“It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;”

Gerard Manley Hopkins – from “God’s Grandeur.”

Bath looked exceptionally beautiful today. The long slow decline of summer vitality in the trees and plants finally issues in this great finale as the last of the lifegiving sugars are drawn down to winter roots, and the brief days of impressionistic colour give way to winter sculpture. It feels like a kind of relief; like standing at the graveside of the season, or perhaps better – a rowdy wake – after a long rage against the dying of the light. And that’s enough poetry for now!

On the allotment we watched the strange behaviour of three magpies who were working together to harass a rat that was beginning to look pretty rattled by the experience. It’s not something we’ve ever seen before and, dare I say? it was good to see that the ubiquitous rats have at least one predator species aside from foxes and cats. We also know that there are peregrines buzzards, kestrels and red kites occasionally in the locality but their quarry seems to be the (plentiful) pigeons for the peregrines, and smaller rodents for the rest. Our rats are absolute porkers, fed on the fat of the leftovers mistakenly put into compost heaps and the fallen grain from bird feeders.

Stuck in a southwesterly atlantic airflow, the skies have been bringing pulses of heavy rain all week and there have been floods across the country. Our son had to make a long detour to escape flooded roads after his half term holiday up in Snowdonia; and in up Cumbria two of the lakes have been temporarily joined into one by floodwater. A perfect metaphor for the beginning of the COP26 climate conference. It just doesn’t seem that the will is there at governmental level to address the threat properly – I hope I’m wrong but I fear for the worst.

After what seemed like a week of full-on cooking we took a break today and dropped in on Toppings – a local independent bookshop that’s just moved into a much larger premises that used to be the Friends Meeting House. In honour of the opening they were handing out glasses of free fizzy and while we could see no sign of what used to be a good natural history section, Madame found for me the newly published biography of an artist, John Craxton, who we were both interested in; and then when we got home I clicked on what’s been a five year search for a biography of John Minton that was only available secondhand at just under £300 – and found two copies going for £20. Christmas has come early! However we also dropped in at the farmers’ market in search of a particular cheddar cheese and drew a blank. The stallholder only appears infrequently, but whenever he does I buy a small piece of his locally made Cheddar cheese because the flavour reminds me so strongly of the way cheese used to taste in my childhood – you know, wrapped in cotton scrim the threads of which you sometimes had to peel off; rich and ripe like apples and autumn. Flavours are always difficult to describe but supermarket cheese tends, these days, to be awarded a number where one means you’d be better off eating the bag it came in, and five is so artificially fierce it takes the skin off the back of your throat. It’s not about strength at all, as far as I’m concerned, it’s about depth – which is very different and relates to all sorts of factors that could never be reproduced in a factory. Scientific cheesemakers are very clever, with their temperature, pH measurements, artificial rennet and atmospherically controlled warehouses; but there are so many other factors, and you’re reduced to using slippery terms like terroir that are commonly employed as a way of inflating the price. To quote Michael Pollan once again, “you are what you eat, eats” – and the depth of flavour of cheese relates to the grass that the source of the milk – be it cow, sheep or goat – is fed on; what season it is and whether the milk was taken in the evening, the morning or mixed together. One of the nicest goats cheeses I ever ate was while I was walking in the Aubrac Hills in France with my middle son, and we stopped off at the farmhouse where it was made. We ate it with a penknife surrounded by the sounds of the herd.

Not being a cheesemaker, and lacking the funds to taste everything I like the look of, I can’t say with any authority what constitutes good or bad except by using the ordinary everyday common senses that come with being human. No experts needed, just a few treasured memories and the willingness to trust your own judgement.

Did you ever hear a slug pellet sing?

Allotmenteers and gardeners can be a disputatious and even dogmatic lot, and like many religions and political parties the smaller the points of difference the more formidable the firepower directed on dissenters. Dig/no dig; raised beds or footpaths, Glyphosate or hitting your own fingers with a lump hammer (I made that one up); and the matter of timber borders around beds is another such choice that has passionate advocates and detractors.

We use gravel boards as bed dividers for several reasons, but in particular because our plots are inclined to waterlogging, being at the bottom of a valley through which the river Avon passes and occasionally floods to within ten vertical feet of the plots, raising the water table with it. So some of our paths are dug almost two feet deep and filled with wood chip to help drain away the water. It’s not as effective as proper field drains or gravel, but it’s free because our wood chip is delivered to the site by the council.

A second reason for timber frameworks is that on a slope, all our beds are effectively terraced and the soil needs to be contained to prevent it being washed off. The third and least convincing reason is that I’ve got a tidy mind, but I’m working on that one. The naysayers will shake their heads and tell me that wooden boards harbour slugs and that’s certainly true. Occasionally the slugs will lay waste to row of seedlings – except knowing that means we can take precautions. Unlike our rat traps which the rats have learned to spring without harm to themselves, slugs fare less well with the beer traps and we protect our vulnerable seedlings with them. Sadly the slugs are much more partial to rich malty and expensive brews than they are to Aldi’s cheapest. Yes wooden boards provide an ideal overwintering spot for slugs – you almost always find their pearly globular eggs somewhere there if you have a poke about.

But we don’t have a massive problem at all and the reason is almost certainly because slugs have their predators apart from humans. We’ve been puzzled in recent weeks by the fact that something has been systematically working its way along the borders, digging down into the wood chip alongside the gravel boards so neatly that it looks like they’d been hand weeded with a penknife. Each bed is 12′ x 4’6″ – so that’s 33 ‘ of board per bed and we have about twenty of them across the two half-plots. We had no idea what was doing it – rats and mice were among the suspects, until Madame spotted the culprit – a very tame first year (male) blackbird scratching down into the path and greedily eating slugs and their eggs. It’s just another bit of evidence that encouraging wildlife into the garden works wonders – toads, hedgehogs, birds, even foxes and (less helpfully) badgers, will all eat pests like slugs and snails – so slug pellets really aren’t as effective as the wildlife who come to the plot and work tirelessly and for free to clear our pests for us. Hoverflies, ladybirds and all the other invited guests pollinate our crops and decimate the opposition and, in the case of the blackbird, sit high in the trees and sing songs so beautiful it makes you want to weep. It’s just a matter of accepting that nature is a shared space and the less we muck about with it the happier we’ll all be. This will be the first year of the new pond which, without even touching it, is showing signs of coming to life with a bit of algae forming on the shallow surfaces. We’ve redesigned the beds and the planting plan to introduce many more tall, insect attracting perennials; and built a very safe hidden area under the water butts where a toad or a hedgehog might take up residence. There will be more flowers than ever, using vertical planting and interplanting to increase the diversity.

Beyond the allotment, our walks have been curtailed again by the new lockdown and so Mendip is off limits once more; but locally we’ve spotted a flock of long tailed tits in the trees near Sainsbury’s car park. Who says there’s no wildlife in the city? In the last few days we seen the herons, three or four cormorants who are immediately recognisable as they swim, because most of them is kept underwater, with just their long black necks and heads visible. They like to sit on the chimney pots of a converted grain store on the river and air their wings. I like to think of them warming their armpits in the hot air from the chimneys. There are wagtails, robins, blue tits and great tits – all common as muck just like us. The mallard are beginning to pair up and the several pairs of swans along the river and the canal are still together. We’ve got three kinds of gull – black headed, herring and lesser black backed; and there are kingfishers and even a pair of peregrines. We met a fellow member of the Bath Nats last week who has been watching them and he caught them in the midst of a mating display, plunging towards the ground together and breaking out like a red arrows display. Lucky man! Then there are sparrows – much rarer than they used to be – and many more. You could spend a happy day birdwatching within sight of the Abbey.

Then there are the otters. We’re desperate to see them but we haven’t been lucky. That will be a very special day indeed.

On the allotment today I finished building the experimental vegetarian hotbed (no shit!) , capped it off with compost and shoved a thermometer into the middle to keep an eye on the temperature. The ambient temperature is around 3C max at the moment and when I pulled the thermometer out of the oldest compost bin I was surprised to see that it’s still 9C – six degrees above ambient – and it looks very good, with plenty of worms and a lovely sweet smell. The last of the seed orders are trickling in along with warnings that it has become illegal to ship to Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe. Apparently DEFRA have no idea whether the exports will be allowed to re-start any time soon, but the big worry is that imports will be affected and the seed trade sources many varieties from European countries. Yet another reason to think seriously about seed sharing of local and traditional vegetable varieties. We noticed today that John Harrison – big time allotment blogger – has published a book on heritage varieties based around the wartime “dig for victory” theme. The writing’s on the wall!

First proper frost of the season

IMG_20191109_072118

I love to wake up like we did today and see white frost on the green outside, but this morning it was especially good to see the excited loop drawn on the grass by a dog released from its lead. Who says a line can’t express joy! It’s no less pleasurable to be prepared for frost, and I say so having not been up to the allotment to look for myself. “Possibly” says my inner pessimist – ” all your seedlings are dead”. “Oh do go away”, I think, “and bother someone else”.

We’ve fleeced and cloched all the vulnerable plants, and garlic especially is supposed to positively relish a few days of hard frost – so bring it on, I think.  On the other hand it’s worth wondering what the balance of good practice might be in relation to sheeting, IMG_20191109_151823fleecing and mulching. Creating a warm dry environment under black plastic sheets is a great help to slugs as well as more friendly pests – (just peel the sheet back and look for yourself), so maybe we should be encouraging foxes (on our plot they don’t need much encouragement), badgers who love a fat slug, and hedgehogs as well as toads who equally don’t mind if they do. Oh and don’t forget the birds. I know that those who sell garden supplies would have us think that only an architect designed and artisan produced bee hotel will be suitable, but insects prefer to choose their own overwintering spots.  Every year at this time we have an invasion of ladybirds who creep into the flat and take up their winter quarters in the corners of our ceilings.  I took this photograph in the hall, ten minutes ago.  I suppose we could  spray them with insecticide, but in the spring we’ll be hoping for them to arrive as the aphids get going.  I prefer to see our guests as free biological control breeding colonies.  I’m not so keen on the frass, but that comes off with a wipe anyway.

A bit of botanical history

In a quick update on my Tutsan research, I checked back on the transcribed edition of Culpeper’s Herbal and found that in the 1649 edition the plant was indeed described as ‘Tustan’, but Culpeper wrote that it was no longer much used. It doesn’t seem to appear at all in Gerard a century earlier.  There’s a clue in the indispensible “Englishman’s Flora” when Grigson states that Tutsan had been mistaken in a medieval herbal for another herb altogether, mentioned by Pliny. He goes on to say that by Gerard’s time the misidentification had been corrected and this must have led to its decline, although Culpeper still lists a number of uses. But the 1649 edition is also full of typos – there are dozens if not hundreds listed at the end of the Project Gutenberg edition so perhaps it was a Friday afternoon in November when a short sighted printer with no botanical knowledge at all dropped two pieces of moveable type into the wrong place in a frame and no-one noticed. Why am I so interested in this? Well I spent half my life grappling with understanding and interpreting ancient texts, and old habits die hard.

Some tougher stuff on herbal medicine

And while I’m on the subject of honest errors, I notice in the newspapers another routine round of attacks by conventional medicine on the dangers of herbal medicines.  Let’s be clear, I’m not a gimlet eyed anti vaxxer and I have more reasons than most to be grateful for modern drugs – I take four different drugs every day and without them there’s a signficant chance I’d be in much poorer health than I am.  I have my annual flu jab and so it goes on.  So thank you to the NHS, I’m a fan.  But in his day, Culpeper battled with the Royal College of Surgeons – he wrote this in 1649 as he translated the (Latin) Pharmacoepia Londinensis into the English common tongue, facing the same challenged as did Myles Coverdale and many others in translating the Bible (in 1535) so that any ploughboy might read it.

” The liberty of our Common Wealth   …… is most infringed by three sorts of men, Priests, Physitians, Lawyers”.

Well he would say that wouldn’t he? – he fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War and was a thoroughgoing Puritan radical. He got a serious chest wound which may have been a subsidiary cause of his death from TB at the age of only 39. He could see that many poor people simply couldn’t afford to pay for credentialed physicians and so he gave them what they needed – reliable access to self care. He was always careful to note where a misidentification could be dangerous, and there’s no sense of anything but close observation and attention to detail in his book – but it was a book written in the 17th century translating another put together in the 16th from manuscripts that went back to the first century and using experience gathered from Egyptian, Roman and Greek sources. It can’t be understood without serious study: which is a long way of saying that attacks on herbal medicine that come from a simple 21st century superficial reading of ancient texts suffer from exactly the same flaws as do the attacks by anti-vaxxers on modern scientific medicine – they’re often fuelled and inflamed by a complete failure to understand what the other is really doing.

Undoubtedly herbal medicine can be dangerous and can cause unexpected interactions with conventional medicines. Undoubtedly we could do with better training and more regulation of expensive raw materials, bearing in mind that fake Viagra and illegal steroids are hardly ‘better’ than fake Ginseng or any other herb. Conventional medicine too has its downside.  I found some research by the Universities of Sheffield, York and Manchester published on 23rd February 2018 on the subject of prescription errors: it found that in the UK there were:

  • 237 million medication errors each year
  • An estimated 712 deaths
  • Were a contributory factor to between 17,000 and 22,000 deaths
  • Cost £98.5 million per year to remedy

I tried to find equivalent data for herbal and oriental medicines but it seems that there is very little detailed research and a lot of untested anecdotal evidence floating around. Could this be a clash of ideologies just like the battles of the 16th and 17th centuries? The only way to find out is to do the comparative research on a level playing field. How many times have I heard it said that “there’s no evidence” that a certain treatment works when the reason there is no evidence is because no-one had ever done any research to find any. That’s a politicians trick!

Meanwhile I’ll continue to pick my sceptical way between the opposing sides and use the best informed opinions when it comes to choosing the right therapy. A few weeks ago we had a meal with a GP and a cancer specialist consultant.  I asked in all innocence (ho ho) whether their patients ever asked them about complementary therapies. “All the time” was the response and the conversation was immediately doused with a bucketful of cold silence.

%d bloggers like this: