Like dragging an elk back to the cave

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Actually the photo is a bit of a cheat because I took it exactly a year ago to the day.  On the other hand after a few days of work this week, the allotment looks uncannily – or rather – exactly the same, because in truth there’s nothing at all uncanny about the yearly routine since with small variations from year to year it just happens that way.

A friend emailed today with a link to an Imboic celebration she’d taken part in.  I’d never heard of Imboic before but it’s described both as a Wiccan and a Celtic festival to celebrate the beginning of spring and takes place at the beginning of February, coincidentally the date when Candlemas is celebrated in the Christian church. The religious are a larcenous lot with regard to festivals and this is obviously an ancient, probably pre-Christian festival that’s been repackaged to suit successive orthodoxies. What it does achieve is to touch the very deep need in our lives to recognise and celebrate the seasonal turning points. Looking at the YouTube video it’s clear that everyone was having a grand time and that, in my usual latitudinarian way I don’t give a stuff if they all believe different things; the fact is, the crowds knew why they were there and what they were celebrating.

And the crowds were entirely right. The year has turned decisively and even if there were no humans left to celebrate it (a distinct possibility if we don’t change our ways) the plants and wildlife certainly would. Today on the allotment we heard and saw –  wrens and robins, jays, magpies, rooks, and a green woodpecker; all without making the least effort. We allotmenteers seem to have an instinctual drive to make ready for the new season and Madame and me have been afflicted by the urge to work all day and think about work all night. The beds are all ready, bar a tiny bit of weeding, and the second propagator will be switched on tomorrow (rainy day job).  The pile of pernicious weeds and roots – mostly bindweed and creeping buttercup since the couch has been vanquished – has not dried out, and so the vexed issue of whether to burn them in a couch fire or drive them to the tip and let someone else burn them, hasn’t arisen – but it will.  The battle of the composts has been resolved, and a new bag of Sylva Grow is in the back of the car. I would have tried to get a bag of Carbon Gold, about which I’ve heard good things, but it’s not widely distributed in garden centres yet.  We are astonished that they are still apparently selling mountains of peat based composts, and it occurred to me this morning that it’s no use grumbling about the way things are; this is a capitalist society and the one thing, the only thing agribusiness is interested in is the bottom line. So if we’re concerned about peat extraction we just stop buying it, and put the garden centres on notice that we’ll take away their greenwashed credentials if they don’t stop.

Anyway, enough bolshy gardener stuff – I really wanted to write about the absurd pleasure of prepping the ground.  Our allotment is at the bottom of a steep slope, probably about 30 vertical feet below the access track, and that means that wheelbarrowing materials down the grass path is pretty hard work. In the last few days I’ve trucked down 20 bags of horse manure, 4 bags of topsoil, 2 bags of horticultural sand, a week’s kitchen waste and maybe ten loads of wood chip. Then today as I surveyed the flattened remains of the autumn leaf pile, I realized that there was a good eight inches of almost black topsoil, full of old leaf mould and it was calling out to me – take me now! When we took on our hillside allotments, the only thing we could do was terrace them. Timber is expensive, but we bit the bullet and gradually built proper beds as funds permitted. Some topsoil was salvaged as we dug out deep paths for drainage, but our so-called raised beds have spent much of their lives being a bit sunken. Filling them with topsoil would have been outrageously expensive and so our strategy has been to recycle every gram of dirt, every plant pot’s worth of compost and to acquire more whenever the chance arose.  A neighbour over ordered and so I bought the surplus from him.  Today yielded four full barrow loads of marvellous topsoil and at last the most needy bed is genuinely raised.  The hotbed is fully charged and has reached 13C at the surface of the earth layer, and I added the surplus horse manure to the compost bin as a bit of extra nitrogen, and turned it all in. This was truly hard work and yet it gave me the most absurd amount of pleasure. It was, in the words at the top of this post, dragging the elk back to the cave kind of work. The purple sprouting broccoli is ready to harvest, and we’ve still got potatoes and parsnips- we dug the last today. I swear if the government ever found out how much joy and pleasure this gives, they’d tax it or ban it.

And then to the garden centre to look for seeds and (inevitably) we spent more than we should because to an allotmenteer a packet of seeds or a new garden tool has more than paid for itself before you even reach the till! So a new draw hoe attached itself to me and begged me to buy it – how could I refuse?

Is gardening good for your mental health? of course it is! It’s good for your spiritual health as well, oh and your physical health too, provided you steer clear of the sirens on the chemical stands. We shall dine on parsnips and elk tonight and I’ll put on my best bison skin to impress Madame. Just to cap it all, I’ve been reading Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seabird’s Cry” – I like to take a break from frightening myself now and again. This is a wonderful book and it would make a birdwatcher out of a stone. If you take my advice and buy it, you’ll never look a sea bird in the eye again without awe and respect.

Not quite Hay on Wye – Potwell Inn on tour

IMG_20200128_111057I really fancied going to Hay on Wye today, for no better reason than it always makes me feel good. The downside is that it’s a two hour drive each way, and these days that seems like an extravagance of fuel for not much more than a stroll down to the river, a couple of coffees and more bookshops than you could afford to visit, and so we settled on Frome which is about 3/4 hour on the bus.  There’s a bookshop – a good one  – any number of cafes and a charming jumble of tiny hillside streets populated by the kind of boutique shops where you can’t afford anything more than a quick ogle at the windows.

But there was another reason for going there and that was that Madame had a childhood connection with the town as she was sent there during school holidays to keep her wealthy cousin company. I stayed there once later on and spent my entire time reading Mrs Beeton while Madame languished in bed with the flu. It was an ideal place to languish in – much nicer than our seedy flat, rather the kind of household that could afford a cook and housekeeper out of what seemed like an infinite inherited fortune that turned out to be quickly evaporating in the background.  We felt like two mongrels at Crufts but we wolfed down the experience.

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So today we wandered off to the remembered quiet riverside road and discovered that it’s a bit of a rat run these days, the gardens have been sold off and developed, the old coach house is now  a bungalow and it’s a bit seedy to be honest, but there wasn’t time for too much schadenfreude because it was freezing cold with a west wind driving in from Canada and we wanted to get into the warm somewhere.

 

Frome has spread far from the medieval centre but we found an excellent stationers shop  full of wildly expensive notebooks for tourists like us to write that long promised first novel. You know the drill – new book, new pen, silence …….  We found a quiet coffee shop and ordered green tea and flapjacks.  There’s just no interest in being consistent with our food.  Rather than immerse ourselves in our mobiles – which a couple opposite were doing, we eavesdropped a marvellous conversation between two young men whose wives had just had babies by C section. they exchanged their newly acquired wisdom and experiences while one of the recent mothers sat treasuring and wondering at the baby.  Then, at her partner’s insistence he attached the baby to a sling that took more rigging than a racing yacht and he walked – and she hobbled – off into a future that however much longed for, didn’t feel like this.

The bookshop yielded a comic book for our grandson who doesn’t like proper books – good for him but bad for his mum and dad who are deeply envious that all his 7 year old  friends are reading Tolstoy – ah but none of them have raised £600 for the Australian firefighters! And I came back with Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seabird’s Cry” which had me in spasms of joy even while reading the introduction because he managed to work in two epic Saxon poems, Seamus Heaney, a bit of Plato, Robert Browning Hugh McDiarmid and Thomas Berry into two pages talking about seabirds.

When finally we got home after a faintly unnerving bus ride in the rain, the hail was now driving in from the west and it had dropped to freezing – as had we.  It was snowing in Hay on Wye. Like proper pensioners we usually leave the coal effect flames going on the electric fire because it’s cheap to run, but today we pushed the boat out and switched on the fan for ten minutes. Last night we went to the AGM of the local Labour Party.  We could see what was happening but what was going on was harder to get to. Thirty new members have joined since the election, many of them young people full of fire and enthusiasm. Some of the old guard seem to have given up and the younger ones are taking charge. My party card has had a postage stamp on it for ages, but we walked home feeling encouraged. Perhaps, like a deep wound, the healing of our politics will happen slowly and from the inside.