Was it really two years ago I bought those tiny globe artichoke plants? We’ve nurtured them and moved them to a better spot and watch them grow into a spectacular border. But today Madame fancied eating one and I/we dutifully braved the fearful thistle spines and brought them to the kitchen.
As the landlord of the entirely fictional Potwell Inn, I’d have to say that artichokes would never appear in a real pub menu because the prep time and the wastage is enormous. This is serious luxury food for people who have a big compost heap, There are two ways to eat the beast. The French way is to peel off the tough outer leaves and cut the spines off; poach it, bring it to the table with some hollandaise sauce, pull off the succulent leaves one at a time dip them in the sauce and suck the fleshy bit out. That’s a bit too much like tantric sex for me. The other way is to remove all the leaves, cut the top off and the bottom off and then spoon the bit that would become the seeds out, all the time protecting it with dribbles of lemon juice lest it should go brown. Then, finally you have a fleshy white disc which you poach in acidulated water for ten minutes or so, until it’s tender. Then you can eat it with butter or hollandaise, although you’d want at least four to make a decent starter – which means a surprise treat for your beloved is going to cost you a large and rather beautiful border. You may, therefore, be expecting me to give the magisterial thumbs down to the globe artichoke on the grounds of prodgality and excessive faff, but here’s the thing…
…. There’s no way we could afford to eat fresh globe artichokes in a restaurant, even if we could find a place that would serve them, but cut on the allotment and served twenty minutes later they are completely, absolutely and mind blowingly delicious – even eaten quite plain. They taste marginally better than home grown asparagus. So long live the globe artichoke, they take up a lot of space and they make a lot of compost but they look beautiful, they’re good to draw and they’re delicious to eat – what could possibly be wrong with that.
Back on earth, however, we supplemented the end of the hungry gap with our first digging of spuds, the first (douce Provence) peas and more broad beans after a day planting out tomatoes and leeks. We grow an f1 hybrid called Crimson Crush outside because it’s large, vigorous and almost completely blight resistant. We’ve also put some red peppers and aubergines in a sunny spot outside. Last year they did quite well so, although we certainly don’t wish for another drought, we hope they’ll enjoy the global heating that’s driving our weather crazy.
Yesterday I posted a picture of the allotment looking eastwards across some vacant plots. If you take a look at that picture you’ll see that the weeds are now waist height, the bindweed is about to come into flower, along with willow herb, and the grasses are ripening their seed. Couch, bindweed and all the other suspects thrive here because the soil is good and bindweed in particular has more than one way of preserving itself, not least by roots growing over a metre down into the soil. Seeds can bide their time for years until favourable conditions come along.
But the next door allotment was in use until two seasons ago, when it was doused with glyphosate and lay there looking sick and yellow for the rest of the season. You can’t blame anyone taking on a new and overgrown plot for seeking out the easiest way of eradicating the weeds so they can start growing food. Those with plenty of patience might cover the ground with black plastic held down by stones or pallets and wait for a season for the weeds to die. The trouble is that this method is good for killing annual weeds, but the real baddies seem to laugh at it. The rotavator is a terrible idea because it just chops the couch and bindweed into little pieces, and every one becomes a new plant.
At this point, just as the desperate realization that this is going to be hard sinks in, along comes the bottle of glyphosate promising to do the job with not much more effort than pumping up the spray and taking a stroll through the weeds. Spray it on, they say, the weeds will die and the weedkiller will be inactive within a day of touching the soil. The trouble is, everything about that statement is wrong. Without venturing into the scientific evidence that long exposure can give you cancer, the watercourses and rivers are becoming polluted and it lasts for years not days –
Glyphosate doesn’t work very well
Trust me I’ve used it in the past, and although it kills annual weeds it doesn’t render their seeds infertile, and it doesn’t kill couch and bindweed either. Of course it looks as if it’s worked as the leaves dessicate and turn yellow, but deep down where the rhizomes and roots live, they’re just taking a break until next season. It’s a con trick because you can’t use it once and enter for the best kept allotment award the next year, since next year the weeds will be back but they’ll be growing through your courgettes and lettuces which you won’t want to sacrifice by spraying again.
Tough though it may seem, the only way to deal with these weeds is to clear the site and then dig it, dig it again and again and then give it the treatment under the plastic and finally cover it with compost, cardboard, mulch or whatever. Even no-diggers need to get the ground as clear as possible before they put the spades on ebay. It’s hard work but by the end of it you’ll know more about your soil than you ever thought possible, you’ll know how it’s affected by rain and drought, the names of the annual weeds and when the sun rises and sets on your patch from season to season. The worms will multiply and improve the soil, consuming organic material and turning it back into plant food. You’ll be able to grow things right from the outset as long as you remove every speck of root you find and dispose of it – not in the compost heap because it seems to survive there as well. Remember the old saying –
The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer
and as Nietzsche said, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
Just when we thought the rain had passed us by altogether and we’d gone up to the allotment to fix the straining wires for the cordon tomatoes, the sky turned threateningly black and we had to scarper for shelter in the shed. The signs were all there as the cold front bore down on us. The temperature dropped by 10C since yesterday and the southerly winds moved south west bringing moisture laden clouds into cold air. There was only one way to go, and it poured down. We took our jackets and tops off – it’s easier to dry a T shirt – and we quickly finished and packed up.
I don’t usually show such unflattering pictures, but this one, looking east from the boundary of our allotments, shows the sky more clearly. As you can see, our neighbouring allotments are unoccupied and a bit like weed factories. When the rosebay willow herb starts sharing its seeds I’ll go over it with a strimmer, but really we’re at the mercy of whatever comes our way. And there’s the paradox and the dilemma of so-called “rewilding”. We can all see the point of it, but when push comes to shove we’d like all our weeds downwind of the prevailing SW wind; and continually weeding out rosebay and dandelion is a pain. On the other hand I was blessed with a beautiful sighting of a fox. We looked at each other but so far as I could see there was no cuddly mutual recognition, our worlds were so utterly different, nd so we went our separate ways.
Ironically it felt as if the ‘hungry gap’ finished today with the rain.
We came home and I cooked spaghetti puttanesca using our own new season garlic, chillies and basil along with our own passata prepared in the autumn. We’ve been eating our own green salads for ages but somehow today, chopping a fat bulb of green garlic, it seemed different. Praise be!
It’s like being stood-up. The Potwell Inn allotment would be completely parched if it weren’t for the hand watering, and we’ve been quivering with excitment at the prospect of a week’s decent rain – supposedly beginning today. So we woke early, sniffed the air like badgers emerging from their holt, but there was none of what my promiscuous reading revealed last week as – “petrichor” – the smell of rain on hot earth. Plenty of other smells around though, not least from the kitchen which smelt almost Corsican first thing. In fact the whole flat is infused with the scent of basil – which we grow a continuous supply of – tomato plants waiting for a break in the heat, and elderflowers. If you chucked in a couple of mouldy melons we’d be back on Cap Corse.
Three hours later at around noon, it started at last, thank goodness, but the weather chart shows the weather front moving northwards with us right on the edge. No downpours here, sadly.
So the principal work of the morning was turning the infusion of elderflower, oranges and lemons into elderflower cordial. I salute those who’ve absorbed the lore of collecting the flowers and managed to find a nanosecond when all the necessities line up like bullet points in a presentation. We just pick when we can. The last batch was made from the ordinary common and/or garden version of elderflower, the weed. This time we spotted a heavily laden tree on the allotment and picked an organic cotton bag full. Actually it was a plastic bag but the organic cottton sounds less likely to excite our friends, one of whom noisily unpacked my (first time in six months) plastic in a crowded supermarket while upbraiding me for destroying the earth. A small crowd looked on while she left the unpacked bag on the side, presumably to be thrown into landfill anyway. Two days later an organic cotton bag arrived in the post and my humiliation was complete.
Anyway this tree was the most delightful mixture of purple leaves and pink flowers. Last year I stumbled on a fashion shoot in front of the very tree I’m writing about. The model, who was very pretty, was dressed in such similar colours – purple and pink – that she looked rather like the cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing in front of the blossoms. She was surrounded by an impausibly large number of assistants, dressers, people holding large reflectors and photographers with their retinue. One of the throng asked me where the toilets were and I was delighted to be able to offer her our bucket, which she refused.
The pink blossoms smelt quite as good as the mongrel white ones and so we picked and infused them for 24 hours. The only difference in the way I produced the cordial was to bring the sugary mixture to 80C rather than boiling it which I think destroyed some of the flavour. The results (with a bottle of the first batch for comparison) looked lovely and tasted excellent.
As I write, the rain has stopped again but we’ll stick with plan A and go to get vine-eyes from the garden centre. More later.
Vegetables seem to be remarkably regular in their flowering and fruiting habits regardless of the weather. I had thought that we’d be picking the first batch of broad beans at least a week early this year, but in spite of the vast difference in weather between this year and last, we’re picking just two days earlier. Potatoes and tomatoes are a little later but they have both been put out later for fear of a late frost. The biggest diference this year is the strawberries. Although we’ve got a fabulous crop on the way, last year we were picking ripe strawberries in the first week of June. This year we’ll be lucky to see them by the third week. The potatoes, I fear, have been afflicted by the incredibly dry weather and they’ll pick up if we get the promised rain this coming week. I’m loath to throw too much water in the direction of the potatoes because I think it diminishes the flavour. I was grumbling to our neighbouring allotmenteer about the poor flavour of Jersey Royals over the past couple of years and he said he thought it was because the farmers have been prevented from using seaweed because it was thought to be adding too much salt to the soil. Our asparagus, on the other hand is thriving on its thick mulch of seaweed over the winter and is five feet tall now. I do hope there’s as much activity underground because we shall enjoy a good crop next spring.
So this week has been incredibly busy, with a good deal of grandparenting and a trip to replace the water pump on the campervan. A friend was charged €230 in France 2 years ago for a replacement, but after a bit of research on the internet I sourced a brand new replacement for £50 and fitted it myself at the additional cost of a packet of electrical connectors. I felt absurdly proud of myself.
Apart from that it’s been absurdly busy on the allotment – so much so I’ve hardly had time to write at all. We’ve fitted a hazel wattle screen between the shed and the greenhouse to create a sheltered area where we can grow tomatoes and peppers. It arrived with one of the end posts pulled out because presumably the delivery driver had dragged it across the floor of his van (after all it weighed 30Kg and he’s probably never seen one before). Rather than send it back I decided to have a go at repairing it – it took 2 hours of somewhat grumpy effort but I did finally manage to separate all the woven horizontal branches with the aid of some steel bars, and reinsert the post. It’s now in position and will be an effective screen against cold north winds. Then, today the temperature soared to 25C so we went up early and I hammered in the supporting posts ready for the tomatoes, nonethleless we both needed a shower when we got home. The weather will break tonight, according to the forecast, and we’ll get some rain, so great relief all round.
Someone wrote to the paper the other day lamenting the fact that weather forecasters seem to regard sunshine as inherently superior to rain. You can tell they’re not gardeners. In fact there’s a proper drought building up. Our usually damp plot is bone dry down to a foot deep and so we’ve been forced to water as if it were July. Given that a full watering can weighs 22lbs and the round trip to the tank is 100 yards, you can see it’s a bit of a workout to water the whole 250 square metres.
Yesterday my friend Rob – the real botanist – came to check my ID of the Fumaria I’ve been going on about – and, joy of joys, I was right and it’s Fumaria murialis. This probably means less than nothing to almost everyone else in the world, but it means a lot to me because it shows I’m very slowly getting my eye in.
Tomorrow or Monday the outdoor tomatoes will begin their outdoor life, taking their chances with whatever the weather throws at them. Meanwhile we’re making the second batch of elderflower cordial. The first batch is growing on us as we drink it – the problem is that home made is essentially unrepeatable. This time we’ve gathered a bag of 50+ heads from a purple, ornamental elderflower tree. So far the result is a lovely rose pink colour. Sadly we had to buy another eight 500ml swing top preserving bottles because the rest are all in use, and so our “food for free” cordial, or at least this batch, will cost about twice as much as the commercial stuff. However as the years mount up, home made gets increasingly competitive. As ever, though, the flavour beats anything you could buy
I’v been dipping into Geoffrey Grigson’s book “The Englishman’s Flora”, and the irresistable words in the heading come from the name of a book he mentions – Cockayne’s “Leechdoms,Wortcunning and Starcraft of Anglo Saxon England” (1866) – a sentence that, as I read it back to myself, makes me fear I’m treading on sacred ground once occupied by Flann O”Brien and Umberto Eco who loved to make fun of sentences exactly like this one.
But (straightening my roughed-up tie and recovering my hat) what lovely words – “Wortcunning” ,”Leechdoms”, “Starcraft” . I bought Geoffrey Grigson’s book, long out of print, for a couple of pounds from a second hand bookseller entirely on the recommendation in Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” – another one worth getting.
It’s the only book I have that lists all of the folk names of the commonest British plants along with the uses to which they’ve been put. It’s not a medical herbal, not a flora you could identify a plant from, but an erudite and joyful celebration of a whole disappearing culture. Wortcunning is the loveliest way of expressing the deep knowledge of plants needed to produce a leechdom, or medicinal formula. If you google ‘leechdom’ you’ll find the whole text Grigson is referring to.
These three strange words are enchanting. Specifically they re-enchant the world of plants and evoke old, and new ways of relating to them. Language can make familiar things strange and present them to us in a new light altogether. It’s impossible to underestimate the power of playful and inventive words to enlighten our world and it’s not strictly necessary to invent them. Warcraft games, Tolkein, Alan Garner all do it powerfully but we don’t need to invent new languages – they’re already there – buried in the folk usages of the past. Waterpepper is botanically known as Persicaria hydropiper but its folk name, ‘arsemart’ tells you a lot more. The two names need each other in order to to flourish.
British wildflowers are all too rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of botanists and ecologists and their folknames and medicinal properties are disappearing from memory while plant taxonomists argue over their DNA. Is this a loss? Well, I can think of a couple of reasons at least why it’s a loss. The biggest reason is that we can’t protect something if we don’t know it’s there, and so there’s a danger that the argument about the building of a housing estate over the last outpost of a rare plant will sound like a theological dispute in the face of a housing crisis. It’s taken us a very long time to realize – almost too late – that our destructve selfishness in the abuse of the earth is leading to our own destruction. When we lose even the name of a flower, then we lose the flower itself.
Another reason for protecting this heritage is that language is a lot more that a list of words. Our world is constructed in language, and when language is impoverished the world gets smaller. We were walking through Leigh Woods to the West of Bristol many years ago, when a strange man, obviously sleeping rough in the woods, burst out of the scrub and grabbed me by the arm, talking wildly about “coming to see something”. He said “I’ve been living here in the woods for twenty years and I never saw one of these before!” We followed him – because we’re like that – and he dragged us to see a thorn apple in flower. The privations, discomfort and inner demons that probably kept him there had been blown away for a moment by finding a plant whose capacity to both lift his spirits by simply being there, or do him serious harm if he ate it, showed the dual power of plants.
Is this a hard read? I’m sorry but a blog is not much more than a message in a bottle – I throw it into the sea and maybe a handful of people will read it.
My mother knew many of the flowers by their local names, but then she could predict rain by looking at the sky over “Granny Perrin’s nest” – a group of tall elm trees behind the cottage she was born in. I don’t remember ever being treated for ear ache with a boiled onion, but even as she administered the latest medicine she would occasionally remember how the ailment had been treated when she was a child, living in the Chilterns.
We have to avoid all that Grigson calls “cross-gartered whimsey” in sentimentalising the past; we have to get it into our heads that the past is not an expensive Sunday night costume drama on the television, just as understanding the natural world is not the same as watching a few episodes of Countryfile. Wortcunning is not the hippy alternative to plant taxonomy, they’re like a divorced couple who really owe it to their children to start talking to each other again. Being learned in plants means embracing the whole of them, their histories, meanings and usages.
And while I’m on the subject of disappearances, whatever happened to that prolific social group of human beings like Geoffrey Grigson and Jane Grigson, vastly learned, filled with curiosity and interested in everything? Jane Grigson is one of my favourite food writers – and if I could invite myself to any household in history it would be to eat with them. Their daughter Sophie wrote somewhere that it wasn’t impossible to find the bath full of unspeakable bits of meat when she was a child. This brave new world of targets, spreadsheets and reviews doesn’t favour the long life, the full life – lived like the course of a river with its rapids and waterfalls, meanders, watermeadows and estuaries.
Back, however at the Potwell Inn my struggle with the unidentifiable Fumaria was finally rewarded by a confirmatory email from a proper botanist who confimed that (having looked at my photos), in all likelihood my plant is Fumaria muralis. We’re meeting at the allotment on Friday evening to seal the deal.
At what point do you admit to yourself that you’ve got a bit of a problem? Not, I hasten to add, some sort of dreadful problem like drinking too much, after all who doesn’t enjoy a top ranking landlord’s breakfast like gin and cornflakes? No, this problem is to do with never knowing when to stop trying to identify a flower when you’ve got the family and most of the name. but you want to know the species, or even sub species as well.
This one’s been bugging me since we first started the allotment because it’s just so prolific, and I’ve tried a dozen times to run it down. I thought it might be a Corydalis because it looks a bit like that, but after my close encounter with a similar plant to the one on the allotment at St Davids last week, I did a bit of detective work and discovered that Corydalis has not been seen in the Bristol region for decades so I discarded that in favour of Fumaria – I’ve already written about this – and plodded on with magnifier, steel ruler and multiple floras – up to and including Stace. The problem is that there are so many criteria for sorting them out that you just have to get close-up and personal. And so here’s my idea of close-up and personal:
So above, here’s my Panasonic Lumix GH2 – old but lovely – and a 45mm Leica Macro -Elmarit lens, mounted on a Manfrotto tripod and ball head, and to the left there’s a photo of the fruit which shows that it’s smooth. That’s an important diagnostic. And so the unexpected ID seems to be that this is Fumaria muralis, the common ramping fumaria (and I can vouch for the ‘ramping’ bit!) and the reason that this is a surprise is that it’s quite unusual in Bath or indeed in the whole Bristol region. In case there are any proper botanists out there, the flower length is on the high side at around 15mm, but the sepals are spot on. The overall height is a bit high as well, but Stace says it’s very variable so I’ll go with the smooth fruit which is a clincher.
All that’s about a couple of hours work and five or more books and regional floras. The picture at the top is about X7. Elsewhere on the Potwell Inn allotment we cleared the bed for the leeks, added mountains of discarded chard to the compost heap and so we also added a good deal of cardboard and shredded paper to stop it getting slimy. The elderflower cordial was not the best we’ve ever made and that’s one for a second attempt
Sing loudly, cuckoo! – Well at least I heard one cuckoo on our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago and I found it unbelievably moving, thinking that with the climate catastrophy upon us I might never hear it again.
But sumer most certainly is icumen in and so today we picked a load of elderflowers and started the first 3 litres of cordial. We felt almost secretive about picking it, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t spot us and join in – picking is best done in the sun for maximum flavour and there’s plenty for everyone but I fear very few people would go to the trouble any more even though the difference between our own home made cordial and the commercial stuff is striking.
Summer is as much a smell as anything more meteorological. Yesterday evening we were sitting in the living room when Madame said, “I can smell chewing gum”. I wrinkled my nose up in mimed solidarity and it was true but it wasn’t chewing gum it was cats’ pee. It was the smell of summer. There were the elderflowers infusing on the stove, and several different kinds of basil gently sunning itself in the propagator, along with a sink full of fresh spinach and a salad spinner loaded with newly picked lettuce. Oh yes summer is good.
We spent the morning at two exhibitions in Bath. The annual open exhibition of the Bath Society of Artists is always worth seeing several times. In some ways, although it’s a lot smaller, it’s better than the RWA open. Several friends and acquaintances had pictures in, and there’s less of the gulf between ‘high art’ and village show about it. Many of the artists necessarily earn their living from other things, but their work is really good – the product of a lifetime’s labour without the deadly grip of the Arts Council. As we left we hubristically resolved to submit some of our own work next year
Then we dropped in at BRLSI (Bath Royal LIterary and Scientific Institution) where there was an exhibition of artifacts and books from the permanent collection. The headline catcher was a small phial of liquid taken from the barrel in which the body of Lord Nelson was brought back from Trafalgar. Not terribly interesting really, the value was all in the caption. My own favourite things in the exhibition were the botanical books, pressed flowers and drawings which were all on the subject of medical herbs. But one exhibit was truly bizarre –
The other gadget, the tobacco smoke enema, has no modern parallel. At first an ordinary clay pipe was used and someone administered the smoke enema by poking the stem through the anus and blowing on the bowl. The risk of burns led to the invention of safer apparatus.
Well thank goodness for that! The afternoon was spent at the allotment as the flat is gradually emptied of plants. Much of my time was spent in energetic watering, but I did manage to find 20 minutes to sit with my back to a compost heap, measuring and inspecting our mystery fumitory with a copy of Rose at my side. Then in the evening we worked in tandem in the kitchen, prepping spinach, elderflowers and tomorrow’s family BBQ and cooking supper. We had inspected the peas earlier, hopng for a first taste, but they’re not quite ready. Next week maybe.
This last few days I’ve been tempted to say that I’ve been feeling the same kind of energy and excitement I had when we first went to art school, everything seems inflected with possibilities. But I’m a melancholic and I’ve read Tolstoy and Iris Murdoch so I won’t tempt fate by saying I’m happy. Maybe ‘pretty happy‘?
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.
A change turned out to be every bit as good as a rest, and the trip to Wales – although it involved as many hours of wildflower hunting as we would have spent on the allotment – was a complete change of tempo. I photographed the angelica in the photo above on the allotment yesterday. It really is stunningly beautiful, as are many of the other Apiaceae (carrot family) herbs that we grow.
We grow carrots and parsnips, parsley, coriander, caraway, celeriac, chervil, celery, lovage, dill, angelica, fennel and sweet cicily – all in the same family. In fact without them our cooking would lose most of the interesting flavours. But like all good families there are black sheep and the umbellifers can boast (if that’s the word), some of the most deadly poisonous plants we have – like hemlock water dropwort for instance – that tastes rather sweet (so they say) and kills you without any ado.
But this particular group of plants have a reputation for being difficult to identify and before we went to Wales I bought a copy of the BSBI handbook no 2 “Umbellifers of the British Isles” by TG Tutin (of Clapham Tutin and Warberg fame). Anyone who knows me will know that I find the dense descriptions of botanical language a bit daunting, but they gradually penetrate my stubborn mind and I find myself consulting the glossary few enough times to take away some of the pain. I know parsley from dill, but could I tell dill from fennel at ten paces and without crushing the leaves and smelling them? In his introduction Tutin suggests that the sheer usefulness of some of the family probably drove the need clearly to identify them. The line drawings in the book are exquisite in their sheer usefulness.
Botanical photo books have improved so much over the years that if I’m stuck I often use them to make a start, but when you get down to the difference between a greater and a lesser pignut, it’s out with the hand lens and a key – and there begins the hand-to-hand combat with the truth that any beginning botanist will reconise. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel by the Jabbock brook, we demand “what is your name?” and the plant usually refuses to tell us until we’re half dead with exhaustion.
The process involves all the tools books and instruments I’ve already mentioned, but beyond that there’s the intangible sense that birders call “jizz” which surely must be the product of memory and experience. My problem with jizz is that sometimes there’s so much background noise that I don’t pay enough attention to it. Like bumping into an old school friend fifty years on, you know that you know them but the name just won’t come. It happened twice in Wales with two plants I had the strongest sense of familiarity with and yet I couldn’t force my brain to make the connections.
Fumitory – Fumaria officinalis
Four photos of two plants, but in each case the photo on the right was taken in St Davids and the one on the left was taken on the allotment. The top pair gave me most trouble and yet, side by side it’s so blindingly obvious that they’re country cousins I could kick myself. On the left some chard in the process of going to seed on the allotment. On the right the plant I found on the coast path and vaguely recognised but coudn’t quite name. When we went to the allotment yesterday the connection was instantaneous – my coast path plant is, of course, sea beet.
But sometimes the information flows the other way. With the lower pair, I found the clump of pink flowers and with very little effort recognised it as exactly the same plant that infests our ground on the allotment. So it was fumeria – end of! – until I got back to the van without bothering to take a sample, and discovered that there are no less than thirteen contenders, more than a Tory party leadership contest but considerably prettier. So there was nothing to do but find another one the next day, hoping that it was the same plant, and do the hard work all over again. Quick cheat – it’s a good idea to take a copy of the BSBI recording card for the county you’re in, and you can quickly find out which of the family don’t even live where you are and can be discounted. Needless to say I hadn’t done this so all thirteen contenders needed to be interrogated. But we got there in the end.
I don’t think there’s any happier feeling than sitting identifying plants outside the van in the sunshine and with my books all around me, but needs must – and we desperately needed to water after a week of warm sunshine. Madame set out more tender plants and I carried down some half rotted leaves that the council had dumped on the site and mixed them with two big bags of grass mowings that our son had passed on to us. Grass mowings on their own make a filthy anaerobic mess, but mixed with some high carbon dry material they’re plentiful, free and useful in the compost heap. If I’ve come back with one lesson it’s that the natural world doesn’t divide itself conveniently into domestic and wild plants. They’re all country cousins.
But I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. I was overwhelmed by the bewildering memory of a sign that someone saw over the Empty Tomb in Jerusalem which said – “He is not here he is risen”. My friend, having queued for ages in the hot sun was rather upset but went in anyway. For me though, the church (and I suppose this applies equally to other faiths) is all too fond of finding a truly holy place and then suffocating the life out of it with stones. So we stayed outside and my heart was lifted by the sounds of jackdaws and rooks playing and quarrelling in the trees and we listened to some singers sitting on the wall rehearsing a folk song. We leaned over the small bridge just beyond the West door and watched a dipper feeding and swimming underwater – quite an achievement.
Whatever spirituality clings to these beautiful stones, it’s contaminated by the venality of its leaders past and present who, I recall from my days as a curate, were quite capable of arguing ferociously about who would go last in a procession – because that was the most important place to be. But I mustn’t go on because mercifully the healing powers of the place cannot be contained and, if you can find a quiet place to sit, you may experience them. For me – because I’m a contrarian by nature – pilgrimage should begin at the holy site and continue all the way home when you’ve had time to work out what you found there. Backwards pilgrimage leads you away from the pile of stones – which can only be a good thing.
On our way to the bus stop in the morning we passed a beautiful adder which was basking in the hedge. I thought he was torpid and risked moving towards him with my phone camera, but he was more than a match for me and disappeared down into his nest like greased lightning.
I bagged a couple more flowers on the way, bringing the total to 65. There’s no place for pride, though, because although I didn’t bring the Vice County list with me that leaves me about 1450 to go! I should’ve started sooner.
Here then, with all the Latin names excised, are my 65 plants in flower, and below them some more of the photos I’ve taken. I particularly enjoyed watching the Lackey Moth caterpillars breaking out of their nest.
Southern Marsh orchid
Common Mouse ear
Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
Common Dog Violet
Bucks horn plantain
Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think