But don’t be alarmed, in this one instance the river Avon is doing exactly what it was intended to because this area is part of a flood relief area, designed to hold water back from racing down the river. It could safely rise another maybe four or five feet but I can hardly imagine the impact that would have further downstream. I took these pictures yesterday and further upriver at Pulteney Weir the water was moving so fast there was just a ferocious boil where the steps can usually be seen. Massive logs were powering downstream faster than a decent walker could keep up. The radial gate was open – the gate that the council are proposing to remove – but I wonder in the light of this winter’s continual storms if that’s such a good idea.
Back up the path towards Green Park there seemed to be a developing patch of occasional marshland. In fact the footpath has been closed off so much this year I wonder if it wouldn’t be a nice touch to close it permanently and allow the regular inundations to create a whole new habitat.
The only dark spot in a bright day were the thousands of shoppers piling in to the shopping centre with no regard at all for the spread of Covid. We could see them from the other side of the river milling around beyond the bus station and we spoke to one man who told us without a trace of awareness that he was breaking the law, that he’d driven up from Westbury. As battles break out everywhere about who should get the vaccine first we see the period of our confinement – 10 months already – extending into an unknown future. Mendip is once again closed to us and we seem to be among a tiny minority who try to respect the rules.
So today we finished off the seed order, along – it seemed – with every other gardener in the UK which brought the websites to a pitiful crawl; so slow in fact that I managed to buy four rhubarb plants after exiting two websites that I thought had died. But we have all the seeds and plants ordered now. The allotment itself is a sorry sight; cold and wet. The broad beans took a battering in the overnight storms, but experience suggests that they’ll recover as soon as the weather improves a bit. The good news is that the strengthened stands have coped well with the 1250 litres of water now overflowing the water butts – that’s a ton in old money, but in a bitterly cold northwesterly wind we didn’t hang around after we’d topped up the compost with kitchen waste and cut some chard and a savoy cabbage for tomorrow. There will be sunshine and warmth again, but at present the weather perfectly expresses the prevailing gloom about brexit and the pandemic.
The next big planting that could arrive any time will be the four new fruit trees which are novel in that they’re grown on dwarfing rootstock but rather than inclined like normal cordons, they grow vertically which means they’re extremely space efficient. Whether they’ll live up to the advertising material is a moot point, but in the coming years fruit is going to at a premium – and we love apples, pears, plums and damsons. If (and it’s a big if) – they all produce fruit we’ll be very fortunate. I also ordered tayberry and blackberry plants today. The garlics are all up too; the brussels sprouts are fattening up nicely and within a few weeks we’ll be eating purple sprouting which couldn’t be more welcome as spring approaches. It’s like early asparagus and tastes very nearly as good.
So all’s reasonably well in this strange time. I’ve embarked on reading yet another book on food production and I’m sure I’ll be writing about it very shortly. Whether or not our government will have the courage and the vision to address the coming environmental and economic troubles I would doubt, so all that’s left to us is to do as little harm as possible in our own lives and prepare for the day when our knowledge and expertise will finally be called upon.
The river level had fallen slightly today after the weekend storms but it still looked dangerous this morning as we walked past. Falling in, in these conditions, is not a safe option, and this stretch of the Avon has taken more than a dozen lives in the last ten years. That said, we did see a couple of sturdy paddle boarders making very slow progress against the flow. The pleasure boats have all stopped, due to the renewed lockdown, but I wouldn’t even think about taking our inflatable kayak out in conditions more suitable for white water specialists.
It’s a salutary experience to watch the raw power of nature. Our regular riverside walk takes us under the bridge that appears in the video, beneath which the flood levels over the past century have been carved into the plinth. Most of them are well above our heads! This last year, flood prevention work has continued down this length of the river, and a new terraced water storage area has been created while the canalised banks have been raised even further; but canalisation, while protecting the centre of town, still moves the problem downstream. There are computerised side sluices which were in use yesterday, but they occasionally jam open, causing havoc and draining the waterway in the locked section upstream. It’s only when you see a whole tree passing down the river faster than you can walk, that you can judge the awesome strength of the flow – and that’s a chastening thought when you think about the environmental dangers we’re courting at the moment.
Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published 50 years ago. I can remember any number of warning signs over the years; acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, typhoons more severe than ever before and the melting of the Arctic ice. It’s been happening for so long we’ve got almost cosy with the idea – “what catastrophe?”, we wonder, when the changes are so slow we can accommodate them easily in our minds. “Climate change?”we say – “it’s like old age creeping up; these are just twinges in the knees, there’s plenty of time to sort things out. So here’s the thing. When nature gets upset or disturbed it’s not like waking a small bear, it’s like opening a pandora’s box of events so unmanageable, so unpredictable and so indiscriminate; that none of them can be summarily dealt with. When catastrophic events that are only predicted to occur once a century turn up three at a time in consecutive years then something’s up – rather like binge drinking for years, when your liver won’t give you the luxury of a gap between “not yet” and “too late”.
Curiously enough – or maybe fortuitously enough – there was another lesson to be learned from the river today. I’ve been saying for months to Madame that I can smell the detergent as we get with 200 yards of Pulteney Weir. Today you could see it as well. This thick layer of grey foam had caught my eye as a useful visual aid for showing the speed of the flow, earlier in our walk. Here, in the backwash next to the flood relief sluice, there was a floating layer of foam a foot deep. Less than a mile upstream we’ve seen people wild swimming below Grosvenor bridge. Here’s why that might be a dangerous idea, because quite aside from the danger of getting into trouble with underwater obstacles – the kind that killed a school friend when I was twelve – this stuff, the detergent, doesn’t make its own way into the river via a separate pipe marked “not too bad”. It comes via the overflows from the sewage works dotted along the banks. When torrential rain comes – as it does ever more frequently these days – the usual legal niceties controlling the treatment works are automatically suspended and raw sewage flows out straight into the river. The detergent foam may be an indicator; it may be a menace in its own right – rich, as it is, with phosphates; but even then it’s not as immediately dangerous as the other chemical, bacterial and viral contaminants that we’ve drained into it from our kitchens and bathrooms.
I mentioned a similar problem in a newspaper column years ago and was unceremoniously chucked out of a fly fishing club for bringing its waters into disrepute. Hi guys – still fishing in your own shit?
So there it is – you can’t escape the worries even during a quiet walk up the river. On the bright side they’ve just installed the first new bridge across the river for 100 years, for walkers and cyclists only which, predictably, has brought out the trolls who call it ‘the bridge that goes from nowhere to nowhere’. In fact it creates a safe route from the South to the North side of the city without using the Mad Max roundabouts along the main car route. Here are a couple of photos: –
The crane that lifted the bridge into place was a 170 ton crawler crane that arrived on over twenty low loaders to be assembled on site. It was awesome – the biggest crane I’ve ever seen; and yet when I was admiring it the security guard said “Oh that’s only a small one – the one at the Hinkley Point Power Station is twice as big”. Unsurprisingly the crane attracted a crowd of admiring men (and their less admiring partners). What is it about hyper-powerful machinery that gets us so excited? On the other had if it came to a tug of war between the crawler crane and the river in full spate I reckon the river would win without even breaking a sweat.
For all the pleasure and education that natural history television has brought us I often wonder whether it has falsely domesticated our sense of the wild. So often we read stories of people getting attacked when they climb over security fences to get closer to the animals in zoos and wildlife parks and it may be that a contributory factor (apart from being an idiot) is the sense that the wild is there for our entertainment. Almost all our attempts to ‘tame’ nature are hubristic. I mentioned Hinkley Point earlier and thought Chernobyl even as I typed it. The last iteration of the flood prevention scheme here broke down, they say, due to a software error, and dozens of residential boats were sunk, leaving many people homeless. Here’s a bigger video of the river at Pulteney Weir today:-
This is a long post and it’s possibly more open about some fairly personal stuff than you may feel interested enough to read. It deals with the challenges of retirement and the emotional impact of health problems. Normal service will, I promise, be resumed immediately so if you skip this one that’s fine, but it’s here in case anyone else might find it helpful.
I was maybe fourteen years old when I first read this passage and allowed it to take up residence in my mind, along with Peggoty and Duffy Clayton (you’ll have to look that one up).
“A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr. Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular”
The History of Mr Polly – H G Wells
It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock, coming back to Bath after ten days in the most idyllic and secluded place you could imagine, overlooking the Irish Sea in North Wales; and in the way that astrologers write about trines, and other unusual alignments of the planets and astronomers plot eclipses and consequential movements of the planets; my own little solar system threw up a large spanner in the form of an anniversary. In fact the fifth anniversary of my retirement.
I remember asking my old friend Mags, whose partner had retired three years previously, how long it had taken for her to settle. The answer – “three years at least” took me by surprise – I’d come to think of my retirement in rather conventional terms, you know – big party; warm words (mostly exaggerated); a few glasses and off into the sunset and a new life – just like Mr Polly. Then Rose, another friend, warned us that one of the biggest perils was that every night became Friday night. They were both right but both underestimated the length of time it would take for the dream of my/our retirement fantasies to morph into a much deeper reality.
On Monday last, (a beautiful late summer’s day), we drove across the mountains once more and six hours later arrived home. Nothing had happened particularly in the meanwhile: the flat hadn’t burned down and the allotment was pretty much as we’d left it; but the city – lying in its natural basin – was airless, thronged with visitors taking a chance with COVID; students moving towards their new independent lives, armed with implausibly large amounts of alcohol and – of course – the Easy Jet planes were overhead, bringing Typhoid Mary and her mates back from their holidays. Ambulances as always were crawling through the traffic, setting out from and returning to the Royal United Hospital.
One thing however was very different. A large stretch of the river had drained by a depth of about five feet – due to a problem with one of the sluices – and dozens of boats, some of them peoples’ homes, had dropped, one-sidedly, on their mooring ropes and filled with filthy water. This much photographed riverside area, worth millions to property developers began to look like a 1970’s photo of the old Caldon branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal; cluttered with abandoned and stolen metalwork – bikes, a stolen motorcycle, dozens of supermarket trolleys, old computers and general rubbish….. Hm!
The bottom right photograph (just about) shows the rarely seen overflow from the hot springs that drains warm water into the river after passing through the official Roman Baths and also through the rather expensive and privately run Spa. All the newly exposed river bed needed was a few dead dogs and Morris 1000 complete with skeletal passengers to complete the dystopian vision.
So what to do? Snowdonia ached in our memories and we were facing an enforced desensitisation back into our normal lives; living like urban foxes, avoiding unnecessary human contact and constantly COVID watchful. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but then he was a relatively wealthy and well educated man who probably lived in the better part of town. While Bath is, doubtless, a work of art – it’s more Bosch than Leonardo. The city looks great on a sunny evening when you’ve come in a coach and the buildings glow like ripe apricot as you are driven along London Road and back up to the motorway; but living here is very different.
Enough! We’ve forged our lives here now – I chose the word carefully – and much of the time our lives are so full we hardly notice all this. A therapeutic trip to the allotment surprised us. The first of the parsnips was a giant, the chillies, peppers and aubergines had all flourished in the days of our neglect. Another 5 kilos of tomatoes to prep, chillies to brine and ferment and more good things to eat. All good news there.
Our re-entry strategy was to revisit our favourite walks. The local ones are all calculated take us around the quiet edges of the city; be around five miles long, and capable of being taken at a bit of a challenging pace. There are no walks here that don’t involve hills.
To put all this exercise in some kind of context we both finished the first lockdown seriously overweight – my bread baking was probably the engine of much of it, but being indoors so long didn’t help, and comfort food was our principal survival mechanism. But there was more – Madame had endured a knee replacement; we’d both scored badly on blood glucose (pre diabetic) in the last set of tests and I’d had a series of troubling encounters with endoscopes, followed by a separate diagnosis of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. My heart would go into uncontrolled pointless and ineffectual racing leaving me feeling faint and (so I discovered) very likely to have a stroke or a heart attack. Our visits to the gym were more dangerous than I’d ever realized.
My medical issues were quickly resolved by medication to control the wayward heart rhythms and reduce my blood pressure, but emotionally the effect was deeper and more difficult to budge. Looking back, I began to make accommodations, telling myself it was only natural to slow down at my age, and all that blah blah blah. Fear of becoming a wreck was making things worse, and introducing negative feedback can only go one way, putting the brakes on life. We were shrinking in ambition even while we grew slower and bigger and so we did something about it. Long before the lockdown; we gave up alcohol – it’s fourteen months now with no more seven Friday nights a week and – (this is not a nag) – after a few months we felt so much better it was difficult to understand why we hadn’t done it sooner. Some of the worrying symptoms disappeared, and then six weeks ago we put ourselves on a low carb diet; I lost 20lbs and all my other stats – blood glucose, blood pressure, body fat, BMI and resting heart rate dropped quickly into the normal or even optimal levels. After a lifetime of never listening to good advice we bit the bullet and it worked. The diet is demanding but we soon got used to it. One of the biggest obstacles was getting past the pharmacists who seemed to think it was wrong for me to check my own blood sugars in case I “wore my finger out” taking samples, or (more likely) was too stupid to get medical help if self-testing showed up a problem.
But accompanying the appearance of these promising new shoots; the reappearance of my waist, and the clothes I never thought I’d ever be able to wear again, there was something else lurking in the background that came so from from left-field it knocked me flat because the way in which the inner world inflects our experience of the outer world is always present whether we notice it or not. The dystopian experience of coming home from the unsustainable idyll should have been a warning that something needed sorting.
So we took the campervan for its annual MOT at a garage in one of my old parishes and while we waited I thought we’d drive around for a while, near some of the places we’d both loved during the time we lived there. We turned off up a narrow lane from the main road for no reason that I could explain and then in a moment of completely clear insight I knew two things. Firstly that I’d been trying to forget, to push to the back of my mind, the whole 25 years of work in the parish, although much of it was pure joy, because there were some bits of it that had been terrible and that had inflicted real damage on me. But the second insight was that it was OK to own all the good things. I needed to remember them safely because they represented a third of my life. So two insights in a narrow lane that (who’d have thought it?) led directly to a farm and to someone who’d been good to me in a completely unaffected way, and we banged on the door and were welcomed as old friends.
A lot of my life has been taken up with unravelling birds’ nests of memories. We say casually that so-and-so ‘was in pieces‘ and that’s often truer than we think. Years of helping other people to put their lives back together demanded that I took my own puzzle just as seriously – it’s a work in progress, you might say.
Anyway that could be the longest imaginable introduction to a couple of walks – one of them a restorative stroll around Bannerdown where we were delighted by two usurpers, both probably garden escapes but Michaelmas daisies are so much a part of autumn, and the Canadian goldenrod was just as pretty, neither of them the least rare or even genuine native wildflowers but hey! The real ram-stamped native was the plant gall known colloquially as a robin’s pincushion.
Then yesterday we went across to the Mendips to walk down the length of Velvet Bottom and instead of turning back up the Longwood Valley, we carried on down through the Black Rock nature reserve as far as Cheddar Gorge – who could resist those names? I’ve talked a lot about the peculiar geology of the place which, due to lead pollution from mines that have been operated since Roman times, has its own very specialised flora. I’ve written about it, but some of the plants are harder to spot than you’d think. Not, however meadow saffron – sometimes known as ‘naked ladies’ because the spectacular flowers appear after the seeds have been set and the leaves have disappeared for the winter.
And there’s another reason for writing at such length. I once taught a young South Wales man doing an incredibly long prison sentence for affray. He used to joke and say that if I crossed him he might have ‘one of his blackouts’. Let’s call him Owen. Apart from a gift for throwing furniture and televisions through windows, he knew more about Romano British settlements in South Wales than anyone I’ve ever met. If anyone ever demonstrated the fact that you can’t stuff a real life into a bag marked ‘historian’ or ‘botanist’ it was Owen. As Stephen Blackpool was inclined to say in “Hard Times” – ‘it’s all a muddle’ – and in real life, as opposed to the relentlessly (artificial) successful and happy bloggers’ persona, for every meadow saffron there’s an awful lot of ragwort that can’t be swept under the carpet. The Potwell Inn remains committed to life in all its fullness, richness and joy – allowing for the fact that some idiot could leave the sluices open at any time.
So leaving Birmingham we decided to drive south and west across to the Malvern Hills and go for a walk with our son. We used to visit the Malverns frequently when the children were young but we haven’t been there for at least four years since we moved to Bath – it’s that little bit too far now for a spontaneous walk. This place, on the border between Herefordshire and Worcestershire overlooks the Severn Valley to the East, forming the the Vale of Evesham with the River Wye to the West so it was as good a place as any to see the effects of the flooding from the vantage point of the hills. There was no doubting the effects on the roads – there were warning signs of road closures all the way down the M5 and there was much more traffic than usual on the motorway – not least lorries trying to find an unblocked way west.
The whole area is regularly beset with flooding, but in the last few years it’s got progressively worse. The relentless rain during this winter has left the valleys waterlogged and unable to cope with the additional flow. What makes it even trickier is the fact that there are always two peaks of flooding – the first coming directly off the land locally and the second, a couple of days later, is formed by the floodwaters flowing down from the mountainous catchment area around Plynlimon in mid-Wales. What that means, of course, is that the long term remedy for flooding needs to be sought in changes in farming and building practices in the most populated areas downriver, but also in the headwater region. The Malvern Hills which occupy the area between the Wye and the Severn is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has 15 SSSI’s within its boundaries. It’s also managed by the Malvern Conservators founded by act of parliament in 1884 – so you can see it’s a pretty heavily regulated area.
That’s just to set the scene a bit – yesterday we set off from Hollybush in deteriorating weather and by the time we got to the top of the first climb it was sheeting down, blowing a hoolie and extremely cold. We carried on and the weather slowly improved and by the time we got to Sally’s Place (great refreshment hut) at British Camp, the sun had put in an appearance. But looking out towards the Severn from the vantage point of the hilltop we could see how much flooding there is at the moment. It’s not possible to discern the actual course of the river unless it’s by the tops of the bankside trees. For the most part the flooding extends for several fields either side, and of course larger towns like Upton on Severn, Tewkesbury and Worcester (OK I know it’s a city but writing the list any other way looks pedantic!) – are severely affected once again. After a four hour walk out and back we arrived at Hollybush again just as the rain got organised and we drove home in opposite directions, both of us – it turned out – in appalling driving conditions.
Back in Bath, the river is continuing to fill, and we discovered that yesterday it covered Pulteney weir for the first time since 1960 when 7 people died in the floods. Bathampton Meadows are underwater again – doing exactly what they’re meant to do, which is to store floodwater. It still amazes me that even as late as 2017 the local authority were still trying to turn this nature reserve into a park and ride scheme. If you’re looking for an example of cognitive dissonance look no further. The latest flood risk assessment sounds breezily confident that the risk isn’t rising, and there are plans to decommission the floodgates at Pulteney weir. The strategy for dealing with the climate crisis at government level seems to be to tell us to stick our fingers in our ears and shout “la la la la” very loudly. Those of us who remember the similarly laughable “protect and survive” campaign will recall that the then government advised us that the best protection against all-out nuclear war was to whitewash the windows and hide under a table. That was what we were meant to do at least, the government plans for themselves involved moving into nuclear bomb proof shelters, curiously named “regional seats of government” and sitting it out until it was safe to emerge and govern the smoking radioactive ashes. One recently discovered criminal repurposing of an abandoned nuclear shelter was to use it to grow cannabis on an industrial scale – you couldn’t make this stuff up!
Anyway, if all this doesn’t constitute a crisis I don’t know what does. Everywhere we looked we could see the stubble from last year’s fodder maize crop. The land is too wet to sow seed and consequently the top soil is being washed into the rivers, further depleting the earth. I read through a couple of the many official reports concerning the Malvern Hills when we got home, and one of them suggested that one effect of global heating might be to allow farmers to take two crops a year. Merciful heavens! that surely means we’ll simply exhaust the soil that much quicker unless we make radical changes.
Traditionally, Japanese potters would dig porcellanous and stoneware clays and store them for their grandchildren to use. These clays lacked plasticity and prolonged storage after initial preparation made them easier, although never easy, to use. We need politicians to move to a similar timescale. We need to stop asking what will be the case in five or ten years time , and soberly consider what it might be in fifty. To paraphrase an earlier teacher:
For what will it profit us if we hoard our savings but lose the whole earth?
Another walk along the canal today, and I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the sign and a homeless person’s tent on the opposite side. More often than not these temporary shelters are situated in places that are difficult for random thugs to reach because they are frequently targeted for abuse. This one tent is the tip of the iceberg and the canal is a favourite place. There are probably dozens of rough sleepers along its edges – many of them with mental health and substance abuse issues, but it’s hard to tell. Sleeping rough and living in fear of being beaten up or constantly moved on has its own corrosive effect. Then there are a large number of just-about floating narrow boats housing those who can afford the mooring fees but not much else.
Today the last half mile of the canal was rammed with boats unable to enter the river and head off towards Bristol. The exit to the river through Bath Deep Lock is almost impossible in high water states because the long narrow boats have to enter the river broadside on, and the water was running like a train today. Its deadliest state is always surprisingly quiet but always menacing. Even Pulteney bridge gets quieter as the river rises and almost obliterates the weir in what looks more like a breaking wave. At this time of year when the Christmas parties get under way, the river has taken so many young lives it’s unusual to take a walk and not see a bunch of flowers tied to a fence. Today was no exception. It’s cold at night, and the wet weather must have made life impossible for many homeless people.
Are we a humane society? We shall see in a couple of weeks, but I’m feeling despondent as our democracy is reduced to rubble by lies and deliberate lawbreaking.
My favourite little patch of weeds is coming along nicely at the moment, and there was a hint of sunny weather to come as the birds practised a few bars of their spring songs. As we wandered back into the town centre we discovered that the Christmas Market had started hours earlier than we expected, and so we hunted down the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm stall and bought some more seed garlic and a few other bits and bobs from Rob Solari who gave the talk at the Allotment Society AGM. When we arrived home the monograph on garlic that I’d ordered had already arrived so we’re well set up now. In honour of the occasion we baked some large mushrooms with a wholly improper amount of our own crop and shop butter and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Up at the allotment the Early Purple garlic has finally emerged in sympathy with our new-found commitment and so the world looks like a better place just now. The kitchen waste had piled up in the kitchen and so we took it all up to the site. The compost heap is going well, but a winter heap is an entirely different proposition to a summer one. It’s dense with peelings and vegetable leftovers and therefore more attractive to rats and prone to going anaerobic, so it needs a lot more brown waste like cardboard and it needs turning regularly to let some air in. But it’s nice and warm – around 25C – and the worms are still reducing it at a tremendous rate. However much we put on the heap it seems to shrink day by day.
Everything else is quiet on the plots, but the broad beans and overwintering peas are germinated and ready to go into the ground over the weekend when the weather looks much better. But it’s just as well the pace has fallen a bit because the constant shortening of the day length and the grey wet weather seem to lower our energy levels. The table is piled high with books to read but it was better to be out walking for much of the day. We shift into official winter on Sunday which is promising brilliant sunshine and cold conditions – proper winter then, and the garlic loves a cold spell. The photo was taken in Sydney Gardens where we walked past a large Ginkgo biloba – this one without stinking fruit surrounding it. Someone must have swept it all up.