The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

All too often this quotation from Robert Burn’s poem “To a mouse” is trotted out as bleak comfort offered to someone who probably had it coming. In fact it comes some way into the poem which includes this thought provoking phrase:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion

Has broken Nature’s social union

An’ justifies that ill opinion

Which makes thee startle,

Robert Burns – To a Mouse.

The poet (and farmer) has just disturbed the mouse in its nest whilst ploughing and pauses to reflect on the cost to the wild world of our illicitly claimed sovereignty over the earth.

In the photograph above the poem, the third year of an expensively and poorly conceived piece of planners’ greenwashing in the centre of Bath. Nature – some daft city-born architect must have thought – can be bought by the metre, just as books can be bought by the metre by the illiterate rich, to dignify a patch of bare land. If I could land one blow for common sense amongst town planners it would be to teach them that meadows and their flowers are quite different from arable wildflowers. They’re highly specific habitats and attempting to transplant either group into an alluvial spoil heap by way of a seed impregnated membrane is just about as magical as magical thinking gets. Of course the developers didn’t give a flying fish about the wildlife, but a bit of greening always plays well with planning committees.

The first year the poor things germinated they were almost immediately suffocated by their thuggish neighbours. I was pleased to photograph some corncockles there a couple of years ago but now there are nettles and rough grasses which would have grown anyway. These meadow specialists would never be grazed, and neither would the arable weeds enjoy their brief moment in the sun at harvest or in spring; but grossly overfed by the alluvial soil on the riverside would succumb to their sturdier neighbours. The only survivors were some Comfrey and some rather lovely Vipers Bugloss which will be lucky to survive the redevelopment about to be unleashed upon them.

But not to exempt ourselves and the Potwell Inn from the possibility of hubris -I have to confess that the very day our illustrious leader, the Smirking Codpiece, announced that he had personally abolished Covid in fierce hand to hand combat; Madame and me caught it good and proper and had to shut the Potwell Inn down for ten days while we coughed, sneezed, sweated, wept and dribbled in ways too terrible to describe. We too – our son was quick to point out – had it coming because we went up to London to see the Who in the Albert Hall, and everybody knows that pensioners are the principal vectors of infection and five thousand of them croaking and puffing on their ventolin inhalers whilst singing Pinball Wizard in weird old peoples’ voices was bound to lead to trouble. I felt one step away from being compelled to sign an enduring power of attorney agreement!

The photograph was taken today while we went out for a long therapeutic walk along the river and the canal. It was great to be out again after our negative tests, until – that is – we were caught in the most tremendous winter storm. The sky turned to Paynes Grey and a clap of thunder preceded a truly magnificent hailstorm that went on for ages. We managed to find a bit of shelter behind a wall and under an Elder tree with no leaves, on the canal side. But while Madame had a rather posh hydrophilic fleece on, mine was filled with old hens feathers and collapsed into a soggy heap after a couple of minutes.

I had hoped by now to have done at least one more trip to Velvet Bottom, having got hold of some fascinating geological maps to sort out what’s going on under the surface and in the soil. In the process of gazing at the maps I had one of those moments of sudden intuition that illuminated to me the reason I’m so in love with these places. It’s because I’ve spent most of my life living in them and the plants are childhood friends. I never knew their names and my mother couldn’t really help because she’d been born on the Chilterns and her foundational plants were quite different, but a bare field of fescues shimmering in the wind can reduce me to near tears. Everywhere I’ve loved has been post industrial; mostly post mining. The house I was born in was in what was once a mining area; part of the South Gloucestershire Coalfield. Opposite my primary school was the Cossham Hall – a community centre and once a library, founded by Handel Cossham. Cossham Hospital which we all made use of was also paid for by him. He was everywhere. A few weeks ago we visited Greyfield Wood with the Bath Nats, and again it was a strange meeting that I couldn’t put a name to – until we got home and I discovered it was the site of a huge coal mine which, in the nineteenth century, produced hundreds of thousands of tons of coal. Only the subtle traces remained but they were sufficient to make the neural connections that constitute a kind of cultural memory. Lizard, Pembrokeshire, Dartmoor, South Wales, Mid Wales and Snowdonia all bear the same scars and carry their unique heritage of half recognised plants.

So as soon as we get over the post-covid exhaustion we’ll go back to Mendip armed with a list of heavy metal loving plants that appear on the BSBI maps of the area. I’ve already found one and I can remember several more from pre-recording days which I can’t claim until I’ve found them again. I’m slowly turning into a trainspotter – heaven help me!

Buddle pits, settling ponds and slag will give you a Velvet Bottom and very beautiful it will be!

This is a dam wall for a settling pond

Need I say a word about my emotional attachment to Velvet Bottom? This post, by the way, refers to lead mining rather than some kind of cosmetic procedure sold by Gwyneth Paltrow. You would be very disappointed in what follows if you were in search of that kind of amusement. The good people of Shipham may not be as enthusiastic about these old mine workings as me because some years ago they were ordered to stop growing and eating their own garden vegetables on account of the dangerous levels of cadmium in the soil -some of it, without doubt, washed down from here. The ponds are the industrial remains of a previous technical solution to a pollution problem caused when inefficient settling of the crushed ore in the buddle pits resulted in lead finding its way into the waters of the several underground rivers that spring from the limestone rock further down the Mendip escarpment; killing the fish quickly and (probably) the residents slowly. The mines have been worked and reworked since Roman times so there’s been ample time for havoc to accumulate, and this should be a salutary reminder to those who think there’s always a technical solution to every environmental problem. The effluent still contained lead, cadmium and goodness knows what other heavy metals. Just to be clear, most of this came from Victorian workings. In earlier times, back to the Romans, there was almost certainly still pollution, because mining and smelting are intrinsically polluting activities. It’s just that when they’re scaled up as they were during the industrial revolution, that they become truly dangerous. With coal from the nearby North Somerset coalfield, and probably in earlier days abundant wood, mining and smelting came together like the Kray twins of industrial growth.

But now there is peace and silence. Where lead ore was once settled in ponds, now adders warm their blood in the sun. Underground a very large system of caves was first exposed in modern times by the 1968 floods; but pioneering cavers like Willie Stanton soon found that in some places the miners had preceded them, leaving their footprints in the mud. Here and there as you walk down the valley you’ll see trial pits and occasionally swallets, gated to keep out reckless and ill equipped explorers.

However, parts of the soil here are so polluted that the whole flora has had to adapt. While we create clean air zones and fight environmental battles that may yet save us from our own historic folly, there was no-one here for the flowers and plants and when you look closely you can soon see the glittering lead slag from which some of the tracks have been made. There are places where almost nothing grows now, or ever will grow in the future. It’s so rare a habitat that it’s even got its own name – Calaminarian grassland – and there are only 450 hectares of it in the whole of the UK. The name comes from a continental violet – Viola calaminaria – that doesn’t even grow here but has the gift of thriving on soil, highly polluted with heavy metals in the parts of Europe from which the UK has detached itself; i.e. the rest of it! The calaminaria part of the name comes from the zinc containing ore, calamine with/from which calamine lotion is somehow made which is very good for calming itchy chicken pox.

So am I telling too bleak a tale about one of my favourite landscapes in the world? I really hope not, because there is an extraordinary beauty in the way that ecosystems can heal themselves. It takes time, sometimes it takes centuries; but slowly nature reclaims what we have damaged because that’s what nature does best, and bare soil is sick, unbalanced soil.

I’ve been walking up and down Velvet Bottom for something like sixty years and every time, it seems to embrace me in its remote quietness. Occasionally the trail runners and dogs owners can be a bit much. The leftovers from picnics and barbecues can be an eyesore but as landscapes go, the high Mendips – never that high – remains off the beaten track if you avoid the hotspots. But close attention to the flora there makes every walk a treat. Here’s a single example. The edges of the buddle pits and settling ponds are particularly heavily polluted but there are a handful of species that have carved out a living there. Last week we got lucky because the flower in the photos below is a very short lived annual, the flowers only open in full sun and by the time its more glamorous and eye catching cousins come along there’s nothing to see. Unless the flowers are open it’s all but invisible, but miraculously it makes a living on the bare slag, helped along I imagine by plentiful rabbit poo. It’s called Common Whitlowgrass – Erophila verna, and is found locally in these bare patches of gravel, pavements and neglected ground across the UK, mainly in the South. The flowers are barely 2-3mm across if they’re open so these photos show them greatly enlarged. You’ve probably got it growing unnoticed on your allotment or in your garden; but here in this hostile environment it’s a token of the healing power of nature.

The name Whitlowgrass comes from the fact that it was apparently used in the past as a treatment – most likely a poultice – for the infected fingernail bed that bears the same name. But not these specimens – please! They’ve got a much more important healing function; they take up heavy metals into the leaves and are potentially poisonous, and in any case it’s illegal – however common they may be. After I’d posted this I did a bit of searching and came up with this quotation from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal . Modern herbals probably don’t mention it because whitlows are a viral infection caused by the herpes virus. As an astringent it may have helped to clean any resulting bacterial infection. Any port in a storm!

“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives this plant an alternative name of Nailwort and tells us that ‘it is held to be exceedingly good for those imposthumes* in the joints and under the nails, which they call Whitlows, Felons, Andicorns and Nail-wheals’. The plant was carried to North America by the first British settlers where it was found to be a most useful plant in herbal medicine. “

‘Wildflowers of Ireland’ website

* Archaic term for abscesses.”

“I know a bank whereon …. take 2.

No – really I do, we were there yesterday again, in Velvet Bottom (who could resist such a place name) – it’s almost as good as Condom in SE France where I once resisted a selfie next to the road sign. Condom is famous for its brandy; a friend once told me that he met someone at a conference who came from thereabouts who told him that the local wine was excellent so long as you boiled it!

I’m not sure how to describe Velvet Bottom because it’s a paradox. From Roman times and again in the 19th century it was ravaged by lead mining and even today the soil is so polluted it has a completely unique flora growing in and amongst the usual – less fussy – suspects. But because I’m not an experienced enough botanist I can’t enlarge much on these rarities unless I happen to bump into one of them when I know that I don’t know what it is – if that’s not too convoluted an explanation.

Velvet Bottom is one of my favourite places on earth, honestly. Aside from the plants there are adders in abundance when the sun shines and it’s quiet in a way that holds you and slows everything down. We see people running down there occasionally and I want to shout out “Hey mate – why don’t you sit down and soak it up for five minutes and forget all about your PB time.”

Because I’m not that experienced a field botanist, I get the lovely bonus of finding and being blown away by quite common plants that I’ve never noticed before. So for instance yesterday we found this common centaury – which in my eyes is far from common and very lovely. Back home I discovered some of its traditional names (Geoffrey Grigson’s “An Englishman’s Flora” lists local names like bloodwort, earthgall, feverfew (confusing because it’s not), gentian, mountain flax and spikenard – all of which demonstrates the brilliance of Latin names which remove all the confusion. Richard Mabey also mentions the name bitterherb – and like everyone else from Culpeper to Mrs Grieve cites its use as a digestive tonic. I wouldn’t know because I don’t have the least inclination to illegally pick a plant that I’ve only just met for the first time. The pleasure, so far as I can see into my own mind, is at least threefold. Firstly there’s the thrill of discovery; but then the aesthetic pleasure at the colour and the structure of the plant and then – perhaps more obscurely – the comfort and pleasure at discovering its usefulness reaching back into history. I could add the fourth very acute pleasure for me of the old names. A few days ago we found a musk mallow on the canalside. The very words musk and mallow conjure up a two word poem, overflowing with associations.

I just used the idea of ‘comfort and pleasure’ to describe what it feels like to know the history of a plant’s name and uses, and since I’ve been casting around for weeks now – looking for the reason that we find nature so comforting, even therapeutic – here’s a suggestion that might help.

I hope I’m not being unfair by describing our western, industrialised and individualised culture as rootless. Perhaps it’s just me that feels alienated and despairing at the direction we’re heading in, but I’m sure I’m not alone. So anything that can function as a kind of mind anchor; that puts me back in touch with the past – is a stabilising influence. It’s not at all the case (as critics often accuse) of wanting to go back to the past; but reconnecting with it contains wisdom and insight that we shouldn’t lose. When I photograph the common centaury and discover its history going back as far as Greece from which it gets its name (it’s properties were said to have been discovered by Chiron the centaur – according to Gerard) – something deep is going on. To behold the plant is to behold the faintest image of countless generations of living beings who have treasured it. We are the issue of those unknown people and they can still speak to us in the names they passed down to us.

In one of my churches we had the oldest communion chalice still in use within the diocese. It was made in the late 1500’s and has survived through all the cataclysmic changes since then – and so when, on a Sunday morning I gave communion to my tiny congregation (on one occasion just a single person) I was always sensitive to the invisible presence of the generations stretching back, who had taken comfort from the same chalice. This isn’t a religious point, by the way, it’s about the reverberations of objects and living forms through time.

But enough reflection! Yesterday we saw any number of small coppers and a single green washed fritillary; loads of common spotted orchids (whose leaves weren’t spotted – I do wish they’d read the textbooks!); yarrow, common bedstraw (if you look towards the top of the second photo from the left you can just see the black, glassy slag left by the Victorian miners); ladies bedstraw and wild thyme. Individually they could hardly be thought of as rare and yet, massed in this post industrial landscape, so scarred and pitted by mining, washing ponds and diverted streams; they amount to a unique flora with its own unmistakable sense of place. Could it be that we also still hear the faint echo of two thousand years of mining through the silence?

Sadly, not an unknown fungus!

IMG_6090We were birdwatching down on the estuary today when I caught sight of this curious object.  From 20 yards it looked like a fungus, but sadly it turned out to be just another piece of plastic waste – in this case a polyurethane foam canister leaking foam as the canister degrades in the salt water. I’d have carried it home if it weren’t for the fact that it appeared to still have enough propellant left to make it explode. IMG_6087

Strangely, I looked up from taking this photograph just as the sun came out further up-river and I caught sight of the chimneys at Sellafield a source of much less visible but even more deadly waste. However, far from making me more melancholic than usual, the sight of the chimney stacks and the squelching mud under my feet reminded me of the Severn estuary alongside which I spent 25 years as a parish priest. The paradox of these industrialised estuaries is that notwithstanding the nuclear power stations, (two on the Severn), chemical works and endless industrial sprawl the migrating birds kept on coming, albeit in smaller numbers as the years went on. All this, I’m anxious to say, is not to say a word in defense of these industries whose existence is a painful monument to our anthropocentric culture. In the case of the nuclear power stations we can’t demolish them anyway because they’re going to be dangerous for decades if not centuries, but the chemical works and some at least of the huge industrial complexes should perhaps be left once they’ve been cleaned up, as memorials to and reminders of the time when we nearly destroyed the earth. I can imagine schoolchildren on educational visits looking with horror at the relics as their function is explained, while all the while waders of all kinds will re-populate the cooling ponds and  peregrine falcons nest in the steelwork. The people who worked on the sites will be commemorated not as the perpetrators of these ecological crimes but as the expression of a failed culture, egged on by all of us.

Meanwhile, we ambled along the familiar landscape stopping from time to time to look at distant birds and abandoned boats half-submerged in the mud while the grey clouds broke from time to time to let a patch of sunlight through.

Later we cut back inland and climbed to a higher vantage point to look back towards the sea which is normally hidden by the sand dunes of the Drigg nature reserve. So we walked accompanied by mixed feelings.  The relative abundance of curlew was a real tonic for us because in our part of the world, like the cuckoo,  they’re rarely heard.

We’ve been up here for a fortnight now and the only thing we’re getting used to is the weather – it rains, it seems, most of the time. The upside is that we’ve become very used to packing our waterproofs and disregarding the weather.  We’ve learned a lot about local walls – you could almost work out what county you’re in just by looking at the walls, and we’ve enjoyed being spoken to by complete strangers, it’s true what they say. Tomorrow we’re crossing back across Yorkshire for our last overnight stop. And here are some local wall styles to puzzle out –

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