The best of times and the worst of times

But first the blokey propellerhead stuff

I take back all I said about our trip train across Snowdonia. I thought we would be pulled by a diesel but to our (my) great delight the engine that hauled us over 25 miles and 600 feet in vertical gain at Rhyd Ddu was the strangest beast I’ve ever seen – an NG16 Garratt built in Manchester in 1935 for South African Railways and designed for working very similar routes there. It certainly isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense – a bit of a mule in fact, but as tough as old boots. What’s odd about it is that it’s really two engines spliced together and sharing a boiler. If you look at the photo you’ll see a completely unexpected set of pistons and connecting rods at the back, under the tender. The engine was actually in service until 1985. Predictably, when we pulled in to Caernarfon station a large gathering of faintly priapic men – including me – rushed to the front of the train to take photographs. For the truly lost, the engine is described as a 2-6-2+2-6-2T NGG16 Garratt Design, built by Beyer Peacock Ltd. The bit that I loved is that this arrangement – known as a double bogey setup, allows the engine to be twice the power of the more familiar single bogey and it also allows the engine to traverse sharp bends on the mountain terrain by sashaying around the corners. The front and rear bogeys both pivot around the boiler section allowing a snake-like movement

For the human bit, being towed 600 feet up a winding narrow gauge railway line, surrounded by mountains, rivers and lakes, and listening to the sound of the engine working hard and clattering over modern steel bridges; seeing smoke and steam flying past in streamers like shoals of translucent fish – was a profound blast of memories for me – my father was a railwayman for his whole working life.

Coming down from the highest point towards Caernarfon

Madame thinks the reflections of the window on the photo look like the ghostly outline of an industrial landscape. The line was commenced in 1832; just a year after the Bristol riots and at that time much of Snowdonia really was an industrial site. Reform was in the air as the aftershocks of the French revolution reverberated around Europe. The railway company bought its first steam engines in 1856, just three years before Charles Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities”, whose opening lines popped into my head as I was writing:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities

There’s a reason I love writing these cats cradles of association. Steam engines, railway companies, slate mines, coal and copper extraction and even – very near where we’re staying at the moment – one of the world’s largest manganese mines, back in the day – are all the visible inscription of our human impact on the landscape. The landscape and its artifacts – to put it in posh terms – is a palimpsest; written on, erased and re-used, sometimes over millennia. I was unable to shake off the difficult feeling that even the steam engine that pulled our train, was somehow implicated in our colonial rule over South Africa. Life is complicated – that’s what makes it so interesting and challenging.

The remains of a manganese mine on Rhiw

Anyway – to get back to the day-trip, It was raining in the way that only Wales rains when we arrived at Porthmadog station. The temperature had barely crept above 10C and it was sheeting down in curtains driven by the gale. The railway has a permanent staff, but many of the jobs are filled by volunteers who do a wonderful job, and whose absolute loyalty and commitment manifests itself in a slightly religious attitude; so perhaps I should explain that by saying that there were times when we were checking in, that we felt as if we were entering a much loved Anglican church with the average age of the congregation creeping towards threescore years and ten. I was asked half a dozen times whether we were travelling first class or standard class; a denomination that was confirmed when we climbed aboard and found that the heating wasn’t working. This oh-so British class distinction was amplified by the fact that our standard class carriage was embossed (in gold lettering) third class on the outside, and the bewildering choice of hampers that someone had filled with their idiosyncratic vision of what constituted luxury and what ordinary should be. The net result of all these references to class was to make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable – like a first date confronted by a ten page wine list.

On a mountain, the rain doesn’t hang about for long – and so everywhere we looked there were waterfalls and ad hoc spouts bursting from the hillsides and flowing down increasingly dangerous looking whitewater races. The track was shallowly underwater near the Aberglasyn tunnels and alongside, the Afon Glaslyn was raging. It was if an entire mountain range had sprung a leak. As we reached the top at Rhyd Ddu, the water ceased flowing towards Porthmadog and started afresh making for Caernarfon with equal ferocity. The peaks, of course, were obscured by the rain and mist and so we only caught the merest glimpse of the Snowdon summit. The journey last about two and a half hours each way and by the time we reached Caernarfon we were thoroughly cold. Some of our travelling companions had put their waterproof trousers on to keep warm.

If anything the rain was even worse in Caernarfon and, waterproofed to the teeth, we made a desultory tour of the town centre. Madame unhelpfully suggested I take off the broad brimmed hat I was wearing and use the hood from my waterproof jacket. It was good advice but imperfectly timed because when I pulled the hood over my head, the icy water it contained ran down my neck and inside my shirt. There wasn’t much going on in the town centre – a couple of drug dealers in the square; a solitary prostitute and a lot of tourists huddling in doorways. If charity shops or bookies were your thing you’d have been in heaven.

Does this sound like a bad Tripadvisor review? Well it’s not, because I love Wales and what’s happened in these once great towns and cities is an absolute scandal. Wales was one of the first English colonies and has, for centuries, had the marrow extracted and taken away by the wealthy. Everywhere there are signs in Welsh reading no more second homes – but I would say to the pamphleteers – what if the tourists stayed away? what if the profitable conversion work that keeps builders, electricians and plumbers in work – what if it all ended? what would that do to a local economy that’s on its knees already. What Wales needs is vision and freedom. Freedom for local councils to borrow money and build the thousands of low cost homes that are needed so the young and gifted don’t all have to leave the neighbourhoods they’ve grown up in. Then – by all means restrict second homes and end the tax breaks because there will still be abundant work for the tradespeople. Then give the councils powers and finance to support startups and to develop the kind of tourist related attractions that will bring visitors in.

Caernarfon is the depressing sign of a conservation approach to planning. Just like many of the local farms struggling to survive – what’s needed is not conservation but regeneration. A planning system that values wooden sash windows and slate roofs above apprenticeships and skilled work is on the slippery slope to extinction. Am I sounding like William Cobbett here. He was a rabid old pamphleteer whose book “Rural Rides” has always been a lodestone for me; telling it like it is , or rather was, when it was published in 1853 – there’s a coincidence!

After a fruitless hour in the rain we went back to the station cafe to get warm, and were gradually joined by a throng of sodden passengers all dreading the journey home. Madame overheard one person trying to arrange a taxi. We managed to get back onto the train half an hour before the off and found to our absolute delight that the heating was working – and so the journey home was doubly pleasurable despite the turkish bath atmosphere.

Sadly, though, on the return Madame overheard a depressing conversation between three young women in their twenties discussing their attitude towards the police following the murder of Sarah Everard. It really shows how constricted and intimidated women are in this deeply defective culture. Enough, though. We love these day trips and no matter how uncomfortable the transport and lousy the weather we always come back feeling challenged and energised; and enough material to draw and paint and write for a month.

But that was last year!

Now we’re three weeks behind

With the prospect of a loosening of the lockdown tomorrow – which, to be honest, is a lousy idea – it would be lovely to pretend that we could get back to normal on the allotment. However, these photos taken in May last year prove beyond all reasonable doubt that this year we’re at least three weeks behind. Looking out across the green just now there’s not a sign of our elderflowers blossoming although the purple variety shown, from which we made the bottles also featured above, is at least in full leaf. The window boxes are waiting for the petunias to go in so they can be moved down to the flat, but even in the hotbed and the polytunnel the beetroots are nowhere near as well developed. Today we found the first tiny broad (fava) bean pods and we’re still at the carrot thinning stage. The asparagus bed is just grumbling into life like a teenager on a school morning, and we’ve had a couple of tasters but hardly a feed.

In other respects we’ve done well inside the tunnel, with salad greens, radishes, turnips, container potatoes looking well in their new position outside, and the ever patient tomatoes hardening off in pots; taller and healthier than they were last May. The slugs have been busy during this week of rain, and managed to fell all our dill seedlings and half of our sunflowers. What’s particularly infuriating is the way they climb up the plants and saw off the growing tip. The runner beans, planted out two days ago, were spared by leaving a sacrificial tray of failures to attract them away but we’ve been fighting a losing battle and today I ordered some nematode treatment which is expensive but marginally less so than losing crops. Even the aubergines, chillies and peppers have been locked down with us, clogging up the propagators and windows. Our first ever attempt at melons suffered a mere 25% germination rate and of the survivors there’s only one healthy looking plant but that could just as easily be lack of experience on our part.

A couple of weeks ago we were given an old freezer which has relieved our storage problems enormously, and so for the first time aside from eating inordinate amounts of freshly cooked rhubarb, we’ve been able to freeze enough to make jam later on when things calm down. There’s enough rhubarb on the whole allotment site to start a jam factory – it’s one of the few plants that it’s almost impossible to kill – along with horseradish of course! But some of the less experienced allotmenteers don’t seem to know that they should cut off the flowering spikes as soon as they appear, and keep pulling sticks regularly to preserve a supply of fresh and tender stalks. The old ones – the thickness of your arm are tough and full of oxalic acid.

The bird feeders have been a tremendous success, attracting great tits, blue tits and today a couple of coal tits that were quite unafraid of me standing quietly no more than three feet away. We’ve also had robins and magpies with blackbirds helping out on the path edges digging out slugs and snails. It’s difficult not to associate their arrival with the pond as well and our tadpoles are growing slowly although they must be being predated by something because the numbers have dropped significantly. So it’s not all bad news, and scanning the blogs today Madame said that everyone seems to be suffering from the cold and wet weather so the problem isn’t local.

To go to a theme I return to often, it’s not the bird rarities or the heaviest, tallest or fattest vegetables in the world, but the ordinary that animates us. Of course I wouldn’t shoo a willow tit or a goldcrest away, but I’m not the least bit disappointed if our allotment highlights are no better or worse than thousands of other equally ordinary people have, and a dandelion is a cheerful flower to have around when nothing much else is happening. In fact weeds are what most urban botanical apprentices like me cut our teeth on and the closer you look the more wonderful they seem to be. Dandelion seeds – when looked at through a low magnification microscope – are an absolute wonder!

Going back to the picture on the top left of the group; that’s the green I write about. It’s an incredibly popular spot for trysts, catch ups, picnics, getting drunk, kicking a ball around, dealing drugs, exercising dogs, once (memorably) dogging, (and behind every curtain in the square was a shameless pair of eyes!) tai chi, gymnastics and all the rich tapestry of city life. Recently we discovered that after installing the bases for a couple of seats on the green, the council were dissuaded from installing them after receiving a petition – signed (it is claimed) by 70 local residents. In a long life of community based work I’ve grown suspicious of being told the everyone is against an idea. Usually it amounts to a small but articulate and organised subset of the community. The alleged grounds for the objection were that seats might encourage antisocial behaviour – really? How on earth have we managed until now?

However, nature spared us a battle when a large tree was blown down during one of the many storms in early spring. Within a couple of weeks the brash was all sawn off and taken away as firewood by a rough sleeper who’s been living on the river bank for over a year. People soon congregated around the dead tree and used it as a seat but it was really in the wrong place. So one day someone dragged the trunk laboriously across the green to a new spot under the canopy of our largest tree. He spent two evenings attempting to use it as a springboard to climb the big tree and eventually succeeded in getting way up into the canopy, whereupon he lost interest and went away – probably to write a book about climbing trees. Now the fallen tree was in shadow under the big one so another group hauled it out into the sunshine where it’s been ever since. Children painted it with bright and cheerful graffiti and played on it and it’s hardly ever empty. This morning a couple of young women sat on it in the rain on a plastic bag and with an umbrella while they drank their coffee. Frank Lake – now hardly remembered but a pioneer of what he called “clinical theology” used a memorable phrase that perfectly describes the bureaucratic mind . He said “you can die from hardening of the oughteries!” My philosophy and ethics lecturer put it another way in his first lecture: “you can’t make an ought into an is”. Indeed you can’t but it doesn’t stop people in power from trying.

That tree ought to be a message of hope and a warning to anyone who thinks they have the right to dictate how communities use their spaces. The empty plinths are now used to protect the grass from barbeques and it’s a constant pleasure to see, and hear people playing games, getting together and enjoying life – even if it’s a little anarchic and occasionally gets out of hand.

– in the end what’s more antisocial?

Street life and street theatre is free; doesn’t need a policy statement or any funding; committee meetings and minutes, or risk assessments – and in the end what’s more antisocial? Is it a bit of noise and fun on the green? or is it warehousing all your fragile and vulnerable people in one place? (on the edge of the green), driving up rents and house prices through speculation? polluting the air we breathe with privately owned 3 litre diesel engined vanity vehicles? and putting a route for 45 tonne lorries through the middle of a densely populated but unfashionable part of town? oh and building nothing but old peoples’ homes and student flats because that’s where the money is? Answers on a postage stamp please!