We are not alone …

These are just a few fairly random photos I’ve taken on the allotment this season – some of them I’ve posted previously, including the emperor dragonfly, the ladybird larva and the comma butterfly on the bottom row. The two at the top were taken yesterday – a violet ground beetle – Carabus violaceus, and a hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus, apparently sometimes known as ‘the footballer’, although that sounds rather strained to me. They should remind us that there’s a good deal more important work going on behind the scenes on an allotment than we (who like to take all the credit) can claim to be responsible for.

We know, of course, that the allotment is a bit of a war zone, with pigeons stripping our brassicas to the ribs if the caterpillars haven’t got there first. Phytophthora infestans – or potato blight -is a tiny micro-organism but it can reduce a healthy crop of potatoes or tomatoes to a slimy mess almost overnight; and our local badgers wait patiently until the sweetcorn reaches perfection and then take it the night before we were due to harvest it. Squirrels, rats, mice, slugs and snails all disrupt our best laid plans and occasionally scythe our seedlings down before they’ve got their roots down.

In our compartmentalised way we tend to divide the rest of the natural world into friends and enemies and, even more dangerously we can begin to divide it up on aesthetic or emotional criterias – what looks nice or frightening, or what makes me feel good and what repulses me, for instance bunnies and slugs. Worse still you might divide the natural world by applying economic criteria – what’s a valuable resource and whats’s economic deadweight? – profit and loss.

But if you believe – as increasing numbers of us do – that the health of the whole earth depends on an intricate network of relationships, then the only criterion that makes any sense is the long term welfare of the earth upon which we’re utterly dependent, because contrary to polarised thinking, most curses bring their blessings and vice versa. It’s hard to think of a good side to potato blight, but the pathogen that causes it is a part of a whole bunch of microorganisms, many of which are indispensable to us. Squirrels distribute the seeds of the trees they raid, rats dispose of the hazardous food waste that we leave lying around; flies, or rather maggots dispose of the millions of dead little furry things, worms, slugs and earwigs chew up squillions of dead leaves for us and turn them into in-situ compost and all of them together tend to do the sorting out of the weakest individuals ensuring that Mr Darwin’s theories have never been effectively challenged. In the natural world of the allotment, for instance, predation is almost always fairly inefficient.

The hoverfly in my photo isn’t a bee it’s a fly, but it’s a marvellous pollinator. Just under half of the other hoverflies are also blackfly predators in their larval stage – like ladybirds. But because their adaptive defence is to look like bees or wasps we often regard them as enemies. In fact far more crops are pollinated by flies than are pollinated by honeybees. The violet ground beetle, believe it or not, is an effective predator of small slugs and other beasties. The fact is, we have to be content to share nature with a host of life-forms that we may not care for very much but which may be keystone species in the self regulating natural world.

Ponds really help

But there’s something else about the two species I noticed yesterday and that’s the fact that they both associate with water. We’ve got a river and a couple of large ponds near us on the allotments but in the way that things go in and out of fashion, there’s also been an explosion in the number of small, even tiny ponds on people’s plots. All sorts of vessels up to bath tubs have been pressed into service and you might wonder whether they’ll ever make a contribution to the local ecology. This year has shown that without doubt they do. There are three very small ponds on plots adjoining ours and we’ve seen the emperor dragonfly, several sorts of darters and chasers, not to mention the hoverflies who need water – preferably very stinky water – to lay eggs and pass through their larval stage as rat tailed maggots. All these in turn attract larger predators, and the knock on effect is noticeable. Little things really do make a difference.

I read in a magazine somewhere recently that scientists are developing robots to pollinate crops. Are they completely mad??? Many of the most intractable illnesses in hospital are known as ‘iatrogenic’ diseases, that’s to say they are a side-effect of the indiscriminate use of treatments for other things altogether. The same case exactly can be made against industrial agriculture. The pointless and inappropriate use of chemicals and heavy machinery has created a whole series of new problems that could be solved much more quickly by stopping doing the things that cause the problem rather than wasting millions of pounds developing robots to pollinate crops when you’ve killed all the natural and free pollinators.

Our response need not be to allow pests to run riot over or destroy our crops as the industry often claims, but to become inefficient predators ourselves. Thumb and finger predators, in fact. Just wash your hands afterwards.

Please welcome Eric – he needs your help.

Admittedly this is a pretty terrible photograph, but since I lost my telephoto lens when it fell out of my camera bag and into a bog somewhere up on the Mendip Hills, I haven’t had much luck with long shots. The macro lens on my camera helps a bit, being dual purpose, but in my efforts to get a picture of my dear friend Eric the herring gull I managed to knock over a jam jar full of parsley that was perched on the window and by the time I’d cleared up the mess there wasn’t time to find the camera, change the lens and blah blah blah – so there was just the phone.

Gulls are not, by their nature, the kind of creatures you can normally feel an attachment to. If you’ve ever looked into the cold eye of a greater black backed gull, you’ll know what I mean. I think it was Adam Nicholson who most accurately described these birds as being from a different world. Theirs was the ocean and ours was the land; or at least that was the way of it until plastic rubbish bags and fast food came along at which point they moved in. Noisy, garrulous, thieving creatures as they are, their principal virtue in cities was that at least they cleared up some of our mess before the rats moved in – although in our neighbourhood the sight of the ripped open bags with their contents strewn across the streets on a Thursday morning became the kind of issue that gets councillors elected.

In years past, the council removed nests and eggs, and recently they’ve taken to using a falconer who annoys the nesting birds with a beautiful Harris hawk. Most recently the absence of tourists has led to the quietest breeding season in many years. Where there were once dozens of gulls strutting their stuff on the roofs and parapets, now there are no more than a handful and – of course Eric.

I won’t bother with the whole sorry story of my interest in gulls except to say that it started in St Ives one January morning when I realized to my shame that there were any number of seabirds out there and I hadn’t the faintest clue what any of them were. There’s a link to it here, if you’re interested. Maybe it would have been quicker, easier and far far cheaper to have categorised them all as “seagulls” and moved on to something more obviously important, but I didn’t and – as a result of my resolution that day, I am able to say with confidence that Eric is a herring gull. If he were a lesser or great black backed, a black headed or anything else in that line I’d also be reasonably certain of not making a fool of myself. I should qualify that by saying that I have give him a gender but my knowledge of gull sexing is sparse to non existent so he/she could be an Eric or an Erica. But in my long history of accidental pastoral work it was usually angry men who, spotting my dog collar, would approach me on bus stops and railway stations and harangue me as if it was my fault that their partners had seen the light and dumped them. So on that entirely circumstantial evidence, I think Eric is a male

So – gull schmull – you might think; Eric is a solitary. Something terrible has happened and he wanders disconsolately around the green every day being mobbed occasionally by jays and sidling up to young rooks who really aren’t interested.

Back in the day, Hercules would have dealt with him. Hercules was an enormous tabby cat who kind-of belonged to the whole street. He had an owner, but when she moved to Greece she left the flat, and Hercules, in the care of her son who appeared not to care whether the cat lived or died. Maybe he just got fed up with clearing up the remains of Hercules’ last hunting adventure. Hercules was streetwise, independent and fierce and could probably take down a bull terrier, god willing and a fair wind. And so he took to patrolling our street and living on handouts from just about everyone. Every doorstep had empty tins of tuna (this is an upcoming area) and someone even made him a comfortable bed on the step. Then his owner returned from Greece, by which time the cat weighed about three stone, and she posted angry signs all down the street forbidding us to feed him and so we stopped. Shortly afterwards our beloved piratical moggie disappeared forever – he probably died taking on an otter for a laugh.

At least Eric the herring gull is safe – but not in a nice way. These most sociable of creatures have excluded him for some unimaginable breach of gullish etiquette. Sans partner, sans flock, sans everything – he wanders about on the green alone and my pastoral heart goes out to him. People feed robins and blue tits, but random gulls never get a look in. I wondered for a brief conspiratorial moment if the council has set up a top secret experiment to try to stop them breeding and Eric is the first graduate – I really hope not.

In these months of lockdown I can occasionally lean out of the window when the other gulls are circling and playing; shut my eyes and imagine we’re back in St Ives on holiday. Then I open them again and it’s the same old grey world. The Brazilian woman working out with her collection of rubber bungees, the dealers hanging about on the corner, the couple who meet up secretly everyday in an earnest huddle, the smokers, the drinkers and the sturdy beggars in from town because the tourists have gone, the couple practising their strange martial arts routine, the deranged, the homeless and the affluent; the cyclists whizzing past on their way to somewhere they can be important. They’re all part of the natural history of being human. And there’s Eric. What can we do to make him happy!

Home sweet home

Just a brief post tonight because time has almost run out, but I thought I’d just share what may or may not turn out to be a bright idea that I had in the middle of the night. Madame had taken down the 8′ high angelica yesterday because it was beginning to strew its seed everywhere, and much as we love it we prefer to choose where to plant it because it can be a bit of a monster. So the seed heads went into a bucket where we could finish ripening and drying some of them for sowing again, while the leftover stalks all went into the compost heap.

As I wrote yesterday I’ve been reading David Goode’s book on urban ecology and I suddenly remembered he’d written that some invertebrates like to nest, or overwinter in the hollow stems of dead plants. So after a several hours of routine campervan maintenance we slipped over to the allotment and I retrieved the angelica stalks from the heap; cut them into 12″ sections with hole diameters varying from and eighth of an inch to to a couple of inches – more than enough variety for pretty well any kind of homeless creature to find something that suits later on, and then bound them together very untidily with string and attached them to the main stalk which was thick enough to bury a foot into the earth. Every little helps, I hope, because we’ve been waging war on blackfly and asparagus beetle grubs while we wait for the other predators to come to our aid. We pick them off – dozens of them, and squeeze them – which is messy but therapeutic in a strange way.

Rough riches

I’ve been passing a very rainy day reading David Goode’s book “Nature in towns and cities” and comparing it with George Peterken’s monograph “Meadows” – both superb books but dealing with the alpha and omega of the botanical world. There’s nothing I like more than a bit of ‘proper’ nature, you know the whole Marlborough Downs and fifty exceptionally rare downland species to hunt for – kind of experience, and I’m not knocking it but it feels a bit too special. Anything less than a pair of Swarovskis round your neck and you feel a bit underdressed, and the worshippers (is that what you call them?) can be a bit clanny if you’re too obviously out of your depth.

Or is it just familiarity with the other kind of landscape that makes me feel more at home? It’s not that we kept coal in the bath or that my mother thought books were untidy and my brother killed the budgie out of spite, but I’ve said before I’m hefted and my familiar landscape is post war and post industrial. Apart from the beechwoods that surrounded my grandparents smallholding in the Chilterns, I never had much contact with posh wild. My familiar landscape was old mines and brickworks, claypits, dramways and railway lines; and so the flowers I knew and loved were things like buddleia, willowherb and ragwort. We collected sticklebacks and newts in the local ponds and cinnabar moth caterpillars from the bombed houses up the street. Even my most treasured wild places on Mendip are places like Charterhouse and Velvet Bottom where adders warm themselves on the remains of Roman lead mines. ‘Gruffy ground’ they call it.

I played in the flues of the old brickworks, trespassed with my friend Eddie as we followed the abandoned dramway across fields and barbed wire fences and played games of dare near the mineshaft at Shortwood. Wall barley seed heads, cleavers and burdocks were useful resources for games rather than objects of contemplation. We brewed ‘wine’ over campfires with elderberries in tin cans, and nicked apples from an abandoned orchard up the road. We ate ‘bread and cheese’ which was the local name for the young hawthorn leaves.

So David Goode’s book seems more familiar. It’s a kind of psychogeography of my childhood whereas George Peterken’s is full of beauty and longing, almost melancholic for a lost world that – apart from haymaking as a child – I never experienced. My heart sings when we explore old wildflower meadows, but they don’t feel like “home” to me.

And what riches there are. Since we moved to Bath from what I used to call ‘suburbia with fields’ I’ve been blown away by plants I’ve never seen before that grow freely here. One of the biggest takeaway points of the book is the huge ecological richness of these post industrial and often inner city reserves and abandoned places. For instance the 24 species of plants in our small tarmac car park outside.

But this raises all sorts of issues to do with the environmental challenges we’re facing. We want, for instance, to stop building on agricultural land and use so-called brownfield sites which can involve the destruction of hugely important wildlife environments. We want to minimise car journeys and get people living nearer to their jobs, but how do we balance that with the preservation of green spaces? Simply to preserve the tidy parks and gardens and to build on the rest would involve a huge loss of habitat. Here in Bath we know only too well that mixing cars, pedestrians and cyclists is a constant source of aggression and a good deal of danger.

Sadly the default appreciation of the natural world that springs from so many excellent TV programmes stresses the exotic at the expense of the everyday. I’ve not yet seen a programme entitled “The wonder of weeds” and there’s the problem. If we unconsciously divide the natural world into cuddly animals and then wasps, spiders and scary things it’s all too obvious which species we would sooner lose forever. Same goes for ‘flowers’ and ‘weeds’. Even the hedge bindweeds – ‘devils guts’ to the gardener are plants of great beauty (and cunning) when you look closely.

When property developers want to build they always stress community amenities, schools, health centres and shops but rarely actually build them, pleading that they would make the site unprofitable. So too they stress the need for affordable housing that all too often is abandoned once planning permission is granted. In fact the reason for the chronic shortage of housing is an artificially inflated market that relies on shortage to drive up profits. In a city like Bath the reason for homelessness is nothing to do with a battle with sentimental environmentalists holding back progress and everything to do with greedy developers focusing on the most profitable (ie most expensive) sectors.

We need to broaden the focus on green field environmental improvements and learn to treasure some of the real – if rather unattractive – environmental hotspots on old industrial sites. Bats and birds rather care for a bit of a mess, derelict buildings and fences to keep cats and dogs out. Even orchids thrive on some of these sites and it would be hideously misjudged to sacrifice them in favour of spec built and crazily expensive riverside apartments, for example. The ones we got here look like Russian bonded warehouses!

This can only happen if we teach our children to recognise and treasure the simplest and roughest and most common things and not just the cuddly and rare. They hardly allowed out to play as we did and so these young naturalists will have to be taught with passion and enthusiasm and weaned away from their TV’s and laptops into the fresh air where genuine 3D insects that look just like the ones on the telly can be found under stones. Wild is not a product, and wilderness is not always on the far side of a pay desk.

Adelina – tell me your secret, please?

Midsummer is almost with us, and the food is coming off the allotment at speed now, and so the centre of action is moving back to the kitchen, egged on by Madame’s Mediterranean moment . I sometimes wonder what’s the point of growing all this lovely food without eating it? I’ve never understood why some allotmenteers seem to enjoy the growing more than the eating, and when I see a broad bean muscling its way out of the pod like a bodybuilder’s biceps I think what a waste! – and don’t try to kid me they’re next year’s seed, for goodness sake you have to eat some of them surely?

So yesterday after the perfume was ordered for Madame and tranquility was restored, we settled on a mushroom risotto with some asparagus off the allotment and a couple of pan fried duck breasts. My mind immediately turned to leftovers and the mention of the Montalbano series prompted me to think about making some arancini – which was a good idea because I don’t sleep very well on these long warm nights so I was up at six and baking.

I have made arancini before but it wasn’t always a great success because once, when I made them small and dropped them into a deep fat fryer, they all exploded! So today I made them much larger – tangerine size. They’re awfully easy to do – you make a half, make a dent in it and drop in a teaspoon of mozzarella and them put the ‘top’ on and form them in your hands like a small scotch egg. Then you roll them in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and today I fried them in an inch of oil, turning them constantly – thereby avoiding explosions. We had them cold for lunch, with dollops of the fierce aioli I made yesterday. I’m quite sure the fictional detective would protest loudly because Adelina’s are a bit more of a performance; filled with a meat ragu in which the beef must absolutely not be minced or food processed but reverently chopped with a sharp mezzaluna; and somehow she manages to work some bechamel in too. Plus they’re the proper Sicilian conical shape. But – hey – life’s too short and one day when I’ve got all the ingredients to hand I might give them a try. They’re meant to be simple street food, not a Michelin workout.

When there are the freshest ingredients coming into the kitchen, cooking becomes an intense, contemplative pleasure; evoking memories of places we’ve visited and meals we’ve eaten. There does seem to be a strong link between cooking and the sense of belonging. Montalbano has the greatest difficulty in deciding between a weekend with Livia and the chance to scoff Adelina’s arancini. The arancini win, needless to say.

“A good restaurant is an extension of home cooking, without that restaurant taste that makes people feel full to the eyebrows. There is also that wonderful French kitchen maxim, rien se perd : it’s a wise restaurateur who never cooks a dish without having a plan for it if it’s not eaten. Never buy anything in bulk. Otherwise, you’ll have to find a use for it, whether it’s good or not.”

George Perry Smith

There’s something else about leftovers that came to mind today as I was cooking, and that’s the way that George Perry Smith who almost single handedly rescued restaurant cooking from its cordon bleu chains after the war, and trained some of today’s best – if not best known – chefs, (working as he did in the shadow of food rationing), would never waste any food. He was famous for the way he used leftovers creatively. Apparently the menu at the Hole in the Wall in Bath which he owned and in which he cooked had this sentence printed on it: –“Oddly enough, we are interested at least as much in doing our job well, that is to give you pleasure, as in making money out of it.”

When Madame talked me into making aioli on Monday, my first thoughts turned to bouillabaisse and other French fish stews. But actually, the gold standard fish soup for me was the one that Stephen Markwick produced almost every day in Bristol. We only ate it once in his Corn Street restaurant (when someone else was paying) but we frequently had it at the little bistro called Culinaria that he ran in Redland, later on. Stephen Markwick, and Joyce Molyneux both trained with George Perry Smith. Out middle son trained with Markwick as a commis chef and joined the succession of influence. He remembers when once he dropped an egg on the floor of the kitchen and Stephen threatened to dock the cost from his wages. But Markwick’s fish soup was made from the simplest ingredients, all of which you could buy in any local fishmonger. There were no rare and bony Mediterranean fish, no rascasse or unobtainable rarities, but I’d kill for a bowl of it any day and even now whenever I see fish soup on a menu I have to try it because I know it will immediately show the measure of the kitchen and the chefs who work in it.

Just as a Tai Chi teacher will advertise the lineage of their own teachers, so too chefs all come from somewhere if they’re any good. You’ve only got to look at a recipe by – say – Simon Hopkinson and you can feel his friendship with Elizabeth David. It was her books, almost certainly, that George Perry Smith learned from, he never trained formally himself. His pupils and the younger chefs that they influenced have been rather eclipsed by younger and showier media personalities who’ve often become wealthy and left the cooking to others.

So I’m profoundly grateful to the writers and cooks who gave me so much more than recipes; they gave me whole cultures, and when I’m in the kitchen they’re all in there with me – the cooks and the cultures; a whole world in a pan.

It was Madame made me do it

The view from what the landlady called “The romantic room” on the dockside in Sète. “It’s where all the businessmen bring their girlfriends” she said. Hm!

And now we’re stuck in the south of France and she’s reading me chunks from Simenon’s “My friend Maigret” as we eat breakfast back at the Potwell Inn. This all started yesterday evening when we examined the fridge – a regular lockdown highlight – and she asked ‘what shall we eat today darling?’ – and found a couple of salmon fillets. There were fresh new potatoes from the allotment and sugar snap peas as well, so it sounded like a sensible idea. “Oooooh …” she said – “know what I’d really like? …..” – my heart is murmuring like the loudspeaker in a lift: – ‘ground floor, funerary monuments’ it calls quietly as it plunges into the gloom. “I have no idea,” I said, “what would you really like?” there was a pause, and she said – “Aioli”.

I see it. A fish stew, a bourride, that I once ate in Corsica when the proprietor took an interest in me and gave me minute instructions as to how to eat it properly. I didn’t mind because she was being helpful in the way that anyone might help a hapless foreigner struggling to eat a soup with bones, in a loud sort of voice. Anyway, Corsicans are a bit like Bristolians, they often sound a bit rude when they’re just being friendly with a local accent.

So once the thought had dropped into my mind I wasn’t so much making aioli as recreating a whole remembered experience without most of the ingredients. I certainly couldn’t make a bourride or a bouillabaisse; but I could make the aioli – inflected by lockdown shortages; for instance I wouldn’t normally use olive oil but I had a bottle of cheap oil that we’d bought in desperation during the shortages, and aioli is so strong you could probably make it with Castrol engine oil and no-one would notice. I was revving up in a cheffy sort of way, and so I decided to add a bit of sweet pimenton to add a smoky note, and then a good pinch of saffron that would have to stand in for the rest of the stew – a big ask, I know, but it played out well. We have fresh green garlic from the allotment so I had an enjoyable minute or two with the garlic (lots), some salt, the pimenton and saffron; grinding them to a paste in my biggest mortar. In with the egg yolks and then, because I have no shame, out with the electric whisk. Drip, drip, gloop, trickle, pour and five minutes later we had the golden mayonnaise.

Of course it totally upstaged everything else on the plate but that didn’t seem to matter. It was fierce and powerfully reminiscent of eating in France and Spain along the Basque coast. Engorged with happy memories we would have turned immediately to an episode of Montalbano if we hadn’t seen them all three times before. We only watch them for the scenery and the food – the plots are terrible except for the way in which they’re so humane and non judgemental – rather like Simenon you might think – which is how we got to Madame’s breakfast recital of the Maigret story, which was when things got a bit out of hand.

“This book had six pages – honestly – that mentioned nothing at all except sounds and smells” – she said, and I believed her. That led into a minefield of mild eroticism as she told me about JoJo the maid, and the way that Simenon allows Maigret to notice that she smells a bit sweaty and has underarm hair which, just as I was just getting into the toast and marmalade, allowed the emergence from hiding of the memory of walking into a French supermarket once with Madame and having a bit of a supercharged moment passing a similarly interesting woman; the memory, which I shared, led us into a conversation about human odour and thence to perfume and thence to Annecy where great danger was lurking that, due to the momentum of the conversation, I was unable to prevent.

“Do you remember that perfume shop in Annecy?” “Oh shit” I thought as I plunged into the millrace. It was a beautiful day with friends and we were treated to a spectacular lunch at the Cottage and then wandered into town where we found this little perfumery and Madame spent an hour with the lollipop sticks and fell in love with the kind of perfume that makes people stop her in the street. Among the many passions we share we both love really good perfumes. And there I was suspended between a memory and the laptop and an online order.

We went for a walk, back to the Bathwick Meadows today where we found more marbled whites and Madame became monosyllabic and answered ‘oui’ or ‘non’ to my questions so I called her Marie, and rather hoped she would call me Henri and we could have a fun role play, but no; just a cloud of very French thoughtfulness.

I knew what I had to do.

That was the most expensive aioli I’ve ever made!

If I told you I’d have to kill you!

This is really an extension of the posting on May 25th – “The flavour is in the ingredients” – because if ever there was a vindication of slow food and local food networks it’s this. The problem is that I don’t want to give away too many of the details because slow and local also means there’s not very much available; certainly not enough to cope with a sudden rush.

Flours, and I mean bread flours, are very personal and I’d never want to get into the “best X in the world” kind of discussion because slow and local absolutely demands variability. All you can do is keep searching for the ingredient that makes your perfect loaf; and this one I’m pretty sure, is mine. I found a similar one years ago with Bacheldre Mill, when in their early days they produced what I called an 81% flour; a buff white with some but not all of the bran taken out and based on the old wartime “National Loaf” flour; but I believe they were selling up and anyway they stopped milling it.

Meanwhile I’ve tried all sorts; organic if I could get it, but most of it came from imported wheat. They said that only the Great Plains could grow the kind of high protein wheat that bakers need. Well they would say that wouldn’t they. For my part I’ve learned that too much protein is a bit of a no no with sourdough if you want that lovely open textured crumb; and often I’ve resorted to adding cake flour or spelt flour to get the best results. Over the past months of the crisis I’ve gratefully worked my way through a sack of commercial “Tornado” white flour and it’s been perfectly good. The sourdough made with it always tasted better than the yeast bread even when I slowed it right down. So don’t knock the big millers too much even if their only virtue is consistency.

But I’ve kept my ear to the ground – so to speak – and finally I’ve found a flour that ticks all the boxes: organic, stoneground, locally grown wheat, small producer; and the result proves beyond doubt that slow and local can also be unequivocally better as well.

I don’t advertise here and in any case I don’t want to compromise my supply but the big point is that wherever you live there are almost certainly local millers and local farmers who could work together to produce flour that’s fresher, good to bake with, good to eat and doesn’t need driving and shipping around the world. One of the blogs I subscribe to is a cooperative food group up in North Wales where they’ve taken exactly this approach and it seems to be working.

The loaf in the photo is my perfectly standard “everyday” loaf. The starter is about 10 years old and is fed (when I can get it) with dark rye flour. It’s a 24 hour bread from start to finish and it’s very un-temperamental, keeps well and toasts beautifully. There’s nothing difficult or secret about making good bread it’s 99% common sense once you’ve got the hang of it and, as I’ve said before, sourdough especially and bread generally thrives on a bit of neglect. I would be prepared to sell the pyrex bowl in which I’ve been proving dough for 53 years if someone made a suitable six figure offer. I know the internet is groaning with pictures of loaves made by the sort of people who call themselves master-bakers after standing next to a bread machine for ten minutes, and it’s true there are a lot of master-bakers around on the internet, (fear not, I shall eschew the double entendres immediately).

So give it a go; check out a farm shop or food co-op near you and you could be baking the kind of bread for a pound that you used to pay a fiver for.

Bathampton Meadows

How we rejoiced, here at the Potwell Inn, when the clouds finally got themselves organised and it rained enough to relieve us of watering duties on the allotment. It hasn’t been easy to keep going because supplies of garden sundries have been almost unobtainable and we’ve had to resort to the internet several times. It seemed totally mad to have a bag of vermiculite delivered when we’re surrounded by garden centres, and when they finally opened again we went to one we often use, but the shelves had been stripped bare by desperate gardeners. There was one other item that we were running short of because we use quite a bit of liquid seaweed fertiliser, and so I scouted around and ordered ten litres from an internet supplier. It arrived soon enough, but when I unpacked the box the container seemed to have swollen tremendously – I couldn’t get my fingers under the carrying handle, so clearly it was fermenting. Fearful that it might explode, I got a wrench and opened it very carefully and with a gentle sigh it released the smell from hell – like you might imagine gannet’s breath to be. We took it straight to the allotment where the plants will absolutely love it, and when I checked the water level in the second storage butt my cunning plan seems to have worked because the level is creeping up. But with more rain threatened and after a short weeding session – weeds come up much more easily when the soil is a bit moist – we came back to the flat and within five minutes I was drumming my fingers again. I have a very low tolerance for doing nothing; I truly wish I didn’t have it, and so does Madame, but there we are.

So, enthused by my bit of curiosity in the yard yesterday; this morning I did a quick survey of all the wildflowers I could find in our car park.

To be frank, this didn’t look promising, but needs must etc. and I spent a very happy hour with a notebook and magnifier making a list that took me completely by surprise. So here it is –

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris
  • Herb robert – Geranium robertianum
  • Wall lettuce – Mycelis muralis
  • Rue leaved saxifrage Saxifraga tridactylites
  • Red valerian – Centranthus ruber
  • Mexican fleabane – Erigeron karvinskianus
  • Canadian fleabane – Erigeron canadensis
  • Wall barley – Hordeum murinum
  • Greater celandine – Chelidonium majus
  • Pellitory of the wall – Parietaria judaica
  • Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare
  • Cleavers – Galium aparine
  • Ivy leaved toadflax – Cymbalaria muralis
  • Oxeye daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare
  • Smooth sowthistle – Sonchus oleraceus
  • Prickly lettuce – Lactuca serriola
  • Wood aven – Geum urbanum
  • Purple toadflax – Linaria purpurea
  • Ivy – Hedera helix
  • Elder – Sambucus nigra
  • American willowherb – Epilobium ciliatum
  • Broad leaf dock – Rumex obtusifolius

There are more, of course, but that will need a more thorough search – and I’m sorry they’re not in any recognisable order which, for librarians botanists and archivists, will be painful but it was the order I noticed them in – and that’s really the point of all this. We’ve been living in this place for almost five years and because it was ‘only a car park’ it didn’t command the same level of attention as – say – Bathampton Meadows, which I’m coming to in a moment. I found more time to botanise on the river bank and towpath because it seemed more obvious to look for plants in those places. But 24 species in a car park with almost no soil? These plants may be as ugly as sin, and ethnically diverse enough to give a Daily Mail reader the vapours, but what they lack in charm they make up in dogged survival. When all else fails and the last bee orchid has left the stage, I suspect these characters – the rogues and vagabonds of the plant world will still be around, offending gardeners and providing botanical lessons for restless people like me.

And so the weather cleared and we decided to go for a walk. The Skyline walk was mentioned but with faintly dodgy weather we settled on a wander along the canal and then off up to Bathampton Meadows. Madame was firm – this was a walk not a botanising expedition – and so I put the hand lens back on the desk but surreptitiously slipped a notebook in my pocket, just in case. We took the second bridge over the canal and up the lane between the lovely Georgian terraces to climb up to the meadows. One of the best things about living here is that you can reach open countryside on foot so easily and without sharing the way with any cars. Cyclists are another thing but ……!

I don’t know the meadows very well and, following Madame’s directive I kept my eyes firmly on the horizon as we followed the path to a spot where we plonked ourselves down to take in the panoramic view of Bath. House Martins were hawking for insects all around us. She was the first to break my trappist botanical silence – “what’s this?” she wondered, pointing to a lovely patch of crested dog’s tail grass. There we were like Father Ted in the ladies lingerie department with me struggling not to notice that we were in the midst of a very interesting bunch of plants. I love a mystery, and what one flora calls “the hawkish plants” are a great temptation. Whether ‘beard’, ‘bit’, or ‘weed’, they’re a daunting challenge to be addressed like a military campaign. But not at this moment. Slowly the prospect of a fully armed return visit was forming in my head while we chatted about the view, and about us, and the lockdown and what it was doing to our heads. It was one of those lovely afternoons when the summer clouds move quickly across the sky bringing intervals of sun and shade. After an hour we grumbled to our feet, stiff with sitting on the grass, and made our way back down the footpath. We’d almost reached the gate when we simultaneously noticed butterflies, dozens of them, in a large patch of longer grass – nothing rare, just meadow browns – car park butterflies, you might say if you were just passing through. Then I spotted yellow rattle, then knapweed and an instant later we saw a solitary marbled white – why is it that spotting a butterfly can evoke such joy?

We celebrated with a black cherry ice cream bought from the canalside hut as we walked home through bigger crowds than we’ve seen in months. They think it’s all over. I really hope they’re right!

Small world

Having pretty much run out of plants to look at, and after my brief encounter with the wall lettuce, I found myself noticing one or two plants I’d never looked at properly before. There’s a posh word for an environment created by a large block of concrete flats with an adjacent car park that used to be a builders’ yard. It’s more often applied to old gasworks and factory sites and presumably was also used to describe bombsites after the war. It’s ruderal – which derives from the Latin for rubble and describes land disturbed by human activity, exactly like building a block of flats. I prefer to think of it as meaning rather rude – which is what you tend to become after three months locked up in a concrete block with the only view from your desk being a car park on an old builders yard. I think there’s an elegant circularity to that paragraph but you may disagree.

Anyway, style apart, I was wandering through the car park and I noticed a thin, straight line of tiny plants; eking out a living on the tarmac below the vertical line of windows at the back. Occasionally I get interested in these tiny wonders – like the slime mould that took all winter to descend the fire escape steps, or the rue leaved saxifrage on the same steps that gets away with its precarious situation by setting seed before the summer does for it.

But these little plants were tiny – really tiny – and clinging low to the ground, constantly being trodden on and driven over and baked in the heat of the sun in recent weeks. It seemed to me that this was all slightly miraculous and deserved a bit more of my attention. The three plants, I pretty sure, were

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Biting Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris

So the next thing to do was to take some samples and bring them up to the study for a closer look. The first obvious thing was that they had been much affected by their impoverished environment they were like miniature versions of their more prosperous cousins. But under a 15X lens I could see that the pearlwort had a number of even tinier, almost transparent beetles living on it. The plant itself was living on a substrate of some kind of moss, but I don’t have a microscope and so I couldn’t take the ID any further. And neither could I tell you what was the name of the beetle. If my knowledge of plants is a bit wonky, my knowledge of insects is non existent.

The next step was to set up a real camera with a macro lens and take a close-up photo. The photo at the top of the page is about 7X magnification of the pearlwort and if you look carefully at the top right quadrant you might spot one of the beetles. You can see that the presence of the water absorbing moss is probably part of the pearlwort’s survival strategy. Wonderful stuff. I was so pleased I started another list of plants I could see through the window which I may share if I ever complete it. Anyway I hope I’ve convinced you that there’s a whole small plant world that we tread on every day without thinking.

Back in the Potwell Inn I started a new sourdough loaf using a new organically grown and stone ground flour that we bought at the mill yesterday. It was nice to get out for a bit but the mill is extremely inaccessible and on both occasions I’ve been there I’ve taken a wrong turning and landed up driving down a narrow track with potholes big enough to lose a tractor in, and ending in an impassible ford. Madame adopted the brace position throughout and comments about my driving were exchanged and so we retraced our steps and took the proper track – which was almost as bad. Nonetheless the contactless handover (see yesterday’s post) was seamless and we drove home feeling that somehow we were dragging an elk back to the cave. At any rate the flour will see us in bread for another three months.

The rain has at last arrived, and this morning I checked the water butts to see if my elaborate water harvesting had worked, and yes – there was a satisfying increase in the stores – sufficient to check that the descending cascade linking the five 250 litre stores was working and it was. As each barrel fills, the water flows to the next in sequence.

Our life here is not exactly Selborne, but in many ways it’s just as rewarding to be able to make friends with these overlooked weeds. Tomorrow the sun will shine again and we may even take a turn around the farmers market – our first trip there for three months. Masks will be worn, of course. We almost went last week but we chickened out at the last minute. We’ll probably chicken out again tomorrow – we have no idea how to stay safe any more!

Note to Dominic Cummings – when you make a mistake, own up.

So yesterday I posted about a misidentified plant, calling a wall lettuce a nipplewort. In the great order of things it’s probably not that important, but I’ve corrected the posting and here’s the reason why I was wrong. From a distance – like for example the photo on the right of the group – it would be easy to misidentify a plant, which is why it’s all the more important to get close up and personal, and here are some of the reasons why this really is a wall lettuce plant.

  • Flower isn’t remotely like nipplewort which has a larger dandelion type flower. This flower is small and has distinct petals.
  • The plant is not hairy
  • Parts of the stem have a purplish colouration.
  • The leaf shape is different.

So by way of reparation I decided not to eat my hat but at least to re-wax it after a wash because it got too disgusting even for me to wear. This is a highly therapeutic activity for two, with Madame wielding the hairdryer and me on the tin of old-style Barbour wax. It’s not a Barbour hat at all, but it’s some sort of waxed cotton so it got the luxury treatment while I bathed in the memory of the smell of my old Solway jacket that fell apart decades ago.

Not content with that, I finally managed to contact Shipton Mill and arrange to collect enough flour to get us through the next expected lockdown; so as soon as I’ve finished this, we’re off on a scenic jaunt across North Wiltshire and Gloucestershire to the mill, where I’m told our flour will be waiting in the back of a white van with the invoice. No people, no contact – oh so dodgy sounding!

If this posting is a bit episodic it’s because I hardly slept last night after reading about the behaviour of a bishop I once worked under who’s just been found out for making a racially stereotyped entry in a reference which prevented someone from getting a job. Having been at the sharp end of a bit of C of E bullying myself, I couldn’t sleep for thinking about what might still be lurking in my personal file, but now mercifully I no longer have to deal with the venality and ambition.

Below is a photo of a ladybird larva. If you see these on your plants rejoice and forswear the spray; their voracious appetite for blackfly more than grants them an amnesty.