No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.
I have some dim idea why I love these little characters so much because they were the first gulls I learned to distinguish out of the group which I had always just seen as “seagulls”. I was puzzled enough by their red legs and beaks with black tips to get a bird book and find out what they were called. That was years ago and so now I know they’re black headed gulls – which caused a many a problem because it turned out they were only truly black headed in the summer. But they turn up here most winters; sometimes they stay and sometimes they go on somewhere else, and since I first noticed them I’ve learned a good deal more about them, but I love their delicate flight; the way they make the herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls who also live here look a bit lumpy – and, they’re here at the moment. These two were on the river bank immediately below the church where we often see peregrines – there was one there today. This isn’t unusual, we also saw wagtails, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, moorhen, mute swans and a lone Canada goose. The heron has been missing for a couple of days but he’ll show up again in one of his favourite haunts.
It was here on this walk that I learned to separate the ragworts; to find pellitory of the wall and half a dozen other medicinal herbs growing wild; here I noticed winter heliotrope and not – as I first thought – coltsfoot. Here too the wild lettuce that doesn’t look the least bit like the stuff on your plate. We do the same walk pretty well every day; come rain or shine. It’s about 8 Km which gets us over the 10,000 step line and passes a couple of local shops that we use. That means that we walk around 10 kilometers most days and it’s not in the least boring because it’s never the same two days running.
If I was trying to make it sound a bit posh I’d call it a transect – an ecological technique that helps us to understand an environment by walking the same path as regularly as possible and recording what you find there. It takes a while but eventually you kind of make friends with it, to recognise the old stagers and the newcomers and to rehearse their names so often that they stick in your mind. Depending on the season we could focus on birds or plants; insects (not too sharp on those) or butterflies and if anything the walk becomes more interesting each time we do it. Naturally there are other walks in much sexier places where we can marvel (gawp?) at five star rarities but there’s nothing in the world to beat finding one of them in a dark corner of a familiar place. We know the proper names of some of the fishes that congregate near the surface of the water in the summer, we watch the river in spate and at its lowest time in a dry summer. There are things we’d love to see – like otters – and I’m sure one day we will. The local natural history society – there’s a link on this page – runs a great facebook group where we can see things we’ve never seen ourselves and check out an identification with some hardcore experts if need be.
Walking is the most tremendous activity when you want to think. Our days are pretty standard; two hours of walking, three quarters of an hour of weights, two or three hours of writing and the rest on the allotment, cooking, eating and reading. When I write it down it looks almost monastic and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Walking grounds us, gives us a couple of hours when we can talk or be quiet and where we can find a perspective on the troubles and worries of life, and it provides me with an endless source of reflection – much of which finds its way on to the blog.
Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau, Santayana and a host of deep ecologists, poets, writers and pilgrims have all found comfort and inspiration in walking, so I reckon the evidence is in. I’ve always kept notebooks and sometimes the notebooks became journals and they’ve been the most important source of inspiration for me. So often, reading back on an everyday, common experience can suddenly flood it with light – “oh so that’s what was going on”. A walk can be an almost symphonic experience that might one moment be prayer, or contemplation, or remembering, or just filled with wonder and delight or perhaps a simmering grouse, or an anger that’s needing to be dealt with. Let them come, and let them go. And that’s not to mention the fresh air, occasional sunshine and the natural history waiting to be recorded.
It’s November, almost official winter and yet today we saw herb Robert in flower, winter heliotrope with its odd perfume, so difficult to describe; nipplewort; a couple of vagrant marigolds on the canal bank and the initial rosettes of a dozen pathside herbs that look lovely even as they are. It’s so easy to be sniffy about ragwort but really, its leaves are lovely in their prime condition.
Sitting on my desk at the moment is a piece of lichen that I picked up last year. If I sprayed it with water it would come back to life, and under the microscope it becomes a miniature world; a kelp forest an inch across. There are bits of dried grass and a pencil sharpener; with all the books and apparatus I need to continue the walk in my head later. It’s so much bigger and richer than just boring old exercise; making up the 10,000 steps. Oh yes, walking is good – good for the legs, good for the mind, good for the spirit too. It takes some ordinary – you might say thin – time of course, but renders it thick, rich and deep like good soil. Sure you might add the biochemical changes and dismiss it all as so much dopamine and you’re free to do just that; but I prefer to think of each walk as another voyage of the Potwell Inn Beagle.
*If you want to explore the philosophy and history of walking rather than read books about routes you might like to look at Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust”. I thought it was a superb book when I first read it and I’d recommend it without hesitation.
Sometimes a photo is a ready-made metaphor for something you can’t quite explain! But then, it was such a nice day today for a reflective walk that even the provocations made me laugh. I’ve written before about the way each season carries intimations of the next to cheer us on, and today there was a tremendous sense that spring will come because time and tide bow to no-one, however powerful our inglorious leaders might like us to think they are. There were signs of occasional occupation in this boat until a month or two ago, but now it’s about to join the shopping trolleys and stolen bikes at the bottom of the river. Meanwhile the prophets of Baal (you can look it up, it’s a very funny story) whip themselves up into a froth of evangelical fervour as we stand alone against Johnny Foreigner – ready to show what we’re really made of. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of Elijah anywhere on the horizon – I certainly don’t think Keir Starmer cuts the prophetic mustard. Anyway as a sign of our preparedness for the coming troubles I thought the poor old wreck was a fitting tribute. Johnson’s new £10 billion navy – “Just needs a lick of battleship grey and a union flag and she’ll look as good as she did in the 1930’s”. And we all know how well that went.
So by way of a bit of diversion this two part graffiti on the river bank made me laugh out loud:
I thought the waggish “why?” completely demolished the rather earnest philosophical tone of the original comment. Elsewhere I thought you might like to see this 20th century brutalist response to the foppish grandeur of Georgian Bath.
Yes it’s the Avon Street multi story car park which is about to be demolished – but still much loved by skateboarders. Needless to say the offending building – like most of the truly ugly modern buildings in Bath was erected in Kingsmead – where we now live. This was the area that was most damaged during the Baedeker air raids during the war – the bombers missed the real target back in the day – but instead of grasping the opportunity to restore what was always a poor but vibrant mixed community they built lots of horrors like this and demolished even more small, historic houses across on the London Road on the spurious grounds that they were unfit. The tragedy, of course, is not so much the failure of architectural imagination – I’m not arguing here for mock Georgian multi-story carriage stables – it’s the shocking fact that someone, in an office somewhere, thought this was all we were worth. George Steiner wrote memorably of a critical test for literature – “What measure of [hu]man does this propose?” The architect Richard Rogers has written that buildings embody our idea of human worth, what we’re about and what we’re capable of. We’re not there yet by any means – the Western Riverside Development in Bath, done by Crest Nicholson resembles nothing more than a bonded warehouse or an architectural tribute to a Chernobyl housing project.
There are, however, grounds for hope. The lockdown has created economic havoc among some of the larger companies, but many of the smaller shops and businesses have proved themselves more adaptable; working collectively and capitalising on what feels like a real longing for a new order. The butchers and bakers and for all I know the candlestick makers too have tapped into something significant, exploring the meaning of local and community; and all it could take to demolish the supermarket myth for good will be another food supply crisis – like the one so heedlessly being put together at the moment. It used to be a raise in bread prices that caused riots – maybe this will be the first civil unrest ever caused by a shortage of jackfruit and avocados, but more plausibly – given the middle class aversion to any action bar gentle hand wringing – it will be provoked by the absence of the everyday things; the foodstuffs that (like it or not), most of us have learned to depend upon.
So back to my book of the year (so far). Here’s a section that caught my eye this morning:
We’ve now discussed, however briefly,the human ecology of field crops, gardens, livestock and wood crops with a view to constructing more sustainable farm systems for the future out of this raw material. Earlier I mentioned the idea of people re-wilding themselves in the context of that future – spreading themselves out across the landscape like other organisms to to skim its flows sustainably rather than concentrating so as to mine its stocks, practising the arts of self-reliance, knowing how to fill the larder, and knowing how to stop when the larder is full rather than pursuing an economy of endless accumulation.
Chris Smage – “A Small Farm Future” p 144
Well, Amen to that. The economy doesn’t just need the tyres pumping up or an oil change it needs to be exposed for what it has become, the means of extracting wealth, leisure and humanity from millions of people and throwing millions more into dependency, sickness and poverty. The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek crino – to choose – and so we have to ask who gets to choose when we reach the crossroads? – when the multiple crises facing us come to fruition at the same time because, in essence they are one massive connected crisis.
So to round off a pleasurable walk today, photographs of the two repurposed bridges from the ‘glory days’ of steam. The first the line from the old Somerset and Dorset, which brought coal (remember that) in from Midsomer Norton and the North Somerset coalfield into Green Park Station. The second, the old Midland Railway line. A third one comes in from the West and goes to London and is the only surviving working line. And of course there’s the lovely iron pedestrian bridge over the Kennet and Avon canal which no longer carries coal but pleasure boaters onwards towards London. The latest bridge across the river is for pedestrians and cyclists only. Steam has gone; coal has gone and the old station now houses market stalls, a butchers shop, food outlets and the local farmers market on a Saturday. The owner says he could let another six units today if there was space. Is this a sign of collapse or is it the foretaste of a new future, the first buds of spring that actually appear in late autumn when the leaves fall from the trees? If you look now you’ll see the buds there waiting. Only time will tell what fruits they will bear.
Regular readers of this blog may remember our ongoing struggle with underground streams on the allotment. In many ways we’re very fortunate to have a stream percolating somewhere beneath our feet that is able to supply water to the roots of any our plants with the means to access it. But it cuts both ways when we get very wet weather and the water table rises to about a foot beneath the surface; the clay/loam soil is desperately liable to poach and so many plants hate having wet feet.
The grape vine was on the allotment when we arrived. In fact the whole site is populated by genetically identical black grapes, all of them planted in the heyday of the Italian restaurants when a team of waiters and chefs took over plots and grew food to remind them of home. The very last of them died just this year and well into old age he still browsed our allotments as if he and his friends were still running them. I once saw him take two carrier bags of ripe figs off an allotment that used to be theirs. They would also pick many buckets of grapes to make wine which is, or was, reputed to be pretty good. We’ve got a vine on each side of our plot and one of them looks after itself with a bit of pruning in the winter, and gives us a good crop of small, sweet black grapes rather spoiled by over large pips. The other vine has always functioned better as a windbreak and screen, producing copious growth of leaves and shoots but never setting a decent crop of grapes. We made 25 litres of wine from the other vine a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough sugar in the grapes so it was very ‘thin’, lacking in flavour, and in the end we poured it away. When we decided to stop drinking alcohol 18 months ago it removed one of the reasons for growing these small grapes. Ironically our present allotments are on a site thought to have been a vineyard in Roman times.
So when we rationalised the fruit cage this autumn we decided to dig up the less successful vine to make space for a redcurrant, and today I attempted to dig it out. After a nominal first foot it was clear that the reason for unsuccessful growth was that it’s had its feet in water every winter. In the end I had to give up because the hole was filling with water within minutes and the stump appeared to be sucking itself deeper and deeper into the soil as I squelched around it with a spade and crowbar. I was experiencing the legacy of the wettest October on record – which leaves a question mark over replanting a redcurrant bush there. At the very least the patch will need a lot of grit incorporating to improve drainage. I might be able to redeem it a bit by diverting rainwater from the adjacent row of compost bins into more water butts. The council turned off the water supply today so I’m glad we’ve got about 1000 litres stored already. Over recent years we’ve experienced problems early in the year before the site supply is restored, because we’ve been blessed with fine dry weather.
While I was getting hot and muddy, Madame planted another two rows of broad beans to stand over winter. She was planting them in a bed that we’d augmented with some bought-in topsoil that had an even larger clay component than our own ground and which I had to dig a whole bag of grit into today before she planted it up. In the fruit cage the winter pruning is almost done now, and on the veg plots the garlic is growing steadily as are the peas which are always a bit of a gamble. If they survive the weather and the mice we’ll have an early crop next year. The brassicas were mostly planted on a bed that was well fed with our own compost and now the early purple sprouting broccoli are almost as tall as me. Let’s hope they’re as productive of shoots as they are with leaves.
The rats have returned to the compost heap since I drove them out by turning it repeatedly; so today I had to set one of the powerful spring traps baited with crunchy peanut butter. Hopefully greed will overwhelm their caution and I can get rid of them before they breed. We do have a lovely but rather wild cat on the site but even he can’t eradicate them all on his own. I say a quiet prayer to bring on the hungry peregrines, buzzards and kestrels and multiply the stoats and the owls!
I was thinking during all these labours about the strange way we misrepresent the allotment as if it were a haven of peace, tranquility and rest. An organic allotment may not have anything like as high an energy footprint as a non organic one, but only if you discount the gigacalories of human toil that goes into replacing the chemicals, pesticides and nitrate fertilisers and the very considerable financial expenditure on bringing the soil back into condition. One survey I read claimed that an allotment can be ten times as productive as an equivalent sized plot of farmland – which can only be true of a very intensively managed allotment. Once a plot becomes a significant contributor to the household food supply, it becomes a place of work – good creative, skilled and satisfying work but work nonetheless. I’ve been reading Chris Smaje’s book “A small Farm Future”c Chelsea Green Publishing and I was interested to see (Page 106) a chart that placed gardening in the same category – high labour input + high productivity – as the conventional arable farm. The difference is that the energy input is mostly human toil rather than fuel, fertilizer and chemicals. It’s a great book, well worth reading and presenting a well argued case for small farms and locally sourced food chains. So while I’m in the mood, here are three books I’ve learned a great deal from:
Chris Smaje “A small Farm Future” – Chelsea Green Publishing
Dieter Helm ” Green and Prosperous Land” – Collins (an economist’s view)
Simon Fairlie “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – Chelsea Green
I could add many more, but these three are extremely practical, albeit quite polemical contributions to the debate about the future of food production. One thing’s for sure; this is a debate we’re going to have to engage with whether we like it or not.
And finally we’re off to the flour mill tomorrow to get 25Kg of stoneground wholemeal flour. I was expecting to be turned away but lockdown part deux hasn’t had the same impact on flour supplies as the first round. It’s an excuse to drive 20 miles along the Cotswolds in the most beautiful scenery, so Alleluia – life feels good. This morning after our saintly breakfast of home made muesli, I had a slice of the first loaf of everyday bread and the first teaspoon of marmalade (also home made) in four months. Oh joy!
By 5.00am I was wide awake and in the kitchen today. Yesterday I resumed breadmaking after a break since August when we put ourselves on a low carb diet; and, notwithstanding all my protests that it’s impossible to make a really satisfying 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, I went ahead and started one anyway.
We survived the first lockdown by cooking (not so bad) but also eating far too many portions of comfort food; bread, cakes, biscuits and preserves and thus it came to pass that we were becoming more generously proportioned than is good for us; in fact we were as fat as Christmas hogs. The last three months of frugality have worked well, we’ve both lost approaching a couple of stone and the threat of nameless but horrible consequences has receded – no doubt like the devil seeking an opportune moment. I won’t bore you with the self glorifying details but there were two particular milestones – rediscovering my waist, and then a joyful reconciliation with a load of clothes that had been folded up and stored with a sigh years ago when it all started. Hilariously, I also discovered that when my old jeans were properly installed around my waist rather than clinging precariously under my belly I no longer needed the shortest leg length. Toulouse Lautrec eat your heart out!
The challenge with wholemeal sourdough is to get it to rise without the sharp edged bran damaging the structure by puncturing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Grant loaf – often as hard and dense as it was possible for a dough to be. But Doris Grant had one thing absolutely right; wholemeals don’t need as much kneading, and they ferment quickly, so leaving them for too long is more likely to lead to a collapsed dough than a life-changing loaf. My idea was to cut out the second rise altogether and see what happened; I just had my illumination at exactly the wrong moment and so I started the batter at a time which ensured I would be awake at 4.00am worrying about the dough overflowing the banneton. The idea is to catch the dough when a poke with a finger creates an indentation that feels springy and mends itself immediately. This morning I missed the optimal moment by a couple of hours and a dangerous looking muffin top was just overhanging the banneton (reminding me of my old jeans) , but mercifully the loaf forgave me and with a good sprinkle of rice flour as lubricant it slid from the peel into the hot oven without collapsing.
Yesterday the sun shone and so we took ourselves for a long walk along the canal and back – about eight miles in all. Aside from the cherry blossom I also spotted winter heliotrope in flower on the canalside. In fact there were intimations of life and growth everywhere, if you took the time to search them out. But the other thing we noticed was how much larger the population of permanent narrow boat residents has become. At a time when decent housing in Bath is beyond reach for so many young people, quite a few have taken to the water in a range of boats from the spick and span to the downright messy. In fact one of the floating homes we saw yesterday isn’t a narrow boat at all but an improvised raft.
A little further on was another boat stacked so high with stored artifacts and second hand timber it seemed to be anticipating a siege –
Are we supposed to get annoyed about this? To me it shows resilience and, after all, people have to live somewhere and if we allow a housing crisis to develop we have no right to criticise the improvised methods of survival that desperate people are obliged to adopt.
The highlight of our walk was a conversation with a young man who is developing an organic smallholding on an unpromising strip of land between the canal and the railway line. There are several such allotments dotted along the canal and this one was well stocked with pigs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and one or two exotics in the background. A strip of land that would otherwise be producing nothing but brambles is coming to life and producing food in a largely self-sufficient way. What was so nice about our conversation was that notwithstanding maybe fifty years of difference in our ages, we shared the same experiences and enthusiasm for low impact and sustainable agriculture. I’ve just started reading the recently published “A small farm future” by Chris Smaje – you should check it out – it’s a closely argued book that repays slow and careful reading, but if our conversation with the young smallholder yesterday is anything to go by; the ideas that inspired and motivated us in the seventies and which have been so diminished and derided within this grim era of neoliberal economics, have been slowly gathering momentum and heft in the background. There’s a whole community down on the canal and it’s functioning with its own distinct (and distinctly more sustainable) culture. In my darker moments I’ve sometimes feared that everything we believed in and worked for over the past fifty years has been crushed, and that there’s no-one left to pass all the accumulated experience on to. After our long walk we came back to the flat with more of a spring in our step because there are signs of hope along the canal and in many other places. Goodness only knows how this will play out over the coming decades, but yesterday it felt as if the cultural tectonic plates really are moving – too slowly for some, no doubt – but that’s the way of the paradigm shift. For decades there is nothing but almost inaudible questioning of the status quo, the way we do things round here – and then suddenly one day it all clicks. Like sourdough, the best things are worth waiting for – and I think I’m about to have to eat my own words about the impossibility of creating good 100% wholemeal sourdough. Let’s have a taste!
I’ve never quite understood how fine words could fail to butter at least a couple of parsnips – as long, that is, as someone is paying you to write them. Sadly, though in my case nobody pays me to write anything and so the Potwell Inn parsnips are only ever buttered thanks to our extremely modest pensions. Still; what’s the price of a pat of butter against the pleasure of eating our own organic parsnips straight off the allotment.
Yes it’s parsnip time again; having seen off the last of the summer vegetables. Parsnips and all the other roots shuffle modestly to the front of the queue and surprise us as they do every year. I imagine you could (just about) eat them boiled with a knob of butter; or mashed with the aforementioned and a bit of pepper but for me the glory of the parsnips is roasted until they’re golden – in olive oil rather than butter which burns too easily. For even greater transports of delight (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) I’d roast them with carrots, squash, and possibly beetroot in the meat juices left in the pan while the joint is resting, but that, for us these days, is a very occasional extravagance (and all the more enjoyable for it). But really any which way is good, and with care and attention you can even achieve the chef’s holy grail and possibly mythical quality – balance. Balance, I think, is how you describe a perfect culinary chord in which (to carry on the musical analogy) neither the first violins or the horns are getting all their own way.
Parsnip soup is one of those dishes beloved of pub chefs with a limited budget, who want to honour local sourcing without lashing out on salt marsh lamb. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved by a bit of TLC. I’ve tasted some truly grim versions. Don’t rush it; get the best fresh ingredients and give it time. Parsnips, especially shop bought ones, can be a bit woody towards the end of the season; so preparation should include cutting out the woody cores, because however long you blitz the resulting soup for, it will still taste as if you dropped a corner of the kitchen table into the pan. Your guests will not be impressed as they pick the splinters from their teeth if you extol the rustic virtues of their lunch. And finally, don’t over season it – let it speak for itself – and give it a swirl of sage oil and a dollop of crème fraiche. There isn’t a better way of marking an otherwise dull day.
It’s mid October and the daylight hours are shortening dramatically. When the sun shines, the autumn colours of the leaves are wonderful; but on a day like today when it’s drizzling; the allotment stares back at us like an estranged teenager and the earth is cold. It’s hard to see beyond the moment if the rain’s running down your neck and even the grass has taken on the blue green hue that’s an autumn speciality. Any pause in the traffic and you can almost hear the slugs munching. So we drifted off to a garden centre to get supplies of potting compost, sand and fine grit for a new garlic bed which needs to be well drained. We could make our own potting compost, but if the lockdown goes on we’ll have run out by the busiest time in March.
If you think that my occasional forays into philosophy or poetry, environmental politics, or spirituality are unexpected or random, I’d have to push back a bit and say that being human – I mean really human – can’t be boiled down to cooking and eating parsnips (thank goodness) or, for that matter, growing them. The allotment and the kitchen are two of the most important spaces in the (imaginary) Potwell Inn; but only two of them. Neither the natural history of Bath nor the contents of the bookshelves or the paintings on the walls, finish crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I couldn’t even begin to make a list of my favourite marks of humanness and neither would I dare to suggest that my list enjoyed any kind of privilege in the great order of things. But the unique and glorious bird’s nest of borrowings and learnings that furnish my/your/anyone’s inner life is a symphony, a work of art.
And on the wet days and the ones where nothing seems to go right, it helps to have that precious bird’s nest. Goodness knows I was fed up today – so fed up I started reading Rilke! What I wanted to say is that full humanity needs its stories and poems and pictures and perhaps above all, its spiritualities, songs and music. It’s only through these shared arts that good and bad can be held together in hope. So although fine words may butter no economic parsnips, they can raise two fingers to the gods of chaos, war and destruction. And without those internal resources, there’s no symphony, no texture; just a solitary busker with a hat full of rain.
So instead of spending Wednesday hanging around in a secure campervan compound, we were able to charge the batteries properly while driving the round trip of about 100 miles to Hay on Wye and back again. I have no idea why we’re so passionately attached to Hay – we don’t attend the festival or even camp there very often, but it’s very close to some of our favourite places like Hay Bluff, Capel y Ffin and Kilvert’s parishes, not to mention Offa’s dyke and some of the best (and longest) hill walks in Wales; and it does have a very good ironmonger – so good we once drove there to buy a crowbar. They didn’t have one.
I don’t do endorsements, but our journey was only made possible by an extraordinary piece of technology. LIke most of us, the campervan had developed a flat battery this summer during the lockdown when we weren’t able to go anywhere; and our usual way of dealing with this problem would be to drive 20 miles with our genny to where it’s stored, and spend hours charging it up – sometimes meaning we had to make two journeys and waste most of a day. I’ve always avoided the idea of getting a battery booster set because in my memory they were extremely cumbersome, and lugging one of them up and down three flights of stairs at the flat is a bit of a pain. However, after a lucky online search, I found the most wonderful lithium ion booster which weighs just over 500 grammes (one and a quarter pounds), fits in your pocket and will deliver 1000A; enough to crank up a 3 litre diesel or 6 litre petrol engine. No – I didn’t believe it either – but I charged it overnight via a USB socket and this morning we went down to the van and after a couple of minutes getting it attached,started the engine without so much as a hint of battery problems.
But this post isn’t a touristy piece on the Brecon Beacons; it’s about something rather different – more psychogeographical than topographical, and more literary than I’d expected: think Kilvert’s Diary, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On The Black Hill’ and …… forgive me …. JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. But first, Adlestrop.
So …. sunny autumn day; the leaves turning golden on the trees and as we crested the top of the hill leading down to Raglan we could see Hay Bluff in the far distance, the atmosphere was so clear. We always go by the the back roads, eschewing the motorway and sticking to the quieter and shorter route which, notwithstanding the continual nagging of the satnav, takes exactly the same length of time – give or take the occasional tractor. The car park at Hay was only a third full and visitors were pretty thin on the ground by the looks of it, so we drove down to the bottom and parked up in the sunshine to brew tea.
Silences are difficult to describe because they can often be defined by sounds. As I sat on the van step, soaking up the warmth and listening to a robin singing in its birdish minor key, I suddenly thought of Adlestrop in Edward Thomas’ poem. There the silence is defined by the sound of escaping steam. In my parents’ garden the silence was always defined by house sparrows. We were once walking in Clun where there was the most lovely silence I think I’ve ever experienced, it was so warm and embracing. Tawny owls do good night silences here in Bath and once in Corsica we were kept awake by the silences, bookended by the sound of the Scops owls. Urban silences are always brief and punctuated at each end by the sound of traffic and aeroplanes, or perhaps ambulances. You have to snatch them out of the still air as if you were attempting to catch a butterfly in your hands. The silence you can find in the Brecon Beacons is different again, accompanied by wind and grass but yesterday in Hay on Wye, the silence was modulated by the sound and smell of a petrol mower somewhere close by, and by the quarreling jackdaws in the trees. It was a silence pregnant with all the other lost silences of my life. Robin, my last therapist, was good at silences. He could create a silence like a rich medium in which my hidden thoughts could germinate and grow and, once established, would follow me up the lanes and steps as I walked back to Clifton with my ghosts.
This silence, once evoked, stayed with me even above the noise of the van as we drove back. Pen y Fan never looked lovelier or more challenging as we drove towards Bwlch and then, on the right, there was Buckland Hill and Tolkien joined my thoughts. Despite his protestations that the Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with the war, he had started the writing Hobbit in 1939, and it’s infused with melancholy for a lost and comfortable world that’s always made me feel that when push comes to shove, I’m a hobbit too. Utterly attached to my own place and all too fond of a good meal and a gossip. The Tolkien obsessives have often associated the Buckland of the book with the Buckland hill overlooking the River Usk near Bwlch. There have always been rumours that Tolkien stayed at Buckland Hall as a child, although no-one has absolutely nailed it, but the c0-location of fictional Buckland with the fictional ‘Crickhollow’ is hard to ignore when you’re about to drive through the entirely real Crickhowell with the ‘old forest’ of the beacons looming above.
And in this thoughtful mood we drove on in the noisy, roaring and rattling silence of the van, and I thought about Louis MacNeice’s marvellous ‘Autumn Journal’ and the ominous sense that its lines, written in 1939, are like the leaves of a tree suddenly illuminated by the intense light that sometimes precedes a storm.
Something has broken. Was it Mircea Eliade that said we ‘live in a story shaped universe’? Yesterday it seemed as if ‘losing the plot’ might be a trivial way of expressing the fact that we’ve lost the story. Goodness knows I’m not a fan of all those dwarves and elves in Tolkien but the fact that Lord of the Rings became almost canonical for several generations of us, does suggest that some kind of story can be a better guide to being human than the predigested idiocy of the politicians who suggest that the way forward is, in fact, the way back. I remember being very struck by something George Steiner wrote more than 50 years ago in relation to literature. He suggested that we should ask the question “what measure of man [sic] does this propose?”.
Buckland Hill, for all its powerful imagery, both exists in the mind as a fictional landmark and also in its geographical embodiment overlooking the River Usk. Of course the two are not separable, and who in their right mind would wish to do so? Perhaps that’s what Philip Pullman was pointing at in ‘His Dark Materials’. The destruction of stories is an act of barbarity and violence.
The silence followed me home and back in the flat, I took down the Lord of the Rings and my maps from the bookshelves; just in case I could find a way out of this plague somewhere within them.
This is a long post and it’s possibly more open about some fairly personal stuff than you may feel interested enough to read. It deals with the challenges of retirement and the emotional impact of health problems. Normal service will, I promise, be resumed immediately so if you skip this one that’s fine, but it’s here in case anyone else might find it helpful.
I was maybe fourteen years old when I first read this passage and allowed it to take up residence in my mind, along with Peggoty and Duffy Clayton (you’ll have to look that one up).
“A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr. Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular”
The History of Mr Polly – H G Wells
It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock, coming back to Bath after ten days in the most idyllic and secluded place you could imagine, overlooking the Irish Sea in North Wales; and in the way that astrologers write about trines, and other unusual alignments of the planets and astronomers plot eclipses and consequential movements of the planets; my own little solar system threw up a large spanner in the form of an anniversary. In fact the fifth anniversary of my retirement.
I remember asking my old friend Mags, whose partner had retired three years previously, how long it had taken for her to settle. The answer – “three years at least” took me by surprise – I’d come to think of my retirement in rather conventional terms, you know – big party; warm words (mostly exaggerated); a few glasses and off into the sunset and a new life – just like Mr Polly. Then Rose, another friend, warned us that one of the biggest perils was that every night became Friday night. They were both right but both underestimated the length of time it would take for the dream of my/our retirement fantasies to morph into a much deeper reality.
On Monday last, (a beautiful late summer’s day), we drove across the mountains once more and six hours later arrived home. Nothing had happened particularly in the meanwhile: the flat hadn’t burned down and the allotment was pretty much as we’d left it; but the city – lying in its natural basin – was airless, thronged with visitors taking a chance with COVID; students moving towards their new independent lives, armed with implausibly large amounts of alcohol and – of course – the Easy Jet planes were overhead, bringing Typhoid Mary and her mates back from their holidays. Ambulances as always were crawling through the traffic, setting out from and returning to the Royal United Hospital.
One thing however was very different. A large stretch of the river had drained by a depth of about five feet – due to a problem with one of the sluices – and dozens of boats, some of them peoples’ homes, had dropped, one-sidedly, on their mooring ropes and filled with filthy water. This much photographed riverside area, worth millions to property developers began to look like a 1970’s photo of the old Caldon branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal; cluttered with abandoned and stolen metalwork – bikes, a stolen motorcycle, dozens of supermarket trolleys, old computers and general rubbish….. Hm!
The bottom right photograph (just about) shows the rarely seen overflow from the hot springs that drains warm water into the river after passing through the official Roman Baths and also through the rather expensive and privately run Spa. All the newly exposed river bed needed was a few dead dogs and Morris 1000 complete with skeletal passengers to complete the dystopian vision.
So what to do? Snowdonia ached in our memories and we were facing an enforced desensitisation back into our normal lives; living like urban foxes, avoiding unnecessary human contact and constantly COVID watchful. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but then he was a relatively wealthy and well educated man who probably lived in the better part of town. While Bath is, doubtless, a work of art – it’s more Bosch than Leonardo. The city looks great on a sunny evening when you’ve come in a coach and the buildings glow like ripe apricot as you are driven along London Road and back up to the motorway; but living here is very different.
Enough! We’ve forged our lives here now – I chose the word carefully – and much of the time our lives are so full we hardly notice all this. A therapeutic trip to the allotment surprised us. The first of the parsnips was a giant, the chillies, peppers and aubergines had all flourished in the days of our neglect. Another 5 kilos of tomatoes to prep, chillies to brine and ferment and more good things to eat. All good news there.
Our re-entry strategy was to revisit our favourite walks. The local ones are all calculated take us around the quiet edges of the city; be around five miles long, and capable of being taken at a bit of a challenging pace. There are no walks here that don’t involve hills.
To put all this exercise in some kind of context we both finished the first lockdown seriously overweight – my bread baking was probably the engine of much of it, but being indoors so long didn’t help, and comfort food was our principal survival mechanism. But there was more – Madame had endured a knee replacement; we’d both scored badly on blood glucose (pre diabetic) in the last set of tests and I’d had a series of troubling encounters with endoscopes, followed by a separate diagnosis of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. My heart would go into uncontrolled pointless and ineffectual racing leaving me feeling faint and (so I discovered) very likely to have a stroke or a heart attack. Our visits to the gym were more dangerous than I’d ever realized.
My medical issues were quickly resolved by medication to control the wayward heart rhythms and reduce my blood pressure, but emotionally the effect was deeper and more difficult to budge. Looking back, I began to make accommodations, telling myself it was only natural to slow down at my age, and all that blah blah blah. Fear of becoming a wreck was making things worse, and introducing negative feedback can only go one way, putting the brakes on life. We were shrinking in ambition even while we grew slower and bigger and so we did something about it. Long before the lockdown; we gave up alcohol – it’s fourteen months now with no more seven Friday nights a week and – (this is not a nag) – after a few months we felt so much better it was difficult to understand why we hadn’t done it sooner. Some of the worrying symptoms disappeared, and then six weeks ago we put ourselves on a low carb diet; I lost 20lbs and all my other stats – blood glucose, blood pressure, body fat, BMI and resting heart rate dropped quickly into the normal or even optimal levels. After a lifetime of never listening to good advice we bit the bullet and it worked. The diet is demanding but we soon got used to it. One of the biggest obstacles was getting past the pharmacists who seemed to think it was wrong for me to check my own blood sugars in case I “wore my finger out” taking samples, or (more likely) was too stupid to get medical help if self-testing showed up a problem.
But accompanying the appearance of these promising new shoots; the reappearance of my waist, and the clothes I never thought I’d ever be able to wear again, there was something else lurking in the background that came so from from left-field it knocked me flat because the way in which the inner world inflects our experience of the outer world is always present whether we notice it or not. The dystopian experience of coming home from the unsustainable idyll should have been a warning that something needed sorting.
So we took the campervan for its annual MOT at a garage in one of my old parishes and while we waited I thought we’d drive around for a while, near some of the places we’d both loved during the time we lived there. We turned off up a narrow lane from the main road for no reason that I could explain and then in a moment of completely clear insight I knew two things. Firstly that I’d been trying to forget, to push to the back of my mind, the whole 25 years of work in the parish, although much of it was pure joy, because there were some bits of it that had been terrible and that had inflicted real damage on me. But the second insight was that it was OK to own all the good things. I needed to remember them safely because they represented a third of my life. So two insights in a narrow lane that (who’d have thought it?) led directly to a farm and to someone who’d been good to me in a completely unaffected way, and we banged on the door and were welcomed as old friends.
A lot of my life has been taken up with unravelling birds’ nests of memories. We say casually that so-and-so ‘was in pieces‘ and that’s often truer than we think. Years of helping other people to put their lives back together demanded that I took my own puzzle just as seriously – it’s a work in progress, you might say.
Anyway that could be the longest imaginable introduction to a couple of walks – one of them a restorative stroll around Bannerdown where we were delighted by two usurpers, both probably garden escapes but Michaelmas daisies are so much a part of autumn, and the Canadian goldenrod was just as pretty, neither of them the least rare or even genuine native wildflowers but hey! The real ram-stamped native was the plant gall known colloquially as a robin’s pincushion.
Then yesterday we went across to the Mendips to walk down the length of Velvet Bottom and instead of turning back up the Longwood Valley, we carried on down through the Black Rock nature reserve as far as Cheddar Gorge – who could resist those names? I’ve talked a lot about the peculiar geology of the place which, due to lead pollution from mines that have been operated since Roman times, has its own very specialised flora. I’ve written about it, but some of the plants are harder to spot than you’d think. Not, however meadow saffron – sometimes known as ‘naked ladies’ because the spectacular flowers appear after the seeds have been set and the leaves have disappeared for the winter.
And there’s another reason for writing at such length. I once taught a young South Wales man doing an incredibly long prison sentence for affray. He used to joke and say that if I crossed him he might have ‘one of his blackouts’. Let’s call him Owen. Apart from a gift for throwing furniture and televisions through windows, he knew more about Romano British settlements in South Wales than anyone I’ve ever met. If anyone ever demonstrated the fact that you can’t stuff a real life into a bag marked ‘historian’ or ‘botanist’ it was Owen. As Stephen Blackpool was inclined to say in “Hard Times” – ‘it’s all a muddle’ – and in real life, as opposed to the relentlessly (artificial) successful and happy bloggers’ persona, for every meadow saffron there’s an awful lot of ragwort that can’t be swept under the carpet. The Potwell Inn remains committed to life in all its fullness, richness and joy – allowing for the fact that some idiot could leave the sluices open at any time.
I don’t normally do straight book reviews and neither do I promote anything; I’ve no desire at all to be an ‘influencer’ whatever that might mean, but I will mention books when they’re good, or important; and so over the last couple of years I’ve worried and written a lot about the ecological crisis we’re in, and some of the books that have guided my thoughts. One day I’ll make a bibliography and put it up as a purely personal and probably idiosyncratic list that might help someone to make a start. Back at the Potwell Inn there are shelves full of them but it wouldn’t be difficult to rank them. Some are academic and hard to grasp – that doesn’t make them bad but I’d hesitate to recommend a book that might put anyone off the trail. Some are so partisan and angry that I could only read them a few pages at a time for fear of being overwhelmed. We’re not farmers or a horticulturalists here, and so people like us sometimes figure in the shadowy world of the consumer in these books, the apparently dimwitted customers who, by demanding ever cheaper food, helped to create the crisis we’re now in.
I don’t like being hectored or finger-wagged at. I don’t like being treated as an idiot or being held personally responsible for the way things are – and neither do farmers or ‘newt counting’ ecologists. We really are – (after carefully wiping the politicians’ snake oil off the phrase) – ‘in this together’ and the only workable solution will come from working together. The system is broke.
So who better than someone right inside the mess to show us what it feels like from the inside. I ordered James Rebank’s latest book “English Pastoral’ on a whim. Madame had read his previous book ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ previously and been quite lyrical about it but being an old stick in the mud I resisted. So when I ordered the new book I made sure I’d read the earlier book first. It’s good – patchy but good. There was a touch too much of the caricature blunt Yorkshireman I thought, and I also thought the tales of youthful rebellion, ‘drinking and shagging’ as he puts it, and the ferocious arguments with his father were a bit over-egged until, that is, the little voice in my head reminded me that we always dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves and my own school career ended when I was escorted from the school (by the collar) by the headmaster for being a disruptive and disobedient pain; beginning three years of sombre reflection in dead end labouring jobs. It was Madame who got me into college and back on course. There were more parallels than you’d find in a school geometry set.
So ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ was always a better book than my grudging soul would admit and I’m glad I read it. ‘English Pastoral’ is even better. I really couldn’t put it down. He’s apparently friends with Wendell Berry, and has read Henry Williamson and somehow manages to weave together the lyrical voice with downright practical wisdom, occasionally shocking earthiness and a better grasp of the big picture than anyone else I’ve read. But the big sell, for me, was that I felt I was being embraced as part of the grand plan. The occasional snarky remarks in the first book about tourists’ collective ignorance of what fell farming is really like, have disappeared. The narrowness and suspicion of outsiders and experts, ecologists and economists and interfering incomers in the younger farmer, have all gone and what’s left is a conversation being led by a farmer who commands and deserves respect; a mea culpa in places for going with the flow against his better instincts and a luminous vision of the way forward. Any fierceness is reserved for the agrochemical industry and their accomplices and lobbyists; the manufacturers of ever more destructive machinery; the greedy banks, and the economic orthodoxy that turned land and crops into commodities.
It’s a desperately needed working paper in a world of conflicting demands; offering a model that takes seriously the need for farmers to make a living, that addresses some of the key faults of the extreme end of the rewilding movement, and which dismisses any idea of a one size fits all policy. It addresses the need for food security and completely smashes any idea that what we need is another technological fix so we can carry on the way we are.
Read it, please, if you’re a farmer or a naturalist, or an ecologist or walker, and especially if you live, like me, in a city – and ponder what and where to buy sustainable food. Read it if you’re an allotmenteer because there’s a lot about soil there. Read it if you’re a banker or an economist because this movement is not going away.
When I was a child we used to catch the train up to Reading to see our grandparents who lived a country bus ride away in the Chilterns. The journey involved a change at Didcot, and what was most thrilling (and terrifying) about it was that the train didn’t actually stop at Didcot at all, but just slowed down so that the ‘slip coach’ could glide, engineless, into the station controlled by the guard who presumably operated the brakes.
This morning as I finished the book I remembered that childish adventure and pondered whether, when the great neoliberal train finally crashes the buffers at Oxford, they might discover that the rest of us got off at Didcot and that the banks and the hedge funds and the agrochemical complex have finally reached the catastrophic end of their triumphant journey. Alone.
Yesterday belonged to Storm Francis which, following so quickly behind Storm Ellen, raged about us with intermittent heavy rain and shed-busting gusts. It’s impossible not to feel just a bit excited in the thick of a storm but maybe it’s easier when you know that your allotment is sheltered from South Westerly storms when the lucky ones at the top of the site who grab all the sunshine and only half of the frosts are getting the full force of the weather. When the rain eased for an hour we went up to see how things were, and I couldn’t resist making this short video of an old cherry tree being battered by the wind – it gives some impression of it at least.
However, that wasn’t the highlight of the day at all because just when I thought it was safe to sit down and watch the rain running down the windows we were given a bag of ripe damsons that looked as if they needed some instant attention. Now I love damsons – however they’re cooked. We make damson jam, damson vodka – there’s about a gallon of it maturing in a cupboard waiting to see if we’ll start drinking alcohol again – there’s damson chutney which is delicious and the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten was some home made …… need I go on. Why I am so passionate about the damson is a mystery except that I think my Granny used to make it using damsons from their orchard. They also had greengages which also make the loveliest and most fragrant jam, but however the obsession began, it’s never gone away. We haven’t got any damson trees on the allotment. We didn’t plant any four years ago because they can take 15 years to come into full fruit; but we have friends who, in normal times, would let us pick a few pounds of fruit from their trees, but these aren’t normal times and visits are out of the question. So damson jam suddenly became a possibility even though we’re on a very low carb diet and can’t eat it.
You wouldn’t think, after three weeks of successfully and painlessly avoiding bread and sugar and all things carbohydrate, that it could be so challenging to make five pounds of jam for the store cupboard -but it was.
What follows is hardly a recipe, possibly an entirely new form of psycho-recipe, since a list of actions and ingredients hardly does justice to the damson. The biggest problem is getting rid of the stones. Almost all the books tell you to remove the stones before you cook them. That’s just about the daftest idea ever and I don’t believe for a moment that anyone would sit and stone a big bag of damsons. Although they’re a kind of plum, ripe plums will release their stones far more easily than damsons will. Damson stones can only be removed with a great chunk of lovely flavourful flesh, so I cook them down until they’re just soft; give them a bit of a pummel with a potato masher to loosen the stones from the flesh and then take out the stones with a skimmer, leaving the maximum quantity of flesh in the pan. Don’t, though, be tempted to sieve the stones out because those gorgeous whole skins are a huge part of the aesthetic of the jam. They furl like dark leaves in the finished jam which, with a bit of luck, will be all the clearer for your trouble when you spread it on a slice of bread.
In, then with the sugar. You might be tempted to use raw sugar, but really I prefer refined cane sugar to let the maximum flavour come through, and then bring it to the boil stirring all the time to stop it from catching. Then you chuck a knob of butter on to deter scum from forming and boil it until it gets to setting temperature or wrinkles on a cold plate – whatever. Yesterday the boil brought to mind Homer’s often used line about the wine dark sea. As the pan seethed and bubbled, the wind and rain shook the Potwell Inn windows and howled through the cracks, and the jam – which is the colour of rich burgundy – moved like a troubled sea in my imagination. But like Odysseus, tied to the mast to escape the temptations of the Sirens, I was adamantine in my determination not even to taste the forbidden fruit, except when the murderously hot jam bubbled and splashed on to my arms and hands, and the only way I could ease the pain was to lick it off. In fact I had to move closer to the pan to make sure I had plenty of occasions to do so.
Once the jam was finished and bottled I scraped every possible morsel into the last jar when Madame appeared and grabbed the wooden spoon – I have the photo to prove it. And all the while I was cooking, my heart was broken at the lack of a loaf of everyday sourdough – also off the list – and a lump of butter and a slathering of damson jam which would amount to half a day’s allowance blown in a moment of madness. Madame, however smirked as she licked the spoon into the unprecedented whiteness of a gull’s bone left on the seashore of the wine dark sea.
That’s what I mean about recipes and cooking – there’s always more going on than meets the eye. If you have a mind to, you could read William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say” – I’ve always loved it. I’d print it here, but writers and their descendents deserve their royalties – I don’t know of many rich poets. I do know a blogger, though, who’s lost more than half a stone – which didn’t come from a damson. I’ll escape the clutches of the diabetes nurse and her threatened medications yet!