Starting from the all-time best bits of our break in the Brecon Beacons, there was the blues night in Brecon, of course, but I’m bound to say that listening to a cuckoo for the first time in several years comes near to the top of my list. Ordinary pleasures have become exceptions these days and so cuckoos are peak moments. So too was watching a bird feeder with great tits, blue tits, nuthatch and yellowhammers all feeding at the same time. Meanwhile a mouse had created a great home for himself in a drystone wall under the feeder, only having to pop his head out through a crack in the wall to catch the falling seeds. He’s in danger of getting so fat he won’t be able to escape his five star accommodation. Half a dozen hens were browsing around the cottage all day and providing the best eggs we’ve tasted since we gave up keeping them ourselves.
But let no-one say we, at the Potwell Inn, shirk the less arcadian bits of life – there’s always time to learn a new skill, and sheep dagging just happened to come up yesterday. I was at the clean end of the crush, while Nick and Kate were the – let’s say – “coal face” with the hand clippers, so all I could do was help wrestle the sheep in and operate the bit of the crush that dealt with the front end.Sorry about all the technical farming language. Actually that’s not all I was doing, because I was also eyeing up the rich daggings as they fell to the floor, thinking how well they’d look on our compost heap. This indignity – for the sheep – was to help clean them up ready for lambing and make it easier to see whether they were ‘uddered up’ without a wrestling match. Sheep, I discovered are both heavy and likely to kick you in the face if you’re not very careful. As it was, it was the brim of my hat that caught at least one haymaker of a blow. Daggings – the mucky bits of wool around the rear end – also make fantastically good mulch because they aren’t strong enough to burn the roots of young plants. Having never seen any kind of shearing close up before, it obviously needs real skill not to nick the sheep. The wool is thick with lanolin and cutting through the clumps of wool looked like hard work.
Madame took a look at a pond that Nick had dug out years ago, and it was full of newts. Newts were once so common you could go to pretty well any pond and catch a jam jar full, but nowadays it becomes a notable treat to see them. Isn’t there a picture beginning to form here? This constellation of wildlife that we were finding is no accident. It’s a great sadness that we no longer think it’s weird to have to go to a nature reserve in order to see creatures that were once everywhere, but here on this 24 acres of unprofitable mixed hill farm is a sign of what we’ve lost. So many species clinging to life in ‘improved’ farmland are thriving here without even knowing how rare they’ve become.
You see the term “hobby farming” used disparagingly by those who ought to know better, but here in these pockets of unimproved land are populations of wildlife that would rapidly spread back into the surrounding land if their environment was restored. These so-called hobby farmers are acting as unpaid guardians of many thousands of acres of unofficial and unmarked “biodiversity banks” without, in many cases, claiming a penny of government subsidy, while the money goes to destructive intensive farming.
There is, perhaps, one thing you might notice on the farm, and that would be things like this Victorian potato plough which Nick still uses. Is it efficient? Well no, but that really isn’t the point. The fact is that for all our obsession with progress, there are still many things that work perfectly well – if a lot more slowly. A bit like the landlord of the Potwell Inn and his wife!
I don’t care for ‘Misery Lit’ or – (sorry) – blogs that describe ‘battles against’ this or that horrible disease. I’m absolutely not prepared for going down that route anytime soon, and that’s that. However – and imagine me saying that ‘however’ slowly, stressing all three syllables and ending in an upspeak question mark …. Having had a bit of hand-to-hand combat wth the idea of mortality these last couple of months, I thought that getting all positive test results would pick me up and set me down exactly where I started. It didn’t!
You don’t, it seems, *wrestle with the anonymous angel during a sleepless night or twenty and get away with it altogether. Jacob didn’t, and I’m no Jacob, so after a couple of days of sheer relief I got completely fired up at the thought of what kind of world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren – which was the prompting for yesterday’s rather anguished posting. The Potwell Inn, since it’s imaginary, has no cash-in value and we’re perpetually hard-up so there’s no stately home, not even the flat we live in, or anything much else to leave our descendants except an earth capable of sustaining them.
So we need to get on with it because we’re not going to last forever
Look at that angelica at the top of the page. Like all its cousins in the genus Apiaceae from alexanders to hogweed it is staggeringly beautiful in the early spring as it emerges from its winter sleep. Same too for the crozier like leaf forms of emerging bracken and ferns – they make you stop and fill you with wonder and they can, if you let them, suggest that the natural condition of the earth is beautiful. You might say that hemlock water dropwort isn’t beautiful because it’s deadly poisonous, and so is every part of the yew tree except the red fruit surrounding the seed, so too the foxglove. But of course none of them are in the least dangerous so long as you recognise them and treat them with respect. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t recognise them and respect for the wild increases the more we understand about it; and that’s a shame because the very things we need most, may be quietly hiding there in the immensity of the natural world.
I write about the allotment because it brings me face to face with the food we eat. Often on my knees, I weed quietly between the rows and I try to know the name of every wild plant I’m discarding in favour of our preferred crops. In fact I absolutely love spending a contemplative hour hand weeding, almost lying at ground level pinching them out between thumb and finger. Lovely, but also a great teacher of the basic ethic of proper gardening which is that we only possess the capacity to dispose, never to compel. But agribusiness has no time for disposing. Money in a hurry needs results, predictability and certainty. Humility in the face of nature is a sign of weakness and weeds are considered as ‘overheads’ – even people, the ones who work in the fields, are regarded as ‘overheads’ – no more than cells on a spreadsheet. We see the results in the earth. After decades of intensive cultivation, the stones stick out through the earth like the bones of a starving human being. Hedges are torn up and so the birds no longer sing, and gigantic tractors stride across the fields microdosing chemical insecticides and fertilizers under the instruction of their satnavs.
I write about food because at the Potwell Inn we regard the growing, the preparation of food and eating it together around a table as a sacramental activity. I write about art because – to pinch a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus – “without worship you shrink”.
I’m struggling to find words for this new mood. but there is a connection. Maybe an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality has brought the vulnerability of the earth into much sharper focus. In the same way we take our own existence for granted until some accident or illness reminds us otherwise, so we comfortably assume that the earth on which – from which – we derive our existence, is always there. It’s one of those givens like gravity and tides. But it’s not and if we really think about it we know that’s the case.
But how do we change anything? The starting point, I’m sure, is to ease back on the nagging and move forwards on wonder. Maybe what we need is not to spread the understanding of the present linked crises of climate change and environmental degradation but to re-enchant the natural world – because what we revere and love, we protect. Which brings me back to the allotment.
What’s the point of herbs? Look – mint, chives and rosemary. Elsewhere on the allotment in various beds and corners there are angelica, lovage, dill and fennel; several thymes, sage, coriander, tarragon, other flavours of mint and parsley. They’re amongst the most resilient plants in the garden, getting on without any great attention while we fuss over keeping the chillies and aubergines warm. They enliven our food and provide inumerable oils and essences whose healing properties have been studied and used for millennia. Scientists come and go, along with their theories, but in the background and within the immense diversity of the plant world, trillions of rather beautiful and tiny leafy-laboratories have been syththesising substances beyond our dreams since the beginnings of life on earth. They have no marketing departments, no PR budgets, patents or guardians except us.
Being old often means being invisible. You get used to being walked off the pavement by much younger people so absorbed in their mobile phones and their busy lives that you feel you’re an obstacle. And yet yesterday I went into a local bookshop and was struck forcibly by the fact that Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” was selling by the dozen to those selfsame people. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘more allies’, and yet you couldn’t blame them for thinking that we baby boomers are at least a part of the problem, because it happened during our years of vitality. There was a vegan food fair at Green Park station yesterday and although I was a bit puzzled by ‘vegan fish and chips’ and vegan hot dogs’, I refuse to be scornful and dismissive because long after we’ve left the scene, these beautiful, idealistic young people will have their chance to roll back the damage of industrial food production. Meanwhile the best thing we can do is to supplement the TV natural history documentaries with real hands-on experience of the wild. Nature’s not a safari park, and we learn more about nature by squeezing a mint leaf from a plant we’ve grown on the windowsill than watching any number of films – and that mention of mint leads me to think about peas. The douce Provence peas we sowed in the autumn are coming into flower even though they’re barely six inches tall.
and the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at the edge of the river he’d just crossed, leaving behind everything he’d known and striking out into the future is one of my absolute favourite Old Testament stories. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be inspired by it.
More commonly known locally as Llanfair PG, this photograph is at the seaward edge of the Newborough National Nature Reserve which my mobile tagged as being near to the place with a very long name – actually dreamed up in the 1860’s by an enterprising local wit who thought it would attract visitors to spend their money in the village. The platform tickets on the village railway station probably sold pretty well too.
Back to the photo which is of some dead pines at the edge of the beach, which represent a long ecological story that almost qualifies for ‘shaggy dog’ status. This is one of the largest natural dune systems in the UK, and an incredibly important site for some rare wildlife. The dune system began in the 14th century after a series of violent storms inundated the coastal farmland. The system was stabilised by marram grass and was soon occupied by a huge population of rabbits (introduced by the Normans) that provided a living to the local people who reputedly culled 100,000 a year for sale until the 1950’s. Back in the day, when they weren’t catching rabbits they were weaving the marram grass into saleable items like seagrass mats. Fishing, pilotage through the Menai Straights, farming – local, sustainable, what’s not to like?
Soon after the war, in 1947, a large part of the area was forested with Scots and Corsican pine in an attempt to keep the ever shifting sands away from the village and to create employment in the area to meet a supposed national need. Then, in a well meaning but disastrous intervention in 1953, myxomatosis was introduced into the UK (probably illegally) and rapidly killed tens of millions of rabbits including the ones on the warren. The consequence across the UK was a rapid change in vegetation with huge effects on local flora. The forest, however – apart from the seaward edge – thrived, and it’s one of the few places outside Scotland where red squirrels can still be seen. On the seaward side, the part which is now a national nature reserve, is being managed to preserve the conditions once maintained by the rabbits. The photograph at the top is as good an illustration as I’ve ever seen of the unequal match between human ingenuity and the power of the wind and the sea.
When we talk about climate change and farming practices, and their effect on local ecologies, it’s all too easy to talk in generalised terms, but in reality the effects are nuanced and local. Pointing to the disappearance of a plant most people will never have seen doesn’t have the same emotional impact as a massive moorland fire, and it’s all too easy (austerity?) to take the line that its better to lose a few rare species than to hold back ‘progress’ – whatever that means! Sadly we’re often more willing to relinquish what we don’t value – which is precisely why I’m arguing for living with dirty hands and full-on curiosity.
Finding plants is an emotional experience
Saying that something is worth treasuring because it’s satisfying, exciting – even thrilling – seems pretty puny by comparison with The Greater Good, or The National Interest – whatever political lipstick the politicians and agrochemical industrialists put on the pig they’re attempting to foist on us – chlorinated or not. But here are some photos taken yesterday, along with some taken on September 6th 2017 that – I hope – stand for something important.
Just as we were coming down the steep path off Ynys Llanddwyn I found a tiny little spot with its own microclimate tucked into the side of the path, sheltered from the sea and the wind, and I recognised an old friend, or at least I recognised the leaf. The rule for new botanists is that it really does get easier eventually and after a mighty tussle with the identification keys in Rose – “The Wildflower Key” or even worse in Stace’s “New Flora” the plant will be engraved in your memory along with the associated pain of naming it. In my experience the name will often flee away, but like a familiar face, you’ll know that you know it. In this instance it was doubly complicated in the way that it feels when you meet your neighbour in a completely unexpected place. This particular neighbour lives on the back steps of our flat and I had to do a quick double take when I spotted it on a sand dune 250 miles away. So its English name is Rue Leaved Saxifrage – Saxifraga tridactylides there’s a bit of a clue in the latin name, and it’s a great survivor in urban Bath because it manages to flower and seed before the official chemical street warfare begins.
And that’s a common factor with all the plants that I spotted yesterday – they’ve all learned the art of surviving in a hostile environment. Extreme heat, drought, salt winds and occasional inundation mean nothing to these tough plants which have carved out a niche for themselves on the seashore.
These two, on the left, Danish Scurveygrass – Cochliaria danica and on the right, Sea Spurge – Euphorbia paralias, were the ones I stopped to photograph. Madame sometimes gets restless if I spend too much time rooting around on my hands and knees when we’re suposed to be going for a walk.
Last September I found loads more species I’d never identified in the same reserve, including the extremely priapic looking Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia, one of the rarer plants I’ve spotted in my short life as an extremely amateur field botanist. It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods (mostly Corsican Pine, I think).
Left – Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below. This is (I’m sure) Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum . The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoidesbut checking the current BSBI list it doesn’t apear there or in Ellis’s Welsh Flora whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploides, a highly specialized environment, I think, on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.
I had no idea what this fungus was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdon. I had to wait until I got back to base to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.
Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima
This is Vipers Bugloss – Echium vulgare again on the island. And that reminds me of one of the reasons, contrary to almost all right-thinking botanists, that I cherish the English names of plants. Isn’t there something extraordinarily evocative and powerful about colloquial plant names? “Restharrow” for instance. You can almost see the sweating ploughman trying to extricate the share from the matted remains of the plant. To have discovered all these lovely plants, most of them ‘ordinary’ in my special sense of the word, is to enter a world of poetry and insight. It’s to immerse yourself in an ancient culture where a knowledge of plants and their properties was not some extracurricular stimulation for retired clergy but essential to life and health. “Hedge Woundwort” for instance – does it have that name because it’s used to treat cuts or because it stinks like a suppurating wound? – trust me, I’ve tried it, and it must be an example of the old ‘doctrine of signatures’ which taught that plants carried a clue about their usefulness as a medicine in their appearance or perhaps, in this instance, smell.
Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint. there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cottages, several prominent crosses. The present building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland across the Menai Staits. Yesterday we could see the remains of the snow at the summit of Snowdon.
All this, then, in a couple of hours on the reserve, and – as we left – we passed the sad stand of dead Corsican Pine at the edge of the beach. We humans are clever, but not that clever. Ever since the primal forests were cleared for farming, we have tried to alter the balance of nature in our favour. That cluster of dead trees looks like one of the battlefield paintings from the First World War by John Nash, only this time the implacable enemy is not the bomb but the power of the sea and the salt winds. We should learn to be more modest in trying to shape the earth as if we were gods.
This is the same patch of land separated by two and a half years, and the part that comes in between is best represented by this next photograph:
There’s a conundrum in the middle of all this work that came to a bit of a head yesterday when I was preparing the third of the raised beds in that part of the plot which is shown in the first two photographs. I was up at the allotment early, grabbing as much as possible of this warm and dry weather before the weekend when it’s likely to get very cold once again.The earth is in good heart and easy to dig at the moment. It’s curious to think that the beginning of the “no dig” beds is some pretty profound moving around of the earth, but the plot was infested with couch and bindweed and the only way to get on top of them is to dig in search of the roots and remove as many as is humanly possible. It’s hand-to-hand combat that’s lasted for three years now, but yesterday showed that the battle is all-but won with barely half a trug of roots. The most pernicious weeds have slunk back to the edges where they can be controlled by regular mowing.
So it was me and the robin. He was only too pleased to help me by darting in at my feet to pluck a grub from the ground and every very now and then he would perch on one of the grapevine posts and sing his little song to encourage me. I was profoundly glad of his company and kept up a very one sided conversation with him as I dug. I’ve explored the reasons for creating the beds before, but in summary, drainage is an issue and the slope of the ground invites some gentle terracing which is best accomplished by the beds. The deep woodchip paths function as drains, and the soil which is displaced – many cubic feet of it – is used to level the beds.
So between the natural but limited abundance of the groundcovering weeds, and the productivity of the allotment when it’s in full swing, there’s also a responsibility to to the earth and to its biodiverse inhabitants from nematodes to buzzards. yesterday, when I’d finished the third bed, it all looked very empty and anything but biodiverse. The next step is to add a great deal of compost and some seaweed meal before covering it until spring. Let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no pleasure to be had from digging. Healthy outdoors work with immediately visible rewards is not to be sneezed at, and most of us allotmenteers derive a good deal of pride from getting our plots cleared during the winter. But with our soil in particular, apart from clearing the deep rooted weeds, digging does more harm than good. In winter the soil which is a highly productive clay/loam balls up on the wellingtons and easily gets poached. You wouldn’t want to let livestock anywhere near it. So beds it is, and no-dig beds it’s going to be. As I was clearing the last of the parsnips from one bed it was very pleasing to see how straight and unforked they are, and I wish we could claim some responsibility for the success of the crop but they were thrown in much too late as an experiment. Next season we’ll do it properly.
Then when I got home (aching a bit) I found an article in the Guardian reporting some new research on the best habitats for wildlife. Now I know that our allotments can take delight in (wary about) the foxes and badgers which are a delight to watch but a blessed nuisance in the summer. Badgers have a sixth sense about when you’re going to harvest the sweetcorn and always get there 24 hours earlier! We have a wide variety of birds – again a mixed blessing – and butterflies (ditto) and so it goes on.
The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, found allotments and gardens often had 10 times more bees than parks, cemeteries and urban nature reserves. Baldock said nature reserves were important for other wildlife but were often less suitable for pollinators, being dominated by trees rather than meadows.
I wrote about this on 8th January this year to almost no response, so I changed the title which helped just a bit – It’s there under the title “Dig for Victory”. I’m not being a snowflake about this, I just think it’s really important and we need to get the message out there. Ground clearing and war on weeds can only be an environmental step forwards if it supports biodiversity. I don’t think bindweed and couch are in any danger of becoming extinct – not least (If you read Richard Mabey’s excellent book on weeds) – because bindweed has the most devious and cunning ways of reproducting itself. But the collapse in pollinating insects is the really big worry – not just for gardeners and allotmenteers but for the multitude of small mammals and birds who rely on them for food. So the next stage on our allotment, after ground clearing is the establishment of food plants not just for the Potwell Inn but for all the insects and small mammals we need to support. The earth isn’t just there for our convenience. So this year we’re having a big push on foodplants, nectar flowers and companion plants. We only ever share our land, and we’ve got nets and fleece and (for sweetcorn) hard barriers to preserve the bits we really need, but that brings the responsibility to look out for the needs of the other inhabitants of the land. An allotment is a pretty intensively cultivated environment but that doesn’t mean we have to regard the rest of the natural world as a threat. The link to the article is below.
I’m referring to the title of Ken Thompson’s book “The Sceptical Gardener” which is a compilation of his articles for the Daily Telegraph – (well nobody’s perfect). He’s both a gardener and a plant ecologist, but above all he’s a proper scientist who applies his properly scientific scepticism to many of the assumptions that guide public policy towards land use. He’s on our side. Here’s a quote from his book (Page 167):
During the Second World War ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, allotments and gardens provided around 10 per cent of food consumed in the UK, despite covering less than 1 per cent of the area of arable cultivation. Recent research also shows that gardens and allotments produce yields of fruit and vegetables four to eleven times higher than conventional agricultural crops.
There’s much worthwhile reading in his books, but let’s focus on that figure for a moment. The article from which the quotation is taken is focusing on the quality of allotment soil, but the takeaway point for me is the potential contribution that small gardens and allotments can make to rescuing the environment from the destruction being wrought by industrialised extractive farming whilst simultaneously providing a secure food supply. If you’ve ever driven down through France you’ll have seen the endless convoys of heavy freight lorries bringing crops up from Spain, grown by virtual slave labour under a sea of plastic.
Two points arise from this that I think are worth some serious thought. Firstly, we allotmenteers would probably bridle at the thought that we are using land intensively, but the fact is we are doing just that, and the only difference between us and the arable strip-miners is the way we go about it. The increased yield we obtain is only possible so long as we replace what we have taken from the soil or, better still, add more until the soil positively sings with vitality.
The inevitable conflict of world views will always set the organic allotmenteers and gardeners against the non organic approaches. There’s abundant evidence that organic methods are a win-win for those of us who eat our own produce and for the environment too. If you’ve ever tried to read the small print on a bottle of proprietry insecticide, you’ll know that you need a magnifying glass and a handbook to guide you through the process. What’s the difference between pyrethrum and pyrethroids and are they equally safe? How, when you get to the allotment, are you going to measure the exact dilution of some chemical or other when all you’ve got is a watering can or a jug graduated in fluid ounces? and where exactly are you going to rinse the containers and discard the washings? Human nature being what it is, it’s overwhelmingly likely that many people are getting the dose rates wrong and ignoring the tiny print warnings on the packaging, and it’s unfair to blame the non organic gardeners who probably lament the loss of wildlife and the pollution of watercourses as much as we organic allotmenteers do.
When we were at art school in the seventies we lived in a rented eighteenth century farm cottage with a large garden front and rear. We grew one of our best ever vegetable patches there, in deep soil that was black with generations of night soil and constant cultivation. When we took it on it was very neglected but all we needed to do was scrape the top off and compost it while we reaped the reward of the previous generations. Just across the fields there was one of the most magnificent cottage gardens we’d ever seen. Mr Maggs, the gardener lived alone and the washing line was usually populated like a Himalayan prayer flag with all his snuff stained handkerchiefs. After spending months peering over the wall I asked him one day “How do you get these wonderful results?” His answer was instantaneous – “DDT” he said.
So that’s one issue we need to take seriously. When you grow intensively, as we do, it brings responsibilities and temptations and sometimes we get it wrong. But the second issue is one that’s looming just around the corner in the UK. We have a housing crisis and the Local Authorities have no money. Where do we think they’re going to come looking for land when the crisis boils over? Our allotments are easy pickings for cash strapped local authorities, and allotmenteers are about as easy to organise as cats. We’re fiercely independent and resistant to groups and campaigns, and when they come looking for land they’ll be armed with arguments that make us look and feel bad. Why should we indulge ourselves at the expense of the homeless. Well the answer to that is “because you sold off all the decent land to property developers who built buy-to-lets and cleaned up, and now you’re expecting us to solve the problem.
We simply have to start building the case for allotments and gardens from a wider perspective than personal satsfaction. Yes it keeps us fit and healthy into old age, yes it’s vital to biodiversity, especially in cities. Yes it make a contribution to food security and yes it’s a major vehicle for carbon capture. That’s just four reasons and there are many more. But if we don’t start to organise and make our case we’ll be a pushover and then everyone will suffer.