Hiding in plain sight

On Monday we watched this heron from the iron bridge over the Kennet and Avon Canal in Sidney Gardens. We’ve often watched herons across the river before and they tend to stand out against a leafy bankside, but looked at from above you can see how perfectly the heron blends into the surface of the water. I can’t believe herons have many overhead predators, but I can imagine a fox stalking one, when of course it would be watching its prey at water level, and the heron’s habit of standing stock still for minutes on end would make it all but invisible. I imagine its camouflage would be just as effective from below. This bird extended and shortened its neck so slowly it was wonderful to watch. It didn’t catch its supper while we were there but flew off down the canal towards the river.

It’s been a strange couple of days at the Potwell Inn. It’s almost six years to the day since we both retired and moved to another city. I’m sure there are many careers from which you could cheerfully walk away without a backward glance but it’s been very different for me. For more than forty years my workplaces were deeply emotionally challenging. Mental hospitals, prisons, outer urban fringe estates – both wealthy and very deprived; in fact the well-to-do villages were way more challenging. It was a high commitment, high adrenaline and massively challenging environment with no script at all. My working days were mostly demand led – the telephone could convey news as daft as a cat stuck up a tree at three in the morning, or a call from a stricken partner to tell me that the love of their life had been killed in an accident. I had worked as an art therapist with women who had been incarcerated in a mental hospital (read asylum) as “moral degenerates” because they’d had babies. They were extremely elderly and completely institutionalised so there was no hope of redress for them. Every day was a cliffhanger and I loved it but the pace meant there was rarely any time out to recuperate before the next wave hit – and being a bloke I shoved it to the back of my mind. As a community worker I worked among guns and knives not to mention drugs, and before I was ordained I taught pottery in a prison and took convicted killers out on resettlement visits.

To be any good at all as a parish priest you have to be prepared to be fragile;

After that the church should have been a doddle, but anyone who imagines that a parish church is a haven of hope and goodwill has never known one. People will be appallingly rude and aggressive (knowing that you can’t answer back) – without a thought of how damaging they can be. To be any good at all as a parish priest you have to be prepared to be fragile; not to know all the answers and to risk condemnation from some of your congregation for “mixing with the wrong sort” or from your ‘superiors’ for treading too close to the invisible and infinitely flexible line of orthodoxy. In every one of those situations I was supported, taught and and inspired by the people I worked with, but there were always a few who treated the status quo as an idol to be worshipped. We were destined to clash, and we did.

And so the years of stress piled up and took their inevitable physical and mental toll. I first found the Potwell Inn whilst reading “The History of Mr Polly” at school in an English class, and carried the idea of a place of beauty and safety – just like it – with me all those years. For the first three years of my retirement I kept a private journal as I struggled to discover what I was for if it wasn’t work. The allotment came along and it’s been such a place of dreaming and consolation that the title of the blog gave itself to me. The Potwell Inn was born three years ago, almost to the day. The photo was of our youngest son and our first grandson walking hand in hand down an avenue of limes in Dyrham Park.

When I read the little biography that I added to the site, I realize that it’s all true but it doesn’t convey the sense that the Potwell Inn is also a hostel for the broken. The tagline about being human didn’t come from any hoard of communicable knowledge on my part. I’d spent so much of my life patching up other people I wasn’t sure any more that I knew how to be human myself.

Perhaps the previous paragraphs make more sense of why I spent most of yesterday in A & E with a racing heart that just wouldn’t slow down and worrying that it might stop altogether! A little spate of coincidences (perhaps what Jung would have termed synchronicities) – several people I’d known and cared about had died; the funeral director called me to tell me about one of them and the moment heard his voice I went into auto pilot, fending off the fear of yet more grief. I started to dream vividly at night – sometimes nightmares about being locked out and rejected – standard stuff I suppose; bread and butter psychotherapeutic issues, but it was enough to kick off an AFib attack that just wouldn’t go away. The self protective shell that I’d built up around myself had become a prison – I used to (half) jokingly refer to my clerical collar as “my prison clothes”, and breaking up that carapace has turned out to be both liberating and incredibly challenging. All of which means there’s a lot more to the Potwell Inn than I’ve allowed out before. The allotment has been central to that process, but I’ve still got reservations about the concept of the “nature cure”. For me, today for instance, the mindless pleasure of weeding, watering and planting out helps me to stop the carousel of dark thoughts. The photos express moments of joyfulness and thoughtfulness that I find around and about. The heron – still and silent like a preacher; the teasel whose sepals remind me of a lyre; the melon swelling in the tunnel, crops gathered and eaten and the flower borders alive with insects. They’re all little shout-outs from creation that say – or sing – come and join the dance!

Something about simmering!

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I realise that pig’s cheeks may not be everyone’s favorite during this time of stress, but I recall exactly why I bought them about two years ago, and as always it was down to the memory of a grocery and delicatessen in Clifton, where we used to live, and which occasionally sold Bath Chaps – which is a local name for pigs’ cheeks, cured like bacon and then coated in breadcrumbs and presumably deep fried  – exactly the sort of dish an ambitious gastronaut ought to be having a go at. The shop window could have come straight out of Mrs Beeton. Needless to say I never actually bought any, and I’ve never eaten one either, but they always looked so good in the window – I’m a sucker for anything coated in breadcrumbs. It was a lovely shop; they cooked their own hams and did all the things that deli’s stopped doing years ago, and the clientele (apart from me) included many of the great and good like the Lord Mayor who used to send his butler round for a swift gammon.  He (the butler) was an immensely large Cornishman, well over six feet tall, who  always wore a morning suit that looked a bit grubby and stained and who spoke with a rich Cornish accent.

So when I encountered these pigs cheeks my gastronomical imagination was aroused and I bought six of them for next to nothing.  The rest of their time at the Potwell Inn was spent in the freezer awaiting the moment which never seemed to come and so they went into yesterday’s stock and after a long braise they came out again and I tasted one rather gingerly because they were in the part of the stock that I normally throw away. It tasted pretty good too but Madame refused to even look at them and so I guess they’re a secret snack for me.

At least, being of no interest to Madame, I’ll be safe to snaffle them. Treats, under lockdown conditions, can be a source of tension – in fact almost anything can be a source of tension when you’re banged up in a first floor flat and your partner the only person in the world allowed closer than two metres. I have filed away her incendiary behaviour over my shortbreads, and even forgiven her through gritted teeth for taking the last cold sausage from the fridge but it takes a saint! Last night we were sitting amicably watching the television when a strangely sulphurous smell crept into the room.  Suspicious glances were made and denials of responsibility were issued but it wasn’t until I came to clean down in the kitchen that I discovered a clove of garlic had stuck to the underside of the stock pot and was caramelising away gently, emitting a horrible burnt garlic smell.

So yesterday’s fruits included a loaf of everyday bread – subtly different in flavour and texture because I’ve run out of rye flour, but still very good.  There’s the stock reduced and stored, and fifteen pounds of new allotment jam in the cupboard as well as space in the freezer available for speculative and impulsive purchases (not including pigs’ cheeks) if the shops ever open again. I was pretty tired by the time we finished, and slept badly so woke up this morning feeling – well – jaded, I’d have said hung over if I’d had a drink but we foreswore alcohol last June and haven’t lapsed. Notice I didn’t say ‘yet’!

This morning I decided a mid-morning nap was allowable but it didn’t work out.  Living in a flat, especially a concrete walled flat, inevitably means a degree of sharing.  This morning I shared my peace with two or perhaps even three radios tuned to different stations and a builder two floors up who was using a hammer drill non-stop for two hours. The sofa is about a foot shorter than I needed for snoozing so I got cramps. Living banged-up can have its irritations.  I remember once reading about a murder (true story this) committed on a sewage farm.  It was a remote site with a house occupied by two men  who didn’t get on to the extent that one killed the other in a fit of rage and chucked his body in the tank. The subsequent trial revealed that the festering tensions between them had all boiled over and the rest was history – at least it was for one of them. I’d have thought there was no better place for festering tensions than a sewage farm.

I hope that the Potwell Inn emerges from this crisis with all its staff intact, but as time goes on the outside world becomes that tiny bit more threatening.  I wonder whether there will be thousands of new cases of agoraphobia after months of this.  We’re lucky to have the allotment to go to  and this afternoon it came as close to being a carnival as conditions allowed.  Everyone seemed to be there and we all hailed each other across the empty space as if we hadn’t seen each other for months.  The council have turned on the water supply at last and so we all observed a thoughtful queue at the required distance as we watered our seedlings.  We’ve been fortunate that our stored rainwater has just about lasted us until now, and during the summer I can install the last two storage butts so we can be even more self-sufficient.

In spite of the record rain during the winter, the recent dry spell and its winds have dried the upper surface of the ground and so seedlings need a lot of attention and watering, but it was the kind of attention we were relieved to be able to give – you could almost feel the young plants saying thank-you. The new season has begun and even in the midst of this pandemic there’s something good emerging. Our GP neighbour said today that the new personal protection gowns they were issued with look as if they’ve been made from bin liners – as always, life is like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts!