Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A pocket book of flowers

I went to my local car boot on Sunday.  How much for the little green book? I asked a trader. He wanted a quid; I offered fifty pence and we agreed to split the difference.

What I'd bought was a pocket book of flowers - or more accurately, A Flower Book For The Pocket, by Macgregor Skene, Professor of Botany at the University of Bristol. It's one of those beautifully illustrated field guides that  became popular in the Forties as printing techniques allowed for cheaper reproduction of colour plates. The book is quite scholarly by today's standards, though it's written with real skill which makes the taxonomy accessible to the layman - a style that was later perfected by the Wayside and Woodland series and their ubiquitous cousins, the Observers Books.

This particular copy was bought in 1943 and it cost someone ten and six. I know that because there's a price mark on the first page and an inscription that reads:

 To E from W. 
When WE went NW.  
August 43.

E has written her name, E M McGarry, on the inside leaf. I suppose E could just as easily be a 'him', but the writing looks feminine so I'm going to presume otherwise - not that it matters.

Whoever E was, she was a diligent botanist, ticking and dating the illustrations, noting any variance to the description. Common Hemp-nettle, she observes, is taller than described and Hedge Woundwort has solid not hollow suckers. She's added details of flowers and variants not included the book, commented on the accuracy of the illustrations, and my favourite, noted that 'high heathland' would  be better defined as 'heights over 1500 feet'.

In '44 E saw a Hemp Nettle at St Brides Major (all her dates use an apostrophe). That same year she recorded a Marsh Gentian in Norfolk, Knotgrass in Cornwall and Water Avens at Borrowdale. Between '43 and '45 she includes sightings from Cambridge, Dartmoor, Stonehenge, Salisbury,  Ogmore, Cowbridge, Exmoor and Suffolk. On a few occasions she's picked flowers and pressed them between the pages, their impressions still there after sixty years.

Reading her notes, it's possible to create a fictional portrait of E. From the frequency of the place names I'd say she came from the West Country, and she must have had transport to travel so far and so frequently. Remember, all this took place during the Forties, so presumably she was well off, and by the look of things, well educated too - her handwriting is beautifully formed and the accuracy of her notes indicates more than a keen amateur.  As for who W was - her companion on that trip to the North West - a lover perhaps, or a sister?

I love these old books, and to me they are enhanced by the notes and jottings of a past life. I have a copy of the Wayside book of Dragonflies that includes handwritten lists of species seen in Wiltshire over many years, there is even copies of the owners correspondence with the book's author.

To a collector, books that have been marked are often devalued, the descriptions on ebay will typically say 'some scribblings and notes throughout' or 'considerable wear and pencil markings'. What they don't say is, the book includes a life that took joy from nature; someone, who in the midst of a World War, stopped to record the flowers she saw.

Those recordings stop abruptly in 1947. What happened to E after that I wondered? The notes gave me no clues. Until that is, I turned to page 353 - almost the last of the book - and there was that same handwriting, this time in biro,  underlining and ticking Bladder Sedge, with the note Bratton Fleming ' 97.

I like to think that E lived a long life, that she had many books like this - that perhaps she turned to an old copy to remember W and reminisce about those trips to the Lake District and Cornwall.  Bratton Flemming is on the edge of Exmoor - not quite 1500 feet about sea level. I wonder if she's buried there, and what flowers grow on her grave.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Coming of age.

The picture above was taken on my eighteenth birthday. It isn’t the best likeness (not sure that smile was quite mine) but it’s the only one I have. It was taken by my girlfriend: before we went to university, before our first jobs, before we were married and later divorced. It was taken before I learned to climb, before I cycled in the Pyrenees, before breaking my leg and buggering my back. It was taken before coming to Wales, before meeting Jane, before the promotions and house moves, before my children... I could so easily fill this page.

I have a vivid memory as a teenager of deciding that life didn’t properly start until you were eighteen. I’d lie in bed and count the months I had to endure - calculating what percentage that was of the ‘sub-life’ I was living. Reaching eighteen was about as far ahead as I could imagine (though back then the idea of being twenty one still held some illogical significance). I doubt if I ever calculated the months to reaching thirty; that was as good as infinity. My ‘proper life’ would stretch on for ever... if only, that is, it would hurry up in getting started.

And yet somehow tomorrow it is my fiftieth birthday - and that picture seems at once a day and an age away.

Shorty after it was taken I left home. I spent three years as a student and have long regarded that as the period I truly grew up. But thinking now, what about my first job, my first house - all the things I listed above - aren’t those times just as significant? I hope never to stop learning, to facing the new or seeing the world differently - and in that sense, never to stop coming of age

I was given a birthday card this week - it proclaimed fifty was the new forty, some wag even suggested ‘thirty’. I hope it’s not. Because for one thing, the older I get the more comfortable I’ve become, not so much materially or even physically (though my waistline’s certainly more relaxed these days), but in my own skin; in my sense of being me and being confident with what that means. Youth has it’s delights but it also has its uncertainties and pressures - in my case it was dominated by anxiety and a sense of being deeply alone. It took me another eighteen years to admit that to anyone.

And so being fifty doesn’t seem that bad. It feels to me (and allowing for a few ups and downs) that life’s getting better, not worse. Despite what we read in the news, I’d argue that’s true for most of us - there's more freedom in the world, better health, information, nutrition, education.. just about everything bar pensions and wind-farms (sorry, couldn’t resist and don’t want to get too serious). 

When I said this to a friend the other day they replied, 'but wouldn’t you like to be eighteen again, except with all you have now’.

Leaving aside the impossibility of the wish, I’m not sure I would, for it devalues the journey. Sure, I’d like to live longer; I’d love to be fitter and wish I still had my hair - but I wouldn’t gamble what I’ve had for another chance at life. I look at my children, at Jane, at where I live... and I feel extraordinarily privileged.

And with a little luck and grace, there'll be more to come. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tin town halls

For all its other qualities Pembrokeshire is not awash with grand architecture, at least not in the usual sense of that term. Much the same could be said of Wales. There are many reasons for this: the quality of local materials; a low wage community that prioritises economy over fancy design; and in the case of Pembrokeshire, the Atlantic weather which eats away at any structural weakness.

I read somewhere that Jan Morris had declared the quintessential Welsh building to be the farm. That's a good shout; it certainly isn't the castles, most of which were built by the English and in any case are largely in ruins. I'd add the chapel, particularly those Methodist tradition tabernacles which stand austere at the centre of most villages here abouts.

But a third, and often overlooked contender, could be the tin village hall. These are not unique to Wales but there's an abundance here that helps to define the place. Often they were attached to churches but the community would use them, if not quite seamlessly, for both religious and secular purposes. My late neighbour gleefully told me tales of Saturday night shagging behind our village hall - of course, there was a Sunday School too, he said.

Tin halls and churches are having a resurgence. There's some that are listed buildings, others have been converted to holiday homes; occasionally a tea room, an artists studio... They're a popular motif too: on postcards, paintings, tea towels - there's even a coffee table book of moody photographs called Tin Tabernacles.

Until recently our hall was open to the wind; House Martins had colonised the rafters with their pulp nests and in the cupboards you could find posters for the Silver Jubilee dance, paper plates in red white and blue. There was a sink unit holding white china crockery and a water boiler with a two pin plug.

Three years ago the church sold it off. It was bought by a local farmer - he's had it repainted, sealed the doors and otherwise left it alone. In a way I hope it stays that way. Better that than being replaced by a rendered bungalow.

It's easy to become falsely nostalgic about the heyday of these buildings. The sense of community the halls embodied and sustained has waned; in most places it's long gone. In isolation that's to be lamented, but the reality is that few us would opt for the life choices of those who built and used these glorified sheds. On a tangent, I once bemoaned the loss of the simple youth hostels in Wales to which a trustee replied that the visitors had stopped coming long before the hostels closed. There is an equivalence here, but let's not get too embroiled in politics and social history.

Few visitors come through my village unless they're lost. Those that do tend to be looking for the old church with its arts and crafts rood screen; most walk past the hall on the green without a glance. That's a pity, for in the right setting these tin structures are some of the finest and most typical architecture of Wales.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Encounters 2 - Grayling

Of all the British butterflies my favourite has to be the Grayling. Blink and you'd miss it. Indeed, look hard, really hard, and you could miss it too. For the Grayling is the master of camouflage. Yesterday, on the path between Abereiddy and Penclegr, I showed one to a walker; my finger was three inches from its wings before he could spot it.

When I was teenager I kept a list of butterflies I'd seen. It wasn't long, not least because I lived in the Northumbria which is too far north for many species. With my as bike the only means of transport my range for exploring was also limited. Nonetheless, I had a second list: of butterflies I might see. And the Grayling was always up there in my mind, for it's colonies tend towards the coast and we lived only minutes from the dunes.

As it turned out I saw my first Grayling in the Alps; it was basking on a rock above the Col de Forclaz near Lac Leman (about as far from the coast as possible in Europe). At first I thought it was a Meadow Brown, but the moment it closed its wings I knew, for the distinctive V shaped markings had been etched in my collecting brain for twenty five years. I remember skipping with delight, tipping out my rucksack and scrabbling for my camera before it flew off.

In fact, it's not an easily spooked butterfly; quite often it will sit for minutes, leaning toward then away the sun, a behavior which evidently regulates its temperature. The Alpine Graylings are larger than those in the UK but variation is common - there are six sub species in Britain alone - and, frankly, it didn't matter to me; I'd seen one at last.

Of course, once one come along, then more follow. So it was in the Alps where I found dozens, and also back here in Wales; that same summer I discovered them three miles from my house. The largest colony I know of is in the shallow valley behind Carn Llidi, at the tip of West Wales. Amongst the bracken and heather are clusters of pale granite boulders, covered in lichen and perfect for both heating and disguise. Of the thousands of walkers who stop there for picnics I'd bet less than a handful notice the ginger flickering on the rocks, the slow turning of wings from left to right.

This year there are more than usual, and I've seen them further afield too. They are almost certainly breeding in pockets along the entire Pembrokeshire Coast, though numbers will vary and August is the best time to find them. The secret is to look very carefully; very carefully indeed.


The National Trust is running a love butterflies scheme, just tweet the butterflies you see, together with the postcode of the location and the tag #lovebutterflies

Friday, August 5, 2011


I was recently interviewed by the writing website and forum, Writing Our Way Home.

The interview was about creativity and what lies behind my writing and painting. So if you'd like to know a little more about me and what drives my imagination, then check out this link.

On a loosely related theme, this morning I walked a long section of the coast path, more of which when I get some time to write about it. In the meantime, here are some pictures of the landscape by my home in Wales - it is this as much as anything that makes me want to write.

Some of you may also have noticed the new Facebook link on the sidebar; I'm told I need to do more networking.. mmm. But seriously, feel free to link up.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pretty in pink

Advocates of good food often talk of the need for seasonality. Real strawberries, they say, ripen in an English summer and not a Spanish poly-tunnel in January. The equivalent applies to apples, tomatoes, asparagus... you name it. What's more, by embracing the idea that different seasons bring different produce our enjoyment is enhanced - we appreciate the harvest and look forward to the next.

It's not a perfect analogy but something of the sort applies to one of my favourite places to eat. The Pink Caff (at least that's what I call it, for so far as I know it has no name), on the road between Newport and Cardigan, is open for a mere six weeks a year. Pembrokeshire's summer visitors make it a viable enterprise, but it's locals in the know who most eagerly await the appearance of the roadside billboard. This year I made a few early forays in the hope they'd extended their season, but no luck; I had to wait like everyone else.

And it was of course worth it. Yesterday, I had fish pie washed down with home made ginger beer, both as real as they come - and just the job after a walk along the delightful river Nevern. Dylan had a doorstop sausage sandwich, Jane's was crab and I swear there was a whole one in there; Mike tucked into a plate of chilli. The food is simple, home cooked, fabulously tasty and served on a jumble of old crockery at rickety tables in a botched up barn. Frankly, it's brilliant.

What I so like about the Pink Caff is it's lack of pretence. You go there for great food in relaxed surroundings; not to be fawned over or seduced by an out of place menu offering seventeen different coffees all ending ino. And the barn has its charm too. The table next to us yesterday described it as shabby chic -  its the sort of place you actually talk to other people - but that's not quite right.  It's more cobbled together than that - I'd say hippy-chick and cheerful, finished off with whatever's to hand. Like my new writing shed, it's very simplicity is the whole point - you either get it or you don't.

I resisted a pudding (though Jane didn't), which is quite a feat, for they don't ponce about with those either: rhubarb crumble, ginger sponge, chocolate pudding, home made cheese cakes - half portions available for the kids though I've never seen one ordered. And now I'm rather regretting that I did, for as I said at the start of this post there's a finite season for the best of foods.

What a shame, I shall have to go back there soon.