IT IS the last day of spring and – with the 1st of June tomorrow – the theoretical dawn of summer. But you would not think so, if you stepped out into my Leeds garden today, with its cool, unfriendly breezes, and if you saw the array of plants, giant poppies chief among them, who are steadfastly refusing to pop their swelling buds, because it’s just not warm or sunny enough. After the colourful heat of early April, with its dizzying display of spring blooms (now finished), this is a mighty disappointment. But I have a single consolation: the broad beans. There they sit, in a mouldy old grow bag, by the back door. All sprightly green, with pretty white flowers, and a single, bold, black eye at their heart. Even though they are placed right in the pathway of the wind, as it comes bowling down my narrow driveway from the road, they are utterly undaunted: every time a gust pushes them over, up they bounce again, jaunty as you like, hardly a leaf or flower head out of place. Indomitable. That’s the spirit.
For seven years, from 2003 to 2010, I kept an allotment – a patch of wild, weed-infested clay – hidden behind an unprepossessing row of council flats in a downtrodden part of North East Leeds. Despite its unpromising location: it was a little piece of paradise. (Apart from the politics of The Allotment Committee, which were a nightmare. But isn’t that always the case?Where two people and a clipboard are gathered together…)
I took on my plot in direct response to a crisis in my life – the terminal cancer and death of my husband Tim. When you are a long-term carer – as I was, for ten years – you are in a strange kind of isolation from the rest of humanity. There is “normal” life: and then there is the prison that serious illness creates – a prison of the body, a prison of the mind.
I started digging my allotment because I honestly did not know what else to do. Turning the earth, making things grow, being outside, gave me a primitive sense of purpose and renewal. Amidst all that dying – a feeling of being alive.
But the truth is that I was never much good at growing vegetables. My overgrown piece of land was colourful and pleasing, certainly – full of rampant flowers, a tiny, fecund pond, and an old glorious shed. But productive? Feed the family? Avoid ever having to darken Tesco’s doors again, for fresh fruit and veg? Not exactly.
Oh, I made lots of charts about crop rotation, about the particular needs of the cauliflower, the potato and the pea, and I set about with netting, twiggy pea sticks and bamboo stakes as if my life depended on it. But honestly? I never really got the hang of it, and I never really cared. That little plot of land saved my sanity, restored my health and strength, and for that I will always be grateful.
In the end, I gave it up for the same reason I began: grief, loss and change. In 2010 my darling dad died, and I lost all heart for growing things for quite a while. I turned my back on the garden that had once restored me, and found solace in other places entirely – re-discovering my love of languages, travelling back to Eastern Europe as I had done in my youth, enjoying the city, and the company of others, with the same zeal I had once felt for being alone with my trusty trowel and spade.
But things go in circles – they have rhythms of their own – like the sea and the tides and the seasons themselves. Since I have been ill myself, over the last year or so, the urge to dash off to bright lights and foreign cities has ebbed away. At least for now. I find pleasure, once more, in the immediate wonder of the natural world around me: in the cheerful broad beans right outside my back door.
Actually, the one crop I did have unfailing success with, whenever I popped their seeds in the ground, was the bean. It was my father’s favourite vegetable – mine too, I believe – with its curious velvety texture, its delicate, sophisticated taste. So I am delighted to see these beauties appear for me now. A message of resilience. Of memory, and of hope. (And of a damn good broad bean risotto, just waiting to be cooked…)
Read more about my allotment in ‘A Handful of Earth’ published by John Murray in 2007, and still widely available online.