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.

Orion’s spell

Madame is in the kitchen cooking pasta al fagioli and the earthy fragrance of the borlotti beans, simmering with the onion, carrot and celery and a bunch of rosemary from the allotment is already wafting around the flat. With the excesses of Christmas out of the way we’ve needed to rest not just from the cooking, but the eating of so much rich food. If there’s a symbol of seasonal excess it’s the enormous French cast iron paté mould that I bought on impulse maybe fifteen years ago and which annually lures me into making more paté than we could ever eat at one family meal. We eat it all eventually, with the help of the freezer, but it takes most of the year. So: home baked everyday bread and this hearty cross between a soup and a stew is what we’ll eat today. The borlotti beans are our own, grown on the allotment along with most of the other ingredients apart from the pasta and some lardons. It’s the day of the seed order and, fortified with cake and cups of tea, we negotiate next season’s crops, sort out boxes of leftover seeds to eliminate the out of date ones, and complete the online orders. Oh and we have our annual discussion about indexing seeds better so that we don’t double buy on impulse, or forget something really important.

Completing the seed order feels as much liturgy as chore. Our discussions invoke memories of meals, successes and failures as well as new opportunities. We work from a computer list that I wrote years ago and update each January. You’d think that level of organisation would display at least some talent for planning, but every year the list is overwritten with so many pencilled amendments and flashes of inspiration that it becomes a kind of aspirational but redundant piece of crumpled paper. As I said; it’s liturgy – confessions and absolutions. The smell and the creamy taste of the cooking beans are so far beyond the agri industrial canned products you could cheerfully eat them with no more than some salt and a dash of oil. In fact you could keep the beans for another day and just drink the cooking water! It’s not about virtue. Virtue is just the spinoff from the sheer pleasure of growing, cooking and eating.

Depending on the way you frame it – whether or not they have any spiritual significance for you – these weeks between the solstice and the epiphany are days of waiting. Solstice is a moment, but it always seems to me that this is one of those great seasonal pauses; a kind of transitional silence as the enormous inertia of the solar system resolves itself and settles for the months until the summer solstice in June, into ever longer days. Traditionally – I mean possibly even for millennia – this period has marked a break in the farming year overlaid by twelfth night and inscribed beneath that, yuletide. The land was too cold, too hard or too wet and so the labourers deserted the unworkable fields. The day after Epiphany, on the 6th January marked the return to work.

So there’s an ingrained sense of therapeutic idleness tucked away somewhere in our unconscious memory; a break from the routine marked by partying and also – quite often – by being out and about, intensely alive and perhaps a bit drunk, late at night. All of which is a long winded way of saying that the constellation that I associate especially with this time of year is Orion. It would be nice to call these the dog days, but that title has already been bagged by Sirius in high summer, when it rises just before the sun. Normally the word “dog” before almost anything in nature is a sign of something inferior or unworthy but in this instance the term comes from Canis Majoris, the constellation in which Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest object. Anyway, the listless and sultry days of high summer are not in the same league as the high energy memories of dancing home in a winter frost with the stars so bright they seem to generate an angelic music beyond the reach of your ears: as if you could listen to a single phrase of Tallis’ Spem in Alium through some undiscovered faculty of bone and brain. You look up and there is Orion the the hunter, sword in belt, and the meaning of that music is on the tip of your tongue not to be spoken, ever.

However this year I haven’t seen Orion because not only was it the mildest December on record, it was also the dullest; cloud upon cloud heaping up from the south west. Clear skies and partying opportunities have all but disappeared; courtesy of Covid and climate change. Madame – who specializes in delphic announcements in the middle of the night – woke me against the sounds of the young people upstairs, partying on New Year’s Eve and declared “ There’s no-one we can have a laugh with.…… ” – and she’s right. Our social life has all but withered on the vine these last two years; we’re not evolved to live like this. How can we sing our song in this strange land?

Such mournful thoughts were soon blown away when we went scouting for Seville oranges and found them on exactly the same day – my journal records – as we did three years ago. And so we brought three kilos back and we shall have marmalade again after months of abstinence. I love blackcurrant jam and damson jam (my personal favorite) but breakfast without marmalade is an impoverished feast. We eat so much of it I should make around forty pounds to keep us going until next January with a bit to spare. We’re going down to Cornwall, to the Lizard, soon and God willing and a fair wind as my old friend Joan Williams would often say, I’ll be able to lie on my back on the grass to seek out Orion in a clear sky, and listen to the angels singing again.

New Year revolutions?

A rare trip to Bristol to meet our friends Tony and Glen in the summer

Rather than drowning in the sentimental guff of New Year’s Eve television, last night we chose, rather, to watch a documentary made by her nephew, on the late and wonderful Joan Didion who died very recently. While I couldn’t say I’ve read all of her work, I can say that when I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem reprinted in a collection of the same name, two thoughts filled my mind; firstly that I had finally read someone who had embraced and seen the darkness beyond the summer of love through the lens of Haight Ashbury; and secondly that she stands (writers never die, they go out of print) with Simone de Beauvoir and William Cobbett as someone who dares to see what is on the ground and then writes it.

My own love affair with that tumultuous period she was writing about, ended at a free music festival in Bath which took place in 1971 on a small and almost unknown patch of open land behind St Swithin’s Church and which drops down to the river. These days it’s probably the least visited park in the city because so many people walk their dogs there it’s dangerous to enter without boots and impossible to sit on the grass safely. On that hot summer afternoon it was rammed. There was a single standpipe on the site and I had seen dozens of people filling bottles with drinking water – but then I caught sight of a young woman with her baby, and she was scraping the shit off a nappy against the tap. That was the moment the fantasy collapsed. We were surrounded by beautiful young people who were displaying precisely the same capacity for destructive behaviour as the generation we thought we were moving beyond. Any thought that Shangri la was to be the next evolutionary step slithered on to the grass that day.

I’ve never written about it before – but Joan Didion almost certainly would have done. Nothing was too trivial or too painful for her to write. She, like my most important teachers, never flinched, never chickened out from telling it like it was and still is. My own gifts are on an altogether more modest scale of course, but the temptation to smooth over the cracks is still always there. A couple of months ago a piece I wrote about the plague of rats on the allotments failed to find its way into the newsletter – I guess because it failed the prevailing narrative tradition that everything in the garden is, and always must be lovely.

And so I write about the city as it is, which has to include the beggars and drug dealers as well as the way the evening sun catches the Georgian buildings and turns them to gold. I write about the river and its wildlife but I refuse to stop talking about flooding and sewage pollution just because it detracts from the PR engine. Bath, like any other World Heritage city is a fur coats and no knickers kind of place – perfect for free spending tourists who never stay long enough to glimpse into the shadows, but less fun if you’re number 8000 on the waiting list for somewhere to live. Cherry picking the best bits reduces the city to a cipher. In truth it’s possible to walk the streets and wonder if it’s a film set for a costume drama. It often is – we haver somewhere between a Jane Austen tribute band and a bunch of Roman Legionnaires on R & R after subduing the natives.

And that’s the glory of it – the sheer craziness of its loopy, deluded and partially sighted self-image within which we at the Potwell Inn run our oasis and refuge. Uncle Jim has been vanquished but we still have Rainbow and Nutter begging outside the Roman Baths. We still have twitchy punters hanging around on the corner of the Green waiting for the dealer to turn up, or hurrying down the towpath in that exaggerated purposefulness they seem to adopt – heads down, hoodies pulled over so as to look as if they had somewhere better than oblivion to get to.

And so this New Year’s resolution is to stay true to the city in all its contradictions and to get as close to being human as this crazy age will allow. We shall grow food without claiming any special expertise; cook and eat while harbouring no thoughts of turning it into a business. I shan’t pretend to be enlightened or spiritually adept or better read than anyone else. Most of all I want to spend time with the wild plants and animals that scratch a living here as well. I expect to spend part of the year completely dry and other parts a bit wetter because in vino veritas is a good motto for someone who’s interested in the truth.

The real agony for any writer is that the occasional moments of revelation are prone to make us absolutely silent. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent – Mr Wittgenstein wrote – and I agree. Writing, even at its best, is so much chatter in the darkness; but Joan Didion got closer to the fire than most.

Have a very happy New Year!

Who’s the big cheese around here?

Gatt talks, WTO tariffs and trading partnerships all sound a bit remote – at least they do to me – until, that is, – I start to wonder where we’re heading with our grip on global climate change, atmospheric pollution, biodiversity loss, food policy, the obesity crisis; zoonotic pandemics, and feel free to add any other candidates. The official government line on all this is to stick its fingers in its ears and shout lalalalalalalalala as loud as it possibly can. Scientists?? pifflewaffle; we know what we think and we think what we know! The great joy of knowing the answer before you’ve even formulated the question is the amount of time it releases for doing more fun things.

Anyway, I listened to a programme on the radio last evening about Flann O’Brien’s novel “The third Policeman” and whilst thinking about bicycles (if you’ve read it you’ll know!) I remembered a theory I formulated many decades ago when I was studying ceramics. My lecturers, with the exception of the saintly David Green (the rest deserve to remain anonymous) regarded my interest in the science and technology of firing clay and decorating with glazes as a dangerous diversion from the main task of being creative. I simply couldn’t understand how I was supposed to create anything without the knowledge of the chemistry and the physics that made things possible. The alternative was the opposite of creativity because it limited you to flicking through magazines and catalogues and making things with readymade ideas and readymade materials. I paid for my interest with a drinker’s degree but with some grasp of what you could do with mud and fire.

So my theory was simple. The sum of human knowledge is accessible from any single point you might start out from rather as a bicycle wheel is supported and rendered strong and functional not by a single spoke but by a multitude of spokes radiating from the centre. A pHd in the study of one spoke will leave you as powerless as when you began. Beginning with hand made ceramics at the centre of the hub I was able to explore chemistry, physics, history, industrial and domestic design, the economic geography of the Midlands; geology – of course – and the evolution of industrial ceramics; and that’s not to mention Chinese, Korean and Japanese ceramics through their history and bearing in mind the religious cultures in which they were situated. Altogether a marvellous complement to the business of creatively expressing the idea of being human through mud, fire and human hands.

It seems to me that the same bicycle wheel analogy can be applied to any or all of the challenges I outlined in the first paragraph. Yes I’m an allotmenteer but also I’m a cook, a writer, a parent, a partner, a shopper and a human being struggling to discover how best to be human in this strange century. So all the old disciplines come back again, because to understand what’s going on it’s not enough to follow a single spoke. We need sound grasp of all of them if we’re to deal creatively with the challenges – otherwise, as my argument suggests, we are chained to endlessly repeating old and (as we now know) ineffective solutions.

What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like

Let’s take cheese as a starting point – no surprise there then! The wheel of thunderous raw milk Cheddar or the block of its industrial, cling wrapped namesake share some features but it’s the differences that really count. To take an interest in cheesemaking necessitates taking an interest in farming and demands that we consider the carbon footprint of dairy farming. The two cousins may share a common ancestor but they grew up in different cultures, thriving and failing in different economic structures. They each have roots in many other questions – not least how should we feed ourselves without destroying the earth? What should we do with the waste products? Is it possible to feed the population without resorting to industrial farming with its chemicals? Can we even afford the additional expense of time and human labour if we turn our backs on the feedlot and the intensive dairy operations? Can we afford not to? What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like?

We’ve become so reliant on technological solutions for complex problems that we’re shunting lethal earth-threatening events down the line awaiting the arrival of the uninvented as if technology were like the Seventh Cavalry – always appearing over the hill in the nick of time. The reality is that we’re locked in the cabin of an aeroplane that’s plunging earthwards while the crew argue about which button to press.

There will be ways of changing our bearing and finding a way through the challenges but it will demand the understanding and collaboration of the sociology and economics, psychology, agricultural and horticultural sciences and political structures in order to untangle the threads that have created this disaster. But most of all this can’t be an imposed solution without the input of farmers and the food distribution networks; of consumers and – dare I say – the thousands of workers who depend on ultra processed food production for jobs. A bicycle with a one spoked wheel is suitable only for leaning against walls.

I had a friend who was a keen amateur cyclist and once or twice he tuned my bike wheels in order to remove a kink acquired in a pothole. The sensitivity required as he turned the spoke spanner tiny amounts was amazing. Every twist on one spoke would demand a tweek somewhere else – it took ages; and so it will be as we try to deal with the crises we’re facing. The devil will always be in the detail.

not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle

The crisis of end stage capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Basic foodstuffs have been so commodified that they have no relation even to the country, let alone the county of origin. Commodified milk, for instance is often sold at below the cost of production and I remember well a dairy worker telling me that when one chain wanted to depress the farm gate prices they began importing milk from Poland which, by the time it finally arrived was beginning to turn. This doesn’t matter much because, as a result of lobbying pressure from the largest producers, all milk has to be pasteurised to such an extent that the friendly natural yeasts, bacteria and microbes on which regional artisan cheeses depend for their unique flavours are all dead. So then they have to add one or more industrial starter cultures. Unsurprisingly, most commercial Cheddars taste much the same – not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle.

Where the trade agreements come into this is that the big producers have found it easy to crush artisan cheesemakers by imposing regulations that destroy the handmade product. The fightback has been fierce, beginning with the trumped up charge that raw milk cheeses were quite likely to infect you with Listeria. It took a titanic battle to prove that traditional raw milk cheese production – when done properly – is actually less likely to give you Listeriosis because all those naughty microbes are able to create an environment that’s hostile to Listeria. It’s just that you should avoid raw milk cheeses and soft blue cheeses if you’re pregnant or immunocompromised.

I’m sorry to have focused on cheese, but the same thing exactly goes on with cattle breeding – most high yield grain fed cattle are too closely related to one another due to the international trade in bull semen. Consequently many cattle are born sick and need copious amounts of prophylactic antibiotics just to stay alive. Traditional herbal remedies, many used effectively for centuries, have been driven off the shelves because the producers can’t afford the huge costs of testing and registration. In fact, as I’ve been reading about the scandalous results of the actions of agrochemical industries, big pharma and intensive farming and their relationships with industrial and ultra processed food.

The commodification of the food chain in order to drive down prices is the principal engine of almost every challenge we face. Cheap ultra processed food makes us sick while it drives ecological and climate devastation and, worse still, is the fact that it’s only cheap because we the longsuffering taxpayers subsidise it; throw money at it. There’s only one way forward and that’s to turf out governments that refuse to take this problem seriously; to bear down hard on the industries that spend billions on lobbying (more than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were members of official delegations at COP26! – let alone the big pharma and agrochemical lobby), and to regulate fairly to protect and promote sustainable agriculture within local food chains. If we were to remove the subsidies for junk food and apply them to genuine producers we’d see the price differential close dramatically.

Do I sound cross? ….. you’ve no idea !!!!

Creative intervention in Bath draws the crowds

Out on our walk today we came across this contribution to the COP26 meeting. These interventions can sometimes be a bit preachy but this one conveys a powerful message with a touch of humour. Whatever the means we didn’t hear any negative comments from the gathered crowd. The placement, immediately between the iconic Pulteney Bridge and the weir which is regularly submerged during winter floods, is a prophetic take on what might easily happen if nothing is done to curb runaway climate change. When it’s in spate the river is truly menacing and the Council is spending millions on flood prevention on a river that’s also highly polluted by sewage discharges and run off from intensive farmland. With just a few days to go before COP26 this intervention just about sums it all up. It’s a brilliant collaboration between the architects Stride Treglown and artist Anna Gillespie. What we need now is an earthquake in Downing Street – metaphorically speaking of course!

Digging the dirt – could do better

No doubt this derelict shack will be appearing on AirBnb sometime soon but all that glitters is not gold.

There’s a huge difference between running cattle and sheep on 5000 hectares (12,300 acres) and growing vegetables on an allotment; but the starting point is exactly the same – earth.

Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.

Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:

  • Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
  • Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
  • Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
  • Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas

Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.

The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.

If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.

So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.

So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?

Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.

But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.

Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.

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