A feast – this time for the birds

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When we lived in South Gloucestershire, occasionally – during the autumn – we would get flocks of Redwing gorging themselves on the fallen apples in our small orchard.  One year we even photographed half a dozen roe deer which must have walked brazenly up the drive past the churchyard unless they jumped over the wall. Our chickens too, before they became foxy takeaways, absolutely loved them; and apart from larger birds and mammals the windfalls fed countless insects for weeks. But apples don’t persist, unless – that is – they’re crab apples like these I photographed on the river bank this morning. In recent days I’ve focused on winter looking forward to spring, but this tree – still bearing a significant amount of fruit – is some kind of Malus sylvestris – probably an ornamental cultivar and takes me back to the warm days of autumn. Stripped of all its leaves this tree is two seasons in one and makes a decent food-bank for the local wildlife.

IMG_20191231_133254While thinking of food-banks, yesterday I mentioned the sorry state of some of the boats being pressed into service on the canal.  This one is actually on the river just downstream of the weir and terribly vulnerable to flooding. The sheeting is all that seems to be sheltering a human being in this cold weather. The combination of public holidays and sales reductions in the shops has brought an unprecedented number of apparently homeless people into the city centre where they beg for money from crowds of visitors.  The police claim they they do very well out of it but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that many of them have intractable mental health problems. The Julian Trust – a local homeless charity – have weighed in against another charity which has distributed temporary shelters, claiming that there is plenty of  emergency shelter already available and if people can be persuaded to attend they can receive all sorts of support and healthcare including help with addiction problems. Homeless people can be very difficult to help.

Years ago I opened the vicarage door, late one winter evening, to see a young woman – clearly a rough sleeper – who announced “my waters have broken”. I have to admit it crossed my mind that this was a spoof but she was very pregnant so I yelled for Madame and we took her in, shoved her in a warm bath and called the maternity hospital. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to persuade them even to send out a midwife to check her over but eventually, at about 2.00am a midwife turned up and confirmed that she was about to have the baby but not that night. The girl’s partner was very hostile and refused to come into the house and she too refused a bed but insisted on sleeping in the bus shelter on the A38.  It turned out that they had met while they were residents in a psychiatric unit. We gave them some blankets and some food, and I managed to wring a promise out of her that she would come back in the morning, but it became clear that the reason for her fear of the authorities was that she had already had one child taken away and so she had decided to have this one “in a hedge somewhere”.

I spent half the next day trying to find emergency accommodation and when eventually I found somewhere in Bath I even offered to drive them over to see it, but they refused all offers of help, and the last time I saw them that afternoon they were walking off in the direction of the Severn Bridge. I never heard of them again, and there aren’t many months when I don’t think about them.  The line of my pastoral failures is longer than I care to think! The earth in all its fullness can be a cruel place, and any transect of my little geographical area of concern has to include the culture, the people, the dependencies and cruelties as well as pretty pictures of apple trees and my endless lists of wildlife. The same malign economic and political forces that are killing the environment and heating the climate are also destroying human lives, and not just in faraway places.

So where do we snatch joy from in the midst of all this?

Well, I think we need to take and celebrate joy wherever we find it. I had a real moment of joy in the bookshop today. I was waiting to collect my new edition of Stace and I had a browse in the poetry section  and picked up a copy of Louis MacNeice Collected Poems. Although I was only killing time (what a dreadful expression) I got so excited about the beginning of Autumn Journal – written in 1939 (there’s ominous!) – that I started to whisper the words aloud so I could feel them in my mouth. I was getting some funny looks  from other customers and so my only real recourse was to add the book to my already extravagant copy of “New Flora of the British Isles” Ed 4. When a book makes me hungry I have to have it, and this one started to blow me away in the shop! So there it is; on the last day of the year I mange to bind up every contradiction in my life into a mare’s nest of conflicting demands, and conclude 2019 with a flourish of extravagance.

Stuff it anyway – that’s what being human seems to be all about. Love, art, laughter and tears too – we can’t make it up, we have to live it. Happy New Year!

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All work and no play make Jack a dull boy

 

It’s New Year’s Eve, and as you can see from the photos we’ve had a grand old time with family, friends and neighbours. There’s always a hint of the black dog sidling along somewhere close behind me at this time of the year but, as one of my spiritual directors said many years ago – “There’s nothing wrong with you that a bit of sunshine won’t put right”. I think the dominant mood has to be defiance – of the winter, of the politics and of all that tries to diminish us and keep us in shadow.  Fear and despair are the devil’s tools and it’s always possible to raise a finger against the tyranny of the machine.

Anyway, enough of that, we have bigger fish to fry at the Potwell Inn and in any case the sun broke through for a couple of hours yesterday. Plan A was to go over to Dyrham Park for a walk, but slow moving traffic on the A46 was a bit of a clue that plan B was a better bet.  In the end we drove into the park and straight out again, passing many hundreds of cars and crocodiles of walkers.  There was no peace to be had anywhere, and we wondered at what point the overwhelming popularity of the place would become a serious threat to the environment. I had the horrifying thought that the whole of  White Field might be turned into an overflow car park – all those stunning meadow plants mown off in pursuit of a few more visitors to fund the spoliation of yet more land.

IMG_20191228_141316And so we returned to a bit of unfinished business on the canal. I’ve written about the big patch of Winter Heliotrope we found – no great shakes, I know, but it was a cheerful sight.  However there was one thing I forgot to log, and the latin name Petasites fragrans is a bit of a clue, because apparently it has a perfume although experts seem unable to agree on what it is – some say vanilla, others cherry pie,liquorice or aniseed. A bit inconclusive, then! So there was nothing to do but go back and flare the nostrils a bit in search of the elusive fragrance. I thought it might help that the sun was shining and it’s true that there was a distinct fragrance but you could only get it by standing back from the individual flowers and embracing the whole bed. It was nice to confirm the name, but I couldn’t say that the perfume was any other than itself – the perfume of winter heliotrope.

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IMG_20191230_144103Here’s a photo above that just about sums up the time of year. I love the appearance of Clematis vitalba – old man’s beard, traveller’s joy – among other English names – when it reaches the final stage of its seasonal cycle. It’s winter in a picture, but almost at its feet we found new leaves of dandelion, tansy and yarrow in full spring growth. I’m always surprised at just how specific the habitats are. You’ll see loads of a particular plant in one small length of the towpath, and then it seems to be replaced by something entirely different. As I looked at the yarrow leaves I suddenly remembered another of our childhood names  – we called it ‘fish paste’ for no particular reason I can think of.

IMG_20200101_130145The canal itself was a beautiful sight in the winter sunshine, but even there we found a bit of human tragedy.  We’d noticed that one rather dishevelled looking boat was tilting dramatically the other day. Yesterday we found the distraught young couple whose home it had been, trying to rescue their belongings from the sunken hull. They’d obviously gone away for Christmas and returned to find their home underwater. There are so many people living within a whisker of destitution on these old boats. The wealthy owners of waterside homes are constantly agitating to have them removed, but the look etched on to their faces would have told you all you need to know about being poor and homeless in this, one of the richest countries in the world.

But the sun truly brings Bath stone to life, and as we took our usual walk, looping back through the town center I took a few photos of the canal and some of its buildings.  The water was flat calm, and I was fascinated by the appearance of what seemed an exactly parallel world in the reflection. Cleveland House – newly restored –  looked as if it was sitting on a giant’s cave, and the mature plane trees’ reflections were stunning. From Laura place, looking down Pulteney Street the sun – low in the sky – made the houses glow with a kind of inner light. Mercifully the river level is falling and narrow boats were at last able to join the Avon through Widcombe Deep Lock.  It’s a kind of secret Bath that draws us back again and again – and we’ll need to keep it up because I can see that within a week or two the wildflowers will move into a new gear altogether.

 

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If only it were true!

Another walk along the canal today, and I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the sign and a homeless person’s tent on the opposite side.  More often than not these temporary shelters are situated in places that are difficult for random thugs to reach because they are frequently targeted for abuse. This one tent is the tip of the iceberg and the canal is a favourite place.  There are probably dozens of rough sleepers along its edges – many of them with mental health and substance abuse issues, but it’s hard to tell.  Sleeping rough and living in fear of being beaten up or constantly moved on has its own corrosive effect. Then there are a large number of just-about floating narrow boats housing those who can afford the mooring fees but not much else.

Today the last half mile of the canal was rammed with boats unable to enter the river and head off towards Bristol.  The exit to the river through Bath Deep Lock is almost impossible in high water states because the long narrow boats have to enter the river broadside on, and the water was running like a train today.  Its deadliest state is always surprisingly quiet but always menacing.  Even Pulteney bridge gets quieter as the river rises and almost obliterates the weir in what looks more like a breaking wave. At this time of year when the Christmas parties get under way, the river has taken so many young lives it’s unusual to take a walk and not see a bunch of flowers tied to a fence.  Today was no exception. It’s cold at night, and the wet weather must have made life impossible for many homeless people.

Are we a humane society? We shall see in a couple of weeks, but I’m feeling despondent as our democracy is reduced to rubble by lies and deliberate lawbreaking.

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My favourite little patch of weeds is coming along nicely at the moment, and there was a hint of sunny weather to come as the birds practised a few bars of their spring songs. As we wandered back into the town centre we discovered that the Christmas Market had started hours earlier than we expected, and so we hunted down the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm stall and bought some more seed garlic and a few other bits and bobs from Rob Solari who gave the talk at the Allotment Society AGM. When we arrived home the monograph on garlic that I’d ordered had already arrived so we’re well set up now.  In honour of the occasion we baked some large mushrooms with a wholly improper amount of our own crop and shop butter and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Up at the allotment the Early Purple garlic has finally emerged in sympathy with our new-found commitment and so the world looks like a better place just now. The kitchen waste had piled up in the kitchen and so we took it all up to the site.  The compost heap is going well, but a winter heap is an entirely different proposition to a summer one.  It’s dense with peelings and vegetable leftovers and therefore more attractive to rats and prone to going anaerobic, so it needs a lot more brown waste like cardboard and it needs turning regularly to let some air in. But it’s nice and warm – around 25C – and the worms are still reducing it at a tremendous rate. However much we put on the heap it seems to shrink day by day.

Everything else is quiet on the plots, but the broad beans and overwintering peas are germinated and ready to go into the ground over the weekend when the weather looks much better. But it’s just as well the pace has fallen a bit because the constant shortening of the day length and the grey wet weather seem to lower our energy levels. The table is piled high with books to read but it was better to be out walking for much of the day. We shift into official winter on Sunday which is promising brilliant sunshine and cold conditions – proper winter then, and the garlic loves a cold spell. The photo was taken in Sydney Gardens where we walked past a large Ginkgo biloba – this one without stinking fruit surrounding it.  Someone must have swept it all up.

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A drop of the good stuff ?

 

Finally – today the very first load of compost came out of the new row of bins and was spread across the beds we’d just removed the broad beans from. I said a few days ago that, at the time I built them, I thought I’d made them much too big, but with the sudden acceleration during spring, and now we’re harvesting crops, the first bay was filled to the top and ready for its first turning – which meant I had to clear the second bay of compost that was moved from the previous setup.

I think we must have tried every conceivable method of making compost over the years, and for a long time we’d settled on double cylinders made from sheep wire and lined with thick cardboard. These were wonderful but had one major disadvantage – it was very difficult to turn compost from one cylinder into another without constantly catching the tines of the fork in the sheep net, and in practice we usually dismantled the nets altogether – which was time consuming and a bit messy.  So when the opportunity came along to build some more conventional bins in a row, we decided to make the switch. We knew we were making good compost the old way but we had to weigh up whether the benefit of having an efficient system would be more worthwhile than the loss of a twelve by four bed. The answer to that question has come in two ways.

Firstly the value of the compost has been more than demonstrated by our crop of potatoes.  They were grown on a borrowed patch of ground that had been a bit cold and neglected.  Our soil is clay loam, potentially very fertile but inclined to waterlogging and easily poached when walked on – another reason for moving to raised beds. It hadn’t seen much by way of organic material over the years and so it had a look and feel I can only describe as ‘starved’. Last autumn we gave it a thick layer of compost and covered it with builders black plastic until it was time to plant the potatoes. Even in that time much of the compost had disappeared and the worm count was very much higher.  Better still the ground was easier to work by far.  We planted four varieties in the ground and they’ve all thrived – we’ve almost finished eating the Jazzy and we’re into the Arran Pilot. Pink Fir apple and Sarpo Mira are both flowering and the earlies we’ve lifted have given pretty reasonable yields. What’s more, when the plants are lifted the soil is sweet and friable, quite different from its condition last autum.

So that’s the first reason and the second is the sheer ease of turning – so easy in fact that I’ve been regularly turning the ‘live’ heap in situ to add shredded paper and cardboard if it starts to get a bit anaerobic. Our son brings big bags of grass mowings every fortnight, and these can be a nightmare to compost without creating a stinking mess.  However we shred all our paper waste at home, and down in the basement there’s a large bin for cardboard waste and we regulary filch the good stuff because it’s so handy for weed control, or temporary covering and in this instance tearing up into small pieces and mixing it with the grass cuttings.  What’s particularly noticeable is how much the worms love it. If we chuck a big piece of corrugated carboard in, a week later it’s got its own population of brandling worms, often in the hundreds. So the heap consists of all our green kitchen waste, shredded paper, cardboard and egg boxes (which seem to disappear quicker than you could imagine, along with all the green waste from the allotments. I’ve said before, its difficult to know whether it’s a compost heap or a giant wormery and – to be honest – it really doesn’t matter because all that counts is the quality of the compost.

Do we add any activator to it? Well, there are no rules but if it’s gone cold and slow the best activator of all is a drenching with urine, or sometimes a sprinkling of pelleted poultry manure or fish blood and bone.  The urine has the added advantage that it discourages people from nicking our food if they know it may just have been watered with a ten to one mixture of what Lawrence Hills used to call “human activator”. It’s best to imagine the heap as a dynamic environment that thrives when interest is shown in it. Getting the carbon/nitrogen balance is critical, and so is controlling the moisture levels.

If it gets too wet, neither the worms or the bacteria are happy just as they’re unhappy if it gets too dry or too hot. Paying attention to the details means that we can make far more compost in a given time.  Of course a neglected pile at the end of the plot will eventually make something like compost but on our site it would always be full of bindweed roots as well.  Weeds are often lazy and thrive in a neglected heap. We never put any pernicious weeds or annual seeds in the compost because we deliberately keep the heat down for the benefit of the worms.  Consequently annual seeds, couch and bindweed are not killed in the process and the’re best disposed of elsewhere – a green waste collection or a well controlled incinerator or couch fire in the autumn. We try to keep bonfires down to the minimum although if the temperature is kept low by controlling the air intake they will last for days with barely a whisper of smoke or steam.

At the end of the day, good compost is probably one of the most important crops we grow and absolutely worth all the attention.  Having the bins in a line, with removable slats at the front, makes turning a pleasure.  It’s still hard work, but it takes a fraction of the time and buying compost – we’ve used tons of the stuff getting the plots into shape – is very expensive.

So the crops are flowing in faster than we can eat them which is good news for the family.  A couple of days of hot sunshine has given us chance to plant out everything that was left in the flat, the greenhouse and the cold frames – quite a moment to savour.  I love planting things out after they’ve been in a series of pots.  There seems to be a qualitative difference when they discover their roots are free to stretch themselves and I swear I can hear them singing in their own plant language.

The sunshine has also brought out the crowds on to the green outside the flat.  The university students are all pretty much finished now and we play musical neighbours with a stream of parents (for freshers) and vans (from the second year onwards) fighting a guerilla war with the traffic wardens. It’s lovely to see the barbeques and to hear the sound of the young people enjoying themselves.  I even find a bit of late night music and partying strangely comforting.  But it’s also brought out a huge number of rough sleepers,  we even get tents on the green until the police turn up and move them on. Last night I was watching the fun when I spotted a young man crouching between two cars smoking crack from a piece of foil. The dealers like this place because there’s no CCTV and an abundance of escape routes on both sides of the river.  The police have taken to riding bikes but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. It’s heartbreaking to see so many young people in deep trouble with disordered lives, homelessness and mental illness. How much is a human life worth? Almost any time we walk into the centre we see someone toppled over, unconscious or comatose after using spice. Last week we heard a young woman hurling abuse at an invisible person, and then a little later a fire engine nosed down the road to put out a fire she’d started. Moving the problem out of sight isn’t working and by and large our neighbours are sympathetic to their plight. Last year neighbours were remonstrating with the police after a man and his partner who’d been camping peaceably on the green were heavy handedly moved on by the police. The council policy seems to be to keep the tourists happy at any cost – even human cost.

There are days when even the joy of growing our food is tainted by the thought that so many people will never be allowed to experience it!