Wide

This has got to be one of the best views within 20 miles of Bath. Inevitably, given the limitations of a phone camera it’s no more than a taste, but from the top of Blackdown on the Mendip Hills you can see the River Severn as a pale streak below the sky and you’ll have to believe me that with no more than a turn of the head you can take in the Bristol Channel from the mouth of the Severn to the open sea, the end of the Cotswolds to the North, and to the West across the river you can see the Forest of Dean and beyond to the Brecon Beacons. Today we could even see Hay Bluff in the far distance, something like 80 miles away by road. Below and on the plain are the Somerset Levels and it’s an easy walk to Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe. It’s almost unfair to have so many nature reserves, SSSI’s and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty within the span of one gaze. Unfair, but who’s complaining? Here I am, the champion of post industrial landscapes and car parks; and William McGonagall of the urban wilderness, celebrating a far more conventional kind of nature.

If ever there was a place made for reflection and contemplation and blowing the dust off, this is it. The birds aren’t singing much at the moment, the chicks are hatched and fledged and there’s no need for showing off to potential mates, but in any case as we walked up from Tynings Farm we were swamped by the sound of a forage harvester getting silage in. We had to crest the hill before we could enjoy the silence that often seems to cloak the Mendips.

Roesel’s bush cricket – which was unscathed after being held very gently by our seven year old grandson.

Yesterday we spent the day in a very different landscape with our grandchildren and their mum and dad. In a busy suburb of Bristol, the countryside seems to reach into the city by way of fingers. An aerial photograph of Bristol might remind you of a wonky wagon wheel with spokes of green, but these spokes are under threat as never before from development. Our family can walk from their densely terraced street to their allotment, behind which there are open fields. They’re never going to be designated or protected notwithstanding the fact that we picked pounds of large sloes there yesterday, and our oldest grandson had tremendous fun catching grasshoppers, as he calls them. He’s lively and curious and these rather stressed fields, leaving aside the quantities of dog shit left everywhere by thoughtless dog walkers, are the bit of the natural world that he and his younger siblings can actually explore and enjoy. Soon they are going to be built over, and the horses that used to provide free manure to the allotmenteers were moved off on Friday. Our middle grandchild was deeply upset as she saw them being led away. Don’t ask me how we can resolve the constant tension between housing and open space, because it’s a nightmare; but wild and open space is as important for child development and grown up recreation as is warm and safe housing. We can’t let it all go into the developers’ offshore accounts.

Family sloe picking

As always, the paucity of the wildlife in the fields was more than made up for by the children. I’m always touched to see their parents struggling to solve the same problems and dilemmas that we faced in a previous generation. For good or ill our children, when they become parents, take with them the experience of our earlier attempts at playing mum and dad – not all of them very good because we had to learn on the job too.

And today belonged to the first field mushroom, the hosts of eyebright and tormentil, the heathers, vetches and trefoils, the cotton grass in the bogs, the south westerly blowing up from the sea, the space to talk and celebrate the fact that we are able to be out there in it and not least to thank our knees and one metal hinge for putting up with us.

On hot nights and secret lives

It’s been as hot and sticky as a short story these last few nights. If I look at the sunrise time on my phone in the evening it’s a fatal invitation to be wide awake by 4.30am, and if – on top of that – I feel guilty because I haven’t posted for a couple of days, I’ll inevitably spend half an hour trying to go back to sleep before I get up and face the creative music. Trying to go to sleep is, of course, an oxymoronic concept like trying to fall in love. Then there’s the microscope, sitting on the desk next to the laptop in the most distracting possible way. I give it a half hearted stroke as if to placate it, but putting a new and important object on the desk demands something like the traditional way of training a hawk; you have to stay awake for whole nights, locked in a shed together until the resistance is broken and you can begin to work together.

During the past two unrecorded days we’ve been busy with our family. Babysitting duties were joyfully revived after a four month break – Zoom meetings might be OK for the office, but children don’t do them. Somehow, and without planning it at all, we took a break from constant work at the allotment and spent a good deal of time researching and seeking out new parts of the city and its surroundings. The sunshine has allowed us to explore further down the river than ever. There’s real joy in building up our understanding of our new home (of five years) by exploring all the interconnecting footpaths and roads that express its deeper history as much as they provide convenient short cuts. Behind the showy Georgian architecture – more closely connected to slaving wealth than we like to admit – there are visible remains of stone mining and coal mining. The canal was the trading motorway of its brief period, supplanted by the railway and now by the motorway that runs to the north of the city; and the Bristol/Bath cycle path which runs past our flat completes a wildlife corridor that runs almost uninterrupted from East to West. The upshot of all this is that you can see otters and peregrine falcons (if you’re lucky and persistent) in the middle of the city.

The tourists flocked to the Roman baths and the Jane Austin Disneyland experience (and of course the shops); and missed much of what’s most fascinating about our adopted home. Now they’ve gone, the shops pubs and restaurants are really struggling; unemployment is soaring in the occupations that onced serviced them and we can walk through a largely quiet town on sunny evenings and enjoy it in a way that’s become increasingly difficult over the past decades.

If you include humans in the wildlife of the city it becomes even richer. A couple of days ago we found a whole new north/south crossing of canal, railway line and river. On the river we watched a solitary wild swimmer making her way gracefully against the flow, but in the background we could hear the hoots and screams of young people having great fun tombstoning off the bridge and into the Avon. I think we’re supposed to disapprove of all this and remind them that this kind of mating behaviour is expressly forbidden by the notice. Yes it’s dangerous, and yes they might get into all sorts of trouble, and yes, I knew a child when I was young myself who drowned near here and yet ….. I think we both said a silent prayer for them and left them to their fun. These days of sunshine shot through with erotic desires and the certainty of living for ever don’t last. Tempus fugit and before we know where we are, we know where we are.

But don’t run away with the idea that only the young get themselves inflamed by a summer’s day. As we walked along the canal last night a middle aged couple met at the middle of the footbridge above the Widcombe flight – each coming from the different direction; and kissed one another with ferocious intensity. Well well, we thought, putting aside for a moment thoughts of the deceptions and misery that lurk in the hinterland of an affair. People watching is almost as engaging as spotting the cormorant preening itself on one of the chimney pots of the old granary, opposite the bus station or seeking out the fledgling gulls that make the most terrible screeching during those weeks when they’re just about capable of flying but still depend on a parent for food. Last night we spotted a couple of young peregrines touching base for a moment at their nest before soaring off again.

Thoughts of grass (not that sort!) have also been occupying me, and I discovered four and a half hours of a webinar on grass identification run recently by the BSBI and now on YouTube. They’re pretty chewy sessions but well worth the time if you’re at all interested in identifying these tricky subjects. The greatest challenge in combining botanising with walking is the need to identify things very fast. Too much kneeling down, rooting around, note making and photography can lead to friction in our perfectly harmonious (ho ho) relationship; and so the art of snatching a bit of material and identifying it without stopping needs to be backed up with a great deal of reading and study so that, for instance, I can finally nail the ragworts without actually getting caught botanizing – slightly less dangerous, I have to say, than kissing strangers on bridges, especially at my age!

The secret life of the City can be compelling, and a welcome antidote to the tide of lunacy that besets our politics at the moment. Whether we shall emerge from all this with a new understanding of how badly (and quickly) we need to reshape our relationship with the earth remains to be seen, but the parallels with Weimar Germany and the memory of the way that whole civilizations can perish under the weight of their own contradictions, is just another of the things that keeps me awake at night. Being human has never seemed so challenging.

Ponds, urban ecology and a few doubts

In my last post I wrote about the undoubted benefits of even small ponds in gardens and on allotments. We’re lucky here because our allotments are no more than 50 yards away from the river Avon and we have a number of large ponds almost as close; but that doesn’t in the least seem to lessen the impact of the tiny ponds that I photographed yesterday, and all within yards of our allotment.

As you can easily see, these aren’t all the tidy and expensive preformed fibreglass ponds bought from garden centres and neither are any of them apparently lined with expensive thick butyl. For the most part they’re a hole in the ground lined with builders polythene all apart from the one that’s not a pond at all but a horse trough. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all full of water, most of them have a few plants around them and they’re all teeming with life.

Starting with the horse trough that’s the source for much of our our watering, there’s never an occasion, it seems, when you can’t find at the least, a few water boatmen. The others vary in maturity but even the one that was built this spring by a couple of children raised a crop of tadpoles which they generously shared around all the other ponds. The murkier ones have larvae in them, and all are visited by a variety of dragonflies and damselflies which, when they’re not eating smaller insects are becoming snacks for birds. What the ponds are doing of course is drawing these interesting and beautiful invertebrates into places we can see and enjoy them, and as their natural habitat is eroded, ponds become a matter of survival for some species.

As you will know if you’ve been following the Potwell Inn blog recently, I’ve been reading David Goode’s contribution the the New Naturalist library – “Nature in towns and cities”. A brilliant collection of books for anyone interested in natural history in any case, and this one’s particularly caught my attention because it’s on a subject close to my heart.

When we moved to Bath almost five years ago I wasn’t prepared for the richness of the wildlife to be found here. Having lived and worked in what most people would think of as the countryside, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the natural history of our adopted home. But far from being less diverse, our immediate neighbourhood slowly yielded its secrets. Not just badgers and foxes but otters! Not just buzzards but a peregrine’s nest; and enough unfamiliar plants to keep me perpetually bewildered. On the very first night here we heard a tawny owl; it was strange to say the least. Now we’re almost blasé about bats and we can name the species of gull on the green outside.

And so I’ve been writing enthusiastically about all this wildlife and, if you live near here you really should join the Bath Natural History Society (Bath Nats) because they’re the quickest and easiest way to learn what’s here. If you live anywhere else and don’t fancy moving to Bath, I urge you to investigate and join your local natural history group – it’ll be full of fabulous, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who just love sharing their interests.

Yesterday after a hot couple of hours on the allotment we wandered along the river to see the peregrines and we got especially lucky because the recently fledged young did a quick flight while we were there. I’ve been to Symonds Yat and not seen a peregrine and yet our son saw one eat its kill on his back doorstep in the middle of Birmingham, and I saw my first less than half a mile from home.

So there’s the good news and here are the doubts. Although it’s a joy to have this diversity outside the door, isn’t it just a bit weird that so many species, being displaced from their normal habitats, are evolving to live here? Isn’t it sad that I’ve learned so much more about plant diversity since we moved to the city? I go on about the rogues and vagabonds but corncockle? vipers bugloss?

The greatest sadness is that when I look for them where the old floras said I’d find them; all too often the habitat is gone. Seabirds can’t find a living in fished out polluted seas and so the canny ones have moved inland to our rubbish tips. Those species that can’t adapt are diminishing rapidly. Invertebrates and plant species that once made the meadows beautiful at this time of the year have been poisoned out of existence. So the take-home point is that however thrilling it is to have the early adapters and early adopters here in the city; they’re in the minority. There’s still every point in cleaning up the rivers and creating inner city wildlife corridors and green spaces. There’s every point in asking gardeners to think about pollinators but it’s not enough.

Grateful for small mercies?

One thought provoking piece in yesterday’s papers made me sit up. There are so many organic and free-range chicken farms setting up on, or near the upper reaches of the river Wye that the accumulating load of excess nitrogen and phosphorous from their droppings is leading to eutrophication of the river – killing it slowly. So even eating organic chicken isn’t going to let us off the hook. It’s intensive farming that’s causing the problems – whatever label you put on it to make it sound like it’s saving the earth.

Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

Think about it for a moment. If even two percent of the vertebrates, invertebrates and plant species could be persuaded to live here in green spaces and derelict industrial sites it would only take one inappropriate development to wipe out a species altogether. Much as I treasure urban ecology, it’s never going to be more than a tiny part of the answer.

We need to change the way we live and the way we produce our food, the way we move about, the way we enjoy our leisure time and the way we shop. We cannot let the free market politicians urge us to live within our means when the real means of our lives are being destroyed for profit. They love to talk about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by which they make the unsupported assertion that land cannot be managed equably without ownership. Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

No amount of information boards, nature reserves and feeding stations will make up for the loss of the earth. This is an ethical problem, a religious problem, a problem of vision. The one thing it is not is an economic problem. The economists with their pseudoscientific theories have acted as the heavy artillery of the free market. We see the damage they have done every day and I, for one, am not grateful for very small mercies.

As we say in Bristol – “where’s that to?”

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– and the answer is in our son’s next door neighbour’s garden in the middle of Birmingham.  In fact herons are almost a pest in suburban gardens these days and almost any little pond is likely to be raided. Last time we were up in Birmingham we saw a large heronry alongside a reservoir near Winterbourne House, and a few years back our son saw a peregrine kill a pigeon and eat it on the path outside his kitchen window in the middle of Harbourne.  On our allotment in Bath we see foxes and badgers and one allotmenteer has seen deer there.  The birds are pretty prolific as well, we’ve got one established peregrine nest in the centre of town and if I were a better entomologist  I reckon we’ve a rich collection of insects on the allotments too, not to mention the smaller mammals I wrote about yesterday. In fact Ken Thompson’s work at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, some of which comes up in his book “The Sceptical Gardener” – well worth reading –  and Dave Goulson’s books on bees suggest that suburban gardens are both a resource and a hotspot for depleted wildlife.

So while urban and suburban gardeners (and farmers) pit themselves and their gardens against environmental catastrophe, what’s happening out there in the “real” countryside?  I think we pretty much know the answer to that one – it’s a story of crisis.  I would have said it was a story of decline if I’d been writing this a few years ago, but there are signs of hope, typified by the rewilding project at Knebb but replicated on a much more modest scale in many other places. While we all wish that change could come faster but there’s a lot of inertia and a whole culture to overcome before that can happen, and I know we need action right now,  but with a climate change denying government, banks and multinational pharmaceutical companies still in control, the  responsibility for change, for the time being, has to be on us and our behaviour.

At the AGM of the Bath Natural History Society this afternoon, (Prof) David Goode – in his President’s address – said that he felt that public attitudes towards climate change had changed for the better over the past year, and gave credit to Greta  Thunberg for inspiring the Extinction Rebellion movement and catalysing the sense of urgency.  He also said that he had authored some reports in the late 1970’s in a book trying to predict what was coming during the next decades.  He told us that the editor of the publication had refused to accept the phrase “greenhouse effect” but that every one of his predictions had come to pass before the end of the decade. In my view, with Australia on fire, California in the grip of a prolonged drought and multiple species extinctions across the world it’s become ever more clear that climate change, species extinction and neoliberal politics are all part of the same problem and we can’t choose to fix just one of them.  Having worked in the countryside for 25 years I know only too well the cost to the environment of soil degradation, monoculture, eutrophication of the rhynes (ditches) and the continual application of powerful chemicals, and it’s a cost to the farmers too because as their income is squeezed by falling farm gate prices deliberately forced on them by supermarkets (ask any dairy farmer) they feel they’re being blamed for the state of the environment while the real architects of agribusiness are living high on the hog.

It’s shaming rather than ironic, that suburban and urban green spaces have become places of refuge for wildlife, harried from the countryside by the destruction of habitat and driven by an economics that has no column for the environment in the profit and loss accounts. If you add in the ludicrous farm subsidy system and the lobbying power of the agrochemical industry and it looks like a perfect storm. Ironically I won a signed hardback copy of Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” in the raffle.  I bought the paperback last summer at Heligan, so I’ll pass that copy on to a friend. IMG_20200104_154026One of the greatest advantages of  living in the centre of Bath is the proximity of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which is only 5 minutes walk away and accommodates  most of the Bath Nats indoor meetings. The view through the first floor window was lovely this afternoon. January is the quietest month in Bath, with far fewer visitors and space to walk around the city unhampered.

Up at the allotment this morning we planted out the last batch of overwintering broad beans. The first feed of broad beans and new potatoes is a landmark meal, marking the end of the hungry gap and the hope of good things to come, but the soil is very wet at the moment and the water table is so close to the surface that we’re a bit concerned about the effect on the overwintering plants, so it may be necessary to deepen the soakaways or to raise the beds even more, adding plenty of grit to the soil to improve drainage. Whichever we choose it’s going to be hard work, that’s for sure.

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Luckily we’ve got a second string to our bow because  we started a second batch of garlic in large pots, filled with a free-draining mix of soil, compost and horticultural grit, with a few handfuls of vermiculite thrown in. It’s a similar mix to the one we’ve evolved for growing basil indoors under the horticultural lights and that’s absolutely thrived this winter giving us a year-round supply of full flavoured basil. This variety is called Neapolitan and I like it even more than the Classico.

  • This post was amended on Sunday to restore a displaced paragraph to its proper position.

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