“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 –