A long walk, guided again through side streets and suburbs in the ongoing hunt for blue plaques. What else to do in South Manchester lockdown? We started with the simple terrace houses built over the fields where Louis Paulhan (1883-1963) landed a Farman Biplane, marking the first flight between London and Manchester on 28 April 1910.
He was one of two contestants in what sounds like an epic race for £10,000 offered by the Daily Mail, beating Claude Grahame-White (despite his perilous first lift-off at night) to the prize. Wikipedia has this lovely quote from Paulhan rescued from behind the NY Times paywall:
I shouted and I sang. I do not think my voice is particularly fascinating, but nobody seems to mind that in the upper air. A pelting rainstorm lashed me for twenty minutes while I was in the neighborhood of Rugby. Fortunately I am not unused to flying in the rain, and, therefore, although it was uncomfortable, it had no effect upon my flight. I kept on flying at a steady pace, although my altitude varied remarkably. (Louis Paulhan)
We saw also the massive home of Daniel Adamson (1820-1890), engineer and lead promoter of the Manchester Ship Canal. It is now a conference kind of centre, hidden in the depths of a modern business park of overwhelming amounts of blue green glass, manicured lawns, and no way out but the main entrance. We did try, but failed. We walked on to the Croft, now part of Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden, where lived Emily Williamson (1855-1936), founder of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The gardens are beautiful, especially in May though we just missed the height of the azaleas. A bit of the history:
The Old Parsonage is the second oldest building in Didsbury after St James’ Parish Church, which is on the opposite side of Stenner Lane; it dates from around 1650. Although now called the ‘Parsonage’ (previous names were ‘Ash House’ and ‘Spring Bank’) it has only ever been lived in by two of the church ministers. A map of 1851 shows it joined to the Olde Cock Inn.The Moss family lived in the house from 1865 as tenants, eventually buying it in 1884 for £4000. In 1915 Fletcher Moss gifted the house and gardens, along with the house and gardens at ‘The Croft’ (on Millgate Lane), to the City of Manchester on condition he could live in there for the remainder of his life; he died in 1919.
Much of the present layout of the gardens is the result of the work of Fletcher Moss and his mother.
There is also a note to the fact that the parsonage was believed to be haunted. Sadly we saw no ghost, but were instead bowled over with admiration for the wondrous carving of Bender astride a winged beast on one of the garden benches.
We continued back, passed the house of Robert Howard Spring (1889-1965), Welsh journalist and novelist (but unread by me I’m afraid).
We passed protest over housing in this time of Covid-19…silent words sent through banners and hand drawn flyers flyposted on bus stops.
On to the lovely library, which stands near the site where Prince Rupert and his Royalist army camped on their way to the battle of Marston Moor in Yorkshire, on the 2nd of July 1644. I’m not sure quite why this has a plaque, nor how much this makes history come alive. Hard to imagine an army able to camp here on the open ground of ‘Barloe More’. Prince Rupert of the Rhine was 23, headstrong and impatient, he would go one to fight in one horrific European war after another, help found the Hudson Bay company, raid as a privateer in Caribbean waters and make money from the slave trade, become a colonial governor of Canada. I suppose you can’t fit all of that on a plaque.
We came to a road marked private–I hate private roads, even when this is marked by signs in a lovely art nouveau style. this marks the Broadway conservation area, an odd road uneasy where it sits, an old attempt at enclave.
The avenue and the properties on each side of it were designed as a complete entity and built by Emmanuel Nove, an emigré from the Ukraine who had arrived in Manchester in the mid 1890s. After setting up a firm of builders he first constructed Grove Terrace, Burton Road, Withington and in the 1920s he constructed Nos. 6-14a Oxford Road near the city centre.
Each of the properties in Old Broadway has a different appearance, but there is a certain continuity brought about by features and details common to the period, when the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements were in vogue. The internal layout of each of the properties, however, is remarkably similar.
It is understood that the superior quality of the houses made them popular with doctors who worked at, and were required to live within four miles of, Manchester Royal Infirmary.
Immigrant success story? I suppose it has always been easy to cash in on the desire for segregation and exclusivity.
From there on to Ladybarn Lane, which I do love. Here you can actually see the survivors of the old village now swallowed by the suburb and student housing.
I didn’t read the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili properly, eyes drooping amidst its turgid misogyny and lengthy OCD descriptions of classical architecture, sculpture and tits…I realised I had many better things to do. But I skimmed along, I liked the pictures (lol). Glasgow University Library has a great blog on it, they liked the pictures too:
Arguably the most beautiful book of the Venetian Renaissance… Published in 1499 by the renowned printer Aldus Manutius, this magnificently crafted volume is illustrated with 172 woodcuts by an unknown artist.
So…beautiful to look at, but some choice quotes of the reactions of others Glasgow University collected:
The overall literary merit of this work is debatable, and some critics have dismissed it as unreadable. Certainly it is written in an odd hybrid of Latin vocabulary imposed upon Italian syntax; this idiosyncratic language would probably have been as difficult for sixteenth century readers as it is today.
That’s actually pretty cool, if only the content merited it.
Liane Lefaivre, for instance, suggests that it is in many ways a nondescript example of ‘a highly stylized genre’. Professor Weiss, meanwhile, declared it to be ‘a serious runner up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature’.
IT IS SO BORING. But laid out rather beautifully as they say (on the right is an absurd statue that gets like two pages of absurdly erotic description — the priapic satyr? Yikes):
But I pulled out a few bits that weren’t totally boring, it does have lots to interest the gardener or aficionado of medieval clothing. I’d bought it on a whim from a used bookstore years ago, and thought after reading the Decameron (1353) I’d give it a go in this great time of lockdown.
It totally justifies some of Boccaccio’s ill will towards the Venetians.
Like Boccaccio too, it is obsessed with the ancients in all things, looking backwards always for inspiration. But being of its time, there are some choice passages on the plague, near the very end. The first book is Poliphilo wandering in a strange (yet strangely familiar) land. I liked the tiny second book stuck at the end which actually gives the history of Polia and Poliphilo the best to be honest.
These are the words of Polia, the object of the protagonist’s desire (it’s all in the name to be sure).
Very soon after this there occurred a great carnage affecting people of every age and condition. They were infected through the corrupted air by a contagious and deadly plague, and a great multitude died. Dreadful terror and alarm spread over the sickly earth, and people were struck by mortal fear. Everyone sought safety outside the city and took flight to the suburbs and country regions. Such a dreadful mass of people was exterminated that it was suspected that the fetid south wind had brought the plague from humid Egypt, where at the flooding of the turbid Nile the fields are strewn with a multitude of dead animals that putrefy and stink, and that these had infected the air. …
Ah Europeans, always blaming plagues on the dark continents and the whims of nature rather than commerce. She continues:
Due to my own frail and malignant fate, I found myself afflicted by a tumour in the groin. I besought the highest gods, on the chance that they would grant me recovery, while the spreading infection of the plague in my groin gravely weakened me. Because of this everyone deserted me, and I was left behind, except by my nurse, the kindest and best of women, who stayed to care for me and to witness my last breath and the departure of my spirit. Afflicted by the grave malady, raving and wandering, I uttered incoherent words and many a groan and lamentation. But turning inwards I did the best I could, and sincerely invoked the help of divine Diana, because I had as yet no notion of other gods and no religion but of this goddess. So I uttered many a single minded prayer in my trembling voice, and vowed myself to her cold and sacred chastity, promising in my tormented state that I would be her devotee and ever serve her religiously in her sacred temples, in strict continence, if only she would save me from this deadly contagion and sickness. (378-88)
Seems fair enough that after that she would then reject the advances of Poliphilo — also against him is the fact that he is possibly the most annoying, boring man alive, as his lengthy writing style proves beyond doubt. Sadly, he wrote the book, chose the ending, and this is clearly male wish fulfillment at its finest:
Then the fearless nymph turned to me, with her placid and charming presence showing every sign of kindness, and with a sigh uttered hotly from the bottom of her inflamed heart she spoke thus: ‘Dearest and best beloved Poliphilo, your ardent and excessive desire and your constant and persistent love have altogether stolen me away from the college of chastity, and forced me to extinguish my torch….it has cost me no small fire to keep it hidden and concealed in me, and so long suppressed. … A love so worthy should not be left unrequited and denied equal reciprocation and recompense; and consequently I am all prepared for your inflamed desires.
You may throw up just a little in your mouth here and yet it goes on
Look: I feel the fire of fervent love spreading and tingling throughout my whole being. Here I am, the end of your bitter and frequent sighs. Here I am, dearest Poliphilo, the healing and instant remedy of your grave and vexing pains. Here I am, a ready consort for your amorous and bitter suffering and a sharer in everything. Here I am with my profuse tears to quench your burning heart, and to die for you promptly and most devotedly.
And as proof of it, take this!’ She hugged me close and gave me, mouth to mouth, a luscious biting kiss full of divine sweetness, and also a few pearls in the form of tearlets, wrung by singular sweetness from her starry eyes. Inflamed from head to foot by her charming speech and by the mouth-watering and delicious savour, I dissolved in sweet and amorous tears and lost myself completely. Likewise the sacrificial President and all the others, moved with sudden emotion, could not contain their tears and sweet sighs (216-17).
Tearlets? Vomitous. At least she did try to get rid of him. I quite liked this illustration:
She’s refused him, he collapses, she drags him off to a dark corner of Diana’s Temple where he lies dead for a few days. This could have been an awesome feminist murder mystery, an early example of medieval noir.
But no. She had to change her tune, go back for him, bring him to life (of a kind) with her tears and kisses, and become a sacrificial sex doll of a woman.
That’s what counts for a plot.
There are also numerous monsters, this could have been a great medieval bestiary. I liked these drawings too:
But the skinks are too small, unicorns pull carriages and are consumed for dinner, and there is no mayhem whatsoever.
Instead this is mostly an ‘erotic’ yet somehow still boring tale of architecture, sculpture, gardens — and I love all three of these things and yet, god its boring. The illustrations are far and away the best thing about it. Here is one of the less boring descriptions of columns:
The reason that flutings were used for the temple of a goddess is that they represented the folds of feminine garments, while the capitals placed upon them with their hanging volutes indicated the braided hair of women and their ornaments. The Caryatids, which have a female head for the capital, were made for the temple of a rebellious people after their subjugation, because of their feminine inconstancy, whose perpetual memory was signified by columns thus constructed (49)
Thanks a lot.
I did like the sense of what the greatest possible imaginable luxury was of this time though, as well as menus for fine dining:
All the utensils or instruments at this supreme and splendid table were of fine gold, as was the round table in front of the Queen. Now a cordial confection was presented, which I think I am right in saying was a healthy compound made mostly of powdered unicorn’s horn, the two kinds of sandalwood, ground pearls in brandy set alight so as to dissolve them completely, manna, pine-nuts, rosewater, musk and powdered gold: a very precious mixture, weighed and pressed out in morsels with fine sugar and starch. We were given two servings of this, at a moderate interval and without drinking in between. It is a food for preventing every harmful fever and for dispelling all sorrowful fatigue.
After this, everything was taken away in an instant: the fragrant violets were scattered on the ground and the table was stripped. No sooner was this done than the table was covered once more with a sea-coloured cloth, and all the servants were wearing the same. Then, as before, they covered it with fragrant flowers of citrine, orange and lemon, and then presented in vases of beryl (and the Queen’s table was of the same stone, except for the forks, which were of gold) five cakes or fritters made from saffron-coloured dough with hot rosewater and sugar, cooled and finely sprinkled with the same musk-flavoured water and with powdered sugar. (108)
That is quite a meal, though it’s health-giving benefits seem debatable.
I did love the illustrations of classical ruins:
Indeed, the classical motif runs throughout stretching back to Egypt — there are any number of obelisks in here. That was curious.
These ‘hieroglyphics’ are awesome too, a medieval reimagining of the scripts of earlier time.
I also greatly loved these views into homes — bearing out just how different medieval homes were to ours, how much more bare with their furniture along the walls:
But with massive beds (also, love this perspective, and look at the ducks pulling the carriage! Awesome.):
And CATS. Or is that a dog?
And I did, of course I did, love the illustrations of gardens. It is splendid in illustrating medieval gardens.
Particularly this knotwork patterned garden with a list of what should be planted there: cyclamen, myrtle, mountain hulwort, wild thyme, laurentiana, tarragon, achillea, groundsel, idiosmo, terrambula, hazelwort, wild nard, golden-hair. I would like to make one.
I couldn’t recommend you read it, but a good skim through the pictures — excellent.
Colonna, Francesco (or maybe not) ( 2005) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream, translated by Joscelyn Godwin. London: Thames & Hudson.
London this weekend. Friday night cocktails in the Gilbert Scott (cocktails I dream of, my favourite place). A trip out to Becontree to see the Harry Hausen exhibit at the Valence House Museum — which I loved. I mean, the Dagenham Idol is there. I finally got to see Becontree Estate, a landmark council housing estate where they moved everyone from the East End during the slum clearances, and which I had read about in Willmott & Young. So much bigger than I expected though I knew it was big, sprawling, lots of variety in building and some designs I had never seen before, yet it does feel very much the same. Lots of green. We walked and ate ice cream in perfect weather. We saw goslings but also two rats in the park. I suppose they should be allowed their springtime frolics in the grass like everyone else. Then meeting up with China and Rosie for Guggenheim celebrations and lots of catching up. Rosanne Rabinowitz’s book launch and a book of short stories I am so looking forward to, a poteen and ancient pram, followed by a stack of potato pancakes and a giant meat ball at Elephant and Castle. A Sunday morning wander to find everything closed, and Kew gardens with the rhododendrons in full bloom and the trees — so many wonderful trees. Giant victorian greenhouses, the alpine flowers all in full bloom too, and my favourites. Some poppies, so I got a little bit of home.
The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.
Ah, the Lower East Side…
For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.
I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?
As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.
We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.
I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.
I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.
Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.
A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.
I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:
On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:
Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:
And finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.
I worried that moving north would make the tradition of bluebell hunting on my birthday much harder, and I was right, but on the 22nd of April we still found lots of them, though it seemed perhaps they weren’t quite at their height.
The walk from Altrincham to Durham Massey also wasn’t quite a country walk, but it had its moments.
From the town:
With its suspicious great-coated highwaymen and thieves:
I confess, though, I love these few weeks when we get to walk softly through a world of flower petals:
We had a bit of country lane before arriving at the deer park crawling with human beings (and a few highly indifferent deer):
I confess I didn’t love the house (once belonging to the Earls of Warrington and then Stamford) so much as the old brick outbuildings — some of them from the original Elizabethan period I imagine, like the mill:
The stables (and everything being surrounded by such beautiful stretches of water really helps):
These are places of work, unlike the ostentation of the house which is a thing of Empire. And if you weren’t sure, they immortalised a black figure right dead centre in front of it to remind you:
Not a slave, the plaque is quick to proclaim, but a moor. Cemented into eternal service.
We were there for the bluebells though, I admit I should have chosen a wilder wood, with no memories of slavery and long stretches of bluebells to be stumbled across at will, but ah well. They were beautiful here none the less.
The other spring flowers were also stunning, they have truly done a wonderful job making this a winter/early spring garden with color lasting beyond all of the crocuses and most of the daffodils, but before many of the other flowers are yet out.
The new foliage of the trees:
We walked back to Navigation Road station along the Bridgewater Canal.
Returning to both Victorian industrial splendour in the shape of these 1897 Linotype works (clearly being prepared for what I imagine will be more ugly luxury flats, but I am glad they are keeping the facades at least):
And some more modern splendours of ugliness:
We ended the day with Fast and Furious 8, which was a ridiculous and enjoyable as expected, though this AMC cinema always make me feel as though the apocalypse has already happened when we come in this entrance.
I remember this from my childhood, the great experiment to see if we could inhabit space under domes, live completely contained lives under glass. The great (although flawed) experiment here, here! Just outside of Tucson!
They couldn’t do it the way we hoped, the way I had read about in those Daw paperback novels with the yellow spines and the library’s mark of the atom, but the Biosphere II experiments taught so much…I remember the faces of the eight scientists who lived here for two years as seen through this glass. Way back between 1991 and 1993, way back.
I also remember them being a bit too celebrity-like, especially the women, looking at this picture I can see why I might have thought so.
Yet all these years and I had never managed to visit — I even drove all the way up here once with my friend Samantha, but it was too expensive. Worth it? Yes, but too expensive when we just didn’t have the money. Too many things are that way in this country, rather damaging to many of the potential scientists out there. But I digress.
I confess I wasn’t too impressed by the presence of a lawn in a place studying sustainability, but I love the futuristic style.
It’s at it’s busiest between Christmas and New Year’s apparently, so we were able to walk through at our own pace rather than on the tour. I’m sure we missed some things that way, but I think I might have preferred it, we had more ability to avoid other people. Best of all, we were able to climb up to the higher dome that served the original inhabitants as library — until they no longer had the calories and the oxygen to make it up the stairs. They are some stairs, I hate how much I can feel the altitude now when I come home:
The views — stunning. Out over the rainforest pyramid, with administrative buildings and the Catalina foothills in the background:
Looking over the new soil experiments (called the Landscape Evolution Observatory) where the old agricultural section used to be, the desert pyramid, one of the lungs:
A sense of the inside:
Back down a floor to the original crew quarters, it now hosts some awesome exhibits — a crazy mix up of science, science fiction books and film, casts and models and stamps. They include methane ice worms, the flower shaped ecopolis sitting sustainably (perhaps) on the ocean. But first one of my favourite things — the Lunar Greenhouse Habitat.
Another experiment with a closed system (much smaller — much of the Biosphere’s appeal is just the scale at which the experiment was conducted), growing plants using hydroponic systems on carbon dioxide from human waste and respiration, along with other inputs from composting, harvesting and other waste. Very cool. The plants they are growing here? Cow peas, lettuce, sweet potatoes and basil, with a recent decision to include strawberries (these are from NASA’s approved list, for more from NASA on space gardening, go here).
Humans have been thinking about this for a while, though I think if flights of imagination in fiction were allowed, this timeline might stretch back much further than 1960 — I shall have to look into that.
Any such garden would almost certainly have to be buried underground — I love how much thought has already gone into what would be required to live on the Moon, or Mars.
They have an awesome model of Mars exploration:
The Soviet space stamps (made me all nostalgic for one of my favourite exhibitions of all time, on Soviet Cosmonauts in London’s Science Museum)
Meteorites used as blacksmith’s anvils in the 1800s:
A great deal of ‘miscellaneous’
I loved walking through the great glass greenhouses themselves
‘We are not gardeners’ said one of the employees in the rainforest dome. The first experiments were to see how much could be grown, how to keep things alive. Now they watch to see what dies and what survives, attempting to trace the complexities of ecosystems by leaving things alone unless they threaten the structural stability of glass and metal.
I don’t know if I could do that, I love gardens. I also loved walking in the belly of the beast, seeing how things worked underneath in the service tunnels — somehow this is where it felt most spectacular, came most alive in giving a sense of what it would be like to live and work in such a domed world.
Here we experienced sudden immense blasts of wind:
More tunnels (I really really love tunnels):
The inside of the lung itself, designed to help ‘breathe’ and maintain air pressure constant to protect the greenhouses:
The lungs from outside:
There was an awesome, if small, display on the Arab falaj, or irrigation system, that works much like acequias (I think this is some of the heritage that Spanish settlers brought with them to the Southwest if I am not mistaken). Ingenious in their engineering, they also define town planning, with the Mosque closest to the water source to ensure the water’s purity.
The last stop is at the ocean section, where they tried to create a coral reef and failed quite spectacularly. I think, above all, this huge structure of overwhelming aspiration has taught us a great deal of humility. My favourite story — octopi (I prefer this to octopuses, say what you will) had smuggled themselves into Biosphere II hidden in the coral, and emerged to hunt at night. It took some time before staff realised why the other inhabitants of the ocean habitat were disappearing. Algae has essentially now taken over — this bears some relation to the actual situation of our reefs — and these bare rocks and scummy windows stand as a reminder of how we have no idea to recreate all the things we destroy.
We are very far from any possibility of survival on another planet. Best we take care of this one — Biosphere I — and so it is scary to me that the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ were rarely mentioned here in either videos or displays, though they serve as a focus for all of the research. It showed just what scientists have to do in the face of denial from the highest levels, and that’s only going to get worse.
Concrete conservatories are amazing. I have long had an architectural love affair with conservatories of metal and glass, and these elements are not missing from Krakow’s Botanical Garden of the Jagiellonian University. Founded in 1783, it still serves as a teaching garden, and has a most wonderful collection of orchids and other tropical plants, many from the collection of botanist Joseph Warszewicz (1812–1866). The first greenhouse was built here in 1787, but they have been extended, reconstructed, and added to over the years and are entirely wonderful.
The plants were beautiful too, and here you can find many of the medicinal plants collected in jars upon jars at the Museum of Pharmacy, botany just another form of the dual aspiration to explore the wonders of the world and to better understand the various healing powers of plants. Until, of course, you bring Empire and the desire for profit extraction into it, I am curious how countries like Poland were part of that dynamic. But mostly I just love plants and conservatories.
I need to finish up thoughts on Gilbert White — his writings on nature are here, on superstitions here, a few things about his perceptions of how people were dressing, eating and gardening are to be found here — linked to how they foraged from the commons, but not quite same.
In talking about leprosy, he notes not just the superstitions surrounding it, but the changes in habits and dress that he believes have reduced the frequency of skin ailments — the change in clothing and the growing of fresh vegetables and fresh meat (the aristocracy at least ate SO MUCH meat):
This happy change perhaps may have originated and been continued from the much smaller quantity of salted meat and fish now eaten in these kingdoms; from the use of linen next the skin; from the plenty of better bread; and from the profusion of fruits, roots, legumes, and greens, so common in every family. Three or four centuries ago, before there were any enclosures, sown-grasses, field-turnips, or field-carrots, or hay, all the cattle which had grown fat in summer, and were not killed for winter-use, were turned out soon after Michaelmas to shift as they could through the dead months; so that no fresh meat could be had in winter or spring. Hence the marvellous account of the vast stores of salted flesh found in the larder of the eldest Spencer** t in the days of Edward the Second, even so late in the spring as the third of May. It was from magazines like these that the turbulent barons supported in idleness their riotous swarms of retainers ready for any disorder or mischief. But agriculture is now arrived at such a pitch of perfection, that our best and fattest meats are killed in the winter; and no man need eat salted flesh, unless he prefers it, that has money to buy fresh. (** Viz.: Six hundred bacons, eighty carcasses of beef, and six hundred muttons.)
I found this even more fascinating on the growth of gardening, and the widening availability of vegetables for sale (and clearly, a corresponding growth of markets, transportation links between town and country, and the ability of people to buy them where they cannot grow their own).
As to the produce of a garden, every middle-aged person of observation may perceive, within his own memory, both in town and country, how vastly the consumption of vegetables is increased. Green-stalls in cities now support multitudes in a comfortable state, while gardeners get fortunes. Every decent labourer also has his garden, which is half his support, as well as his delight; and common farmers provide plenty of beans, peas, and greens, for their hinds to eat with their bacon; and those few that do not are despised for their sordid parsimony, and looked upon as regardless of the welfare of their dependents. Potatoes have prevailed in this little district, by means of premiums, within these twenty years only; and are much esteemed here now by the poor, who would scarce have ventured to taste them in the last reign.
And to throw in just a few fun observations on London!
20 Nov 1773
Martins love to frequent towns, especially if there are great lakes and rivers at hand; nay, they even affect the close air of London. And I have not only seen them nesting in the Borough, but even in the Strand and Fleet- street; but then it was obvious from the dinginess of their aspect that their feathers partook of the filth of that sooty atmosphere.
On the great frost of 1776 — amazing
On the 22nd the author had occasion to go to London through a sort of Laplandian-scene, very wild and grotesque indeed. But the metropolis itself exhibited a still more singular appearance than the country; for, being bedded deep in snow, the pavement of the streets could not be touched by the wheels or the horses’ feet, so that the carriages ran about without the least noise. Such an exception from din and clatter was strange, but not pleasant; it seemed to convey an uncomfortable idea of desolation
Yesterday started with ducks. They get shut in at night, to protect them from the fox. When released, they erupt from their prison with a joyful waddling quacking, leaving their little wooden hut in a waddling quacking line of joyfulness.
I thought to myself, how wonderful ducks are! They headed straight for the water.
I don’t know if it was the waddling or the quacking, but I really loved ducks at that moment.
After feeding them, all of their water gets emptied out and refilled — the three of these and a large almost -paddling-pool size one in the larger enclosure. They’re allowed into the larger enclosure where they can hunt for slugs and snails (the main practical reason you want ducks possibly) if they’ve laid eggs. They had laid two eggs. Out they went. More waddling and quacking. More joy.
We were refilling the water here and a sudden splashing made me turn around. I am sorry to say that possibly the most violent sex scene I have possibly ever seen was being enacted in the paddling pool. Apparently this is just the way it is for female ducks. More than one male was involved, and I would not be surprised to find that more than one female ends up drowning in such encounters.
Lady ducks of the world unite, is all I have to say.
It was a bit anticlimactic, but realising I personally wouldn’t be able to organise the lady ducks effectively to overthrow patriarchy, I agreed to continue to rescue the herb bed, and when done we used hazel from the hedges to build cages to support the great sprawling valerian
and the soon to be sprawling elecampane, which will soon send forth great yellow flowerheads.
If you build the cages early enough, they will disappear into the foliage as it grows ferociously in the spring and summer. The valerian was my hazel weaving work, but because these branches were cut from the hedge which has been lopped many times, they were quite unideal for such a weaving. Still, they were usable. You use all that is usable, and most things can serve multiple purposes over the course of their development, this is the philosophy of permaculture.
We had weeded these beds while Rob was mowing the orchard with the scythe — necessary before the docks flowered and seeded. So we spent some time raking up the leavings, which we will at some point use to mulch the apple trees. This is where the chickens live, along with Gandalf the Grey (gander) and Galadriel the white (goose).
I have stared my gander fear in the face and won.
Today we weeded a different bed full of herbs and flowers, transplanted some comfrey, and began work on a new bed using a brilliant tool called an azada, which scrapes the root-matted tops off of the earth infested with the terrible cooch grass, allowing you to turn over the earth and rid it of the deep clinging roots of said grass. It went from this (we’d started a bit here):
You can see how the roots infest this beautiful soil. This is the grass that makes no-dig permaculture gardening impossible here (after reading Masanobu Fukuoka I was so excited about that, but ah well). You have to turn it over and over and pick it through, and still you know it will be returning. I did most of the azada work, so I am happily tired.
I quite love hard work.
Also, yesterday, we picked a huge amount of beautifully ripened strawberries — the lovely varieties you can’t buy in supermarkets because they bruise and don’t last forever and will make other strawberries pale in comparison.
So today we made some jam. Well, I watched Diana make some jam. I think I will be able to make jam in future. A kilo of strawberries, a kilo of sugar (yep, half and half), some lemon rather than pectin for it to set. Boil, stir, get it up to temperature. Boil a minute or two more. Let it sit a minute and the fruit settle. Fill jars sterilised with boiling water. After a little while, turn the jars upside down. A few hours later turn them right side up and that creates a seal.
Also today I sent off yet another job application and made dinner which people actually enjoyed. A good day.
It was afterwards found to be useful in certain kinds of epilepsy. The plant was in such esteem in mediaeval times as a remedy, that it received the name of All Heal, which is still given it in some parts of the country.
The drug allays pain and promotes sleep. It is of especial use and benefit to those suffering from nervous overstrain, as it possesses none of the after-effects produced by narcotics.
During the recent War, when air-raids were a serious strain on the overwrought nerves of civilian men and women, Valerian, prescribed with other simple ingredients, taken in a single dose, or repeated according to the need, proved wonderfully efficacious, preventing or minimizing serious results.
Though in ordinary doses, it exerts an influence quieting and soothing in its nature upon the brain and nervous system, large doses, too often repeated, have a tendency to produce pain in the head, heaviness and stupor.
Inula Helenium – Elecampane
The herb is of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny. An old Latin distich celebrates its virtues: Enula campana reddit praecordia sana (Elecampane will the spirits sustain). ‘Julia Augustus,’ said Pliny, ‘let no day pass without eating some of the roots of Enula, considered to help digestion and cause mirth.’ The monks equally esteemed it as a cordial. Pliny affirmed that the root ‘being chewed fasting, doth fasten the teeth,’ and Galen that ‘It is good for passions of the hucklebone called sciatica.’
Elecampane is frequently mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon writings on medicine current in England prior to the Norman Conquest; it is also the ‘Marchalan’ of the Welsh physicians of the thirteenth century, and was generally known during the Middle Ages.
It was formally cultivated in all private herb-gardens, as a culinary and medicinal plant, and it is still to be found in old cottage gardens. Not only was its root much employed as a medicine, but it was also candied and eaten as a sweetmeat. Dr. Fernie tells us, in Herbal Simples:
‘Some fifty years ago, the candy was sold commonly in London as flat, round cakes being composed largely of sugar and coloured with cochineal. A piece was eaten each night and morning for asthmatical complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling by a river, to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exalations and bad air. The candy may still be had from our confectioners, but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is of barley in Barley Sugar.’
In Denmark, Elecampane is sometimes called Elf-Doc. Here one sometimes comes across the name Elf-Dock locally, also Elfwort.
Sovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar Valley is a wonderful book I found in the library here. It emerged from a 2001 project to uncover the market gardening landscape, and is full of oral histories and quite wonderful photographs. It is the story of the long-gone smallholdings up and down the Tamar valley. They were built up and down the steep south-facing hills for the earliest flowers and strawberries.
Almost all of them have now become grazing and farm land, or woods.
There is so much here of England’s industrial and agricultural history that is long forgotten. It is so strange to think of this area as a centre of copper mining, much less arsenic refining, but so it was:
For a brief period of twenty years in the mid nineteenth century the Tamar Valley became the copper centre of England, the river crowded with shipping carrying ore to be smelted in South Wales. However by 1868 the largest mine, Devon Great Consols, was nearly exhausted and metal prices slumped putting hundreds of families out of work. Arsenic refining took over but in turn was abandoned. By the 1930s mining was dead leaving a strange and dramatic landscape of waste tips and ruinous buildings half hidden in lush woodland and intricately mixed with villages, farms, riverside quays and market gardens. (1)
Apart from copper, the Tamar Valley was known for cherry and apple orchards, and had the earliest strawberries in the country — that was where the money once was. Early strawberries and the famous Tamar Double Whites, a lovely fragrant daffodil planted here by the thousands and their remnants now left forgotten in hedgerows and bordering fields. But the market gardens along the slopes here reached their height in the 1950s, when they supported an industry of 8-10,000 people, more than the entire population today. Special tools to work the hillsides were invented (a special dibber!), and diggers to move soil up slopes.
It is amazing to think smallholdings could provide so much work, and that they once sent flowers and fruit all over the country. Somehow it pleases me greatly to imagine early daffodils from Devon arriving to bring joy in Birmingham.
Also fascinating is the role that changing transportation links played in this story. In many ways this agricultural revolution was due to the arrival of the Great Western Railway. It reached Plymouth in 1849 and bridged the Tamar to Saltash in 1859 — before this, the river Tavy had been the main way of transport. But the trains allowed a much faster movement of fruit — allowing it to be sold within 24 hours of picking. Because of the warm micro-climates here in Devon allowing the very early growing of fruit, the possibility of transport opened up new possibilities just after the waves of lay-offs from mining.
In the change to market gardening, many followed the pioneer James Lawry. On a visit to Crystal Palace in London in 1862 (I do so very much love accounts of Crystal Palace), he heard of Covent Garden market. Visiting it, he discovered their earliest strawberries arrived in June, while back home in Tamar Valley their crop was much earlier. Upon learning the difference in price for Strawberries in London as opposed to Devon, there seemed little to lose. He started sending his fruit to a Mr. Israel in 1863.
Lawry helped establish not just strawberries, but also punnet-making, and thus began a thriving networks of smallholdings and associated employment for the whole family.
In 1966, Beaching’s cuts to train services and closure of multiple stations ended what was left of this industry as transportation costs became too high, fruit could no longer arrive to markets within 24 hours at a low enough price. I already felt like spitting whenever his name is mentioned. Of course, globalisation, and the flying in of fruit from countries around the world did not help either.
In 1971 there were still 250 viable holdings, by 1979 only 140 growers left, and the extreme slopes fell out of cultivation for the easier flats where mechanization could be brought in. Now they are all but gone.
We probably won’t be able to fly in strawberries forever, so perhaps this shall be full of smallholdings once again. Interesting thought.
The oral histories are short–a few paragraphs of key memories–but so interesting. Alan Rickard’s father had been to Canada to work in the mines there, then returned to work five acres growing cherries, dahlias, rhubarb, irises, strawberries and daffodils. This was apparently true of many families, John Snell’s father went to the mines first, then Ford’s Detroit plant and then returned home. Almost all of the gardens sold a similar variety, though most seemed to specialise in one or two. There are a few fishermen, who gardened on the side. Others seemed to be more gardeners who fished. A few German POWs who remained after the war. A number are still in the business, generally where their children and grandchildren have taken over — though in large modern greenhouses or polytunnels.
One of my favourite quotes from Alan Langsford:
When I was a little boy I wanted to be a Dutchman when I grew up. [The bulb-salesmen] all wore suits, drove nice cars and didn’t work outside on the land! (142)
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.