It’s been a while since my last post. I’ll write a proper catch-up post shortly as there is lots to talk about, including the plot in general, community gardening, rhubarb wine, the RHS Malvern Spring Festival, and a small market garden in the Forest of Dean.
The break in writing this blog is due, partly because of busy-ness, both at the plot and life generally, but mainly because I’ve been writing something else. A book proposal.
Shortly after my episode of Big Dreams went out I was approached by the Commissioning Editor of a major publishing house asking if I’d ever considered writing a book. I said “yeah, obviously” and meetings were arranged. I put together a proposal – 10,000 words of abstracts, chapter structures and example chapters. It was a cool experience. Unfortunately, despite some good feedback, the higher-ups at the publishers decided not to take my book forward. I was a little disappointed, especially as they approached me and the feedback was so positive until now. It’s not a complete dead-end, the proposal is already written and I’ve had an agent recommended to me. Fingers crossed someone else might pick it up.
In the meantime. For your perusal. Here is a draft of what would’ve been the prologue to my book. A lot of the prologue has been mentioned before in this blog albeit in a slightly different vibe. Hope you think it’s okay.
I take another sup of cider and it’s quite possible the tastiest, most refreshing cider I’ve ever had. As a Westcountry boy, this is a big statement.
It’s late September and I’m at the allotment. It’s still incredibly warm. My face is sunburnt and my body aches after hours of weeding, digging and ferrying what seems like a forests worth of woodchip from the allotment car park. Yet as the cliché goes, I think I’ve found my happy place.
I lean back on an old collapsible chair, a leftover from the previous plot tenant, and hope it doesn’t fold in whilst I’m sat on it. I’ve lost weight recently, but not a lot and I doubt the chairs structural capabilities. But it’s okay. Everything feels okay in this present moment. I rest my bottle of cider on the garden table – sourced from the pavement outside someone’s drive with a note saying take me, everything on the allotment is recycled or second-hand – and admire what I’ve achieved so far.
I consider what famous telly gardener Monty Don will make of it when he arrives in two-weeks for his final inspection for this TV show I’ve found myself on. I’m especially worried what he’ll make of the shed, he was certain it would fall down any minute. Yet I’m determined to not just make the shed work, but to turn it into something special – a pub-shed. Bar, dart board, pub stool, Bid D peanuts, everything! The Ross & Crown! Right now though, I decide to enjoy this particular moment and consider all the similar moments I hope to enjoy in the future.
I admire the peas and runner beans climbing their bamboo wigwams, the yellow courgettes, the impressively coloured chard, and the odd looking squashes I’d inherited which I discover later are patty pans. Out of all the crops which are coming along the most successfully, I realise that, apart from the peas and beans, were all started off or donated by friends and plot neighbours. Most of my own attempts at growing had failed miserably. I’ve still a lot to learn.
I admire the view. My plot, plot 90B, commands an awesome view of the Frome Valley, Stoke Park and Purdown. Areas historically used for feeding the city itself. If it wasn’t for a telecommunications tower known colloquially as the ‘Cups and Saucers’ (because of the satellite dishes that used to adorn its sides) the view would be as perfectly bucolic as you could imagine. Apart from the vague hum of the M32 you’d never know you were in the middle of a big city.
An old Irish man joins me for a chat. I’ve never seen him before. We talk about collards for some reason and he promises to drop off some seeds next time he passes my plot. I look the other way for a second and the man has disappeared. I consider to myself that he might have been a ghost – it’s that kind of night. Or it might just be the cider!
I remember what it was like six months ago. When I took it on, this little patch of land – around 82 by 16 foot if you like knowing such things – it was overgrown and overrun with bindweed and couch grass and god knows what else. The shed was roofless and falling down. I was told I had good soil, which was nice.
There are now seven beds – all being used in one way or another. There are wood-chipped paths, a small leaky pond, a functioning shed (the soon to be re-imagined pub-shed – the Ross & Crown, because who doesn’t enjoy a forced pun), there are compost bays, and what I think might be the most terrifying, yet sexiest, scarecrow ever to have existed, although the birds seem nonplussed by her.
But when I took it on the plot on the previous March it was in a right state. Six months ago, a lack of knowledge, experience and confidence meant that I’d often just stare at the plot, shrug, and go home despondent. Now it’s almost a thing of beauty. Almost!
The plot wasn’t the only thing in a right state. I take another sup of cider and consider where my life was the winter before.
Following the loss of my job and a relationship breakdown, I found myself homeless. I had spent six weeks in various shelters and hostels, living out of a large blue rucksack and lugging a sleeping bag around the city whilst trying to figure out what to do, despairing at how life could’ve gone so wrong. The threat of violence and substance abuse was rife in whatever hostel I slept and wherever I ate. As a safety precaution I hung around with this guy called Simon, a recovering heroin addict. He was huge, believed in Norse gods and looked like a Viking. Nobody would mess when he was about.
The day would start at 6am and finished at 2am and the daylight hours were spent commuting from agency to agency hoping for news of a more permanent, safer roof over my head. It was an exceptionally cold January and any down time was spent in the library, looking for work and trying to keep warm. Applying for jobs seemed a pointless endeavour. The kind of work I had experience in, and not to boast, would normally walk into, usually entailed being smartly dressed. Difficult to achieve when you are living out of a bag. The hours from late afternoon to late evening were spent in a queue hoping for a bed at the night shelter. At the time there were only eighteen beds for the whole city. You had to get there early to be guaranteed a bed and be prepared to wait. The whole experience was terrifying and exhausting. It did nothing for my mental health, which has always been a bit ropey at best. But this felt like rock bottom. That’s because it was.
I had been homeless for around five weeks and spending the previous few days sleeping underneath a pool table in the common room of a Salvation Army building when I finally had an interview with the Council’s Private Renting Team. I was not eligible for urgent accommodation as I was not a drug user or an alcoholic and my mental health problems were not considered significant enough. At my first appointment the woman working with the Private Renting Team advised that I could get somewhere tomorrow, or it could be in a years’ time – they couldn’t say when and definitely couldn’t promise anything. However, within ten minutes of my appointment ending I received a phone call and was offered a viewing of a flat close to city centre. I saw the flat the next day and accepted immediately. After a brief interview with the landlord I was told I could move in the following week. The flat, although not social housing, is rented from a social housing provider so no deposit was needed. This was a lucky break.
My new place is located above a funeral directors, so at least it’s quiet. After moving in I received a council tax bill addressed to both myself and the previous tenant – a Mr Dracul, I had a smile and hoped it was just an ironic coincidence. Although the way my luck had been I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself as tea for a hungry bloodsucking creature of the night. It was a studio apartment and surprisingly spacious. The living room and bedroom were one and the same but it had a separate bathroom (with bath) and kitchen. The only downside was that it was unfurnished.
Once I’d settled in, sourced some furniture and made it a bit more homely, I was able to reflect back on the past couple of months and then I broke down completely. I think I was finally going into shock at the sheer magnitude of recent events. The worry of homelessness had distracted me from grieving over the loss of my job and partner. It didn’t take long for that grief to catch up. I was also exhausted – both mentally and physically. I spoke to a GP, and like all the GP’s I’ve seen, she prescribed me some anti-depressants and told me to try and get more exercise. Have I been unlucky or is that just the generic response everyone gets?
Shortly after I’d moved in I realised that something inside me had changed – something fundamental. Although I couldn’t really put my finger on what it actually was. It felt like my factory settings had been reset and I wasn’t going to reload the computer with the same old apps. I knew I no longer wanted to go back to my pre homeless life – which wasn’t terrible, per se. I was lucky in many ways, I am educated, healthy and I can be terrifically motivated when I set my mind to something. But I was deeply unsatisfied with the way my working life had gone and my social life was based almost entirely around the pub. Most of my friends had very young children so I couldn’t really rely on them for kinship anymore. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or even could do to rectify this situation. All I knew is that I wanted something which would keep me busy, keep me fit and healthy, get me out of the flat, learn new skills and help to meet new likeminded people. Not much really.
Prior to now, if you’d have suggested to me that not only would I have an allotment, I would actually love it – and even be writing a book about it, I’d have laughed out loud, and quite possibly in your face. I always thought I was an indoors, urban, city kind of man. The fact I tend to dress like a lumberjack, beard and all, was just a ruse. I liked pubs, comic books, telly, films and video games. As the son of a butcher I wasn’t even particularly fond of vegetables. Yes I enjoyed the occasional walk in the countryside, and even did a bit of running, but I always looked forward to having a pint at the end. The destination was always a pub! Even after running the London Marathon in 2014 the first point of call was the pub. My general thinking used to be – working outdoors and getting dirty? Well, that was for other people wasn’t it?!
I applied to the Council to take on an allotment plot on a whim. The thought first occurred to me around eighteen months earlier whilst I was doing a bit of temping. Half the people in my team had plots, and full disclosure here, they were all quite cool and all pretty good-looking. My opinion on what a stereotypical allotmenteer was had changed. I used to think old, bearded, male and fusty. I’m doing my best not to describe Jeremy Corbyn here. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s just not how I saw myself. I mentioned it to my ex, and I promised myself that I’d look into it but never really got round to it. The idea was shelved indefinitely.
The allotment idea reappeared as I was thinking about ways to keep myself busy on an evening and weekends. I was bored, lonely and had been through a major life trauma. I was looking into doing a bit of volunteering, something to keep me busy and take my mind off recent events. I had also been doing a bit of labouring and discovered that a bit of manual work could actually be quite enjoyable. I was vaguely aware of an organisation called Incredible Edible Bristol and thought I’d get in touch with them.
Incredible Edible are a group of community gardening volunteer’s commandeer unused/unloved patches of land and grow produce that anyone could then pick and eat. They seemed to tick a lot of the following boxes:
- It would keep me busy;
- Keep me fit and healthy;
- Get me out of the flat;
- Learn new skills; and
- Help me to meet new, likeminded, people.
I had been speaking with their formidable leader, Sara Venn, on social media about attending one of their work parties and promised myself I’d attend the next time a weekend work party took place.
I was in the pub thinking about Incredible Edible when the light bulb in my head went off. Get an allotment as well you mad fool! So I applied there and then thinking that it might be a few months, even years, before I heard anything back. You hear stories of people being on waiting lists for a plot for years. And in an alternative place like Bristol, with its fair sized population of hippies and hipsters (again with the generalisation) I thought it would be forever before I got an offer. Plus, if I didn’t enjoy the Incredible Edible experience then I wouldn’t take on a plot and I wouldn’t have lost anything.
The first site I applied for was situated along the River Frome and close to my flat. But shortly after my application was made the allotment flooded after a particularly heavy downpour caused the river to burst its banks, spilling brown, shitty smelling water over the well-tended plots. Needless to say I decided to apply to another site. I thought somewhere slightly away from the river would probably be best. My next choice was the allotments at Thingwall Park, which seemed to have a shorter waiting list than all the other sites in the area.
Within a couple of days I was surprised to get a phone call from Irene, the site rep at Thingwall Park Allotments, offering to show me around and look at the plots that were available. So much for the lengthy waiting list! I was surprised at how excited I felt about this. It was weird. I’d definitely changed.
Thingwall Park Allotments, with nearly three hundred plots is the largest allotment site in Bristol, and only a twenty-five minute walk from my flat. I was offered a choice of three plots. My first choice was a plot that had been dug over recently and I could get stuck straight it (I was so naive back then). But an admin error revealed that it had already been offered to someone else. I was allowed to choose a new one. My second choice, Plot 90B, needed a bit of work, but not too much work I thought. I reckoned I could start planting pretty quickly. I later discover how much of an idiot I was to think this. There were also the bones of a shed that I could use for storage. Yes, it didn’t have much of a roof left and one side seemed to be missing, but I didn’t have a car and figured that having onsite storage was a must. Irene said she’d inform the council of my intentions to take over the plot, and gave me her spare key until my official one arrived.
I had an allotment.
Up until then I’d never had a garden. I’d never done any gardening. No one I knew did much gardening. I was also skint. I’d managed to get a bit of work but any spare money that I’d earned had been spent furnishing my flat. I had nothing to actually garden with is what I’m saying. So I turned to the internet for freebies. I put an advert online asking if anyone was having a clear out of their shed or garage, and also put out a tweet. Soon I’d sourced secateurs, a spade, hoe, trowel, shears, a shed load of books, and even a pair of wellies. My boss at the time leant me his fork.
So I had my plot, I had some rudimentary equipment, I even had some seeds. I also had a bit of hope. The only things I didn’t have was knowledge, experience and the merest inkling of where to begin.
It’s a late September and I’m at the allotment. I’m sat on a rickety old chair admiring my plot and I’m feeling content. I finish my cider, realise that it’ll soon be dark and I make my way home. It’s a busy day tomorrow and it’s less than a week until Monty Don’s final visit. There is still a lot to do and this pub-shed won’t build itself. I get home, a bit tipsy, and sleep like a baby.