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Purple Reign

The fight back has begun. The allotment doesn’t own all my time. It starts this weekend with my first (!) proper walk of the fast receding summer. But this will be more than a walk – I need to right a wrong…

My encounter with the Cleveland Way national trail three years ago was specifically timed to coincide with the flowering of the heather that dominates the North York Moors. Inspired by the accounts of other walkers I visited in September when the hills were supposed to be awash with colour only to find that I had missed the party by a week or two. Today’s route crosses Stanton Moor where, rumour has it, the heather is in bloom.

I'm doing gardening wrong

I’m doing gardening wrong

The sun is ablaze as I set off from Rowsley at an improbably early time. There’s nobody to been seen and I’m feeling smug, even though the folk of Stanton Woodhouse Farm are probably on their second breakfast by now.

What's the hurry?

What’s the hurry?

Twenty minutes sat on a log admiring the view over the Derwent valley is time well spent. Especially since a dirty black cloud decides to latch onto me for much of the rest of the day. Fortunately the trail heads off into woodland where the rain is heard more than it is absorbed.

Woodland retreat

Woodland retreat

A tree-engulfed ruin has an industrial feel to it but what can it be? This is a former quarrying area but without signage its former life is left to the imagination.

Going nowhere

Going nowhere

Further down the track I come across an old quarry face. Four millstones, so emblematic of the Peak District, lie abandoned nearby. I imagine they were destined to grind flour before the business closed. Or were they employed to grind sandstone hewn from the rock face? Today they seem as immovable and permanent a part of the landscape as the ground on which they sit.

Not lost for once

Not lost for once

The rain eases off obligingly as I leave the cover of the undergrowth for Stanton Moor. When I planned this route the map contours suggested panoramic views from the edge over to Darley Dale but the dense foliage has left me with just brief glimpses. Now if only I could climb to the top of this tower…

Closed today

Closed today

The Reform Tower was erected by local benefactor William Pole Thornhill to commemorate the 1832 reform act which set out to democratise electoral representation and do away with the so-called rotten boroughs. We are long overdue another such revolution…

Encouraging...

Encouraging…

The sun greets my first sight of the moor and the signs are good. There’s heather and it’s purple!

...very encouraging...

…very encouraging…

Soon it gets better and the path is lined by flowering heather. Numerous bees hover and perch around the plants as they industriously strive to produce heather infused honey that may end up on toast for some lucky soul.

Purple reign!

Purple reign!

As Stanton Moor opens up into a treeless plateau I finally get to experience the carpet of colour I missed out on in North Yorkshire. The vivid heather is everywhere! I was pleased when I managed to barely keep 4 tiny heather plants alive in my front garden for a couple of seasons but mother nature does this sort of thing so much better. Although mother nature doesn’t have to contend with my dad coming around to mow not only the lawn but 4 abused plants I had fought to nurture while working away in London…

Natures work

Natures work

It’s not just the colour but also the contrast with the verdant carpet of fern and moss speckled outcrops of rock that create such a dramatic effect, not to mention a sweet smell of heather that lingers in the light moist breeze.

My trip has been well worth it and I’m not yet at the half way stage. The ascent down into Birchover leads through a very well-kept campsite that I stayed at many years ago with friends. I seem to recall visiting during the village fete at which we won a tin of spam.

Curious creatures

Curious creatures

I don’t recognise much now and certainly not the Llamas that adapt so well to the English landscape. These are curious, charming creatures with no apparent fear of humans. They share a slightly startled look that I can only interpret as confusion. “How did we end up here?”

Tempting

Tempting

The Druid Inn alludes to a local folklore that I will expand upon when I return to Stanton Moor after lunch, if you can call a slice of cake on a bench lunch. The drizzle intensifies and I watch from beneath a tree as a growing trickle of people head into the Red Lion for proper Sunday lunch.

No entry

No entry

Why do walks always resume up hill after lunch? A steep climb out of Birchover rejoins the main road and takes me past Birchover Quarry which continues the long-standing local tradition. They know how to keep vehicles out of the site – this car sized rock must weigh 20 tonnes.

Just imagine the size of the bottle...

Just imagine the size of the bottle…

Returning to Stanton Moor the surreal Cork Stone looks as if somebody has carved it and deposited it here. In fact it is one of many weathered sandstone oddities to be found in and around the moor although not all of them have had iron climbing handles hammered into them in the 19th century. Last time I was here I climbed to the top (ahem) so there’s no need to do it again.

4,000 years of ritual

4,000 years of ritual

A short walk through light woodland leads to an opening where … things get spiritual. The Nine Ladies stone circle dates back 4000 years to the bronze age where it was believed to be the centre of rituals and ceremonies for people who lived and farmed in the area. The Druid Inn in Birchover alludes to the mystical draw of this place which still attracts druids and pagans on the solstice.

Ancient monuments like these will always capture our imagination – perhaps even inspire song. (You know you have to click this link)

When can I move in

When can I move in

A short walk north brings me to the attractive village of Stanton In The Peak. Presumably “In The Peak” was a suffix added to boost tourism at some point but it is well worth a visit regardless. A minor stately home here is off-limits and I wonder if the high walled garden promises more than would be delivered if I had a ladder to find out.

Stanton In The Peak

Stanton In The Peak

The church is very attractive and appears to be well maintained. There are some beautiful gardens, thriving allotments and a field of hens roaming at their leisure in return for free range eggs. Not to mention a pub that I can’t believe I didn’t know about.

Real ale in the peak

Real ale in the peak

The Flying Childers is that scarce and precious entity – an historic village pub serving real ale in a country village that hasn’t been converted into housing. A pint is so so tempting but on this occasion I settle for a glimpse inside, and it’s everything I was expecting.

Sunday dominoes

Sunday dominoes

My return to Rowsley has a different feel to it, crossing farmland and passing herds of sheep and cows. There are calves and I’m always a little wary passing through fields in case I’m seen as a threat. Fortunately they don’t seem to be aware of my visits to the farm shop.

Back at my car the drizzle instantly dissipates and out comes the sun. Typical, yes, but I really don’t care because I have closure on my heather disappointment of three years ago. Yet there have been so many highlights in this leisurely 8 mile walk – panoramic views, dramatic rock formations, abandoned ruins, ancient and not so ancient monuments and pretty country villages.

You can’t beat the Peak District for variety and drama. From here I could walk 50 yards to the water powered Cauldwells Mill where they still grind flour, or I could drive 10 minutes to the magnificent Chatsworth estate but instead I find myself raiding the M&S food hall in Matlock for a meal whose timing defies categorisation. Besides, the allotment needs me…

Transylvania

– I know what you are thinking.

The best board game ever!

The best board game ever!

My visit to this notorious region of Romania has nothing to do with the works of Bram Stoker. His novel has spawned a micro-industry whose popularity in these parts extends no further than a smattering of tourist tat vendors. Indeed Bran Castle – the impressive “home” to count Dracula – begrudges one solitary room to the story.

Dracula's courtyard

Dracula’s courtyard

When 800 years of power have been wielded by monarchs and rulers from within these walls you don’t need to resort to fiction to tell a great story. Today the castle is a popular but worthy visitor attraction despite, not because of its literary affiliations.

Traditional Bran Castle headwear

Traditional Bran Castle headwear

Bran is one of many castles that lend a fairytale quality to the region. Bordered by the Carpathians and swathed in forest you really feel like you are travelling through some vast film set. Which would explain why Transylvania is a popular set location for film directors.

More palace than castle

More palace than castle

The royal palace of Peles near Sinaia might just have been penned by Walt Disney. I have been fortunate to visit the bonkers castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria and Peles left me with that same feeling of wonderment.

Astonishing detail and craftsmanship in every room

Astonishing detail and craftsmanship in every room

Despite any number of remarkable old buildings Transylvania’s greatest assets are natural. We don’t have anything as mountainous in the UK as the Bucegi range. One bright but breezy day we commissioned a 4WD tour to summit the Caraiman peak (the cable car was closed due to the winds).

Postcard scenery above Bucegi

Postcard scenery above Bucegi

Our hairpin ascent finally broke through the tree line to leave us in snow near the 7800 feet summit – almost double the altitude of Ben Nevis. In the winter months much of this area is transformed into ski resorts and I’m tempted to return and experience that elemental rawness, followed by the fireside hospitality of some welcoming lodge.

I forgot the flag again

I forgot the flag again

The valleys and foothills are every bit as dramatic and for the most part unspoilt. Perhaps the pot-hole strewn track into the Piatra Crailui national park has been instrumental in warding off developer attention. Our hire car is a suitably rugged 4WD Toyota Hilux (named “the beast”) which seems the minimum requirement for this route, until I see a Daewoo Matiz romping along the track, in a cloud of dust and detached body parts.

The Beast

The Beast

With a mere scattering of farming settlements and lodges the park offers peace and tranquillity. And this view…

Speechless

Speechless


A 6 mile walk through the valley unfolds a dream-like panorama. The snow capped mountain ridge dominates a dense forest that gives way beneath the foothills to a lush green valley and glacial melt-water river.

It’s hard not to be on the constant lookout for movement in the trees. Are we being watched? Brown bears live in this area leaving me torn between the desire to see one and the desire for it not to see me. Needless to say I witness no sign of bears or of the resident lynx, wolves or adders.

Born to be wild

Born to be wild

The marvellous Libearty Bear Sanctuary nearby in Zarnesti hosts 85 of these beautiful creatures, often rescued from incarceration . Romania has a bad track record on animal welfare. Many of the rescued bears spent their former lives chained up or caged outside mountain lodges in this region so it’s good to see a change in public attitude.

Stork - between delivering babies

Stork – between delivering babies

Today’s walk is not without its natural encounters. Disturbed turf where wild boar have been rooting for food. Beautiful horses roaming with a sense of freedom. Buzzards circling overhead and ungainly storks perching on one leg. Why do they do that?

Free to roam

Free to roam

Time outdoors here is restorative. The aches and pains of modern life evaporate and the week’s dietary excesses (see my previous blog on Romanian food) are forgotten, if not forgiven. My family are not so forgiving when the route I have led them on expects us to ford a fast flowing river. Like I’ve been here before…

Fording the river would have been more fun

Fording the river would have been more fun

A weathered shepherd materialises from the landscape to guide us across a concealed log bridge. Life must be very tough in the cold months when isolated communities like this are cut off in the snow. There is little in the way of automation for the many Transylvanians who spend their lives tending herds or growing crops. People here are tough – they just get on with it.

Sheep herding. Like the Peak District with bears

Sheep herding. Like the Peak District with bears

This landscape must be full of stories. People have witnessed a lot of change – the fall of communism, induction into the EU and creeping globalisation – but some things haven’t moved on. It’s common to see people working the land with a scythe. Horse drawn carts remain in widespread use, whether as an aide to farming or family transport.

A 1HP vehicle

A 1HP vehicle

Nowadays the shepherds are invariably fiddling with mobile phones and even the cart drivers are glued to Angry Birds, but Transylvania, like the Caraiman peak, rises dismissively above the diversions of modern life.

Countless counts

Countless counts

Even Dracula…

Regular readers of my blog (humour me on this) may think I have fallen out of love with writing, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Having published on average a blog every fortnight for the past 6 years this is only my 4th in 12 months. There are reasons…

For one thing I have been moonlighting as blogger for TEDxDerby which has been a time consuming albeit richly rewarding diversion. No doubt I’ll write about this on my own blog after the event takes place on 21st May.

The true reason however for my lack of writing has been a relentlessly busy lifestyle and, in particular, the bottomless pit of resource demand that is my allotment.

We took on an allotment around May last year and with such a late handover it was obvious that 2015 would be about basic groundwork and whatever minimal growing we could achieve in the remaining window. As it happens we enjoyed a prodigious crop of potatoes (only just exhausted) and soft fruits not to mention a decent return of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and courgettes – all from perhaps a third of the available growing area.

Last years goodies

Last years goodies

It was clear that 2016 was going to be a different proposition with time to plan properly and design a 4 section crop rotation layout for the plot. We would prepare the ground, install a series of raised beds, improve our facilities and do the kind of unfrenzied succession planting that seasoned growers do at a smug canter. That was our plan and it started well.

Who knew gardening could be this much fun

Who knew gardening could be this much fun

At the turn of the year with few opportunities to meaningful outdoor work I subscribed to an online allotment planning tool. We measured every section of the plot and dragged & dropped plants into a virtual plan. So far so good – and all without back-ache! The first priority would be to clear away the debris of last year’s labours and start with a blank canvas.

It all starts here

It all starts here

Allotments – like gardens – look a wreck after the winter and ours was no exception. It didn’t take long to pull up last year’s spent crops and dismantle the netting tunnels that had been erected to shut out undesirable pests. In reality the slugs and caterpillars had somehow found a way in and the netting had merely prevented any birds from getting at them. We will have to work on that one.

The first priority was going to be a re-organisation of the chaotically planted soft fruit we had inherited from the previous plot holder – a consolation for all the rubble and carpet he buried in our plot that we now have to deal with.

Rhubarb not looking at its best

Rhubarb not looking at its best

This wasn’t going to be straightforward. Three redcurrant bushes would need to be uprooted and planted alongside three others to form an orderly line but that would require a rhubarb head to be relocated into a space currently occupied by a manically invasive comfrey. I love rhubarb but my knowledge of them extends only so far as the custard jug. It turns out that they are fed by lengthy tentacles of root that will snap off if you so much as think of crumble.

We shall not be moved

We shall not be moved

Eventually with rhubarb relocated the real work was to start. If you have ever tried to move a bush you will have an inkling of the labour intensive faff entailed in sensitively prizing the root system from the soil. If this wasn’t demanding enough I was having to carefully extricate numerous raspberry stems that had randomly seeded themselves amidst the bushes. These would be re-planted at the other end of the plot.

Finally getting somewhere

Finally getting somewhere

Several hours of intensive graft later the various fruits were unearthed and we set about re-planting the redcurrant bushes in a freshly dug trench after I had rotavated the area. Finally it felt like we were making progress.

An attempt to prevent weeds

An attempt to prevent weeds

With the plants re-homed I salvaged some old liner fabric and shaped it around the stems as a weed suppressant. Due to a shortage of liner we decided to experiment with newspaper for half of the crops. Our last act was to scatter a layer of strulch (a “miraculous” variant of mulch based on straw).

Straw + Mulch = Strulch

Straw + Mulch = Strulch

We were very pleased with the transformation and took great satisfaction in creating order out of the random weed-ridden mess but at this point I would like to return to the opening theme of the blog.

This first of countless tasks on the allotment had been to prepare an area of 20 square metres (the plot is approx 270 sqm) , relocate three redcurrant bushes and salvage a dozen raspberries. In the end it took around 10 hours to do all of this, left me a physical wreck (admittedly I hardly started in great shape) and tied up the entire weekend.

And that’s the point. Taking an allotment can suck up as much time as you have in the first couple of years until you have undertaken all of the initial planning, groundwork and structural development. In theory the workload diminishes sharply thereafter but until then I’m going to be short of time to write and short of time to do anything interesting to write about!

It is undeniably rewarding work. We have so many plans for planting, structures and re-organisation. Today I spent 5 back-breaking hours preparing a relatively small area for a future raised bed, but the sun was out, the birds competing for the best song and I saw my first frog of the year. Instinctively impatient I’m learning to work and think to a different pace. Next weekend I want to spend a day walking. Foreign travel beckons. TEDxDerby is around the corner. The allotment will have to grow at a human pace.

How can it have taken me until 2015 to visit to mainland Portugal? And how can it have taken me 3 months to review the photos I took while there? Well I have now and here are some impressions from the Algarve…

Despite this being my first visit I experience a sense of loss – things have clearly changed under the onslaught of tourism and often for the worse. As is so often the case the indigenous attractions that first drew in the tourists have eventually been eroded or eradicated by that same rise in popularity.

Simple does it

Simple does it

The parade of fisherman’s restaurants that I’m told used to line the beach front at Albufeira have gone, replaced by hotel development. That fresh regional cooking for which the region is famed has lost ground to full English breakfasts, chips, nasty pasta or “tourist friendly” versions of specialities. You can still get your hands on an authentic Cataplana – it’s just harder.

In need of some love

In need of some love

Yet there remain some echoes of a less exploited time. Ornate period buildings with their balconies, terracotta roofs and gothic ironwork crumble and rust but may yet be rescued. Old people who have lived through it all walk from the market miles along upgraded roads lugging their shopping through the heat of the sun.

Traffic delay due to sheep

Traffic delay due to sheep

A farmer herds his sheep past our holiday apartment each morning into an arid field now surrounded by holiday rentals. I’m doing that thing again – mourning the loss of something I never knew.

Half of Cliff’s Mistletoe & Wine empire

Half of Cliff’s Mistletoe & Wine empire

There’s an undeniable British stamp upon these lands. First we came for your weather then we came for your golf. Now, the ultimate insult, we have left Cliff Richard in your custodianship. His face appears everywhere due to his association with wine. You can even book to go on a coach trip to see Cliff’s vineyard although the chances are that he’s in Barbados for tax purposes. What must people think…

Contrary to expectations it’s the journey inland that captures my imagination. A road trip takes me through villages and a landscape that time has been kinder to. The small town of Loules has a lot going for it. Pretty streets lined with cafes and shops with not a chain or national brand in sight. The covered market provides a great place to people-watch.

The latest gossip

The latest gossip

How long has the man been repairing shoes and umbrellas? From his corner pitch he sees all and probability knows all. These are valuable people in any community.

Mr Fixit

Mr Fixit

Stall holders are predominantly staffed by tactile mum-types who want to have a chat and possibly sell something if they get around to it. We buy some unripe Olives for preserving and the sweet elderly stall holders are alarmed in case we intended to eat them now. So follows a 5 minute exchange of advice culminating in the sharing of a family recipe.

Chat first, business later

Chat first, business later

Time has a different meaning here. Every turn represents a chance to bump into a neighbour and talk at length about something. If that conversation happens to be outside then there’s every chance smoking will be involved. Everybody seems to smoke. They must teach it in schools.

A little piece of heaven

A little piece of heaven

Onto the attractive town of Silves, bordered by a river and dominated by its castle. This would make a great place in which to stay longer and explore. Cobbled streets wind their way to the summit, the cool shade sporadically broken where the sun finds a way to dazzle off the whitewashed walls. A blackbird sings sweetly from a postage stamp rooftop terrace garden somewhere above me. I don’t want to burst this bubble.

Sancho 1st: Thou shalt not pass! Unless thou payest 7.50e for a ticket

Sancho 1st: Thou shalt not pass! Unless thou payest 7.50e for a ticket

The towering figure of Sancho 1st is itself dwarfed by the imposing bulk of Moorish fortifications at the summit of the citadel. Given more time I would like to explore further and delve the complicated history of the castle and its surrounds.

Cork tree post-harvest

Cork tree post-harvest

The N266 road north from Silves winds and ascends through dense forest dotted with the occasional settlement. This is cork country and partially denuded trunks by the side of the road are a symptom of a carefully managed industry that represents half of the worlds annual production. I learn that cork can only be harvested from a tree after 25 years and then at 10 year intervals if the tree is to continue to thrive, so sensitive custodianship is intrinsic to the survival of this industry.

Enough cork to bottle a vineyard

Enough cork to bottle a vineyard

After a brief visit to the altitudinous Monchique (900m above sea level) my route heads west through a more arable landscape. I see people working patches of land I am curious to know what they are growing in this climate. Whatever it is must be for personal consumption as there are no large agricultural plots within sight.

Ancient graffiti

Ancient graffiti

Next stop Aljezur – another castle topped settlement, smaller than Silves but similarly occupied by Romans, Moors, Berbers and more. Today’s occupiers are likely to be upmarket holiday makers visiting nearby beaches, riding horses, walking or attending the cookery school.
(thinks: hmmm, this area would be good for walking…)

View from the castle

View from the castle

Views from the castle are tremendous and the strategic military significance of this site is obvious. Once again on my travels I’m left with the bittersweet impression that historical treasures are being somewhat under-sold. The downside is the lack of information to inform and inspire the visitor, while the upside tends to be quieter and less disturbed remains.

It feels like the end of the world

It feels like the end of the world

And so to the End Of The World. In former times Cape St Vincent was considered such as the engorged sun set into a sea beyond which there was no more land. People still visit for the spectacular sunsets, including me. As with any show there are the hotdog stalls and tacky souvenir outlets…

One last flower, rocks, a lighthouse, sea - then what?

One last flower, rocks, a lighthouse, sea – then what?

…but that shouldn’t take away from the raw beauty of this place. A moonscape of jagged rock ends abruptly with 70m cliffs, before … nothing.

…or is there more?

…or is there more?

Sorry, that was perhaps needlessly dramatic. There is the vastness of an ocean that still today leaves me wondering if there is anything beyond.

Not much of a sunset but you get the idea

Not much of a sunset but you get the idea

I watch waves batter the cliffs as the sun recedes. Seagulls somehow casually ride the fierce gusts of wind that catch me off guard. The savage beauty of this barren outpost has been well worth the visit despite a cloud obscured sunset.

In the spirit of the most memorable travels it is the unexpected that has been most rewarding. I wouldn’t return for the beaches or go-to resorts but I have seen enough of the hinterland to wonder what else might be discovered…

How times have changed. There has been no travel, scarce cooking and few nights out. My normal summer rituals have taken a back seat. This is what custodianship of an allotment does to you.

In the three months since I took on a local plot my weekends and evenings have been almost entirely devoted to gaining a foothold in the fast-receding growing season – from a standing start.

At first I took an odd satisfaction from weeding and turning soil in preparation for planting.

Preparing soil the hard way

Preparing soil the hard way

That wore off as the sheer intensity of effort resulted in a strained back and a broken fork.

Breaking under the strain

Breaking under the strain

Short of time and manpower it became apparent I was going to have to throw aside the New Gardener’s Handbook# and take some shortcuts – or Hacks as we IT people call them.

# there isn’t really a New Gardeners Handbook – I made that up as a narrative device.
In fact I make a lot of things up. Look – just read, don’t question

Hack #1: Buy A Rotavator

This is essentially a 125cc moped with blades instead of a rear wheel…

Mr Rotavator

Mr Rotavator

Now I can prepare an area in 20 minutes that would have taken three hours using a fork. Despite this half of my plot remains unprepared. A seasoned plot holder told me that in his first year he focussed entirely on clearing and preparing the ground. He didn’t plant anything.

From small acorns...

From small acorns…

On that basis I should be pleased to have my potatoes in the ground, peas climbing a frame and a selection of brassicas growing under netting.

...grow mighty potatoes

…grow mighty potatoes

I guess it depends on whether you are a plot half empty kind of person

Hack #2: Erect A Polytunnel

Think of a polytunnel as a plastic greenhouse. You can maintain a higher temperature and add a couple of months to the summer growing season for plants that need a warmer, more stable growing environment

Not tall enough yet

Not tall enough yet

After much research I invested in a 3m x 6m beast from Grow-Ur-Own on the basis that it looked a lot larger and sturdier than the average unit.

Meccano for adults

Meccano for adults

Unfortunately it came with almost entirely useless assembly instructions and took a weekend to erect, although I secretly enjoyed the challenge.

Digging for victory

Digging for victory

The most painstaking part turned out to be fitting the cover over the frame. In the end it took 4 of us to get the job done after which I was able to bury the edges in a trench designed to stabilise and protect the plastic cover.

Space to grow!

Space to grow!

The polytunnel has provided a superb growing environment for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as well as a preparatory environment for plants destined for life outside.

A young pepper

A young pepper

The cucumbers in particular grow at a prodigious rate in this environment and a first batch has already made it into pickling jars.

Early polytunnel crop

Early polytunnel crop

Of course none of this growth can happen without a lot of watering. With polytunnel pots requiring 40L of water every day how are you supposed to have an evening off, let alone a week away?

Hack #3: Automate The Irrigation

Once plants are in the ground they can generally look after themselves – especially with all the rain we have had this summer. It’s different for the pots under cover so I investigated the options and came up with a solution for a timer controlled irrigation system.

No more watering

No more watering

Now this isn’t as simple of you might think. With no mains supply I had to create a gravity fed water supply with sufficient pressure to keep 50 pots irrigated for up to a week. I managed to (literally) unearth 48 bricks from my plot to create a raised base for a 230L water butt which fed into a tubing system via a Claber battery operated timer.

40m of irrigation tubing

40m of irrigation tubing

As I write this blog from a sunlit cottage room in Padstow I can only hope the solution is operating as designed. If it is working then I will simply have to top up the water butt once a week when I return from holiday. If hasn’t worked then everything will have died – either way my evening watering duties will be a thing of the past.

Hack #4: Inherit Stock

OK, this isn’t something I can take any credit for but the fact is that the previous plot-holder left some goodies behind and I’m not one to let things go to waste.

A thriving fruit bed has already yielded several weeks worth of succulent raspberries plus a smattering of strawberries.

Sweet pickings

Sweet pickings

Before I left for Cornwall I picked and froze over a kilo of redcurrants and there is much more to come.

Approx 5kg of redcurrants. Recipes ideas appreciated!

Approx 5kg of redcurrants. Recipes ideas appreciated!

Factor in three established heads of rhubarb and I am getting quite a decent return without expending any effort.

I can barely believe how much has been achieved in the last 3 months. Sure, it has been LOT of hard work but also very satisfying. I’m saving £30 per month on gym membership alone and getting much better exercise so there really isn’t anything to complain about on that front.

Allotment or gym?

Allotment or gym?

Work on the allotment is as energising as it is tiring. Every day something has grown or flowered. I become engrossed watching bees flit amongst the comfrey.

My caretaker Jeremy

My caretaker Jeremy

A frog (called Jeremy) pops up sporadically in the polytunnel where I commission him to keep on top of any insects. Blackbirds sing so beautifully that I almost feel guilty for netting off the redcurrants they love so much.

How it's going to be...

How it’s going to be…

One day, maybe soon, I might visit and not actually do anything. Just relax and take it all in…

I awake with a dull ache in the whole body region. Nothing is actually sprained or painful but every small movement tells of some untold physical ordeal yesterday. A creaky descent of the stairs leads me into the kitchen where a glance out back yields the first clue.

A mysterious wooden box has crash-landed into the garden. My resident blackbird pecks around it to evaluate any worm potential. A squirrel eyes it suspiciously from on high as it plots some act of destructive action.

No admittance to anything with a tail

No admittance to anything with a tail

There are more clues in the conservatory. Once a clear and airy space devoted to relaxation the scene this morning is altogether more … earthy. The tiles are powdered with soil. Every surface (and there are new ones) is covered in pots containing green or purple shoots.

Derby branch of the Svalbard seed vault

Derby branch of the Svalbard seed vault

The greenhouse – because that’s what it is now – is a production line for vegetables. The box outside is a newly constructed raised bed in which to plant them. The aching body is what you get when you swap a relatively sedentary life for that of a gardener. Except that I’m not only a gardener. As of a week ago I am also an allotment holder…

It is still not clear to me how it came to this. For years I have fought a battle with my back garden in an attempt to produce life from a space which, while adequate in growing space, lacks direct sunlight and ground moisture due to the extended canopy and root structure of the mature trees that cast their shadow long before builders laid the foundations for my home.

Trees grab all the light

Trees grab all the light

I have won some battles, most notably in my herb garden where the rosemary, mint and oregano positively thrive. In some years I have coaxed green beans from a side bed while my plum tree begrudgingly produces some sort of crop in alternate years. Overall though the war has been won by the trees – or so they thought – but they reckoned without my partner who, despite a lack of any green fingered credentials, went out and bought a seed collection to rival the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Buoyed by her enthusiasm my paternal instincts kicked in and with it the needs to find a home for our infant vegetables.

The scant 5 minute walk to my allotment is bittersweet. Sweet because there is an abundance of space in which to plant. Sweet because the open aspect will enjoy full sun throughout the day. Sweet because short walks like this are no longer cyber-headed marches but fascinating opportunities to inspect other peoples front gardens and gain planting inspiration. Bitter because…

160 sq metres of weeding and digging

160 sq metres of weeding and digging

…well, it’s hardly a bed of roses. It needs work. Lots of work. I’m a list person and my list of jobs for the back garden and now the allotment has entered continuation sheet territory. The sheer size of the plot is daunting. There are pernicious weeds. There are areas of heavy clay soil. The shed is too small. The water butt needs attention. There will be man-weeks of weeding, digging and general maintenance before this space is anything but a bad neighbour to the well-maintained adjoining plots.

Sludge dispenser

Sludge dispenser

All of that is to come and yet before a first fork has been plunged into the earth I feel that I have changed. I’m starting to think like an allotment holder. My old garden fence will break down nicely to create the walkways I need to lay across the plot. Plastic water bottles once destined for the recycling bin are now treasured as growing containers. That list of jobs will shred down and rot nicely into compost.

What have I let myself in for? Will I be living The Good Life over summer (damn that catchy theme music!) or am I heading for the back clinic and an account with Ocado? Only time will tell.

Now where do I start?

In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
Epilogue

In 1984 my Viking VSU walking partner Andy and I had planned and completed our Explorer Belt walk in the lowlands of the French Alps.

We made a few mistakes as was inevitable for such young inexperienced walkers. Our packing left something to be desired and we probably walked in heat we should have avoided, but we learned some lessons. We encountered setbacks such as the blisters that left us always playing catch-up, but we adapted and coped. In every important way we were successful and following completion of the August walk we handed in our project work.

On 22nd December Andy and I sat down for an EB interview with unit leader Pete. On 5th January 1985 leather Explorer Belts and paper Certificates were awarded to the teams at the Viking VSU Annual Awards Ceremony. Curiously the awards programme only lists 8 EB pairings compared to the 11 pairings referenced in the lead up to the expedition. Did three teams drop out?

Explorer Belt Certificate

Explorer Belt Certificate

The Explorer Belt Challenge is still going strong although the rules have moved on somewhat. Now you must be at least 16 years old, hitchhiking is specifically not allowed although the limited use of public transport is permissible, and “small teams” are now allowed (ie: more than just pairs)

It seems remarkable that this 15 year old teamed up with a 16 year old to plan and undertake such an expedition. It is more remarkable that we were allowed to. It’s hard to imagine that now. But I’m so glad that we did and credit must go to parents and particularly to our legendary VSU leader Pete for making it possible.

In 1984 I was an introverted self-absorbed teenager taking it all in my stride without perhaps fully appreciating the adventure at hand, but that’s the story of youth.

If I was undertaking the expedition today I would do a lot of things differently. There would be better planning and packing for sure but I would immerse myself wholeheartedly into the cultural aspects of the walk, take 1000 photos and blog in detail about the sights and experiences of the route. My diaries would reflect a much wider range of influences!

Photo observations:

  • Every single one of my photos was taken in portrait!
  • Only took 1 photo of me on entire trip! Pre-selfie era.
  • Routinely pointed camera at the wrong things partly due to complete lack of understanding of how photos will turn out once processed.
  • All of these shortcomings culminate in a paucity of visual material which actually add to the mystique of the trip. More is left to memory and imagination (although a few more/better photos would still have been nice!)

But my diaries and photos are as much about a 15 year old taking giant strides as about the miles, towns or people. In it’s own way the walk opened my mind to travel, adventure and independence. Without this I might not have travelled around Europe 3 times after university. I might not have walked the Cleveland Way. I might not be taking photos and writing about new experiences in my blog.

Realistically there was never much danger. There were no mobile phones and the world was a much larger place for everybody but we could look after ourselves and as strangers we were always treated with kindness and care by the people we met. I would prescribe a dose of adventure for all teenagers. Perceived if not actual danger is the key to opening up young minds and building self confidence in a world that has become overly protective.