From a distance - Allotment gardening in Birmingham during a pandemic


It's quite surreal at the moment, people avoiding each other, wearing masks.... some places are like a ghost town.

​Christine Turley-Cooper, 70

In these unprecedented and challenging times, it is heartening to see how local people over 50 are adapting to new ways of being and doing. 

In this strange new world, phrases like "social distancing", "furlough working" and "stay safe" are suddenly introduced into everyday conversations and we all find ourselves having to re-invent life to accommodate restrictions, as well as taking care to keep ourselves and our neighbours protected and healthy. Back in October last year, a long time before the Coronavirus pandemic loomed into our consciousness, and with help from Ageing Better in Birmingham, the New Shoots gardening club was set up as a way for over 50's to enjoy being outdoors, socialise, get some exercise and grow vegetables, fruit and perhaps even flowers. Before the current lockdown restrictions came into effect, an open and spacious plot in St Margarets Rd, Ward End, Birmingham was a great place to meet, socialise, drink tea and help each other "dibble and hoe" whilst also offering the members much needed companionship.

We spoke on the phone to Hester Blewitt, 72, from Ward End about how it all began. She says:

I found out about the Ageing Better funding from Hannah at the Unity Hub. I have been involved with allotments for some time and I thought it would be good idea to start a gardening club, so that I could share my interest of gardening with other people. 

When we took over the plot, it was just full of weeds, there was already a shed and a greenhouse, but it needed work, so with support from the Ageing Better Fund, we bought fruit trees, hedging and plants as well as gardening tools and even a Polytunnel which is now partially covered... but, then, the lockdown happened!

We did some adverts and invited people along and the group has just reached its 24th session. We did do some cooking and eating sessions, using allotment produce, but, of course, all that's stopped for now.

The New Shoots gardening club is the perfect place for over 50's in the community to meet together, socialise and enjoy a shared interest in gardening. It has been a real lifeline to a couple of the regular members who either live on their own, or otherwise feel lonely and isolated. One regular used to have his own plot, but felt that this was too big for him to manage and also, perhaps just too solitary. Now he enjoys the companionship and new friendships that the club offers.

Hester says"I've been making sure that all the people who still feel able to come along are fully aware of both the government guidelines and those of the allotment association. We keep two metres apart, we don't share tools and make sure that if the watering can is passed between us, then it is thoroughly cleaned beforehand" 

Here Hester can be seen cleaning the shed door lock.

After thoroughly cleaning her phone, Hester pass it to Ivan Bullard, 86, also in Ward End, so that we can chat some more. He says:

I had to give up my other plot, not far from here, as it was just getting too much. All I'm fit for now is to come here, do little things and see others do the things I can't do....but it gets me out of the house and its very nice to meet other people, especially when the weather is good as it is now, it's not so good when it's raining.

Ivan lives on his own, just a five-minute walk from the plot. Originally from Suffolk, he's a brummy by adoption, and came to Birmingham 40 years ago to work as a teacher in one of the local schools. Classically educated, he explains how the word "virus" come from the Latin for poison and how he hopes that this pandemic will be over soon so that he can get back to enjoying tea and a chat in the allotments' club room.

Ivan adds:"I'm, what you might call a parasite, I only come here for the company and to watch others working", a comment Hester strongly disagrees with as she tells me that Ivan has always been a great help around the plot. The first time Ivan came, he planted some seeds and is now doing some watering as the soil has been very dry of late.

Later on, from another phone, we caught up with Christine Turley-Cooper, 70, again, living just a few streets away with her husband of 37 years. She said: 

"The club has really helped me get out and about and exercise. It's a big plot, so we can easily keep our two meter distance.I started coming before Christmas and I've always liked gardening, more with flowers, rather than fruit and veg, but Hester has given me some French beans, runner beans and spinach seeds, I've started them off at home, and then I'll bring them to the plot to plant." 

The picture here shows Christine holding her very own "grow your own" kit.

Christine continued:

"It's quite surreal at the moment, people avoiding each other, wearing masks.... some places are like a ghost town.

But, one thing is for sure, even in the face of adversity, it's still possible in these times to chat – by phone, or at a distance – and support one another. We all hope that once this pandemic is over, things will go back to normal, back to community spirits and perhaps a society will less isolation than ever before as we've started reaching out to our neighbours and those who are particularly vulnerable.

New Shoots gardening club runs weekly, on Wednesdays from 10:00 am till 1:00 pm at the St Margarets Rd allotments in Ward End. for more details, you can contact Hester Blewitt on 07812 248447

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