Joining up the dots

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This is a slightly improved photo of Siston Brook on a grey day today, just before it runs into Willsbridge Mill.  There’s no reason why anyone except a native would need to know that, but I’m a native and I had the surprise of my life when we visited the community nature reserve here on a field trip with the Bath  Natural History Society – there’s a link on the right hand side of this page if you’re interested.

Of course, being observant, if you click on the link you’ll see that we were meant to be three miles away at the Bath Cheese Company for a riverside walk.  That’s where Madame and me were until the appointed time when we realized we were alone and one of the cafe staff came out to say “They’ve gone to Willsbridge – they’re meeting in the second car park” These turned out to be a precis of the actual instructions, leaving out the grid reference – which would have been useful because Willsbridge is a big place. However by a mixture of intuition, cunning and good luck we eventually found the party peering into Siston Brook.

Now at this point I had no idea what it was called so I filed it in my mind as ‘brook’ and we walked on.  The footpath we took led us up the valley.  The party comprised mainly birders and photographers although we were blessed with two snail fanatics and a couple of moth twitchers to leaven the lump, oh and our distinguished President the retired ‘Minister for Bogs’ who turned out to be an impressive birder as well. He could point to a blur in the sky and say ‘lesser spotted woodpecker’, or stand stock still, point to his ear and say – and say ‘marsh tit’ which was, sadly, beyond the competence of my hearing aids and so he gave me a brief demonstration of the call, he’s a great teacher!

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Anyway it wasn’t long before we came across a kind of sculpture which lit a lightbulb in my head.”Ohmygoodness”- I thought in a jumbled sort of way- “we’re on the Dramway!”

[There follows a brief excursus on the soft mutation in what we used to know as children as – ‘broad Gloucestershire].

Native speakers, all of them now long dead, often substituted the softer ‘d’ for the hard ‘t’  according to a set of rules that were more complex than rocket science – we just absorbed them as children do, and then had them beaten out of us by our teachers and parents who thought they were common. It was only decades later when I had to learn enough Welsh to catch buses up the Valleys, that I realised that this was technically known as the ‘soft mutation’. We just thought it was the way to say things.  All of which is a long winded way of explaining why this particular place is universally known as the Dramway although it appears on the maps as ‘Tramway’ – I hope that’s clear ….

The point of all this excitement on my part (‘though probably not yours), is that the Dramway and Siston Brook were a significant part of my childhood, but I’d only ever seen them from the other end, the northern end which was close to where I was born. The old line had disappeared decades before I was born, as had the mines that it served, bringing coal from Coalpit Heath – there’s a clue in the name – past the Pucklechurch mines and the Warmley ones too and terminating on the river Avon. But the remains were everywhere, and the names too, names like Handel Cossham, one of the principle mine owners and a local benefactor in the way of those days, who built a hospital to serve the victims of his mine accidents as well as the general population.

My childhood is embodied in the locality – we were free to roam and we walked and cycled every inch of our end of the County.  If you cast a conservative circle five miles around where I was born next to the end of the railway line that, now disused, passes our flat on the other side of the river, that gives an area of around 75 square miles that we knew inside out.  Make that circle 8 miles – a  distance my friend Eddy and me regularly travelled to explore the pithead and the brickworks at Shortwood, that gives an area of 200 square miles. We crawled the underground flues at Shortwood brickworks, played dares over the mineshaft and put ourselves in harm’s way so many times. We caught buses to the docks to the West of the city, always inseparable, and cycled to Brean and back. Our bike range was enormous – we never told our parents where we were going – and we rarely told them afterwards,

The Dramway was one of the tracks we would follow across to Siston Common where I fell in love with the sound of the wind in the coarse grasses.  My first ever OS map had all our favourite places marked, and I planned a cross country run from the footpath that crossed Siston Brook when it was no more than a ditch, It was there I found the unmarked St Annes Well, but until today I’ve never joined up the dots. The spot, nowadays signposted, is engraved in my memory for two reasons.  Firstly, finding the well and researching it, (I was about 12), in the reference library, I discovered its reputation for the healing of eyes and that kindled a lifelong interest in folklore and healing.  But secondly, I was once chased by a cow while I was running the path.  I’d stopped to examine her calf which I thought was dead but was in fact newly born.  I had to leap a barbed wire fence and the brook to escape her enraged charge. I could go on for ever; I’m hefted in this place by the voices and the places, all of them gone and built over.

IMG_20200125_115558And then in the midst of this revery we came upon the remains of a huge yew tree, fallen over very recently by the look of it and – someone said – 800 years old. There’s me indulging my memories of the past 70 years and there’s a tree in front of me that saw the Tudor wars, the English revolution, the Reformation, the enclosures, the Napoleonic wars, the early industrial revolution and two world wars. Standing in the corner of the graveyard of St Anne’s church  (is there a connection with the spring upstream?) it had rotted through the centre and tumbled down the steep bank, upturning the slabs of some 18th century tombs.  Memories almost bursting from the soil like Stanley Spencer’s painting of the resurrection at Cookham.

All this was going on in my head, while I gossiped about this and that and looked for any signs of stirring plantlife at my feet whilst almost everyone else was looking skyward.  There was cafe there, but when our party paused to use the loos, the caretaker – schooled in the methods of counter evangelism – told us off loudly for using the cafe’s toilet facilities. You can win people over and please them a hundred times but you’ll only piss them off once. I spent my life trying to teach volunteers that the organisation didn’t exist for them but for the people who didn’t come – yet. Needless to say we didn’t stay there but hurried back to the car park at the end of the walk.

The birdy highlight for almost everyone was the dipper fishing downstream from the mill.  Marsh tits, lesser spotted woodpecker -there was a long list being prepared when we parted company, but for me joining up the bits of my childhood would have made it worthwhile if we’d seen nothing.




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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Something about flavour

2018-09-05 17.59.40I can’t remember when I ate my first wild mushroom – it was probably as a child, when we ate at my grandparents’ cottage, or rather smallholding, in the Chilterns. Because of her childhood my mother knew and talked about wild mushrooms but so far as I remember never picked any. The first I’m ever sure I picked were on the playing field at Beechfield House, then part of Bath Academy of Art. It was nearly 50 years ago and I blagged a job as assistant groundsman during the summer vacation. Continue reading “Something about flavour”

Who knew all that about worms?

2016-04-14 12.08.39Tuesday 18th September 2018 – Dr Frank AshwoodEarthworms

Earthworms are recognised ecosystem engineers, proving invaluable services to humanity and transforming and improving the soil habitat for other organisms. Most naturalists are aware of their fundamental ecological importance, but few have detailed knowledge of any of our 30 or so native British species. Frank’s PhD was entitled ‘Woodland Restoration on Landfill Sites: Earthworm Activity and Ecosystem Service Provision’. He is a soil ecologist working within Forest Research’s soil sustainability research group. Here Frank will describe earthworms’ behind-the-scenes work, which underlies the productivity and diversity of the natural systems we see every day.

Brilliant  talk last night at the first Bath Nats indoor meeting of the season. Who knew, for instance, how many different species there are, or how to tell the head from the tail and even how mature they might be? Continue reading “Who knew all that about worms?”

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