If you asked me to nominate one invention that changed the world irrevocably for the better it would be the lens. My friend Chris Lee uses a telescope lens and some pretty fancy software to make the most thought provoking images of space. Most of us use cameras of one sort or another and they’re dependent on lenses of course, but today I was using nothing more sophisticated than a clip-on macro lens attached to my Pixel 6a to reveal some of the secrets of the Common Polypody fern. Those are the pictures at the top and I ran out of magnifying power at the last one which really needs at least a x100 microscope.
The others are all photos I’ve taken in the last ten days and as we looked at them we were both excited by their capacity to surprise and inspire us – not as botanical specimens at all but as objects of beauty. So the fern makes me think instantly of the Victorian fashion for the terrarium and the wonderful images of ferns made by botanical artists across the centuries. The middle row has an impenetrable blackthorn bush at Kynance Cove today which surely must have influenced Graham Sunderland in his tapestry of the crucifixion in Coventry Cathedral, but equally seems uncannily close to Jackson Pollock. The stonecrops could be models for the roof bosses of a thousand churches and if ever William Morris needed inspiration for his wallpaper designs surely the Buckshorn Plantain and the leaves of Mugwort would have served him well. The little Sea Campion has an uncanny resemblance to Tiffany glass; the rosettes of emerging Hedge Mustard are a glorious reminder of symmetry and the catkins – well I just love the colour. Nature’s palette is incredibly restrained and yet limitless in its applications. Whilst I was learning some botanical illustration, we did an exercise of limiting ourselves to three colours and I never subsequently saw the point of using more.
Almost exactly seven years ago I set myself the challenge of painting a Hyacinth in flower. I took hundreds of photos and practiced drawing the flowers from every angle; above, below and from the side and with light falling on them from different directions. I still have the practice drawings and paintings but I abandoned the painting because it was just too complex.
The take home point for me was that minute attention to the detail of a plant, whether flower or leaf was both meditation and scientific exploration and linked deeply with the creative process. Hard, then, not to attribute natural form to some benign guiding hand. But these days I think that’s a shortcut and a cop-out. I’m happy with not knowing because for me, doubt was always the beginning of faith. The lens takes us to places we never even suspected to exist and that’s why it’s my nomination for the world’s greatest invention.
and a postscript to this piece. As we walked up the valley from Kynance Cove we spotted what looked like a (too) small buzzard sitting high on the crest of the rocks. We tracked up the footpath and came level and behind it and we could see from its beautiful chestnut brown back that it was actually a kestrel as it set off in a zigzag hunting flight across the valley. There was a bitterly cold northwest wind and it must have been puffed out viewed from below, but there was no mistaking its colour as it set out with what Gerard Manley Hopkins described as its “wimpling wing”. Cue “Windhover” – one of his finest poems.
A great friend and mentor of mine; a parish priest like me, was leading the graveside prayers at a burial service when he lost his footing and very nearly went down with the coffin. He was held firmly by one of the pall bearers who whispered in his ear “Wait your turn, Sir – wait your turn!”.
It would be comforting to think of nature as a basically static display of plants that come up in the spring and die in the autumn. Except it isn’t like that at all. The emergence of the first spring flowers depends on a whole heap of factors like ambient temperature, day length, amounts of sunshine and space to grow. This year, for example, the first Celandine we saw was here on the Lizard exactly as it was last year, but 13 days later. That was it – the only Celandine in flower in a five mile walk. Look closely at the photograph and you’ll see that there’s another plant there that’s growing fast enough to steal its sunlight in a week or two. Cleavers is an extremely vigorous climber – you’ll know it from the burrs that stick firmly to most clothes by way of the tiny hooks which were the inspiration for Velcro.
Look closely at the hedgerows around this time and you’ll see the first leaves of many plants which follow in strict succession right through to late autumn, and all timed like a glorious firework display to flower and fruit in their unique optimal conditions. Not all buttercups are buttercups and not all dandelions are dandelions (in fact they’re so complicated they can’t even make their own minds up). Some will flower for weeks and with others you can blink and they’re gone. Nothing stands still for a moment in nature and for me the first Celandine is both a joy and a warning that from now on it’s an unstoppable torrent of flowering and fruiting that will change the whole appearance of fields and hedgerows every couple of weeks. The succession of the plants ensures that each one has its own space. Cow Parsley gives way to Hogweed and so forth. It can be exhausting trying to keep up, especially for Madame who will beg me to leave the notebook and hand lens behind and just go for a walk . I note, however that she always takes her binoculars out – “just in case”.
Today we started on the Lizard Green and walked down the lane to Church Cove and then took the coast path as far as Housel Bay and then turned off to avoid a monumental flight of steps and took the easier path to the back of Lizard Lighthouse stopping for some food and then back to the car park. Ten years ago we’d have bounded up those steps without a care, but one of the less talked about advantages of getting quite old is that we walk rather slower and so we see much more. This was a walk we tried to do on Saturday but the coast path was rammed with runners doing a 100 mile ultra marathon. I bet they’ll be walking slowly with ultra knackered knees long before their 70’s.
Anyway, the short cut was marvellous because we caught sight of a very big Buzzard eating his/her kill on a Cornish wall. Within ten feet of the Buzzard there sat a lovely Carrion Crow waiting apparently unafraid until the superior hunter got bored with lunch and flew off – whereupon the crow hopped sideways along the wall and polished off the remains. That was surprising enough, but half a mile later we saw the same two birds repeating exactly the same routine. It was clearly a relationship of more significance to the Crow than the Buzzard but I suppose the crow – Corvids are among the smartest birds – probably reasoned that it was best to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. There was no way that the Buzzard could launch a surprise attack from ten feet. But whatever the rationale it looked as if both birds were in fine health and as fat as butchers’ dogs – which is the closest I could get to an appropriate metaphor.
There was another surprise on the walk because I’ve been spending some time trying to identify a species of Gorse called Western Gorse – Ulex gallii. It’s one of the plants that are plentiful around the Lizard and Kynance Cove but rare everywhere else; but which is very similar to its larger cousin Gorse – Ulex europaeus. The difference between the two comes down to size – ordinary Gorse is bigger; its thorns are longer and deeply grooved, like the one in the picture. But the clincher was (note the past tense) the fact that Gorse ordinaire flowers all year round, but Western Gorse flowers in summer. Or at least that’s what the books say, but unfortunately plants don’t read textbooks and today we found hundreds of Western Gorse plants around the coast path, and many of them were in flower.
The Lizard peninsula has two things going for it. One is its unique geology which gives a home to hundreds of wildflowers some of which are only found here. The other thing derives from its geography. It’s the furthest southerly point in the UK and it enjoys a unique climate as well. It’s warm. On first seeing it many years ago it looked completely wild and windswept – and indeed it is, but its warm microclimate means that some wild plants better suited to better to warmer places actually thrive here.
Good news too on the recording front because the County Recorder emailed yesterday and accepted both records I’d submitted. I’ve already posted a picture of the little perennial Leek – Babington’s Leek yesterday. He was kind enough to say that I’d found two sites where it hasn’t previously been seen. The other plant was a real outrider – Wireplant, Muehlenbeckia complexa a New Zealand visitor and that one passed as well. Three more little red squares on the national map.
Approaching retirement I often wondered what I would do to fill my time. The idea of voluntary work often came to mind but I never fancied any of the options because many of them felt like not retiringat all. But this combination of allotmenteering and field botany have turned out to be my happy place. Spring? Bring it on!
Roughly translated that lovely piece of Bristolian rudeness means spin on that one Jack – or in received pronunciation – I think I was right after all, old chap!
So before we came down to Cornwall I had high hopes of finding a few interesting plants because there’s nothing quite as rewarding as getting a tiny square on a species map attributed to you by name (not that anyone except Q or some equivalently highly placed person would be able to access it). I wrote yesterday about the trainspotter infection and today the fix I needed arrived by email confirming my records for two plants that are pretty rare because they only grow here. They are Muehlenbeckia complexa AKA Wireplant, top left going clockwise; which is – in botanical terms – a recent alien from New Zealand but which hasn’t been recorded for 12 years; and then Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii – Babington’s Leek which is also known at the site but I found two new previously unrecorded nearby sites for it.
It may be a bit counterintuitive but in the botanical/ecological world, a plant doesn’t exist if it’s not recorded – which can be crucial when designating protected sites. But in January there aren’t many flowers to go by so we have Poland and Clement’s “The Vegetative Key to the British Flora which is basically a book of leaves”, and very good it is.
Records, however can’t be entered before they’ve been verified by a proper botanist and so we humbly present our finds with photos, measurements and all the rest; submit them and wait for the confirmatory email. Luckily the County Recorders are a brilliant bunch and very friendly , especially to beginners, and so being corrected becomes a positive learning experience rather than a crushing humiliation.
And so it came to pass today that I got the confirmations and two little red squares appeared on the national map. A matter of stupefying unimportance to the mentally sound population but in Chris Packham’s terms worth a good thigh rub! Sadly, Babington’s Leek is sold in packets by many seed merchants but for me that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of finding really wild ones.
So a short but jolly post tonight and tomorrow looks sunny so we’ll be out and about seeing what we can find. Madame has a wonderful eye for plants – we make a perfect team.
We set out to double check and photograph a patch of wild leeks that we found a couple of days ago and which I’ve never seen before so we needed to document them properly with grid references and detailed photos in order to get them double checked by the local County Recorder. There is a kind of trainspotter sickness that can grip you when you get into plants but fortunately it’s a sickness whose symptoms are air punching for no apparent reason and feeling absurdly happy even on a cold grey day in winter.
The secondary reason was the competitive urge to find a Celandine in flower. The results of the New Years plant hunt, organised by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland are coming in and the general impression is that this is a rather late season. Last winter we photographed them in flower down here on 17th January and by the look of the leaves today we’re running a fortnight late this year following the continuing bitterly cold weather. We did however find a lonely violet – not my strongest subject but Sweet Violets, Viola odorata are the earliest to flower. Winter Heliotrope were in flower too and a solitary Cyclamen was hiding at the top of a hedge bank which – while photographing it – provoked the strong perfume of wild garlic under my feet. There were abundant purple catkins on an alder tree. In the fungus department we spotted a Glistening Inkcap on a moss covered log.
More than anything, seeing the growing leaves of a multitude of other flowering plants made me wonder how many terawatts of sheer green energy are sitting there underground waiting for a daylength and temperature signal to let them burst forth. Hemlock Water Dropwort doesn’t look half as dangerous when it’s vibrant green and only a few inches tall.
As for the very local Wild Leek, we await the verdict from the County Recorder but here are the photos we sent to him. Cocoa and toasted saffron cake were consumed.
A couple of days ago I mentioned the sinking of the Crig-a-Tana off Cadgwith last November and the rescue of the two man crew by the Lizard Lifeboat. Both men were ironically members of the lifeboat crew and even more darkly ironically the boat was named after a pretty vicious looking reef off Kuggar called Crig-a-tana rocks. The sinking of the boat had nothing whatever to do with the rocks because she went down 6 mile southeast of Bass Rock and they are waiting for a report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to discover what happened. Fishing and farming remain two of the most dangerous industries in the country.
Anyway, all best wishes to the crew who have been through a horrendous experience, but this raises once again the insecurities and dangers that the inshore fishing fleet have to contend with, and lends support to the idea that unless we support these industries by buying their produce they may not survive for the future. Interestingly the Government published their proposals for the ELMS scheme today – this is a payment support scheme that offers farmers subsidies in return for public goods – like environmental schemes. Once again the big arable farms will be able to claim most of the subsidies while small farms and hill farms will be competing for the scraps. I needn’t mention again the betrayal of the inshore fleet by the brexit debacle.
And that’s why we at the Potwell Inn try to buy as much as possible of our food from local sources, preferably direct from the producers and bypassing the supermarkets. With that in mind we trogged off to Porthleven yesterday for a walk and to buy some fish. Who knew that fish are seasonal? I sort of knew it in the recesses of my mind but when we got to the fishmonger she had some Lemon Sole on display, as well as Haddock – not a major fish around here, and of course crabmeat. Lemon Sole are bang in season at the moment and I think I must have cooked them badly at some time in the past and never bothered again. Madame on the other hand absolutely loves them so we bought a couple of fillets each of Haddock and Lemon Sole (more expensive!) plus a tub of mixed white crab meat with the brown splodgy bit). The brown meat is much cheaper and yet it’s full of flavour. So we’ve been gorging ourselves on fish, which in Cornwall has sometimes been tricky in the past – because apart from supermarkets you never see it fresh. Unlike the Continent, the local fisherman don’t sell their catch off the boat as a matter of course.
So £23 for three meals seems a lot, except fish prices have escalated; but think that we paid £6.00 for the crab meat and made three rounds of crab sandwiches which would have cost something like £30 in a cafe. We also lashed out on a £10 bottle of Muscadet which would have been marked up to £25 or £30. That looks like value for money to me. The haddock, which we had for supper cost about £8 – compared with £15 a portion for fish and chips. Then we had the Lemon Sole today – dusted with seasoned flour – and simply fried in butter and olive oil. The trick is to hammer the skin side until it’s crisp and then turn the heat down and turn the fish for a minute – it cooks quickly. Once again delicious with 1/2 bottle of cheap Albariño. Learn to cook – it’ll save you a fortune and you’ll eat like a Russian oligarch!
Seasonal fish isn’t always to everyone’s taste – I love Cod Roe – which is almost unobtainable now due to the complete absence of any other customers. You can buy smoked roe for taramasalata at almost any time but the raw roe probably looks too much like a pair of giant testicles to attract the faint hearted. These were the last I ate, seven years ago.
But the take home point is that fish have their seasons and like every other food it’s best to eat them while they’re ‘in‘ and when they’re local because they’re that much fresher and come without a contrail of air miles.
But we haven’t just spent the past few days eating. I finally got to scrambling up a cliff path to a patch of promising looking gorse and managed to identify the two most common gorse species in this part of the world. Growing next to each other made it relatively easy tpo see the differences and I’m reasonably sure of my ID because the larger Gorse/ Furze Ulex europaeus was in flower and the smaller Ulex Gallii – Western Gorse wan’t, and it fitted most of the other descriptors. Clive Stace – who must be obeyed in all matters botanical – demands the mean of ten measurements of certain flower parts before identification is made – but since one of them wasn’t in flower and wasn’t expected to be in flower until June I decided not to wait. It is quite absurd, the amount of pleasure to be gained from nailing the names of two plants so similar you need a magnifying glass to distinguish them but honestly it’s the best fun you can have while keeping your clothes on. Naked botanising among gorse plants in a brisk offshore wind is an overrated pastime. Finally, just to complete my joy I noticed a Cornish Heath nestling among its taller neighbours. I believe some vulgar botanists refer to this as a slam dunk. Here they are.
I can’t find a single photograph I’ve ever taken of the Lizard Village. We’ve visited it many times and, in the past camped there; in fact yesterday we saw a decommissioned helicopter parked incongruously in the paddock of a farm where we once washed ourselves in with nothing more than a cold tap and an outside privy. The post office where we waited for an emergency bailout from my sister has closed; the pub where I tried to sample every whisky and ended up knocking myself half senseless (the other half had already gone), on a low beam – closed. The little restaurant where we spent the last of our money and I tasted guinea fowl for the first time, closed. The only supermarket has gone and the last of the serpentine turners appears to have turned his last lighthouse ornament and then turned up his toes. The trippers still arrive like locusts in the summer and strip any green shoots of the old culture bare, so everything is distorted and could ultimately be destroyed by tourism. There’s barely a pig shed in Cornwall that’s not been converted into a holiday let or an airBnb, and hardly a spoil heap that’s not been turned into an “experience” by a small time entrepreneur.
Years ago John Betjeman described the Lizard as depressingly full of buildings like army married quarters, and it hasn’t improved over the past 50 years. The only remnant of our first ever visit is the Regent Cafe on the green where, a few summers ago we saw a poster advertising the ancient Cornish sport of whippet racing.
All that said, we still love the knackered old place and come back year after year because a short walk beyond the village takes us to the coast path and the lighthouse whose fog horn is a thing of wonder. I’m sure I permanently damaged my hearing, sitting as close as I dared when it was working and listening to the fan starting up and build steadily until an almighty blast straight from hell poured into the air and echoed all around the surrounding bays. It hit you in the belly and rattled your teeth; the tinnitus lasted for hours afterwards then there was silence. For a while.
Why so, then? As politicians often say “I’m glad you asked me that” and then go on to talk about the new cycle lanes they’ve personally fought for in their constituencies. Cornwall’s a mess but nobody could argue it’s all the fault of the English or the tourists. The road improvements to the A30 and the A38, and many other important infrastructure and cultural projects were paid for by the EU which the Cornish voted in force to leave. The fishermen who were especially keen to regain our sovereignty soon found that they could no longer afford to sell their fish in a Europe from which we’d separated ourselves. Some skippers known locally as slipper skippers sold their boats to the scrapyard and their quotas to the Spanish who repaid their naivety by dredging the sea empty. The NHS failed to receive the promised £350 million a week and the GP surgery in Lizard is now in a single tiny prefab building, and in spite of the enormous success of the lost gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project which have brought money and good jobs to the poorest part of Cornwall, when Tim Smit tried to open an education centre in Lostwithiel the objections from the locals poured in and the project looks like being scrapped. It seems that finding a future for Cornwall other than hospitality and seasonal homelessness is rather like the kind of hopeless task presented by what Michael Balint the psychoanalyst called “heart sinkers”.
All of which mournful thoughts floated around in my mind during what I thought was a terrible night but which my Withings watch scored at 100%. Re -reading Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild” recently I began to wonder whether our negative attitudes towards invasive plant, insect and animal species didn’t find an exact parallel in some of our instinctive responses to tourism. These attitudes in humans draw from deep wells. Apparently just as the English tell jokes about the Welsh and the Irish and never fail to wonder at the meanness of the Scots – none of which stereotypes have any foundation in fact; the Russians make fun of the Ukrainians, and we all know where that leads to; so the Cornish refer to out of county visitors as “grockles” who, given a moment’s reflection, are the one reliable source of income in a county which has lost virtually all of its traditional employment. The tin and the copper mines are gone. Fibre optics will probably mean that the copper market will never really gain strength. Fishing is largely gone due to overfishing which wasn’t all down to Spanish supertrawlers. The quota system is the bastard child of overfishing in the face of all the evidence.
Looking around there are no obvious replacements apart from tourism – I’ll probably get hate mail for this – so right now, any attempt to go back to some imagined past by legislating against the one reliable source of income is doomed to fail. The lithium mine being proposed is about the last thing Cornwall needs at the moment. The specialist workers may well be brought in from beyond the Tamar and in any case if you add in the principle that the polluter pays the environmental damage and the excessive use of water ought to scupper the project on the drawing board. The world needs what Cornwall needs – better mass transport systems and less cars on the road and a new vision of fulfilled life.
Living in Bath can feel a bit like living in a theme park at times but without the tourists (and the students) the local economy would collapse. We have become inured to the shock of crossing Royal Crescent in front of a battalion of portly Roman re-enactors, or weaving a course down Milsom Street between 100 variations of a Jane Austin character. I don’t suppose the Cornish are any more pleased at seeing people queuing on a beach to take Poldark selfies.
The Lizard is a real botanical hotspot as well as a half legendary miasma of once upon a time gallimaufry. In two days I’ve found a couple of real rarities and one local newspaper recently latched on to the possibilities of enticing visitors here with a different quarry than ice cream, pasties and fish and chips. Writers like Fred Pearce are arguing that alien species often bring new and vital energy to an ageing or damaged ecosystem and simply eradicating them is an expensive way of doing even more damage.
Changing the profile of visitors would be slow work and the massive problem of housing shortages would need a great deal of new affordable building alongside restrictions or (as in Wales) financial disincentives to second homes. Schemes like Tim Smits proposed Lostwithiel education centre need to be encouraged whilst perhaps steering them away from the NIMBY strongholds. There will need to be a huge emphasis on secondary and tertiary education because farming and fishing will remain profoundly important to the local economy, but embracing ecologically sustainable methods would pay a premium. Of course this would cost money, but the UK government seems to have £billions at their disposal for lining their rich mates’ pockets.
And let it never be said that the village communities are now broken beyond repair. We were chatting to a woman in a local Farm shop who told us that a local fishing boat had sunk just before Christmas. Luckily the crew of two were members of the lifeboat crew and did all the right things but spent 20 minutes in freezing water before they were rescued by their mates in the lifeboat. Within days the community had rallied round and raised thousands of pounds to support the two men who now had no means of earning a living. A few years ago the same village crowd funded the purchase of a vital building on the seafront that had been used by the fishermen for generations. What these threatened communities need more than anything else is a long term plan and the long term funding to bring it off.
Back again in a very special place but with little expectation of finding many of the wildflowers that make the Lizard peninsula one of Britain’s botanical hotspots. We come here in the winter because it’s much cheaper and not crowded – it’s as simple as that – but in a month or two the great explosion of wildflowers will begin; some of them quite unique to this area. For now we were hoping to spot the earliest Celandines and perhaps one or two other bits and bobs that sometimes defy the season. John Wright; writer and forager doesn’t really rate this time of the year. We saw young shoots of Sea Beet and there are Jelly Ear fungi on some of the Elders but for foragers (I’m not one of them) he says January is a poor month and February is “much the same only worse” . For a while the Facebook site of the British Mycological Society has specialized in readers’ photographs of mouldy rice puddings and cakes. Most of the time it’s an amazingly useful resource for learning fungi. Yesterday we spotted lots of emerging young leaves – Cow Parsley was one, and one or two plants were even in flower; Gorse flowers in every month as does the Red Campion, if it can find a sheltered spot. Alexanders are in early leaf, seven or eight inches high and we spotted some lovely Narcissi, escaped from a garden. Not much need for the flower guide at this time of the year but if you like that kind of thing Poland and Clements have produced a very useful “Vegetative Key to the British Flora.” which – if you like quizzes will keep you amused for hours in the winter. We were just happy to be out in the cold wind and the sunshine.
As we walked down to Kynance Cove where the cafe was unexpectedly open I shared a lump of fruit cake with a Rock Pipit that was very nearly hand tame – so tame in fact that I wondered what bird it could be that looked so much like a Rock Pipit but which behaved more like a Robin.
Walking down I also caught sight of an unfamiliar plant that looked like Heather but just wasn’t right. I ignored it and we carried on down to the Cove’ but on the way back I paused and looked again and realized that perhaps I knew what it was – in one of those ways that you sometimes just know something without knowing how.
I’m taking a risk but I’ll say it’s probably Cornish Heath, Erica vagans; but I’ll readily concede to a better botanist. What’s exciting – if I’m right – is that it only really thrives here on the Serpentine rock of the Lizard. Checking on another website I see it can be found occasionally further up-country but it’s plentiful here on the Lizard and it’s one of Stace’s two star rarities. So (again, if I’m right,) we did manage to spot at least one local hero.
Which prompts a thought. We’re constantly reading about what a good thing it is to be out in nature. Now I know nature lights me up but I’m all too aware that a lot of people pass through it in search of an ice cream without noticing a thing. I don’t blame them because our whole culture teaches us from childhood that nature is lovely to look at, but not that we are a part of it. Naming other beings is far more important than cataloguing them. Each old plant friend we meet provokes a moment of recognition and reflection. Each greeting is a moment of meditation on the sheer diversity and beauty of the plant world. Could it be that the much written about benefits of nature are somehow related to the release of endorphins that comes with a meeting – “Hi I’m Dave, and I think you must be Erica vagans”. Cue warm surge! There must be a PhD that’s looked at this surely? Here are some more photos. The Alexanders on the top left has a kind of gall I don’t think I’ve ever seen before but I think it might be some kind of Phyllocoptes.
Reading Fred Pearce’s book “The New Wild” again this week I felt uncomfortable. As he listed some of the less glorious attempts of some conservationists to turn back the clock in the hope of recovering the pristine environment, a voice in my head was shouting – what about Whitefield in Dyrham Park? what about those glorious wildflower meadows in North Yorkshire or – closer to home the hills surrounding Bath? The main thrust of his book is to say – look here, nature is fast, adaptive and highly dynamic. Trying to hold back change by micromanaging nature reserves and SSSI’s is an expensive path to nowhere, so we should maybe step back and give evolution a chance.
But then, as I pondered my instinctively hostile reaction, I thought of Eddie Cox – my first and best childhood friend – and our adventures and exploits out in the wild as children. Wild, for us, was post industrial; brownfield and, on reflection, very dangerous; but if our inner landscape is furnished by early memories then my young imagination was furnished by crumbling nineteenth century buildings, an abandoned dram road running back from the river to abandoned coal mines; paths hard packed with waste from the nearby fireclay pipeworks; mineshafts we could drop stones down, the old Cattybrook brick kilns whose flues we could wriggle up and watch the sky above the chimney and surrounded by spare and half starved soil. There were rows of miners’ cottages whose original occupants were long since dead.
Our environment – although we were far too young to understand it – was a palimpsest; one historical layer superimposed on another. At the surface were us baby boomers navigating the fragile demilitarized zone between our parents’ wartime experiences and our own unknown futures among the remains of an industrial revolution that had run its course. Below us and also around us were the remains also of a wealthy woollen industry; the unrestored magnificent houses of slave owners and place names which went back to the Domesday Book. Amidst the burgeoning post-war housing estates where we lived, were sacred wells and ancient footpaths. The older local people knew the plant names but often worked in the last of the factories; Douglas motorcycles, Vespa motor scooters and the ubiquitous small workshops supporting the local shoe industry – all now gone.
So what was my pristine? Well as sure as hell it wasn’t rare orchids and wildflower meadows. My grandparents left their smallholding in rural Oxfordshire and came to Bristol before I was old enough to name a plant. My first ecstatic memories of plants were all from Rodway Hill; a gruffy outcrop of sandstone where I would lie amongst the tussocky grass and inspect the Harebells. The memory has its own inscrutable hot links and my idea of the pristine was forged from these unpromising elements. Orchids and wildflower meadows came much, much later.
So what I dredged up from the sediment of my mind as I pondered Fred Pearce’s book was the reason for my attachment to these post industrial landscapes and their flora. When we walk down Velvet Bottom or almost anywhere else at Charterhouse I feel at home because in that complicated subconscious way I am at home. When I look through the albums of photographs of plants I’ve taken, less than half are what you might call proper wildflowers; the rest are the waifs, strays, stragglers and thugs of the plant world who’ve learned how to live with little light, food or soil, or being constantly trampled by walkers, peed on by dogs and strimmed off by zealous council workers. Some of these plants have developed the capacity to live on mine waste polluted by heavy metals. They’re often tiny little things with tiny un-showy flowers but you can’t help but admire them for their tenacity.
When I run over the list of our favourite places like mid Wales, Lizard in Cornwall and so the list goes on; they’re all post apocalyptic post industrial landscapes. Yes of course, walking through a meadow and totting up twenty plants in flower is a wonderful experience, worth a day of anyone’s time – but according to Fred Pearce and many others including Richard Mabey, the old post industrial brownfield sites have become haven and home to multitudes of flora and fauna which can no longer survive the inundation of their native habitats by the plough and with chemicals. The point is – nature is showing the way to adaptation. We humans, who created the anthropocene and can’t survive a day without our mobile phones, need to accept that there are no good old days because the peregrines nesting on the spire of St John’s church here in Bath have made the transition already.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was right – nature is not a steady state phenomenon constantly needing repair – it’s a Heracletian fire”.
We were there – well not there in the photograph, but around at the time and living near Bath – which made lunch last week with one of the original provocateurs and his partner a total joy. Most young people probably think we’re a bunch of old farts who never did anything interesting – after all the world was only invented when they came along – but here’s the evidence – complete with incriminating photos and only mildly bowdlerized accounts of the fun and games that went on. There was a serious side to the counterculture because it helped mobilize public opinion against the Buchanan Plan which was contemplating the destruction of one of Bath’s most historic neighbourhoods in order to build a huge road. As it was, a great chunk of old Bath was demolished in favour of ugly flats – now a local crime hotspot – a habit which has continued with the recent Crest Nicholson Western Riverside development which would make a Russian bonded warehouse look good. There’s a well known polemic called The Sack of Bath written in 1973 by Adam Fergusson which also threw a spanner into the planners’ designs and undoubtedly helped save Bath from wholesale destruction. Interestingly we bumped into his daughter in a bar in Hay on Wye in December. She was very proud of her Dad who’s still alive. We need him back here!
A lot of last week was taken up haggling with recalcitrant software. As ever the obvious problem with my mobile router never occurred to me until I’d tried everything else out and wasted vast amounts of energy shouting fruitlessly at a lump of space junk whose only fault was an expired SIM card. Of course, somewhere at the back of my disorderly mind I’d known it all along, but – hey ho. The router will soon be needed as we get the campervan back on the road. After a couple of years of Covid when we often couldn’t use the van, we’d seriously considered selling it. It costs a lot of money just to leave it standing in a compound doing nothing and we thought it might be better to spend the money on trips. For one whole evening we even thought we’d buy an interrail pass and spend six months back in Europe. The downside to these utopian plans was always that we have a family, an allotment, the Bath Nats and a pile of friends we like to keep in touch with. In the cold light of morning and whilst putting the empties out, Plan A sounded a bit naff because what we really really enjoy is to park the campervan up on a site somewhere quiet and remote in the midst of a wildlife hotspot – like Mendip or mid Wales for instance – and go walking, birdwatching and plant hunting. So the plan was shelved with the two of us in complete agreement that we needed to keep the van.
The campervan’s been standing idle since we got back from St Davids in September and whilst we agonised over it we also neglected it a bit, so as well as software wars we also took ourselves down to the edge of the Severn to get the batteries recharged and to empty out the cupboards and generally get it ready for spring. We soon found that the upholstery had got very damp, the sink needed repairing (again!) and the mice had raided for nest building materials although a thorough search failed to find any nests; cue much more irritable spluttering and rummaging through tiny spaces at the expense of bashed elbows and a sore head. Ah – life’s rich tapestry – we thought as we lumped an 80lb generator and our dehumidifier into the car along with a spare battery and a heap of tools.
However, amidst all these distractions I also managed to spend time getting my head in gear for plant hunting in a few weeks time; checking out useful databases and maps and scouring lists. I do love a good list – this may be some kind of symptom. The upshot of all this botanical fantasising was that at the AGM on Saturday I volunteered to join the Council of the Bath Nats, thereby turning my retirement resolution never to join another committee – on its head. Naturally (it’s a voluntary organisation) my offer was warmly accepted and after a brief moment of undeserved pride I fell into a pit of self-doubt, bordering on imposter syndrome. The members of the Council are just so much more experienced and knowledgeable than me, they’ll find me out in a moment. Another sleepless night.
And so today has two tasks; to go back to the van and figure out how to carry out the necessary repairs and to run the dehumidifier for a few hours now we’ve remembered to put some petrol into the generator. Then I need to get a new data SIM and get the router working and sit down with Madame and plan the seed order for the allotment. We’ve already agreed to simplify and to concentrate on low maintenance plants to give ourselves more time for the other things we like to do. Then there’s marmalade to make as well. Who knew retirement could be so exhausting?
I know exactly how I got here. The seeds of this addiction were sown on the day I realized that not all Dandelions were in fact Dandelions because there were plants like Hawkweeds and Hawkbits and such great multitudes of other lookalikes that I despaired of living long enough to name a tenth of them. Then, when I was working as a groundsman – (all graduating art students have to find some kind of job to pay the rent) – it was in the playing fields of Clifton College that I got lost in the Speedwell zone and gave up. Then 24/7 work took over for 45 years because, believe me, the gig economy was alive and well in the 1970’s (I only got my first proper full-time job when I was 40) and at times Madame and me were each doing three part-time jobs. Then with three boys to feed and clothe, any plant hunting was confined to holidays in Pembrokeshire. I loved my work but I also longed for some space to devote to the natural world and especially plants and fungi.
So when we retired we brought my big collection of underused field guides and a head filled with the extraordinarily evocative names of plants I’d never actually seen. I can still remember coming across Vipers Bugloss for the first time on a clifftop in Tenby and being completely bowled over by its beauty.
As soon as we moved here we joined the Bath Natural History Society – which was the best move we could have made because by going on field trips and attending lectures by real nationally recognised experts our understanding began to increase exponentially; not least because we found that the experts we got to know were eager to teach anyone who showed an interest. Added to that, a course in botanical illustration reconnected me to my artistic background and reawakened my interest in intense observation, plus my longstanding interest in herbal medicine which I’d never been able to explore in depth. These three factors combined: drawing and painting, really good mentors and a passion for wildflowers and their uses, set me on the road which four years ago finally resulted in a head on collision with a plant that’s universally known as a bit of a heart sinker. It was on the allotment site just a single plot up from us on an abandoned plot.
This is not a tale of derring-do on a precipitous cliff face or hacking my way through a jungle. This pretty plant practically threw itself at me about five feet from our path. It was tall – a couple of feet tall anyway, rambling, fragile and faintly resembled a sweet pea flower but the leaves were wrong. I got the genus name right off – it was a Fumitory, a Fumaria ‘something or other‘. but to get the species was a world of woe away. Once I’d spun my head a few times in the field guides I knew that getting the species right was way above my level of competence. The differences between the ten British and Irish species are very small and demand experience, accurate measurements and even a low powered microscope. So I turned to a friend – Rob – who’s way better than me and – bless him he wandered up to the allotment and his ID was pretty provisional, plus I didn’t think he was keen on volunteering to carry a burden that was rightly mine. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had cause to be grateful to someone who has given me the confidence that I’ll eventually be able to solve a problem.
Happily we had a lovely holiday in Cornwall this year and the coast path yielded two slightly different Fumaria species which, by that time, I’d learned to key out for myself. I photographed, inspected and measured them before submitting them to the County Recorder who to my great surprise accepted both ID’s. By this time I knew which parts of the plant demanded that intense attention to detail I wrote about earlier, so I sent off for the BSBI monograph on Fumitories and suddenly the light began to dawn. However there was one further obstacle to overcome. Confirmation bias afflicts keen amateur botanists as much as it wrecks the judgement of players in any other discipline. There’s no point in picking the rarest of a bunch of species and then only looking for evidence proving the hypothesis. But refusing on principle to believe that your specimen is that rare plant is equally daft because – well, it might be. My Fumaria by this time had migrated into the garlic bed and was wreaking havoc in the leeks. The word “ramping” attached to some of the species is more than appropriate.
Eventually, after much head scratching it occurred to me that it might (just) be Fumaria bastardii – a thought that I squashed immediately because even a cursory glance at the map showed that it just didn’t grow here. So I sent the photos and measurements to the North Somerset County Recorder suggesting it might be Fumaria Capreolata. She emailed back and said she thought it was more likely Fumaria Muralis but also suggested I send the details to the National Referee for Fumarias and very quickly he replied that it was Fumaria bastardii var. hibernica – the very one that doesn’t grow here. So – going back to the photo at the top, there’s now a list for this area on the national database which includes my solitary record which I’ve highlighted. There’s also a single red square on the map that gives the approximate location – this is done to protect vulnerable plants like orchids from predation by collectors. And finally I had an email saying my find had got on to the Somerset Rare Plants list as well as on the annual Bath Nats report.
The key point in all this is that if I can make a small difference, then trust me – anyone can. My little find is only rare here in Bath – in Ireland for instance – it’s everywhere; and I couldn’t have got near it without the knowledge and skills of three volunteers who gave me the time to finally get the ID. My biggest contribution is in noticing the plant and then banging on about it. I’m stubborn and I don’t like being beaten!
So my main – possibly entire – indelible contribution to field botany might well turn out to be a single dot on a map, and I’ll settle for that. Nerdery has its own rewards and my sense of pride in getting that dot on the map more than vindicates the hours I spent achieving it.