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.

The millpond of our lives is disturbed by ten burly policemen.

I had intended to write a post about the – shortly to be ended – peace and quiet of the city while the tourists have gone. I hardly need add to the thousands of words that have been written about nature and its beneficial effects and it’s mostly true, save for the reservations I mentioned a few days ago. We’ve had wonderfully quiet walks along the river and up the canal – undisturbed by hen parties on narrow boats or young men dressed as pirates.

There was a tremendously amusing moment a couple of days ago as we were sitting on the canalside enjoying the sunshine when we heard a very loud voice performing one half of a conversation, the other being in her earpiece. Why people find it necessary to hold the phone three feet from their face and shout at it is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it’s so they can watch the other participant on the video screen- who knows? But anyway this young woman, dressed entirely in black slowed down when she saw us and taking a wide path around us hissed into the phone “I’m just passing two elderly people!”

The canal, and the river too, was like a millpond

  • and the inverted reflection of the trees, houses and the sky blessed the whole view with perfect symmetry. You felt you were looking beyond the surface of the water into an infinite depth. Cleveland House never looked more Georgian or more stately as it straddled the canal above a tunnel which was dug purely to protect the wealthy patrons of Sydney Gardens from having to see the bargees. It was built as a toll house above the canal and the tolls were collected by means of a basket lowered through the floor of the house.

Pellitory of the wall - Parietaria judaica
Pellitory of the wall

Alongside Cleveland House I spotted a patch of pellitory of the wall – Parietaria judaica growing as you might expect, on a wall. It’s not the kind of plant that you’d likely notice, with its inconspicuous flowers but it once had some fame as a useful medicinal herb for urinary problems. Culpeper really rated it and I dried a bunch last year but haven’t had occasion to try it out!

Crossing the canal by way of an iron bridge, we found a group of love token padlocks each one, no doubt, carrying a story that only the lovers will know. Sydney Gardens was full of sunbathers – it was lovely.

Bath felt really strange when the lockdown began but we’ve so enjoyed being able to cross the centre of town with all the shops closed and streets virtually empty. Sixty years ago, in Bristol, the shops in Whiteladies Road and the rest of Clifton all closed on Saturday afternoons and that was when Clifton village (where the Brunel suspension bridge is), was at its Georgian best. That’s what it was like here for a few weeks, but if the non-stop carnival on the green outside is anything to go by, most of our neighbours think it’s all over. I think to myself, it’s not over until people stop dying, but the shopkeepers and hoteliers are getting quite wet-lipped at the prospect of “putting it behind us”.

But back in the Potwell Inn, the work on the allotment has been relentless. This weather – very hot and dry for a couple of weeks now – means watering every day. The tender plants are fairly rattling out of the greenhouse, and the first wave of broad beans has almost all been harvested. The overwintering Aquadulce Claudia have given us about 30 lbs of beans in their pods, which translates into around five pounds of shelled beans.,and they freeze really well. Elsewhere the frost damaged runner beans and borlotti beans have all been replaced (we always grow spares) and are beginning to climb their poles at about six inches a day. The earliest asparagus is now being allowed to develop its leaves and we’re harvesting the middle and late varieties. Once again, the 12′ by 4′ bed provides all that we need. The first flowers are setting on the outdoor tomatoes and we’ve abundant pollinators arriving constantly on the allotment, attracted by all the nectar rich flowers we’ve scattered everywhere.

The view of the green from our front window.

These warm nights have made sure I was awake with the lark, and first thing in the morning the green is usually quiet aside from our regular martial arts couple, training and perhaps a dog walker or two. For the rest of the day it’s becoming busier. It’s used a lot for drug dealing because there are so many escape routes inaccessible to cars and some properly dodgy looking characters pass through every day. We also have (hardly a coincidence) a very large number of homeless people with multiple mental health and addiction issues who sit in noisy groups on the green. Many people find them intimidating, but moving them on isn’t helping to solve their problems and they leave us alone.

Yesterday we noticed two police cars parked up on the main road and right opposite where we live we saw a young woman hiding behind a tree clearly watching for someone. She didn’t look at all like the usual drug customer but we thought no more of it until this morning when all hell was let loose and ten police, three police cars and two ambulances converged on the green, pursued a young man into the woods, and brought him back out again protesting loudly. I’ve no idea what they were detaining him for, but they should, perhaps, have thought about bringing along a sniffer dog because this afternoon the same young man walked boldly into the woods at exactly the point he’d gone in earlier – presumably to retrieve his stash and jump over the fence, never to be seen until next time. I tell you there’s never a dull moment at the Potwell Inn – very edgy, you might say.

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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