“If we lived here we’d be home now”

The headline, by the way, isn’t mine. I once heard an American writer describing her childhood during which her father – who was a travelling salesman – would take her on interminable road trips which always ended in a more or less seedy motel.

Far be it from me to describe our campervan, which we call Polly – the hero of the Potwell Inn – as seedy. We’d prefer to call Polly “lived in” . Who cares about the odd battle scar or missing wheel trim? It is completely true that when we roll onto a campsite loaded with field guides, binoculars, drawing equipment and wine, we are at home already, surrounded by our familiar objects. After a flurry of hammering to put up the windbreak and then experimenting with the aerial to see if we can get a comms signal, we’re done. The new Netgear router and Ponting omnidirectional aerial have managed to turn a weak or invisible phone signal into a very tolerable 4g+ signal between 10 and 50 Mb/sec.

This time we’re in the Cambrian Mountains in mid Wales – not very far into them because the roads are at best tiny and more likely nonexistent. However we’re parked up next to the River Towy which surrounds us with a comfortable babbling sound overlaid by sheep on the hills- could anything be more restful? It’s one of the least visited wild places in Wales which means it’s really quiet. Typically, as we drove in, I remembered that we’re in yet another quarry/mine. The last campsite which was only ten miles away by road had seen 500,000 tons of shale rock extracted to get at the “dirty” quartz” which, when each 10 tons was pounded, milled and treated with mercury (which necessitated it being taken to Germany for processing), yielded 1g of gold. The mines were first opened in Roman times but then became disused pretty much until a succession of Victorian and early 20th century entrepreneurs lost their shirts on them. The problem seems to be that they needed to pay their miners whereas the Romans used slaves. As you see – nothing much changes. A perfectly viable industry closed down by militants who expected to be paid for risking their lives!

Anyway the trip round the mine was fascinating, especially as we had a professional geologist as a guide. What was equally interesting for us was that we emerged into a path that took us through a lovely wildflower meadow where we clocked several plants I’d never seen before including one relative rarity which necessitated a very friendly exchange of emails with the County Recorder who corrected one and verified another, (whorled Caraway). Yesterday we went back again for a closer look and confirmed that the whole field was full of marsh plants – a highly distinctive habitat known in Wales as Rhos and in Devon as Culm. Who’d have thought of marsh plants on a boiling hot day 600 feet up a hill. Happy days! So, with a couple or three records accepted we wandered back down and found Valerian, Bilberries and these stunning Fox and Cubs – at least three times as tall as I’ve ever seen them before. An ideal photo to accompany a piece about gold mines I think.

Fox and Cubs – Pilosella aurantiaca

The mine workings have mostly been removed, but some authentic pithead gear was brought from another gold mine in North Wales and there were enough industrial artifacts around to give a real sense of what went on there.

So today we drove around to Rhandirmwyn where we found many interesting fungi three autumns ago. The immediate quarry (deliberate pun I’m afraid) is to find Spring Sandwort which I’ve probably missed on Velvet Bottom but may well still be in flower here – if it even grows here. On the map there’s one record somewhere near here but nothing else for many miles. That’s one I’d love to get a record for! – it’s one of those lead loving plants that thrives on polluted slag and there’s an enormous abandoned lead mine within easy walking distance – as long as Madame doesn’t put her foot down; or rather refuses to put it down in search of yet another little white job!

What about the allotment? you may well ask – in the tone of a concerned social worker. Well, allotments are communities and we look out for one another so our neighbours are watering the polytunnel and the rest can look after itself. Meanwhile we’re having a ball in spite of the fact that rain is forecast for the whole of our stay here.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” – first, clear up the mess in your head!

The vandalizing of the allotment at Christmas knocked the stuffing out of us. Aside from the feelings of vulnerability which are inevitable, I suppose, the replacement toughened glass for the greenhouse has been difficult to source and the whole area inside and out needs clearing of broken shards. The polytunnel – less than a year old – is now patched with tape. In fact we were so knocked off course I mooted the idea of giving up the allotment and working as volunteers in a community garden – it’s fair to say that one didn’t go well with Madame. We discussed whether to step back and grow more perennials and fruit, which need far less attention, so we could spend more time away in the campervan. That was one of the underlying reasons for trial renting the cottage in Cornwall; selling the van would pay for a lot of holidays.

On the other hand, the campervan brings us the freedom to travel as and when we feel like it, without booking months ahead; and it’s bought and paid for – although storage, maintenance, tax and insurance can mount up unpredictably. A van is a very costly bit of kit – especially when it’s sitting outside in the rain rotting away gently at roughly the same speed as we’re getting older. Two years of lockdown had given us plenty of time to reflect on what the van gives us, and it’s clear that it’s become essential to us. When we’re away we sleep better, walk and explore more. I treasure the time and space to turn on my botanical eyes so that plants I’ve never seen before suddenly become visible. We find time to talk and reflect and – if I’m honest – carouse and drink wine and abandon the ghastly effort of acting our age. You can’t do this when your children (and grandchildren) are around because it makes them cringe!

The net result of the holiday was a kind of mixture because we decided that we would keep the van and try to take much more time away in it, as well as carrying on with the allotment and on meeting up with friends we’ve not seen for two years. Last week we lashed out on 4 new tyres and windscreen wiper blades – they hadn’t been replaced in over a decade, and a new (yet to be installed) WiFi aerial and router to get over the constant lack of signal when we’re out in the wilds. In any case the old satellite dish is so enormous we look like a TV outside broadcast van in spite of the fact that – large as it is – it can’t see past a tree with leaves on.

I think any allotmenteer will recognise that feeling when the plot isn’t going well and you almost dread the thought of going to it. As a seasonal (winter) melancholic I often have to force myself to get off my backside and do some work. On the other hand any allotmenteer will recognise that once the work is in progress there’s a tremendous sense of wellbeing: why ever did I make such a fuss? you ask.

Truth to tell, though, I think it was the greenhouse bringing me back to life

Yesterday the sun shone and we went to the plot where I cleaned up the mess in the greenhouse while Madame weeded and tended the polytunnel. Safety glass shatters into a million fragments and so kneeling in a confined space with so many sharp edges around needed extra care; however after a couple of hours the greenhouse was clean, safe, and relatively tidy and I was surrounded by reminders of past seasons like root trainers – empty and stacked neatly in their containers. Is there a psychological term for that warmth that spread through me as I worked there? Previous notions to replace the glass with polycarbonate sheets seemed to fade and I began to think – ‘let’s replace and restore it properly, otherwise the vandals win. It’s depressing seeing the greenhouse, shrink wrapped in weed control mat, bits of black polythene and duct tape, so let’s bring it fully back to life.’ Truth to tell, though, I think it was the greenhouse bringing me back to life. As we worked there in our usual contemplative silence it was obvious that the allotment was as essential to us as the campervan. Madame had a long conversation with a fellow allotmenteer whose home built polytunnel had also been slashed and he told her that watering for us while we were away in the summer was an especial pleasure because the perfume of the ripening melons, basil and tomatoes filled the tunnel. As soon as we got home I turned to the photos on the laptop and I knew that there’s no way we we can thrive without growing food. Without the allotment we shrink; our souls starve.

We’re growing old, so there’s not so much time left we can afford to waste any of it. We’ve been inseparable since we met when Madame was fifteen and the prospect of our eventual infirmity and even separation hangs over us. The earth, our earth, becomes more precious as we share in her processes and dimly understand her grace and complexity, and although this might sound counterintuitive to a much younger person, it gives us comfort. We can’t win the environmental battle without a revolution fired by collective action. So long as we’re governed by wilfully stupid, squalid, and greedy governments none of the actions we know we need to carry out, will happen. Lying awake at night in a fury because they have just licenced the use of poisonous neonicotinoids to protect sugar beet – and who needs reminding that excess sugar consumption is killing and maiming millions of people? – well, it’s a waste of emotional energy.

So long as we have our wits, and enough physical energy to do it we’ll grow food and travel whenever we can so that we can record and enjoy the natural world in all its ludicrous generosity; write about it, photograph it and draw it. What’s happening to the earth demands witnesses because without witnesses there will be no time of reckoning. So no – we won’t be going anywhere quietly, thanks!

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