John Gates lived in Sofia, Bulgaria for a number of years. During that time he helped keep The Sofia Western News magazine on the road, distributed the published monthly, and contributed to the embryonic magazine itself. He also worked at the British Embassy for some while, before going back to Britain, where he returned to his vocation as a Church of England vicar. I remember his sunny disposition, the singing of well known hymns in the morning, some very hairy driving in the company Wartburg motor car, and a good and compassionate friend. The Editor
I think it was that Babs and I were advised to accept retirement. We had both experienced sudden deaths of our previous partners. In a wild whirl of romance we had met and married in New York. As we sought to rebuild, there was the question of how to fill our lives. My grandfather had lost the family farm following the first world war. He had taken the horses to France, and although he had come home the horses hadn’t. Hungry troupes had eaten them. He had taught me to dig.
And so, Babs and I began our allotment venture. It had begun innocently. It started with a single plot. By the end of the first year we had four adjacent strips and something that demanded much of our time. Both of us enjoy growing things, and so together we set out plans for our grand estate. We had ended up living in my tenth floor bachelor pad, one room with kitchen off and separate bathroom. The allotment gave us space. Soon we had two green houses a poly tunnel a shed and two very large compost bins, improving soil fertility very high in objectives.
Rev John Gates
I remember watching my granddad dig. My sister Ann had been married at nineteen and widowed at twenty one. Her husband Ron a helicopter mechanic killed in an accident while serving in Singapore. As I stood in the garden listening to her tears, my grandfather took me to the vegetable patch. He was a little man with a large bushy mustache. I was ten at the time and watched in awe as he began to dig. His first thing was to light a small smokeless fire, red hot it burnt the weeds and combustible rubbish he got out of the ground. The line was straight and his spade upright. My job was to pick out all the stones. He told me one of the stories of Jesus about the need to grow in good soil. One of the men in the story had sown seeds on stony ground and when the sun came out they withered and died. I remember making a pile of stones. I remember failing to keep up as the old man dug.
Trees were important in my part of the plan, as were flowers and roses. Babs the cook listed the vegetables and fruit we were to produce. Already there was a magnificent Victoria plum and an old small eating apple tree which was excellent for climbing. A row of blackberries divided plot four from plot three. Having mown since my early teens, we bought a Mountfield rotary mower and together we cleared and levelled the site. Paths were laid with a small patio in front of the shed. Four more apple trees were planted, together with two pear trees and a fig tree. Together we established a rose garden, and a grape vine was introduced into the large greenhouse.
There was much to learn. Soon people came to see what was happening. Neighbors over the fence, pleased with activity, cheered us on. Other allotment holders discussed our endeavors, and gave advice. As the years passed, we were to learn respect for those who had a deep knowledge to share, and a passion for making things grow. We made friendships within the allotment crowd and outside, as strangers showed interest in what we were doing. The daily walk to the plot and back via Tesco gave us an opportunity to discuss new achievements and disappointments. Alan Titchmarch became regular evening viewing, as we compared our little kingdom to his, and other expert growers. And so the seasons came and went.
Shorts were bought for the summer and thermals for the winter, and a hat an essential piece of equipment. My great grandfather was a carpenter and coffin maker in Winslow Bucks. So a bench was built in the shed, and Babs suffered endlessly, searching for tools locally in Bennett’s, and Wickes in town. One year we put on a barbecue and people from the allotment came in numbers. Vegetables of various sizes grew. I say this since they had not the conformity of supermarket produce. Often things grew in vast amounts and all together. We were forever asking people if they’d like some. Grandchildren grew too, and occupied more of Babs’s time. Life became a whirl of activity, with Venice a regular holiday aim.
A Shedload of Memories
I started back to work as a priest doing occasional services on a Sunday, going back to school to learn things I had forgotten, and so on. Then January 2016 things were to begin to change and life became harder. It didn’t happen overnight, but I became slower. Early in April while using Bennett’s photocopier I collapsed. I ended up in Glenfield Hospital, having major heart surgery, and the allotment got forgotten. It was all I could do to walk around the estate, an essential element to recovery. I watched the grass grow and the weeds. Grape and roses went un-pruned. The annuals went un-sown.
An Artistic End
It is 2017, and we have returned, only to lament at the state of things. To wearily nod at others tilling the soil. Wondering what is happening, with other people’s stories half told, the need to say farewell to our allotment, and to accept the hard reality that this chapter of our lives is over. I’ve lost everything twice in my life so I should be an expert. Glad I have Babs with me this time.
An Odeon cinema Limitless card to occupy our afternoons at least twice a month and our local Weatherspoons instead of meals on wheels, I tried to clear the shed, but failed miserably. A friend offered to help but the emotion was too great. Others will have to sort out what to do with the much loved mower and tools which have been good friends. Babs and I go on into our new life grateful to the Headland Road allotment crowd, and the good memories we take with us.
John and Barbara Gates – September 2017