Behold – the thunderbox

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Otherwise known at the Potwell Inn as the Seat of Mercy

I’m not a complete stranger to this form of cludger – that’s three euphemisms so far in a single piece – because a friend built what’s become known as a composting toilet (3) for a party on his smallholding near Brecon; and very comfortable, efficient and non smelly it was –  considering it was serving best part of fifty people.  The next time  we went there no trace existed – the epitome of low impact – and so convenient (4), that I even thought about digging one on the allotment, which is probably against the rules. Both my grandfathers had similar facilities (5), and my mother, when she was a child,  was so used to the earth closet (6) that the first time she encountered a water closet (6) she was unable to go because it was so clean and shiny. We enjoyed an outdoor toilet (7) for three years when we were at art school and we had a fabulous seated view of the Wiltshire countryside. My paternal grandfather had an impressive double seat one, but I can’t imagine myself ever being able to share my private moments with another human being. They must have been built of stronger stuff in those days.

The one in the photo, needless to say, is the one used by the gardeners at Heligan and was known as the Thunderbox. One of the reasons I so dislike costume dramas is that, being a peasant,  I know perfectly well that it would never be me strutting around upstairs – I’d be the poor devil who had to dig out the cludger once a month. However I’m delighted it’s still here, if not in use, because it reminds me of my family and their history.

But today brought the inevitable trip to an industrial estate outside Truro, to buy some new batteries for the van and then, after installing them, some more tooth gnashing when I realized that the previous set had probably taken the charger unit with them when they expired in a feverish sort of way and plunged us into darkness on Monday night. Last night was a bit of a trial too because we had no electrics of any sort and the temperature inside the van dropped to 5C. We slept on and off between bouts of.  synchronised shivering. Anyway today, with a bit of a lash up, we restored some heat and light and set off for a wander around the gardens again.

Madame pointed out as we walked around that we always make for the vegetable garden first.  It’s true, we have learned so much from Heligan simply by noting what they do there but also by talking to the super friendly gardeners who all seem to take their teaching roles very seriously. Today they were planting out garlic and some of the biggest onion sets we’ve seen.  Tomorrow we’ll try to find out if they’re growing from seed and try to get a few tips – we didn’t like to interrupt today because these three days of sunshine have given them the chance to get some sowing and planting done. Otherwise, naturally, there wasn’t a lot going on at this time of year but I spotted this little hummock in a bed that hasn’t yet been cleaned up – I so hope they leave it because it’s absolutely beautiful.  I can’t say what the species are but they were a tiny little system of bryophytes and lichens like a Wardian case of specimens.

I’ll have fun with identifying them when I get home.

Elsewhere the arched pathway lined with apples has never looked more sculptural, and I couldn’t resist a taking a photo of the stacked crocks in the potting shed which had the air of an ancient ossuary, all of a piece with the memory of the lost gardeners. In the bright winter light, even an old brick wall looked especially beautiful. We sat in the sun on one of the seats in the walled garden and felt intensely peaceful. That’s the thing about visiting gardens – no matter how often you go they look different every time and you’re never more than a whisker away from a state of meditation.  As we walked back we discussed our thoughts on all sorts of mundanities about the allotment – where to put the beans, how to improve the onions, and whether it’s worth trying leeks again after three seasons of failure. Allotmenteering always seems to start in the imagination and unfurl from there. We never get all our own way because the earth, the climate, the soil and the pests have their say too and at the end of each season there’s always something to celebrate and something to be learned.

 

Down from up-country

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We’ve gambled on a brief spell of sunshine and after a frantic planting out session on the allotment we’ve driven the campervan down to Cornwall to spend a little time at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, soaking up some inspiration.  Whenever we come here, and we try to come three or four times a year to catch the changing seasons, we take away loads of ideas, a few plants and usually some books as well. The campsite is right next door to the garden which, of course, is not lost at all but very well signposted. When it was properly lost I bet the locals knew it was there all the time. I once heard a lovely story about a Ugandan Bishop who reproached a tour guide at the Victoria Falls for saying that they were discovered by David Livingstone in 1855. “I think you’ll find”, he said, “That we knew about them long before that”  The lost gardens sounds a bit more impressive than the completely neglected gardens and all power to Tim Smit who’s brought some proper jobs to the area and created a beautifully restored garden and farm not just as a history lesson, but as a model of sustainability too. 

Naturally, being Cornwall where it rains every day, it rained all the way here and I’m sitting typing this with the rain drumming on the roof of the van; but the forecast looks pretty good for tomorrow. It’s only 130 miles south of Bath but that can amount to several weeks earlier for the wildflowers to show themselves, and with this ridiculously mild and wet weather I’d be surprised if I don’t find some spring favourites.

Of course the van, being a bit long in the tooth, needs a bit of love and care.  Things wear out and need replacing, and this last couple of weeks I replaced the heating controller, which cost a fortune, only to discover that the leisure batteries are knackered and need replacing too. The upshot is that although the heater is working perfectly, the batteries are unable to keep it going if we’re not hooked up or running the engine. This means that the controller has reverted to its native German language.  Luckily I know enough German to turn it on and off, and I decided to keep it going in German as a sign of European solidarity. I’ll replace the batteries as soon as funds permit.  The other snag to beset us is that the WiFi isn’t working on the campsite due to some building work; so the laptop is piggybacking my phone and making inroads into my data allowance – but it works, that’s the main thing.  

I’ve been reading Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth” and he manages to express very beautifully some kind of answer to the question “how did we get to where we are?”  I’m paraphrasing a bit because I haven’t got the book here with me, but it spoke to me because I’ve lived through most of the period during which our whole mindset began to change. I can really identify with the profound capacity of natural history to grip us. There’s probably never been an epoch that knew more about the way that nature works, how lifeforms came to be the things they are and why they grow as they do. But with that growing knowledge came the need to use it carefully, much more carefully than we have done. If we add to that huge development in understanding, the pervasive idea that we are not only separate from nature but free to do as we please with our knowledge, we slide from a basic assumption of a stewardship relationship to one of domination and extraction; and I’m struggling even to write this paragraph without using words like ‘thing’ and ‘it’ in relation to non human beings – it’s so embedded within our language, hidden as a bacteria might hide within a cell. The industrial revolution was premised on the idea that the earth was an infinite resource given to us by a beneficent God and whose exploitation was a kind of moral duty. The discovery and the exploitation, through scientific advance, of the material wealth of the earth was seen as a sign of God’s favour.  Until Darwin, nature was eternal and unchangeable and, in a sense safe from harm; it was just there

Our bad attitude to the earth is rooted as deeply as once was slavery and still is rooted in racism, misogyny and religious hatred and the same intensity of reflection, self examination and pushing back will be required before anything will change. Again and again I come back to the certainty that spraying facts and data, and shouting at people is not going to be enough. The change in our relationship with the earth and with all its living things, times, tides and seasons, is more akin to a conversion experience than to the acquisition of new knowledge. Of course it begins in reason, but travels far beyond it. 

Maybe that’s why we find gardens like Heligan so powerful.  It is, in its own way, a memorial to the lost, the lost gardeners who never returned from the First World War; a lost way of life in recreating the self-sufficient household, and a lost innocence because we know better than ever before how selfish, greedy and depraved we humans can be. It was always this way but now we know and we can’t unknow it. The fact that the location of the gardens was mislaid for a decade or so is probably the least interesting thing about it.

No more lists, I swear – well just one then.

 

I was determined not to compromise what’s supposed to be a relaxing break, so I left binoculars, cameras and books back at the Potwell Inn and came down to Heligan with nothing more than a mobile, a notebook and a pen. When we set out on a walk in the sunshine this morniing I lasted about six paces at proper ‘going for a walk’ speed before I noticed the abundance of rather early wildflowers and that was that. At best I’m an indifferent botanist, and so identifying the most ordinary things takes an age but, on the other hand, I like the ordinary. So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop. Heligan has a series of different habitats and attractions and today we spent most of our time in the woodlands.

IMG_5212Yesterday I forgot to take the camera and so I couldn’t photograph the navelwort – or pennywort as it’s also known; its Latin name is Umbilicus rupestris, and there were several noteworthy facts we found out.  Firstly I’ve always seen it on walls and never looked for it anywhere else, but here it’s quite common at the bottom of tree trunks.  Secondly its succulent leaves are apparently good to eat and thirdly if you scrape the back of the leaf off it exudes a sap that has healing, coagulant properties and will – if you care to try –  adhere to your skin like a natural elastoplast. Isn’t that fascinating?

IMG_5218Back at the veg garden we made a list of the 23 varieties of potato they’re growing this year.  Yesterday’s tour leader talked a little about these heritage potatoes and said that although they all tasted good, they were tricky to cook correctly and if overcooked they would become waterlogged and collapse. Many of these varieties, regardless of their quality, are not on the EU permitted list and so cannot be sold. We’re growing three of their varieties this year on the allotment, along with two more modern cultivars.  But we really envied the space they have here to experiment. After we’d finished the list we sat enviously in front of their rhubarb patch.  Again, so much space – and yesterday we tasted rhubarb in a way I’ve never even thought of – in a salad. I suspect it was very lightly ‘fridge pickled’ and we both thought it was delicious – time for an experiment in the Potwell Inn kitchen. I think the starting point for us will be a poaching liquid with raspberry vinegar, water and a little salt, brought to the boil and simply poured over the sliced rhubarb. I’ll report back later.

IMG_5222Then we moved on to the apples where we had a good look at the pruning method they’re using here. It looked very like the Modified Lorette ststem that we last saw in the National Trust gardens at Dyrham Park.  It involves cutting back very hard in the winter and then again in the summer.  It’s not a system either of us knows but it looks very productive.  The gardener at Dyrham Park said it was very slow to establish but, on the other hand it seems capable of sustaining excellent crops. So much to learn! So many lists!

 

 

Meet ‘the widowmaker’

IMG_5194If you detect a certain look of distaste on Madame’s face, it’s just what anyone might look like when they’ve just heard something that compels a rearrangement of the neural networks. How many of us go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in search of Downton Abbey -you know, six residents lovely frocks and fifty servants –  or perhaps in search of a lost time of horticultural innocence. I’m so exercised thinking about the poisons that we’re pouring on to the earth in the 21st century, that it really never occurred to me to enquire too deeply into what they were putting on it in the early 1900’s. So – meet what our guide today claimed was known by the gardeners as “the widowmaker’. It’s an ordinary hand operated spray, through which the gardeners dispensed weedkiller and insecticide. Substances like sea salts, waste manufacturing products, and oils were used as weed killers. In the late 19th century, additional materials such as carbon disulfide, borax, pyridine and other coal-tar derivatives, mercury, strychnine and arsenic trioxide were used, not to mention nicotine of course. So let’s not get too breathlessly sentimental about late 19th and early 20th century horticulture it was as much a product of the industrial revolution as any other aspect of life.

IMG_5192However, a century later – now we can see what havoc industrialised agriculture can wreak on the countryside and its ecology – anything before 1945 is going to look better than what we’ve got now.  Time for a cheerful picture. Here we’re looking at about half of just one of several gardens dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables at Heligan and you can see some rather vast rows of shallots.  This is the bed we photographed in the autumn under four or five inches of seaweed straight off the beach.  We had a conversation with the head gardener and she was very reassuring,  so we mulched our asparagus bed with a car-load of seaweed from North Wales and, just as she said, the seaweed has almost disapeared and we have a very healthy growth of second year asparagus. We’ve taken and eaten just a few spears but the bed will be fed and left alone for the rest of the season, just keeping an eye out for asparagus beetle which decimated our neighbours’ crops last season. Allotmenteers face the same challenges as the old gardeners of Heligan in controlling pests and we’ve turned our backs on synthetic chemicals, but we did have to use natural pyrethrum twice last year, or face the destruction of our plants. It was applied early in the morning when the impact of any drift on passing insects would be minimised, and the asparagus itself was not in flower. We try not to let the perfect drive out the best. Short of a major infestation you can often pick enough beetles off plants to set them back.

It was here too, at Heligan last year, that we first saw a hotbed in action and again we were sufficiently inspired to build a small one ourselves and in spite of a few mistakes on my part (like getting too little straw in the manure) it’s providing us with salad onions, beetroot, radish and lettuce which appear to love their warm environment.

We’re staying on the campsite adjoining the gardens.  I’ve never mentioned the campervan before. We call it “Polly” which, confusingly refers to Alfred Polly the hero of the Potwell Inn. On the right our inflatable kayak that gets us to some epic birdwatching spots on local canals.

Apart from visiting the gardens, as always when we’re in the van I’ve been doing some serious reading. This time it’s been Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. It’s a brilliant book that raises all manner of questions and ideas for us. My head is spinning with challenges, not least because instinctively I’m a tidiness freak (only) when it comes to the allotment. I have to remind myself that my idea of rubbish could often be better described as habitat. Once again, I’m trying to bridge the gap between what can be done on many hundreds of acres and our 250 square metres, and I know there is a link, but we just haven’t worked it out yet.  I remember one of those annoying management catchphrases – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and it’s true.  Reading Tree’s book, I understand perfectly what so many of the objectors were getting so exercised about.  One decription of culture that really impressed its usefulness on me was “the way we do things round here”. Changing the way we do things involves for most of us – especially for me – the sense of overriding long held prejudices and instincts. But ‘bring it on’ I say – for the first time in years I’m beginning to feel optimistic.

A surprise flavour with pesto

IMG_5120This photo is pretty out of date because, in the intervening period since it was taken, the chillies have been removed from the heated propagator and the basil put back in for a bit of a holiday in the sun which resulted in them growing rapidly. There are a number of different varieties of basil and this is the first year we’ve grown anything except the normal “Classico” type we’re used to buying in the shops. Franci seeds have a pretty wide selection for the UK market but I’m sure there are many other suppliers, and this year we added their ‘Basil bolloso napoletano’ to our list. It’s impossible to compare the performance of the two types because we treated them rather differently.  The fact is, any basil seems to love heat and light.

So – confession time! we have experimented with sowing basil in pure composted manure, in peat free Sylva Grow and in a proprietary John Innes. This weekend we’ll be trying a 50/50 mix of composted manure and vermiculite. So far at least, the best performer for seed sowing has been theJohnInnes.  We spray it weekly with fairly dilute seaweed fertilizer, and it’s obvious that the most vigorous growth comes in the heated propagator set at 20C with 12 hours of overhead artificial daylight. Now I’d add that I’m no expert in this and I’d hate to lead anyone down the wrong road but it seems to work for us.

Anyway, yesterday we took our first big harvest of basil and in order to get the required weight for a batch of pesto we mixed the two types together.  It was quite the nicest pesto we’d ever tasted.  The Neopolitan variety added a subtle fennel flavour and it was so nice I’d never want to go back to the pure Classico. In fact we resolved on the spot to sow some more varieties to see what other delights could be there.  I’ll never tire of the simplest of pasta sauces, and pesto is so adaptable.

And today we drove down to Cornwall to one of our favourite places – the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  More photos tomorrow.

 

Lost Gardens of Heligan III: Celebration

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I’ve written quite a bit already about the ethos of Heligan, but there’s something else I want to explore, and that’s the need for proper celebration in our lives. Now I know that “proper” is a weasel word that usually means ‘the way I think it ought to be done’, but there’s more to it than trying to force my own sense of ‘the way things should be’ on to everyone else. Many years ago we had one of those extraordinary autumn seasons when the blackberries were so prolific that we picked forty pounds, which we took back to my parents house without having any idea what to do with them. What I remember most clearly from the occasion was the overwhelming urge to give thanks for the generosity of the uncultivated hedges.   Continue reading “Lost Gardens of Heligan III: Celebration”

Lost Garden(ers) of Heligan

_1080653There’s a reason for changing the usual name of these gardens.  We’ve just got back from 5 days in Cornwall which we spent entirely in exploring the gardens – they’re that good. We first visited in the summer with some of our family including the three grandchildren.  They raced around having fun and doing what happy children do and we would not begrudge them a single moment of that mad ecstatic reception of a new place -in truth I wish we could all recover it for ourselves. But there was much more than novelty and ‘visitor experience’ going on there, and that was what we spent last week exploring. So this posting may well turn into several as I turn the days over in my mind. Continue reading “Lost Garden(ers) of Heligan”