In England, most people's homes don't sit on enough land to support a large fruit and vegetable garden. As early as 1000 years ago, people were clearing and cultivating pieces of land held in common: these were the first allotments - land that is owned by the government, local authority or parish and is rented to individuals who wish to grow food upon it. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, allotments were provided for the landless poor who might otherwise die of starvation. Food shortages during the First and Second World Wars once again proved the importance of these parcels of earth - an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of food were produced on allotments during the 'Dig for Victory' campaign of WWII. Through the 1980s and '90s, high housing and land costs led to a decline in the number of plots available, and 'growing your own' fell out of fashion. However, recent concern about genetically modified produce, a desire to eat more organic, locally-produced food and a yearning for the simple life have all led to an upsurge in the provision and use of allotments.
We took on our first (and second!) allotment plots last March. Our two plots sit alongside each other at the bottom of the hill. We had a choice of plots throughout the field, but I chose these because they get little passing traffic; I didn't want to become famous in the village for my inability to build a bean wigwam or grow onions in straight lines! Back in wet, gray March, I had visions of the whole family, elbow-deep in soil, munching our way through various heritage varieties of fruit and veg that are normally too expensive for us to buy in the shops. I envisaged row upon row of Kilner jars, full of home-canned produce. Yes. Then I came to my senses and realised I would be happy to just produce something! Somethat that lived and that we could eat.
Well. Call it beginner's luck, but we haven't done too badly so far. We started with the leeks we inherited from the former allotmenteer. We've savoured the sweetest, juiciest, reddest strawberries; picked blackcurrants till our fingernails were permanently stained purple; pulled more radishes than one family could possibly eat; popped pod after pea pod in our mouths and freshened our breath with tickly fronds of fennel (or, as the girls call it, 'children's chewing gum'). In short, we done good.
Taking care of a patch of dirt has proved much harder work than I - who have only ever grown food in boxes, pots and bags on concrete patios - ever imagined. Digging through wet clay for ten inches' worth of dandelion root is not exactly fun. But this little rectangle of earth has also proved to be very good for the soul. I have spiked my anger and hurt into icy mud after a particularly unpleasant conversation. I have wondered at the tenacity of pigeons and spent weeks trying to outsmart the crows, who seemed to beat me to every ripening strawberry in the early days of June. I have observed a four-year-old struggle, heave and eventually conquer the weight and sloshingness of a full watering can. I have chuckled at the suprised delight on the face of my littlest as she pulled her first radish from the dirt. I have sighed, knowing childhood is dancing away before my very eyes, as I watched my eldest daughter carefully plant her own tiny seeds, tucking them into their earthy beds and whispering prayers for growth. I have loved my husband more fully, knowing that as he dug potatoes from the soil, he was recollecting a time when he followed at the heels of his grandfather, himself a potato farmer. I have swelled with the pride of a new mother as I've harvested peas, beans, chard and beets: I made you. I grew you.
Many months ago, I declared that my word of this year would be 'grow'. We are indeed growing so very much in this rectangle at the bottom of the field on a hill.
Perhaps not a subject I would normally discuss in this space. But, having learned a little about it, I cannot not talk about it.
I know a woman who has spent many years of her life documenting child marriage, a practice which takes place in at least 50 countries around the world. Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair, whose work is regularly published in National Geographic, Newsweek and Marie Claire, has now distilled eight years of her work into a film that - beautifully, hauntingly, frighteningly, shockingly - reveals the human face of this tradition.
I encourage you to watch the film (scroll down to find it at the end of this post). The images and words of young girls who have been given, traded and sold into marriage do not make for easy viewing. As a mother of three little girls myself, I was deeply moved.