Deja vu?

Looking down from the iron bridge above lock 3 of the Kennet and Avon canal

Walking down the canal a few days ago we reached exactly this point on the towpath when I found – in the sky, the clouds and the opening buds of the trees – a feeling; a sensation near to joy that was out of all proportion to its dimensions and properties as a view in the ordinary sense of the word.

Naturally it was a welcome change from lockdown ennui but it caused me to wonder how it can be that sense experiences (like Proust’s madeleine for instance), can carry such a huge metaphorical load. I could, if there was time, draw a mind-map with the scene at its centre, and which would embrace dozens if not hundreds of deeply personal associations, many of which could generate further mind-maps. Just to give this a bit of an anchor I could mention wild garlic which is just coming into its glory. My subsidiary mind-map would embrace childhood memories of walking by the river Frome and on from there.

I have no idea whether all this can be adequately explained by brain chemistry unless the scientists would concede that human memory simply stores and recovers these experiences through the workings of brain chemistry, like a biological hard drive – the means don’t matter to me very much but the experience lies at the root of all creative processes, including science. As an allotmenteer and as a rather incompetent amateur botanist I understand that the stimulus which drives us on; enables us to tolerate frost and wind and the loss of a whole crop or drives me to immerse myself in the minutest details of a plant’s structure for hours just so I can give it a name; that stimulus is wonder.

When we’re visiting new places – especially gardens – or walking in unfamiliar environments; meeting new people, the imagination is alive; fired up. Somewhere in the mind the sense impressions are finding places, associations, pre-existing memories, experiences and cultural thought-paths; and the inner workings of memory stores them – each in their right place like roosting hens finding their place on a perch at dusk; each discrete experience tagged and keyworded so that later, many years later perhaps, the precise configuration of a landscape, a flower, a gesture, a sound releases releases the whole stored, aggregated complex. If you were looking for a non-supernatural explanation of the déjà vu experience it’s right there.

A cowslip in our friends’ meadow yesterday

Why the sudden outbreak of philosophy? – Well, this week we’ve been partially released from lockdown. We’ve spent proper time with our children and grandchildren after a year of hermetic isolation and we hugged and clung to each other like shipwrecked sailors. We went to the campervan full of trepidation and replaced the dead battery and took ourselves off for our first night away from home in many months. We camped up at Priddy which is a place soaked in teenage memories of caving expeditions; watched rooks squabbling over nests and ate up the silence. Notwithstanding a terrible night’s sleep, as we were kept awake by a series of power cuts that had the heating unit cycling noisily on and off ; we came back to Bath feeling that we’d begun to emerge from emotional winter again.

Which brings me to our walk when (at my suggestion) we found the entrance to Swildons Hole which I’d not seen in fifty or more years but which is still full of memories. I’d spent so much time down there cold, wet, tired, fearful and occasionally completely panicked but always blown away by the powerful sensation of being underground and by the occasional bursts of sheer beauty hidden from human eyes for millennia.

A few years ago I met an outdoor pursuits instructor at the climbing wall in St Werburghs who offered to take me down again, but somehow we never got around to doing it. One glimpse of the entrance was enough to convince me that it would be a miserable and possibly dangerous experience for a septuagenarian! But that in itself was enough to remind me that however powerful the memories, not all experiences are repeatable however appealing the thought might be. The sense of our own mortality sharpens and intensifies these remembered experiences which linger in the mind like ghosts.

On the other hand, if you look closely at the third photo from the left, you’ll see something of a line of trees above the pill box entrance. I had no recollection of them from the past. In fifty years or so they’ve grown into a magnificent beech hanger and the sound of the wind rustling through the branches was unmistakable and worthy of a ten minute stop for a free symphony. You can see the leaf buds about to break as they turn from chestnut brown to green. At last a recoverable and re-liveable memory from my childhood trips to Stoke Row in the Chilterns. No I hadn’t really been here before, because on my last visit the trees were so much smaller and yet my memory was able to recover more from my grandparents smallholding to furnish and make sense of this new and powerful experience.

So what about the allotment? Well, we’re in suspended animation as the pampered indoor plants grow like cuckoos while we wait for the present icy spell to end. The earth is a dry as dust and we’re having to continually water in the polytunnel because daytime temperatures soar in the spring sunshine. Slowly, slowly, enough tough old stagers are emerging to break the illusion of winter and the apple blossom sits, clenched in bud waiting for the spring as a child waits for Father Christmas. It will come soon, but evidently not yet and not soon enough for some of the wind tormented broad beans. Inside the tunnel with an additional layer of fleece we’re just coming to terms with its capacity to advance the season. Every time we look at the spinach and lettuces or the young cabbage plants we have to pinch ourselves. The container grown potatoes are growing so vigorously I seem to be constantly mixing soil and compost to earth them up, and I think we’ll have a crop by early May.

Between the flat, the greenhouse, the tunnel, the hotbed, various cloches and the open ground we find ourselves managing half a dozen quite different seasonal microclimates. One little moment of joy came when Madame opened the crown of one of the cauliflowers and found the white curds just beginning to form – and that’s the first time we’ve grown them successfully. The asparagus is beginning to accelerate into life and the newly planted trees and soft fruit all seem to have taken. There are tadpoles in the pond and the Hidcote Giant lavender plants have arrived ready to be planted out and ready to attract insects and bees.

So it’s all good. Confusing, frustrating and good – as life usually turns out to be. Any prolonged silences over the next few weeks will probably be down to sheer busyness!

Gruffy – 2000 years of history in a footpath.

If Rodway Common was the place that fired me up as a child, this is the landscape that captured my imagination as a teenager – and I’m sorry if my attachment to these rather gloomy, post industrial places offends, but there’s a big chunk of my imagination invested out here.

I came to Charterhouse, Priddy and Burrington Combe not to explore what was on the surface but what was underneath it. I was lucky enough to get a job at the university as what was known as a “Junior Photographic Technician” – it was the kind of work an intern might get these days but there, aged seventeen, they sent me on a course to train as a technical photographer, handed me a very beautiful Leica and a darkroom, and pretty well let me get on with it; calling on me to photocopy; photograph prospective students; and capture whatever else needed recording by the lecturers and post-grads. There was a fabulously well equipped workshop run by a group of oddball technicians whose job it was to turn research proposals into bits of aluminium and electronic apparatus; and Steve was an enthusiastic caver (potholer if you’re from the north, or speleologist in America, I think), who soon took us out with him and his friends .

One of the blocked swallets in Longwood Valley

So this part of the world was the place we came to to learn about caving, using what would now be thought of as completely archaic equipment. The only way of getting a wetsuit was to make your own – which I eventually did, but my gluing of the joints was a bit wayward and it was massively tight in some places and flapped about in others making it both restrictive and inefficient at the same time. The experienced cavers often used electric miners lamps with lead acid rechargeable batteries, but we mostly kicked off with carbide lamps which were smelly, unreliable and occasionally explosive, boiler suits and black helmets that often got soft in wet caves. Ignoring the flora altogether we would crawl and slither down passages that could be very wet or very muddy; soak up the (tall?) stories of exploration and daring by the older cavers and push ourselves to the absolute limit. Perfect fun for teenage boys in fact. If there was a hole in the ground, we wanted to go down it and looking back, we took some hideous risks. My greatest friend Eddy and me had spent holidays playing in the abandoned flues and tunnels in the brickworks so extending our range to natural holes in the ground wasn’t such a great step.

So by the time Madame and me got together I knew this part of the world underground much better than above. It was here that I first heard the term gruffy ground – a miners word for the way in which the landscape is pitted with trial pits and worked out rakes. What I hadn’t thought through at the time, is that these beloved and isolated places were the relics of nearly 2000 years of the industrial extraction of lead. You can see where I’m going here – this landscape had my name written all over it.

Yesterday we waited for the rain to subside and decided to drive up to Charterhouse – less than twenty miles away in the heart of the Mendip Hills. These days it’s a popular place for walkers and there were maybe twenty cars parked above Velvet Bottom, and so we parked next to the Field Studies Centre and walked down to the entrance to the nature reserve. If you were new to this place, you might wonder where the footpath surface came from. It’s shining black and glassy, like obsidian, and it’s slag from lead smelting which began with the invasion of the Romans in the first century, but most of which was produced during the industrial revolution when this must have been a stinking and polluted industrial wasteland. So the first thing about this landscape is that – quiet and beautiful as it might be today – the pollution levels are still so high that it has its own unique flora of heavy metal tolerant plants. Lead, nickel and cadmium levels are so high that tree growth in many areas is inhibited, and gardeners in Shipham just down the road, have been warned not to grow vegetables in their gardens.

Yesterday, though, under a cloudy but clearing sky, the overwhelming first impression was of a very Mendip silence. With Bristol Airport almost out of action (marvellous) the only sounds were wild sounds; of the wind, grasses and trees and of the birds. Up on the ridge in the photograph, a noisy bunch of rooks were enjoying themselves in the air. The second impression was the smell of the sea, of the Bristol Channel, sweeping in from the southwest bearing the scent of salt water and seaweed – the closest we’ll get to the sea this year, I fear.

The plan had been for me to do some grasses while Madame looked for butterflies (she had more luck than me). If you ever ran away with the thought that I knew something about plants, now’s the time to warn you that I really don’t. Within a dozen steps I realized that my carefully researched exploration of meadow grasses didn’t fit. This is the craziest flora. Later, after we got home with me licking my wounds, I discovered that the mixed up flora is the glory of this place. Due to the nature of the underlying soils, there are acid loving plants growing very near to calcifiles and marshy ground specialists. There were old friends but more total strangers, and plants that I knew from elsewhere suddenly popping up as if they belonged there. .More from the British Geological Survey here. It’s the botanical equivalent of the favela – absolutely gripping.

So we wandered slowly down Velvet Bottom (who could resist a place with a name like that?), and found the gated entrances to a cave system discovered long after I gave up, and which turned out to be the fourth deepest cave in the country. It was here we came with the boys once, and watched a couple of adders basking in the sunny heat at the bottom of one of the depressions. The valley deepens and becomes rockier as you descend, and then just before you reach Black Rock nature reserve and then Cheddar Gorge, there’s a footpath that takes you back up the Longwood Valley – another environment altogether, but still bearing the remains of industry beneath the vegetation because water was taken from here to feed the washes in Velvet Bottom. Nowadays it’s yet another nature reserve containing more locked potholes; one of them in particular prone to sudden flooding. Longwood Swallet has a reputation for taking lives.

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Until this point there wasn’t much butterfly action; some whites and meadow browns; a skipper which I took a rather bad phone camera photo of; a small blue – too far away to identify properly. Then. suddenly a silver washed fritillary flying high and gliding down to feed on a bramble, then – joined by a second – doing a bit of an aerial display, seemingly unconcerned by our presence and this time I did manage to get a slightly better photo. Acid specialists, calcifiles, marsh specialists and now a broadleaf woodland dweller. If ever there was a ‘phone a friend’ place this is it! We did a field trip with a couple of county recorders leading, near here a couple of years ago and it was pretty inspiring. I must try and persuade them to lead another one on our yesterday walk.

We walked less than five miles altogether and yet what a combination of environments – I could hardly sleep for excitement last night. Mercifully it’s raining again so the allotment won’t need watering today. I need to go back to the textbooks. Oh, and isn’t it good to see that even this landscape could recover from human exploitation.