Deja vu?

Looking down from the iron bridge above lock 3 of the Kennet and Avon canal

Walking down the canal a few days ago we reached exactly this point on the towpath when I found – in the sky, the clouds and the opening buds of the trees – a feeling; a sensation near to joy that was out of all proportion to its dimensions and properties as a view in the ordinary sense of the word.

Naturally it was a welcome change from lockdown ennui but it caused me to wonder how it can be that sense experiences (like Proust’s madeleine for instance), can carry such a huge metaphorical load. I could, if there was time, draw a mind-map with the scene at its centre, and which would embrace dozens if not hundreds of deeply personal associations, many of which could generate further mind-maps. Just to give this a bit of an anchor I could mention wild garlic which is just coming into its glory. My subsidiary mind-map would embrace childhood memories of walking by the river Frome and on from there.

I have no idea whether all this can be adequately explained by brain chemistry unless the scientists would concede that human memory simply stores and recovers these experiences through the workings of brain chemistry, like a biological hard drive – the means don’t matter to me very much but the experience lies at the root of all creative processes, including science. As an allotmenteer and as a rather incompetent amateur botanist I understand that the stimulus which drives us on; enables us to tolerate frost and wind and the loss of a whole crop or drives me to immerse myself in the minutest details of a plant’s structure for hours just so I can give it a name; that stimulus is wonder.

When we’re visiting new places – especially gardens – or walking in unfamiliar environments; meeting new people, the imagination is alive; fired up. Somewhere in the mind the sense impressions are finding places, associations, pre-existing memories, experiences and cultural thought-paths; and the inner workings of memory stores them – each in their right place like roosting hens finding their place on a perch at dusk; each discrete experience tagged and keyworded so that later, many years later perhaps, the precise configuration of a landscape, a flower, a gesture, a sound releases releases the whole stored, aggregated complex. If you were looking for a non-supernatural explanation of the déjà vu experience it’s right there.

A cowslip in our friends’ meadow yesterday

Why the sudden outbreak of philosophy? – Well, this week we’ve been partially released from lockdown. We’ve spent proper time with our children and grandchildren after a year of hermetic isolation and we hugged and clung to each other like shipwrecked sailors. We went to the campervan full of trepidation and replaced the dead battery and took ourselves off for our first night away from home in many months. We camped up at Priddy which is a place soaked in teenage memories of caving expeditions; watched rooks squabbling over nests and ate up the silence. Notwithstanding a terrible night’s sleep, as we were kept awake by a series of power cuts that had the heating unit cycling noisily on and off ; we came back to Bath feeling that we’d begun to emerge from emotional winter again.

Which brings me to our walk when (at my suggestion) we found the entrance to Swildons Hole which I’d not seen in fifty or more years but which is still full of memories. I’d spent so much time down there cold, wet, tired, fearful and occasionally completely panicked but always blown away by the powerful sensation of being underground and by the occasional bursts of sheer beauty hidden from human eyes for millennia.

A few years ago I met an outdoor pursuits instructor at the climbing wall in St Werburghs who offered to take me down again, but somehow we never got around to doing it. One glimpse of the entrance was enough to convince me that it would be a miserable and possibly dangerous experience for a septuagenarian! But that in itself was enough to remind me that however powerful the memories, not all experiences are repeatable however appealing the thought might be. The sense of our own mortality sharpens and intensifies these remembered experiences which linger in the mind like ghosts.

On the other hand, if you look closely at the third photo from the left, you’ll see something of a line of trees above the pill box entrance. I had no recollection of them from the past. In fifty years or so they’ve grown into a magnificent beech hanger and the sound of the wind rustling through the branches was unmistakable and worthy of a ten minute stop for a free symphony. You can see the leaf buds about to break as they turn from chestnut brown to green. At last a recoverable and re-liveable memory from my childhood trips to Stoke Row in the Chilterns. No I hadn’t really been here before, because on my last visit the trees were so much smaller and yet my memory was able to recover more from my grandparents smallholding to furnish and make sense of this new and powerful experience.

So what about the allotment? Well, we’re in suspended animation as the pampered indoor plants grow like cuckoos while we wait for the present icy spell to end. The earth is a dry as dust and we’re having to continually water in the polytunnel because daytime temperatures soar in the spring sunshine. Slowly, slowly, enough tough old stagers are emerging to break the illusion of winter and the apple blossom sits, clenched in bud waiting for the spring as a child waits for Father Christmas. It will come soon, but evidently not yet and not soon enough for some of the wind tormented broad beans. Inside the tunnel with an additional layer of fleece we’re just coming to terms with its capacity to advance the season. Every time we look at the spinach and lettuces or the young cabbage plants we have to pinch ourselves. The container grown potatoes are growing so vigorously I seem to be constantly mixing soil and compost to earth them up, and I think we’ll have a crop by early May.

Between the flat, the greenhouse, the tunnel, the hotbed, various cloches and the open ground we find ourselves managing half a dozen quite different seasonal microclimates. One little moment of joy came when Madame opened the crown of one of the cauliflowers and found the white curds just beginning to form – and that’s the first time we’ve grown them successfully. The asparagus is beginning to accelerate into life and the newly planted trees and soft fruit all seem to have taken. There are tadpoles in the pond and the Hidcote Giant lavender plants have arrived ready to be planted out and ready to attract insects and bees.

So it’s all good. Confusing, frustrating and good – as life usually turns out to be. Any prolonged silences over the next few weeks will probably be down to sheer busyness!

Ten top tips for bloggers

You know how it always takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but surely (at least in the UK) we can agree that it’s a cold spring – and I don’t mean that we’ve had some cold weather because that goes without saying, but after being lulled into a sense that winter is over by a couple of balmy days, we’ve gone backwards by what feels like six weeks; chilled by a seemingly immovable wind from the northeast which only occasionally swings around to the west to gather some more sleet. Over in France and Spain too they’ve experienced some very extensive damage to crops, including grape vines. It’s difficult to make a direct link to the climate emergency but these extreme events have every appearance of being the smoking gun. Something’s wrong when the average temperature is way below normal and yet we’re having to water because the earth is so dry. “That’s gardening” we say to ourselves hopefully – “… you win some and you lose some”; but are we just kidding ourselves? In Bath we’ve had to cope with illegal levels of atmospheric pollution for years because local politics has been torn between reducing traffic and increasing income from students, businesses and tourism. Now, to add to the evil mix, the SUV has become the vehicle of choice for city centre aspirationals. It seems we all agree that something must be done, but the proposals for reducing traffic have been so watered down by the tourism and transport lobbies that the politicians are running scared. Councillors elected on a green manifesto to reduce traffic have crumpled under the pressure and there are rumours of palace revolutions while local bloggers have poured out their bile on those of us who challenge their so-called ancient freedoms – like driving a three litre Range Rover 1/4 mile to collect Tarquin and Cressida from school.

Anyway, all this cold weather presents us with a storage problem at the Potwell Inn, because a traffic jam of tender plants has built up and is now occupying every conceivable space in the flat, leaving nowhere to germinate the next wave of cucurbits; the cucumbers, squashes and melons – not to mention the sweetcorn and the runner (pole) beans. We’ve hatched a plan to construct a third unheated propagator under our original daylight fluorescent lamps because they give out far more heat than the newer LED’s. Desperation inspires ingenuity and we can probably get by.

Not all ingenuity seems to work, though, and I have to report that my genius attempt to lure the rats into the traps with exceptionally smelly camembert cheese fell upon deaf nostrils, as it were, and the hoped for carnage did not come about. It was at least reassuring that the trailcam worked perfectly. Alas we’ve yet to find a reliable way of controlling their numbers.

If you look very closely you’ll see the rat emerging fit and healthy from the trap before exiting down the path.

Much of the week has been taken up by getting the campervan ready for a single night on the Mendips to make sure all the systems are working properly. Our last trip – over a year ago – saw the electrics collapse in domino fashion and we spent the week reading by torchlight and huddled in the sleeping bags to keep warm. When the electrics go in a campervan nothing works – water pump, stove ignition, lighting and heating all go into a sulk. All this was replaced and patched up a year ago but during lockdown we’ve never had a chance to test it out under normal conditions. I’m almost anxious about taking the van back on to the road but, on the other hand, it’s spring and I’ve got a year’s botanising to catch up with. I think I’ll get back to grasses and try to identify the early risers. Goodness why I find it so exciting to know the latin name of a clump of anonymous green stuff with almost invisible flowers – but I do, and yes, Madame finds it inexplicable as well. Glory be! a new book on UK grasses is on its way to me and I’ve already polished the hand lens (this is not a euphemism). It’s called “Grasses A Guide to Identification Using Vegetative Characters” published by the Field Studies Council – end of plug, except to mention that you can get it from the NHBS bookshop which carries an amazing collection of titles on every aspect of natural history, and not so much as a third cousin seven times removed has links to them.

Finally, I’m publicly registering my ferocious dislike for any newspaper or magazine article headed “Ten top ****” I remember one of the chief reporters on a local paper telling me once that most journalists are irredeemably lazy and the best way of getting your copy into print is to do the job for them. A whole industry has grown up around this character defect; it’s called lobbying – and/or – dare I say – influencing in which winsome young people earn money by making videos of themselves promoting various kinds of snake oil. These videos readily supply ten best anything stories about anything from parma ham to windscreen wipers. In this way I was provoked by a “ten best” on the subject of growing veg.

As a potter, way back, I was often penalized for my passionate interest in technique. Somehow a whole generation of art schools managed to make a distinction between “technique” – which you had technicians for; and “talent”. The outcome of this lamentable attitude was that many students completed their degree courses without the least idea of how the elements of their pieces were conceived of and built, and how they all fitted together to make a finished piece. I remember visiting a degree show where I spotted a glaze that I’d designed as a favour to the technician in that department. The student, not knowing me from Adam, was astounded when I gave her the outline of the recipe. The very best students had a firm grasp of technique as well as the creative competence to carry out their ideas.

This need for technique applies just as much to gardening or cooking as it does to ceramics, and one thing I’ve learned over the years by watching really inspirational potters, gardeners and chefs is that there are always more and different ways of achieving what they’re doing. Being trapped by any sort of ten best ideology is like handing over your brains to a stranger. I’m miles too old and ugly to be a persuader but I’ve been tempted. However I’m constrained by the terrifying thought that someone might have been so impressed by my fluent and articulate promotion of camembert cheese as a rat bait that they actually bought shares in in a cheese company and created an online rat bait outlet with its own logo.

I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s comment to his daughter that the purpose of education is to teach us to recognise bullshit. I would hate to think that my epitaph might read “Dave Pole – he couldn’t tell shit from pudding!” – so please pay no attention at all to anything I write. My life is a work in progress – until it’s not.

Plus ça change?

“used to express resigned acknowledgement of the fundamental immutability of human nature and institutions.”

Occasionally I entertain the idea that somehow I’ve matured, evolved – grown up; that I’m not the person I was when I was, say, 25 years old. Madame, I’m sure, would beg to differ but yesterday I picked up and started reading one of my old notebooks and I discovered she’s right. I haven’t evolved at all (but neither has she!).

This entry was written on Tuesday 9th April and I think the year must have been 1973. I was working as a bus driver and groundsman at Clifton College – a job I only got because I omitted to tell them about my qualifications and I merely said I could drive a Transit van. They must have been desperate because they gave me the job and I had two wonderful years living under the radar and learning to drive and maintain tractors, tend and repair grass worn by rugby and cricket and to lay hedges in the winter – best job ever. Oh and I also learned to drive the buses – 1946 Bedford OB’s with wooden seats and crash gearboxes. On my first afternoon I drove all the way from the boathouse on the River Avon to the School, about 5 miles, in second gear because I had no idea how to change up. It was there that I learned to watch badgers and identify the common birds, and there I first began to take botany up a level. I like to think of it as my public school education, and we still live on the banks of the same river.

Anyway, the diary – one of many of which most are now lost – spent twenty five years in a damp garage and so it’s almost unreadable in places, but when I read the section that follows I was astounded how little has changed, aside from the disappearance of so many species. Even the old buses still make regular appearances in 1950 costume dramas on the television.

These following notes are about our walk which took us over Cumberland Basin and over the lock gates, over the river by the railway line, down the footpath that crosses the old Ashton Gate [railway] station and along the cricket field and into Ashton Court, where we walked up the path behind the house and across to the deer park – returning the same way.

The warm spell continued today, and the winds have remained light South Easterly………..We’re beginning to appreciate the warm, light evenings, seizing the chance to walk whenever we can. During the winter our expeditions tend to be rather cursory and confined to weekends, normally Sundays at that! Our progress on these walks is always hilariously slow. I’m determined not to miss anything new growing, so there are protracted arguments and discussions about every plant we see. Still, things are improving slowly. When we lived in Corsham we used to go for walks laden with plant books, tree books and bird books and it might take us all afternoon to get out of sight of the cottage. Now we’ve given up carrying books everywhere so I just have to stop and write descriptions of everything [or make little drawings]. Even then we often have to go back again because the description is inadequate. There’s either no such plant in existence, or there are about fifty all answering the same description. The good moments are like when we went around the Ashton Court nature trail. There was 2 feet of snow the only snow this winter, and suddenly we came across a whole bank of Helleborus viridis. Somehow you feel you’ve discovered something important – a bit rare or unusual. I don’t suppose the plants feel that way about it. Anyway most of our walks are concerned with more mundane things like – are hawthorn and whitethorn the same – or two different trees? Is that a dandelion or a cats ear? or what is that ****** umbellifer? I know they’re all distinct, but somehow ……….

My Journal, 9th April 1973

Nowadays I still carry too many books around, but the mobile phone is brilliant for making records for identification later. Mind you, it’s taken years to figure out what details you need to record. These days too I’m a lot more confident about plants but aside from that, the quotation could as easily have been written last Friday. Walks still take forever and we still argue, in fact nowadays we have to agree in advance whether it’s going to be a walk or a plant walk.

Anyway, back in the kitchen I’ve now almost processed all of the 20lbs of damsons into jam, vodka, pickle and coulis. Tomorrow we’ll start on the third big batch of tomatoes making plain, unadorned passata. After days of confinement due to the rain we spent yesterday having a socially distanced picnic with our family. The grandchildren obviously don’t understand why we’re all keeping our distance, and now they’re going back to school this week and so we all parted sadly because we’ll have to stop meeting for a while. It seemed awful to be promising to meet again at Christmas it’s so far away. One ray of sunshine came late in the day when we discovered we would soon be able to go back up to the Lleyn peninsula and walk to our heart’s content and see the sea and the mountains of Snowdonia once more. We’ll be taking the trailcam with us this time so we can watch birds and mammals even when we’re out walking somewhere else. One of these days we’ll buy a moth trap too and our joy will be complete with 873 macrospecies to argue about!

It’s been a long summer without a single night away from the flat since February and we’re increasingly aware of how stressful it’s been for us and for everyone – and yet we carry serenely on; our passions, interests and compulsions forged in heaven knows what dark familial smithy (I almost wrote dark satanic mill, but our childhoods weren’t that bad!) and hardly even dented by more than seven decades of getting by. There’s so much to be grateful for.

What was the date of the last time you heard a cuckoo?

Arrhenatherum elatius ssp bulbosum otherwise known as a bit of dead grass

To be able to answer that question you’d need to have heard the cuckoo, recognised it and made a note of where it was that you’d heard it. I know where I heard the last one – it was with friends whose smallholding is near Crickhowell in Wales and I could find the date by looking for the photos I took on that day. That was getting on for two years ago and sadly I haven’t heard one since which gives me a little pang of sadness. What if that was it? – no more cuckoo ever …..

So maybe there is a point in being a bit of a list nerd, even if becoming one means you have to irritate the hell out of all your nearest and dearest while you read (buy) incomprehensible and expensive books, spend hours with pencil and notebook writing in secret code and develop a pronounced bend in the spine as you spend days on end looking at the ground, and enthuse about tiny bits of plants that no-one in their right mind cares a hoot about …. except – I should stop there! But if you’ve done all those things and write the event up and even send an account of it to someone who also records these things but on a grand scientific scale; then it’s just possible that something could be done in time to stop the cuckoo becoming a footnote in an annotated student’s Shakespeare crib.

On Tuesday I gathered 10 samples of grass from Bannerdown and as I mentioned earlier, I was up early yesterday morning and after some pretty intense work I managed to identify nine species; and I even managed to match them with all the other plants we saw yesterday and come up with my first ever NVC (National Vegetation Classification) code. More than a year after my resolution to “do the grasses” I’ve finally reached the point where I’m pretty confident with identifying them, and half a dozen I can recognise from twenty paces. A red letter day for me and possibly of no interest to anyone else, unless like me you’ve embarked on a stupidly difficult quest without much by the way of experience.

So why bother then? Why not leave it to the professionals? Well the answer is that there aren’t nearly enough professionals to do what’s needed. There are now hardly any opportunities to study botany at degree level in this country. We’re in the midst of an environmental catastrophe that will lead to the disappearance or even extinction of a huge number of species from environments that no one has ever recorded – and I don’t just mean Amazonian jungle and Arctic tundra, I mean the derelict site next door, the unappetising urban stream with the supermarket trolleys in it, and the allotment sites that hard up local authorities would love to sell off. The article from today’s Guardian newspaper that I cited above is concerned with UK mammals, and just like the mountain gorillas and snow leopards, our wild mammals live on wild plants, insects and other wild mammals and they are disappearing because their environmental niches are disappearing. As meadows, hedgerows and streams disappear along with all their specialised plants, their larger and more glamorous inhabitants disappear too; so saving the hedgehog means saving the hedgehog’s environment and the multitude of invertebrates that it lives on – which means saving the plants on which those invertebrates feed in turn. The earth is a joined-up ecosystem – with the emphasis on system and it can’t work even if small parts fail. Just as when the hinge on my laptop breaks it becomes a pile of junk. During my grass binge I have spent a lot of time on the internet looking for answers and I promise you I found a website (run by a agrochemical business) headed “How to identify grasses and eradicate them. “Attaboy – lets civilise the lawns and fields of this great country!”. Letting the nettles and the couch grass flower around the edges of your allotment shows you’re a part of the resistance movement.

Natural history has always had its share of amateurs. There are few other disciplines where we can make such a significant contribution. It’s true we don’t have the knowledge or the equipment to study plant DNA at home, but increasingly we’re becoming the infantry in the battle to save nature, (with saving ourselves as a side-order). There’s a place for everyone at every level and the amateur recorders are the intelligence corps, helping to collate the evidence. I first got involved in this kind of thing when I was a schoolboy and sent postcards (remember them?) back to a science project investigating thunderstorms. I remember I had to record the number of seconds that elapsed between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, and add a few details about the storm. I think I had to buy my own postage stamps.

However, the reasons for getting stuck in aren’t just about saving our skin. To lift a phrase from a well known naturalist:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx – “Eleven theses on Feuerbach” – (and inscribed on his grave)

So let’s hear it for the sheer beauty of nature, for the way it frames us and sets us within our proper place, for the way it inspires the sense of the numinous, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans“, the terrible and compelling face of nature that draws worshippers and list makers alike to record what might be the last great moments of a collapsing civilisation. “Glory be to God for dappled things” said Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied beauty” and although these days I find the whole idea of God – especially the great gammon in the sky version promoted by most churches – impossible to understand, I know well enough what glory feels like!

Often the wildlife just comes to us

After a pretty intense posting yesterday I thought I’d kick off with these two visitors who just turned up. On the left a hoverfly – Hyathropa florea sunning itself on the allotment. It’s a stocky creature that’s probably one of the fruits of the rush to build ponds on the site. It emerges from a rat tailed maggot – not a pretty sight! – which lives in the dank and smelly shallows of untended ponds and wet places. The other slightly more glamorous visitor is a Jersey Tiger moth that settled on our window this morning. One of its favourite food plants is hemp agrimony which we have large drifts of, growing on the river bank.

I wish those two observations made me as clever as I possibly sounded. In truth the combination of the Pixel 3 phone and a wifi connection for the Google Lens app does a lot of the heavy lifting for me. It’s by no means infallible, so I need to check nearly everything against the print guides but it often leads me to the correct page, and the more it’s used the more accurate it becomes. The database must now be absolutely gigantic, and that should make plant id’s available and less daunting – which can only be a good thing for citizen science. Let’s not be sniffy about it people!

Yesterday, at last, we made our way up to Alexandra Park, a tremendous viewpoint overlooking Bath

We’d been woken early in the morning by a tremendous thumping bass note that sounded as if it was emerging from a car parked outside. Sadly the truth is that an illegal rave had put 3000 people on to a very quiet and very species rich disused airfield to the north and east, just about four miles on from the top right hand of the photo. The police were unable safely to intervene until mid-day yesterday. Quite aside from the damage to the site, these huge gatherings can become centres of infection – superspreaders, and I’m sure that many young people think they’re immune. They’re not of course.

But from the top of Alexandra Park, we also has a lovely view looking down on to Bathampton Fields – the grassy triangle at the centre. We are so lucky to live in the midst of this environment. It’s easy to slp into the lazy assumption that all the good things are somewhere else – usually somewhere exotic – and yet the little patch of land in the photo has everything to offer and it’s barely fifteen minutes walk from home. There are more natural riches within walking distance than you could shake a stick at, and certainly enough to discover and learn an impressive number of plants, invertebrates and birds.

And finally, to cap a lovely day, my borrowed microscope arrived, along with an invitation to try my hand at making a video about botany on the wrong side of the tracks – a sort of ‘really rough guide to the botanical thugs, chancers and parasites that share our habitat here’. (How’s that for a working title J – ?) The microscope came from the same person that asked me to make the video – oh my goodness now I’m indebted over my head! I can’t begin to express how much difference a stereo microscope makes to plant identification. I have a strange relationship with new technology and often I have to leave it on the desk untouched for a week or so until I’ve rubbed some of my scent on to it and it doesn’t feel strange any more. Not so this time . It’s a thing of beauty and it works. The sense of three dimensionality, the ability to look around the subject is really wonderful, I’m quite besotted; and – I’ve been thinking about adding some videos to the blog for ages so this has given me just the shove I needed.

Back on the allotment

Meanwhile, and notwithstanding the darker tone of the recent posts; things are going well on the allotment, although this year it’s become ever more evident than ever that the stately procession of the seasons has been one of the early casualties of global heating. We’ve moved into an era of ‘all or nothing’ weather which means that unseasonably hot and dry weather is punctuated by fierce storms that need a rather different sort of rain harvesting.

In the past the steady drip of rain running down the greenhouse panes into tiny gutters and thence through small pipes into the water butts, was rarely enough to overwhelm the system. This year we’ve had to modify the gutters and downpipes to cope with the short bursts of very heavy rain which, otherwise, would overtop them and overflow on to the ground beneath. Even then it takes a lot of rain to replenish 1250 litres (250 gallons) of rainwater. Luckily we have access to a couple of water troughs connected to the mains water supply. We also have several underground streams running through the site and flowing out across the pavement below us. In a perfect world we’d dig a massive tank at the bottom to capture the water and then pump it up the hill to another tank at the top, but in the present economic climate, anything beyond two days is long-term planning. That’s to say it goes on to a long list and stays there, even though the payback through saved water bills would be pretty quick.

So today’s job, yesterday’s job and likely tomorrow’s too is to water. In order to get the maximum benefit from the land area we made wood chip paths and beds, but at this time of the year the paths are populated with large pots and any other temporary containers we can press into service. These need watering every day when the temperature is in the 30’s, and the inside of the tiny greenhouse can be like a furnace – good news for the hot chillies as long as they don’t dry out completely. Anything else needs a lot of TLC.

And so just at the time the allotment is absorbing a great deal of energy, the produce is demanding more by way of cookery and preparation and with added ingenuity since ingredients rarely come off the allotment in recipe form. We have courgettes but no tomatoes or aubergines yet so ‘rat’ is off the menu. At the same time much of the soft fruit is ripening and so the question of what to do with it arises, as it does every year.

One useful discipline is to check the cupboard before we make any more of anything. We have a surplus of redcurrant jelly already so there doesn’t seem much point in making more. On the other hand we eat shed-loads of blackcurrant jam so that’s worth replenishing, but much of the other soft fruit is going to be processed into multi purpose fruit compote for summer puddings and ice cream. This year we made a generic “allotment jam” which was very good, but freezer space is limited so the gooseberries are going to be bottled. The biggest overproduction offenders are chutneys and pickles which need to be made circumspectly if you’re not to land up with a garage full of chutney because you didn’t know what else to do with an impulse buy of plums at the roadside. We find that jams last longer than a year, and chutneys can easily last three if they’re properly stored – but eventually they deteriorate and although they probably won’t kill you they won’t enhance your table either.

So we’re very busy but not too busy to keep an eye open for new plants. Today I spotted a common blue sowthistle on the site. It wasn’t too hard to identify but it uncovered the subtle distinction that most floras make between natives and incomers. Plants and flowers escape from gardens and railway lines, even on the wheels of cars and quarry lorries, and if they find a suitable spot they can settle down and grow. This one is a 19th century escapee that’s doing well but – because it’s not a genuine native – isn’t featured in most of my wildflower floras. Even the Book of Stace refuses to acknowledge it, although he will often give a line or two to my seventh cousin from Devon .

Identifying wildflowers can become a bit of an obsession, but it’s harmless and gets me out. I’ve been pacing the allotment and the canal recently trying to sort out the ragworts and, trust me, it can be a challenge. But!- there is a book and a method that’s immensely useful and it’s just been published in a revised second edition. It’s called “The vegetative key to the British flora” by John Poland and Eric Clement and it does exactly what it says on the tin – it helps you to identify plants that aren’t in flower – and even better, different plants whose flowers all look the same but which can be sorted out by closely examining the shape, disposition and minute details of the lower parts, the leaves and stems.

A massively useful tool, you might say, unless I’m trying to identify an escapee like a blue sow thistle, when the Google app on my android phone at least gets me most of the way home. I suppose if it (the sow thistle, that is), continues to do well – and it probably will – a massively suntanned botanist with a gigantic souwester for storms will give it a grudging mention in the 2050 appendix to a slim volume of all the plants that are left. Anyway, thanks to a good magnifier, a copy of Poland and Clement, and a tolerant partner I now know what a hydathode is, and consequently what is definitely an Oxford Ragwort; but the common ragwort which I have known all my botanical life as Senecio jacobaea has changed its name in the hope of escaping detection and is now known as Jacobaea vulgaris. Taxonomists can be very snotty.

Last night there was a massive party on the green. The police have been out in force on Royal Crescent, and so those in the know have come down to the Green which, being in a much less salubrious area, is less likely to generate complaints from important people. Aside from feeling a bit left-out because we’re still self isolating and ignoring the government, whom we wouldn’t believe if they told us the date; it was lovely to hear the young people having so much fun and this morning – contrary to stereotypes – there wasn’t as much as a sweet paper left on the grass because they tidied up so well. I do so hope their optimism won’t be crushed by a second wave of the Covid 19 virus.

Small world

Having pretty much run out of plants to look at, and after my brief encounter with the wall lettuce, I found myself noticing one or two plants I’d never looked at properly before. There’s a posh word for an environment created by a large block of concrete flats with an adjacent car park that used to be a builders’ yard. It’s more often applied to old gasworks and factory sites and presumably was also used to describe bombsites after the war. It’s ruderal – which derives from the Latin for rubble and describes land disturbed by human activity, exactly like building a block of flats. I prefer to think of it as meaning rather rude – which is what you tend to become after three months locked up in a concrete block with the only view from your desk being a car park on an old builders yard. I think there’s an elegant circularity to that paragraph but you may disagree.

Anyway, style apart, I was wandering through the car park and I noticed a thin, straight line of tiny plants; eking out a living on the tarmac below the vertical line of windows at the back. Occasionally I get interested in these tiny wonders – like the slime mould that took all winter to descend the fire escape steps, or the rue leaved saxifrage on the same steps that gets away with its precarious situation by setting seed before the summer does for it.

But these little plants were tiny – really tiny – and clinging low to the ground, constantly being trodden on and driven over and baked in the heat of the sun in recent weeks. It seemed to me that this was all slightly miraculous and deserved a bit more of my attention. The three plants, I pretty sure, were

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Biting Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris

So the next thing to do was to take some samples and bring them up to the study for a closer look. The first obvious thing was that they had been much affected by their impoverished environment they were like miniature versions of their more prosperous cousins. But under a 15X lens I could see that the pearlwort had a number of even tinier, almost transparent beetles living on it. The plant itself was living on a substrate of some kind of moss, but I don’t have a microscope and so I couldn’t take the ID any further. And neither could I tell you what was the name of the beetle. If my knowledge of plants is a bit wonky, my knowledge of insects is non existent.

The next step was to set up a real camera with a macro lens and take a close-up photo. The photo at the top of the page is about 7X magnification of the pearlwort and if you look carefully at the top right quadrant you might spot one of the beetles. You can see that the presence of the water absorbing moss is probably part of the pearlwort’s survival strategy. Wonderful stuff. I was so pleased I started another list of plants I could see through the window which I may share if I ever complete it. Anyway I hope I’ve convinced you that there’s a whole small plant world that we tread on every day without thinking.

Back in the Potwell Inn I started a new sourdough loaf using a new organically grown and stone ground flour that we bought at the mill yesterday. It was nice to get out for a bit but the mill is extremely inaccessible and on both occasions I’ve been there I’ve taken a wrong turning and landed up driving down a narrow track with potholes big enough to lose a tractor in, and ending in an impassible ford. Madame adopted the brace position throughout and comments about my driving were exchanged and so we retraced our steps and took the proper track – which was almost as bad. Nonetheless the contactless handover (see yesterday’s post) was seamless and we drove home feeling that somehow we were dragging an elk back to the cave. At any rate the flour will see us in bread for another three months.

The rain has at last arrived, and this morning I checked the water butts to see if my elaborate water harvesting had worked, and yes – there was a satisfying increase in the stores – sufficient to check that the descending cascade linking the five 250 litre stores was working and it was. As each barrel fills, the water flows to the next in sequence.

Our life here is not exactly Selborne, but in many ways it’s just as rewarding to be able to make friends with these overlooked weeds. Tomorrow the sun will shine again and we may even take a turn around the farmers market – our first trip there for three months. Masks will be worn, of course. We almost went last week but we chickened out at the last minute. We’ll probably chicken out again tomorrow – we have no idea how to stay safe any more!

Nature as prophylactic?

Once again today, in the newspaper, an article spelling out how uplifting and mentally stabilising is a dose of nature. I’ve seen dozens of these pieces recently and I recall reading somewhere that John Seymour has expressed some regret that his book “Nature Cure” had been rather misunderstood as a self-help guide for the depressed – it isn’t at all, but that didn’t stop someone writing and expressing their disappointment that there were only a couple of pages in the whole book devoted to the subject. I’ve read loads of excellent books describing an author’s recovery or self-discovery through engagement with the natural world, but that engagement has always been much greater than a walk in the woods. My first thought was to make a list of all the books that I think fall into the category but it would have been huge, and the first one that came to mind – Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” – which I loved – has disappeared into the chaos of my bookshelves.

I’d be the last person to criticise outdoor exercise and I’m sure that a bit of fresh air and sunshine can lift the spirits in a way that almost nothing else can, but the natural world isn’t a one-a-day prophylactic for all the derangements of life in the lockdown when it’s passively consumed – especially by way of television programmes! What most people discover is that it’s deep engagement that triggers the endorphins and gets all of those crazy biochemical events going.

Four years ago I made a hubristic resolution not to walk past a plant I couldn’t identify without at least trying to give it a name. It was a bonkers idea and Madame nearly killed me from frustration that our brisk walks turned into 100 yard crawls as I dragged along a bagful of books and a hand lens – but pretty soon I could get quite a few yards without having to stop and walking became a deeper pleasure than it had ever been before. My suggestion is not to go for a walk without choosing a common plant as a target (make sure it actually grows in your area) and going to look for it. Dandelion – tick; hawkbit – tick; cat’s ear – umm – tick? I think natural history works because it takes you out of yourself which, strangely, is what the word ecstasy is derived from. It’s hard to be worrying about getting old and fat when you’re face to face with a water vole in a ditch (mind you I was pretty drunk that time!)

As for allotmenteering and gardening being good for your mental health, try telling our neighbour who had one of the pots stolen from outside his front door last night. My second contribution to the prophylactic qualities of gardening is that it teaches you resilience.

Overnight the rats, or maybe mice, raided our broad beans and ate maybe fifteen pods, scattering the remains all over the path. Merciless traps have been set but they seem to recognise them and use them as a kind of table. The slugs too have visited the strawberries – so no, allotments do give joy but it’s always well seasoned with disappointment.

Is there a third prophylactic quality? Well I think it links to my theme of the week, as it were because growing things is always a dialogue in a language you haven’t quite learned. We can dispense with Dorothy Frances Gurney’s awful doggerel about being ‘closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth‘ – and say that the best we can ever hope for in gardening is a successful relationship with nature. And finally, I really enjoy the mindless repetitions of gardening. Hand weeding, pricking out and planting out, tying in, taking out side shoots. It’s hard to brood when you’re fully occupied, even in a very simple task.

But I suspect that some of my friends are quietly concerned that I’ve been brooding – perhaps it’s something I wrote – because I’ve received two books by post in the last 24 hours. So thank you Rose for sending me Patrick Barkham’s book “Islander” and thank you Mags for F G Brabant’s 1920 pocket guide to Snowdonia – both now perched at the top of the bedside stack, although I couldn’t resist a look at Barkham’s chapter on Bardsey and Brabant’s photos of places we’ve been to often. I’m really not depressed or anything like it; I was born with a restless, questioning temperament and a complete inability to relax – ask Madame!

And there’s always something new to try – like, for example – the new WordPress block editor which is miles better than the old one, with many more features but is a bit of a step up. Things aren’t where they were and adding photos to the media directory is much harder than it was. Well actually, it was pretty much automatic before but now it demands planning. This was all prompted by a solemn warning that there would be a switchover in ten days time. This has happened to me before and bitter experience teaches that getting your head around the new software is best tackled in advance. But I like it very much and this posting is the first I’ve written and edited in the new software. I’m a writer and anything that gets in the way of the process of writing is a terrible nuisance so I’m feeling quite pleased with myself.

Outside it’s blissfully sunny with high gusting winds bending the trees so that, if you closed your eyes, you could hear a sound like the sea in Cornwall or on a beach on Lleyn. Yesterday we staked and tied in all the tomato plants and the sunflowers in anticipation of the wind today. We’ve had a couple of sharp showers too, enough just to wet the ground and prove that the revised guttering on the shed roof is finally sending the rainwater where it’s meant to go.

Clay pipe bowl – possibly Richard Tylee of Widcombe and made in the 1690’s

And finally, another piece of archaeology from the plot. We often dig up clay pipes. There was a factory in the centre of town and another across the river in Widcombe where we think – from the incomplete stamp – this one was made. There are apparently signs that the site was a vineyard in Roman times, and here’s evidence of workmen in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. It been a market garden too, but since the war – an allotment site. It gives us a sense of history, linking us into the past as well as into the future. Our little plot gives us history, spirituality, natural science, organic food, great neighbours, fresh air and exercise. Not bad for less than £100 a year.

Oh strimmer man – where you gonna run to?

I fell asleep last night clutching a new wildflower book – I would have called it a flora but that would have been misleading since Madame’s name (which is a closely guarded secret) is not Flora. But it’s a sign that the natural world, in the course of a couple of riverside walks, has got me back in her grip.  I was lamenting the impossibility of botanising in Cornwall or Wales for weeks, but the last two days on the riverbank have energised me in much the same way – the sheer pleasure of recognising old friends that I never knew grew here in the middle of a small city; here today, wintercress and broomrape growing within a few hundred yards – neither of them rare.  The slightly mad abundance of plant life is a telling sign that nature doesn’t need us half as much as we need her. Over the river in the Crest Nicholson gulags they left a wildflower meadow in one corner of a field of hard-wearing perennial ryegrass – no ball games permitted – which struggles in the teeth of the siberian winds generated by the tall buildings. The grounds are maintained by a company with a cunning plan to mow another inch off the meadow with every cut.  It will then disappear; the last sop of ecological reparation for the destruction of the old gasometers and abandoned industrial buildings that really were a wildlife haven. But we still have the anarchic, weed infested verges; the real eco-deal thriving under their neglect by the strimmer army – long may their funding be neglected!

IMG_20200511_095741At home, energised by thoughts of weeds, I woke with cheese scones on my mind. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur  but there’s nothing quite like baking to calm you down, and so I baked a batch of the ultimate comfort food.  I really should have baked a Dundee cake but there wasn’t time because we wanted to go to the allotment to see how our wind and frost preparations had survived. The max and min thermometer in the greenhouse showed that the inside temperature had dropped to 5C during the night, so that meant the outside got down to around 2 or 3C – too close for comfort for the tender plants, so we were pleased that we’d gone to the trouble of wrapping them all up and building new screens. I’m beginning to sound a bit manic here, I know, but life’s too good to waste a minute – even in lockdown.

So everything in the garden was lovely (ish) and we added a new screen attached to the grapevine training wires. The bad news was that thieves had dropped by again and stolen our neighbour’s new shed which was waiting to be assembled and so rather vulnerable.  I find it really difficult to connect with a mindset like that – and even if  *’hell and heaven and all that religious stuff’ is abolished now, should we keep just a tiny corner of hell going for allotment thieves – just for old times sake?

Coming home we overheard a conversation about roasting rhubarb in the oven. I’m ashamed to say we’d never heard of it, but we promptly roasted half a kilo of our own Victoria, with some light brown sugar, and it’s delicious. We’ve eaten so much rhubarb in the last few weeks I think if you shoved a chimney pot on my head I’d lose weight and turn pink – I’d settle for being tall!

  • is a quotation from a rather fun poem by ee cummings

As an addendum, today we found a shop selling bakers flour, rye flour and yeast. The threat of torture wouldn’t induce me to say where it is, but for those in the know, if you flare your nostrils and search out the perfume of patchouli and listen carefully for Joni Mitchell you’ll know where I mean.

 

This is my happy place

IMG_5763

I’ve been feeling just a bit curmudgeonly this last few weeks – a combination of living in political chaos, fag end of winter blues, problems with the campervan, rising damp, reading too many books about climate change and wondering how on earth we’re going to sort this mess out.

I do have an antidote for it all  – and it’s getting back to the stove – making stock, baking bread, baking cakes, that sort of thing. I also notice that when I’m feeling a bit glum I also eat really badly, and suddenly, cakes, biscuits, toast made from white bread,  convenience food and general junk look endlessly fascinating, so getting back to the stove sorts that particular temptation out, well –  all except for the cakes. The other antidote, the one Madame favours, is sowing seeds, and so once again I’m sharing the kitchen with a busy propagator.

The last remedy is going through my photos and looking at all the lovely things I spotted last year – and that’s what I was doing when I found this photo, taken by Madame, of me skulking the cliff path at St Davids and making a list. That’s my waterproof notebook in my hand, my stick and my new hat and my old space pen, Swiss  army knife, X10 pocket magnifier in my pocket.  In the bag too is a copy of Rose, “Wildflower Key” and a couple of fold out keys for grasses and lichens. If you want to know what paradise looks like this is it – although possibly a less knobbly pair of legs would improve it a bit. I couldn’t be more happy than I am when I’m out in the sunshine amongst the plants and insects and birds.  Just a little way further down the path last autumn we picked enough wild mushrooms to make the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.

Oh and we’ve got miniature tulips flowering in the window boxes – along with the irises and daffodils – I think that’s quite mad but it’s true. The remnants of storm Ciara are still howling through, and looking out of the window just now, the sky had that yellowish hue that looks like sleet or snow on the way.  Our son just rang from Birmingham to say that it’s snowing hard there. These certainly are confusing times, but I try not to let it get to me too much. This week  we’ll go and collect a load of hot horse manure for the hotbed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be flat out again on the allotment.