“I know a bank whereon …. take 2.

No – really I do, we were there yesterday again, in Velvet Bottom (who could resist such a place name) – it’s almost as good as Condom in SE France where I once resisted a selfie next to the road sign. Condom is famous for its brandy; a friend once told me that he met someone at a conference who came from thereabouts who told him that the local wine was excellent so long as you boiled it!

I’m not sure how to describe Velvet Bottom because it’s a paradox. From Roman times and again in the 19th century it was ravaged by lead mining and even today the soil is so polluted it has a completely unique flora growing in and amongst the usual – less fussy – suspects. But because I’m not an experienced enough botanist I can’t enlarge much on these rarities unless I happen to bump into one of them when I know that I don’t know what it is – if that’s not too convoluted an explanation.

Velvet Bottom is one of my favourite places on earth, honestly. Aside from the plants there are adders in abundance when the sun shines and it’s quiet in a way that holds you and slows everything down. We see people running down there occasionally and I want to shout out “Hey mate – why don’t you sit down and soak it up for five minutes and forget all about your PB time.”

Because I’m not that experienced a field botanist, I get the lovely bonus of finding and being blown away by quite common plants that I’ve never noticed before. So for instance yesterday we found this common centaury – which in my eyes is far from common and very lovely. Back home I discovered some of its traditional names (Geoffrey Grigson’s “An Englishman’s Flora” lists local names like bloodwort, earthgall, feverfew (confusing because it’s not), gentian, mountain flax and spikenard – all of which demonstrates the brilliance of Latin names which remove all the confusion. Richard Mabey also mentions the name bitterherb – and like everyone else from Culpeper to Mrs Grieve cites its use as a digestive tonic. I wouldn’t know because I don’t have the least inclination to illegally pick a plant that I’ve only just met for the first time. The pleasure, so far as I can see into my own mind, is at least threefold. Firstly there’s the thrill of discovery; but then the aesthetic pleasure at the colour and the structure of the plant and then – perhaps more obscurely – the comfort and pleasure at discovering its usefulness reaching back into history. I could add the fourth very acute pleasure for me of the old names. A few days ago we found a musk mallow on the canalside. The very words musk and mallow conjure up a two word poem, overflowing with associations.

I just used the idea of ‘comfort and pleasure’ to describe what it feels like to know the history of a plant’s name and uses, and since I’ve been casting around for weeks now – looking for the reason that we find nature so comforting, even therapeutic – here’s a suggestion that might help.

I hope I’m not being unfair by describing our western, industrialised and individualised culture as rootless. Perhaps it’s just me that feels alienated and despairing at the direction we’re heading in, but I’m sure I’m not alone. So anything that can function as a kind of mind anchor; that puts me back in touch with the past – is a stabilising influence. It’s not at all the case (as critics often accuse) of wanting to go back to the past; but reconnecting with it contains wisdom and insight that we shouldn’t lose. When I photograph the common centaury and discover its history going back as far as Greece from which it gets its name (it’s properties were said to have been discovered by Chiron the centaur – according to Gerard) – something deep is going on. To behold the plant is to behold the faintest image of countless generations of living beings who have treasured it. We are the issue of those unknown people and they can still speak to us in the names they passed down to us.

In one of my churches we had the oldest communion chalice still in use within the diocese. It was made in the late 1500’s and has survived through all the cataclysmic changes since then – and so when, on a Sunday morning I gave communion to my tiny congregation (on one occasion just a single person) I was always sensitive to the invisible presence of the generations stretching back, who had taken comfort from the same chalice. This isn’t a religious point, by the way, it’s about the reverberations of objects and living forms through time.

But enough reflection! Yesterday we saw any number of small coppers and a single green washed fritillary; loads of common spotted orchids (whose leaves weren’t spotted – I do wish they’d read the textbooks!); yarrow, common bedstraw (if you look towards the top of the second photo from the left you can just see the black, glassy slag left by the Victorian miners); ladies bedstraw and wild thyme. Individually they could hardly be thought of as rare and yet, massed in this post industrial landscape, so scarred and pitted by mining, washing ponds and diverted streams; they amount to a unique flora with its own unmistakable sense of place. Could it be that we also still hear the faint echo of two thousand years of mining through the silence?

Not for purists!

One of the delightful aspects of doing a bit of urban botany is the hazard/opportunity to find members of the brigade of irregulars lurking just about anywhere. Purists, of course, go out armed with a complete set of preconceived ideas of what ought to be growing in a particular habitat and get a bit piqued if they don’t find it. But they get positively tetchy when they find usurpers taking up good wildflower spaces. Some plant lovers are a bit less fussy – I’ve got a copy of J W White’s 1912 Bristol Flora and it’s got loads of ‘foreigners’ in it. He seemed to delight in examining the edges of the railway lines on Bristol docks to see what had fallen off the wagons and – like all good trainspotters – he was going to record it even if it belonged more rightfully in a Reader’s Digest book on flower arranging. I’m absolutely with him in his determination to refuse to be sniffy in the face of the temporary visitor, not least because they must all, necessarily have their story.

I’ve already mentioned the possible corn marigold on North Quay and we went back again to take a closer look and yes I’m sure it’s an out of place and out of season lover of arable crops and sandy acidic soil, neither of which is the case where it landed up – in a coir mat impregnated with wildflower seeds and bought no doubt from a horticultural wholesaler as part of an architect’s idea of what constituted wild. OK I am just a bit cross about that aspect of the story because there were loads of perfectly good and properly naturalised wildflowers there already, but they were plantworld punks, weeds, all of a piece with the graffiti on the 1960’s (and about to be demolished) multi story car park. On the other hand, one golden corn marigold on a grey and damp day cheers you up no end. Whether it deserves a tick or a place in a local flora I leave to the experts, but I rather hope they’ll treat it as a genuine refugee, escaping from the arable fields where it once grew wild in the days before Mecoprop-P and Clopyralid and I rather hope it will carry on bringing a bit of colour to the river bank with its offspring.

The other unexpected flower was the pot marigold near Cleveland House on the Kennet and Avon canal. This one, I’m sure, self seeded off the roof of a moored up narrow boat, or at least that’s the most likely and unvarnished possibility. But being both a romantic and a writer I like to think of its journey on the roof of a narrow boat being tended by someone with an interest in medicinal herbs who, for all I know, reads tarot cards sells calendula cream at the local farmers’ market. Back in the day you’d have found hemp and cereals from the holds of passing barges but there are a surprising number of medicinal herbs alongside the canal whether by accident or design. Bargees had next to no access to official medicine and I have no doubt they became adept at recognising and utilising the plants that grew where they travelled and probably made sure they could be found along the length of the canal network. Many of these plants are promiscuous self-seeders and I greatly enjoy finding them and trying to find out what they were used for. The tradition that was once passed down from (mostly) mother to daughter has all but disappeared now. I think my own mother, born in 1916, must have been among the last generation to know her wildflowers so intimately although she never wrote anything down or even passed her knowledge of their uses on. That’s the way of oral tradition; it can disappear in a generation; driven out in her case by the wartime invention of the antibiotics which she worshipped.

Half a mile apart, it would be so easy to have assumed they were the same species and that’s why it helps to develop the habit of close attention to the details of plants. Like the winter heliotrope that’s in flower at the moment – it could easily be butterbur – except butterbur doesn’t have a perfume; and in a couple of months when the flowers have died back, you might think the leaves are just right for coltsfoot – another medicinal herb, by the way. I’ve attached all of those names to the plants in question but as soon as it flowers, the perfume and the season narrow it down to one candidate. Maybe I’m weird but I find that terribly exciting. “Wait and see” – one of my mother’s favourite comments – is a good rule of thumb when you don’t quite know what a plant is called. Otherwise take a copy of Stace, a ruler and a hand lens and kneel down in the mud for twenty minutes while your long-suffering partner looks on her mobile for a discreet dating agency for botanical widows . I once knew a devoted twitcher who for twenty five years had spent all his holidays up to his waist in Norfolk fens. I asked him once what his wife thought about it and he said he’d never asked her! I bet she’s got a burner phone hidden at the back of the wardrobe.

So my solstice list of plants in flower goes up to fifteen, and sixteen if you add a single grass – cocksfoot. Grass flowers are tiny and can be a bit technical but I promise you this grass was flowering. Grasses, of course, don’t need pollinators at all, their reproductive apparatus is brilliantly simple and effective. But the flowering plants are different and just show that we shouldn’t only be worrying about bees because there are hundreds of pollinating insects, some of them completely specialised, and many of them are in danger from insecticides, pollution and habitat destruction too. I could go on but it’s nearly Christmas.

Below is today’s picture of the latest royal navy patrol boat, cleverly designed to fool French and Spanish trawlers fishing illegally within our proposed 200 mile limits. I think it was built from a design by the present Education Minister. You will probably be impressed by the attachment swivel for the space saving Mark IV 32 degree compass.

Washes all your sins away

The temporarily increased tempo of our morning walks to implement our fitness binge precludes any detailed botanising, and so I’ve resorted to noticing a new plant on the first morning and, if necessary, returning to it the next day. That way I can do two or three new i/d’s a day without slowing down too much and annoying Madame. This works really well – for instance I’ve got my eye on a tiny grass which has emerged from the ruins of a recent strimming and set seed at no more than a couple of inches high near the edge of the canal, and I’ll gather a sample tomorrow. Today, however, the soapwort – Saponaria officinalis – in full flower didn’t need much more than a quick photo. This one, like most of them is almost certainly a garden escape because there’s a well tended cottage style garden close by. The name is a bit of a giveaway and apparently (I’ve never tried it) the macerated leaves contain sufficient saponin to make a froth and wash clothes or whatever. Nowadays, soap nuts claim to do much the same thing and are gilded with virtue. I know they’re natural but so are arsenic, foxgloves and (dare I say) syphilis; which brings me back to soapwort because Nicholas Culpeper and Mrs Grieve swear by it for that complaint. I can hardly imagine anyone asking their teenage children to “pop out to the garden and pick some soapwort for you father’s syphilis – the mercury hasn’t worked at all this time!” But I can imagine the unflappable Mrs Grieve striding into the garden in tweeds and brogues and sweeping the herb into her basket for application to the dishonourable member.

So with that thought provoking start to the day, and a trip to the Farmers’ Market to get some onions – because our small crop is already used up. Then a few press ups and squats on the landing reminded me that I’m not thirty any more, and the main work of the day began. The first pickings of the tomatoes have begun and today we brought out the passata machine, cleaned down the kitchen and set up our respective workstations so we could plunge, peel, chop and puree the first six kilos of tomatoes. This lot were to be made into a rich tomato sauce – hence the onions and a rather large quantity of butter. We’re a good team and these days we can knock off six kilos in half an hour. The random quantity is because the pulp fills our biggest pan to exactly the right height to prevent too much splashing as it bubbles down for hours. We make it without any further flavourings or seasoning so that it can be used as a base for any number of more complicated sauces. Thankfully we’re pretty much self sufficient in tomatoes which we preserve and bottle rather than freeze, because our freezer is so small. We also make a good deal of straight passata which bottles very successfully.

During the lockdown tomatoes and all the subsidiary products became almost unavailable here, so it was just as well we were well stocked. I’d definitely recommend getting a cheap, manual passata machine, though, because once you’ve put six kilos of pulp through a chinois you’ll never want to do it again. By all means – if you can afford it – get a fancy stainless steel and electric one, but quite honestly cranking it through is fun and the cleaning takes as long whether it’s a manual or an electric machine.

The Farmers’ Market is gradually coming back to life but it’s much smaller than it once was, and it’s organised for maximum safety so it’s a one-way browsing experience. There are a couple of non organic veg stalls there, and often the organic group make an appearance as well. We were queuing for the onions when a man in a loden coat and a tweed cap pushed directly in front of us, quite oblivious of his lack of manners. I thought I dealt with it pretty well, and bit my lip and waited until our turn came up again. But then the two press-ganged teenage helpers on the stall worked in extraordinarily slow motion, clearly wishing they were anywhere but where they were. We loaded the rucksack and left but as we went down the ramp to Green Park I noticed that my heart was beating furiously. I’m in no position to criticise anyone else for allowing themselves to get so stressed, and I imagine it’s almost ubiquitous in this post lockdown phase when anyone could be a threat.

And it’s been getting busier on the Green, with homelessness and drug dealing more apparent every day. A couple of days ago we tried to help an unconscious young man lying in front of the flat. He was completely lifeless to all intents, but a couple of off duty nurses came out to help and they found a pulse. However the moment an ambulance was mentioned he got up and stumbled off into the woods – we’ve seen him several times since, alive but very unwell. Then, to crown an inglorious week, a young man was killed on the towpath about a mile down river and two people have been arrested.

All the businesses here are desperate to get back to normal, but if this is the new normal then there’s no way we want to live normally any more. The dam holding back all that pent-up anger and aggression is leaking through a crack already and it’s deeply concerning. Thank goodness for the Potwell Inn kitchen.

What have William Cookworthy, my everyday sourdough and organic chemistry got in common?

 

This is not a pub quiz question since it’s so personal no-one else but me could possibly know the answer.

Just for the record, the answer to my silly question is ‘time and temperature’. Actually thanks to David Green, one of the most inspired teachers I ever had, I’ve had William Cookworthy cluttering up my mind for decades in a more or less heroic sort of way. I don’t suppose many people, with the exception of museum curators and porcelain collectors have ever even heard his name but he’s the archetypal eighteenth century rags to riches and back several times Quaker entrepreneur. He was born in Plymouth and was apprenticed to an apothecary in London, but had no money for the coach so he walked there!

To cut a very long story short, back home and supplying ships, he got interested in making porcelain – everyone was at it at the time because there were vast fortunes to be made and lost, and if you could get it right you could become wealthy. He could import one essential ingredient, kaolin i.e. China clay, from America, but it was expensive and without the benefit of any geological maps – William Smith’s first geological survey wasn’t published until 1815 – Cookworthy found the mineral on Tregonning Hill in Cornwall. I went there once hoping to find some China clay, and it was just another gorse covered Cornish hill but I remember the smell of coconut from the warm blossom and the sound of stonechats interrogating the earth. 

Was it luck or a sharp eye with Cookworthy?  It was said that he got the idea from watching tin smelters patching up their furnaces and asked the tinners where they got the clay from. China clay is very pure and free from metal oxides and so it didn’t stain the porcelain or add impurities to the tin. The purity meant it could be taken to previously unattainable temperatures. My personal connection is that Cookworthy eventually bought a share in the Bristol Pottery which, when I was a child, was known as Pountneys and our next door neighbour, Jim French, was a glaze dipper there –  a beautiful illustration of six degrees of separation. 

The early porcelain makers soon discovered that the secret of making it was that both time and temperature were involved, and they were instrumental in much of the early research into minerals – there’s an amazing display of various ores in Truro museum. If you have a small propellor emerging from the top of your head – like me –  you’ll love it, just don’t take your children.

Why is there such a fantastic array of minerals all made from the same basic stuff? Once again, aside from whatever metal oxides and impurities were around at the moment the molten rock emerged from the core of the earth it all depended on time and temperature – how fast did it cool and how long was it in some kind of active phase? What happened to it over the millions of years that followed, was it washed into the sea by erosion, or pressed by the movement of the earth so that it changed its entire structure? That’s why copper can be extracted from a whole array of different minerals. Why did China clay come to be so pure? – I’ve no idea and I don’t suppose William Cookworthy did either, it just worked.

So why bread then? I can produce a batch of morning rolls in two hours by hand.  I suspect that sliced bread, made using the Chorleywood process takes half that time.  A slightly more respectable home made loaf could be done inside a working day, and soda bread in an hour.  But my everyday sourdough takes at least 24 hours and it could be allowed to take more, because breadmaking too is a time and temperature process. We like crusty bread because the crust is often the only part of the loaf with any flavour at all.  But when you leave a sourdough to ferment for 24 hours so many subtle processes are going on that every crumb of the bread is both healthier – white sourdough has roughly the same GI as wholemeal bread – and every crumb tastes rich and round, and is full of the flavour of ripe grain berry. Worth waiting for.

Where’s this all going, then? Well that just leaves my uphill struggle with organic chemistry.  I was getting totally bogged down in the sheer number of compounds out there.  It seemed that every species of herb had dozens of them with unpronounceable names, and it wasn’t until I thought about pottery minerals earlier that an answer of sorts popped into my  my mind, for instance in garlic, alliin reacts with allinase to make allicin, the bit that does you good. Why does it do that?  because when you crush it, the reaction takes place……. and why does it do that? ……… because it can!

Isn’t that so wonderful it could bring you to your knees? The fact that at the atomic level these simple molecules have atomic spaces on them and so like an unimaginably complex lego set they can combine into ever larger and more complicated molecules which might just be the ones we need to make good bread, good porcelain or a cure for human diseases. The time might vary from nanoseconds to aeons, and the temperatures from the icy cold of space to the heat of the sun, but out of these elementary particles emerge the ten thousand things and from the ten thousand things comes the zen saying:

That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things is called delusion That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self is called enlightenment. Ten thousand things represents the entire world.

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A single flower from a hyacinth shot with a macro lens. Pure poetry.

 

 

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