Allotments: Solitude and company at a time of ‘social distancing’
It is too early to tell whether the national lockdown introduced to combat the spread of the Coronavirus – COVID19, will be short-term, long-term, or perhaps an extreme version of the ‘new normal’ where travel and going to work gradually become less a part of our daily lives. But the past two weeks of ‘social distancing’, and more recently the lockdown, has sure made me realise the value of one element of my life. The allotment. I have been on the allotment site since 1988, so I know it well and I know the people on it, by and large, pretty well too. I have always valued it, it has been a lodestar in my way of life for decades, but only now am I coming to appreciate its full value. The past couple of weeks have been difficult for everybody as they adjust to the new ways of living their lives, and having lived in a flat on the fifteenth floor of a ‘hard to let’ tower block in Southwark in the 1970’s, I can empathise with people cooped up in small spaces with little access to fresh air and exercise opportunities. The weather has been both a joy and a frustration. After an unusually long wet, windy and gloomy winter and early spring, the winds have abated and the sun has come out for a glorious spring time. Just the moment to head for the park, the countryside, or the beach. And just the time when the Government doesn’t want us to.
But heading for the allotment is OK. The combination of more time and perfect weather has done wonders to mine, after months of enforced neglect. Being on it has made me reflect on its joys: fresh air and the opportunity to look at the cloudscapes; birdsong which suddenly has a clarity that hasn’t been apparent for decades as the streets fall quiet and no aircraft pass by overhead; the pleasureable exercise of digging, planting, pruning and bonfire making; the time to dream as plants begin to spring to life, blossom on the plum trees, garlic shoots poking through the soil; and of course company. It is an odd one that. Allotment gardening is a slightly strange mixture of solitude and the social. Most of the time the digging planting, weeding, tending and harvesting are done alone or in the company of a loved one. But seeds, plants and advice are swapped with fellow plotholders, as too are observation on the weather, intelligence on everything from manure deliveries to plot security, and of course the occasinal beer and gossip after a days work. None of this has stopped, but it is done in a much more circumspect manner. Instead a strange (or so it still feels at the moment) separation of interaction has evolved, without a complete abandonment of conviviality. The conversations are held at a distance – often a plot width, and gathering round a table with beer and nibbles is no longer possible – instead a version ‘alone together’, allowing a sense of community without the contact, is emerging. The combination of solitude, nature, exercise, and (some) company is likely to be one that keeps a lot of people on the right side of sanity in the next few months. Allotments have always been places to cherish. Even more so now.