The Good Life
If you’ve visited Niwaki Chiltern Street it’s possible you have already encountered Sarah in her role as part-time sales assistant, dispenser of experience-based tool advice and all-round mood improver. We’re lucky to have her, even if it is just one day a week: when she’s not helping out in the shop Sarah can be found teaching RHS Level 2 Horticulture, gardening professionally across North London and, when time and weather permits, pottering about on her allotment.
Sarah threw open the gates and invited Niwaki inside for a tour of the sprawling site, 23 cups of tea, a front row seat for some lively allotment politics, ‘borrowed’ plums and the chance to photograph some recently added products in the hands of a professional (pro gardener and, in a previous life, pro model, before she switched couture for mud under the nails and army surplus jackets).
The visit began with a few hours of soul-destroying traffic, piloting the Niwaki Land Rover through rush hour on the M25, desperately searching for the escape hatch to the North Circular. Ordinarily, the landscape en route to garden visits becomes more and more bucolic the closer we get to the destination, but surrounded by concrete, fumes and the ever-present menace of impatient, hardened commuters, the prospect of finding a single healthy plant, let alone a thriving allotment, grew increasingly remote with every hard-won mile. Was sophisticated Sarah playing a trick on this poor country bumpkin from Niwaki HQ?
Ignoring all misgivings and putting my faith in Google maps I arrived at an unlikely looking suburban street, and then to a hidden entrance, tucked between two pebbledash semis. Nosing the Landy down a just-wide enough lane I emerged into a crowded green landscape peppered with ramshackle sheds and fringed with tower blocks and cranes. And there, the welcome sight of Sarah, offering me a plum before insisting on the first of many cups of tea.
It was early and with not too many other allotmentalists (is this the correct word?) about, we downed tea #1 and set off for a tour of the grounds. This being my first time in an allotment it struck me as notable how the very public paths wind their way throughout highly personalised, private plots with no fences or clear demarcation: apparently there is great deal of trust between tenants.
Everybody has a structure of some sort, and many have evolved into homes away from home, with tables, cooking gear and enough seating for a party. Kids toys, empty wine bottles, even the odd sofa: clearly it’s not all hard work and competitive vegetable growing. A by-product of the “make do and mend” nature of the plots are the surreal juxtapositions that abound. Some assemblages of junk are obviously scarecrows or other practical solutions, but other groupings are either artistic, mischievous or accidental, lending a touch of the uncanny.
There is a pleasing contradiction between permanence and impermanence in the allotment. The people and structures come and go, but the plants keep growing and the work never ends. Sarah has had her plot for just over two years, inherited from a deceased gardener whom she never met.
Before she took it on it had been left to run wild for at least six months and it took her another six months just to get it into decent shape: cutting back the grass and weeds, rescuing the hidden plants that had been left behind (including plenty of Echinops for the bees), digging over the whole plot, emptying the shed of dead rats and other detritus, and rescuing the bindweed choked orchard of seventeen fruit trees (impressively, no sign of bindweed when I was there), to mention just a few tasks. She was lucky to inherit gooseberries, apple, roses, quince, pears, hazelnut, elderflower, fig, rosehip, and last but not least, Jerusalem artichokes, which are so tenacious she imagines will be there until doomsday. Whether they were planted by the previous tenant, or the tenant before that she will never know.
Plying me with another cup of tea, Sarah told me she was excited to introduce me to the friends she had made on the plot, and how kind and helpful everyone was. Right on cue, Billy – the potato king – announced his arrival with a barrage of expletive-laden invectives against whoever had messed with his hose again (it was Sarah).
Apology offered and accepted, Billy regained his cool and proudly lead us on a tour of his own tuber-based kingdom, which appeared to have expanded into a number of neighbouring plots. “What do you do with all these potatoes?”, I innocently asked. “I f***ing gives them away!”, he replied, in a tone of voice that suggested I had a root vegetable for a brain.
Our guide demonstrated his patented shed security system, operated by tapping on an invisible keypad while making beeping sounds. Pretty good joke, to be fair. Inside, we discussed, among other things, the various West Country corners we had in common (Keynsham, Wells, Shepton Mallet) and how long you can ‘safely’ keep salted bacon in an unrefrigerated shed (six months and counting) while I took a few photos. Then I was presented with a cucumber and sent on my way.
Next up, Harry, who greeted us as though a quick photoshoot and an interview was how every Tuesday morning began. Indeed, in allotment circles he did appear to be something of a celebrity: it turned out that this was not the first time Harry had been interviewed. “The Daily Mail were here once”, he explained. “Amanda Platell”. Suddenly the sun disappeared behind a cloud and a shudder ran down my spine. With his neat rows of veg and bountiful crop of chillies (a link to his native Guyana), it was easy to see why Harry’s plot garnered so much interest.
With a combination of grace, optimism and practicality, Sarah nimbly side-stepped and charmed her way through the patch, greeting everybody with a smile and kindly introducing me. It probably didn’t hurt that I was giving out Hori Horis to thank people for their time. Amusingly, an individual who earlier gave Sarah quite a hard time about some trees that were deemed too large, returned half an hour later full of sweetness and light, by which point, sadly, the Hori stash had been exhausted.
Amid the beauty, fecundity, and peace and quiet there were definite undercurrents of disharmony and grudge-bearing. I was expecting a faded approximation of ‘The Good Life’ but I discovered something much more intriguing.
We chatted to a few more gardeners before retiring to basecamp aka Sarah’s shed for more photos and to continue the serious business of drinking tea. Or was it the other way around? I had some Niwaki Loppers, a GR 210 Folding Pruning Saw and a 4' Original Tripod Ladder in the Landy, so we were able to make progress on the offending trees, filling a Niwaki Leaf Bag with the waste. Sarah unearthed spuds with a trusty Golden Spade, tested the new Niwaki Camp Bucket (without disturbing Billy’s hose), and put a host of other Niwaki tools and accessories through their paces while we discussed new product ideas and improvements, the merits of fresh lemon verbena and the best way to keep the slugs at bay.
As well as being incredibly strong, welded aluminium construction makes Niwaki Original Tripod Ladders easy to lift.
Thanks to everyone who took time out of their day – especially Sarah – for their patience and generosity. We hope you enjoy the photos.
See below for links to some of the tools and accessories featured.