The big but little day

Here’s our solstice breakfast – photographed as near to 10.00am as I could – I was starving hungry! The gloop in the bowls is a a kind of muesli – I prefer to think of it as a cold porridge made with rolled oats, oatmeal, nuts, seeds including milled flax seed and grated apple. We have it almost every day because it tastes lovely and will last us until supper if we’re busy. The loaf is a freshly baked 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, our ‘everyday bread’. The solstice treat is home made marmalade and damson jam, and the liturgy was the lighting of the candle. Simple but lovely.

Later our son drove down from the Midlands to exchange Christmas presents which are now quarantined in the boot of our car – a strange meeting with face masks and social distancing plus a bit extra for luck. There were no hugs and absolutely no kisses and we conspired silently not to breach the line between what was being felt and what was being said, but it was a bit of a charade really and no-one was fooled, I think.

Madame has taken to watching the French news channel broadcasting in English. It’s so much better at telling it straight than the BBC. For months now the most reliable newspaper sources of English news have been the Scottish ones. The English press is so partisan it’s barely worth reading unless you want a laugh; and even the Guardian’s liberal pose is constantly undermined by its visceral fear and hatred of any kind of politics that might change things for the better.

We spent the afternoon preparing a celebration supper and watching a documentary about Polyface Farm which I’ve been reading and writing about over the past couple of days. But I’ve forsworn any campaigning today. Up at the allotment digging a parsnip (they’re big) – paralysed as we have been by the weather – I suddenly thought we might span three of the raised beds with a polytunnel to extend our growing season at both ends. In the spring our tiny greenhouse is always full of germinating seeds and because it’s so small it heats up to eye watering temperatures very quickly so we’ve found that tomatoes get very stressed in there. Only the hottest chillies seem to like it. I’ve always resisted the thought because of the increased demand for hand watering but now the thought has lodged in my mind I’m wondering if I could design a means of storing the water and redirecting it on to the beds with soaker hose. It’s tricky because a 17′ by 10′ tunnel would collect an awful lot of rain in a storm – but the hardest problems are always the most fun.

Outside it was dark by 4.00pm and there was continuous drizzle under a leaden sky almost all day. This is all very hard emotional work!

Almost winter

The sound of the wind sighing through these beeches is winter on a plate!

I’m not sure I go with the relatively recent introduction of what’s called ‘meteorological winter’ which begins on December 1st for no better reason, it seems to me, than an excessive love of orderliness. Yes of course it tidies the year up into four seasons of exactly three months, but the boundaries, the markers don’t coincide with any particular events in the real world. On the other hand, the astronomical seasons are marked by genuine turning points – the two solstices and two equinoxes mark actual observable events rather than concepts. I can hardly imagine anyone getting excited at the accumulation of time required to trigger a new season; whereas I get really excited about the winter solstice because it holds out the hope of lengthening days at what always seems to be (really is, often) the darkest part of the year. The same goes for the equinox, especially at the spring one, when the promise of summer is offered. The late summer is always tinged with sadness as the hours of darkness gain the ascendency once more, but there’s a glorious processional quality about the way the astronomical year reflects our mood. These moments are marked in the natural world by migrating birds like cuckoos which arrive soon after the spring solstice, before the other summer migrants, the swallows and swifts, arrive before the equinox. It all seems to add up.

All of which is a very long way of wondering aloud whether our walk yesterday could be considered a winter walk. The idea of ‘doing’ the Mendip Way – a fifty mile wander between the Bristol Channel and Frome has grown on us and without planning it at all, we’ve been grabbing any excuse to walk bits of it whenever the weather looks reasonable. High Mendip is not a place you want to be walking in freezing winds and driving rain.

Yesterday we walked a random section between Winscombe and Crook Peak – the whole section including the return walk was around 5 miles but it felt longer because there was a climb of just under 600 feet, and the walking conditions were pretty poor with the sodden ground churned to lethally slippery mud by weekend walkers. The start of the walk was diverted because there’s a massive programme of tree felling going on in the whole area, attempting to control ash dieback disease which is rife here, and so we joined the path a mile or so late, beyond Kings Wood. The weather forecast promised better than we actually experienced, but we avoided the sharp showers that we could follow as they drove across the Somerset levels from the South West.

If you look carefully you can just see the silver band of the Bristol Channel below the sky, looking westwards.

Crook Peak is the high promontory that stands guard over the M5 and would be a familiar sight to anyone who regularly drives that way. Its smaller twin, Brent Knoll, is on the other side of the motorway and I suppose the two peaks represent the last hurrah of the Mendip Hills. But the position overlooking the levels gives the most fantastic views across to Glastonbury and beyond and in the opposite direction apparently Pen y Fan in the Black Mountains can be seen 40 miles away on a clear day; so it’s well worth the effort of going to the top. Looking back you can see the Mendip way extending back across Rowberrow Warren, Burrington Combe and towards Priddy. On Thursday we’ve cherry picked a lovely walk from Priddy down Ebbor Gorge and we’ll leave the joining of the dots for later. There’s something nice about exploring the lay of the land in a series of shorter walks and then doing the whole thing in three or four sections when the days are longer.

We are so fortunate to live just 20 miles away from this marvellous walking country. When the Mendip Way is done we’ll start the Limestone Link which runs almost past our front door down to Shipham which is almost in the shadow of the Peak. I’ve written before about the intermittent lead mining industry around Velvet Bottom, and Mendip being a carboniferous limestone area, the washings from the mines all joined the watercourses as they ran underground through the rock and emerged in springs and resurgences lower down. Although the lead mines were last worked over a century ago, the villagers of Shipham were warned, quite recently, not to eat vegetables from their own gardens because they were so heavily contaminated with cadmium. The source of the contamination is now a treasured nature reserve and I suspect that most of its visitors would never even suspect what a wretched and desolate industrial area it must have been in its heyday.

So here are some photographs from yesterday’s walk. The larger photo just shows Glastonbury Tor on top of the hill in the far distance. During the recent flooding, almost all of the low lying land surrounding it was underwater. Looking down from the top we could see that there is massive dredging work going on in the Lox Yeo river to try to improve drainage. In some areas it’s been suggested that tree planting would slow down the drainage and increase water retention, but up here on the ridge the soil is often very thin, and the drainage is straight down into the rock, or more particularly its extensive cave systems, which just shows that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the problem of flooding, perhaps with the exception of arresting climate change and lessening the extreme weather events that cause the floods.

Meanwhile, back on earth

I find these last few days before the solstice almost unbearable, especially when the weather is as gloomy as it’s been here.  As the earth drops down and tilts away from the sun, the darkness dominates and it doesn’t take a (so called) primitive consciousness to feel it. Of course we know – or rather scientists have calculated – that the slow tilting descent will pause at 4.19am on Sunday 22nd December, just four days from now and the northern hemisphere will begin to tilt back again, gathering more sunlight each day until mid-June. But on the allotment it’s as if some of the plants at least have anticipated the changing season. Garlic, broad beans, shallots and winter lettuce are all stretching their wings, and when, as we did on Monday, we get clear skies and sunshine you can almost taste the spring, it’s a real joy.

We agonise about our compost bins because this is the time of year when the rats tend to turn to an easy source of food, and almost every time I open the bay that takes most of our green kitchen waste, I’m greeted by a sleek and well fed rat, an agile jumper who always manages to miss me as it runs off. The answer of course is not to put kitchen waste into the heap – but in the winter, apart from a few dead cabbage leaves,  there’s not enough to keep the heap going.  The number of worms living in there is quite staggering and I suppose one way to solve the problem would be to start an enclosed  wormery, but then I’m sure the rats would soon get wind of it and move their attention to chewing through it. I’ve read that you can bury the waste direct into the ground in a bean trench but a little bit of research shows that rats are able burrowers. I suspect that people don’t see the rats because they’re more active at night, and so they assume they haven’t got them. It only affects me because I keep turning their cosy home upside down. Even the most canny rat is going to bale out at the sight and sound of a dirty great yard fork slicing into its nest.

There’s bokashi, but that’s an expensive method which only pickles the waste, and still needs to be rotted down afterwards.  Its proponents claim that rats don’t like the smell, but the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific. My only experience of deliberate anaerobic rotting was a barrel full of comfrey. It smelt dreadful and perhaps more importantly, anaerobic rotting releases methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Some people claim the rats don’t like the smell of humans, and especially human urine – but they thrive in sewers which must mean something! We activate the heap in summer with urine, and so I gave it 5 litres of human activator yesterday, but I’m not hopeful. If we let the heap get waterlogged the rats will leave it but so will the worms, and then it’s liable to go anaerobic. That leaves only one alternative – trapping. I don’t like killing anything unless it’s absolutely necessary, but we’ve already seen rat poo on the garlic, and the thought of getting Weils disease from our summer lettuces is a bit of a turn off. We don’t use poison because of the impact on our foxes (also a nuisance), hedgehogs owls and anything else that might fancy poisoned rat for supper. So it’s traps – big, powerful (ie ‘humane’), and encased in a box so that cats, foxes, hedgehogs,  and other larger beasts can’t get into them. One of our neighbours keeps parakeets on his allotment and says that he’s been battling the rats for twenty years – they’re brilliant climbers and can scale a shed wall or a nearby tree quite easily.

So that’s rats.  I’ll bait but not set the traps for a week and leave them in or near the heap – crunchy peanut butter is recommended – and then arm them all until I’ve thinned them out, and then stop.  When spring comes they’ll move off to easier pickings when the green kitchen waste is diluted with much more garden waste. It would be lovely to live in a perfect world but allotmenteering is all about understanding your competitors and staying ahead.  In our previous garden we had our cats to do the business, but they were also very partial to the birds.

I’ve stayed away altogether from newspapers and broadcast news and I feel all the better for it.  No more shouting at the telly. I felt so utterly betrayed by the media during the election campaign that I’d started channelling the darkest parts of my mind. On the bookshelf in front of my desk is a copy of the 1965 Faber Book of Modern Verse. I suddenly remembered  a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid – called “Perfect” –

I found a pigeon’s skull on the machair,

All the bones white and dry, and chalky,

But perfect,

Without a crack or a flaw anywhere.

 

At the back, rising out of the beak,

Were domes like bubbles of thin bone,

Almost transparent, where the brain had been

That fixed the tilt of the wings.

I love the sense of fragility that the poem captures so well, and the killer line is the way that MacDiarmid uses the tiny skull to reference the brain that ‘fixed the tilt of the wings.’ Our minds and brains too will, one day, no longer be here to fix the tilt of our wing, and if our living minds are full of falsity, then we shall not be able to fix the tilt of our wings while we are still alive.

Plants at least don’t tell lies, and the White Dead Nettle at the top of the page reminded me that there was a time when every child would have recognised it and plucked the flowers to suck out the nectar.  It’s a lovely plant to find at this time of the year and I had to photograph it, in all it’s commonplace ubiquity. I just think it might help me to fly straight.

Solstice

What a difference in a year. The before and after shots are the second of the half-allotments. We took this one on in October 2017 and since then it’s been completely revamped and has given us excellent crops this season. If you look carefully you can see next year’s onions, shallots and garlic sending down their roots.

But today is the winter solstice and it has always brought out the pagan in me. It has seemed to me since I was very young that this still point – which will happen at 22.23 today when the north pole reaches its furthest tilt away from the sun and then begins to tilt back again is the true turning point of the year.  I don’t want to go into all the whys and wherefores of the Christian calendar, the Gregorian reformed calendar or, for that matter the argument as to whether Christmas or New Year is the more important. So far as i’m concerned as a gardener, this is a fundamental moment. Between the solstice and Twelfth Night comes the natural rest in the horticultural and agricultural year. Yesterday I talked a bit about Wassail, but in my old parishes we also celebrated Plough Monday when the local Young Farmers would carry an old Ransomes plough into Elberton church where I would bless the plough and the seed for the new season. As an aside I should say that the last time I tried to beg a bit of maize seed off a local farmer for the ceremony, she warned me not to touch it because it was treated with a systemic insecticide.  It certainly was, it was bright blue and looked (probably was) thoroughly dangerous and in its small way part of the reason for the destruction of the insects and bees. But there we are  – perhaps I should have nagged but they were good people whose farming practices were being deformed by the pressure to put profit before anything else.  Not many of their critics would have been happy to work the hours that they did for such small reward.

But back at the Potwell Inn we’re completely organic and today we shall be celebrating the solstice with our own roast potatoes, carrots, squashes, parsnips and brussels sprouts along with a piece of slow roasted beef and a glass of wine. Slow roasting is the most brilliant way of making the cheapest cuts taste wonderful.

This morning I was up way before dawn to finish off a sourdough loaf that had been proving all night.  Then a quick sprint to the sorting office to collect a delivery of seeds and then a couple of hours up at the allotment. The outbreathing of the earth is almost over and tonight the great inbreathing begins again. Strength light and hope to everyone who reads this.