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!

 

 

Taking Notice

I cannot remember when I first started taking photographs. I think it was when I visited Naples, I was thrilled by the decaying beauty of the old quarter, how lived in the city centre is, in stark contrast to the socially cleansed centres of most European cities.

But surprisingly, for me, the turning point was the the graffiti – not always –  but often, clever, playful. It captivated and energised me.

I think this was the first time I had become interested in taking images. To be more specific noticing objects that most people, myself included, would normally walk past and not notice. I used a Blackberry Playbook, a very distant relative of the ipad. They were not that common back in 2009 and I could wander around and take shots without people noticing too much. I spent days on end doing just this, hours would fly be as I criss-crossed the city.

Back home it wasn’t long before I got a smart phone and that was when my obsessive picture taking really took off. It has become a thing with me, when out and about most times my eyes are everywhere, normally on the ground looking for ineresting things to capture and record. It has helped change the way I see the world.

A Pressing Matter

Mid to late September is cider making time. It’s been a thing in our family for the last 38 years (apart from one year, during a disasterous move to Wales). For the last 15 – 20 years aples have been sourced from a beautiful old fashioned orchard just outside of Faversham. It is owned by a delightful chap who doesn’t spray chemicals, in fact he doesn’t even pick any of the apples.

It must be one of a few remaining traditional apple orchard in Kent. Nowadays apple trees are dwarf size, economics dictates, beauty and tradition die, harvest time has become mechanised. Years ago people from London’s Eastend used to come down to Kent during their holidays to pick apples and hops, to earn a bit of money and to be out in the fresh air.  On one of our favourite walks up to Telegraph Hill, you come across the remains of hop pickers shacks. A reminder of how vibrant the countryside once was.

But, as the great Ronnie Corbett says “I digress”.

Most years we make about 80 gallons. The process from start to finish takes about 4 -5 days. It is a real marker in the year, the last goodbye to summer before the onset of darker days.

The apples are milled twice, one coarser and another finer mill.

Then the finely ground apples are racked into muslin covered ‘cheeses’, stacked on top of each other and then covered with a wooden slab and pressed using a car jack. It is all delightfully Heath Robinson, but it works well.

We could go electric which would cut the time dramatically, but where would the fun and sense of achievement be found in that? Its a great thing to all work together, great fun and good excercise. During the winter months as you take a sip of cider, you are reminded of those glorious early autumn days, in the fading sunlight when you were picking, milling and pressing.

 

Castaway beach – faraway in time

It’s remarkable how a shift in thinking can change your relationship with a place. My decision to collect plastic along Castaway Beach has given me a real spring in my step. The number of castaway plastic items littering this beautiful place is staggering. Doing something about it is uplifting.

Yes, its an effort, an hour walk to the sea, along the creek  and an hour back,

another hour combing the mile or so stretch of sand, seaweed, pebbles and shingle.

But it is a fascinating and ever changing landscape to explore. The beach is situated on the edge of Nagden Marches, behind a concrete sea wall.

Opposite is the beautiful and strange Isle of Sheppey, in centuries past the winter camp of Viklings and invaded by the Dutch in 1667. The sea in-between is half sea, half estuary. It goes out far at low tide leaving a vast mud flat dotted with beautiful tufts of sea grass and wading birds probing for worms, molluscs and othe invertebrates.

So ordinarily, my head is lifted to the sea and sky. But during plastic collection it is turned down. There is a rich array of plastic to be found from large objects to tiny such as childrens drinking straws and plastic bottle caps.

to strange and curious surprises that make you scratch your head

Walking off the beaten track on a beach can also bring you across things you would rather not have seen, like this poor young gannet

But looking down brings you into another world and allows you to see details you would otherwise have walked past, objects that are as beautiful as the sunset, vast blue sea or crashing waves above and in front of you.

Solutions – inside and outside

I was thoroughly enjoying walking the snake of the creek to the sea wall. Years beore I had run along the same path but didn’t notice as much as whilst walking. The sense of space, the huge skies, the peace and wildness allowed me to step outside of the clamour, hassle and brute noise of the built environment. Even the electricity pylons appeared, in this landscape beautiful, like a range of Eiffel Towers ranged across the skyline. I had been told by a twitcher peregrine falcon’s used them as resting and lookout posts.

However, after a few trips I started to notice litter spread confetti like along the beach. it depressed me, I got to griping about humanoids as my brother refers to people. Rather than enjoying the landscape I felt increasingly uneasy about being there.

 

Walking back along the creek I noticed plastic and litter there as well, strewn along the grass and mud. It was beyond sadness, I was astounded that people did nothing about it. How can people enjoy the beauty of this wonderful place and do nothing about this terrible pollution?

I found I was talking about myself. It had never ocurred to me I should do someting about it. Rather I had retreated into bitterness and blame and this was ruining my walks. I began to feel guilty and resisted what I knew to be the right thing to do – pick the bloody stuff up and do something about it. I became miserable. I came out to walk not to be a litter collector. Why me?

Walking on the beach I saw the Brent geese gathering in their thousands, their hollow honking echoing around the bay. I walked back along the creek and saw a marsh harrier wheeling around like a feathered stealth fighter and I started picking up plastic and stuffed it in my bag.

It didn’t require any thinking, just doing and I began to feel better.

 

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.