Digging down

Priddy Pool

As it happens this post isn’t, strictly speaking, about allotmenteering or gardening, but about interrogating a landscape – to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner of the Bath Natural History Society – “It’s about walking in nature rather than through nature.”

Dunnock egg

Our favourite way of exploring is to get to know a new landscape by walking all its byways and footpaths really intensively. In this case it’s revisiting a landscape after a gap of many years which has added an extra dimension altogether. I don’t think there’s anything particularly deep or spiritual about this way of walking; it’s just about intense attention to detail. The dunnock egg, for instance, was in the wrong place; many yards from any possible nest. It’s impossible to know why it was there, but probably it had been stolen and then abandoned.

What triggered this line of thought was using the idea of silence in my last posting. Today we were walking a linked series of old droves and as we made our way towards the starting point I realised that I could hear the sound of a dried and dead leaf scuttering across the road in the brisk wind. That’s silence. I could describe it as the matrix that holds all the sounds of a particular place together; an ocean in which sounds are made and scattered. Its a great sadness that such moments are so rare these days.

But there’s more. Coming back to this high country after many years, farming seems to have changed. Walking through the village everything looks much the same – the local authority have done their job in preserving its appearance – but from the inner landscape – the droves and footpaths, another picture appears. Old buildings that were once useful are now abandoned. Behind the unchanged roadside buildings massive new barns have sprung up as farmers have been forced to intensify or go out of business. The rich diversity of wildlife has become increasingly confined to reserves and after three days of walking we’ve yet to see an unimproved meadow. This isn’t an attack on farmers at all. They’ve somewhat heroically tried to do everything they were asked to do – not least to increase production at the expense of the soil and the environment in general. Every cottage that hasn’t been sold to second homers has been pressed into service for holiday lets and – in a situation I know only too well, a local mixed farming culture that developed over centuries has been homogenised and all but destroyed. I was only bleakly amused to meet an electrician installing CCTV cameras on a remote house to deter off-roaders in four wheel drives who, totally illegally, noisily tear the ancient drove road to shreds in rain and snow. The balance of power between locals and incomers has been destroyed and the parish council has, by all accounts, endured hostility as the entrenched pro and anti offroaders battle it out. The local school survives but we looked in vain for a shop. It occurred to me that the silence I was enjoying would have been punctuated by the sounds of dozens, if not hundreds of farm labourers and horses. Some silences are more malign than you might think. An absence of life is not what I was looking for.

And the earth in some places looked exhausted.

The landscape, it seems – and sorry about the long word – to be a palimpsest. The newest message inscribed upon the poorly erased messages of the past. Walking through nature you might never notice the difference, but walking in it forces us to embrace its mystery. The story told by the plants that survive in the most surprising corners where they escaped the predation of plough, fertiliser and pesticide.

And yet our hearts are still lifted by discovering new plants. Tonight – so long as the sky stays clear we might get a glimpse of the lyrid meteor shower – first described over two millennia ago, which adds up to a lot of wonder. God forbid I become just another grumpy old man. When it comes to landscapes I’m more Edward Thomas than RS Thomas.

Note to Dominic Cummings – when you make a mistake, own up.

So yesterday I posted about a misidentified plant, calling a wall lettuce a nipplewort. In the great order of things it’s probably not that important, but I’ve corrected the posting and here’s the reason why I was wrong. From a distance – like for example the photo on the right of the group – it would be easy to misidentify a plant, which is why it’s all the more important to get close up and personal, and here are some of the reasons why this really is a wall lettuce plant.

  • Flower isn’t remotely like nipplewort which has a larger dandelion type flower. This flower is small and has distinct petals.
  • The plant is not hairy
  • Parts of the stem have a purplish colouration.
  • The leaf shape is different.

So by way of reparation I decided not to eat my hat but at least to re-wax it after a wash because it got too disgusting even for me to wear. This is a highly therapeutic activity for two, with Madame wielding the hairdryer and me on the tin of old-style Barbour wax. It’s not a Barbour hat at all, but it’s some sort of waxed cotton so it got the luxury treatment while I bathed in the memory of the smell of my old Solway jacket that fell apart decades ago.

Not content with that, I finally managed to contact Shipton Mill and arrange to collect enough flour to get us through the next expected lockdown; so as soon as I’ve finished this, we’re off on a scenic jaunt across North Wiltshire and Gloucestershire to the mill, where I’m told our flour will be waiting in the back of a white van with the invoice. No people, no contact – oh so dodgy sounding!

If this posting is a bit episodic it’s because I hardly slept last night after reading about the behaviour of a bishop I once worked under who’s just been found out for making a racially stereotyped entry in a reference which prevented someone from getting a job. Having been at the sharp end of a bit of C of E bullying myself, I couldn’t sleep for thinking about what might still be lurking in my personal file, but now mercifully I no longer have to deal with the venality and ambition.

Below is a photo of a ladybird larva. If you see these on your plants rejoice and forswear the spray; their voracious appetite for blackfly more than grants them an amnesty.