Sunday, 1 May 2011

Tea with Mr Peto

Today's picture - watch out boy, there's eels in there...

It's another lovely day this Sunday of the Royal Bank Holiday, and shortly H.I. and me will drive to Iford Manor to look at the ancient wisteria as we do every year in the season. We may even have a cup of tea and some cake. We still have Mayday (recently hi-jacked by socialists, but I suppose it makes a change from Christians) to look forward to. They have long-since given up looking for virgins over the age of 14 to dance around the pole in the provinces, and now they employ 8 year-olds, just to make sure.

The narrow lanes around Iford are home to an extremely rare plant which has been named 'Bath Asparagus', because it looks like a spindly version of the real thing before it flowers, and is delicious when lightly steamed and served with butter and a little pepper, etc. I know this because I used to gather a large bunch of it every year in the spring, before a resident of the area told me that it is a protected species and illegal to pick.

Like so many other traditional foodstuffs, Bath Asparagus was brought over here - and specifically to this area - by the Romans a couple of thousand years ago, but has not spread across the country enough to constitute a sustainable crop, unlike Himalayan Balsam or Rhododendron which are not to my taste. I love the smell of Himalayan Balsam blossom, though.

The large snails which the French love to gather and eat were also brought in by the Romans, as were rabbits, but in this country we see them as a pest which loves to target all the food which we like eating, so they largely go killed but uneaten themselves.

There is a picturesque little bridge that spans the river which runs beside Iford Manor, and on it there is a large stone statue of Britannia. In a walled garden which can be seen from this bridge, someone has created topiary in the form of a settee and two armchairs. The whole scene is so utterly English, that the intrusion of foreign flora and fauna pretty much goes unnoticed. I suppose that is the essence of England anyway - there is no such thing as a true Englishman. The notion is abstract and tribal, in the same way that the Scots are not a race at all, but disparate Jews are, despite not having had a country to call their own until a few years ago, having been sent packing a few thousand years before that.

Some years ago when my grandson was about 4, we were paddling knee-deep (he was up to his chest) in the clear water that runs beneath the bridge at Iford one summer, and we happened to up-end a largish rock in the shallows, just to see what was underneath. To his absolute horror, a two-foot eel shot out and wound it's way downstream as fast as it could, then took up shelter under another rock about 20 feet away.

This foreigner slips unseen into Western British waters via the Severn Estuary - like a WW2 German submarine - every year, and I am told it comes from the deep waters of the Sargasso Sea - so deep that they have never been actually seen there, they just disappear from the sonar somewhere in that vicinity.

They used to think that Swallows spent the winter under the mud - like eels were supposed to have done - because the first place they were annually spotted was skimming over it, picking up the material with which they built their houses on our houses. It wasn't just the rural rustics that believed this - eminent scientists from London's Royal Society upheld the theory for many years. The truth turned out to be far more miraculous.

Even some of those seemingly fragile little butterflies make an annual journey from the deep south of Europe and even Africa, just to brighten up the English countryside for us. If you ever think that life is becoming an uphill struggle for you, spend a few minutes watching a butterfly going about it's business by flying into the teeth of a force 8 gale, making it's inexorable way forward on a seemingly impossible journey. It will get there - it always does. Nobody has told the butterfly that it cannot be done.


  1. A couple of years ago, I was given a sprig of mint to plant out near my workshop in the country by a keen gardener friend. I told him that the area was infested with rabbits, and he told me that rabbits don't eat mint.

    I planted it, and the next day found the chewed stump of the plant - all foliage stripped away by rabbits. When I told my friend, he said:

    "Ah, but nobody actually tells the young rabbits that they don't like mint."

  2. I've just planted a wisteria; it should look like that one in about 400 years time. But I need some Methuselah Pills to make sure.

  3. Your great,great,great,great,great,great,great,great,great grandchildren will thank you for it, Cro.

    That one in Iford is about 200 years old, but it is still held up by crutches, like we will be in about 10.

  4. Hello Tom:
    Dear Iford, darling Harold Peto, historic bridge and sweet little stream. How this post recalls memories of that place now, for us, many years ago.

    What a shock for your grandson. We should not have liked that at all and have made a mental note not to go paddling in streams. And yes, the fraility of life, our own included.

    Now, back to all that plaster! Enjoy your day.

  5. Thanks J & H, and I'm glad you're still talking to me after what my alter-ego said. A friend of mine (conservation consultant and a true young-fogey - since turned old) spent about 10 years picking the paint out of his plaster frieze with a pin, in ONE ROOM when he first bought his Georgian house.

  6. That wisteria looks stunning.

  7. I've just got back, and it was stunning, but I think it's on it's way out now. The smell is fantastic still, though.

  8. Still laughing ... 8 year olds just to make sure! Thank you for caring about little Sammy. I just spoke with my daughter .. he is home with a few drainage tubes from surgery, groggy from all the morphine, not certain if his eye will self-correct or if there is lasting neurological damage. The whole thing was absolutely horrendous!!!

  9. I looked at the picture of Sammy, and immediately thought - I want that doggie! Then I heard what happened. I'm glad he's going to be ok.

  10. That was a lovely post. Thank you for sharing your day with us, Tom. Love the wisteria photo. My little plant is still in bloom over here too!

  11. Yes, a lovely journey. Thanks for showing us around Tom.

  12. p.s. There's a house nearby that has a huge Wisteria TREE. I imagine there was once some support, but time has offered it freedom. Too late for a picture this year; I'll tie a piece of string to my finger for next year!