Getting control

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!

Another day, another heap of species

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.

Rough riches

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.

Bathampton Meadows

How we rejoiced, here at the Potwell Inn, when the clouds finally got themselves organised and it rained enough to relieve us of watering duties on the allotment. It hasn’t been easy to keep going because supplies of garden sundries have been almost unobtainable and we’ve had to resort to the internet several times. It seemed totally mad to have a bag of vermiculite delivered when we’re surrounded by garden centres, and when they finally opened again we went to one we often use, but the shelves had been stripped bare by desperate gardeners. There was one other item that we were running short of because we use quite a bit of liquid seaweed fertiliser, and so I scouted around and ordered ten litres from an internet supplier. It arrived soon enough, but when I unpacked the box the container seemed to have swollen tremendously – I couldn’t get my fingers under the carrying handle, so clearly it was fermenting. Fearful that it might explode, I got a wrench and opened it very carefully and with a gentle sigh it released the smell from hell – like you might imagine gannet’s breath to be. We took it straight to the allotment where the plants will absolutely love it, and when I checked the water level in the second storage butt my cunning plan seems to have worked because the level is creeping up. But with more rain threatened and after a short weeding session – weeds come up much more easily when the soil is a bit moist – we came back to the flat and within five minutes I was drumming my fingers again. I have a very low tolerance for doing nothing; I truly wish I didn’t have it, and so does Madame, but there we are.

So, enthused by my bit of curiosity in the yard yesterday; this morning I did a quick survey of all the wildflowers I could find in our car park.

To be frank, this didn’t look promising, but needs must etc. and I spent a very happy hour with a notebook and magnifier making a list that took me completely by surprise. So here it is –

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris
  • Herb robert – Geranium robertianum
  • Wall lettuce – Mycelis muralis
  • Rue leaved saxifrage Saxifraga tridactylites
  • Red valerian – Centranthus ruber
  • Mexican fleabane – Erigeron karvinskianus
  • Canadian fleabane – Erigeron canadensis
  • Wall barley – Hordeum murinum
  • Greater celandine – Chelidonium majus
  • Pellitory of the wall – Parietaria judaica
  • Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare
  • Cleavers – Galium aparine
  • Ivy leaved toadflax – Cymbalaria muralis
  • Oxeye daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare
  • Smooth sowthistle – Sonchus oleraceus
  • Prickly lettuce – Lactuca serriola
  • Wood aven – Geum urbanum
  • Purple toadflax – Linaria purpurea
  • Ivy – Hedera helix
  • Elder – Sambucus nigra
  • American willowherb – Epilobium ciliatum
  • Broad leaf dock – Rumex obtusifolius

There are more, of course, but that will need a more thorough search – and I’m sorry they’re not in any recognisable order which, for librarians botanists and archivists, will be painful but it was the order I noticed them in – and that’s really the point of all this. We’ve been living in this place for almost five years and because it was ‘only a car park’ it didn’t command the same level of attention as – say – Bathampton Meadows, which I’m coming to in a moment. I found more time to botanise on the river bank and towpath because it seemed more obvious to look for plants in those places. But 24 species in a car park with almost no soil? These plants may be as ugly as sin, and ethnically diverse enough to give a Daily Mail reader the vapours, but what they lack in charm they make up in dogged survival. When all else fails and the last bee orchid has left the stage, I suspect these characters – the rogues and vagabonds of the plant world will still be around, offending gardeners and providing botanical lessons for restless people like me.

And so the weather cleared and we decided to go for a walk. The Skyline walk was mentioned but with faintly dodgy weather we settled on a wander along the canal and then off up to Bathampton Meadows. Madame was firm – this was a walk not a botanising expedition – and so I put the hand lens back on the desk but surreptitiously slipped a notebook in my pocket, just in case. We took the second bridge over the canal and up the lane between the lovely Georgian terraces to climb up to the meadows. One of the best things about living here is that you can reach open countryside on foot so easily and without sharing the way with any cars. Cyclists are another thing but ……!

I don’t know the meadows very well and, following Madame’s directive I kept my eyes firmly on the horizon as we followed the path to a spot where we plonked ourselves down to take in the panoramic view of Bath. House Martins were hawking for insects all around us. She was the first to break my trappist botanical silence – “what’s this?” she wondered, pointing to a lovely patch of crested dog’s tail grass. There we were like Father Ted in the ladies lingerie department with me struggling not to notice that we were in the midst of a very interesting bunch of plants. I love a mystery, and what one flora calls “the hawkish plants” are a great temptation. Whether ‘beard’, ‘bit’, or ‘weed’, they’re a daunting challenge to be addressed like a military campaign. But not at this moment. Slowly the prospect of a fully armed return visit was forming in my head while we chatted about the view, and about us, and the lockdown and what it was doing to our heads. It was one of those lovely afternoons when the summer clouds move quickly across the sky bringing intervals of sun and shade. After an hour we grumbled to our feet, stiff with sitting on the grass, and made our way back down the footpath. We’d almost reached the gate when we simultaneously noticed butterflies, dozens of them, in a large patch of longer grass – nothing rare, just meadow browns – car park butterflies, you might say if you were just passing through. Then I spotted yellow rattle, then knapweed and an instant later we saw a solitary marbled white – why is it that spotting a butterfly can evoke such joy?

We celebrated with a black cherry ice cream bought from the canalside hut as we walked home through bigger crowds than we’ve seen in months. They think it’s all over. I really hope they’re right!

Oh strimmer man – where you gonna run to?

I fell asleep last night clutching a new wildflower book – I would have called it a flora but that would have been misleading since Madame’s name (which is a closely guarded secret) is not Flora. But it’s a sign that the natural world, in the course of a couple of riverside walks, has got me back in her grip.  I was lamenting the impossibility of botanising in Cornwall or Wales for weeks, but the last two days on the riverbank have energised me in much the same way – the sheer pleasure of recognising old friends that I never knew grew here in the middle of a small city; here today, wintercress and broomrape growing within a few hundred yards – neither of them rare.  The slightly mad abundance of plant life is a telling sign that nature doesn’t need us half as much as we need her. Over the river in the Crest Nicholson gulags they left a wildflower meadow in one corner of a field of hard-wearing perennial ryegrass – no ball games permitted – which struggles in the teeth of the siberian winds generated by the tall buildings. The grounds are maintained by a company with a cunning plan to mow another inch off the meadow with every cut.  It will then disappear; the last sop of ecological reparation for the destruction of the old gasometers and abandoned industrial buildings that really were a wildlife haven. But we still have the anarchic, weed infested verges; the real eco-deal thriving under their neglect by the strimmer army – long may their funding be neglected!

IMG_20200511_095741At home, energised by thoughts of weeds, I woke with cheese scones on my mind. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur  but there’s nothing quite like baking to calm you down, and so I baked a batch of the ultimate comfort food.  I really should have baked a Dundee cake but there wasn’t time because we wanted to go to the allotment to see how our wind and frost preparations had survived. The max and min thermometer in the greenhouse showed that the inside temperature had dropped to 5C during the night, so that meant the outside got down to around 2 or 3C – too close for comfort for the tender plants, so we were pleased that we’d gone to the trouble of wrapping them all up and building new screens. I’m beginning to sound a bit manic here, I know, but life’s too good to waste a minute – even in lockdown.

So everything in the garden was lovely (ish) and we added a new screen attached to the grapevine training wires. The bad news was that thieves had dropped by again and stolen our neighbour’s new shed which was waiting to be assembled and so rather vulnerable.  I find it really difficult to connect with a mindset like that – and even if  *’hell and heaven and all that religious stuff’ is abolished now, should we keep just a tiny corner of hell going for allotment thieves – just for old times sake?

Coming home we overheard a conversation about roasting rhubarb in the oven. I’m ashamed to say we’d never heard of it, but we promptly roasted half a kilo of our own Victoria, with some light brown sugar, and it’s delicious. We’ve eaten so much rhubarb in the last few weeks I think if you shoved a chimney pot on my head I’d lose weight and turn pink – I’d settle for being tall!

  • is a quotation from a rather fun poem by ee cummings

As an addendum, today we found a shop selling bakers flour, rye flour and yeast. The threat of torture wouldn’t induce me to say where it is, but for those in the know, if you flare your nostrils and search out the perfume of patchouli and listen carefully for Joni Mitchell you’ll know where I mean.

 

The meadow that’s around us

 

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A fox strolling across our site in broad daylight

I’d just finished writing a piece for the allotment society about taking on an overgrown allotment when I turned to writing this post. I’ve been really impressed with Simon Fairlie’s book “Meat – a benign extravagance” which was published in 2010 and today when I was flicking through a digest of the day’s news I came across a story about leaked emails written by a government advisor which had revealed that he thought neither fishing nor agriculture were really worth preserving in the UK.  The chain of idiocy that this attitude reveals is examined forensically in the Fairlie book, but as for the emails, I have no doubt that the author is a fully paid up advocate of and probably a shareholder in industrialized intensive farming.  My guess is that neither the environment nor unemployment, and certainly not public health figure in his analysis. Coincidentally another article – this time in the Farmers Weekly – suggested that there’s a rosy future for British agriculture freed from the petty rules and regulations of the EU.

This constellation of  dangerous thinking made me wonder whether Simon Fairlie had changed his mind in the last 10 years.  Maybe he’s recanted, I thought, and bought shares in Bayer – and so I looked him up and no, he’s now making a living (probably not a generous one) selling Austrian forged (as in hammers and anvils not fake) scythes and editing a magazine called The Land and even a quick glance will reveal that he’s lost none of his incisive way of dealing with unsupported claims by either friends or enemies.

So there was the chain of thought that led to the image of a scythe.  The fox on our site that has killed more allotment chickens than you’d believe and yet still brings a thrill when he strolls insouciantly across the site; the kind of neoliberal economist who would empty your bank account and sell your granny without a hint of compassion; the trials of taking on an overgrown allotment and the memory of a traditional farm implement, all dancing around in my head at the same time. I should probably increase my medication.

If there is a crisis in agriculture it’s probably being cynically manipulated by the people who would rather throw agriculture, fishing and wildlife under a bus than give up driving their big cars and burning fossil fuels. The agrochemical industry simply loves the idea of sequestering carbon by planting trees because it will mean intensive chemically supported farming will be the only show in town once all that land is taken out of production, and as Simon Fairlie remarked ten years ago, there’s a real danger that the more extreme fringes of the vegan movement will forge an unholy alliance with them.  There’s a crisis in agriculture, and fishing too, because for decades the subsidy system has been used to encourage people to do exactly the wrong things, and there’s a cultural crisis in the West resulting from our disconnection from nature. When we lost the dirt under our fingernails we began to lose the sense of connectedness with the earth and her rhythms. As a matter of fact I think that watching cosy natural history programmes on the television (though I do it myself) is positively dangerous. It’s a voyeuristic substitute for the real food of connectedness – a kind of synthesised vitamin pill rather than the feast that’s everywhere around us.

The fox is an awesome predator but its capacity to do real harm is limited. Even apex wild predators are incapable of completely eliminating their prey species, they’re just not organised enough – but we are; homo non-sapiens, the creatures who’ve lost their wisdom. The economist probably doesn’t even know how to grow mustard and cress on a piece of tissue paper, but with a little help from industrial lobbyists still has the capacity to destroy the environment in an unprecedented fashion.

So there I was, yesterday evening, sitting at my laptop with this depressing sentence nagging me, when an alarm went off on my phone.  How could I have forgotten? We’d done two very long days on the allotment building the new rainwater storage and sowing some early seeds so we’d warmed up some clanger pudding (a Potwell Inn stalwart, comprising whatever’s left in the fridge), and were looking forward to an evening doing not much.  Twenty minutes later we were around at BRLSI – (Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution) for George Peterken’s talk on the cultural ecology of meadows. The place was packed with some awesomely qualified people – County Recorders, ex presidents of this and that national bodies, wardens, botanists, ecologists and mycologists – you really should join Bath Natural History Society if you live anywhere near here, these aren’t just clever people they’re really friendly too, and they can turn a field trip into a seminar.

And blow me if he didn’t talk about scythes!  Now there’s an example of synchronicity worth savouring. I used to have a scythe, but I never really mastered it. In the early 70’s we were drinking at the Cross Keys in Corsham when we met an very elderly man who’d been a gardener at Corsham court and who told us that they had cut the lawns there with scythes. He offered to give me a lesson – which I gladly accepted – and so later that week we met outside the pub on the verge, and he demonstrated how to do it.  My inelegant slashings were completely wrong, it seems.  When he used the scythe it looked more like a slow, deliberate dance.  Even for an old man with arthritis, he made it look beautiful – a kind of circular motion, step and sweep, step and sweep.  Even the short grass of the verge fell tidily beneath his razor sharp scythe. He showed me how to sharpen my scythe too and I wish I’d paid more attention but when you’re twenty something there’s always infinite time for learning stretching out before you. As a child I’d been roped in to rake the hay on my grandfather’s smallholding and I’d seen stooks and ricks being built; it was a grand day out and I could feel the heat of the sun on my back..

So last night’s talk on meadows was so much more than a technical exercise. In his opening remarks, George Petersen said he’s been surprised at how emotionally connected people are to these relics of an ancient agricultural system. I can vouch for that.  As he showed slides of fields, gloriously filled with wildflowers and orchids, plants I’d never seen and many that I know well, I was experiencing the kind of feelings you might reasonably expect in a concert hall. My guess is that there were more than a few tears lurking in the corners of our eyes as we contemplated the beauty and the loss of what we’ve collectively allowed to die in the delusional pursuit of ‘progress’. He spoke of the way that the ‘catastrophe’ of haymaking each year had led birds, butterflies and insects to make a living in the field margins.  He advanced an idea of ‘meadow’ that embraced a much more eclectic definition – field margins, woodland rides, roadsides and clifftops.  But he also spoke of the culture that created these environments and which sounded so much more appealing than the industrialised concrete canyons we now inhabit; fed on industrialised junk-food and entertained with industrialised natural history television.

We walked home knackered and excited in equal measure – in the words that once featured on the front of the Whole Earth Catalogue –

“We can’t put it together – it is together”.

 

Wildflower meadows part II

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So today was our second day at RHS Rosemoor.  We always like to split a new garden into at least two days, the first to get the lay of the land and the second to go back in more detail.  In fact you’d need to go two days a week for a year to truly get the measure of the place. After my big worry yesterday I was able to relax and enjoy the gardens for what they are and, hardling surprisingly, we spent a lot of time revisiting the wild meadow areas. The first thing to say is that the RHS aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. These meadows are as ‘artificial’ as any of the other (equally beautiful) gardens. It’s we visitors who like to put labels like “wild” and “cultivated” on what are basically different styles of garden: this kind of “wildflower meadow” style is developed by sowing and planting, using any means that works, for instance some of the plants are developed in modules and planted out. There’s no purism in the selection of species; no absolute rule that only native plants or archaeophytes are allowed in, and a scientific mowing regime is applied to  encourage self-seeding. Plants that don’t do well, or do too well and start choking the others out are dealt with by removal. This is a highly labour and resource intensive version of ‘natural’.

Imagine my sadness at reading in today’s Guardian that while many of us are working flat out to try to turn around this environmental and ecological catastrophy, our government are secretly eroding controls on harmful and cancer causing chemical insecticides that are absolutely banned in the EU but which may well be reintroduced by ministerial fiat if we leave. This is the greatest danger we’re facing today.  While I absolutely applaud the environmental efforts of bodies like English Heritage, the National Trust, The RHS and other non governmental authorities, we can’t save the world by building a few nature reserves like insect zoos.

Today I had a long conversation with a woman from Wolverhampton who is (pretty much singlehandedly) trying to build a wildflower meadow on a piece of land next to a housing estate. Last year was a terrible year for her and most of her spring sown seeds died during the hot summer, but she’s not daunted and today she was in Devon, at Rosemoor, trying to find out how she can give things a better chance and develop the plot. Her budget was about £250, and I think she might just pull it off, but all her work could be undermined in the stroke of a pen by a minister in thrall to the agrichemical industry lobby. I’m not very big on organised religion these days but sometimes I long for a bit of smiting from a higher power. Just a small plague of boils would do, as long as it was targeted at the right people.  Better avoid the flies and frogs, though, in case Bayer come up with some new and even more horrible chemical for dealing with plagues of  flies and frogs. The only (and more sensible) alternative is to make a stand with those who are trying to end this madness, and change the way we think about our relationship with (and complete dependance on) the earth.

 

The Pale Rider of the flower beds

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This is a white crab spider – I’ve never seen one before and neither had the gardener at Rosemoor who found it. I think it’s not so much rare as difficult to see, since it’s a bit of a pirate, ambushing its prey by sitting on a white flower and blending in until the unfortunate victim alights and gets more than it bargained for. If I’ve got the ID wrong blame me and not the gardener, I just googled “white UK spiders” and came up with this elegant assassin.

IMG_5498So our first day at Rosemoor was not nearly as wet as the forecast promised, although we kept our waterproofs on all day.  Last night’s rain was prolonged and heavy so we weren’t taking any chances. Our main interest was in the vegetable gardens because I wanted to find someone who could help us to understand what happened to our onions this year.  So I trailed around with the pictures on my mobile, accosting gardeners and largely discovering that they were no wiser than we were.  Aphids were mentioned, as were all the usual suspects – flies, fungi and eelworm, but none quite fitted the bill. In the end Madame suggested that it could have been that the sets, which arrived early and had to be stored for ages, had simply deteriorated before we planted them out.  The idea made sense to both of us, although it would mean that almost everyone else on the allotment site stored them badly as well. Anyway we’re getting an email address for a free ID service for members and I’ll send off the photos to see if there are any more suggestions.

As ever there were some wonderful things to look at – alliums were everywhere, as befits their recent ‘must have’ status; and as wide a range of plants as you could hope to see, but I’ll never be a gardener in the Gertrude Jekyll sense.  Notwithstanding the efforts to make borders and beds look “natural”, there couldn’t be anything less natural than this kind of English garden, absolutely stuffed with non natives and hybrids it reminded me of the way the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford used to be, apart from the fact that the labelling is a lot better. Two large tulip trees were still in flower, the photo on the right above is pretty much real size, and very spectacular they are.

I think the biggest question I came away with centred on the idea of nature. I have to confess right now that I’m a bit of a fundamentalist, and it’s not something I feel particularly happy about but my default position is that the less human intervention there has been, the better I like it. I can see a million reasons why that’s an unhelpful mindset because if anything is dynamic and ever-changing it’s the natural world and there’s no point in railing against Himalayan balsam, for instance because it’s here for good.

Much of the area occupied by Rosemoor is a relatively recent (1989) addition to the older gardens and involved digging out 13,000 tons of heavy clay and redistributing it around the gardens to achieve level beds.  That’s a lot of dirt being turned over and moved around, enough to keep a ‘no-digger’ awake for a week. So you just have to accept that this is a blank canvas garden of the kind beloved by hard landscape contractors, big flower shows and TV gardening programmes.

And I think I just have to accept that gardens like this are showcases where you can go and look at national collections of your favourite plants, and exquisite displays of plants from all over the world, and I’m sure that if I raised this with the RHS they would say ‘we’re not trying to recreate a natural landscape we’re creating a natural looking one’.

_1080773However, there came a moment when the dilemma became acute for me and that, ironically, was when the garden started to offer something I really wanted to see. There are now some quite large areas of wildflower meadow which I fell upon with joy. There were southern marsh orchids in flower, ragged robin, knapweed, oxeye daisies, umpteen grasses like crested dogs tail and so on, yellow rattle and an unexpected white flower that I don’t think I’ve noticed before which turned out to be Star of Bethlehem – Ornithogalum angustifolium . It was all too good to be true, surely? There, in a patch half the size of a football field, was a collection of plants I’d expect to find one at a time in a day’s search over a much wider range. All this in an area that had been turned over by earthmovers less than 30 years ago. It’s a wonder, a triumph of science and the gardener’s art.  A horticultural Las Vegas in the depths of a Devon valley.  I’ve never seen a better display of plants in a wildflower meadow; it exactly fits our current anxieties about biodiversity, and I don’t suppose the birds, the insects, moths and butterflies that flock to it will give a hoot whether it was there in 1930 . Compared with the usual miserable sowing of ‘wildflower mix’ that developers ususlly throw around their bleak gulags to persuade the planners that they really care about nature, this was xanadu. So why was I troubled? I think a large part of it was my stupid attachment to authenticity – whatever that means – and the truth is, starting from where we are (which is a pretty dreadful starting point) there’s no other show in town except the Las Vegas route, re-creating at great expense and with enormous skill, the flora and fauna of the environment we’ve allowed to decline to the point of no return. There’s no way back to the good old days before we lost nine tenths of our wildflower meadows, because simply abandoning a patch of ground to ‘nature’ can’t possibly succeed.

So my takeaway point is that there’s no cheap way of restoring these habitats.  If we’re serious about restoring them, throwing around a handful of imported and non-native wildflower seed is a dangerous distraction.  It will take time, skill and an abundance of resources.  Notwithstanding my reservations, I think the RHS have cracked it, bless them.

IMG_5512And just one more little joy – they’re developing a new orchard here and it’s dedicated to one of Madame’s old bosses – George Gilbert, a delightful man who probably knew more about apples than anyone else alive. We also saw a plaque in his memory at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, commemorating his contribution to the gardens there. He died in 2007, and took with him a lifetime of experience. His students are a big part of the future if we’re ever to rediscover and recreate the lost varieties of apples, pears and soft fruit, lost to careless agricultural policy, and that’s another star for the RHS who do so much to train the next generation of gardeners with apprenticeships, courses and such like.