Meet this wonderfully colourful and easy to identify fungus – just one of the treats we discovered on a wander yesterday through Stockhill Plantation on the Mendip Hills. The books disagree as to whether it’s edible or safe. Roger Phillips says yes and others say no – or at least to foraging them. Luckily we had the heavyweight Collins Guide with us and unlike some of our finds, Google Lens, on my phone, got it right the first time. Now I know that phone apps are a wonderful thing, but only when used with a considerable amount of caution. One or two fungi were bang on the money, but all too often the ID offered by the phone was too dodgy to trust.
I prefer to photograph the fungi carefully, including shots of the full length of the stipe (stalk) from soil to cap, some idea of the size, the gills from below and from the side and similarly the cap. Then I can take the pictures home and with a bit of luck get a sound ID. Any mycologist will object that often a proper ID relies on looking at the spores through a high powered microscope and even measuring them – in microns! – none of which I can do, so nature wins that round. So my photos aren’t taken with aesthetics as the principal aim. They’re a form of electronic notebook. The real work begins at home and it’s such good fun, like reading a fungal Agatha Christie – you know the answer’s in there somewhere!
Where phone apps like Google Lens – there are others that may well be much more reliable – so where they go wrong is in the part of our brains that really wants to trust them. There were two or three identifications yesterday that could have been dangerously misleading. I really wanted to believe that these were respectively Penny Buns – Boletus edulis and Saffron Milkcap – Lactarius deliciosus, and if I’d been a forager relying on the phone I would have given us both a nasty surprise. Another identification included a seriously hallucinatory mushroom – not the Fly Agaric or the Magic Mushroom (we were in woodland) but another deceptively innocuous one which was first cousin to the good to eat one. As I see it, the best use for the phone app is to try to discover the family and the to turn to books.
So it’s peak fungus right now, and as foraging becomes ever more popular, my plea is that we should all be careful and even with a certain and verified identification we should never over-pick at the expense of the fungus’ capacity to reproduce itself. For me, they extend the season for walking and exploring into autumn and that’s wonderful. But there’s always space for wonder at their capacity to conceal themselves in leaf litter or on grass, even though they often display luminous and occasionally garish colours. Picking them just deprives another walker from experiencing that burst of joy. My other suggestion is to join a group – not just a foraging group. There are thousands of fungi out there and some of them will blow your mind – literally if you’re not careful! You’ll learn so much from fungus forays; and notice I wrote foray and not forage.
Here are some yet to be properly identified heroes and villains amongst the racing certainties.
And here’s a shot of where we were, and as you’ll see immediately if you know and love the Mendip Hills as we do, this is yet another post-industrial site; another lead mining area that extends across the road into the Mineries which hasn’t been covered with trees and has its own flora and fauna. It’s hard to believe that over the centuries this whole site was dug over, tunnelled into and polluted with heavy metals. Now, apart from the road through the middle, it’s quiet with just the sound of the wind in the trees and a few dog walkers and nature lovers.
After a couple of weeks when we spent half our time catching up with old friends face to face – at last – and most of the rest preparing the campervan for a new season; we finally got out for a decent walk today on the Mendips, beginning at Charterhouse and walking down Velvet Bottom and then following the West Mendip way up and along the top of the Longwood valley – passing several nature reserves before completing the circuit back at Charterhouse.
It’s a bit early for any of the flowering plants to show themselves – there are some really quite rare plants up there – but we left the flat thinking about the implications of a recently published paper by Belgian scientists that demonstrated how dogs – and more particularly their faeces and urine – add potentially dangerous amounts of phosphates and nitrates which would be illegal if produced by farms. We’re very used to notices imploring dog owners to keep their animals on leads on farms, and it’s true that some careful owners pick up the poo and dispose of it properly, but the urine stays put. The point is that the finest shows of rare wildflowers need poor soil to flourish – that’s why we sow yellow rattle, a parasitic plant on grasses, on potential wildflower meadows, and remove the hay when they’re cut. The Mendips are rich in these sorts of habitats, and you have to wonder whether the sheer quantities of dog poo alongside and on the tracks, presents a threat to rare plants.
Apart from all that pooch flop (I thank the late Richard Boston for that one!) the absence of flowers focuses the eyes on much smaller targets; the bryophytes – mosses and liverworts and the lichens – none of which I know a great deal about. I did lash out on the ultimate field guide, published by the British Bryological Society a couple of years ago; but it’s so densely packed with identical looking plants, my heart sank and today it still smelt like a new book. We have a couple of real experts in the Bath Nats, and it’s always a pleasure to go on field trips with them, but bryophytes demand a bit of an apprenticeship. I should really try harder because unlike wildflowers, most of them are available for head scratching and book banging the year round. Occasionally the Google Lens app on my phone gives a useful steer for identifying all sorts of plants, but that’s my secret vice! I slipped in the wild thyme on the right because there’s a lot growing here and it’s a food plant, in a complicated sort of way, for the large blue butterfly which has been reintroduced in Somerset. The association is down to the fact that the larva are parasitic on the grubs of a species of red ant that associates with wild thyme. Who knows? the large blue may be breeding here already! The other photos show common polypody on the left, a thick mat of unidentified bryophytes in second place, and a lovely maidenhair spleenwort in third place. Honestly, the walk was brimming with interest
Further walking found a field full of what I think were either pure Lonk sheep or a crossbred variety; perfectly suited to this high country. They looked as if they were all in lamb, but there were a couple of tups still in the field and glowing with a liberal coating of luminous green spray. Later as we walked towards the road down away from Tynings Farm we saw someone making a lovely job of laying a hedge. Further along the way we saw he’d been busy in other places as well. I took several photographs of his work because hedge laying was one of my favourite jobs when I was working as a groundman and it’s a highly skilled and rewarding job; it’s brilliant for wildlife and it could provide work for many people who’d much rather lay hedges than work in call centres! Just to emphasise my point I also photographed a typical stretch of mechanically flailed hedge which offers none of those benefits; looks horrible and barely functions in keeping stock in the right place.
There’s a long walk around the village of Capel y Ffin in the Black Mountains that takes you up Hatterall Hill at just over 530 metres above sea level and joins the Offa’s Dyke path. Walking west along the ridge you come to a track that’s a lot easier to find with GPS, down past Vision farm. You drop steeply down into the valley, cross the Honddu river by a bridge and then climb up the other side through Capel, passing the ruins of the monastery there, and uphill until you reach a second ridge that offers the most spectacularly airy views of Hay Bluff and across into Wales. Turning left you follow the ridge, keeping an eye open for a single wind blasted thorn, several miles further on and which is the only clue to the whereabouts of a path leading back down the valley to Llanthony Abbey and the starting point. It’s about ten, maybe twelve miles, I suppose – a fine walk in any weather although there’s no shelter from sun, wind or rain and it can get a bit gloopy in winter. That thorn tree is an essential part of the navigation. If you miss it you let yourself in for a long and difficult thrash.
The image came to mind today as I was struggling to make sense of the confusion I am feeling at the prospect of yet more restrictions and growing numbers of deaths from the Omicron Covid variant. Hefting – to use the phrase that describes that way sheep “belong” to particular parts of their fells is a powerful description of an attachment that goes far beyond owning an internal sheepy satnav. Hefting includes within its meanings the knowledge of particular plants for food; of water; of shelter from storms; of tracks of use only to sheep who have different purposes than careless walkers. Hefting embeds ancient inherited knowledge within a whole landscape – an almost sacramental image combining outward form with inner grace; shared – and here’s the point – between sheep and shepherds. I remember once talking with a farmworker in his seventies who could point out, and actually name a field on an east-facing slope of the Forest of Dean, a mile away across the River Severn.
It’s an important clue to the way it feels to be human, here in this place and at this moment in time. Covid, brexit, the collapse of social care, appalling and uncaring politics and the impossibility even of seeing a doctor when their answering machine says – “If it’s an emergency dial 999 and if it’s not – talk to your pharmacist”; all add up to the feeling of walking on a rainy and windblown ridge and discovering that every single waypoint has been taken down. The thorn bush that’s always been there as a pointer to the way home, is gone. You feel lost.
And so, today – much to Madame’s bewildered amusement – I just had to drive up to High Mendip to make sure it was still there, even if it was too wet to get out of the car and too misty to see beyond a hundred yards. “God it’s bleak up here”, she said, and I thought to myself that its bleakness may have been its saviour.
When someone’s taken a flail mower to your inner landscape you have this primal urge to find a place that you know, and that – in some strange way – knows you. I’ve explored Priddy’s underground streamways and passages with more moments of sheer terror than bliss; seen the power of the water reshape an entire cave system in a single night, and then retraced my steps sixty years later walking the map above ground. It’s a three dimensional landscape for me ….. or could it be four? My son gave me Robin Wall Kimmerer’s latest book – a collection of essays – for my birthday this weekend. Here’s something truly significant that she writes towards the end of the preface:
In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that thing cannot be understood until it is known by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, spirit. The scientific way of knowing relies only on empirical information from the world, gathered by body and interpreted by mind. In order to tell the mosses’ story I need both approaches, objective and subjective.
“Gathering Moss” – Robin Wall Kimmerer – published 2021 in the UK by Penguin Books.
You need to know that Kimmerer is both a scientist, professor of environmental biology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. But you don’t have to be a First Nation American to embrace the earth in its totality. There was never a more important moment in human history to turn away from the narrow vision of the reductionist arrow slit to embrace the intensity and difficulty of the whole. For me, the emotional and spiritual connection to landscape -and not just wild places and countryside, but the towns and cities in which we are also hefted – these connections are being tested like never before. We are being shriven by the weather of events, huddling beneath the walls, waiting for a spring that’s failed us now, for two years, and fearing that there is no shepherd to lead us down to food and shelter.
For each of us the equivalent of my blasted thorn will be different. The signs that guide us to safety are rarely the ones erected at great public expense – like the statue of Edward Colston, in Bristol – in order to keep the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. The Post Office and corner shop, the local pub, the tatty GP surgery, the school where the teachers remember your name thirty years later, the alleyways and steps, the bus stop that’s always hosted the number four bus, the sweet shop of your childhood that suddenly and overnight turned into a bookies on the day you finally understood why your grandfather would send you up to give a note to the shopkeeper and occasionally bring an envelope back – evidently not a rebate on sweets. When the flail mower visits your own blasted thorn you feel lost and sad; and if there’s a calculus for feeling lost then I have lots of data.
But then, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that if you’re from this part of the UK. It’s a stack of hurdles, used for the annual Priddy Fair and with its own thatched roof. After last week’s overnight stay here, we decided to come back for some more healing magic on the Mendips. A neighbouring allotmenteer has offered to keep an eye on the plot for a couple of days so we hope all will be well when we get back. The reason for being here is that the Potwell Inn bathroom is being refurbished and, since the flat is – shall we say – compact, we thought it was best to leave the builder to it. We shall return (we hope) to a proper walk-in shower which will be easier on the knees than the present daunting arrangements which involve a grade three scramble over the edge of the bath. Not that our need is imminent; today we did a 10K round trip over the fields to Ebbor Gorge and back again via the Queen Victoria where I had a pint – the first after eighteen months of abstinence. It was the first time we’d been to that pub in over fifty years. The last time was a memorable lock-in when the landlord offered us a room if we we wanted to stay. We didn’t.
An air of celebration has followed me around all day because I’d been to hospital for another echocardiogram yesterday morning and the results were good. Any leaking in the heart valves was, in the nurse’s words, ‘trivial’ and no worse than last time. I thanked her warmly and said I’d never been so pleased in my life to be described as trivial. To my great surprise she said she’d never been to Mendip, but she loved Dartmoor. So do I, I said, but Mendip is closer and less crowded.
So what with hospital, going to the supermarket for the first time in over a year (to stock the van), and driving to Priddy, I was tired but exhilarated. Books, hand lenses, camera and all the usual botanical paraphernalia are here with us and I slept for an amazing ten and a half hours. I have no idea why I can sleep so well in the van when I have trouble in getting beyond seven hours at home, and Madame is equally perplexed. But there’s something in the air here – quite literally because we’re camping next to a stable; but I think it’s the quiet. It’s not completely quiet of course, but all the sounds are embedded in a matrix of rare silence: a rookery just down the road, the horses in the nextdoor field, robins, chaffinches and sparrows singing, the wind in the beech trees. Then there’s the dangerously non-pc perfume of wood fires in the early evening. Campsites have their odd moments. When we arrived I left the electric hookup lead unwound on the grass. During the night, a silent and invisibly tidy minded (did I say tidy?) – camper had coiled it neatly. I know who it must have been because opposite us is a caravanner who has a strategically placed bucket painted red and marked “FIRE” behind his van. If I were really cruel I’d pile on the pressure and uncoil it again – or perhaps leave an empty wine bottle on the grass – but I’m so full of happiness at being out amongst the wildflowers again I’ll say hello to him tomorrow and compliment him on the way his socks and sandals match so beautifully.
Up here on high Mendip is probably not the best place for arable farming because the soil is rather thin. It’s better for grazing, but almost all the fields we saw have been “improved” and grazed mostly by sheep – which has had a baleful effect on the wildflowers and grasses. One footpath was speckled with wasted nitrate fertiliser granules which had been sprayed over it by a careless farmer. The soil up here, between 600 and 900 feet above sea level, overlays carboniferous limestone which drains freely into the many cave complexes. We’ve had a couple of field trips up here in the past, and we’ve visited some of the nature reserves that have escaped improvement and the wildflowers in those small protected areas are both marvellous and often rare.
All our sightings today were as common as muck, but not the least unwelcome for it. I had a go at identifying the crop in an arable field from the tillering leaves. It was a trick taught to me by a retired grain salesman called Richard Hiscock and it’s dead simple when you know what you’re looking for. You need to find out what ligules, auricles, sheaths and blades are and then have a proper look at the plant in question. In this case the fact that there were no auricles and it had short ligules so it was a crop of oats – easy peasy!
So here are a few of today’s everyday beauties. Nothing rare, in fact most of the flowers we saw today are ubiquitous, but after a year in lockdown it was like meeting long lost friends. The butterflies too were out and about- again nothing rare, but who could not like the sight of a Brimstone butterfly going about its busyness. At Ebbor Rocks we stood and watched a buzzard using the thermals above the escarpment over Wookey Hole to quarter the ground looking for prey. There were yellow archangel – Lamium galeobdolon; ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea; violet (don’t know which because I left the guide at home but probably sweet violet – Viola odorata; cuckoo flower or lady’s mantle – Cardamine pratensis; and finally the dandelion which – due to its propensity for interbreeding with its cousins, requires a PhD to identify fully and so it enjoys the latin name Taraxacum officinale agg. Dandelion peak season is around St Georges day – April 23rd and that being the case we’ll be keeping a close eye open for some St George’s mushrooms while we’re here. They used to grow in the (grievously unimproved) garden of our previous house.
Walking down the canal a few days ago we reached exactly this point on the towpath when I found – in the sky, the clouds and the opening buds of the trees – a feeling; a sensation near to joy that was out of all proportion to its dimensions and properties as a view in the ordinary sense of the word.
Naturally it was a welcome change from lockdown ennui but it caused me to wonder how it can be that sense experiences (like Proust’s madeleine for instance), can carry such a huge metaphorical load. I could, if there was time, draw a mind-map with the scene at its centre, and which would embrace dozens if not hundreds of deeply personal associations, many of which could generate further mind-maps. Just to give this a bit of an anchor I could mention wild garlic which is just coming into its glory. My subsidiary mind-map would embrace childhood memories of walking by the river Frome and on from there.
I have no idea whether all this can be adequately explained by brain chemistry unless the scientists would concede that human memory simply stores and recovers these experiences through the workings of brain chemistry, like a biological hard drive – the means don’t matter to me very much but the experience lies at the root of all creative processes, including science. As an allotmenteer and as a rather incompetent amateur botanist I understand that the stimulus which drives us on; enables us to tolerate frost and wind and the loss of a whole crop or drives me to immerse myself in the minutest details of a plant’s structure for hours just so I can give it a name; that stimulus is wonder.
When we’re visiting new places – especially gardens – or walking in unfamiliar environments; meeting new people, the imagination is alive; fired up. Somewhere in the mind the sense impressions are finding places, associations, pre-existing memories, experiences and cultural thought-paths; and the inner workings of memory stores them – each in their right place like roosting hens finding their place on a perch at dusk; each discrete experience tagged and keyworded so that later, many years later perhaps, the precise configuration of a landscape, a flower, a gesture, a sound releases releases the whole stored, aggregated complex. If you were looking for a non-supernatural explanation of the déjà vu experience it’s right there.
Why the sudden outbreak of philosophy? – Well, this week we’ve been partially released from lockdown. We’ve spent proper time with our children and grandchildren after a year of hermetic isolation and we hugged and clung to each other like shipwrecked sailors. We went to the campervan full of trepidation and replaced the dead battery and took ourselves off for our first night away from home in many months. We camped up at Priddy which is a place soaked in teenage memories of caving expeditions; watched rooks squabbling over nests and ate up the silence. Notwithstanding a terrible night’s sleep, as we were kept awake by a series of power cuts that had the heating unit cycling noisily on and off ; we came back to Bath feeling that we’d begun to emerge from emotional winter again.
Which brings me to our walk when (at my suggestion) we found the entrance to Swildons Hole which I’d not seen in fifty or more years but which is still full of memories. I’d spent so much time down there cold, wet, tired, fearful and occasionally completely panicked but always blown away by the powerful sensation of being underground and by the occasional bursts of sheer beauty hidden from human eyes for millennia.
A few years ago I met an outdoor pursuits instructor at the climbing wall in St Werburghs who offered to take me down again, but somehow we never got around to doing it. One glimpse of the entrance was enough to convince me that it would be a miserable and possibly dangerous experience for a septuagenarian! But that in itself was enough to remind me that however powerful the memories, not all experiences are repeatable however appealing the thought might be. The sense of our own mortality sharpens and intensifies these remembered experiences which linger in the mind like ghosts.
On the other hand, if you look closely at the third photo from the left, you’ll see something of a line of trees above the pill box entrance. I had no recollection of them from the past. In fifty years or so they’ve grown into a magnificent beech hanger and the sound of the wind rustling through the branches was unmistakable and worthy of a ten minute stop for a free symphony. You can see the leaf buds about to break as they turn from chestnut brown to green. At last a recoverable and re-liveable memory from my childhood trips to Stoke Row in the Chilterns. No I hadn’t really been here before, because on my last visit the trees were so much smaller and yet my memory was able to recover more from my grandparents smallholding to furnish and make sense of this new and powerful experience.
So what about the allotment? Well, we’re in suspended animation as the pampered indoor plants grow like cuckoos while we wait for the present icy spell to end. The earth is a dry as dust and we’re having to continually water in the polytunnel because daytime temperatures soar in the spring sunshine. Slowly, slowly, enough tough old stagers are emerging to break the illusion of winter and the apple blossom sits, clenched in bud waiting for the spring as a child waits for Father Christmas. It will come soon, but evidently not yet and not soon enough for some of the wind tormented broad beans. Inside the tunnel with an additional layer of fleece we’re just coming to terms with its capacity to advance the season. Every time we look at the spinach and lettuces or the young cabbage plants we have to pinch ourselves. The container grown potatoes are growing so vigorously I seem to be constantly mixing soil and compost to earth them up, and I think we’ll have a crop by early May.
Between the flat, the greenhouse, the tunnel, the hotbed, various cloches and the open ground we find ourselves managing half a dozen quite different seasonal microclimates. One little moment of joy came when Madame opened the crown of one of the cauliflowers and found the white curds just beginning to form – and that’s the first time we’ve grown them successfully. The asparagus is beginning to accelerate into life and the newly planted trees and soft fruit all seem to have taken. There are tadpoles in the pond and the Hidcote Giant lavender plants have arrived ready to be planted out and ready to attract insects and bees.
So it’s all good. Confusing, frustrating and good – as life usually turns out to be. Any prolonged silences over the next few weeks will probably be down to sheer busyness!
I’m not sure I go with the relatively recent introduction of what’s called ‘meteorological winter’ which begins on December 1st for no better reason, it seems to me, than an excessive love of orderliness. Yes of course it tidies the year up into four seasons of exactly three months, but the boundaries, the markers don’t coincide with any particular events in the real world. On the other hand, the astronomical seasons are marked by genuine turning points – the two solstices and two equinoxes mark actual observable events rather than concepts. I can hardly imagine anyone getting excited at the accumulation of time required to trigger a new season; whereas I get really excited about the winter solstice because it holds out the hope of lengthening days at what always seems to be (really is, often) the darkest part of the year. The same goes for the equinox, especially at the spring one, when the promise of summer is offered. The late summer is always tinged with sadness as the hours of darkness gain the ascendency once more, but there’s a glorious processional quality about the way the astronomical year reflects our mood. These moments are marked in the natural world by migrating birds like cuckoos which arrive soon after the spring solstice, before the other summer migrants, the swallows and swifts, arrive before the equinox. It all seems to add up.
All of which is a very long way of wondering aloud whether our walk yesterday could be considered a winter walk. The idea of ‘doing’ the Mendip Way – a fifty mile wander between the Bristol Channel and Frome has grown on us and without planning it at all, we’ve been grabbing any excuse to walk bits of it whenever the weather looks reasonable. High Mendip is not a place you want to be walking in freezing winds and driving rain.
Yesterday we walked a random section between Winscombe and Crook Peak – the whole section including the return walk was around 5 miles but it felt longer because there was a climb of just under 600 feet, and the walking conditions were pretty poor with the sodden ground churned to lethally slippery mud by weekend walkers. The start of the walk was diverted because there’s a massive programme of tree felling going on in the whole area, attempting to control ash dieback disease which is rife here, and so we joined the path a mile or so late, beyond Kings Wood. The weather forecast promised better than we actually experienced, but we avoided the sharp showers that we could follow as they drove across the Somerset levels from the South West.
Crook Peak is the high promontory that stands guard over the M5 and would be a familiar sight to anyone who regularly drives that way. Its smaller twin, Brent Knoll, is on the other side of the motorway and I suppose the two peaks represent the last hurrah of the Mendip Hills. But the position overlooking the levels gives the most fantastic views across to Glastonbury and beyond and in the opposite direction apparently Pen y Fan in the Black Mountains can be seen 40 miles away on a clear day; so it’s well worth the effort of going to the top. Looking back you can see the Mendip way extending back across Rowberrow Warren, Burrington Combe and towards Priddy. On Thursday we’ve cherry picked a lovely walk from Priddy down Ebbor Gorge and we’ll leave the joining of the dots for later. There’s something nice about exploring the lay of the land in a series of shorter walks and then doing the whole thing in three or four sections when the days are longer.
We are so fortunate to live just 20 miles away from this marvellous walking country. When the Mendip Way is done we’ll start the Limestone Link which runs almost past our front door down to Shipham which is almost in the shadow of the Peak. I’ve written before about the intermittent lead mining industry around Velvet Bottom, and Mendip being a carboniferous limestone area, the washings from the mines all joined the watercourses as they ran underground through the rock and emerged in springs and resurgences lower down. Although the lead mines were last worked over a century ago, the villagers of Shipham were warned, quite recently, not to eat vegetables from their own gardens because they were so heavily contaminated with cadmium. The source of the contamination is now a treasured nature reserve and I suspect that most of its visitors would never even suspect what a wretched and desolate industrial area it must have been in its heyday.
So here are some photographs from yesterday’s walk. The larger photo just shows Glastonbury Tor on top of the hill in the far distance. During the recent flooding, almost all of the low lying land surrounding it was underwater. Looking down from the top we could see that there is massive dredging work going on in the Lox Yeo river to try to improve drainage. In some areas it’s been suggested that tree planting would slow down the drainage and increase water retention, but up here on the ridge the soil is often very thin, and the drainage is straight down into the rock, or more particularly its extensive cave systems, which just shows that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the problem of flooding, perhaps with the exception of arresting climate change and lessening the extreme weather events that cause the floods.
So this post comes in two unequal parts – part one is the walk we went on today and part two is the fruit of the walking meditation that went on at the same time.
The sun was shining when we got up today, and there was every prospect that our usual walk around Bath would take us into the company of thousands of rugby supporters, plus many more Bristolians and visitors from our surrounding tier three areas who seem to imagine that you can’t catch covid here because we’re only in tier two. This is (forgive me) a grave error of judgement, but there we are – believing six impossible things before breakfast is what we now do here in la la land.
And so we went for a brief drive and a long walk on Mendip where, we were sure, asymptomatic walkers would all be at a safe distance in a fiercely cold wind. Velvet Bottom (how could you not love a place with a name like that?) is a place I’ve written about before (have a search and see) so I won’t repeat myself except to say that the moment you leave the warmth of the car and step out into the fresh air, you also enter a place of unique silence – a reflection perhaps of its location in Charterhouse – the site of a long gone Carthusian monastery where generations of monks wrestled through song and prayer in the silence; always bearing the fear that no-one was listening . And it’s a place where millennia of history underlies the present day almost visibly in the lead mining slag unexpectedly gleaming against the grass and trees. But there’s another secret hidden beneath the earth here, the only evidence of which are small depressions in the ground, gated with steel sheets and padlocks and forming the entrances to cave networks that can be extensive in both depth and distance. I explored many of the easier caves many years ago when I was much younger, but the exploration has continued and now there are many caves whose names I’ve never known. Rhino Rift, Upper Flood Swallet and many others dug out by cavers who would have been the first humans ever to set eyes upon their secrets. Anonymous entrances into underground labyrinths formed by torrents of slightly acidic water percolating through the softer carboniferous limestone over the same millennia that saw Roman miners excavating for lead. The silence of the valley is one thing; the silence of being 100 feet underground is something else entirely. The history of Velvet Bottom is even expressed in the flora which includes a wealth of heavy metal tolerant plants. In fact during our walk we passed half a dozen places where real botanical treasures grow. It’s a place that repays the slow and purposeful walk as well as the challenge of running from bottom to top which seems to be a favourite as well.
We walked down Velvet Bottom and there at the junction with Black Rock the path was closed due to work to remove trees affected by ash dieback disease. So we turned right and instead of walking, as we often do, up the course of Longwood Valley, we took the path that forks to the left and forms part of the West Mendip Way – one of our target long distance walks. It was cold and windy but it was a good to be alive day and after an energetic series of steepish climbs we arrived back at the car after about two hours. My new walking boots had thrived on grass, mud and rock and I was feeling pretty good about it -so to the next part which you might think is a slightly odd conclusion to a very contented walk – but you need peace to think properly.
An entirely un-morbid reflection on death the climate emergency and ecological crisis.
We find it difficult to imagine a world without ourselves in it, and much of the concept of ‘ourselves’ is built on our whole culture – the way we do things round here. So paradigm changes like the ones we now face -climate destruction, ecological crisis, health and food crises, zoonotic diseases – are very difficult to address because we have to learn to imagine a world which would be so utterly different from the one we know that it amounts to the emotional equivalent of embracing our own death.
The Greek word ‘epiousios’ is the mysterious term that gets translated as ‘daily bread’ in the Christian Lord’s Prayer, but since that’s the only place in which it’s used in the whole of ancient Greek writing, the translation – as all translations must be – is a creative, culture bound guess at what it might have meant. Literally it means something like ‘the around and about us things’ the ‘at hand’ things, so not just food perhaps, but all the other stuff that defines us as who we are.
Losing our epiousios things is what happens when catastrophe comes upon us. Nothing means what it did any more; none of the structures that frame our lives and our self understanding are available to us and we are obliged to contemplate having to start over from nothing; nowhere. It’s a profound bereavement not a day without treats.
If you’ll stay with me here for just a few sentences more; this is the greatest challenge of any faith. In Christianity it’s the cross, (and here I move into the new place of no-meaning), – so if a faith uses belief in some kind of posthumous resurrection to elide the dreadful reality of death it’s like playing a “get out of jail free” card, and avoiding the life-changing struggle of genuine rebirth.
So – and I know this is a very first attempt at expanding the present group of economic, political and ecological crises to include a spiritual dimension which, if we fail to embrace it, will lead us into the endless repetition of the same mistakes until we, and eventually perhaps all living species become extinct. Failure to embrace the arduous path of letting go of ourselves as we presently define ourselves – which is a kind of death – will make the probability of our extinction as a species inevitable.
But it’s vital to understand that this isn’t an argument for the individual solitary path. The most important challenge we face is collective, and the mess we’re in can’t be undone one individual at a time, however attractive an idea that might be. Any programme or strategy for saving the earth has to embrace a communal sense of contrition for the state we’re in and, because throughout history we have so wilfully participated in the destruction of other human belief systems and their unique ‘epiousios’ (which we may now need to build over again if we want to save ourselves), we have to own our responsibility. Any exercise in planning a journey – especially a spiritual/material journey like this one – depends absolutely on knowing where you’re setting out from.
So – if you’ve managed to reach this point – I’m sorry for the absence of recipes, allotment tips and anecdotes from this post but doing a bit of hard thinking is as much a part of being human as cooking and eating the borlotti beans that are in the oven right now. For the extreme masochists I’m tagging the very last sermon I ever preached which, if you’re into these things, you may agree takes me over some kind of line. I finished writing it in tears because I knew it was taking me away from a very important part of my own epiousios – I was feeling the fear of setting sail from what had always seemed a safe harbour. It was at a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the ordination of my friend Nev who, over ten years of Friday lunches (it wan’t for the food, they were mostly terrible) taught me how to be – and not to be – human, and how to read the Lord’s Prayer properly..
This has got to be one of the best views within 20 miles of Bath. Inevitably, given the limitations of a phone camera it’s no more than a taste, but from the top of Blackdown on the Mendip Hills you can see the River Severn as a pale streak below the sky and you’ll have to believe me that with no more than a turn of the head you can take in the Bristol Channel from the mouth of the Severn to the open sea, the end of the Cotswolds to the North, and to the West across the river you can see the Forest of Dean and beyond to the Brecon Beacons. Today we could even see Hay Bluff in the far distance, something like 80 miles away by road. Below and on the plain are the Somerset Levels and it’s an easy walk to Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe. It’s almost unfair to have so many nature reserves, SSSI’s and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty within the span of one gaze. Unfair, but who’s complaining? Here I am, the champion of post industrial landscapes and car parks; and William McGonagall of the urban wilderness, celebrating a far more conventional kind of nature.
If ever there was a place made for reflection and contemplation and blowing the dust off, this is it. The birds aren’t singing much at the moment, the chicks are hatched and fledged and there’s no need for showing off to potential mates, but in any case as we walked up from Tynings Farm we were swamped by the sound of a forage harvester getting silage in. We had to crest the hill before we could enjoy the silence that often seems to cloak the Mendips.
Yesterday we spent the day in a very different landscape with our grandchildren and their mum and dad. In a busy suburb of Bristol, the countryside seems to reach into the city by way of fingers. An aerial photograph of Bristol might remind you of a wonky wagon wheel with spokes of green, but these spokes are under threat as never before from development. Our family can walk from their densely terraced street to their allotment, behind which there are open fields. They’re never going to be designated or protected notwithstanding the fact that we picked pounds of large sloes there yesterday, and our oldest grandson had tremendous fun catching grasshoppers, as he calls them. He’s lively and curious and these rather stressed fields, leaving aside the quantities of dog shit left everywhere by thoughtless dog walkers, are the bit of the natural world that he and his younger siblings can actually explore and enjoy. Soon they are going to be built over, and the horses that used to provide free manure to the allotmenteers were moved off on Friday. Our middle grandchild was deeply upset as she saw them being led away. Don’t ask me how we can resolve the constant tension between housing and open space, because it’s a nightmare; but wild and open space is as important for child development and grown up recreation as is warm and safe housing. We can’t let it all go into the developers’ offshore accounts.
As always, the paucity of the wildlife in the fields was more than made up for by the children. I’m always touched to see their parents struggling to solve the same problems and dilemmas that we faced in a previous generation. For good or ill our children, when they become parents, take with them the experience of our earlier attempts at playing mum and dad – not all of them very good because we had to learn on the job too.
And today belonged to the first field mushroom, the hosts of eyebright and tormentil, the heathers, vetches and trefoils, the cotton grass in the bogs, the south westerly blowing up from the sea, the space to talk and celebrate the fact that we are able to be out there in it and not least to thank our knees and one metal hinge for putting up with us.
If Rodway Common was the place that fired me up as a child, this is the landscape that captured my imagination as a teenager – and I’m sorry if my attachment to these rather gloomy, post industrial places offends, but there’s a big chunk of my imagination invested out here.
I came to Charterhouse, Priddy and Burrington Combe not to explore what was on the surface but what was underneath it. I was lucky enough to get a job at the university as what was known as a “Junior Photographic Technician” – it was the kind of work an intern might get these days but there, aged seventeen, they sent me on a course to train as a technical photographer, handed me a very beautiful Leica and a darkroom, and pretty well let me get on with it; calling on me to photocopy; photograph prospective students; and capture whatever else needed recording by the lecturers and post-grads. There was a fabulously well equipped workshop run by a group of oddball technicians whose job it was to turn research proposals into bits of aluminium and electronic apparatus; and Steve was an enthusiastic caver (potholer if you’re from the north, or speleologist in America, I think), who soon took us out with him and his friends .
So this part of the world was the place we came to to learn about caving, using what would now be thought of as completely archaic equipment. The only way of getting a wetsuit was to make your own – which I eventually did, but my gluing of the joints was a bit wayward and it was massively tight in some places and flapped about in others making it both restrictive and inefficient at the same time. The experienced cavers often used electric miners lamps with lead acid rechargeable batteries, but we mostly kicked off with carbide lamps which were smelly, unreliable and occasionally explosive, boiler suits and black helmets that often got soft in wet caves. Ignoring the flora altogether we would crawl and slither down passages that could be very wet or very muddy; soak up the (tall?) stories of exploration and daring by the older cavers and push ourselves to the absolute limit. Perfect fun for teenage boys in fact. If there was a hole in the ground, we wanted to go down it and looking back, we took some hideous risks. My greatest friend Eddy and me had spent holidays playing in the abandoned flues and tunnels in the brickworks so extending our range to natural holes in the ground wasn’t such a great step.
So by the time Madame and me got together I knew this part of the world underground much better than above. It was here that I first heard the term gruffy ground – a miners word for the way in which the landscape is pitted with trial pits and worked out rakes. What I hadn’t thought through at the time, is that these beloved and isolated places were the relics of nearly 2000 years of the industrial extraction of lead. You can see where I’m going here – this landscape had my name written all over it.
Yesterday we waited for the rain to subside and decided to drive up to Charterhouse – less than twenty miles away in the heart of the Mendip Hills. These days it’s a popular place for walkers and there were maybe twenty cars parked above Velvet Bottom, and so we parked next to the Field Studies Centre and walked down to the entrance to the nature reserve. If you were new to this place, you might wonder where the footpath surface came from. It’s shining black and glassy, like obsidian, and it’s slag from lead smelting which began with the invasion of the Romans in the first century, but most of which was produced during the industrial revolution when this must have been a stinking and polluted industrial wasteland. So the first thing about this landscape is that – quiet and beautiful as it might be today – the pollution levels are still so high that it has its own unique flora of heavy metal tolerant plants. Lead, nickel and cadmium levels are so high that tree growth in many areas is inhibited, and gardeners in Shipham just down the road, have been warned not to grow vegetables in their gardens.
Yesterday, though, under a cloudy but clearing sky, the overwhelming first impression was of a very Mendip silence. With Bristol Airport almost out of action (marvellous) the only sounds were wild sounds; of the wind, grasses and trees and of the birds. Up on the ridge in the photograph, a noisy bunch of rooks were enjoying themselves in the air. The second impression was the smell of the sea, of the Bristol Channel, sweeping in from the southwest bearing the scent of salt water and seaweed – the closest we’ll get to the sea this year, I fear.
The plan had been for me to do some grasses while Madame looked for butterflies (she had more luck than me). If you ever ran away with the thought that I knew something about plants, now’s the time to warn you that I really don’t. Within a dozen steps I realized that my carefully researched exploration of meadow grasses didn’t fit. This is the craziest flora. Later, after we got home with me licking my wounds, I discovered that the mixed up flora is the glory of this place. Due to the nature of the underlying soils, there are acid loving plants growing very near to calcifiles and marshy ground specialists. There were old friends but more total strangers, and plants that I knew from elsewhere suddenly popping up as if they belonged there. .More from the British Geological Survey here. It’s the botanical equivalent of the favela – absolutely gripping.
So we wandered slowly down Velvet Bottom (who could resist a place with a name like that?), and found the gated entrances to a cave system discovered long after I gave up, and which turned out to be the fourth deepest cave in the country. It was here we came with the boys once, and watched a couple of adders basking in the sunny heat at the bottom of one of the depressions. The valley deepens and becomes rockier as you descend, and then just before you reach Black Rock nature reserve and then Cheddar Gorge, there’s a footpath that takes you back up the Longwood Valley – another environment altogether, but still bearing the remains of industry beneath the vegetation because water was taken from here to feed the washes in Velvet Bottom. Nowadays it’s yet another nature reserve containing more locked potholes; one of them in particular prone to sudden flooding. Longwood Swallet has a reputation for taking lives.
Until this point there wasn’t much butterfly action; some whites and meadow browns; a skipper which I took a rather bad phone camera photo of; a small blue – too far away to identify properly. Then. suddenly a silver washed fritillary flying high and gliding down to feed on a bramble, then – joined by a second – doing a bit of an aerial display, seemingly unconcerned by our presence and this time I did manage to get a slightly better photo. Acid specialists, calcifiles, marsh specialists and now a broadleaf woodland dweller. If ever there was a ‘phone a friend’ place this is it! We did a field trip with a couple of county recorders leading, near here a couple of years ago and it was pretty inspiring. I must try and persuade them to lead another one on our yesterday walk.
We walked less than five miles altogether and yet what a combination of environments – I could hardly sleep for excitement last night. Mercifully it’s raining again so the allotment won’t need watering today. I need to go back to the textbooks. Oh, and isn’t it good to see that even this landscape could recover from human exploitation.