Tortured by damsons

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.

The jam

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!

A degree of menace in the air

Or at least I hope that’s what this photo suggests. We were watching the idiots’ lantern last night when I looked out of the window and spotted this grim looking sky. It perfectly matched our mood. We think we’re getting used to the new normal – but we’re not, because sneaking in behind the immediate bad news there’s more long-term bad news that’s been airbrushed to make it look like our new best friend. Do please stay with me here because this is more urgent than anything we’ve ever faced before.

I wrote about the paradox of balancing housing, industry and transport with space for nature yesterday and then, as if by some sort of news leak from a parallel world, came a report that outlined the way in which zoonotic diseases are increased when wild environments are cleared and higher predators are driven off. To put it baldly, the smaller mammals which proliferate by rapid breeding and therefore don’t need to develop evolutionary immunity from viral diseases, increase exponentially and become major sources of cross infections when there’s contact with humans. It doesn’t take many animal/human transfers to start a pandemic.

It sometimes seems as if we have capacity for self-delusion which insinuates into ours heads the idea that we needn’t worry too much because we don’t eat bush meat here and our direct contact with bats, parrots, and other faraway exotics is vanishingly small. But think again: while cheap air travel lives on subsidies from those of us who are forced to pay for their polluting habits, nowhere is very far from here; and those with a smattering of history will know that one of the greatest plagues of all, and one that lasted for many decades, was spread by brown rats.

The brown rat can breed throughout the year if conditions are suitable, with a female producing up to five litters a year. The gestation period is only 21 days, and litters can number up to 14, although seven is common. They reach sexual maturity in about five weeks.

Wikipaedia

Bath has a problem with rats – they’re everywhere; not just in our compost heap when they get a chance, but throughout the city. Despite the Council’s efforts to collect waste safely there are always enough people dumping litter, and especially fast food containers with bits of food inside. We see the gulls but we don’t see the shyer rats unless, like me, you watch carefully and set traps for them. We’ve even seen them up trees – they’re very good climbers:

Now the government Government announced its new plans to relax planning restraints to such a degree that consideration of nature will be dismissed (as Johnson said recently) as “newt counting”. A new generation of uncontrolled building will be allowed to spread like an infection across more and more wild places.

Yesterday the Harris Hawk was back on the Green with its handler, scaring off gulls very successfully. It’s a joy to watch but really it’s a sad tale of a greenwashed solution to an entirely preventable problem. The gulls moved in from their proper habitat because we started to dump millions of tons of household waste near cities. The tips provide the food and the tall buildings provide the artificial cliffs and the river provides the opportunity for a wash and a chat afterwards.

We’ve got a rather odd herring gull on the green. Unlike his fellow gulls he’s a bit of a solitary and he spends so much time out there that we’ve given him a name – it’s Eric. Yesterday Eric scored big-time with a plastic bag containing heaven knows what, but he couldn’t seem to penetrate the bag with his beak. Then a lesser black backed gull joined in and they had a bit of a tussle which Eric – surprisingly – won. But then two of the other gull’s chicks joined in and their mother took a step back. Eventually Eric swooped in again and carried the piece of rubbish off. So gulls and rats abound here in this beautiful but ecologically deranged city.

The Tourist Board won’t like me saying this but we’ve got massive problems with homelessness, street drug dealing and begging too. The growth of the tourist industry has created problems with litter and waste from fast food outlets, and the proliferation of Airbnb sublets. To cap it all, in normal times we have a huge student population, all of which helps skew the retail scene towards bars, clubs and general rowdiness.

The lockdown has practically destroyed the city. Shops are closing every day as the economic effects of this badly managed crisis begin to bite. With no tourists, the raison d’etre for the old economic model has disappeared. Almost outside our door, the Council is installing equipment to enable Bath to become a clean air zone or CAZ. The work has caused long, polluting traffic jams and there are constant altercations between the workmen and raging motorists. Our whole society is on a hair trigger. Without tourists,unemployment is rising fast in this leisure based economy. Sales of alcohol have doubled, and since the lockdown was prematurely eased we’ve seen violent drunks back on the Green and all the while covid infections refuse to go away and we wait anxiously to see if the restrictions will be reimposed.

If ever there was a time to try to unite people and build a new vision it’s now; and yet this abominable gang of charlatans we call the government throw petrol on the flames at every opportunity. I try to stay cheerful, but grey despair is gnawing at my heels every day. The Green New Deal seems dead in the water; never seriously embraced by conservatives – even by huskie hugging David Cameron and now shuffled under the carpet by a an emasculated opposition that’s desperate for power but has no idea what it would do with it. It’s not the kind of crisis we have needed to imagine since the modern world began. The sheer range and scope of the failure is so complex. The assumption of eternal progress and growth towards a perfect, equal and democratic society is built into our politics but is everywhere being shown as a terrible charade. Like the portrait of Dorian Gray in Wilde’s story, the truth of our collapsing society is hidden like the portrait,and may only be revealed for the horror story it’s become when it collapses and painfully starts to rebuild itself from scratch.

This, I know, has been a bit of a jeremiad but I need to say it because this blog isn’t intended to be a cuddly escape from the realities of life. It’s about how to live and even thrive; how to be human in an inhuman world, how to keep hope alive. This is the context in which identifying plants, growing veg or baking bread has to be done and this is the society in which we have to raise our children and grandchildren to be fully human within nature, because our failure has ensured that the burden of a sustainable future will fall on them.

I abandon all my principles to bake a blimp.

My excuse – do I need to make excuses? – was that I was worrying that my aged supply of dried yeast was beginning to play up. There’s not much that can go wrong with a loaf after all. Water, salt and a bit of olive oil are vanishingly unlikely to give problems so it’s almost always down to the yeast or the flour. I’ve had dried yeast give problems before and so when I open a tin I always write the date on the lid because the use-by date really is important. With flour, it’s usually 100% wholemeal that gets problems – apart from weevils that will get into any flour if you leave it uncovered. Wholemeal flour, kept in a warm and damp place – i.e a kitchen – will occasionally go rancid, which is why I never buy it in large quantities.

So yeast then. A few weeks ago, and bearing in mind the possibility of a second wave of the Covid pandemic I stocked up on yeast by buying a 500g pack of professional bakers yeast online. This morning I decided to test it because there were absolutely no instructions on the packet, and so I just made a white loaf in exactly the same way as normal – 500g flour, 350mls water, 15g salt, 15mls oil. But staying in experimental mode, the flour I used was part of the 16Kg sack of commercial white that I managed to buy off a local baker during the shortages. I’ve already said, it made a perfectly good sourdough and an OK yeast bread. If I say that the brand name was “Tornado” it may be a clue to what it was especially good at.

The mixture was so fast it almost doubled in size while it was sitting in the bowl for 1/2 hour before I kneaded it. The kneading was harder than usual because it felt quite tight. So much of breadmaking expertise is in the hands, and I could feel the difference. In the first proving it went completely bonkers while we were up at the allotment, so it was more than ready for the second rise, in the tin. This can be bad news because the dough can be exhausted if it’s left too long and you don’t get the spring in the oven. In this case, though, it was barely forty five minutes and it was fighting its way out of the tin again. I’ve never seen a meaner batch! So I slashed it and it opened cleanly like a flower; this is a really good sign. In the oven and with full steam it just went on growing – so bags of spring there. It’s cooling down now but I can’t wait to cut it – I fear it may be very open textured, but from the outside it looks just like the white bread of my childhood!

If I’m absolutely honest I was rather pleased. We spend so much time knocking white flour and yeast bread – perhaps we forget that most people want their bread to be neutrally flavoured so they can spread stronger flavours on it. But the take home point is that there’s a direct trade-off between speed and flavour. ‘Though I say it myself, my 24 hour sourdough method will make far better flavoured bread than this – but that’s not the point. The fun of baking at home is that you get to make bread exactly the way you like it to be. I love all kinds of bread and it’s great to be able to make a range of shapes, tastes and textures – just like you’d find in France for instance.

So I’m not going to get sniffy about commercial flour and yeast – if that’s what you like go for it and enjoy it. Then you won’t have to inflict tooth breaking, gum shredding pain on your partner as they try to reduce your finest razor crusted doorstop to a swallowable condition. Tomorrow morning I’m going to make toast with this one – just on the point of being burnt – and eat it with slices of butter. We shall eschew all jams, marmalades and spreads in favour of life threatening indulgence, just this once.

On a gloomy day with rain threatening we had a few hours on the allotment but the rewarding bit was cooking zucchini al forno for the first time this summer. I also found a marvellous YouTube video on grass identification by made by a real enthusiast who goes by the name of “Dr M”. He teaches at the University of Reading and if I was eighteen again I’d be banging on his door to join one of his courses. Anyway in case you’re interested here’s the link – but I’d advise you to make notes, it’s really worth it.

Don’t food photos always look messy? Mine always do anyway. This is supper before it was coated with parmesan and fresh breadcrumbs and baked in the oven. The lumpy things that look like potatoes are actually hard boiled eggs. It tastes lovely – honestly!

Zucchini al forno – from a recipe by Patience Gray in “Honey from a Weed”

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.