In July 2012, I was suddenly made redundant from my job at Chappell Of Bond Street music shop. I had worked there for 32 years, and at the age of 58, I really had no idea what my next move would be. On reflection, I should have immediately tried to find another job, but the whole experience of redundancy, the seemingly endless meetings, negotiation, and discussions, to no avail, had left me mentally exhausted with feelings of isolation and a lack of self-confidence. This all also coincided exactly with the start of the 2012 London Olympics, so I decided to have a month or so off, and watched virtually every event on the television.
Eventually, my partner, Janice, decided I'd been moping around the house for long enough, and suggested that I get involved with a community garden group at Christ Church. The allotment there was run by various volunteers from Colliers Wood, and I found it an enjoyable and stimulating experience which in itself continues to thrive to this day. One of the volunteers at Christ Church, Nick, found out that I had a lot of time on my hands, and subsequently invited me along to Phipps Bridge.
I have to say at this point, that up to then, I'd had little or no experience of gardening, and
very little knowledge of environmental and Green issues- 32 years in a busy job left little time for anything else, but I'd always kept fit by playing football every weekend up until the age of 54 or so, and I had found it quite difficult to find an appropriate way to maintain an exercise regime and fitness levels.
I must say that I was amazed by my first visit to Phipps Bridge - I didn't have any idea that an almost rural oasis existed in such an urban environment, right by the River Wandle. My first visit to the allotment was in September 2012, quite challenging work initially, but channelling my energy into the work, with everybody working towards a common goal was a great way to forget the negative thoughts that had assailed me over the previous few months. The work mainly consisted at that time of year of preparing the ground for the next year, I remember a lot of digging, and a harsh winter that year.
The work was incredibly fulfilling and satisfying, however, and was a great way to satisfy my need for exercise in the healthy fresh air and wonderful setting. The fact that I had very little gardening experience didn't seem to matter, and over the next few years with 'regulars' like Nick, Ruth, Gillian, Steve, Bob and Tom (when he wasn't on Sustainable Merton business), advice and help was always on hand, and everybody was always incredibly generous with their knowledge. It seemed that as long as you showed willing and were happy to get stuck in, then everybody was happy. And the crops this year in particular have been so plentiful, it gives a tremendous feeling of achievement.
It's now exactly six years since I first became involved at Phipps Bridge, and although I've seen quite a few people come and go, the core members remain. I wouldn't say that I'm a 'natural gardener' in the same way as the others I've mentioned, but I believe that they all acknowledge my record haul of 6 and a half carrots of two years ago. However, over the years I've picked up a modicum of knowledge about gardening, a subject previously a mystery to me.
The highlights? First and foremost the friendship and camaraderie has been wonderful, and every Wednesday it's always a pleasure to meet up again and discuss the week's events in between weeding and planting. Before volunteering at Phipps Bridge I'd never eaten anything I'd actually planted, and that is such an incredibly satisfying feeling, knowing that the vegetables you're eating are not contaminated with pesticides and hormones;
also learning that misshapen vegetables are just as delicious, indeed even more so than the perfect specimens in the supermarkets.
Getting involved at Phipps Bridge also led to Tom asking me to become involved in Sustainable Merton, helping me to learn more about environmental issues, learning new skills, and helping to restore the confidence that's helped me to take on the job I now have. And now working on my own from home, the social aspect, friendship, fresh air, and exercise are more important than ever.
I would thoroughly recommend that anybody who finds themselves in a similar position as myself , be it redundancy or any other personal crisis, to get involved in volunteering or an allotment to help allay feelings of isolation and negativity, and my experience of gardening at both allotments i'm involved in is one of forming friendships, gaining knowledge, keeping fit and not to be intimidated by a lack of experience or knowledge.
Oh, and I forgot the most important reason for going: tea and Ruth's cake at 12.30 every Wednesday.