I was transported into a different frame, pushing disruptive thoughts to the back of my mind while we hunted for plants. Until Wednesday, that is, when we drove over to Plas Glyn-w-Weddw at Llanbedrog mainly to get out of the ceaseless wind and rain and stumbled on the centenary exhibition of work by Jonah Jones, an artist neither of us had ever heard of. There’s probably a reason and a couple of PhD’s in that fact. Welsh art hasn’t, in large measure, managed to fight its way past Shrewsbury or cross the Bristol Channel. You might cite different networks and funding bodies as reasons, but speaking from the English side of the channel I sense that there’s a bit of a dismissive attitude there. We watched a documentary about Kyffin Williams recently, and one of his faux friends implied that he sold too easily and produced too much uneven work. I’d answer that with two words – “Damien Hirst” and rest my case. Yes, Welsh Art does seem to have been remote from some of the nonsense of the past decades and that may turn out to be its saving grace, but much of the best of Welsh painting and drawing has been bought because people love it and want to live with it, not as an inflation busting investment kept in the bank. Yesterday I asked my question of one of the attendants at the MAC in Macynlleth. She said that it was true that Welsh art hasn’t crossed the border much but she went on to say that every time she drives back into Wales she sense a different atmosphere, a different ambience. She seemed to think that Welsh artists had something very special going for them and it emerged from the culture, the language, the landscape even. I think it’s the lyricism that’s all but disappeared from mainstream British art. Somebody pass me the stepladder and I’ll get down off this high horse!
But Jonah Jones was a revelation. His illustrated and hand lettered poems seemed to be answering my Tuesday question about words and drawing. I thought they were beautiful in a very Blakean way, and the slowness of his technique of hand lettering seemed to be a homage to the poems themselves. Jones was taught letter cutting in Eric Gill’s workshop. The hand lettering almost adds to the meaning of the words in a symbiotic relationship that does justice to both, suggesting that the answer to my question should be “not one or another but both” I should mention that when I was twelve or thirteen I found a copy of Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” in the library and was so captivated by it I taught myself to write in italics and uncials from it.
Two days. two artists, and less than £1500 would have bought three limited edition prints that would give us endless inspiration and pleasure. If you’re anywhere near you really must see this exhibition. But then, at that price could they possibly be any good? – the British critics ask. Aaargh. We’re too skint to find out!
But Hazlitt was right, and I’m missing the allotment too. The photos both come from the catalogue to the exhibition.
The sharp eyed will notice that at this point in the journey we were the only passengers on the train apart from two conductors, the driver and someone who seemed to be a peripatetic cleaner.
We had slept badly – sharing a three quarter bed requires some organisational ability – and with the threat of an early start hanging over us, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns crowded for attention. How long would it take to drive to Pwllheli? (27 mins). Would we find a parking space? (Yes) where was the railway station? ( 2 mins away at the end of the street). And so the allowances of extra time soon aggregated and we arrived at he station with just over half a hour to spare.
There must be circumstances when a half-hour wait for a train might involve lolling in the sunshine on a seat commemorating the deceased owner of a local clothes peg factory. Not so for us. We were in the midst of a storm of the type that blows so hard and so wet that your expensive mountain raincoat pockets fill with freezing water via the gaps in the zips. Opposite the station was a Costa with a couple of people who looked as if their wives had kicked them out and were trying to book a hotel on their laptops. We opted for the station cafe which had a more cheerful look about it – Christmas lights pressed into service for the first day of Lent and a huge range of all-day breakfasts with amusing names served up by a girl who looked as if she actually enjoyed being there. Our train pulled in and the driver rushed in, ordered and ate a prodigious breakfast in a couple of minutes and we followed him, his ulcer and his dicky heart back on to the empty train.
The fare was billed as £18 each for an ‘anytime return’ – I think there must be some passengers who arrive at Machynlleth and don’t feel the need to explore beyond the car park and the industrial estate, and get straight back on the next train home. Anyway, the conductor consulted her nifty handheld replacement for the entire booking office and said she could “do it for £13” – which was a bit of a first – possibly a dreadful weather discount?
The tourist guide, however, is entirely accurate. It really must be “one of the most scenic railway lines in the whole of Britain”. Sensibly, in a mountainous region, the line doesn’t just hug the coast, there were times when it was the coast. The seas, big and grey, were being whipped up by wind gusts of up to 65mph and breaking over the great boulders that protected the coastline. Waves ten feet high and more, were capped with white foam. Wherever we moved away from the coast the intervening land was sodden, often flooded and populated by miserable looking sheep huddled against any windbreaks they could find – and, my goodness, some of the stone walls were approaching five feet thick, possibly they doubled as footpaths during spring tides and floods.
Two and a half hours is a long time for a journey that would take about an hour by road, but I was fully occupied with the scenery, and the prounciation of the tiny station names as we stopped at a series of halts, clumps of grass and an abandoned MOD site. It was as if we’d got into a groundhog day somewhere near Adlestrop. How can a place name have so many letters but lack a single vowel? I know the answer to that because I once ran some writers workshops for the Welsh Academy in the Welsh Valleys, and I had to learn how to pronounce place names so I could get about on the local buses. But although Welsh is a phonetic language, the diphtongs are incredibly tricky and the stress on the last but one syllable often catches me out. Nonetheless it is the ‘queen of languages’ as my Greek tutor (a Welshman) used to say.
If there’s a downside to the coastline it’s the proliferation of caravan sites at the edge of the sea – probably empty for nine months of the year, they look like abandoned intensive farms: hafodydd (summer dwellings) for thousands of people escaping their unique versions of ‘everyday life’. As we crossed the long viaduct at Barmouth the train felt as if it was flying slowly and noisily over the water. I’ve looked at photographs of that structure so many times, and it was an ambition fulfilled actually to cross it – so, soon enough, having taken a detour up a long valley, the train pulled into Machynlleth station where it would become part of another train to Birmingham.
I had carefully planned the afternoon and I knew that the restaurant I’d booked, and the gallery (MOMA) we wanted to see were both within easy walking distance. But you will know that when you plan days out, you don’t normally factor-in storm force winds and 18mm of rain. This turned an easy walk, punctuated by pauses to look at artisanal shoemakers and interesting bookshops to something akin to wading up the Amazon. Cars detoured into deep puddles in order to give us a proper soaking and my right arm had to be extended several times in a single finger greeting accompanied by obscene curses heard by no-one at all.
Did I just write ‘restaurant’? From 25 yards I read the word ‘bistro’ and as we burst through the door propelled by the storm, the word became café. Good luck to them: we were the only customers and they served us decent reviving food and a couple of glasses of wine as we watched hapless townspeople being washed down the street crying for help . The hairdresser in the shop opposite was equally under-employed and soon abandoned his attempt to smoke a cigarette outside as water flooded in torrents down from the blocked gutters. The whole world was a monochrome of grey slate and reflected white, like the parody of a Kyffin Williams painting. My new Tilley hat, the “Outback” model in waxed cotton had performed admirably with strong pegs driven into my ears but its broad brim had collected about half a pint of rainwater that ran down the waiter’s hands and on to her trainers as she took it from me. However she was kind enough to say that since we’d arrived she’d turn on the heating.
An hour later we struggled around to MOMA – the gallery of modern Welsh art – in search of anything by John Dickson Innes and found the door locked against the wind. This led to a very friendly personal greeting as we were admitted by the (volunteer?) receptionist who confessed that she’d never heard of JD Innes and didn’t know whether they’d got any. After a phone call she admitted that they did have a couple of his paintings but they were in storage which could mean any one of a number of facilities across the town while they wait for a purpose-built store to be constructed. Innes was a terrific and underrated painter whose death – aged only 27 – ended a career that would surely have eclipsed his friend Augustus John.
So back to the train for the return journey, but this time it became the ‘school bus’ for several dozen young people. As per Adlestrop, people came and went in the rain but this time the pre-recorded station announcements somehow got out of synch and each station was hailed exactly one stop early. No-one seemed to be fooled by this, and eventually the conductor turned the machine off and did the announcements himself – which gave me the chance to compare his pronunciation of the place names with the satnav versions in the morning. ‘Little things please little minds’ – as the teenage girls on the train might well have said when they were rehearsing a put-down for use in later life. A small drama unfolded as various girls attended to one of their number who had locked herself in the toilet in tears. A drunk man got properly told off by someone for attempting to take photographs of the children on his phone. Madame fell asleep holding my hand under the table out of deference to the schoolchildren who can’t cope with displays of affection by old people.
Then, as we passed the old Butlins site, we spotted the sun shining weakly in the sky, like a torch reflected in a steel bowl, and as we pulled into the station it stopped raining at last. I do love the Welsh and their country – not so keen on the weather, though.
More commonly known locally as Llanfair PG, this photograph is at the seaward edge of the Newborough National Nature Reserve which my mobile tagged as being near to the place with a very long name – actually dreamed up in the 1860’s by an enterprising local wit who thought it would attract visitors to spend their money in the village. The platform tickets on the village railway station probably sold pretty well too.
Back to the photo which is of some dead pines at the edge of the beach, which represent a long ecological story that almost qualifies for ‘shaggy dog’ status. This is one of the largest natural dune systems in the UK, and an incredibly important site for some rare wildlife. The dune system began in the 14th century after a series of violent storms inundated the coastal farmland. The system was stabilised by marram grass and was soon occupied by a huge population of rabbits (introduced by the Normans) that provided a living to the local people who reputedly culled 100,000 a year for sale until the 1950’s. Back in the day, when they weren’t catching rabbits they were weaving the marram grass into saleable items like seagrass mats. Fishing, pilotage through the Menai Straights, farming – local, sustainable, what’s not to like?
Soon after the war, in 1947, a large part of the area was forested with Scots and Corsican pine in an attempt to keep the ever shifting sands away from the village and to create employment in the area to meet a supposed national need. Then, in a well meaning but disastrous intervention in 1953, myxomatosis was introduced into the UK (probably illegally) and rapidly killed tens of millions of rabbits including the ones on the warren. The consequence across the UK was a rapid change in vegetation with huge effects on local flora. The forest, however – apart from the seaward edge – thrived, and it’s one of the few places outside Scotland where red squirrels can still be seen. On the seaward side, the part which is now a national nature reserve, is being managed to preserve the conditions once maintained by the rabbits. The photograph at the top is as good an illustration as I’ve ever seen of the unequal match between human ingenuity and the power of the wind and the sea.
When we talk about climate change and farming practices, and their effect on local ecologies, it’s all too easy to talk in generalised terms, but in reality the effects are nuanced and local. Pointing to the disappearance of a plant most people will never have seen doesn’t have the same emotional impact as a massive moorland fire, and it’s all too easy (austerity?) to take the line that its better to lose a few rare species than to hold back ‘progress’ – whatever that means! Sadly we’re often more willing to relinquish what we don’t value – which is precisely why I’m arguing for living with dirty hands and full-on curiosity.
Finding plants is an emotional experience
Saying that something is worth treasuring because it’s satisfying, exciting – even thrilling – seems pretty puny by comparison with The Greater Good, or The National Interest – whatever political lipstick the politicians and agrochemical industrialists put on the pig they’re attempting to foist on us – chlorinated or not. But here are some photos taken yesterday, along with some taken on September 6th 2017 that – I hope – stand for something important.
Just as we were coming down the steep path off Ynys Llanddwyn I found a tiny little spot with its own microclimate tucked into the side of the path, sheltered from the sea and the wind, and I recognised an old friend, or at least I recognised the leaf. The rule for new botanists is that it really does get easier eventually and after a mighty tussle with the identification keys in Rose – “The Wildflower Key” or even worse in Stace’s “New Flora” the plant will be engraved in your memory along with the associated pain of naming it. In my experience the name will often flee away, but like a familiar face, you’ll know that you know it. In this instance it was doubly complicated in the way that it feels when you meet your neighbour in a completely unexpected place. This particular neighbour lives on the back steps of our flat and I had to do a quick double take when I spotted it on a sand dune 250 miles away. So its English name is Rue Leaved Saxifrage – Saxifraga tridactylides there’s a bit of a clue in the latin name, and it’s a great survivor in urban Bath because it manages to flower and seed before the official chemical street warfare begins.
And that’s a common factor with all the plants that I spotted yesterday – they’ve all learned the art of surviving in a hostile environment. Extreme heat, drought, salt winds and occasional inundation mean nothing to these tough plants which have carved out a niche for themselves on the seashore.
These two, on the left, Danish Scurveygrass – Cochliaria danica and on the right, Sea Spurge – Euphorbia paralias, were the ones I stopped to photograph. Madame sometimes gets restless if I spend too much time rooting around on my hands and knees when we’re suposed to be going for a walk.
Last September I found loads more species I’d never identified in the same reserve, including the extremely priapic looking Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia, one of the rarer plants I’ve spotted in my short life as an extremely amateur field botanist. It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods (mostly Corsican Pine, I think).
Left – Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below. This is (I’m sure) Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum . The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoidesbut checking the current BSBI list it doesn’t apear there or in Ellis’s Welsh Flora whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploides, a highly specialized environment, I think, on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.
I had no idea what this fungus was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdon. I had to wait until I got back to base to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.
Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima
This is Vipers Bugloss – Echium vulgare again on the island. And that reminds me of one of the reasons, contrary to almost all right-thinking botanists, that I cherish the English names of plants. Isn’t there something extraordinarily evocative and powerful about colloquial plant names? “Restharrow” for instance. You can almost see the sweating ploughman trying to extricate the share from the matted remains of the plant. To have discovered all these lovely plants, most of them ‘ordinary’ in my special sense of the word, is to enter a world of poetry and insight. It’s to immerse yourself in an ancient culture where a knowledge of plants and their properties was not some extracurricular stimulation for retired clergy but essential to life and health. “Hedge Woundwort” for instance – does it have that name because it’s used to treat cuts or because it stinks like a suppurating wound? – trust me, I’ve tried it, and it must be an example of the old ‘doctrine of signatures’ which taught that plants carried a clue about their usefulness as a medicine in their appearance or perhaps, in this instance, smell.
Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint. there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cottages, several prominent crosses. The present building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland across the Menai Staits. Yesterday we could see the remains of the snow at the summit of Snowdon.
All this, then, in a couple of hours on the reserve, and – as we left – we passed the sad stand of dead Corsican Pine at the edge of the beach. We humans are clever, but not that clever. Ever since the primal forests were cleared for farming, we have tried to alter the balance of nature in our favour. That cluster of dead trees looks like one of the battlefield paintings from the First World War by John Nash, only this time the implacable enemy is not the bomb but the power of the sea and the salt winds. We should learn to be more modest in trying to shape the earth as if we were gods.
It just wouldn’t be right to keep Christmas cake beyond the end of winter, that’s to say, beyond today because:
Oh frabjous day, calloo callay
This is the last day of winter and I woke up predictably gloomy because I said I would yesterday – and I always keep my word. Madame, however, seemed very motivated and after a morning tidying up the garage, (OK man cave if you must), in the pouring rain – we loaded up an unfeasibly large number of wine bottles, which in truth we were never going to fill with home made wine, along with a car load of other junk and took it all to the tip where she unloaded the wine bottles as silently as possible in order to avoid us being breathylized as we left. I should add that after years of austerity, living on a stipend in the parishes, we have developed an ethos of hoarding anything that might even conceivably become useful at some point in the future. Therefore no hawk-eyed scavengers ever follow us to the bins to filch our pre-loved belongings. When I say junk I mean proper ram-stamped rubbish!
Shortly afterwards we finished some repurposed leftovers from roast belly of pork – turned into fabulous soup – we do live well – Madame took me off into town where we spent a pile of money on new walking boots ready for our next trip to Snowdonia. I loved my old ones as if they were my children, but they were worn down to next to nothing after hundreds of miles of tough walking and in truth they’d always been a bit lethal on wet rock. Socks followed swiftly – why is it so hard to buy socks and pants for yourself when you are a man? I can’t remember the last time I ever bought any without being escorted to a shop. It always seems criminal to put them in the bin when you might get a couple of days more out of them (see paragraph above!).
During this whole time there was not so much as a raised eyebrow from her angelic goodness. No labels were examined, no cheaper alternatives even hinted at – I should have smelt a rat but I was completely oblivious. Then we walked around to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition. She is probably the most important artist of all – for me. There is something about her work that puts me straight back on the couch in analysis, and breaks down my barriers as if I’d just arrived in Robin’s room. I constantly have to surreptitiously wipe away tears when I’m around her work. Next, to Waitrose and ten scallops with a bottle of nice wine. By now I knew something was up, but it felt good so I wasn’t arguing. “This is nice” I said as we went through the checkout. “I thought you needed cheering up” she replied.
Which is how we came to celebrate the last day of winter with a cup of tea and the very last slice of Christmas cake. Tomorrow is a whole new season.
I think it was Samuel (Dr) Johnson who once said that every project bears within itself the possibility of failure. If you wait until all possible objections have been met then you’ll never do whatever it is that’s in your mind. So piling a load of seaweed on to the asparagus bed could be construed as a bit risky were it not for the fact that we’ve seen it done at the Lost Gardens of Heligan without any obvious ill effects. Their bed, mind you, are about fifty times bigger than ours.
Today, having cut back this season’s growth and carefully hand weeded, I opened the very large sack of seaweed we brought back from North Wales and cautiously spread the first forkful on the bed. The smell was pretty awesome (to steal a phrase from WordPress) and there was a lively crew of sandhoppers and flies wondering how they’d managed to travel 220 miles from the beach they regarded as home; but it’s on now and I’m experiencing a strange feeling of satisfaction. Whether the promised benefits of trace elements and soil conditioning along with a little salt and sand actually make a difference we shall see in six months time. On the allotment the balance has now tilted in favour of next season. Over half has been cleared, manured and covered, and the depressing signs of wilting and decayed leaves have been consigned to the compost where a quite wonderful number of brandling have been busy breeding all summer.
Madame meanwhile was planting up the spring window boxes for the flat, and clearing out the greenhouse of pots and growbags. The spent remains of the bags and pots have all gone back on to the beds, more as soil conditioner than food. Two mysteries were also resolved during the morning. The reason that one of the water butts was never refilling from the greenhouse roof turned out to be no more complicated than the fact that I’d turned off the wrong tap; and the second mystery – why was there a section of the tomatoes that always needed watering in spite of the soaker hose , turned out to be no more complicated than a kink in the pipe. I solved both problems with one poorly aimed jab of the fork, when the water sprayed into my face.
It snowed here in Lleyn last night. It doesn’t usually snow in this maritime climate, it usually waits for another ten miles until it hits the mountains and falls there, but last night it snowed a bit and the surrounding hills were dusted with white when we woke up.
But the thought that woke with me was a nebulous sense of vulnerability associated with growing old and, from there in one of those strange leaps that the mind makes, to writers who share their everyday lives with us whether we like it or not, and from there to the legions on Facebook and other social media. Why is it so important to share everything? Or to include myself among the guilty, why do we do it?
Maybe my waking sense of vulnerability makes a starting point. Possibly it was the news that A has been ill with repeated UTI’s and in bed for a fortnight. Perhaps it was the story of a heroin addict son (written by his father) that we talked about before we went to sleep: these things have a habit of resurfacing in some way. The unexpected idea that, in a sense, everyone suffers from ‘locked in syndrome’ to a degree, came into my mind as I wondered what this strange waking mood was all about. Stripped down to the most basic level isn’t being human necessarily being lonely? -and what was that lovely quote from Chekov? – “If you’re afraid of loneliness don’t marry!” . It sounds harsh but it’s the unpalatable truth we rarely want to address. The starting point for our humanity is a terrible aching isolation. Love, laughter, joy and ecstacy are acts of defiance; and all art – painting, drawing, writing – are a declaration of war. Like Jacob at the Jabbok Brook, we wrestle with the angel who refuses a blessing and we always emerge from the encounter more or less damaged. Art dares to grasp the ephemeral and render it. By painting his rotting leaf in its glorious colours I have snatched it from the same oblivion that awaits me. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age” That’s it Dylan Thomas – although the fuse metaphor always seems a bit contrived. “If only you could bottle it” say the emotionally illiterate who can’t be arsed to join the resistance.
And so ecstacy – being out of oneself – is the release from that primordial isolation. The stupidity of trying to describe the furniture in the afterlife and to write the seating plan for the heavenly banquet is precisely that in order to materialise it you’d have to import the very thing it was designed to replace. If I’d had five lovers I would presumably feel five times as lonely in the heavenly kingdom. Thanks, but I’ll take oblivion.
But let’s, for a moment, take the side of the ‘bottlers’ who may have a point. We’ve all had moments that we’d love to be able to hold on to. This journal, for instance, is a way of holding on to the ephemeral that works for me. I’m not offering it up as any kind of exemplar for others to follow, in fact I’m its only reader. But what would it add if I published it? It might add a degree of self censorship, although that always exists in some form. Please meet my superego, my own personal policeman who seems never to go off duty. I think its principal benefit to me would be the assurance that I’m alive. My little protest against isolation and loneliness is no longer the equivalent of a message in a bottle thrown into the raging sea; it’s being heard, it’s being read by six people? by a million people? Does this help me to feel less lonely? Does it give me a friendly hug in a friendless world? Well yes and no. The friends and the hugs are virtual, they’re not real and when I turn my phone off they’re not there any more. The ‘likes’ are not the unconditional ones of sweat and blood relationships, but electronic gestures.
And so I wonder whether there’s a sense in which blogging is the bastard child of ecstacy. That ecstacy is deformed from the sense of being lifted out of oneself, of mysteriously losing oneself as we do when we truly love someone, to the entirely banal sense of sharing what pleases us and makes us feel good. Getting (it) out of oneself, for good or ill, like a form of mental cleansing, thoughts, feelings and emotions – especially when it’s hatred, fear and anger – can be swept into the app and flung into space, and the reward is a handful of emoticons and ticks that can reassure us for an instant that we’re not dead, not forgotten, not alone. I’ve seen it described as a form of narcissism but that’s just a little off target. Yes there are full-on narcissists who waste their time gazing at themselves in a mirror and enjoying it but most of us who have narcissistic tendencies (that’s everyone else, I think) are far more sad and desperate than we are self-satisfied.A few years ago ecstacy stopped being a Greek term and became a drug you could take to feel ‘loved up’ among a bunch of strangers at a club. That’s almost as sad as being alive.
It’s too cold and wet to get out today so apart from going to Nefyn to get some milk I’ve spend all day writing or thinking. From time to time we’re getting intense flurries of sleet and snow and as I was typing I noticed these fine mammatus clouds outside the window. They’re very odd and striking. Beyond them the sea is paynes grey and disturbed. By about 3.00pm patches of blue sky had begun to appear and although the wind is still a fierce and bitterly cold north westerly gale, and where the birds emptied the feeders yesterday, today they spent much of the time sheltering and periodically appearing as small flocks of one species or another.
Tomorrow we must pack up and go home, our drawing pads are untouched. Perhaps next time, we say, and next time there may be flowers or more likely leaves on the blackthorns that edge the little valley that runs down to the sea. Their dense thickets of branches and fierce thorns would be a worthy challenge for an artist with the necessary skills. Deeper down there are clouds of willows whose thin twigs reach upwards towards the light and, at this time of year take on a reddish hue. If I could be bothered to fight my way down there I would find them in bud, I don’t doubt.
Picking up my earlier thread, the other constant factor in our humanity is change. We age, and for years we ignore it or perhaps welcome the changes. We count it as maturity in our powerful days and then we cling to wisdom as the reward for our energy until we notice that our skin and sinews are less resilient than they once were. I once had a dream about being followed by two elephants. i woud occasionally catch sight of them, often a street away. I talked about it to Robin [my psychoanalytic psychotherapist] and he said “I’m a Freudian. They’re sex and death.”
And the Heraclitian theme of endless irrevocable change is what motivates and challenges a gardener too. I didn’t mention gardening as a means of challenging the loneliness, but I should have . Gardening and the love of the natural world teach us how to snatch something from the jaws of the monster. When we sow seeds we raise a finger of defiance to the forces of decay. We think, but never articulate the thought, that we shall live to reap the harvest. And the study of nature what’s that? My endless lists are my way of trying to nail down what’s there, just for a moment. Plants in flower on 2nd August 2017? I identified my first Vipers Bugloss on the cliff at Tenby that day and later I wrote about feeling an almost godlike sense of engagement in naming things.
I have a pen, designed for astronauts, that will write in any weather, upside down, on wet paper and I have notebooks that I can write in under the same conditions. They’re very precious and contain the record of the things I noticed that day. They’re not comprehensive – how could they be? – and to a more accomplished botanist or birder than me they would probably seem rather commonplace. Yesterday I watched sparrows and chaffinches – so what? – well because I really did see them and consequently they were noticed, cared about, recorded. Is that the primordial need that lies at the heart of our humanity? Our need to be noticed, cared about and even recorded?
And isn’t it the case that we are betrayed by a culture that only values the rare and the extreme at the expense of the ordinary? We surrendered the complex metaphor concerning God that had taken thousands of years to perfect and substituted Facebook, Instagram and the TV talent show. No winners, all losers. We each go back at night to our lonely one-room conciousnesses aware that there’s everything to do tomorrow. So by 4.00pm we were feeling a bit housbound and we drove to Porth Dinllaen for a walk along the beach but we were thwarted by a hailstorm that we could see sweeping across the bay towards us. There was a hopeful patch of blue behind Trefor cliffs but soon after we got back from our aborted walk the sleet was coming past the house sideways.
The view across the Menai Straits from Llanddwyn Island
Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below
This is Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum I’m sure. The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoides but checking the current BSBI list that doesn’t apear there or in Ellis whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploidesA highly specialized environment I think on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.
I had no idea what this was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdum. I had to wait until I got back to Tan y Fford to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.
I think this is the first two star nationally rare plant I’ve ever identified. It’s called Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia. Just look at that phallic flower! It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods. Bit of a poster boy for field botany!
This is Vipers Bugloss – again on the island.
Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima
So that was the botanical bit, and very good it was – at least when we got home to Tan Fford. We had driven up to Anglesey to stay overnight with Pete and Sarah who were renting a cottage there. Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint and there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cotages and several prominent crosses. The present church building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland
Fish and chip supper and a good deal of wine knocked us out by about 10.30 and I slept soundly but not well, dreaming that the end of the bed was a huge icefall – which discouraged me greatly from going for a piss.
Went for a walk along the clifftop in the direction of Porth Dinnlaen and somehow decided to start recording plants in flower. I had, in a sense, gone equipped because I’d taken a GPS and a notebook and pen, and it did rather slow us down. We were out for two and a half hours and managed to walk three miles in total. It was a very grey day after a night of rain and so we wore gaiters in anticipation of mud, but in fact the land here seems to drain very well and we didn’t really need them. Stella has bought a new pair of 3/4 height walking boots to try to support her ankles and so in order to match her I put on my old Scarpas, the ones I did the Camino with, and we set out looking rather imposing I imagine. My old boots are probably the most comfortable I’ve ever walked in but they have the fatal (potentially) flaw of suddenly giving way on wet rock, which makes clambering around on beaches extremely hazardous. Happily there was only one slip today, but it rather puts me on edge.
I was thrilled with the total of 37 plants in flower. It’s the most I’ve ever recorded in one day, and it took several hours back at the cottage to double check and verify them. I was surprised how many I’d got almost but not quite right, however it’s a step in the right direction and I’m getting better at checking for the vital information to record, and taking the right photographs for reference later.Here’s the list – the BSBI record numbers are in the big black notebook but I couldn’t fit them here tidily and in any case they don’t matter just for the diary. I wonder if I should send them to the County Recorder – there’s nothing at all rare or unusual but they do mark the existence of a plant for future reference (global warming, for instance). One plant in particular I’d never heard of Tutsam – Hypericum androsaemum – I was excited to ID it. I was also delighted to recognise 2 different species of Heather.
As well as plants we had some delightful moments on the beach, where a grey seal came quite close inshore and stared at us with apparent interest. After a minute or so she slipped beneath the waves and disappeared from view, but on our return walk we spotted a very similar looking female hauled out on a rock. She was very pregnant and looked as if she might give birth to her cub at any moment. Big as she was, her movement across the rock was so ungainly and must have made her very vulnerable. We guessed she might have come inshore to find a safe place to have her cub. She was a truly beautiful animal.
We also saw a Shag with three fledged young, sitting on what seems to be a favourire place. There were also a number of Ravens around. We saw five in a field, scrapping in a desultory way halfway between playing and fighting. The only butterfly was a Common Blue feeding on Birdsfoot Trefoil which seemed rather sleepy and allowed me to get close enough with my phone to take a picture.
Later we drove to Whistling Sands to look for the sloe trees we picked from last year but they’d been flailed this year and there was no fruit to be had. The afternoon was turning increasingly grey and miserable and apart from being too warm could have been mistaken for `November it was so gloomy. So we drove through Aberdaron but didn’t feel tempted to get out in the drizzle and came back to the cottage. As a long shot we decided to see what the sloes were doing in the garden and the lane down to the beach and to our great delight we picked five and a quarter pounds of lovely ripe fruit, enough to transform two bottles of gin! With the Damson Vodka we’ve already made we’ll have more than enough to keep us going for the whole of 2018.
I had forgotton to mention that it’s the second anniversary of our retirement.