Corn Salad!

Corn Salad – Valerianella locusta

The monks’ gardens or herbularii contained beds in which were separately grown rosemary, mint, sage, lilies, iris, rue, gladiolus, roses, fenugreek, fennel, cumin etc. [ ……. ] What is significant is the survival of this ‘knowledge’ in seasonal culinary practices, among Greeks, Italians, Catalans, in a tradition unsupported by literacy. The ‘knowledge’ is handed down, chiefly from mother to child, while stooping to gather the plants. (Fallow deer behave in the same way, the mother showing the fawn which plants to eat.) The question now is – without Greek village ladies, Etruscan Dirce,and little girls like Eugenia, how are people to begin to recognize and identify plants? The answer is, I suppose, to consult good books on the subject, although this will be a slower and more uncertain method than those described above. One book to consult is Roger Phillips’ Wild Food. In it you will find a warning. The subject – edible weeds – has aroused an interest just when its pursuit is threatened by the use of pesticides and weed-killers. One has now to acquire an acute awareness in any locality of the use of chemicals. In the Salento the user of these commodities hangs up a bottle or tin from a tree at the entrance to his terrain as a warning sign.

But there is another problem: in Britain, for example, certain wild plants are ‘protected’, and one must know which they are. Ignorance of the law can lead to heavy penalties.

So, quite apart from the ability to discern the edible plants, and awareness of their seasonal apparition, exact knowledge on two counts is required – the Law and the application of pesticides.

It is unfortunate that many modern plant books, relying on colour photographs, ignore the nature of the roots of plants, often vital to the identification of edible weeds by amateurs. The entire plant is to be considered, not just its visible parts.

Nor are botanists particularly interested in edible properties of plants today, with a very lively exception in Geoffrey Grigson (The Englishman’s Flora). His considered opinion of particular edible English weeds, even when prepared by a Queen of Cooks, is not always encouraging.

Patience Gray – “Honey From a Weed

This long section from “Honey From a Weed” is taken from the chapter on edible weeds. Just by way of explanation, Patience Gray was a contemporary of Elizabeth David (I don’t think they cared for one another very much) but each followed very different lives, as did Jane Grigson whose husband Geoffrey is referenced at the end of the quoted section. Very different though they are, for me they are the Holy Trinity of mid 20th century food writers. Between them they did so much more than give me some favourite recipes, because they articulated the foundational truth that cooking is a cultural activity. It’s rooted in the everyday lives of human beings who live in vastly different settings. When I open Patience Gray I can smell the wild oregano and hear Puglian olive trees as their leaves rustle in the hot sun. Patience Gray gave me one of our favourite courgette recipes – Zucchini al forno – but also taught us about human lives, lived out of difficult unforgiving soil and embracing both fasting and feasting. Lives full of seasonal rhythms and texture which led to a book stuffed with insight. I’d urge you to get a copy and embrace it, because I know that if we carry on in the crazy way we’re going and when the climate suddenly switches into something far less temperate – then we’re going to have to live very different lives.

Anyway, this merry thought came to mind as we were watering the allotment early in the morning, trying to beat the suffocating heat. Just recently I’ve spent a lot of time looking at little white numbers, rather like the picture at the top. Many of them are known as Crucifers because they have four petals, symmetrically arranged in a cross shape. Easy peasy. However if you count the petals on the flowers in the photo at the top they all have five petals, which means they’re something else. I had a little chew – don’t try this if you’re not familiar with a plant, but it was pretty sweet and salad-like. It’s Corn Salad, also known as Lamb’s Lettuce probably self seeded from a neighbour’s allotment. But regardless of whether it came via a seed packet or a stray wild seed, it brought Patience Gray immediately to mind. She was a great one for the spring purgative of wild weeds to clear the blood.

To return to a theme that’s been occupying my mind recently, it seems completely random to divide plants into binary groups; edible/inedible, food plant/ medicinal herb. We are both fed and healed by the food we eat, if we choose wisely; and as Gray points out, that leaves the onus on us to choose wisely.

In the kingdom of the blind

So with these thoughts in mind, I set off on a Bath Nats field trip yesterday and found myself being the only person with a modicum of botanical knowledge. Normally I coast along at the back, content to leave the ID’s to a real expert; but in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king and so it fell to me to rummage around in my disorderly memory to try to assist the other members with even less experience than me. I think I blagged my way through it pretty well simply because nearly all the plants that came my way were ones I’d recently struggled with and identified; and I have to say it was terrific fun – I really enjoyed it.

The walk took us in a long four and a bit miles loop around the village of Newton St Loe, which is pretty much owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and shared between several farms, a stunningly beautiful village and one of the Bath Spa University campuses that contains a couple of fishing lakes. The wildlife was, as you might imagine, very rich and varied – lots of birds, insects, dragonflies and the kind of plants you expect to find in mixed woodland and open grassland. The species list will emerge in due course, I’m sure, but I wanted to focus on just two fields which we passed through as we climbed towards the Wilmington Ridge with spectacular views across some archetypal countryside. The first field had a mixed crop of field peas and barley that really threw me, because when I first looked at it I thought it was a complete mess. However a bit of research when I got home, suggests that we’re going to see more and more of this kind of crop as landowners turn to regenerative farming. The peas are grown to augment the protein content of the conventional grain and as a substitute for imported soybeans. Being legumes, the peas also fix nitrogen in the soil and store carbon – so it’s a win win. Obviously there’s a question to be addressed about growing these mixtures to fatten cattle but this is a relatively small mixed organic farm doing its best to adapt to climate change. I’m sure George Monobiome wouldn’t approve but I’m not clear he approves of anything these days (except forests and nuclear power stations ????)

The other field showed a long term result of increasingly intensive cereal farming. A crop of wheat was completely infested with Black Grass – Slender Foxtail, Alopecurus myosuroides. This is a weed of arable crops that has become a massive problem for farmers because it’s easily infected by ergot fungus which it passes on to the host crop – possibly even making it unsaleable. The refined extract of Ergot, Ergotamine, is used by midwives to induce labour. In historical times when it infected rye, it caused a disease known as St Anthony’s Fire which killed around a million people at the end of the first millennium and caused immense suffering through boils and hallucinations. This is not a road you want to go down! This didn’t used to be a problem when crops were mostly spring sown, but these days cereals are sown earlier and earlier in the autumn; germinating at exactly the same time as Black Grass. This challenge converged with another one – the overuse of chemical herbicides – and the Black Grass began to develop immunity to almost all the herbicides that had been used to keep it under control. A small problem suddenly became a really big one. The good news (if there’s any good news in this sorry tale of industrialisation) is that farmers are now having to cope with astronomical rises in the costs of diesel fuel, nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and so, suddenly the organic, regenerative and – dare I say – traditional mixed farming skills are getting a lot of attention.

So to go back to Patience Gray, we’ve fallen for the great lie that we can have feasting, feasting and more feasting if we follow the path of industrialisation. There’s nothing preventing us from moving towards a far more sustainable future so long as we can accept that every day can’t be Christmas Day without destroying the earth. There can be no more feasting unless we accept that a full and sustainable life has to embrace fasting as well.

Moving up from “What is it?” to “What sort of ‘what’ is it?”

Burdock – but is it Greater or Lesser? – Taken on the Panasonic Lumix + Leica macro lens

Coming back from the Two Valleys walk I wrote about on Monday, the new edition of Concise Flora of the British Isles by Clive Stace, was in the post box. I ordered it ages ago but publication day must have slipped a bit. The full edition of Stace 4 weighs in at two and a half pounds and this concise edition is both smaller and lighter at just over one pound. Neither edition has either photographs or paintings apart from some severely technical illustrations which, as you learn to use them, are incredibly helpful.

Stace 4 is a kind of botanists’ bible; the final arbiter on the current state of plant ID in the British Isles, and its austerity is something of a challenge. In a sense, you need to know quite a lot about the plant you’re looking at before you turn to Stace – as someone jokingly remarked, plant keys are only any use when you already know the answer. However, as time goes on, most amateurs like me move beyond Buttercups, Dandelions and Daisies to ask “which buttercup?” – there are around ten lookalikes; and don’t even ask about Dandelions. The gleeful pursuit of a better answer is always the ultimate aim, and once you’re bitten you can turn into the annoying child who exhausts you with an ever regressing set of “why” questions. In Stace, the answer is always couched in quite technical language for good reasons, because any ambiguity in a plant description is likely to lead to a poor ID. Consequently there’s no alternative but to learn the technical language. Luckily I’m the sort of weirdo who positively loves to know the difference between proximal and distal, and is ever willing to describe a trowel as being perfectly trullate.

Stace 4 is too back breakingly heavy to cart around in a bag, not least because I’m not completely weaned off the pictorial plant guides and so I would need to carry around two books rather than one. I still need the security of a set of stabilizer wheels on the botanical bike. “One day” I think to myself, “I’ll step out with just the “Concise Flora”. The book goes to bed with me and I study one plant at a time in the hope that something at least will stick to the empty cavity of my mind, and that one day I’ll be able to engage in learned discussions with all the other propellerheads on a field trip. I’m obviously a very needy person!

Anyway, enough of that flowery stuff. I’ve been mulling over the relative merits of my Pixel 5 phone camera against the Panasonic Lumix + Leica macro lens. This ought to be a no-brainer since obviously the Lumix with a fast, purpose built macro lens is going to be better. The downside is that you have to lug it around and make on the spot notes of the location and ID, not to mention negotiating the plethora of decisions about shutter speed, aperture and ISO. The ultimate downside is the shot that demands a tripod and even additional lighting. The only way to decide is to ask “what’s the ultimate aim here?

If the aim is a perfectly exposed image of gallery quality then the camera wins every time. But as a notebook, to record a plant for future reference or identification it’s hard to beat the phone camera. Control over the shutter speed really helps when you’re photographing a plant that’s waving in the wind, or tracking a butterfly and being able to exploit the macro lens capacity for creating a bokeh effect, blurring out the background and foregrounding the central image, makes for a great close-up. So I guess the answer to my question is both.

Further evidence that the wildflowers on the allotment are really working to attract visitors came with finding a Marbled White butterfly inside the polytunnel yesterday. We also noticed what is probably a Frog Spider setting up its stall on the flower of one of the Achilleas near the pond.

It’s hard to overstate the pleasure that these visitors give us. While I was watering early this morning I realized that probably half our energy now is going into feeding them. That said, the smell of beetroot wafting through the flat as it steams in a pressure cooker is a reminder that the peas, raspberries and beets we picked today are both fresher and far tastier than anything we could buy. Sometimes it seems a sin to cook them at all – who doesn’t pick peas or beans and eat them greedily on the spot? I know that I have some readers with a somewhat unhealthy interest in Borlotti beans, judging by the number of hits those posts attract, and so I’m putting up a photo of some Borlotti in full sensuous bloom. Please use them wisely!

Aside from that, everything’s going full throttle on the Potwell Inn Allotment. This is one of those times in the season when we’re being driven by the plants. The Bindweed (we have to contend with two Bindweed species and last week I identified a third on the walk), – so the Bindweed is ramping through everything. We tear it off as near to the ground as we can and then it dies back and its skeletal remains reproach us until next year. There are also photos of the peppers, runner (string) beans, tomatoes and melons. Here in the UK we’re preparing for a heatwave; further evidence of the approaching climate disaster. With the government in chaos the siren voices of the dirty fuel lobby are rubbing their hands at the thought of yet more easy profits with no coherent opposition.

Not quite Adlestrop – but almost Potwell Inn!

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.

River Avon in quiet mode from the aqueduct.

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!

Big Deal – Small Skipper

I hate the term nectaring, mostly because it’s an in-house term that distances the experts from (the) hoi polloi, and so I’ll say that this Small Skipper was feeding on one of the the Potwell Inn Lavender bushes and it was a delight to see it there. One of the claims of gardening in the way that we do is that by planting flowers to attract pollinators, they will just turn up in their thousands. That’s the theory and it’s always good to accrue some evidence. The photo, by the way, was just taken on my phone – a Pixel 5. The phone has become a marvellous tool for natural history, but insects and especially bees and butterflies pick up the least movement. Flies, with their big compound eyes, have almost no blind spots and are able to scarper even before your shadow falls on them. This, then, was a lucky shot.

The perfect way to observe and record very small creatures and plants without frightening them off comes down to a choice between a heavy long focus camera or a pair of binoculars that can focus at close range. I first saw such a pair being used to scout for liverworts on a wall on a Bath Nats walk. Later I saw them being used to scan the ground for interesting lichens. On Wednesday, maybe three years after first seeing them, we went on another event searching for medicinal herbs in Friary Woods near Bath and I spent much of my time talking to a lovely bloke who was an expert on all things insect. We had a County Botanical Recorder leading the walk and a keen birdwatcher with us as well, and so it was an opportunity for some serious learning to happen. By the end of the walk I’d resolved to get a pair of these binoculars for Madame.

It’s not difficult to feel completely intimidated by experts. I never leave home for one of these field trips without being filled with trepidation, and yet as time’s gone on I’ve realized that very few of them are professionally qualified – we’re all mostly self-taught – and I’ve yet to meet an expert (a real one that is), that isn’t willing and usually eager to share their knowledge. If you’ve ever felt too shy to join a group and go on a natural history walk, I’d urge you to give it a try. It’s dangerously addictive! So much so that that Professor Insects and me had a great laugh over one of his friends asking his wife – “has he always been like this?”

Another conversation ranged around the odd name of the Nipplewort. To me at least the flower looks nothing like a human nipple, but rather resembles the grease nipple on an old machine like a steam engine. One of the women on the walk asked me if I was also a steam enthusiast. I’m not really, but I do get very emotional around steam trains so perhaps I’ve yet to engage with that one. Anyway she told me that she’d been dragged around every engine shed in Scotland by her dad who was obsessed with steam and so she knew immediately what I was talking about. Nipple isn’t a word that gets used much in natural history.

So the photo of the Small Skipper at the top of this piece isn’t really where the rubber hits the road when it comes to field botany. The really exciting photos for me were these:

I found this plant while I was scouting around in a patch of rough woodland field edge and I thought I recognised it. I didn’t even manage to get the little clip-on macro lens straight on my phone on the left hand picture. “It’s Rough Chervil” I thought, even though I knew in the back of my mind that wasn’t right. So I trotted up to the Recorder with my trophy and asked her. “It’s Upright Hedge Parsley” she said – without a second glance. “But why?” my mind silently grumbled even as I was thrilled by actually finding one of them after looking – in a more or less blind way – for several years. “Torilis japonica” – what more poetic name could there be? So there’s the learning point; not getting it right but getting it wrong in the company of someone who knew what she was talking about.

Rough Chervil

I went back to the picture library on my phone where I had a photo of Rough Chervil that had been verified by the East Cornwall Recorder in May. It’s a tiny difference but you’ll notice that the stem joint is slightly swollen in the Chervil whereas in the Hedge Parsley it isn’t. I should say that I was only able to do this because I stuck to my guns and I’ve been laboriously working through all my photos and tagging them properly. Have your eyes glazed over yet? Anyway, joy of joys, not an hour later I found some Rough Chervil and successfully identified it properly. With field botany making a mistake in the right company can get you a two-for-one offer. The plants of the Carrot family – the Apiaceae, or Umbellifers can be very confusing because they can occasionally only be identified by examining a ripe seed with a magnifying glass; but by the end of the walk we’d found Wild Angelica and Fools Parsley too.

So far as finding remnants of a 13th century friary medicinal herb garden goes, we didn’t find anything that couldn’t be found in a dozen other places with no religious associations, but that simply demonstrates how widespread herbal medicine was, even up until the early 20th century. Coincidentally, Madame has been reading “A Midwife’s Tale” the diaries of Martha Ballard, an 18th century American midwife and healer; reading me great chunks of it to whet my appetite. I’ve got half a dozen herbals and what strikes me as I read Gerard or Culpeper is not so much the complexity of herbal medicine as the limited range of complaints it was able to address. 18th century suffering is familiar to all of us; toothaches, boils, broken bones and rheumatic complaints, “womens courses” gets mentioned a lot as do many of the complaints now controlled by antibiotics. The biggest worry is that would-be practitioners and foragers too, really need a solid background in botany unless they want to risk muddling two superficially similar plants with potentially fatal consequences; and I can vouch for the fact that it’s a steep hill to climb.

The Birds and the Bees – messy gardening.

The Potwell Pond

We were in our bed this morning and Madame was reading the RHS magazine and – over slurps of tea and biscuit dunking – we fell to discussing the merits and failures of the Chelsea Flower Show. She has the advantage over me in this instance because she’s actually worked on a display there. I should say, by the way, that we were in our own bed because our trip to the Cambrian Mountains had to be shortened since the advertised campsite shop was tragically empty, and what few things there were (paralysed longlife milk and potato crisps) could only be bought for cash. Either way round it was a return journey of 20 miles to find an ATM or a pint of fresh milk and some bread.

Anyway it’s not that I’m against flower shows, in fact the old and much missed Bristol Flower Show was an almost spiritual event in my estimation. However, show gardens leave me somewhere between boredom and incandescent rage. The claim that the ludicrous expenditure of time and energy – and here I also mean the sort of energy that flows from oil wells – is somehow justified by the fact that these playthings of the wealthy are subsequently loaded onto lorries and installed as wholly artificial showpieces somewhere else, simply doesn’t add up. Neither does the claim that these chimeras might inspire us to greater gardening heights. At best they are entertainment for those who can afford the tickets, and the recent eruption of rusting water towers and post industrial, angst ridden greenwashing is an insult to those of us who actually put a hand to the plough rather than treat nature as a gawping opportunity.

Abolishing the boundary between Nature and horticulture.

The Potwell Inn allotment raises a finger to beautifully coiffed paths and chemically sterile soil. Notwithstanding the eagle eye of the Head of Allotments we bend every sinew to abolish the boundary between nature and horticulture. We have Dandelions, Common Ramping Fumitory (vanishingly rare in this area), rushes, Nipplewort, Sowthistle, Sorrel, and any other weeds that come for a season and fulfil some useful service to the birds, bees and other insects. The Potwell Inn allotment is the meeting place of all of the pieces I write. The place where gardening, field botany, natural history, birdwatching, herbal medicine, cooking and eating meld into the rather fuzzy concept of being fully human within a community of shared (and occasionally contested) values.

…….. and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

What this doesn’t mean is that the Potwell Inn allotment is an unkempt wilderness; quite the opposite. What it does mean is that we spend as much time listening to what our patch of earth seems to be saying to us as we do, planning what we would like to eat; and we’re not the only metaphorical mouths that deserve to be fed. This morning, for instance, I was watering when a young dog fox came to within fifteen feet of me and marked his territory on a compost bin. The allotment depends for its functioning upon a breathtakingly complex set of relationships of which we are just one part. Bees, flies including hoverflies, beetles and bugs; fungi and bacteria feed on our plants but provide indispensable service to us as they pollinate and predate on other pests and pass our digested green waste back into the soil . We feed them and they feed us! It’s taken seven years to even begin to crack the code.

Heaven forfend! is that Bindweed there?

There are areas where, for no fathomable reason, nothing ever grows well. The underground hydrology has its own mysterious life with a water table that seems to rise and fall and sometimes even breaks out in the form of a spring beside the cordon apples. We know the track of the sun in winter and high summer and we know where the frost pockets are and from which direction the plants need wind protection. We have discovered that plants have minds of their own and pay no attention to textbooks or common practice. Our vegetable beds are all interplanted with herbs and flowers, many of them self seeded from previous seasons so, for example we don’t actually sow Foxgloves or Borage; Lovage and Angelica. As biennials they might not appear every season but they appear nonetheless. Our fruit trees are surrounded by Garden Mint and Catmint, Marigolds, Borage, Achillia and Nasturtiums. Our only physical pest controls are various grades of netting thrown over hoops. This kind of knowledge isn’t exceptional or mystical – it was the commonplace wisdom of gardeners and farmers for generations until the misbegotten birth of industrial farming turned malignant in the 1950’s, and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

This kind of gardening doesn’t have a name; doesn’t have an orthodoxy and endures no bishops, experts or high priests. Its sole guiding reference is time, patience and rootedness.

“If we lived here we’d be home now”

The headline, by the way, isn’t mine. I once heard an American writer describing her childhood during which her father – who was a travelling salesman – would take her on interminable road trips which always ended in a more or less seedy motel.

Far be it from me to describe our campervan, which we call Polly – the hero of the Potwell Inn – as seedy. We’d prefer to call Polly “lived in” . Who cares about the odd battle scar or missing wheel trim? It is completely true that when we roll onto a campsite loaded with field guides, binoculars, drawing equipment and wine, we are at home already, surrounded by our familiar objects. After a flurry of hammering to put up the windbreak and then experimenting with the aerial to see if we can get a comms signal, we’re done. The new Netgear router and Ponting omnidirectional aerial have managed to turn a weak or invisible phone signal into a very tolerable 4g+ signal between 10 and 50 Mb/sec.

This time we’re in the Cambrian Mountains in mid Wales – not very far into them because the roads are at best tiny and more likely nonexistent. However we’re parked up next to the River Towy which surrounds us with a comfortable babbling sound overlaid by sheep on the hills- could anything be more restful? It’s one of the least visited wild places in Wales which means it’s really quiet. Typically, as we drove in, I remembered that we’re in yet another quarry/mine. The last campsite which was only ten miles away by road had seen 500,000 tons of shale rock extracted to get at the “dirty” quartz” which, when each 10 tons was pounded, milled and treated with mercury (which necessitated it being taken to Germany for processing), yielded 1g of gold. The mines were first opened in Roman times but then became disused pretty much until a succession of Victorian and early 20th century entrepreneurs lost their shirts on them. The problem seems to be that they needed to pay their miners whereas the Romans used slaves. As you see – nothing much changes. A perfectly viable industry closed down by militants who expected to be paid for risking their lives!

Anyway the trip round the mine was fascinating, especially as we had a professional geologist as a guide. What was equally interesting for us was that we emerged into a path that took us through a lovely wildflower meadow where we clocked several plants I’d never seen before including one relative rarity which necessitated a very friendly exchange of emails with the County Recorder who corrected one and verified another, (whorled Caraway). Yesterday we went back again for a closer look and confirmed that the whole field was full of marsh plants – a highly distinctive habitat known in Wales as Rhos and in Devon as Culm. Who’d have thought of marsh plants on a boiling hot day 600 feet up a hill. Happy days! So, with a couple or three records accepted we wandered back down and found Valerian, Bilberries and these stunning Fox and Cubs – at least three times as tall as I’ve ever seen them before. An ideal photo to accompany a piece about gold mines I think.

Fox and Cubs – Pilosella aurantiaca

The mine workings have mostly been removed, but some authentic pithead gear was brought from another gold mine in North Wales and there were enough industrial artifacts around to give a real sense of what went on there.

So today we drove around to Rhandirmwyn where we found many interesting fungi three autumns ago. The immediate quarry (deliberate pun I’m afraid) is to find Spring Sandwort which I’ve probably missed on Velvet Bottom but may well still be in flower here – if it even grows here. On the map there’s one record somewhere near here but nothing else for many miles. That’s one I’d love to get a record for! – it’s one of those lead loving plants that thrives on polluted slag and there’s an enormous abandoned lead mine within easy walking distance – as long as Madame doesn’t put her foot down; or rather refuses to put it down in search of yet another little white job!

What about the allotment? you may well ask – in the tone of a concerned social worker. Well, allotments are communities and we look out for one another so our neighbours are watering the polytunnel and the rest can look after itself. Meanwhile we’re having a ball in spite of the fact that rain is forecast for the whole of our stay here.

Oh no! not another post industrial site?

Afon (river) Cothi

We were looking for a couple of not too far apart campsites in mid-Wales and decided to combine a third trip to Rhandirmwyn with a few days on the National Trust site in Dolaucothi, where there’s a chance to visit a gold mine that was first opened by the Romans. What we didn’t realise until we read the information boards at the campsite was that the site itself is built on a disused opencast mine. Having said that, there’s not the remotest sign of its previous history – excepting the horrendous difficulty of getting a peg into the ground. I guess potential visitors are put off by the lack of facilities – no showers or loos – and possibly by the apparent absence of even a pub in the village. We did take a look for it but notwithstanding the sign offering a warm welcome for visitors it looked as if it had died in its sleep during the lockdown. We only have three neighbours on the site and they’re all the frantically energetic types, burning off the miles on their bikes in the intense heat.

Last evening we sat entranced by the sounds of Ravens in the midst of a fierce dispute. A Song Thrush dazzled us with his repertoire of short phrases and squeaks from an oak tree just above our heads – I particularly liked the cover version of the Red Kite call worked into the more fruity flutey bits – I bet that’s a great pulling phrase for the females. A buzzard that looked more like an eagle ranged over us in his imperious way and then dived like a stooping peregrine at some unfortunate animal beyond the trees. A robin perched, waiting for careless crumbs; a tree creeper crept up a nearby tree and a Green Woodpecker took off behind the campervan. It’s a post-industrial arcadia. Today we took the official walk alongside the river Cothi and Madame spotted a Pied Wagtail in the stream. Ten minutes later she spotted what she was sure was a red squirrel. This was an unconfirmable sighting because it was so brief and against the light, but the Dolaucothi Estate is a part of the project to protect and restore the Red Squirrel population hereabouts and we’re barely half a mile beyond the boundary. The last time we saw Red Squirrels was on a campsite down in Les Dombes in France.

The trip to the gold mine happens tomorrow and interestingly the acting warden of the campsite also doubles up as a guide there. We chatted for a while and he said they do Victorian tours as well as Roman tours and so it sounded to me as if the mines were re-worked by the Victorians who were often careless about the polluting effects of mine waste. So – there being no cloud without a silver lining – I’ll be looking out for any specialist plants growing amongst the slag. I did a quick check on the species list for this immediate area and it’s surprisingly small when compared with the whole county list.

These sites are marvellous evidence of the capacity of the natural world to heal itself after the grave damage caused by industrialisation. However this has taken a century or more to accomplish and with a looming climate catastrophe we just don’t have that much time.

I had a revelatory moment during the Song Thrush performance when I turned off my new hearing aids (God bless the NHS) and I realized that I couldn’t hear the song at all. At the last test the technician told me I am now moderately to severely hearing impaired. I know that when she fitted the new ones I boasted that I’d just keep them in all the time like I did last time. She gave me one of those undefinable looks and said she thought I’d take quite a while to get used to them. As I left the hospital I was almost overwhelmed by the noise and for a couple of weeks I was absurdly emotional when I heard quite ordinary sounds that I’d not heard for years. Even the sound of a kettle boiling in the kitchen would be unendurable. Now, taking them out at night is a nasty shock.

The photo on the right is of a Lady Fern; markedly softer than the Male Fern or Bracken. I hardly know a thing about the Pteridophytes mainly I suppose because they all look the same until you look at them properly. On the left are three photos of Wood Avens – Geum urbanum, also known as Herb Bennet. Now Bennet is often spelt Benet and is a contraction of Benedict – the founder of the Benedictine order of monks. This made me sit up because next week we’re going on a field trip to woodland on the site of an ancient friary, with the intention of searching out medicinal plants that may have survived the centuries since the dissolution of the monasteries.

The drug companies and the medical profession are outwardly dismissive of herbal medicine, but that doesn’t stop them from trialling the plants used by traditional herbalists in search of useful chemical compounds because, as we all know, plants are little organic chemistry laboratories and many of the most powerful drugs are derived from plants, or synthesised to imitate the work of nature. It’s baking hot here and Madame is snoozing outside under the awning. Later this week we’re moving across to Rhandirmwyn where there’s a tasty abandoned lead mine. It’s also going to rain. I love these post industrial places – they’re so beautiful – honestly. My cup overfloweth!

Watering, weeding, watching and witnessing!

Up at Priddy last week we went for a long walk, introducing our youngest son to some of the sheep droves that make wonderful (and sometimes very lengthy) wildlife walks. We stopped off at the pub – naturally – and feasted on some delicious and very high carb old style pub cooking; but on our way towards it we noticed the field in the photo above that had a recently cut border of something that looked like a red-leaved grain. None of us had any idea what it might be, but there’s a notice up there with the farmer’s phone number on it so next time I’ll make a note of it and ask what it is: desperately hoping that it won’t be some sort of chemical spray.

The soil up there is thin and better suited to sheep farming, so any exposed soil on arable fields always looks impoverished and stony. Several times we’ve spotted small herds of wild deer browsing there. Crossing the fields back from Eastwater Drove to the village green, passing Swildon’s Hole on the way, we encountered a solitary caver walking back along the same path. Many of the fields, although they lack the sheer density of White Field at Dyrham Park, are very rich in wildflowers. What’s interesting is that different species seem to dominate each different environment. As we walked along the Green past the thatched piles of hurdles that are brought out for Priddy Fair every year, we spotted some eggs for sale and bought half a dozen mixed. The next morning I cracked a couple open for breakfast and they sat up beautifully – in perfect condition for poaching.

After this prolonged dry spell our rapidly growing plants need a lot of water, and today we were up at six before the heat got too much for us. This time of year it’s all weeding, watering and waiting on the allotment. We’ll have our first feed of new potatoes and broad beans tonight – that’s one wait I’m glad to end! Weeding is a constant job because we don’t want any of them to set seed or develop stolons or rhizomes. As I was watering I drenched the borders of the pond and a fully grown frog shuffled out of the way. I can’t begin to express how pleased we were to see it. This year none of us have had frog spawn and we were afraid that the disease that’s rampaging through a lot of amphibians had taken them all – but this one looked absolutely fine to me. Yesterday I spotted a hoverfly, one of the handful I can name; Helophilus trivittatus – it doesn’t have an English name. I remember it because its larvae are rat tailed maggots – weird looking creatures with long snorkels.

The best thing about early starts is that we can take longer walks during the day. Yesterday was a ten miler along the river and back down the canal. As we came back into Bath I noticed some Figwort growing at the edge of the path and so I took photos because I don’t recall seeing it there before, and did my best to ID it before emailing the photos to the Vice County Recorder with my suggestion of its identity. I was almost right, but I’d failed to notice two very small details that made it Water Figwort rather than the (less common here) Common Figwort. Anyway, I provided so much detail she was happy to make it a record and I get the credit for noticing it while she gets it for knowing exactly what it was.

Does it matter at all? Is all the voluntary effort to record what most people would regard as weeds actually worthwhile? That’s where the witnessing part of the title comes in. When you walk through a field of chemically supercharged and weed killed Ryegrass it still looks like a field – until you get down on your hands and knees and look more closely and discover there’s nothing there but grass. Yesterday we passed one of our local homeless people with an obvious addiction problem. He was emaciated – bent over and looked as if he might not last a fortnight. I think of these intensively farmed fields as an exact parallel. Whether you’re addicted to crack cocaine or chemical weed and bug killers, you get sicker and sicker and then you die. I try not to dwell on this because it makes me sad; but if we don’t record what’s left now after fifty and more years of intensive farming, then these wonders will slip away and the whole earth will suffer before we wake up one morning and wonder when the last cuckoo was heard, or when the pollinators all died. That’s the witnessing bit. I can’t say whether we’ll succeed but we won’t let up in our mission to record what may one day be lost.

Now the allotment is a nature reserve!

The garlic patch has been invaded by an extremely attractive but rather invasive plant. It’s been hanging around for years, and for years we’ve yanked it up by the handful and got rid of it – occasionally on the compost heap I suspect. Three years ago I had a go at identifying it because it definitely wasn’t anything I’d seen before. After a trawl through the books I got as far as a family name – Fumitory – but further investigation foundered when I discovered that it’s one of those so-called difficult plants for which you need specialist skills.

Oh no it’s not – oh yes it is!

I called on my friend Rob who has abundant specialist skills, and he gave me a very hesitant answer emphasising he wasn’t completely certain but it could be Fumaria muralis, the Common Ramping Fumitory – which isn’t at all common in these parts. Three years later my ID skills have improved a bit and after a bit of a thing with some Fumitories while on holiday in Cornwall last week I became fairly confident that I know what a Common Ramping Fumitory looks like, but when we got home I could that see that our allotment invader doesn’t quite fit the bill. So I took a lot more macro photographs, came up with a possible Fumaria capreolata, the White Ramping Fumitory which looked closer to mine, and sent them off to another local expert who thought that they were the (uncommon), common type after all; closing the circle and going back to square one. However she suggested that I might send off the photos to the National Referee and get his opinion.

Philosophy, like science, is as concerned with good questions as it is with good answers, but any half decent philosopher will tell you that questions can be troublesome or even dangerous at times. I emailed the photographs to the National Recorder and two hours later a very brief note came back saying it wasn’t either of the previous two ID’s, but is a Tall Ramping Fumitory – the appropriately named Fumaria Bastardii subsp hibernica. It was only when I searched on the distribution map for the plant that I realized it hasn’t been seen here in Bath for at least 40 years. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and gave up trying after 5.00am. In my emails were congrats from the local recorder and the President of the Bath Natural History Society.

So that’s the good news for the day – although I have to say my only contribution to the find was a sharp eye and some persistent questioning. All the rest was done by a great team of experts, and thousands of volunteers who helped create the maps. But the next question is much trickier. What do we do with a rare plant in the middle of the garlic patch? – oh and another plant in the broad beans? I suppose the greatest reward for me is to have learned so much about a difficult family of plants. I can look a Fumaria in the eye now. That’s quite a feeling.

So aside from all the excitement we used the extra daytime to bake some bread and go up to the allotment early and get some watering done – the last three months have almost amounted to a drought – mercifully broken last week when we harvested around 500 litres of rainwater. After that we weeded and planted out the outdoor tomatoes, and fed the asparagus which needs to recover during the summer. We don’t spray for anything, so we have to pick the asparagus beetle grubs off by hand. We’ve had a great crop of strawberries from the new plants too. May is a tricky month and most of us take the risk of getting runner beans in as early as possible. Over the years we’ve learned to do two sowings a fortnight apart so that we can fill any gaps due to frost damage. The Potwell Inn allotment is sheltered from south-westerlies but very vulnerable to cold easterlies which can hammer even hardy early sowings. We had a few losses among the Borlotti beans but we were able to fill the gaps today. Our biggest enemy at the moment is Field Bindweed which spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to eradicate.

Finally we’ve spotted Damselflies on the pond. It’s into its second year now and maturing nicely. The pond is in a small area no more than maybe 12′ X12′ and surrounded by narrow borders which are crammed with Foxgloves, Angelica, Lovage, Catnip and many smaller herbs and flowers. A proper miniature cottage garden.

I also put together a little collage of photographs of the polytunnel. In the autumn I sieved a big load of our home made compost and we spread a 3″ layer across the tunnel beds. LIke the rest of the allotment we don’t dig. Now we’ve planted out tomatoes, aubergines, basil, Minnesota Midget melons and marigolds which are doing really well. The photo at the top is where we’re at right now, and the others – left and right of the sieving (hard work), are where we got to last summer. The melons were absolutely stunning so we’re giving them lots of food, love and water in the hope of even greater glories later this year.

Then just to cap a busy day we picked a mixture of white and purple elderflowers and put them to soak in boiling water with lemon and orange zest. We’ll do two batches which will keep us self sufficient in Elderflower cordial – until next May. In fact I was so thirsty I was drinking the last of the old supply while I was grating the zests. And we’ll probably be in bed by 9.00pm.

Google Photos as a natural history resource.

Most of these photographs were taken on what turned out to be a life changing trip to Dartmoor in March 2016. The Potwell Inn didn’t exist; we’d been through retirement and a major family crisis when our second grandchild was born with a still undiagnosed genetic disorder; we’d moved from a large vicarage to a small flat in Bath and the allotment was yet to come. Christmas had been a write-off and we had taken ourselves off to St Ives in the campervan in search of some respite – in the dog days of the old year just as a major Atlantic storm reached the south west.

January 1st 2016 – a stupidly hubristic resolution

The key photograph here is the one of the (at the time) unidentified little seagull. We were leaning on the railings above the harbour just down from St Ives lifeboat station and watching the gulls when I realized that this gull was very different from some of the other gulls and I had no idea what species it was. I remember feeling faintly annoyed with myself and later that day we went into the bookshop and bought the first bird guide we’d ever owned. It was about then that quite the stupidest resolution I’ve ever made began to form in my head. I would not – I resolved – pass by any plant or animal, without naming it. The picture I took that day was completely hopeless in terms of identification, even with an 80mm lens there was no detail that had any significance so far as I could see. Just for the record I now know perfectly well that the dark smudge behind the bird’s ear is all that remains of the Black Headed Gulls’ distinctive summer plumage on December 29th.

Before we retired (i.e when we had a bit more money), I bought an iPhone and a Macbook. Madame had already settled into the Apple ecosystem because she was teaching photography at the time and it made sense for us to share resources. For the first time I owned a mobile that would add location data to the EXIF file. At roughly the same time I started keeping a private journal using Day One software and this integrated seamlessly between the iPhone, the Macbook and a big desktop. But it wasn’t so long before we came up against Apple’s policy of abandoning their products by making it impossible to upgrade the software. Day One suddenly stopped talking to my Macbook and when I complained I was told that it was my fault for not upgrading. We struggled on for several years, but applications like Photoshop and Lightroom were less and less easy to run on our aging machines and in any case their memory hogging features were far beyond my own needs. I was using Microsoft Windows for work and so we landed up in the worst of all worlds, moving photographs between incompatible software. Heaven knows how much data was lost; but in the end I began a long process of ditching Apple and moved as much data as I could find into Dropbox as a security for the future.

It was our oldest son who broke the impasse by giving me an old Pixel 3 phone after an upgrade and I started using Google Photos. To be honest there was nothing about the iPhone that I particularly missed, and when – a couple of years later – he gave me a basic HP Chromebook that he’d acquired during another upgrade, and after he helped me with a fast and pretty seamless setup and data transfer, I put my agonisingly slow Macbook on a shelf and started enjoying an entirely new and fast cloud-based ecosystem.

Anyway, to get back to the photographs at the top of this post, they represent something of a sea change. My ludicrous resolution to try to name things brought about a move towards much more purposeful photography. As my interest in plants moved up a step, I discovered that well composed photographs of plants I didn’t recognise, meant I didn’t have to dig them up and take them home which is at best inconsiderate and at worst illegal. It’s taken ever since to refine the technique so that I remember to photograph the sometimes apparently insignificant details that make the difference between a correct and a wrong identification.

None of this particularly mattered, of course, as long as I was the only person ever to see the record. But then, as I wrote in a post last week, I began sending them for verification by the local BSBI East Cornwall recorder – which is when it dawned on me that my photographs were more akin to archaeological compost than a filing system. Looking for old photos meant trawling through thousands of them in the hope of alighting upon the right one.

By now I’d got myself a powerful little Pixelbook and I was beginning to understand that the originally utilitarian Google Photos has a few new tricks up its sleeve. One of Google’s most useful – although much feared – attributes is its formidable artificial intelligence software. If you’ve ever used Google Lens on the phone you’ll know that. It can be a curse as well as a blessing – this morning I had an email from someone asking what was the launching fee at Percuil. We were on holiday for the last two weeks and I mentioned Percuil several times in the blog and the odd request must have flowed from a bit of AI that was too clever for its own good.

Google Photos uses AI to do a lot of basic sorting and indexing of photos behind the scenes; so I can search on months and years, faces and places. But last week I wanted to start indexing keywords like genera, species, English and Latin names and various other bits of searchable data. I’d contemplated using some third party software but after hours of searching I couldn’t find anything I liked better. Any records I’d submitted or had accepted would be somewhere in one of a number of vast external databases, but I wouldn’t be able to access them in a simple personal list.

So here’s the exciting thing. After a bit of experimentation it seems that contrary to what I read on the internet, I can do keyword searches on terms that I type into the “details” column at the head of all the EXIF data. The only downside is that the AI facilities remain in play, so a keyword search on primrose might yield a few lookalikes as well – not the end of the world in my view. My guess is that some of the AI used in Google Lens is already being built into Google Photos. The software connects seamlessly to WordPress, so I can use my photographs in this blog; and I can easily forward diagnostic photographs to the referees for acceptance.

When we go out plant hunting I take the phone with a macro lens so I can take the necessary photos. I’ve got stacks of useful apps on the phone as well, including OS mapping, accurate National Grid references, altitude, and shortcuts to the BSBI plant distribution database. I’ve also got iRecord, I Naturalist and a link to the local list of plants which I download as a PDF before leaving home. Google Lens is surprisingly helpful in steering me in the right direction but it’s not infallible. Of course I will take a book along with me but I always take photographs because I can use them with my library of plant books at leisure when I get home. It doesn’t always work, and I often have to go back, look more closely and take more photos in order to do a full ID.

The upshot is that the more of this kind of intense work I do, the more my plant ID skills improve. Typing details into the software drills the English and Latin names into my memory very effectively too. I think the take-home point is that while for some people, staggering across a bog with a large camera and tripod, an expensive GPS unit and a copy of Stace 4 weighing in at well over a kilogramme is the only way forward. But for my purposes I can get it all into a pocket without my trousers falling down. I take a 6″ ruler, I use my walking pole as a 1.5 metre measuring stick. I take a plastic zip bag, just in case; a Rite in the Rain waterproof notebook and a pen that writes on it underwater and upside down – who knows when that might be needed! a scalpel and a couple of hand lenses. Total weight around 500g.

Maybe I’ll be forced to eat my words one day, but this seems to me to be the simplest and cheapest way – it’s free – of creating a searchable, automatically backed up photographic database for plant recording. No good at all, of course for insects, mammals and birds because they all race around too far away for a phone camera. But my subjects stand still – unless it’s very windy – and best of all the photos escape the dangers of being lost forever in my fallible memory. What’s not to like?

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