No-one has a key

Fences do funny things to people.

The allotments’ back fence is uber-secure. Its mesh rectangles are too narrow for a foothold, its height sufficient to stop anyone hauling themselves up, and rules and regs stipulate no sheds near the fence to break the fall.

It has all been thought out. Of course, anyone could walk in through the front gate, which is never locked. And no-one can walk in through the heavily padlocked side gate marked ‘allotment holders only’ because  none of us has a key.

But back to the fence. It may be a barrier to physical entry, but it can’t stop other kinds of interference. Dad says ‘if you want to talk to people, garden.’

It’s extraordinary how much the people who walk the river path want to talk.

‘Hah! Rather you than me. Looks like a JCB job, that.’

‘The river floods here, you know. Come November, all yer caulis ‘ll be sailing off downstream to Burley.’

‘Of course, this place is overrun with rabbits. Fast as you grow it, they’ll eat it.’

As a teenager, I worked the tills at Sainsbury’s. You had to check the watermark on big notes. As you held them to the light, customers usually said, ‘I know it’s a good ‘un: I made it myself this morning!’

It’s the same with the comments that come through the fence. People always think they’re the first who’s ever made them. Secret curmudgeon that I am, these days I stoop to examine particularly fascinating weeds when anyone  passes.

Barriers are appearing on the inside, too. Trenches are being dug around plots and rabbit proof fences erected, made of chicken mesh stapled to thick posts.

In the first Elysian fortnight, us dozen or so allotment holders in the reclaimed bit banded cluelessly together. We wondered communally what to do about tussocky ground, tree stumps, the lumps of rusty metal that lurked under the nettles. It was all for one and one for all.

Lumps of rusty metal

But now that boundaries are forming, alliances are too. Certain males have bonded over rotavators and biodegradable weedkiller; others have bonded over compost heaps. Certain females have bonded over how useless their husbands are and how you might as well build the sodding shed and put the flipping fence up yourself.

Two allotment holders don’t have a fence: us and the cowboy-hatted man who uses his children as water-carrying packhorses (the council have been out with metal detectors but can’t find the water main to install a tap).

He and I stand on a corner, nervous. We have things in common, even though he’s got raised beds and I don’t prune my fruit bushes.

‘We’re not having a fence,’ I say. ‘I’m just putting wire round individual crops.’

‘Yes well, why not? I mean, it’s doing the trick, isn’t it?’

‘What about you?’

We gaze at his towering beans (he’s had his plot longer than us) with their pretty black and white flowers. Unprotected.

‘Rabbits don’t like broad beans,’ he says. ‘Or potatoes. Or rhubarb. Tell you what, that Ian might have rotavated, but he’s not done his digging, and his weeds are coming back up.’

This subtle shifting and shafting is of no concern to Dad.

Since Mum died 3 years ago,  he has sometimes gone days on end talking to no-one but Mr Mandy Sutter and me. But now he holds regular conversations through the back fence and across the regulation 1m high chicken wire. He reports back loudly that although certain people are ‘nice chaps’ and ‘seem to know what they’re talking about’ others are ‘idiots’ who ‘probably wear gloves to garden in.’

The subtleties are also lost on Mr MS, whose belief in courtesy dictates saying good morning to everyone and stopping for a longish chat, especially when sent back to the car to fetch the spade that means he’ll have to do some digging.

Helping strangers stay cordial

As I write, he looks over my shoulder and paraphrases sociologist Richard Sennett, saying that barriers help strangers stay cordial.

Maybe. The allotments are certainly in transition. When everyone’s got used to the fences,  perhaps things will settle down. I look forward to it.