California, the gold rush and the F word.

IMG_20200126_161359Just in case you read my piece yesterday where I got a bit lyrical about the old South Gloucestershire coalfield here’s a teaser for what I’m thinking about today.  What links California Farm, the gold rush and the F word? OK here’s a clue about the last term – I’m not talking about Gordon Ramsey’s favourite word, but fracking.

I was mulling over my piece when I remembered I had a book in the shelves, a reprint of the 1873 monograph on the coalfield written by John Anstie. I bought it for a pound about thirty years ago, and so I had a flick through again and realized that the geography of my childhood – you might call it the psycho-geography, almost exactly coincides with the limits of the coalfield.  You could lay the two maps on top of one another and see the place names I wrote about on both of them. All very comforting you might think, and I thought it was pretty cute too at first, until I thought about California Farm.

In 1876 the Cowhorn Hill Colliery was purchased by Abraham Fussell.He deepened the old Blowbottom Shaft to 640 yards where he reached the valuable Smiths coal, only 18 inches thick but in great demand.  He renamed the shaft – CALIFORNIA. Fussell thought that, like the gold mines in California, it would make his fortune. 

The paragraph above was copied from the excellent local website DistrictWeb.

Note the date – three years after the book was written. The mine prospered but in 1904 the workings were flooded and the mine abandoned and sold to a water company who pumped and sold the water. Another fortune was made when the land was sold for building development in the second half of the 20th century, and now much of the area is built over as the California Farm estate, the coal wharves on the river and the dramway have all but disappeared and the abandoned mill became the hub of the small nature reserve I wrote about.

I’ve always assumed that the age of coal has gone, not least here, where the seams are narrow and difficult to mine but especially because the whole world is supposed to be trying to cut the use of carbon based fuels.  But my assumption is wrong for a number of reasons. The greed that allowed land to be bought and sold as a commodity, and allowed mineral extraction without regard to the consequences hasn’t gone away. We have the most ecologically illiterate government in many decades, and the fracking licences for the whole area have been quietly on sale for years. But finally the principle that the polluter pays is largely understood as extremist propaganda. In short, the Klondike could return to South Gloucestershire any time soon, because there is far more coal and methane left in there than was ever taken in the past.  

Fracking! The local authorities oppose it, the residents oppose it and almost anyone with a grain of common sense would oppose it, but ….. there are fortunes to be made, even at the expense of global heating and species extinction.  This is not a time for complacency!

Anyway, enough grumpy, because today I found this at the back of the garage ….. (see below)


It isn’t an alien life form but a bag of last year’s early potatoes that I harvested, put in the garage and promptly forgot.  When I said recently that they were pink fir apple I was quite wrong.  I found those today and they’ve stored perfectly. These were almost certainly Arran Pilots and, driven by their biological imperative they were seeking fresh air and sunshine from the most disadvantaged place you could imagine – in a hemp shopping bag in an underground garage. The Sarpo Miras and the Pink Fir Apples – both main-crops,  have stored perfectly with no sign of premature chitting. What it does show is just how important the differences between varieties can be, and – another important lesson – chitting potatoes need light and cool conditions if they’re not to get leggy or dry out. It’s nowhere near time to get them going here, although the seed merchants are desperate for the space in their warehouses. The best advice is to wait until you can see the seed potatoes in the garden centres and snap them up before they all go.

Suddenly, spring sneaked in and we’re rushing.

ff170491-9847-4193-bede-c05cf564d32cSome people might find even a slightly out of focus photo of a pile of poo a bit – well, rich first thing in the morning, but we at the Potwell Inn are made of sterner stuff and find it extremely cheering.  Most people send pictures of their winsome children or latest culinary triumph. Not so for people like us. This little pile is the beginnings of the new hotbed, nestling in the corner of my good friend Annie’s barn.  She’s dotty about horses. I’m less dotty about the animals themselves – (I once had a bad experience with a nasty natured beast called “Copper” who thought it would be amusing to scrape me off his back by galloping at a low branch), – I am however very attached to their by-products which are going to be converted this year to a wheelbarrow full of early salads, followed by the best crop of squashes ever seen anywhere. Annie is/was one of my parishioners back in the day – I took her wedding service, and she was reminiscing yesterday about the rehearsal when a policeman burst into the church, which was very remote and pretty much in the middle of a field, because he had spotted the cars outside and suspected a burglary was taking place. Now, of course, we live 20 miles away but we still keep in occasional contact. Especially when there’s manure involved!  This little pile is just one day’s output from her extremely well cared for horses so I’m expecting great things. How exactly I’m going to get it to the allotment in our tiny car is another matter. Hot, wet and richly smelly, oh my word – it puts a spring in my step.

But now the urgency of the new season is beginning to dawn on us.  There are still two raised beds to complete and I need to build the hotbed very soon indeed if I’m going to reap the benefits of all that bacterial heat. We’re almost into late winter. Early spring begins on March 1st – according to the Met Offce who have no truck with astrological signs and golden numbers. On top of that I need to build the official wormery and transfer all our lovely brandling into their new purpose built home.  Is it any surprise I don’t get enough time for reading and meditation?  Behind me, in my ‘office’ is the second propagator and later today I need to fill twenty or thirty modules with sowing mixture and set the thermostat to 25C so they can warm up and settle ready to be sown with this year’s chillies.  Last year was the first time we’ve ever tried to grow them and the habaneros failed completely so we’re still on a steep learning curve here. Early today I had an email to say that the spring planting onion sets have been despatched, and the seed potatoes won’t be many days later. If it weren’t for the cough I’d be doing pirouettes in the kitchen.

Allotmenteering can feel a bit relentless at times and it’s true, once you’ve tied yourself to a patch of land and even more a bunch of animals, you have to keep your head down. The seasons are very like the tides inasmuch as they flow unevenly.  There are slacks – we’re nearing the end of the midwinter slack now, and there will be another in high summer – but there are times when, like the Severn, the tide flows so fast you feel you’re in danger of being swept away. And yet you feel completely blessed at the same time. The Potwell Inn couldn’t exist without the huge network of friends, neighbours and well-wishers who have encouraged and supported us over the decades.  It may be a virtual pub but the regulars – that’s to say everyone I’ve ever met and worked with – are completely real, just anonymized a bit to protect their privacy.

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