You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

The advice from the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) is pretty unequivocal.  Don’t submit a record for a plant unless you’re absolutely certain of it, or if it’s been counter-checked by someone who actually knows what they’re doing. There was me galloping through the Pembrokeshire list and today I suddenly got cold feet.

It all started so well when I spotted a plant on the wall in the middle of St Davids, as we were going to the supermarket. I didn’t know exactly what it was but I was sure what family it belonged to, so – easy peasy – straight to the books where I just couldn’t find it where I expected it. So I go into pondering mode – what does it remind me of? ….. Coltsfoot ……… they’re an early spring flower so it can’t be that.  OK then – it sort of reminds me of Stonecrop when I look at the fleshy leaves.  Bingo – it’s a Rock Stonecrop – Sedum forsterianum – a two star or even three star rarity growing on a wall in a busy street near a supermarket.  But here’s the thing, it’s nice to find a rarity but it’s one of those plants that it would be hard to confuse with anything else.

I’ve had a busy time and the list has now reached a tantalising 99 plants identified – BUT – looking through my notes today I discovered a couple of ID’s that I made when we were here in May and now I’m not so sure. Yesterday I ID’d a plant and accidentally wrote down the wrong name.  I only discovered my mistake when I found a close relative today and had to double check yesterday’s work. In the midst of feeling rather pleased with myself I realized that competency in field botany is a much slower process than I thought. Any progress I’m making is at a more general level, and I’m much better at reognising families of plants – which brings a bonus in saving time when it comes to sorting out the species. As for species and sub-species, I discovered when I found the exquisite little Eyebright on the top left photo, that it belongs to a large bunch of subspecies (75) that even baffle experts. I’ll have to let it go at Eyebright and remember how beautiful it was, nestling on the clifftop. I think I’m a while away from feeling confident enough to submit my own records.

IMG_5783But after a damp start early this morning (with a view like this even damp starts are magical), the sky cleared slowly and by the time we got back from St Davids and had a greedy bacon sandwich, the sun was shining, we whacked on our boots and went for a long walk with me ticking off plants as we went. I’ve now found four of the five Plantains here and I found the other one in the middle of Bath a couple of years ago, so that’s a botanical royal flush. As we walked we wondered if we’d somehow wandered into paradise:  the sea, the sun, the wildlife and flowers  feeding our souls as we went along. Even the discovery that the Willowherbs are a much more complicated family than I’d imagined couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm – every dificulty became an opportunity  – hooray, more features to look at and absorb – even my knackered knees felt as if they were enjoying themselves.

Why should anyone be remotely interested in all this? Search me! I only know that this is a blog about being human, and when I do this kind of thing – when I can call plants by their names, when I can draw and paint them and grow them and understand their properties and something about the lives they lead and how they survive, it makes me feel more human, more embedded in this staggeringly, promiscuously over-generous world.

When I was a curate, training to be a parish priest, my boss thought that every moment not spent working was a moment wasted. I became friends with the owner of a fishing tackle shop who seemed to take to me. I would go out on an imaginary ‘visit’ and drink cups of coffee with him and his wife in their back room behind the shop – needless to say they never darkened the door of a church.  Bob would collect me every Wednesday morning after the ten o’clock communion.  I would wear my fishing clothes under my cassock and at the end of the service I would bolt across the churchyard, through the house and out into the back lane where Bob would be waiting (hiding) in his three wheeler (honestly!)  to take me to one of his favourite spots.  One day we were sitting in complete silence on the riverbank and he said “you know, I never felt the need for church when I could come here and watch the water and listen to the birds singing”.

He wasn’t wrong.

And to finish, a little bunch of purple numbers we spotted today – two are in the same family, but which two?

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