Seeking growth in open country
It had all begun when living in Sandwich, in an oast house with a small courtyard garden typical in the layout of this medieval town. A small courtyard garden is, by its description, self-limiting in potential: with little scope for growing much. But even with a tiny garden to play with, I started growing vegetables in an attempt to be independent and sustainable.
The idea wasn’t only to grow vegetables to eat – which was just as well, as in the early days there were very few vegetables left after the slugs had feasted on them – but more of a desire to try to feed ourselves rather than buying produce from far-flung places.
All those air miles we could save. I knew I had to get better at it.
No mighty oaks, no grass
To be independent, sustainable, even in a tiny way, was a goal. So in our little walled courtyard I grew spinach, beetroot, lettuce. I tried peas and beans with no luck, grass wouldn’t grow either. I later learned from reading an article about the difficulty of growing grass at the new Wembley Stadium that grass, and most of us wouldn’t realise it, needs air movement as well as sunlight. So my walled garden and Wembley Stadium had one thing in common – no breeze.
“I want to be alone”
Not long after this desire for sustainability started to grow we moved. At the top of my list was a garden. Preferably one with a breeze. And if the money would stretch, a garden that was big enough for my horse as well.
The second item on my list was no neighbours. This may sound anti-social, and is no way a reflection of my neighbours. In fact it was one of these neighbours, a vet, that saved my dog by diagnosing lungworm, whereas others missed it.
But having lived and worked in Sandwich for fifteen years, a yearning for space started to build. To be able to live not so closely entwined, not have neighbouring houses overlooking our courtyard, not to constantly hear the life of others, becomes like an unquenchable thirst starting to gnaw away at your sense of privacy, at your safe space.
In our group of buildings the roof guttering collected into one downpipe and that downpipe was sited in our garden. We became serendipitously the guardian of the rainwater system. With the environment uppermost in our thoughts, water butts were bought and installed to accommodate this abundance of rainwater. But the water butts couldn’t cope with a storm.
On a night when there were fears that the flood defences of Sandwich might not hold, and sandbags were distributed around the town, we had a tsunami of water, huge in scale flowing from the roofs into the hopper at the head of our down pipe. In dressing gown and with only a torch to light the devastation, the waterfall had to be stopped somehow before it entered our houses.
And while the wind and the rain raged, and the River Stour breached its banks, the cowl on our oast was wrenched from its moorings and crashed in pieces to the ground.
From town to village
I loved Sandwich until I didn’t: there was no going back from that feeling of falling out of love. So to Shottenden we went.
The house: a former chapel at the junction of country lanes, where the arrival of a bus, or more than two cars, is an event for discussion. We had our garden: a lozenge-shaped one. At its thinnest, following the field line of the hundred-acre field behind the house, it is about ten metres, it is about four hundred metres in its length.
Tricky, you’re thinking, and you’d be right. What I haven’t told you though is that the garden, along its width, has an untrammelled view of the North Downs. And that is the thing about this house: for each fault, for each negative, there is a balancing positive.
Rooms with a view
So for example, our bedroom in Sandwich, being an oast, was six metres long and wide, ten metres high: huge and cavernous. In Shottenden, our bedroom is in the roof space, three metres long and wide; the exposed rafters rise at eaves level to the ridge, and never fail to catch your head. I have never experienced claustrophobia, before sleeping there. But that bedroom, and this is the positive, has two windows overlooking the North Downs.
As I write, I’m sitting at my desk in the other bedroom, twin to the first, watching a pair of buzzards cartwheeling in the sky. The North Downs are gentle hills, the ridges defined often by trees, the valleys a place for lazy cows chewing the cud. It is peaceful, never dull, always changing. An inspiration for a writer such as me.
The ivy had to go
Back to the garden. The previous owner, an infirm elderly lady, had been a gardener. I could see that from the abundance of water butts, the glass and aluminium frame, remains of a greenhouse buried alongside the concrete coal-bunkers; neglect had allowed a Buddleia to take root in the garage. The house was clothed in ivy, as were the hedges, the flower beds or at least the remains of them and a multiplicity of broken pots.
The ivy had to go.
After several days of work, you can imagine a pile of ivy pulled from the walls now a limp jumble filling up the whole space behind the garage to its roofline. Huge. Along comes a friendly farmer with a tractor and a grab; and without being asked, removes our mountain of ivy takes it back to the farm and burns it.
That act of kindness still keeps me warm. Good people are out there. And one of them lives in Shottenden.
A village welcomes friends from the north
This was my first experience of village living. I had expected to be an incomer, and I was. To some extent five years later we still are. Who can compete with generations of living in the village? Born and brought up here, born and left and returned here, you belong like the exchange of blood between friends: it’s a for life thing.
Our five years doesn’t even begin to break the skin.
We are from Liverpool originally; our roots are there, our blood brothers and sisters are there, and we left over 30 years ago. So we get it. Roots are roots. I’m not envious. I feel bigger somehow. I’m less lazy about friendship. I have to make friends. They have the friends they were born on the same day in the same ward with.
You can’t top that. But this village nonetheless has welcomed us.