This is beginning to look like my Mother’s siege larder.

Another day on the stove, processing, stirring, sieving, tasting, bottling and so forth. Obviously not all of the stores in the photo were made this week – in fact some of them were made three years ago, but ignoring all advice from the recipe books we’ve found that chutneys, pickles and ketchups – provided they’re properly sealed and sterilized – will go on improving for years. The only proviso is that if you’re planning on keeping them that long you need to use Kilner type jars with rubber seals or acid resistant Ball types. Metal lidded pickles often evaporate or deteriorate and the lids will even rust through occasionally. The mugwort, collected in 2019, is said to provoke lucid dreams. My dreams are so surreal and occasionally scary that I’ve never thought greater lucidity would be much of an improvement.

The flat is full of spice and cider vinegar smells as I make 3 litres of tomato ketchup, and while I take a break to write this, Madame is cooking a batch of ratatouille. Against all the odds we seem to coexist peacefully enough in the kitchen as long as we don’t attempt to share the stove.

So why the urge to preserve? Well, part of it I’m sure is an atavistic re-enactment of childhood. My Mother and Grandmother had both lived through the hardship of two world wars and Madame’s Grandmother also was a gardener and a good cook. My grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns was as self sufficient as it was possible to be, and one of my earliest memories is of being with my sister, raking the hay into stooks on one of the fields. The rake was probably twice as tall as me!

But apart from that, after two years of lockdown shortages and in the midst of a massive cost of living crisis there’s every reason to do all we can to grow, prepare and store as much food as possible because it seems obvious that no help will ever come from the present government. Then again we also love cooking for ourselves, our family and friends too, and slow food, locally and organically produced isn’t some kind of middle class affectation, it’s the way we need to go. The present system of food production and distribution is simply unsustainable without further damaging the earth, her climate and biodiversity. Local and sustainable is a potential lifesaver and yes, we’ll need to embrace a rather different lifestyle but what’s to say it might not be better, richer and more fulfilling for a far greater proportion of our population.

That said, it’s pretty relentless hard work even being a part time peasant, but against all the odds we’ve had a good year on the allotment and we’ve harvested a bit more of most of our regular crops in spite of the drought. I took the photograph of these dying Harts Tongue ferns in a friend’s garden – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sight like this before. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these extreme weather events will have a huge effect on food crops and therefore prices in general. Do we really want to live in a society where a few people live in utter luxury while many others are struggling to feed their children. I went to a supermarket earlier this week to get some eggs. We try to buy organic and free range eggs but when I looked at the price I saw that they were charging £6.00 a dozen for them. That’s frightening – so frightening I didn’t buy any.

The last 7 days have been truly odd. Last Thursday we went up to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday with our son and his partner; but first the car broke down and then there was a rail strike (which we completely support by the way. My father was a railwayman who spent his whole working life in fear of redundancy), and so we took the bus.

I love Birmingham but the bus station in Digbeth gives a pretty awful impression of the city. The whole area looks run down and ready for demolition in spite of a multitude of small businesses from car repairs to import export firms and money transfer shops. Exactly the kind of businesses you usually find occupying the lock-ups under railway arches, and in spite of the bleak surroundings they seemed to be getting by.

The buses were running late due to holiday traffic on the motorway and so we were able to see an entirely different side of the Second City away from the more glamorous centre. Fifteen years ago the centre of Birmingham had a very different feel; self confident, almost brash, with plenty of big-name stores. Now it’s different. There are all the usual signs of economic stress with empty shops in many of the principal shopping streets- even the John Lewis store has departed the Bullring. The Museum and Art Gallery, however, still has a radical agenda that makes it such a joy to visit. Where else in Britain would you see exhibitions devoted to Trades Union activism, Black Lives Matter, and even raves and club life in the 70’s. Industry is celebrated, not least by remembering the small workshops that sprang up everywhere- servicing larger industries like the now defunct car manufacturers. You get the feeling that by standing firm and facing down its undeniably racist episodes the city has begun to come to terms with the past. There’s an unapologetic multicultural community that doesn’t feel the need to tread carefully. The city centre gets rebuilt every decade – so there’s still money somewhere – and the Clean Air Zone along with decent public transport including trams to Wolverhampton, suggest that the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain has not quite been monetized and sold off to the asset managers. The biggest problems, though, are not in the past but in the present.

Standing and chatting to some of the other passengers in the queue for the National Express bus home, you could see the stress eating into their lives. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but he was wealthy and well educated and I doubt if he ever queued up amongst hoi polloi to see what was troubling them. For most people the city is less a work of art and more a ransom note. I chatted for ages to a young woman, looking fantastic, who was going for four days to a holiday camp near Brean in Somerset with her daughter who never once looked up from her iPad and her mother who never stopped talking on her mobile. In ten minutes I had the bare bones of her life as she talked about her dad, now dead but a hero to her – and her ex partner Dave, who’d cleared off – and as she spoke I felt that her holiday was an expensive lottery ticket to a more hopeful future. Later, after the weary queue for the late Weston Super Mare bus had departed I sat down and overheard a young woman behind me talking about her unexpected pregnancy at the age of 14 and how she’d been completely unaware of it until the ambulance crew spotted what was happening. I prayed silently and without much faith, that things would look up for them both.

Then, on Saturday I had my biennial (actually a year late) endoscope, to check that some rogue cells in my oesophagus hadn’t mutated into something really nasty and well, subject to an 8 week delay on the biopsies, it seems that everything is OK for now. However this regular brush with my own mortality through a very invasive procedure always has a profound effect on me. Luckily, after a day of being legally over the limit and confined to bed for most of it, on Sunday we went to see Carters Steam Fair which is always great fun. Being pretty ancient myself, it’s fascinating to reconnect with the fairground rides that I remember from childhood. Steam and grease and old rock and roll records have a fatal attraction for me as I remember the Rogers family and the Hills who took it in turns to visit Page Park and Rodway Hill. Sadly the Naughty Nineties girls with the free for all boxing booth will never reveal themselves to me because the girls are now in their nineties and the local ruffians who once fancied their chances in the ring will all be dead. The grandchildren shared none of these mournful thoughts as they embraced the fairground joyfully and ate candyfloss between the dizzying rides.

During all this to and fro, I finished reading Carwyn Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories”. His previous book “Apples of Wales” is essential reading for anyone thinking of planting an orchard. The names of the varieties alone – Pig Snout and Goose Arse are just two – are a delight to the poet’s ear! I long for the day when you don’t need to be a food researcher to find fine local produce. At the moment, for many people, the future of food is like an unfinished building, because we know something about what the structure needs to be but hardly anything about what it will look and feel like. Books like “Welsh Food Stories” address the lack of a sustainable food culture by filling in some of the pictures.

Birmingham – 2nd City – provisional format

The thing about the centre of Birmingham is that it seems to reinvent itself at least once a decade – which means it’s now in the middle of its fifth reinvention since Dr Who began time travelling, and daleks were made of wobbly cardboard. But I love its self confidence.  I love the fact that so many really great public buildings were not inherited from wealthy families fallen on hard times, but especially built for for the people. I love that they don’t mind blocking main roads for a year or so to build a tram system.  I love the way that when a building in the centre doesn’t work any more they knock it down and build a better one.  I love that it’s a shared cultural space where everybody gets to join in. I love the fact that the museum and art gallery put on such edgy exhibitions and manage to express the local community rather than uphold the status quo from somewhere else.

IMG_20200217_134435– and finally I love that I can still do a bit of field botany – with a fingernail – by scraping moss off a bus shelter

Birmingham but not as you might expect it


We’ve been going back and forth to Birmingham for twenty years since our son moved there. We’ve grow to love it for all sorts of reasons –  it truly deserves the title of Second City and given the avaricious spread of what Cobbet called the Great Wen, it should probably push London into fourth place for being a pain and hardly fit for a human being to live in.

Anyway this weekend he decided to give us a taste of the unexpected by taking us to Winterbourne House – which used to house the University Department of Botany, and to show us the biggest wildlife corridor I’ve ever seen.  If you wanted to study botany at degree level these days, you’d have to come at it sideways via plant sciences or ecology – not that there’s anything wrong with those disciplines but the days when every science student had to study some field botany are well and truly over, and the discipline has been divided into the fiercely scientific world of DNA, plant breeding and drug development, professional horticulture, and environmental studies that often seem to serve mammon. Finally old-school field botany limps in, populated by relatively mature amateurs who (trust me) really know their brambles and dandelions – I stand in their shadow.  But the buildings and grounds now house all manner of short diplomas and courses organised by the university, so all is not lost.


Winterbourne House is worth a visit in itself, and the gardens – the old botanical gardens – are an absolute treat as well, a real wildlife haven near the centre of the city. Birmingham is awash with botanical gardens by comparison with most universities. The house itself is rather lovely too – in an ‘upstairs downsairs’ kind of way. I can never quite fit myself into these great houses because I’m painfully aware that in all likelihood I’d have been one of the servants and never the one to disport myself on a chaise longue.

But once you’ve escaped the relative formality of the botanical gardens, you can slip through a gate and get into the Edgbaston Nature reserve which includes a large lake and therefore attracts ducks and swans, plus – to our great delight – a heronry. I can’t remember the last time I saw five, if not six herons at once. All this, remember, in the centre of a great city. Adjoining the reserve there’s a golf course, and we saw a great swathe of green as far as the university halls. Birmingham can be proud of the fact that it’s got more green spaces than any other European city, and they’re big enough to be quiet.  We could clearly hear the university clock chiming the quarters.

Next, then to the main campus nearby and the Barber Institute where, as usual I was bowled over by the very early 13th, 14th and 15th century devotional paintings. But they’ve got a great collection of modern works – Madame was very taken by a Matisse landscape of Corsica which he must have painted on his honeymoon.

IMG_6328Then on Sunday we shipped off to the Wyre forest and shared our walk with innumerable cyclists, dog walkers, families, horseriders and half-marathon runners.  The runners were pretty inspirational – clearly many of them were on personal crusades, some being supported by friends or personal trainers, and all of them up to their ears in mud. The forest is so big and so lovely that it would have been easy to escape the crowds, but it seemed nicer to share the day with all those other people. One of the race stewards said to me  – “Have you seen a bloke in a long cloak and a witches’ hat – he’s bringing up the rear.”  Sadly we didn’t see him but I could have hugged some of the runners who were so far out of their comfort zone. The final stretch was a long slow and muddy climb, and after only about 4 miles we were already tired, but the runners all seemed determined to finish – even at the cost of walking for short periods.

As expected it was a bit late for a great number of fungi, but I managed to photograph a fly agaric, a bolitus which I didn’t want to pick so I couldn’t identify it fully, and candlesnuff fungus.  I’m sure with a guide who knew the forest better than me we could have seen masses of fungi. So home to find two new (second hand) books waiting. Somehow I managed to follow a random trail in search of Elizabeth Blackwell, illustrator of “A Curious Herbal” which was published in parts between 1736 and 1739.  It was a ground breaking book which offered far better illustrations than previous herbals written in English. Her book made enough money to get her dodgy husband out of debtors prison and has subsequently become famous, but when I checked for references in Blunt and Stearn “The Art of Botanical Illustration” I found her summarily dismissed by Blunt as –

“Not worthy of their reputation; the work of an industrious amateur ; and show no touch of genius”.

This loftily dismissive pronouncement by Wilfred Blunt just about sums up in a sentence everything I despise about the art establishment and has left me fuming with indignation.

But enough, I’m ploughing through a rather poor edition of Culpeper whose American editor mis-spells Tutsan (Hypericum androsaemium) as ‘Tustan’ – neatly removing its relationship with Norman French “tout sain” and consistently ‘translates’ ‘divers’ as ‘diverse’. Am I being pedantic to care about it? When it comes to plant names, it’s hard to find better than Geoffrey Grigson’s “The Englishman’s Flora” – I got mine for about 30p and I’m ever fearful it will fall apart.

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