Let me out! Hold me in …..


Clearly this rhubarb plant on our neighbour’s allotment can’t wait to escape its forcing pot – and for some utterly obscure reason it brought to mind the memory of a walled garden I once visited. The trigger was finishing the gravel boards the very last 25 feet of our own plot – mostly out of sight behind the shed and the greenhouse – but it seems more important than I expected. Edges, borders and paths have an important role in defining spaces and ours had always been open on this one edge. The boundary I put in today wasn’t very big, in fact it was sunk almost to ground level after I’d begun to infill the path with wood chip. But when I sat down in our newly created little quiet area between the shed and the greenhouse I suddenly – and for the first time – felt enclosed, held by the space. I was quite unprepared for the significance of the moment, and having just walked past the rhubarb in the picture I was transported back to one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen.

The Oxshott Pottery is no longer there.  I visited it with a party from art school in around 1971.  We came off a busy suburban street through a rather gothic looking ‘arts and crafts’ sort of door and into a strange tropical jungle surrounded by a tall redbrick wall.  The paths had been cleverly designed to make the garden feel much bigger than it really was.  There was a sound of flowing water and massive Gunnera plants with a multitude of smaller plants whose names I wouldn’t have known at the time. We were there to see the pottery and meet Rosemary and Denise Wren but I think Rosemary was the person to show us around.  I was totally lost to the garden – for almost fifty years it’s stayed in my mind; quiet – almost serene and enclosed, protected from the surrounding busy roads.

You never ‘own’ an allotment – there’s a long agreement with about ten pages of infractions for which you can be thrown off, evicted. You’re not allowed a fence although it’s permissible to grow plants along the boundary.  The dates between which bonfires are allowed are written into the agreement as is the maximum permitted height of trees (fruit, not ornamental) for which permission must always be sought. You’re surrounded by plots that are kept or neglected through different visions of what an allotment might be; a place to sit and contemplate, a place to grow medicinal herbs, a place where nothing but vegetables grow, a place where weeds are tolerated and another where they’re persecuted mercilessly.  There are experienced and inexperienced gardeners.  Our site has about as mixed a bunch of people as you’d ever find, all of us exploring our inner peasant.

The sun shone today and there were a number of new allotmenteers about.  I think the Parks Department have had their annual purge and our new neighbours were beginning to appear.  I passed a man in his thirties who was advancing on his new but rather weedy plot carrying an armful of cardboard with a look on his face that he might have worn for dragging an elk back to the cave. Photos were being taken, plans made and compost heaps filled with weeds that just love a change of scene.

It’s not difficult in such an ephemeral environment to lose any sense of personal space, any sense of belonging. For me, completing the low wooden boundary achieved it.  At last there’s an inside and an outside – not a wall or a fence but a line that describes an inside – what’s ours, however temporarily, and an outside that belongs to everyone else. Like all gardeners, we regard our plot as parents regard their children – beautiful and almost perfect notwithstanding the many faults that other parents see in them. Who’d have thought that banging in a few pegs and screwing on three or four rough cut boards could have such a profound effect?

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