Autumn song

Heron spotted on the River Avon on Saturday

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the recent changes to the seasonal calendar brought in by the Met Office. I know it’s tidier to begin the season of Autumn on September Ist and then rotate the rest on a three monthly cycle; easier but plain wrong. For me the seasons will always be marked by the solstices and equinoxes. Messy but holding tight to the astronomical events surrounding the hours of daylight. Last Friday saw the autumn equinox at exactly 2.03 am marking the moment of equal day and night and from now until December 21st the hours of darkness will get progressively longer.

Nature is, by and large, pretty orderly in her seasons too and so we instinctively recognise them by the quality of the light, sounds and smells. I’m interested that these phenomena actually seem to speak to us. Our absorption in the earth and her seasons means the bare sensation, of a birdsong for instance, becomes encrusted with memories. The smell of newly turned earth in the Spring evokes in me a powerful memory of Good Friday when, according to tradition, potatoes were planted. I think of a steady queue of customers at Palmer’s Seed Store and the smell of National Growmore fertilizer and Mr Flook the fishmonger in his wellingtons and yellow oilskin apron.

So these accretions of memories make simple things like listening to a singing Great Tit into a deeply embedded, often emotional, complex. Scientifically, and some would say factually, it’s just a singing bird with a Latin name representing something so common as to be beneath a birder’s dignity; but in the far greater field of meaning it’s as affecting as a Nightjar like the one that kept me awake much of the night, camping in France, or the Nightingale that I heard on a retreat near Ilfracombe one evening as I walked in the grounds.

But to get back to the Great Tit and the Autumn Equinox, something profoundly odd happened on Friday morning. I was helping our youngest move some last belongings out of the flat he’s just left. It’s been a sad few weeks because his relationship with his girlfriend has broken down and everyone’s been walking on eggshells. Anyway I was parked up in a place I shouldn’t have been, close to the old flat and keeping a sharp eye out for Parking Wardens who are pretty ruthless here in Bath. Then, as he carried the last load across the road, with his bass guitar in one hand and a bundle of clothes in the other – he looked just like the cover of the Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin” Album sleeve. I would have been sad to see him that way except that as I sat there in the car with the window wound down, completely out of the blue I heard a Great Tit singing its two note ‘saw sharpening’ song, somewhere in the trees above. It’s a song I associate so powerfully with Spring and new beginnings that it felt like some kind of omen. “Stupid, irrational, meaningless emotional nonsense” say the ghosts of the old Logical Positivist philosophers, and “Hear Hear” say the materialist scientists, and yet ……. and yet?

Nothing I’ve ever come across shakes my understanding that language – whether human language or the subtle languages of mammals, birds and insects; or flowers, or the incomprehensible silent language known as the “Wood Wide Web” – that language is more like a coral reef growing in a sea of meanings, with living ideas on the outside and deep within, the whole history of human speaking, singing and dancing. The simplest level of reference in that unexpected out of season birdsong is probably the least interesting.

It’s been a long hot and dry summer and so it must have been the case that the bird I heard was singing out of season because in this settled weather a second brood was still “thinkable” and “do-able“. But he said much more than he intended. That Spring embodying song on the very day of the Autumn Equinox was a portent of new beginnings, a sign of environmental crisis, a reminder that Nature has her own ways and heaven help us if we ignore her signs.

More glory than you ever expected, plus an Oxford comma

Some of these photographs were taken from inside the campervan here in St Davids, and some in Whitesands Bay and St David’s opposite what’s known as the City Hall – but appears to be a charity shop. I suppose I could do a Matthew Arnold; lamenting the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of the tide on Brighton beach and compare my superior aesthetic response to St David’s with the inferior and faithless reactions of the pasty and ice cream eaters.

But life’s not that simple – not unless you’re one of those politicians that (they don’t deserve a who“) – can watch the destruction of lives and cultures with complete equanimity under the protection of a blind dogmatic faith (and I do mean faith) that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It isn’t!

So I’ve been struggling to see how we can address the terrible problems that we face; and because we’re here in the van and out walking every day there’s been time to read and talk and think about how we might go on with some hope – because without it we’re sunk. With the present shower in power, it’s impossible to hope that conventional politics will ever find a way past the lobbyists and the bungs from the industrial giants and non-doms whose untaxed profits are salted away out of sight of the rest of us. There are some things we can do at a personal level, like growing allotments, walking and cycling, recycling, and, buying thoughtfully – (I stuck that Oxford comma in just to piss off Thérèse Coffey who as an obvious pedant doesn’t deserve a pause before her full stop!); but there are also some actions that can only be accomplished at a regional and national level.

There’s a tired old cliché in ‘management speak’ that has just enough truth in it to suggest a way forward: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If national politics has a stranglehold on climate strategy and all the other major strategic decisions that need to be made then let’s concentrate on changing the culture instead. Let’s focus all our energy and resources on changing it using every cultural means possible instead of spending so many dispiriting hours at political meetings being voted down by members who just don’t get it. We have music, poetry, theatre, art of all kinds, samizdat newsletters, the internet, independent seminars and pop up schools; not to mention conversations with friends and neighbours.

There have been many occasions in history when the people – like the pasty and ice cream eaters and the people that run the charity shop, the hotel owner here who can’t get staff because of brexit, and me and Madame too, have wanted real change in sufficient numbers to sweep away the old guard. So why are we sitting around feeling sad and sorry for ourselves? To abuse a very good saying from the past – we have seen the solution, it is us!

Small harvest festival at the Potwell Inn?

And this isn’t the half of it. Its 7.00 pm and I’ve just finished processing the last of the tomatoes into 8 litres of passata. 10Kg of green tomatoes have gone to the freezer along with 10kg of damsons. We’ve already made shed-loads of roasted tomato passata and various chutneys so it’s been a great year. The Borlotti vines – as I mentioned a few days ago – simply rolled over in the heatwave; but the total yield of smaller beans was twice last year’s. We didn’t grow too much sweetcorn because the badger usually gets there first, but this year we erected a three layer fence around them and we’ve been eating them every day. More squashes – Uchiki Kuri and Crown Prince successfully completed the three sisters trio, although we didn’t try to grow them together after several years of trying. Apples are ripening – again a good year.

Our failures? Well the Calendula were a bit of a write off; the garlic bulbs were very small and the Courgettes and cucumbers seemed to hate the hot weather in spite of constant watering but the aubergines and melons sharing the polytunnel with basil and tomatoes loved it. The total yield of tomatoes was in the region of 150 lbs but we gave up counting . The wildflowers and herbs all benefited from the sunshine and, of course, the Mediterranean herbs loved the weather. The wildlife component was a complete success, with more pollinators and bees than ever before. Dragonflies, damselflies and bees and hoverflies were our constant companions and triggered the trailcam more than anything else. However we have filmed badgers, foxes, mice, domestic cats and rats – not to mention a roe deer one remarkable night. We’d love to set up a moth trap but sadly we’re so plagued by petty thefts we’d have to sit up all night with it.

So yes it’s been a wonderful year in spite of the weather; but it’s been a massive effort with watering, and then processing and storing. There’s always a bittersweet feeling as we complete harvesting for the year. It’s very early to be clearing beds but as ever the weather and the seasons have their own domain and we can only bend to their will.

What I miss, more than anything else, is the opportunity to share in thanksgiving. Obviously we can silently vocalise our thanks but there’s nothing like a public liturgy – which needn’t be at all overtly religious -but allows us to gather with our neighbours and say thanks. There’s a sense of glory in the air as we gather our crops together, but somehow our much talked about connection with nature has been ruptured over the past decades. Nature is something we all too often look at and admire passively at second hand. Eating a melon you’ve grown, warm from the sun is something else, and peeping into a store cupboard full to bursting with food for the winter and the hungry gap gives reason for hope even in a time of uncertainty and fear.

So I miss the giant marrows and the harvest loaf and the rejected apples, even with the rotten bits turned to the back out of sight. I miss the harvest festival where one of our wealthier congregation members once sorted through a pocketful of change and picked out the copper coins to put into the collection while the steward waited patiently. I miss the way that the unlikeliest people would turn up because they could see the point of it all, and I miss counting the hundreds of tins of food that were collected every year to be taken to a homeless charity and I miss roaring out the hymns that lurk somewhere deep in collective memory although we hardly share their feudal sentiments any more.

So the closest I can get to that public thanksgiving is here. As always I am utterly blown away and grateful – even joyful – because the harvest has come home – again – in spite of every obstacle thrown in its way.

“Run the economy like a business” – are you completely batshit crazy? we need to run it like a garden!

Another night of strange dreams led to a sleepless night for Madame as I tossed and turned and made (as she described them) weird noises. I dream a lot, and years of work – hard work too – with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, have taught me to treat them with the utmost seriousness. So here’s the deal – my dream was about cutting metre square sections of rough grass full of weeds, and setting them out in the usual unspecified way, to conduct an experiment concerned with watching weeds grow. I even dreamed of setting the trailcam to time lapse mode in order to get a continuous film of them growing. Principal among them was our old garden enemy – Bindweed.

Then this morning I was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer marvellous book – “Braiding Sweetgrass” when a connection dropped into place and I was able to see a very small part of a remedy for the crisis we’ve now created for ourselves.

The hot seat!

Allow me a small diversion to help explain the background. I was a school governor for over forty years and in that time we interviewed at least six head teachers. In spite of endless pains we still managed to appoint one complete dud but otherwise they were great human beings with a passion for making children into moral grownups. We interviewed them over two days, handed them heaps of data and gave them an hour to read and digest it then come up with a viable step by step plan. We tested their management and leadership skills by asking them to debate the difficult data with other candidates. We watched and noted those who could embrace challenges thoughtfully and without becoming defensive. It was exhausting for us and even worse for the candidates, but slowly the best candidate for our particular school – with its own unique history and challenges – would emerge.

If you compare that level of diligence with the present election for Prime Minister you will understand immediately how our political system makes such terrible decisions. As I once heard on a bus on the way home from Southmead – “That Jack B …….. he can’t tell shit from pudding!” I have a whole collection of those kinds of remarks, overheard from people who stretch the colloquial into Shakespearean beauty. We have a parliament full of people who share Jack B’s incapacity.

So back to dreams and weeds and revelations, and the connection is this. When we plan the next season on the Potwell Inn allotment we pay attention to the space we have, the nature of the local climate and its variabilities; the soil and its state and – in particular – we pay attention to our own needs. Do we need fifty purple sprouting plants? How many pounds of tomatoes do we really need?

And we also know that our land isn’t just for us – it’s for the thousands of species that – while we can’t eat them – play a vital role in the ecology of the plot. Some of the pests who predate upon the pests who damage our crops are visible – frogs, toads, parasitic wasps and so forth. Some are microorganisms. Some are mixed blessings – badgers for instance; and foxes, cats and even rats play complicated roles of fleas and smaller fleas in the terms of the old rhyme.

Weeds and pests and their many interactions play such a huge and poorly understood role in the overall health of the plot that we leave them alone. So to chase down an analogy – we either draw a binary distinction between friend and foe, and then bomb the foe out of existence in the manner of intensive chemically driven agriculture, or we nurture the richest possible mix of living creatures and edible plants and allow nature to find the kind of balance that allows us a crop, reduces pest damage and leaves the soil in good heart. And it really works!

Running the economy – and especially the ecology – of the earth as if it were a business completely focused on financial profit and loss is a form of ideological madness. Public goods are very hard to monetize, and yet we know that climate destruction brings tremendous costs. We know that farming practices which lead to wholesale species destruction will result in food shortages. We know that viruses can cross over between animals and humans and cause pandemics, and we suspect that the destruction of animal habitat through forest clearance makes this possibility greater. We also know that intensive farming of any kind causes pollution; carbon release and therefore global heating. The point of this line of argument is to emphasise that running the earth as a business so often ignores the cost of adverse consequences. If the full long-term costs of maintenance and disposal of radioactive waste are added to the business plan no investor in their right mind would take the risk. Sadly our government is able to use our money to make us compulsory investors in this dangerous industry.

Running the economy – basing our governance on its impact on the whole earth would make big business howl. Just as an example – the current price of all electricity is based on the inflated price of fossil fuels. This represents the mad economics of subsidising the oil companies by penalising renewables. In a genuine – that’s to say not rigged – market. The renewables would outcompete the fossils on price and the oil and gas producers would have to invest their ill gotten gains in renewables in order to stay in business at all. This is not fantasy economics.

Why weeds then? Why embrace pests and predators? Because any unstable ecosystem will be made more stable if a natural balance is reached. Climate catastrophe is the end point of ignoring the instability made worse by politicians who make stupid policies such as running the economy like a business – and then facilitate the predatory activities of corporate behemoths.

James Lovelock died this week. His Gaia theory gives us the best possible tool for understanding the harm we’ve done to ourselves and future people. The key is going to be diversity. The binary world of bad science and dangerous politics needs to be swept away so we can learn to tend the whole earth – in all its inspiring diversity – as a garden.

Not quite Adlestrop – but almost Potwell Inn!

On the day that fuel price protesters were blocking the motorways all over the country, we opted to catch the Weymouth train out of Bath Spa. It’s the small train which leaves the London main line at Bathampton turning right (that’s a technical term) via a set of points and on through the Avon Valley. In these days of diesel trains and welded rails, the characteristic sounds of the steam journey have changed from irregular beat to an even thrumming without interest – except, that is, when the train hits a set of points and clatters off to left or right with a diddley diddley diddley dum and a bit of a wiggle thrown in for good luck. At Bathampton it always feels as if we’re on the Hogwarts Express; veering off to an entirely different kind of countryside where the 1930’s Great Western Railway posters suddenly come to life and men wearing tweed jackets and trilby hats walk their labradors along the riverbank, trailing clouds of Cavendish tobacco smoke from their pipes.

Of course we weren’t going to Weymouth The train stops as often as a country bus; but the fare with our Railcard is cheaper than petrol plus parking; it’s the greener way to travel and we can stop for a pint or two at a country pub and get driven home by someone else. Anyway I love trains so it’s a no brainer. In fact we were only going as far as Avoncliff Halt and planned to do a new circular walk on what’s known as the “Two Valleys Walk” – a clever marketing ploy by the rail company . You follow the River Avon along the riverbank back to its confluence with the River Frome at Freshford. This was an excuse to revisit Friary Wood which we explored for medicinal herbs last Wednesday.

You’d think – with the A36 barely half a mile away and running along the upper half of the valley – that it would be noisy and overcrowded but it’s not. The roads into this stretch of woodland are not much wider than farm tracks and often end with a solitary group of buildings, hardly qualifying even as a hamlet. For once, in this car scorched earth, the best way to arrive is at one of the railway stations, on foot, and take the train. And, should you be lucky enough to alight at Avoncliff Halt, you climb a flight of concrete steps and meet the John Rennie aqueduct which carries the Kennet and Avon canal across the River Avon. It’s along this stretch of the river that road, rail and canal share a contour around the steep sided valley, but here at the lower level, water and peace prevail. There’s even a pub, the Crossed Guns, that does a decent meal and a pint or two; serving walkers, canal-goers and cyclists not to mention those who take the hazardous winding lane by car.

River Avon in quiet mode from the aqueduct.

Looking across the lily pads in the river to the pub it could almost pass for the Potwell Inn, but of course – being imaginary – nothing and nowhere ever lives up to the dream.

Naturally the poem that came to mind as we stood on the platform and watched the train clatter off towards Weymouth was Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”. A musing punctured by the cheerful heave ho of the diesel engine’s klaxon.

So off we walked down the southern bank of the Avon. It turned out to be as much a bird day as a plant hunt. Overhead we could hear and then we could see a Red Kite. A song thrush practiced its phrases in the trees where later we heard a Green Woodpecker and a late to bed Tawny owl. At the conjunction of the two rivers at Freshford Mill we turned up the riverside footpath to Friary Wood and on towards the village of Iford. We had never explored the river Frome before and knew very little about it. The village of Iford is so perfect you really feel you’ve stepped back a century and providentially, just as Madame was tackling a stile with a deep drop, the River Bailiff opened the gate for us and later, on the narrow bridge over the river, we had a long conversation about the river, the fishing and a mutual friend called Bob Talbot who ran a tackle shop in my first parish where he and Rene became my firm friends. Bob became my mentor over many an expedition on a Wednesday where I would wear my fishing clothes under a cassock while I took a communion service and scoot through the house discarding the clericals and out through the back gate where Bob would wait behind the high wall in his three wheeler, ready to whisk me away beyond the sharp eye of the Verger who would have grassed me up. The Bailiff – Ed – was a persuasive man and very nearly got me to join his angling club. We peered over the wall and saw multitudes of small Chub congregated there. He reminisced about the times when large Barbel were frequently caught and talked about the voluntary work that members did to maintain the river bank and the fish stocks.

Then a very steep climb to cross back to the Avon Valley and return to Avoncliff and the Crossed Guns – about five miles in all. Later – after lunch – we crossed the aqueduct again and waited for the train home. A perfect day, then!

Watering, weeding, watching and witnessing!

Up at Priddy last week we went for a long walk, introducing our youngest son to some of the sheep droves that make wonderful (and sometimes very lengthy) wildlife walks. We stopped off at the pub – naturally – and feasted on some delicious and very high carb old style pub cooking; but on our way towards it we noticed the field in the photo above that had a recently cut border of something that looked like a red-leaved grain. None of us had any idea what it might be, but there’s a notice up there with the farmer’s phone number on it so next time I’ll make a note of it and ask what it is: desperately hoping that it won’t be some sort of chemical spray.

The soil up there is thin and better suited to sheep farming, so any exposed soil on arable fields always looks impoverished and stony. Several times we’ve spotted small herds of wild deer browsing there. Crossing the fields back from Eastwater Drove to the village green, passing Swildon’s Hole on the way, we encountered a solitary caver walking back along the same path. Many of the fields, although they lack the sheer density of White Field at Dyrham Park, are very rich in wildflowers. What’s interesting is that different species seem to dominate each different environment. As we walked along the Green past the thatched piles of hurdles that are brought out for Priddy Fair every year, we spotted some eggs for sale and bought half a dozen mixed. The next morning I cracked a couple open for breakfast and they sat up beautifully – in perfect condition for poaching.

After this prolonged dry spell our rapidly growing plants need a lot of water, and today we were up at six before the heat got too much for us. This time of year it’s all weeding, watering and waiting on the allotment. We’ll have our first feed of new potatoes and broad beans tonight – that’s one wait I’m glad to end! Weeding is a constant job because we don’t want any of them to set seed or develop stolons or rhizomes. As I was watering I drenched the borders of the pond and a fully grown frog shuffled out of the way. I can’t begin to express how pleased we were to see it. This year none of us have had frog spawn and we were afraid that the disease that’s rampaging through a lot of amphibians had taken them all – but this one looked absolutely fine to me. Yesterday I spotted a hoverfly, one of the handful I can name; Helophilus trivittatus – it doesn’t have an English name. I remember it because its larvae are rat tailed maggots – weird looking creatures with long snorkels.

The best thing about early starts is that we can take longer walks during the day. Yesterday was a ten miler along the river and back down the canal. As we came back into Bath I noticed some Figwort growing at the edge of the path and so I took photos because I don’t recall seeing it there before, and did my best to ID it before emailing the photos to the Vice County Recorder with my suggestion of its identity. I was almost right, but I’d failed to notice two very small details that made it Water Figwort rather than the (less common here) Common Figwort. Anyway, I provided so much detail she was happy to make it a record and I get the credit for noticing it while she gets it for knowing exactly what it was.

Does it matter at all? Is all the voluntary effort to record what most people would regard as weeds actually worthwhile? That’s where the witnessing part of the title comes in. When you walk through a field of chemically supercharged and weed killed Ryegrass it still looks like a field – until you get down on your hands and knees and look more closely and discover there’s nothing there but grass. Yesterday we passed one of our local homeless people with an obvious addiction problem. He was emaciated – bent over and looked as if he might not last a fortnight. I think of these intensively farmed fields as an exact parallel. Whether you’re addicted to crack cocaine or chemical weed and bug killers, you get sicker and sicker and then you die. I try not to dwell on this because it makes me sad; but if we don’t record what’s left now after fifty and more years of intensive farming, then these wonders will slip away and the whole earth will suffer before we wake up one morning and wonder when the last cuckoo was heard, or when the pollinators all died. That’s the witnessing bit. I can’t say whether we’ll succeed but we won’t let up in our mission to record what may one day be lost.

Culture war on the allotments

After an exhausting couple of busy weeks on the Potwell Inn allotment we’ve come down to Cornwall for a break. Luckily we were blessed with some decent rain as we left and although it made for unpleasant driving on the motorway it was a joy to think that the allotment was getting a thorough soak. Happily too, we’ve got brilliant neighbours who are always willing to lend a hand with watering the greenhouse and the polytunnel. Although the greenhouse has an automatic watering system, it’s very difficult to calibrate because the pressure goes down as the water level in the tank decreases, and occasionally a bit of gunk jams the inlet valve open so it floods the plants and does as much harm as drought does. There’s no doubt that personal attention is the least foolproof way of going on, but we all need a break occasionally and so we help each other out.

In fact, half the joy of allotmenteering is the community of interest that it builds. The gardeners on our site are a pretty fair representation of the hugely diverse and polyglot population of Bath. When we talk of culture we need to remember that the root of the concept comes from the uniqueness of our highly local ways of living, growing, talking and celebrating. You can either treat diversity as a threat, or (so far as I’m concerned) a marvellous melting pot in which everyone becomes both teacher and student. To use a slightly academic phrase, what diversity offers is the prospect of emergent properties; insights and techniques of the utmost importance in a time of huge threat.

So it came as something of a surprise when, after a hiatus of two years, the council announced that plot inspections would take place in early May and, rather than acknowledging that the site has never looked better with so many newcomers taking on empty and neglected plots; started to send out letters threatening eviction for quite trivial and, in one case, quite imaginary infringements of the rules. Sheds, one allotmenteer was informed, were not permitted to have windows. No trace of any such regulation can be seen in the 27 pages of mostly sensible rules but suddenly we are all in danger of being evicted as a result of rogue windows. The Potwell Inn allotment will probably get away with it because since the vandalism on Christmas Eve our shed hasn’t had one and the void has been covered with an empty manure bag, tacked on. We may, I suppose, still be turned off under a newly invented rule that advertising is not permitted. Another member was threatened because they were using an old cast iron fireplace as a firepit.

We were, however, warned that “non fruit bearing trees” with a trunk diameter of more than 3/4″ are not permitted. This is an (unwritten) extension of the sensible rule that standard fruit trees are prone to shading neighbours’ allotments. All of our trees are on highly dwarfing rootstocks, but Madame stuck a small piece of pruning from a bay tree in the ground in the hope it might preserve the leaves better than hanging it in the kitchen. We got an email detailing the ferocious and land grabbing propensities of bay and were “advised” to remove it. Our experience of bay trees is that they can get out of hand, but over pruning will often kill them.

So what on earth is going on? It seems to me that there’s an intriguing allotment culture war going on between an official with a very rigid historical view of what constitutes a proper allotment and a bunch of new gardeners who are entirely free of any preconceptions about double digging, National Growmore fertilizer and finely calibrated straight rows. On the one hand there is the stereotypical Mr Digwell with his trilby hat and pipe and on the other a new culture of recycling, upcycling and acute environmental awareness. The 25% of land on which we are allowed to grow flowers is more likely to be occupied by more recently sanctified “weeds” than cut flowers destined for the church porch.

I propose a test case with the lovely Echium pininana (photo above) which fails the regulations in every way being way more than three inches in girth, as much as ten feet tall, but which dies at the sniff of a frost and in summer is always alive with bees and other pollinating insects including armies of ants. And in any case, what on earth constitutes a non fruit-bearing tree. Without winter berries many of our overwintering birds would simply die and so – are cotoneaster bushes (in sensible numbers) friend or foe? Whose idea of fruit or food are we meant to be protecting?

Ironically the Council has announced a whole raft (I like that word because it implies imminent flooding, which is all too true), so a whole raft of green measures including green corridors which, truth to tell, is exactly what we need since Crest Nicholson were allowed to build houses for the wealthy on the southern riverbank which, before the construction of flats which resembled Russian bonded warehouses, was a post industrial urban wildlife haven. Of course we need houses, but not just for the wealthy!

So there we are – away in the wilds of Cornwall with the campervan; hunting for plants and – to be strictly accurate – guzzling wine and snoozing in the sunshine too. Will there be a menacing letter waiting for us when we get home? Time will tell I suppose, but this battle isn’t really about windows or trees it’s about dreams, it’s about saving the planet, it’s about listening to new ideas and new ways of doing things and it’s about widening the slit in the sentry post of petty regulations to see the wider picture.

You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

Heligan – the return

Crossing the jungle

Last time we camped here at Heligan the campervan leisure batteries – (and therefore almost everything else) -gave up and we spent best part of the week (it was February) freezing cold and huddling in the sleeping bags with only head torches to see by. This time we crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s and after a lot of maintenance work the van is restored to its full glory. Sadly the weather has been awful, with almost continuous rain, and so it’s been obligatory wet weather gear. Nothing daunted though, we’ve been out and about to see the spectacular beginnings of the magnolia and camellia blossom. The kitchen garden looks a bit like the allotment at home – all dressed up with nowhere to go. What we need, of course, is a bit of decent weather. It’s all very well the Met Office determining that March 1st is the first day of Spring, but for gardeners and astrologers, not to mention traditionalists, the equinox is the real deal. Someone should tell them that nature doesn’t read books – however well indexed. Those extra three weeks make a world of difference. Today as we walked the perimeter of the Heligan estate we could see all manner of leaves pushing upwards but relatively few flowers.

Gunnera plants.

For sheer horror you could do worse than film these Gunneras unfolding in time lapse mode. They might well have been part of the background research for Aliens and if we had the gift of standing completely still and watching for a month we’d probably need psychotherapy! So just to balance things out a little, here’s a Magnolia bloom representing the acceptable face of gardening.

Magnolia

Still it’s true that sometimes the most memorable finds are not the show stoppers, but the ones that nearly got away. I brought a new field guide down with me to try and I was anxious to give it a test run. Weather being weather it would have been hazardous to give it a first run in the rain – the Collins Wild Flower Guide is not for the faint hearted. Before we set out I weighed copies of the Rose “Wildflower Key” which came in at around 800 grammes. The Book of Stace was about 1500 grammes and the mighty Collins swaggered it at 1700 Grammes. You really need some thew to carry it around in your bag ……… so I didn’t!

Anyway, as we were wandering alongside the stream in the woods at the southern edge of the estate I spotted something odd, lurking amongst the vegetation, in this case mostly primroses in leaf. At first glance these tiny (3mm) flowers looked as if they belonged to a sickly Veronica; the leaves looked yellowish and chlorotic. But after I’d walked past a couple of clumps I could see that they were in full flower except the flowers seemed to have sepals but no petals – rather like tiny euphorbias. So lacking the book I took a couple of photos and did some research back at the van where I found that they were golden saxifrages – specifically the opposite leaved form – Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. After confirming it in the Collins WFG and checking the distribution on the BSBI online maps I felt brave enough to record it on iRecord. It’s not showy, it’s not in the least rare but I’d never noticed it before. Sitting in the van and uploading the record with the rain beating down on the roof, felt like a vindication of the day. There are very few activities where a complete amateur can make a difference, and when it comes to the destruction of the environment we need witnesses. Witnesses that can put hard, verifiable records up against the magical thinking of the climate change deniers.

And that’s also why it’s worth recording even the humblest and most common of the plants. If I have a beef with natural history films it’s their tendency to stress the spectacular over the mundane and wrap every living creature into a homesy narrative overwhelmed by overblown musical scores. Natural history as folk religion.

When you think about it, rarity and scarcity are not quite synonyms. Living organisms first become scarce and only then do they become rare. How will we know when an old familiar friend is becoming scarce if we don’t record them when they’re plentiful? Ten thousand records for lesser celandines seems about right, against one for the ghost orchid. But if no one ever recorded the ordinary everyday plants we wouldn’t notice until they almost disappeared – like the cuckoo! Today, standing in the woods, we heard a woodpecker drumming. As a child on my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns, such a sound would have been commonplace; but today it made my spirits leap. In the 1950’s my squirrels were all red squirrels. My grandfather was doing his best to shoot the greys, for which he was paid a penny a tail, I think. It didn’t work, though, and now we have to travel afar to see them. After another rainy day here tomorrow, we’re off to a site on the Roseland Peninsula with a more promising weather forecast.

It’s been an additional pleasure to write this post because a couple of weeks ago we decided to lash out on a portable WiFi router that runs on a data SIM. It seems to be working very well with all our laptops and phones networked and able to stream video. I think it’s known as a MiFi system. Anyway it works for us – so no more standing out in the wet trying to get a signal. With campsite WiFi here costing £15 for three days and not even functioning very well, it’s goodbye to tethering and hello to happy days.

Positively the last post on Cornwall (for now!)

I took these strikingly post-industrial photographs on the beach at Porthoustock on the Lizard Peninsula last week. The beach there is completely dominated by the huge brutalist silo – now disused – that was a part of the St Keverne quarry. The quarry still operates in a small way as you can see from the top left picture of a working excavator, and by the look of the pile of crushed stone, seems to be excavating roadstone. The local granite is apparently coarse grained and often used in sea walls and such like much of it going to South Wales.

While we were there we fell into conversation with a threesome of divers – all retired – who were looking for a suitable clubhouse in the area. The talk ran down familiar tracks; litter, dogshit, tourism, housing crisis and so forth. They mistakenly identified the silo as having to do with tin mining but I think it would have contained thousands of tons of crushed stone waiting to be loaded into the kind of small ships that could pull alongside at high tide. The ports, visible from rust stains at the side, would have discharged stone straight into the boats.

There was a turn when we discussed whether the small quarrying operation was actually removing the whole headland – it is, apparently, in the face of some local opposition – and this conversational thread led to the chronic unemployment in the area, and whether lithium mines would be a boon or an environmental menace. The key moment came when one of them said – “of course we’re all retired and so we don’t have to worry about jobs. Our instincts would be to insist that nothing changes here – it’s why we moved here in the first place.”

I don’t think for a moment that they were being as selfish as that statement implies. What I think was being expressed is the ongoing paradox of living in a wildlife paradise, surrounded by beautiful views when the local people are living in demonstrable poverty caused by inflated house prices and high unemployment mitigated only by seasonal and poorly paid work.

I did a lot of work running writers groups in the Welsh Valleys during and after the miners’ strike. You could taste the anger and depression being caused by the deliberate destruction of their culture. Now, of course, we’re trying to end coal mining altogether – and nobody worth listening to is contesting the significance of climate change; but the move to sustainable, renewable energy could have been, and now must be managed through huge investment in the retraining of local people to take on skilled, well paid jobs in a greener future.

Halfway marker on Porthallow beach

On the beach there, we saw the paradox that must be faced. Simply knocking down all traces of an old and proud culture and filling the empty space with second holiday homes and caravan parks would contribute nothing to the problem. There amidst the ruins, we saw a buzzard feeding on the remains of a dead fish. The place is alive with wildlife, and of course these post industrial sites are often nature’s hotspots. I know I’ve got a bit of a thing about this kind of landscape. It comes from growing up in an exactly similar area in Gloucestershire, where one or two of our neighbours were retired coal miners, and a couple of the pits were still in operation. We had pipeworks, brickworks and – looking much further back – names relating to the woolen industry. I spent days with my friend Eddie, tracing the old dram road that brought coal from Coalpit Heath to the river Avon. I was delighted to discover that Cornwall and Gloucestershire once shared what’s known in linguistics as a soft mutation – tram roads were always spoken of as dram roads. I felt very much at home on that beach! A handful of fishing boats and the small quarry were a sign that the culture is clinging on. Further up the coast towards Falmouth we watched a large fishing boat seine netting in the bay from Porthallow beach.

I took the pictures below in 2009, in the remains of one of the abandoned tin mines on the north coast. The technicolour stains on the cliff are a permanent reminder of the poisonous effluents that accompanied tin and copper mining. The furnaces in which the ores were extracted must have been terrifying; a real-life vision of what may yet turn out to be the end of the world. A group of volunteers have restored the old steam powered beam engine – it was an awesome sight. Naturally – or, in fact, unnaturally – we could erase the buildings and make the area ‘profitable’ by building second homes or industrial estates; but to wander through those derelict acres of ruined land – which are by now being reclaimed by wildlife and specialist plants of real importance – is the best way of telling the story of the industrial revolution in a way that lays bare the downside – the greedy and extractive ruination of a whole county by unfettered capitalism. Beneath the surface of the impoverished soil, even the fungi and bacteria are doing the work of remediating the damage that our ancestors caused.

Is there any way forward so long as Cornwall is mismanaged from London by politicians and civil servants who have no connection or knowledge of its history and culture? Bring on regional government, I say, and for goodness sake don’t even think about creating a regional structure that attempts to join Cornwall with Devon. Bishop Trelawny would rise from his grave! Cornwall is as much a country as Wales.

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