We first came to Porth Dinllaen because we’d seen the place on a TV programme and we thought it looked beautiful – particularly the pub on the beach – Ty Coch Inn (the Cock Inn) once rated the best beach pub in the UK, seemed almost too good to be true; set at the end of a sweeping bay from which on a clear day you can see Holyhead on Anglesey from one end, and the peak of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) from the lifeboat station at the other end.
So today we took a walk from the car park in Morfa Nefyn down and along the beach, past the pub and the lifeboat station back to the car park. I haven’t been wearing my field botany hat very much this time, because the weather’s been so awful and we’ve only been able to grab quick walks in the teeth of the gales and rain. However yesterday’s cold and wet northwesterly has disappeared and a ridge of high pressure gave us a couple of hours of sunshine during the morning. And as we walked around the path from the pub to the lifeboat station a little blue flower caught Madame’s eye and she pointed it out to me. It was a bit of a puzzle because it had a borage like flower but the same kind of leaves as a bristly oxtongue. So I stopped and took some photos and brought them back to the cottage to identify. Here’s a photo.
It’s not the least bit rare, but that didn’t diminish the pleasure of finding it at all. It’s an annual bugloss – Anchusa arvensis – the name suggests it’s a field dweller, which it often is. The last one I saw was way down the coast in a field near St Davids; so it also has a taste for seaside and sandy soils. Interestingly I discovered that the French call it oxtongue, langue de boeuf, and the name bugloss comes from a couple of Greek words that mean exactly the same. We’ve already got a bristly ox tongue in the UK so the case for Latin names was never better made!
Anyway I couldn’t have been more pleased if I’d found a ghost orchid. Botanising isn’t just about rarity; for me it’s about getting to know my neighbours by name. Then later I picked up Fred Provenza’s book “Nourishment” which (in chapter 2) talks about the biochemical intelligence of plants and their role in nutrition. Awesome stuff. I began to feel pieces of a puzzle dropping into place in my mind. Field botany, herbal medicine, agriculture, human diet, deficiencies and so much more all in the same mind map for the first time in my experience. Happy daze!
But first, an extraordinarily heartwarming conversation with my eight year old grandson. We were in Dyrham Park, walking along the edge of Whitefield – a stunning wildflower meadow which we haven’t managed to see for two years because of Covid. The grandchildren had all been dosed with antihistamine because their mum knew they’d be rolling around in the grass at some point during the day. It happens that their sister is given the drug as a liquid, orally and to save time the other two also got it from a small syringe this time. So oldest grandson and me were chatting about all this and we wandered into the topic of words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings. Orally and aurally came up of course – and then he said to me quite unexpectedly – “they’re called homophones”. I could have cried with joy at him even knowing the word, and -in the way that children are – he was a bit surprised (but rather pleased) at how thrilled I was. High fives all round. I love going for walks with him because he’s so eager to learn. Each time we go out I teach him the names of different flowers, plants and trees, and tell him their stories. It lights up the day for both of us.
But at the very top of this page – the one that comes up every time – there’s a photo of the same grandson walking down an avenue of limes, holding hands with his uncle Jonah’s hand. Sadly the avenue of trees no longer looks the same – and it’s for the oddest reason.
The aspect of the landscape in that particular shot caught my eye, not so much for its natural beauty, but because in reality it is so artificial. The lower leaves in the regular avenue of limes is – or rather was – clipped to such an even height above the ground it reminded me of the famous Marienbad film setting. But this wasn’t achieved by platoons of gardeners but by a wild herd of roe deer which has lived there for a couple of hundred years. Sadly the herd was all slaughtered during the Covid outbreak because of a persistent outbreak of bovine TB. It was all very hush hush in the way it happened; probably in anticipation of a fiercely negative response from the thousands of visitors who’ve grown to love them. If you live in the UK you’ll already know about the furore that’s arisen over the slaughter of a single llama for the same reason. However it’s done now and we’re promised the deer herd will be replaced as soon as possible. I simply don’t know whether the vaccines that exist for farm cattle would work for deer, but if they do I’d be saddened by the fact they weren’t used. There may be other reasons, though. Some visitors had no idea how to treat the deer as wild animals, and one ranger told me they’d had to intervene when a large group of visitors tried to corral a section of the flock in order to take photos! Deer, like all wild animals, respond badly to stress and I’ve long wondered whether TB isn’t a symptomatic disease of stressed animals.
The upshot of all this is that the grassland character is rapidly altering, with rank grasses taking over; and the lime avenue is looking distinctly ragged now. It’s amazing how quickly this has happened. The countryside as expressed in the great English parks is about as artificial as it gets; and it’s easy to see, particularly at the higher level of the park – the scrub will very soon take over when it’s no longer grazed by the deer. Eco purists and some rewilders might think this is a good idea; but I’m not so sure. All landscapes are artificial in one way or another, depending on the management strategies in place. Wildflower meadows are no more “natural” than municipal parks if by natural you mean left completely to their own devices. Each type of landscape – even (or especially) abandoned industrial sites – develops its own unique ecology. Maintaining peat bogs requires minute attention to water levels, for instance. So diversity is best maintained by deliberate management. I just don’t see how Dyrham Park can be maintained as it was – without its deer herd.
But finally, the bad news is that the badgers on the allotment eventually found a way past our barriers and finished off the sweetcorn. The video at the top was probably the marauder himself leaving the scene of the crime. And so, the fencing will be strengthened even more next year. Luckily we had a least a few feeds, and although we could wish they hadn’t broken in; we wouldn’t want to see them disappear altogether. Once again, maintaining ecological balance has its pluses and minuses. A couple of days ago I lamented the fact that there are no hedgehogs on the site, but of course badgers are one of the main predators of hedgehogs. Whenever we intervene in nature, however worthy our intentions, the results are often full of unintended consequences.
Farming, gardening, house building and transport infrastructure – to name just four of many possibilities – are all loaded with ecological consequences and ethical choices. Even a visit to a National Trust attraction involves ethical choices. The earth is a place for moral grown-ups; or at least it is if we want to save our place in it. Occasionally, on my bleaker days, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to leave it to the plants and animals who got here first; but usually I just think – better get on with it then.
This is the very first melon we’ve ever grown – largely – I should say, on account of the new polytunnel with its controllable warm environment in an unpredictable year. The packet of six seeds didn’t leave much room for failure but after a kick start in a warm propagator we choose the three most healthy looking plants and put them in at the end of the the tunnel nearest the door. We saw the variety recommended by a number of gardeners – most of them North American – but there was no problem getting seeds in the UK. We knew they’d be – well – midgets (the one in the photo is no more than 3″ across) and we had no great expectation of getting a crop at our first attempt but they’ve done well and this evening we had our first taste. The melon was fragrant; sweet, and with a flavour that’s so good it’s hard to describe. We’ve only allowed three fruits per plant to develop so it’s not going to be a feast – but wow. In Plato’s way of looking at it, we’d inadvertently eaten the actual melon of which all other melons are shadows on the wall. The ur melon. On our table and in our mouths. I must stop writing before I get creepy about it!
It’s a shame that Yotam Ottolenghi has used the title “Plenty” for his book because that’s exactly the word I’d most like to use of the allotment at the moment. Late July and August are always peculiar months because the spring crops have all been cleared and the first flush of growth is looking tired. There’s a slightly blown feeling at this time of year. For a start both weeds and pests present a big problem. Once the asparagus is harvested we have to constantly watch the growing fronds to keep them clear of the beetles – finger and thumb style I’m afraid. The bindweed becomes almost impossible wherever it’s managed to put out a few leaves in the previous weeks, and the first batch of flowers and flowering herbs need cutting back ruthlessly to encourage them to flower again. Fruit trees look a bit unkempt before their summer pruning and it’s easy to get fed up.
But on the plus side there are tomatoes and cucumbers in abundance and more runner beans than we can eat so the possibility of a pickling and chutney binge hoves into view. Piccalilli is a favourite with us. It gets used as a Christmas present for the boys, and it’s terribly handy for making surpluses last into winter. Green tomatoes and beetroots all get turned into relishes and chutneys, and cucumbers are pickled. Chillies are dried, with tomatoes and the tomatoes are also turned into sauces and stock jars to be added wherever the need arises later on. At this time of the year half the time is spent in the kitchen and the danger is that we don’t get to eat our own vegetables because we’re too busy or too tired. Even fermenting gets a bash although Madame often eyes the jars suspiciously – especially when ectoplasmic layers develop on the surface. I just think it’s a cultural thing. Most year we are plagued by a superabundance of courgettes but on the site as a whole the yields are poor this year. On the other hand we’ve harvested some lovely big aubergines.
But one of the big problems comes when a crop like red cabbage does especially well; because you get far too much to cope with. Luckily we have a scheme on the site to share surpluses with a local charity. Allotment sites are a bit like villages. They can be alarmingly insular and gossipy, but an awful lot of sharing and helping out goes on. Seeds, experience, tools and advice are shared and when we ask a neighbour to water the tunnel if we’re away then we can return the favour at another time – which reminds me there’s a loofah plant in the greenhouse that we were given and against the odds it’s thriving in a tiny pot but desperately needs a bigger berth.
But all work and no play etc. is a poor strategy so we’ve been taking advantage of any spare hours to go walking. Today we took a long loop around Batheaston and Bathampton following the river and the canal. On the road leading towards the George (good pub) I took three photographs within a couple of hundred yards as we crossed the bypass, the main railway line and the Kennet and Avon Canal. Here they are – three hundred years of history in a quarter of a mile. I forbear to mention the climate situation just this once except to mention that a goods train passed us pulling forty five large lorry containers; taking thousands of tons of freight off our polluted roads. Anyway; no lecture tonight – just the photo. You can draw your own conclusions.
But one other observation. It can’t be a surprise to learn that I love the wildflowers on the river and canalside. The succession is fascinating. Hedge Parsley gives way to hogweed and hemlock water dropwort in wet places too. But today there were the wonderful purple stalks of wild angelica as well. The balsams were in flower too – pestilential though they may be. And the trees have a particular density and sound that marks out the season quite as well as any picture. When it rains on trees in full leaf there’s a powerfully evocative smell and sound that doesn’t appear at any other time. If you were blindfold you’d know that only in summer that fleeting sound defines the season absolutely. As we walked through Bath today I spotted this house – the remains of a whole terrace that slipped down the hill with many casualties long ago. It was the density of the trees around it that reminded me of the rain sound.
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.
To be honest, the last several days of silence on the blog are best accounted for by the feeling that I might be inhabiting a parallel dystopian universe where words have ceased to have any meaning at all – or at any rate they can mean anything you want them to mean. Even a simple blog like this one, about being human; growing things; cooking them; sharing them and struggling to find the Tao – has to use the selfsame words that make up the lies and distortions promoted by politicians and the dark money that keeps them in luxury. So in order to harness a simple idea like freedom, I need to pick the word up with a long stick and boil it in bleach for a couple of hours just to get the contamination off.
I don’t want to go on too much but when Bayer promote their new form of Roundup as being “glyphosate free” – they seem rather coy about admitting that the principal active ingredient is now vinegar, which you can buy at a fraction of the price at your local supermarket and, like its carcinogenic namesake, doesn’t kill pernicious perennial weeds either. Just for the record there is no evidence that the Potwell Inn tomatoes have any trace whatever of kryptonite and they are 100% natural. As it happens, most deadly nightshade berries are 100% natural and organic so that’s nice. “There is no evidence” is a favourite weapon of the lobbyists who spend billions making sure that the gathering of any evidence (especially the damaging kind) is discouraged.
This week the sun has, at last, started to shine again and through the wonders of AI my phone has started to taunt me with photographs of previous adventures in Europe (remember that?). So as we toted watering cans around the allotment my mind was driving down to southeast France where farmers seem to down tools in July and spend the next two months getting drunk and chasing bulls around the streets. I was so overwhelmed by memories of our visits to Uzès that I felt compelled to go out and buy a Panama hat, shake the moths out of my linen suit and drag Madame on a five mike walk around Bath pretending to be tourists. I’ve always resisted the Panama but as I approach 75 I think I’ve earned the right to be as silly as I like; and so I’ve shaved my designer stubble off and I’m growing my hair back until I can’t stand it any more. Sadly my attempt to provoke the neighbours on the allotment resulted in a single response – “you look very summery today”.
As we sweated it out with the watering yesterday morning, I realized that growing even a small proportion of our food demands a great deal of commitment. When we watch celebrity gardeners on TV, gliding effortlessly between rows of designer veg it doesn’t really convey the backache that hand weeding gives us (it works better than overpriced vinegar by the way), and it misses out the hours we spend constructing and dismantling windbreaks; clearing snow, digging emergency drains, turning compost and humping things like planks and paving stones around. The TV pundits never mention their failed crops and the incredible surpluses that courgette plants produce every year. Neither do they explain how they manage their impressive gardens without small armies of unpaid interns and helpers. I’ve tried telling the allotment that I’d like a couple of weeks off (I mean for a rest, not for making a new TV series) but it appears not to understand. Far from being a kind of restful interlude, it’s this time of year that harvesting and freezing soft fruit takes over, while the abundance of other crops means I’m constantly wondering what can be preserved and what needs to be cooked right now. The upside, of course, is that we can eat the freshest conceivable vegetables, bursting with flavour and goodness – no I mean really bursting – not the kind of PR bursting with flavour that refers to flaccid and exhausted, intensively grown lettuces driven a thousand miles from their impoverished lives under plastic.
As the photo shows we’ve also started harvesting the calendula flowers and drying them in the sun before extracting a golden essence from them in almond oil. Calendula cream really works and it’s so easy to make it’s plain daft to spend a fortune on tiny tubes of the stuff.
The trail cam has been a blessing, and we’re getting a much better idea of our many visitors, including a couple of different foxes, rats, magpies and a ginger cat who turns out to be a lethal predator of birds. I’ll put some shots up as soon as I’ve found a video editing application that allows me to do simple things without being inundated with ads. One of the unexpected outcomes of our move towards wildlife friendly gardening has been a loss of control – which has turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse. The wild plants and animals can’t be divided any more into friends and foes. We’re trying to leave things alone when unexpected volunteers pop up; so the carefully planned crops sometimes have to share their space with an interesting looking “weed”.
Some of the night shots from the trail cam show the presence of hundreds of small moths which it would be fun to identify, except it would be difficult to install a light trap that didn’t draw attention to itself – making it vulnerable to theft. We solved the problem with the trail cam by mounting it inside a padlocked steel box, and although it’s set almost at ground level we can often identify the human visitors to the allotment from their shoes!
Anyways here’s a short video of one visitor you’ll certainly recognise!
Sorry to use the same photo twice, but as I was making our second batch of elderflower cordial last night I was having a think about the way our prior understanding frames our perception of nature. The tree from which we harvested all our elderflowers this week, is an ornamental cultivar – that’s to say it’s got an extra name; not just Sambucus nigra but Sambucus Nigra “Guincho Purple”; which makes it – let’s be frank – not wild. Strangely in some circles the appellation “wild” confers an extra patina of grace. The tree is extraordinarily beautiful; so much so that one day when I was up at the allotment working I came across a fashion photographer plus assistants surrounding a model clad in the most expensive clothes including a purple leather coat that exactly reflected the colour of the flowers. As I passed the team of a dozen or so people, they parted to let me through and someone asked me in a faintly imperious (lord of the manor to peasant) tone, whether there were any lavatories on the allotments. “No” – I said – but offered the loan of a bucket if the need should be urgent. My offer was not taken up.
So – wild being necessarily good; does the fact that we picked our elderflowers from this effete suburban tree make the resulting cordial taste less authentic? Don’t be silly – it tastes every bit as good and looks superb in sparkling water and I’m planning to make an exotic dessert using the cordial, some prosecco and a couple of leaves of gelatine.
“Wild” and “cultivated” have become a bit of a battleground recently. Wild salmon, for instance, might well be wild in one sense, but if they’re unsustainably fished by industrial trawlers they might not be such a good thing. Almost every vegetable we grow is a cultivar of some sort; carefully cross bred to achieve a particular style of plant. Brussels sprouts for instance have had much of their traditional bitterness bred out of them. But there is one sense in which the closer a vegetable is to its origin, the more robust it’s likely to be. Robust, but not necessarily high yielding. The devil is always in the detail.
I once worked in a satellite radio station back in the wild west days, and over the mixing desk was a large notice saying – “In the event of equipment failure please RTFM”. I asked one of the technical people what it meant and he responded (I’ll paraphrase) -“Read the manual”. I guess it’s our ultimate responsibility to pay attention to the details and make a decision based on the fullest possible information. My much missed friend Don Streatfield always refused to label his honey as “organic” on the grounds that bees foraged wide and far and there was no way you could guarantee that they hadn’t been feeding on chemically treated flowers. The price premium – for him – didn’t justify a barefaced lie.
If I were to describe our elderflower cordial as ‘natural’ I’d be wondering if beet sugar – which I used because I couldn’t find any cane sugar – is as ‘natural as any other. Beet sugar is, after all, produced here but cane sugar has to be shipped around the world. It’s no wonder we throw up our hands and take the easiest course of action.
The glorious aspect of detail comes from a different perspective. Sitting on my desk is a small microscope and pretty well wherever I go I take a hand lens. Passing a very ordinary looking weed and stopping to look more closely often reveals a wonderland of unseen insects and inner structures of breathtaking complexity and beauty. Close attention to details – and especially in reading, close attention to the text – is a marvellous way of getting to know things we don’t understand. Who’d have thought, for instance, that growing wildflowers and digging a pond on the allotment would introduce a whole range of pests I’ve never seen before. In the photograph is the grub of an iris sawfly. We never had any such thing until we dug the pond and planted irises around the edge and now we do. We left them there, of course, because hopefully they’ll provide a meal for a hungry predator.
Another surprise came yesterday as we walked along the river. I was looking at a patch of brambles and wondering if it was going to be a good year for blackberries, when I spotted a leaf that looked completely wrong. Following the peculiar leaf back to the stem I discovered the most blackberry looking prickles you could hope for. So a quick search told me that this was a close relative of the blackberry – not a native so probably a garden escape – known in the US as a dewberry. A new plant I/D for no better reason than paying close attention to a weedy wall in an industrial area of Bath.
Hen party season is back with a vengeance here. Walking down the river a noisy boatload of bride plus friends were enjoying a male striptease dancer, cavorting in a thong on the deck. Two boat dwellers in a total drunken pickle were attempting to swim in the river so the police and an ambulance had been called out. Back home we settled for a sandwich because we were too tired to eat, and looking out we saw four addicts scoring and then injecting themselves – just across from the Potwell Inn. Then one of them lifted up his shirt and another knelt in front of him and tenderly injected whatever it was straight into his belly. Life’s rich tapestry you might say. These young men weren’t disturbing anyone while they destroyed their own lives; but they aren’t getting the help and support they need either.
People ask where we live sometimes and we say “Bath”. “Oh – Baath!” they say, imputing a social class far above where we live. They don’t know the half of it. After a noisy and vitriolic battle to reduce traffic in the city because of our illegal pollution levels, a much weakened Clean Air Zone was introduced a few months ago, pretty well confining its ambitions to pedestrianising the most popular tourist areas. The car lobby had worked day and night to win exemptions for all and sundry and so when the first set of traffic data was released last week we discovered that our traffic had decreased by just about 1%. The devil was in the detail as always, and I guess the majority of readers barely pushed past the triumphalist headline. One of the leading lights of the campaign to cut pollution has been sidelined by her party and has now resigned and joined the Greens. The last thing I want to do is alarm anybody, but is there a hole in the hull of this magnificent ship of state?
Walking down to the sea today with the sun on our necks I experienced what John Betjeman once said of walking the River Kennet – “the glory was in me”. I find that phrase greatly moving in the way it situates the glory within rather than outside and apart from us like something that might be measured and described but never gulped down in great draughts. We come here, (I come here at least), for the plants. In the spring and early summer these western coastal fringes are a feast of botanical delights. In past walks I’ve listed well over 70 plants in flower, barely leaving the ten miles of local coastal path. When we arrived, until Saturday evening, we were enveloped in mist and cloud with the temperature sulking at around 13C. Then the sky finally cleared and the sun came out and the restrained hedgerows burst into flame.
Let’s be clear, I’m still – relatively speaking – a botanical novice on a mission to name the plants and animals I encounter. I hesitate to resort to biblical stories for fear of turning people off, and I’m not very religious myself, but I always loved the one of the two alternative creation stories in the Old Testament in which Adam is given the task of naming the creatures. Homo Sapiens – the thinking animal is only a (relatively unimportant) part of the story. Being human is, or should be, as much about naming and befriending the manifestations of creation as it is about categorising, weighing and measuring them. There’s something fundamental in the business of knowing names because it reaches out and creates a bond, a state of interdependence between the participants. We are mutually beholden – because we have put the work in, or in that unlovely management phrase – we’ve got skin in the game. Once we were strangers, but now after a time of intense regard and thoughtfulness we are on first name terms because we are all scions of the same root (and I’ll come back to that point in a moment).
Of course, that degree of plant scrutiny while you’re walking to the Co-op to buy a pint of milk would be inappropriate, which means that when – at last – we’re allowed out to do some serious plant hunting, a change of gear is called for. We’re a bit rusty, and walking with attention needs practice – that’s all getting your eye in means. Five years ago, when I made the utterly hubristic resolution not to walk past anything I couldn’t name, I quickly realized that in spite of a lifelong interest in wildlife, I hardly knew a thing – I was still really at the buttercups and daisies stage.
I suppose it will seem a bit strange to a thoroughgoing materialist but the plants have always been as much a spiritual quest as they are about ticking of boxes, and so, to pick up that earlier thread, I want to throw a brick into the water. “In the beginning” says St John, “was the Word” – the Logos.
Marvellous I always thought, until John spoiled everything by attempting to restart the whole creation from metaphysical ground zero. Gary Snyder, in the final essay in “The Practice of the Wild” – “Survival and Sacrament”, refers to the Easter Liturgy – the great sequence of songs and readings rehearsing the history of humanity. For me it was always the greatest of all the liturgies; to sing in plainsong a melody and words that were always almost unbearably powerful – so powerful I had to rehearse for an hour on my own to get beyond the tears.
But there was one flaw, and that was the attempt to restart the story at the beginning of the Christian era and erase the millennia, even geological ages that went before. Whether it should be the first verses of Genesis or the first verses of John’s Gospel that comes before all the other readings and psalms I’ll leave to the theologians. I am sure, however, that they both belong at the beginning of the liturgy. I have preached a thousand times that when God speaks, things happen. From the Big Bang to the construction of the large Hadron Collider and from the first slime mould to the emergence of distinctively human life we are all spoken. The horror of the separation – the true original sin, if you like, came on the day we decided that the story was all about us and that the rest of creation was there to service our greed.
So to get back to the plants, it seems to me that the whole of nature amounts to the speech of God, of the Dao or the Great Spirit – it doesn’t matter about the name; maybe Judaism is right, it can and never should be uttered. But the earth and all living things and all inanimate things like water and mountains are spoken out of that primordial moment, and because all of the ten thousand things are ‘spoken’ it makes perfect sense to me that the plants, being some form of ineffable language; speak – as do the mountains and the seas and all the living creatures of which we are just one. The mountains speak ‘mountainish’ and the seas speak ‘sea-ish’ and the plants, obviously, speak plantish, and I’m just struggling to learn plantish – it’s very beautiful.
And so the walking becomes a meditation punctuated by greetings – “Hi sheepsbit!” I say in my head, or perhaps in my heart, and the sheepsbit somehow acknowledges me. “Hello bladder campion” “Hello silverweed” and, on a good day – “hello dodder – haven’t seen you in a while”. The English stonecrop positively glows at me in pale pink and, just as I’m pausing to speak, a ring ouzel slips away flying low. I’ve only seen them twice and first time I was so surprised I emailed the County Recorder to ask if I was seeing things. Today I was completely confident.
Often I make lists but when I do I write the english names in first, because the names in themselves make a kind of poem or song about the past – ploughmans’ spikenard, dyers’ greenweed, woundwort, restharrow. To lose any one of these common and relatively insignificant friends would be a tragedy. What if, one day we came here and walked as we always do down towards the bus stop and the marshy ground at Pwll Trefeiddan and there were no southern marsh orchids, no ragged robin, no flag irises and none of the broad bodied chasers and damselflies who live there, glinting azure blues and reds. That’s the thing about naming and befriending; about beholding even the most common and inconspicuous fellow beings. They matter, not just as ticks on a list but as memories, precious moments, explosive little revelations.
And it goes further than names because so many of the plants have been useful to humans in some way. We eat them, grow them and forage for them. Historically they’ve been the cure for many of the simple disorders and afflictions we suffer from – yesterday, for instance, growing in the wall of St Non’s Well was a clump of pellitory of the wall – traditionally used to treat urinary complaints. Knowing the properties of plants adds a whole new depth of meaning and relationship, and it’s the erosion of our relationship with plants. with the whole natural world that has allowed us to become careless of the environment. I don’t in my heart believe that anger and demonstrations will achieve what can only be done by reconnection. The earth will be safe only when enough of us get our eye in.
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.
Although I’m bound to say that we’ll be pleased when this endless, wet renegade October spring finishes – hopefully some time mid week. A couple of weeks ago one of our sons was remarking how short the cow parsley was – half its usual height at this time of year, but now it’s properly caught up and looking lovely. This old horse chestnut tree has an unusually large foot, I think, because it’s perched on the raised bank of the towpath next to the river on one side and the Green on the other. We don’t have that many hedges in the centre of Bath, but what we do have is an abundance of paths and their verges alongside the river, and they never look better than they do right now.
But there’s a conundrum here. Hedgerows have their own built-in supporters clubs but verges? Ironically, the local council have designated the edge of the Green as part of a wildlife corridor, so on the other side of the tree in the photo is (at last) a wide unmown verge. It’s taken several years to convince the tractor drivers that these weeds are allowed to stand, especially when the same department sends out the spray gang every spring to ensure that their less fortunate kin are given a good dose of glyphosate. The pavement outside our block was just beginning to fill with plants when they were felled by the sprayer. We’d actually thought of taking up the challenge of naming them all with chalk, on the pavement after very successful trials of the idea in Oxford and London; but the neighbours would probably get up a petition to get us banged up for criminal damage.
The contrast between the wild areas and the ones the council maintains is painful to behold. One of our very favourite walks takes us along the river between the bus station, the railway station and the entrance to the Kennet and Avon canal. It’s not the most salubrious path in the city. The railings under the railway bridge are encrusted with a thick layer of pigeon guano and there’s a good deal of broken glass, abandoned bottles and cans. Alongside are some of the shabbiest boats in the fleet; the leaking superstructures covered with improvised tarpaulins. On the far side of the river are the backs – the bits of the city that we don’t advertise; the bus station doesn’t have the same glass panelled appeal at the back – (there’s not that much at the front either!). Brunel’s architectural ambition didn’t stretch to the back entrance to Bath Spa station either, and the sounds and smells that drift across from the far side are inclined towards diesel and burgers, accompanied by extractor fans that never seem to go quiet . It’s a path used more by commuting cyclists and locals. Further along the river approaching Pulteney bridge it gets better once you’ve got past the Royal Mail sorting office.
For me the great redeeming feature of that section of the path is the weeds. Many of the photos I’ve posted on this website were taken there. It was there I learned to sort out the ragworts; there I fell upon a group of greater celandines with real pleasure; there the usual suspects like willowherb which is a more diverse family than I ever knew. There’s nothing of any interest to a box ticking collector; but at this time of the year the gloomy path is normally illuminated by splashes of bright colour and a seminar’s worth of leaf shapes if you’re into the naming of plants. However, by the curious logic of the council, these plants are weeds, and have therefore been sprayed. For goodness’ sake, they’re mostly perennials and early seeders so they’ll be back up again next year probably inducing another spasm of indignation and chemical abuse; some of which treatment will drain immediately into the river – or water supply as it’s known in other places!
I’m interested in this human capacity to reduce so much of the natural world to the status of pest and weed, while simultaneously revering nature, except manifestations where it interferes with our pleasures, appetites or profits. If you’re a cinnabar moth you don’t spend all day flitting from ghost orchid to ghost orchid – what gets you going is ragwort. Moths like weeds and bats eat moths, so killing weeds disrupts a whole food chain. Red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady and comma butterflies all prefer to feed on nettles rather than red list rarities. In fact many of our most threatened species of butterfly and moth like feeding on what we choose to call weeds, growing in environments that we like to think are ideal sites for building people-warehouses – and irony of all ironies, this patch of neglected and chemically blasted tarmac could be a tributary of a much advertised “wildlife corridor” running from East to West through the city. There are otters swimming less than half a mile downstream and herons are two a penny. Why has nature got to be tidy? The worst these weeds could do is brush against your legs and for large parts of the year they virtually disappear. Are we going to erect a large illuminated sign advertising that wildlife should cross the river at the sorting office and fly across the shopping centre in the direction of Royal Crescent and Victoria Park in order to rejoin the corridor just after the Territorial Army centre?
This is one of the terrible effects of a culture that separates us entirely from anything except the human – and precious few of them too! Growing our own food, or even a small part of it, teaches us very quickly that we’re a part of nature. Recent discoveries have deepened our understanding of how intensely related we are to the natural world, and how, by failing to acknowledge our dependence on nature as part of us – and ourselves as a part of nature; we are rapidly destroying trillions of tiny threads that – like invisible circuitry – keep the show on the road.
The language of science and the culture of materialism have enabled us to do with the earth pretty much anything we please. Except that by thinking that knowledge always trumps wisdom, we’ve spent a couple of centuries behaving like a teenager given a powerful motorcycle. It won’t end well. Our imaginary teenager will protest that they’ve never yet had an accident; that they’re having the best fun ever and motorcycling is a human right. But the metaphor breaks down at the funeral because there may not be any mourners left to say what a great person they were and how they lit up the room with their personality.
Here are some bits of the Bath earth that were neglected this spring. Thank goodness – left to right the towpath, the Potwell Inn kitchen and the allotment.
So these two photos are taken in different years and from opposite ends of the allotment; the first photo shows what the plot looked like at the weekend – it’s the same photo I used yesterday – and the other was taken on the day (in April 2016) when we took on the first half plot, just shy of five years ago. Having endured for 25 years a 1/3 acre garden that we never had time to garden properly because we were both in more than full time work, I always used to say that I’d like to retire to a flat in a tower block with no more than a single window box to maintain. Madame on the other hand was the real gardener – RHS trained and all that. My only horticultural training was as a groundsman (I checked just now and it seems that non discriminatory job titles like ‘groundskeeper’ or ‘groundsperson’ have not penetrated the arcane world of killing everything except proper grass – i.e. the kind you can play manly games on!).
We had always gardened over the years, with a big garden while we were at art school; a couple of allotments and various backyards and plots that occasionally rewarded and always absorbed us, but Madame would not be diverted from her ambition to create a proper allotment after we retired. We joined the waiting list the moment we knew where we were going to live, and I remember standing in a Bristol bookshop with two books on allotmenteering which were my way of backing down without actually saying so.
As always she was right and I have never been so wrong in my life. My dispiriting experience of not having time to garden very well was overwhelmed the first time we stood there in the corner of the plot with our newly signed agreement, and I realized that for the very first time we had genuine agency over a piece of land, and crucially, abundant time to tend it properly. No-one could lean over the garden wall and make snarky remarks like “another day off vicar?” The right hand photo at the top is taken from the spot where I first stuck a spade into the ground and fell in love all over again with the smell of the earth, and just above, here, is the very first thing we grew – a radish.
We had learned the hard way that trying to manage too large a plot of land is a recipe for disappointment and failure. Pests and diseases would take hold before we had time to notice; and my timesaving wheeze of rotavating the plot to clear it quickly merely distributed the bindweed, couch grass and brambles across the whole plot. The greatest mistake of all was to import a tractor load of horse manure infested with creeping buttercup roots. Our best efforts thereafter were confined to fighting a guerilla war with the weeds. There were a few successes and we gained the resilience to survive the inevitable failures and disappointments but I could never shake off the thought of the tepid testimonial – “Could do better“. One year we even freakishly won six classes in the village flower and veg show and for the next twelve months we had a small gilded plastic cup on the dresser with the prize cards behind it – but I always felt that we’d be exposed as frauds. The village stalwarts at the show made their feelings clear by rewarding us with lukewarm applause.
Time, energy, experience and opportunity have made all the difference, especially during the three lockdowns – actually in our case it’s been one long one. I’ve often said that the argument that gardening is good for the soul and good for mental health has been a bit over-egged these past months. In fact I think that the one thing gardening is supremely good at is teaching us a form of radical patience and relieving us of any illusions that we can control nature. It’s that sense of being able to take a step back from endlessly patrolling the ramparts that nurtures us. Faith in nature is free but not cheap; a kind of non dogmatic Taoism that gives us courage to bend to the will of the earth. This morning we stood and watched as a female blackbird searched the margin between the gravel boards and the wood chip path, removing a feast (for her) of slugs and eggs – no chemicals, no traps. Gardening is less like being the conductor, and much more like sitting in the third strings of a symphony orchestra counting the beats and waiting for your turn to play just a couple of notes.
And so we’re hovering on the edge of the new season – all prepped and ready to go. The beds are clear and composted, the greenhouse cleaned and already housing the hardy early birds and the polytunnel is ready. Of course, we’re never truly prepared because only time will tell what the seasons and the climate will throw at us this coming year. It looks as if the hungry gap will at least be covered by plentiful brassicas in their second season and we are looking forward (no – I am looking forward) – to learning an entirely new gardening language because, with our rapidly changing unpredictable climate, the more strategies we have learned the more resilient we shall be. The aim – as ever – is to put something good on the Potwell Inn plates every day of the year. Our parents and grandparents were all gardeners like us and I often think of my grandfather who was drafted into the Air Force during the First World War because he was a carpenter whose skills were needed to build the wooden frames of aeroplanes! It was on his smallholding in the Chilterns that my sister and I first met Charlie the toad who lived in the greenhouse, and watched as hay was cut and stooked in the field. Something is nagging me at the back of my mind that suggests we might soon be having to re-learn some of the skills he celebrated through his hands; and if not his skills, then possibly the skills of countless other gardeners, farmers and smallholders in different ages and cultures who may have something important to teach us as the oil runs out.