Oooh you little showoff


IMG_5747.jpgWe only clocked the lovely Pyramidal Orchid as we were leaving Dyrham Park this morning.  It was hiding behind a fence on the road out and right next to it was the flowering spike from an Agrimony plant – that photo’s a bit out of focus because I was blocking the exit road and rushed it.  The occupants of the car behind didn’t even pause to look what I’d just been on my knees photographing.


Here’s a photo of Whitefield Meadow, the object of our attention this morning. It’s a prime example of what can happen on unimproved land  – and if ever there was a revealing oxymoron it’s that one. Here’s another one, the so-called ‘green revolution’ which involved replacing perfectly sustainable agricultural systems with a fatal combination of fertiliser and pesticides.

A few years ago I did a 23 mile walk aross this part of the Cotswolds using public footpaths the vast majority of the time.  One of my companions that day was a retired grain merchant who had  bought and sold grain off the field, while it was still growing, and we fell into a conversation about what constituted good and bad land. In his view he could only give his seal of approval to half a dozen fields, the rest were – frankly – not improved enough. Half a dozen fields in 23 miles! So it depends what you mean by ‘improved’. The temptation to improve yield at the expense of biodiversity is a feature hard wired into our economic system. If the ‘cash value’ of the crop is allowed to dominate all other less tangible but equally significant values then monoculture and biologically barren land is inevitable. It’s all about culture: farming culture but equally the supermarket food culture that’s grown up bringing with it the demand for ever more diversity of choice but ever more uniformity in flavour, texture and appearance plus, of course, the lowest possible price. We quite literally get what we pay for, and we – through successive governments – have poured subsidies into the wrong farming systems. It’s no use blaming farmers or supermarkets or customers for the pickle we’re in, we have seen the enemy and it is us.

Meanwhile on the remaining three percent of proper meadow like Whitefield, we can see what we’ve lost. We didn’t find the longed-for Bee Orchids but we will one day, and in any case who could resist the sight of hundreds of Mabled Whites stuffing themselves silly on Knapweed nectar.  The whole meadow is waiting for its annual cut and, to be honest, parts of it are looking very dry. We spent an hour wandering around and during that hour the whole of the main car park filled up, and yet we were the only people in the meadow for three quarters of the time.  Later we met another solitary orchid hunter but she had not found the elusive plant either. As we move into high summer, many of the plants have lived their entire cycle and can only be identified by their seed heads.  The Yellow Rattle is rattling, The Goats Beard  – Tragopogon pratensis – looked as if it had finished early.  One of the fences was amost lined with Lady’s Bedstraw enough to stuff a paliasse for a fragrant but uncomfortable night.  Maybe a little Fleabane might thicken it up a bit. Cow Parsley and Hogweed both seemed to have run their courses, and were dying back leaving their seeds as the most reliable indicator of species,  but I spotted one plant of Fools Parsley peeping through. My work with the Apiaceae seems to be paying off and Fool’s Parsley is a new one on me.  Three years ago they all looked the same.

The daisy family were at their most perplexing best, and seem to be jealous of the time I’ve given to the umbellifers – I will get there eventually I promise. And the Knapweed – I could go on for ever!


And then back to the allotment where we harvested the last of the peas with the first of the French beans, a  bunch of carrots, a container’s worth of the Red Duke of York potatoes and some courgettes. Early summer on a plate. I stuffed a chicken with nothing but a lump of butter and a big bunch of Tarragon for stuffing – I even made some gravy but in the end didn’t have any of it because the vegetables, unadorned, were so delicious.  I’ve never been a great fan of courgettes but today I coooked them in the simplest way I could –   finger thick and three inches long straight off the plant and sliced into 1cm rounds rinsed, patted dry and fried in butter. So many vegetables taste so much better straight out of the ground that they don’t need any fancy treatment.

The only fly in the ointment was finding our neighbour (we call him Trigger) inundating his runner beans with some kind of chemical for the second time in a fortnight. Is there some kind of etiquette that calls us to remain silent when a neighbor is spraying his plants at exactly the wrong time, just when the pollinators are at their most active. I felt as if he was killing our bees. If you can actually smell these chemicals they’re already on your allotment, and you have to wonder whether it’s safe to browse your own organic veg and eat them raw. There was a ghastly management phrase that cropped up regularly in meetings in the past – “culture eats strategy for breakfast” . It’s all the more annoying for being true.  Whether it’s Trigger with his allotment, or a grain merchant insisting on 99.9% purity, or a farmer struggling to make a profit it’s all part of the same culture and it needs to change.


Another day, a different grandchild


Dyrham Park, today, with our youngest grandson. I love this place – it’s run nowadays by the National Trust, but sixty years ago when I first climbed over the wall, as a young trespasser, I fell in love with it. Ten years later there was a riding centre in the grounds and once more we (yes we were a ‘we’ by then) – explored it legally on horseback and I had my first experience of a runaway horse attempting to scrape me off its back by galloping under a low branch. I (just) won that round but lost reins and stirrups in the process, and clung on for dear life until it was over.  The horse, called ‘Copper’, gave me a bit of a funny look and we reached an understanding.  Later the same horse threw a friend and dislocated his shoulder – so not an easy ride!

We come here often these days. It’s a wildlife paradise, with roe and fallow deer, cattle today – which was a first – and some extraordinarily rich plant life. Sadly I couldn’t tempt our little grandson up to Whitefield which is a quite marvellous unimproved meadow very close to the place I first climbed over the wall.  There are bee orchids there, and I’ve never seen one.  Many other plants as well, spotted while driving past it on the way out.  My heart was aching to be in there with the orchids – were they Pyramidal or Southern Marsh – hard to tell from a car, even at ten miles an hour. If you’ve never seen an unimproved meadow it’s like plant heaven, and you want to lie, like the young Laurie Lee, amongst the grasses and flowers with a cheek on the cool earth, while the myriad bees, flies, butterflies and hoverflies go about their business. “Jack go to bed at noon”, Marbled Whites”  and so many yet-to-be-named flora and fauna. In all these sixty years I’ve never been inside the house.

Grandchildren give us permission to see the world through a child’s eyes once again. There were many children there with grandparents – free childcare you might say, except grandparents offer something different.  Some of the mums there with children looked pretty tired, and they mostly had one eye on the phone as if the loss of autonomy and status was not compensated for by the relentless demands of parenting.  I remember that stage so well – for both of us the demands were almost overwhelming.  Grandparenting is an entirely different thing. We’re untroubled by any worries about whether we’re doing it right because we know we’re probably not.  We give in to them, feed them unsuitable food without a twinge of conscience (parents do it secretly and feel guilty afterwards) and for some inexplicable reason they love us as unconditionally as we love them.

My biggest worries are for the future of these children. We worry about it because they’ll have to live in it and we’re leaving it in a dreadful state. I’m so pleased that our two year old grandson lets me take him around the gardens offering him leaves and flowers to smell.  Our six year old is already a wildlife fanatic and the middle one is an absolute toughie, untroubled by the challenges she faces as a SWAN, carrying but never suffering from a syndrome without a name.


Madame’s Grandparents were the single stable influence in her peripatetic life, and my maternal grandfather was, notwithstanding my most strenuous efforts, the greatest influence in mine. We are formed by our histories, just as this tree was formed by its own.  Constricted by a fence that’s now been removed, the trunk is scarred by the experience but nothing daunted it went on to grow to a full sized tree.  Even after being partly felled, it still refuses to give up and has started to grow new branches.

On Sunday we’ll go back alone to Whitefield and I’ll bend my thoughts to all the plants I can’t yet name.  In a week it will have been mown and baled so some fortunate animals can dine on the richest hay to be had anywhere, and I’ll dream of another year when I can make even more friends among the plants.  The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao.  Wise words, but I still want to thank the Tao that cannot be spoken with words that cannot be written.



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