Velvet bottom – following the way!

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..

An unexpected excitement

A spur of the moment walk into the city centre tonight took us past Pulteney Bridge where the arches and surrounding street lights were reflected beautifully in the water. The river level has fallen over the past few days and the icebergs of detergent foam have now gone as the flood ease and the terraces of the weir reappear. The streets were all but empty on this last night of meteorological autumn. We traversed the centre passing quietly through all the usual tourist hotspots, knowing that this was probably our last chance to do so before the bars and restaurants reopen and the shops, about to be licenced to stay open as long as they wish, flood the air and the winter nights with their desperate appeals for last minute customers.

It feels almost unpatriotic to admit it, but we’ve enjoyed the quiet city; and during the first and more closely observed lockdown in the warm spring weather we often walked at dusk through empty car parks, and crossed streets that would normally be like the river in spate; an impassable flood of visitors tumbling down Milsom Street towards Southgate.

This afternoon, in a moment of pure serendipity just one unsolicited remark in a news feed dropped a moment of excitement into my mind. The article in question mentioned the Mendip Way – a long distance footpath that I don’t think I’d ever seriously thought about walking. But I love Mendip – I have done since I was a teenager and went caving there. After a quick peep I could see that the path takes a winding route West from Uphill on the Bristol Channel to Frome at the Eastern edge of the Mendip Hills – about fifty miles in all.

When I was working in South Gloucestershire I devised a forty mile pilgrimage from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn, across the fields wherever possible. We walked it every year, a small group of seven or eight of us and took a couple of days to complete it. It was a kind of re-enactment of the journey that the monks at Malmesbury Abbey would have made to my little parish church overlooking the River Severn which was a part of their huge land holding. One of these days I’ll tell the story of the murdered monk, killed for the chalice he was carrying, and the story of St Arilda and her fateful meeting with Muncius, a Roman soldier – just two of the events we commemorated as we walked. Coincidentally, both murders were marked by springs, running red once a year, as if with blood. Actually it’s algae but …. we visited both sites just in case.

The longest walk I’ve ever done was a 200 miler across France with my son, between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors on the route of the Camino. It was springtime and as we walked across the Aubrac Hills we were caught up in the transhumance of cattle up to the high mountain pastures – it was an extraordinary sight accompanied by village parties that seemed to go on for days.

I love long distance walks, but haven’t had much of a chance to indulge them recently so I was overjoyed when I hesitantly mentioned the idea of splitting the Mendip Way into small sections to Madame and she jumped at the idea. Within about a minute I’d ordered up the maps and my head is full of thoughts of connecting up some of our favourite places in one long walk. I camped at Uphill as a teenager, and Madame spent most of her holidays with an aunt in Frome. In between we know and have visited most of the places on the route but never in the way that a long distance walk can illuminate them. Your sense of terrain changes profoundly when you get it under your feet, and it will be wonderful to unite the Somerset Levels with High Mendip, crossing Crookes Peak and possibly even stopping for lunch at the Hunters Lodge Inn in Priddy; walking down Ebbor Gorge again.

And of course the natural history across such a walk will be astounding – I’m already packing my kit in my head. Oh glory! it feels like this enervating, never ending confinement is lifting at last.

Finally we get to the cathedral

But I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. I was overwhelmed by the bewildering memory of a sign that someone saw over the Empty Tomb in Jerusalem which said – “He is not here he is risen”. My friend, having queued for ages in the hot sun was rather upset but went in anyway. For me though, the church (and I suppose this applies equally to other faiths) is all too fond of finding a truly holy place and then suffocating the life out of it with stones. So we stayed outside and my heart was lifted by the sounds of jackdaws and rooks playing and quarrelling in the trees and we listened to some singers sitting on the wall rehearsing a folk song. We leaned over the small bridge just beyond the West door and watched a dipper feeding and swimming underwater – quite an achievement.

Whatever spirituality clings to these beautiful stones, it’s contaminated by the venality of its leaders past and present who, I recall from my days as a curate, were quite capable of arguing ferociously about who would go last in a procession – because that was the most important place to be. But I mustn’t go on because mercifully the healing powers of the place cannot be contained and, if you can find a quiet place to sit, you may experience them. For me – because I’m a contrarian by nature – pilgrimage should begin at the holy site and continue all the way home when you’ve had time to work out what you found there. Backwards pilgrimage leads you away from the pile of stones – which can only be a good thing.

On our way to the bus stop in the morning we passed a beautiful adder which was basking in the hedge. I thought he was torpid and risked moving towards him with my phone camera, but he was more than a match for me and disappeared down into his nest like greased lightning.

I bagged a couple more flowers on the way, bringing the total to 65. There’s no place for pride, though, because although I didn’t bring the Vice County list with me that leaves me about 1450 to go! I should’ve started sooner.

Here then, with all the Latin names excised, are my 65 plants in flower, and below them some more of the photos I’ve taken. I particularly enjoyed watching the Lackey Moth caterpillars breaking out of their nest.

  1. Red campion
  2. Sea campion
  3. Scurvy grass
  4. Southern Marsh orchid
  5. Yellow iris
  6. Dandelion
  7. Celandine
  8. Buttercup
  9. Ragged robin
  10. Herb Robert
  11. Common Mouse ear
  12. Marsh marigold
  13. Cowslip
  14. Navelwort
  15. Lady’s Mantle
  16. Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
  17. Primrose
  18. Common Dog Violet
  19. Spring squill
  20. Tormentil
  21. Gorse
  22. Greater Stichwort 
  23. Bucks horn plantain
  24. Sea plantain
  25. Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
  26. Greater Plantain
  27. Red clover
  28. Oxeye daisy
  29. Tall Ramping Fumitory
  30. Sheeps sorrel
  31. Cow parsley
  32. Alexanders
  33. Cut leaved cranesbill
  34. English stonecrop
  35. Sheeps bit
  36. Foxglove
  37. Bluebell
  38. Kidney vetch
  39. Tormentil
  40. Common Orache
  41. Ivy Leaved Toadflax lilac form
  42. Ivy Leaved Tadflax white form 
  43. Scarlet pimpernel
  44. Wild Carrrot
  45. Cleavers
  46. Cat’s Ear
  47. Pignut
  48. Selfheal
  49. Common Sorrel
  50. Broad Leaved Dock
  51. Curled Dock
  52. Germander Speedwell
  53. Common Vetch
  54. Prickly Sow Thistle
  55. Brooklime
  56. Woody Nightshade
  57. Hemlock Water Dropwort
  58. Doves Foot Cranesbill
  59. Red Valerian
  60. Honeysuckle
  61. Nettle
  62. Burnet Rose
  63. Dumpy Centaury
  64. Lesser Trefoil
  65. Greater Birds Foot Trefoil

 

 

Walking with experts – pilgrimage

I ‘invented’ the Malmesbury Pilgrimage in 2009 and this is a photo of the very first one. It was a two day walk and the first time we did it we took some detours that made it about 45 miles.  We got a bit lost on several occasions and the during the last ten miles a thunderstorm raged around us.  It was all my idea ( not the thunderstorm).  I’d been turning it over in my mind for ages, ever since I learned that one of the little churches I served on the edge of the Severn had been looked after by monks from Malmesbury Abbey and – here’s the gory bit – one of them had been murdered as he made his way across the fields and, it was said, the water in a local stream ran red like blood, every year as a reminder. That triggered a memory because the same legend was attached to St Arilda’s well, just outside my parish.  In that case St Arilda, a hermit, was murdered by a Roman soldier because – as the legend said – she would not lie with him. Obviously my parishes were pretty dangerous places in those days.  They hadn’t changed much! The red staining, by the way, came from algae not blood but the murders – with or without the legends – are still remembered many centuries later.

So, I thought, I could re-create the walk that the monks might have taken (there’s no record) and at the same time take in two of the three sites in the country asociated with St Arilda.  Taking in the third would have meant a huge detour to Gloucester Cathedral and at least an extra day.

When I got the maps out I searched for every public footpath I could find that took us vaguely in the right direction in order to minimise walking on roads and then I talked some keen walking friends into joining me. We got thrown out of Malmesbury Abbey for talking during their (private) prayer service at which pilgrims were absolutely not welcome, there’s hospitality for you, but it all went pretty well apart from exposing my lamentable map reading skills. To be fair, many of the paths had lapsed into virtual invisibility and the next year I packed a pair of binoculars for long distance stile spotting.  We still got lost but in different places.

But the point of this is not my own heroic resourcefulness, but to say that when you walk for a couple of days with someone, you learn so much.  On one of the walks we were treated to a two day seminar on arable crops.  Sad to say over the whole forty plus miles, our informal tutor – who had spent many years buying and selling grain on farms – only saw two or three fields that met his approval.  Why’s that sad? Well I suspect that his career had taken him to the very heart of intensive agriculture and all its obsessive spraying of weedkillers and insecticides and feeding of artificial fertilizer.  The fields he liked were monocultural deserts, the soil was getting thinner and thinner and the cornbrash (stones) were increasingly visible on the surface.  What I learned as well was how to identify all the main cereal crops when they were only a couple of inches high by examining their leaf structure and the way the ligules wrapped around the stalk. Great stuff for showing off!  – but I learned so much just by listening and not judging, and if you wanted to know how we got into this environmental mess, it’s because thousands of decent and well meaning people didn’t stop and think.  No-one wanted to kill the insects but were all so blinded by the prospect of controlling nature and making farming ever more productive, that they just did it anyway. Now we need urgently to row back.

On another occasion I walked the last ten miles with a man who had spent his entire working life on local farms as a stockman.  As we approached our destination he knew every inch of every field; what grew there, what thrived there, and how well it was being farmed.  He would comment approvingly when he saw good practice and again I learned an enormous amount.  I could go on – I walked miles with a chief electrical engineer at a local  power station who knew the model number of every single pylon we passed. Hmm.

Perhaps more importantly relationships were cemented and confidence and trust was built between a group of people who, on the face of it, didn’t have that much in common. That’s the great thing about pilgrimage – sharing experiences, noticing things, being grateful for small mercies like easy walking on a very long hot day.

All this thinking and remembering came out of another morning alone on the allotment.  I was going stir-crazy during all this cold weather and when it failed to snow as forecast today I thought I’d put in a couple of hours.  I was so absorbed in building more beds and recycling some posts I needed to remove that I didn’t even notice it was raining until the water started to run down my neck. The temperatures haven’t got much above freezing for ages and yet when I’m out there, totally in the moment, I never feel cold.  The ground is very sticky at the moment so I tried as much as possible not to walk on it, and we’re very close to completion. My preferred site for the hotbed fell at the first hurdle when I measured the site properly, and so I had to think again.  As is often the case the new site is probably better anyway and on Friday it will be complete and filled with fresh manure. Home for a late lunch rather wet but as warm as toast.

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