by Amy Overy.
A month ago, I flew to Australia for four days. I really wouldn’t recommend it as a mini break destination…the jet lag is awful. I work as a freelance TV producer covering Formula One, and Melbourne was to be the opening round of the 2020 season. Except it didn’t happen. A member of the McLaren team tested positive for Covid-19, the team withdrew from the race weekend and 24 hours later the event was cancelled and we all flew home again without a single wheel turning.
Since then of course, we’ve seen all domestic and international sporting events cancelled and the F1 season is up in the air with no idea when, or if it will finally get underway this year. I therefore am without the work I’ve done on and off for 20 years and staying at home with my family for the foreseeable future. From March to December my life is usually pretty hectic and even without travelling to all 22 races (I attend 14 or 15) I would usually take around 35 flights during this period, which adds up to a lot of hours spent on planes, in airports and hotel rooms. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my job but there’s no getting away from the fact it’s busy. And now I’m not.
So how am I filling my time now I’m not travelling the world? Well, I’ve been forced to slow down like so many people and take each day as it comes. Along with trying to homeschool my 12-year-old son (with varying degrees of success and multiple threats of detention) I’ve been indulging my two passions that I don’t normally have that much time for during the F1 season – gardening and cooking. I’m happiest with either a wooden spoon or a trowel in my hand and can potter with one or the other for hours. During the F1 season these activities are the perfect antidote to the frenetic nature of my job and I relish the contrast and quiet time at home. But now it’s all I have to do, and I’m appreciating the time all the more. Instead of living out of a permanently half packed suitcase and operating with the low level thrum of tiredness in my bones, I’m walking to my allotment 10 minutes away early each morning and digging for victory as the red kites soar on the thermals overhead. Exercise, routine, head clearing and food production all rolled into one.
I’ve lived in Tring for 18 years, and after moving here from a poky flat share in South London where allotment waiting lists stretched into decades, I marched into the Tring Council Offices on the High Street and requested a plot. We hadn’t even unpacked the kettle. I was given a map of the Duckmore Lane Allotments site and told to choose whichever one I wanted as long as it didn’t have a cross marked on it. I chose one at the top end with a water butt on the edge of it (no lugging heavy watering cans from further away in the heat of summer – I wasn’t stupid). It was so overgrown my husband thought I’d lost my mind taking it on, but I started in one corner and little by little I cultivated my patch and grew stuff. Lots of stuff. I was one of the youngest plot holders up there by some margin, but always welcomed by the older community who tended their plots daily with a friendly nod.
The site at Duckmore Lane originated in the 1920s after the Council appealed to the Rothschild Family who owned much of the land in Tring, to relinquish 4 acres and the 58 plots that were offered were snapped up immediately. The only stipulation Lord Rothschild had, was that each plot should have a root of rhubarb planted on it. As rhubarb is known to have a natural laxative effect, he obviously had the digestive health of the town in mind.
There are considerably more plots now, with most split in half to give more people a chance to grow their own, and now old timers rub along happily with young families all striving towards the goal of providing fresh food for the table.
Fast forward a few years from me taking the plot on, and with the arrival of a demanding baby who somehow managed to eat all of the time we had, the plot became somewhat neglected and sorry for itself. This time coincided with a real resurgence of interest in allotments and there was now a waiting list at Duckmore Lane. It was gently suggested to me that I might want to downsize to half a plot, and I did with a sigh of relief. Half a plot is more than enough for a family of three including a salad dodging child, and so much less intimidating. Since I started travelling with work again 9 years ago, it hasn’t always been possible to spend as much time at the plot as I’d like as I have to cram in so many other things in the few days I’m home between races, but this period of lockdown although unsettling, has given me the gift of time right at the start of the growing season and I’ve seized it with both gardening gloved hands.
When Michael Gove announced that allotments would remain open and that tending them would be permitted under lockdown, tens of thousands of people like me were reassured and vowed to make the most of this time to make their plots as productive as possible. In fact I’ve never seen the site looking so well tended and cared for, and the sense of community remains, albeit from a respectful distance with waving rather than chatting near the water butts.
Maybe you’ve also decided to use this time to finally grow some veg at home – in pots, or some herbs on a windowsill, or maybe you’ve taken the plunge and put your name down for an allotment plot, lured by the thought of fresh air, exercise and plot to plate harvests. If you have, allow me to share some pearls of wisdom and the benefit of my hindsight gleaned from my 18 years at the end of a spade:
1) They’re hard work. Bloody hard work. When the warm, wet Spring reduces your beautiful, Winter dug plot to a seething mass of nettles, thistles and creeping buttercup, you will cry.
2) But when you dig your first potato up in the summer, you will act as though you have found actual buried treasure and *possibly* do a little dance.
3) Two courgette plants is more than enough. Push it to three if you must, but YOU WILL GET SICK OF COURGETTES.
4) You don’t have to grow things you don’t like to eat just because they grow well. It took me two years (TWO YEARS!!!) of growing turnips ridiculously well, before I admitted that I didn’t actually like them and that they mainly ended up in the compost bin.
5) Anything you pick is a legitimate harvest, even if you didn’t plant it. Because without those blackberry laden brambles and inherited rhubarb plant, there would be some years when I wouldn’t have harvested a thing.
6) There will be times (when you have a demanding baby who takes every minute you have, or when you are travelling so much you can’t summon the energy to visit the plot when you’re home) that you think you should give the allotment up. DON’T. Things will change, time will trickle back to you slowly, and you will be very glad you have it.
7) Everything will be ready to harvest EXACTLY when you go on holiday, and you will breezily instruct the kind soul who is watering for you to ‘help yourself to anything that needs picking’ whilst hating them with every fibre of your being.
8) Pigeons are sods. Ditto rats. Ditto slugs, snails, flea beetles…you will question your intrinsic morals and good nature when you find yourself gleefully setting up beer traps for slugs to fall in to and drown (albeit drunk and happy)
9) You need some good courgette recipes (see 3)
10) Probably best to get a chiropractor. You will ‘pop up’ to the plot for half an hour, and you will still be there 3 hours later, have overdone it and done your back in.
11) You will bore anyone lucky enough to eat your lovingly grown allotment produce, by telling them that they are eating lovingly grown allotment produce. Repeatedly.
12) And finally, Allotments are ACE and they are now more important now than ever. With councils selling off centuries old allotment land for houses (search for the sad story of Farm Terrace Allotments in Watford) and green belt being deregulated for more house building, having an allotment is to preserve a tiny bit of this precious green space. Nowhere clears my head like my allotment, and when I’m surrounded by the magnificent trees in Tring Park, with Red Kites soaring overhead and with raspberries ripening in the late summer sun, there really is truly nowhere else I’d rather be.