First field trip of 2020

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Don’t worry – it gets better than this. Everything of any value was removed from this wreck years ago and all that remains is a heap of rusting steel plus an empty can of cider in the boot. The sheer effort of getting it down a muddy track must have been a piece of heroic, almost Fitzcarraldo stupidity, and a fitting memorial to our culture I think. Anyway there was much more to enjoy today apart from my delight in collapsing sheds and old wrecks. There is nothing quite as exciting or challenging as going out on a field trip – OK a long walk – with some genuine experts on hand. Today we were spoilt for choice with a (county recorder level) botanist, a local historian and naturalist, a leading ecologist and an ex president of the British Mycological Society quite apart from some heavyweight birders and a botanical artist. Walking can get quite slow when the objects of interest are so frequent, and so it took us twenty minutes inspecting a passing stream for Signal Crayfish before we even set off. Apparently a local resident has perfected the art of trapping them and eating them for breakfast! – we found his creel lurking there, baited (we were told) with cat food.

From the outset we were away not with just one heron, but a whole heronry of about half a dozen nests with three birds perched high up in the trees overhanging a Honda car dealer. What was it I wrote yesterday about urban wildlife? As we walked on we saw (and heard) all the usual suspects like thrushes and robins, but also a young buzzard, a kestrel, nuthatch, goldcrest and to cap it all we were shown a nesting site for ravens at the end of the walk inside the Bath Abbey cemetery.IMG_20200105_125957

Within the plants, it was good to see rosettes of primrose leaves in the same graveyard (they’re brilliant places for wildlife – you need a PhD to walk through Smallcombe Cemetery with any intelligence). But there were Winter Heliotrope in full perfume for once, and a pair of Arum cousins, one a native – Lords and Ladies and the other its ornamental relative from Italy rapidly making a nuisance of itself in this country and called – surprisingly perhaps – Italian Lords and Ladies.

There were numerous other goodies around, but having someone on the walk who combined expertise on bryophytes and fungi kept us looking at the limestone walls and paths.  Incidentally, he was carrying a second pair of binoculars which he used for close scanning. I tried it on the carpet when we got home but neither of our binoculars would focus down below about 7 or 8 feet.    There’s no point in bigging up your knowledge under these circumstances, the best thing to do is watch and learn with your notebook at the ready. I know a few fungi, and they’re not plentiful at this time of the year but we spotted Wood ear and Yellow Brain fungi.  My photos weren’t very good because I had only taken my mobile phone.

But the biggest excitement of the day was getting close up to some bryophytes. Unlike most humans, they actually look more and more beautiful the closer you look. The thing is they’re often very small and inconspicuous so you tend to overlook them.  That’s not a bad strategy since I’ve just spent over an hour trying to identify one photograph because there are a great number of things that you might (I might) casually describe as ‘moss’, ‘fern’ or ‘liverwort’.  Actually until today I had very little idea what liverworts actually looked like, and there’s the best reason for joining a natural history society and going on field trips, because there will be someone that really does know and the chances are they’ll be a great teacher who’s only too keen to share their expertise. So here’s what a liverwort can look like very close up –

Aren’t they stunning? the textures are unlike anything you can see in most plants. I’m not completely sure about the Targiona hypophylla because I identified it myself, but the other was identified by a national expert so you can bet your boots on it. Even I think I’m sounding a bit breathless about all this but we had such a good time today among some lovely people, we learned a lot from them and, best of all, I discovered that there’s a whole world of winter lists out there to satisfy even my propellor headed tendencies.

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And below are a few things I didn’t manage to identify, apart from the Maiden-hair Spleenwort on the left. I was intrigued by the reason for it being so named.  A quick flick through Wikipedia suggests it was once used to treat diseases of the spleen, but I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence for that use, only for chest complaints and menstruation problems, for which there are many more commonly used treatments.  So it’s a lost etymology as far as I can see.  One other interesting fact popped up, though. There is another plant called maidenhair fern – whose leaves are exactly like miniature versions of the leaves of the Maidenhair tree – Ginkgo biloba. 

So here’s the rogues gallery of today’s unsolved mysteries.  I really like having a few of these because it keeps me going back.

As we say in Bristol – “where’s that to?”

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– and the answer is in our son’s next door neighbour’s garden in the middle of Birmingham.  In fact herons are almost a pest in suburban gardens these days and almost any little pond is likely to be raided. Last time we were up in Birmingham we saw a large heronry alongside a reservoir near Winterbourne House, and a few years back our son saw a peregrine kill a pigeon and eat it on the path outside his kitchen window in the middle of Harbourne.  On our allotment in Bath we see foxes and badgers and one allotmenteer has seen deer there.  The birds are pretty prolific as well, we’ve got one established peregrine nest in the centre of town and if I were a better entomologist  I reckon we’ve a rich collection of insects on the allotments too, not to mention the smaller mammals I wrote about yesterday. In fact Ken Thompson’s work at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, some of which comes up in his book “The Sceptical Gardener” – well worth reading –  and Dave Goulson’s books on bees suggest that suburban gardens are both a resource and a hotspot for depleted wildlife.

So while urban and suburban gardeners (and farmers) pit themselves and their gardens against environmental catastrophe, what’s happening out there in the “real” countryside?  I think we pretty much know the answer to that one – it’s a story of crisis.  I would have said it was a story of decline if I’d been writing this a few years ago, but there are signs of hope, typified by the rewilding project at Knebb but replicated on a much more modest scale in many other places. While we all wish that change could come faster but there’s a lot of inertia and a whole culture to overcome before that can happen, and I know we need action right now,  but with a climate change denying government, banks and multinational pharmaceutical companies still in control, the  responsibility for change, for the time being, has to be on us and our behaviour.

At the AGM of the Bath Natural History Society this afternoon, (Prof) David Goode – in his President’s address – said that he felt that public attitudes towards climate change had changed for the better over the past year, and gave credit to Greta  Thunberg for inspiring the Extinction Rebellion movement and catalysing the sense of urgency.  He also said that he had authored some reports in the late 1970’s in a book trying to predict what was coming during the next decades.  He told us that the editor of the publication had refused to accept the phrase “greenhouse effect” but that every one of his predictions had come to pass before the end of the decade. In my view, with Australia on fire, California in the grip of a prolonged drought and multiple species extinctions across the world it’s become ever more clear that climate change, species extinction and neoliberal politics are all part of the same problem and we can’t choose to fix just one of them.  Having worked in the countryside for 25 years I know only too well the cost to the environment of soil degradation, monoculture, eutrophication of the rhynes (ditches) and the continual application of powerful chemicals, and it’s a cost to the farmers too because as their income is squeezed by falling farm gate prices deliberately forced on them by supermarkets (ask any dairy farmer) they feel they’re being blamed for the state of the environment while the real architects of agribusiness are living high on the hog.

It’s shaming rather than ironic, that suburban and urban green spaces have become places of refuge for wildlife, harried from the countryside by the destruction of habitat and driven by an economics that has no column for the environment in the profit and loss accounts. If you add in the ludicrous farm subsidy system and the lobbying power of the agrochemical industry and it looks like a perfect storm. Ironically I won a signed hardback copy of Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” in the raffle.  I bought the paperback last summer at Heligan, so I’ll pass that copy on to a friend. IMG_20200104_154026One of the greatest advantages of  living in the centre of Bath is the proximity of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which is only 5 minutes walk away and accommodates  most of the Bath Nats indoor meetings. The view through the first floor window was lovely this afternoon. January is the quietest month in Bath, with far fewer visitors and space to walk around the city unhampered.

Up at the allotment this morning we planted out the last batch of overwintering broad beans. The first feed of broad beans and new potatoes is a landmark meal, marking the end of the hungry gap and the hope of good things to come, but the soil is very wet at the moment and the water table is so close to the surface that we’re a bit concerned about the effect on the overwintering plants, so it may be necessary to deepen the soakaways or to raise the beds even more, adding plenty of grit to the soil to improve drainage. Whichever we choose it’s going to be hard work, that’s for sure.

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Luckily we’ve got a second string to our bow because  we started a second batch of garlic in large pots, filled with a free-draining mix of soil, compost and horticultural grit, with a few handfuls of vermiculite thrown in. It’s a similar mix to the one we’ve evolved for growing basil indoors under the horticultural lights and that’s absolutely thrived this winter giving us a year-round supply of full flavoured basil. This variety is called Neapolitan and I like it even more than the Classico.

  • This post was amended on Sunday to restore a displaced paragraph to its proper position.

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Wheat and tares at the Potwell Inn

Wheat and Tares or in plainer terms, the pests, diseases and downright nuisances are just a part of life at the Potwell Inn, and sometimes they can be sorted easily but, sadly sometimes a little harsh intervention is needed. One such fact of life on the allotment is rodents – rats and mice. Squirrels too can lend a destructive hand.  Last autumn we sowed a row of broad beans which failed to materialise. We found them yesterday hidden in a pile – presumably by a squirrel – under the leaves surrounding the rhubarb plants.

It seems paradoxical to say that because we are organic gardeners we don’t use chemicals unless they’re approved by the soil association, but perhaps once a year we might use a pyrethrum spray if the asparagus beetle runs out of control, we’re always very careful to do it when the friendly insects are less likely to be affected.

Garden centres will often try to point you in the direction of  pyrethroids when you enquire, but these are not approved for use on organic gardens.  There’s an exact parallel with herbal medicines here. Conventional medicine often works to isolate what’s believed to be the ‘active constituent’ of a plant and then produces immensely powerful and marketable products; but there’s no history of use in the pure form and so these chemicals can do immense damage before the downside becomes apparent. Pyrethrum has been around for a long time and it can kill pollinating insects if it’s used carelessly but in extremis it’s the lesser evil when faced with the extinction of a crop.  Last season we didn’t need to use it at all because the ladybirds roared into action at the best possible time and we were grateful to accept biological controls fee of charge.

Plant chemistry is immensely complex, and a single plant can contain dozens of active ingredients, all in symbiotic relationship with one another in the host plant.  Often the combination is more effective and less dangerous than the individual components. All of which is a long winded way of saying that artificially manufactured pyrethroids are far more persistent and dangerous than the plant extract that inspired them.  The downside is that pure pyrethrum is extremely expensive!

But of course the whole discussion of organic culture is fraught with the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe. The old and humorous definition of a weed as a plant in the wrong place has it exactly right, and this year we’ll be growing a few well known weeds deliberately, not to spite our neighbours but in order to continue my experiments with herbal medicine. While it’s perfectly acceptable to be found harvesting leaves and flowers around and about on our walks, it’s actually illegal to dig the roots up without the owner’s permission. I suspect that wandering around the countryside armed with my beautiful pointed spade would be considered as going equipped  and so there are some plants it’s best to gather from your own patch.

The distinction between weeds and vegetables can be very flexible, as can the nuisances of insects and animals. In the autumn our neighbours are troubled by the alarming number of ivy bees which, as it happens are perfectly harmless and lack a sting.  I’ve laid on the ground nose to nose with a mating ball to get a photograph before now.  Every year too, our sweet corn is ravaged by badgers – who absolutely love it, but don’t like soft netting because it gets in their claws – and so there’s a more or less effective remedy. Rats, being brilliant climbers, also clamber up to take the corn and, on a really bad day, a couple of the local wild population of deer will take it as well. In the complicated way that we do our ethical sums, we accept the damage from some animals but not others. Most of us carry a mental hierarchy of potential pest mammals from hedgehogs, deer and badgers at the cuddly end  and at the bottom of everyone’s list comes the rat. Mice seem altogether more benign until you sow a row of peas or beans -which is a pity because there don’t seem to be any effective deterrents apart from trapping and killing them and yet they carry some awful diseases, so you really don’t want their urine anywhere near your organic veg.

Naturally the moral difficulty doesn’t end there because you can use poison – where you never have to see or touch the casualties but when they are eaten by scavengers, then foxes hedgehogs and crows may well become secondary victims. The only other alternatives are live trapping them and then releasing them on someone else’s patch – not nice – or despatching them yourself – which is too troubling to contemplate or, finally, using strong spring traps that kill the rat instantly. Which means that every day I have to check the traps and dispose of the victims – which I leave out to feed the foxes, badgers and all the rest. I know it’s daft to feed the very creatures that will be attacking our allotment in a few months but there it is.  I’d rather have to look one dead rat in the eye than lie awake at night worrying about the hedgehogs.

And then, this week there’s the other kind of high-tec mishap that can cost a great deal of money to remedy.  The heating controller on our campervan has been slowly dying for the last five years, and yesterday it finally gave a last pathetic glow and faded into darkness. I knew it would be expensive to replace so I disconnected it and brought it back to the Potwell Inn, and set-to with my tiniest screwdriver. As the cover came off I found a printed circuit board that could have come out of a laptop. Worse still there were two more layers and a screen – all equally complex. The controller turned out to be a small computer that monitors and controls every aspect of the heating and hot water in the van. In fact it was £350 worth of pure German engineering in a box not much more than 3″ by 2″. There was only one thing to do because the van is the crucial component in all our natural history expeditions. “Rats!” I said, neatly compartmentalizing it as I pressed the send button on the order.  Now I can’t wait for the new one to arrive so we can heat the van and the water without an hour-long cat and mouse (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) game with the display.

Tomorrow there’s the Bath Nats AGM and a talk on wildlife photography, and then – on Sunday – the first field trip of 2020. Life is good – as long as you’re not a rat!

More auguries of spring

If I’m honest, I’ve always thought of this period of the year as  a kind of winter gap, and our enforced absence from the allotment due to almost continuous wet weather echoes the historical pattern of farming. These days, with massive and heavy farm machinery the idea of ploughing and sowing in wet soil at the turn of the year  is a non-starter. I’ve seen it suggested that seed can be sown in frost hardened ground, but for most farmers if it’s not sown during the last good weeks of autumn it’ll have to wait until February or March at the latest. That’s where the much lighter horse drawn plough gained valuable extra time notwithstanding its limitations. A horse drawn plough can cover one acre a day whereas a modern tractor can plough 24 acres – and do quite a bit of damage in the process.  Mercifully, the trend is towards no-till methods which is a step (just one step) in the right direction.

IMG_20200101_120038Historically there was little work done on the land around Christmas but there was always hedge laying, which was one of my favourite jobs when I was a groundsman. So with a pause, let’s say,  between the solstice and Epiphany on January 6th, work in the fields could resume. We used to celebrate Plough Monday in one of my parishes – always the first Monday after 6th January, and the Young Farmers would carry an old Ransomes plough into the church, along with some hand tools and lanterns and I would bless  it before it was returned once again to a gloomy corner in someone’s barn. The plough was slightly too long to manoeuvre down the aisle of the church so the handles were reduced in size and welded back on again, probably making it the shortest Ransomes plough in the country.

Given that I was vicar in a cider making area, the other great pagan festival was the Wassail where we blessed the orchard, drove away the evil spirits with a great deal of noise accompanied by volleys of empty 12 bore black powder cartridges, fired into the sky with an exciting amount of smoke and flame. I should say that a good deal of Littleton Lifesaver cider was also drunk, along with folk singing, a mummers play and the election of a king and queen for the night who, after their elevation, would be borne past the huge bonfire and into the orchard on a chariot made by welding two bicycle wheels and an axle on to a more or less lethal platform. Sometimes, over the years, my efforts have been rewarded with a terrible crop – like 2018 for instance when the ‘Beast from the East’ just about killed all the blossom. Last year. on the other hand, was a bumper crop and my invitation to take part again arrived two days ago so I appear to be forgiven. It’s a cause of great satisfaction that Madame provided the budwood for the orchard when it was first planted about 45 years ago. The less said about the cider the better except to note that if Admiral Nelson had been returned home in a barrel of Lifesaver rather than brandy he’d have dissolved before he arrived.

I think my successor in the parish has reservations about the outrageous and completely open paganism, but it’s never troubled me in the least and so – with his permission – it’s the one service I still perform, and if I weren’t performing I’d still be there just to meet up with all my old friends. The great advantage of Littleton was that hardly anyone went to church – they never bore me the least ill will, and were happy as long as I confined my attention to weddings, funerals, harvest, Christmas carols, wassailing and and fetes and met them all in the pub regularly. Madame also ran a life-drawing class there and the the day when her (male) model turned up sporting a Prince Albert piercing is still spoken about by the village ladies!

So that’s a date then, 7.30 at the White Hart, Littleton on Severn, on January 17th. There are some photos of the event on my posting for Jan 1st Last year, and coincidentally we went for a New Years Day walk along the canal (where else?) and as we walked back through Widcombe we caught up with the finish of the Widcombe Mummers performance. Earlier I’d spotted the first hazel catkin of the new season, along with a groundsel plant in full flower. Cow parsley and cleavers are also gathering strength as they push out their early leaves.  I couldn’t be more pleased to see these signs of the new season amidst the gloom of the last weeks.  Today we walked in a fine mizzle of rain among dozens of walkers and cyclists taking the chance of a bank holiday break.

 

 

 

A feast – this time for the birds

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When we lived in South Gloucestershire, occasionally – during the autumn – we would get flocks of Redwing gorging themselves on the fallen apples in our small orchard.  One year we even photographed half a dozen roe deer which must have walked brazenly up the drive past the churchyard unless they jumped over the wall. Our chickens too, before they became foxy takeaways, absolutely loved them; and apart from larger birds and mammals the windfalls fed countless insects for weeks. But apples don’t persist, unless – that is – they’re crab apples like these I photographed on the river bank this morning. In recent days I’ve focused on winter looking forward to spring, but this tree – still bearing a significant amount of fruit – is some kind of Malus sylvestris – probably an ornamental cultivar and takes me back to the warm days of autumn. Stripped of all its leaves this tree is two seasons in one and makes a decent food-bank for the local wildlife.

IMG_20191231_133254While thinking of food-banks, yesterday I mentioned the sorry state of some of the boats being pressed into service on the canal.  This one is actually on the river just downstream of the weir and terribly vulnerable to flooding. The sheeting is all that seems to be sheltering a human being in this cold weather. The combination of public holidays and sales reductions in the shops has brought an unprecedented number of apparently homeless people into the city centre where they beg for money from crowds of visitors.  The police claim they they do very well out of it but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that many of them have intractable mental health problems. The Julian Trust – a local homeless charity – have weighed in against another charity which has distributed temporary shelters, claiming that there is plenty of  emergency shelter already available and if people can be persuaded to attend they can receive all sorts of support and healthcare including help with addiction problems. Homeless people can be very difficult to help.

Years ago I opened the vicarage door, late one winter evening, to see a young woman – clearly a rough sleeper – who announced “my waters have broken”. I have to admit it crossed my mind that this was a spoof but she was very pregnant so I yelled for Madame and we took her in, shoved her in a warm bath and called the maternity hospital. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to persuade them even to send out a midwife to check her over but eventually, at about 2.00am a midwife turned up and confirmed that she was about to have the baby but not that night. The girl’s partner was very hostile and refused to come into the house and she too refused a bed but insisted on sleeping in the bus shelter on the A38.  It turned out that they had met while they were residents in a psychiatric unit. We gave them some blankets and some food, and I managed to wring a promise out of her that she would come back in the morning, but it became clear that the reason for her fear of the authorities was that she had already had one child taken away and so she had decided to have this one “in a hedge somewhere”.

I spent half the next day trying to find emergency accommodation and when eventually I found somewhere in Bath I even offered to drive them over to see it, but they refused all offers of help, and the last time I saw them that afternoon they were walking off in the direction of the Severn Bridge. I never heard of them again, and there aren’t many months when I don’t think about them.  The line of my pastoral failures is longer than I care to think! The earth in all its fullness can be a cruel place, and any transect of my little geographical area of concern has to include the culture, the people, the dependencies and cruelties as well as pretty pictures of apple trees and my endless lists of wildlife. The same malign economic and political forces that are killing the environment and heating the climate are also destroying human lives, and not just in faraway places.

So where do we snatch joy from in the midst of all this?

Well, I think we need to take and celebrate joy wherever we find it. I had a real moment of joy in the bookshop today. I was waiting to collect my new edition of Stace and I had a browse in the poetry section  and picked up a copy of Louis MacNeice Collected Poems. Although I was only killing time (what a dreadful expression) I got so excited about the beginning of Autumn Journal – written in 1939 (there’s ominous!) – that I started to whisper the words aloud so I could feel them in my mouth. I was getting some funny looks  from other customers and so my only real recourse was to add the book to my already extravagant copy of “New Flora of the British Isles” Ed 4. When a book makes me hungry I have to have it, and this one started to blow me away in the shop! So there it is; on the last day of the year I mange to bind up every contradiction in my life into a mare’s nest of conflicting demands, and conclude 2019 with a flourish of extravagance.

Stuff it anyway – that’s what being human seems to be all about. Love, art, laughter and tears too – we can’t make it up, we have to live it. Happy New Year!

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All work and no play make Jack a dull boy

 

It’s New Year’s Eve, and as you can see from the photos we’ve had a grand old time with family, friends and neighbours. There’s always a hint of the black dog sidling along somewhere close behind me at this time of the year but, as one of my spiritual directors said many years ago – “There’s nothing wrong with you that a bit of sunshine won’t put right”. I think the dominant mood has to be defiance – of the winter, of the politics and of all that tries to diminish us and keep us in shadow.  Fear and despair are the devil’s tools and it’s always possible to raise a finger against the tyranny of the machine.

Anyway, enough of that, we have bigger fish to fry at the Potwell Inn and in any case the sun broke through for a couple of hours yesterday. Plan A was to go over to Dyrham Park for a walk, but slow moving traffic on the A46 was a bit of a clue that plan B was a better bet.  In the end we drove into the park and straight out again, passing many hundreds of cars and crocodiles of walkers.  There was no peace to be had anywhere, and we wondered at what point the overwhelming popularity of the place would become a serious threat to the environment. I had the horrifying thought that the whole of  White Field might be turned into an overflow car park – all those stunning meadow plants mown off in pursuit of a few more visitors to fund the spoliation of yet more land.

IMG_20191228_141316And so we returned to a bit of unfinished business on the canal. I’ve written about the big patch of Winter Heliotrope we found – no great shakes, I know, but it was a cheerful sight.  However there was one thing I forgot to log, and the latin name Petasites fragrans is a bit of a clue, because apparently it has a perfume although experts seem unable to agree on what it is – some say vanilla, others cherry pie,liquorice or aniseed. A bit inconclusive, then! So there was nothing to do but go back and flare the nostrils a bit in search of the elusive fragrance. I thought it might help that the sun was shining and it’s true that there was a distinct fragrance but you could only get it by standing back from the individual flowers and embracing the whole bed. It was nice to confirm the name, but I couldn’t say that the perfume was any other than itself – the perfume of winter heliotrope.

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IMG_20191230_144103Here’s a photo above that just about sums up the time of year. I love the appearance of Clematis vitalba – old man’s beard, traveller’s joy – among other English names – when it reaches the final stage of its seasonal cycle. It’s winter in a picture, but almost at its feet we found new leaves of dandelion, tansy and yarrow in full spring growth. I’m always surprised at just how specific the habitats are. You’ll see loads of a particular plant in one small length of the towpath, and then it seems to be replaced by something entirely different. As I looked at the yarrow leaves I suddenly remembered another of our childhood names  – we called it ‘fish paste’ for no particular reason I can think of.

IMG_20200101_130145The canal itself was a beautiful sight in the winter sunshine, but even there we found a bit of human tragedy.  We’d noticed that one rather dishevelled looking boat was tilting dramatically the other day. Yesterday we found the distraught young couple whose home it had been, trying to rescue their belongings from the sunken hull. They’d obviously gone away for Christmas and returned to find their home underwater. There are so many people living within a whisker of destitution on these old boats. The wealthy owners of waterside homes are constantly agitating to have them removed, but the look etched on to their faces would have told you all you need to know about being poor and homeless in this, one of the richest countries in the world.

But the sun truly brings Bath stone to life, and as we took our usual walk, looping back through the town center I took a few photos of the canal and some of its buildings.  The water was flat calm, and I was fascinated by the appearance of what seemed an exactly parallel world in the reflection. Cleveland House – newly restored –  looked as if it was sitting on a giant’s cave, and the mature plane trees’ reflections were stunning. From Laura place, looking down Pulteney Street the sun – low in the sky – made the houses glow with a kind of inner light. Mercifully the river level is falling and narrow boats were at last able to join the Avon through Widcombe Deep Lock.  It’s a kind of secret Bath that draws us back again and again – and we’ll need to keep it up because I can see that within a week or two the wildflowers will move into a new gear altogether.

 

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Guerilla gardening

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Yesterday I got excited about a patch of winter heliotrope on the canal side, but I didn’t mention the little guerilla garden that popped up just below Cleveland House a couple of seasons ago. I’m no expert when it comes to guerilla gardening, but I know of three sites in Bath that have been planted up and (more or less) maintained for a few years now. If you walked past looking at your mobile or with your head full of music, or ran past checking your heart rate and distance, or shouting at your children to mind the water -you’d never notice it – there’s only half a dozen square metres of it after all. But it just happens that it’s next door to a favourite patch of Pulmonaria (lungwort) which was not showing much more than leaves yesterday and it contained some winter savory in flower.

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From Clive Stace – “New Flora of the British Isles” 3rd edition

So how do we feel about these introduced and occasionally naturalized interlopers popping up here and there with a bit of human help. My “Atlas Flora of Somerset” has the plant established for a very long time on the walls of the manor at Mells. Stace has it naturalised in North Somerset – which may well refer to the same plants, so it seems to me to be completely pointless trying to establish its status as if it were applying for a visa. The brute facts are that this plant was almost certainly put there by the guerilla gardener(s)  who thought the patch was looking very neglected and needed cheering up. Maybe in a hundred years it will have naturalised and maybe it will just give up the ghost because it’s not in the right place – who knows? But yesterday it was in flower and looking very pretty in the shy sort of way that plants do when they’re surrounded by the usual badly behaved groundlings in disturbed soil.

It’s possible to get disquietingly touchy on the subject of alien plants, as if only ram-stamped British – no, English – subjects should be allowed. Is there a whiff of nativism in it? Neither plants, birds or insects respect our artificial borders – we’ve got a lovelorn parakeet hanging around on the allotment at the moment; should we shoot it in the pursuit of ecological purity or smile at its preposterous brightness against the winter trees?

There are a couple of serious points that should be made about planting up apparently neglected patches of ground. The first is that wildflowers often only show themselves for a brief period and then disappear again until next season. Most of us don’t notice that wildflowers adapt to their surroundings by timing their flowering period to coincide with any number of factors – space, daylight, pollinators – and probably many more.  The wonder of the weedy verge is succession and so although the patch of apparently boring ground may not be looking at its most showy today, in a month it might be a riot or a contemplative joy. As I discovered very early on in my botanical apprenticeship, not all dandelions are really dandelions, and not all of those green plants on verges are cow parsley. Wild plants have their own times and seasons and it’s not their job to provide us with year-round entertainment. I’ve come to see the random distribution of “wildflower seed mix” as just another form of vandalism alongside strimmers.

Another parallel point comes in a particularly poignant way here in Bath. The local council, bless them, always mindful of the strillions of visitors, like to make sure that the the grass and borders are a constant visual feast.  But to be honest, 50,000 tulips is a bit of an insult to any idea of biodiversity. God has an answer to bare earth, and it’s called weeds.  Weeds are beautiful, healing, occasionally poisonous, and home to billions of insects that feed birds and other insects. My mother, born in 1916, knew her wildflowers inside out; could predict the weather for the next few hours by looking at “Granny Perrin’s nest”  which, to my infant eyes, looked like a tall tree, and didn’t think of herbal remedies as the least bit ‘alternative’. She didn’t – to my knowledge – ever fly on a broomstick.

Teaching children to understand and recognise even a few local wildflowers and their properties (perhaps ‘gifts’ would be a better word), would do more to advance the battle against the coming ecological disaster than any number of wildlife documentaries. At Christmas our oldest grandson (7) showed me his new bird record book. Three pages of neatly ruled entries detailed all his sightings, and every one of them was a blackbird. I asked him if he’d seen anything else and he replied that he was only recording black ones at the moment.  It’s a start, that’s the thing. If we’re going to survive on this planet, the earth needs to be the object of our love and not just our understanding. So I hear what you’re saying, guerilla gardeners, but don’t be too quick to condemn the weedy patch or you might fall into the sin of municipal consciousness.

 

Oh yes there are!

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I’m not sure whether what we do here amounts to serious research of any kind, but when noticing plants or wildlife takes a step up and becomes systematic, the data that’s recorded takes on a life of its own, especially in unregarded areas where developers may try to push plans through without leaving time to do proper longitudinal surveys.  These kind of surveys are the lifeblood of natural history, and over time the gathered data becomes more and more significant, because what’s never been recorded can’t be counted as lost. For once it’s a great help to be old, because we know what we’ve lost – but it’s not a great experience.

We have a favourite walk into town which – if we walked the quickest route would take us right to the centre in ten minutes. But if we follow the river to the point where the canal enters it, and then follow the canal as far as Sidney Gardens, doubling back through the gardens and up Pulteney Street it’s about five times as far but a hundred times more interesting.

Spotting plants can sometimes be a race against the strimmers, for instance the Tansy I photographed only a few days ago had been strimmed off when I went back two days later. On the towpath, tidiness reigns – it’s an unnecessary pain, but the council seem unable to resist it.  The riverbank is a different matter, though, and all sorts of anarchy  breaks out there, offering a feast of weeds both rare and common as muck, growing through the supermarket trolleys.  Who cares? they’re all lovely.  Then there’s the park, where there’s always something unplanned happening in the borders and the long grass – (steady on, I’m talking about plants here) – and finally the streets which have a good deal more botanical interest than you’d ever imagine. What the long route takes in time it repays in interest and, over the years, you get to know where to look for old friends with the ever present possibility of spotting something new.

IMG_20191228_141232I wrote yesterday that I was just longing for some sunshine and a few flowers, and today I half hoped I might spot an early flowering Coltsfoot so I had my eyes firmly on the canal bankside when I spotted a plant in flower. I’d seen the leaves in a dense patch for a couple of years, and I’d guessed it might be Coltsfoot or Butterbur but I couldn’t be certain.  It was one of those plants that you know you need to identify properly but never get round to doing because you half know the answer. The fact that my mystery plant was in flower today – at the end of the year – meant it could only be Winter Heliotrope, a close relative of butterbur and, for that matter, Coltsfoot too.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to have named the plant.  It may be as common as could be, but suddenly a stranger became a friend, along with all the others I’ve identified along that length of the canal. The last time I spotted a large clump of Coltsfoot I was on my bike cycling around the Severnside villages after a snowstorm. They glowed at me from the verge and I could almost warm my hands on them. I knew those villages and their plants really well after 25 years, and after 4 years in Bath I’m just beginning to experience the same feelings. Finding a new plant can almost make you break out in a jig.

So today was a day in which at least one wish was granted, but there was another. I mentioned the other day that I was lusting after the 4th edition of Clive Stace’s “New Flora of the British Isles”. I was taking a secretive peep on the computer this morning and Madame said “why don’t you just buy it?” . “Because it’s £59”, I said, in an outbreak of inexplicable candour – I usually lie about these things and round them down a bit, well a lot. “You’ve got a book token and some loyalty card tokens – use them too” .  I needed no persuasion and so at the end of our walk we wandered into Waterstones and I ordered it. The shop assistant looked it up and said  – I guess trying to warn me – “It’s £59“. I raised myself to my full 5’8”, put on my most condescending smile and assured him that I did know – it was such a delight! I love books.  I even sniff them when I think no-one’s looking, because no Kindle ever came close to the smell of fresh printing ink and good paper.

So that’s two lovely things about today, and the third was the roastie tonight when I cooked our own potatoes, celeriac and parsnips. I boiled them for as long as I dared and then dumped them in olive oil in a horrendously hot oven, giving them a little crush about halfway through. They were the crispiest, fluffiest roasties I’ve ever done. Life is good.

 

Potwell Inn (Christmas) sherry trifle recipe

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Sponge fingers
1 bottle sherry, (or to taste – probably less)
Frozen raspberries from the allotment
Raspberry jelly (jello)
Crême Anglaise
Whipped cream
decorations  – must include crystallised angelica + glace cherries
non alcoholic version for grandchildren – leave out sherry but they’ll still eat yours if they get a chance.

So after 4 days at the stove, the last of the guests has departed, the Potwell Inn has returned to its usual quiet existence and I feel as if I’m a stone heavier. The sherry trifle is such a favourite with everyone that I usually wish I’d made two, but we even managed to eat one of the Christmas puddings this year, which means there are only three left to look reproachfully out of the cupboard until we eat them during the year.  Christmas cooking is as much liturgy as it is cooking; traditions to be observed and rituals to be followed to the letter. From the moment the turkey arrives the die is cast, and the familiar sequence begins once again.  The difference this year was that I cooked the turkey in Bath  and we drove it over to Bristol in a pile of pre-prepped trays, boxes and bags so our chef son could have a break from cooking. The thrill of the Christmas roast palls after the first thousand have gone out to the pass, but I’m an amateur so I never get bored with it. All that remains today is the stockpot simmering away very slowly on the stove, filling the flat with its aroma.  We both agree, (as we always do), that a period of  restraint would be rather good.

We ignored the stupefying dolt-fest of television and our oldest son continued our film education by force-feeding us Tarantino films, although we managed to negotiate a brief respite with Naked Gun for the 200th time. So all reigned peaceful and no-one got upset for the whole period although we all enjoyed a jolly good moan about our sad lives under the cosh of our incompetent superiors. It’s Christmas for goodness sake, if you can’t feel sorry for yourself at Christmas there’s no hope for humanity, and that suits us very well – bah humbug.  The revelation of the week was that our son is very good at extracting broken keys from locks – it was (stone cold sober) me that broke it this time – and we had to go to Timsons to get another cut.  The young man there did a brilliant job in the face of imminent collapse after looking after eight guests – our hearts ached for him. The most amusing event was meeting our upstairs neighbour on the stairs on Christmas morning. I thought he was behaving a bit strangely, and then he produced a set of flash cards one of which said “I’ve lost my voice” and another “Happy Christmas”.  He managed a weak smile and stumbled off upstairs.

And so we rehearsed our tour of the town this afternoon, using the tourist minimising route, and although the bottom of Milsom Street resembled the Mississippi in flood, we skipped across like loggers and enjoyed a quiet walk along the rather damp side streets. I feel completely exhausted and all I can dream of is some sunshine and a few plants in flower, but having struggled past the solstice, the weather continues wet and miserable. I’m sure we’re breaking records – just not very good ones.

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For the removal of scales from eyes

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  1. The easier way is to walk to the window or, better still stand outside, (anywhere will do), look at the sky, watch the clouds – today, here, they’re scudding across from the Atlantic, full of rain gathered up across an eternity of open sea –  and watch a bird (any bird will do, it doesn’t have to be a peregrine) – wheeling in the sky, enfolding the wind, and say “hello sky, hello wind, hello clouds, hello bird, my name is ***** and I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced”.
  2. * Read Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”
  3. * Listen to Patti Smith incanting it on “Land” (But never play this album at the gym wearing headphones in case you inadvertently join in and sing along, because this will surely get you barred.

If you are disturbed by strong language, option 1 is recommended.

Job done.

Solstice complete.