Tucked away behind the Norman church in the village in Kent where my parents-in-law live is a field of allotments. It’s an enchanting place, and I’m fascinated at how these little rectangular plots of earth display the vision, devotion and industriousness of the villager who tend them.
The allotments are always the first place Edward and I head to when we arrive in the village. I’m always keen to see what’s changed since our last visit, what work is being done this season, how the runner beans are doing and whether the squashes are ready yet. I’m wondering whether the gate has been fixed and, most enticingly, whether an unallocated allotment has been claimed for use.
The allotment field is comprised of pleasingly geometric rectangular enclosures, laid out in a semi-orderly fashion. The gardens are separated either by a neatly mown grass path, or a once-mown path that is now impassable, having been given over to brambles. The allotment gardens themselves come in a variety of different sizes and each one is bordered by fence and, often, a little swing gate.
Some of the gardens have gaily painted sheds, some have benches where I can easily image the holder sitting with a mug of tea, feeling the sun on his or her face whilst taking a rest from back breaking work of digging potatoes. One of the allotments has a magnificent scarecrow, frighteningly resembling Boris Johnson. It’s unclear whether this was intentional or not. (The day after the election I saw that he had fallen over, the straw leaking out of the back of his head, his trousers held together at the back with duct tape which feels as if it must surely be a metaphor for something.)
Some of the allotments have never been used and are little more than a fence erected around a patch of scrubby grass. They sit there full of promise, waiting to be adopted by an enthusiastic horticulturist, waiting to be loved. Some are neglected, displaying evidence of former industriousness and usefulness. They sit as shadows, a mournful reminder of a lost devotion, waiting hopefully for someone to notice them and return them to joy.
The ones that are in regular use fall broadly into three categories: first there are those that are regimented. Perfect rows of perfectly straight beds, with equal and even lawns between, the vegetables lined up like toy soldiers. One can almost feel the cabbages quiver with fear as their master approaches, terrified that they have not grown quite straight enough, or at the rate required for uniformity with the rest of their battalion.
Then there are the messy but productive gardens. Holes in sheds and fences patched in mis-matched planks, weeds running riot around grubby plastic water barrels and white plastic garden chairs. So much plastic. Uneven borders and grass paths that undulate and might like to invite the attentions of a mower. A bountiful plot, no doubt, but unkempt and ugly, like a farmyard full of broken machinery and concrete yards, devoid of flowers. These allotments feel somehow grumpy, like a worn down farmer in want of a wife to make cakes and put up window boxes of geraniums to make the place prettier.
And there there are the ones I love the most: the plots that have just the right balance between messy, joyful wildness and orderly discipline. Here the beds are neatly laid out and have smart, sharp edges and mown paths. The sheds are painted and the fences are repaired neatly. The gates swing without a creak and the wooden benches provide a moment’s rest for a person entirely content with their kingdom and creation. These are gardens created for aesthetic beauty as much as vegetable delight. The beds overflow with abundance and joy, the dahlias waving around happily in the breeze next to serious, sturdy, stoic stems of broccoli, as if stuck in a perpetual argument over who is the most valued: the proud, austere and usefulness of the vegetables or the frivolous, unbridled joy and beauty of the flowers.
As I stroll around these allotments I think about why I love these little spaces so much: I’m not especially interested in growing vegetables and the thought of spending cold Sunday afternoons in the middle of winter here, stamping my feet and clapping my mittens together to stay warm, is not appealing. I’d far rather be beside a fire with hot tea and buttered crumpets.
I think what I love is the dedication and devotion so clearly displayed. Here are outward expressions of people’s dreams. Strangely intimate and vulnerable, their passions are here for all of us to see. Etiquette dictates that I would never dare open one of the dear little picket gates and enter, but I can catch an enticing glimpse of someone’s vision from over the fence. I can wonder how it’s going, whether it’s turned out as they wished, whether they will deadhead the roses and when they will dig up the cabbages.
I’ve realised that here, in the allotment field, the villagers have created their own Utopias. Each little plot is a representation of how they wish to see the world: how important order is to them, and whether they can live without beauty. Here on display is all of their feelings about our countryside and nature, about consumerism and wastefulness. The allotment holder can sit on their bench or stand outside their shed with a mug of tea in hand and gaze over the Lilliputian country they have created. A place where there are no pesticides, no combine harvesters, no monoculture fields or mega-farms. No motorway has carved through the centre of their beautiful worlds and no ill-considered housing estate has been built on their green belt.
Here are perfect visions of miniature Englands, bucolic paradises, the beauty being in the eyes of the allotment holders. Here is a whole field of Albions, the mythical imagining of a perfect England, sitting here amongst the runner beans, the fading sunflowers and the autumn squashes.
This summer we spent eight days travelling around British Columbia in an RV. We put our phones away and recorded the entire trip in analogue. Here is what happened.
This New Year we stayed at the newly opened Glen Dye, the Home of the Brave, and found a way to have fun outside on the darkest, coldest days of the year.