All’s well on the canal

Winter Heliotrope – Petasites fragrans

Exactly as I predicted there was a really good showing of Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon canal today. As we walked to the first deep lock the river was in full spate and at its most dangerous as we went along, and in places the banks were flooded. At Pulteney Weir the steps had disappeared and water was shooting upwards like a fountain as it curled back at the river bed. Heaven help anyone falling into that maelstrom – they’d have no chance at all. The eddies and deep currents seem to illustrate constantly changing anatomical illustrations of the musculature of unknown beasts. Fallen logs lifted helpless arms into the air, like Excalibur, and all the while there was a dangerous sound – far from the comfort of waves and waterfalls but the fretting water feeling for any weakness along the bank. The boats moored alongside the footpath were lifted high on their moorings. Any higher and they’d start to list into oblivion as the water flooded in. The canal, of course, is at one remove from all the mayhem and there’s a more peaceful regime altogether.

Once again we revisited the walk that kept us sane during the lockdowns, and in Henrietta Park an ever reliable tree stump was growing Oyster Mushrooms and what I think was almost certainly Silverleaf Fungus as well as the usual Turkey Tails. Further back in the park the magnificent trunk of an old pine looked especially beautiful. Hundreds of walkers were out and about celebrating New Year. We were passed by one crocodile comprising upwards of 20 walkers – no doubt a rambling club. It’s crazy how easy it is in England to assign social class to whole groups. I remember once taking a midweek communion service which usually had about four or five communicants but on this particular Wednesday the Lady Chapel was full to the brim with identically dressed, late middle aged men in tweed jackets and flannel trousers. It could have been a Monty Python sketch. Afterwards I asked them who they all were and they told me they were all High Court judges on a course in the hotel next door. Today’s walkers were equally monocultural. Several of them wished us a happy new year in clipped received pronunciation and I relapsed into full churl, willing my cheek muscles into a rigid smile as I responded with imperceptible grace.

It was a joy to find plants and fungi to identify at this time of the year. Even the vivid green of new foliage brought a foretaste of plants just waiting in the earth for the kairos – the appropriate time. Alongside the river a large group of Long Tailed Tits kept themselves busy in the branches of trees overlooking the cricket ground. On the other side at St John’s Church we not only saw a pair of Peregrine falcons on the tower but also heard their unmistakable voices. Before we’d even taken that unusual sight in, a pair of herons fled downstream in their prehistoric way, and later a couple of cormorants flew downstream as well. All this in the very centre of the city.

Back home again I cooked the last of the Christmas leftovers and we had an early supper. Below are some of the things we saw.

Not for purists!

One of the delightful aspects of doing a bit of urban botany is the hazard/opportunity to find members of the brigade of irregulars lurking just about anywhere. Purists, of course, go out armed with a complete set of preconceived ideas of what ought to be growing in a particular habitat and get a bit piqued if they don’t find it. But they get positively tetchy when they find usurpers taking up good wildflower spaces. Some plant lovers are a bit less fussy – I’ve got a copy of J W White’s 1912 Bristol Flora and it’s got loads of ‘foreigners’ in it. He seemed to delight in examining the edges of the railway lines on Bristol docks to see what had fallen off the wagons and – like all good trainspotters – he was going to record it even if it belonged more rightfully in a Reader’s Digest book on flower arranging. I’m absolutely with him in his determination to refuse to be sniffy in the face of the temporary visitor, not least because they must all, necessarily have their story.

I’ve already mentioned the possible corn marigold on North Quay and we went back again to take a closer look and yes I’m sure it’s an out of place and out of season lover of arable crops and sandy acidic soil, neither of which is the case where it landed up – in a coir mat impregnated with wildflower seeds and bought no doubt from a horticultural wholesaler as part of an architect’s idea of what constituted wild. OK I am just a bit cross about that aspect of the story because there were loads of perfectly good and properly naturalised wildflowers there already, but they were plantworld punks, weeds, all of a piece with the graffiti on the 1960’s (and about to be demolished) multi story car park. On the other hand, one golden corn marigold on a grey and damp day cheers you up no end. Whether it deserves a tick or a place in a local flora I leave to the experts, but I rather hope they’ll treat it as a genuine refugee, escaping from the arable fields where it once grew wild in the days before Mecoprop-P and Clopyralid and I rather hope it will carry on bringing a bit of colour to the river bank with its offspring.

The other unexpected flower was the pot marigold near Cleveland House on the Kennet and Avon canal. This one, I’m sure, self seeded off the roof of a moored up narrow boat, or at least that’s the most likely and unvarnished possibility. But being both a romantic and a writer I like to think of its journey on the roof of a narrow boat being tended by someone with an interest in medicinal herbs who, for all I know, reads tarot cards sells calendula cream at the local farmers’ market. Back in the day you’d have found hemp and cereals from the holds of passing barges but there are a surprising number of medicinal herbs alongside the canal whether by accident or design. Bargees had next to no access to official medicine and I have no doubt they became adept at recognising and utilising the plants that grew where they travelled and probably made sure they could be found along the length of the canal network. Many of these plants are promiscuous self-seeders and I greatly enjoy finding them and trying to find out what they were used for. The tradition that was once passed down from (mostly) mother to daughter has all but disappeared now. I think my own mother, born in 1916, must have been among the last generation to know her wildflowers so intimately although she never wrote anything down or even passed her knowledge of their uses on. That’s the way of oral tradition; it can disappear in a generation; driven out in her case by the wartime invention of the antibiotics which she worshipped.

Half a mile apart, it would be so easy to have assumed they were the same species and that’s why it helps to develop the habit of close attention to the details of plants. Like the winter heliotrope that’s in flower at the moment – it could easily be butterbur – except butterbur doesn’t have a perfume; and in a couple of months when the flowers have died back, you might think the leaves are just right for coltsfoot – another medicinal herb, by the way. I’ve attached all of those names to the plants in question but as soon as it flowers, the perfume and the season narrow it down to one candidate. Maybe I’m weird but I find that terribly exciting. “Wait and see” – one of my mother’s favourite comments – is a good rule of thumb when you don’t quite know what a plant is called. Otherwise take a copy of Stace, a ruler and a hand lens and kneel down in the mud for twenty minutes while your long-suffering partner looks on her mobile for a discreet dating agency for botanical widows . I once knew a devoted twitcher who for twenty five years had spent all his holidays up to his waist in Norfolk fens. I asked him once what his wife thought about it and he said he’d never asked her! I bet she’s got a burner phone hidden at the back of the wardrobe.

So my solstice list of plants in flower goes up to fifteen, and sixteen if you add a single grass – cocksfoot. Grass flowers are tiny and can be a bit technical but I promise you this grass was flowering. Grasses, of course, don’t need pollinators at all, their reproductive apparatus is brilliantly simple and effective. But the flowering plants are different and just show that we shouldn’t only be worrying about bees because there are hundreds of pollinating insects, some of them completely specialised, and many of them are in danger from insecticides, pollution and habitat destruction too. I could go on but it’s nearly Christmas.

Below is today’s picture of the latest royal navy patrol boat, cleverly designed to fool French and Spanish trawlers fishing illegally within our proposed 200 mile limits. I think it was built from a design by the present Education Minister. You will probably be impressed by the attachment swivel for the space saving Mark IV 32 degree compass.

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