The Smallest Things …

Don’t know if it’s something to do with the coronavirus lockdown shenanigans, my age or just simple old-fashioned normal. We’re spending a lot more time up at the allotment, that’s for sure and that is, most certainly, down to the “new normal”. I am really pleased, if not a little smug and ashamed of it, that we have the allotment as a bonus-bolthole. That the government, apparently making so many other things up as they (and you and I) go along. Making mistakes, inevitably, owning up, rarely.

But I’m squatting on the plot, making holes with a trowel in which to drop sweetcorn plants. And I’m drawn to the patterns in the stones around my knees. They are mostly smooth, so from a river or sea bed. But, beyond that, there are so many different shades, sizes, types and I am wondering how that happened.

A beach full of rainbow rocks: Geologist puts pebbles under the ...

Dropped by melting glaciers?

For sure, I remember from my own schooldays, we sit on the boundary of the Staffordshire Coal Measures and the Bunter pebble beds. Almost next door to the allotment site is Campions Wood sand and gravel quarry.

And, in another direction a tile works that grew up using local clay from the ground when coal was also being dragged out of deep or opencast mines.

Possibly, some of the stones were raised out of the deep earth by mining activities.

But I am also driven to consider the nature of the soil. Over the decades we have been on these plots we have never ceased to put organic matter into the ground. We have three side by side compost bins, always at one stage or another of rotting down. And the soil just looks a wonderful-to-the-eye dark colour. A lot of the larger stones have been taken out, but smaller ones are important in the structure of the soil. There are scraps of dried out tree leaf, scraps of straw, bits of pottery, a few bent and burned, twisted nails left from fires, some ash, some potting compost dropped, no doubt from our planting out of seedlings and – every now and then – a bit broken off a plastic plant pot.

And what I first took to be bones of birds. Small, delicate, white hollow pieces; I seem to recall that birds have hollow bones, it makes them lighter, helps them fly. But, now I have time to spare a second thing hops into my head.

Maybe they are not bones at all, but the stems of clay pipes that were once used to smoke tobacco. I remember seeing, before pubs and restaurants necessarily closed down, a framed display of clay pipes in the somewhat exclusive confines of the “committee room at the local sports and Social club (previously the Working men’s Club). That sparked what little I knew of the things and another memory of using a clay pipe for blowing bubbles as a child. Can anyone remember such a thing (or is it the figment of a deranged imagination)?

I seem to think, before my curiosity was piqued, that they were around in the time of Nelson’s navy, the wars against Napoleon, the early 1800s. A non-smoker all of my life, I have never really stopped to think about it. When Raleigh brought tobacco (and potatoes) to England from Virginia in the New World, was it immediately turned into cigars and cigarettes?

Walter Raleigh in popular culture - Wikipedia

Or did pipes come first? Indeed, how did the native tribes in South America use tobacco? And did we just follow their lead?

My head full of these questions, as usual I get just a bit carried away. The questions, combined with the strength of the morning sun, soon have me weaving up the steeply sloping roadway to the top gates. Stopping to unlock the heavy metal gates, I spot Colleen, erstwhile secretary. Now, I know that according to Covid19 lockdown rules, I’m not supposed to stop and “chat”, but I cannot resist a reality check.

“Quick question Colleen, do you know whether any other plot holders have found clay pipes, the smoking tobacco kind, on site?”

Colleen adopts the usual strained, not-sure-what-you-mean face that is meant to buy time and sympathy when someone is asking a tricky, political question (about the long-running boundary dispute, for example). I miss a beat, wondering whether I should have just motored on home and ot stuck into a search engine.

“Over here!” a voice calls out. I look across to the neighbouring plot and see a hand, waving an empty seed packet. My eyes, drawn to the movement (Runner Beans, Scarlet Emperor) travel down the long arm, To the shoulders of a guy sitting on a home-made stool. A trowel dangles from the other hand.

“Found lots of bits of clay pipes up here,” his seed packet hand sweeps around his well-manicured plot (all of our plots are looking well maintained at the moment, not so much an obsession, more about the time we have to not do other things, like work and travel). He’s got some lovely yellow poppies and broad beans and …

“Yeah, yeah, quite a collection. Took ‘em home, kept finding more bits and pieces, day after day, like.”

“Got them all cleaned up, they’re on the mantel piece at home now. A bit of a display, like.”

So, I am not going – completely mad – then. Or, if I am, this is not exhaustive proof of the fact.

“Oh,” Colleen has processed the question by now and is attempting to join in. In a fashion. “Yes, pipes, yes … hmmm.” The head swivels to the man on the stool and back to me, “That would seem to be it, then, wouldn’t it? Hmmm, pipes.”

But typing in the phrase to Google I am bombarded with a range of much better, more appropriate information. Including the fact that, shortly after tobacco was introduced to England, a number of entrepeneur farmers and land owners had a go at growing it. This was actively discouraged by the crown and laws were passed. growing in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire continued, illegally. Crops were said to be mildly hallucinogenic! But the need for labour lifted many families out of the poverty trap.

Frankly I am embarrassed by my lack of historical knowledge. Clay pipes were, once upon a time, the very best way to partake of tobacco and were in use from the time the leaves became popular in Europe (early sixteenth century) to the beginning of the twentieth century. Those with longer stems (churchwardens), gave a cooler smoke, but were more easily damaged. They were made in moulds, apparently, with wire placed in to make the hollow stems.

Pin on The 17th-century

Then I come across this photograph, taken in the 1920s (about a hundred years ago, I have to remind myself, but still far, far more recent then my thinking and taken outside the Yew Tree public house that once stood in Cannock (in fact where I often put myself on the outside of a pint or two of brown and mild). The pub was, as is the way of things if you live long enough, demolished to make way for a supermarket in ninety eighty something.
 Most of the men (different times for sure!) would have been coal miners and smoking seemed very much in vogue (again, different times!)

So the pieces of pipe that I find in the soil were almost certainly cast off by men working their plots, whistling, digging, leaning on spades, chatting, swapping expertise or sharing a joke. I am lucky enough, during the current pandemic, to have an allotment and for working the allotment to be seen as legitimate exercise. It is my belief, however, that I am simply guardian of the ground I work; that it’ll pass on to somebody else when I have – one way or another – had my fill of the effort – and I am in a line of people that stretches out from me back into the past. To the man, or men, who, cursing their clumsiness, broke the stem of a pipe and threw it down. Or mislaid it. That line, hopefully, carries on into the future.

Who knows what odds and sods some future allotmenteer might find that I, accidentally, left behind. I hope it might give them as much pause for thought as the bits of clay pipe have given me.

Post script; I also start to wonder what archaeological finds might have been made on other allotments: anything to share?


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