Hoop house, polytunnel …. it depends where you live.

Well, we finished building the polytunnel yesterday with a pretty exhausting six hour session fitting the cover. There’s still the door to be made and hung, and the polythene flaps to be buried and – truth to tell – we both felt it lacked finesse in some places, but it fits where it touches and we’ll tighten down some more when we get a nice hot day. As it was, the temperature had risen almost overnight from below freezing (abnormally cold) to 13C which is abnormally warm; but at least it meant we could discard at least three layers of precautionary clothing as we worked. However we were so tired by the time we finished in the twilight, that we had no heart for another session, and so most of today was spent in the kitchen cooking; making stock and reading.

……. Which is where the title of this post comes in. On Saturday I mentioned the challenge of reading and properly understanding North American gardening books, and it’s by no means just about pronouncing tom-ay- toes or tom-ah-toes. What about pole beans? or eggplants? But then I go back to the Charles Olson book I’ve mentioned before and which opens with the sentence

I take space to be the central fact to man born in America ….

Charles Olson – opening sentence from “Call me Ishmael”.

Reading these past couple of weeks I’ve been very struck by the size of American gardens, farms and allotments. Here in the UK the traditional standard size of an allotment was ten poles – an archaic measure that’s approximately equivalent to 250 square metres or 2690 square feet …. see I’m translating my own words now! …… which was supposed to be enough to keep a family of four in vegetables all year round. On an every little helps basis, this amount of land multiplied by a much larger number of allotments in use, made a substantial and crucial difference to food supplies during the war. Since then the size has been whittled down and many sites have been sold off by cash strapped local authorities and so we have two slightly less than half sized plots which make up 200 square metres or just over 2000 square feet. Even the great John Jeavons would be hard pressed to feed a family of four off such a small plot, and we certainly couldn’t. But America is a big country – almost 40 times greater in land area than the UK and which consequently enjoys a much more relaxed attitude towards space – because there’s lots of it. I wish it were true that this generous availability of land had made the US a supremely well fed country, but sadly it seems not. France is just under two and a half times larger than we are; and so it goes on.

Reading Carol Deppe’s books (which I think are excellent by the way) it seems that in the US she has found it relatively straightforward to rent or lease a small area of prime farmland. Here in the UK land value is so distorted by subsidies that it’s beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. In fact I imagine that even making such a proposal to a farmer is tantamount to illegal trespass. Food cultures always relate to the wider cultural environment and I suspect that it’s precisely because western culture has spread its deadly mycelium into the farthest corners of the earth – gardeners who were once rooted within our individual small places have recently found common cause with thousands of others across the world. We’re uncovering farming and gardening cultures that have been passed by in the greedy years of industrialisation. We’re all translating now because we’re in a time of change and we’re discovering some priceless tools in the agricultural lumber room.

John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, Joe Salatin and Jean-Martin Fortier make substantial reference to the Parisian market gardeners who really did manage to conjure quite spectacular amounts of food from small plots; but that was in the days of horse transport, when manure in huge quantities was freely available in the city. Our problem, it seems, is that whether land is freely available or severely rationed; small growers have to struggle against the status quo controlled by industrial agriculture, agrochemicals and commodified junk food. Enlightened farmers need enlightened customers and they all need enlightened local markets. I could go on, but I’ll confine myself to making a plea for the allotment, the small farms and market gardens who never seem to be factored into government thinking until food supplies are disrupted.

We need to be working together to develop all the skills and networks we’ll be needing in the future. Growing and producing great sustainable food needs a localised market; it needs a new food culture with cooking skills resuming their place in everyday life. For me the discovery that food cultures can be translated and adopted in new ways to meet our society’s needs has been inspirational. Our first ever packet of Painted Mountain corn arrived by post this morning and learning to grow it and cook it is going to be quite an adventure. Thanks to Carol Deppe we’ll have a go at drying some squashes this season to add to our winter food stores.

As the photos show, the Potwell Inn allotment is looking rather sparse at the moment but the garlic has recovered and is looking really good. The broad (fava) beans are raising their heads once more and even the purple sprouting broccoli which were so hard hit by the east winds have perked up. There are enough plants there to feed us for another month. Today we dug the last of the parsnips which have been a solid and reliable crop for us, and the Swiss chard is sprouting merrily again – it’s such a trojan for us. And so we garden on, rooted in our 200 square metres but citizens of the whole world. It’s very exciting.

“Eating is an agricultural act” – or how to use those Christmas book tokens!

The headline quote is a characteristically sharp observation by Wendell Berry, one of my favourite writers and quoted by Michael Pollan who adds that Wendell Berry could, equally appropriately, have called eating a political act as well. This reflection begins and will probably end in books, so having promised a list a few days ago I’ve decided to publish a very provisional one today that represents my personal meander through the question of farming and food. I’ll head the list with Michael Pollan because his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was among the first to be published, and was groundbreaking in the way it embraced the whole of food culture from producer to consumer. As a critique of industrial food it’s brilliant, but as a critical friend he addresses many of the questions that sceptics might ask of the alternatives he considers – which, after industrial food production, are – industrial organic food; “beyond organic” farming – basically pasture based livestock production; and foraging. I’ll start the list with this book because I was directed back to it when I started to read Tom Philpott’s new book “Perilous Bounty”, which looks at the state of American farming two decades after Michael Pollan’s research began.

It would be easy to imagine that my reading has focused entirely on American agriculture, but the next four books are UK centred – although in agricultural terms where the US has led, the UK all too often follows to its cost. The feedlot and giant milk production units are here in the UK already and increasing in number.

My third book is Simon Fairley’s “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – a forceful, evangelistic and highly entertaining book on the virtues of mixed farming. Fourth (and these are in no particular order), Chris Smaje “A Small Farm Future” and finally a couple of more technical books; Dieter Helm’s “Green and Prosperous Land” is an economist’s take on reordering farming and building a greener economy and Tim Lang’s “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” is a comprehensive survey of UK food policy, what’s wrong with it and – as the title says – how it could be fixed. Finally James Rebanks new book “English Pastoral” has the advantage of being written by a proper hill farmer and it’s a highly readable book, just like his last one.

There are so many other books on the subject ranging from deep ecology through green spirituality and practical handbooks to monographs on single ecological challenges but I’ve mentioned these particularly because I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I’d be confident to recommend any of these books to the farmers I came to know and respect even though I had many reservations about what they were doing.

Overseas readers will need to know that the Potwell Inn, virtual though it may be, is firmly situated in the South West of England whose soils are nowhere near as suitable for arable farming as they are for grass. The temperate climate, and soils all favour the production of grass and so (since humans don’t have rumens) by far the most economical use of the majority of the landscape is grazing which allows cattle to turn sunshine into concentrated food that we can eat. And so there is an inescapable focus on meat and milk production which, when it’s done intensively is undoubtedly a cause of real environmental concern.

I’m interested in food security and so the lorries, thousands of which are stacked up against the closed border in Dover today, represent the almost 60% of food that we import and the fragility of the supply line – in one news report. Therefore if we’re to increase self-sufficiency to a much safer 80% it seems inevitable that we will have to make the most effective use of all the land we have and play to our strengths. Sadly, (vegans and vegetarians may think), the future will have to include a significant amount of traditional (and rotational) mixed farming because much of the South West is unsuitable for the kind of large scale grain and pulse production that would be needed to avoid importing huge quantities of protein food. The point about the ecological catastrophe that’s bearing down on us is that it’s universal. It doesn’t respect borders.

Incidentally I noticed an article in this week’s Farmers Weekly on a similar track, discussing whether lupins could replace imported soya as a protein food for cattle. Personally I think the future lies in eating much less meat and feeding cattle on grass which they’ve evolved to digest, rather than concentrates that keep them in a perpetual state of stress and digestive disorder. The irony in the article came when I saw that the breakthrough has come through the licensing of several new weedkillers, one of which is called “Nirvana”. Is that some kind of sick joke?? I quoted Wendell Berry only a couple of days ago saying that intensive farming takes a solution and turns it into two problems. There’s only one way of ending industrial meat production and that’s to eat less meat and only buy the best and most sustainable meat as occasional treats. Those who argue that such a move would mean meat for the rich and starvation for the poor miss the point that:

  • (1) once the subsidies are removed from industrial farming, the prices will converge, although they’ll never meet.
  • (2) We will have to address inequality within any green new deal.
  • (3) The environmental benefits will be felt universally.
  • (4) The potential health benefits of ending the reign of junk food are almost incalculable.

” …. all of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore”

Michael Pollan – “The Omnivore’s Dilemma

So without resorting to a long piece that I’m completely unqualified to write; it seems to me that we have an urgent need to develop the skills we’ll need to invent or more likely rediscover in order to achieve a sustainable and ecologically safe food future, and perhaps surprisingly much of the emphasis will have to be placed on changing our food culture on the consumer side. I’ll reserve the philosophical and spiritual aspects to this to another post, but practically speaking we’ll need to bring the teaching of growing, harvesting, cooking and preserving back into the mainstream as Michael Pollan suggests.

We’ll have to hugely increase the provision of allotments by local authorities because these are the laboratories for a greener future. Anyone who has experience of growing their own food, even in small quantities, will quickly learn to recognise quality and pay less attention to price. Informed consumers make better, greener buying choices and waste less. Allotments can be much more productive than the equivalent area of conventional farms.

We’ll also have to build a huge network of local food and farmers’ markets to reduce food miles and completely overhaul the agricultural colleges to address a wholly new ethos; turn agriculture and horticulture into a better paid and better regarded occupation and offer training at local colleges to give people the skills they need to get the most out of gardens and allotments. Finally we need to grow more fruit and veg – much much more of them. One of the tragedies of the CAP was the subsidy paid to established fruit farms to grub up their trees, only to pay them some years later to replant them.

Food security really is possible without resorting to ever more intensive and destructive chemical farming and the destruction of the environment; but as I’ve been arguing, the change in our food culture will need to be huge and it will demand leadership and vision that is nowhere apparent in our present political system. But the thought that it’s our Christmas lunch that’s rotting in the back of a lorry on a border somewhere ought to focus our minds pretty sharply.

And if I don’t get the chance to write again tomorrow have a very happy christmas if that’s your thing; and if it isn’t – do enjoy the next few days!

Is there a cunning plan?

It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.

Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.

I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.

Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.

One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.

If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.

Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.

They would say that wouldn’t they?

Mandy Rice Davies

But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?

Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.

  • I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.

Trench warfare at the Potwell Inn allotment

The sticky end of the unwanted grape vine

Regular readers of this blog may remember our ongoing struggle with underground streams on the allotment. In many ways we’re very fortunate to have a stream percolating somewhere beneath our feet that is able to supply water to the roots of any our plants with the means to access it. But it cuts both ways when we get very wet weather and the water table rises to about a foot beneath the surface; the clay/loam soil is desperately liable to poach and so many plants hate having wet feet.

The grape vine was on the allotment when we arrived. In fact the whole site is populated by genetically identical black grapes, all of them planted in the heyday of the Italian restaurants when a team of waiters and chefs took over plots and grew food to remind them of home. The very last of them died just this year and well into old age he still browsed our allotments as if he and his friends were still running them. I once saw him take two carrier bags of ripe figs off an allotment that used to be theirs. They would also pick many buckets of grapes to make wine which is, or was, reputed to be pretty good. We’ve got a vine on each side of our plot and one of them looks after itself with a bit of pruning in the winter, and gives us a good crop of small, sweet black grapes rather spoiled by over large pips. The other vine has always functioned better as a windbreak and screen, producing copious growth of leaves and shoots but never setting a decent crop of grapes. We made 25 litres of wine from the other vine a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough sugar in the grapes so it was very ‘thin’, lacking in flavour, and in the end we poured it away. When we decided to stop drinking alcohol 18 months ago it removed one of the reasons for growing these small grapes. Ironically our present allotments are on a site thought to have been a vineyard in Roman times.

So when we rationalised the fruit cage this autumn we decided to dig up the less successful vine to make space for a redcurrant, and today I attempted to dig it out. After a nominal first foot it was clear that the reason for unsuccessful growth was that it’s had its feet in water every winter. In the end I had to give up because the hole was filling with water within minutes and the stump appeared to be sucking itself deeper and deeper into the soil as I squelched around it with a spade and crowbar. I was experiencing the legacy of the wettest October on record – which leaves a question mark over replanting a redcurrant bush there. At the very least the patch will need a lot of grit incorporating to improve drainage. I might be able to redeem it a bit by diverting rainwater from the adjacent row of compost bins into more water butts. The council turned off the water supply today so I’m glad we’ve got about 1000 litres stored already. Over recent years we’ve experienced problems early in the year before the site supply is restored, because we’ve been blessed with fine dry weather.

While I was getting hot and muddy, Madame planted another two rows of broad beans to stand over winter. She was planting them in a bed that we’d augmented with some bought-in topsoil that had an even larger clay component than our own ground and which I had to dig a whole bag of grit into today before she planted it up. In the fruit cage the winter pruning is almost done now, and on the veg plots the garlic is growing steadily as are the peas which are always a bit of a gamble. If they survive the weather and the mice we’ll have an early crop next year. The brassicas were mostly planted on a bed that was well fed with our own compost and now the early purple sprouting broccoli are almost as tall as me. Let’s hope they’re as productive of shoots as they are with leaves.

The rats have returned to the compost heap since I drove them out by turning it repeatedly; so today I had to set one of the powerful spring traps baited with crunchy peanut butter. Hopefully greed will overwhelm their caution and I can get rid of them before they breed. We do have a lovely but rather wild cat on the site but even he can’t eradicate them all on his own. I say a quiet prayer to bring on the hungry peregrines, buzzards and kestrels and multiply the stoats and the owls!

I was thinking during all these labours about the strange way we misrepresent the allotment as if it were a haven of peace, tranquility and rest. An organic allotment may not have anything like as high an energy footprint as a non organic one, but only if you discount the gigacalories of human toil that goes into replacing the chemicals, pesticides and nitrate fertilisers and the very considerable financial expenditure on bringing the soil back into condition. One survey I read claimed that an allotment can be ten times as productive as an equivalent sized plot of farmland – which can only be true of a very intensively managed allotment. Once a plot becomes a significant contributor to the household food supply, it becomes a place of work – good creative, skilled and satisfying work but work nonetheless. I’ve been reading Chris Smaje’s book “A small Farm Future”c Chelsea Green Publishing and I was interested to see (Page 106) a chart that placed gardening in the same category – high labour input + high productivity – as the conventional arable farm. The difference is that the energy input is mostly human toil rather than fuel, fertilizer and chemicals. It’s a great book, well worth reading and presenting a well argued case for small farms and locally sourced food chains. So while I’m in the mood, here are three books I’ve learned a great deal from:

  • Chris Smaje “A small Farm Future” – Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Dieter Helm ” Green and Prosperous Land” – Collins (an economist’s view)
  • Simon Fairlie “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – Chelsea Green

I could add many more, but these three are extremely practical, albeit quite polemical contributions to the debate about the future of food production. One thing’s for sure; this is a debate we’re going to have to engage with whether we like it or not.

And finally we’re off to the flour mill tomorrow to get 25Kg of stoneground wholemeal flour. I was expecting to be turned away but lockdown part deux hasn’t had the same impact on flour supplies as the first round. It’s an excuse to drive 20 miles along the Cotswolds in the most beautiful scenery, so Alleluia – life feels good. This morning after our saintly breakfast of home made muesli, I had a slice of the first loaf of everyday bread and the first teaspoon of marmalade (also home made) in four months. Oh joy!

Returning to a visitation at Damery Lake

My religious upbringing began in a Primitive Methodist Sunday school – don’t get hung up on the primitive word, it was anything but that, but it’s been a long road to escape the pervading sense of imminent punishment for inadvertently breaking one of the many and mostly unwritten rules. It didn’t seem to trouble some of the members much that they broke the rules themselves when it suited them. One of the leaders was outed in the local papers for selling flick knives in his shop (his defence was that if he didn’t sell them someone else would). Among the close families of the devout faithful were more black sheep than you could shake a stick at. Jack, the local baker, was OK as long as he drove a horse and cart after he stopped off at the Foresters at lunch time for a few (no, a lot of) rough ciders because the horse would take him home. In an electric float he was a menace. In fact alcohol was the principal demon that needed exorcising. I even once saw Gilbert the grave digger sitting swigging from a bottle with his feet dangling in a half-dug grave.

The Sunday School was tucked in, up an alley and next door to a small slaughterhouse behind the church and so we could hear the sheep being driven up the lane and then listen to an endless sermon that always involved a lot of smiting and the sacrifice of lambs. There was even a very large image of a lamb – more of a tup, I’d say, waving a flag and with a rather smug face that regarded us from the big window with a superior glint in its eye. The smiting often had a surprisingly modern set of references; mostly outing everyday sins which, although we were children, made us understand that an infinitude of suffering in the fiery furnace was all there was to look forward to. Amongst the eternally damned, it seemed, were any number of local people who’d pissed off the minister. Later I discovered that many of the congregation were predestinarians who believed themselves to be saved whatever they did. I never had that confidence. Once, when one of the local shopkeepers died in the night I just thought he must have had it coming.

Then there were the worms that would surely consume us; although I was never sure whether we would be eaten alive before or after the fiery furnace bit. I’ve spent much of my life trying to find a kinder way of understanding God. This post isn’t entirely off piste even for me. If I need to find an explanation for my occasional silences, one reason is that the Calvinistic silt at the bottom of my subconscious occasionally breaks out in a debilitating fog. Well furnished dystopian visions come easily to me, so be warned about what follows.

“Hell is full of amateur musicians: music is the brandy of the damned.

George Bernard Shaw

I think Shaw was being a bit unfair there. We might remember that one of the stories told about Robert Johnson was that he’d sold his soul to the devil in return for his prodigious talent as a guitar player. Music gets a bad press but we only get really good at it by going through the really bad stage first – like gardening and cooking; but what sets it apart is that at any level it has such power to move and inspire that it almost invites occult explanations.

After thirty years of complete immersion I gave up making and listening to music when I retired, because at some unconscious level I thought I could purge myself of it. It scared me; opened doors I wanted to keep firmly closed. Bach felt like the mind of God and – to level the metaphor just a bit – so did Patti Smith and countless others. A falling cadence in the Paolo Conte song “Max” felt so good it was like pressing the button on the excessive pleasure machine. So after five years of abstinence I decided it was time to risk it once again, and so – once again – the Potwell Inn is full of music.

Which is how I found myself listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams 3rd, aka Pastoral – symphony. It was as if I’d never heard it before – so full of darkness, loss and foreboding; enough properly to stir the mud in my pond. I did a quick search and discovered that even the composer had thought its presumed association with lambs gambolling in the fields was truly off the mark. What it did for me was to remind me of a strange visitation I’d once experienced in Gloucestershire. I was standing on a narrow packbridge and looking up through the woods towards Damery Lake when I became aware of an invisible presence. Specific as these visitations always are, it was an army officer – a captain – who was both in the midst of a first world war battle somewhere in Northern France, and simultaneously standing next to me. These were his woods and in particular this was his lake, and his remembrance of them in the hell of the battle had imprinted themselves upon the place and revealed themselves to me almost a hundred years later. By an almost Jungian coincidence, Ralph Vaughan Williams had first conceived of the music that was to become the Third Symphony – serving as a medical orderly in Northern France in 1916.

In this past week, waiting for the results of the US elections that sense of foreboding was everywhere. Thank goodness there’s been a chink of light at last, but in darkest Sunday School mode as I was by then, I have been fighting off the feeling that we’re not taking this crisis seriously enough. Yes of course we’ve been busy on the allotment but it somehow feels that our frantic horticultural activism is a form of displacement activity. Writing about the seed order or making stock seems such an inadequate response to what’s happening.

Populism as it’s become known is like bindweed – it can’t be eradicated by covering it with a bit of plastic or an old carpet. There are no nostrums, no easy ways or short cuts because the only thing that will remove the infestation is the slow careful removal of every fragment of root. Empty blowhard patriotism needs to be called out for the dangerous fraud it’s become, because the bridge back to any sort of imaginary golden age has been blown up for ever. Even Elgar hated the way that ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ had been hijacked and pressed into service as a jingoistic anthem to British superiority. There’s no point in pretending that with a few minimal alterations and a couple of byelaws we can go back to our old comfortable ways. It’s over.

Suddenly it feels like the autumn of 1939 all over again. I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been reading Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and that seems like a poetic reprise on the theme of Ralph Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony. Then yesterday I listened to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl”. Even as I write this the radio is trumpeting a successful Covid vaccine and I can hear the cheer going up across the world.

Let’s get back to the good old days and buy some Pfizer shares. Let’s crack open another bottle of champagne and do some deals; fill our barns with chlorinated chicken and soya beans and build more walls – walls against disease, against migrants, against starvation, against rising tides, and let’s throw that communist Jeremiah into the pit again.

But it won’t do. The awful fruits of our greed and – let’s be honest – stupidity are slouching towards Jerusalem once more and the sky is dark with (organic) chickens, coming home to roost. Years ago, late one evening just before Christmas I went to Temple Meads railway station to collect one of the waifs and strays that occasionally crossed our path (she still owes me the twenty quid I loaned her to buy a ticket back to Ireland). I was standing alone on the empty platform, when a drunk man approached out of nowhere (I must have that kind of face) and ranted at me for fully half an hour about his perfidious and about to be ex wife and her unreasonable behaviour. Every few minutes he would interrupt his torrent of hatred and ask the time. I would tell him and he would rejoin his bilious monologue. Eventually he said – “How come you always know the time without looking at your watch?” I replied that if he looked up, he would see that the station clock was immediately above his head.

The facts of our dangerous situation are directly in front of us – we just need to pause and look.

Whatever it takes, please – please read this book!

I don’t normally do straight book reviews and neither do I promote anything; I’ve no desire at all to be an ‘influencer’ whatever that might mean, but I will mention books when they’re good, or important; and so over the last couple of years I’ve worried and written a lot about the ecological crisis we’re in, and some of the books that have guided my thoughts. One day I’ll make a bibliography and put it up as a purely personal and probably idiosyncratic list that might help someone to make a start. Back at the Potwell Inn there are shelves full of them but it wouldn’t be difficult to rank them. Some are academic and hard to grasp – that doesn’t make them bad but I’d hesitate to recommend a book that might put anyone off the trail. Some are so partisan and angry that I could only read them a few pages at a time for fear of being overwhelmed. We’re not farmers or a horticulturalists here, and so people like us sometimes figure in the shadowy world of the consumer in these books, the apparently dimwitted customers who, by demanding ever cheaper food, helped to create the crisis we’re now in.

I don’t like being hectored or finger-wagged at. I don’t like being treated as an idiot or being held personally responsible for the way things are – and neither do farmers or ‘newt counting’ ecologists. We really are – (after carefully wiping the politicians’ snake oil off the phrase) – ‘in this together’ and the only workable solution will come from working together. The system is broke.

So who better than someone right inside the mess to show us what it feels like from the inside. I ordered James Rebank’s latest book “English Pastoral’ on a whim. Madame had read his previous book ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ previously and been quite lyrical about it but being an old stick in the mud I resisted. So when I ordered the new book I made sure I’d read the earlier book first. It’s good – patchy but good. There was a touch too much of the caricature blunt Yorkshireman I thought, and I also thought the tales of youthful rebellion, ‘drinking and shagging’ as he puts it, and the ferocious arguments with his father were a bit over-egged until, that is, the little voice in my head reminded me that we always dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves and my own school career ended when I was escorted from the school (by the collar) by the headmaster for being a disruptive and disobedient pain; beginning three years of sombre reflection in dead end labouring jobs. It was Madame who got me into college and back on course. There were more parallels than you’d find in a school geometry set.

So ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ was always a better book than my grudging soul would admit and I’m glad I read it. ‘English Pastoral’ is even better. I really couldn’t put it down. He’s apparently friends with Wendell Berry, and has read Henry Williamson and somehow manages to weave together the lyrical voice with downright practical wisdom, occasionally shocking earthiness and a better grasp of the big picture than anyone else I’ve read. But the big sell, for me, was that I felt I was being embraced as part of the grand plan. The occasional snarky remarks in the first book about tourists’ collective ignorance of what fell farming is really like, have disappeared. The narrowness and suspicion of outsiders and experts, ecologists and economists and interfering incomers in the younger farmer, have all gone and what’s left is a conversation being led by a farmer who commands and deserves respect; a mea culpa in places for going with the flow against his better instincts and a luminous vision of the way forward. Any fierceness is reserved for the agrochemical industry and their accomplices and lobbyists; the manufacturers of ever more destructive machinery; the greedy banks, and the economic orthodoxy that turned land and crops into commodities.

It’s a desperately needed working paper in a world of conflicting demands; offering a model that takes seriously the need for farmers to make a living, that addresses some of the key faults of the extreme end of the rewilding movement, and which dismisses any idea of a one size fits all policy. It addresses the need for food security and completely smashes any idea that what we need is another technological fix so we can carry on the way we are.

Read it, please, if you’re a farmer or a naturalist, or an ecologist or walker, and especially if you live, like me, in a city – and ponder what and where to buy sustainable food. Read it if you’re an allotmenteer because there’s a lot about soil there. Read it if you’re a banker or an economist because this movement is not going away.

When I was a child we used to catch the train up to Reading to see our grandparents who lived a country bus ride away in the Chilterns. The journey involved a change at Didcot, and what was most thrilling (and terrifying) about it was that the train didn’t actually stop at Didcot at all, but just slowed down so that the ‘slip coach’ could glide, engineless, into the station controlled by the guard who presumably operated the brakes.

This morning as I finished the book I remembered that childish adventure and pondered whether, when the great neoliberal train finally crashes the buffers at Oxford, they might discover that the rest of us got off at Didcot and that the banks and the hedge funds and the agrochemical complex have finally reached the catastrophic end of their triumphant journey. Alone.

Seasonal earthly delights

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It’s funny how other people see allotmenteering as a kind of gentle therapy in which you potter about the garden very ……. very ……..  slowly ……. and mindfully …… taking in the sights and scents and sounds whilst healing your mind with thoughts about the beauty of nature. In my experience you can only do that in other peoples’ gardens, and then only if they’re very good gardeners. It’s amazing how catching your silk meditation robes on a rusty nail can disrupt the pattern of good thoughts!

This is one of those times in the gardening year when meditation has to give way to the huge list of jobs to be done.  Plants can be very restful but at times they spend their time shouting at you – have you seen my leaves wilting? Will you please re-pot me immediately or I’ll expire and then you’ll be sorry ……!” And it’s hard to keep your zen composure when you’re pouring five litres of your own carefully saved urine on to the compost heap. Slugs can destroy a row of seedlings in a single night and so you have to deal with murderous thoughts of revenge.  One vegan allotmenteer on our site told us she was gathering slugs on her allotment and then roasting and grinding them up to make a deterrent powder.  Even I’d never thought of that one! The weather can turn on you like a banshee and confound the forecasters by shriveling the leaves on your beans  – oh my – it’s nature red in tooth and claw out there, and so I’m inclined to growl at people who insist that it must be therapeutic.  Really it’s up there with playing a musical instrument, writing a blog or painting landscapes – very hard work that occasionally offers intense rewards. 

So the delights of gardening could be over-egged if you focus entirely on the hard work aspect, but the real pleasure comes with harvesting. I never quite know whether to describe purple sprouting broccoli – which is effectively a biennial – as the final delight of last year or the first in the current year. It’s been there on the plot taking up space since it was sown in March or April of the previous year, and it really does take up space. Half a dozen plants is far more than we really need, but when it comes to planting out we usually put in a couple of spares – just in case – and that’s about thirty square feet taken up for a little over 12 months.  Every year around October we mutter about not growing it any more and then by the following March we’re urging it on, desperate to taste the first sweet florets. Then – and this is one of the great ironies of allotmenteering – after let’s say three weeks or a month of cropping, the pleasure begins to pale a little and we’re eyeing up the space. Seasonal foods are like holiday romances – intensity followed by – let’s be honest – boredom.  Who hasn’t looked at the 500th courgette and wondered what to do with it?

So this week the purple sprouting plants (trees) came out and the plot was immediately re-sown.  Once the flowers start to open it becomes a losing battle and so off they went to the compost heap complete with their intractable woody stems, smashed into fibres and pulp with the back of a small axe. Now the asparagus is gathering momentum and we have far more lettuces than we could possibly eat, will we ever get bored with them? The answer of course is yes, because seasonal food is – well – seasonal! Our tiny savoy cabbage seedlings wouldn’t cut the mustard in midsummer, but come the autumn they’ll be objects of desire. Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its fruits away – but they come back next years as fresh and beautiful as ever. Seasonal food, if I dare be serious for a moment – teaches us something about love and loss.  If there’s a therapeutic lesson in gardening it’s probably something to do with carpe diem – seizing the moment. Supermarket food is stale and dull; costly to the earth, fatal to the digestion and it’s unreliable as we now understand only too well as we (well, not me) stand in endless queues separated by an ocean of anxiety.

IMG_20200507_074922Last night, after a hard day gardening, I was baking and decided to try to imitate the old split tin loaves I went up the road to buy, as a child. It’s curious but just as everyone else seems to have turned to making sourdough, I’ve spent more time baking with yeast and trying to recapture the loaves of my childhood. I was particularly pleased with the results of the deep slash. To get that effect you need to prove the loaf under a tea towel rather than in a sealed and moist atmosphere so that the rapidly expanding loaf, when it goes into the hot oven, finds it easier to expand through the slash than by lifting the slightly toughened top. This was largely white flour with a handful of wholemeal spelt to liven up the flavour and texture. I’ve yet to produce one of those exuberant cottage loaves that resist rational slicing so have to be torn apart so everyone can get a piece of crust.

IMG_20200507_154625The closure of the garden centres has left us to improvise our own potting composts from whatever ingredients we can find. Today I wanted to fill some large planters to put on the patio area, and so I emptied all the spring window boxes on to a polythene sheet mainly to get access to the grit and sand in them and then mixed in new soil and compost with a few handfuls of chicken manure pellets, and filled lots of big pots.  It was great fun and represented another step towards the allotment as it was first imagined.

This is the time of year when inattention can cost us dearly. We scan the weather forecast morning and night to see what might catch us out. This weekend, for instance, we’re expecting high winds and a ten degree drop in temperature – enough to unsettle  and set back some of the plants we’ve already got in the ground. As I type this I’m looking across my study to a propagator full of replacement borlotti and runner bean seedlings – just in case. Earlier in the week I set up some improvised wind screens with some jute sacks and insect netting to protect the strawberries from the anticipated east wind. Later in the year I think we’ll invest in some hazel wattle fence panels because although our prevailing winds are south westerly; east and north easterlies are almost always bad news. Earlier I finally got the water storage organised but there’s no sign of rain for the next two weeks so as the temperature hits 23C we have to hand water.  Every morning  we unpack the greenhouse to give the plants some sunshine therapy and then we put them back at night.

There are brief seasons where an allotment can run away with you, and this is one of them. Bindweed, which is never truly vanquished, can grow two inches a day; and annual seedlings blown from neglected patches can germinate in green drifts overnight. I can almost hear our plot thinking – thank goodness for the lockdown, there’s no prospect of them going off in the campervan for a fortnight! I’m not entirely sure I agree.

 

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

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There can’t ever have been a more appropriate day than today to publish a book on UK food security –  not since 1939 – and that, I promise, is the last mention of the war in this posting because however terrible the present pandemic is, it isn’t a war and you can’t ‘win’ it with threats, flag waving and bombs. What this microscopic particle of viral life has achieved is to shine a light on the 21st century; on all our political, economic, employment, transport, social, medical, manufacturing, food and farming systems. Every one of them is being stress tested at the moment and the vast majority of them are creaking, even where the rivets aren’t yet popping; and that’s before the brexit negotiations even start in earnest.

This new study by Tim Lang, probably the leading light in the study of food security, and published today, couldn’t come at a better time. Here at the Potwell Inn we have some experience on the subject because Madame once worked at a university research station and has watched their crucial work on fruit growing privatised and the plantations sold off for building land.  Our son once earned some pocket money helping a local fruit farmer grub up his cider apple trees only to be paid to plant them again ten years later. I can remember standing at a field gate looking at a sea of blue flowers with the farmer.  “It’s a marvellous crop”, he said, ” – and I don’t even have to harvest it.  If the crop’s too wet and gets ruined.  I just have to drive a tractor on to the field and I can still claim the subsidy”.  I’ve stood in the queue at the local Methodist church to collect my free portion of the EU butter mountain – oh yes – we’ve been living dangerously in the UK for a very long time and this week we’ve all experienced what food insecurity feels like; endless queues, empty shelves, unobtainable food staples, profiteering and sharp-elbowed shoppers pushing the elderly and vulnerable to one side, and it’s not a pretty sight. We’ve seen ambulance personnel attacked, food delivery vans burnt out and the supermarkets overwhelmed and underprepared. Farmers and producers are banging their heads against a brick wall because they are unable to recruit their usual seasonal employees due to closed borders, and the very existence of many small artisan food businesses and producers which are the best hope for a sustainable future is threatened because they lack the cash reserves of the food industry.

And then there are all the other issues that demand the attention of our politicians.”Could do better” hardly begins to describe  them. Suddenly our niche attempts to grow at least some of our food begin to look important.  One of our allotmenteers has a dig for victory up on their shed. In the sunshine today our site was busy with newly unemployed people trying to extract at least something positive out of the pandemic and because the garden centres and the allotment trading hut have all closed down there will be a lively free market in swops and shares. all conducted recognising the two metre exclusion zones which are being rigidly observed by everyone. Ironically there have been many more shouted conversations than have ever happened before; the sun’s shining, things are growing and just doing something feels a lot better than moping around and feeling cross.

It’s a bit soon to be thinking about what we do after this is all over, and yet there will never be a better time to reflect on just how insecure our food supply has become. I’ve only read the preface this afternoon, but here are a few words to give a taste of the argument Tim Lang is pursuing

The UK has a benign but very varied climate.  It has some rich soils and extensive uplands and grasslands.  No critic says the UK should be growing its own bananas or mangoes, but that it imports huge quantities of what it could perfectly well grow here suggests a failure of political economy.  Vast  amounts of land are used to produce feed for cattle, when almost all scientific advice is to reduce cattle and to shift production from red to white meat (but that too has problems).

This is not a misty eyed yearning for the past, but the honest recognition by a respected scientist (and one-time farmer) that we’re on a collision course with reality here. Some problems can be too big to solve unless they’re addressed at a national and international level. There are voices already that the initial cause and then the main vector of transmission of the coronavirus is the product of a dangerously out of control addiction to productivity and profitability, low prices and the industrialisation of agriculture.

What started in a wet market in China wasn’t an act of God but, as it were, the terrible but predictable consequence of intensive agriculture driving what was once a sustainable peasant economy into the ground and creating a semi legal and shadowy trade in live meat beyond any health and safety controls.  What would be an absolute tragedy would be to conclude that only industrialised agriculture is safe enough to feed the world.  Like weapons manufacturers across the world, the industry will claim that it has no moral responsibility for the impact of its products on the lives of the poor. We’ve known since the SARS epidemic in 2003 that these zoonotic crossovers were an ever present threat and this is the seventh transmissible viral infection to be identified.  The subsequent breakdown in health provision and food supplies are all the evidence we should need to provoke deep reflection.  I very much hope that this book will provide some calmly argued evidence for a complete rethink around our food.

Gove says it’s OK to go to the allotment – should we believe him?

For those who watch TV news (I don’t if I can help it because I can’t bear it), Michael Gove’s clarification won’t be news at all, although it may have slipped past them anyway. Allotments aren’t at the top of many peoples’ agenda at the moment, and there’s no particular reason why they should be. More to the point, his clarification bore all the signs of being made on the hoof and could easily be reversed twice before supper, but clutching at the lifebelt, most of us went up to the site today and worked in the sunshine while studiously avoiding any contact with one another.  We’ve yet to invent a social protocol for this kind of thing. Slightly unnervingly, the police helicopter appeared to be flying overhead but there was zero chance of any impromptu gathering; everyone down here is worried sick.

For the Potwell Inn, where we’re also having a bit of a lock-in, so long as we’ve got enough to eat, the absence of shopping malls, night clubs, cinemas and foreign holidays is never going to be a problem. Bookshops and garden centres are another matter altogether – but after a stroke of intuition we stocked up with potting compost and organic fertilizer on our way back from laying up the campervan and before the lockdown was intensified.

The only organisations that seem to be taken completely by surprise were the supermarkets whose websites all crashed yesterday. Either no-one from government gave them a heads-up or they failed to anticipate that telling the entire population they were going to be locked in for three weeks might cause something a bit worse than the Christmas Eve rush. We’re sad, angry, panicked and volatile here. We’ve been told we’re vulnerable and shouldn’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary – for shopping for instance – and yet after hours on the computer I was unable to book anything.  There’s talk of having food delivered by volunteers but first you have to have food in the shops and then you have to find volunteers, either of which could take ages – during which those without the money or the ability to stockpile will have to do without while the wealthy post photos of their wine cellars and larders on the internet.  I knelt beside the asparagus this afternoon, willing it to grow faster! On television last night Jamie Oliver demonstrated how to make pasta with only two ingredients – flour and eggs.  This revelation was greeted breathlessly by a Guardian reviewer who appeared not to be aware that its normally made that way anyway unless it’s in Northern Italy where they leave out the eggs. The really bad news is that it’s almost impossible to get any flour because millions of people have decided to make their own bread.  That’s great news – or it would be except we’ve almost run out and I don’t think pasta made from eggs and water has got much of a future.

This ought to bring the question of food security to the top of the agenda but I’m not holding my breath. We have a cultural problem. We’ve become so focused on profit and ever more elaborate trading and delivery systems, that we forgot the producers and now we’re paying the inevitable price.

But enough of that.  I want to write about Thomas Berry, the American philosopher and what’s gone so terribly wrong with our culture – but I’m not quite ready yet.  I woke up this morning to an anxiety dream and that mood failed properly to shift all day.  When I’m feeling gloomy I often cook and because the National Trust has shut down even its parklands, I decided to make my favourite National Trust cheese scones.  I was going to make some yeast bread, something I don’t often do these days, but when I went through the larder I discovered that some of the odd packets of flour I wanted to use up are very (like 5 years) out of date – surely I’m not the only hoarder who’s making that discovery this week!  The scones were delicious although they could have been a bit cheesier but in my preoccupied mood I measured the milk incorrectly and one thing led to another ….. never mind, they  freeze well.

At home we’re potting on all the seedlings and so we have no propagator space and not a square inch in front of the windows. We shall eat well later I hope, but I’m fearful that allotment raiding will come into fashion as the national food supply dries up.  What a horrible mess we’re all in!