How much land does a man need?

Six feet of it, according to Tolstoy in the story of that title (i.e., enough to bury you). We’re lucky to have several times that on our allotment, but cultivable land is always at a premium. So un(der)used bits become interesting – along hedges, tucked behind sheds. In this case, a space formerly filled with nettles, bindweed, hoarded panes of glass and rotting timber is made over as a carrot bed, benefiting from the southern exposure:


More land is effectively insurance for When Things Go Wrong – seeds failing to germinate, young plants failing to thrive, routine attacks from pests and weather. Carrots have a shaky record with us, or we with them, so we’ll see how this pans out.

Meanwhile, a shout-out to friends in Boston (Massachusetts), whose community garden shows how confined spaces can grow both vegetables and community:


Projects like the Chelsea Community Garden are, as ever, a salutary reminder that working the land in common is a form of wealth in itself. ‘Die Stadt ist unser garten,’ as the Germans say.


Light in August

As the season turns, a tale of two allotments – one grand, one homely. The first is the kitchen garden at Packwood House, near Lapworth, where they do things on a lavish scale – with the help of, well, the Help.

As any gardener knows, the main ingredient in successful growing is the work put in – in Marx’s words, mixing your labour with the earth. This makes labour sound like compost – which it is, in a sense: composted time. A lot of compost goes into Packwood.

After touring the gardens, we began a walk from Packwood toward its sister estate, Baddesley Clinton, passing other labourers on the way.

The other allotment of the week past is of course our own. The 2016 season has been alternately slow and accelerated in the Midlands, with a long cold spring followed by brief heatwaves and cool cloudy weeks punctuated by tropical downpours. Comme d’habitude pour l’Angleterre, at least in the age of global warming.

With August comes a change of light. Sweetpeas fading, sunflowers bigging up, verbena bonariensis glowing at the edges. Labour stays in the picture.


A week on this aromatic island off the Ionian coast, where every morning we woke up to this view of Ithaka:


View from the hills outside Evreti

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.”


The recent theory is that our view did not take in Ithaka, Homer’s Ithaka, after all (it’s now supposed to have been the Paliki peninsula on the western side of Kefalonia itself). No worries; we were in no hurry to actually get to Ithaka. Not when there were limestone shingle beaches like this one to explore:


Or tavernas like this one, in Agia Efimia:


Grilled sardines, stewed octopus and rabbit for lunch

Or cave lakes like Melissani to circumnavigate: ‘Visitors can tour the lake on a boat and admire the wonderful colours in the water, which constantly change as the sunlight falls on it through the aperture in the roof above.’



Roadside beach north of Sami

One thing a picture can’t convey is the island’s soundscape: a ceaseless rasp of cicadas in the noon heat, together with the tinkle of bells from goats grazing on the hillsides. No wonder some of us drowsed off while chilling on the veranda.


From the town of Assos we climbed to the Venetian castle on the peninsula above (once used as a prison – but with views to die for).


Kefalonia’s recent history is marked by two traumas: the massacre of 3,000 Italian soldiers of the Aqui Division by invading Germans in 1943 (inspiring a novel and the inevitable Hollywood treatment), and an earthquake a decade later, which leveled most of the island’s Venetian buildings. Today it builds its economy on the export of Med staples: olive oil, wine (Robola is the native grape) and tourism.



Khoi pond in Fiskardo

The most intriguing historical angle on the island may be its hosting of an early Christian gnostic sect, the Carpocratians. Who they, you ask? Groupies of Carpocrates, who made Kefalonia his base in the 2nd century CE. Irenaeus wrote disapprovingly that Carpocratians claimed themselves to be above Mosaic law, believing differences of class and property ownership to be unnatural, and also that in order to leave the earthly realm behind one had license to do ‘all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of.’ Early Ionian hippie commies, in other words.

In the end, though, it’s the sea we’ll remember: turquoise and acquamarine, translucent to a depth of over twenty feet, saltier than the Atlantic and warm as bathwater.


Beach looking north to Lefkada’s mountains


A few more from Venice


A poster in the Ghetto Nuovo

There are five synagogues in the Cannaregio – two of them in active use – and, according to current figures, 30 Jews still living in the Ghetto itself. The medieval density of the area – really a tiny island within the island of Venice, subject to nightly curfews – meant that the houses were built several stories taller than elsewhere. Early skyscrapers.


Carnevale is (never) over


And neither is the spritz

Stones of Venice: According to Ruskin, this head on the facade of the church of Santa Maria Formosa, “leering in bestial degradation,” summed up what he called the ‘Grotesque Renaissance’ – or what we’d call the early Baroque. Madly moralistic as JR’s aesthetics were, it’s hard not to feel a sneaking admiration for his OTT vision of the Way Things Ought to Be. His one-man war on the Baroque was a little baroque in itself.


The ‘Ignoble Grotesque’ outside Santa Maria Formosa – as Snoopy would say: “Bleah!”

More stones of Venice – sombre rather than bestial.


Presumably Ruskin would have liked this better.


A living face outshines all stone ones.


A pensive face.

There is always room for kitsch in a place like Venice, especially surrounded with spring flowers.


‘Waiting for Peace’ on Burano

And sometimes kitsch goes all the way through Baroque and out the other side, and becomes art.


Glasscraft on Murano


Burano, channeling the house colors of our old neighborhood, Buffalo’s Allentown

Also works of art in their own way are Venetian pastries.


A sampling at Pasticcere Nobile

Venice famously has its dark side, but I got just this one reminder of its most gothic (non-Ruskin sense) movie representation.


Don’t look now

Notwithstanding, we looked to the bright side, especially after torrential rain.


Sunlight on the Zattere

As do Italians generally – despite austerity, unemployment and oligarchic corruption.


Bye bye Berlusconi


Spring break in Venice, ‘half fairy-tale and half tourist trap’ according to Thomas Mann – but fortunately we found a spot in the third half, working Venice, in the remote northwest of the Cannaregio district. A low-key but atmospheric neighborhood, near the Ghetto and the Sant’Alvise vaporetto stop, it’s a place where there are hardware stores and supermarkets as well as canalside trattorias, where kids ply their scooters home from school, and where – we suspect – allotments are tended by the locals, just up from the park adjoining Calle della Rotonda where we were staying.

Looking along the Fondamenta Riformati

Looking along the Fondamenta Riformati


A bit of calcio practice outside Sant’Alvise

But it’s still Venice. Water, water everywhere – especially our first two days, when it rained like Genesis, and Andrew, Kate, Naomi and Jacob had to ford alta aqua levels of rising lagoon on the way back from dinner one night. Someone – maybe the Rough Guide? – has pointed out that no city is both so closely involved with the rhythms of nature and at the same time so completely an artifact of human ingenuity and construction.


Where brick meets water

Steps into greeny depths

Steps into greeny depths

You can easily forget Manhattan’s an island, but in Venice you never do. The great fish market at Rialto is another reminder – we wended our way down there on our second morning and had a hard time choosing dinner. The produce was overwhelming too – pyramids of purple artichokes (carciofi), blood oranges, salate, and herby bunches of what turned out to be young hop shoots (bruscandoli), which we used to make risotto.


A corner on the Rialto market


Didn’t get to try these, alas

Crates of chokes

Unloading crates of chokes


Fruits of the sea – orate (bream)


It’s what’s for dinner

Venice is improbable because it’s built on sticks, stones on top of silt and sticks, but what’s also improbable is the crazy profusion of styles and structures and artworks, sacred and secular, that rise on top of its rickety foundations. East meets West, dark meets light, stone meets sea, and everything curves like a mermaid’s tail. No wonder Ruskin was knocked for six when he first encountered the city. A few of the standout places for us on this trip were the Madonna dell’Orto, Tintoretto’s own parish church, the jewel-box that is Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the collections at the Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim museums, the canvas-packed Scuola Grande di San Rocco – a kind of orgone box for aesthetic stimulation – and the Palazzo Grimani, where ceiling art is raised to the level of, well, art.


Madonna dell’Orto – in our ‘hood


The creamy gorgonzola marblework of Miracoli


Puh-lease – sculpture at the Peggy Guggenheim


Zeus’s eagle abducts Ganymede through the ceiling of the Grimani Palace


Mirrored hallway at Grimani

The most haunting of the places we visited was Torcello, both for the mosaics in the basilica and the island’s air of being abandoned long ago.


Vineyard and statuary on Torcello


Outside the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta (founded 639 AD)

Venice is also an intensely social city – home of such excellent traditions as the giro d’ombra and cicchetteria – and we were lucky to be able to socialize with the Vienna wing of the family.


Outside the Accademia


Inside the Guggenheim


Cousins by the wellhead


Abbracio from a nephew


Enjoying a spritz con bitter by San Trovase

“It is held by some that this word VENETIA signifies VENI ETIAM, that is, come again, and again, for however oft you come, you will always see new things, and new beauties.” So says Jacopo Sansovino, and he ought to know.




Ciao bella


One could get used to this spritz ritual


Pollici in su, Venezia

So, the weather

Consider the word ‘seasonal‘ – what meaning does it have in our Anthropocene-era, world-out-of-balance corner of the Eurasian landmass? Two months ago we had ourselves some seasonally appropriate snowfall – and availed ourselves of it:

Sledding on January 20th – that's cool

Sledding on January 20th – that’s cool

And last week, after long weather delays, we had the seasonally appropriate snow-along-the-bough effect of ornamental plum blossom:

Loveliest of trees, barring the cherry

Loveliest of trees, barring the cherry

But now we’re enjoying the longest sustained cold snap of the winter, except the first day of spring arrived last Wednesday. So it’s déjà-vu all over again:

Où sont les neiges d'antan? Right here

Où sont les neiges d’antan? Right here

We’re not alone, however, as friends in the US assure us:

This is how we do it Stateside

This is how we do it Stateside

And more than once, on the trudge across Old Milverton hillside, we found ourselves murmuring: ‘Just like in the old country.’ Viz., sledding now –


And then –

Digital StillCamera

We even came across a wolf, which appeared to have wandered out of the Canadian taiga –


And it was clear she was reveling in her element.


As were other creatures of the snowy wastes.


The traveller owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,
And, pausing, takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air.

(Whittier, Snow-Bound)



End of year walk

We saw the old year out by taking a winter walk around Offchurch. Down the disused railway track, along the canal, back via the Fosse Way and farm fields. Some excellently gnarly foliage and even a few new year’s shoots.


Hips if not haws


New growth


K silhouetted against the sky


Old man’s beard (dubbed by Isobel winter cherry)


A fine sculptural example of teasel


End-of-year sky


Ripening ivy (with holly nearby)




When I look forth at dawning, pool,
Field, flock, and lonely tree,
All seem to gaze at me
Like chastened children sitting silent in a school.


Barge life (a path not taken)


On the upslope