This is chaotic land; managed, in a way. John, you knew this valley, but only through the photographs I shared with you. But you understood, appreciated the desire to grow, the value attached to productive land, as well as the uncertain nature of this common ground.

I learned today, that you died on Boxing Day. I’ll miss you.



It’s in the Soil

…attempts to define a landscape necessitate judgements of cultural value, and throw up issues of power, authority and pleasure…[1]

The sun shone briefly, before clouds gathered, and rain set in again. We seek shelter in the shed, but not for long; the forecast is for heavy showers and that’s what we’re getting. The site appears deserted, maybe a little neglected, but it’s the season, the time of year. Standing on this hillside, or sitting drinking tea by the fire pit, we seem to have the valley to ourselves. But look again, there’s a scattering of people working their plots between the showers. Someone walks along the track though the valley, a small group passes by on their way to one of the allotments run collectively; during any day there will be people moving about this valley.

New plot holders, above us, have been clearing the skeletal remnants of a polytunnel Joe erected years ago, the plastic sheeting long since disintegrated. Other people moved on after he died, stayed a short time, then left, and with each successive leaving the plot became more neglected, abandoned to bindweed and nettle; it’s now being slowly cleared. Joe’s long since gone, but his presence is felt in the tap he installed by diverting water from the mains, or so he told us during one of our many disputes over access to water. He’d leave a pipe permanently attached to water his tomatoes in the polytunnel. An arson attack leveled his shed, left the Sycamore badly damaged and dangerous.

From the outside, maybe to someone walking the perimeter path, this site probably looks ramshackle, but what they don’t see is a process of constant change and renewal that this common ground undergoes, nor the histories that this land holds. Thinking about Joe, Arthur, talking to Gladys, who’ll soon be 92 and still working her plot; from the outside these lives, and the memories they carry with them of this landscape, remain invisible.

We are all temporary occupants; some will last a season, others, like Gladys and Georgina, stay for years, working, shaping the ground, but always in the knowledge that this land is not ours, doesn’t belong to us, isn’t our private property. The longer we stay, working, shaping, improving the soil, the more we hope the next occupants, strangers to us, will appreciate the work we’ve done over the years, and build on it, but maybe not. Looking at the photograph one of the site reps gave us when we first took on our plot, it has changed beyond recognition; perhaps those who follow us will do the same, and make it theirs for however long they choose to stay. For Crouch & Ward how we relate collectively through the unselfconscious landscape that [we] create […] is part of [our] individual and collective identity. It is and should remain public land, ground that we have responsibility for, land held collectively.

winter allotment view

 [1] Matless, D. (1998) Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaktion Books, p 13

Dew Ponds: Folk Memory or Green Nostalgia?

There’s a thin layer of chalky soil covering the base of the hole in the ground that will soon be our pond. It won’t take much clearing and anyway I need to dig a little deeper before we think about lining it. We considered and discounted puddled clay. It’s seen as a traditional alternative, with its rich reference in folk memory. Stories resonate, have currency for a reason; contemporary environmental anxieties, reflected in the desire to create green spaces that offer a glimpse into an imagined past, a return to Eden without the commodification. We are no different, we have our HortusLudi, our garden of delight, our retreat, that also happens to generally meet our vegetable needs.

These strands, environmental anxiety, green capitalism, and whatever else lies between, throw into relief real concerns over exploitation of natural resources, and loss of habitat, with allotments, domestic gardens, and ponds, acknowledged as increasingly important to wildlife. These green spaces are intermediate enough to make us think they are nature and not simply embellishments or enhancements of it, and it’s easy to understand, in this context, how ‘tradition’ becomes attractive, a brooding over the past as if it harboured some secret message or inspiration.

It’s over twenty years since we moved to Brighton. The boys were young then, and we’d walk on the Downs most weekends. We’d just taken on the allotment too, and it was neglected during those years.
Dew ponds are a prominent feature of the Downs, and were favoured resting places during our rambles. The boys were fascinated by the life of the ponds, wanted to know, ‘How come the pond’s always full? Why are they called dew ponds, is that how they’re filled?’ Question after question tumbling over each other with barely the space to answer before the next one was voiced.

Although most dew ponds appear to date from the 19th. & early 20th. centuries, the Parliamentary Enclosures during mid 18th to mid 19th. centuries are suggested as a cause for many of the upland ponds. The naturalist Gilbert White wrote about them in the 18th. century, and there is evidence of earlier ponds, one recorded in a Saxon Charter of 825 at Oxenmere on Milk Hill, in Wiltshire. Whether it would, or should, be described as a dew pond is unclear, but there was certainly a desire amongst archaeologists and antiquarians, based on thin evidence, to locate dew ponds in a remoter past. What was commonly known as a cloud pond, or mist pond, at least on the Sussex Downs, is first named as a dew pond, by the Rev. J. Clutterbuck, in an 1865 essay on Water Supply.
In the broader context of improving supply to rural areas, he raises questions about the nature of the sustained supply of water to dew ponds, while acknowledging the need for further investigation. He also commented on an established industry: These ponds are constructed by persons of experience and skill. […] There cost varies from 30-50 shiliings. Dew pond making was definitely a business.

As late as 1922, in an article published in the Wiltshire Gazette, the Rev. Edward Glanfield reflected on the decline of the industry. Drawing on the oral testimonies of two elderly master dew pond makers and their assistants, in his parish, he writes, Up to ten years ago the dew pond makers started upon their work about the 12th of September, and they toured the country for a period of six or seven months, […] six to fifteen ponds, […] in a season of winter and spring […] They travelled throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire, and occasionally into Somersetshire arid Berkshire, and even into Kent. […] The dew pond maker with three assistants at 18s. a week, would require about four weeks to make a pond 22 yards […] square. Providing all his own tools and appliances he would charge about £40 for the work. His central concern was to record disappearing skills, attributed partly to the greatly increased cost of the making of the ponds, and partly to the fact that they have been superseded by the windmill pumping water from wells.
While the Rev. Glanfield was primarily concerned to record a vanishing process, antiquarians and archaeologists continued to be fascinated with theories associated with water supply to upland ponds. In April 1909, Edward A. Martin, in a paper given to the Research Committee of The Royal Geographical Society, outlined observations and experiments he conducted to support the theory that many downland ponds were dew ponds; that is they were replenished principally from dew. The following year he read a second paper concluding: Rain is undoubtedly the all-important replenisher of these, as of all ponds, which are not fed by springs. It is almost with a feeling of regret that I abandon the theory of dew-filled ponds.
To conduct his research Martin and his family rented one of the Clayton Windmills, on the Downs above Brighton, during the summers of 1908-10. The windmills aren’t too far from one of the ponds we used to stop at on our rambles, a pond that would have been familiar to him. Funded by the Royal Society, I have lately had under my special observation a tract of downland in Sussex […] from Devil’s Dyke to Plumpton, and in this area are included some excellent ponds. It’s an area we often walked, and still do, passing ponds he knew.

We walk a vastly different landscape to the one Edward Martin would have known. The old chalk grassland he walked accounted for 40-50% of the eastern Downs. Beginning with the Dig for Victory campaign in 1941, and continuing into the 1950s, large tracts of grassland were ploughed up for arable farming. It’s estimated that only 3-4% of that old chalk grassland still survives.

Downs path [2]

Arthur’s Bags

We don’t normally enter or leave by the bottom gate to the allotment site, but there was a break-in last week and the lock to the gate we normally use was damaged & is currently permanently locked.

On our way out tonight we noticed how the sycamore by the gate had grown around a roll of plastic bags tucked into what had once been a fork in the tree. Arthur’s old bags, he’d leave them tucked into the fork, with his spade propped against the tree. They were there to collect the following morning on the way in, always more bags than he needed. You’d often see a folding shopping trolley stuck in the fork, too. When we first took over our plot, Arthur gave us some spare cabbage seedlings. After we’d put them in, he asked us if we were planning to cover them. We thought they’d be fine and we didn’t have any netting. He smiled and nodded. A couple of days later we found nothing but green stalks. Arthur had mentioned pigeons, but we didn’t understand quite how destructive a hungry pigeon could be.
Later, he told us why he was on his plot every morning; his wife would shoo him out of the house so she could get on with her cleaning, something she did every day. Arthur explained that she said he got in her way. So Arthur would be on his plot every single day, either working in the greenhouse he’d built to house his grape vine or digging his plot.

Arthur died five or six years ago from motor neurone disease; one year he was always there, the next year his son had to bring him up in a wheelchair, and then he was gone. The allotment became overgrown until someone else took it on; we’d sit on the hillside of our plot looking over to his and watched the feral potatoes grow, two years in a row. It’s curious, but we still talk about Arthur’s plot, even though time has passed and it’s changed hands several times.

To anyone passing, who didn’t know Arthur, the sycamore simply has a curious growth at a point where the fork once was.

Arthurs bags

Planting Jim’s Dad’s Garlic Again

A couple of years ago Jim asked us to plant some of his Dad’s garlic. He plants cloves on his birthday and harvests the bulbs on his dad’s birthday. It’s a ritual, a celebration of the memory of his father. He had some cloves and thought we’d like to plant extra garlic. So in they went and we harvested the garlic, ate some and kept some for planting on. His Dad’s garlic has become part of our yearly planting cycle, and is one of the most productive varieties we save each year. We’ve also discovered there are several varieties amongst the garlic we were given, and they’re adapting to our soil conditions.

Jim's Dad's Garlic [1]

They’re in the ground again this year, along with elephant garlic we’ve grown from the bulbils we find every year  on the bulb roots.

Jim’s Dad’s Garlic

Every year, since his Dad died, Jim has been planting the garlic that his Dad used to grow in a small brick bed he’d made in his backyard. For Jim, it’s a ritual, a celebratory gesture to the memory of his father. Jim plants 27 cloves on his birthday in November, and harvests the garlic on 27th. July, his Dad’s birthday.
This year he’s given us a few cloves for the allotment. We’ve planted them, a little late, but they’re sprouting. We will eat some and keep some for planting, and to pass on to other allotment holders so preserving and spreading a sense of Jim’s father. Maybe in time people will forget exactly why they are growing Jim’s Dad’s Garlic but it will grow anyway as long as some bulbs are stored each year in preparation for the next, and that seems a fitting enough echo for a life.

jims dads garlic [planting]3

On Whitehawk Hill: Olia & Gloria

Our latest film made with volunteers who work on the Whitehawk Food Project, Brighton, UK.
‘On Whitehawk Hill’ is part of a series, collectively called Standing on Common Ground, focusing on different aspects of community food growing; although the experiences are local, the issues discussed have wider implications for community and wellbeing.