We had the most fabulous sunset this evening. The cottage looks westwards and so sunsets are always good, but tonight as the sun sank in the in a clear blue sky, the sea remained brighter than the sky or the land even until the last vestiges of slate blue had disappeared. It was a bright silver band full of luminescence as if it were shining from its own depths. We waited to see if this was to be our chance to see the green ray that’s reputed to happen after exceptional sunsets. It didn’t matter at all really – as my grandmother would say – “enough is a feast”.
Ten days ago (or a hundred years as it seems) we were shivering in the wind and rain in the western fells and lamenting the onset of autumn, but it seems the weather had different ideas and so here we are – still a little less north and just as west – enjoying what may turn out to be the last few days of the oddest season I can remember. Since the beginning of the year the seasons have switched on and off, occasionally in the wrong order, and kept us allotmenteers guessing. The settled order of the seasons has been torn up by climate change which leaves us wondering how bad this could get. The answer of course is – even worse than this. It’s hard when we’re offered these balmy days both very early and very late in the season not simply to embrace them and be thankful, but the inexorable warming isn’t just providing us with a few extra sunbathing days, it’s melting the ice cap, melting glaciers and raising the sea level whilst heating the sea and generating huge destructive storms. I’ve only been in the path of an oncoming tide once, when a spring tide corresponded with a big melt of snow and a strong wind blowing the surge up the river Avon in Bristol. We were living right next to the river and as the water topped the walls it came across the road towards our house making a sound I’ll never forget. We didn’t get much sleep that night until the tide turned and took the flood away.
But today the farmers were out baling the straw, and with a couple of days left before the rain returns, they’ll be ready for the winter. The last peaks of the Snowdon range that form a natural boundary to the Lleyn peninsula were standing clear in the blue skies. We walked along the clifftop and below us an abundance of birds were sunning themselves on the rocks – it’s a little paradise here when the wind drops and the sun shines. Much of the time it can be pretty rough. Near to where we’re staying there are a number of coves you can climb down to, all empty of humans apart from us.
Any spare tme I’ve had this week has been spent clearing gigabytes of junk off my long-suffering laptop which is ten years old now and I need to keep it going as long as I can. I hate the tedium of messing about with computers but, on the other hand, I completely rely on everything functioning seamlessly in order to be able to concentrate on writing – so routine maintenance is a necessary evil. But art will out, and aside from a few photos of the view I grabbed a closeup of the dried remains of a wild carrot which must have provided the model for an old style lobster creel – I’ll add it to the list of drawings I’ll attempt in the long winter evenings.
The word of god turned out to be not
today thank you
An early morning walk on the beach this morning became something of a meditation on melancholy, impermanence and fragility. Apart from the plashing of the incoming waves, the crunch of pebbles underfoot and a few end-of-season walkers celebrating the unexpectedly fine weather, the beach was quiet and being rapidly erased by the tide . As we came to the top of the steps a group of women, three generations of Welsh speakers came towards us speaking quietly like a happy hive of bees as they cooed over a baby in a pushchair. Welsh is still the first language in this part of the country and local people sometimes speak of the places beyond Porthmadog as ‘the mainland’. Every village here has a tall, grey and hard-faced buildng with words like ‘Morab’ and ‘Ebenezer` carved above the door. The churches are mostly closed down, the subscription books stored in dusty archives as the subscribers turn to dust in the churchyards outside. “No one comes to the brittle miracle of the bread” On Sunday I did spot a preacher in his best suit, bible under his arm and with the look of a man who had something to say. I wanted to pull over and ask him what it was that pleased him so, and depending on his answer I might have stood at the back of the chapel where the uncommitted stand, and heard him out, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being disappointed again.
Why does it slip through my fingers all the time? The meaning? – and so when I’m in this way I’m filled with questions whose answers are always just a sentence away but out of reach. On the way home we spotted a buzzard on a telegraph pole and he must have caught my question because the answer came back quite clearly –
For once it’s not about you!
Sometimes the hardest things to spot are invisible because they’re everywhere. Like the air we breathe, or as the sea appears to a fish, the all encompassing embrace of the big ideas have insinuated themselves into our inner and outer landscapes and become the framework itself. We know this is the case but it takes a film like The Matrix to spell it out. Today’s Guardian publishes a report on farm subsidies that makes scary reading in the precarious real world we inhabit. $1 million dollars a minute to pay farmers to do the wrong thing is such a preposterous idea that you might wonder whether it could possibly be true, but the reason it slips past us is because we never stand in a bank watching a man in a green overall withdrawing millions in cash.
The best place to see the madness of subsidy is locally – we’re in Lleyn, for instance, and we’re staying right next door to a typical small mixed farm. There are a few cattle and sheep, the adjoining field has a mixture of tups, and some Jacobs sheep graze the clifftops. There are all the usual features of the small farm here, hens, a couple of noisy ducks and some mangy looking cats eyeing us up. As we arrived here the farmer, whose knees are shot from handling sheep, was moving multiple trailer loads of nitrate fertiliser on to the farm. I reckon about 30 tons of the stuff passed by us. He’s not rich for sure, and he’s struggling to keep going in a market that’s rigged against him; impoverishing his own land in order to stay in the game. Ironically we saw him yesterday carrying a heavy bag of seaweed up from the shore, over his shoulder. He knows what he needs to do but he can’t do it.
A mile away we found another dairy farm while we were out searching for a source of freshly caught fish. You’d hardly know it was a dairy farm, it looked more like an industrial estate with its huge barns, silos and tanks. Everywhere there were warning signs that this was a bio-secure area and we were not welcome. Little bucolic charm there, then, but another sign of a broken farm economy.
The government last week announced a huge extension of the badger cull. With tuberculosis becoming endemic in dairy herds, the cost of compensating farmers is enormous and yet almost all the scientific evidence suggests that badgers are not the main source of the disease. TB is a disease that spreads most quickly in highly stressed environments – such as when you force cows to produce far more milk than they are properly capable of. The principal feed crop grown on intensive dairy farms is maize, which is deficient as food without supplementation – rather like living on Big Macs! Badgers absolutely love eating maize and so the farmers are the most likely cause of the explosion in the badger population by providing thousands of acres of their favourite food. Add to that the constant movement of cattle around the country and it doesn’t need a degree in agriculture to see that the problem is probably another example of agricultural self-harm.
And yet, I read an intriguing article in the same newspaper last week that reported how many industries are quietly greening their approach because it makes more economic sense. Ironically they’re not publicising this because public perception is that ‘doing the right thing’ results in more cost and less quality in the product. Some Portuguese wine producers have gone organic without announcing the fact, because they get bigger yields and better quality and they can sell at the same price.
The only way to tackle this desperately urgent challenge is to take on the stakeholders, the industrial farm corporations, the supermarkets, the manufacturers of damaging fertilizers and lethal farm chemicals, but most challenging of all, ourselves. I remember one tired old management cliché that might fit here – culture eats strategy for breakfast. The answer always comes back “we’re only giving the public what it wants!” and it’s true. The situation won’t really change until we see through the ideological fog that sustains intensive, destructive, subsidised farming and demand something better.
I can hardly believe that while I was getting down and dirty with this Sheeps bit – Jasione montana and a macro lens, there was a field mushroom, about twenty times bigger, right behind me, and which I failed to notice until I looked at Madame’s photo. She thinks my tendency to lie down on public footpaths draws unnecessary attention and strikes fear into the heart of innocent ramblers who think they’ve found a corpse. No-one has actually poked me with a stick yet but I’m sure it’ll happen one day. With warmer weather kicking off again we’re seeing more and more edible mushrooms and they really do taste better than the ones you can buy. When we lived in South Gloucestershire there was a field next to the church where mushrooms always grew prolifically. There was an undeclared race between me and the village milkman to get to them first. We never spoke about it as a competition except to brag quietly when we’d had a good haul and I think in the end we came out pretty equal.
Here on Lleyn we’ve found an equally reliable spot near the cottage but our main rival is the sheep. There are plenty of other edibles around like the Shaggy Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota rhacodes which, I confess, I’ve never eaten, and various puffballs -which I have.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we think about couplets like ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’, and yesterday we were in one of those puzzling places which on one measure was about as wild as it gets, and yet on another had signs of human occupation back to the bronze age, field boundaries almost as ancient, an ancient holy well, the remains of what looked very like a medieval rabbit warren, and a hard concrete road lingering from the second world war and ascending to a derelict observation post, scanning the Irish Sea.
For me, the knowledge that the Uwchmynydd headland, overlooking the pilgrim island of Bardsey feels all the richer for its millennia of human occupation. Neither pristine wilderness (whatever that means) nor intensively cultivated, but populated mainly by sheep and walkers, this is a landscape that puts us in our place, reminds us of just how fleeting our fourscore years are. As we were coming back along the coast we passed the rusting remains of a large pulley lying in the corner of a field and just beyond it the ruins of a winding house, probably used to move whatever was being mined there down to the sea. At the start of our walk, looking down at the spring that constitutes St Anne’s well, you could see the ancient remains of a settlement that would have given access to fertile south facing soil, security and a good view of the sea and its potential harvest. The landscape has become a palimpsest whose history can be both sensed and actively read through its overlapping scars, whilst still being a rich ecosystem for wildlife, plants and birds.
The temptation to try to press the replay button on a landscape and return it to some notional wild state seems completely misguided to me, particularly if the motivation is to set up some kind of ghastly nature reserve/visitor attraction. The gathering climate catastrophe and the terrible impact of chemical/intensive farming can be addressed better not by doing nothing at all but by doing less of some things and much more of others. At its simplest, we need to be caring for what we’ve got; caring with every ounce of commitment we can summon up. There’s no technological ‘fix’ around the corner that’s going to allow us to continue in our selfish ways as if the earth existed purely at our disposal.
History and its traces are good for us because they recount both triumphs and failures, the cruelties of child labour, the poisoning of the streams by mining waste, the wealth and poverty side by side, the shame of the enclosures and the theft of common land – all these are written in the landscape and it’s as important to preserve them just as it’s important to protect the wildlife that lives in the remains. This is a landscape for artists and poets as well as farmers, walkers, and birdwatchers.
This poem by RS Thomas must be one of the most commonly quoted on blogs with any interest in spirituality (of any denomination or none), and it’s a personal favourite especially today since we’re staying within a few miles of his parish in Aberdaron.
The Moon in LleynThe last quarter of the moonof Jesus gives wayto the dark; the serpentdigests the egg. Hereon my knees in this stonechurch, that is full onlyof the silent congregationof shadows and the sea’ssound, it is easy to believeYeats was right. Just as thoughchoirs had not sung, shellshave swallowed them; the tide lapsat the Bible; the bell fetchesno people to the brittle miracleof bread. The sand is waitingfor the running back of the grainsin the wall into its blondglass. Religion is over, andwhat will emerge from the bodyof the new moon, no onecan say.But a voice soundsin my ear. Why so fast,mortal? These very seasare baptized. The parishhas a saint’s name time cannotunfrock. In cities thathave outgrown their promise peopleare becoming pilgrimsagain, if not to this place,then to the recreation of itin their own spirits. You must remainkneeling. Even as this moonmaking its way through the earth’scumbersome shadow, prayer, too,has its phases.
I haven’t much time to post today, but it’s been a fabulous day with some real highlights. We were up early and went out to the headland to look for field mushrooms but drew a blank until later on when we did a 7 mile walk around the coastline facing Bardsey island, when we picked a hatful for breakfast tomorrow. During the walk we were watching choughs above the cliffs when I spotted what I initially thought was a small flock of carrion crows or rooks, but these were a bit different – certainly different sounds with all sorts of grunting and clicking noises, but the most spectacular giveaway of all was their gift of turning upside down in flight. They were, of course, ravens – magic moment.
During the walk we could clearly see the remains of ancient settlements – this area has been settled for millennia. But there were other treats like Devil’s Bit Scabious, Fleabane and Yarrow all looking as if summer had hardly begun, let alone ended. The hedges are thick with Blackberries which we picked and turned into a crumble later, and there are an abundance of elderberries. Later in the afternoon I rang Menna the crab woman and we drove over and bought four large day-fresh crabs at £3.50 each and turned half of them into a crab linguini withour own tomatoes, garlic and spring onions. Stunning sunset, full moon tonight. Life is good!
It’s almost silent here on Lleyn, apart from the odd lazy bee, a robin singing in a minor key and a duck in the field next door. The sun is shining as it it can only shine in the autumn and every leaf is gleaming in the warm air. Even the hawthorns seem to be doing some last minute packing for a cold winter, they’re so heavily decked with fruit the colour of sealing wax.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with this place. Yesterday was a bit of a write-off as it was raining most of the time and we were exhausted from what seems like three weeks of travelling, but today the sun is shining and we took a leisurely wander around our favourite places just to say hi. The tide was falling at Porthor and we walked along the beach, inspected a few plants on the way down and photographed seaweed for me to paint as soon as I can get the piano out of my workroom. But I had higher things on my mind and so we stopped off at the pub next door to RS Thomas’s church in Aberdaron to book for Sunday Lunch. I did meet RS once at a reading, but I knew Jim Cotter, one of his successors, in the parish much better. He was a courageous and radical parish priest who was always in hot water for following the Gospel rather than canon law, and I found his grave up on the clifftop church at Llanfaelrhys close to RS’s widow and son. That, however was not the higher thing I had in mind. Cake, particularly National Trust cake was the object of my desire so we rattled on up to the cafe at Plas yn Rhiw.
‘Plas’ is probably the smallest and most lovely garden in the whole of the National Trust. It’s up on the hill overlooking Porth Neigwl – mistranslated as Hell’s Mouth – a lovely bay but properly hellish for a sail ship in a storm. So we had tea and cake accompanied by more insects and more silence before we went off to buy fresh crab.
Sadly fresh crab was not available today. We always stop at one particular house where we can often buy it very cheaply. It was here, in the spring, I was given an impromptu tutorial on how to sex a crab by a delightful elderly lady who ran over the whole thing for me so I’d buy the right ones next time. However, today she explained that ‘he’ had not been out for a couple of weeks because of the terrible weather but he was ‘out crabbing right now”. “OK”, I said, “I’ll pop back tomorrow”. “Oh no, I’ll give you my phone number,” she said, rummaging around for a piece of paper. “I’ll put it in my phone”, I said, ” I’ll put you down as ‘Mrs Crab'”. “My name’s Menna”. “Menna Crab?” I said. “That’ll do” – broad smile!
On the way back we talked about what makes this one of the most magical places we know, quite as magical as Velvet Bottom on the Mendips, and Lizard and Zennor in Cornwall, and I think the common factor may be something as counter-intuitive as mining. Each of these areas has a history that you can almost taste in every stone. Rhiw, and especially the area below Jim Cotter’s grave was one of the biggest manganese mines in the country. In Priddy and around Velvet Bottom they mined lead in Roman times; in Zennor it was tin and on Lizard serpentine. Everywhere there are the slightly melancholy remains of industrial building, spoil heaps and gruffy ground completely reverted to wild nature. The sort of random and unplanned nature that makes every step a botanical adventure.
But there was one further connection to make, and it came to me unexpectedly while I was searching in my mind for some kind of commonality between these disparate landscapes, and I think it was because I was brought up in the midst of an exactly comparable post-industrial landscape – only in my case it was the remains of mining and clay, used to supply brickworks and pipeworks. For me there’s the sense of childhood enchantment which emerges when I enter exactly the kind of place I played in as a child. The old dram road, the ruined pithead works of the South Gloucestershire coalfield, the brickworks at Shortwood where my friend Eddy and I used to crawl up the abandoned chimney flues to look up at the sky. These landscapes are inscribed not just by their natural history today but their human history in the past. It’s true of every landscape of course, but these are the ones I understand at a deeper level.
Here they call us ‘blackberry tourists’ because so many outsiders come in on weekends like this to harvest the hedgerows. There’s still a lingering, almost imperceptible resentment at the English who’ve moved here and you can’t blame them. Our friends tried to buy a cottage here years ago and found themselves thwarted at every move. But I don’t want t live here, just come here two or three times a year to breathe and feel the silence.
I’m inclined to think that we bloggers are better at talking than listening, and having banged on for a year at some (130,000 words) length on any subject that interested me, I realized this morning that if this blog is to be any more significant than a bunch of egotistical blah blah blah it needs to offer the opportunity for more engagement and more feedback.
I’ve long wanted the site to have its own email address so that readers could respond privately without having to use public comments or likes, but I’ve been wary of compromising our privacy by handing out my own addresses and being swamped. I realize that this could be risky but I’ve taken every precaution to keep the ‘email@example.com’ channel separate, and I hope and anticipate that this will add something to the whole experience of the Potwell Inn. After all, whoever heard of a pub where you had to listen to the landlord without being able to join in a conversation. So now there will be two ways of joining in, the ‘comment’ button for stuff you don’t mind sharing with everyone, and the ‘contact’ button for anything else. I can’t promise anything more than a slow response, but I will try and respond and I’m always pleased to receive constructive ideas, criticism and further thoughts.
That, at least, was the intention when I woke ‘on a mission‘ this morning. “It’s time” – I thought and I charged into action. Not being a computer geek I should have realized that nothing is as easy as it seems and I finally made it work ten hours later, which rather took the shine off my glorious optimism.
I’ll put up a ‘proper’ post later if I can find the energy, but meanwhile I hope you’ll find this a useful opportunity. Do let me know if you agree, I get the sense that there’s a community out there which is struggling, like me, to make a lucid and useful response to our climate and ecological crises by living differently – hence the endless reading, the allotment and the emphasis on food.
We’re now in North Wales for a little while in our exploration of the regions and their different farming challenges. We seem to have been (I suppose we have been) travelling for weeks, but nothing has shaken my conviction that there is a way through this mess.
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”.