When we lived in London, we lived mostly in flats. The first was on the sixth floor and the only area outside was a fire escape where the rubbish bins were kept; the second flat was above a shoe shop and had the flat roof of the shop as outdoor space. The woman next door, Marge, had made quite a nice area of pots of summer flowers and I tried to do the same but I had never done anything in the way of gardening and wasn’t too successful. Our house near Ravenscourt Park, where we lived for under a year, had a pie-wedge shaped garden which was facing the north and never got any sun. Everything that we planted was stunted and turned yellow. It was a good space for our first tortoise who, sadly though, did not make it into the early months of the year following the one winter we spent there, as the dog next door constantly leapt over the fence and grabbed her in his mouth, running into his own house and hiding her – leaving her with bite holes in her shell. Even with the bites she might have survived her hibernation had one of our cats (probably Moosh) not found her in the box room and used her hibernation box with its straw as a cat toilet!
We moved to West Malling in 1971. In West Malling we had a little walled garden (at the bottom of which was the outdoor toilet which I have told you, before). Looking out of the back door, the wall on the left was a three foot thick stone wall which was also the side wall of the building next door. When we moved in, there was a glorious passion flower plant growing over the entire wall. Each year it produced many flowers, each of which only lasted a day. There were even some passion fruits but never were they proper, edible fruits. I figured it was because the plant needed new soil. I was wrong! Changing the soil did one thing only – lured the cats to use it as a toilet! Another cat-manufactured disaster! (and pretty much my fault for not reading about how to treat passion flower plants which quite like old, tired soil!)
We lived in West Malling for twelve years. Those first years I was busy learning to be a teacher and, later, teaching. There came a time, though, that I hungered to do some serious gardening, perhaps grow food rather than just pretty little flowers but we had no room in the yard which was something like fifteen feet by twelve feet and cobbled.
One day I was walking down Swan Street when I passed the Bow Window sweet shop (which is now, I think, the dental practice – there’s irony in there somewhere!) In the window was a little notice:
Allotment to rent, please ring 84—- .
so I went home and rang. The nice woman whose son owned the land said that she thought someone else had already been given it but to come and have a look. I walked down to the A20 through Banky Meadow and along the road to a group of four brick terraced houses. To get to the door I had to walk down a driveway. On the left were the houses and on the right was a stream and a beautiful – but very wild – big plot of land. I was shown around and immediately fell in love with the place, but knew that the other person had asked first and was going to take it……..She didn’t!
I bought a spade and some seeds. Daily I would go to the allotment and try to dig up a space where I could sow seeds. Not having had any real gardening experience, I didn’t get far. I was very lucky, though. Iris, the wife of the restaurant owner, offered to help. She had loads of experience as she had once lived in a house with a garden before Frank bought the restaurant. She offered to advise me and, though she was in her sixties, also offered to help with the digging! With her help we were able to dig and remove weeds from a nice sized plot of around six metres by six metres where I planted broad beans, peas, French beans, Swiss chard, and bush tomatoes. Of those vegetables, the French beans, chard and tomatoes survived and, eventually, paid for all the hard work. The broad beans and peas were covered with aphids which I just couldn’t control so I dug those plants out. I still didn’t know much! I was learning, though, about crop rotation etc.
The next year I had onions, tomatoes, chard, beans and tomatoes and decided I’d try potatoes. I got out my special hoe (the name of which I don’t remember but it was supposed to make digging a lot easier!). I started on a new patch which had not been tackled the previous year. Suddenly, clang! I hit something hard. I got down on my hands and knees and found a hard substance with a rounded top. With my trowel, I carefully dug further along and the object was there, too. Then I panicked! I thought of the fact that West Malling had been a target for German bombers in WWII and was convinced that this was a bomb!
A family friend, Georgia, lived in West Malling. She had been through the war and was not a ‘scaredy cat’ like me. She came down to the allotment, grabbed my trowel and started hitting the object with force! I stepped back. She stood and said, “It’s not a bomb, it’s stone.” I still wasn’t convinced so, later that day, covered it over with soil and dug somewhere else for my potatoes. (Some years later I tried to find the stone object again, but, to no avail!)
Sometime later, listening to stories about West Malling, I realised that the object I found could have been the top of a man-made tunnel. West Malling Abbey is on the hill above the allotment (but not in view) and there were many stories about there being tunnels to Leybourne Castle which is about half a mile from the allotment site in the opposite direction. Whether it was or wasn’t a tunnel really isn’t important any longer, though, as the “powers that be” decided, some years after I stopped using that land, to knock down the houses, and use all that land plus a lot more, for roads, roundabouts and traffic islands. I doubt if any archaeology was done and assume that the bulldozers went in and did whatever needed doing.
Then I met Julian and we bought a house in East Malling. There was a huge garden at the back – about 30 metres long by 25 metres wide – but it had not been cultivated so I used all my garden knowledge to bring it under control. We moved in, in November, 1982 so there wasn’t much I could do but clear out areas where rubbish had been dumped. There were old wooden stakes with lots of wire attached, there was a green house frame, and there were weeds galore. Brambles – for those who don’t know – are blackberry plants gone bonkers!
It took several years but we did eventually tame that bit of the garden. There were other bits that just needed mowing and digging. There was a half decent lawn, a wonderful ancient apple tree (Ribston Pippins), and a white lilac planted by the previous owners, and a lovely damson tree which helped me make many a jar of delicious jam until the ‘hurricane’ of 1987 when it was blown over.
End of Part one