I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I have a lovely home, a comfortable lifestyle funded by a pension that more than meets my needs, and an innate need to support others less fortunate than myself through volunteering. I also have an allotment.
However, in the years immediately before the pandemic I was so busy volunteering that my ‘in-tray’ was becoming untenable. Something had to give. I was seriously thinking about giving up my allotment to make time for my other volunteering commitments. I am so very glad I didn’t because, during the Covid lockdown, it was my allotment that proved to be cathartic. Or, to be more accurate, our allotment site.
I spent the first 6 weeks of lockdown stuck in front of a computer doggedly wading through my in-tray and dealing with all the stuff needed to ‘suspend’ a volunteer led service manned by 140 volunteers. Then it was out into the fresh air big time. Believing at the time that social isolation/distancing would last until perhaps the end of July, I came up with a project that would offer me a challenge, keep me occupied and benefit the Allotment Society in both the long and short term. My challenge was to re-claim the now badly overgrown one-acre community orchard laid out and planted up by my late husband, Richard, in 2016. My target was to do this in just 12 weeks!
The Abbey Lane Community Orchard lies between the Woodseats and Periwood Allotment sites and the crematorium, just off Abbey Lane.
It was Richard’s idea to reclaim this area of wasteland and turn it into a community resource. His initial idea was to clear and plant up a quarter of an acre at the bottom of the site. Richard’s ideas though were never anything other than grand schemes and so I found myself helping him to remove tree saplings taller than me, brambles, ivy, nettles and New Zealand sedge all the way from the very bottom of the wasteland to the car park at the top. Then, when we got to the boundary to the car park, he decided it would be a good idea to clear and level the site in order to extend the car park by another 20m!
In the years since Richard’s death in September 2017 the site had become extremely overgrown. I’d managed to keep on top of the saplings and Japanese Knotweed in the intervening years but the brambles, ivy, nettles and New Zealand sedge were back, along with a multitude of annual weeds such as Rosebay Willow Herb and vast areas of vigorous perennial weeds including ground elder, herb Bennett and docks.
The plan was to work down/up/across the whole area digging out/pulling up/disposing of the weeds. The weather in 2020 was exceptionally kind and this allowed for maximum attendance. Curiously, the magnitude of the challenge was not a consideration until I had been working 5 or 6 days a week for 8 weeks. By this stage, the novelty was beginning to wear thin, the weather turned damp and I was beginning to think that those suggesting the epic project was more than a little bonkers, had a point!
However, by then I was on chatting terms with lots of people moving up and down the lane and had ‘adopted’ a robin who regularly brought his missus, and on one special occasion, his entire family, to watch me! A number of volunteers were also sometimes lending a socially-distanced hand by then and, as the area to be cleared became relatively smaller, and the sun came back out, the dark thoughts (equivalent maybe to the wall in a marathon) dissipated. On 10th July, four years after the official opening, the Allotment Officer came to share a celebratory drink and cake with me and the volunteers. The project wasn’t complete, but the end was in sight and in any case – it wasn’t the end of July yet!
The benefits for me: The Covid 19 lockdown in general, and this project in particular, provided me with time to face the loss of my husband head-on. It was his space. It still is. His ashes are beneath the family-sponsored trees at the top of the site. It gave me a daily purpose at a time when simply walking round the block on my own was not enough. It kept me fit and improved my upper-body strength. It got me out in the fresh air engaging with and enjoying nature. Best of all, the daily conversations with dog walkers and allotment holders kept me socially isolated. I also admit to feeling great satisfaction for achieving my goal.
For Woodseats Allotment Society: The Abbey Lane Community orchard got a complete re-vamp and, forthe first time, has been thoroughly dug and weeded from end to end. In addition, there is now a weed barrier approximately 1m wide on the far side of the fence furthest from the lane. These initiatives mean that, provided we continue to apply wood chippings for weed suppression, the site should be MUCH easier to maintain in future. The Society now has the community resource that Richard dreamed of.
Several families with small children ‘discovered’ the orchard this summer. Most of the fairies and fairy doors that Richard installed remain intact and, along with the raspberries grown there for their enjoyment, will hopefully provide pleasure for little visitors in years to come. I believe this is known as a win, win!