This is my happy place


I’ve been feeling just a bit curmudgeonly this last few weeks – a combination of living in political chaos, fag end of winter blues, problems with the campervan, rising damp, reading too many books about climate change and wondering how on earth we’re going to sort this mess out.

I do have an antidote for it all  – and it’s getting back to the stove – making stock, baking bread, baking cakes, that sort of thing. I also notice that when I’m feeling a bit glum I also eat really badly, and suddenly, cakes, biscuits, toast made from white bread,  convenience food and general junk look endlessly fascinating, so getting back to the stove sorts that particular temptation out, well –  all except for the cakes. The other antidote, the one Madame favours, is sowing seeds, and so once again I’m sharing the kitchen with a busy propagator.

The last remedy is going through my photos and looking at all the lovely things I spotted last year – and that’s what I was doing when I found this photo, taken by Madame, of me skulking the cliff path at St Davids and making a list. That’s my waterproof notebook in my hand, my stick and my new hat and my old space pen, Swiss  army knife, X10 pocket magnifier in my pocket.  In the bag too is a copy of Rose, “Wildflower Key” and a couple of fold out keys for grasses and lichens. If you want to know what paradise looks like this is it – although possibly a less knobbly pair of legs would improve it a bit. I couldn’t be more happy than I am when I’m out in the sunshine amongst the plants and insects and birds.  Just a little way further down the path last autumn we picked enough wild mushrooms to make the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.

Oh and we’ve got miniature tulips flowering in the window boxes – along with the irises and daffodils – I think that’s quite mad but it’s true. The remnants of storm Ciara are still howling through, and looking out of the window just now, the sky had that yellowish hue that looks like sleet or snow on the way.  Our son just rang from Birmingham to say that it’s snowing hard there. These certainly are confusing times, but I try not to let it get to me too much. This week  we’ll go and collect a load of hot horse manure for the hotbed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be flat out again on the allotment.


Behold – the thunderbox


Otherwise known at the Potwell Inn as the Seat of Mercy

I’m not a complete stranger to this form of cludger – that’s three euphemisms so far in a single piece – because a friend built what’s become known as a composting toilet (3) for a party on his smallholding near Brecon; and very comfortable, efficient and non smelly it was –  considering it was serving best part of fifty people.  The next time  we went there no trace existed – the epitome of low impact – and so convenient (4), that I even thought about digging one on the allotment, which is probably against the rules. Both my grandfathers had similar facilities (5), and my mother, when she was a child,  was so used to the earth closet (6) that the first time she encountered a water closet (6) she was unable to go because it was so clean and shiny. We enjoyed an outdoor toilet (7) for three years when we were at art school and we had a fabulous seated view of the Wiltshire countryside. My paternal grandfather had an impressive double seat one, but I can’t imagine myself ever being able to share my private moments with another human being. They must have been built of stronger stuff in those days.

The one in the photo, needless to say, is the one used by the gardeners at Heligan and was known as the Thunderbox. One of the reasons I so dislike costume dramas is that, being a peasant,  I know perfectly well that it would never be me strutting around upstairs – I’d be the poor devil who had to dig out the cludger once a month. However I’m delighted it’s still here, if not in use, because it reminds me of my family and their history.

But today brought the inevitable trip to an industrial estate outside Truro, to buy some new batteries for the van and then, after installing them, some more tooth gnashing when I realized that the previous set had probably taken the charger unit with them when they expired in a feverish sort of way and plunged us into darkness on Monday night. Last night was a bit of a trial too because we had no electrics of any sort and the temperature inside the van dropped to 5C. We slept on and off between bouts of.  synchronised shivering. Anyway today, with a bit of a lash up, we restored some heat and light and set off for a wander around the gardens again.

Madame pointed out as we walked around that we always make for the vegetable garden first.  It’s true, we have learned so much from Heligan simply by noting what they do there but also by talking to the super friendly gardeners who all seem to take their teaching roles very seriously. Today they were planting out garlic and some of the biggest onion sets we’ve seen.  Tomorrow we’ll try to find out if they’re growing from seed and try to get a few tips – we didn’t like to interrupt today because these three days of sunshine have given them the chance to get some sowing and planting done. Otherwise, naturally, there wasn’t a lot going on at this time of year but I spotted this little hummock in a bed that hasn’t yet been cleaned up – I so hope they leave it because it’s absolutely beautiful.  I can’t say what the species are but they were a tiny little system of bryophytes and lichens like a Wardian case of specimens.

I’ll have fun with identifying them when I get home.

Elsewhere the arched pathway lined with apples has never looked more sculptural, and I couldn’t resist a taking a photo of the stacked crocks in the potting shed which had the air of an ancient ossuary, all of a piece with the memory of the lost gardeners. In the bright winter light, even an old brick wall looked especially beautiful. We sat in the sun on one of the seats in the walled garden and felt intensely peaceful. That’s the thing about visiting gardens – no matter how often you go they look different every time and you’re never more than a whisker away from a state of meditation.  As we walked back we discussed our thoughts on all sorts of mundanities about the allotment – where to put the beans, how to improve the onions, and whether it’s worth trying leeks again after three seasons of failure. Allotmenteering always seems to start in the imagination and unfurl from there. We never get all our own way because the earth, the climate, the soil and the pests have their say too and at the end of each season there’s always something to celebrate and something to be learned.


Oh what a perfect day!

Honestly- this place is so peaceful, notwithstanding the two campers who were loudly proclaiming their dislike because there are no hairdryers. Quite so! People who love this site are not the kind of people who go after hairdryers and spa treatments.

Today we walked down to a local beach and I was on the lookout for medicinal herbs. I could hardly believe how many plants there are growing here with healing properties. I’m fighting off making the list because I’m only at the beginning of a journey and – as ever – I’m loath to claim any expertise at all. But I reconnected with Woundwort, whose crushed leaves smell dreadful, and half a dozen other plants I need to get to know better.

But stars of the show today were the Toadflax growing on the coast path, and above all the kestrel we surprised as it hunted the cliff top.

There is meaning here. Less than 24 hours of R&R and I feel at ease and even the hay fever held off. I’m in a bit of a Gerard Manley Hopkins mood – “I saw this morning, morning’s minion….” etc. Rose Rose it’s all real! Pour the wine!

The Potwell Inn is temporarily closed for repairs (to the landlord)

Nothing serious – more like R&R in the form of a brief field trip to Cornwall to catch up with some old friends – mostly plants – and do a pile of reading in the sun. It’s tough but someone etc …..

woke up this morning to heavy rain in Bath – many thanks – and drove down quietly in advance of the Glastonbury hordes. There’s no internet on the campsite so this posting is by phone. If it all works I’ll be unable to resist another list, this time hopefully focusing on medicinal herbs. But right now it’s a camp chair, a cider and sunshine while we look out to sea. The only fly in the ointment is the shit tanker pumping out the tank right next to us. Pretty niffy I promise!

I photographed my favourite shed as we left the allotment this morning. Below is my favourite wheelbarrow.

Potwell Inn on tour

  • Well after a bad start with an utterly flat battery, the Potwell Inn has moved temporarily to a new location overlooking Ramsey Sound at St David’s where we shall mostly be wandering around looking at things. This involves a large number of books, binoculars, hand magnifiers, sketchbooks and notebooks. I can feel a list coming on. Meanwhile people were very nice about our paintings and drawings at the private view last night so our lives will probably get even more pressured if we start doing more artwork.
  • The van is called Polly after Alfred Polly, the hero of the Potwell Inn in HG Wells’ book.
  • You may notice a bottle of celebratory wine in the picture. More tomorrow when I get the laptop sorted.
  • Worm Moon

    IMG_3480Aparently tonight’s full moon is called – who knows where?- a worm moon.  It’s also a super moon, which is to say it’s very close to the earth and so appears very large.  Possibly it’s a worm moon because this is the time of year when the worms come up from their hidey holes deep in the earth and make their presence felt on the surface. But today there wasn’t much time for gardening or anything else because both Madame and me were at the local hospital – Madame overnight and me for some tests – neither of us needing overmuch concern.

    So things to be grateful for today:

    • It’s the spring equinox.
    • We love the NHS and feel very cared for.
    • We love our bus passes  and the wonderful bus service here.
    • People are so much bigger, better, kinder than we’re led to imagine by the media.
    • The trees are in bud.
    • As I walked home tonight from the bus stop the moon was peeping through the clouds and it was very beautiful.
    • The word ‘orthodox’ is rooted in the idea of ‘right glory’ and not ‘right belief’.
    • Tomorrow the Potwell Inn will be functioning on a full staff – even if we’re a bit creaky.

    And then there was sauerkraut

    IMG_5008Something tells me that the reason so much produce gets wasted on allotments is to do with the fear of dirt and bugs.  The idea of the perfectly presented vegetable is so engraved in our minds that we forget that such paragons of beauty don’t exist at all in the real world. The other day I was up at the top talking to Terry.  He’d just dug up a couple of leeks, Musselburghs, as it happens and they looked pretty much like leeks always do in late February – tatty, dirty and unappetising.  Then he whipped out a large knife and in three strokes he cut off the roots and then the top in a deft delta shape.  Off came the outer yellow leaves and in ten seconds the ugly duckling became a showbench swan. I silently resolved to get a knife like that, purely for the theatrical effect.

    The brassica bed on our plot is looking similarly tatty. Leaves don’t last for ever and often the reason some other people’s brassicas look  healthier is that they sensibly remove the outer dying leaves before they fall off and attract slugs.  Everyone should try it, especially if there’s a plot inspection due. We’ve borrowed about 50 square metres off our neighbour who’s temporarily indisposed, and yesterday I cut him a savoy cabbage by way of a thank-you. He’d come up for some of his purple sprouting broccoli but the pigeons had got there first. Again on the face of it our small gift wasn’t a great specimen, but a bit of a trim with my penknife made it look as good as anything in the supermarket. It was then I resolved to use up some of the surplus by making a batch of sauerkraut.

    And so this morning, as planned, we went up to check things out.  Nothing stirring in the hot bed yet, but then we weren’t expecting too much for a few days.  However the compost heap had leapt into action after being turned and the worms have all retreated (hopefully) to a place of safety after the temperature had increased to 35C.  It’s absolutely true what they say: turning is what keeps the composting process going.

    After that discovery while Madame looked after the greenhouse, I cut savoys and an odd red cabbage for the sauerkraut.

    Back in the kitchen it didn’t take long to clean and shred the cabbage, salt it and get it into the fermentation jar. By then, of course, I was in full-on cooking mode so off I went on pommes dauphinoise and roasted pork belly on cider using up another pile of our own veg that were unlikely to be used in anything except stock.

    IMG_5012Then, back up to the allotment where I was able to dig the very last patch of unused ground.  I’m fully committed to no-dig gardening and although it might sound contradictory, I needed to dig this patch to remove the last of the rampant couch and bindweed.  However I’m bound to say I love digging and I’ll miss it immensely. When we’d finished we wandered down through the organic allotments towards the pub and we were taken for a rather inspiring guided tour around the community garden. What a lovely day – our pints never tasted better!