IMG_1979_thumb.jpg

Going Behind The Scenes In Wenlock Abbey

IMG_1979

We followed in the footsteps of long-gone celebrities on our recent, and I have to say, nigglingly exclusive visit to Wenlock Abbey. It was the first chance we have had to visit there, and it was done under the auspices of our Civic Society.

Without doubt this building is the architectural jewel of Much Wenlock. It lies at the heart of the town, but is usually only visible if you scramble around at the back of the church yard, and peek over the wall. It housed the erstwhile domestic quarters of the priors of Wenlock Priory and, since the Dissolution in 1540, has remained in private ownership. The adjoining priory ruins, however, belong to English Heritage, and are the town’s main tourist attraction. Somewhat confusingly the house has long been called The Abbey, although the priory from Norman times was always a priory, not an abbey. The Saxon religious house that preceded it, however, was an abbey of both monks and nuns and ruled over by an abbess.

The range seen in the first photos is the most recent part of the house, built in the early 1400s. The limestone wing, just visible on the left, comprised both the monks’ infirmary and the original prior’s chambers, and are considerably older.

The present owners have spent the last three decades restoring the house, and creating interior settings that to many might seem outlandish and controversial. There will be more about this in a moment.

But first those celebrities of times past. I’ve written about his visits before, but one of the returning house guests in the days of the Milnes Gaskells’ ownership was Henry James. He came in 1877, 1878 and 1883 – and apparently drew much inspiration from the house and grounds when he was writing The Turn Of The Screw.  The little roof-top tower certainly puts in an appearance in the text.

At the time of James’ first visit, his hosts, Charles and the young Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, had not long been married and were expecting their first child.  The invitation had been secured through ‘lobbying’ by a mutual friend, Henry Adams, the American historian. He and Charles Gaskell had met as undergraduates at Cambridge, and before Charles’ marriage he had also been a frequent guest at The Abbey. Adams thought Charles, by then a prominent barrister, and Henry James had many interests in common and would get on well; and so it proved.

Charles’ father, James Milnes Gaskell, had been the Conservative MP for the Borough of Wenlock and had bought The Abbey (priory ruins included) in a derelict state from his wife’s cousin. The Gaskells senior appear to have held rather rustic and unconventional house parties there. (They naturally had other smarter homes elsewhere). Adams describes a visit in the autumn of 1864:

God only knows how old the Abbot’s House is, in which they (the Gaskells) are as it were picnic-ing before going to their Yorkshire place for the winter. Such a curious edifice I never saw, and the winds of Heaven permeated freely the roof, not to speak of the leaden windows. We three, Mrs. Gaskell, Gask (Charles) and I, dined in a room where the Abbot or Prior used to feast his guests; a hall on whose timber roof, and great oak rafters, the wood fire threw a red shadow forty feet above our heads. (1.)

One of the more unusual pursuits on such visits included the archaeological excavation of the Priory ruins.

IMG_1976

Adams describes his own contributions to the general exploration:

Whenever we stepped out of the house, we were at once among the ruins of the Abbey. We dug in the cloister and we hammered in the cellars. We excavated tiles bearing coats of arms five hundred years old, and we laid bare the passages and floors that had been three centuries under ground. (1.)

When Charles Gaskell took over The Abbey from his father, he and Lady Catherine set about restoring the property and making it a family home where they might energetically entertain notables from the world of arts and literature. Emphasis was on mind-improving activity, and an appreciation of the aesthetic in all its forms.  Visitors would be treated to extensive walks, drives and railway journeys to view all the surrounding great houses, and visit Shropshire’s many ancient churches and castles.  A trip to Wenlock Edge to take in the vistas was also obligatory.

Henry James documents his own many outings with Charles Gaskell in Portraits of Places.

Chapel Wenlock Abbey

The Prior’s Chapel during the time of Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell from her book Spring in a Shropshire Abbey  1904 (available to download on Gutenberg Press).

*

The Gaskells’ other guests included In Darkest Africa explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, architect, Philip Webb, Architect and Pioneer of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and Thomas Hardy and his wife. Hardy was apparently surprised to find himself lodged in the oldest part of the house, and declared that “he felt quite mouldy at sleeping within walls of such high antiquity” (2.)

The Hardys were also taken around the county, visiting Stokesay Castle and Shrewsbury. Florence Emily Hardy recounts how one Sunday Hardy and Lady C walked until they were tired, when

“they sat down on the edge of a lonely sandpit and talked of suicide, pessimism, whether life was worth living, and kindred dismal subjects, till we were quite miserable.”(2.)

The room wherein Hardy felt so mouldy was in the infirmary wing and is indeed very old, dating from the 1100s CE.  The original prior’s chambers were built adjoining the infirmary around a hundred years later, the scale of them doubtless dictated by the need to accommodate a series of royal visits. The deeply devout King Henry III, along with his own prestigious guests, was a frequent guest between 1231 and 1241.

100_5971

This photo shows the rear view of the infirmary and original prior’s lodgings, (the limestone range on the right) together with the side elevation of the upscaled prior’s lodgings that were added in the early 1400s (multi-coloured stonework to the left).

The king, as monarchs did, would arrive with a large retinue of servants, clerks, cooks, musicians and blacksmiths, all of whom had to be housed. There must have been some pretty good parties too, since a permanently appointed keeper of the king’s wine was required to manage the contents of the priory wine cellar in readiness for any royal visit. Supplies were  brought in from Bristol ( a hundred miles away) by the Sherriff of Shropshire and a record relating to the delivery of four barrels in 1245 states that the wine was to be placed ‘safely in the cellars there against the king’s arrival as he proposes shortly to come to those parts, God willing.’ (4.)

IMG_1996

The galleried facade of the more recent fifteenth century lodgings,originally unglazed, was constructed from stone from four different quarries.

IMG_1991

The catslide roof is tiled with stone flags.

Inside, on the ground floor, is the prior’s private chapel, while upstairs is the Great Hall with its great stone fireplace and high beamed ceiling mentioned by Adams, and next to it, though scarcely less grand, the Lesser Hall. Timbers in the Great Hall roof have been dendro-dated to 1425.

The front door to the left of this range, though, is considerably older, with its characteristic Norman arch. James describes it in his travelogue Portraits of Places (3):

IMG_1997

I returned to the habitation of my companion (Charles Milnes Gaskell)…through an old Norman portal, massively arched and quaintly sculptured, across whose hollowed threshold the eye of fancy might see the ghosts of monks and the shadows of abbots pass noiselessly to and fro…for every step you take in such a house confronts you in one way or another with the remote past. You feast upon the pictorial, you inhale the historic.

It was through this doorway we also went a few  Saturdays ago. As I said, this was a private tour, and our first such visit. Since 1983 the house has been the home of Gabriella and Louis de Wet. De Wet is an artist of some renown and Gabriella is better known to the wider world as theatre and television actor Gabrielle Drake. For the last 33 years, driven by Louis de Wet’s extraordinary artistic vision,  they have been restoring the house – carrying the building’s story on into the 21st century while revealing its ancient monastic roots in strikingly original ways. The project has been an epic labour of love, and involved the dedication of consummate craftsmen, working very much in the mediaeval guildsmen tradition.

I did not take photos. So if you want to see what lies behind this door, please follow this next link. It will take you to a 2 minute trailer of a very excellent film made by Gavin Bush in 2011: In The Gaze Of Medusa . I leave you to make up your own minds about the merit of the De Wets’ prodigious and unique enterprise. It is not straight forward by any means.

For now, here’s the one photo I did take – of the library, and still a work in progress. It gives a taste of the quality of the craftsmanship involved in the restoration-creation work, the newly made shelves that will house a life-time’s collection of books on art, philosophy and history. Also niggles apart, we did appreciate the gracious hospitality of Mrs. de Wet who showed us around with such enthusiasm, and then treated our party to tea and some very delicious cakes in the Venetian Room. So very English!

IMG_1994

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

1. Ernest Samuels Henry Adams: Selected Letters  1992 p 69

2. Florence Emily Hardy The Later Years of  Thomas Hardy  1930

3. Henry James Portrait of Places

4. Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock  2001

Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell Spring In A Shropshire Abbey  1904

Changing Seasons ~ July’s The Time For Lady’s Bedstraw Up On Windmill Hill

P1050216

So far July in the UK has featured several seasons. We’ve had April showers, autumnal gloom, wintery downpours, mutterings about frost that just never happens around here in July, and now a heat wave of unprecedented temperatures outside the tropics. Yet three evenings ago when  I took this photo, it felt like October. There was a wild windiness about the place, and lowering skies, and that pang of melancholy that tells you summer is done.

But then as I lay in the grass to frame the shot all I could smell was the mignonette fragrance of Lady’s Bedstraw. Delicate. Hypnotic; gathering in waves across the hilltop. I can well understand why these golden flower drifts were once harvested to dry and fill mattresses. Their scent says essence of high summer. And so it proved. The next morning Octoberal tendencies had evaporated and we woke to wall to wall blue, and the overwhelming hotness, beneath whose onslaught we are currently sweltering. All this climatic chopping and changing of course suits us English. We’ve never had so much weather to talk about all at once.

This photo, by the way, was taken in low evening light conditions using the  ‘Impressive Art’ setting on my Lumix. I’d rather dismissed this setting, not liking the results of shots taken in broad daylight. But in low light the images acquire an other-worldly look – perhaps slightly sinister. I only added a touch of ‘contrast’ and  ‘highlight’ editing.

 

Changing Seasons July2015

Please visit the Cardinal for more about this challenge. There are two versions: use one or both. The latest version 2 features a single image/creation that sums up the month for you in some way. Version 1 is a gallery of several photos – all to be freshly shot.

 

#ChangingSeasons

Operation Floral Sat Nav ~ Bee Makes Bee-Line For Foxglove

IMG_1716

Yesterday at the Farrell establishment we had bees in poppies. Today it’s bees in the foxgloves, and thank you to Lynn at Word Shamble for mentioning bees and foxgloves in the comments. This reminded  me I’d taken these snaps earlier in the month just before the foxgloves went over. I was trying out my new second-hand Canon Ixus 870 – and oh, the nippy little macro setting – I’m in love with it!

Also please drop in at Lynn’s blog to read a wicked piece of flash fiction: it definitely has a sting in the tale/tail.

Now for more shots of bees. Also just look at the foxglove’s come-hither devices  – no ‘Sat Nav Map Error’ here; but an intricate systems of dots and splodges guiding in any would-be pollinator to get pollinating.  It looks like every little ‘glove’ has its own touch-pad access code:

IMG_1715

IMG_1704

 

Cee’s Flower of the Day

Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: Details

And It Was A Right Bees’ Breakfast This Morning Over My Garden Fence…

 

IMG_2265

It was every bee for itself over in the poppy patch behind the garden sheds this morning: the apian equivalent of a supermarket trolley dash. Honey bees, little brown bumbles, dinky stripy bumbles, blooming big scary bumbles and white-tailed bumbles diving in for the poppy nectar while the air all round filled with happy bee hum.  Some were feeding with such speed and voracity that their baggage compartments were definitely approaching the overloaded mark. Now and then they would take a feeding break on the poppy’s crown while they dusted themselves down and redistributed the pollen cargo.

IMG_2252

The gathering technique is also fascinating. They dive into the base of the flower and speed round beneath the stamens, feeding on the nectar while every part of them hoovers up pollen from the anthers. Even with the biggest bumbles, once they get into their stride, all you can see are the stamens ruffling round like curtain pelmet tassels in a stiff breeze. Whoosh, and it’s on to the next feeding station.

IMG_2282

IMG_2310

I probably don’t need to say it again to those who follow this blog, but then no chance should be wasted. The wellbeing of our planet, and of humanity, and of the continued production of much of our food depends on protecting and nurturing bee populations any way we can. Masses are being killed off by pesticides and habitat loss. So loud applause for the opium poppies that came of their own accord to our boundary fence, and are doing their bit for bee world. Rah! Rah! Hurrah, poppies!

IMG_2360

IMG_2361

IMG_1828

 

Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: Details

In the Distance ~ Much Wenlock’s By-Ways In Black & White

P1040281

For once I wasn’t using my Lumix Dramatic Monochrome setting when I took this photo on Wenlock’s Linden Walk back in early June. But I think the manual colour version-turned black & white has come out quite well despite the deep shadow and lots of zoom.

The next photo was taken on a winter’s day using the monochrome setting. It’s the path that runs from the field behind our house and up onto Wenlock Edge. The horizontal line of tree tops marks the top of the Edge. (I like the strange effect of false horizons). When you stand up there the land falls away from you rather hair-raisingly, dropping almost vertically through ancient hanging woodland. In winter, through the bare trees you can just make out the rooftops of Homer village way below.

P1030069

*

P1010921

This is the footpath to Bradley Farm. It lies on the far side of the town away from the Edge. Also a change in seasons here: this was taken in full sun last August just as the wheat was ripening.

P1010968

Windmill Hill sunset. I think it’s early autumn because the little ponies that are brought in to graze the hill have not yet been moved to their winter quarters.

*

P1020381

I take lots of photos of the hill on Down’s Farm. It’s an interesting shape and the spinney on top gives added character. But with distant views I always like some structure in the foreground too, in this case the Windmill Hill bench. I took the next photo with same idea in mind.

P1020167

The subject here is the cricket club’s shed on the Linden Field. It stands between the lime tree avenue and a line of Wellingtonia or Giant Sequoias. From this angle I think it looks rather mysterious. A Tardis type portal of some kind. It simply pretends to be the place where Wenlock’s cricketers keep the lawn mower.

 

Cee’s Black & White Challenge: In the distance

Please visit Cee for more distant compositions.

Opposites: Sunshine & Shadow Over My Fence At 5 a.m. Or A Case of Elephants in The Corn And Other Unreal Realities

IMG_1786

It makes you want to burst into song. You know, that cheesy Oklahoma number: There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.*

When I was small, and we still lived in Love Lane House in the midst of the Cheshire countryside, my mother would always sing as she went around the house doing chores. This song was a favourite: Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day.  She had a nice voice and always sang with great gusto. This in turn provided much needed reassurance on days when Miss Goodwin put in an appearance. Wednesdays. She was mother’s home help, and she came once a week to clean the acres of red quarry tile floors that ran throughout the house.

To a child she was an alarming gnome-like figure. Her straggle of black, limp hair had much in common with the wet floor mop that she wielded with dogged determination. As she twisted the mob head in the bucket, she would peer down at me through round, black-rimmed spectacles that made her eyes stand out on stalks. I thought she was probably a witch. I also associate her with green liquid soap – a cleaning product of times past. It had a repellent smell.

But mother went on singing, and all seemed well apart from the line about the corn being as high as an elephant’s eye.

This was a mystifying notion for a country child who, though surrounded by farm fields, had never seen elephants there, nor crops that grew so tall. My father worked for an agricultural merchants, and early on I learned the difference between the grain crops he dealt in. In those days we did not know much about American corn, which we anyway call maize, and corn was a word commonly used to refer to wheat.

A case of cereal confusion then.

Many decades later when I was out and about on Kenyan farms, and wondering at the height and vigour of some of the maize plots, I could well see how you might lose an elephant or two in there. In fact African elephants are very partial to scoffing poor farmers’ white maize crops just as they are ready to harvest. They can eat in a night produce that would have lasted a family half a year.

Anyway, there are clearly no elephants in the  wheat/corn in the photo. It is only half a metre tall. But the light is truly extraordinary.  A false dawn ripening since in reality the crop is still green with only the barest signs of turning. I kept my eyes open long enough to frame the shot and then went back to bed, inner sight still glowing from the vision: did I really see that strange light, and does this happen on other mornings when I’m not awake?

Mother’s voice comes winging back across the years: I’ve got a wonderful feeling/ Everything’s going my way.  Did I ever believe this back then? Mother was someone who ever came with undercurrents, despite the nice singing. For some reason the cornfield elephant I now picture has eyes the colour of summer-blue skies, which is odd. All of which is to say, childhood impressions, layer on layer, randomly and silently absorbed in the presence of unaware adults, can run deep. Like elephants in cornfields, you just never know when they’re going to ambush you.

~

*Lyrics by  Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rogers copyright 1943 Williamson Music

Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: opposites

Opposites
Layers

Over My Garden Fence This Morning

IMG_1827

We didn’t invite them, but this crowd of opium poppies showed up anyway, pushing in behind the garden fence along with several other blooming gate-crashers. There’s a whole bunch more behind the garden shed. Papaver somniferum – the sleep bearing poppy, Asian in origin but now naturalised in Britain on waste ground and in field margins. And in case you are wondering, in our cool climate it does not produce the latex from which opium is derived. Better to get high by looking at them. And what a cheering sight it is on a Monday morning. So poppies, we’re glad you came. Please feel free to make yourselves at home here.

IMG_1803

IMG_1811

For more 4th July blooming visit Cee at Flower of the Day.

Eminently Edible Or Too Much Like Hard Work: Plexit or Brexit Up At The Allotment?

100_5517

Some people – otherwise known as Graham – think I have secret ambitions to take over the whole of Wenlock’s Southfield Road allotment. He couldn’t be more wrong, although whenever I protest my intention to contract operations and reduce my current domain of one and half plots to a single half plot with polytunnel attached, he gives me that look. Oh yeah? The problem is, just like Britain leaving Europe, my exit strategy is complicated. But unlike Brexit, at least I do have a strategy for reducing my plot occupation. Indeed in this era of foolish contraction we could even call it Plexit.

The story of my initial expansionist tendency begins nine years ago, not long after we moved to Wenlock. I had known the town for much of my life, and lived for a long time in a neighbouring parish, but I had not known that the town had an allotment. It is well hidden behind a row of houses, a relic of much earlier times when a railway ran by our neck of the Edge, and railway workers had the right to demand that their company provide, along with their houses, some sizable garden plots on which to grow their own food.

It was a chance remark at a neighbour’s Christmas party that made me realize that the shed roofs that I could just see across the field from our new home were not in a row of private gardens as I had first thought. The hunt for a plot was on. When I finally tracked down the chairman of the Wenlock Allotment Society it was March, and I was champing at the get-gardening bit since our cottage garden was not big enough for vegetable growing. Though charming, the chairman told me all the plots were taken, and he would add me to the waiting list that already had several people on it. He did not sound hopeful, and disappointment descended. Yet by April he was on the phone saying that I clearly had a fairy godmother: my pumpkin dreams had come home to roost. Several plots had been unexpectedly surrendered, and there was a half plot left if I still wanted it. The rent was £20 per annum. So I said yes, site unseen, and we arranged for a convenient moment a few days later when he might introduce me to my new land holding and collect the rent.

Thus began allotment my life – with an inherited leaning shed, an ancient greengage tree just then in bloom, and a plot full of couch grass, sow thistle, docks, dandelions and buttercups that the previous incumbent had clearly been nurturing for some considerable time.

100_5374

And that’s the problem with allotments. Too many would-be cultivators take them on only to find themselves overtaken by the amount of labour involved. Yet the idea of allotment growing remains beguiling, and so time passes as they decide whether or not to abandon the plot. The upshot of this is that everyone gets the fall-out from the weeds on neglected plots. Also the general tendency to disorder that breaks out in such communal enterprises provides havens and harbourage for pests and diseases that then become endemic. It takes much gritting of teeth not to resort to a host of chemical applications.

The upside of allotments is of course the camaraderie – the like-minded people who will be there to commiserate over one’s sorrow at slug and allium weevil devastation, or to swap ideas for pest control, share the joy of success and in the ensuing excesses in crops, or generally to keep an eye on neighbours’ plots while they are away. All good stuff.

Also when I first started, there was one old gardener still hard at work. Crook-backed, and slightly crippled, he travelled by bus from another village. This also involved him in quite an uphill hike from the bus stop which he could only accomplish very slowly, and with a few stops for a cigarette. But once on the allotment he tended three full 20 by 5 metre plots on behalf of other elderly tenants or their widows who lived on Southfield Road. He was there most days too, and I think he had probably been there for centuries. He gardened in the way my grandfather would have done.

Often in the winter, when we still had a few really cold ones, we would be the only people there, and I would take the opportunity to quiz him over his tried and tested methodologies. I especially took note of when he sowed particular crops. His repertoire was limited, but he grew in bulk: broad beans, runner beans, beetroot, onions and potatoes. I don’t remember his growing much else. He knew what worked best, and he knew those crops that were within his capacities to manage on such a scale.

IMG_1740

And that’s another big lesson to be learned at the allotment. When you have your first plot – which can seem so large and roomy – and you have finally cleared all the weeds, it’s too easy to assume that anything will grow there. It won’t . Not unless you have been lucky to take on a well worked, and hugely well composted and sheltered site. It took me a while to learn that it’s best to start by taking a good look at what the seasoned growers are growing; see what thrives in the face of endemic pests, the plot’s micro-climate, the general environmental conditions, and soil structure limitations. That way you can be sure to get one or two decent crops of something, and these successes will keep you going while you get to grips with your plot’s potential and/or deficiencies.

For instance another experienced allotmenteer showed us newbies that the only way to grow decent carrots and parsnips on our heavy soil was to dib individual root shaped holes at sowing time, fill them with good compost and then sow the seeds on top. It’s a rather time-consuming process but worth it if you don’t want to waste packets of seed. For carrots it also reduces the need for a lot of thinning, and the plants can be left to grow throughout the season covered by horticultural fleece, so avoiding attacks by carrot root fly. I have now adapted this idea by using moveable raised bed, which Graham originally made for me as a cold frame. I place it on top of the existing soil level. Fill it with a good six inches of fine compost mixed with coir fibre and sow into that, and then cover the lot with enviromesh.

In those first years it was tough going. I thought I was a moderately experienced gardener, but there was  much unforeseen trial and error. The plot took monumental amounts of clearing, digging, and composting. Crop successes were patchy, apart from colossal amounts of black currants and broad beans. The heavy soil proved almost impossible for sowing anything other large seeded vegetables, and even then there was a tendency for them to rot if we had a spell of cold, wet weather. Or if they germinated, the roots became compacted and the plants effectively bonsai-ed themselves, and then got eaten by slugs or infested with aphids.

All the time I was casting covetous eyes on the other half of the plot. It had clearly been well cultivated over the years, and the soil looked lighter and much more promising. I saw it produce masses of strawberries and fine looking French and runner beans. It was also nearer the water point, a serious consideration given our erratic weather patterns which often involve a spring or summer drought. I watched two other gardeners come and go there before finally making my bid for it. At last. Now I could grow decent potatoes, strawberries, runners beans, leeks, carrots, and leave the old plot to produce what it did best – raspberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb, artichokes, and swathes of very useful comfrey for feeding the rest of the plot.

100_9865

The half plot I began with nine years ago, this year growing cover crops of field beans. I should perhaps have dug some of them in before they flowered – this as a green manure. But I didn’t, and the blossom kept the bees very happy. And now I have tons of mini broad beans – to eat, and to dry for autumn sowing.

*

So now I had 70 feet of plot, and I had only just begun to get the measure of it when I rather recklessly found myself with a further half plot. This was two years ago. I was so fixated on taking over the polytunnel that Bob and Sally had erected there the previous season that I neglected to notice that it stood on an especially wide piece of ground that had once been the domain of the aforesaid aged gardener, and thus long neglected. And so quite apart from learning the new art of polytunnel cultivation, it was back to tackling another dense carpet of dandelions, buttercups and couch grass.

Even I could see the daft side. He who disbelieves in Plexit (that would be Graham), simply raised his eyebrows and saw (as with Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow) only evidence of wilful territorial overreach. ‘You’ve taken on too much,’ the look said.

‘But I have a plan,’ I said. ‘I mean to contract. It’s my ultimate objective.’

More raised brows.

‘It’s raised beds that I really need,’ I said. ‘Then I can start the retreat from the old plot.’

Being the kind soul he is, Graham agreed to making me some beds, though leaving me with the distinct impression that he was humouring a mad woman.

Last year then, and before I’d discovered ‘no dig gardening’ approach (see earlier post HERE), I started clearing the new plot, basically by skimming several inches of weedy compacted ground off the top and dumping it in compost bins where it might just rot down by the end of the century. I covered the bare ground with  the limited amount of compost I had available, sowed some trefoil for a green manure and inter-planted it with sweet corn, which to my surprise grew a magnificent crop of large cobs. I also planted out brassicas next to the corn and produced some rather fine purple cauliflowers, which also surprised me. Meanwhile Graham set about on the first consignment of raised beds, made from recycled pallets which he picked up for free from work.

100_9260

The new plot in early spring this year. Beds provided by Plexit sceptic, and planted with over-wintering onions, lamb’s lettuce and winter purslane. Behind the polytunnel the open bed has not been dug apart from some spot-weeding of dandelions, but covered with six inches of recycled soil from the allotment’s communal heap of ages (see next photo). It has been planted with Early Onward peas (just being harvested this week. See second photo above). These were pre-grown in 4 inch pots, five or so seeds to a pot, to avoid mouse devastation. I find that transplanted peas do really well, although it’s a bit of a faff having loads of pots. They also need to be well defended from pigeons as soon as they are planted out.

100_9876

This heap was apparently some 40 years in the making. At the end of the winter, before some of us began to recycle it,  it extended beyond the weeds on the right, and was 6 or 7 feet high. I suspect I have moved around 100 barrow loads. Unavoidably, given that the allotment is a weed haven, the soil is filled with weed seeds, but at least it is lighter and more free draining, and gives crops a chance to get going. So far the crops in the new raised beds, or on areas where I’ve not dug, but covered the soil with several inches of stuff from my own compost heaps, are far superior to anything grown on existing dug-over soil. And while no-dig proponents claim that this method means fewer weeds, I don’t think this holds for a very weedy allotment, but at least perennials like dandelion and nettle are easier to remove from lighter soil.

IMG_1752

This year’s Lark sweet corn, growing next to the peas on a no-dig plot.

IMG_1751

Nautica French beans in a raised bed on recycled compost heap soil. So far so good, though a few nettle seedlings popping up.

*

And now for Plexit, and my plan for plot downsizing.

Ideally in terms of work load it would have been better if I had already relinquished the half plot I first started with nine years ago – along with the leaning shed and the greengage tree that only fruits every nine years. Despite all my compost input, pony poo additions and green manure growing, the ground is still the least promising. The only remedy would be to cover it with the rest of the communal soil heap, but then I reckon that (along with effort needed to move it) it would be far better deployed on the new plot where I’ve just started making a no-dig experimental bed by covering the weedy, long uncultivated ground with cardboard and six inch layer of soil, and then sowing it with cover crops – fenugreek and phaecelia. I’ve no idea how this will turn out. It’s also adjacent to my other experimental section of cardboard covered by 6 inches of tree shreddings – another unknown quantity with regard to next year’s cultivation potential.

But the main block to immediate downsizing is the fact that the much loved raspberry patch is at the top of the old plot, and I can’t give it up until I’ve got a new bed going. The present one keeps us in fruit the year round, so can’t be surrendered lightly. I started a new bed behind the polytunnel last winter, but the canes are being very slow to get going, and I may need to replace some of them – all of which will put Prexit on hold.

IMG_1765

Nor am I keen to give up the bottom half of the old plot just yet because it’s doing rather well, and I also have my three massive compost heaps there, and several leaf mould silos. And anyway it provides plenty of room for potatoes and winter veg. And then well…

In the end I suppose it’s more than obvious. The Prexit sceptic has a point: I won’t be yielding territory any time soon.  But then that’s my point. I’m busy negotiating, doing essential groundwork, ensuring that what I give up will be in reasonable shape when I do so. Only when conditions are the best they can be, or I’ve run out of steam, will I start the retreat. Makes you wonder about Brexit, doesn’t it?

In the meantime, if don’t have a garden…

100_9851

Lots of vegetables grow well in containers – leeks, garlic, carrots, spinach, salad stuff, tomatoes. A bucket with a few holes in the bottom makes an easily portable garden.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Related: Trying not to dig the plot and 30 minutes of weird weather

 

This month Jude at The Earth Laughs In Flowers wants to see photos of the edible garden. Visit her to find out more and see her splendid allotment gallery.