Country cousins

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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.

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.

 

Finally we get to the cathedral

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.

  1. Red campion
  2. Sea campion
  3. Scurvy grass
  4. Southern Marsh orchid
  5. Yellow iris
  6. Dandelion
  7. Celandine
  8. Buttercup
  9. Ragged robin
  10. Herb Robert
  11. Common Mouse ear
  12. Marsh marigold
  13. Cowslip
  14. Navelwort
  15. Lady’s Mantle
  16. Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
  17. Primrose
  18. Common Dog Violet
  19. Spring squill
  20. Tormentil
  21. Gorse
  22. Greater Stichwort 
  23. Bucks horn plantain
  24. Sea plantain
  25. Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
  26. Greater Plantain
  27. Red clover
  28. Oxeye daisy
  29. Tall Ramping Fumitory
  30. Sheeps sorrel
  31. Cow parsley
  32. Alexanders
  33. Cut leaved cranesbill
  34. English stonecrop
  35. Sheeps bit
  36. Foxglove
  37. Bluebell
  38. Kidney vetch
  39. Tormentil
  40. Common Orache
  41. Ivy Leaved Toadflax lilac form
  42. Ivy Leaved Tadflax white form 
  43. Scarlet pimpernel
  44. Wild Carrrot
  45. Cleavers
  46. Cat’s Ear
  47. Pignut
  48. Selfheal
  49. Common Sorrel
  50. Broad Leaved Dock
  51. Curled Dock
  52. Germander Speedwell
  53. Common Vetch
  54. Prickly Sow Thistle
  55. Brooklime
  56. Woody Nightshade
  57. Hemlock Water Dropwort
  58. Doves Foot Cranesbill
  59. Red Valerian
  60. Honeysuckle
  61. Nettle
  62. Burnet Rose
  63. Dumpy Centaury
  64. Lesser Trefoil
  65. Greater Birds Foot Trefoil

 

 

Fumitory, and more reasons for botanising.

Tall Ramping Fumitory – Fumaria bastardii

Thinking on from yesterday’s post, here are some extra reasons why learning to identify plants is a great thing.

  • Field botany – like astronomy – is one of those activities where amateurs can really make a contribution.
  • The healing properties of plants are not just historical memories, they have real significance for the future of medicine but unless we know what plants we have, we’ll lose them without ever exploring their possible benefits.
  • Knowing your plants is the best way of finding butterflies, moths and even birds. A bit of botanical knowledge feeds into the whole of natural history.
  • Knowing your plants helps to understand dozens of references in Shakespeare and across the whole of literature.
  • Making lists is fun
  • Fresh air and exercise are better for you than train spotting!

So back to Fumitory which seemed, when I first I/D’d it here, seemed to be the end of the matter – until I checked in Rose “The Wildflower Key”, which is an excellent guide, and discovered that my name was only part of the story because there are in fact thirteen representatives of the family in the UK. So today’s mission was to find another plant and identify it fully. Luckily it’s abundant hereabouts so that bit wasn’t hard at all. The identification involved a hand magnifier and a lot of hemming and hawing because confirmation bias is alive in this amateur botanist’s mind. It’s all too easy to read through one description and say “that’s it” and then read another and say “That’s it too” . So what you have to do – and it can be pretty tedious – is go through all the possibilities, narrowing it down one by one, until there’s only one left. It’s called “keying out” – and it’s a steep but worthwhile learning curve. Anyway the final result – in which I’m pretty confident – is that my Fumitory is Fumeria bastardii – result!

Apart from that my list of plants in flower has reached 65, with some lovely finds today. I won’t give the whole list – because there are no rarities on it at all, apart from a little Centaury which I think is Centaurium erythraea var capitatum which is not rare but very local and pretty too.

Aside from the plants we saw 2 chough, 2 oystercatchers nesting unexpectedly high on a cliff, being pestered by a crow, 2 gannets, swallows in abundance, a kestrel, 2 Canada geese, and some shags apart from all the usual gulls. A stonechat came and showed off only a dozen feet away.

Later we sat with a glass of wine on our campsite overlooking the Bitches in Ramsey Sound as the sun sank through the sky into a sea of pure silver. It’s three days after the full moon and a very high spring tide was flowing and even at a distance of half a mile we could hear the menacing sound of the flow which was generating some big standing waves. A large sail cutter and two canoeists navigated through the waters, the canoeists needed to put hardly any effort into rowing as they swept past the headland. That’s what we come here for. Our walk today took us along the coast from the lifeboat station to an old mineshaft where we turned back across the fields where we feasted on wild mushrooms last autumn. So no more than three miles of coast path and 65 wildflower species in flower. Happy days!

More lists?

No I can’t inflict another list – but carrying on from yesterday I found 18 more plants in flower, bringing the total up to 55. I’m completely aware that my sense of pride and joy makes me a total propellor head, but today we took an appropriately slow and stately walk around the coast path so I could find a few more flowers and it made me very happy. Why on earth photographing and identifying plants should bring such intense pleasure, I don’t know except that knowing the names of things really does. I suppose you could liken it to moving to another town, like we did when we retired. After living in a village for 25 years we knew pretty much everyone, but when we moved to Bath we had to start all over again, learning names, figuring out relationships and understanding where every one lived. Three and a half years on we’re slowly getting there.

So imagine going for a walk in a beautiful place like St Davids and not knowing the names of any of the flowers. You could certainly get around the coast path quicker than we do, but we have the pleasure of greeting old friends. Doing just a bit of botany enables us to recognise families and relationships, to enjoy the successions of the flowers through the seasons and to see how well, or badly, the landscape is doing. So one reason for knowing the names is that you’re always surrounded by friends.

But another, equally good reason is that if you don’t know the names, you’ll never know when they start disappearing. Caring for the environment is just about the most important thing we can do at the moment because it’s ailing. At home we care for it in the way we grown things and the things we eat. Here we care for the things that – because they’re simply beautiful in their own right – make us richer. Knowing the name of a plant means we’re in some kind of relationship which brings responsibilities.

Learning to identify plants involves a level of attention that makes the world infinitely richer. The differences between members of the same family sometimes demands profound attention to tiny details – the shape of a leaf, the disposition of the flowers or a row of hairs on the stem that can only be seen with a hand lens.

Finally, although there are many more reasons for doing a bit of botanising, there’s the aesthetic dimension. Flowers and plants are simply beautiful. They can be enjoyed with most of the senses – by sight obviously, but by smell and taste and even sound. It makes me want to paint them in order to understand them better.

So no list today, but this has been a lovely day.

Ivy Leaved Toadflax

English or Latin

IMG_5401I learned to love the names of common wildflowers from my mother who never used anything else.  I totally understand why having three plants with the same name and one plant with ten names drives proper field botanists mad, but there’s so much pleasure to be got from the English names which frequently point to a medicinal use like, for instance, fleabane, or refer to an immediately recognisable characteristic.  They can even be downright funny.  Check out Arum maculatum for raunchy English names like ‘lords and ladies’ ‘cuckoo pint’ where the second word is, or should be pronounced to rhyme with mint and refers to a pintle which is the shaft on which the rudder of a boat is fitted. Cuckoo, as in ‘cuckoo in the nest’ needs no further explanation I hope. A supremely naughty plant whose latin name merely tells us what it is.

Anyway, as predicted we went for a stroll around the clifftop below St Davids and in order to facilitate actually going anywhere instead of grovelling around on my hands and knees, I just took my iPhone, a notebook and pen. These coast paths are the most joyful places in spring, with enough wildflowers to keep anyone happy. You’ll see from the list that we began our walk by crossing through a marshy area before we got to the coastpath.  So here they are in no particular order because I started the list halfway round and had to remember quite a few.

 

  1. Red campion
  2. Sea campion
  3. Scurvy grass
  4. Southern Marsh orchid
  5. Yellow iris
  6. Dandelion
  7. Celandine
  8. Buttercup
  9. Ragged robin
  10. Herb Robert
  11. Common Mouse ear
  12. Marsh marigold
  13. Cowslip
  14. Navelwort
  15. Lady’s Mantle
  16. Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
  17. Primrose
  18. Dog violet
  19. Spring squill
  20. Tormentil
  21. Gorse
  22. Stichwort – forgot to check which one
  23. Bucks horn plantain
  24. Sea plantain
  25. Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
  26. Red clover
  27. Oxeye daisy
  28. Fumitory
  29. Sheeps sorrel
  30. Upright hedge parsley
  31. Alexanders
  32. Cut leaved cranesbill
  33. English stonecrop
  34. Sheeps bit
  35. Foxglove
  36. Bluebell
  37. Kidney vetch

Isn’t that lovely? – 37 wildflowers – in flower – in a walk that can’t have been more than a couple of miles, and I’m sure that could have been fifty if I’d taken a day over it and carried my mighty copy of Stace and a magnifier. Oh and if I’d not chickened out of the grasses, although I could confidently add cocks foot to the list.

The day started badly, though, with a knackered water pump on the van. We’ve been nursing it along for a year with a leaking gasket, but today one of the spade connectors finally gave up the ghost, having corroded away in the leak. Two faults in two days, but the flat battery may have been connected to the wet contacts.  At least it’s a repair I can carry out myself, and a replacement pump costs about £50 so not the end of the world.

Back to the wildlife, and it’s been a sunny but cool day in a brisk northerly wind. Back on the headland we saw a brief skirmish between a common blue butterfly and a small copper.  I would have loved to be able to say it was a small blue, because the foodplant for the small blue is the kidney vetch which was there in abundance. However the small blue prefers a more sheltered site and is not recorded here. The small copper has plenty of common sorrel and sheeps sorrel to lay its eggs on, and the common blue has a feast of birds foot trefoil at its disposal so enough said. I am condemned to wander the earth encountering and recording the ordinary and everyday, hoping desperately that these ordinary objects of joy  are not about to vanish.

I’ve just finished reading Dieter Helm’s excellent book “Green and prosperous land”. It’s the first book I’ve seen that considers the economic case for what he describes as “natural capital” that’s to say, the natural assets of the world, wildlife, water, clean air which are being destroyed by our present way of life.

Some of the alexanders we saw here were very sick, with every appearance that spray drift from the adjacent field had killed them. It’s difficult to be sure, because it could as easily have been frost damage with such confusing spring weather.  What is certainly true here is that intensively farmed land is butted up against these last strongholds of wildflowers. Surely we have to stop paying farmers simply for owning land, and start re- assessing our entire apporoach to subsidy.

 

 

 

Potwell Inn on tour

  • Well after a bad start with an utterly flat battery, the Potwell Inn has moved temporarily to a new location overlooking Ramsey Sound at St David’s where we shall mostly be wandering around looking at things. This involves a large number of books, binoculars, hand magnifiers, sketchbooks and notebooks. I can feel a list coming on. Meanwhile people were very nice about our paintings and drawings at the private view last night so our lives will probably get even more pressured if we start doing more artwork.
  • The van is called Polly after Alfred Polly, the hero of the Potwell Inn in HG Wells’ book.
  • You may notice a bottle of celebratory wine in the picture. More tomorrow when I get the laptop sorted.
  • Planting weeds ?

    We’ve seen four days of wamth and bright sunshine which has brought our community of allotmenteers out in droves as the new season moves into full throttle. For us it’s meant that every trip up to the plot means taking a load of plants which have been propagated in the flat. Hardening everything off properly means a great deal of shuffling  plants between the greehhouse, the cold frames and the most sheltered spots on the allotment as they progress towards open ground. In our heads and on the laptop we carry a model plan of campaign between sowing and harvesting, but trying to second guess what the weather will be doing, six weeks down the road, is a bit of a nightmare and so – just like a motorway – we get traffic jams and empty stretches.

    Key to the whole show is the date of the last frost and so early yesterday I had twenty minutes on the computer searching the meteorological entrails and at last I’m as sure as I can be that there will be no more frost.  The first wave of plants are on the allotment and ready to be planted out, and in a week’s time we’ll start moving the second wave of tender subjects out of the flat and into the hardening off phase.

    That all sounds a bit cerebral, but of course gardening is never like that because planting out is back breaking work. The plot was designed to be as productive as possible and so the width of the paths was calculated on two measurements – the main paths on the width and turning space of a wheelbarrow, and the secondary paths on the length of my wellingtons – 13″ if you’re really desperate to know!  It was intended to make it possible to work all the beds without ever having to walk on them, but there are always unintended consequences and in this case it’s having to kneel to plant out with your knees aligned to the path and your upper body aligned at 90 degrees to the bed. It’s the only way not to cause carnage to the plants on the adjoining bed.

    So by yesterday teatime we were completly crocked and the proposed dish of broad bean tops was abandoned in favour of fish and chips. Luckily we have a prizewinning chippie just up the road. On the plus side all the brassicas are now in, and in a new departure they’re interplanted with tagetes, calendula and nasturtiums. Everything in me is shouting NO to adding competing flowers to the vegetable beds but unless we try it we’ll never know whether companion plants are all they’re cracked up to be. This can be difficult because our basil supply last season was infested with whitefly – which it’s supposed to repel. Our weirdest flight of fancy was to plant petunias around the edge of the asparagus bed to repel asparagus beetle which were a problem last year. The problem with assessing any of these measures is the usual one that confronts any experimenter – too many variables – but on the other hand it will make the veg garden more beautiful and please the pollinators no end.  As I was watering the petunias in I remembered an old music hall song – “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion bed”  and I wondered whether these pretty flowers might repel onion fly as well.

    Companion planting seems to work in a number of ways, firstly by attracting pollinators and insects like hoverflies that reduce pest numbers or by distracting the pests away from your veg, and even by emitting chemicals through roots and flowers that repel the bugs and slugs. I’m happy to concede that music hall songs and folk magic is not the most scientific approach, but there may well be some hard facts within the practice and anything that reduces the reliance on deadly chemicals has got to be worth the effort. It makes me think of the exhausting effort to destroy ragwort because it’s ‘poisonous to livestock’. But cattle and, for all I know horses too, have learned to avoid the plant which only becomes dangerous when it’s incorporated into hay and silage where it can’t be differentiated. Wholesale spraying with chemicals kills the plants – but not very well – while denying the innocent and harmless cinnabar moth a habitat, and polluting the watercourses. We have to end the practice of regarding the soil as a neutral medium into which we can pour seeds, chemicals and fertilizer with ever diminishing returns. The idea that we can use smart science endlessly to increase yields is an earth threatening fantasy.

    And so, as you see in the photos, we’re using both companion planting and physical barriers to control pests, and if – and only if – we experience a crop threatening attack, we may consider using pyrethrum which is hideously expensive but on the approved for organics list. This is a working allotment, not a shrine, and we have to defend the best against the perfect.

    Parting shot

    IMG_5366Often the best view of the allotment is at the end of a day’s work, when you can look back across from the vantage point of the high path alongside the shed and see the bigger picture. We enjoyed full sunshine all day and the temperature was in the high teens, so you could almost hear the plants growing. All the forecasts suggest that we’ve seen the back of the frost and so we’ve begun sowing and planting out the tender varieties.

    The Plan – the great winter fantasy plan – is now at the stage where almost every day brings the need for some amendment or other. I was reading yesterday that every military battle plan ends with the first contact with the enemy. I’m sure that applies just as much to gardens and allotments – for instance on our plot we had a bed designated for onions and roots; but the overwintering onions were hit by eelworm and so we can’t use that bed for any of the alliums for three years – which means that we’ll have to plant brassicas there this year.  You can imagine it’s a bit of a house of cards and it can make you wonder whether it’s worth planning, but if you don’t plan at all you can forget something until it’s too late, so you lose the crop. So we stagger on and the master copy is gradually overwritten with what really happened. I guess the only truly static plan is the retrospective one.

    We took the fleece off the potatoes during the day, and they are truly impressive plants.  However long experience tells us that impressive haulms don’t always signify big crops. This year’s potatoes are growing on a piece of borrowed land, and our neighbour is notably parsimonious with his compost, so we anointed it with a thick layer of the Potwell Inn finest triple A grade. Our fervent hope is that we haven’t produced a luxuriant crop of leaves at the expense of the potatoes. The broad beans have begun to set pods and so today the tops are coming off.  In Italy they’re a delicacy, but we’ve nver tried them, so broad bean tops are on the menu for tonight. We also took down the last of the overwintered brassicas and after I’d smashed the stumps with the back of an axe they all went into the compost with a handful of chicken manure and a good watering.

    Elsewhere we’ve got an abundant supply of lettuce and salad leaves but as always with successional sowings you land up with some supply gaps and we’re waiting for some more radishes and beets to catch up. The tomatoes are getting their final repotting before planting out today and we’ve decided to expand our companion planting.  We’ve found a variety of basil (sold by Chiltern Seeds) that’s adapted to the UK climate so we’re going to interplant that with the tomatoes and throw in some nasturtiums and petunias as well. The asparagus bed is getting the same treatment to discourage the asparagus beetle.  Elsewhere we’ve got calendula dotted around and of course the big umbellifers are attracting lots of plant friendly parasitic wasps. You can only try these ideas.  I doubt that any of them are a complete cure, but all we need to do is tilt the balance in our own favour.

    There are a handful of civil engineering jobs outstanding as well.  Yesterday a woven hazel fence panel arrived at the flat but it weighed a ton and was far too big to get in our little car, so I’m going to call in the heavy mob, AKA our son, to help me carry it up. What we’re planning is to create a sun trap between the shed and the greenhouse and build a staging for big containers protected from any north winds. The last job will be to grow a windbreak on the eastern edge which is our least protected side.  We’re not allowed fences, but anything that produces food is alright!

    Our moment in the sun is over and we get back to work on the allotment

    IMG_5344

    With three days almost completely taken up with the exhibition in Bristol, we came down to earth yesterday – quite literally – with less of a bump than a sigh of relief. IMG_5365We had the greatest of times, met so many people, and it was fun but I went into extreme extrovert mode which, I’ve discovered is a kind of protective device. I’m much shyer than I appear to be – especially in big crowds of strangers. The benefits of sailing through the occasion and having a wonderful time are always offset by the payback. I was greatly assisted by the little pendant I was given that said I was an artist.  Although I had a painting in the show I’ve never felt able to describe myself as an artist so the badge helped save me from trying to explain.

    Luckily an early bus gave us a chance to wander around Bristol Docks on Sunday morning.  Sadly St Nicholas Market (above) was closed but quite apart from team loyalties – we were both born and brought up in Bristol – any comparison between the dockside development in Bristol and Cardiff, which I wrote about last week, would come down in favour of Bristol just for the sheer diversity on offer. It’s more than 30 years since we lived on the docks, but we were there for 20 years in a succession of different flats and I have to pay tribute to Peter Ware, the architect, who almost single handedly started the fight to preserve the Georgian buildings in Hotwells and the character of the whole area. Consequently Bristol has retained and repurposed hundreds of old buildings that set the context for the new ones.

    IMG_5353

    But time and seasons wait for no-one and so we went up to the allotment at the crack of lunchtime to see what needed attention. Our first job was to remove the protective netting on the garlic and shallots which seemed to give a sigh of relief and stretch towards the sky.  I swear they were six inches taller after a feed with liquid seaweed which also gave them a good watering.

    The fleece also came off the peas, and we put a net over the whole bed to protect it from the birds.  Birds, especially pigeons, are a particular menace on the allotments and without wishing them any ill will, we do everything we can to persuade them to go elsewhere. The other most frequent visitors are jackdaws which are great eaters of grubs.  Some people shoo them off, but I think they’re irresistable in their glossy black coats and grey capes. Robins, come too when we’re digging and we even once spotted tiny goldcrest which came and then went, never to be seen again.

    Gradually we’re taking the propagated plants up to the allotment and we’ve regained one of the windows.  The chillies are all doing very well and I’ve been snacking on the Hungarian Hot Wax as they slowly turn yellow.  The tomatoes are due their last re-pot before going out and the greenhouse aubergines are flowering.

    Down on the coldest patch, the potatoes have shrugged off any frost under their fleece which is being lifted upwards on the shoulders of their haulms.  Suddenly the allotment is taking on its summer form once more.  We spend a lot of time weeding and watering which are both jobs I really enjoy – unlike many people, I know. But allotments, while they can be sometimes very domineering and far from the cliché of outdoor therapy, have many sides to them. They aren’t just about the satisfaction of growing food.  They certainly feed the spirit, but there’s also a strongly aesthetic feel about them as well. Like works of art in themselves, they are expressive of their gardener’s personality. So maybe I really do deserve the little pendant with an A on it?

    Home again, home again, jiggety jig

    IMG_5343It was always going to be a bit of an odd day divided into several parts, and things turned out pretty much as expected. The grandchildren came over for the morning and while I was up at the allotment strimming, Madame went with the Brigade of Mischief for a trip around Prior Park (a National Trust  property) after which we all met up at Uncle Jo’s pizza place for lunch, where they lined up to watch him turning their foraged ramsons into a garlic flavoured pizza. There, in a single photo, is the reason why we’re so driven to secure a future for them.  How could we hope to be remembered with any affection if we hand them the rags of a devastated environment?

    So after lunch and some writing for me, we caught the bus to Bristol for the opening night of the exhibition. A couple of old friends from art school days celebrated their annversary by renting the Centre Space Gallery and inviting thirty of their artist friends to submit some work. It was a brilliant evening and the gallery was packed with people we either knew or wanted to get to know.  Names and faces were put together after decades of never getting around to meeting.  I guess if we’d met fifty years ago, someone would have got drunk, someone would have started a fight and someone would have rushed out in tears –  (actually I could have done any, or all of the three) – but now in our mature(ish) years there were fewer sharp edges and less easily bruised egos.

    I continue to be obsessed with the way that age alters our faces but leaves us somehow the same, and so I have to be careful not to stare (almost forensically) at people who find it disturbing. It was hardly surprising, then, that my painting was a watercolour illustration of a purple sprouting broccoli leaf rescued from the compost heap and absolutely stunning in its decomposing colours of green, yellow and brown. Generally leaves don’t get offended by staring, but I’d love to find a model prepared to put up with it. One of the guests told me a story about failing to recognise one of his old models because he’d never seen her with clothes on.

    We caught a late bus back –  an extraordinary experience because we almost never stay out late, especially in Bristol. And so the bus was absolutely rammed with as big a cross section of life as you could imagine.  There were chancers and inebriates of every age, edgy looking teenagers trying to look cool and one club bouncer who pulled his hi-viz jacket over his head and tried to sleep.  There was a dog that barked randomly at those who failed an unspoken test, a freemason in pinstripes with his regalia in a leather case, and a couple of young women conducting a mobile phone feud with an unknown recipient. Someone smelt pretty bad and so the windows were opened to let cold air in, and someone with nowhere to go was going nowhere in particular, eating his supper out of a rucksack.  We spend so much time in our own isolated lives it’s a proper shock to be nose to nose with complete strangers in a noisy bus – we should do it more often.

    Anyway, part two of the party today with a meal together in Bristol and then tomorrow hand-to-hand combat with a BT engineer, and then bliss.  A couple of weeks with no commitments except the allotment and possibly a short trip to Wales.