Freed from watering the outside allotment by some decent rain last night we lingered in bed reading, watered the greenhouse and polytunnel, shot down to the supermarket to get canned food for the campervan stores and then off to Dyrham Park in search of orchids. It’s been a difficult drought season, demanding all our effort to keep the young plants alive. Apparently the tomatoes don’t set fruit when the temperature rises above 27C, although we’ve not found a big difference so far. It’s a mad year when we have almost ready aubergines and courgettes in the tunnel but the outdoor broad beans have been decimated by blackfly due to the unaccountable absence of their usual predators – almost certainly down to heavy mortality among them in the cold wet early spring. In particular, ladybirds have been noticeably absent. We’ve been spraying with a neem oil and soap mix with limited success on the broad beans, but with a slightly better result on the asparagus which is being attacked by asparagus beetles. Neem oil is certified for organic use but it really stinks and is unpleasant to spray. It also tends to clog the sprayer so it’s far from ideal. Our conclusion is to revert to sowing Aquadulce Claudia beans in October, plant them out in early November and then protect them from strong winds and prolonged frosts. They usually look a mess in early spring but they tiller freely and give a good early crop when there’s almost nothing else to eat.
So once we arrived in the park we very slowly searched all the familiar places for orchids. We didn’t have to look far for Pyramidal orchids – Anacamptis pyramidalis – there were hundreds of them, smaller but substantial numbers of Common Spotted – Dactylorhiza fuchsii , some of them very pale, and just a single Bee orchid – Ophryis apifera – far fewer than last year.
Orchids are lovely of course but with a dozen or so Marbled White butterflies moving about the meadow with several other species it was a close thing which was more exciting.
But I’m not afraid to say that I was enchanted by finding some Cock’s-foot grass in full flower and looking like a beauty at the prom, decked in white. On this poor limestone rich meadow, this bully of a grass had been reduced to playing second fiddle to the wildflowers. The whole meadow was alive with Oxeye Daisies, which looked tremendous; but the absolute star of the show was the seed head of Tragopogon pratensis – Goats Beard – whose mind blowing architecture made me shout out for joy.
Below this, at the bottom there are three photos of orchids we found today at Whitefield and one of them is in the wider view above. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, as we approach the summer solstice we’re often awake really early, and so we do as much as we can on the allotment before breakfast and the we have the rest of the day to walk and look for wildflowers. We had spotted the Pyramidal Orchids and another one that I misidentified as Early Purple – they were Common Spotted – for which correction I’m indebted to an impulse buy on Monday when I saw the Wild Guide to orchids and decided I couldn’t live without it. It’s a brilliant guide and it’s already slapped me on the wrist a couple of times. So with those two species under our belts we went back today to see if we could find a third Orchid that we knew was there but which we’d never found. Thanks to the book I now know that they don’t flower every year which may help to explain why we haven’t found it until today. So as Madame scanned the field with binoculars and I looked at the path edges she gave a whoop and pointed to a group of Bee Orchids. Three Orchid species in a field within 100 metres of one another makes for a good morning’s plant hunting; and that’s apart from the multitude of other goodies. So without further ado .. from left to right the Pyramidal Orchid, the Bee Orchid, and the common Spotted Orchid. But which one is it in the picture at the top? Go find!
Up at Priddy last week we went for a long walk, introducing our youngest son to some of the sheep droves that make wonderful (and sometimes very lengthy) wildlife walks. We stopped off at the pub – naturally – and feasted on some delicious and very high carb old style pub cooking; but on our way towards it we noticed the field in the photo above that had a recently cut border of something that looked like a red-leaved grain. None of us had any idea what it might be, but there’s a notice up there with the farmer’s phone number on it so next time I’ll make a note of it and ask what it is: desperately hoping that it won’t be some sort of chemical spray.
The soil up there is thin and better suited to sheep farming, so any exposed soil on arable fields always looks impoverished and stony. Several times we’ve spotted small herds of wild deer browsing there. Crossing the fields back from Eastwater Drove to the village green, passing Swildon’s Hole on the way, we encountered a solitary caver walking back along the same path. Many of the fields, although they lack the sheer density of White Field at Dyrham Park, are very rich in wildflowers. What’s interesting is that different species seem to dominate each different environment. As we walked along the Green past the thatched piles of hurdles that are brought out for Priddy Fair every year, we spotted some eggs for sale and bought half a dozen mixed. The next morning I cracked a couple open for breakfast and they sat up beautifully – in perfect condition for poaching.
After this prolonged dry spell our rapidly growing plants need a lot of water, and today we were up at six before the heat got too much for us. This time of year it’s all weeding, watering and waiting on the allotment. We’ll have our first feed of new potatoes and broad beans tonight – that’s one wait I’m glad to end! Weeding is a constant job because we don’t want any of them to set seed or develop stolons or rhizomes. As I was watering I drenched the borders of the pond and a fully grown frog shuffled out of the way. I can’t begin to express how pleased we were to see it. This year none of us have had frog spawn and we were afraid that the disease that’s rampaging through a lot of amphibians had taken them all – but this one looked absolutely fine to me. Yesterday I spotted a hoverfly, one of the handful I can name; Helophilus trivittatus – it doesn’t have an English name. I remember it because its larvae are rat tailed maggots – weird looking creatures with long snorkels.
The best thing about early starts is that we can take longer walks during the day. Yesterday was a ten miler along the river and back down the canal. As we came back into Bath I noticed some Figwort growing at the edge of the path and so I took photos because I don’t recall seeing it there before, and did my best to ID it before emailing the photos to the Vice County Recorder with my suggestion of its identity. I was almost right, but I’d failed to notice two very small details that made it Water Figwort rather than the (less common here) Common Figwort. Anyway, I provided so much detail she was happy to make it a record and I get the credit for noticing it while she gets it for knowing exactly what it was.
Does it matter at all? Is all the voluntary effort to record what most people would regard as weeds actually worthwhile? That’s where the witnessing part of the title comes in. When you walk through a field of chemically supercharged and weed killed Ryegrass it still looks like a field – until you get down on your hands and knees and look more closely and discover there’s nothing there but grass. Yesterday we passed one of our local homeless people with an obvious addiction problem. He was emaciated – bent over and looked as if he might not last a fortnight. I think of these intensively farmed fields as an exact parallel. Whether you’re addicted to crack cocaine or chemical weed and bug killers, you get sicker and sicker and then you die. I try not to dwell on this because it makes me sad; but if we don’t record what’s left now after fifty and more years of intensive farming, then these wonders will slip away and the whole earth will suffer before we wake up one morning and wonder when the last cuckoo was heard, or when the pollinators all died. That’s the witnessing bit. I can’t say whether we’ll succeed but we won’t let up in our mission to record what may one day be lost.
Sadly our backyard is shared with twenty cars. For many decades it was a builders yard and then when the block was built it was levelled and covered in tarmac but – never maintained – it now sustains a small community of absolute diehard plants who make a scant living on the thin accumulated dirt. They change from time to time, and even move around – one patch of slime mould has retreated down the concrete steps and taken up residence next to a clump of Herb Robert which can live on fresh air it seems. You might curl your lip at a blob of gelatinous olive green goo; but I’ve seen reports that it’s capable of being extremely purposeful and has some efficiency at negotiating mazes.
I did once make a list of species and it was in the high twenties; but it seems to change every year. This year we’ve got a splendid collection of Great Lettuce along with its cousin Wall Lettuce. They won’t win any beauty prizes but they’re brilliant for practicing your botanical skills because getting a proper ID demands a good deal of close attention to detail.
The smaller cousin, Wall Lettuce, is doing exactly what it says on the tin and is growing in a narrow crack between the ground and the wall.
However, none of this is going to stimulate much more than a forensic interest in an urban specialist. The fact is – even to my friendly eye – they look a lot like weeds. The only wonder is in the fact that these ugly sisters are related to the lettuces we grow on the allotment. In fact the Latin name of the Great Lettuce –Lactuca Virosa – suggests some kind of toxic properties – maybe they’re soporific? who knows. That’s an experiment I’ll leave to someone else.
Anyway, the real excitement this week came from a visit to Dyrham Park’s White Field – in the photograph at the top. Untouched by modern agrichemicals or ploughing it’s the kind of wildflower meadow that once existed almost everywhere. It was our first visit for three years after Covid rampaged across the country. The field is cut for hay at the end of the month – I bet it smells heavenly – and if I use the word awesome I mean it precisely in a way that trespasses into the territory of the spiritual. Our main target was the Bee Orchid, but sadly we didn’t find any. However within fifty yards of walking into the field we found Early Purple and Pyramidal Orchids – they were everywhere. I’ll put some photos below this – I’ve been avoiding using Latin names because Madame reproached me for rehearsing them as we walked through the dense flowers. I love the English plant names for their poetry and history but I’m afraid Latin is the way to go if you’re trying to ID something. I’ve got a book on English plant names by Geoffrey Grigson and when you look at the number of plants that share the same English name you soon realize that wildflower lovers from two adjoining counties might use the same name for totally different plants.
So among the plants we soon noticed was one known in English as Jack go to bed at noon, or Goatbeard. Huge downy heads resembling Dandelions but filmier and even more lovely. Down in the hands and knees zone were Yellow Rattle and Common Broomrape; Purple and White Clovers, Birdsfoot and all the usual suspects. Towering above were drifts of Smooth Hawksbeard and Oxeye Daisies with the seedheads of Ribwort Plantain, Sheep’s Sorrel and Cocksfoot grass. It was a joy to see them bending in waves against the strong wind which was limiting the activities of butterflies. You can often find Marbled Whites there. It’s a shame that despite the nearby car park being almost full, we were completely alone except for a solitary dog walker. It seems that most nature lovers prefer their wildlife mindfulness moments on the telly. Anyway; the photographs convey – to me at least – far more than any words could do.
After a couple of weeks when we spent half our time catching up with old friends face to face – at last – and most of the rest preparing the campervan for a new season; we finally got out for a decent walk today on the Mendips, beginning at Charterhouse and walking down Velvet Bottom and then following the West Mendip way up and along the top of the Longwood valley – passing several nature reserves before completing the circuit back at Charterhouse.
It’s a bit early for any of the flowering plants to show themselves – there are some really quite rare plants up there – but we left the flat thinking about the implications of a recently published paper by Belgian scientists that demonstrated how dogs – and more particularly their faeces and urine – add potentially dangerous amounts of phosphates and nitrates which would be illegal if produced by farms. We’re very used to notices imploring dog owners to keep their animals on leads on farms, and it’s true that some careful owners pick up the poo and dispose of it properly, but the urine stays put. The point is that the finest shows of rare wildflowers need poor soil to flourish – that’s why we sow yellow rattle, a parasitic plant on grasses, on potential wildflower meadows, and remove the hay when they’re cut. The Mendips are rich in these sorts of habitats, and you have to wonder whether the sheer quantities of dog poo alongside and on the tracks, presents a threat to rare plants.
Apart from all that pooch flop (I thank the late Richard Boston for that one!) the absence of flowers focuses the eyes on much smaller targets; the bryophytes – mosses and liverworts and the lichens – none of which I know a great deal about. I did lash out on the ultimate field guide, published by the British Bryological Society a couple of years ago; but it’s so densely packed with identical looking plants, my heart sank and today it still smelt like a new book. We have a couple of real experts in the Bath Nats, and it’s always a pleasure to go on field trips with them, but bryophytes demand a bit of an apprenticeship. I should really try harder because unlike wildflowers, most of them are available for head scratching and book banging the year round. Occasionally the Google Lens app on my phone gives a useful steer for identifying all sorts of plants, but that’s my secret vice! I slipped in the wild thyme on the right because there’s a lot growing here and it’s a food plant, in a complicated sort of way, for the large blue butterfly which has been reintroduced in Somerset. The association is down to the fact that the larva are parasitic on the grubs of a species of red ant that associates with wild thyme. Who knows? the large blue may be breeding here already! The other photos show common polypody on the left, a thick mat of unidentified bryophytes in second place, and a lovely maidenhair spleenwort in third place. Honestly, the walk was brimming with interest
Further walking found a field full of what I think were either pure Lonk sheep or a crossbred variety; perfectly suited to this high country. They looked as if they were all in lamb, but there were a couple of tups still in the field and glowing with a liberal coating of luminous green spray. Later as we walked towards the road down away from Tynings Farm we saw someone making a lovely job of laying a hedge. Further along the way we saw he’d been busy in other places as well. I took several photographs of his work because hedge laying was one of my favourite jobs when I was working as a groundman and it’s a highly skilled and rewarding job; it’s brilliant for wildlife and it could provide work for many people who’d much rather lay hedges than work in call centres! Just to emphasise my point I also photographed a typical stretch of mechanically flailed hedge which offers none of those benefits; looks horrible and barely functions in keeping stock in the right place.
But then, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that if you’re from this part of the UK. It’s a stack of hurdles, used for the annual Priddy Fair and with its own thatched roof. After last week’s overnight stay here, we decided to come back for some more healing magic on the Mendips. A neighbouring allotmenteer has offered to keep an eye on the plot for a couple of days so we hope all will be well when we get back. The reason for being here is that the Potwell Inn bathroom is being refurbished and, since the flat is – shall we say – compact, we thought it was best to leave the builder to it. We shall return (we hope) to a proper walk-in shower which will be easier on the knees than the present daunting arrangements which involve a grade three scramble over the edge of the bath. Not that our need is imminent; today we did a 10K round trip over the fields to Ebbor Gorge and back again via the Queen Victoria where I had a pint – the first after eighteen months of abstinence. It was the first time we’d been to that pub in over fifty years. The last time was a memorable lock-in when the landlord offered us a room if we we wanted to stay. We didn’t.
An air of celebration has followed me around all day because I’d been to hospital for another echocardiogram yesterday morning and the results were good. Any leaking in the heart valves was, in the nurse’s words, ‘trivial’ and no worse than last time. I thanked her warmly and said I’d never been so pleased in my life to be described as trivial. To my great surprise she said she’d never been to Mendip, but she loved Dartmoor. So do I, I said, but Mendip is closer and less crowded.
So what with hospital, going to the supermarket for the first time in over a year (to stock the van), and driving to Priddy, I was tired but exhilarated. Books, hand lenses, camera and all the usual botanical paraphernalia are here with us and I slept for an amazing ten and a half hours. I have no idea why I can sleep so well in the van when I have trouble in getting beyond seven hours at home, and Madame is equally perplexed. But there’s something in the air here – quite literally because we’re camping next to a stable; but I think it’s the quiet. It’s not completely quiet of course, but all the sounds are embedded in a matrix of rare silence: a rookery just down the road, the horses in the nextdoor field, robins, chaffinches and sparrows singing, the wind in the beech trees. Then there’s the dangerously non-pc perfume of wood fires in the early evening. Campsites have their odd moments. When we arrived I left the electric hookup lead unwound on the grass. During the night, a silent and invisibly tidy minded (did I say tidy?) – camper had coiled it neatly. I know who it must have been because opposite us is a caravanner who has a strategically placed bucket painted red and marked “FIRE” behind his van. If I were really cruel I’d pile on the pressure and uncoil it again – or perhaps leave an empty wine bottle on the grass – but I’m so full of happiness at being out amongst the wildflowers again I’ll say hello to him tomorrow and compliment him on the way his socks and sandals match so beautifully.
Up here on high Mendip is probably not the best place for arable farming because the soil is rather thin. It’s better for grazing, but almost all the fields we saw have been “improved” and grazed mostly by sheep – which has had a baleful effect on the wildflowers and grasses. One footpath was speckled with wasted nitrate fertiliser granules which had been sprayed over it by a careless farmer. The soil up here, between 600 and 900 feet above sea level, overlays carboniferous limestone which drains freely into the many cave complexes. We’ve had a couple of field trips up here in the past, and we’ve visited some of the nature reserves that have escaped improvement and the wildflowers in those small protected areas are both marvellous and often rare.
All our sightings today were as common as muck, but not the least unwelcome for it. I had a go at identifying the crop in an arable field from the tillering leaves. It was a trick taught to me by a retired grain salesman called Richard Hiscock and it’s dead simple when you know what you’re looking for. You need to find out what ligules, auricles, sheaths and blades are and then have a proper look at the plant in question. In this case the fact that there were no auricles and it had short ligules so it was a crop of oats – easy peasy!
So here are a few of today’s everyday beauties. Nothing rare, in fact most of the flowers we saw today are ubiquitous, but after a year in lockdown it was like meeting long lost friends. The butterflies too were out and about- again nothing rare, but who could not like the sight of a Brimstone butterfly going about its busyness. At Ebbor Rocks we stood and watched a buzzard using the thermals above the escarpment over Wookey Hole to quarter the ground looking for prey. There were yellow archangel – Lamium galeobdolon; ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea; violet (don’t know which because I left the guide at home but probably sweet violet – Viola odorata; cuckoo flower or lady’s mantle – Cardamine pratensis; and finally the dandelion which – due to its propensity for interbreeding with its cousins, requires a PhD to identify fully and so it enjoys the latin name Taraxacum officinale agg. Dandelion peak season is around St Georges day – April 23rd and that being the case we’ll be keeping a close eye open for some St George’s mushrooms while we’re here. They used to grow in the (grievously unimproved) garden of our previous house.
According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.
In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.
But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.
However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.
Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.
Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.
Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.
The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.
And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.
It’s a concept I’ve always been a bit suspicious of – controlling can be a dangerous addiction for anxious people and yet these last few months of lockdown have revealed a more kindly, almost therapeutic aspect to taking control. This devastatingly unoriginal thought came to me this morning in the kitchen when I was working my way through half a dozen routine jobs and suddenly experienced a ‘flow’ moment while I was straining the kefir.
I guess during the lockdown and the general strangeness that surrounded us, especially at the beginning when we were unable to rely even on essential supplies, routine became comforting. Getting bread on the table, getting our hands on 16 Kg of bread flour, replenishing almost any supplies can go from being full of stress to offering strong reassurance that in spite of everything we’ll get through. In our case a stone heavier because we’ve been eating all that therapeutic bread, and don’t even ask about biscuits. But getting by, being even a little bit in control, is a a small blow against the chaos – a finger in the air against the malign gods of incompetence. All the queuing and bulk buying of toilet rolls and flour turned out to be a proxy battle against something else, even if we never worked out quite what it was.
The picture at the top is of some Lords and Ladies – Arum maculatum, the roots of which were occasionally eaten during famine times when it was known as Portland sago. It’s fairly dodgy stuff that needs careful preparation – roasting and grinding to destroy the irritant sharp needles that, if eaten carelessly could make you very ill. However for me today it was a reminder that we’re in high summer now and there are hints of autumn everywhere.
There is a real sense of sadness that the seasons have passed us by this year, although I’ll be forever grateful that being grounded for several months has forced us to explore locally; and there’s been so much to discover. The allotment has been our saviour of course and we were glad to be working flat out during the spring and early summer. Now, in high summer there’s a bit of a lull and that’s given us the time to resume some longer walks and explore some local delights.
Today, once I’d finished a pile of prepping in the kitchen – bread, kefir, stock – and brining some onion rings for tonight’s panzanella – we went up to Bannerdown in search of butterflies and for me to do some more grasses. Slowly slowly I’m becoming more familiar and realising that giving consideration to the habitat, for instance woodland, unimproved grassland or marshy ground, simplifies things enormously.
I was also using the Panasonic Lumix camera with a 45mm Leica macro lens. Phone cameras are so so good these days that most of the time they’re perfect, but some days, like today, I really want to play with aperture and speed to get effects like bokeh (which is a pretentious way of saying blurred backgrounds). Learning to control exposures and apertures takes a while but it’s always worth the effort. When we were at art school, technique was rather frowned upon – which was why so much poor work was produced. For me the beauty has always been in the detail, and although I do photograph whole landscapes from time to time, they’re usually taken as a scene setter for the detailed view. There are some of today’s pictures below, but there’s one I couldn’t take because even with pretty good kit it’s just too small.
I grew up with false oat grass – it was the one from which you could strip the seeds between your thumb and finger as you walked past – like popping bubble wrap but back in the olden days before it was invented. However, being familiar with something and walking past it every day is not the same as knowing it, and because it ages, ripens and deteriorates during the season it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether the mangled bit of dry straw is false oat or something else. I was examining an aged plant today and I took a very close (x20) look at the awn, it’s the bristle on the outside husk, if you like, of the tiny seed casings and it’s tiny, but so beautiful. It’s a world of arabesques and curlicues from the bend of the hook to the spiral markings at the base it could have been fashioned in gold by a fairy blacksmith. If I can’t get a photo I’ll have to make a drawing from the microscope and put it up. That’s what gets me about nature – it’s so unnecessarily and extravagantly lovely however you look, from telescope to microscope.
The other thing that blew me away today was how loud the insects are when they are working in such a rich environment. On a scale between exhausted industrial grass and irreplaceable pristine meadow, Bannerdown inclines towards the neglected grassland tag. But that’s still rich. I imagine they must cut it regularly or it would become scrub, but the flowers today were wonderful and the bees, flies and other insects were having a wonderful time. Their hum was continuous and generated by thousands of pairs of wings – like a symphony orchestra holding a long ppp note, full of harmonics; lush, fruitful and happy.
There were no wonders among the butterflies but the B Team were all playing. There were common blues, a couple of brimstone, speckled wood, meadow brown and innumerable little brown mothy jobs in the grass. As we left another butterfly spotter was just getting into his car. “Did you see any chalk-hill blues?” – he asked. “No we haven’t – are they around?” “Well I heard a report about one the other day but I haven’t seen any here for years”. Perhaps they should amend the notice board and put a “not available” sign beside it.
Back on the allotment we decided to give up on a group of bush tomatoes that have contracted brown stem rot, so we picked all the remaining green tomatoes – probably five or six pounds of them – and I’ll make chutney with them. The rot is caused by heat and water stress, and made worse by watering on the leaves. We’ve had temperatures going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow; we’ve had hot humid weather, days of intense sunshine and days of heavy rain. It’s enough to cause any plant troubles. With the green tomato crop secure now, we can let the rest of the Crimson Crush ripen on the vines. They’re our mainstay for the winter, and we make many litres of sauce and passata with them. With a bit of pasta and some parmesan, you can make a cracking meal in ten minutes. But tonight it’s going to be panzanella – my favourite tomato salad ever!
If you choose to see it that way, you might say that one of the upsides of the Covid 19 pandemic has been that it’s obliged us to cancel our usual travels and find places much nearer home. With all our favourite walking spots effectively out of bounds, we’ve responded by scouring the area around Bath for wildlife hotspots, the SSSI’s, reserves, and commons – often not much bigger than a few acres but which (we’ve discovered) are incredibly rich and full of things we’ve never seen before. All the while I’ve been lamenting the fact we can’t get into Wales or Cornwall to go plant hunting we’ve been neglecting the local riches. Today was no exception, and we found a few acres of calciferous grassland that hasn’t seen any fertilizer or chemical for best part of 300 years.
But first we had to go to the surgery for our annual MOT’s in which Madame fared better than me because for some reason I had an AF attack as I walked through the door and so – after three goes on one blood pressure monitor and a trip next door to see if a different type of machine would tell a better story, we agreed that the numbers on the dial didn’t look at all right and we would ignore them. That’s the first time I’ve ever suffered from white coat syndrome in my life, and within an hour my pulse and blood pressure were back to normal. I always suspected doctors made you ill and now I’m sure. The poor nurse got quite flustered and this meant her every attempt to calm me down made things much worse. I don’t know which of us felt most exhausted when I walked (carefully) out of the door. Anyway, enough of my cheating heart. Old age doesn’t come alone as my granny used to say, and she was right – there are thousands of us.
So after tea and Dundee cake, which is a sovereign cure for all ills, we drove about 4 miles to Bannerdown Common ostensibly for me to grab a few grass samples to sharpen up my I/D skills, and for Madame to seek out butterflies. Tonight I had to choose between writing and identifying my bag of grasses and I went for writing tonight and identifying tomorrow morning very early before Madame wakes up. There’s something so special about unimproved meadows that once I’d collected a dozen grass species we moved on to wildflowers, butterflies and just revelling in the beauty of it all. Madame came face to face with a roe deer stag and after exchanging surprised looks he darted back into the woodland – it was that kind of place, full of surprises.
I’m sure that there are ecologists who go about their work in methodical silence, but I’m a bit of a noisy so and so, and I’m inclined to do a little excited dance when I spot something interesting. Madame finds this dismaying as a cloud of departing butterflies sometimes accompanies my joyful exclamations. Botany is exciting – no argument! I’m ashamed to admit that I could have learned more plants three times as quickly if we’d taken our bicycles out instead of driving hundreds of miles in the campervan. On the other hand, although I’d kill for an hour at the seaside, I’m certainly not prepared to die for it so we’ll postpone murders and premature deaths until September at the earliest and stay local.
There are a long list of nature reserves within easy distance and with all our field trips cancelled at least until the autumn we’ll do it alone. Meanwhile the allotment has reached overproduction levels and we’ve realized that the intuition in April that three rows of runner beans was too many – was right, and we’re feeding anyone that can light a stove. I’ve made a shopping list of timber to repair and strengthen the water butt stands, and the temperatures look set to reach 30C later this week which will mean we’ll soon be processing tomatoes. Unfortunately a labelling mix-up has put several varieties into a glorious muddle, and today I noticed some wild aubergines growing amongst the cavolo nero. That’s what I love about allotments; for all the planning in the winter, by the time it gets to July the plot has its own momentum and we become followers, curious to know what will show up next.
I’ve been passing a very rainy day reading David Goode’s book “Nature in towns and cities” and comparing it with George Peterken’s monograph “Meadows” – both superb books but dealing with the alpha and omega of the botanical world. There’s nothing I like more than a bit of ‘proper’ nature, you know the whole Marlborough Downs and fifty exceptionally rare downland species to hunt for – kind of experience, and I’m not knocking it but it feels a bit too special. Anything less than a pair of Swarovskis round your neck and you feel a bit underdressed, and the worshippers (is that what you call them?) can be a bit clanny if you’re too obviously out of your depth.
Or is it just familiarity with the other kind of landscape that makes me feel more at home? It’s not that we kept coal in the bath or that my mother thought books were untidy and my brother killed the budgie out of spite, but I’ve said before I’m hefted and my familiar landscape is post war and post industrial. Apart from the beechwoods that surrounded my grandparents smallholding in the Chilterns, I never had much contact with posh wild. My familiar landscape was old mines and brickworks, claypits, dramways and railway lines; and so the flowers I knew and loved were things like buddleia, willowherb and ragwort. We collected sticklebacks and newts in the local ponds and cinnabar moth caterpillars from the bombed houses up the street. Even my most treasured wild places on Mendip are places like Charterhouse and Velvet Bottom where adders warm themselves on the remains of Roman lead mines. ‘Gruffy ground’ they call it.
I played in the flues of the old brickworks, trespassed with my friend Eddie as we followed the abandoned dramway across fields and barbed wire fences and played games of dare near the mineshaft at Shortwood. Wall barley seed heads, cleavers and burdocks were useful resources for games rather than objects of contemplation. We brewed ‘wine’ over campfires with elderberries in tin cans, and nicked apples from an abandoned orchard up the road. We ate ‘bread and cheese’ which was the local name for the young hawthorn leaves.
So David Goode’s book seems more familiar. It’s a kind of psychogeography of my childhood whereas George Peterken’s is full of beauty and longing, almost melancholic for a lost world that – apart from haymaking as a child – I never experienced. My heart sings when we explore old wildflower meadows, but they don’t feel like “home” to me.
And what riches there are. Since we moved to Bath from what I used to call ‘suburbia with fields’ I’ve been blown away by plants I’ve never seen before that grow freely here. One of the biggest takeaway points of the book is the huge ecological richness of these post industrial and often inner city reserves and abandoned places. For instance the 24 species of plants in our small tarmac car park outside.
But this raises all sorts of issues to do with the environmental challenges we’re facing. We want, for instance, to stop building on agricultural land and use so-called brownfield sites which can involve the destruction of hugely important wildlife environments. We want to minimise car journeys and get people living nearer to their jobs, but how do we balance that with the preservation of green spaces? Simply to preserve the tidy parks and gardens and to build on the rest would involve a huge loss of habitat. Here in Bath we know only too well that mixing cars, pedestrians and cyclists is a constant source of aggression and a good deal of danger.
Sadly the default appreciation of the natural world that springs from so many excellent TV programmes stresses the exotic at the expense of the everyday. I’ve not yet seen a programme entitled “The wonder of weeds” and there’s the problem. If we unconsciously divide the natural world into cuddly animals and then wasps, spiders and scary things it’s all too obvious which species we would sooner lose forever. Same goes for ‘flowers’ and ‘weeds’. Even the hedge bindweeds – ‘devils guts’ to the gardener are plants of great beauty (and cunning) when you look closely.
When property developers want to build they always stress community amenities, schools, health centres and shops but rarely actually build them, pleading that they would make the site unprofitable. So too they stress the need for affordable housing that all too often is abandoned once planning permission is granted. In fact the reason for the chronic shortage of housing is an artificially inflated market that relies on shortage to drive up profits. In a city like Bath the reason for homelessness is nothing to do with a battle with sentimental environmentalists holding back progress and everything to do with greedy developers focusing on the most profitable (ie most expensive) sectors.
We need to broaden the focus on green field environmental improvements and learn to treasure some of the real – if rather unattractive – environmental hotspots on old industrial sites. Bats and birds rather care for a bit of a mess, derelict buildings and fences to keep cats and dogs out. Even orchids thrive on some of these sites and it would be hideously misjudged to sacrifice them in favour of spec built and crazily expensive riverside apartments, for example. The ones we got here look like Russian bonded warehouses!
This can only happen if we teach our children to recognise and treasure the simplest and roughest and most common things and not just the cuddly and rare. They hardly allowed out to play as we did and so these young naturalists will have to be taught with passion and enthusiasm and weaned away from their TV’s and laptops into the fresh air where genuine 3D insects that look just like the ones on the telly can be found under stones. Wild is not a product, and wilderness is not always on the far side of a pay desk.