Not for purists!

One of the delightful aspects of doing a bit of urban botany is the hazard/opportunity to find members of the brigade of irregulars lurking just about anywhere. Purists, of course, go out armed with a complete set of preconceived ideas of what ought to be growing in a particular habitat and get a bit piqued if they don’t find it. But they get positively tetchy when they find usurpers taking up good wildflower spaces. Some plant lovers are a bit less fussy – I’ve got a copy of J W White’s 1912 Bristol Flora and it’s got loads of ‘foreigners’ in it. He seemed to delight in examining the edges of the railway lines on Bristol docks to see what had fallen off the wagons and – like all good trainspotters – he was going to record it even if it belonged more rightfully in a Reader’s Digest book on flower arranging. I’m absolutely with him in his determination to refuse to be sniffy in the face of the temporary visitor, not least because they must all, necessarily have their story.

I’ve already mentioned the possible corn marigold on North Quay and we went back again to take a closer look and yes I’m sure it’s an out of place and out of season lover of arable crops and sandy acidic soil, neither of which is the case where it landed up – in a coir mat impregnated with wildflower seeds and bought no doubt from a horticultural wholesaler as part of an architect’s idea of what constituted wild. OK I am just a bit cross about that aspect of the story because there were loads of perfectly good and properly naturalised wildflowers there already, but they were plantworld punks, weeds, all of a piece with the graffiti on the 1960’s (and about to be demolished) multi story car park. On the other hand, one golden corn marigold on a grey and damp day cheers you up no end. Whether it deserves a tick or a place in a local flora I leave to the experts, but I rather hope they’ll treat it as a genuine refugee, escaping from the arable fields where it once grew wild in the days before Mecoprop-P and Clopyralid and I rather hope it will carry on bringing a bit of colour to the river bank with its offspring.

The other unexpected flower was the pot marigold near Cleveland House on the Kennet and Avon canal. This one, I’m sure, self seeded off the roof of a moored up narrow boat, or at least that’s the most likely and unvarnished possibility. But being both a romantic and a writer I like to think of its journey on the roof of a narrow boat being tended by someone with an interest in medicinal herbs who, for all I know, reads tarot cards sells calendula cream at the local farmers’ market. Back in the day you’d have found hemp and cereals from the holds of passing barges but there are a surprising number of medicinal herbs alongside the canal whether by accident or design. Bargees had next to no access to official medicine and I have no doubt they became adept at recognising and utilising the plants that grew where they travelled and probably made sure they could be found along the length of the canal network. Many of these plants are promiscuous self-seeders and I greatly enjoy finding them and trying to find out what they were used for. The tradition that was once passed down from (mostly) mother to daughter has all but disappeared now. I think my own mother, born in 1916, must have been among the last generation to know her wildflowers so intimately although she never wrote anything down or even passed her knowledge of their uses on. That’s the way of oral tradition; it can disappear in a generation; driven out in her case by the wartime invention of the antibiotics which she worshipped.

Half a mile apart, it would be so easy to have assumed they were the same species and that’s why it helps to develop the habit of close attention to the details of plants. Like the winter heliotrope that’s in flower at the moment – it could easily be butterbur – except butterbur doesn’t have a perfume; and in a couple of months when the flowers have died back, you might think the leaves are just right for coltsfoot – another medicinal herb, by the way. I’ve attached all of those names to the plants in question but as soon as it flowers, the perfume and the season narrow it down to one candidate. Maybe I’m weird but I find that terribly exciting. “Wait and see” – one of my mother’s favourite comments – is a good rule of thumb when you don’t quite know what a plant is called. Otherwise take a copy of Stace, a ruler and a hand lens and kneel down in the mud for twenty minutes while your long-suffering partner looks on her mobile for a discreet dating agency for botanical widows . I once knew a devoted twitcher who for twenty five years had spent all his holidays up to his waist in Norfolk fens. I asked him once what his wife thought about it and he said he’d never asked her! I bet she’s got a burner phone hidden at the back of the wardrobe.

So my solstice list of plants in flower goes up to fifteen, and sixteen if you add a single grass – cocksfoot. Grass flowers are tiny and can be a bit technical but I promise you this grass was flowering. Grasses, of course, don’t need pollinators at all, their reproductive apparatus is brilliantly simple and effective. But the flowering plants are different and just show that we shouldn’t only be worrying about bees because there are hundreds of pollinating insects, some of them completely specialised, and many of them are in danger from insecticides, pollution and habitat destruction too. I could go on but it’s nearly Christmas.

Below is today’s picture of the latest royal navy patrol boat, cleverly designed to fool French and Spanish trawlers fishing illegally within our proposed 200 mile limits. I think it was built from a design by the present Education Minister. You will probably be impressed by the attachment swivel for the space saving Mark IV 32 degree compass.

Old Nog

“What’s your movie?”

Is a the title of a song written by Mose Allison; I’ve got a (possibly bootleg) recording of him singing it at Ronnie Scott’s and I only mention this because Henry Williamson cornered the anthropomorphic market in herons with Old Nog, (who came to life in Tarka the Otter), and I hesitated to name my first thought when we passed this heron on the canal today. Anyway, the song asks a question that’s often asked of literary portrayals of animal life. The worst of them – dare I suggest Watership Down – simply transposes human emotions and dispositions into more or less cuddly animals – which utterly diminishes both the reader and the subject.

“What’s your movie” asks what film character we most identify with or act out – I often listened to its merciless takedown of human weakness on my way to therapy sessions. It always served its purpose in getting me in the right frame of mind for lying on the couch (oh yes) waiting for a word in the silence. A bit like saying your prayers except God was sitting behind you.

What’s your movie?

Are you the artist that’s misunderstood?

The bad guy tryin’ to do good?

Or just the nicest fella in the neighborhood

Mose Allison

So I really enjoy(?) the song but at the risk of trespassing on Henry Williamson’s territory, sometimes another life form – a heron for instance – irresistibly brings someone human to mind. Snakes, donkeys, foxes and butterflies are two a penny but I confess that this bird instantly became a member of an extreme Baptist denomination known as “the strict and particular Baptists“. Heaven only knows what remote root of the luxuriant tree of heresy divided the already strict from the not particular enough members of the original congregation but it must have been fun. I passed what could easily be their only church, driving to Southend one day. But I can find no hope in this heron’s unsparing gaze. He sits absolutely motionless for hours on one or another of his fishing grounds and strikes mercilessly at some poor dace like Amos Starkadder spotting a sinner in the third row of the quivering brethren; gripping the edge of the pulpit and growling “you’re all damned”.

Some animals; dogs for instance but not cats; robins but not peregrines; tench but not pike, can almost convince me that some communication is happening – some thread of negotiable common ground; but not so the heron whose launch into flight seems to defy the possibility of lifting off and yet makes a far better job of it than a mute swan that needs to run on the water before launching. I guess I’ve got nothing that a heron needs enough to bother learning how to flatter me.

I’d have said the the octopus was another creature that failed the common ground test, until we saw recently the remarkable documentary “My Teacher the Octopus” (on Netflix) which seems to suggest that we’re not trying hard enough. If you haven’t seen it you should try, but be warned, you’ll probably never want to eat another octopus. Craig Foster, who made the film (and another equally disturbing/stirring one about tracking animals for food in the Kalahari desert) is apparently now a vegan.

If we’re ever going to find our proper place on this planet we’re going to have to learn a great deal more humility in the face of all its other occupants, from moulds to mountain lions. I don’t, by the way, go for the conventional graphic of evolutionary progress from protozoa to humans, we’re so inextricably part of one another that once you start to zoom in it’s hard to see where one life form begins and another one ends – just ask my gut bacteria! So the poor old heron would have every right to resent being compared to a human preacher.

The daily walk continues to challenge and delight us as the very earliest foliage begins to emerge, intensely green, like a promissory note from the future. More and more of the winter heliotrope are coming into flower and so their elusive fragrance often has you wondering whether it’s the plant or a passer by wearing a tiny trace of perfume. I should stop and watch which insects are visiting, but kneeling down on the towpath risks the danger of being flattened by runners and cyclists locked in their musical islands and breathlessly pursuing their 10K dreams. There are loads of other sturdy beggars of the plant world strutting their stuff in the cold and mist. We’re so lucky to have this all so close.

We were looking at some crime statistics this morning and it appears that 70% of the recorded crimes in Bath are committed in our district. If you include the area immediately across the river it goes closer to 80%. Obviously the figures don’t include undeclared taxable income on property, or white collar fraud. Strangely we feel perfectly safe here and it’s a wonderfully diverse community where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken just while walking into the centre. We’re what happens when you cut whole sections of society adrift. Today we passed Ken Loach – film maker – remember Kes? on our walk. Madame said hello and the poor man looked startled although he’s seen us at any number of meetings. If we lived in the posher parts of Bath we’d have nothing but bedding plants and weed free grass to remind us of nature, but here – down amongst the social housing we can tell a ragwort from a tulip – although you’re more likely to see a red kite than a house sparrow, sad to say.

I notice that the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) at their virtual AGM had a session on a year of plants growing in the pavement. I think I caught a radio programme on the same theme a couple of months ago – absolutely fascinating. Sadly only 66 people had accessed the BSBI video on YouTube. Does that say something about our national priorities?

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Rough riches

I’ve been passing a very rainy day reading David Goode’s book “Nature in towns and cities” and comparing it with George Peterken’s monograph “Meadows” – both superb books but dealing with the alpha and omega of the botanical world. There’s nothing I like more than a bit of ‘proper’ nature, you know the whole Marlborough Downs and fifty exceptionally rare downland species to hunt for – kind of experience, and I’m not knocking it but it feels a bit too special. Anything less than a pair of Swarovskis round your neck and you feel a bit underdressed, and the worshippers (is that what you call them?) can be a bit clanny if you’re too obviously out of your depth.

Or is it just familiarity with the other kind of landscape that makes me feel more at home? It’s not that we kept coal in the bath or that my mother thought books were untidy and my brother killed the budgie out of spite, but I’ve said before I’m hefted and my familiar landscape is post war and post industrial. Apart from the beechwoods that surrounded my grandparents smallholding in the Chilterns, I never had much contact with posh wild. My familiar landscape was old mines and brickworks, claypits, dramways and railway lines; and so the flowers I knew and loved were things like buddleia, willowherb and ragwort. We collected sticklebacks and newts in the local ponds and cinnabar moth caterpillars from the bombed houses up the street. Even my most treasured wild places on Mendip are places like Charterhouse and Velvet Bottom where adders warm themselves on the remains of Roman lead mines. ‘Gruffy ground’ they call it.

I played in the flues of the old brickworks, trespassed with my friend Eddie as we followed the abandoned dramway across fields and barbed wire fences and played games of dare near the mineshaft at Shortwood. Wall barley seed heads, cleavers and burdocks were useful resources for games rather than objects of contemplation. We brewed ‘wine’ over campfires with elderberries in tin cans, and nicked apples from an abandoned orchard up the road. We ate ‘bread and cheese’ which was the local name for the young hawthorn leaves.

So David Goode’s book seems more familiar. It’s a kind of psychogeography of my childhood whereas George Peterken’s is full of beauty and longing, almost melancholic for a lost world that – apart from haymaking as a child – I never experienced. My heart sings when we explore old wildflower meadows, but they don’t feel like “home” to me.

And what riches there are. Since we moved to Bath from what I used to call ‘suburbia with fields’ I’ve been blown away by plants I’ve never seen before that grow freely here. One of the biggest takeaway points of the book is the huge ecological richness of these post industrial and often inner city reserves and abandoned places. For instance the 24 species of plants in our small tarmac car park outside.

But this raises all sorts of issues to do with the environmental challenges we’re facing. We want, for instance, to stop building on agricultural land and use so-called brownfield sites which can involve the destruction of hugely important wildlife environments. We want to minimise car journeys and get people living nearer to their jobs, but how do we balance that with the preservation of green spaces? Simply to preserve the tidy parks and gardens and to build on the rest would involve a huge loss of habitat. Here in Bath we know only too well that mixing cars, pedestrians and cyclists is a constant source of aggression and a good deal of danger.

Sadly the default appreciation of the natural world that springs from so many excellent TV programmes stresses the exotic at the expense of the everyday. I’ve not yet seen a programme entitled “The wonder of weeds” and there’s the problem. If we unconsciously divide the natural world into cuddly animals and then wasps, spiders and scary things it’s all too obvious which species we would sooner lose forever. Same goes for ‘flowers’ and ‘weeds’. Even the hedge bindweeds – ‘devils guts’ to the gardener are plants of great beauty (and cunning) when you look closely.

When property developers want to build they always stress community amenities, schools, health centres and shops but rarely actually build them, pleading that they would make the site unprofitable. So too they stress the need for affordable housing that all too often is abandoned once planning permission is granted. In fact the reason for the chronic shortage of housing is an artificially inflated market that relies on shortage to drive up profits. In a city like Bath the reason for homelessness is nothing to do with a battle with sentimental environmentalists holding back progress and everything to do with greedy developers focusing on the most profitable (ie most expensive) sectors.

We need to broaden the focus on green field environmental improvements and learn to treasure some of the real – if rather unattractive – environmental hotspots on old industrial sites. Bats and birds rather care for a bit of a mess, derelict buildings and fences to keep cats and dogs out. Even orchids thrive on some of these sites and it would be hideously misjudged to sacrifice them in favour of spec built and crazily expensive riverside apartments, for example. The ones we got here look like Russian bonded warehouses!

This can only happen if we teach our children to recognise and treasure the simplest and roughest and most common things and not just the cuddly and rare. They hardly allowed out to play as we did and so these young naturalists will have to be taught with passion and enthusiasm and weaned away from their TV’s and laptops into the fresh air where genuine 3D insects that look just like the ones on the telly can be found under stones. Wild is not a product, and wilderness is not always on the far side of a pay desk.

Bathampton Meadows

How we rejoiced, here at the Potwell Inn, when the clouds finally got themselves organised and it rained enough to relieve us of watering duties on the allotment. It hasn’t been easy to keep going because supplies of garden sundries have been almost unobtainable and we’ve had to resort to the internet several times. It seemed totally mad to have a bag of vermiculite delivered when we’re surrounded by garden centres, and when they finally opened again we went to one we often use, but the shelves had been stripped bare by desperate gardeners. There was one other item that we were running short of because we use quite a bit of liquid seaweed fertiliser, and so I scouted around and ordered ten litres from an internet supplier. It arrived soon enough, but when I unpacked the box the container seemed to have swollen tremendously – I couldn’t get my fingers under the carrying handle, so clearly it was fermenting. Fearful that it might explode, I got a wrench and opened it very carefully and with a gentle sigh it released the smell from hell – like you might imagine gannet’s breath to be. We took it straight to the allotment where the plants will absolutely love it, and when I checked the water level in the second storage butt my cunning plan seems to have worked because the level is creeping up. But with more rain threatened and after a short weeding session – weeds come up much more easily when the soil is a bit moist – we came back to the flat and within five minutes I was drumming my fingers again. I have a very low tolerance for doing nothing; I truly wish I didn’t have it, and so does Madame, but there we are.

So, enthused by my bit of curiosity in the yard yesterday; this morning I did a quick survey of all the wildflowers I could find in our car park.

To be frank, this didn’t look promising, but needs must etc. and I spent a very happy hour with a notebook and magnifier making a list that took me completely by surprise. So here it is –

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris
  • Herb robert – Geranium robertianum
  • Wall lettuce – Mycelis muralis
  • Rue leaved saxifrage Saxifraga tridactylites
  • Red valerian – Centranthus ruber
  • Mexican fleabane – Erigeron karvinskianus
  • Canadian fleabane – Erigeron canadensis
  • Wall barley – Hordeum murinum
  • Greater celandine – Chelidonium majus
  • Pellitory of the wall – Parietaria judaica
  • Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare
  • Cleavers – Galium aparine
  • Ivy leaved toadflax – Cymbalaria muralis
  • Oxeye daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare
  • Smooth sowthistle – Sonchus oleraceus
  • Prickly lettuce – Lactuca serriola
  • Wood aven – Geum urbanum
  • Purple toadflax – Linaria purpurea
  • Ivy – Hedera helix
  • Elder – Sambucus nigra
  • American willowherb – Epilobium ciliatum
  • Broad leaf dock – Rumex obtusifolius

There are more, of course, but that will need a more thorough search – and I’m sorry they’re not in any recognisable order which, for librarians botanists and archivists, will be painful but it was the order I noticed them in – and that’s really the point of all this. We’ve been living in this place for almost five years and because it was ‘only a car park’ it didn’t command the same level of attention as – say – Bathampton Meadows, which I’m coming to in a moment. I found more time to botanise on the river bank and towpath because it seemed more obvious to look for plants in those places. But 24 species in a car park with almost no soil? These plants may be as ugly as sin, and ethnically diverse enough to give a Daily Mail reader the vapours, but what they lack in charm they make up in dogged survival. When all else fails and the last bee orchid has left the stage, I suspect these characters – the rogues and vagabonds of the plant world will still be around, offending gardeners and providing botanical lessons for restless people like me.

And so the weather cleared and we decided to go for a walk. The Skyline walk was mentioned but with faintly dodgy weather we settled on a wander along the canal and then off up to Bathampton Meadows. Madame was firm – this was a walk not a botanising expedition – and so I put the hand lens back on the desk but surreptitiously slipped a notebook in my pocket, just in case. We took the second bridge over the canal and up the lane between the lovely Georgian terraces to climb up to the meadows. One of the best things about living here is that you can reach open countryside on foot so easily and without sharing the way with any cars. Cyclists are another thing but ……!

I don’t know the meadows very well and, following Madame’s directive I kept my eyes firmly on the horizon as we followed the path to a spot where we plonked ourselves down to take in the panoramic view of Bath. House Martins were hawking for insects all around us. She was the first to break my trappist botanical silence – “what’s this?” she wondered, pointing to a lovely patch of crested dog’s tail grass. There we were like Father Ted in the ladies lingerie department with me struggling not to notice that we were in the midst of a very interesting bunch of plants. I love a mystery, and what one flora calls “the hawkish plants” are a great temptation. Whether ‘beard’, ‘bit’, or ‘weed’, they’re a daunting challenge to be addressed like a military campaign. But not at this moment. Slowly the prospect of a fully armed return visit was forming in my head while we chatted about the view, and about us, and the lockdown and what it was doing to our heads. It was one of those lovely afternoons when the summer clouds move quickly across the sky bringing intervals of sun and shade. After an hour we grumbled to our feet, stiff with sitting on the grass, and made our way back down the footpath. We’d almost reached the gate when we simultaneously noticed butterflies, dozens of them, in a large patch of longer grass – nothing rare, just meadow browns – car park butterflies, you might say if you were just passing through. Then I spotted yellow rattle, then knapweed and an instant later we saw a solitary marbled white – why is it that spotting a butterfly can evoke such joy?

We celebrated with a black cherry ice cream bought from the canalside hut as we walked home through bigger crowds than we’ve seen in months. They think it’s all over. I really hope they’re right!

Muckyannydinny Lane

IMG_5873

Muckyannydinny Lane was the name we used, as children, for a narrow, wet, rubbish filled and overgrown short cut from “The Lane” to halfway down Seymour Road. It was such an uninspiring dump that, so far as I know, no-one ever actually used it except couples who in those far off days needed somewhere out of sight to consummate their relationships. Consequently it became imbued with an almost erotic overtone for me as a child – which may or may not explain a great deal!

Moving rapidly on, I think it’s time to remind everyone that the Potwell Inn is not a real place but a fictional creation of H G Wells whose leading character Alfred Polly had more influence on me growing up than a whole garrison of teachers freshly returned from the 2nd World War, many of them suffering from the same sorts of depressions and mental disturbances that afflicted my Dad. Mr Polly, in the course of the novel, burns down half the town in which he lives unhappily, by setting fire to his stairs while attempting to commit suicide. He becomes an inadvertent hero by rescuing a trapped elderly lady and in the ensuing chaos slips away to search for something better – which turns out to be the Potwell Inn where he only has to get rid of the psychopathic Uncle Jim in order to find his paradise.  Uncle Jim, being vanquished in an act of bungled heroism quite as daft as the suicide bid, washes up dead some time later wearing Polly’s jacket, therefore allowing the hero to be declared dead and consequently free to pursue an idyllic life with the plump landlady of the establishment.  So not quite the story of my life but tremendously resonant for a teenager living in a house haunted by PTSD, falling for Madame who, though she was as slender as a whippet had plenty of  crap to leave behind as well.

So after those two oxbows and the confluence of  several small streams in the great journey of life, I want to say that yesterday was something of a disappointment. “What you want and what you’ll get is two different things” my Granny (who could start a fight in an empty room) would often say.  I was missing the campervan, missing the coastal path walks, missing the botanising and feeling mightily grumpy about it.  Madame, noticing the dark cloud moored over my head, suggested a walk up to Prior Park to look at the plants. Absolute bomber direct hit! that was exactly what I needed to do.  And so all fired up I downloaded a new plant recording app for the phone, packed pocket magnifier, notebook, copy of Rose and even a six inch steel ruler and we set out.

Setting out involved passing the astroturfed bankside, but I did notice one or two dodgy looking plants that might have stepped right over from Muckyannydinny Lane.  Prior Park has become a bit of a building site because they’re repairing one of the dams that’s been tunnelled into by marauding Signal Crayfish. The new app refused to work and after my third attempt to log in I had a huffy message to say I’d been barred and needed to email the management. The Cafe was shut, and there were nothing but weeds and Cabbage Whites to look at and so we turned back and walked home again.

As we walked back with my dudgeon level set to nine, I began to think a bit more rationally about what was going on. Not all of the plants along the bankside were Bohemian interlopers.  There were some that looked like – well, proper weeds which had emerged from the builders rubble and the subsoil, briefly resurrected from their tarmac tombs. There’s a certain muscularity about these plants.  Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as it abhors architects’ fancy wildflower mix, and the bankside has become a grudge match between the flowers introduced for their attractive colours, and the native weeds. Milwall versus the local croquet club. Guess which was winning?

IMG_5883And so a new project began to form in my mind.  Obviously I’d really love to spend my life in places of outstanding wildness and beauty, recording stunningly lovely and rare orchids.  However I actually live right next to the Bath to Bristol Cyclepath which is much loved by commuters on foot, runners, lycra louts on their handbuilt racing bikes, drunks, homeless people and drug dealers who rather appreciate the opportunity of a swift exit if the police arrive. That’s why all our local dealers ride bikes, because they’re over the river and away before the police can do a thirteen point turn and chase them. The litter bins have proved particularly useful for hiding stashes of drugs by taping them up under the lid, like a kind of unofficial click and collect service.

The path is a unique environment all of its own.  There’s the river bank on one side, parks, houses and factory buildings on the other.  It’s much altered and constantly dug up for building work and it enjoys heavy traffic most of the day. If dogs’ turds and discarded cans and bottles contribute any nourishment it must be highly fertile.  Graffiti add a certain edginess to the flat surfaces, but in real life, notwithstanding the fact that the Council like to boast about it as a great achievment for the environmentalists, it’s a frog and no amount of kissing is going to make it into a prince.

But it’s my frog and I like it. This morning I was up at the crack of ten o’clock to take some photos.  I’ve already ID’d three native plants I’ve never seen before and I can feel a big list coming on. Prickly Lettuce and Weld are hardly going to draw in the twitchers, but as I’ve said so often – if you don’t know that it’s there you won’t know when it’s gone. One day, I hope, the Natural History of Muckyannydinny Lane will stand with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Meanwhile a few photos to whet the appetite.