Berwick has always had its small farmers and gardeners. Pass through the town walls via Cowgate – the clue is in the name – and you find yourself in Magdalene Fields, part of the ancient Liberty of Berwick, that lie between the town and the sea. Until the Enclosures of the eighteenth century, it was common land, where you could pasture a cow or grow beans and barley.
The Fields are a golf course now, but there is still a reminder of their past use in the long ridges of medieval strip cultivation that run east to west across the course. After the long dry spring this year they were specially prominent, as moisture drained off the ridges leaving them parched and brown while the grass in the furrows stayed fresh, making strange stripes of green and brown across the course. The medieval farmers must have had more consistent rain than us, less prolonged drought. They planted wheat, which needs good drainage, on top of the ridge, and beans and oats in the furrow. Their wheat would have shrivelled away this spring.
They must have been hardy, too, those Berwick farmers. Magdalene Fields run to the edge of the cliffs above the North Sea, and the wind blows across them without shelter in any direction. It must have been a bleak business getting the ploughing done.
We present-day Berwick allotment-holders are small-time inheritors of the tradition of common land. Our allotments are tucked into an old walled garden just inside the town walls, once the town dump, where ballast from the ships was deposited as well as rubbish. It is common to turn up a broken clay pipe or a piece of pottery when digging over the potatoes. It is maybe just a bit more sheltered than the cultivation strips on Magdalene Fields. But only a bit. The wind still howls through it, and most especially through my allotment, situated right on top of the slope. Like our forebears, we struggle with wind and weather. I spent my first season on the allotment picking up my flattened bean-poles and now I follow the advice from the old hands: don’t grow anything taller than three feet. Gardening on the northernmost tip of England is a challenge but it comes with wonderful sea views.
This year, pandemic year, saw an unprecedented intensity of cultivation on the allotments. All through those sunny days and weeks of lockdown in the spring we escaped into the alternative reality of allotment world, socially distanced by the measure of our plots. Here was Nature-normal, indifferent to pandemics, with spring sending the first pulse of life through the soil. Now as we reach high summer there is an explosion of growth.
There are still a few raspberries to savour, the berries yielding softly from the hull, deep red and sweet or lighter pink and sharper. The broad beans plants have suffered from the wind and are tangled up across each other, but the beans are fattening all the same, the pods sticking out jauntily at odd angles. The lettuces are turning into graceful conch shells of curling leaves, dark green and russet, and overwhelming the French beans they were meant to underplant. I have a new courgette this year, not the usual cylindrical green bolster but a sturdy pale green cannonball that sits heavy in the hand. After all the struggle to protect them from frost and the cold May winds the courgette plants have surged into profuse leafy growth and threaten to burst out of their cold frame. It is time already to lift the early potatoes, forking down into the dust-dry earth, pulling out the haulm and leaving the potatoes lying in the dark soil like smooth yellow eggs. The dwarf runner beans are covered in red and white flowers, and the purple sprouting broccoli heaves against its protective mesh. Alongside the vegetables I have a slatternly flower border, mostly left to its own devices where random seeds germinate and produce unexpected wonders; a burgeoning cream escholtzia taking up half the path, calendula and nasturtium running riot, an everlasting sweet pea that after sitting in grumpy quiescence all last year has burst into such eager pink growth that I am wishing it were an annual after all.
Spending an afternoon on the allotment at this time of year is to touch the pulse of life directly. Moving from bed to bed, picking and weeding, experiencing the dynamic of growth on full throttle, you are caught up in it. You participate.
I once watched a film of Matisse in his old age, painting. He did so with no apparent effort or conscious thought. ‘For me,’ he said, ‘painting is like pulling up radishes.’
I think of Matisse when I am labouring over a piece of writing and envy his ease. So much of writing, like gardening, is about preparing the place – digging over the topic, raking it smooth, pushing in the tiny seeds of ideas, pulling out weeds, netting it over from the storms of distraction, trying new techniques, improving one’s craft. And then one day at the computer, the fingers start to fly over the keys unbidden and the thing takes wing. Life has arrived, has taken over. It has come because of your efforts but it is independent of them. You participate but it is not you. It is creation, life itself, and it takes its own way. Miraculously, at the end of the morning the radishes lie gleaming on the plate.