Sumer is icumen in

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Sing loudly, cuckoo! – Well at least I heard one cuckoo on our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago and I found it unbelievably moving, thinking that with the climate catastrophy upon us I might never hear it again.

But sumer most certainly is icumen in and so today we picked a load of elderflowers and started the first 3 litres of  cordial. We felt almost secretive about picking it, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t spot us and join in – picking is best done in the sun for maximum flavour and there’s plenty for everyone but I fear very few people would go to the trouble any more even though the difference between our own home made cordial and the commercial stuff is striking.

IMG_5466Summer is as much a smell as anything more meteorological. Yesterday evening we were sitting in the living room when Madame said, “I can smell chewing gum”. I wrinkled my nose up in mimed solidarity and it was true but it wasn’t chewing gum it was cats’ pee.   It was the smell of summer.  There were the elderflowers infusing on the stove, and several different kinds of basil gently sunning itself in the propagator, along with a sink full of fresh spinach and a salad spinner loaded with newly picked lettuce. Oh yes summer is good.

We spent the morning at two exhibitions in Bath.  The annual open exhibition of the Bath Society of Artists is always worth seeing several times. In some ways, although it’s a lot smaller, it’s better than the RWA open. Several friends and acquaintances had pictures in, and there’s less of the gulf between ‘high art’ and village show about it.  Many of the artists necessarily earn their living from other things, but their work is really good – the product of a lifetime’s labour without the deadly grip of the Arts Council. As we left we hubristically resolved to submit some of our own work next year

Then we dropped in at BRLSI (Bath Royal LIterary and Scientific Institution) where there was an exhibition of artifacts and books from the permanent collection.  The headline catcher was a small phial of liquid taken from the barrel in which the body of Lord Nelson was brought back from Trafalgar. Not terribly interesting really, the value was all in the caption. My own favourite things in the exhibition were the botanical books, pressed flowers and drawings which were all on the subject of medical herbs. But one exhibit was truly bizarre –

The other gadget, the tobacco smoke enema, has no modern parallel.  At first an ordinary clay pipe was used and someone administered the smoke enema by poking the stem through the anus and blowing on the bowl.  The risk of burns led to the invention of safer apparatus.

Well thank goodness for that! The afternoon was spent at the allotment as the flat is gradually emptied of plants.  Much of my time was spent in energetic watering, but I did manage to find 20 minutes to sit with my back to a compost heap, measuring and inspecting our mystery fumitory with a copy of Rose at my side. Then in the evening we worked in tandem in the kitchen, prepping spinach, elderflowers and tomorrow’s family BBQ and cooking supper.  We had inspected the peas earlier, hopng for a first taste, but they’re not quite ready.  Next week maybe.

This last few days I’ve been tempted to say that I’ve been feeling the same kind of energy and excitement I had when we first went to art school, everything seems inflected with possibilities.  But I’m a melancholic and I’ve read Tolstoy and Iris Murdoch so I won’t tempt fate by saying I’m happy.  Maybe ‘pretty happy‘?

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A bit of dagging – just the thing for a bank holiday Monday!

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Starting from the all-time best bits of our break in the Brecon Beacons, there was the blues night in Brecon, of course, but I’m bound to say that listening to a cuckoo for the first time in several years comes near to the top of my list.  Ordinary pleasures have become exceptions these days and so cuckoos are peak moments. So too was watching a bird feeder with great tits, blue tits, nuthatch and yellowhammers all feeding at the same time.  Meanwhile a mouse had created a great home for himself in a drystone wall under the feeder, only having to pop his head out through a crack in the wall to catch the falling seeds. He’s in danger of getting so fat he won’t be able to escape his five star accommodation. Half a dozen hens were browsing around the cottage all day and providing the best eggs we’ve tasted since we gave up keeping them ourselves.

But let no-one say we, at the Potwell Inn, shirk the less arcadian bits of life – there’s always time to learn a new skill, and sheep dagging just happened to come up yesterday. I was at the clean end of the crush, while Nick and Kate were the – let’s say – “coal face” with the hand clippers, so all I could do was help wrestle the sheep in and operate the bit of the crush that dealt with the front end.IMG_5323Sorry about all the technical farming language. Actually that’s not all I was doing, because I was also eyeing up the rich daggings as they fell to the floor, thinking how well they’d look on our compost heap. This indignity – for the sheep – was to help clean them up ready for lambing and make it easier to see whether they were ‘uddered up’ without a wrestling match. Sheep, I discovered are both heavy and likely to kick you in the face if you’re not very careful. As it was, it was the brim of my hat that caught at least one haymaker of a blow.  Daggings – the mucky bits of wool around the rear end – also make fantastically good mulch because they aren’t strong enough to burn the roots of young plants. Having never seen any kind of shearing close up before, it obviously needs real skill not to nick the sheep. The wool is thick with lanolin and cutting through the clumps of wool looked like hard work.

IMG_5317Madame took a look at a pond that Nick had dug out years ago, and it was full of newts.  Newts were once so common you could go to pretty well any pond and catch a jam jar full, but nowadays it becomes a notable treat to see them. Isn’t there a picture beginning to form here? This constellation of wildlife that we were finding is no accident. It’s a great sadness that we no longer think it’s weird to have to go to a nature reserve in order to see creatures that were once everywhere, but here on this 24 acres of unprofitable mixed hill farm is a sign of what we’ve lost.  So many species clinging to life in ‘improved’ farmland are thriving here without even knowing how rare they’ve become.

IMG_5319.jpgYou see the term “hobby farming” used disparagingly by those who ought to know better, but here in these pockets of unimproved land are populations of wildlife that would rapidly spread back into the surrounding land if their environment was restored. These so-called hobby farmers are acting as unpaid guardians of many thousands of acres of unofficial and unmarked “biodiversity banks” without, in many cases, claiming a penny of government subsidy, while the money goes to destructive intensive farming.

There is, perhaps, one thing you might notice on the farm, and that would be things like this Victorian potato plough which Nick still uses. Is it efficient? Well no, but that really isn’t the point.  The fact is that for all our obsession with progress, there are still many things that work perfectly well – if a lot more slowly. A bit like the landlord of the Potwell Inn and his wife!

NB Rose – Some good food plants around too!