St Anne’s Well – a lost special place found again.

The remnants of St Anne’s Well Siston

One website I looked at today describes St Anne’s Well as “the most dangerous well in Britain” – and having walked down the now busy road from the Church towards the well, it’s hard to disagree. Nowadays it’s a shadow of its former self. The cast iron sign has disappeared with the stone surround, and if it weren’t for the fact that the sodden ground was wet enough for a flush of water from under a couple of stone lintels I’d never have found it unless I’d remembered exactly where it is. I think I visited it once with Madame in the 1970’s when it wasn’t much more than a muddy puddle filled with debris; but yesterday it was a proper spring, rather than a well.

Sixty five years ago I was searching for books on magic in Bristol Central Reference Library – this was an early teenage obsession – and I found an antique volume which referred to several holy wells within a bike ride of where I lived. So St Anne’s became the first holy well in a long succession of them, beginning a side obsession with OS maps. There is something inexplicable but deeply spiritual about wells and springs. The thought of clear water emerging from underground, often pulsing gently, must lead almost anyone to pause and reflect. Being a determinedly non competitive student I even managed to persuade Jimmy Munn our sadistic PE teacher to let me devise my own cross -country run which took me past the well and excused from him having to cope with my chaotic inability to add anything to team games. Although my knowledge of nature was as spare as it was of the offside rule, it was where I fell in love with solitary walks and natural history.

So on Friday I went back with the other two Musketeers from Bath Natural History Society to check out the the recently designated Forest of Avon (with St Anne’s well at the centre) for a potential field trip next year. It was muddy as hell, but the sun shone for at least part of the day as we searched the fields and hedges for potential bird nesting sites, butterfly food plants, plants in general, spiders and insects as well as fungi. As ever we joked and joshed our way around the site taking photos for later identification and noting hazards for the inevitable risk assessment form. At one point I was kneeling to lift a stone so my companion could search for spiders and I steadied myself by placing my hand in a soft dog’s turd! Should I perhaps put that on the risk assessment? I do wish all dog walkers would pick their dogshit up and dispose of it properly (in some other way than hanging it on trees).

One topic of discussion among us was what precisely had introduced us to natural history. I always feel a bit typecast as a retired vicar but none of us are typically academic, all of us are largely self-taught, and all of us would acknowledge our debt to past mentors – often self-taught volunteers themselves. Of all scientific disciplines, natural history relies on a huge voluntary effort to record what’s on the ground and submit those records to national databases. The challenge these days is how to recruit enough new volunteers to track the environmental disaster of species extinctions in the hope that one day soon we can develop the tools for reversing it.

What struck me was that over the past 60 years what was once a farm has become a ‘site’ or a reserve. The thin line of trees adjoining the brook has thickened to about 20 feet wide, and the fields seemed to have been returned to a regime of mowing once a year. No grazing is going on according to a dog walker we met. Many hundreds of trees have been planted over the past 20 years or so and so the wildlife potential has improved beyond measure. We watched a kestrel making use of a power line that crossed the site and saw magies rooks and carrion crows as well as hearing a raven somewhere near. All the other usual suspects were around. My companions were getting excited about the possibility Brown Hairstreaks in the tall and thick hedges (untouched by the flail mower for years). I was thinking about orchids but loving the architecture of the skeletal remains of teasels.

Anyway, that’s enough wildlife gossip. What surprised me most of all was that in spite of our sceptical and irreligious culture, someone had built a little shrine in memory of their mother, on the edge of the brook and opposite the well. It gave us all cause for a moment of contemplative silence.

Camino 14: Conques

Conques 2010 – the path out is opposite.

29th May 2010

Well [the school party] didn’t quite stay up all night but the DJ had them singing all their favourite pop songs at the tops of their voices until quite late.  I’d gone to bed at about 8.00pm leaving M to finish off his (2nd) bottle of wine. I always feel very anxious when he starts drinking.  Slept all but 11 hours with a few interruptions.  M unzipped the tent several times and told me he’d spent £40 on a [phone] call …… in the night. That’ll teach him!

Woke in the morning to the sound of 50 suitcases and accompanying children being herded right past the tent.  Daren’t get up for a piss even, as they were overrunning all the facilities. When calm was restored 2 hours later I went to the toilets only to have myself photographed several times by children on the coach which I hadn’t noticed was overlooking me.  Left M sleeping and went for breakfast – better than last nights dreadful pizza and chips.  2 coffees, fruit juice, pain au chocolat bread and preserves.  Did all the washing in the morning  and left it to dry in the sun.  Dozed by the swimming pool.  After minimal lunch – picnic –  went to Conques.

All very picturesque but the abbey was cold and, for me, spiritually meaningless.  The town itself is overwhelming but ultimately a gift shop. If you came here looking for faith I’ve no idea how you would find it.  Resting again now. Meal booked at the auberge along the road for 7.30.  Owner looks just like the one of the *Two Fat Ladies who died. As the days go past we just walk, sleep, eat and search for toilets.  That’s about it really. What a strange way to spend a summer. Not very religious and not remotely what most people imagine we’re doing.

* well known TV chefs of the time


Thirteen years is a long time; long enough to change perspectives, long enough to be led out of Europe by a bunch of liars; long enough to see poisonous and cruel ideologies strip away our security and dignity; long enough to see our civil rights taken away; long enough to see the poisonous fruits of environmental degradation set fire to the atmosphere forcing the thought that my memories of a pristine landscape and historic culture may have already been erased; long enough to know that I’d never be able to undertake such a long walk again. In truth it’s likely me who’s disappearing and I’m finding it hard to adjust to the loss. The sense of morbidity grips like winter – grips my joints; grips my hearing and my eyes; grips my heart which is always liable to go off on a cadenza of its own devising.

This week, on the television we watched “Partygate” – the horrifying documentary that chronicles the carousing and lawbreaking in Downing Street, going on while thousands of people died of Covid. We watched Tory Party conference speeches that were psychotically detached from reality, and we watched the David Olusoga documentary “Union” which dealt with the bloodshed, greed and corruption that fuelled the union of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Any residual faith I once had in our human capacity for compassion, generosity and communal life is being slowly crushed. I was born in Bristol and raised on the horror stories told by my father and grandfathers of the Bristol riots; how the middle classes allowed the miners of Kingswood and South Bristol to fight for the reform acts knowing that their sacrifice would only benefit a couple of thousand wealthy property owners. I was fascinated by Rolinda Sharples’ painting of the trial of Colonel Brereton which still hangs in the Museum. Brereton was court martialed for losing control of the riots, but had been made a scapegoat and committed suicide before his trial ended. Nobody knows how many rioters were killed by the Dragoon Guards.

History and its relics makes fools of us all. I wonder if the only way to conduct a real pilgrimage today is to start with the pot of fools’ gold bought in the cathedral gift shop and then walk away with it into the reality of twenty first century suffering. Who knows? the alchemical work of walking might transmute it into real gold; spiritual gold.

In my twenties I went into a prolonged period of anxiety and depression and so I curse this mood as if it were an estranged acquaintance turning up out of the blue. The doctor diagnosed morbid anxiety and assured me that I would get better with a bit of human company. “Go down to the pub!” he advised. “Pills are no good”. I took him at his word, and months later I met him at a party. I was standing at the top of a rather ornate Georgian staircase. He climbed towards me clutching a large glass of wine. “Ah, I see you took my advice” – he said – and then toppled drunkenly backwards down the stairs in a well practiced cartwheel. Months later it suddenly dawned on me that – of course – I was going to die; but not yet!” Those few imagined words were what you might call a performative utterance and I got better. Ever since, but mercifully rarely, winter trees take on the appearance of blackened lungs and the feeling returns but I’m reasonably hopeful it won’t last

So possibly this wasn’t the best time of year to start remembering the Camino. On the allotment, autumn is my least favourite season because the crops are harvested and all our energy is directed towards clearing up weeds and dead plants. The Camino has always felt like a comprehensive personal failure – so much so that I can only manage writing about it for a couple of days at a time. And yet I go on writing because there’s a tiny part of me that knows the only way to move on is to turn and face the black dog. When faith becomes fetid and blocked with the debris of false belief, the clearing out has to begin. I have to drag the bindweed out of my heart.

My photographs of Conques were enough to set me off on this gloomy excursus. We came down from the Aubrac Plateau exhausted but buoyed up by the landscape we’d been walking through, and were then thrown into Disneyland; the relic of a town, dusted with cobblestones, and rolled into a preserved, boned, rolled and stuffed religious experience.

If you’ll allow me a small biblical moment, some may be familiar with the Gospel story of the Transfiguration – when Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter James and John they see him transfigured – glowing – and talking to Moses and Elijah ( a heap of theology there!). Peter, as always, gets over excited and offers to build three shelters so that (presumably) later pilgrims can return to the place. Jesus (and I’m translating roughly from the Aramaic) shouts at Peter and says don’t you effing well dare you moron – that would be an epochal piece of misdirection. Sadly, ever since then, generations of Peters have been throwing up more and more effigies, buildings and reliquaries in complete defiance of the instruction to remain silent. Now I realize that this is a very loose interpretation of some greatly loved and important verses and that some will think it’s heretical but the central idea is that God can’t be trapped in a location or a building or relic. The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao.

So there’s a sense in which Conques was a kind of turning point for me. The coldness and emptiness of the Abbey exactly mirrored my feelings of coldness and emptiness. The rest was gift shops, bars and bakeries specializing in sweet treats baked with chestnut flour. We got our pilgrim passports stamped and wandered down to the bottom of the valley, knowing that we’d have to sweat it out up the other side in the morning – see the photograph at the top. The untouched beauty of the small town was rather undermined by its chocolate box alleyways and streets and oddly (to most people who don’t know me) I became fascinated by the leadwork gutters and downpipes and took any number of photographs – which I’ll spare you.

This was where the idea of walking away from the iconic place was born. Next time I’ll write about the phone call that changed everything.


My friend Rose reproaches me mildly by sending some photographs of Fontenay Abbey which she says is “scoured free of crap” – and I agree entirely. Getting rid of the clutter, the explanatory material and all the accumulated cultus at least allows the buildings to speak. But it still seems to me that occasionally the still small voice can speak through the carnival of distraction – however I think those occasions are determined by grace and not design. So here are a couple of pieces from the past that – I hope – paint a more nuanced picture.

St Thomas a Becket and St Francis of the boot rack


Towan beach on the Roseland

Last night we watched the moon rise and set behind the hedge on the campsite. Today is a brief period of calm between two blown-out hurricanes, and tonight Nigel barrels in. Does anyone else think Nigel is a bit of let down for the name of a hurricane? Anyway, at the end of last week’s storm Lee gave us 85K gusts without causing us any problems, and Nigel is forecast as a bit of a damp squib down here in the extreme southwest.

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to marking the seasons. I don’t buy the tidiness of the meteorological seasons and much prefer the solstice and equinox schema. These seasons relate to the inbreathing and outbreathing, the sleep and the oestrus of the earth. What’s the problem with that? So we sat on the beach today and soaked up the sun from which we’re slowly withdrawing for a while – because the earth needs rest as much as we do. It seems to me that part of the problem with our rolling ecological disaster is that our culture wants to press the override button on the seasons -in fact on all of the natural constraints that keep us and the environment sane and healthy.

Back on Monday with a pile of autumn work to do on the allotment – mulching, composting and prepping beds for the Spring.

A leftover shot from yesterday

The gall of Urophora cardui – a picture wing fly.

You may disagree, but for me this gall, growing on an old enemy to any farmer or gardener – Creeping thistle – is exceptionally beautiful. It suggests a tiny Baobab tree. If you were interested to Google up the fly itself – named on the caption – you’d see that flies too can be very pretty; these are called Picture Wing flies and I’ve never seen one, so there’s still plenty of wildlife for me to look out for.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the sowing of wildflowers along the edges of several paths in the grounds of Dyrham Park. I have to question my reasons for disliking out-of-place wildflowers because I’m quite sure that a kind of covert “wild-ism” can establish itself and become a brake on wildlife conservation. With global and disastrous heating of the climate; we’re certain to see many of our native species disappear and be replaced by migrating plants moving north to escape from the heat. We’re going to have to learn to welcome all sorts of human and non human strangers here and we’re going to have to learn to say sad farewells to old friends if we’re going to regain the earth as a friend. We’re also going to have to accept that when every news bulletin features the latest out of control fires across the world it’s we who are responsible. There’s no future (really!) in treating climate disaster as an abstract concept – we have seen the enemy – it is us!

I said at the time I wrote about this, that I thought many of the artificially seeded wildflowers would look lovely for a season and then fail to thrive and for once I’m sorry that I’m right, because it’s happening already and the thugs are reasserting themselves in a big way, and chief among them is the Creeping thistle. Yesterday in Dyrham Park the National Trust was deploying volunteers to cut them down. Truth to tell, the only way to control them properly is to pull the young plants out by hand, roots and all. The game volunteers were working with strimmers and sickles in a snowstorm of thistledown and undoubtedly this pernicious weed spreads viable seeds; but it gains control of large tracts of ground by spreading by rapidly growing roots which, like Bindweed, can regenerate from small fragments. Alongside the newly laid paths which, a couple of months ago were covered with wildflowers, the Creeping thistles already reign supreme in the overly rich and recently overturned soil. Re-establishing wildflower meadows is the work of decades. Meanwhile the Hogweed is showing the door to the Wild Carrot and a few poppies struggle to flower. Our son’s partner muttered that “they’re all weeds as far as I can see” and she’s right.

But aside from grumbling about missed opportunities; something else has been on my mind. A couple of days ago I mentioned Geoffrey Hill, the poet and writer of a poem sequence entitled “Mercian Hymns”. I was musing on what a strong sense of rootedness in a landscape means whilst reading “On the Black Hill” by Bruce Chatwin. I first read Geoffrey Hill maybe fifty years ago and although I loved Mercian Hymns I didn’t really understand the poem. This brought back to my mind one of those turning point memories from decades back. I was having real problems with the choir in one of my churches. There’s no getting away from it, they hated me with the kind of hatred that thrives like the creeping thistle in the virtuous people of the church when they’re not getting all their own way. So in a last ditch attempt to get them to cooperate, I enlisted a friend – a great musician and conductor who was struggling to teach me to play the piano – to come and run a rehearsal for me. The choirmaster had, by this time, walked out. Imagine this choir as a group of surly sixteen year olds in detention on a hot Friday afternoon. They were not going to cooperate even if the roof fell in. So we struggled on for a while and my friend suddenly marched across the chancel; tore the hymn book from the hands of one of the ringleaders of the rebellion; threw it violently on the floor and shouted in her face – “For goodness sake forget the notes and look for the music!” That was pretty much the end of the choir, but soon I recruited musicians and singers; learned to conduct and passed my music theory exams so I could engage with them on more like equal terms.

It was a thrilling intervention that, this week, suddenly helped me to understand what I was doing wrong with Mercian Hymns. I had been struggling to understand the words but failing to find the music. So I immediately searched and found a second hand copy of the poems for £8.00. It arrived on Wednesday and I found that it was speaking to me in a language I could inexplicably understand. When the book arrived I tore open the package and at once saw the cover. It was Paul Gauguin’s painting “The Vision after the Sermon”.

I have to pause here and take a deep breath because this Old Testament story about Jacob crossing the Jabbok brook is immensely important. You can read it in Genesis chapter 32 if you wish, but you don’t need any faith at all to learn from it. Jacob is making a life-changing journey into a new life; leaving his family and everything familiar behind. He crosses the river and spends the night wrestling with an angel, demanding a blessing from this mysterious being. The angel gives him the blessing, but injures his hip at the same time. Psychoanalytically, this is about as important a story as they get. Carl Jung spoke often of our wounds as being integral to our creativity. We work from them; we grow from them. But the story goes further because it tells us that creativity and generativity are a relentless struggle with forces we barely understand. If you’re a writer or an artist; if you’re a farmer or an allotmenteer or a parent or if you wish to live a virtuous life seeking justice or compassion, you are going to have to wrestle with the angel, sometimes all night, and even at the cost of getting hurt – demand that blessing and live with the consequences.

So where does that leave us with the Creeping thistle with its very own gall? Where does it leave us with weeds and disappointments and failed crops? Where does it leave us when we confront injustice and inhuman behaviour? Where does it leave us with loss and gain?

Well, it leaves us exactly where we are already but suggests that the only way forward will – almost always – come at a cost. We need the kind of honesty that tells us – this is going to hurt – but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Step away from the bonfire George!

An unknown apple in a collection of Welsh apples in Cwmdu last autumn.

I was casting around my collection of photos for the image of an apple suitable for a short piece on sin and the avoidance thereof, and then this cracker came along and I thought “That’s it!”. If you wanted an illustration for a little excursus on Girolamo Savonarola the last thing you need is an illustration that inflames the passions of the ordinary sinner like me. You’d need a manifestly ugly and dangerous looking specimen as seen through the eyes of – lets say – Savonarola; you’d need something like this. Seen through the lenses of his rheumy eye, this is what a cow looks like to George Monbiot whose latest pronouncement from the pulpit condemns regenerative farming as “Climate change denial” and urges that we bend every sinew (a questionable image, I know) to replace meat with some kind of fermented gloop, provided by the fast food industry by way of the very suspicious ultra processed food path, known to most of us as the royal road to diabetes and early death.

Savonarola, who was a gift to the Gucci handbag manufacturers of the day, persuaded the rich of Florence to burn all their luxury goods in what became known as the “bonfire of the vanities” four years later he was the one on the bonfire, and the members of the guild of luxury goods became even richer as they replaced the vanities so eagerly despatched to the flames. My fear is that George Monbiot’s fervour for heading off climate disaster has tripped into a kind of fundamentalist mindset where all means are justifiable if the end is (in his view) correct.

It seems to me to be obvious that the only people to genuinely benefit from these industrial foods are the producers of the feedstocks, the supermarkets and the PR industry who will need to spend billions persuading us that processed fungus with added bacteria is absolutely the thing. “Look” they say, “It even bleeds.”

You don’t need to be a vegetarian or a vegan to be utterly opposed to the deliberately caused suffering of farm animals. You don’t need, either, to be a halfwit to know that there is a strong connection between soil fertility, ecological diversity, food security and human health. These either/or arguments are cheap and easy but they’re still an extension of the old colonial attitude that would consign millions of the poorest pastoralists to unending poverty. Yes, industrial gloop might save the earth for the left behind in the west, but for poor farmers in India and Africa it would be a slow descent into starvation. The rich would, of course carry on eating foie gras and wagyu beef and driving their SUV’s. Michael Pollan’s advice – “eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables” is both sensible and achievable.

Yes we need to take immediate action to curb methane and CO2 emissions and to bring carbon back into the soil where it can be stored safely; and yes there are ways of doing this well short of the bonfire of the vanities; evidence based ways of reducing the impact of intensive cattle farming on the earth’s atmosphere, and yes it will require cultural change. But waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to come over the hill and save us all with some kind of ram stamped iron pump is an essentially religious assertion. And I’m just not that religious!

I’m not suggesting that regenerative farming will save the earth, but what it could do is form one component of a strategy for carbon storage and – ultimately – reduction, using less oil, less chemicals, less intensive production of effluent with nowhere except rivers to go. Using prodigious amounts of energy to store carbon is no better than an industrial wet dream afflicting those industries who hope to supply that energy. There’s only one way to reduce carbon and methane release into the atmosphere and that’s by releasing less of both – is that so complicated? The a priori rejection of regenerative farming that Father George is suggesting seems to indicate that there’s no point in arguing with him because he’s always right. That’s bad science, bad journalism and downright daft tactically. Short of a Robespierre style reign of terror casting farmers as terrorists, dispossessing them of their land and handing the land over to the oil companies to balance their carbon budgets by planting tree deserts so they can supply the energy to ferment human waste and turn it into cordon bleu toothpaste tubes of delight.

This is simply not a credible strategy but a Tory style culture war. I’m sad to see a previously solid green activist fall into this trap.

Stale yeast – bad news!

This could be a bit of a shaggy dog story so I’ll keep it short. On Thursday last the steam oven packed up; not just no steam but no oven at all. The engineer can’t make it until Monday afternoon, but that’s just the beginning because he’ll have to order the parts and we could be without our main oven for ten days. But all’s not lost because we have a combination oven/grill/microwave and we also have a very elderly bread machine. Over the years I’ve tried every idea in the book for ways of making steam including saucers of water and wet bricks but none come close to the real thing.

So no sourdough for maybe ten days and yesterday I fetched out the jar of dried yeast and made a quick machine loaf – the resultant brick on the right was the clearest sign that the yeast had effectively died – it doesn’t last forever and I bought a kilo of the only yeast available in the panic days of the first lockdown. This morning I bought new yeast and the difference is clear – which doesn’t mean the bread machine is anything other than a quick work around in an emergency. I know without even cutting a slice that it will be fluffy and tasteless, but it makes half decent toast. The shame is that we’re right in the middle of processing tomatoes and this will limit our capacity.

Our neighbour on the allotment has just lost much of her tomato crop to blight. When we get a wet spell like the one we’ve been enduring here, it’s only a matter of days before blight appears and it’s a tragedy. This has been a truly weird season and it’s impossible to believe that the cause is anything but the oncoming climate catastrophe. Food security is one aspect of the crisis that’s not mentioned nearly enough.

But I’m also more directly affected by air pollution than most because I’m asthmatic. It was never a problem until we moved to Bath, but the air here can be so poor that I could barely walk to the surgery. One of the health factors that is affected particularly by microscopic particles is atrial fibrillation which, for me has intensified from occasional to continuous, and the polluting particles aren’t just from the burning of diesel fuel. Very heavy vehicles like diesel SUV’s obviously emit copious amounts, but it’s also been demonstrated that because electric vehicles are so much heavier they emit more particles from tyres and brakes. Children are ten times more likely to be killed or seriously injured if struck by SUV’s as opposed to smaller cars. When children – more often poor children are exposed to pollution their lungs never grow properly. I mention this because Bath is infested with these giant vehicles, often carrying just one driver. So the argument that ULEZ and 20mph speed limits are restricting some kind of human right is so obviously wrong that continuing to advance it is the exact equivalent to promoting cigarette smoking among children. Who stands to gain from this? Big oil, and car manufacturers, that’s who.

I remember the headline from a column in the Daily Mirror when I was a child, written by William Connor whose ferocious articles appeared under his pen name Cassandra. It was “This Septic Isle”. What goes around comes around!

I don’t really like aubergines – but Madame does!

A week of rain has given me lots of time to work in the kitchen and I’ve employed (and enjoyed) every moment of it. I’ve written before about my aversion to ratatouille – (which Madame loves) and so one of my aims has been to work up some alternative ways of dealing with the aubergines, courgettes and tomatoes that I genuinely enjoy. The problem is always that they tend to ripen in numbers at roughly the same time, so being frugal means eating them up or finding a way of storing them.

Of the three vegetables, tomatoes are by far the easiest because they have high acidity and we can bottle them and keep them for a whole year. I’m ultra careful with bottled fruit and veg and I usually give them a decent time in the oven – say 40 minutes at 110C – before I screw the lids down. I mentioned a couple of days ago that we produce 3 kinds – straight passata, roasted passata and Hazan no 1. They’re all marvellous standbys to have in the kitchen and all taste quite different so they suit different dishes. Today I made a second batch of roasted passata using mainly plum tomatoes from the polytunnel. I was surprised just how different the final flavour and texture was – really delicious and a perfect accompaniment to the Hake we bought from the mobile fishmonger at Newton Park Farm Shop this morning. The fish will only need a tablespoon of the passata as a dressing, with some brown butter and a scattering of fried capers and served with some of our own new potatoes and a bed of spinach, all from the allotment. I’ve fallen in love with Hake over the last few weeks, but it usually turns up at the supermarket fish counter looking a bit sorry for itself. Today’s fish came up from Brixham after being landed at 4.00am. Trust me, super fresh fish is lovely!

So what about courgettes – which can grow from six inches to a seedy blimp overnight. Aside from the dreadful rat it usually gets used in some kind of bake with tomato sauce and almost always mozzarella cheese. I got my original recipe from Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed” – in my view one of the great cookbooks but also filled with a tantalising account of life in Puglia. Patience Gray was not one to send off to Fortnum and Mason for exotic or unobtainable ingredients; she always cooked from what was to hand. The recipe for Zucchini al forno – can as easily be used for aubergines. I think from memory that she used mozzarella cheese, torn into shreds between the slices of vegetable with tomato sauce, all cooked in the oven. I’ve cooked it dozens of times, but the cheese is always a disappointment – the supermarket versions are too rubbery and bland so you rarely find it soft and smelling of buffalo. Yesterday I worked up a new version using Taleggio cheese and home-made straight passata with slices of courgette fried quickly in very hot oil to give them colour and finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. The cheese turned the topping brown in the oven and it was delicious and full of intense flavour.

My other favourite way of cooking courgettes comes from Elizabeth David who pre-boiled them before dicing them. I don’t bother with that any more because they tend to get rather soggy, so I dice them and fry them in hot butter with a dash of olive oil and then chuck a bit of finely chopped parsley and some lemon juice into the pan to finish them. It’s lovely with fish. My next adventure will be to slice one of the fat ones – marrows really – laterally into thick discs and then stuff them with a risotto and bake them in the oven. We’ll see how that one shapes up.

So finally to the aubergine. Aside from rat we do stuffed aubergines to a Middle Eastern recipe from Rick Stein’s Spanish book – always good. They’re good in slices on a barbecue but they seem to respond best to some fairly strong spices. Our youngest cooked for a season in Greece and he brought back a recipe for baba ganoush which was very good. But here, marooned in a flat with no access to a gas stove or barbecue unless we cook outside, and festooned with smoke and fire detectors it’s hard to get the smoky flavour. Yesterday I prepped some aubergines halving and scoring them through to the skin and then smoked them over hickory chips in our middle sized Cameron’s Smoker for 15 mins before finishing them in the oven (still inside the smoker) for around 40 mins at 180C. The resultant puree with the usual spices and tahini and a bit of good olive oil was a revelation. There was a huge difference between burnt and smoked and although Madame doesn’t really like smoked food she said nice things about this one – so I need to scale it up a bit and learn to make flatbreads.

When I say it rained today I mean real heavy stuff; but nothing daunted we added another three pots to the little container garden outside on the pavement and got very wet in the process. There’s still work to do but we’re getting close. While we were out there it suddenly occurred to me that we should call it Gwen’s Garden after my mum. She loved flowers and was an inveterate thief of cuttings and seed heads wherever she visited. I don’t suppose her little old lady act would fool anyone, but flowers gave her, and us, such pleasure. You may find it shocking, but we’ve still got her ashes in the wardrobe at the Potwell Inn and I’ve met any number of other people who do the same thing. Can’t bring ourselves to part with them. Anyway, I haven’t asked my sister yet if she minds calling it Gwen’s Garden but she reads this blog from time to time so I’m sure she’ll tell me! I washed the trowel off in the flooded gutter when we’d finished. The water was warm. This weather is deeply troubling!

As I look at this now I’m thinking that it would be lovely to have a Banksy portrait of my mum on the wall behind.

Blessed is Diana of the Ephesians!

Serious respect if you know the origin of that quotation from the New Testament. I’m not using it for any covert religious reasons but because it was chant of the enraged silversmiths of Ephesus when St Paul preached successfully there and they could see their lucrative trade in silver amulets going down the pan.

When we were down in Nîmes a few years ago we found the Temple of Diana in a park in the centre of town, and there was a queue of newlyweds waiting to have their photographs taken there. If you look at the picture of a statue on the left you’ll see in a blink that Diana/Artemis was blessed with a huge number of breasts – enough to send the Daily Mail into a paroxysm of spluttering and wattle wobbling. It seems that she was once – and for many of those couples, still is – a goddess of mothering, fertility and nature.

But the whole culture was on the cusp of a profound change and Diana the earthy goddess was about to be replaced by the virginal Mary – well at least that was what was meant to happen but as always culture eats strategy for breakfast and the silversmiths were probably OK for a few more years until the last of the pagans discovered that the harvest suppers were bigger and better down the road at St Sulpice by which time there was a thriving trade in silver crosses. Commerce has few scruples.

Hand’s Dairy in the top picture would have catered for a growing population of visitors to Georgian Bath. When I first knew it there was a cafe trading under the same name and they made the best cottage pie and chips in Bath. It looks as if it survived as a photographic processor until the digital era and now it’s boarded up. Just above the Potwell Inn allotment and west of Royal Circus is Cow Lane and there are ghost signs for several other dairies still visible around the place; but no longer trading. The fields south of the river were once lined with market gardens now replaced by some of the ugliest buildings that parsimony and a little low level corruption could get away with. No dairies, then; no market gardens; no clay pipe manufacturers and no Roman Vineyards where the Potwell Inn allotment now stands. No Stothert and Pitt crane builders, no dye works and so far as I know no brothels any more in Kingsmead. As each of these cornerstones of the economy collapsed one by one, the heirs of the silversmiths of Ephesus would have been on the streets protesting alongside the quill cutters, vellum makers and bookbinders.

Politicians would love to have us believe that they are in control of, that they direct the tide of events. At least Canute, or Knut to give him his proper invader’s name, had the good sense to teach his obsequious court that he couldn’t control the tide. This is a lesson that our current crop of self-styled leaders have yet to learn. To believe that you can control the tide of cultural change, as Rishi Sunak appears to believe, invites a spell tied to a chair on Hastings beach. I woke up this morning with the Roy Orbison song “It’s Over” running like a stuck record in my head. It’s over Rishi. It’s over Keir (nominative determinism is a fraud). It’s over for all those unfortunates who voted the worst government in history into power. Ask yourselves who actually pays less tax under this government? The answer is big business. Who is actually able to believe that I can become anything I want to be? The answer is not you. Who actually benefits most from the pandemic? well, you got a free shot as a kind of lottery ticket and the wealthy got a wad! It’s over. Where are the benefits of Brexit? answers on a £1 postage stamp

The era of uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction is as over as was the era of the silversmiths of Ephesus; as over as the colonial era, as over as the London pea-souper smog, the steam train and the morse code; as over as sealing wax or the seven days a week post; as over as the bank manager and the handwritten letter. It’s over, and issuing worthless extraction licenses to offshore oil and gas fields is as stupid as gambling on a fixed odds fruit machine it’s a sign that it’s over.

If ever we needed Diana of the Ephesians to come to our aid it’s now. The earth is choking to death and the problem is clinging to the bizarre idea that it’s the solution. There are plenty of people who believe that they’re the rightful heirs to the throne, or the reincarnation of Cleopatra – but most of them are in some kind of care. The government on the other hand are still flying around the country in helicopters and aeroplanes; driving 4 by 4’s and attempting to convince us that it’s really us who are the problem.

We’re not!

Just hand yourselves in and we’ll promise to get you some counselling.

Cottage Economy

This photograph of Stoke Row hangs over my desk partly as a reminder of another era, but also as a reminder of my grandfather who, apart from a spell working as a carpenter in London, was born and lived there for almost the whole of his life. He was probably the biggest influence in my life; very short and equally short tempered with a creative gift for cursing that I’m fortunate to have inherited. He was a vernacular builder which meant his drawings were almost always on the back of a fag packet and securely in his head. Most importantly he was a natural radical and he had a collection of books that opened my mind to a world of possibilities, and several huge long sheds in which he stored everything he’d ever wanted to repair but never got round to; for instance a couple of penny in the slot pianolas which he would let my sister and me play with. He could make rainbows with a stirrup pump; give us rides in his wheelbarrow and let us feed the hens or look for Charlie the toad in the greenhouse. He also grew and cured his own tobacco which was so smelly he was chucked out of the pub for smoking it. He made carpenter style furniture – he was no Chippendale -hand built the first wireless set in the village and owned the first television. He also helped me to build my first transistor radio and erected a long wave aerial in the garden for me. He was almost entirely self educated and taught me logarithms before he gave me my first slide-rule (a kind of manual calculator for working with big numbers). He introduced me to Dickens and H G Wells and although he was a devout atheist, would secretly repair the benches in a local churchyard.

Much later, long after he died, I discovered the radical writer and pamphleteer William Cobbett; thorn in the side of everyone who annoyed him and whose two books “Rural Rides” and “Cottage Economy” inspired me and reminded me of my grandfather. I think this website owes a great deal to William Cobbett’s writing. In “”Rural Rides” he took up the cudgels on behalf of starving farm workers after undertaking a series of rides on horseback to see for himself the terrible poverty that followed the systematic impoverishment of land workers during the Industrial Revolution. He fought government corruption and campaigned for a more just electoral system – and when I say campaigned – his writings were fierce enough to have him thrown into prison several times. He fled from justice to France in the middle of the revolution; thought better of it and sailed on to America only to find that as a conservative he sat uneasily within the radical movements of the day, I would probably have hated him if I’d ever met him because he was really a backward looking old style conservative but the fire that flows through every sentence of Rural Rides is a model of righteous anger.

Most historians dismiss Cobbett because he advocated a return to the old rural ways. He was a ruralist and farmer himself and although he spent the last years of his life as an elected MP he never gave up campaigning. He wrote at the beginning of the industrial capitalist society and already he could see the cruelty and contradictions inherent in its exploitative and extractive philosophy. Today; as we suffer in the dog days of the same ideology, radical thinkers are again persecuted and imprisoned by powerful interests who can’t tell the difference between criticism and insurrection; and national politics once more is stained by corruption; industrial strength lying and greed.

Cobbett’s other book – “Cottage Economy” is, or should be required reading for anyone interested in 19th century traditional farming and any form of self-sufficiency. In a haze of what might seem to be sentimental idealisation of rural life due to Cobbett’s lifelong conservatism, Cobbett explains brewing, bread baking, building an ice house, the keeping and killing of farm animals and the preserving of them by smoking. He thought that the potato was the work of the devil and that the drinking of tea and the consumption of potatoes made men effeminate(?). Bread and beer were the culinary gods in his canon, and at a time when much water was unsafe to drink, the consumption of “small beer” – brewed from the remaining malted grains after they’d been once sparged – or washed for the making of stronger ale – was much safer having been boiled. Above all the book is a fascinating social history of village life before the industrial revolution. It’s hilariously funny at times – Cobbett was an old fashioned Church of England member and addressed some of his funniest and most excoriating prose to the Methodist Ministers who – in his fertile imagination – would always turn up to visit the poor cottager on the day that the pig was killed. No-one could possibly try to run a 21st century life on the pattern of a 19th century polemic, but his memorable style can make you wish it could still be possible; indeed some survivalists really do try it.

But Cobbett understood and called out injustice and its perpetrators in a fearless way that scared them. He was utterly incorruptible in a way that I would love to see once again. His pen name was Peter Porcupine – you get the joke at his own expense and he never stopped writing, pamphleteering and campaigning on behalf of the poor. Most critics focus on what he was wrong about. I prefer to attend to the things he was absolutely right about.

I wonder what my Grandfather – who was a member of the Independent Labour Party – and my Father who was also a lifelong Labour Party member would think about the present state of British Politics which is so corrupted by the lust for power that we can only look forward to choosing between a wealthy liar and a spineless liar because the electoral system is purpose built to crush radical dissent.

But although I get very sad at times I’m essentially an optimist, and the Potwell Inn and the way we do things around here are essentially my personal project to dig a pollution free well; think as clearly as I can; grow some healthy food to cook and keep us out of the hands of the merchants of sickness; oh and find every occasion to provoke and challenge the knuckle draggers and drool mongers who are driving all life on earth into a wall in the hope of enriching themselves at our expense.

There are, as the saying goes, no pockets in a shroud!

Pleasure delayed – batch cooking.

Madame with aubergines.

Suddenly we have surpluses to deal with – possibly due to the fact that we invested in grafted aubergine and tomato plants this year and they are strikingly vigorous and are both producing fruit at speed. I know that many gardeners avoid spending money on F1 hybrids and grow all their crops from seed, but seeds often decline in their ability to germinate quite quickly and some saved seed may be infected with diseases. Is it worth spending the extra on grafted plants and F1 hybrids? In my opinion, the blight resistant varieties of tomato and potato are worth their weight in gold – they really work. Every year on the allotment site there are gardeners who lose their entire crop when blight strikes. There’s no more depressing sight in the world. Our grafted plants are far more productive than the ones we grow from seed ourselves so we’ll continue to buy them. However they can arrive in a very sorry state when we’ve ordered online and sat for days in a warehouse, and so we prefer to buy them at a garden centre where we can see what we’re getting.

So this weekend it’s been raining and therefore a perfect time for batch cooking. I’ve made bramble jelly with the wild fruit we picked, and a couple of kilos of ripe tomatoes into the first batch of roasted tomato passata. This batch was so powerfully flavoured I bottled it in 250g jars – plenty for a pasta dish for two. The last job was to stuff eight aubergines with a middle-eastern flavoured lamb mixture. We’ll freeze them and get them out for a quick meal on a busy day.

I’ve written before about the pleasures of a full store cupboard; pleasures which are just as flavourful when delayed as they are the day they are made. Some things, of course, don’t store or freeze well and they’re the heart of the seasonal contribution to our meals. Tomatoes are so important that we produce three different sauces – unflavoured straight passata; Hazan number one – a beautifully flavoured passata/sauce with mild onion and indecent amounts of butter; and finally the roasted sauce which is a standby for any dish that needs a tablespoon of rocket fuel – umami on steroids. Most seasons we make enough to feed us throughout the year.

It’s been an uphill struggle to second guess the weather this year. The seasons have been badly affected by climate change and the unwillingness of politicians to address the coming crisis is a shameful betrayal. I was particularly struck by a droll remark by an ex Labour party supporter who adapted one of Blair’s catchphrases to: “Tough on hope; tough on the causes of hope”. Someone needs to show them that sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting la la la la la doesn’t amount to a strategy. Lowest common denominator politics is low and common and I can’t understand why anyone with more than ten brain cells would want to indulge in it in the face of the suffering that economic, climate and ecological destruction is causing already. Shame on them!

%d bloggers like this: