May 01 2004

The Valley, War & Rhubarb !


The valley has burst into life once more. The weather is unseasonably hot, little seedlings wilt not yet robust enough to stand the strangely high temperature more associated with high summer. And yet, for all the beauty and tranquillity around me, I am aware of a heavy heart and a reluctance to extol the breathtaking wonder of my surroundings. For several days now I have noticed myself prevaricating about writing. This is new, where has my driven delight at the prospect of creating another “blog” about my valley and the gloriousness of its’ natural harvest gone? And then late in the night I realised it is the constant, relentless news bulletins of war and suffering that have penetrated my very being in a way I do not previously remember. And even now bombs drop on Fallugha, and fifty Diplomats join the chorus of dissent in an open letter no one hears.

I am a “bulge” baby, born in the shadow of the Blitz in London. I remember the devastation in the city, rationing, smog, depression. I was too small to remember the jubilation of my country’s victory, only the dark shadow of war. Maybe the news of today, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan and so much more, is stirring yet again those deep seated, subconscious childhood memories of fear, devastation and above all helplessness. And so my quiet valley brings me sadness as well as joy and peace.

The whole valley is clothed in green now. The high hedgerows flanking narrow Devon lanes leap into life and turn them into multi coloured tunnels winding their way up and down steep hills. 100_0022Every so often a farm gate opens up a breathtaking view of river or sea. A dancing mass of stitchwort (stellaria holostea), bluebells (hychinthoides), ramson (allium urisum) and red campion (silene dioica) vie with each other for attention. Thrusting my hand deep into the hedge I feel the soil through my fingers, dead twigs snapping, insects burrowing, and I am immediately involved in the whole life cycle. 100_0010Birth, life, death, decay and birth again right here beneath my finger tips. But there is no doubt that the most thrilling sight to me are the bluebells drifting in blue waves along roads, through woodland, over banks and now, even scrambling up through my own steep cider apple orchard.

In the last few weeks newspapers and glossy mags have been full of enthusiastic recipes for spring. Here are exciting ways to prepare the new seasons vegetables, spring lamb, asparagus, fresh peas, tiny broad beans in their pods and so on and so on. And then I walk round my garden so thrilled at the progress of my new vanguard of this years planting, brought on so fast by the mild weather. The pea plants I planted out last week are tearing away and are at least three inches tall! It will be some weeks therefore before I have a pea to harvest! Broad beans are winning though at a good eight inches high! But no sign there of a bean yet either! Even in this mild part of England I will have to wait a little while for the new harvest.

Rhubarb in its drainpipe home
All the vegetables so eagerly written about are flown in from hotter climes or forced into life under the “plastica” on a diet of chemicals, or both. I prefer to wait and as far as possible eat the foods of the season or the produce I have stored since last year. I am just coming to the end of the tomatoes which I froze in plastic bags as soon as they were picked. De-frosted and whizzed in the food processor, they take the place of tinned tomatoes throughout the winter. We still have some beans left too, ratatouille, plumbs, damsons and gooseberries. The purple sprouting is still tender enough to pick and I noticed the rhubarb is pocking it’s head above the old drain pipe which protects it, bringing me tender early stalks. In the polytunnel there is still just enough rocket, chicory, Japanese mustard leaves and tiny coloured chard leaves left to scrape together a spicy little salad.

Of course supermarket shopping has to happen occasionally but the long journey is a great deterrent. Nearly an hour each way and an hour or so there maybe, so I’m reluctant to go very often. And it is certainly not something I miss! And of course I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful village shop only a ten minute walk away. I support it as much as I possibly can, shopping there and supplying it with our own produce. Village shops and post offices are disappearing all over England at an alarming rate. They offer so much more to rural communities than just a place to buy our necessities. Together with the local pub they are often the focal point of the village now that village schools have closed and the role of the church is declining. Like so many villages we have no public transport to or from the village except a community bus which runs once a week to the local town. People without a car must rely entirely on the shop or their friends.

So now early peas, broad beans, asparagus, herbs, shallots, artichokes all begin life once more in the vegetable garden. Sweet peas and dahlias will provide the cutting flowers for the house, a throw back for me to the days when I used to spend hours and hours with Granny’s gardeners in the Kitchen Garden as a small child, oh, so many years ago. This was indeed a haven of wonder to a lonely, only-child and is probably where my passion for all this came from. I often think of “Potter and Cox” and thank them so much so often for the gift they unknowingly gave me.

The new fruit cage promises fruit for us instead of the birds this year and I have dug beds ready for French beans, runner beans, leeks, chard, beetroot, Italian cabbage and of course the invaluable potatoes to “clean” the ground.

Tomato plants line the length of the poly tunnel. I’ve seven varieties this year. Tigerella, Sun Gold and Red Pear I’ve grown before, but I’ve added Auriga, Costoluto Fiorentino, San Marzano and Sun Bell for the first time. We’ll see.

Carrots are proving reluctant to appear, my soil is really too heavy for them, even though I try to coax then into life by mixing sand into the seed compost. The first lettuce are germinating and I await land cress, pak choi, chicory, lambs lettuce and lollo rosso. I will cut the leaves when still small to make my own salad packs. Last year they sold before they reached the Village shop!

These are the promises of summer. I return to the tranquillity of my valley and wish for the same peace worldwide.

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