Letter from England

Greetings from a Cornwall fishing village where we are currently in residence in an oh-so-cutsie-pie antique fisherman’s cottage, suitably renovated to bring it up to the level of comfort expected in 2009. The thatched roof has been replaced with slate tiles and actually I think thatching may be a great deal better in photographs than in reality. Not only does thatching have a limited lifespan and require a trained thatcher to replace (probably elderly, meticulous, speaking in a thick regional dialect but charging for the new millenium), it provides a cosy habitat for all manner of insect, rodent and bird life. Mark has even spotted a duck nesting on a thatched roof.

But I digress. We made this trip specifically to look and learn from English summer gardens and we placed a strong emphasis on private gardens of high quality, rather than the better known historic gardens. You will have to wait for another fortnight to get a more detailed analysis of what we have seen but suffice to say that we are abandoning that earlier plan and returning instead to an itinerary heavier on the known historic and estate gardens. We have been a little underwhelmed by the calibre of many of the private gardens that had been recommended to us. That is fine – it allows us to establish benchmarks and comparators – but now we want to see the best of English garden tradition and it appears we will find that in the trust and public gardens.

We have been particularly impressed by the country lanes where, thank goodness, glyphosate is clearly never used and hedgerows are valued. Of course many of our weeds in New Zealand are native to England (think of the Flower Fairy books) so completely at home in the natural environment here. And the lanes are natural wildflower environments. This is not territory for large cars or urban tractors and oft times, even very small cars such as we are driving have to reverse up to allow an equally small car travelling in the opposite direction to gain passage. Once away from the motorways and main arterial routes, the English summer countryside is simply charming. It makes our farming practices at home look very industrial and the green desert we inhabit is not environmentally rich in any way at all. We only get away with a clean green image because of a very small population and areas of considerable natural beauty, not because of any great sensitivity to environmental matters. Mark has long been railing against the District Council and Transit practices of spraying out wide areas of natural growth with weedkiller. It looks really bad and it is really bad practice.

Road verges along a Cornwall lane

Road verges along a Cornwall lane

So we are delighting in the hedgerows which team with insect and bird life and Mark is fast becoming very competent at identifying native birds and butterflies. And we also admire a society which has rediscovered the importance of allowing some of the natural environment to regenerate and where not everything in the countryside is sacrificed to the speedy passage of the internal combustion engine.

The current vegetable garden craze is by no means limited to New Zealand but in a society where dense population means that most people live cheek by jowl with minimal space, the allotment has taken on new importance and status. Allotments are areas of public land which are allocated on request. It appears that the right to allotment space is enshrined somewhere in law here, although the wait time in high demand areas can be up to 40 years. The line up of allotments down the road from our London hosts near High Barnet used to look very tatty and unloved when I first looked at them 18 years ago. Not so today. Now they are high producing areas much loved and tended by their leasees, in this case mostly Italian. It is a sign of the times, alas, that they are also surrounded by high security fencing. We spent a pleasant half hour chatting to Bruno, who was indeed Italian and in memory of his homeland, he had a fairly large number of fig trees, 18 as I recall. He also had every other fruit bush and tree (on dwarfing stock) that he could grow there, along with extensive crops of vegetables. I think he had managed to get down on a double allotment. It was from Bruno that we learned about the difficulty of gardening in competition with the squirrels. He had come down one morning to pick his pear crop, only to be disappointed. From being laden the previous day, there was not a single fruit left. He ferreted around the base of the tree and found a neat stack of pears, each one with tooth marks and damage, stored by the squirrel against winter famine.

Bruno in his London allotment

Bruno in his London allotment

Here in Cornwall, we tracked down the allotments in nearby Gerrans where we chatted to a young German woman who now lives locally and tends her allotment. She told me that Germany also has an allotment system but, being German, they were subject to tight controls prescribing what proportion of land must be devoted to food production, rather than ornamentals, and the standard to which your allotment must be maintained. She much preferred the more relaxed English model. She was watering in her leeks as we chatted. This being the UK, the allotments in Gerrans had what was probably a million pound view – literally. It is part of the wonderful contradiction that is England – an overheated property market with extremes of wealth and historic country cottages that are under-used holiday homes way out of the financial reach of local residents. The local council responds by allocating allotment land and building subsidised affordable housing, as it is called here, on a prime spot of coastal land with an astounding view out to sea. In rural Cornwall, none of these allotments were fenced but clearly a code of courtesy prevails. While being extremely impressed by a crop of peas which eclipsed anything we have ever managed to grow at home, we were sufficiently well mannered to resist the temptation to pick one to eat.

the impressive pea crop in a Cornish allotment at Gerrans

the impressive pea crop in a Cornish allotment at Gerrans

Allotments are different to community gardens. The former are individually rented (about $50 per annum in Gerrans, $100 in London) whereas the latter are managed collectively, also on public land. Keen gardeners tend to like individual allotments, community minded people and do-gooders lean to the latter option. In our very own Waitara, as I recall, the residents in Battiscomb Terrace wanted allotment rights whereas Mayor Pete preferred the more PC community garden approach. But part of the identity of allotments (or indeed community gardens) is that aesthetics do not enter the equation at all. While there may be increasing pressure to keep a tidy, productive allotment and to go organic, it is fine to cobble together a scruffy old shed, plastic water butt, rough paths and piles of accoutrements which may at some point possibly be useful, or not, as the case may be. Frankly it would not appeal at all to the conformist types who wanted Battiscomb Terrace residents to have tidy and preferably matched front fences.

Allotments are not usually aesthetically pleasing.

Allotments are not usually aesthetically pleasing.

Apparently being allocated an allotment is now a triumph worth boasting at dinner parties in Mayfair and even Ma’am is supervising the installation of an organic allotment plot at Buckingham Palace. Admittedly it is facing the wrong way for the sun, part shaded by a mulberry tree, hard up against a hedge and in less than ideal conditions, but it is the thought that counts and garden space is at a premium at The Palace.

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  1. Pingback: Abbie’s letter from England « Michael Jeans

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