Photo:The courgette that got away - being ripened for the marrow competition

The courgette that got away - being ripened for the marrow competition

Photo by Simon Tobitt

Peter's Allotment

Peter Barker lives in Hollingdean, Brighton and is the director of a digital media company. He has lived in Brighton since the 1970s. He has plot 101 at the Lower Roedale allotment site.

It started with fireworks
"Strange as it may seem the original reason I got the plot was because of a firework display. The Hollingdean Festival has a social programme, and I was invited to do fireworks. A friend of mine said: "I've got an allotment and there's a dump there - couldn't you set them off from that? Because, there's a fence around the allotments and therefore that would be safe". And I thought OK, so we did and it was quite successful. And as a result of that I thought perhaps I should rent one of these allotments. I rented a completely derelict plot, asked the neighbours if they particularly minded fireworks and they said no.

"When I rented the plot I said "Can we use it for all the normal things we might to at home" and they said "you can do absolutely anything you might do at home"; "You can have a lawn?", they said yes; "You can have a shed?", they said yes; "I don't have to grow vegetables", they said "you can have flowers just as long as you look after it", so I thought OK. And I said "I can have a little bonfire and on November the fifth I can let some fireworks off", and they said "Yes, you can do anything you do in your garden". On that premise I got the first plot, and I think for the first year all I did was let fireworks off on it and since then for two years I've actually let fireworks off from it in November and midsummer.

Plot '101'
"I took on a wild scrubland, and it was particularly wild. In fact plot 101 was definitely where you sent the bad people [laughs]. I seemed to have tamed it, and now I have quite a productive little area and I am finishing building a little shed. At the start it was completely overgrown, overgrown in a very big way. There was actually a large metal storage bin, a very large clanky thing about the size of a small car, and I didn't actually know that was on the allotment because of the brambles that had grown well over it. Some people said it was the best blackberry patch ever, but others said it was a good place for the rats to hide. The burning and the bonfire had actually stopped some of the brambles growing. I cut the grass for the first time with a strimmer; I started cutting the earth as a piece of exercise. It was hugely daunting as you can imagine, the clay soil was very compacted. It was not an allotment you'd want to take on, but I wanted to do it for exercise.

"In eight months, from a wilderness it's changed into a completely growing allotment which is very good. My neighbour was inspired by looking at my allotment and he rented the allotment next to me, so that has turned from a semi-wilderness into a useful growing space. On this corner there are now three very good allotments, perhaps four or five, it's actually bringing a bit of life up to this end. Overall I think there's become more interest in allotments over the last year. I think I was lucky and got in at the right time in 2003, the Lower Roedale allotments were I would say certainly fifty percent overgrown. Now apparently there is a waiting list.

Almost an alternative lifestyle
"I'll give you a small anecdote which is probably only ever shared by allotment holders. I was digging away on my allotment some months back and a chap drove past me after his afternoon's work, he wound down the window and said: "it's great isn't it". I actually understood what he meant. It is great. It's of course a very good release, sitting on top of a hill, looking at things, wondering why your corn isn't growing, where have all the slugs gone at night and so on, so it's very much of a meditative escape from the rigours of a hectic world. So there's one part that is mental: relaxing, calming, very down to Earth functionality.

"Secondly, it's a good form of physical exercise. My original idea was that I was getting a bit flabby and I should do something positive, not just play football, so I was thinking about the gym and other such modern preoccupations, but when someone sees the price of a gym at £300 a year, and the price of an allotment at £30 a year, you start to think actually I could save two-hundred and seventy quid, spend it on beer no doubt. My physical stamina has improved no end. I know I could do one hour when I started; whereas now I can stay up here all day digging, fussing and doing whatever.

"Then of course there's the food aspect, which is quite surprising actually. I've been trying to change my diet in line with getting more physical exercise, and I must admit the food grown here does taste better, maybe it's because I've grown it [laughs] editorial pride. For a start I've started to eat spinach which I hated up until now [laughs]. Even the beetroot are beginning to take on an interesting fascination now that I've looked at them through their full life cycle. I don't think for the past few months we've bought any vegetables.

"Lastly, there is a most unexpected thing which is camaraderie - were fighting of the vandals and the slugs [laughs] at both ends the evolutionary scale. There's a large pool of information that you can draw on from the other allotment holders, and many of them have become quite good friends. Certainly the people who have been up for quite some time have made themselves comfortable. They've built their sheds, and they've got their Primus stoves and their tilly lamps, and they brew up. It's actually quite a social existence. You have to admire the longevity of some of the people up here - I mean Stan has had his plot for decades, fifty odd [years]. Overall I find it, how shall we say, almost an alternative lifestyle you can switch into a few hours a day or a week.

The biggest marrow competition
"There are various competitions between friends, and at work - [some] just silly competitions. We're still of the opinion that if you have five courgette plants you need a damn big family to keep up with them, so one courgette invariably grows into a marrow. There is always a gentle rivalry between who's got the biggest marrow. The winner gets a pint of beer and a free bottle of whisky, but it's a funny gentle rivalry, because you don't have to do anything because it's God ordained who will be the winner. You're hanging about to see if you've got the organic lotto chance this week. So we've all got one courgette which we missed in the cropping, [we'll] bring it to the pub and we'll have a weigh in. I'm not quite sure what we do with them afterwards? Do you eat them, stuff them? You can make some sort of hooch spirit with marrows - we haven't got to that stage yet."

Added to the site on 04-01-06 
This page was added on 26/06/2006.
Comments about this page
The photo of the giant courgette really does it no justice. It was a LOT bigger in real life. Should have seen the one that got away... :0)
By Pete Barker (09/01/2006)
I knew Pete Barker when he was a student at Sussex University in the late 1970s. He had green fingers then, so I'm not surprised to see the size of his marrow!
By Russell Newcombe (05/05/2006)

We knew Pete as a student in Mols. Well done old chap on your stunning allotment.

By Ian Brown and Tess Walker (23/04/2008)

Your article perfectly shows what I needed to know, thanks!

By Jetsyn (14/10/2011)

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