Aix en Somerset

Madame and me are like Jack Sprat and his wife – I love the sunshine and hot weather and Madame isn’t so keen. So these last few weeks of almost Provencal weather have been a combination of bliss and lethargy for us. It’s OK for the most part, we know perfectly well we need to be aware of each others’ preferences and not beat ourselves up too much because we want to do different things. Naturally it doesn’t always happen that way and a bit of subterranean growling goes on.

Of course the other elephant in the lounge bar is the lockdown. The flat is sufficiently small to be able to vacuum the whole place without moving the electric plug, and the allotment is just 250 square metres.We’re fortunate to have the most lovely surroundings and the view from the flat makes it feel bigger than it really is but ……. the fact is, the continuing pandemic almost forces us to live introspectively and that can make for heavy going. This summer is turning out to be less than hazy, lazy and crazy – or maybe it’s all of those things but in a bad way.

It’s a non stop job. Constant watering of the parched ground keeps the allotment green, and the plants seem to be thriving, but it does seem to be a bit daft watering with chlorinated and purified tap water when there’s a river just across the road. It’s clear that the allotment can consume an awful lot of water. We’ve got 1250 litres of storage capacity which we’ll increase to 1750 this year – that’s 175 watering cans full which, if we were parsimonious with it, might stretch to six or eight weeks of drought. Right now we’ve got around 350 litres left and there’s no prospect of substantial rain anywhere in sight and so we, like all the other allotmenteers, are competing for water from the cattle troughs. It’s all dealt with politely, but not far under the surface the resentment is bubbling away. On the hottest days, allotmenteers are trawling the length and breadth of the site looking for a trough with some water in it, and the refilling rate is grindingly slow.

So I mostly get by by channelling my inner peasant and it’s been lovely. Whether a sunburned but overweight allotmenteer is a better adornment to the site than winter pale one is none of my business, and in any case if fellow allotmenteers are inclined to take exception to my shorts they’re far enough away not to worry me.

One year’s weed is ten years seed

Watering and weeding have taken over now that the propagation and constant re-potting have slowed down. Where on earth the idea comes from that you can create a model allotment in an hour a week baffles me. The ‘babies’ are all born and the health visitor isn’t needed any more, but as all new gardeners discover, the daily grind of putting the plants out and back at night, anxiously watching the temperature and fussing about pests and diseases – takes its toll. I’ve always found hand weeding extremely therapeutic – kneeling down at plant level teaches you a lot about weeds and their leaves. We sort all the villains into compost or exile departments. I know all that stuff about a weed being a plant in the wrong place but bindweed and couch grass are in a class of their own.

Our site has its particular pests – one of which is ironically quite scarce in our area and illustrates the ‘plant in the wrong place’ conundrum perfectly. Ramping common fumitory self-seeds ferociously and yet it’s a rather pretty and uncommon plant. But experience shows that our constant weeding seems to have no effect on its numbers. The exiles go to a large unkempt heap during the summer and thence to the incinerator in the winter. Any annuals that have set seed go there too, and the rest of the weeds which hopefully are not much more than leaf, go into the compost heap. However it illustrates the necessity of constant weeding because as the old saying goes, ‘one year’s weed is ten years seed’

Outside, and beyond the boundaries of our self-isolation, there’s an air of rather desperate celebration as the lockdown is prematurely eased against all scientific advice. On the green there were half a dozen large parties going on last night and if, as the latest research suggests, half of covid infections are asymptomatic – especially in younger people – then there were perhaps ten infected people out there partying last night. For those of us who are most vulnerable to this infection, the world begins to feel faintly menacing. I’m sure this constant vigilance eats away at our self-confidence and the whole fabric of our communities. What with politicians, rank weeds and viruses all threatening the Queen’s Peace the world seems to be self-medicating with alcohol and heaven knows what other substances. I’m thinking Berlin in the 1930’s!

I was cataloguing some photos last night and I came across a couple that I took when we took on the second half plot just two and a half years ago, when it was a field. I remember so well the day the shed arrived by lorry, and it was lovely to compare the photo at the top of this post, with the ones below. The best we can claim for ourselves is that we’ve gathered some of the energy that flows from the earth like a spring, and organised it as best we could, into a source of food, solace and joy.

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.

Potwell Inn gets a lick of paint.

During these difficult times …

I love that phrase – during these difficult times – there’s barely a shopfront in the whole of Bath that hasn’t got those words somewhere on a notice on the door. Yes we get it – billions of pounds worth of investment, unquantifiably valuable lives, dreams and careers have been gambled and lost. Difficult times barely covers it.

However, the dreadful ghost of the spirit of the blitz has been invoked by our glorious leaders and many of us are just getting on with it as best we can; which is what apparently happened during the blitz – which also boasted profiteers, a flourishing black market, food shortages, incompetent administration and people who couldn’t be stuffed to pull their blackout curtains because they were too important. So – we’re just getting on with it; grumbling about the government and the weather (too hot, too cold, too wet) – after all we’re British- and growing lots of things in the allotment which if, (as I’m inclined to believe it does), is thoroughly enjoying the extra attention.

Growing more from small plots

So what would be the correct way to describe the complete opposite of scorched earth? One of the key ways of increasing productivity on the allotment is never to leave a patch of ground empty. Harvest the crop, prep the ground again with some compost or organic fertilizer like fish blood and bone or chicken manure pellets, rake it over and firm it if necessary and replant straight away. For instance, today we harvested just a few potato haulms and replaced them immediately with the last of the runner bean plants – we’re trialling three varieties of both broad and runner beans this year. Of course it makes rotations devilishly challenging, but keeping the ground occupied increases overall productivity and suppresses weeds, and as long as the soil and the plants are healthy, which – in organic systems they usually are – you don’t get the same pest and disease problems as you do in conventional intensive and chemically driven monoculture. Just to give one example, broad spectrum insecticides kill as many friends as they do foes and so repeat infestations tend to do far more damage because the predators have been suppressed.

Anyway, we’ve so much time on our hands at the moment we can remove individual blackfly manually and give each one a state sendoff.

Some long needed repairs.

A friend of ours, a very talented mathematician, got a job at the University trying to repair a huge software system that had been added to and adapted by so many people it had become unusable. I did ask him what it did once – it was something to do with astrophysics – and he lost me after the first sentence, but it sounded useful – to astrophysicists that is. It was such a complex unravelling that he ended his tenure there with a PhD and left the software in rude health once again.

Blogs can get like that too. What seems like a good idea on a slow rainy day can develop very quickly into an unmanageable beast. I make no claim to being a big-time blogger, but I’m touched by the fact that even a handful of people find the blog interesting and I really enjoy writing it. It started life five years ago as a (very) personal journal, and then when I’d been retired for a couple of years I thought it would be good to water down the pain and suffering a bit and go public so I could stay in touch with old friends.

So I was more than surprised to discover that only a handful of people I knew, actually followed and most were from other countries altogether. I would set myself milestones and slowly they were passed and so I kept going. But the original structure of the blog was based on what I imagined I would be writing about and almost all my predictions were wrong. I also randomly added photos to the blog and by now I have 2000 completely uncatalogued photographs and 350,000 very poorly indexed or tagged words. I’ve slowly become aware that not everyone reads the blog sequentially, and some potential readers are almost certainly put off by the sheer difficulty of finding what they want. The blog is no longer a diary, although for me it’s still that, but it’s also a library.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus deep ecology earth ecology economics environment environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany foraging global heating growing chillies herbal medicine hotbed hungry gap intensive farming lockdown lost gardens of heligan marmalade meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions spring sustainability technology watering water storage weather weeds

All of which means that the opportunity that the new block editing software (which wasn’t that hard to learn), has given me is to spend some time redesigning some aspects of the site to make them more user friendly, but not being a computer wizard makes it slow; so apart from a few minor design improvements which are part of the block editor, I’m going to rewrite the categories and introduce sub categories based on information from the tag cloud (how many people read each tagged post) and have a big think about how best to grow the site. I shan’t ever be selling T shirts or bespoke advice, but it takes the same amount of time to do the job badly as it does to do it well. Actually

if you’ve ever slowed your laptop to a crawl while you search through 2000 images to find the one on the beach at Aberdaron, it takes infinitely longer to do the job badly.

So you may have noticed some small design changes already and I hope the extra signposting helps a bit. The other changes are under the bonnet for the most part, but they may make life a bit difficult if things go wrong or links are broken – so please forgive me – I apologise in advance. Just to finish, a couple of photos, one of the lockgate on Bath Deep lock which is looking like a bookshelf of wildflowers at the moment. The other is of a front door in Great Pulteney Street which, by virtue of some pretty vigorous machine sanding has become an abstract painting – far nicer than its glossy predecessor.

We’re a neighbourly lot

Having barely left the flat for weeks – except for going to the allotment – we went out for a walk yesterday evening, drinking in the unusual peace and quiet. The trees on the green are stunning at this time of the year, not least the horse chestnuts in full flower.  The initial object of our enquiries was the state of the elderflower blossom which looks as if it will be ready to pick on Friday.  Cue for a great manufacture of cordial to last the year. Our neighbours have excelled themselves this spring with front door displays. These houses may look like haunts of the wealthy but they’re not. Moving clockwise from the top left, the third photo was taken outside a house that’s been abandoned for years.  The lovely display of Mexican fleabane is entirely spontaneous. The other doorways are all maintained by individual flat dwellers and they really lift the feel of the street. The photo of the window boxes on the bottom right are our window boxes from June 2017 – so a bit IMG_20200503_110448of a cheat. This years are going to be less opulent because we haven’t been able to get the plants from the garden centres which are all closed, but we’ve been propagating geraniums and ivy and we managed to get a few petunias by mail order so we’ll catch up eventually. But the main doorway to our flats is a bit barren and decorated only by a bit of graffiti that appeared a couple of nights ago. I suppose it slightly advances our edgy credentials, but it’s a shame.

So having checked out the elderflower crop we wandered on into town via some of the tourist hotspots.  Royal Crescent was all but deserted and the streets around it were much the same.  The main visitor car park was completely empty – not a car in sight, and as we walked along the deserted road towards the Circus a full moon was showing beautifully above the trees. Everywhere we walked was deserted with businesses closed – some for good –  and notices for creditors on the windows.  The Loch Fyne restaurant was boarded up.  There were out of date posters advertising long cancelled events, and the only signs of movement were cyclists delivering takeaway food. Delightful to see Bath in this way, but quite spooky too – something terrible is happening and it feels as if a whole way of life with its infrastructure of cafes, restaurants, bookshops, pubs, clubs and theatres is under threat. What will emerge is a hugely important question, but we can sense the drive amongst some politicians to get back to normal as soon as possible oblivious to the fact that it was the old normal that got us into this disaster in the first place.

For us at the Potwell Inn, this crisis is causing a complete rethink of where and how we buy the things we can’t grow ourselves. The deficiencies and inequalities in our society have been forensically exposed by covid 19. We can do better than this.

When the telos gets broken ….

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I didn’t post yesterday because it was one of those energy sapping days.  I foolishly read an overheated news piece involving millions of pounds of investment into developing a new kind of nitrogen fertiliser that will contain GM bacteria that allow cereal crops to make their own nitrogen – marvellous (I’m kidding – it’s potentially disastrous). And so it went on.  I tried to write using the new and greatly improved Project Gutenberg editing interface but I simply couldn’t get the hang of it and in the end a whole chunk of yesterday’s post disappeared into the ether. I spent hours on the allotment with Madame, planting out, and then more hours trying to make the diverter on the water storage system work properly instead of sending most of the rainwater under the shed. After more hours today I ripped out the old system and installed (bodged) a new one that looks messy but at least captures all the rainwater. Nothing went disastrously wrong and yet nothing went well either.

It’s not that I feel depressed – I know what that feels like and it’s horrible and disabling; but thinking about it today, I reckon I’ve nailed the cause for my sense of unrest.  There are many things that I think we need, to flourish as humans, but among them are two that are particularly under threat in the present pandemic. The first is telos – the sense of where we’re going and what we’re for – what we’re intended to become; and the second is agency – the capacity to direct our energies towards objects that we choose freely.  When things are going well the first – telos – gives us a sense of what it is we’re growing towards, and the second – agency – allows us the freedom to conduct our lives in the way that leads to our goal. When these are broken or denied to us we lose any sense of belonging and it feels as if we’re in a tunnel that may emerge somewhere we didn’t choose and don’t want to be, and that’s when we lose any sense of delight in things that normally fill us with joy.

Without being too dramatic about it, the flow of life has turned into a torrent and the lies, evasions and incompetence of some of our elected leaders suggests that they took a wrong turn some while back and are actually taking us towards the rapids instead of away from them.  Cue dramatic music but also a huge sense of disappointment and loss.

The hedgerows are full of flowers, cow parsley, mayflowers, dandelions and all the early risers.  The horse chestnuts are laden with blossom  and when the sun shines the earth seems to embrace it.  This should be one of the peak moments of the year and yet it’s tinged with loss and bereavement. We plod on, missing our families and friends; missing our normal textured lives and hoping  – some of us may even be praying – that we can wrestle a blessing out of this darkness.

 

Rain allows play after a month of Sundays

After getting close to two months of confinement in the flat, with only daily visits to the allotment to leaven the monastic isolation, we were beginning to feel as if every day was Sunday – even more dangerously it was always the same Sunday! When the sun shone the young woman opposite would clamber precariously through her window over a precipitous 30′ drop to sit in sunshine on the roof of a kitchen extension, the professional rugby player – also opposite – would come out into the car park and skip for an hour at a time at such a speed you could hear the rope whistling. On the other side of the house we could watch 30 minutes of something like Tai Chi at just after nine in the morning, and after that it was just drunks, junkies and the deranged sitting around while large gannetrys of young men on expensive bicycles flew past, clad in the latest skin-tight Lycra. At times one of them would spot a sunbathing woman and the noise and speed of the peloton would increase significantly as they strained every impressive sinew over their imaginary Mont Ventoux, ignoring the 20mph signs.  One of our neighbours has told us that one of the several local drug dealers is now running his own homeless delivery round from a semi derelict narrow boat that’s just capable of puttering up and down the river. 

But yesterday it rained and after a quick trip to the almost deserted allotments Madame suggested risking a walk. The simple fact that a little walk demanded thought and planning just goes to show how agoraphobic we’re becoming during the lockdown.  Leaving the front door and turning right to go down to the river never seemed as transgressive as it did yesterday. Oncoming pedestrians were avoided as anxiously as large dogs on bits on string for leads – it was an entirely mutual avoidance.  I found myself scanning everyone (it didn’t amount to double figures in well over an hour) for signs of disease or even the least touch of grubbiness, and all the while I was rehearsing in my head the lecture our children would give us about taking unnecessary risks. Who knew that simple pleasures like going for a walk once in nearly seven weeks could drag along so much baggage, from public opprobrium against old people being outside, to the risk of being challenged by the police over the validity of our outing.  

After skirting along the river and meeting almost no-one, we went up to the canal, greeted by an expensively unwelcoming sign telling us to go away, but after about a quarter of a mile we dropped back down under the railway line and walked back into town. Our son had told us how deserted it’s become, with for sale notices everywhere and several retailers and restaurants boarded up; but it wasn’t that as much as the deserted silence of the key tourist sites.  The Abbey, the Roman Baths, the Spa and virtually all of the shops were closed.  The bus station was deserted apart from a man reaming his nose out thoroughly, oblivious of just how disgusting that suddenly seemed, and there were one or two street beggars drying out from the rain. The city seems to have lost its entire purpose. In the past we’d fantasised about life here without the tourists and hen parties, but this was proof that you should be careful what you pray for. The only activity we saw was building work.  They’re still building hundreds of flats for students in spite of the fact that the business model of the universities (we’ve got two) was a model of unsustainable growth, with grossly overpaid Vice Chancellors conducting sales campaigns all over the world to attract foreign students who were in any case becoming wary of living in our state sponsored hostile environment. Now we’ve won our first international competition in decades but sadly it’s for having almost the highest mortality rate for coronavirus!

So the good news was that spring has proceeded without us doing anything very much and all along the edge of Green Park was a magnificent display of borage and green alkanet in flower. On the river’s edge smoke was rising lazily from an improvised tarpaulin bender on the blocked off footpath. Of the floral interlopers that survived from the ‘wildflower mix’ sowing nearby, alongside the flood prevention scheme, the campions seem to be establishing a permanent place for themselves, but most of the others have been choked off by burly locals.

The fear is that the local economy may never recover.  Already there are too many independent traders closing down and the supermarkets have made more enemies than friends with their failure to sustain a rational service. The independents – from quirky stationers to pizza places, bookshops, deli’s, health food stores, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers were what made Bath different.  Without the pubs, theatres and music venues; the art shop and the wool shop and the cheesemonger, a trip into town becomes ever less attractive, not just for us locals but also I’m sure for our hundreds of thousands of visitors. 

Weeks ago I mentioned Tim Lang’s new book on food security which was published almost on the same day as the system began to collapse. This has been a painful demonstration of the truth of his contention that we’re dangerously dependent o a handful of supermarket chains and their vulnerable supply lines. Local, local and more local, sustainable, environmentally safe and non intensive food production linked to local suppliers is better in every way than our present profit driven system. Of course local shopkeepers want to make a living, and one of the plusses these past months is the heroic contribution that independent corner shops have made – especially for old and vulnerable people who have no chance of help from supermarkets, but whose neighbours have proved beyond doubt that contrary to what Margaret Thatcher asserted there really is such a thing as society. 

Last week’s sunshine brought the elderflower to the brink of blossoming, and yesterday there were some in bloom. Now we need a dry day to collect the flowers, and then lemons and sugar to make cordial. I used every scrap of sugar making ‘allotment jam’ a couple of weeks ago so an expedition to find more is needed.  We just finished our last bottle of last year’s production so we need to be ready.

Seasonal stocktake

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At last, with a supply of spring vegetables coming in we can make a seasonable vegetable stock with produce straight from the ground.  Obviously the stalwarts are there the year round, but as our youngest chef/son pointed out yesterday, there’s a sweetness in the early veg that you can’t easily find in winter. This one, aside from onion, carrots and celery – all the usual suspects – had spring onions, the very last of the overwintered leeks, Swiss chard, the runts of last year’s garlic crop, fennel and fresh herbs wherein lay a lesson. We’ve never used lovage before in a stock but we did yesterday and we discovered that, like nutmeg and saffron it’s a flavouring that needs using with discretion, because if it’s not it can be a bit overwhelming.  Yesterday’s stock had a single leaf the size of a hand in it and I’d say that’s about the limit.

The other early job, aside from cooking breakfast, was to put a slow braised piece of topside (a very occasional treat at the Potwell Inn)  in the oven for the whole day in a wine and stock sauce. It’ll do us for at least three meals but yesterday evening I cooked a proper ‘Sunday meal’ to replace the calories I’d burnt off earlier in the day. When Madame prepped the veg I protested that there were far too many for us to eat, but (I think to our joint amazement) we cleared the lot.

Earlier we went to the allotment to take a delivery of topsoil.  The bed system works very well most of the time, but when it comes to earthing up potatoes you need quite a lot of soil, and in any case we needed extra soil to top the beds up. I created a one metre cube store with pallets to keep it tidy but as it was brought down in barrow loads I had to extend the store twice and by the end I think I had around one and a half tons – which sounds a lot but doesn’t go that far in practice – enough to make a couple of deep beds, from scratch, that’s all.  I decided to spread the soil out before the rain arrives on Tuesday but it was a very hot day, and By the time I’d top dressed three beds I’d shifted the whole load and I ached.

This morning we went up to the allotment to clear up, feed and weed before the rain and also to test the new water butt pump to make sure it would be capable of raising stored water from the bottom to the top of the slope. Happily, apart from having to lug a heavy generator down to the plot, it worked seamlessly and with sufficient pressure to generate a decent spray after travelling about 60 feet along a pipe. Once I’ve finished the last bit of civil engineering there should be enough stored water to keep the plants alive for several months in an emergency. I keep asking myself if we’re being ridiculously pessimistic, but climate change brings flood and drought conditions – neither of which are conducive to good growth.

But all the while there’s a certain weariness with the lockdown. There’s the constant fear of being overwhelmed by a miasma which by now is as much psychological as it is physical, but none the less real for that. We seem to alternate days of vitality and optimism with days of gloom – living like lighthouse keepers with no relief crew in prospect.

Sweet Cicely again.

Here at the Potwell Inn we’re beginning the sixth week of our lockdown because we started a little earlier than the Government. There have been many moments of doubt, but on the whole it’s been a positive experience because it’s affirmed the choices we’ve already  made over the years about the way we live. So baking, for instance hasn’t come as a new skill, nor has gardening or cooking. We hardly ever ate out; we gave up going abroad when we retired because we couldn’t really afford it any more. The biggest changes due to the lockdown have been the clean plates. We’ve eaten well but carefully and because we’re cooking smaller portions we finish it all. That’s it really.  The cleaner air, the absence of traffic and noise have been an absolute bonus. The biggest loss has been the fact that we can’t use the campervan and so a whole missing season of walking, botanising, mountains and seaside  therapy  has left a huge gap in our lives and we’ll never stop yearning for France. So far as I’m concerned that really doesn’t add up to saintly renunciation.

My biggest concern – it’s becoming an obsession – is that the covid 19 pandemic has displaced almost every other issue in public life.  I feel like the cartoon character with a billboard that proclaims the end is nigh! – people laugh, dismiss my concerns and take a wide berth; but the smallest glimpse at history teaches that civilisations and cultures really do come to an end when they are overwhelmed by their contradictions and overreach themselves. When Thomas Cromwell appropriated the wealth of the monasteries they were already well on their way to collapsing. The supply of peasant labour that kept the farms going was beginning to dry up and many of the monks were far from home, collecting rents.  The fabulous wealth of the church was ripe for the picking, it had become spiritually bankrupt and far too interested in projecting political power. It was Cromwell who had the cunning plan.

But when the prevailing ideology of a civilisation or culture is exposed as bankrupt, unworkable, fraudulent or downright dangerous it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.  That’s a fact of history, not a prediction for the future. This isn’t a long holiday paid for by the state, but it may be a moment in an historical earthquake. Climate change, economic collapse and species extinctions are not going to take a furlough while the politicians get the old, damaged economy back on its feet. The only question is – do we want to do survival the hard way or the catastrophic way? 

All of which gloomy thoughts have provoked me to write about Sweet Cicely because whatever the future, these precious weeds will have a part in it. Welcome to the Potwell Inn windowsill which is pressed into service as a greenhouse, a source of free light and heat and an entertainment centre through which we can watch the world even though we’re confined – aside from daily trips to the allotment. I’d long wanted to grow it because it’s an early riser like rhubarb and its natural sweetness and faintly aniseed flavour make the perfect companion to it. The best culinary herbs are often not the ones that shout at you like a trumpet in a Sicilian marching band. They’re more subtle – so much so that you only notice their absence and not their presence. So yesterday we gathered both and cooked them, and the addition of a few Sweet Cicely leaves makes an indefinable but profound difference, adding depth. Home grown rhubarb straight out of the ground is marvellous anyway, but this way it’s even better.

I spoke of it, just then, as a weed – and, in Yorkshire for instance, that’s what it is – as common as Cow Parsley is down here in the South West. Our plants had a difficult beginning. I actually bought some seeds three years ago, shoved them into some seed compost and waited – nothing happened. Did I ever write about the RTFM notice? Years ago I worked in a satellite radio station where there was a large notice written over the desk.  “In the event of equipment failure RTFM” I asked an engineer one day what it meant. “Read the manual” he replied tartly.

So after the Sweet Cicely had sulked for a very long time I read the manual and it appeared that they were tricky little devils to germinate because they needed a period of cold (vernalization).  So into the fridge they went, pots and all, in a plastic bag where I forgot all about them. Later we went to see friends in Yorkshire and there were plants growing absolutely everywhere – like weeds – in Nidderdale, where we were. So I grabbed a handful of the interestingly large seeds, shoved them in my pocket until we got home and then I put them into pots and left them outside without much hope. Up they sprang and I planted them into a corner where I thought they couldn’t do too much harm and that was that. Eventually I remembered the ones in the fridge and sunk the little pots into a bigger one and left them outside on the allotment where they too germinated. I can definitely confirm that once they’ve got their roots down they are completely worthy of their weedy reputation just as they are worthy of a place on any allotment – just for the rhubarb, although the green seeds are also delicious and have a lot of potential for cooking.

The other two plants on the windowsill were Dill and Lovage – also early risers on the allotment. Dill is just wonderful (in small amounts) added to parsley in a fish pie; and Lovage is a marvellous addition to any vegetable stock (oh and in Pimms too). In the trug yesterday was another cutting of Purple Sprouting Broccoli which is at its peak at the moment. The important point about it is that although it’s in the ground for almost two years, the sprouts themselves grow and ripen in days and so they are immensely tender – stalk and all. I suspect that’s the reason why commercial growers have adopted the term “tenderstem” – because non gardeners might cut the stalks off (oh horror!).  They’re as good as asparagus and a lot more prolific. At the moment our 12′ X 5′ asparagus bed is yielding a small feed every two days.  The Purple Sprouting (5 plants) would yield a trug full in the same time.

The other seasonal blessing is Spinach – it doesn’t care for midsummer and wants to bolt, so now is the time to harvest, and you can sow more in late summer for the winter months.  Meanwhile  the chards will take over.

 

 

 

 

Keep all disturbing dreams away

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I suppose what counts as disturbing depends on the sort of person you are, so to me, with any amount of psychoanalytic assistance over the years, a dream about holding the Queen’s hand and saying a prayer for her has to be struggling to say something.  The line – “keep all disturbing dreams away” – comes from the compline hymn; one of few the monastic offices to survive into the present day and a pretty  constant companion on retreats – unless you’re an ultra evangelical when you spend an hour telling God (in tediously repetitive language) what he needs to do in the morning.

I mentioned Dick England, the miller, yesterday.  What I didn’t say was that he had the most exceptional tenor voice and sang in the church choir where I was training.  I always loved singing and so on Thursday evenings in Lent I would go to choir practice and then, after the young members all left, the rest of us would sing compline in the darkness, illuminated only by a few lights in the choir stalls. In those few moments we sometimes seemed to enter a different dimension where past and present were continuous. Whatever had happened during the day; the disjointedness of events, the triumphs and disappointments, felt as if they were being taken back into a great dark and forgiving silence. Do I sound as if I miss it?  Well the institutional church ‘moved on’ to spreadsheets and brisk improving homilies and ‘going forward’ became a synonym for going nowhere. 

So why the Queen? I’m a lifelong soft republican ; all that stamp and circumponce leaves me cold; so is this about continuity? Did my mind come up with a convenient – if slightly embarrassing – symbol for continuity and security at a time when nothing seems to work properly?

Here we are, locked down in the city and doing our best to cope and comply with the rules, while we are lectured from afar by celebrities in their gilded retreats. All manner of people who we assumed to live in London turned out really to be permanent residents of somewhere else a long way from the viral hotspots. Solidarity turned out to be a one way street patrolled by a policeman with a blind eye. I was horrified to learn yesterday that council food waste collections have increased by 20% this week, presumably down to panic bought food going out of date.  Meanwhile dairy farmers are reportedly pouring fresh milk into their slurry tanks because it’s not needed by processing factories.

So in the midst of a life turned upside down I dreamed about the Queen because I desperately need some sort of continuity,  and bizarre though it seems to me, my mind came up with her. The news is studded with miserable statistics and I read yesterday that old age is becoming a criterion for withholding treatment- not, we’re assured because we’re worthless but because other younger people are more worthy, for which read profitable and, no-one thought that closing down hospital beds, shrinking the National Health Service  and making nurses pay for their training might have consequences. A thousand people died today and all we get is anodyne ressurances that everyone is doing everything possible. Our GP neighbour said today he and his wife couldn’t sleep – they’re not the only ones. Sans tests, sans ventilators, sans vaccine – sans leadership or strategy in fact sans everything!

So allotment therapy was the only relief today and we spent most of the day up there sowing, planting and picking. We came back for lunch with the makings for our first rather spartan summer snack, a few sticks of asparagus, some radishes, some home made bread and some shop mayonnaise.  I’ve never quite got the hang of making our own mayonnaise reliably. But the disturbing dream never quite left me and I’ve never felt quite so undervalued – and that, for someone who’s worked as a parish priest, is quite shocking.

In flour again.

Much gratitude to my son for arranging it, and his mate the baker who, between them, came up with a 16 Kg bag of bread flour that should see us through the lockdown. It’s perched on a chair in the hallway at the moment but I’ll get it into a food bin first thing tomorrow because flour gets infested with tiny moth caterpillars incredibly quickly.  Baking with a new flour is always a bit of an adventure until you’ve baked a few loaves because they all behave quite differently.  My old mate Dick England who had his own flour mill up in Berkeley on Severnside, always reckoned to leave the new wheat to ripen for a while before it was fit to mill and make bread with. It’s strange how even potatoes have their seasons as well.  The man who ran the Regal fish and chip shop in Hotwells would shut down for several weeks as the new season main crops came in because he didn’t think they were good to make chips from.

So new flour and new adventures demanded a celebration and I made a Dundee cake for our tea breaks on the allotment. It was hot today and we worked for around five hours setting up  a new bed for the peas.  We’re growing a traditional variety called Alderman which we tried last year.  In our haste to be greener than thou, last year we tried to grow them on jute nets, but they were so prolific and heavy they just tore the nets down – so this year they’re going to be grown up sheep wire attached to some strong poles. While I was doing the civil engineering bit, Madame was busy sowing and potting up – it’s a very busy time of the year both on the allotment and at home where we made a start on replacing the spring window boxes with their summer equivalents. They’ll be mainly geraniums this year because the garden centres are all shut and we won’t be able to buy ridiculously expensive bedding plants to supplement our own.

The asparagus bed is so nearly there, it’s frustrating, but the early spears were deformed by the cold nights so we’re hoping that a spell of warm nights will give us our first proper feed. Our son went off to get some beer for the beer traps.  Slugs are a menace and at least we send them off happy.  Last year’s very unscientific experiment seemed to indicate that they’re real ale buffs – they much preferred the expensive brews to my cheap stuff from Aldi.  Tonight Jo dropped off four cans of bitter for a pound.  I’m not optimistic. We sent our best numbers off with Marston’s Pedigree Ale but it cost about tenpence a slug.