The Birds and the Bees – messy gardening.

The Potwell Pond

We were in our bed this morning and Madame was reading the RHS magazine and – over slurps of tea and biscuit dunking – we fell to discussing the merits and failures of the Chelsea Flower Show. She has the advantage over me in this instance because she’s actually worked on a display there. I should say, by the way, that we were in our own bed because our trip to the Cambrian Mountains had to be shortened since the advertised campsite shop was tragically empty, and what few things there were (paralysed longlife milk and potato crisps) could only be bought for cash. Either way round it was a return journey of 20 miles to find an ATM or a pint of fresh milk and some bread.

Anyway it’s not that I’m against flower shows, in fact the old and much missed Bristol Flower Show was an almost spiritual event in my estimation. However, show gardens leave me somewhere between boredom and incandescent rage. The claim that the ludicrous expenditure of time and energy – and here I also mean the sort of energy that flows from oil wells – is somehow justified by the fact that these playthings of the wealthy are subsequently loaded onto lorries and installed as wholly artificial showpieces somewhere else, simply doesn’t add up. Neither does the claim that these chimeras might inspire us to greater gardening heights. At best they are entertainment for those who can afford the tickets, and the recent eruption of rusting water towers and post industrial, angst ridden greenwashing is an insult to those of us who actually put a hand to the plough rather than treat nature as a gawping opportunity.

Abolishing the boundary between Nature and horticulture.

The Potwell Inn allotment raises a finger to beautifully coiffed paths and chemically sterile soil. Notwithstanding the eagle eye of the Head of Allotments we bend every sinew to abolish the boundary between nature and horticulture. We have Dandelions, Common Ramping Fumitory (vanishingly rare in this area), rushes, Nipplewort, Sowthistle, Sorrel, and any other weeds that come for a season and fulfil some useful service to the birds, bees and other insects. The Potwell Inn allotment is the meeting place of all of the pieces I write. The place where gardening, field botany, natural history, birdwatching, herbal medicine, cooking and eating meld into the rather fuzzy concept of being fully human within a community of shared (and occasionally contested) values.

…….. and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

What this doesn’t mean is that the Potwell Inn allotment is an unkempt wilderness; quite the opposite. What it does mean is that we spend as much time listening to what our patch of earth seems to be saying to us as we do, planning what we would like to eat; and we’re not the only metaphorical mouths that deserve to be fed. This morning, for instance, I was watering when a young dog fox came to within fifteen feet of me and marked his territory on a compost bin. The allotment depends for its functioning upon a breathtakingly complex set of relationships of which we are just one part. Bees, flies including hoverflies, beetles and bugs; fungi and bacteria feed on our plants but provide indispensable service to us as they pollinate and predate on other pests and pass our digested green waste back into the soil . We feed them and they feed us! It’s taken seven years to even begin to crack the code.

Heaven forfend! is that Bindweed there?

There are areas where, for no fathomable reason, nothing ever grows well. The underground hydrology has its own mysterious life with a water table that seems to rise and fall and sometimes even breaks out in the form of a spring beside the cordon apples. We know the track of the sun in winter and high summer and we know where the frost pockets are and from which direction the plants need wind protection. We have discovered that plants have minds of their own and pay no attention to textbooks or common practice. Our vegetable beds are all interplanted with herbs and flowers, many of them self seeded from previous seasons so, for example we don’t actually sow Foxgloves or Borage; Lovage and Angelica. As biennials they might not appear every season but they appear nonetheless. Our fruit trees are surrounded by Garden Mint and Catmint, Marigolds, Borage, Achillia and Nasturtiums. Our only physical pest controls are various grades of netting thrown over hoops. This kind of knowledge isn’t exceptional or mystical – it was the commonplace wisdom of gardeners and farmers for generations until the misbegotten birth of industrial farming turned malignant in the 1950’s, and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

This kind of gardening doesn’t have a name; doesn’t have an orthodoxy and endures no bishops, experts or high priests. Its sole guiding reference is time, patience and rootedness.

A Potwell Inn allotment photo tour.

Well it’s the tail end of spring now and after a frantic ten days of weeding, feeding and planting out after our break in Cornwall, the allotment is looking rather fine, we think. If you’re a regular you’ll know that over the past couple of years we’ve moved towards creating a more wildlife friendly allotment, hoping to attract many more pollinators and interesting insects. There are rules, however, because we’re not allowed to dedicate more than 25% of the plot to flowers, and we’re not allowed what are termed “non fruiting trees” Who’s definition of fruit?” – you might well ask; bearing in mind that a hungry bird in winter or a rare butterfly looking for its larval food plant might have different ideas of what constitutes a fruit or a weed.

When we took on the allotment we decided to create beds around 4’6″ wide, in blocks of two or four- fitted with corner posts so we could net them with 10’x10′ nets on frames with a 12″ path dividing them. This left a number of narrow borders at the edges which amount to much less than 25% of the total space and which we have used to grow herbs and wildflowers. Last year we added a pond with its own surrounding border. Wild (ish) borders feature tall herbs like lovage and Angelica interplanted with Foxglove and Sunflowers which we use to give a degree of wind protection from the East and South West. At their feet are self-seeded marjoram, plus Thyme, Tarragon, Dill and Fennel and five varieties of Mint all in pots to stop them spreading – although we move them around the plot for their capacity to distract Carrot Fly, Allium Leaf Miner and Asparagus Beetle. Two more of the borders have been planted up with fruit trees – cordon apples, plum and damson on dwarfing rootstock; and there’s a large fruit cage with red and blackcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries with commercial blackberry near the fence which is just gathering strength. Then there are Borage, Catnip, Margolds, Lemon Balm and Rosemary. I’m sure I’ve left some out. We welcome volunteers and there’s a Buddleia which moved in and which we’ll keep under control to evade the eagle eye of the Allotments Officer. We have our star guest – the Tall Ramping Fumitory which moved in four years ago and which is the only example in the entire Bath area – so we’ll be keeping an eye on it.

As to whether it’s working as a wildlife garden our only answer is that it’s costing a fortune in field guides. The Mint Moth, for example, encouraged us to buy a standard guide on moths which was lovely but we didn’t know that moths are split into macro and micro species. That necessitated another guide plus the one I bought three years ago. So you might argue that the principal beneficiaries of the wildlife garden are the publishers of field guides who are now £100 better off. On the other hand there are vastly more visitors – damselflies, dragonflies and hoverflies, frogs, snails, butterflies and moths – most of which we still can’t name. They add immeasurably to the pleasure of the allotment – although we haven’t – never will – reach the glory of the Leicestershire garden belonging to Jennifer Owen. I once tried to buy her book but it’s long out of print and costs a fortune. Her Wikipedia entry includes this –

In thirty years of study she recorded 2,204 insect species in her own garden while also finding 20 species new to Britain and six which were previously undescribed. She wrote a book on the study, Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study. As well as the insects she counted Owen grew over 400 different plant species to determine the best food for the insects being tracked.

Wikipedia entry.

I hope you like the photos – I’ll end with some taken of the plots when we first took them on in April 2016.

Now the allotment is a nature reserve!

The garlic patch has been invaded by an extremely attractive but rather invasive plant. It’s been hanging around for years, and for years we’ve yanked it up by the handful and got rid of it – occasionally on the compost heap I suspect. Three years ago I had a go at identifying it because it definitely wasn’t anything I’d seen before. After a trawl through the books I got as far as a family name – Fumitory – but further investigation foundered when I discovered that it’s one of those so-called difficult plants for which you need specialist skills.

Oh no it’s not – oh yes it is!

I called on my friend Rob who has abundant specialist skills, and he gave me a very hesitant answer emphasising he wasn’t completely certain but it could be Fumaria muralis, the Common Ramping Fumitory – which isn’t at all common in these parts. Three years later my ID skills have improved a bit and after a bit of a thing with some Fumitories while on holiday in Cornwall last week I became fairly confident that I know what a Common Ramping Fumitory looks like, but when we got home I could that see that our allotment invader doesn’t quite fit the bill. So I took a lot more macro photographs, came up with a possible Fumaria capreolata, the White Ramping Fumitory which looked closer to mine, and sent them off to another local expert who thought that they were the (uncommon), common type after all; closing the circle and going back to square one. However she suggested that I might send off the photos to the National Referee and get his opinion.

Philosophy, like science, is as concerned with good questions as it is with good answers, but any half decent philosopher will tell you that questions can be troublesome or even dangerous at times. I emailed the photographs to the National Recorder and two hours later a very brief note came back saying it wasn’t either of the previous two ID’s, but is a Tall Ramping Fumitory – the appropriately named Fumaria Bastardii subsp hibernica. It was only when I searched on the distribution map for the plant that I realized it hasn’t been seen here in Bath for at least 40 years. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and gave up trying after 5.00am. In my emails were congrats from the local recorder and the President of the Bath Natural History Society.

So that’s the good news for the day – although I have to say my only contribution to the find was a sharp eye and some persistent questioning. All the rest was done by a great team of experts, and thousands of volunteers who helped create the maps. But the next question is much trickier. What do we do with a rare plant in the middle of the garlic patch? – oh and another plant in the broad beans? I suppose the greatest reward for me is to have learned so much about a difficult family of plants. I can look a Fumaria in the eye now. That’s quite a feeling.

So aside from all the excitement we used the extra daytime to bake some bread and go up to the allotment early and get some watering done – the last three months have almost amounted to a drought – mercifully broken last week when we harvested around 500 litres of rainwater. After that we weeded and planted out the outdoor tomatoes, and fed the asparagus which needs to recover during the summer. We don’t spray for anything, so we have to pick the asparagus beetle grubs off by hand. We’ve had a great crop of strawberries from the new plants too. May is a tricky month and most of us take the risk of getting runner beans in as early as possible. Over the years we’ve learned to do two sowings a fortnight apart so that we can fill any gaps due to frost damage. The Potwell Inn allotment is sheltered from south-westerlies but very vulnerable to cold easterlies which can hammer even hardy early sowings. We had a few losses among the Borlotti beans but we were able to fill the gaps today. Our biggest enemy at the moment is Field Bindweed which spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to eradicate.

Finally we’ve spotted Damselflies on the pond. It’s into its second year now and maturing nicely. The pond is in a small area no more than maybe 12′ X12′ and surrounded by narrow borders which are crammed with Foxgloves, Angelica, Lovage, Catnip and many smaller herbs and flowers. A proper miniature cottage garden.

I also put together a little collage of photographs of the polytunnel. In the autumn I sieved a big load of our home made compost and we spread a 3″ layer across the tunnel beds. LIke the rest of the allotment we don’t dig. Now we’ve planted out tomatoes, aubergines, basil, Minnesota Midget melons and marigolds which are doing really well. The photo at the top is where we’re at right now, and the others – left and right of the sieving (hard work), are where we got to last summer. The melons were absolutely stunning so we’re giving them lots of food, love and water in the hope of even greater glories later this year.

Then just to cap a busy day we picked a mixture of white and purple elderflowers and put them to soak in boiling water with lemon and orange zest. We’ll do two batches which will keep us self sufficient in Elderflower cordial – until next May. In fact I was so thirsty I was drinking the last of the old supply while I was grating the zests. And we’ll probably be in bed by 9.00pm.

How to change the world

If only it were so easy. I was originally going to call this post “The morning after”, if only because, having done a fair bit of research and finding several target species I wanted to emphasise the fact that as sure as night follows day, there’s always a stack of work to do. I was feeling mightily pleased with myself and I envisaged myself cantering towards the finishing line and pressing the send button on the reporting software. Pleased, that is, until I started to look more closely at the photos.

I’m very used to the dead hand of confirmation bias when I’m out and about looking for a particular plant. I find something that looks a bit like it and instantly every nerve strains towards putting the tick in the box; even – or perhaps especially when there’s something that doesn’t quite fit the frame. As I was writing that sentence I thought of one of my most forensic, and therefore valuable tutors at theological college who would seize on the slightest mention of any hard work that had gone into the draft sermon I’d just delivered and say – “really Dave; no-one wants to listen to you pissing from the pulpit!”

Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Indeed not, but I hope I’m making a point of general interest here. Point one is that there are an awful lot of little white flowers around at this time of the year. They’re often quite tiny and inconspicuous and I usually have to prostrate myself with a hand lens and take a closer look. Point two is that a phone camera with a decent zoom capability is the most useful gadget in the world for recording a pile of information you didn’t notice at the time you were squinting at the specimen, but discover you desperately need when you start leafing through the 1266 pages of Stace 4 (no pictures) at home. Macro photos are so immensely useful for identification that I even bought a little clip-on macro lens which makes life even easier.

Nonetheless, the morning after feeling creeps in like mental wet rot as you stare at the photos and realize that in the cold light of day, Hairy Bittercress; Alpine Pennycress, Dwarf Mouse Ear, Common Whitlow Grass and even Barren Strawberry look like – how shall I put this delicately? – cousins, and my report if I ever send it will be seasoned with doubts. Today at a Bath Nats meeting I shared some of those doubts with a really ace botanist; so good he can enlarge at any length you like on the 275 plus subspecies of Blackberry. I say I shared, but as soon as he discerned the drift of the conversation he paled visibly and offered to look at my emails in the same tone of voice you might use to say ‘you must come round for supper some time’ – with not the least intention of specifying an actual date.

So maybe it would be better to have walked on by and enjoyed the lovely skies last week; but here’s the point. After you’ve sat and struggled with an ID for a while, the world becomes an infinitely richer place. Instead of noticing the little white flower and passing by, you now understand that it could be one of … who knows; it could be hundreds! Suddenly the world needs to expand to accommodate this new piece of knowledge because now there are five new friends where there was once only one.

Changing the world, especially at the moment, seems like a fruitless and depressing waste of emotional energy but changing it just by making it bigger, more diverse and more beautiful than it was before, is achievable. These little white flowers aren’t especially rare, although they can sometimes survive in a place that no other living thing could survive in. However they are under threat and whilst I’ve no pretensions about my own modest abilities, we footsoldiers; the botanical infantry if you like, can record them so that they can’t become rare or even extinct without someone noticing.

Of course we talk to the allotment – how else would we know how to keep it happy?

It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.

Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.

As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.

But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.

We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.

Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?

Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!

Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.

So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.

Good hunting!

Sweet Vernal Grass – Anthoxanthum odoratum

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things ….

Gerard Manley Hopkins; “God’s Grandeur”.

Yesterday I set out with the target of finding one single grass species, and we were on a 270 acre site where there’s an awful lot of the green stuff, so it was a test of patience mixed with good luck and Madame’s extraordinary eye. She was the first to spot the tiny flowers amongst the ruffians, not knowing at all what it was. Our minds converged and I had my plant.

It’s not that it’s the least uncommon – just that it’s very small; flowers very early in the year before the other grasses and then lingers as a dried skeleton for the rest of the season. I don’t suppose anyone in the UK could justly say that they’d never seen it but it’s also true that very few indeed would have noticed or known what it was. It’s all in the name; or very nearly all. It’s probably known as sweet more for its perfume than its taste. The thing about it is that it really is the smell of fresh hay; and that’s down to the alkaloid coumarin that gives the same perfume to Meadowsweet: a kind of delicious and evocative vanilla fragrance. The second part of the name, verna, comes from being one of the earliest grasses to flower. Most of the perfume resides in the roots and, as is so often the case, smelt close-up, to me it’s more like Dettol than vanilla. It’s also true that although it was once sown in meadows, Coope and Gray say that it’s neither very productive nor palatable to cattle and so it’s out there on its own.

We also went back to the dark rings in the grass to see if we could find any St George’s mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa and we were lucky that overnight a clump had emerged. They’re the easiest of fungi to identify as long as it’s spring. The white gills and the strong mealy smell are vanishingly unlikely to be anything else. Later on in the season, however you need to be very careful indeed because there are some truly dangerous nasties out there. Here’s an unexpectedly atypical Death Cap we photographed in September 2019 in Cumbria. As always, the devil’s in the detail and – just like all the other plants – you have to consider tiny details of shape and form; smell; season and habitat. That single death cap would certainly be enough to kill you!

Later on we trudged back to the Meadow Foxtails to see what other successional grasses might be on their way and found Yorkshire Fog in leaf there. I really should go back and do a full inventory but my grass I/D skills are still quite rudimentary and I fear it would be a slow job. It occurred to me while we were looking that I may not have noticed the Meadow Foxtail growing there before because until recently there was a free ranging herd of deer that would have eaten the tops off as soon as they emerged. Sadly they became infected with Bovine TB and had to be slaughtered, and so the grazing has had a two year rest. Preparations are obviously being made to reinstate the herd with hundreds of yards of new deer proof fencing going in. Hopefully they’ll soon restore the grass to its previous state.

One brilliant little find was a quantity of Flattened Meadow Grass; the same species that I found in Cornwall recently and which I’m still waiting to get signed off for the record. A double check on the BSBI database later confirmed that it’s known in that 10K OS square, and that’s good enough for me. Once you’ve sweated for hours over a plant you tend to remember it in the future!

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

All too often this quotation from Robert Burn’s poem “To a mouse” is trotted out as bleak comfort offered to someone who probably had it coming. In fact it comes some way into the poem which includes this thought provoking phrase:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion

Has broken Nature’s social union

An’ justifies that ill opinion

Which makes thee startle,

Robert Burns – To a Mouse.

The poet (and farmer) has just disturbed the mouse in its nest whilst ploughing and pauses to reflect on the cost to the wild world of our illicitly claimed sovereignty over the earth.

In the photograph above the poem, the third year of an expensively and poorly conceived piece of planners’ greenwashing in the centre of Bath. Nature – some daft city-born architect must have thought – can be bought by the metre, just as books can be bought by the metre by the illiterate rich, to dignify a patch of bare land. If I could land one blow for common sense amongst town planners it would be to teach them that meadows and their flowers are quite different from arable wildflowers. They’re highly specific habitats and attempting to transplant either group into an alluvial spoil heap by way of a seed impregnated membrane is just about as magical as magical thinking gets. Of course the developers didn’t give a flying fish about the wildlife, but a bit of greening always plays well with planning committees.

The first year the poor things germinated they were almost immediately suffocated by their thuggish neighbours. I was pleased to photograph some corncockles there a couple of years ago but now there are nettles and rough grasses which would have grown anyway. These meadow specialists would never be grazed, and neither would the arable weeds enjoy their brief moment in the sun at harvest or in spring; but grossly overfed by the alluvial soil on the riverside would succumb to their sturdier neighbours. The only survivors were some Comfrey and some rather lovely Vipers Bugloss which will be lucky to survive the redevelopment about to be unleashed upon them.

But not to exempt ourselves and the Potwell Inn from the possibility of hubris -I have to confess that the very day our illustrious leader, the Smirking Codpiece, announced that he had personally abolished Covid in fierce hand to hand combat; Madame and me caught it good and proper and had to shut the Potwell Inn down for ten days while we coughed, sneezed, sweated, wept and dribbled in ways too terrible to describe. We too – our son was quick to point out – had it coming because we went up to London to see the Who in the Albert Hall, and everybody knows that pensioners are the principal vectors of infection and five thousand of them croaking and puffing on their ventolin inhalers whilst singing Pinball Wizard in weird old peoples’ voices was bound to lead to trouble. I felt one step away from being compelled to sign an enduring power of attorney agreement!

The photograph was taken today while we went out for a long therapeutic walk along the river and the canal. It was great to be out again after our negative tests, until – that is – we were caught in the most tremendous winter storm. The sky turned to Paynes Grey and a clap of thunder preceded a truly magnificent hailstorm that went on for ages. We managed to find a bit of shelter behind a wall and under an Elder tree with no leaves, on the canal side. But while Madame had a rather posh hydrophilic fleece on, mine was filled with old hens feathers and collapsed into a soggy heap after a couple of minutes.

I had hoped by now to have done at least one more trip to Velvet Bottom, having got hold of some fascinating geological maps to sort out what’s going on under the surface and in the soil. In the process of gazing at the maps I had one of those moments of sudden intuition that illuminated to me the reason I’m so in love with these places. It’s because I’ve spent most of my life living in them and the plants are childhood friends. I never knew their names and my mother couldn’t really help because she’d been born on the Chilterns and her foundational plants were quite different, but a bare field of fescues shimmering in the wind can reduce me to near tears. Everywhere I’ve loved has been post industrial; mostly post mining. The house I was born in was in what was once a mining area; part of the South Gloucestershire Coalfield. Opposite my primary school was the Cossham Hall – a community centre and once a library, founded by Handel Cossham. Cossham Hospital which we all made use of was also paid for by him. He was everywhere. A few weeks ago we visited Greyfield Wood with the Bath Nats, and again it was a strange meeting that I couldn’t put a name to – until we got home and I discovered it was the site of a huge coal mine which, in the nineteenth century, produced hundreds of thousands of tons of coal. Only the subtle traces remained but they were sufficient to make the neural connections that constitute a kind of cultural memory. Lizard, Pembrokeshire, Dartmoor, South Wales, Mid Wales and Snowdonia all bear the same scars and carry their unique heritage of half recognised plants.

So as soon as we get over the post-covid exhaustion we’ll go back to Mendip armed with a list of heavy metal loving plants that appear on the BSBI maps of the area. I’ve already found one and I can remember several more from pre-recording days which I can’t claim until I’ve found them again. I’m slowly turning into a trainspotter – heaven help me!

Buddle pits, settling ponds and slag will give you a Velvet Bottom and very beautiful it will be!

This is a dam wall for a settling pond

Need I say a word about my emotional attachment to Velvet Bottom? This post, by the way, refers to lead mining rather than some kind of cosmetic procedure sold by Gwyneth Paltrow. You would be very disappointed in what follows if you were in search of that kind of amusement. The good people of Shipham may not be as enthusiastic about these old mine workings as me because some years ago they were ordered to stop growing and eating their own garden vegetables on account of the dangerous levels of cadmium in the soil -some of it, without doubt, washed down from here. The ponds are the industrial remains of a previous technical solution to a pollution problem caused when inefficient settling of the crushed ore in the buddle pits resulted in lead finding its way into the waters of the several underground rivers that spring from the limestone rock further down the Mendip escarpment; killing the fish quickly and (probably) the residents slowly. The mines have been worked and reworked since Roman times so there’s been ample time for havoc to accumulate, and this should be a salutary reminder to those who think there’s always a technical solution to every environmental problem. The effluent still contained lead, cadmium and goodness knows what other heavy metals. Just to be clear, most of this came from Victorian workings. In earlier times, back to the Romans, there was almost certainly still pollution, because mining and smelting are intrinsically polluting activities. It’s just that when they’re scaled up as they were during the industrial revolution, that they become truly dangerous. With coal from the nearby North Somerset coalfield, and probably in earlier days abundant wood, mining and smelting came together like the Kray twins of industrial growth.

But now there is peace and silence. Where lead ore was once settled in ponds, now adders warm their blood in the sun. Underground a very large system of caves was first exposed in modern times by the 1968 floods; but pioneering cavers like Willie Stanton soon found that in some places the miners had preceded them, leaving their footprints in the mud. Here and there as you walk down the valley you’ll see trial pits and occasionally swallets, gated to keep out reckless and ill equipped explorers.

However, parts of the soil here are so polluted that the whole flora has had to adapt. While we create clean air zones and fight environmental battles that may yet save us from our own historic folly, there was no-one here for the flowers and plants and when you look closely you can soon see the glittering lead slag from which some of the tracks have been made. There are places where almost nothing grows now, or ever will grow in the future. It’s so rare a habitat that it’s even got its own name – Calaminarian grassland – and there are only 450 hectares of it in the whole of the UK. The name comes from a continental violet – Viola calaminaria – that doesn’t even grow here but has the gift of thriving on soil, highly polluted with heavy metals in the parts of Europe from which the UK has detached itself; i.e. the rest of it! The calaminaria part of the name comes from the zinc containing ore, calamine with/from which calamine lotion is somehow made which is very good for calming itchy chicken pox.

So am I telling too bleak a tale about one of my favourite landscapes in the world? I really hope not, because there is an extraordinary beauty in the way that ecosystems can heal themselves. It takes time, sometimes it takes centuries; but slowly nature reclaims what we have damaged because that’s what nature does best, and bare soil is sick, unbalanced soil.

I’ve been walking up and down Velvet Bottom for something like sixty years and every time, it seems to embrace me in its remote quietness. Occasionally the trail runners and dogs owners can be a bit much. The leftovers from picnics and barbecues can be an eyesore but as landscapes go, the high Mendips – never that high – remains off the beaten track if you avoid the hotspots. But close attention to the flora there makes every walk a treat. Here’s a single example. The edges of the buddle pits and settling ponds are particularly heavily polluted but there are a handful of species that have carved out a living there. Last week we got lucky because the flower in the photos below is a very short lived annual, the flowers only open in full sun and by the time its more glamorous and eye catching cousins come along there’s nothing to see. Unless the flowers are open it’s all but invisible, but miraculously it makes a living on the bare slag, helped along I imagine by plentiful rabbit poo. It’s called Common Whitlowgrass – Erophila verna, and is found locally in these bare patches of gravel, pavements and neglected ground across the UK, mainly in the South. The flowers are barely 2-3mm across if they’re open so these photos show them greatly enlarged. You’ve probably got it growing unnoticed on your allotment or in your garden; but here in this hostile environment it’s a token of the healing power of nature.

The name Whitlowgrass comes from the fact that it was apparently used in the past as a treatment – most likely a poultice – for the infected fingernail bed that bears the same name. But not these specimens – please! They’ve got a much more important healing function; they take up heavy metals into the leaves and are potentially poisonous, and in any case it’s illegal – however common they may be. After I’d posted this I did a bit of searching and came up with this quotation from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal . Modern herbals probably don’t mention it because whitlows are a viral infection caused by the herpes virus. As an astringent it may have helped to clean any resulting bacterial infection. Any port in a storm!

“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives this plant an alternative name of Nailwort and tells us that ‘it is held to be exceedingly good for those imposthumes* in the joints and under the nails, which they call Whitlows, Felons, Andicorns and Nail-wheals’. The plant was carried to North America by the first British settlers where it was found to be a most useful plant in herbal medicine. “

‘Wildflowers of Ireland’ website

* Archaic term for abscesses.”

Walking through nature and walking in it.

Falconer with a Harris hawk – taken 2 years ago

An intriguing couple of minutes yesterday. I heard a familiar commotion out on the Green and when I saw a crowd of very agitated seagulls circling in the air and filling it with alarm calls, I knew a once what was happening. It took a moment or two to spot the cause of the din and I saw the falconer with his gauntlet walking up the pavement before I saw the hawk flying from tree to tree, jesses trailing, but always keeping an eye on the fist that held the food. This was exercise with a difference because we see them fairly regularly working the green together and they may be taking part in an experiment to make the gulls feel too unsafe to build nests. The hawk never kills – is never allowed to kill – the gulls. Trust me, nesting gulls start their din at four a.m. in the summer and apart from the noise, they make a thorough nuisance of themselves in the tourist areas, hoovering up discarded fast food and leaving impressive quantities of crap as a receipt. The council have tried pretty well every conceivable tactic for discouraging the gulls, but this seems to be less cruel and much cheaper than climbing up to the nests and oiling or removing the eggs before they hatch.

even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she never once looked up

But to get back to the point; whilst I was watching this moving spectacle I saw a young woman walking down the pavement dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her and carrying another bag in the free hand. She never once looked up to see the cause of the commotion, and even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she kept her head down, loaded her case into the boot (trunk) and drove off.

Hawking purists rather look down on the Harris because it’s not a native UK hawk and it happens to be rather easier to train than some of the natives. We British are never happier than when we’ve got someone to look down on and so the Harris is generally thought to be a bit minor league – if only for the purists. Most UK bird books don’t even include it. As for me the sight of any hawk working is a thrill and the Harris is a big bird. You couldn’t confuse it with anything other than a hawk, but then its white tail stripe is an obvious giveaway.

I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, a marvellous naturalist, evolutionary biologist and past president of the Bath Nats for the title of this post. We were out on a field meeting once and he used it to describe people who are too self absorbed, too quick, and too busy looking at their mobiles or fitness trackers meaningfully to enjoy an encounter with nature. Not to mount my soapbox yet again; I’ll just say that powering flat out down a towpath trying to walk twenty miles in six hours is unlikely either to result in a real encounter or a measurable change of mood.

There are many first encounters I’ll never forget. The first kingfisher on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal; the first heron that rose up from the pool behind behind a cornish hedge like a creature from the Jurassic age. The first red squirrel skitting along the horizontal branch of an old beech tree on my Grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns (back in the 1950’s) and then nothing until we went camping in France about ten years ago and there they were; oh and I should mention the first sighting of Madame at a CND meeting. We both long for a first sighting of the otters that we know patrol the river near to the Potwell Inn, but we haven’t yet dragged ourselves out of bed at dawn or stayed out leaning on the fence after dusk. Maybe we’ll fix a trail cam on one of the trees at the water’s edge where there’s a likely spot.

Coming back after one of our trips is always an odd time. The weather in Cornwall was getting fiercer by the day, and the campervan – being old and temperamental like me – was playing up. The long dark nights during which we had all the lights and heating running so we could carry on working was inexorably draining the batteries towards the point of no return and so we came back two days early and humped the batteries upstairs to recondition and charge them. Aside from nailing a couple of relative rarities (yet to be adjudicated) the new miFi system worked brilliantly, so for the first time ever on that campsite we were able to keep in touch by phone. My hopes of keeping tabs on the plants down the field path were raised greatly when we booked another two weeks down there in May. Back home the plants are nonetheless fascinating but perhaps a little less glamorous. However, beggars can’t be choosers and urban botany is all the more rewarding because the plants themselves are real survivors, eking out a living in the most unpropitious circumstances.

The journey home was pretty eventful too. We saw a car which had cut us up earlier , pulled over by no less than four police cars. Later one of the unmarked cars passed us at well over 100 mph shortly before we passed a mini engulfed in flames. Luckily the occupants were standing further up the motorway looking bewildered. Next up we saw five police cars perform a rather balletic stop by surrounding and slowing another car until it was forced to concede. The fifth car then blocked the motorway whilst a sixth, further up, led a slow traffic jam of cars and lorries to avoid a massive pile up.

So now there’s lots to do on the allotment and lots also to learn on this new computerised recording site. I haven’t yet given up on paper records, though. That would be to tempt providence!

Postscript

The air ambulance landed on the green a few minutes ago and already it’s gathered a crowd of onlookers. Sadly, these days it takes a helicopter and a seriously hurt human being to get our heads up.

First fruits

It’s a bit of a cheat to call these first fruits I suppose, but the parsley has thrived in the polytunnel along with strawberry plants, peas, lettuces and spinach. I’m sure we could have done much better in the tunnel but it’s been our first season and it’s a steep learning curve. The rhubarb is one of the treats of the early season and we eat it greedily, but there’s not a sign of the sweet cicely yet but the faint sweetness and aniseed flavour of sweet cicely really is the cherry on the cake – and since it was planted it’s appeared regularly. We’re really quite a long way from its home in the north so there’s always a possibility that it will give up on us, but it’s always lovely to see it poking its head above the earth.

Here’s another sign from a different setting. Away from the vegetable gardens the more decorative ones are just beginning to gather strength. During our stay on the Roseland peninsula we walked from Gerrans down the field lanes to Place – yes that’s the name of the place – Place. One purpose of the walk was to look for flowering wild plants, of which more later, but as we walked the last hundred yards down the narrow road we came across the splendid sight of the lodge cottage surrounded by camellias in full flower. Trad english countryside on steroids!

Place has a rather lovely house which is now in use as a wedding venue – there’s a photo left – which is built in such a way as to have the high tide reach the retaining wall of the lawn twice a day. Apart from that it’s a mud flat with a stream flowing down the middle, but it’s where we saw our very first Little Egret some years ago. On Tuesday we saw two there with a heron and the usual cohort of more familiar herring gulls having occasional scraps with the local crows. There’s also a ferry here in the summer that will take you to St Mawes where, if you like, you can catch a further ferry to Falmouth. Great for South West Coast Path walkers who don’t want to get too fussy about walking every little creek up and back.

The third setting for enjoying the early signs of spring is to watch the emerging wildflowers, and that was the main purpose of our walk. The final tally of plants in flower was around twenty. I’ve already written about my travails with the iRecord system which is quite difficult to master. I have learned to successfully add single records and I’ve even figured out the little triangular warning signs that accompany some of my (either) fanciful or ( remotely possibly) brilliant sightings. I reckon a little four inside a triangle is a clue that there will be some tooth gnashing going on somewhere.

Cow Parsley

My biggest problem has been to submit a whole list of all twenty five species in one go. They are, after all, on the same footpath. But this time the system defeated me and I appeared to accidentally delete all of my list twice! Ho hum. I thought I bore it very philosophically but I dropped a mild email to the overworked minders of the scheme and although no formal reply arrived back, I noticed this morning that they had been restored. It was very kind of them but unfortunately their helpful gesture resulted in a bit of double entry which could make the whole lot pretty useless for researchers. So I think I’ll probably have to delete the lot again and start from scratch having learned the point at which the software can’t follow my random approach any more. I will learn it! I really will – because there isn’t a better way of putting something back into the community than recording its natural assets. I’ll always be a footsoldier in the enterprise but going out and doing some field botany is all the more absorbing if you happen on something a bit different. It’s no use anyone saying “stick to dandelions and you’ll be OK” because you need a PhD to sort them out beyond the wretched “agg (regate)” status. An acquaintance in the Bath Nats was one of the authors of the standard monograph on the blackberry whose promiscuous sexual habits have resulted in hundreds of subspecies. Sadly it is not mentioned which ones are the best to eat. For that you have to go blackberrying and find a secret spot or plant a delicious variety in your allotment. The most ordinary things are boundlessly fascinating.

As we walked down the lane I noticed a tiny white flower shining through the undergrowth. I knelt down to photograph it from half a dozen angles so I could ID it properly back in the campervan. It was hairy bittercress – a very common weed, you might say – personally I don’t believe in weeds – but blow me down when we went up to the allotment this morning there were hundreds of them. They’d obviously been there all along but until I’d taken the trouble to look minutely at a single one them they’d escaped my attention. Hairy Bittercress – very good for improving your eyesight, but not by eating it; just knowing its name.

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