Exactly as I predicted there was a really good showing of Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon canal today. As we walked to the first deep lock the river was in full spate and at its most dangerous as we went along, and in places the banks were flooded. At Pulteney Weir the steps had disappeared and water was shooting upwards like a fountain as it curled back at the river bed. Heaven help anyone falling into that maelstrom – they’d have no chance at all. The eddies and deep currents seem to illustrate constantly changing anatomical illustrations of the musculature of unknown beasts. Fallen logs lifted helpless arms into the air, like Excalibur, and all the while there was a dangerous sound – far from the comfort of waves and waterfalls but the fretting water feeling for any weakness along the bank. The boats moored alongside the footpath were lifted high on their moorings. Any higher and they’d start to list into oblivion as the water flooded in. The canal, of course, is at one remove from all the mayhem and there’s a more peaceful regime altogether.
Once again we revisited the walk that kept us sane during the lockdowns, and in Henrietta Park an ever reliable tree stump was growing Oyster Mushrooms and what I think was almost certainly Silverleaf Fungus as well as the usual Turkey Tails. Further back in the park the magnificent trunk of an old pine looked especially beautiful. Hundreds of walkers were out and about celebrating New Year. We were passed by one crocodile comprising upwards of 20 walkers – no doubt a rambling club. It’s crazy how easy it is in England to assign social class to whole groups. I remember once taking a midweek communion service which usually had about four or five communicants but on this particular Wednesday the Lady Chapel was full to the brim with identically dressed, late middle aged men in tweed jackets and flannel trousers. It could have been a Monty Python sketch. Afterwards I asked them who they all were and they told me they were all High Court judges on a course in the hotel next door. Today’s walkers were equally monocultural. Several of them wished us a happy new year in clipped received pronunciation and I relapsed into full churl, willing my cheek muscles into a rigid smile as I responded with imperceptible grace.
It was a joy to find plants and fungi to identify at this time of the year. Even the vivid green of new foliage brought a foretaste of plants just waiting in the earth for the kairos – the appropriate time. Alongside the river a large group of Long Tailed Tits kept themselves busy in the branches of trees overlooking the cricket ground. On the other side at St John’s Church we not only saw a pair of Peregrine falcons on the tower but also heard their unmistakable voices. Before we’d even taken that unusual sight in, a pair of herons fled downstream in their prehistoric way, and later a couple of cormorants flew downstream as well. All this in the very centre of the city.
Back home again I cooked the last of the Christmas leftovers and we had an early supper. Below are some of the things we saw.
I could have titled this post ‘Nocturne‘ – a bit posey; or – ‘Be careful what you pray for!’ – except that usually applies better to well deserved comeuppances, so I settled on the one it’s got because today we walked through and enjoyed the subtle differences between all three evening states and now as I write this I’m looking through the window at the night – not Van Gogh starry night or Whistler night and especially not Turner night but just the car park, the backs of the terrace and the fast food joint chimney.
We wasted much of the day waiting for a delivery from Royal Mail that never arrived. To recycle a quip from John Mortimer, writer and barrister, “it’s like tantric sex; you’re in all day and nobody comes.” So (moving rapidly on) we didn’t set out on our walk until 3.00pm. Years ago we were walking in Leigh Woods in Bristol when a tramp – ‘rough sleeper’ carries a whole different set of connotations nowadays; this was a man who had chosen to live in the woods for whatever reason. Anyway he came rushing up to us in a state of high excitement and begged us to follow him. “I’ve been living here for ten years and I’ve never seen one before”, he said, and he led us off into the wood where he had found the first thorn apple he, or we, had ever seen there. Jimson weed, devil’s Snare or thorn apple, it’s got a bit of a reputation for being poisonous/hallucinogenic and the RHS entry for it spends almost as much time describing how to kill it as it does to grow it. We, however, were pleased to see it, thanked him and went on our way.
Yesterday I mentioned here that we haven’t yet seen the otters on the river and blow me if we didn’t meet a man who had – earlier today. Yesterday too, I mentioned that we hadn’t noticed the resident heron for a few days and there we were near an improvised shelter (bender) on the bank watching a larger heron that we haven’t seen before when this man came up to us and told us that only this morning he’d seen a female otter with two cubs, swimming at the exact spot we were standing in. It was beginning to feel as if we were on a roll.
What next? Well, a little further on we saw in one spot – without moving – two swans, one cormorant, one kingfisher, our usual heron and two – yes two peregrines. Admittedly the peregrines were about 60 feet up on St John’s Church spire but that was a bit of a moment to savour, and remember; this is all in the very centre of Bath. A group of young men were passing and joined in the peregrine watching. “They’re up there on the nest platform” I said; and one of them replied “I know, my dad made the nest box and two of the little ones have got together and had babies!”
There were hordes of people out walking in the parks and on the canal in spite of the slate grey and rain bearing clouds overhead. Somewhere up there there was rain falling high above us because a rainbow had gathered together all the sunlight that we weren’t seeing and formed an inverted bowl over our heads. Dogs, children, adults, students in careless groups of eight and ten oblivious to the wide birth we were giving them. It was an almost joyful atmosphere as we grabbed what fresh air we could before retreating into lockdown and endless repeats on the television.
As we walked along the river beneath the railway station a long express train pulled in and we noticed for the first time that the lights inside the carriages were glimmering on to the platform. There’s a marvellous sense of inside/outside as it gets darker and the whole townscape slowly changes from day to night. The sky was washed with Paynes Grey, possibly my favourite watercolour; and stationary tree trunks that the spate had brought downstream were riffling the water, making the street lights dance. We quickened our pace to get back where the otters were before it got too dark to see them, but it wasn’t to be. Still; now we know where they are, we can take the binoculars and search for a holt. It was a lovely walk, and completely, unexpectedly rich as walks so often are.
And as I’m writing I remember that among the plants in flower that I listed briefly yesterday, I forgot the hedge woundwort and prickly sow thistle near the canal. The woundwort looks very like a pink/purple nettle, but the killer trick for identifying it is the smell of the crushed leaves that can be anything from mildly unpleasant to almost nauseating. It’s supposed to be effective against boils and such like. I just love the English names of these medicinal herbs; they’re little poems – two or three syllable haiku. Latin names are more useful but I wouldn’t be without Mrs Grieve and Geoffrey Grigson’s lists of local names. I remember an old countryman telling my sister the local name for dandelions – ‘pissabeds’ and giggling as my mother glowered at him. In fact she knew them all very well but never mentioned the more earthy ones.
And then back home, hungry as horses, we fell upon homemade and home grown baked beans; our own borlotti and our own rich tomato sauce mopped up with our own everyday sourdough. Life doesn’t get any better.
In my last post I wrote about the undoubted benefits of even small ponds in gardens and on allotments. We’re lucky here because our allotments are no more than 50 yards away from the river Avon and we have a number of large ponds almost as close; but that doesn’t in the least seem to lessen the impact of the tiny ponds that I photographed yesterday, and all within yards of our allotment.
As you can easily see, these aren’t all the tidy and expensive preformed fibreglass ponds bought from garden centres and neither are any of them apparently lined with expensive thick butyl. For the most part they’re a hole in the ground lined with builders polythene all apart from the one that’s not a pond at all but a horse trough. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all full of water, most of them have a few plants around them and they’re all teeming with life.
Starting with the horse trough that’s the source for much of our our watering, there’s never an occasion, it seems, when you can’t find at the least, a few water boatmen. The others vary in maturity but even the one that was built this spring by a couple of children raised a crop of tadpoles which they generously shared around all the other ponds. The murkier ones have larvae in them, and all are visited by a variety of dragonflies and damselflies which, when they’re not eating smaller insects are becoming snacks for birds. What the ponds are doing of course is drawing these interesting and beautiful invertebrates into places we can see and enjoy them, and as their natural habitat is eroded, ponds become a matter of survival for some species.
As you will know if you’ve been following the Potwell Inn blog recently, I’ve been reading David Goode’s contribution the the New Naturalist library – “Nature in towns and cities”. A brilliant collection of books for anyone interested in natural history in any case, and this one’s particularly caught my attention because it’s on a subject close to my heart.
When we moved to Bath almost five years ago I wasn’t prepared for the richness of the wildlife to be found here. Having lived and worked in what most people would think of as the countryside, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the natural history of our adopted home. But far from being less diverse, our immediate neighbourhood slowly yielded its secrets. Not just badgers and foxes but otters! Not just buzzards but a peregrine’s nest; and enough unfamiliar plants to keep me perpetually bewildered. On the very first night here we heard a tawny owl; it was strange to say the least. Now we’re almost blasé about bats and we can name the species of gull on the green outside.
And so I’ve been writing enthusiastically about all this wildlife and, if you live near here you really should join the Bath Natural History Society (Bath Nats) because they’re the quickest and easiest way to learn what’s here. If you live anywhere else and don’t fancy moving to Bath, I urge you to investigate and join your local natural history group – it’ll be full of fabulous, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who just love sharing their interests.
Yesterday after a hot couple of hours on the allotment we wandered along the river to see the peregrines and we got especially lucky because the recently fledged young did a quick flight while we were there. I’ve been to Symonds Yat and not seen a peregrine and yet our son saw one eat its kill on his back doorstep in the middle of Birmingham, and I saw my first less than half a mile from home.
So there’s the good news and here are the doubts. Although it’s a joy to have this diversity outside the door, isn’t it just a bit weird that so many species, being displaced from their normal habitats, are evolving to live here? Isn’t it sad that I’ve learned so much more about plant diversity since we moved to the city? I go on about the rogues and vagabonds but corncockle? vipers bugloss?
The greatest sadness is that when I look for them where the old floras said I’d find them; all too often the habitat is gone. Seabirds can’t find a living in fished out polluted seas and so the canny ones have moved inland to our rubbish tips. Those species that can’t adapt are diminishing rapidly. Invertebrates and plant species that once made the meadows beautiful at this time of the year have been poisoned out of existence. So the take-home point is that however thrilling it is to have the early adapters and early adopters here in the city; they’re in the minority. There’s still every point in cleaning up the rivers and creating inner city wildlife corridors and green spaces. There’s every point in asking gardeners to think about pollinators but it’s not enough.
Grateful for small mercies?
One thought provoking piece in yesterday’s papers made me sit up. There are so many organic and free-range chicken farms setting up on, or near the upper reaches of the river Wye that the accumulating load of excess nitrogen and phosphorous from their droppings is leading to eutrophication of the river – killing it slowly. So even eating organic chicken isn’t going to let us off the hook. It’s intensive farming that’s causing the problems – whatever label you put on it to make it sound like it’s saving the earth.
Think about it for a moment. If even two percent of the vertebrates, invertebrates and plant species could be persuaded to live here in green spaces and derelict industrial sites it would only take one inappropriate development to wipe out a species altogether. Much as I treasure urban ecology, it’s never going to be more than a tiny part of the answer.
We need to change the way we live and the way we produce our food, the way we move about, the way we enjoy our leisure time and the way we shop. We cannot let the free market politicians urge us to live within our means when the real means of our lives are being destroyed for profit. They love to talk about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by which they make the unsupported assertion that land cannot be managed equably without ownership. Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.
No amount of information boards, nature reserves and feeding stations will make up for the loss of the earth. This is an ethical problem, a religious problem, a problem of vision. The one thing it is not is an economic problem. The economists with their pseudoscientific theories have acted as the heavy artillery of the free market. We see the damage they have done every day and I, for one, am not grateful for very small mercies.
It rained today at last, or at least enough to wet the ground and keep us indoors most of the day and so I redeemed the shining hour by making a Dundee cake; some – or rather a lot of smoked mackerel paté; and some mushroom soup which, today I thickened with stale bread in the way the French do it sometimes. When you bake all your own bread you agonise about throwing any of it away and so you become ever more inventive at using it up. Fresh; it needs no embellishment, and then toast speaks for itself. But there’s still bread and butter pudding, soup thickening and finally breadcrumbs just so you don’t waste a crumb. When we used to buy bread we seemed to throw away as much as we ate – it was all mouth and no trousers so to speak. Now we probably eat rather more than we should and never waste it. Keeping the bread supply going always reminds me of moving goods on the old canal network – it’s very slow, but as long as you think 24 hours ahead you’ve always got fresh bread, and sourdough keeps rather better than yeast bread.
I managed to lay my hands on 500g of dried bakers yeast today because I do still bake yeast bread and rolls – usually when I forget to start the sourdough in time. I try to leave the dough fermenting for as long as possible and so I’ve gradually cut the yeast down to one level half teaspoon for a two pound loaf. My completely unscientific feeling is that adding too much yeast makes the bread unappetising and stale much quicker. What you gain in rising time you lose in freshness.
Once the kitchen was clear and the cake on a rack, we went for our usual walk up the canal under grey and rainy skies. As we passed by Bath Deep Lock we saw Bath Nats President Prof David Goode intently watching the local heron as it walked purposefully alongside the lock and dropped down to fish from the bottom of the gate. We followed the bird up the canal, and I managed to get a couple of shots with my phone – not great quality I’m afraid, but I’ve never managed to catch a heron taking off before. It’s such an awesome sight to see this big, prehistoric bird winching his way into the sky.
The lock isn’t so named out of any local bragging rights – it really is very deep indeed, quite daunting to exit the canal into the river when it’s flowing fast, and all too easy to lose control of a narrow boat as it’s swept to the left by the current.
Next, as we passed the big pond at the head of the lock, a swan emerged from her nest in the reeds, bringing four cygnets across to see us. They’ve become very used to being fed and were quite tame, although they soon abandoned us when it became clear we had no food for them.
Not long afterwards the skies opened and we turned back towards home taking a shortcut that brought us out on to the river once more, facing St John’s RC church. There was David once again watching the tower intently. It’s an urban nest site for a pair of peregrine falcons who have fledged four young this spring. I had no binoculars so I couldn’t see very much, but we chatted with David for a while – he’s a notable pioneer and expert on urban ecology, and if you ever get a chance to look at bogs and mosses with him you’ll learn so much. But he has a terrible memory for faces and names and depite having been on a dozen meetings and field trips with him he asked us (for at least the twelth time) “what were your names again …?”.
As we were standing there the male (tiercel) flew back to the nest and there was a terrific noise from the hungry young birds because they’d fluttered down to a lower perch and the food had landed a short flight above them, on the official nest platform. Apparently this is a dangerous time for them because in high winds they’re liable to be blown off these insecure perches and into the river.
So all in all, not a bad crop of wildlife, bang in the centre of town. I had to laugh this morning when my Google phone informed me that we’d visited three cities last month. I scrolled down to see which cities we were supposed to have visited. They were Bath – no surprise there then; Severn Beach which used to be a bit of a joke for Bristolians hunting for an end of the world location and certainly not a city, but happens to be where we store the campervan. Finally Bitton came up as the third city. We like to think of it as a very pretty overgrown village.