Almost winter

The sound of the wind sighing through these beeches is winter on a plate!

I’m not sure I go with the relatively recent introduction of what’s called ‘meteorological winter’ which begins on December 1st for no better reason, it seems to me, than an excessive love of orderliness. Yes of course it tidies the year up into four seasons of exactly three months, but the boundaries, the markers don’t coincide with any particular events in the real world. On the other hand, the astronomical seasons are marked by genuine turning points – the two solstices and two equinoxes mark actual observable events rather than concepts. I can hardly imagine anyone getting excited at the accumulation of time required to trigger a new season; whereas I get really excited about the winter solstice because it holds out the hope of lengthening days at what always seems to be (really is, often) the darkest part of the year. The same goes for the equinox, especially at the spring one, when the promise of summer is offered. The late summer is always tinged with sadness as the hours of darkness gain the ascendency once more, but there’s a glorious processional quality about the way the astronomical year reflects our mood. These moments are marked in the natural world by migrating birds like cuckoos which arrive soon after the spring solstice, before the other summer migrants, the swallows and swifts, arrive before the equinox. It all seems to add up.

All of which is a very long way of wondering aloud whether our walk yesterday could be considered a winter walk. The idea of ‘doing’ the Mendip Way – a fifty mile wander between the Bristol Channel and Frome has grown on us and without planning it at all, we’ve been grabbing any excuse to walk bits of it whenever the weather looks reasonable. High Mendip is not a place you want to be walking in freezing winds and driving rain.

Yesterday we walked a random section between Winscombe and Crook Peak – the whole section including the return walk was around 5 miles but it felt longer because there was a climb of just under 600 feet, and the walking conditions were pretty poor with the sodden ground churned to lethally slippery mud by weekend walkers. The start of the walk was diverted because there’s a massive programme of tree felling going on in the whole area, attempting to control ash dieback disease which is rife here, and so we joined the path a mile or so late, beyond Kings Wood. The weather forecast promised better than we actually experienced, but we avoided the sharp showers that we could follow as they drove across the Somerset levels from the South West.

If you look carefully you can just see the silver band of the Bristol Channel below the sky, looking westwards.

Crook Peak is the high promontory that stands guard over the M5 and would be a familiar sight to anyone who regularly drives that way. Its smaller twin, Brent Knoll, is on the other side of the motorway and I suppose the two peaks represent the last hurrah of the Mendip Hills. But the position overlooking the levels gives the most fantastic views across to Glastonbury and beyond and in the opposite direction apparently Pen y Fan in the Black Mountains can be seen 40 miles away on a clear day; so it’s well worth the effort of going to the top. Looking back you can see the Mendip way extending back across Rowberrow Warren, Burrington Combe and towards Priddy. On Thursday we’ve cherry picked a lovely walk from Priddy down Ebbor Gorge and we’ll leave the joining of the dots for later. There’s something nice about exploring the lay of the land in a series of shorter walks and then doing the whole thing in three or four sections when the days are longer.

We are so fortunate to live just 20 miles away from this marvellous walking country. When the Mendip Way is done we’ll start the Limestone Link which runs almost past our front door down to Shipham which is almost in the shadow of the Peak. I’ve written before about the intermittent lead mining industry around Velvet Bottom, and Mendip being a carboniferous limestone area, the washings from the mines all joined the watercourses as they ran underground through the rock and emerged in springs and resurgences lower down. Although the lead mines were last worked over a century ago, the villagers of Shipham were warned, quite recently, not to eat vegetables from their own gardens because they were so heavily contaminated with cadmium. The source of the contamination is now a treasured nature reserve and I suspect that most of its visitors would never even suspect what a wretched and desolate industrial area it must have been in its heyday.

So here are some photographs from yesterday’s walk. The larger photo just shows Glastonbury Tor on top of the hill in the far distance. During the recent flooding, almost all of the low lying land surrounding it was underwater. Looking down from the top we could see that there is massive dredging work going on in the Lox Yeo river to try to improve drainage. In some areas it’s been suggested that tree planting would slow down the drainage and increase water retention, but up here on the ridge the soil is often very thin, and the drainage is straight down into the rock, or more particularly its extensive cave systems, which just shows that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the problem of flooding, perhaps with the exception of arresting climate change and lessening the extreme weather events that cause the floods.

New wheelbarrow makes heavy work!

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The old wheelbarrow was all of ten years old and the wheel had been replaced three times. Last week I finally accepted that the persistent flat tyre was trying to tell me that it was time to retire rather than retyre it – not least because I’d also put a spade through the base whilst mixing potting compost. And so it’s gone and I replaced it early this morning with an all singing, all dancing model with a super non-puncture solid tyre. I should have guessed after I’d struggled to get it into the car that it was a bit bigger than the old one but it was on sale at 20% off and I couldn’t resist.

Back at the allotment as I loaded it up with wood chip I realised that as well as being 20% cheaper it was also 30% bigger. My usual 30 spadefuls of wood chip increased to 40 – increasing the weight in the process.  Nonetheless it needed proportionately less journeys up and down from the plot and so, dazzled by the mathematics I finished the job quickly with my lovely new green non-squeaky and non leaky wheelbarrow. Over the years I’ve learned that getting the right tools for a job makes it sooooo much easier, but having the right tools has also increased the weight of my toolbox to the point where it needs its own transport.

IMG_20200311_153034With paths all completed for another season, Madame planted out potatoes (risky but worth the gamble when it pays off), planted seeds and harvested veg for supper while I installed the cleaned-up drippers for the greenhouse and connected them to the new water storage. Last year was a bit hit and miss, with the water running dry because the barrels were set too low.  This year they’re on a 3′ frame and should be able to deliver 250 litres of rainwater without interruption. This year we’re going to water from the bottom of the pots by using capillary mat, so effectively we’re watering the mats rather than the pots.  In the propagators this certainly encourages the roots to go downwards in search of water and strengthens the root balls ready for growing on and planting out. To make it easier I’ve made a support for the individual drippers to stop them from falling over – just holes in a batten really, nothing complicated, but it looks a lot tidier (obsessive behaviour again!). The yellow strip is a non poisonous glue trap to try to reduce the whitefly which are already rife this year. Over the next week I’ll be calibrating the drippers so that the mats don’t get flooded and then, as the threat of a longer cold spell recedes, we can start to move the frost tender plants into the greenhouse on their way to the ground outside. 

All this while the sun shone  – it was heaven! This week the river has been running high, and it’s kept the issue of climate change at the top of our attention. We used to live 15 miles further downstream, at the point where the tidal river enters the Bristol Docks, and I described some time ago how we once came very close to being flooded ourselves. Then, it was a combination of snow melt, a high spring tide and a westerly wind lumping up the tide as it ran beneath the suspension bridge and up the gorge.  This year it’s much the same combination and a friend posted this photo of what would have been the view from our window.  It’s a scary thought that these ‘once in a lifetime’ events are becoming more and more regular. I recommended Adam Nicholson’s marvellous book “The Seabird’s Cry” a couple of weeks ago.  When I finally put it down it was me that felt like crying at the damage that we’ve inflicted by fuelling climate change. Why should we get so upset at the fate of seabirds which have no real economic bearing on our lives? The answer, of course, is in the word ‘economic’. Like the caged canary in a mine, the fate of the seabirds is a telltale, a warning that something is terribly wrong. Banning canaries wouldn’t have saved any miners’ lives and ignoring the disappearance of many treasured species won’t save us from the consequences of our inaction. The great ocean going birds bring spiritual and aesthetic gifts beyond any bean counting exercise, and all the while we grow more and more impoverished; diminished from within and without.

My thanks to Sarah and Ben for the photo

Addendum

I just noticed that Sarah posted this because Bristol City Council have proposed building 2000 houses in this immediate area. Darwin Award for them!

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A brief break in the rain

So this is a very brief video of Pulteney Weir, here in Bath, taken this afternoon. Looking at it now it doesn’t look all that exceptional, or at least it doesn’t if you’ve never seen it under normal conditions, when there are four steps and seagulls paddle safely on the top of the first. The river is exceptionally high, and that reflects the saturated soil conditions upstream, and that’s giving farmers (and allotmenteers too) massive problems.  Even where the ground is not actually flooded it’s impossible to get machinery on to it – a pair of size 10 wellies is too much. I’ve mentioned the three underground springs that run beneath our allotment site, and they keep the water table worryingly high. Some vegetables will tolerate wet conditions, but many won’t. We’ve got garlic, onions and shallots (we’ve given up altogether on the leeks), and we should be cutting asparagus in about six or eight weeks. Rain is best in small regular amounts because the roots actually need air as much as they do water.  Sadly we don’t get to choose, and so the best thing we can do at every level – from the whole sweep of Welsh hill country, for instance, down to the smallest veg patch is to improve water retention by tree planting, by changing agricultural practices and by reinstating marshes and bogs. Good soil can store much more water without becoming waterlogged – that’s a fact.  Our instincts are to increase downstream dredging and build bigger rhynes and ditches to try to speed up the run-off but that’s a daft way to go.  What we know we need to do is to hold the rain for longer and release it more slowly; and we know how to do this. Building up thick topsoils rich in organic matter, nice winding streams and beaver dams, local flood plains (without houses!) can all help.

We need to try to reduce overall rainfall – and that means addressing the climate crisis because as the Atlantic heats up, more and more moisture laden air is going to head our way. This is a political , economic and cultural challenge – just about the biggest we’ve faced in generations. We need to develop crops and seeds better suited to our new climate, because this can’t happen overnight.  We need to turn away from the fantasy that technology can solve all our problems because it can’t. We need to eat less meat, drive much less, give up flying whenever it suits us, and that means we need to structure our economy in an entirely different way.  It would be a tragedy if most of the world had to accept vastly worse lives in order to keep a few wealthy people living in extravagance.

Does this sound like a revolution? Well, of course it does but the alternatives are much worse. However we can’t expect to be congratulated for our far-sighted views because it’s such a massive change.  I’ve always taught my children to avoid revolution at all cost, because violent revolutions rarely bring anything but unhappiness and worse conditions than ever. We do have a choice and a vision and we can do our best to realize it however much we’re impeded.  We need to have the more powerful vision of hope for the future and not focus exclusively on calling out the villains because that just gives them the chance to demonize us as ‘extremists’ – as if wanting to be able to breathe clean air and eat healthy food, free from chemicals, to drink safe tap water and to walk and cycle safely on uncongested roads and in a living biodiverse countryside was somehow threatening to life. We need to be able to say to people “taste and see” by opening our gardens and allotments for anyone to come along and experience for themselves what’s possible.  We need to work with, and not against farmers, especially small farmers, because being a critical friend is so much more positive than being an implacable enemy, and finally we need to be better consumers.  Mindfulness can be a lot more than just a meditational discipline – especially when we’re buying food and clothes.

Why am I writing all this today?  Well, because I can get a bad dose of the ‘black dog’ when things seem to go as badly as they are at the moment and so, forgive me, I’m reminding myself that we’re not entirely powerless in the face of government incompetence and indifference. But secondly a new follower signed up today – a new allotmenteer as it happens – and I wanted to write something that sets our shared interest within a broader and much more significant context. The personal really is political.

On the allotment (“at last” you may well be saying), a veggie traffic jam is beginning to happen.  Keeping to our usual dates we’ve trays of germinated and germinating seeds that move through the warm propagator to the cooler one, to tables under the windows and then to the unheated greenhouse. But the soil is cold and wet and we just need a secure break in this weather to plant things out ready for spring. You need to be a bit of an optimist in this game. Tomorrow we’ll be sowing into the hotbed which is working really well. We could still be pulling some really early carrots with a bit of luck.

 

 

Storm Dennis – counting the cost

So leaving Birmingham we decided to drive south and west across to the Malvern Hills and go for a walk with our son.  We used to visit the Malverns frequently when the children were young but we haven’t been there for at least four years since we moved to Bath – it’s that little bit too far now for a spontaneous walk. This place, on the border between Herefordshire and Worcestershire overlooks the Severn Valley to the East, forming the the Vale of Evesham with the River Wye to the West so it was as good a place as any to see the effects of the flooding from the vantage point of the hills.  There was no doubting the effects on the roads – there were warning signs of road closures all the way down the M5 and there was much more traffic than usual on the motorway – not least lorries trying to find an unblocked way west.

The whole area is regularly beset with flooding, but in the last few years it’s got progressively worse. The relentless rain during this winter has left the valleys waterlogged and unable to cope with the additional flow. What makes it even trickier is the fact that there are always two peaks of flooding – the first coming directly off the land locally and the second, a couple of days later, is formed by the floodwaters flowing down from the mountainous catchment area around Plynlimon in mid-Wales.  What that means, of course, is that the long term remedy for flooding needs to be sought in changes in farming and building practices in the most populated areas downriver, but also in the headwater region.  The Malvern Hills which occupy the area between the Wye and the Severn is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has 15 SSSI’s within its boundaries. It’s also managed by the Malvern Conservators founded by act of parliament in 1884 – so you can see it’s a pretty heavily regulated area.

IMG_20200218_120834That’s just to set the scene a bit – yesterday we set off from Hollybush in deteriorating weather and by the time we got to the top of the first climb it was sheeting down, blowing a hoolie and extremely cold.  We carried on and the weather slowly improved and by the time we got to Sally’s Place (great refreshment hut) at British Camp, the sun had put in an appearance. But looking out towards the Severn from the vantage point of the hilltop we could see how much flooding there is at the moment. It’s not possible to discern the actual course of the river unless it’s by the tops of the bankside trees.  For the most part the flooding extends for several fields either side, and of course larger towns like Upton on Severn, Tewkesbury and Worcester (OK I know it’s a city but writing the list any other way looks pedantic!) – are severely affected once again. After a four hour walk out and back we arrived at Hollybush again just as the rain got organised and we drove home in opposite directions, both of us – it turned out – in appalling driving conditions.

Back in Bath, the river is continuing to fill, and we discovered that yesterday it covered Pulteney weir for the first time since 1960 when 7 people died in the floods. Bathampton Meadows are underwater again – doing exactly what they’re meant to do, which is to store floodwater.  It still amazes me that even as late as 2017 the local authority were still trying to turn this nature reserve into a park and ride scheme. If you’re looking for an example of cognitive dissonance look no further. The latest flood risk assessment sounds breezily confident that the risk isn’t rising, and there are plans to decommission the floodgates at Pulteney weir. The strategy for dealing with the climate crisis at government level seems to be to tell us to stick our fingers in our ears and shout “la la la la” very loudly. Those of us who remember the similarly laughable “protect and survive” campaign will recall that the then government advised us that the best protection against all-out nuclear war was to whitewash the windows and hide under a table. That was what we were meant to do at least, the government plans for themselves involved moving into nuclear bomb proof shelters, curiously named “regional seats of government” and sitting it out until it was safe to emerge and govern the smoking radioactive ashes. One recently discovered criminal repurposing of an abandoned nuclear shelter was to use it to grow cannabis on an industrial scale – you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Anyway, if all this doesn’t constitute a crisis I don’t know what does.  Everywhere we looked we could see the stubble from last year’s fodder maize crop.  The land is too wet to sow seed and consequently the top soil is being washed into the rivers, further depleting the earth. I read through a couple of the many official reports concerning the Malvern Hills when we got home, and one of them suggested that one effect of global heating might be to allow farmers to take two crops a year.  Merciful heavens! that surely means we’ll simply exhaust the soil that much quicker unless we make radical changes.

Traditionally, Japanese potters would dig porcellanous and stoneware clays and store them for their grandchildren to use. These clays lacked plasticity and prolonged storage after initial preparation made them easier, although never easy, to use. We need politicians to move to a similar timescale. We need to stop asking what will be the case in five or ten years time , and soberly consider what it might be in fifty. To paraphrase an earlier teacher:

For what will it profit us if we hoard our savings but lose the whole earth?

 

Storm Dennis forces indoor gardening

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. When we first heard the wind soughing through any gaps in the windows it sounded suitably mournful, almost lovely. It felt good to pull up the bedcovers and entertain ourselves with thoughts of the driving rain and crashing waves outside the door. But that’s just an indulgence.

Actually being flooded is quite a different experience as we discovered one evening alongside the tidal Avon almost underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  We’d been living there for some years and we were used to the occasional inundation of the Portway, but this particular night a west wind was heaping up a spring tide and driving it upstream at the same time as a snow melt was travelling in the opposite direction. What was most unnerving about it was just how quiet it was.  The water just kept on rising, over the dockside, across the low wall and then began to move across the road towards our house. We stood there in disbelief for an age, before Madame called a taxi to take the children to a safer place as I wondered how to stop the water flooding the basement. Mercifully the tide turned and the water retreated, but I’d never experienced water as malignant before.  Dark, relentless and malignant.  I think of the hundreds of people in the North for whom the water hasn’t stopped.

And now we live much further upstream on the same river – we haven’t moved far – but the river hasn’t lost its capacity to threaten and bully its way through the city. We know when it’s high when we can see the surface gleaming through the trees across the green, and still it’s largely silent when it’s at its most dangerous. There’s no theatrical roar, no whitewater, it’s just dark; swirling silently and sliding past as fast as a cyclist could keep up on the towpath. Global climate change is one problem we’re not going to be able to export to a place we don’t have to look in the eye. Which is perhaps an overly melodramatic way of cueing the fact that we didn’t go out today.  We’d made safe the allotment as best we could, and we just waited for storm Dennis to blow it (him)self out over the weekend while we got on with sowing seeds for the propagators.

It seems a bit ironic to be sowing chillies and peppers this weather, but they need a long season and so we always seem to land up sowing them when the winter weather is demonstrating that there’s still time for frost and snow. Each year we juggle the dates to try to get them ready to go up to the allotment at the exact moment the weather changes for the better. It’s called gambling, and the odds are always in favour of Nature having the last laugh, which is why you need to develop plenty of resilience, and a sense of humility to be any good as a gardener. If I had one piece of advice – or rather two pieces – for a novice allotmenteer they would be

  1. Get your seeds in early
  2. Don’t get your seeds in too early

See what I mean? That’s why this blog is about being human, rather than being clever. My guess is that in about eight weeks we’ll be trying to keep a load of very leggy and tender capsicum plants alive in the flat until the snow melts at last. Anyway, this is the time of year when almost everything you’re planning to do on the allotment is virtual; aspirational.  A few cotyledons here and there; some unopened seed packets along with some empty beds in which – we hope – remarkable vegetables will grow.

Outside the flat, the window boxes are being thrashed by the wind and rain, and I’m not sure they’ll ever reach their full potential this year. All across the UK people are enduring this seemingly endless sequence of Atlantic storms, and I’d like to think that the light is gradually dawning in the collective mind.  But then I think back to how long it took for the science around the dangers of smoking to take us to the point of giving it up.  There were huge commercial pressures and vast fortunes were spent by the tobacco industry to prop their lethal product up, and successive governments delayed any genuine action – probably because of the huge tax revenues they were gaining. We must expect that common sense will only prevail after every other option has been investigated – the trouble is we don’t have fifty years.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m very interested in finding out how farmers are responding to the climate challenge. I don’t think anyone – even farmers – believe that nothing needs to change, but I do think that some of their critics have been cherry picking the evidence against farming. So here’s another random article that landed in my inbox today.  This one is another defence of traditional mixed farming over and against feedlots and chemicals.  I found it very interesting although I can’t vouch for all the data it’s based on.  But whatever solution we reach for has simply got to gain the support of farmers and landowners if it’s going to work. I have no confidence in the capacity of the present government to challenge its own funding sources so it’s going to have to be a battle for public opinion.  The information, all of it, is out there and we need to collate and understand what it’s saying and not reach for scapegoats to carry the blame. The future of life on the earth depends upon us reaching the correct conclusion and then acting on it.