Chalet chic

Something’s happening in the world of allotmenteering; something that stirs up some old and important memories of a different age we thought might have gone forever. Allotments and allotmenteers, historically speaking, are inclined to be conservative – certainly not politically, but in terms of what’s ‘right and proper’ on the ground. It’s been more of a ‘National growmore’ fertiliser and double digging’ kind of an activity. The allotments of the past were pretty monochrome on the whole. There would be rhubarb and cottage kale; potatoes, celery and cut flowers and small sheds that tended to be much of a muchness. The present rules that govern our site are sixteen pages long and cover just about everything from shed sizes to bonfires and even percentages of plots allowable for flowers. Paths are minutely described and only two years ago one of our neighbours received a rude letter from the council because he’d left a few weeds on the path.

I remember those days all too well when, being in our twenties and full of ideas of self-sufficiency and organic methods, we assumed we were regarded with dark suspicion by the other, mostly older, allotmenteers. I think it’s fair to say that some thought we were hippies who were bound to do nothing but smoke weed and make a nuisance of ourselves having orgies in the long grass. No such luck, I might say if I didn’t know that Madame will read this; anyway I’ve always been far too shy for orgies.

Two years ago you could almost walk on to an empty allotment plot after a few weeks on the (imaginary) waiting list. Not today, though. The list has grown longer and longer and a last few lucky souls slipped through the gate just before lockdown slammed it shut. The result has been a huge influx of newcomers, many of whom have never done any gardening and have joined the site in search of something more than free vegetables. The site is transformed. I’ve long thought that newcomers who are experienced gardeners bring regional or national styles with them; but the newcomers are something else. They’ve brought flair and architectural imagination with them. They recycle bits of old building material as if they were precious objects, and a pallet has acquired the sort of value that mars bars attracted when I taught in a prison.

There’s a young man on our site who has built three sheds so far and already has a waiting list – some of his efforts are in the photo gallery below as well as the one at the top. Several other things have happened; physical boundaries have become important again. The idea of ‘my space’ has become very important. Most of the new buildings provide more than secure space for tools – they’re socialising spaces as well. Shelters built big enough for four people rather than one solitary gardener with cloth cap. Our neighbours have turfed half of their plot (against the rules) put up a wire fence (against the rules) built two sheds, one of them oversize (completely against the rules) and he and she spend alternate sunny evenings drinking wine with their respective friends and warming themselves on a bonfire (reach for the smelling salts!!)

But the sense of space is balanced by far greater social media openness. The new Facebook page is buzzing with shares and questions. We talk to one another – once, that is, the younger people have got over the fact that we older ones don’t resent their presence and neither is old age contagious which some of them had been led to believe. The fact that we are supposed to have stolen their pensions is not mentioned, and just in case, we take care to not to provoke them by driving a very small mud covered Hyundai i10 with the back seat permanently down to accommodate tools and more mud. One of the advantages of being much older (there are a few disadvantages too) is that you get time to reflect ruefully on the friendships you missed fifty years ago, and on another allotment, by being standoffish and shy.

I might have concluded that this is a peculiar Bath phenomenon except for the fact that we went today to see our grandchildren and their mum and dad on their allotment in Bristol and exactly the same thing is happening there too. You don’t want to be always saying “we did that too” even if we did, because allotmenteering is a lifelong learning process and no-one likes a smartass.

But there’s something indefinable in the air. When these young people start sharing their surpluses and their first thoughts are collaboration and co-ops; and when – after an age of nuclear families and steroidal aspirations – we come back to a more tolerant, less judgemental and less prescriptive ethic, then some of the conditions for change are falling into place.

Elsewhere in the Potwell Inn

Apart from seeing, but not being able to hug our grandchildren today – still it was joyful. The three year old was bewildered by the social distancing and cried bitterly while the others were more philosophical. I’ve been reading David Goode’s wonderful book “Nature in towns and cities” – you may recall we met him watching peregrines at the weekend. The first chapter is a run around the ecology of Bath, and I read it breathlessly, ticking off things I’d seen and making lists of things I’ve missed so far. Then, as I threw open the shutters on a grey morning, I spotted a gull and a black, crowish looking bird. But what sort of gull? and what sort of crow? I’m not, never have been, a birdwatcher but it was a moment of life-changing insight not long after I retired, when I realized I had no idea what sort of gulls we were looking at on holiday at St Ives. The problem was that they were black headed gulls in their winter plumage ie. they had white heads unless you noticed the small crescent of black. Clearly birding was going to involve minute attention to detail.

So when David writes in his book that there are flocks of lesser black back gulls and herring gulls I was obliged to get the binoculars out and have a closer look. Until this morning I’d never given it much thought, but now I know for sure that I can identify lesser and greater black backed gulls, black headed gulls and herring gulls pretty much on sight. So too, the black crowish bird I paid minute attention to as well, is – a young rook at which point I realized that using binoculars to survey the green could, at times, be misconstrued.

In the plant department I had my eye properly ‘in’ and spotted *nipplewort and pellitory of the wall barely twenty feet from the flat! Slowly, and as a result of the lockdown, I’m seeing the wealth of wildlife we’re sitting in the middle of. I still miss our walks in North Wales and Cornwall bitterly but I’m learning more plants every day, right here. Then to crown the day a perfectly ordinary Comma butterfly resting on the inside of the fruit cage. Is someone trying to tell me something?

  • * Pride comes before a fall! No it wasn’t nipplewort it was wall lettuce – should have looked more carefully. Also forgot to mention the greater celandine on the other side of the path. That’s three sites I’ve found in Bath – again it’s not rare but fun to find.

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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