It was all going to be so easy

The weather forecast was pretty clear – the present heatwave would end in the usual thunderstorms and torrential rain earlier this week, and the plan was to get on with jobs in the Potwell Inn kitchen – like processing tomatoes into sauces, and passata for the winter. This is the third day we’ve scanned the sky and not spotted a single cloud, and so with the temperature climbing to 34C in the shade, watering has become an exhausting necessity. Plants in pots, even large ones, suffer from stress very quickly. The only plants truly loving the heat are the greenhouse chillies, and there are enough ripened now to freeze and keep us going until next year.

But at the top of this post is a picture of some calendula flowers that we’re wilting before extracting from them in almond oil. We’ve never done this before but the calendula is so useful as a companion plant on the allotment it makes perfect sense to get an effective second benefit from it and so we have oil, beeswax and jars waiting to store this first attempt. We find the commercial cream incredibly effective, and so we’ll soon know whether our home-made version is worth the expense – organic almond oil isn’t cheap. They’re wilting well enough to move to the next stage tomorrow. I really hope it cools down a bit because the thought of reducing 10 kilos of tomato pulp in a kitchen that’s already airless and at 30C is a bit daunting, although the fruit is ripening in a box on the kitchen floor and there’s at least as much again ripe on the vines.

The decision to put ourselves on a pretty savage diet has been helped in one respect by the heat. Who wants to eat in this weather? But the other half of the plan – doing a brisk five mile walk every day before breakfast – has been a struggle, but a fight that’s worth winning. Got to get rid of the lockdown lard!

So we’ve been hiding from the heat indoors most of the day and I’ve been redeeming the shining hour by watching a series of webinars organised by the BSBI – (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) – on the Irish grasses and grassland. There’s plenty of overlap with the UK to make them very useful indeed, and I’m gradually discovering just how useful a knowledge of the grasses is, in searching for their more glamorous relatives. Grass looks like grass, and fields – from a distance – can all look the same, but imagine how powerful it would be to go in to a meadow, take a look at the grasses and the easily identifiable flowers and know that it’s worthwhile searching for something special like orchids. If you search for BSBI on You Tube you can watch them all.

Botanising in this heat has been a no-no, and so the photos are a selection of bridges in Bath, taken in the last 2 days. The still air and unruffled water have created some lovely reflections along our morning route. The odd one out is the heron that likes to perch on Bath Deep Lock. It’s pretty tame, and this is the closest I’ve ever got. I really love this place, but it’s hard to escape the fact that the heatwave, which is affecting gardeners, allotmenteers and farmers, not to mention the people who have to work indoors in it; is a symptom of something terribly wrong with our climate. Our clean air zone has been postponed until next year, and today a white van driver ran his engine outside our flat for at least an hour, to use his air conditioning – like that’s going to help!

The birds come to us at Bath Deep Lock

It rained today at last, or at least enough to wet the ground and keep us indoors most of the day and so I redeemed the shining hour by making a Dundee cake; some – or rather a lot of smoked mackerel paté; and some mushroom soup which, today I thickened with stale bread in the way the French do it sometimes. When you bake all your own bread you agonise about throwing any of it away and so you become ever more inventive at using it up. Fresh; it needs no embellishment, and then toast speaks for itself. But there’s still bread and butter pudding, soup thickening and finally breadcrumbs just so you don’t waste a crumb. When we used to buy bread we seemed to throw away as much as we ate – it was all mouth and no trousers so to speak. Now we probably eat rather more than we should and never waste it. Keeping the bread supply going always reminds me of moving goods on the old canal network – it’s very slow, but as long as you think 24 hours ahead you’ve always got fresh bread, and sourdough keeps rather better than yeast bread.

I managed to lay my hands on 500g of dried bakers yeast today because I do still bake yeast bread and rolls – usually when I forget to start the sourdough in time. I try to leave the dough fermenting for as long as possible and so I’ve gradually cut the yeast down to one level half teaspoon for a two pound loaf. My completely unscientific feeling is that adding too much yeast makes the bread unappetising and stale much quicker. What you gain in rising time you lose in freshness.

Once the kitchen was clear and the cake on a rack, we went for our usual walk up the canal under grey and rainy skies. As we passed by Bath Deep Lock we saw Bath Nats President Prof David Goode intently watching the local heron as it walked purposefully alongside the lock and dropped down to fish from the bottom of the gate. We followed the bird up the canal, and I managed to get a couple of shots with my phone – not great quality I’m afraid, but I’ve never managed to catch a heron taking off before. It’s such an awesome sight to see this big, prehistoric bird winching his way into the sky.

The lock isn’t so named out of any local bragging rights – it really is very deep indeed, quite daunting to exit the canal into the river when it’s flowing fast, and all too easy to lose control of a narrow boat as it’s swept to the left by the current.

Next, as we passed the big pond at the head of the lock, a swan emerged from her nest in the reeds, bringing four cygnets across to see us. They’ve become very used to being fed and were quite tame, although they soon abandoned us when it became clear we had no food for them.

Not long afterwards the skies opened and we turned back towards home taking a shortcut that brought us out on to the river once more, facing St John’s RC church. There was David once again watching the tower intently. It’s an urban nest site for a pair of peregrine falcons who have fledged four young this spring. I had no binoculars so I couldn’t see very much, but we chatted with David for a while – he’s a notable pioneer and expert on urban ecology, and if you ever get a chance to look at bogs and mosses with him you’ll learn so much. But he has a terrible memory for faces and names and depite having been on a dozen meetings and field trips with him he asked us (for at least the twelth time) “what were your names again …?”.

As we were standing there the male (tiercel) flew back to the nest and there was a terrific noise from the hungry young birds because they’d fluttered down to a lower perch and the food had landed a short flight above them, on the official nest platform. Apparently this is a dangerous time for them because in high winds they’re liable to be blown off these insecure perches and into the river.

So all in all, not a bad crop of wildlife, bang in the centre of town. I had to laugh this morning when my Google phone informed me that we’d visited three cities last month. I scrolled down to see which cities we were supposed to have visited. They were Bath – no surprise there then; Severn Beach which used to be a bit of a joke for Bristolians hunting for an end of the world location and certainly not a city, but happens to be where we store the campervan. Finally Bitton came up as the third city. We like to think of it as a very pretty overgrown village.

Make it simple

I was very tempted – ‘though not for long to get a bit above myself, for reasons I’ll explain later. We spent most of the day, as ever, on the allotment except for a brief trip to a garden centre to buy a couple of new watering cans. After the driest and sunniest spring on record we’ve become experts on watering cans, not least because a dud one can lengthen your arms and drive you crazy while it dribbles its contents anywhere but where you want them to go. Watering cans can make watering purgatorial, but ironically we’ve discovered that the cheap as chips plastic ones often work better than the hand crafted artisanal brass and galvanised steel jobs. In our hard water area the expensive ones also suffer from limescale. Anyway, we snaffled up the very last two cans which – from the look of things – had been flying off the shelves along with everything else. There were very few plants, no pots, no vermiculite and no organic slug pellets. The only thing that worked seamlessly was the queueing system and the safety precautions inside. All praise to them – there was abundant hand sanitizer, the trolleys were all wiped down and the one way system kept us apart from the other (small number) customers. Even the payment was made to a protected booth – good for them we thought.

The two photos at the top are of our old and very broken wheelbarrow repurposed as a home for a couple of summer squashes, and the other shows the ever changing interior of the greenhouse, now housing chillies and aubergines.

But the reason I had to check myself was because while I was clearing out the third patch of broad beans and planting out calabrese for later in the year while Madame was moving the winter brassicas into new temporary quarters I was siezed by the disparity between two images of gardening and – sorry about this – two Greek philosophers popped into my mind. In the blue corner – the Plato Garden, beautiful and still, full of the essence of garden but essentially timeless – possibly with a timeless honeybee buzzing around in a philosophical sort of way. And in the red corner the Heraclitus Garden whirling in orbits and sub orbits like an astrolabe on speed.

I think I go for the red corner. The Heraclitian garden that’s constantly in motion; never stationary but always passing through trailing the past in its wake and the future just around the (circular) corner. There’s never a moment on the allotment when we can honestly say – “That’s it” because it’s always becoming “it” or leaving “it” behind. In fact to drift across the track like an out of control F1 pumpkin, in the perfect postmodern garden there would be no “it” at all. That’s something they always get wrong at Chelsea where some clever clogs thinks that shoving a factory chimney in the middle of a Gertrude Jekyll border makes it Postmodern.

So that’s the end of today’s philosophy lecture and straight on to my holiday snap – taken on the canal yesterday. There in the first pound after Bath Deep Lock was this heron sitting on a very rough and ready perch. There’s a large heronry about a mile away above a Honda garage, but perhaps this is his summer fishing spot.

First field trip of 2020

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Don’t worry – it gets better than this. Everything of any value was removed from this wreck years ago and all that remains is a heap of rusting steel plus an empty can of cider in the boot. The sheer effort of getting it down a muddy track must have been a piece of heroic, almost Fitzcarraldo stupidity, and a fitting memorial to our culture I think. Anyway there was much more to enjoy today apart from my delight in collapsing sheds and old wrecks. There is nothing quite as exciting or challenging as going out on a field trip – OK a long walk – with some genuine experts on hand. Today we were spoilt for choice with a (county recorder level) botanist, a local historian and naturalist, a leading ecologist and an ex president of the British Mycological Society quite apart from some heavyweight birders and a botanical artist. Walking can get quite slow when the objects of interest are so frequent, and so it took us twenty minutes inspecting a passing stream for Signal Crayfish before we even set off. Apparently a local resident has perfected the art of trapping them and eating them for breakfast! – we found his creel lurking there, baited (we were told) with cat food.

From the outset we were away not with just one heron, but a whole heronry of about half a dozen nests with three birds perched high up in the trees overhanging a Honda car dealer. What was it I wrote yesterday about urban wildlife? As we walked on we saw (and heard) all the usual suspects like thrushes and robins, but also a young buzzard, a kestrel, nuthatch, goldcrest and to cap it all we were shown a nesting site for ravens at the end of the walk inside the Bath Abbey cemetery.IMG_20200105_125957

Within the plants, it was good to see rosettes of primrose leaves in the same graveyard (they’re brilliant places for wildlife – you need a PhD to walk through Smallcombe Cemetery with any intelligence). But there were Winter Heliotrope in full perfume for once, and a pair of Arum cousins, one a native – Lords and Ladies and the other its ornamental relative from Italy rapidly making a nuisance of itself in this country and called – surprisingly perhaps – Italian Lords and Ladies.

There were numerous other goodies around, but having someone on the walk who combined expertise on bryophytes and fungi kept us looking at the limestone walls and paths.  Incidentally, he was carrying a second pair of binoculars which he used for close scanning. I tried it on the carpet when we got home but neither of our binoculars would focus down below about 7 or 8 feet.    There’s no point in bigging up your knowledge under these circumstances, the best thing to do is watch and learn with your notebook at the ready. I know a few fungi, and they’re not plentiful at this time of the year but we spotted Wood ear and Yellow Brain fungi.  My photos weren’t very good because I had only taken my mobile phone.

But the biggest excitement of the day was getting close up to some bryophytes. Unlike most humans, they actually look more and more beautiful the closer you look. The thing is they’re often very small and inconspicuous so you tend to overlook them.  That’s not a bad strategy since I’ve just spent over an hour trying to identify one photograph because there are a great number of things that you might (I might) casually describe as ‘moss’, ‘fern’ or ‘liverwort’.  Actually until today I had very little idea what liverworts actually looked like, and there’s the best reason for joining a natural history society and going on field trips, because there will be someone that really does know and the chances are they’ll be a great teacher who’s only too keen to share their expertise. So here’s what a liverwort can look like very close up –

Aren’t they stunning? the textures are unlike anything you can see in most plants. I’m not completely sure about the Targiona hypophylla because I identified it myself, but the other was identified by a national expert so you can bet your boots on it. Even I think I’m sounding a bit breathless about all this but we had such a good time today among some lovely people, we learned a lot from them and, best of all, I discovered that there’s a whole world of winter lists out there to satisfy even my propellor headed tendencies.

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And below are a few things I didn’t manage to identify, apart from the Maiden-hair Spleenwort on the left. I was intrigued by the reason for it being so named.  A quick flick through Wikipedia suggests it was once used to treat diseases of the spleen, but I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence for that use, only for chest complaints and menstruation problems, for which there are many more commonly used treatments.  So it’s a lost etymology as far as I can see.  One other interesting fact popped up, though. There is another plant called maidenhair fern – whose leaves are exactly like miniature versions of the leaves of the Maidenhair tree – Ginkgo biloba. 

So here’s the rogues gallery of today’s unsolved mysteries.  I really like having a few of these because it keeps me going back.