Thirty years a-growing
It has taken quite a while for Spring to arrive this year – just in the past few days really. And while I’ve been sitting at home watching the rain pour out of the sky and taking occasional forays into the garden to see how the new hens, Tolstoy and Kropotkin are settling in, to paddle on the flooded lawn, or take dispiriting trips down to the allotment to observe the devastation, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on allotment years past. In doing so I realised that it is 30 years since I took on my plot on Bartlemas Close. Not the first allotment I have ever had, but by far the longest in one place, and the one to which I am still attached. Casting back all those years certainly brings back a host of memories. It was the early spring of 1988 when the call came from Mike, field secretary to say a plot had come free and did I want it. We had moved into our house on Divinity Road a couple of months earlier, were in the throes of renovation, a new roof in December (yes really) an extension about to start, a new baby on the way – Nadine arrived in mid-March, and major commitments both as a City councillor for the area and in my job as Co-op development worker for Oxfordshire. No pressure then. But growing has been a central part of my life since childhood so there was no way I would turn down such an offer on a site just five minutes from my new house.
I don’t remember that much about the first months apart from getting a shed down there; the ground was so frozen that the shed could be lifted whole on to the back of a flat-bed truck and transported right to its final resting place at the back of the allotment, no crops in in the way and no chance of getting stuck in mud. The shed is still in use. The only other memory of ‘the plot as first seen’, was the unpleasant discovery of just how much couch grass there was on it. It is my fellow plot holders though that made those first few months down there with a new-born baby such a pleasure. My immediate plot neighbours, Chris Kingston from Ireland and Laurie Spencer from Barbados, both sadly no longer with us were a source of fellowship, good advice and ideas for vegetables and growing techniques I hadn’t come across before. Chris, far older than me but built like an ox was only too happy to help out digging over my plot when I thought the couch grass would get the better of me.
For several years that plot was a one of the fixed points around which my life revolved. Close to home, it was absolutely ideal for escaping the pressures of work and council life. Secure, rustic, rural even, it was a heaven for small children; there were plenty of others down there to play with, there was plenty of mud and water to get thoroughly messy in, there were dens to be made, wildlife to be discovered, field mouse nests, birds nests, hedgehogs, ants and woodlice, rabbit and deer tracks to follow, occasionally fires to be lit, ‘assistance’ to be given to daddy, and depending on the season, produce to be picked and eaten. ‘Green sweeties’ – peas straight out of the pod were a particular favourite and later in the season, raspberries and blackberries. Whole days could be and were spent happily down there with a picnic, quite often with visitors such as grandparents. A ten pole plot didn’t seem such a challenge when time was on your side.
With familiarity came a certain confidence – not just in growing, the plot with others on the site was opened to the public as part of an HDRA (now Garden Organic) ‘open gardens’ event for a couple of years and attracted the local television channel to the site, but also photographically. Allotment sites are an absolute joy to photograph; their quirkiness (both plot holders and their produce), their traditions, their informality, their provisional ‘edgeland’ nature, cold frames, irrigation systems, sheds… the opportunities were endless and by the end of 1990 I had amassed a collection of pictures, starring both Laurie and Chris as well as Mike gleaning cherry tomatoes with a gang of children, which on 2 January 1991 opened as an exhibition at the Photographers Workshop entitled ‘Earthly Paradise: people and landscapes on allotments.’ The exhibition toured widely that year; to local swimming pools and leisure centres, doctors surgeries and other allotment sites, and was picked up by the late great Roger Deakin with a number of the pictures being used in his Anglia TV programme ‘The ballad of the ten rod plot’ (‘…a wonderful little film’, Robert Macfarlane) broadcast in 1992. My goodness, just writing this makes me realise just how much joy and creativity came from that little patch of land. Far too much for a single blog.