The Potwell Inn prepares for the winter solstice

From one of my old notebooks that I found in the garage when we moved to Bath.

According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.

In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.

But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.

However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.

Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.

Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.

Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.

The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.

And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.

Happy solstice!

More auguries of spring

If I’m honest, I’ve always thought of this period of the year as  a kind of winter gap, and our enforced absence from the allotment due to almost continuous wet weather echoes the historical pattern of farming. These days, with massive and heavy farm machinery the idea of ploughing and sowing in wet soil at the turn of the year  is a non-starter. I’ve seen it suggested that seed can be sown in frost hardened ground, but for most farmers if it’s not sown during the last good weeks of autumn it’ll have to wait until February or March at the latest. That’s where the much lighter horse drawn plough gained valuable extra time notwithstanding its limitations. A horse drawn plough can cover one acre a day whereas a modern tractor can plough 24 acres – and do quite a bit of damage in the process.  Mercifully, the trend is towards no-till methods which is a step (just one step) in the right direction.

IMG_20200101_120038Historically there was little work done on the land around Christmas but there was always hedge laying, which was one of my favourite jobs when I was a groundsman. So with a pause, let’s say,  between the solstice and Epiphany on January 6th, work in the fields could resume. We used to celebrate Plough Monday in one of my parishes – always the first Monday after 6th January, and the Young Farmers would carry an old Ransomes plough into the church, along with some hand tools and lanterns and I would bless  it before it was returned once again to a gloomy corner in someone’s barn. The plough was slightly too long to manoeuvre down the aisle of the church so the handles were reduced in size and welded back on again, probably making it the shortest Ransomes plough in the country.

Given that I was vicar in a cider making area, the other great pagan festival was the Wassail where we blessed the orchard, drove away the evil spirits with a great deal of noise accompanied by volleys of empty 12 bore black powder cartridges, fired into the sky with an exciting amount of smoke and flame. I should say that a good deal of Littleton Lifesaver cider was also drunk, along with folk singing, a mummers play and the election of a king and queen for the night who, after their elevation, would be borne past the huge bonfire and into the orchard on a chariot made by welding two bicycle wheels and an axle on to a more or less lethal platform. Sometimes, over the years, my efforts have been rewarded with a terrible crop – like 2018 for instance when the ‘Beast from the East’ just about killed all the blossom. Last year. on the other hand, was a bumper crop and my invitation to take part again arrived two days ago so I appear to be forgiven. It’s a cause of great satisfaction that Madame provided the budwood for the orchard when it was first planted about 45 years ago. The less said about the cider the better except to note that if Admiral Nelson had been returned home in a barrel of Lifesaver rather than brandy he’d have dissolved before he arrived.

I think my successor in the parish has reservations about the outrageous and completely open paganism, but it’s never troubled me in the least and so – with his permission – it’s the one service I still perform, and if I weren’t performing I’d still be there just to meet up with all my old friends. The great advantage of Littleton was that hardly anyone went to church – they never bore me the least ill will, and were happy as long as I confined my attention to weddings, funerals, harvest, Christmas carols, wassailing and and fetes and met them all in the pub regularly. Madame also ran a life-drawing class there and the the day when her (male) model turned up sporting a Prince Albert piercing is still spoken about by the village ladies!

So that’s a date then, 7.30 at the White Hart, Littleton on Severn, on January 17th. There are some photos of the event on my posting for Jan 1st Last year, and coincidentally we went for a New Years Day walk along the canal (where else?) and as we walked back through Widcombe we caught up with the finish of the Widcombe Mummers performance. Earlier I’d spotted the first hazel catkin of the new season, along with a groundsel plant in full flower. Cow parsley and cleavers are also gathering strength as they push out their early leaves.  I couldn’t be more pleased to see these signs of the new season amidst the gloom of the last weeks.  Today we walked in a fine mizzle of rain among dozens of walkers and cyclists taking the chance of a bank holiday break.

 

 

 

Potato planting day

IMG_5105This is one of those days that – for me at least – seem to carry a weight of memories which almost demand a moment or two of reflection. Traditionally potato planting took place on Good Friday, but there are a couple of flaws  in that association.  Firstly we now live in a determinedly post-Christian society when the majority of people have little idea of when Good Friday falls.  The second problem is that the reason most people don’t know exactly when it is, is because – being tied to the moon’s phases –  it wanders around all over the calendar. There are some early Easters when it would be inviting disaster to plant on Good Friday and others when you might miss a couple of weeks of delicious new potatoes. So the last week in March – in our part of the world – seems about right.  The young leaves won’t be appearing above ground until the last frost has passed – although for us last year there was a late frost on May 3rd, and we lost all the runner beans, but the spuds were fine. Runner beans, for US readers – are a bit of a British obsession.

So today’s the day. This year we’re growing them on a 20 square metre piece of our neighbour’s allotment.  He’s having a hard time at the moment and he’ll have the patch back when he’s up and running again. He’s an inveterate and very neat digger, and although he didn’t actually make a face when I described our plans not to dig it, I could sense he wasn’t keen and so, yesterday it was cleared, dug and fed.  It’s spent the winter under plastic sheeting, so there were no weeds to speak of. Because it’s down at the bottom, in the wettest part of the ground, I’ve given it most of last year’s compost supplemented with two or three bags bought in to open up the texture with organic material. The biggest harvest during digging was a crop of green ‘bio-degradable’ caddy liners.  It’s true, very slowly (I mean glacially slowly) they are breaking down but I can see it might take several years yet.  True to my experimental self I returned a number of them back to the new compost heap to see if a second season will finish them off.

But why is potato planting so significant? Back in the day, and still happening in one of my old farming parishes to this day, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th January) was recognised as “Plough Monday” and celebrated in Church by the local Young Farmers who carried a old Ransomes plough into the church to have it blessed. It was a single share mouldboard plough such as might have been pulled by one or two horses – not a team of oxen! They (the young farmers not the oxen) would file in with storm lanterns and hand tools and celebrate the new season with some acceptably jolly hymns and a sermon with more humour than hellfire followed by tea and sandwiches. How on earth do you persuade thirty or forty teenagers to turn up at church on a freezing January night? For me, as for them, it seemed like the right thing to do – to mark the turning of the seasons in formal terms. So long as they had a reason – however obscure – for turning up, we all thought it was worth doing.

IMG_5103So is potato planting the horticultural equivalent?  Does all the sowing that’s been going on in propagators and on windowsills for weeks, demand a formal marking of the new season?  and doesn’t potato planting – occasionally associated with a Christian festival but more likely with a long weekend bank holiday – doesn’t that make the planting of potatoes the ideal candidate? Compared with sowing a row of seeds, planting potatoes is a much bigger deal.  It takes longer, gives you backache and feels especially significant.  Needless to say I didn’t have enough space – entirely my own fault.  The 2 Kg of left over seed potatoes correlated exactly with the 2Kg of Arran Pilot seed potatos that I bought on impulse.  What’s the point of all that planing if even I don’t follow it? IMG_5107So tomorrow there will be a discussion about which bed to raid. But spring is here, the equinox is past and the days are longer and warmer. Our autumn sown onions, which had been looking a bit sorry for themselves, have suddenly perked up and thrust upwards. The garlic, similarly, is looking well and the elephant garlic in particular looks like a stand of leeks (to which they’re related).

At this time of the year, as a postwar child, when rationing was still happening, and everybody grew their own vegetables, I can vividly remember walkng down to my friend Eddie’s house, and being intoxicated by the smell of fresh warm earth being turned. Planting potatoes is powerful by association, and this past week as our fellow allotmenteers have been getting on with it, there’s an unspoken but shared feeling that -with or without any religious ritual – this is the beginning of the allotment year, regardless of all the plants we’ve already sown and overwintered.