Monday 30 July 2007

Floodblog ... Days 5, 6 & 7

Cheltenham washing-up

No I haven't succumbed to typhoid, I've been too busy and/or too tired to blog for a few days. We spent the weekend in Burton-on-Trent, which was a very welcome relief from our waterless regime. I mentioned the other day that I was being interviewed on an internet radio station to promote my album ... well, the show's presenter very kindly offered to let Ian and I stay at his house overnight so that we could have a shower and refill our water bottles. We were down to our last litre of stored tapwater so it was very timely and we're very grateful to Paul and Lynn for their kindness in looking after us.

Back in Cheltenham though, there's no change in the situation for us yet. We're managing all right with the drinking water, and with a plentiful supply of rainwater to flush the lav. I'm very grateful to my friends Erin and Bryony who showed up on the doorstep this afternoon with a 5-litre bottle of spring water, having been through their own traumas and dramas with the flooding, and now taking the trouble to help us out. We really appreciate it.

The things which are really difficult are laundry and (worst of all) washing-up. Some parts of the town have now had their water switched back on, but it's basically just sludge that's coming out of the taps ... suitable for toilet flushing only. You can't drink it or wash dishes in it, not even if you boil it first. It's possibly OK to do laundry with it, but only at a 60° wash. And ours isn't back on yet anyway, so it looks like I'll be taking a few more outdoor showers before this is over. That's OK though ... my hair was really soft and fluffy after that dousing, much better than washing it in tap water. Don't believe any of the bollocks they say in shampoo ads about the beneficial effects of some made-up chemical or non-existent botanical extract: if you want lovely soft shiny hair just stick yer head out the window. Because you're worth it.

Radio Gloucestershire were trying very hard to get the message out to people that if their water comes back on they mustn't drink it under any circumstances. Sanitation only. But people were ringing in with the most extraordinary questions. Is it OK to make ice cubes with it? Can I use it to wash my dishes if I squirt a bit of bleach in with it? Aaargh!

And talking of radio, if anyone wants to listen to my interview there's a repeat of it on Wednesday 1st August from 7-10pm (BST) on Rock247Online. I'm on during the first hour and then again in the third hour, along with seven of my songs! That's quite a coup for a musician of my (*ahem*) modest status. I finally have a release date for the album too ... 7th August. Woohoo!

And I'm also interviewed on a music podcast which came out today, available to listen to or download any time.

Friday 27 July 2007

Floodblog ... Day 4: a Cheltenham photo gallery

All pictures taken in Cheltenham town centre this afternoon.

This is Cheltenham High Street today, looking pretty much as it does on any Friday afternoon. It's hard to imagine that most of the people in this photo have had no running water for four days.

And if you've seen the tabloid newspaper headlines and were afraid we might all be dying of cholera, as you can see, we're not. Seven days after the flood, which was the second "100 year flood" in three weeks, Cheltenham looked like its normal self. It was only the presence of lots of fire engines, army trucks and water tankers on the roads that showed things were not normal. Most shops were open, especially the small ones run by local people, though some of the big chains were closed presumably in decisions taken by absentee managers who don't know what it's actually like here. The cinema was closed but the music concerts at the pump room went ahead. The local buses were running. And the general mood on the streets is still chirpy. People were sitting at outdoor tables at caf├ęs. The lion's head fountain was on in Sandford Park (presumably running on river water) and people were sunning themselves on the lawns. There was a shop selling large buckets.

I wouldn't want to underplay the seriousness of the situation ... this is a place where people's homes and livelihoods have been wrecked, twice in some cases, and many people are going through one misery after another as they start to sort out the mess. But you won't see that many people feeling sorry for themselves. There's a contingent of whingers of course, but most people are taking responsibility for themselves and getting on with it.

St George's Street in the town centre. Residents desperate for water have tilted this bowser up on a police traffic cone to get the last few dregs out of it.

The Prontaprint shop on the Bath Road has bags of builder's sand piled up its doorway. Their shop has been flooded twice in the last three weeks. Last Friday when the floods were doing their worst there was a queue of 60 cars waiting for sandbags at the council's depot, so many had to resort to buying their own sand from builders' merchants.

A familiar sight in Cheltenham at the moment as businesses struggle to stay open ... Portaloos for staff lined up outside an office building. They are all padlocked so that the general public can't nip in and use them!

So far the council has not been able to get hold of any Portaloos for public use because there's a drastic shortage, but they're working on it. The town's economy is heavily reliant on tourism so we need our public bogs! And the police have threatened to arrest anyone who widdles in the street.

Vandalism is a part of British life these days even in a crisis. This bowser in Rodney Road has been "tagged".

Sign addressed to Severn Trent, our regional water company, taped to the bowser in Rodney Road.

I think whoever put this here is being a bit harsh. Yes there is a shortage of water and it's frustrating (north Gloucestershire is running on 5% of its usual water consumption) but I honestly don't think Severn Trent could have done much more to prepare for the current unprecedented situation, and for the most part they have done a fantastic job in trying to deal with it. Of course there are many things they could have done better but flippin' heck, look at the scale of what they're faced with.

The River Chelt just round the back of Royal Well Lane, still a bit lively and murky but behaving itself. It's what's known as a "flashy" river ... it isn't very big or deep but it's prone to swelling up very, very suddenly, taking surges of rainwater off the Cotswold hills from other nearby brooks. There's still some debris here left over from the flooding. That panel you can see appears to be a kitchen cupboard door.

These houses in Little Bayshill Terrace have the River Chelt running right round them and against their perimeter walls, so it's no wonder they still have a few sandbags piled up on the wall. You can't really see it in this pic, but there is a Siamese cat sitting in the top left window.

Thursday 26 July 2007

Floodblog ... Day 3

I've posted some odd pictures on my blog, but this is a first. This is me taking an 'al fresco' shower on the patio this afternoon during a torrential downpour.

OK, it may look like a daft thing to do ... but after three days with no water and only being able to "wash" myself with a packet of cosmetic facial wipes (the only thing Tesco's had left), just standing there with all that water tipping out of the sky all over me was the most exhilarating experience I've had in years.

And why not? It's wet. It's clean-ish. Why waste it? I actually feel clean now for the first time since the weekend. It's wonderful.

The only trouble was, when I came back in the house to change back into my dry clothes I found somebody else had got there first.

Frivolity aside, the heavy rain was the last thing we needed right now. It won't have helped the emergency services in their efforts to pump out the Mythe water works, nor will it have done any favours for the swollen rivers, nor the morale of people who are wading through their living rooms.

So, it's Day 3 and we're managing fine ... in fact life is getting more comfortable as we settle into a routine with the water management. The first night I couldn't sleep because I was fretting about how we were going to cope for a whole fortnight with no water. But now I have a better awareness of how much water we need and how much we have stored and how often we need to replenish it, I'm not worried at all. We don't currently have enough to last us through, but we're not thinking that far ahead ... we've suddenly developed a mentality where as long as we're OK from one day to the next we don't worry about the longer term. And actually that new mindset really lifts my spirits and makes life in general seem less of a burden. I assume it's the same for others too because there's quite a mood of chirpiness in Cheltenham at the moment, despite the fears expressed in news reports that we may soon all be keeling over from stress.

There is light in the tunnel for Ian and me anyway. I'm booked to do a radio interview in Tamworth on Sunday to promote my forthcoming album so we'll be able to take all our empty water bottles up there for refilling.

I've been following a partially self-sufficient lifestyle for years out of nothing more than a kind of hippyish idealism, but right now I'm reaping huge dividends from it. While fresh food is in short supply in the shops we can make more use of garden fruit and vegetables and leave the stuff in Tesco's for those who need it more. We have plenty of collected rainwater which is clean enough for some basic washing and cleaning needs, which minimises the amount of stored tap water we have to use. We're not totally self-sufficient in the current crisis, but near enough. There's just the two of us in the house, we're healthy and able-bodied and we don't have kids, so it's been easy for us to adapt and fend for ourselves. And we have a car, so if it became intolerable we could just leave. Not everyone here is having such an easy time of it. Radio Gloucestershire put out an appeal today on behalf of a woman desperate to borrow someone's washing machine because she looks after "a number of incontinent people".

The army are still giving out thousands of bottles of water in supermarket car parks but we haven't needed that so far because we still have a few bottles of water we bought from Tesco's before the crisis. We've also avoided taking any more water from the bowser in the street while we still have some stocks of tap water, as there is a desperate shortage. And it IS true what they're saying on the news about the failure to refill them ... Severn Trent Water have said they're refilling them five times a day, but that is simply not happening. I hope things will improve now that they've admitted they're struggling and drafted the army in to help.

Bureaucracy continues to be one of the biggest obstacles round here. First they delayed the deployment of the bowsers because of health and safety regulations. Today it emerged that Gloucester City Council were sticking doggedly to their normal policy of refusing to collect any domestic rubbish bags which are not placed inside the regulation wheelie bins. Trouble is, the enterprising (and desperate) people of Gloucester have been rigging up plastic sheeting and whatever else they can find to collect rainwater and funnel it into their wheelie bins so that they can flush their toilets. For many of them their wheelie bin is the only large receptacle they have available for collecting and storing rainwater. It's really quite scary that the regulations designed to protect public health are so rigidly applied they become a threat to public health in their own right.

Out on the streets of Cheltenham at 11 o'clock this evening it was almost deserted, and the few cars out and about didn't seem to be in any hurry, not even the taxis. There were a couple of late-night dogwalkers, and a pickup truck parked on the main road where a bloke was delivering water bottles to a couple of elderly ladies at the roadside.

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Floodblog ... Day 2

On the menu tonight ... damsons from our very own trees

When I worked in publishing I used to read The Bookseller, a trade magazine for publishers, bookshops and librarians, and one of its most entertaining features was the annual Oddest Title of the Year award. This year the prize went to The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America, which pipped the favourite, How Green Were The Nazis? However, my favourite of the past winners was this gem back in the 80s: How to Shit in the Woods, an Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art. I've never seen the book, but if somebody set up a stall in Gloucestershire selling copies of it now, I think they would move like something off a shovel.

Similarly the webmasters of Composting Toilet World and How To Make and Use a Simple "Sawdust" Toilet must be getting a surge of hits from the north Cotswold area at the moment.

It's not something I've ever had to think about in all my 38 years, but one thing I have learned in the past couple of days is that however magnificent a contraption the common water closet may be, when it doesn't have a supply of water it's not only useless, it's potentially a liability.

Yesterday there was a desperate shortage of drinking water. Today it's bog water. Unfortunately a lot of people in the area are having to use emergency supplies of drinking water to fill up their toilet cisterns, which has led to even more desperate shortages. Many people (and I think it's probably worse up the road in Gloucester than it is here) are wandering around for hours trying to find a bowser that isn't empty. The bowsers are clearly marked with the instruction that their contents are to be used for drinking water only, and when you see how small they are and what a large population is dependent on each of them that makes sense ... but people still need to flush their toilets. Gardeners with brimming rainwater butts are living in relative luxury, and have the additional option to wee in the compost to minimise toilet use. If you live in a town centre flat or a house with only a small courtyard garden (as tens of thousands here do) ... what the hell do you do?

But for the moment our hearts go out to the people of Oxford, Abingdon and other places along the Thames whose flood nightmare is just beginning. I saw an Oxford allotment site completely under water on the BBC news today and really felt for the gardeners who had tended those plots, though in the great scheme of things it seems petty to grieve over lost vegetables.

And as difficult as it is for us, we are doing all right. The water has been off for 48 hours but we still have drinking water, fresh food, clean clothes and hot meals. Not to mention a dry house, which makes me feel guilty when I see pictures of the inundation people are dealing with just a few miles away. The garden is providing us with supplementary fresh food, even if we can't live entirely off it. Right now I'm tucking into a fantastic damson trifle which Ian made today ... we have a temporary shortage of raspberries but damsons are in great supply and can be stewed with only the teeniest splosh of water. We even managed to do a small batch of washing up today, so it will be a delight to have clean cups for tomorrow morning's cup of tea.

And despite the garden looking rather sorry for itself on the whole, I'm still getting nice surprises. Although previously ravaged by slugs and pelted flat by the rain, this new pea flower just appeared as if out of nowhere.

It's a variety called Taiwan Sugar which Patrick gave me, and although he told me it had pink flowers I wasn't execting them to be quite like this. I assumed they'd be the same two tone pink as the purple podded varieties. So I was rather delighted by their unusual candy pink colour, a nice little burst of cheerfulness on a grey day. Thanks Patrick!

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Floodblog ... Day 1

This bowser is our sole water supply ... my husband Ian filling up bottles there this morning

Well, I'm still here ... and for that I'm exceedingly grateful to the Fire & Rescue services and army and navy units who worked through the night knee-deep in floodwater to save our power supply. Last night we were afraid we would lose it as the Walham power station was only two inches from total inundation, but they managed to rescue it. It is pretty stupid that most of the population of north Gloucestershire is reliant on a single substation, and for that matter a single water works, but there you go.

All credit to those involved in the relief effort though. Within hours of our tap water running dry there was a bowser tank installed on the corner of the street, about 200 yards away from us. It's not ideal, and we still have nothing to wash in because this water is for drinking only, but when you consider the scale of the problem (and it probably is difficult to imagine the scale of it unless you're here) there is a sense that the emergency services are doing everything they can to help as many people as possible, and we're just sitting it out.

The weather was lovely here today, which made the crisis seem a bit unreal, and there were people out mowing their lawns. There has been a near constant wail of emergency vehicle sirens though since Friday when the first floods came. Not much activity in the street, except for people walking up and down with water bottles to collect supplies. Round here at least, people were just collecting as much as they could carry on foot, no more than a couple of 2-litre bottles. I didn't see any selfish gits filling the boots of their cars with huge containers. But even so, some of the bowsers in our neigbourhood had run dry by the end of the day. They are not all that big, and there's such a large population here with no water. Well, about 100,000 in Cheltenham alone, though we spoke to a couple of friends today on the east side of town who haven't been cut off yet.

It's a bit strange getting used to the absence of water. We have a few bottles of tap water we collected yesterday while we still had it, and we're using that for cups of tea and teeth-cleaning. Drinking water is not a problem yet as we have a few bottles of mineral water and other drinks stashed away. But we can't really do any washing up, so tea is made with fresh water in unwashed cups. And we can only wash our hands by dipping them in an ice-cream tub of not-terribly-clean water. No chance of laundry, nor of more than a cursory wash.

My main job for today was to decant rain water from all the flower pots I could find in the garden into a watering can, which was then transferred into a bucket for flushing the toilet. I then spread out the empty pots and containers on the patio table to catch as much as possible of the forecast deluge tomorrow. We need as much rainwater as we can collect. The toilet is the main issue, and we found the hard way that it takes a lot of water to flush it. We only have what's in the rainwater butt, and can't afford to waste it. So it's not possible to flush the toilet more than once or twice a day at most. I've taken the precaution of digging a makeshift earth closet in the garden which may work better, although we haven't resorted to it yet. A pee bucket has also been pressed into service.

This evening for dinner we had a baked beetroot from the garden (ideal because you don't have to wash it, just cook it in foil and peel the skin off before serving) and some boiled potatoes, which were a luxury because I had to use some water to cook them (a minimal amount though, if you cut them up small). Dinner was a tiny bit gritty with earth from the unwashed root vegetables, but that's OK. I tried to reuse the hot potato water to wash up my tea cup, which turned out to be a bad move. Still, that's one advantage of having to harvest all my potatoes early to escape the blight ... I have a very welcome cupboard full of them. The garden is suddenly turning out to be a godsend, providing us with fresh food and rainwater. We're very lucky, because so many people here live in flats. I've no idea how they're coping.

We ventured out to Tesco's at half past nine this evening (it's a 24-hour one) to see what we could find in the way of provisions. We didn't expect to find much, to be honest. We walked there, partly because I wanted to exercise my bad foot (now healing well). The streets were very quiet.

No bread in Cheltenham ... this is the bakery aisle of our big Tesco's superstore this evening.

It was fairly predictable what they'd run out of. Bread. Sandwiches. Disposable plates. Baby wipes. Anti-bacterial surface wipes. Buckets and bowls. In the kiddies' holiday toys section buckets were sold out while spades stayed resolutely on the shelf. Other than that it looked pretty much like a normal stock of stuff. Scented candles and exotically fragranced bath oil seemed strangely out of place, beautifully bright and colourful on the shelf but about as useful in the current situation as a chocolate teapot. It's quite weird knowing that everyone else in the shop, and in the whole town, is in the same situation. Nobody is buying bath products, because nobody has a working bath. I could hear people laughing and joking about having to resort to medieval-style toilet facilities. But of course they're not joking, and the humour comes from the shared experience.

There weren't many people in there panic-buying. The man behind us in the checkout queue was buying a single box of Frosties. Luxury and cosmetic goods didn't seem to be selling very well, so no shortages there. But I was impressed to see they did still have about a dozen (rationed) bottles of organic milk. We left that though, because we still have some milk in the freezer and others will need it far more than we do. I did selfishly grab the penultimate bottle of disinfectant though. And we found some plastic cups. Remarkably, they were stocking themselves up with a mountainous stash of bottled water, which is a good sign because it's been very hard to get so far. Earlier in the day the army were dishing out rationed water bottles in the car park outside (six litres each) and yesterday in the supermarkets people were so desperate they were nicking it out of each other's trolleys.

There was no spirit of meanness in there tonight though. In fact it felt very relaxed, and not at all like the frantic cattle market it is on a normal day. Everywhere you looked people were smiling. Nobody was in any rush, or showing any stress, just sauntering around seeing what was available. It was so much nicer than it usually is! People can be so selfish and horrible when preparing for an imminent crisis but as soon as the crisis becomes a reality they all start talking nicely to each other and smiling. In some strange ways Cheltenham is a nice place to be at the moment.

Some people are not very bothered

Monday 23 July 2007

And it gets worse ...

Ahem ... well we seem to have something of a national emergency going on around here. There's no floods to worry about in our part of town but the devastation in neighbouring areas is terrible. Our water supply has stopped and we're likely to be without it for quite a while (peeing in the compost and washing in the rainwater butt, I guess). Power and internet access are still on for the moment, so we're very fortunate. There are people only a few miles away who are being evacuated because their homes have been wrecked.

If you've seen pictures on the UK national news of the army trying to build an emergency dam around an electricity substation ... well, that's ours. If that goes I'll be going quiet for a bit.

Sunday 22 July 2007

Blimey, what a week

The weather here has gone really silly over the past week and our town has been flooded. We only have a tiny river running through Cheltenham but it's fed by streams coming down off the Cotswolds and after heavy rain it can swell to flood levels within a couple of hours. Not helped by the fact that it mostly runs through narrow hidden culverts underneath the streets. And being a spa town, with underground streams and springs all over the place already, there's not really anywhere for the surplus water to go.

I'm rather disturbed to hear that the 200-year-old Playhouse Theatre (which I know and love intimately because I used to work in it) has been inundated. They've had to cancel two shows, and have lost loads of precious irreplaceable costumes. I really feel for them, because the place is run almost entirely by volunteers and they put so much love and hard work into it. Before the building was a theatre it was a swimming pool ... the stage is built over the deep end and the auditorium seating rakes up towards the shallow end. The deep part of the pool under the stage is used as a props and furniture store and I always used to love going down there because it still has its full compliment of colourful Art Nouveau ceramic tiles ... a beautifully preserved 1890s swimming bath completely hidden from public view below a hidden trapdoor. Well now the pool once again has water in it. There's a lot more of the building even below that; it was originally built in 1807 as a laboratory for extracting the salts from mineral waters (to be flogged off in little jars at an inflated price for medicinal purposes) and there was an elaborate system of underground channels in place to pipe the healing waters directly from various spas in the vicinity. This network of channels apparently still exists and runs for some considerable distance under the town. I'm not sure what happens if they get filled up with floodwater. I wouldn't want to be living on top of one of the old closed-up spas.

We're lucky that we live far enough away from the river that it didn't directly affect us when it burst its banks on Friday. But we had some flooding from the incredibly heavy rain, hopefully nothing too serious. It leaked through the roof into a not-much-used pantry area at the back of the house ... it soaked the walls and the carpet but it was only a manky old bit of carpet anyway and we don't keep anything too precious out there. The extent of the damage is hard to assess at the moment because it's quite dark in there and we dare not put the light on with water leaking through the ceiling.

But at any rate I was not in a position to do much about the roof leak on Friday other than stick a plastic tub under the worst of the drips and hope for the best ... and that's because the previous day (when it was actually hot and sunny) I fell over in the garden and twisted my foot, just by stepping awkwardly on the edge of the garden path. It swelled up quite badly and left me unable to walk. It's on the mend now and I can walk about, but I'm still feeling rather sore and I have a bruise on my foot which closely matches the colour of my purple pea pods.

Now we're being told that we may lose our water and power supplies over the next few days as emergency repairs are carried out. Our local water treatment works was evacuated in the early hours of this morning because of severe flooding, and they're talking about imminent water shortages while they sort out the damage.

Today I went outside and looked at the garden for the first time since the deluge and the soil looks like a river bed! The water's drained off OK but there are swirls of sand and silty deposits through the vegetable plots and some of the plants are covered in mud. No significant damage but it adds to the overall messiness of the garden this year. Harrumph.

Thursday 19 July 2007

Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast

White beetroot, a modern version of a centuries old variety called Albina Vereduna, and two 19th century varieties, Golden with orange skin and yellow flesh, and the curiously exotic Egyptian Turnip Rooted.

This week I've made the first of what I hope will be many appearances on the Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast, presented by Emma of Fluffius Muppetus.

I'm going to be doing a few reviews of different heritage vegetables and suggesting the best varieties to look out for. This week I'm looking at heritage beetroot of assorted colours and shapes, including the three in the photos.

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Digging into some heritage

It's always lovely to receive home-grown produce from friends' gardens, but I was particularly excited to be given this exceedingly fine lemon. It was lovingly grown in fluffysgarden, half a world away in southern California. I know Fluffystuff's husband through our mutual involvement in a music website, and although we've never met in the real world my friend Caroline recently went over there to visit them and brought back some lemons from the trees in their garden. Fluffystuff has recently started her own gardening blog and already has lots of interesting stuff on it, so she's well worth a visit.

Meanwhile, apologies to everyone who I owe emails to, or whose blogs I've not commented on for a while ... I am catching up very slowly. I was away last week visiting my parents because my mum has recently been into hospital. She's fine now and recovering well, but that's why you may not have seen much of me for the last couple of weeks.

While I was there I came across this old photograph of my mum doing some digging in her mum's garden in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset. It was taken some time in the 1950s. My grandmother was a keen vegetable gardener and kept a plot going for most of her life. Looks like she had a good crop of brussels sprouts that year.

One of the treats of visiting my parents is my dad's incredible book collection, which includes several bound volumes of The Illustrated London News from the mid-19th century. I really can't get enough of those books. The social history and human interest is incredible, and often keeps me up reading into the small hours, unable to stop. I can't say "unable to put down" because these are books you couldn't pick up in the first place – they are huge. The Illustrated London News was the first fully illustrated newspaper in the world and reported on things of everyday concern to the British public in Victorian times: shipwrecks, murders, travel news, the building of new churches and asylums, ladies burning themselves to death by standing too close to the fire in their crinoline skirts (which happened so frequently you wonder why they didn't just stand further away or wear a more sensible material) and adverts for Ford's Eureka Shirts and fly exterminator. It also included occasional horticultural nuggets. Like the Horticultural Society (now the RHS) fete in their experimental garden at Chiswick House (complete with this lovely woodcut engraving) from the newspaper of 14th July 1849, which reported that "The prevailing fruits were strawberries, grapes, peaches and pineapples; and there were one or two raspberry trees of most luxuriant growth."

Raspberry trees? That's a new one on me!

An early RHS flower show, from The Illustrated London News of 14th July 1849

It also reported on this novel gadget for improved strawberry cultivation ... anyone tried something like this?

"Much curiosity was excited at the Exhibition by some novel tiles, which the Managing Committee of the Horticultural Society have adopted in their grounds, for the cultivation of strawberries. These tiles when applied to the plant completely lift the fruit about three inches from the ground, out of the reach of dirt and vermin, and act as a protection against the injurious effects of heavy rains, by admitting the water to run under, instead of over their surface, as is the case with the common flat tile. The substance of the tiles, by absorbing the heat of the sun, and retaining it during night, also accelerates the ripening of the fruit; while, at the same time, they prevent undue evaporation from the root of the plant during very dry weather. Some specimens were exhibited of strawberries cultivated upon this contrivance by Mr. Myatt, of Deptford, to whom the society awarded their certificate of merit. The contrivance is registered, and is the invention of Mr. John Roberts, of 34, East Cheap, City, who has likewise produced a tile for the more rapid ripening of the grape in the open air."

And finally for today, a heritage gardener's dinner plate. Two varieties of pea, Ne Plus Ultra (bright green) and Desiree (greyish green); two varieties of bean, Vermont Cranberry (flat pods) and Purple Queen (darker rounded pods). And the centrepiece: mauve mashed potato made from Salad Blue. I don't peel potatoes, so there are bits of the skin in it too, a deep midnight blue. Plus vegetarian sausages from Tesco's.

Monday 9 July 2007

Today in the garden .... some occasional bits of summer

It looks quite nice when the sun's on it, dunnit?

Despite weeks of torrential rain and blustery winds the garden doesn't take long to start looking summery when the sun finally comes out. There was some nice weather over the weekend and I managed to catch up on a lot of weeding, hacking, unchoking and fending off of encroaching brambles. Even so, the garden has a bit of a voluptuous feel to it this year, kind of hovering on the edge of being out of control. What you see in the above photo is the bottom end of the garden which is a bit on the rampant side (the very bottom where the trees are is completely wild anyway ... I leave all that to the faeries). The very tall spikes of pale blue flowers are clary sage (Salvia sclarea), an obscure medicinal herb which I grew from seed. It is beautiful, but I confess I had no idea it was so bloody enormous. I sowed it expecting it to be like the tame little shrubby things which provide us with sage and onion stuffing. The equally tall darker blue flowers behind it are aconite, or monkshood (Aconitum napellus), a very poisonous herb (grown for academic interest only, and for its beautiful flowers). Then there are the Somme poppies, which have completely subsumed two tomato plants and a row of carrots. There is actually a concrete garden path running somewhere up the middle, but I haven't seen it since April.

And here's a closer view of one of the Somme poppies, with some rather lovely deep red veining in its petals (most of them don't have this, but poppies are very diverse). The seeds for these came from one of several trips I made to the WW1 battlefields ... I collected them from the remains of a trench which was known to have been occupied by Wilfred Owen in 1917, near the French village of Serre. They are botanically the same as wild British poppies but tend to be much larger and deeper red. Poppies are highly attuned to the cycle of cornfield cultivation and will wait (for years if necessary) until the soil is dug over before they germinate. This super-sensitivity to soil disturbance is the real reason for the mass germination of poppies over the WW1 battlefields ... they assumed four years of being relentlessly pounded with mortar shells was a sign of very thorough cultivation. (I'm sure there's some deep philosophical lesson in that if I could be bothered to think it through properly.)

And lastly, the ginger peril. Doesn't he look cute? I let him have a rummage around in the shed the other day. He is a very naughty cat, but there's not much opportunity for him to do any damage in the shed, I thought.

Ha ha ha.

Somehow he managed to knock over a tin of emulsion paint. All over the lawnmower.

He's not allowed in the shed any more.

Heirloom beans

Climbing bean Caseknife outgrows its wigwam. This is a very old variety, known to have been in cultivation by 1820. It grows to about ten feet tall. D'oh!

It's really only when you delve into the world of heirloom/heritage beans that you realise just how boring the choice of beans is in most UK garden centres. It's not so bad for Americans, who are used to having a much more elaborate range. But in the UK you have to search around to find the interesting ones. Until a couple of years ago the ubiquitous Blue Lake was the only climbing variety you could find in most catalogues (it is a heritage variety though). Now there is a much better selection. But you still don't see many of the wonderful varieties intended for shelling out and eating the actual beans rather than the pods. These shelling types are often very beautiful, and so diverse.

Large beautiful flowers on Spagna Bianca, which masquerades as a butter bean

Last autumn I posted a picture of some "butter beans" called Spagna Bianca which I ordered from Seeds of Italy and am now in the process of growing. Butter beans are rarely grown in the UK because they're too tender for our climate, but I'm fairly confident this is not actually a butter bean. Neither is it a climbing French bean, which is what it says it is on the box (yes, these beans come in a box rather than a paper packet). French beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are easily recognised when they germinate because the bean itself rises out of the ground on a stalk and the seedling unfurls from it. With Spagna Bianca though, the seedling emerged straight from the soil and the bean stayed resolutely underground. So it's definitely not a French bean. It looks to me like a runner. It has runner-type leaves and flowers and growth habit. Gawdhelpus, it'll be cross-pollinating like billio with next door's crop.

Ah well, between us we'll end up with one heck of a gene pool.

And now for something completely different.

These really are French beans. From left to right: Purple Queen, Purple Prince, Early Warwick, Dog Bean.

Shortly after being photographed this exhibit was eaten. Purple Queen was probably the best tasting, but of course it lost the lovely purple colouring when cooked and turned a dull dark green. Dog Bean also had a nice refined flavour. Early Warwick had a really strong no-nonsense old-fashioned beany flavour, and a firmer texture and rougher surface than the others. Purple Prince had the least interesting pod flavour and was already a bit stringy, but that's not altogether surprising when this variety has been bred for its stunning and unusual purple beans rather than for eating the fresh pods. You can probably see in the photo that it has attractive slate blue mottling on the outside of the pod ... but this also disappears with cooking.

And here's another French bean still a way off being ready to pick ... Canadian Wonder, introduced around 1873, which has large rose-pink flowers and creamy buds and should eventually produce some nice dark red kidney beans.

Saturday 7 July 2007

Red, white and blue heritage potato harvest

Clockwise from bottom left: Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy, Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy Red, Witch Hill

Yesterday we actually had a period of about three hours between bouts of rain (wow!) so I went out and harvested all the Witch Hill potatoes and a few plants of each of my other heritage types. They are almost ready for harvest anyway, but this is kind of an emergency measure ... now that blight has arrived in the garden I need to gather some tubers before they get infected. I'm relying on home-saved tubers for my crops from year to year (because these varieties can't be obtained easily and certainly not as seed potatoes) so I need to rescue some smallish tubers which are still healthy enough to survive indoors till next spring. If the blight gets to them they'll rot in storage.

I've got a very nice colourful crop. None more so than Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy, which I'm growing for the third time and it continues to keep itself at the top of my favourites list. I still get an immense thrill from seeing these glowing pink white and purple swirly things appearing out of the soil and it remains the most striking looking potato I've ever seen. And it's thrived in my garden and given me abundant yields, all in beautiful condition. I'll be very interested to find out whether John shares my enthusiasm for it or not when he harvests his crop!

Witch Hill is a creamy white potato also known as Snowdrop. It's thought to have originated in the English midlands some time around the 1880s. It's a favourite of the staff at the Heligan Gardens (their raving about it in their book was the main reason I was so keen to try it) and apparently also beloved of those who maintain the spud National Collection.

My harvest of Witch Hill

If you were reading my blog last summer you may remember the measly collection of tiddly scabby spuds I got from last year's Witch Hill crop. It was pathetic. I'd bought them as microplants the year before and got only six tiny tubers to show for it. Those six tiny tubers grew into fairly decent plants but were relentlessly eaten down to the ground by slugs, resulting in the aforementioned scabby specimens, which at harvest time were barely enough to fill an eggbox. But I had high hopes that if I kept them and replanted them they would be big enough to produce a full size crop this year ... and they have. So, it's taken three seasons to get from microplant to decent yield, but I now have some very lovely Witch Hill potatoes and not a scab or a wireworm to be seen.

A lot of hassle for a potato crop? Yes. But Witch Hill, along with Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy and many other rare heritage potatoes, is only available in the form of microplants. In Europe it's illegal to sell seed potatoes of unregistered varieties such as these. They've only recently been made available thanks to Alan Romans who is taking advantage of a loophole in the law by selling them as ready-started plants rather than seeds, propagated in a laboratory to ensure they're virus-free. They can be found in several catalogues now including Thompson & Morgan, but they all originate from Alan Romans so you may as well save some cash by buying from him direct.

A closer view of Salad Blue and Highland Burgundy Red

Want to save your own seed potatoes to plant again next year? Here's what to do. When you harvest the crop, choose a few firm healthy ones which are about the size of a bantam's egg. (If that doesn't mean anything to you, think something a bit smaller than a hen's egg.) Size isn't really that important though ... the main thing is to select the ones that look as undamaged as possible. A few scabs aren't anything to worry about, but avoid any that are cut or nibbled by critters. Either leave them to dry and then brush the soil off, or wash them carefully, taking care not to harm the tiny sprout-buds in the eyes (they are fairly robust unless subjected to overzealous scrubbing). Allow them to dry and then put them in a bright place for several days to 'green' them up a little. A window sill or a dry place outdoors will do nicely. This process helps to trigger dormancy, so the spuds have a better chance of getting through the winter without premature sprouting. Then store them in a dark, dry, airy place till next year. What I usually do is put them in eggboxes, or arrange them upright in a cardboard box with some kind of packing material to separate them, such as shredded paper, hay or sawdust.

The bottom line is, potatoes are survivors. They will grow on compost heaps, at the bottoms of sacks, in wetness, in drought, in darkness and just about anywhere else. They can take root from peelings and cut tubers. I've had decent crops from even the most pathetic looking specimens.

I've read in various places that you shouldn't save your own seed potato tubers from year to year because they are likely to build up viruses and get worse and worse over time until the crop fails ... therefore you should buy new certified virus-free stock each year. There may be some wisdom in that, but personally I've been planting home-saved tubers for years and have never had any problems. If anything the plants do better because they're adapted to my garden.

All these will make nice seed potatoes for next year. Front row is Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy with Witch Hill behind.

Another thing I've done many times despite all the finger-wagging advice to the contrary is plant supermarket tubers, i.e. potatoes intended for consumption rather than seed. I've never had any problems with them and the biggest potato yield I ever had came from some Tesco's Desiree which I found sprouting in a bag in the pits of my vegetable rack. Many commercially available potatoes are quite boring so you may not want to plant them, but if you see something unusual and want to try growing it, I don't see why you shouldn't. My crops of Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy Red, Shetland Black and last year's Edzell Blue and Fortyfold all came from Waitrose. (And where do Waitrose get them? That'll be down to Alan Romans again. He is truly a crusader for the cause of heritage spuds.) My one tip is to buy them in the late summer or autumn when they're in season and store them overwinter yourself. That's because potatoes bought "fresh" in the spring may well be old ones which have been treated to stop them sprouting in storage. And Waitrose don't seem to stock the exciting heritage varieties in spring anyway, so if you don't buy them early enough you may miss out.

Potatoes have beautiful flowers! Highland Burgundy Red with Salad Blue in the background.

Thursday 5 July 2007

Today in the garden .... bleeuurrgh!

Wild white campion, grown from seed I collected locally, is one of the few things still looking good in the garden at the moment.

My garden is in a very sorry state at the moment. I have a few nice flower pictures taken over the last two or three weeks, and those will have to do for today's blog because the veg plots are a mess. Most of May and June had very turbulent weather, which has become far worse in the last week or two. It has been really bad for some people in the UK, so it seems churlish to complain about my vegetables when others have had their homes devastated ... but even so, I find it quite depressing to go out in the garden at the moment. (Quite apart from the risk of getting soaked.)

For a start I've been unable to get out there much to deal with routine jobs, so the lawn is like a hayfield and the weeds are springing up everywhere. But there's also a huge problem with disease which I've never had on this scale before. All over the vegetable beds, things are blighted, mouldy and rotting.

The pattern of the weather for the last couple of months has been constant warmth and frequent bursts of intense pelting rain. The rain barely has a chance to soak away before the next lot comes. Everything is soaking wet, pots need baling out on a daily basis, and some plants are being damaged by the force of the rain or the blustery winds. They're probably rather confused about what season it is, because they had a kind of 'summer' in April and it's been warm and wet ever since. But the biggest problem is that warmth and wet is the perfect environment for some of the worst bacterial and fungal diseases to thrive and spread. The most deadly of all these is blight, and yes – I now have blight in my garden.

Let's look at another pretty flower picture. This is Allium christophii with a California poppy growing up through it.

I don't ever recall having blight strike this early in the season. Last year it didn't come till September. So far it's only making itself manifest on a few potatoes, but once it starts to appear it's really only a matter of time before it devastates every potato and tomato in the whole garden. It's very frustrating, because even just a few years ago it wasn't really a problem. According to Alan Romans in his Potato Book, there used to be only one type of blight in Europe, which made only asexual spores. Then a second blight type arrived in a consignment of infected potatoes from Mexico. So now blight reproduces sexually and asexually and is really having a very jolly old time at the expense of potato and tomato growers. And all the while, whichever type it is, it's mutating like the clappers. The spores are wind-borne, so there's not really any way you can keep it out of your garden. **shakes fist**

Less devastating, but still very annoying, is the garlic rust. I picked off the worst affected leaves a few weeks ago, but now the remaining ones are completely encrusted and there's not much more I can do. The orange crusty bits turn black when they're about to release their spores, so I tried to pick off all the leaves with black bits as soon as they appeared ... and it seems to have helped, because the ones I picked the leaves off are thriving better than the ones I left alone. But even so, they are all in an appalling state. It shouldn't directly affect the bulbs underground, but plants need their leaves to provide nourishment, so a really bad rust attack can choke the plants and reduce bulb size. For some reason it's only affecting the hardneck garlic. I'm growing one softneck type, Solent Wight, and that's absolutely fine (though it never produces good sized bulbs in my garden anyway). I don't know whether softneck garlic is more rust resistant or whether it's a special property of Solent Wight.

Some plants are loving the warm wet weather. My crocosmia flowers are better than I've ever seen them. And also the Somme poppies ... most days the flowers have been pelted to smithereens by the rain but they have kept producing more ... and they're bigger and brighter than ever before. Poppies have a lot of variability in their flower size and colour depending on the growing conditions, and the moist soil obviously suits them.

Wild poppies from seed collected on the Somme. They are doing fabulously well this year.

My blogging is a bit sporadic at the moment because I'm getting very close to releasing my album at last, and it's all gone a bit manic. I've just been working on the final-final-final mixes – as opposed to the final and final-final mixes, because every time I listen to them I hear something else I want to change. Is that mandolin too loud? Would that vocal sound better panned to the left instead of the right? It can get quite obsessive. Of course if I was a rock star I would have somebody else do all this for me, but due to a combination of thriftiness and control freakery I am my own producer and engineer. But yesterday I sent off all the tracks to the record label (hurrah!) so I can't tinker with them any more. Not that that's the end of the hard work by any means ... I still have all the legal and marketing stuff to deal with. Tsk ... I thought being a musician meant I'd be able to sit around strumming a guitar all day, but it's actually just as much work as being a graphic designer. (Oh, and that's my next job ... because I'm an ex-graphic designer I'm doing my own CD booklet design too. Aaargh!)