Lord Muck's Blog
Many years ago when I first took on an allotment on the Bartlemas site I knew fairly little about the Bartlemas hamlet which it curls around. But I recall being surprised, moved and delighted to find myself watering tomatoes and basil of an evening and hearing glorious music and voices coming from the chapel on the other side of the boundary hedge. As I learned, the chapel is that of the leper hospital founded in 1126 by Henry I, and uniquely in England, it and its chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew, are still in use, the hospital as a residence.
The whole site is now a conservation area and a surprising oasis of rurality in the frenetic atmosphere of east Oxford. In fact the chapel, which was used to stable horses when Cromwellian forces were beseiging Oxford in the Civil War in the 1640s and only returned to ecclesiastical use in the early 20 century, is relatively rarely used. But a highlight of its calendar is of course St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August. St Bartholomew is the patron saint of healing, particularly skin diseases, having allegedly been flayed alive for his beliefs. It is a natural connection to make for a leper hospital, and the holy well in the grounds some 15 metres from the chapel is a reminder of the sacredness of the place for pilgrims, seekers and itinerant holy men (as they would have been in those days).
St Bartholomew’s legacy has been a complex one. In medieval times St Bartholomew’s Day marked the end of summer and the start of autumn. Dew that fell on that day was believed to have healing properties, and pilgrims would come to church in bare feet to have holy dew cure foot ailments. Indeed those with more serious skin diseases would roll naked in the dew for its healing properties. But the turn of the year meant more. The lazy days of summer were passing, and the hard work of bringing in the harvest was about to commence. So it was last chance for revelry and a bit debauchery before the work began and the nights drew in. St Bartholomew’s Fairs, known as ‘Bartlefairs’ or ‘Bartlefeasts’, were common; perhaps the most famous being that held at Smithfield in London from 1133 to 1855. Starting out as a trading event and specifically a cloth fair, it rapidly morphed into something far more louche. By the middle of the 17 century St Bartholomew’s Fair, by now of a size to be of international importance, was far from being somewhere to seek healing or a successful business deal, though quack medicine sellers were common enough. Rather it was an opportunity to experience the exotic; prize fighters, musicians, astrologers, acrobats, contortionists, tightrope walkers, puppeteers, fire-eaters, freak shows, stalls selling everything from ginger bread to singing birds, and wild animals, were part and parcel of the show. Not just any wild animals either. Dancing bears, performing monkeys, caged tigers, baby crocodiles being hatched from eggs by steam, and even a ‘learned pig’ observed by Wordsworth in 1815, were all part of the fun. As were ‘soiled doves’ – not caged birds, but prostitutes in coyly labelled tents, or just ‘off-fair’ in Cock Lane.
It was a source of inspiration for many a literary figure inspiring Ben Johnson’s play Bartholomew Fair, Daniel Defoe whose heroine in Moll Flanders meets a well-dressed gentelman at the fair, and both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, who provide vivid descriptions in their diaries. Not to mention Wordsworth and that pig – which could apparently tell the time to the minute and pick out any specified card in a pack while blindfolded. The vulgarity, loutishness and drunkenness of it was all to much for the Victorians and it was suppressed in 1855. But back at Bartlemas Chapel this 24 August, the glorious service which I had heard while tending my vegetables, concluded with a glass of pimms on the lawn, a fitting combination of joys of the fairs and the traditions of the healing properties of the great saints memory.
Lord and Lady Muck enjoyed a rather wet camping trip in the Cotswolds near Stroud earlier in the month. The exact location, Thistledown, on the edge of Woodchester Park, is a charming campsite but also an unusual one. The campsite we were informed is on a site where the only Bronze Age storage pit in southern England has been found, along with several Bronze Age roundhouses. It is also the site of a ‘farm, [that] used to contain the largest elderflower orchard in the world!’ and that those ‘.. flowers were used to make soft drinks’. The remains of this orchard still exist, and are a location for those campers who either don’t want to stray too far from their cars, or are staying in camper vans. The rest of us have a longer walk down a steep path to the other pitches, which of course are more secluded and car-free. Now Lord and Lady Muck are no slouches at making elderflower wine or cordial, or indeed elderberry wine, but these are harvested from hedgerow trees or trees (bushes?) on our allotments. Production at scale is clearly still undertaken, hence the various commercial elderflower cordials and presse’s, and the re-purposed orchard prompted reflection on the origins of the commercial aspects of elder production.
In fact the Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a mysterious and magical tree native to the British Isles and the name is derived from the Anglo Saxon ‘aeld’ which means ‘fire’, perhaps because the branches hollowed out of their pith were used like bellows for blowing on fire. Elder has long been sacred to an ancient godess of vegetation and is believed to be inhabited by a tree dryad which represents the soul of the tree. This explains why Elder were often planted close to houses and farms, in the belief that if treated well and honoured, the dryad would protect the house and its occupants against evil spirits. So it is unsurprising that there was a widespread taboo against cutting down or burning its wood, and by the 17C almost every part of the tree was considered medicinaly effective in treating ailments ranging from toothache to the plague. Muck’s 1597 edition of Gerard’s Herbal lists numerous uses and remedies for multiple ailments. So, (I’m updating the English here) ‘The green leaves pounded with deers suet or bulls tallow are good to be laid to hot swellings and tumours, and do assuage the pain of gout.’ Slightly more alarmingly ‘The inner and green bark doth more forcibly purge; it draweth forth choler and watery humours for which cause it is good for those who have the dropsy..’ or more promisingly (though the curative properties must be in doubt) ‘…the fresh flowers are mixed with some kind of meat and fried with eggs; they likewise trouble the belly and move the stool.’ However it was not for another 150 years with the publication of Hannah Glasse’s The art of cookery made plain and simple in 1747, that we find the first recipe for elderflower wine.
The use of elder flower to make a cordial seems more recent still. Mrs Beeton in her encyclopaedic Household Management, first published in 1861, makes no reference (though she does provide a recipe for elderberry wine) and the idea seems only to have been taken up commercially after WW2. So the Thistledown Farm enterprise which was written up almost 30 years ago in 1993 by Duff Hart-Davis in the Independent, was something of a trailblazer. The tradition is still carried on at Belvoir Farm in Leicestershire, but all that remains at Thistledown now is the glorious scent when the flowers are in bloom in May and June, and a perfect spot to pitch a tent, even when wet.
I knew my correspondence with Prince Charles about chickens would assume national significance one day. That day arrived yesterday when *that interview* between Oprah Winfrey and Harry and Megan was aired on TV around the world. It was about 15 minutes in, that the matter of rescue chickens emerged. There were Oprah and Megan surrounded by the Sussexes rescue hens with Oprah clutching a box of eggs, and Megan with an artfully staged basket full. They looked good for rescue hens, a hybrid variety of uncertain name but certain egg productivity – for a year. But next time maybe they should go for Sussexes – they are such a lovely breed and great for beginners. Anyway, they love chickens, their wee son loves chickens, their hen house is even named ‘Archie’s Chick Inn’ (that American love of puns again that I mentiond in my last blog, not just that ‘Chick Inn’, but the revelation that Megan’s first job as a teenager was in the ‘Humphrey Yougart’ milk bar – adorable). And so does Prince Charles. Perhaps there is an opening here. Harry said in that interview that relations between him and his dad weren’t so good, and indeed Chaz wouldn’t take his calls. A sorry situation. Even an old republican like me can empathise about the family hurt. Which is where that chicken correspondence comes in.
Back in 2008, long before Lord Muck was even a twinkle in his creators eye, the muck narrative was rolling. Warwickshire-based Garden Organic and my employer Warwickshire county council (where I was amongst other things, responsible for waste management) were engaged in discussions about waste minimisation, in particular composting, and the practicalities of encouraging houesholders to keep chickens to reduce food waste. Prince Charles is Garden Organic’s Patron and the idea was ‘hatched’ that we would get his backing for the extension of the then already running Master Composting programme to include a hen keeping module.
So I wrote to Clarence House setting out some ideas. A copy of the hand-written notes on this made their way back to me, and remain one of my most treasured possessions. In response to the various suggestions that I put to the Palace, the Prince annotated my letter with comments like ‘Excellent’ and ‘Hooray!’ and signed off to his staff ‘This is encouraging news! Please keep a close eye on this as it develops because, if it works I would like to push the whole concept to other councils…’ It ‘took flight’ as Garden Organic’s ‘Hens@Home’ programme, delivered to Master Composters across the country. Clearly a love of hens is a shared interest between father and son, and here are Megan and Harry happy to share their love with Oprah and 2 billion viewers across the planet.
Living in California I’m sure the Sussexes are into spiritual growth. I’m not so sure if they have got round to reading Clea Danaan’s lovely ‘Zen and the art of raising chickens’ – the sound of one wing flapping, so to speak. But Charles dabbles in Buddhism (allegedly). I suspect that he is more of the ‘chop wood, feed chickens’ kinda guy when it comes to Zen Buddhism. There are many paths up the mountain, but surely ‘The way of the Hen’ is the one that will bring forth familial reconciliation.
Normally gardening and politics are polar opposites in Lord Muck’s life. The garden, or allotment, is the place to escape politics, not experience it. But it seems that life is not so simple in the dying days of Trump’s America. At the weekend, gardening and politics met in something that veered between comedy and parody – depending on the viewers perspective. It all played out at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a garden centre sandwiched betwen a crematorium and a sex shop called Fantasy Island in suburban Philadelphia. What this juxtaposition of uneasy ‘bedfellows’ says about Philadelphia’s planning regulations hardly bears thinking about – until they are adopted here in the UK in the next few months. But that is for another time.
It is eleven years since I last visited Philly, and keen gardener that I am, I somehow managed to miss out on a trip to Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Instead I was exploring the links to Philadelphia of 18 Century revolutionary and ‘Founding Father’ Thomas Paine, author of ‘Common Sense’, something that seems to have been singularly lacking at the press conference outside Four Seasons. The exact content of that event, held by Donald Trump’s ‘personal lawyer’ Rudi Guiliani at precisely the point when Pennsylvania’s vote for Joe Biden was confirmed, is already lost in the mists of satire, but the location has surely gone down in history as the most improbable and inappropriate place imaginable for a Presidential press conference. And there is no shortage of humour to be had from this strange conjunction of the stars, as Lord Muck’s alter ego and many others were quick to pick up on, on Twitter.
Four Seasons haven’t been slow off the mark in taking advantage of their new fame. Their website advertises a range of new merch including stickers and t-shirts with ‘Make America rake again’ and ‘Lawn and order’ slogans, a photo of their shopfront has been turned into a Zoom background, and for good measure their Twitter feed has the hashtags #insodwetrust and #MakeAmericaRakeAgain. Bless ’em, they promise a percentage of their merch profits will be donated to local foodbank Philabundance, whose own strapline is ‘beet hunger’ – with a smiling beetroot logo. What is it with Americans and puns?
But Four Seasons must be cursing that Trump didn’t get that second term. Surely with a hashtag like #MakeAmericaRakeAgain they would have been in line for the lucrative contract to rake up all the leaves in Californian forests that are the cause those politically inconvenient forest fires. And there is no mention on their website (which amongst other things promises ‘snow removal’) of whether there is a swamp draining service available. Washington isn’t so far from Philly and I understand there is a big one there in need of draining. Still. Meantime we can only ruminate on the alignment of forces that led to Rudi announcing to the world’s media that his boss had just won re-election, next door to a shop called ‘Fantasy Island’ .
I have mentioned before (Myths, stories and adventures in the Irish ‘Sky Garden’ 27 June 2019) that the Hegarty side of the Muck family hail from Skibbereen in Co Cork. Skibbereen was a centre of the Great Famine of 1845-50. There is a very moving exhibition on the impact of the famine in the Heritage Centre on Upper Bridge Street, and a famine trail round the town which ends up at the Abbeystrewery Cemetery where an estimated 8-10,000 victims are buried in pits. Almost one third of the 100,00 population of the Skibbereen area lost their lives during those terrible years, with many more forced to emigrate, and the town became synonymous with the suffering of people across Ireland after it was widely publicised in the famous stark drawings of James Mahoney for the Illustrated London News. The cause of the famine in the first place was an over-reliance on a single variety of potato by an extraordinarily impoverished populace. When it got blight and the potatoes rotted in the ground there was nothing to fall back on, and the British state was completely unprepared for, and then unwilling to act to relieve, a famine in its own country (Ireland was then part of Great Britain and Ireland, post the 1801 Act of Union).
But the Hegarty’s survived. How? Well the answer is perhaps counter-intuitively, the potato. The family story is that during the Famine people around Skibbereen were banned from planting potatoes from their own seed because it would be blighted stock and would itself fail, while spreading the spores to other potato crops. But Michael Hegarty (b c1805) hid a sackful in a shed, and then planted them in a field in a very isolated valley out beyond Castlehaven. News got out of this illegal stash, and he was instructed to reveal the location of the field where these potatoes were. But by that time they were up and thriving, never caught the blight, and went on to produce an excellent crop; a crop which saw the family through the famine.
I remember this story every autumn when bringing in my own (unblighted) crop – which of course is nowhere near the staple food that it was to my ancestors. But it is a reminder of the narrow path we tread between feast and famine, one which in this year of an excellent harvest, is all the more powerful for being at a time of global sadness and death from another invisible airborne grim reaper.
Lockdown has its compensations, and one of them has been a dramatic increase in the amount I listen to BBC Radio 3. There are many excellent presenters, including Sarah Walker, Ian Skelly, Hannah French, Kate Mollison, Sara Mohr-Pietch and best of all, her fellow presenter on ‘Night Tracks’, Hannah Peel. Their show runs from 11 pm, crossing the boundary between one day and the next. Not untypical of Peel’s selections will be a collaboration between some traditional Welsh performers and instrumentalists from Mali.
Last night she hosted a special immersive sound track devoted to the music of plants in a show entitled ‘Midnight in the Garden’, and what magic it was.
From evocations of gardens and growing, to music played on vegetables by the The Vegetable Orchestra, or created by spider plants, it was all there; Puccini to Radiohead, JS Bach to David Bowie, experimental electronic paens to the plant world with Stevie Wonder’s ‘Journey through the secret life of plants’ and electronic pioneer Mort Garson’s ‘Mother Earth’s phantasia’. But it was the plants themselves that stole the show. Listening in on the biochemistry of a singing snake plant, or delving into the sounds beneath the bark of a horse chestnut tree in Alex Metcalf’s ‘Horse chestnut’, is surely the way to be transported to another world as the darkness enfolds us, the sounds of the day hush, and the magic of the starlit universe creeps up on our consciousness.
‘Midnight in the Garden’ is available on BBC Sounds until 17 September 2020.
It is twenty two years since I carried a large stick-like object up to my new allotment orchard and planted it. It was a walnut tree. Now it dominates the corner of the plot and indeed the site as a whole, towering over the other fruit trees and the hedge that separates the site from the road. In retrospect I’m relieved that I realised that planting it in a corner where as it grew, it wouldn’t come to dominate the entire plot, was the sensible thing to do, because it is large, and I suspect has many more years of growth in it. My orchard has many trees – apples (cooking and eating), pears, plums, greengages, cherry and cobnut, but none are going to grow to this size, being grown on rootstock that ensures they remain of ‘pickable’ size.
As it has grown I have often wondered when I would see a walnut on it, and indeed for about a decade there has been a smattering of nuts, perhaps a dozen or so in any year, distributed across a tree so large that it has been hard to discern them amongst the foliage, let alone find any within picking distance. So this year has been something of a revelation. Finally … a serious crop; the right combination of weather conditions presumably. Taking a look at it at the end of June suggested that there might be 5-600 nuts. And walnuts really do come in as my favourite nut. But there is another walnut tree on the site – older and more mature and occasionally laden with nuts. So much so that the branches are weighed down and gracefully brush the roofs of plotholders sheds. Until early September. Then the squirrels get to work – and boy do they work. An entire tree completely stripped of unripe nuts in the space of 3-4 days. Hundreds if not thousands of nuts ruined some years. Inedible to squirrels and to humans alike.
My old friend from CND days Dave Barbour has a huge grove of walnut trees on his farm outside Chipping Norton and every autumn comes into the farmer’s market to sell them and the walnut oil he presses. Fantastic quality, and to my eyes, fantastic quantity. How does he manage it I wonder?
Me, ‘Don’t you have a problem with squirrels?’
‘Yes’ he replies, ‘we do have a problem with squirrels.’
‘How do you solve it?’
‘I shoot them.’
‘Really, how many?’
‘One hundred and sixty so far this season.’
Ah! A simple solution in the countryside – as long as your a good shot. Not so straightforward in a city. And 160 squirrel carcases? ‘Delicious. Tree rabbit. Farmer’s market punters snap it up.’ Hmmm, yes, ‘tree rat’ probably wouldn’t sell so well.
But how does this help me get anything of my glorious crop? The only solution is to get there before the squirrels. Pick the walnuts green and pickle them. In discussing pickling walnuts Ralph Ayres, head cook at New College in the early 18th Century, recommended that you ‘Gather them when they are a bout the bigness of a pigeons Egge or befor they have any shell….’ So a few days ago Lord and Lady Muck went down with baskets and an improvised hook and harvested three dozen – all about the size of a pigeons egg. Now they are are in their first round of soaking in brine, and in a couple of months or so after a further brine treatment and pickling in jars with vinegar and spices, to my own not-so-secret-recipe (see my Cowley Road Cookbook p 22) they will be ready to eat. Result, a great condiment with cheese or charcuterie; squirrels outwitted!
For the past fifteen years the Divinity Road Area Residents Association (DRARA) Lord Muck’s neighbourhood residents association, has organized an initiative to show off the glories of it local gardens hidden behind those Victorian facades. Indeed this Open Garden event has become a fixture of the social calendar every early summer, and most years Lord Muck has been a participant. There is a bit of a downside to that. Showing off the glories of your own garden and answering the questions of the visiting hordes (well at least a couple of dozen people) means you can never get to see those of your neighbours. And some of the neighbours are very good inventive gardeners. The one that consisted entirely of poisonous or stinging plants was always a highlight – as long as you weren’t accompanied by young children.
This year though everything is different. A combinaton of lockdown and glorous Spring weather (May was the sunniest month ever recorded in Oxford, and less helpfully, the driest May since the 18C with just 3.5 m of rainfall) has enabled people to focus on their gardens. Indeed a fair few neighbours have been doing some major works, ranging from the construction of an extremely impressive ‘man shed’, to the re-turfing of their entire back yard. But of course lockdown and social distancing rules have meant no Open Gardens this year. Or at least not in any physical sense. But it seemed a shame to lose all that hard work and clement weather, so as with so many other aspects of life under lockdown, the gardens took to the virtual world. All participants were invited to share up to eight photos with an introduction and commentary on each, to be launched on the designated day – 14 June – as a virtual tour. Here it is and Muck’s garden is featured first, with of course a photo of the compost heap as introductory picture:
What a joy a they are! How diverse are those little patches behind some rather similar Victorian and Edwardian facades; formal, bird friendly, water-based, perspective and view-focussed…. and all the proud owners can see everyboyd else’s garden as well for once.
Back in 1996 a band called Summit released an album called ‘Weeding the cliff edge’. Their label call it ‘down tempo/ambient’. One of their fans described the You Tube version as ‘one of the strangest techno albums I’ve ever heard.’ Lady Muck reminded me of this truly obscure musical event – she knew about it because she shared a house with one of the band members back in the day – when we discussed the current lockdown and its impact on us. She was referring to the title, rather than the music itself, as a metaphor for how we feel right now. I had been explaining that my growing season, despite the utterly glorious weather and all the time available, hadn’t been as successful as I’d have hoped and that repeat sowings of beans were going a bit awry. Especially runner beans for some reason. So I’d placed some more in an improvised sprouter to get them on their way. Three days later on checking to see how they were getting on I’d looked at them and thought ‘Those aren’t runner beans. They are broad beans. I’ve got lots of sprouted and planted out broad beans. What am I doing?’ Minor panic. Am I losing my marbles? Not exactly, but perhaps the subconscious is still fixating on the bigger things of life – like will I still be alive in three months time? Will my loved ones be? What about my neighbours? When will all this end? Actually most of the time I’m like everybody else – fretting about the length of ‘socially distanced’ queues at the shops, wondering who is in that ambulance that raced by the house ten minutes ago, but otherwise enjoyng the sun, the time to read, write and think, and missing the closeness and interaction with Lady Muck and daughters. (Actually, lucky me, at 66 I don’t have to worry about if I will have a job to go back to, or where the next meal is coming from, like so many people) But this response is rather like weeding on the cliff edge. It is a perfectly reasonable past time. Until you look over the edge to see what is there over the cliff. Then suddenly you question what the weeding is for.
It is too early to tell whether the national lockdown introduced to combat the spread of the Coronavirus – COVID19, will be short-term, long-term, or perhaps an extreme version of the ‘new normal’ where travel and going to work gradually become less a part of our daily lives. But the past two weeks of ‘social distancing’, and more recently the lockdown, has sure made me realise the value of one element of my life. The allotment. I have been on the allotment site since 1988, so I know it well and I know the people on it, by and large, pretty well too. I have always valued it, it has been a lodestar in my way of life for decades, but only now am I coming to appreciate its full value. The past couple of weeks have been difficult for everybody as they adjust to the new ways of living their lives, and having lived in a flat on the fifteenth floor of a ‘hard to let’ tower block in Southwark in the 1970’s, I can empathise with people cooped up in small spaces with little access to fresh air and exercise opportunities. The weather has been both a joy and a frustration. After an unusually long wet, windy and gloomy winter and early spring, the winds have abated and the sun has come out for a glorious spring time. Just the moment to head for the park, the countryside, or the beach. And just the time when the Government doesn’t want us to.
But heading for the allotment is OK. The combination of more time and perfect weather has done wonders to mine, after months of enforced neglect. Being on it has made me reflect on its joys: fresh air and the opportunity to look at the cloudscapes; birdsong which suddenly has a clarity that hasn’t been apparent for decades as the streets fall quiet and no aircraft pass by overhead; the pleasureable exercise of digging, planting, pruning and bonfire making; the time to dream as plants begin to spring to life, blossom on the plum trees, garlic shoots poking through the soil; and of course company. It is an odd one that. Allotment gardening is a slightly strange mixture of solitude and the social. Most of the time the digging planting, weeding, tending and harvesting are done alone or in the company of a loved one. But seeds, plants and advice are swapped with fellow plotholders, as too are observation on the weather, intelligence on everything from manure deliveries to plot security, and of course the occasinal beer and gossip after a days work. None of this has stopped, but it is done in a much more circumspect manner. Instead a strange (or so it still feels at the moment) separation of interaction has evolved, without a complete abandonment of conviviality. The conversations are held at a distance – often a plot width, and gathering round a table with beer and nibbles is no longer possible – instead a version ‘alone together’, allowing a sense of community without the contact, is emerging. The combination of solitude, nature, exercise, and (some) company is likely to be one that keeps a lot of people on the right side of sanity in the next few months. Allotments have always been places to cherish. Even more so now.