Something’s broken and it’s not just the weather

Common red soldier beetle – AKA hogweed bonking beetle!

The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.

Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.

The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.

So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.

The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.

The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.

The stars dispose but do not compel

It was Beth Chatto, whose motto – “right plant, right place” – came to mind as we walked past the Bath Quays development yesterday. Some years ago the river bank was reshaped into terraces in advance of new building on the north side of the river, The terraces were rather expensively covered with wildflower matting – coir impregnated with seeds, I imagine to honour the fashionable spirit of the wild. The earth; much disturbed and turned over by archaeologists and heavy machinery and then covered with topsoil yielded a single fine crop of wildflowers last seen growing together on a film set before the thugs moved back and put the newcomers in their place. True, a few have survived but the dreams of the planners would surely have taken a dive if they ever came back to look at their creation. There used to be a building company in Swindon, from memory, ironically named “Bodgit and Scram” – you get the picture. Creative landscape designers are rarely confronted with the difference between glossy brochures and living earth.

Some of the plants, however, didn’t disappear; they just took a walk down the road and found somewhere more suited to their natural habitat. The Vipers Bugloss in the picture is one of the more attractive ones which, while not normally seen in this part of the world outside gardens, has set up a squatters’ camp alongside the road amongst the rubble and clutter of an earlier utopian dream.

If you want to make a nature reserve you can either buy some expensive land and spend shed loads of money on it or – as this little paradise suggests – put up a temporary fence around a bit of unloved and rubble filled earth awaiting “development” and go away for a couple of years. In this case the inevitable Buddleias came along, with bindweed and all the other early risers; and with them came butterflies – who’d have thought it? – and then some of the other escapees from the designed wild like yarrow and campions; some nice vetches, oxeye daisies, poppies and so forth.

It should (but probably won’t) remind us that just as you can’t create a community by building a community centre, so you can’t rewild the city centre with a coir mat and seeds from somewhere in Europe. Beth Chatto’s “right plant right place” applies as much to rewilding as it does to gardens and allotments. The Potwell Inn allotment has had many areas enriched by mountains of leaf mould, manure and compost. But the places where we’ve planted the lavenders and mediterranean herbs had to have their rich clay/loam topsoil removed and replaced with something more akin to stone soup to borrow a metaphor from the kitchen. And, of course the harsher environment suits them very well.

The “weeds” that were expensively doused in weedkiller back along the river walk are now recovering slowly, and happily the patch of greater celandine seems to have been missed altogether. Within a few weeks, I hope, the ragwort, herb Robert, nipplewort and dandelions will shake themselves and get back into the business of being wild in the city. Rewilding doesn’t so much require committees and designers as it needs nurturing what’s already found its place on the pavement. The real challenge is to teach more people to love weeds and nurture their vital role in the great scheme of things.

But that was last year!

Now we’re three weeks behind

With the prospect of a loosening of the lockdown tomorrow – which, to be honest, is a lousy idea – it would be lovely to pretend that we could get back to normal on the allotment. However, these photos taken in May last year prove beyond all reasonable doubt that this year we’re at least three weeks behind. Looking out across the green just now there’s not a sign of our elderflowers blossoming although the purple variety shown, from which we made the bottles also featured above, is at least in full leaf. The window boxes are waiting for the petunias to go in so they can be moved down to the flat, but even in the hotbed and the polytunnel the beetroots are nowhere near as well developed. Today we found the first tiny broad (fava) bean pods and we’re still at the carrot thinning stage. The asparagus bed is just grumbling into life like a teenager on a school morning, and we’ve had a couple of tasters but hardly a feed.

In other respects we’ve done well inside the tunnel, with salad greens, radishes, turnips, container potatoes looking well in their new position outside, and the ever patient tomatoes hardening off in pots; taller and healthier than they were last May. The slugs have been busy during this week of rain, and managed to fell all our dill seedlings and half of our sunflowers. What’s particularly infuriating is the way they climb up the plants and saw off the growing tip. The runner beans, planted out two days ago, were spared by leaving a sacrificial tray of failures to attract them away but we’ve been fighting a losing battle and today I ordered some nematode treatment which is expensive but marginally less so than losing crops. Even the aubergines, chillies and peppers have been locked down with us, clogging up the propagators and windows. Our first ever attempt at melons suffered a mere 25% germination rate and of the survivors there’s only one healthy looking plant but that could just as easily be lack of experience on our part.

A couple of weeks ago we were given an old freezer which has relieved our storage problems enormously, and so for the first time aside from eating inordinate amounts of freshly cooked rhubarb, we’ve been able to freeze enough to make jam later on when things calm down. There’s enough rhubarb on the whole allotment site to start a jam factory – it’s one of the few plants that it’s almost impossible to kill – along with horseradish of course! But some of the less experienced allotmenteers don’t seem to know that they should cut off the flowering spikes as soon as they appear, and keep pulling sticks regularly to preserve a supply of fresh and tender stalks. The old ones – the thickness of your arm are tough and full of oxalic acid.

The bird feeders have been a tremendous success, attracting great tits, blue tits and today a couple of coal tits that were quite unafraid of me standing quietly no more than three feet away. We’ve also had robins and magpies with blackbirds helping out on the path edges digging out slugs and snails. It’s difficult not to associate their arrival with the pond as well and our tadpoles are growing slowly although they must be being predated by something because the numbers have dropped significantly. So it’s not all bad news, and scanning the blogs today Madame said that everyone seems to be suffering from the cold and wet weather so the problem isn’t local.

To go to a theme I return to often, it’s not the bird rarities or the heaviest, tallest or fattest vegetables in the world, but the ordinary that animates us. Of course I wouldn’t shoo a willow tit or a goldcrest away, but I’m not the least bit disappointed if our allotment highlights are no better or worse than thousands of other equally ordinary people have, and a dandelion is a cheerful flower to have around when nothing much else is happening. In fact weeds are what most urban botanical apprentices like me cut our teeth on and the closer you look the more wonderful they seem to be. Dandelion seeds – when looked at through a low magnification microscope – are an absolute wonder!

Going back to the picture on the top left of the group; that’s the green I write about. It’s an incredibly popular spot for trysts, catch ups, picnics, getting drunk, kicking a ball around, dealing drugs, exercising dogs, once (memorably) dogging, (and behind every curtain in the square was a shameless pair of eyes!) tai chi, gymnastics and all the rich tapestry of city life. Recently we discovered that after installing the bases for a couple of seats on the green, the council were dissuaded from installing them after receiving a petition – signed (it is claimed) by 70 local residents. In a long life of community based work I’ve grown suspicious of being told the everyone is against an idea. Usually it amounts to a small but articulate and organised subset of the community. The alleged grounds for the objection were that seats might encourage antisocial behaviour – really? How on earth have we managed until now?

However, nature spared us a battle when a large tree was blown down during one of the many storms in early spring. Within a couple of weeks the brash was all sawn off and taken away as firewood by a rough sleeper who’s been living on the river bank for over a year. People soon congregated around the dead tree and used it as a seat but it was really in the wrong place. So one day someone dragged the trunk laboriously across the green to a new spot under the canopy of our largest tree. He spent two evenings attempting to use it as a springboard to climb the big tree and eventually succeeded in getting way up into the canopy, whereupon he lost interest and went away – probably to write a book about climbing trees. Now the fallen tree was in shadow under the big one so another group hauled it out into the sunshine where it’s been ever since. Children painted it with bright and cheerful graffiti and played on it and it’s hardly ever empty. This morning a couple of young women sat on it in the rain on a plastic bag and with an umbrella while they drank their coffee. Frank Lake – now hardly remembered but a pioneer of what he called “clinical theology” used a memorable phrase that perfectly describes the bureaucratic mind . He said “you can die from hardening of the oughteries!” My philosophy and ethics lecturer put it another way in his first lecture: “you can’t make an ought into an is”. Indeed you can’t but it doesn’t stop people in power from trying.

That tree ought to be a message of hope and a warning to anyone who thinks they have the right to dictate how communities use their spaces. The empty plinths are now used to protect the grass from barbeques and it’s a constant pleasure to see, and hear people playing games, getting together and enjoying life – even if it’s a little anarchic and occasionally gets out of hand.

– in the end what’s more antisocial?

Street life and street theatre is free; doesn’t need a policy statement or any funding; committee meetings and minutes, or risk assessments – and in the end what’s more antisocial? Is it a bit of noise and fun on the green? or is it warehousing all your fragile and vulnerable people in one place? (on the edge of the green), driving up rents and house prices through speculation? polluting the air we breathe with privately owned 3 litre diesel engined vanity vehicles? and putting a route for 45 tonne lorries through the middle of a densely populated but unfashionable part of town? oh and building nothing but old peoples’ homes and student flats because that’s where the money is? Answers on a postage stamp please!

Strictly between ourselves

I was slightly relieved when by brief few days of incomprehensible popularity ended. I like to think of the Potwell Inn as a fairly intimate sort of place, and when literally hundreds of readers suddenly flooded in I felt paralysed – having no idea why they were there and what they were expecting of me. This situation has happened a couple of times now, when (I imagine) someone with a big following likes a piece I’ve written and then links it to their blog. It’s all well and good, but I’ve no idea who these new readers are and – (whether or not it’s down to my history) – I feel a kind of pastoral responsibility to my regular readers that I can’t press into service when the bar is packed with people I’ve never met. I don’t know much about most of you but over a long period I know from your likes, for instance, which pieces are likely to be enjoyed by certain readers, even if I only know your website names. I know who prefers the gentle and lyrical pieces to the scabrous political ones; and who likes a bit of philosophy along with the cooking. I know I can always write about the allotment without causing offence, but not about killing rats. I still write about the darker issues because the Potwell Inn is about being human not being perfect. The environmental crisis is safer territory than the economic one. In fact as I write this I’m amazed at what a strong picture I have of my readers. It reminds me very much of choosing music back in the day when I was a parish priest. “Here’s one for Barri” – I’d think as I put something on the Sunday list.

So there we are, back to normal; slogging on through the mist and fog of Covid, weary of listening to politicians who don’t know the difference between an aspiration and a policy, and (in our case) steering well clear of the kind of TV that keeps us awake at night. We watch cookery programmes mostly, and once a week we watch “saving lives at sea”- (about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution if you’re not in the dis-UK) to remind us that the devil doesn’t always have the best tunes.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the continuing presence of brownish white foam in the River Avon. As I mentioned a few days ago it can only get there via the sewers and the perfume of detergent is so strong at Pulteney Bridge you might be forgiven for wondering if the water company was giving the river bed a bit of a clean up – you know it can get very grubby down there and so a couple of thousand gallons of Persil non bio might be a good thing. In a parallel dystopia. Personally I think we should put a notice on all our toilets, sinks and showers to remind us that when it leaves the house it doesn’t leave the earth!

The canal, on the other hand is both clean and quiet. The heron was back on his beat near Deep Lock today; keeping an eye on a couple of workmen who were removing bits of scrap iron (including a child’s bicycle) from the canal bed with a grappling hook and a big magnet. This heron has a number of alternative ways of feeding himself, including paddling the mud at the edge of the flow to stir up potential titbits and also browsing the brambles down there as well. There are just a few ripe fruits still on display, but amusingly the heron stalks the blackberries in exactly the same stealthy way he fishes – as if they might dart off the brambles and hide if they spotted him. The peregrines at St Johns were absent, possibly due to the fact that a bunch of scaffolders were working alongside the tower where they nest . Why are scaffolders so noisy always? I mean postmen don’t go around hollering all the time.

Due to a dozen mutually contradictory message streams in the media it’s either the end of phase 2 or the beginning of phase 3 – but whatever …… it all means it’s lethal to breathe but they hope we will all go and shop until our credit cards spontaneously combust and the economy is saved. We will celebrate the end of the crisis at Christmas by kissing lots of people and not having to make love while maintaining social distancing. Meanwhile the funeral directors are planning their summer holidays in the knowledge that they, at least, will have a good year. With luck the Airbnb hen party house opposite will re-open to young idealists to celebrate love and fidelity by getting drunk, going off with strangers and getting the male strippers back – Madame gets very concerned for them when they take a break on the patio outside with nothing on, apart from a velvet neckband and a large joint – not that, sort honestly! “They’ll catch their death” she says; to which I can only reply that she’ll catch her own if she falls off the dressing table.

So life’s rich tapestry continues here in Bath. Please don’t mention the smelly river or the hen parties to anyone in case it upsets the Tourist Board and definitely not the street beggars; back on the streets now that the milk of human kindness supply has dried up. All’s well that ends well – even if it hasn’t ended by a long mile. It’s a time of magical thinking when we can all have what we want just by wanting it (terms and conditions apply). Meanwhile here’s a photo of the canal today with a hard frost and misty air, and there are more links to older entries below. I was touched to see that yesterday someone read the very first entry I ever wrote. How lovely – as my old friend and mentor Don Streatfield might have said.

asparagus autumn chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging global climate crisis global heating green spirituality growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown meditation no-dig polytunnels potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Sunset, dusk, twilight.

I could have titled this post ‘Nocturne‘ – a bit posey; or – ‘Be careful what you pray for!’ – except that usually applies better to well deserved comeuppances, so I settled on the one it’s got because today we walked through and enjoyed the subtle differences between all three evening states and now as I write this I’m looking through the window at the night – not Van Gogh starry night or Whistler night and especially not Turner night but just the car park, the backs of the terrace and the fast food joint chimney.

We wasted much of the day waiting for a delivery from Royal Mail that never arrived. To recycle a quip from John Mortimer, writer and barrister, “it’s like tantric sex; you’re in all day and nobody comes.” So (moving rapidly on) we didn’t set out on our walk until 3.00pm. Years ago we were walking in Leigh Woods in Bristol when a tramp – ‘rough sleeper’ carries a whole different set of connotations nowadays; this was a man who had chosen to live in the woods for whatever reason. Anyway he came rushing up to us in a state of high excitement and begged us to follow him. “I’ve been living here for ten years and I’ve never seen one before”, he said, and he led us off into the wood where he had found the first thorn apple he, or we, had ever seen there. Jimson weed, devil’s Snare or thorn apple, it’s got a bit of a reputation for being poisonous/hallucinogenic and the RHS entry for it spends almost as much time describing how to kill it as it does to grow it. We, however, were pleased to see it, thanked him and went on our way.

Yesterday I mentioned here that we haven’t yet seen the otters on the river and blow me if we didn’t meet a man who had – earlier today. Yesterday too, I mentioned that we hadn’t noticed the resident heron for a few days and there we were near an improvised shelter (bender) on the bank watching a larger heron that we haven’t seen before when this man came up to us and told us that only this morning he’d seen a female otter with two cubs, swimming at the exact spot we were standing in. It was beginning to feel as if we were on a roll.

What next? Well, a little further on we saw in one spot – without moving – two swans, one cormorant, one kingfisher, our usual heron and two – yes two peregrines. Admittedly the peregrines were about 60 feet up on St John’s Church spire but that was a bit of a moment to savour, and remember; this is all in the very centre of Bath. A group of young men were passing and joined in the peregrine watching. “They’re up there on the nest platform” I said; and one of them replied “I know, my dad made the nest box and two of the little ones have got together and had babies!”

There were hordes of people out walking in the parks and on the canal in spite of the slate grey and rain bearing clouds overhead. Somewhere up there there was rain falling high above us because a rainbow had gathered together all the sunlight that we weren’t seeing and formed an inverted bowl over our heads. Dogs, children, adults, students in careless groups of eight and ten oblivious to the wide birth we were giving them. It was an almost joyful atmosphere as we grabbed what fresh air we could before retreating into lockdown and endless repeats on the television.

As we walked along the river beneath the railway station a long express train pulled in and we noticed for the first time that the lights inside the carriages were glimmering on to the platform. There’s a marvellous sense of inside/outside as it gets darker and the whole townscape slowly changes from day to night. The sky was washed with Paynes Grey, possibly my favourite watercolour; and stationary tree trunks that the spate had brought downstream were riffling the water, making the street lights dance. We quickened our pace to get back where the otters were before it got too dark to see them, but it wasn’t to be. Still; now we know where they are, we can take the binoculars and search for a holt. It was a lovely walk, and completely, unexpectedly rich as walks so often are.

And as I’m writing I remember that among the plants in flower that I listed briefly yesterday, I forgot the hedge woundwort and prickly sow thistle near the canal. The woundwort looks very like a pink/purple nettle, but the killer trick for identifying it is the smell of the crushed leaves that can be anything from mildly unpleasant to almost nauseating. It’s supposed to be effective against boils and such like. I just love the English names of these medicinal herbs; they’re little poems – two or three syllable haiku. Latin names are more useful but I wouldn’t be without Mrs Grieve and Geoffrey Grigson’s lists of local names. I remember an old countryman telling my sister the local name for dandelions – ‘pissabeds’ and giggling as my mother glowered at him. In fact she knew them all very well but never mentioned the more earthy ones.

And then back home, hungry as horses, we fell upon homemade and home grown baked beans; our own borlotti and our own rich tomato sauce mopped up with our own everyday sourdough. Life doesn’t get any better.

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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