“Good in parts – my Lord”

It only takes one blast of wind in a storm

The quotation, for the benefit of the under 70’s, comes from an Ealing Comedy film during which a poor curate feels obliged to eat a gone-off boiled egg prepared for him by his rather lordly bishop. When asked if it is tasty, he replies –“good in parts my Lord”. Like the tree in the photograph, blown down by one of our winter storms; yesterday was good, even very good in parts; but in one part a bit depressing.

We were doing a long amble through Bohortha, down to Place and then along the creek back to the campsite; seven or eight miles I should think, with a fair few hills to get across. Just after Place Ferry (the small ferry service over to St Mawes) we bumped into a couple walking in the opposite direction and began chatting. “You’re not from round here?” he asked. That’s the thing about local accents; (I mean local and not regional). The thought of banjos, verandahs and shotguns flashed through my mind but I knew that although we were complete strangers we shared a voice and a speech pattern that’s unique to one part of Gloucestershire. It was a good start. I don’t usually tell people about my parish priest days because somehow it’s enough to kill any conversation stone dead; but when it emerged that they had close friends in one of my old parishes I knew we were on the slippery slope. It was a friendly enough conversation with an amiable couple, but rather marred by him asking me “so are you the vicar that took out the pews?” “Yes I am” I said, and by then the conversation was holed in the side and sinking rapidly into the muddy estuary. 25 years of unremitting hard work reduced to an accusatory phrase. I still don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. “Where do you go to church now?” came next and I thought “stuff it” and said “nowhere”. His wife tried to ameliorate the situation by asking whether I was suffering from PTSD, and I could see that this was all turning into a proper farce; so we put the conversation out of its misery and wished each other a safe journey passing the most uncomfortable seat for one I’ve ever seen. Luckily we were too tired to talk much on the way back, and the simple routine of filling the water tank and emptying the toilet put it all into perspective. There’s no room for self importance in a chemical disposal point.

On, then, to the good bits which far outweighed the rest. Just for starters the weather was lovely for walking with a bit of wind and the temperature hovering between 16C and 18C. Cornwall does the most perfect spring days. I was desperate to know whether my find of a Smith’s Pepperwort would be accepted by the Vice County Recorder and find its way on to the national database. Vice Counties have nothing to do with misbehaviour, by the way, they’re an old established way of divvying up the country into workable areas that never (or at least rarely) change their boundaries at the behest of gerrymandering politicians.

Anyway, desperate as I was to hear from the East Cornwall referee, I left my smartphone in my pocket until it nearly drove me mad constantly pinging for fragments of meaningless celebrity drivel. In the end I turned it off. Smart though it may be, I don’t need to know that on this particular fifty metres of coast path there is no signal ……. and then there is …… and then there isn’t again.

Accepted!

So there was joy in excess of common sense when the email verifying my identification arrived. I felt I’d crossed a rubicon – getting a record accepted after only being a BSBI member for 2 days; but in truth the two are entirely unconnected. Later my son asked me if getting a record accepted makes me a professional botanist. I said I thought being professional involved getting paid in some way and at that moment I was £35 down. In fact the vast majority of field botanists are probably true amateurs whose collective expertise is awesome and (for me) inspiring. Anyway he said he was going to open a savings account and put a small sum into it every time I got a new record accepted – in order that I might call myself a professional. What a kind gesture! Although not quite kind enough for me to come out of retirement. But that’s one down and another thousand (or probably two thousand) species to go.

Meanwhile – as an aside on chance meetings – I was on my hands and knees once on a footpath on St Brides bay, looking at this plant and trying to figure out what it was; when a woman stepped over me (I was blocking the path) and asked what I was looking at. “I’m trying to figure out what this is but I don’t know where to start”. “You need a decent field guide” she said. “I always recommend Rose to my students”. “Are you a teacher?” I asked. “I teach botany.” What are the chances of that? Just at the most opportune moment an angel comes along and tells you what you need to know – I mean bookwise not about being pregnant! The plant, by the way, is Hemlock Water Dropwort – and it’s as poisonous as plants get. Foragers would do especially well to memorise it.

Now, years on, I’ve got shelf loads of books and field guides and an entirely new life as an allotmenteer, amateur botanist and gossip – plus I’m in Cornwall and therefore very happy.

Culture war on the allotments

After an exhausting couple of busy weeks on the Potwell Inn allotment we’ve come down to Cornwall for a break. Luckily we were blessed with some decent rain as we left and although it made for unpleasant driving on the motorway it was a joy to think that the allotment was getting a thorough soak. Happily too, we’ve got brilliant neighbours who are always willing to lend a hand with watering the greenhouse and the polytunnel. Although the greenhouse has an automatic watering system, it’s very difficult to calibrate because the pressure goes down as the water level in the tank decreases, and occasionally a bit of gunk jams the inlet valve open so it floods the plants and does as much harm as drought does. There’s no doubt that personal attention is the least foolproof way of going on, but we all need a break occasionally and so we help each other out.

In fact, half the joy of allotmenteering is the community of interest that it builds. The gardeners on our site are a pretty fair representation of the hugely diverse and polyglot population of Bath. When we talk of culture we need to remember that the root of the concept comes from the uniqueness of our highly local ways of living, growing, talking and celebrating. You can either treat diversity as a threat, or (so far as I’m concerned) a marvellous melting pot in which everyone becomes both teacher and student. To use a slightly academic phrase, what diversity offers is the prospect of emergent properties; insights and techniques of the utmost importance in a time of huge threat.

So it came as something of a surprise when, after a hiatus of two years, the council announced that plot inspections would take place in early May and, rather than acknowledging that the site has never looked better with so many newcomers taking on empty and neglected plots; started to send out letters threatening eviction for quite trivial and, in one case, quite imaginary infringements of the rules. Sheds, one allotmenteer was informed, were not permitted to have windows. No trace of any such regulation can be seen in the 27 pages of mostly sensible rules but suddenly we are all in danger of being evicted as a result of rogue windows. The Potwell Inn allotment will probably get away with it because since the vandalism on Christmas Eve our shed hasn’t had one and the void has been covered with an empty manure bag, tacked on. We may, I suppose, still be turned off under a newly invented rule that advertising is not permitted. Another member was threatened because they were using an old cast iron fireplace as a firepit.

We were, however, warned that “non fruit bearing trees” with a trunk diameter of more than 3/4″ are not permitted. This is an (unwritten) extension of the sensible rule that standard fruit trees are prone to shading neighbours’ allotments. All of our trees are on highly dwarfing rootstocks, but Madame stuck a small piece of pruning from a bay tree in the ground in the hope it might preserve the leaves better than hanging it in the kitchen. We got an email detailing the ferocious and land grabbing propensities of bay and were “advised” to remove it. Our experience of bay trees is that they can get out of hand, but over pruning will often kill them.

So what on earth is going on? It seems to me that there’s an intriguing allotment culture war going on between an official with a very rigid historical view of what constitutes a proper allotment and a bunch of new gardeners who are entirely free of any preconceptions about double digging, National Growmore fertilizer and finely calibrated straight rows. On the one hand there is the stereotypical Mr Digwell with his trilby hat and pipe and on the other a new culture of recycling, upcycling and acute environmental awareness. The 25% of land on which we are allowed to grow flowers is more likely to be occupied by more recently sanctified “weeds” than cut flowers destined for the church porch.

I propose a test case with the lovely Echium pininana (photo above) which fails the regulations in every way being way more than three inches in girth, as much as ten feet tall, but which dies at the sniff of a frost and in summer is always alive with bees and other pollinating insects including armies of ants. And in any case, what on earth constitutes a non fruit-bearing tree. Without winter berries many of our overwintering birds would simply die and so – are cotoneaster bushes (in sensible numbers) friend or foe? Whose idea of fruit or food are we meant to be protecting?

Ironically the Council has announced a whole raft (I like that word because it implies imminent flooding, which is all too true), so a whole raft of green measures including green corridors which, truth to tell, is exactly what we need since Crest Nicholson were allowed to build houses for the wealthy on the southern riverbank which, before the construction of flats which resembled Russian bonded warehouses, was a post industrial urban wildlife haven. Of course we need houses, but not just for the wealthy!

So there we are – away in the wilds of Cornwall with the campervan; hunting for plants and – to be strictly accurate – guzzling wine and snoozing in the sunshine too. Will there be a menacing letter waiting for us when we get home? Time will tell I suppose, but this battle isn’t really about windows or trees it’s about dreams, it’s about saving the planet, it’s about listening to new ideas and new ways of doing things and it’s about widening the slit in the sentry post of petty regulations to see the wider picture.

Big day in the polytunnel

We’re flat out on the allotment at the moment and this is just a brief post to celebrate getting the tomatoes into the polytunnel. The Potwell Inn kitchen is very slowly being cleared of young plants as we keep an eye on the possibility of frost. After prepping the beds I emptied a whole 250 litre water butt over the dry beds, but I could probably have applied twice as much. It’s been another record breaking dry spring and so we were very glad to have 1700+ litres of stored water at our disposal.

Madame, working outside, spotted this spider – we think it was a Wolf spider – carrying her young around in a sac. These spiders are hunters rather than trappers, so they don’t weave webs.

There’s a huge difference between looking and beholding

My old music teacher AF Woodman had an assortment of names for me. Sometimes he would address me as “rod, pole or perch“, and on others he would extend my name by stressing every letter into a strangulated “poe-ill”. I didn’t care what he called me because he gave me a lifelong love of music. One of his pet phrases was – “I know you heard it Poe-ill; but were you listening?

Much later in life I was on a retreat at the La Retraite convent in Clifton, and we were invited to take the hands of a complete stranger but rather than something easy like telling them what we had for breakfast, we were instructed to behold one another. This turned out to be incredibly hard for me because it involved letting my guard down. It was, in its own small way, a life changing experience, because it uncovered a complexity and depth of possibility in an encounter with a stranger that eventually became the key to my pastoral work. Dangerous, messy and (in a very limited sense) erotic beholding, enabled a form of listening which involved all of the senses.

It took its toll, of course, and eventually I just ran out of steam. Too many bereavements; too much grief. I needed to get out before I burned out.

Anyway, that was then and as I’ve written here before, the key to surviving crises is a capacity to reinvent yourself using the strengths that are left after the broken bits have been laid up; all of which maunderings lead to a further look at the alleged healing powers of nature. The italicized “alleged” is not there to knock the idea but it’s just asserting that the healing powers of nature are a hypothesis not a natural law.

On Monday last we went back up to Velvet Bottom in a further search for Spring Sandwort – Minuartia verna. Our recovery from Covid – which we caught a month ago – has been very slow. The acute phase was pretty horrible, but that was followed by all sorts of symptoms that seemed more psychological than physical. Combined with a really busy time on the allotment it was as much as we could do to keep up with the routine work because any physical effort seemed to drain us both completely. So our trip to Mendip was compromised by my incapacity to focus, or draw any inspiration at all from what would normally excite and engage me. Madame was kind enough to keep her counsel, but I must have been a miserable companion. All I could think of was to lie down on the grass and sleep. Fortunately, a week on, we both feel almost normal again.

The urge to lie down on the warm grass, though, was inspired by an experience in my early teens when I lay on the grass on Rodway Hill and had what Romain Rolland described to Freud as the oceanic feeling. I’ve no idea how long it lasted but I seemed to be completely absorbed into the earth and her processes. From my point of view it was a completely passive experience and even though I was very young I just gave myself up to it. It was a completely unasked for healing that I’ve never forgotten. I lay there looking up at the blue sky, dappled with summer clouds and listened to the wind riffling through the drifts of grass. Now, with hindsight, I would include this in a description of the healing powers of nature only with the proviso that it can never be sought – it’s an experience of undeserved grace that can’t be guaranteed in any particular place, and which only fell to me a couple of times despite many attempts to force its hand.

But there’s another way of engaging with nature that’s quite different and is capable of and responsive to being sought; and it involves a kind of beholding, directed at natural rather than human subjects. Yes of course it’s possible to reduce field botany to a kind of trainspotting, and I’m certain that there are people out there who ask nothing more of nature than a new record. But when I go out on a field trip with some people, I sense that their engagement with the tiniest of nature’s gifts is far deeper; a two way engagement that both speaks and listens. To walk with such a person is – to quote a favourite heretic

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour

From Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

For them a tiny rope of mycelium tracking across a dead tree; the elaborate hieroglyphic of Graphis scripta lichen a couple of inches in diameter on a tree trunk , the little Moschatel with its cubic flower head giving it the name Town Hall Clock; these are not ticks in a box but true encounters – beholdings, if you like – engagements with nature that have spiritual power and maybe even (if the seeing becomes a true beholding) an offer of healing. So in this sense too, it means something more than wishful thinking to speak of the healing powers of nature.

I hesitate to introduce terms like dangerous, messy and erotic to the pursuit of field botany, but if they have any use, it’s to move the heart of the enterprise away from the rational calculations of the identification key, spreadsheet and grid reference towards something more akin to wonder. Perhaps the healing powers of nature could be more easily embraced after her re-enchantment.

You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

Of course we talk to the allotment – how else would we know how to keep it happy?

It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.

Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.

As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.

But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.

We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.

Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?

Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!

Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.

So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.

This is the season when most of the allotment is the kitchen

That’s a bit of an exaggeration because we’re still harvesting an abundance of broccoli, leeks, chard and parsnips from the open ground, and lettuce, coriander, parsley and spinach from the polytunnel; but these are the last of the winter crops and we’re just entering the hungry gap; the period between the past and the coming season when there’s not much about. Most people would assume that the hungry time is in midwinter but it’s not. This is the time when the stores come into their own. The jams, preserves, pickles and the food in the freezer are what get us by even though the temperature may be in the late teens and we’re dressed in T shirts. Revelation of the year is the wonderful flavour and texture of our own home-grown borlotti. So plump and soft and full of goodness. This year we’ll grow even more, because they store so well. But in reality it’s that time when the myth of self sufficiency is punctured by the cold logic of the seasonal year. The last frost can be as late as May 6th here and it’s heartbreaking to see prematurely exposed plants wilt and die.

The strawberries from last year’s runners, that I moved to their new bed a few weeks ago are flourishing under a fleece covering and even showing a few flowers. Angelica, lovage and French sorrel are all going well and the first asparagus tips are poking gingerly through the soil. Broad beans are safely under bird nets and every bare patch of ground is eagerly covering itself with opportunist weeds. The saddest casualty of winter is my beloved Sweet Cicely which is at best a short lived perennial. It’s a devil to get going but we’ll try again in the autumn. Last year we doubled the number of dwarf fruit trees and they’re all looking good with the apples in flower. Even the speculative planting of tiny rhubarb stools (Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise) have come good; but we’ll leave them to gather strength this season. There are now three successional varieties of rhubarb to supply us from March through summer.

In the kitchen, though, it’s all going well with the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, lettuce, melons, courgettes and peas all potted on, and there are seed potatoes out on the landing. So this is Spring; the season of hopefulness and big dreams.

More on foraging

The glossy magazines continue to publish articles on foraging; some even daring to suggest that foraged food might help bridge the poverty trap for some people. I’m a foraging cynic. Recently we had reports of professionals stripping Cornish lanes of wild garlic. In Epping Forest the foraging of fungi had to be banned after entrepreneurs were found taking tens of kilos of fungi for sale to flashy restaurants. Nearly all the articles I see are written by people who make a living either by stripping the land themselves, or by running courses on how to do it. The idea that taking huge amounts of food away from its habitat – because it’s ‘free‘ – is somehow more “green” than growing some, (but never all) your food, is a dangerous fantasy that draws on precisely the same selfish and greedy instincts that underpin factory farming and fossil fuel extraction.

If, and when, we find something wild and delicious – field mushrooms for instance – we take enough for one feed and that’s it. I’m absolutely not arguing that picking a few blackberries, elderflowers or sloes is going to drive the trees to extinction but I’d apply a test that was suggested to me many tears ago by one of my mentors. Take (or give) enough not to be ashamed, but never enough to be proud.

The very moment in a foraging expedition where you have enough is the moment to stop. When gratitude for the gift slips into pride, the gift becomes toxic. One of my books on herbal medicine makes the admirable suggestion that the harvesting of plants and flowers for our healing should always begin with an act of thanksgiving. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely right, and I often find myself saying thank you out loud when we’re harvesting from the allotment. My maternal grandmother had a little saying that I hated when I was young because it always seemed to go with not being allowed any more pudding. She would say “enough is a feast” .

The single most awe inspiring thing about nature is not the big televisual stunts but her sheer undeserved generosity. When we abuse that generosity we become the prodigal children who want to spend the family inheritance in excess and then come back when it’s all gone and beg for more with a mumbled and insincere apology.

Buddle pits, settling ponds and slag will give you a Velvet Bottom and very beautiful it will be!

This is a dam wall for a settling pond

Need I say a word about my emotional attachment to Velvet Bottom? This post, by the way, refers to lead mining rather than some kind of cosmetic procedure sold by Gwyneth Paltrow. You would be very disappointed in what follows if you were in search of that kind of amusement. The good people of Shipham may not be as enthusiastic about these old mine workings as me because some years ago they were ordered to stop growing and eating their own garden vegetables on account of the dangerous levels of cadmium in the soil -some of it, without doubt, washed down from here. The ponds are the industrial remains of a previous technical solution to a pollution problem caused when inefficient settling of the crushed ore in the buddle pits resulted in lead finding its way into the waters of the several underground rivers that spring from the limestone rock further down the Mendip escarpment; killing the fish quickly and (probably) the residents slowly. The mines have been worked and reworked since Roman times so there’s been ample time for havoc to accumulate, and this should be a salutary reminder to those who think there’s always a technical solution to every environmental problem. The effluent still contained lead, cadmium and goodness knows what other heavy metals. Just to be clear, most of this came from Victorian workings. In earlier times, back to the Romans, there was almost certainly still pollution, because mining and smelting are intrinsically polluting activities. It’s just that when they’re scaled up as they were during the industrial revolution, that they become truly dangerous. With coal from the nearby North Somerset coalfield, and probably in earlier days abundant wood, mining and smelting came together like the Kray twins of industrial growth.

But now there is peace and silence. Where lead ore was once settled in ponds, now adders warm their blood in the sun. Underground a very large system of caves was first exposed in modern times by the 1968 floods; but pioneering cavers like Willie Stanton soon found that in some places the miners had preceded them, leaving their footprints in the mud. Here and there as you walk down the valley you’ll see trial pits and occasionally swallets, gated to keep out reckless and ill equipped explorers.

However, parts of the soil here are so polluted that the whole flora has had to adapt. While we create clean air zones and fight environmental battles that may yet save us from our own historic folly, there was no-one here for the flowers and plants and when you look closely you can soon see the glittering lead slag from which some of the tracks have been made. There are places where almost nothing grows now, or ever will grow in the future. It’s so rare a habitat that it’s even got its own name – Calaminarian grassland – and there are only 450 hectares of it in the whole of the UK. The name comes from a continental violet – Viola calaminaria – that doesn’t even grow here but has the gift of thriving on soil, highly polluted with heavy metals in the parts of Europe from which the UK has detached itself; i.e. the rest of it! The calaminaria part of the name comes from the zinc containing ore, calamine with/from which calamine lotion is somehow made which is very good for calming itchy chicken pox.

So am I telling too bleak a tale about one of my favourite landscapes in the world? I really hope not, because there is an extraordinary beauty in the way that ecosystems can heal themselves. It takes time, sometimes it takes centuries; but slowly nature reclaims what we have damaged because that’s what nature does best, and bare soil is sick, unbalanced soil.

I’ve been walking up and down Velvet Bottom for something like sixty years and every time, it seems to embrace me in its remote quietness. Occasionally the trail runners and dogs owners can be a bit much. The leftovers from picnics and barbecues can be an eyesore but as landscapes go, the high Mendips – never that high – remains off the beaten track if you avoid the hotspots. But close attention to the flora there makes every walk a treat. Here’s a single example. The edges of the buddle pits and settling ponds are particularly heavily polluted but there are a handful of species that have carved out a living there. Last week we got lucky because the flower in the photos below is a very short lived annual, the flowers only open in full sun and by the time its more glamorous and eye catching cousins come along there’s nothing to see. Unless the flowers are open it’s all but invisible, but miraculously it makes a living on the bare slag, helped along I imagine by plentiful rabbit poo. It’s called Common Whitlowgrass – Erophila verna, and is found locally in these bare patches of gravel, pavements and neglected ground across the UK, mainly in the South. The flowers are barely 2-3mm across if they’re open so these photos show them greatly enlarged. You’ve probably got it growing unnoticed on your allotment or in your garden; but here in this hostile environment it’s a token of the healing power of nature.

The name Whitlowgrass comes from the fact that it was apparently used in the past as a treatment – most likely a poultice – for the infected fingernail bed that bears the same name. But not these specimens – please! They’ve got a much more important healing function; they take up heavy metals into the leaves and are potentially poisonous, and in any case it’s illegal – however common they may be. After I’d posted this I did a bit of searching and came up with this quotation from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal . Modern herbals probably don’t mention it because whitlows are a viral infection caused by the herpes virus. As an astringent it may have helped to clean any resulting bacterial infection. Any port in a storm!

“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives this plant an alternative name of Nailwort and tells us that ‘it is held to be exceedingly good for those imposthumes* in the joints and under the nails, which they call Whitlows, Felons, Andicorns and Nail-wheals’. The plant was carried to North America by the first British settlers where it was found to be a most useful plant in herbal medicine. “

‘Wildflowers of Ireland’ website

* Archaic term for abscesses.”

Blue skies thinking?

Looking up towards Blackdown from Charterhouse

Yes I know I’ve been quiet lately and it wasn’t because I had nothing to say; quite the reverse. Having too much to say is a far worse problem – especially when it’s all whirling incoherently around in my head. In a perfectly ordered world I’d have been pupating quietly and then suddenly emerge in a splendour of coherent thoughts. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. Our emergence from the lockdowns was gradual and then very sudden. We’ve spent almost as much time away in Cornwall and on Mendip in the campervan as we have at home; we’ve been on our first outdoor meeting of the Bath Nats; been wildflower hunting several times around Velvet bottom; gone to our first proper party and our first concert for years – in the Royal Albert Hall, no less. We’ve caught up with many of our friends, sown our vegetable seeds for the coming season, and I’ve come to the unsettling conclusion that it’s time for another iteration of myself. I believe that the capacity to reinvent yourself is fundamental to growing old happily (if not gracefully!)

Italian 6/7th century uncials – from “Writing, Illuminating and Lettering”

So rather than too much boring detail we were on our way to a Who concert at the Albert Hall when we stopped off for a pub lunch. Strictly speaking the concert turned out to be more of a spiritual love-in between the surviving members of the band and their adoring fans, but I’ll get back to the music in a moment. It happened that we were walking along Hammersmith Terrace and then Black Lion Lane towards the Black Lion, alongside the river, when I noticed a blue plaque dedicated to Edward Johnston. These 18th century riverside house now cost millions but they’re essentially rather modest terraced houses. Edward Johnston wrote possibly the most inspiring book of my teenage years called “Writing, Illuminating and Lettering” – from which I taught myself to write uncials, the most beautiful of the 7th and 8th century scripts; and I’ll bet I’m the first person in History to to get the Who and Edward Johnston into the same paragraph. Anyway it was a blast to see the house in which he’d lived and also a salutary lesson that we should always treasure our personal histories but never allow ourselves to be trapped by them. To pinch a remark by James Callaghan, it’s not just politicians but all of us who need a big hinterland if we want to thrive.

The concert was a fundraiser for the Teenage Cancer Trust – Roger Daltrey is a patron. It was a big, blowsy and often hilarious night that occasionally felt like more of a rehearsal than a performance; a rehearsal that we felt privileged to watch. I first came across the Who when I was working in one of the old style mental hospitals where the residents were frequently abused and caged like beasts. Someone gave me a bootleg cassette copy of the Who Live at Leeds and I wore it out. However neither of us ever saw them perform live, until this Friday where a much diminished lineup was supported in an all acoustic set. I think, for some of the super-fans there, it was more like worship when occasionally mobile phone flashlights were waved like candles in a procession. Sometimes I wonder if my scepticism is more of a hindrance than a gift.After the concert we downed a bottle of wine with our friends, (you have to be rich to buy a drink at the Albert Hall), back at the hotel and grabbed all of five hours sleep before Saturday morning.

Chinese grave figures

Since we thought £25 each was a bit steep for breakfast, we settled for some pains au raisin and ate them in the sun next to the Albert Memorial which manages to be both hideous and memorable at the same time. I had much the same feeling about the V & A which (for me) is a tableau of insupportable wealth and misappropriation but which is full of mind-blowingly lovely objects, most of which probably belong somewhere else. We’ve been often enough to know that the only mentally sustainable way of visiting is to limit yourself to a couple of rooms. The rooms housing some of the Chinese and Japanese collection is a go-to for me, not least because I’ve never been able to find again the Chinese silk robe that once stopped me in my tracks while we were on our way somewhere else. That day, the hand woven silk and the exquisite embroidery seemed to come from another world. In the same room was a very old carved wooden Buddha that seemed almost reproachful; condemned to be passed by in favour of flashier, more approachable artifacts. It would be wonderful if they could find him a quiet space somewhere nearby, where he could become again a focus for quiet meditation. In the Japanese room a young Japanese woman -possibly a bride to be – was minutely scrutinising some kimonos. There’s a paradox that gets to me every time I imagine the cultural loss if the collections were broken up and repatriated.

But there was something more personal for me to celebrate because earlier in the week I’d been fitted with a new pair of (NHS) hearing aids that are so much better than the old ones I almost went into shock when I left the hospital and experienced for the first time the awesome noise of a building site. When I talked to the audiologist I’d casually bragged that I’d put the last pair on and they’d been perfect from the off. She said that I’d probably take a few days to adjust to the new ones, and she wasn’t wrong. For the first time in years I can locate where sounds are coming from, I can hear birds singing and today the sound of Pulteney Weir was so disturbing I had to cross the road and see where it was coming from. For the first couple of days I was absurdly emotional about the simplest sounds, and the Who concert was so loud I had to turn them off altogether!

My workroom is now ablaze with propagator lights and we’re ready for the new season on the allotment, but we’ve resolved to make the most of the campervan so we’re going to minimise the growing of the kind of crops that need constant care and attention. There’s so much else on the field botany front that I’ll share later but for now it’s time to start making supper.

Walking through nature and walking in it.

Falconer with a Harris hawk – taken 2 years ago

An intriguing couple of minutes yesterday. I heard a familiar commotion out on the Green and when I saw a crowd of very agitated seagulls circling in the air and filling it with alarm calls, I knew a once what was happening. It took a moment or two to spot the cause of the din and I saw the falconer with his gauntlet walking up the pavement before I saw the hawk flying from tree to tree, jesses trailing, but always keeping an eye on the fist that held the food. This was exercise with a difference because we see them fairly regularly working the green together and they may be taking part in an experiment to make the gulls feel too unsafe to build nests. The hawk never kills – is never allowed to kill – the gulls. Trust me, nesting gulls start their din at four a.m. in the summer and apart from the noise, they make a thorough nuisance of themselves in the tourist areas, hoovering up discarded fast food and leaving impressive quantities of crap as a receipt. The council have tried pretty well every conceivable tactic for discouraging the gulls, but this seems to be less cruel and much cheaper than climbing up to the nests and oiling or removing the eggs before they hatch.

even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she never once looked up

But to get back to the point; whilst I was watching this moving spectacle I saw a young woman walking down the pavement dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her and carrying another bag in the free hand. She never once looked up to see the cause of the commotion, and even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she kept her head down, loaded her case into the boot (trunk) and drove off.

Hawking purists rather look down on the Harris because it’s not a native UK hawk and it happens to be rather easier to train than some of the natives. We British are never happier than when we’ve got someone to look down on and so the Harris is generally thought to be a bit minor league – if only for the purists. Most UK bird books don’t even include it. As for me the sight of any hawk working is a thrill and the Harris is a big bird. You couldn’t confuse it with anything other than a hawk, but then its white tail stripe is an obvious giveaway.

I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, a marvellous naturalist, evolutionary biologist and past president of the Bath Nats for the title of this post. We were out on a field meeting once and he used it to describe people who are too self absorbed, too quick, and too busy looking at their mobiles or fitness trackers meaningfully to enjoy an encounter with nature. Not to mount my soapbox yet again; I’ll just say that powering flat out down a towpath trying to walk twenty miles in six hours is unlikely either to result in a real encounter or a measurable change of mood.

There are many first encounters I’ll never forget. The first kingfisher on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal; the first heron that rose up from the pool behind behind a cornish hedge like a creature from the Jurassic age. The first red squirrel skitting along the horizontal branch of an old beech tree on my Grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns (back in the 1950’s) and then nothing until we went camping in France about ten years ago and there they were; oh and I should mention the first sighting of Madame at a CND meeting. We both long for a first sighting of the otters that we know patrol the river near to the Potwell Inn, but we haven’t yet dragged ourselves out of bed at dawn or stayed out leaning on the fence after dusk. Maybe we’ll fix a trail cam on one of the trees at the water’s edge where there’s a likely spot.

Coming back after one of our trips is always an odd time. The weather in Cornwall was getting fiercer by the day, and the campervan – being old and temperamental like me – was playing up. The long dark nights during which we had all the lights and heating running so we could carry on working was inexorably draining the batteries towards the point of no return and so we came back two days early and humped the batteries upstairs to recondition and charge them. Aside from nailing a couple of relative rarities (yet to be adjudicated) the new miFi system worked brilliantly, so for the first time ever on that campsite we were able to keep in touch by phone. My hopes of keeping tabs on the plants down the field path were raised greatly when we booked another two weeks down there in May. Back home the plants are nonetheless fascinating but perhaps a little less glamorous. However, beggars can’t be choosers and urban botany is all the more rewarding because the plants themselves are real survivors, eking out a living in the most unpropitious circumstances.

The journey home was pretty eventful too. We saw a car which had cut us up earlier , pulled over by no less than four police cars. Later one of the unmarked cars passed us at well over 100 mph shortly before we passed a mini engulfed in flames. Luckily the occupants were standing further up the motorway looking bewildered. Next up we saw five police cars perform a rather balletic stop by surrounding and slowing another car until it was forced to concede. The fifth car then blocked the motorway whilst a sixth, further up, led a slow traffic jam of cars and lorries to avoid a massive pile up.

So now there’s lots to do on the allotment and lots also to learn on this new computerised recording site. I haven’t yet given up on paper records, though. That would be to tempt providence!

Postscript

The air ambulance landed on the green a few minutes ago and already it’s gathered a crowd of onlookers. Sadly, these days it takes a helicopter and a seriously hurt human being to get our heads up.

%d bloggers like this: