The back yard at my grandparent’s house in London after the war didn’t encourage gardening. It was paved with cracked stones, and the only thing that grew there was an invasive lilac bush which often blocked the back door. But my granddad lived in the country before moving to London, and he loved to grow things. So he applied for an `allotment’, a small patch of ground rented from the Local council.
During WWII allotments became very popular as Britons were exhorted to `dig for victory’ and keep themselves and their neighbors supplied with fresh vegetables. Granddad called his allotment his `victory garden’ – a victory not only over war itself, but over his exile from the country places he loved.
Edward ‘Ted’ Woodruffe, my grandpa (this is the only picture I have)
The first time Granddad took me to visit his garden, we walked through rows of allotments. The fencing was chicken wire, and surrounded each small plot. Some plots were sadly neglected, overgrown with nettles and thistles. But my granddad’s allotment was lush with vegetables – silverbeet, spinach, cabbages and cauliflower. There was a chain and padlock on the gate, and inside I could see a small shed in one corner.
Granddad took off the padlock and we went inside. He paused for a moment, breathed deeply, and smiled.
“Nuffin’ like it, is there, gel?”
He led me over to the cauliflower and broke off a floret. “Taste that.”
Cauliflower at my home was always served grey and overcooked. I took a suspicious bite, then ate the lot. I don’t think I ever ate a cooked vegetable from that moment.
There was another chain and padlock on the shed. It was a tiny shed, made of wood and looked like a country outhouse. But inside were his neatly stacked gardening tools, his bottles of homemade ginger beer, a stash of tobacco and a pipe, a kitchen chair and a pile of newspapers. He took out the chair and set it against the fence, then started sorting through the gardening tools.
“Weeds,” he said. “Bane of me life. Here, I’ll show you what’s weeds and what ain’t.”
He led me round the garden beds, pointing out the differences between his plants and the nettles and thistles that were poking their heads up. He gave me a small gardening fork and showed me how to uproot the ‘little beggars’ and toss them in a compost pile by the fence. I felt very important, declaring war on these enemies of my granddad’s cauliflowers.
It was a warm day, and we worked at those weeds until the ground was clear of them, then we took a break. Granddad gave me the chair and a bottle of ginger beer, and lit up a pipe for himself. he wasn’t allowed to smoke his pipe in Gran’s presence and I began to see that there was more to this allotment than just a chance to grow vegetables. He hunkered on his heels, puffing contentedly, while I sipped the ginger beer.
“You be good to nature, gel, and she’ll be good to you,” he said, pointing with his pipe at the garden beds. “We’ll take home a cabbage for dinner tonight, and some o’ that spinach.”
After the break, Granddad put away the gardening tools, and we cut the vegetables to take home, wrapped carefully in some of the newspaper from the shed. He showed me how to clean the gardening fork with newspaper.
“Never put things away dirty, gel. Had this stuff for years, I `ave.” He rarely spoke of his life in the country, but as he lined the spade, fork and hoe up against the shed wall, he smiled to himself. I had seen pictures of the cottage my grandparents once lived in, and thought how much he must have loved the generous gardens he kept there.
Then we caught the bus back to the cramped suburban street and terraced house in which he now lived. Granddad worked on building sites when I knew him, and it all seemed a long way from the life he had known. Yet, on his allotment, he recaptured some of the life he loved most.
After he died, my grandmother had to hand the keys of the allotment back to the council, and it was passed onto someone else. There are still allotments in the UK, and I’d like to think that his little plot is still being worked by someone, still producing fresh cauliflower and cabbage, still being cared for.