Out walking one lovely morning in spring, I rounded a slight curve in the footpath and spotted one of the locals, a shepherdess, surely Bo-Peep herself. Resting quietly under the shade of a tree, she was tenderly embracing and stroking one of her lambs. I was reluctant to walk closer in case I disturbed this peaceful scene, but even from a distance I could see that the shepherdess was dressed in her antiquated best: a peach coloured ankle-length dress with puff sleeves, a pale green and white striped overskirt, and a broad-brimmed white bonnet tied with extravagant emerald and turquoise ribbons. I could tell by her trim waistline that she was wearing her corset too - quite an outfit for an agricultural worker.
The shepherdess first appeared at the roadside several weeks before, and when driving by I noticed how she moved around, sometimes a little higher up the hill, sometimes further down. Presumably she must follow where her sheep lead. At first, she had only her ewe, obviously a pedigree Suffolk, because it had a black face - made from a large plastic flowerpot. But the flock grew: first one lamb appeared, then another, and another, their little muzzles also made from black flowerpots, all three in descending size order. The sheep were warmly dressed in close-fitting white fleece fabric body-suits, their ears shaped from scraps of smooth black textile. They were not exactly lame, just slightly stiff-legged, as their wooden limbs were made from carefully sawn lengths of 2 x 1 timber, black-painted to match their faces.
Up close, Bo Peep herself was not quite what she first seemed. I noticed a suggestion of cellulite on her arms - maybe a sign that she was dressing younger than her years, or maybe just an effect of the wadding densely packed inside the tights that formed her skin. She preferred to keep her face coyly hidden, well-shaded by her hat brim, but when I looked her straight in the eye, I saw how her papier-mâché complexion was all lumps and bumps
I couldn’t resist photographing the carefully constructed shepherdess and her flock, and as I held up my camera to frame the group a man and a collie happened to walk into shot. As they came alongside the shepherdess, I asked “May I?” The man nodded and let me photograph him as part of the group. When I asked if he had made the tableau, he replied that it was the work of his neighbour who works the adjacent allotment. He asked, “Did you see the state of Bo-Peep when she had had too much to drink recently, just before the lambs came?” I hadn’t, but he proved it was true by retrieving an empty cider flagon from under Bo- Peep’s skirts.
The Bo-Peep model set me thinking. At first I wondered if she was no more than a piece of nostalgic whimsy, a romanticised nursery-rhyme cliché recalling a long-gone pastoral way of life. But it seemed possible that there might be more to this rural icon, something more complicated going on. Knowing that the influential ‘back to the land’ writer, John Seymour1, had lived nearby and frequented the local pub in the 1950s and 60s, I wondered if Bo-Peep and the highly productive allotments and gardens around her might embody a lingering piece of mid-20th century idealism. Perhaps Seymour’s ethic took a strong hold in this village and is being remembered and practiced even now? Or then again, it could have been the other way around with Seymour learning from adept village gardeners and smallholders whose horticultural skills were gained via generations of contact with farming and land-work. He was here at a time when agricultural mechanisation was still new and the techniques of hand cultivation and horse-powered farming were still fresh in his neighbours’ memories.
With these thoughts in mind, I decided to explore Bo-Peep’s surroundings more closely. Aside from her maker’s plot, there are several other allotments which together occupy a couple of acres sandwiched between the road, the houses and farmland. The one at the top of the hill has big leathery-leaved rhubarb plants, fruit cages, a few apple trees. Amongst its rows of newly planted bean seedlings, a model of a big black crow hovers, on permanent bird-scaring duty. The plot is also under the constant surveillance of six beady-eyed garden gnomes, carefully arranged smallest to largest along the eaves of a shed. Their faces are weatherbeaten, and their green dungarees badly faded, but rain or shine they all smile cheerfully, overlooking the progress of the flourishing plants and seedlings. A yellow climbing rose scrambles across the front wall of the wooden shed, its stems framing a large clock which is always exact to the minute. Perhaps the gardener has a history of being late home too many times. I imagined the clock being given as a present, meaning “There’s no excuse now!”
Further down the hill another allotment contains cold frames and netted fruit cages, and things being grown on in pots and planters. It is a much more open and airy plot, not quite so lushly planted as the others, but what’s good about this one is the rainbow-coloured bunting strung from poles along a home-made fence made out of old pallets. There seems to be something playful and optimistic about the idea of putting out the welcome flags for all the new growth pushing up through the earth.
Bo-Peep’s plot stands out as being a little different. On the others, the plants are laid out in straight parallel rows, and although the plantings include typical ‘cottage garden’ flowers like sweet williams, hollyhocks, gladioli, chrysanthemums, and dahlias, the emphasis is on vegetable growing, useful food production. But whoever created Bo-Peep works hard at making their allotment into a beautiful little arcadian world. In it, flowers, fruit, vegetables - and livestock - intermingle freely. I saw apple, pear, cherry and magnolia trees bedecked in full pink and creamy-white blossom. Some of their trunks supported scrambling clematis, the tree bark thickly studded with constellations of its pale pink star-shaped flowers. Here and there, the deep blues and indigos of bluebell drift contrasted with the pale limey greens of newly unfurling leaves of acanthus, delphinium, lily, iris, crocosmia and aquilegia. Amongst the flower plantings in the irregularly shaped beds, mint and parsley sprouted side by side with strawberry plants and raspberry canes.
Along the edges of this plot’s beds, hundreds of empty bottles were sunk neck first into the soil forming a barricade of glass between the turf and the plants. Every bottle was a different shade of green, and they shone as though the allotment holder washed and polished them daily. Several Light Sussex and Maram hens and a proud strutting cockerel picked their way along the path sampling dainty sips of rainwater from each of the upturned bottles’ beak-height voleurs. Looking at how the bottles worked as glass fencing and chicken drinker, I saw how the gardener’s way of thinking was echoed in the Bo-Peep model: the same resourcefully inventive hand and mind were at work in both. On all the plots there seemed to be an emphasis on combining a strand of light-heartedness with completely down-to-earth practicality and resourcefulness. So many things on the allotments had been given new life by being co-opted, appropriated, remodelled and re-used in unexpectedly creative ways.
Having bid Bo-Peep farewell, I made my way slowly back up the hill. At the top there is a run of Airey houses along one side of the road. This row of austere-looking post-war pre-fabs is known as Short Walk, originally built to house Forestry Commission employees. For years the houses exuded an uncompromising starkness that was accentuated on dull grey days when the light, or lack of it, emphasised the fact that their ship-lap is not actually timber, but a concrete imitation of it. I have heard that their prefabricated frameworks are reinforced with tubing recycled from the frames of World War 2 military vehicles. By no stretch of the imagination could these houses qualify as the kind of country cottages that appeal to weekenders. Although some of the occupants are rendering them and painting them in more enlivened colours, there’s still a strong smack of the waste-not want-not ethic and a strictly no-frills utilitarianism about many of them.
The view from the Airey houses is anything but unappealing. Their front windows overlook a vista of arable fields sweeping down into the valley that runs from Wantisden Corner through Padleywater and on towards Chillesford. The rising land on the valley’s far side is thickly wooded and there the rich greens of oak, poplar and willow stand out against the darker backdrop of Forestry Commission pines. And above the land and the trees’ myriad greens, the Suffolk sky expands and reaches all the way out to the sea, showing off its ever-shifting silvers and blues at their uninterrupted best.
Short Walk: the name doesn’t hint at a short cut from one point to another. It is in itself a shortening, a contraction of the names of two huge fields opposite the houses, marked on a farm map as Neutral Short Walk and Church Short Walk. In the post-war decades, cereals, potatoes, carrots, and now turf, have been grown in rapid rotation on these fields. But prior to this, the Walks had a very different appearance and use. They were heathland over which flocks of sheep were driven, or walked, to graze. So, given that the shepherds’ walks went under the plough long ago, where else might a commoner like Bo-Peep graze her little flock? Perhaps it was the loss of her grazing land that drove her to drink? She should take care because ‘laning’ or fly-grazing, once the prerogative of gypsies and cottagers alike, is no longer legal. But I like her defiant disobedience, her insistence on tenanting a tiny patch of roadside verge and using it for her own modest ends.
The more I thought about Bo-Peep, the more questions she provoked. Who, or what, are Bo-Peep and her flock really? Just a bit of village fun? Or something more, quietly hinting at rural politics and change? Are the models meant to evoke a vanished way of life, one that was once widely practiced, perhaps by the allotmenters’ predecessors? Or is the tableau an unofficial public sculpture, carefully positioned as a provocative reminder of what was here, what has gone missing from the landscape?
Three of Short Walk’s houses always have a selection of produce for sale on small roadside stalls. The one down the hill, nearest the pub, sells onions, carrots leeks, broad beans, runner beans, lettuce, potatoes, beetroot, tomatoes and rhubarb - lots of it. In summer, if you are early enough, you will find big bunches of fresh-picked sweet-pea and sweet-william flowers there priced at £1 a bunch. Later in the summer, you might see a bucketful of the sceptre-like spikes of vermillion and pink gladioli selling at 50 pence apiece. On this stall, anything with bunch-able stems, be it rhubarb, carrots, beetroot, leeks or flowers, is tightly secured with several turns of recycled baler twine or hairy string tied off in a neat reef knot.
The smallest stall offers a constant supply of home-made jam, marmalade and chutney and later on in autumn, the results of hours of eye-watering labour appear in the form of enormous jars of pickled onions. Recently there has been some diversification into bric-a-brac, little jugs and jigsaw puzzles displayed amongst the jams. Once I found the stall laden with carrier bags crammed full of plump golden quinces. Unable to resist. I bought the lot for 50p per bag. For weeks the house was scented with the sweet perfume of quinces piled in bowls in every room.
The biggest stall stands at the end of Short Walk where the houses end abruptly at the boundary with fields known prosaically as ‘Squares’ and ‘19 acres’. Much of the summer produce on this stall is home grown, but in the other seasons of the year I think that bought-in broccoli, cauliflowers and cabbages supplement the stock. There are always supermarket carrier bags filled with neatly chopped kindling. The most impressive part of this stall is the top shelf display - carefully stacked boxes of new-laid eggs - small ones at £1 for half a dozen, large for £1.20, and bantam’s at £1.20 a dozen. You can see the hens industriously bustling about in the garden beyond. Sometimes the six eggs in a box will be six different colours ranging from white through different shades of cream, to pale blue, and deep mahogany. Their yolks, often doubles, are intense marigold yellow.
Every time I visit this stall, its display reminds me of a still life arrangement waiting to be painted. There is something painstakingly meticulous and thoughtful about the way that everything is set out. Potatoes, tomatoes, beans, onions and apples are displayed in ranks of crisp brown paper bags, each with its top carefully folded back to form a neat collar framing the contents. As the vegetables hold the pose, their reds and greens are deepened and enriched against the background of black-painted shelving.
One day the stall-holder, who is a retired Forestry commission worker, came out to chat and told me that he kept up the supplies all year as he thought it was “a help to people” in an area where the nearest shops at Hollesley and Rendlesham are both over five miles away. I liked his generous and altruistic ethic of providing essentials for passers-by and neighbours 365 days a year. With eggs and mixed veg, and sticks to get the fire going, anyone resourceful could get by for a day or two without having to go to the shop or make an online booking for a supermarket delivery.
Buying from these stalls, so close to the massive neighbouring fields, it’s impossible to ignore how this small-scale cultivation persists right under the nose of the colossus of arable production. The allotmenters work their plots using hand-tools, spades, forks, rakes, and hoes - and of course their own muscle-power - immediately alongside vast acreages cultivated by giant-size eight-furrow ploughs, mechanised drills, sprayers, irrigators and combine harvesters. And this isn’t the only difference: 21st century developments in precision agriculture mean that tech-minded farmers don’t need the help of scarecrows or vigilant gnomes as they can monitor their crops from space with the aid of satellite imaging, geo-spatial driven information and computer analytics. Where the smart-farmer has the advantage of keeping the land under surveillance from space, the allotmenter’s close-up contact with the earth comes more directly through the intimacy of the senses, especially sight and touch. If you follow the road from Short Walk along towards the church, I guarantee that you won’t meet anyone driving a pony and trap Seymour-style. It would take some pony and some some trap-driver to cope with the pressure of the high-speed heavyweight agricultural traffic. But what you would clearly see is not just the David and Goliath contrast between the neighbouring scales of production, but also the differing effects of distanced and close-up cultivation.
You would also notice how the allotmenters’ and gardeners’ spaces, and their production, literally get in between, in amongst, the very fields occupied by industrialised farming. Although their plots are physically located on scraps of the same rural landscape, the allotmenters seem determined to create an idealogical distance between their methods and those of their industrial neighbours. What these in-betweeners manage to do is to cut across dominant food production methods and the concomitant hold supermarkets have on food retailing. They unsettle other horticultural models too: their style doesn’t correspond with the fads of celebrity-led TV show gardening, or with the over-blown designer-gardening showcased at events like Chelsea Flower Show. What their quietly persistent cultivating exemplifies is the value of the hands-on, and all that is immediate, do-able, vital and economical. I’m not suggesting that one method of food-growing is essentially better than the other. It’s more that they are very different and that we need difference as much as we need uniformity and reliability.
Bo-Peep and her flock moved on a while ago and I’m writing this in autumn, around harvest festival time, just as summer’s passing and winter’s arrival fleetingly overlap. It’s unlikely that the Airey houses’ occupants will experience any Halloween hauntings by the tank and lorry skeletons entombed in their walls, but nonetheless, along Short Walk there’s a strong sense of the to and fro between present and past.
Although Short Walk’s stalls cluster together, there are others dispersed amongst nearby villages and perhaps similar enclaves of do-it-yourself food production thrive in other isolated pockets all over the country. In this part of Suffolk, and perhaps elsewhere the stalls certainly look like the living evidence of something tenacious that took root long ago, something that stubbornly refuses to be dislodged from the land. Although it’s small-scale, less than miniature, in comparison to the surrounding farming, this kind of hand-made, home-grown horticulture is more than an aspiration to be self-reliant - it’s a form of dissent, a partial refusal of the status quo.
I don’t know the allotmenters’ politics. They might be Brexiteers readying themselves for the rising prices of imported food - I can’t tell. But having shopped at the stalls for three decades, I do know they’re not downshifters, or preppers or survivalists gearing up to deal with impending apocalypse. Their ethic pre-dates these movements and ideas. It feels more as if the allotmenters are driven, unable to completely shake off a residual memory of short rations, a half-remembered spectre of food shortage. But in contrast to Seymour’s daunting whole-hog ambition of total self-sufficiency, they are realistic. Knowing that total autonomy is impossibly hard work, they do what’s practicable and achievable, growing some things, buying others. What goes on in the local allotments is a reminder that it need only be a short walk to the land, to other ways of being and doing and making. If Bo-Peep could speak, she would probably agree with the allotmenters’ refusal to risk putting all their eggs into one basket. She might remind us that what their skills bring together by the basketful are labour and leisure, prudence and plenty, self-reliance and sharing.
Kim Crowder, October 2018.