Light at the end of the tunnel or just another lock?


Let’s be honest, allotments can get on top of you however committed you are – in fact you could probably argue that (apart from having children) they’re the most fiendishly guilt-inducing activity on the planet. With most activities – let’s  say music – you practice hard, do the gig, go home and put your feet up.  But imagine a gig where the encores never end but you never quite feel as if you’ve done as well as you might. We missed seeing our allotment neighbour yesterday since we were with our family, but later when we dropped in, the moment I saw his plot – three parts dug in a day – I knew exactly what had driven him. It was sheer grinding guilt, fuelled almost certainly by a rude letter from the council. He’s got a demanding job, two young children and to cap it all he’s a perfectionist, a toxic mixture that can suck the joy out of gardening.

The allotment year goes in phases.  I’m not quite sure how to describe this one except as transitional, but I do know that the only time the allotment really is perfect is in the dead of winter when we do the seed order. From there on in it seems to go downhill until the crops start to flow in. The virtual world of aspirations collides with the realities of weather and weeds . By the end of March the ground was prepared and looking beautiful, but yesterday the first spears of rougue couch grass were upping periscopes, and the bindweed had suddenly gone crazy.  This is one of the busiest times of the allotment year with the flat, the greenhouse and the coldframes all filled with tender young plants which need a good deal of attention and which will also need to be found a home outside. As the season moves on there’s an unnanounced transition between too soon and too late and ruthless decisions will need to be made.  The unsuccessful overwintering onions – at what point do we give up and compost them?

And all the while any fine weather tempts other activities – camping, canoeing, walking. Now’s the time to be out on the “Mon and Brec” before dodging the narrow boats becomes a new kind of dangerous sport. “Passing on the right” seems to be missing from the initial training given to first-timers.

Storms are always a challenge, not least because they don’t seem to read the forecasts. We’ve had big storms that turned out to be damp squibs and in the case of ‘Hannah’, our latest visitor, it turned out to be much more destructive than predicted.  We went up on Friday morning, before it kicked off, to fix some protection to the asparagus, and at the back of my mind I was wondering if we were’t being over-cautious. On Saturday we went back to find nets blown away; someone’s shed overturned at the exposed top of the site, and a large tree blown down and straddling the road outside. On the other hand, last week’s promised heavy rain turned out to be less plentiful than predicted and only the top few inches of soil were dampened – not nearly as much as we need – although enough to encourage the potatoes and beets.

The mantra of most gardening writers is “catch crops” – and we’ve been assiduous in planting salad crops wherever we can.  We now have enough to run a small cafe, and I can see in a couple of weeks we could probably run a banquet. The hungry gap is a reality – especially since we’ve foresworn any more asparagus this season in favour of letting the bed mature. We’re very far from starving, but in two months time we’ll probably be experiencing a glut of all the usual suspects – not least courgettes! Ah yes, the ever fascinating dance with nature that can feel like doing the tango with an octopus; eight left feet and an intimidating grip.

So back to the Ashford Tunnel then and – not far beyond – another lock.  Do you know – it’s the most exciting thing in the world to paddle into a dark tunnel with only a pinprick of light at the end. I guess that’s what makes life so good. Challenge, texture, even failure.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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