Sweet Cicely again.

Here at the Potwell Inn we’re beginning the sixth week of our lockdown because we started a little earlier than the Government. There have been many moments of doubt, but on the whole it’s been a positive experience because it’s affirmed the choices we’ve already  made over the years about the way we live. So baking, for instance hasn’t come as a new skill, nor has gardening or cooking. We hardly ever ate out; we gave up going abroad when we retired because we couldn’t really afford it any more. The biggest changes due to the lockdown have been the clean plates. We’ve eaten well but carefully and because we’re cooking smaller portions we finish it all. That’s it really.  The cleaner air, the absence of traffic and noise have been an absolute bonus. The biggest loss has been the fact that we can’t use the campervan and so a whole missing season of walking, botanising, mountains and seaside  therapy  has left a huge gap in our lives and we’ll never stop yearning for France. So far as I’m concerned that really doesn’t add up to saintly renunciation.

My biggest concern – it’s becoming an obsession – is that the covid 19 pandemic has displaced almost every other issue in public life.  I feel like the cartoon character with a billboard that proclaims the end is nigh! – people laugh, dismiss my concerns and take a wide berth; but the smallest glimpse at history teaches that civilisations and cultures really do come to an end when they are overwhelmed by their contradictions and overreach themselves. When Thomas Cromwell appropriated the wealth of the monasteries they were already well on their way to collapsing. The supply of peasant labour that kept the farms going was beginning to dry up and many of the monks were far from home, collecting rents.  The fabulous wealth of the church was ripe for the picking, it had become spiritually bankrupt and far too interested in projecting political power. It was Cromwell who had the cunning plan.

But when the prevailing ideology of a civilisation or culture is exposed as bankrupt, unworkable, fraudulent or downright dangerous it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.  That’s a fact of history, not a prediction for the future. This isn’t a long holiday paid for by the state, but it may be a moment in an historical earthquake. Climate change, economic collapse and species extinctions are not going to take a furlough while the politicians get the old, damaged economy back on its feet. The only question is – do we want to do survival the hard way or the catastrophic way? 

All of which gloomy thoughts have provoked me to write about Sweet Cicely because whatever the future, these precious weeds will have a part in it. Welcome to the Potwell Inn windowsill which is pressed into service as a greenhouse, a source of free light and heat and an entertainment centre through which we can watch the world even though we’re confined – aside from daily trips to the allotment. I’d long wanted to grow it because it’s an early riser like rhubarb and its natural sweetness and faintly aniseed flavour make the perfect companion to it. The best culinary herbs are often not the ones that shout at you like a trumpet in a Sicilian marching band. They’re more subtle – so much so that you only notice their absence and not their presence. So yesterday we gathered both and cooked them, and the addition of a few Sweet Cicely leaves makes an indefinable but profound difference, adding depth. Home grown rhubarb straight out of the ground is marvellous anyway, but this way it’s even better.

I spoke of it, just then, as a weed – and, in Yorkshire for instance, that’s what it is – as common as Cow Parsley is down here in the South West. Our plants had a difficult beginning. I actually bought some seeds three years ago, shoved them into some seed compost and waited – nothing happened. Did I ever write about the RTFM notice? Years ago I worked in a satellite radio station where there was a large notice written over the desk.  “In the event of equipment failure RTFM” I asked an engineer one day what it meant. “Read the manual” he replied tartly.

So after the Sweet Cicely had sulked for a very long time I read the manual and it appeared that they were tricky little devils to germinate because they needed a period of cold (vernalization).  So into the fridge they went, pots and all, in a plastic bag where I forgot all about them. Later we went to see friends in Yorkshire and there were plants growing absolutely everywhere – like weeds – in Nidderdale, where we were. So I grabbed a handful of the interestingly large seeds, shoved them in my pocket until we got home and then I put them into pots and left them outside without much hope. Up they sprang and I planted them into a corner where I thought they couldn’t do too much harm and that was that. Eventually I remembered the ones in the fridge and sunk the little pots into a bigger one and left them outside on the allotment where they too germinated. I can definitely confirm that once they’ve got their roots down they are completely worthy of their weedy reputation just as they are worthy of a place on any allotment – just for the rhubarb, although the green seeds are also delicious and have a lot of potential for cooking.

The other two plants on the windowsill were Dill and Lovage – also early risers on the allotment. Dill is just wonderful (in small amounts) added to parsley in a fish pie; and Lovage is a marvellous addition to any vegetable stock (oh and in Pimms too). In the trug yesterday was another cutting of Purple Sprouting Broccoli which is at its peak at the moment. The important point about it is that although it’s in the ground for almost two years, the sprouts themselves grow and ripen in days and so they are immensely tender – stalk and all. I suspect that’s the reason why commercial growers have adopted the term “tenderstem” – because non gardeners might cut the stalks off (oh horror!).  They’re as good as asparagus and a lot more prolific. At the moment our 12′ X 5′ asparagus bed is yielding a small feed every two days.  The Purple Sprouting (5 plants) would yield a trug full in the same time.

The other seasonal blessing is Spinach – it doesn’t care for midsummer and wants to bolt, so now is the time to harvest, and you can sow more in late summer for the winter months.  Meanwhile  the chards will take over.

 

 

 

 

I know my place!

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Looking west from Dyrham Park on the Cotswold escarpment towards Wales

OK so – if you examine that statement from every angle it  might look smarter than I  intend. I do know my place, after all I’ve lived in it for most of 73 years, my speech is inflected with its dialect and there’s not much of it I haven’t walked, cycled, driven  or tried to grow things in at some time or another. I recognise a respectable amount of its wildlife in a thoroughly non-professional way, and I know most of its history. So I know my place; I’m hefted to the area around two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, and to the land west of the Cotswolds and north of the Mendips.

And so by extension I know a lot less about many other areas that I love just as passionately, especially the far western parts of England and Wales, but they’ve been holiday romances rather than family. I make lists of plants, watch birds and animals and always come back refreshed and inspired. I’m an amateur, a bit of a peasant, an autodidact, living an inch from the edge of a howler, an intruder into the VIP lounge of proper (whatever that’s supposed to mean!) experts. And so reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been a big struggle because I know, even with my street wisdom, that there’s something wrong with his argument – I just don’t quite know what it is. There’s porridge in the radiator, gear oil in the sump and quite a bit of well disguised filler in the bodywork and notwithstanding the good looks on the forecourt I know it’s a wrong ‘un.

I’ve been reading it restlessly, on and off. I shout at it, slam it shut, double check the data. I managed to struggle through the first couple of chapters, although I found some of the tales of superhuman derring do  – paddling six miles out to sea in a kayak – running twenty miles before breakfast with a young Masai man, dodging bullets in a Brazilian mining settlement – well, a bit desperate. The beatific visions and revelations of true nature were a touch too Ignatian for me, and I was just waiting for the wrestling with bears bit so I could just accept it as a fictional ‘coming of middle age’ narrative . The picture of Vladimir Putin on a horse kept floating into my mind.

But when he kicked off on the so-called Cambrian desert I had to race to the laptop.  Where is this scene of dereliction and abandonment overrun by malignant sheep and even more malignant Welsh hill farmers? A quick check on the BSBI website turned out  to be difficult because reorganised boundaries have rendered the vice county list a bit impenetrable. Powys, for instance, includes bits of Montgomeryshire *(VC47), Radnorshire (VC43), Brecknockshire – Breconshire if you’re English – (VC42) and a bit of Denbighshire (VC50) and the Cambrian Mountains also embrace some of Ceredigion(VC46) and Carmarthenshire(VC44). That’s a lot of lists, but checking them all I couldn’t see even one of them with a significantly lower number of plant species; but I could see that there were quite a few rarities in amongst them.  Even from my own scant knowledge I know  that there are irreplaceable habitats there, bogs, mires and wetland areas.  The road between Tregaron and Abergwesyn seemed to me, when I first drove it, a paradise. And what on earth is he suggesting when he writes in the same chapter that there were no birds? He seems to have set out with a self imposed vision of a despoiled land, and exercised iron discipline on himself to exclude any evidence to the contrary. The red kite, thank goodness, is now as common as medieval hill towns in Provence – who’d have thought it? I stopped reading when the book started to make me feel fearful.

But I know my place, and I can’t offer anything approaching a sensible review of the book from a more experienced perspective.  I know it’s a contested area of thought and I’m slowly trying to catch up after decades of the more (dare I say) piles and varicose veins side of spirituality that is the life of an almost extinct species of country parson. So I searched through the original reviews, found some hiding behind paywalls, but  some more that shared at least a few of my misgivings and then I stumbled on this blog by Miles King which has a review written with far more authority and expertise than I’ll ever have, and which I’ve found invaluable. I realize I’ve been rather harsh, but we’re in a crisis and what we need, more than anything else, is to follow the facts on the ground even if they contradict (especially if they contradict) our presuppositions and prejudices. Making up ‘facts’ to advance an opinion is morally wrong and – at the moment – dangerous because it hands ammunition to the enemy who will use exactly the sort of logical contradictions that abound in “Feral” to attack the whole project.

So I’m going to put the book back on the shelf now because I’ve just got hold of “Meadows” by George Peterken whose lecture we went to a while ago at Bath Nats. In the midst of a crisis there’s no time for a canonical literature to emerge, no place yet for the final word or the revealed truth, but there are enough half-baked ideas out there to furnish a lifetime of village flower and produce shows. “Meadows” looks to me to be a better bet if I want to find out what’s really going on and what we might have to do about it. There are plenty of elephants in the room already without parachuting them into Powys.

  • these are all vice-county lists of plants found in the designated areas and maintained by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland

 

A brief break in the rain

So this is a very brief video of Pulteney Weir, here in Bath, taken this afternoon. Looking at it now it doesn’t look all that exceptional, or at least it doesn’t if you’ve never seen it under normal conditions, when there are four steps and seagulls paddle safely on the top of the first. The river is exceptionally high, and that reflects the saturated soil conditions upstream, and that’s giving farmers (and allotmenteers too) massive problems.  Even where the ground is not actually flooded it’s impossible to get machinery on to it – a pair of size 10 wellies is too much. I’ve mentioned the three underground springs that run beneath our allotment site, and they keep the water table worryingly high. Some vegetables will tolerate wet conditions, but many won’t. We’ve got garlic, onions and shallots (we’ve given up altogether on the leeks), and we should be cutting asparagus in about six or eight weeks. Rain is best in small regular amounts because the roots actually need air as much as they do water.  Sadly we don’t get to choose, and so the best thing we can do at every level – from the whole sweep of Welsh hill country, for instance, down to the smallest veg patch is to improve water retention by tree planting, by changing agricultural practices and by reinstating marshes and bogs. Good soil can store much more water without becoming waterlogged – that’s a fact.  Our instincts are to increase downstream dredging and build bigger rhynes and ditches to try to speed up the run-off but that’s a daft way to go.  What we know we need to do is to hold the rain for longer and release it more slowly; and we know how to do this. Building up thick topsoils rich in organic matter, nice winding streams and beaver dams, local flood plains (without houses!) can all help.

We need to try to reduce overall rainfall – and that means addressing the climate crisis because as the Atlantic heats up, more and more moisture laden air is going to head our way. This is a political , economic and cultural challenge – just about the biggest we’ve faced in generations. We need to develop crops and seeds better suited to our new climate, because this can’t happen overnight.  We need to turn away from the fantasy that technology can solve all our problems because it can’t. We need to eat less meat, drive much less, give up flying whenever it suits us, and that means we need to structure our economy in an entirely different way.  It would be a tragedy if most of the world had to accept vastly worse lives in order to keep a few wealthy people living in extravagance.

Does this sound like a revolution? Well, of course it does but the alternatives are much worse. However we can’t expect to be congratulated for our far-sighted views because it’s such a massive change.  I’ve always taught my children to avoid revolution at all cost, because violent revolutions rarely bring anything but unhappiness and worse conditions than ever. We do have a choice and a vision and we can do our best to realize it however much we’re impeded.  We need to have the more powerful vision of hope for the future and not focus exclusively on calling out the villains because that just gives them the chance to demonize us as ‘extremists’ – as if wanting to be able to breathe clean air and eat healthy food, free from chemicals, to drink safe tap water and to walk and cycle safely on uncongested roads and in a living biodiverse countryside was somehow threatening to life. We need to be able to say to people “taste and see” by opening our gardens and allotments for anyone to come along and experience for themselves what’s possible.  We need to work with, and not against farmers, especially small farmers, because being a critical friend is so much more positive than being an implacable enemy, and finally we need to be better consumers.  Mindfulness can be a lot more than just a meditational discipline – especially when we’re buying food and clothes.

Why am I writing all this today?  Well, because I can get a bad dose of the ‘black dog’ when things seem to go as badly as they are at the moment and so, forgive me, I’m reminding myself that we’re not entirely powerless in the face of government incompetence and indifference. But secondly a new follower signed up today – a new allotmenteer as it happens – and I wanted to write something that sets our shared interest within a broader and much more significant context. The personal really is political.

On the allotment (“at last” you may well be saying), a veggie traffic jam is beginning to happen.  Keeping to our usual dates we’ve trays of germinated and germinating seeds that move through the warm propagator to the cooler one, to tables under the windows and then to the unheated greenhouse. But the soil is cold and wet and we just need a secure break in this weather to plant things out ready for spring. You need to be a bit of an optimist in this game. Tomorrow we’ll be sowing into the hotbed which is working really well. We could still be pulling some really early carrots with a bit of luck.

 

 

A new widget

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I’m inclined to think that we bloggers are better at talking than listening, and having banged on for a year at some (130,000 words) length on any subject that interested me, I realized this morning that if this blog is to be any more significant than a bunch of egotistical blah blah blah it needs to offer the opportunity for more engagement and more feedback.

I’ve long wanted the site to have its own email address so that readers could respond privately without having to use public comments or likes, but I’ve been wary of compromising our privacy by handing out my own addresses and being swamped. I realize that this could be risky but I’ve taken every precaution to keep the ‘contact@severnsider.com’ channel separate, and I hope and anticipate that this will add something to the whole experience of the Potwell Inn. After all, whoever heard of a pub where you had to listen to the landlord without being able to join in a conversation. So now there will be two ways of joining in, the ‘comment’ button for stuff you don’t mind sharing with everyone, and the ‘contact’ button for anything else. I can’t promise anything more than a slow response, but I will try and respond and I’m always pleased to receive constructive ideas, criticism  and further thoughts.

That, at least, was the intention when I woke ‘on a mission‘ this morning.  “It’s time” – I thought and I charged into action. Not being a computer geek I should have realized that nothing is as easy as it seems and I finally made it work ten hours later, which rather took the shine off my glorious optimism.

I’ll put up a ‘proper’ post later if I can find the energy, but meanwhile I hope you’ll find this a useful opportunity.  Do let me know if you agree, I get the sense that there’s a community out there which is struggling, like me, to make a lucid and useful response to our climate and ecological crises by living differently – hence the endless reading, the allotment and the emphasis on food.

We’re now in North Wales for a little while in our exploration of the regions and their different farming challenges. We seem to have been (I suppose we have been) travelling for weeks, but nothing has shaken my conviction that there is a way through this mess.

 

Rainy day

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Wettest, dryest, hottest – it seems that weather patterns are breaking records across Europe and it’s very concerning for anyone who grows food.  This year the plants on the allotment have had to cope with all sorts of stressful events, and it must be much worse for farmers. Neither heatwaves or torrential rain are much help for growing crops, and it’s a pity that weather reporting focuses so much on our personal convenience rather than our actual long-term needs.  It is a shame that this is turning out to be the wettest August since records began, but it’s not just a shame because it messes up the school holidays. The forecasters usually manage a mention of the “morning commute” when it rains, without making the link between our addiction to the car and the climate emergency.  In Bath we frequently have to breathe air that’s so polluted it breaks European safety limits.  Having a government that believes the best way to deal with a problem is to stop collecting statistics isn’t going to change anything soon, and if my freedom to sit in a traffic jam with my engine idling causes a single child to have an asthma attack it’s not a freedom worth preserving.

So in a make-do and mend sort of way, had a very rainy day visit to Bath City Farm yesterday with two of the grandchildren while the other one was in hospital having yet more tests.  Being a SWAN (syndrome without a name) requires a whole team of wonderful NHS consultants.  She’s phenomenally resilient and yesterday after having a general anaesthetic, an endoscope, and saline solution injected into her lungs she told her dad she’d had a ‘lovely day’.

We had a lovely day too, weaving the rain into the story so that the chldren could experience slides that are twice as fast when they’re wet.  The youngest thought it was hysterically funny to crash time after time into my legs after sliding down out of control. Later we went to McDonald’s as a special treat, and exactly as I did the last time, I managed to make a complete hash of the order and landed up with no chips and an extra cheeseburger. I know I’m supposed to be contemptuous of this kind of food, but it’s the exception rather than the rule for the children and we have many misgivings. However, and this isn’t a defence of junk food, if I were a hard pressed parent without much money, few cooking skills and no time, feeding a family of four for £15 must be a very tempting prospect. Haranguing people isn’t going to change the economics.

Back at the Potwell Inn, rainy days are a chance to get some preserving done, and we’ve been drying chillies, making half-sours with a huge crop of gherkins, and also making raspberry vinegar.  The leftover Seville oranges on the right of the picture were brined in January in exactly the same way you would pickle lemons. Just a quarter of peel with the pith scraped off and rinsed, adds a marvellous salty, orangy piquance to a sauce. This is (another) favourite season when we turn the surpluses into food for rainy days in the broader sense. Most years the concept of a rainy day doesn’t go much beyond an occasional treat, but this year there’s  greater sense of urgency as we start to contemplate the likelihood of food shortages and general upheaval. I wonder how we ever drifted into this perilous situation, and although I’m no believer in any ‘iron laws of history’ or of gods for that matter, I do think there’s a sense of inevitability about the collapse of an economic system that acts as a giant Ponzi fraud. When cultures begin to change no amount of longing for the good old days will bring them back, because to recall my first ever ethics lecture, as I frequently do,  – you can’t make an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’.

Records played, updated and broken.

It was always going to be the hottest day of the summer so far, and so we agreed to give the (shelterless) allotment a miss.  The thunderstorm on Monday night had given the ground a real soaking, in fact we went to bed and then got up again at around half past midnight as the first growls of thunder got underway. It was the oddest storm I’ve ever watched – there were no lightning bolts to be seen and yet the sky was as bright as day each time there was a flash.  When I was a child I took part in a survey where I had to count the time between the flash and the thunderclap and send off other bits of information on a postcard, but if I’d been doing the same survey on Monday night I’d have had nothing to write.  The thunder was – well – thundrous and almost continuous, and when the rain eventually got underway it was very very intense.  People were out on the Green whooping and running around and at the back we could hear cheers breaking out. The sheer oddity of the storm had turned it into a comunity event.

IMG_2163So no need for watering and far too hot to be doing any jobs on the allotment we elected to walk up the river and along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Bathampton. We’re very fortunate to be able to walk right across Bath without leaving the footpath (bar crossing a couple of main roads). We got to a point opposite the railway station where the heights of the many floods that have affected the river are engraved on the plinth of the footbridge.  Some of the floods were way above our heads, and if you’ve ever seen the Avon in flood you’ll know what a scary prospect that would be. The canalisation of the river has always been a main source of the floods and in the last couple of years an artificial flood plain has been built in the most affected area.  Sadly (as per normal) the native bankside flora was stripped out by the diggers and a pre-seeded carpet of so-called wildflowers was put there to replace them. Do architects and civil engineers ever actually look at wildflowers?  `The resulting mess that extends along the length of the ‘improvements’ comprises plants from every corner of Europe except this one and it looks either stupid or downright ugly – depending on your mood. A much loved and reliable crop of Burdock near the road bridge has been replaced by a chocolate box mix of intense reds and blues that don’t belong, and the saddest thing of all is that the majority of passers-by probably don’t even notice. Flooding, environmental destruction and heatwaves are all part of the same massive challenge and the mainstream political parties here just don’t get it. Enough!

By the time we got to the station we realized that a walk up the canal was going to be far too uncomfortable and so we took the short cut through town, opened the windows and pulled the shutters across and while Madame dozed I wrote for a couple of hours.

In the evening a workshop on Polygonaceae (that’s Docks, Sorrels Knotweeds etc in plain English).  Sadly , and probably due to the 32C temperature, the attendance was a bit disappointing  – well there were two of us.  I was slightly outgunned by the workshop leader and the only other participant who was a County Recorder and who could easily speak a sentence where I could only understand the conjunctions. However I quite enjoyed it and while they argued about promiscuous hybridizing I got on with it and looked at the samples.  After a mind-numbing two hours I’d successfully identified three easy plants and learned two new terms, which I count as a great night out. I’ll never look at a Dockweed the same way again.

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Mercifully, this morning it’s cooler and we’re off to do a great deal of weeding.  We have a rule on the allotments that says we can’t have a “bonfire” between March and the end of September – which happens to be the time we most need to burn weeds like couch. We’ve argued the toss about whether a small incinerator – burning at low temperature and creating very little smoke except when first lit – is the same thing as a bonfire. But rules, apparently are rules and so we must bag up  our noxious weeds in plastic sacks (obviously we compost almost everything), and drive them to the tip, engine idling while we advance a metre at a time in the queue. There they will be bulldozed around the bays and loaded into huge lorries when they can be driven either to landfill somewhere miles away, or to Avonmouth where they can be – wait for it – burned in a brand new incinerator.  Ah yes – that’s going to save the world!