If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the recent changes to the seasonal calendar brought in by the Met Office. I know it’s tidier to begin the season of Autumn on September Ist and then rotate the rest on a three monthly cycle; easier but plain wrong. For me the seasons will always be marked by the solstices and equinoxes. Messy but holding tight to the astronomical events surrounding the hours of daylight. Last Friday saw the autumn equinox at exactly 2.03 am marking the moment of equal day and night and from now until December 21st the hours of darkness will get progressively longer.
Nature is, by and large, pretty orderly in her seasons too and so we instinctively recognise them by the quality of the light, sounds and smells. I’m interested that these phenomena actually seem to speak to us. Our absorption in the earth and her seasons means the bare sensation, of a birdsong for instance, becomes encrusted with memories. The smell of newly turned earth in the Spring evokes in me a powerful memory of Good Friday when, according to tradition, potatoes were planted. I think of a steady queue of customers at Palmer’s Seed Store and the smell of National Growmore fertilizer and Mr Flook the fishmonger in his wellingtons and yellow oilskin apron.
So these accretions of memories make simple things like listening to a singing Great Tit into a deeply embedded, often emotional, complex. Scientifically, and some would say factually, it’s just a singing bird with a Latin name representing something so common as to be beneath a birder’s dignity; but in the far greater field of meaning it’s as affecting as a Nightjar like the one that kept me awake much of the night, camping in France, or the Nightingale that I heard on a retreat near Ilfracombe one evening as I walked in the grounds.
But to get back to the Great Tit and the Autumn Equinox, something profoundly odd happened on Friday morning. I was helping our youngest move some last belongings out of the flat he’s just left. It’s been a sad few weeks because his relationship with his girlfriend has broken down and everyone’s been walking on eggshells. Anyway I was parked up in a place I shouldn’t have been, close to the old flat and keeping a sharp eye out for Parking Wardens who are pretty ruthless here in Bath. Then, as he carried the last load across the road, with his bass guitar in one hand and a bundle of clothes in the other – he looked just like the cover of the Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin” Album sleeve. I would have been sad to see him that way except that as I sat there in the car with the window wound down, completely out of the blue I heard a Great Tit singing its two note ‘saw sharpening’ song, somewhere in the trees above. It’s a song I associate so powerfully with Spring and new beginnings that it felt like some kind of omen. “Stupid, irrational, meaningless emotional nonsense” say the ghosts of the old Logical Positivist philosophers, and “Hear Hear” say the materialist scientists, and yet ……. and yet?
Nothing I’ve ever come across shakes my understanding that language – whether human language or the subtle languages of mammals, birds and insects; or flowers, or the incomprehensible silent language known as the “Wood Wide Web” – that language is more like a coral reef growing in a sea of meanings, with living ideas on the outside and deep within, the whole history of human speaking, singing and dancing. The simplest level of reference in that unexpected out of season birdsong is probably the least interesting.
It’s been a long hot and dry summer and so it must have been the case that the bird I heard was singing out of season because in this settled weather a second brood was still “thinkable” and “do-able“. But he said much more than he intended. That Spring embodying song on the very day of the Autumn Equinox was a portent of new beginnings, a sign of environmental crisis, a reminder that Nature has her own ways and heaven help us if we ignore her signs.
To be honest, after a two week break in Pembrokeshire I was dreading going back to the allotment. Two weeks is an awfully long time to leave any garden to nature and my particular worry was that our plot – in which we deliberately allow nature to have an almost free hand would have totally succumbed to the fatal embrace of the bindweed which has been an absolute pain this summer.
The reason, of course, is that bindweed roots travel deep and fast so it laughs at drought while many other shallow rooted plants keel over. Our strategy this season was to keep the ground covered at all costs, and so as a matter of principle when the drought began to grip we largely stopped weeding in order to keep the soil shaded and as cool as possible. I know people make the most tremendous fuss about weeds stealing sunshine, water and nutrients from the crop; but in our own wildly uncontrolled trial we found that our crop plants, so long as they had a bit of headroom, soldiered on through the heatwave, and whatever nutrients the weeds steal will be quickly returned to the soil via the compost heaps.
There were two other weed species that had a field day this year. One was the Sow Thistles, and the other was the clump of Fumitory which I was unwilling to weed out, because it is a notable rarity here in the centre of Bath. However two weeks of rain and sunshine tested the theory to the limit and it was that thought which was beginning to bother me as we recovered from a pretty exhausting harvest.
But what we didn’t expect was such a large late crop of vegetables, as we approached the Equinox on Friday. When we went to see the allotment yesterday we harvested two whole deep bags full of produce. Old potatoes were weighing in at a pound and a half each and of course it’s been so dry we didn’t have blight to contend with this year. That said we always grow blight resistant varieties of both potatoes and tomatoes. There were aubergines, peppers, runner beans, carrots, cucumbers, courgettes and apples and yet more tomatoes grown outside. The large crop of squashes have been hardening off in the sunshine ready for winter storage, so contrary to all expectations we’ve had the best overall harvest ever. We even managed to eat the whole crop of sweetcorn and didn’t concede a single cob to the marauding badgers.
The downside to all this was the excessive amount of watering we still needed to do. With just 1750 litres stored it’s clear that we would have lost crops if we hadn’t used the council provided cattle trough. Quite apart from the shame of using high quality drinking water on thirsty crops, there’s the physical wear and tear on us and our knees, carrying two cans at a time which weigh in at forty pounds and need to be carried down very rickety paths at the risk of damaging tendons and joints. I may just have muttered “I’m getting a bit old for this malarkey” once or twice! And so we need to think about drought resistant crop varieties and perhaps consider growing more perennials. The tap-rooted vegetables were left pretty much to their own devices and they’ve done amazingly well. The second issue will be weed seeds, but in early season it’s relatively easy to keep them down with a sharp hoe. The final part of the climate change conundrum is to keep the ultimate height of plants lower, which will make frost and wind protection much easier. That the climate is changing rapidly is beyond denial and hoping that next year will bring better weather is wilful magical thinking. The biggest sadness would be to lose the wonderfully flavoured -Robinson’s “Show Perfection” pea. Make no mistake, this is not a cardboard flavoured show variety, but it does grow easily to 6-8 feet.
We had also theorised that growing far more insect attractors and digging a pond would attract more predatory wasps and pollinating insects. For whatever reason the Ladybirds never really got going this year, but aphid numbers were well down so maybe the other predators took up the slack. It’s impossible to make any great claims, but our deliberately scruffy approach – although it looked terrible enough to earn reproachful looks from our tidy neighbours – kept producing abundant crops where the weed free and bare earth allotments failed on a grand scale.
I think obsessive tidiness is an entrenched value in British allotments. The catalogues are full of model specimens growing in straight rows on cleared ground, but our holiday in Wales, next door to a large organic farm, showed just how much of a role natural soil fertility and good, rich, moisture retaining soil, plays out in providing increasingly good yields over time. The grassland wasn’t overrun with any noxious weeds in spite of a no-till and no chemicals regime. What this means of course is that it’s almost certain that the kind of approach we’ve been trying to master on 100 square metres, could be upscaled to hectares. Sadly, though, the Council allotments Officer’s twice yearly assessments still seem to overvalue the straight row, weed free allotment over and against the holy disorder of our own attempts to garden thoughtfully.
So our holiday fears were not realised, and that was the most tremendous morale booster. But a second bonus followed quite naturally because all those fresh ingredients led straight back to the stove, just as the new seed catalogues were dropping into the post box. Today we ate the best mushroom soup ever, thickened with bread and made with one and a half pounds of field mushrooms brought back from the organic fields in St David’s. With the equinox two days away and the nights drawing in, there are a few joyful hours still to be had, planning for next year as we clear the beds and pile on compost and leaf mould ready for next season.
There’s a particular combination of pale blue autumn sky and thin cloud that for me, encodes in a glimpse what would take an eternity of thought to express. As if a haiku could be condensed into a single syllable. I call it China Blue – I’ve no idea why – but that name seems to work for me; possibly something to do with early Chinese ceramics, when the cobalt for blue had to be pounded from the ore, impurities and all .
I can however name some of the associations with this particular sky. I think of wetlands; the thrilling call of a curlew; of rusting corrugated iron barns, of rhynes (a local name for drainage ditches). I think of sunny days and cool evenings and the sound of the wind in the drying grasses, and long T shirt walks; field mushrooms; ripe apples and slightly drunken conversations in the dusk. Such days are days of grace and can’t be planned – you just have to grab them as if your life depended on it, which of course it does.
When we came here to St David’s the weather forecast was for two weeks of non-stop rain, and we weren’t expecting too much – some reading, a little writing and then lots of sleep. However there is what we have learned to call the peninsula effect – probably unknown to any respectable scientist, but encouraged by fifty years of camping trips to different west facing peninsulas from Lizard in Cornwall to Ravenglass in Cumbria. On a significant number of occasions, the forecast of rain was fulfilled several miles inland leaving us in dry and even sunny weather. This theory is entirely without foundation so always take your raincoat and remember that we, as avid allotmenteers , read weather forecasts like you might read the Racing Times; being prepared to gamble.
Yesterday, however, the weather forecast promised a day’s respite between two dwindling Atlantic storms and we woke up to a change in wind direction and warm sunshine. A perfect China Blue day. And so we decided to walk out of the back of the campsite across to Lower Treginnis Farm – home to one of three Farms for City Children and on down to Porthlysgi beach. It’s not a long walk, but it’s near to one of our favourite mushroom foraging spots whose exact location is a secret!
It’s a great walk because you walk from the campsite into an extremely well run organic mixed farm run by a young Welsh couple who are happy to talk about what they’re up to. We had walked the track the previous day and noticed that the straw stubble from a previous crop was longer than it would normally be. “I wonder if they’re going to direct drill it?” – I said to Madame. Contrary to received wisdom about perfidious farmers ruining the soil and polluting the atmosphere; an increasing number are way ahead of the game; organic, no-dig, low impact mixed farming. Those of us who are trying to change the way we spend on food towards local and sustainable foodstuffs really need local farms such as this to make it work. I know George Monbiot would disagree vehemently but I don’t think he realizes that his campaign to cover much of the uplands and marginal land with trees, and turn the entire population into vegans would induce even bigger environmental and cultural destruction; destroying whole landscapes and playing into the hands of the industrial food producers. The industrial farming of trees has the same adverse effects on biodiversity as the industrial farming of cattle.
Anyway, when we returned from mushrooming we found our two farmers direct drilling a grass seed mixture into the stubble. In the surrounding fields we found all the Clover and normal weeds that would be destroyed by spraying, but in addition there was a good deal of Plantain, Sorrel and Chicory which must surely have been part of the mixture. Chicory, having a long tap root, is very drought resistant and so is Plantain. Commercial varieties of these (no longer) wild plants are increasing drought resistance and increasing weight gain and milk yields on experimental farms in New Zealand because they’re very *palatable to cattle and sheep.
This year’s lambs looked in fine shape, enjoying the pasture which has been revived by plentiful rain. Nearer the coast on the same farm last year we spotted a small flock of what might have been Katahdin sheep, developed in the United States. I couldn’t be sure of the breed but they are apparently easy to manage hair coated sheep (so don’t need shearing), hardy, with high fertility and strong flocking instinct. In a farming environment where margins are low, labour expensive and wool not worth selling, they seem like a perfect breed. Those of us who are depressed by climate destruction and the apparent lack of government action have a kind of duty to read about and support the many non intensive, non polluting and carbon reducing regimes that are being trialled in farms like this one around the country. Good luck to them!
After our farm diversion we pressed on towards the beach, picking a breakfast’s worth of wild mushrooms in a place we’d never before found them, and then alongside a stream down to Porthlysgi beach. It’s usually quiet there but the fine weather and the autumn flush of coast path walkers had turned it into a busy highway. We bagged an available spot away from the crumbling cliff and sunbathed uncomfortably for half an hour, but there was a walking tour guide with a large party noisily occupying half the beach and we decided to wander back to the van.
As we left the beach we noticed a small cairn which had been attracting a good deal of attention from passers by and especially from dogs. We went to see the cause of the excitement and were distressed to see a dead Gannet, roughly covered with pebbles and presumably a victim of H5N1 bird flu which has hammered the local breeding colonies, and originated – wouldn’t you know – in intensive chicken farms in Asia. I couldn’t get the sight of that powerful beak and the sightless eyes out of my mind. One of the treats of the beach is (was?) to watch the Gannets lasering almost vertically down at huge speed after fish. By all accounts many other breeds have been affected – we usually hear the Manx Shearwaters coming in at dusk, but none this year – perhaps they flew home earlier. So once again the culprit is not so much farming as highly intensive farming.
I spent the night dreaming miserably about the fate of the Gannet. I can’t think of any logical reason why I should be so upset, and yet a strong connection with the bird and its fate seems inescapable, not just by losing the aesthetic joy of watching them hunt but something more like a bereavement – as if a bit of me had died with the bird. The question – “How could a bird relate to me?” and its converse “How should I relate to a bird?” – turns out to be far more challenging than I ever imagined, but answering it lies at the heart of the present environmental and ecological crisis. Excluding the sentimental, the extractive and the passive relationships with nature on general offer leaves something that looks a bit metaphysical. The learned doctors of the Christian church decided centuries ago that animals cannot have souls and they probably never gave a moment’s thought to whether trees, rocks, plants or landscapes could. The modern age in the west brought many benefits to us but it smuggled an instrumental relationship with nature into the culture that spread like an evil miasma into every aspect of our lives. The Taoists on the other hand forged an attractive and non-theistic faith based on the deep relationship between all animate and inanimate nature. But that’s a “Peering over the wall” view of another faith. I’m drawn to Robin Wall Kimmerer and her exploration of the contribution that First Nation Indian traditions could bring to ecology. I’m also drawn to that meditative tradition within Christianity represented by St John, St Francis, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen among others. The way forward if we really want to save the earth and her inhabitants from destruction is to give all faiths a place at the table and not hand it over entirely to science, industry and unregenerate economists.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” –
*I was always advised not to try to use sheep to cut the grass in my churchyards because “they always ate the flowers first”
And this isn’t the half of it. Its 7.00 pm and I’ve just finished processing the last of the tomatoes into 8 litres of passata. 10Kg of green tomatoes have gone to the freezer along with 10kg of damsons. We’ve already made shed-loads of roasted tomato passata and various chutneys so it’s been a great year. The Borlotti vines – as I mentioned a few days ago – simply rolled over in the heatwave; but the total yield of smaller beans was twice last year’s. We didn’t grow too much sweetcorn because the badger usually gets there first, but this year we erected a three layer fence around them and we’ve been eating them every day. More squashes – Uchiki Kuri and Crown Prince successfully completed the three sisters trio, although we didn’t try to grow them together after several years of trying. Apples are ripening – again a good year.
Our failures? Well the Calendula were a bit of a write off; the garlic bulbs were very small and the Courgettes and cucumbers seemed to hate the hot weather in spite of constant watering but the aubergines and melons sharing the polytunnel with basil and tomatoes loved it. The total yield of tomatoes was in the region of 150 lbs but we gave up counting . The wildflowers and herbs all benefited from the sunshine and, of course, the Mediterranean herbs loved the weather. The wildlife component was a complete success, with more pollinators and bees than ever before. Dragonflies, damselflies and bees and hoverflies were our constant companions and triggered the trailcam more than anything else. However we have filmed badgers, foxes, mice, domestic cats and rats – not to mention a roe deer one remarkable night. We’d love to set up a moth trap but sadly we’re so plagued by petty thefts we’d have to sit up all night with it.
So yes it’s been a wonderful year in spite of the weather; but it’s been a massive effort with watering, and then processing and storing. There’s always a bittersweet feeling as we complete harvesting for the year. It’s very early to be clearing beds but as ever the weather and the seasons have their own domain and we can only bend to their will.
What I miss, more than anything else, is the opportunity to share in thanksgiving. Obviously we can silently vocalise our thanks but there’s nothing like a public liturgy – which needn’t be at all overtly religious -but allows us to gather with our neighbours and say thanks. There’s a sense of glory in the air as we gather our crops together, but somehow our much talked about connection with nature has been ruptured over the past decades. Nature is something we all too often look at and admire passively at second hand. Eating a melon you’ve grown, warm from the sun is something else, and peeping into a store cupboard full to bursting with food for the winter and the hungry gap gives reason for hope even in a time of uncertainty and fear.
So I miss the giant marrows and the harvest loaf and the rejected apples, even with the rotten bits turned to the back out of sight. I miss the harvest festival where one of our wealthier congregation members once sorted through a pocketful of change and picked out the copper coins to put into the collection while the steward waited patiently. I miss the way that the unlikeliest people would turn up because they could see the point of it all, and I miss counting the hundreds of tins of food that were collected every year to be taken to a homeless charity and I miss roaring out the hymns that lurk somewhere deep in collective memory although we hardly share their feudal sentiments any more.
So the closest I can get to that public thanksgiving is here. As always I am utterly blown away and grateful – even joyful – because the harvest has come home – again – in spite of every obstacle thrown in its way.
On the day that fuel price protesters were blocking the motorways all over the country, we opted to catch the Weymouth train out of Bath Spa. It’s the small train which leaves the London main line at Bathampton turning right (that’s a technical term) via a set of points and on through the Avon Valley. In these days of diesel trains and welded rails, the characteristic sounds of the steam journey have changed from irregular beat to an even thrumming without interest – except, that is, when the train hits a set of points and clatters off to left or right with a diddley diddley diddley dum and a bit of a wiggle thrown in for good luck. At Bathampton it always feels as if we’re on the Hogwarts Express; veering off to an entirely different kind of countryside where the 1930’s Great Western Railway posters suddenly come to life and men wearing tweed jackets and trilby hats walk their labradors along the riverbank, trailing clouds of Cavendish tobacco smoke from their pipes.
Of course we weren’t going to Weymouth The train stops as often as a country bus; but the fare with our Railcard is cheaper than petrol plus parking; it’s the greener way to travel and we can stop for a pint or two at a country pub and get driven home by someone else. Anyway I love trains so it’s a no brainer. In fact we were only going as far as Avoncliff Halt and planned to do a new circular walk on what’s known as the “Two Valleys Walk” – a clever marketing ploy by the rail company . You follow the River Avon along the riverbank back to its confluence with the River Frome at Freshford. This was an excuse to revisit Friary Wood which we explored for medicinal herbs last Wednesday.
You’d think – with the A36 barely half a mile away and running along the upper half of the valley – that it would be noisy and overcrowded but it’s not. The roads into this stretch of woodland are not much wider than farm tracks and often end with a solitary group of buildings, hardly qualifying even as a hamlet. For once, in this car scorched earth, the best way to arrive is at one of the railway stations, on foot, and take the train. And, should you be lucky enough to alight at Avoncliff Halt, you climb a flight of concrete steps and meet the John Rennie aqueduct which carries the Kennet and Avon canal across the River Avon. It’s along this stretch of the river that road, rail and canal share a contour around the steep sided valley, but here at the lower level, water and peace prevail. There’s even a pub, the Crossed Guns, that does a decent meal and a pint or two; serving walkers, canal-goers and cyclists not to mention those who take the hazardous winding lane by car.
Looking across the lily pads in the river to the pub it could almost pass for the Potwell Inn, but of course – being imaginary – nothing and nowhere ever lives up to the dream.
Naturally the poem that came to mind as we stood on the platform and watched the train clatter off towards Weymouth was Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”. A musing punctured by the cheerful heave ho of the diesel engine’s klaxon.
So off we walked down the southern bank of the Avon. It turned out to be as much a bird day as a plant hunt. Overhead we could hear and then we could see a Red Kite. A song thrush practiced its phrases in the trees where later we heard a Green Woodpecker and a late to bed Tawny owl. At the conjunction of the two rivers at Freshford Mill we turned up the riverside footpath to Friary Wood and on towards the village of Iford. We had never explored the river Frome before and knew very little about it. The village of Iford is so perfect you really feel you’ve stepped back a century and providentially, just as Madame was tackling a stile with a deep drop, the River Bailiff opened the gate for us and later, on the narrow bridge over the river, we had a long conversation about the river, the fishing and a mutual friend called Bob Talbot who ran a tackle shop in my first parish where he and Rene became my firm friends. Bob became my mentor over many an expedition on a Wednesday where I would wear my fishing clothes under a cassock while I took a communion service and scoot through the house discarding the clericals and out through the back gate where Bob would wait behind the high wall in his three wheeler, ready to whisk me away beyond the sharp eye of the Verger who would have grassed me up. The Bailiff – Ed – was a persuasive man and very nearly got me to join his angling club. We peered over the wall and saw multitudes of small Chub congregated there. He reminisced about the times when large Barbel were frequently caught and talked about the voluntary work that members did to maintain the river bank and the fish stocks.
Then a very steep climb to cross back to the Avon Valley and return to Avoncliff and the Crossed Guns – about five miles in all. Later – after lunch – we crossed the aqueduct again and waited for the train home. A perfect day, then!
Until quite recently I’ve been rather dismissive of record keeping. I’ve seen so many people sitting hunched in front of screens, entering data for hour after hour, and thinking to myself that such ant-like industry was a bit tame compared with having the wind in your face in some wild and remote corner of the countryside. However I had a sort of Damascus Road conversion this week when I realized how much I rely on my fallible memory.
So, for instance I recently came across a single Corn Marigold growing at the edge of the coast path. It’s one of those species that’s slowly disappearing because it contaminates grain crops and can make them go mouldy; and so farmers can get exemptions to spray them with weedkiller. OK I recognised it because I’d seen it before and took all the photos necessary to send it to the local Vice County Recorder for verification. All very laborious but the record was accepted and I was extremely pleased with myself.
Pleased, that is, until I tried to find the photos I’d taken of the same plant in Pembrokeshire, which was where the farmer explained to me the paradox of needing to spray off a vulnerable plant in order to make a living. I’m pleased I didn’t have to adjudicate in that case, but it was – he insisted – a very involved process. He was no cowboy; he played his farming by the book. This all took place in 2016, and in spite of a lengthy and time consuming search through thousands of photos I couldn’t find them. In fact, of the thousands of photos I’ve taken of plants, I’ve always relied on memory to find them again. There are no grid references, just dates – and no notes or I/D’s. So to verify a ten year old photo I just have to hope that the photo was good enough to convey the essential details, and with some plants that might mean a 3mm long seed. Usually they aren’t that good. I’ve tried using a very expensive Panasonic camera with an even more expensive Leica macro lens but it weighs a ton and slows down our walks to divorce speed. It’s been a steep learning curve to make the best of my Pixel 6 phone with an add-on macro lens.
Anyway, enough technical talk. The nub of the problem is that I don’t take the necessary notes on the spot, and I’ve never made my photos searchable by using keywords. Even worse, now I’ve started successfully submitting records to the BSBI I don’t have a personal copy of the plants I’ve recorded, along with all the other useful information. If it takes an optimistic one minute to make a record, it’ll take somewhere in the region of 200 hours to enter the data; and realistically it could take twice or three times that because many of the records would need identifying all over again. My respect for those industrious ants hunched over their laptops has soared.
Of course I’ve got handwritten notebooks going back fifty and more years; but they’re spasmodic, unsearchable and without photos. Worse still they contain stacks of shopping lists and phone numbers and references to books – you know the kind of thing. The only sensible option is digital and after a lot of searching through applications that monitor your mood, send you inspiring messages and increase your productivity I came back to the beginning and Google Photos where they’re all stored already with their EXIF data which in the case of the Pixel 5 stores location, although in an incomprehensible and difficult to convert form. Phew.
I think the heart of the problem is that I’m a bit of a Tigger; always on to the next thing, and because I’m a writer I use photographs as much to record feelings as for raw data. I love writing; I love writing this blog – but behind the scenes there are two almost conflicting aims. The writerly aim is to capture and hopefully convey the inspirational beauty of the earth. The scientific aim is to understand and to record the things I see in a way that can add to our knowledge and understanding of the earth. The conflict is expressed neatly in the names of flowers. Will it be the English names; imprecise and sometimes downright misleading, but often poetic and expressive of historical uses and ancient magic; or will it be the Latin? Will it be Hedge Woundwort or Stachys sylvatica? I would never want to choose because both English and Latin names are indispensable to me. The poetry and beauty of Eyebright, with its intimation of ancient usage carries so much metaphorical freight, we’d be all the poorer if it were shoved aside by the pedantic application of its scientific name – unless – that is, you’re trying to figure out whether it’s thriving or failing when getting the name exactly right for the species is a matter of real importance.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence
There are literally millions of records of British and Irish wildflowers, all searchable and nearly all down to the ant-like industry of thousands of volunteers recording and entering the data and the handful of poorly paid professionals who struggle to keep the whole show on the road. Why is it important? Mostly because the only weapon we have left to oppose the destruction of the earth or the gifting of our land to extractive industrial agriculture is strong and reliable evidence of the biological diversity of the land they covet. There’s no credible argument against this. The future is either green or it’s Goodnight Irene for all of us and our putative descendants. Governments will argue in bad faith that there is no evidence for X or Y, knowing full well that there is no evidence because they starved these essential scientific bodies of the funding they needed to gather the evidence.
My chaotic records, I’m ashamed to say, are of no use at all in this threatened world unless I get them organised. I get it. This blog is just one thread of my fascination with what makes us human. It’s the visible conversation about the relationship between the Potwell Inn and being fully human; our lived experience in all its partiality and confusion. The other thread is the urge to identify, record and understand what is here in order that we can make a reliable inventory of what we have, what we are losing and what we have lost. Hard nosed and factual, industrious and perhaps a bit dull; except that I spent a couple of hours yesterday dissecting and photographing some Cow Parsley and comparing it with some Rough Chervil. I can’t begin to tell you how enjoyable it was!
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.
Need I say a word about my emotional attachment to Velvet Bottom? This post, by the way, refers to lead mining rather than some kind of cosmetic procedure sold by Gwyneth Paltrow. You would be very disappointed in what follows if you were in search of that kind of amusement. The good people of Shipham may not be as enthusiastic about these old mine workings as me because some years ago they were ordered to stop growing and eating their own garden vegetables on account of the dangerous levels of cadmium in the soil -some of it, without doubt, washed down from here. The ponds are the industrial remains of a previous technical solution to a pollution problem caused when inefficient settling of the crushed ore in the buddle pits resulted in lead finding its way into the waters of the several underground rivers that spring from the limestone rock further down the Mendip escarpment; killing the fish quickly and (probably) the residents slowly. The mines have been worked and reworked since Roman times so there’s been ample time for havoc to accumulate, and this should be a salutary reminder to those who think there’s always a technical solution to every environmental problem. The effluent still contained lead, cadmium and goodness knows what other heavy metals. Just to be clear, most of this came from Victorian workings. In earlier times, back to the Romans, there was almost certainly still pollution, because mining and smelting are intrinsically polluting activities. It’s just that when they’re scaled up as they were during the industrial revolution, that they become truly dangerous. With coal from the nearby North Somerset coalfield, and probably in earlier days abundant wood, mining and smelting came together like the Kray twins of industrial growth.
But now there is peace and silence. Where lead ore was once settled in ponds, now adders warm their blood in the sun. Underground a very large system of caves was first exposed in modern times by the 1968 floods; but pioneering cavers like Willie Stanton soon found that in some places the miners had preceded them, leaving their footprints in the mud. Here and there as you walk down the valley you’ll see trial pits and occasionally swallets, gated to keep out reckless and ill equipped explorers.
However, parts of the soil here are so polluted that the whole flora has had to adapt. While we create clean air zones and fight environmental battles that may yet save us from our own historic folly, there was no-one here for the flowers and plants and when you look closely you can soon see the glittering lead slag from which some of the tracks have been made. There are places where almost nothing grows now, or ever will grow in the future. It’s so rare a habitat that it’s even got its own name – Calaminarian grassland – and there are only 450 hectares of it in the whole of the UK. The name comes from a continental violet – Viola calaminaria – that doesn’t even grow here but has the gift of thriving on soil, highly polluted with heavy metals in the parts of Europe from which the UK has detached itself; i.e. the rest of it! The calaminaria part of the name comes from the zinc containing ore, calamine with/from which calamine lotion is somehow made which is very good for calming itchy chicken pox.
So am I telling too bleak a tale about one of my favourite landscapes in the world? I really hope not, because there is an extraordinary beauty in the way that ecosystems can heal themselves. It takes time, sometimes it takes centuries; but slowly nature reclaims what we have damaged because that’s what nature does best, and bare soil is sick, unbalanced soil.
I’ve been walking up and down Velvet Bottom for something like sixty years and every time, it seems to embrace me in its remote quietness. Occasionally the trail runners and dogs owners can be a bit much. The leftovers from picnics and barbecues can be an eyesore but as landscapes go, the high Mendips – never that high – remains off the beaten track if you avoid the hotspots. But close attention to the flora there makes every walk a treat. Here’s a single example. The edges of the buddle pits and settling ponds are particularly heavily polluted but there are a handful of species that have carved out a living there. Last week we got lucky because the flower in the photos below is a very short lived annual, the flowers only open in full sun and by the time its more glamorous and eye catching cousins come along there’s nothing to see. Unless the flowers are open it’s all but invisible, but miraculously it makes a living on the bare slag, helped along I imagine by plentiful rabbit poo. It’s called Common Whitlowgrass – Erophila verna, and is found locally in these bare patches of gravel, pavements and neglected ground across the UK, mainly in the South. The flowers are barely 2-3mm across if they’re open so these photos show them greatly enlarged. You’ve probably got it growing unnoticed on your allotment or in your garden; but here in this hostile environment it’s a token of the healing power of nature.
The name Whitlowgrass comes from the fact that it was apparently used in the past as a treatment – most likely a poultice – for the infected fingernail bed that bears the same name. But not these specimens – please! They’ve got a much more important healing function; they take up heavy metals into the leaves and are potentially poisonous, and in any case it’s illegal – however common they may be. After I’d posted this I did a bit of searching and came up with this quotation from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal . Modern herbals probably don’t mention it because whitlows are a viral infection caused by the herpes virus. As an astringent it may have helped to clean any resulting bacterial infection. Any port in a storm!
“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives this plant an alternative name of Nailwort and tells us that ‘it is held to be exceedingly good for those imposthumes* in the joints and under the nails, which they call Whitlows, Felons, Andicorns and Nail-wheals’. The plant was carried to North America by the first British settlers where it was found to be a most useful plant in herbal medicine. “
There were 21 species of wildflowers that we found in a rapid count along our favourite lane here in Cornwall on Thursday. Today we took a long loop around the coast path and then finished by walking back up the same lane and I identified four more – ground ivy, hairy bittercress, germander speedwell and common fumitory. I have to say the fumitories are a bit of a monster to identify, but I think I got there in the end and there are now 25 entries in my list. Of course there are many more to come because plants sensibly arrange themselves to emerge in sequence through the growing season. Sadly we’re unlikely to be here to identify them all unless we come back every month – and with the allotment demanding attention that’s not likely to be possible.
Sunken lanes – and there are lots here in Cornwall – are an absolute joy to walk along and to look for wildflowers. We were blessed with a strong northeasterly wind today and although the sky was clear and the sun shone without interruption, it was bitterly cold along the coast path where there was no shelter. Northeast being an offshore wind, however, we were able to sit at the base of a rather dodgy cliff and enjoy the sea. When we turned up the lane we entered an entirely different microclimate. Sheltered from almost every direction and yet wide enough to be in sunshine for much of the day, it’s hardly surprising that many of the flowers we were finding are very quick out of the gate; stealing two or three weeks of early spring.
When I used the metaphor of an earth-sized PV cell yesterday I could have explained the idea better. Without the sun there would be no life on earth. Every blade of grass and every leaf of every tree is busy converting sunshine into carbohydrates – that’s to say that water plus sunshine plus essential minerals transported to plants by subterranean fungi make food for us and for every other living creature; and so at this time of the year I always sense the prodigious energy gathering within the earth ready to burst into new life. You can almost hear it on a day like today.
I’m not going to nag about this. The way we abuse this annual gift is creating huge problems that we’ll have to answer for – soon and painfully; but the pain of giving up some of the things we’ve learned to rely on – mostly fossil fuels – could be offset to a degree by the re-enchantment of the earth. Wandering around bent over looking for mostly tiny plants might seem like a rum way of enjoying yourself on holiday, but don’t knock it if you’ve never tried it. The earth and her fruits get more lovely, more complex and more full of joyful discovery the closer we look.
It’s often a pain to identify a plant, but the exercise takes us deeply into their structures and processes; it is – if you like – a meditation on the thusness of nature. Drawing is another way. Gardening reminds us that at best we do best when we walk with the earth and her processes. It puts us in our proper place, and that place turns out to be very good.
While I was writing this Madame was drawing some cones from a Corsican Pine that we picked up on the walk. The two of usin the campervan, so absorbed in our work we didn’t even notice that it was getting dark.
We’ve been creeping up on this decision for many months now, and because we’re quite passionate about shopping sustainably and locally, it seems like a good time to have a look at the pros and cons. In truth the decision to seriously cut back on supermarket shopping was forced on us as our weekly delivery became more and more random. Substitutions became the rule rather than the exception; the supermarket started to charge for deliveries and since we were largely shopping organic anyway the step up to local was less of a hike than it might otherwise have been. However there’s no doubt that sourcing as much of our food locally involves a hefty premium. Our son also pointed out to me – very sensibly – that for many working families there’s neither the money or the time to commit to the kind of shopping that we’ve tried to initiate for ourselves. Cooking all our food from scratch is a luxury that very few people have and I’m completely sympathetic to anyone who just can’t stretch to it. We treat the allotment almost like a job but when the lockdown eased we noticed that many keen and new allotmenteers simply couldn’t put the hours in any more. We know what that feels like having both worked full time (I mean 60+ hours a week), for decades. Now we’re retired we can do it and although it won’t save the earth we’re pleased to do our bit.
Let’s look at some specifics. If you’re not a vegetarian and you enjoy chicken, you could probably buy a small roasting bird for around £3.50. You certainly wouldn’t like to see the horrific conditions it had spent its entire life under and so you could go for an organic one at roughly twice the price. Such a small bird would probably feed two generously and produce a reasonable stock afterwards. Buying a larger bird makes much more sense because you can do so much more with it. A large, free range organic bird is going to cost something like £12 – £14; again twice the price of the value range bird. Both types, however, will have been filled with the maximum amount of water and, in the most egregious cases, chemicals – to “improve the customer experience” .
If you love the River Wye as much as we do, you may have seen that the water in some parts has become so loaded with nitrate and phosphates it’s become eutrophic – dead in plain English – almost certainly caused by intensive free range organic industrial chicken producers on the banks of the river – precisely the premium products that supermarkets sell. So at this point you’ve got two perfectly sensible choices – firstly to abandon chicken (probably all meat eating) out of respect for the environment – OR to eat much less of it but source it locally from farms you know, or have researched. A large chicken from a local organic and free range farm – dry plucked – cost us £22 last week – and yes I had to stifle a gasp when the butcher told me the price. However, when roasted there was no shrinkage; it genuinely tasted like the chickens we had as an occasional treat as children, and it served us for four meals as well as providing enough stock and pickings to make two days worth of soup and to flavour another dish of pommes boulangere. Looked at in that way we think we can afford to buy a chicken maybe once a month instead of once a week as we have in the past. We’ve now tried three local butchers offering high spec free range and organic meat and the same kind of markup in cost but also in flavour applies. A joint of free range Gloucester Old Spot pork belly will instantly demonstrate the reason that cheap supermarket pork will never develop a proper crisp crackling – the added water makes the skin irredeemably soggy and wet.
I have the greatest respect for anyone who chooses not to eat meat on ethical grounds but vegetarians and vegans also have to think through the production processes because in organic, all that glisters is not gold. We haven’t quite reached the scandalous excesses of the organic industry in the US, but with the present regime in power here, it’s only a matter of time. As I read recently, it’s not so much the why, but the how of farming that needs to determine our choices. Since we’ve always been hard up, we’ve always managed on the cheapest cuts and avoided high priced follies like fillet steak. The question “can I afford it?” applies as much to the production as to consumption. If the outcome of eating any meat at all is to destroy the environment – and I think there are very powerful arguments to counter that view – but if it were so, then we’d have to turn to high spec, organic and local vegetables, grains and pulses. Turning to cheap imports of industrially chemicalized soya going into industrially processed food would simply compound the problem.
The same kind of argument applies to many of the other staples of our diet. We can easily source good eggs that sit up in the pan, full cream milk that’s three or four days fresher and makes the best kefir ever because it’s pasteurised slowly at much lower temperatures and isn’t homogenised. We’re blessed with an abundance of wonderful local cheeses that are so well flavoured you only need a half the quantity to cook with. Welsh rarebit or plain cheese on toast cooked with Westcombe Cheddar is a revelation. We have local flour mills and several market gardens who deliver by bicycle! and we have one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country within easy walking distance. We’ve even got a local organic cooperative that sells all the dry goods and cleaning materials. I’ve already written enough about the meat. So I’ll answer my own question – does it cost a fortune – with this reply. Either way round it either costs the earth or costs the consumer a a bit more – you choose!
But there’s another positive to local sourcing – you get to know (and are able to ask questions of) the producers. Our farmers’ market is a stable (no pun intended) community of stallholders and more often than not you’re talking to the producer, or a member of their family. When did you last do that in a supermarket? In the last two weeks I’ve had conversations with two of the best cheesemakers in Europe the second of whom told me yesterday that the cheese I’d just bought, (Merry Wyfe), had won the top prize in an international competition only last Saturday. The regular trip to the market is quite a bit more expensive but the food is better for us and better for the earth, and it’s fun to stand and chat – we never haggle! – and the range of foods is tremendous – Go weep Waitrose when you see the edible fungi. Oh and the supermarket bill is much smaller – maybe 50%.
So how can we afford this on our pensions? Well we make other sacrifices, for instance we rarely – maybe once a year – eat out and our holidays are home brewed in our 12 year old campervan apart from by the generosity of friends who let us use their cottage in Snowdonia from time to time. I think we’ve been to the pub once in the last 2 years. A period of sobriety is as good for the bank balance as it is for the liver. I used to brew our own beer but I’m afraid we enjoyed drinking it too much. We’re a family of chefs and cooks who love growing, cooking and eating together, and a wander around the market is a timely reminder that we’re not the only people who choose to live this way and we could be a powerful voice for change if we organised like the French farmers do!
The stallholders aren’t rich, they could almost all make more money doing something less demanding; but they’re passionate about what they make and sell and, even more importantly, they’re the vanguard movement of local sustainable living. If we didn’t have them there we’d have to invent them. They’ve had a marvellous opportunity to extend their off farm sales during the past 2 years of covid and they are the spearhead of a movement to undo some of the damage done by industrial farming – but only as long as we support them – even just now and again for special occasions; but better still on a regular basis that gives them the confidence to grow their businesses.
And finally, if you don’t live in Bath, and none of these structures exist where you live – there could never be a better time to start some of them.