The Flood – building an Arc


Things had been going well. My new life tilling the soil rejuvenated me- I was springing up out of bed at 5.30am to dash down to the allotment on a daily basis. I couldn’t wait to get down there and two hours would fly by before I had to hot foot it  to work. I was back in the evening for another couple of hours – I didn’t have enough time in the day.

And then the heavens opened.  I have a problem on my hands. My beautiful little plot of land became a swamp, a marsh, a soggy basin of squelching mud. You may think I exaggerate, if so I wish you were there  to see me stuck in the goo, having to be pulled out by my allotment neighbour Joe.

“I told ‘em this plot wasn’t fit to let” he grunted encouragingly as he pulled my foot loose from my wellie which remained stuck in the mud.

As is always the case on allotment sites everybody has an opinion, their own theory about pretty much everything. To compound things a state of civil war exists on Stonebridge.  A new committee has been making changes, drastic changes, the likes of which have not been seen for the last 30 years, so I am told. There are now regular plot inspections, an edict has been passed, stipulating a date when plots have  to be dug in the spring. My neighbour Bill is in the very centre of the battleground, indeed he seems to be the battleground and has recently resigned from the committee, in protest at the new authoritarian regime.

Bill used to do a lot for the site, indeed he was often referred to as the Site Warden. He would strim  all the paths (not an inconsiderable job – it’s a big site) and twice a day open the sluice gate to regulate the water flow. It was true Bill could be difficult, rude at times but it was undeniable he contributed a lot. However these tasks have recently been stripped from him, he has been told he needs to attend training in order to obtain a licence to operate the strimmer. Bill refuses. An old sluice has been re-opened and the previous one also retired from service along with Bill. His theory is that the new sluice is not doing the job, hence the boggy conditions on mine, and his plot. Others say there are underground streams, I have been told also, unconvincingly

“Just dig it over in Autumn and it’ll be fine come Spring”

So, a decision had to be made – abandon hope or, metaphorically speaking, build an arc. Despite feeling crushed and dejected I opted for the latter. I loved my plot and the site and had invested to much in it to give it up. I decided to build some raised beds. Problem one – obtaining decent wood was, after a protracted negotiation process,  solved by buying some old railway sleepers from Bill ( they had been lifted from the London Underground years ago apparently)

The next problem – obtaining the, literally, tons of  soil with which to fill them up was not so straightforward. My Dad came to the rescue – he knew a farmer nearby who had a heap of soil left by contractors – we could have it.

The soil was poor, with lots of stones and rubble – but it was soil! After several days and multiple trips we managed to fill one of the raised beds. And then the rains returned.

Fate is a funny thing.  Desperate to get the raised beds ready for growing season, ignoring the rain I found out that the committee had decreed what was once a communal bonfire heap was being used to extend the plot adjoining it. The bonfire heap was sitting on a mound of soil! The ground needed levelling. But, there was a problem. The bonfire heap was managed by Bill and he was spitting feathers that it was being taken away from him! I had nailed my colours to the mast in the civil war. I was on Bill’s side, I had complained about him being victimised. I had pleaded for the committee to leave him alone as rumours swirled around that part of his plot was about to be taken away from him because he wasn’t working it. I couldn’t take the soil as this would constitute a betrayal of Bill! For weeks I looked at that lovely heap of soil – watched as other people dug into it and carted it away. I listened to Bill and made sympathetic noises, when one day he said

” Don’t understand why you’re not f!ck*ng taking some of that soil from the heap – it’ll all be gone soon.”

“You don’t mind Bill?” I asked

” Well , its no bleedin’ good to me now is it”

I ran to get my wheelbarrow. It was poor quality, full of ash, not a bad thing in itself, but all in all it was better than nothing.I took thirty five barrows full but still it wasn’t enough to fill the last two raised beds.

I found out there was a couple of very large heaps of soil on another allotment site across town – my father had an allotment there and told me it was probably alright to have some as it had been standing there for some time. For four weeks I would get up at 5 am every morning and fill up two rucksacks, lined with black plastic bags, with soil and carry them the mile to my allotment and go back for more, sometimes three trips in two hours. In case you are wondering – I don’t drive – another story to tell later! Unsurprisingly, my arms began to ache. A voice in me asked if I was going crazy, but little by little the raised beds were filling up. It was only later that I realised I had inflicted tennis elbow on myself – in both arms! It would take many, many months to heal and was very painful!

Despite all these trials and tribulations it has been worth it. All my raised beds are now full of soil and the floods bother me no more. It is interesting to see the pains one will go to for something that means a lot. The process has also increased the bond twixt me and plot!



Explosive growing

The long awaited day has arrived.

Two and a half years after placing my name on the waiting list I was offered the choice of one of two plots on Stonebridge allotments. The first was on a slope with a beautiful view of the allotment ponds and waterways. The second a flat, small plot but with a big greenhouse, the possibility of a large shed and a very big black bucket!

And a rather charming plastic woman in a state of undress on the bridge connecting my plot to Patrick, one of my neighbours.

Despite some initial reservations, I snapped this plot up. The shed was confirmed a few days later for a small fee.

The plot was a mess, it required a lot of clearing up, the ground hadn’t been dug for a number of years. I noticed how wet the soil was and at one point hit standing water – only a spit (spade length deep.) This didn’t augur well but I had committed to it and it felt as if my dreams had come true. The setting was incredible. Stonebridge allotments are contained by a large brick wall on one side and water the other. It stands on the site of Britain’s first gunpowder works. With over 100 plots of various sizes, it is a beautiful place. Right in the centre of the town it has numerous waterways, filled with wild watercress, bullrushes, ducks, geese, swans, herons, coots, dabchicks and kingfishers. These water courses were used to transport the gunpowder, providing a smooth passage for the punts. Two men were employed full time to clear the waterways. Any bump or sharp shock could have explosive consequences.

I knew the site well, my Dad had a small plot here, part of his allotment empire. I had met Bill, one of my new neighbours, before, a Stonebridge stalwart of 30 years standing and site warden. I had often seen him roaming around helping people out. He has that rare human commodity – character, and I am thrilled my plot is so close to his.

So, I set to work. It was close to being the perfect time of year, just time to prepare for the first growing season. Being only five minutes walk from my home in the centre of town it was as if all my birthdays and Christmases had come at once.  Learning how to grow with my dad was fantastic but I needed to make mistakes and learn from them. This was literally a blank canvas, albeit a canvas of soil

But I soon found this to be untrue, digging at the far end of my small plot on a raised bed close to the adjoining waterway I came across five hibernating newts. Even with my disturbing the soil around them they remained asleep. What to do? I couldn’t just leave them exposed, it was still cold and they would probably die. I created a soil mound and placed them carefully inside. Imagining a sort of newt hotel. Pleased with myself I told my brother a few days later and his laughter ended with an outraged snort.

“You created a newt burial mound, you fool. When they dig into the soil they create air pockets you just piled a load of earth on top and suffocated them”

Only a few days in I had successfully murdered the inhabitants of my plot. I felt sick and remorseful. Not a good start. Turning over the sod the next day I looked over and there was a frog looking at me with accusatory eyes. I decided to leave him well alone and learn my lesson. I need to tread more carefully – this place is not my home.


Grounding Myself

February 2015            

But – there is always a but – despite having a dream job it has its stresses and demands and during the past few years this has got to me. Trouble sleeping, panic attacks, feeling tired all the time. All of this takes its toll. The depression that dogged me in my teens is creeping back. I am feeling fearful and constantly apprehensive, unable to relax.

So, I have decided to do something, to get out more. Going to work early and arriving back late insulates from the outdoors. I tried running a few years back but something about it didn’t feel right, my body didn’t seem

I have, over the past few years helped Dad on his allotment and   found it really enjoyable.

The reasons?  To get out in the fresh air, do something together , to learn from him, to have something in common to share.

I  remember saying to a friend one time in my mid-thirties I wanted to grow things and he laughed and looked at me in disbelief “Plenty of time for that when you are retired”

But something in me when I am digging, sowing, planting and watering, feels right, as natural as breathing. So, last year I put my name down for an allotment and am waiting to hear…shouldn’t be long now, I know I am near the top of the waiting list. In the meantime helping Dad is great, I’m learning a lot and this will be put to good use.