A touch of frost, then …

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You win some and then you lose some, and last night the evil chill of an east wind brought some serious frost damage to the site. We’d taken what we thought were reasonable precautions, and so we weren’t as badly hit as some of our neighbours whose potatoes were scythed off, but nonetheless we lost a few plants; some runner beans whose protective fleece was blown off, some marigolds in the full force of the wind and the growing tips of the grape vine, which will soon regrow, judging by previous mishaps. Being veterans of allotment disappointments we have spares in the greenhouse and in the flat too so we’ll manage – but it’s hard not to reproach yourself for not doing more.

But we knew it was a bad one from the moment we looked out of the window on to the green, where the parked cars had a rime of frost on their roofs and so it wasn’t long before we were up at the allotment assessing the damage. I really hate losing plants – somehow it feels personal. The temperature inside the greenhouse dropped to 2C and by the look of things outside it must have fallen a degree or two below zero outside. My first thought was that I must get cracking on my elevated coldframes over the compost bins – certainly before next winter. The second thought was a bit of a ponder on storing some of the daytime heat we often get this time of the year and releasing it underneath the frames at night. I’ve seen it suggested in permaculture books that stones are goood heat ballast and many years ago I saw an experiment at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth in which a recycled household radiator painted black and behind a bit of double glazed window glass was heating water to about 80C on a sunny day.

Charles Dowding blogged earlier today that these days are known in weather lore as the ‘ice nights’. I’ve never heard that expression but I’m certainly going to put them in the diary for next year. I’d say it’s been a funny old year except I think I’ve said that every year for decades!

Keep all disturbing dreams away

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I suppose what counts as disturbing depends on the sort of person you are, so to me, with any amount of psychoanalytic assistance over the years, a dream about holding the Queen’s hand and saying a prayer for her has to be struggling to say something.  The line – “keep all disturbing dreams away” – comes from the compline hymn; one of few the monastic offices to survive into the present day and a pretty  constant companion on retreats – unless you’re an ultra evangelical when you spend an hour telling God (in tediously repetitive language) what he needs to do in the morning.

I mentioned Dick England, the miller, yesterday.  What I didn’t say was that he had the most exceptional tenor voice and sang in the church choir where I was training.  I always loved singing and so on Thursday evenings in Lent I would go to choir practice and then, after the young members all left, the rest of us would sing compline in the darkness, illuminated only by a few lights in the choir stalls. In those few moments we sometimes seemed to enter a different dimension where past and present were continuous. Whatever had happened during the day; the disjointedness of events, the triumphs and disappointments, felt as if they were being taken back into a great dark and forgiving silence. Do I sound as if I miss it?  Well the institutional church ‘moved on’ to spreadsheets and brisk improving homilies and ‘going forward’ became a synonym for going nowhere. 

So why the Queen? I’m a lifelong soft republican ; all that stamp and circumponce leaves me cold; so is this about continuity? Did my mind come up with a convenient – if slightly embarrassing – symbol for continuity and security at a time when nothing seems to work properly?

Here we are, locked down in the city and doing our best to cope and comply with the rules, while we are lectured from afar by celebrities in their gilded retreats. All manner of people who we assumed to live in London turned out really to be permanent residents of somewhere else a long way from the viral hotspots. Solidarity turned out to be a one way street patrolled by a policeman with a blind eye. I was horrified to learn yesterday that council food waste collections have increased by 20% this week, presumably down to panic bought food going out of date.  Meanwhile dairy farmers are reportedly pouring fresh milk into their slurry tanks because it’s not needed by processing factories.

So in the midst of a life turned upside down I dreamed about the Queen because I desperately need some sort of continuity,  and bizarre though it seems to me, my mind came up with her. The news is studded with miserable statistics and I read yesterday that old age is becoming a criterion for withholding treatment- not, we’re assured because we’re worthless but because other younger people are more worthy, for which read profitable and, no-one thought that closing down hospital beds, shrinking the National Health Service  and making nurses pay for their training might have consequences. A thousand people died today and all we get is anodyne ressurances that everyone is doing everything possible. Our GP neighbour said today he and his wife couldn’t sleep – they’re not the only ones. Sans tests, sans ventilators, sans vaccine – sans leadership or strategy in fact sans everything!

So allotment therapy was the only relief today and we spent most of the day up there sowing, planting and picking. We came back for lunch with the makings for our first rather spartan summer snack, a few sticks of asparagus, some radishes, some home made bread and some shop mayonnaise.  I’ve never quite got the hang of making our own mayonnaise reliably. But the disturbing dream never quite left me and I’ve never felt quite so undervalued – and that, for someone who’s worked as a parish priest, is quite shocking.

Taking stock & making stock

When we took on the first half-allotment four years ago almost exactly, I don’t think we’d considered at all what a big part it was going to play in our lives. We’d always grown things in a series of different houses and allotments –  you’d probably have described us as ‘greens’ for many decades, but over the years the sense of urgency has increased and where once we were content to have a few home-grown treats off our various gardens, by the time we moved here it seemed apparent that growing some of our own food was about to become a necessity. We had much less money once we retired, and there had been straws in the wind when relatively minor events like a bit of snow, or a petrol strike had brought the country to its knees and seen the shops emptied, and especially after the 2008 financial crash we felt that the system could no longer be trusted. Insecurity was becoming embedded in our lives and there was a growing sense of cognitive dissonance between the world as we and our children were experiencing it, and the world as it was being sold to us by politicians and their friends in the media.

So when we signed the first and then the second agreements on our two small plots, we felt that with the aggregate of 250 square metres – a British standard allotment plot – we’d be a good deal safer if the economy tanked. At that stage it was a conceptual move rather than one driven by an immediate threat.  The brexit vote and then the election of the new government did nothing to allay our fears that the future was darkening by the day, and yet never once did it occur to us that the occasion of the collapse would be an escaped virus leading to a pandemic. That was truly left-field.

Until very recently, growing your own has been a kind of lifestyle choice – in fact many allotment and cooking blogs are categorised as lifestyle blogs. Home grown vegetables,  and kitchen gardens tended to feature alongside gingham tablecloths and wicker shopping baskets at the homes and gardens end of the coffee table trade. Bread baking – especially the sourdough loaf – lined up with all manner of artisanal products as forms of conspicuous consumption among the hipster classes. It was all very ‘let’s pretend’ as head scarves worn 1940’s style with dungarees became fashion items allowed us (yes I mean us) to toy with the idea of wartime austerity conditions without actually having to put up with them. For a while offal became the latest trend in high end restaurants and you could show off to your friends by demonstrating mastery over removing 200 tiny bones from a breast of lamb before stuffing it with truffles and gold leaf.

And now it’s happened and everything has changed. Over the past 50 years 65% of the land given over to allotments has been sold off by local authorities for housing development or to be turned into parks – both extremely important social needs, but suddenly allotments are back in vogue because the cracks have opened up and the shelves are empty. The pandemic has demonstrated that our way of life has become so hollowed out that it no longer functions under stress. Four years ago when we signed our first lease you could barely give allotments away and now you’ll probably have to wait for years to get one as they work through the recently extended lists, and those who have taken them on for the first time have to cope with the closure of garden centres and shops and the seizing up of the seed supply chain.

Waking up this morning into a different world was a bit of a strange experience. There was sourdough batter proving in its warm spot on the stove exactly as it has done for years, but I was painfully aware that we’ve only got 1 Kilo of flour left and no idea how to get any more – we may, we may not, but whether this is the last loaf for a while lies outside my control. The freezer was stuffed to capacity but probably 50% of what was in it was only put there because we couldn’t think what to do with it back in the day.

And so I did what I often do when I’m troubled about something, I decided to spend a day on the stove. First up – and wheeze of the month – I decided to take all of the soft fruit out of the freezer, mix it all together and make a batch of jam under the label “allotment jam”. It contains redcurrants, whitecurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries, all picked last year, and it smells lovely. We (I) tend to make far more jams, preserves and pickles than we could possibly eat, but the boys like them very much. However even this simple idea led to a mini crisis, because I’d run out of honey jar lids.  Four years ago I bought a big batch from a wholesaler and proudly boasted that I’d never need to buy another lid – until today, that is. A quick scout around the internet revealed that the mighty Amazon have them at 10 (yes ten) times the price I could get from an old contact in the bee supplies business – so guess who I placed the order with!

Next, from out of the freezer,  came a load of old chicken bones and a bag of unidentified material I think may be pigs cheeks, bought because they were there on display at a time when I had no time.  The freezer can be a bit of a dustbin if you’re not careful. We had all the veg I needed to make stock apart from fresh herbs and leeks and so we went to the allotment and gathered some of each.  Once again, the takeaway point is that the leeks I collected were so small you wouldn’t be able to give them away at the supermarket.  As I’ve mentioned before, they didn’t do well last year, but dug, washed and trimmed they smelt better than anything you could hope to buy and they, and all the other ingredients are simmering away slowly on the stove, along with some more rhubarb. Bread, soup, stock and pudding all in hand.

This whole change of context has changed the way everything feels. In times of shortage, anything we can muster and make something from becomes that bit more precious. Intellectually I’ve known for years that our western way of life is unsustainable, but this painful lesson has taken us back from our focus on the detail to show the bigger picture.  Climate change, global extinctions, dirty air, poisoned land, polluted water, poverty, sickness and obesity are not discrete challenges that we can tackle one at a time when we get around to it – they’re one unified and terrifying challenge.

Yesterday we found the remains of a chicken on the allotment, almost certainly killed by a fox. I could see at a glance that it was (had been) a domestic bird because the remains of its crop were stuffed with maize. The condemned prisoner had enjoyed a hearty meal! Today when we went back every trace of the maize had gone; almost certainly eaten by a fortunate mouse.  The last of the feathers went on to the compost heap. That’s how nature works; endlessly recycling herself with no creature taking more than it needs or can find nearby, until – that is – we came along and tried to take it all.

This is my happy place

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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

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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.