A lot to lose

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In the 11th of a series of articles by plot holders at Redbridge Lane West allotments – which are under threat from the adjacent gas works – Margaret de Jong reflects on 25 years of memories at the site

Almost 25 years ago in 1997, my husband, Wim, had taken early retirement, and really missed the companionship of his fellow mathematicians at the University of East London. I contacted the council offices and spoke to the young man in charge of allotments.

There was no waiting list then, so a few days later we were shown over the site on Redbridge Lane West, where we made our choice from three vacant plots. I paid the rent and arranged for us to start working there in time for my husband’s birthday in April. He started smiling again for the first time in months.

The chosen plot was sadly neglected and overgrown, but this merely added to the feeling of achievement as we dug beds, discovering and preserving old perennials like asparagus and horseradish among the weeds. I was still teaching full time, so Wim did most of the digging, and as the seedlings in trays on every windowsill in the house grew to suitable sizes, I ferried them down to River Close. It took more than a year to bring the whole area under control.

Over the next 20 years, Wim cycled down there regularly, growing an amazing variety of vegetables and bringing them home for me to cook or freeze. He tried ‘companion planting’, growing the ‘three sisters’ (beans, corn and squashes) up a wigwam of bamboo poles stuck through an old hubcap. Each summer, with Wim away at Open University summer school, my daughter and I rushed down there every evening to water and harvest the vegetables. Later, I took my parents there, and they gave advice and instructions, sitting in the sun in their wheelchairs as I weeded.

I like fruit and making jam, so I bought blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry and raspberry bushes. We dug these in, sewing perennial and self-seeding hardy annuals like aquilegia, nigella and marigolds around them to attract bees. We also planted a lot of spring flowering bulbs to provide food for bees before the summer brought the lavender, sage and rosemary into bloom.

The Covid years were difficult. My father had gone but I was still looking after my elderly mother and increasingly frail husband at home. A helper from the Redbridge Respite Care Association used to push Wim down to the allotment in his wheelchair every week to sit in the sun and potter about. Friends and family helped keep the allotment going. Both Wim and my mother have now gone, and relieved of nursing duties, I am working hard to bring our allotment back to its former glory.

The allotment I got to cheer Wim up in the 1990s is now doing the same for me 25 years later as I cycle down there in the afternoon with my gardening tools in the basket on the back of my tricycle.

To view the petition to save the Redbridge Lane West allotments, visit wnstd.com/sta