A gardener revisits his roots

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My whole life passed before me in a flash....

Well, not my whole life.

And not exactly in a flash.

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The traffic these days surges endlessly through the Yorkshire town of Bingley and over Cottingley Bridge on its way to Bradford. I suspect the river - the Aire - flows faster. I was making slow-stop progress.

I was already a few minutes late reaching Terry Marshall's place, but was still glad to catch unhurried glimpses of the High Street that had been part of my daily life in the 1940s and early '50s. I have hardly revisited my birthplace since my family and I moved south, and not at all in the last 20 years. I owed it a visit. And I had a particular reason.

It was strangely the same, though obviously changed.

Half-familiar. Yes, there on the right was the down-curving street past the kindergarten I shyly attended - where was it now? - and on to the gasworks by the river, where my brother and I later staged rowing races in hired skiffs. I would be clutching my copy of The Eagle comic book, desperate to follow Dan Dare's latest escapade.

The two cinemas, the Myrtle and Hippodrome, are both gone. And Mr. Percy's sweet shop.

There's Park Road, yes, up to our house. Oh, and the side-street to the Public Baths in whose shivery waters I failed to learn to swim.

The art shop? Long gone, of course. Its owner gave me a first kindly critique of my paintings....

Ah! So the grammar school is still there, and now, yes, there are the allotments as I remember them, lying low. They're full of green-growing, even this late, and huts, greenhouses, ancient apple trees, rows of Brussels sprouts and leeks, seedy sunflower heads and new-dug earth among weed-patches, with leafless lines of raspberry canes sticking up in stiff curves.

It was this I had come to see. I had never been inside them before. But I am absolutely certain that these large old plots are the primary reason I wanted to have a plot myself today - the reason allotments are in my bones.

Terry Marshall has been attached to these Bingley allotments from childhood. His dad had him tend the coke-fired boilers in his greenhouses. Terry became a professional gardener, moved away, returned, and today specializes in and writes about organically cultivated tomatoes. A son also now works part of the family allotment.

In 1994, Terry wrote a short history of the "Cottingley Bridge Allotment Gardens," as they're officially known. Fascinating reading.

In 1844, at the spearpoint of the then-politically radical movement to make waste ground into allotments, they had been opened by Benjamin Disraeli, who would later become Britain's prime minister.

In 1919 they became a limited company with shareholders.

More recently they survived a threatened road slap-bang through them. It was rerouted.

They have been in continuous use for more than a century and a half.

One thing I really wanted to know. Dad took us regularly to the barber's in Bradford. Mr. Walton, as he neatly sheared us, talked chrysanthemums with my father. Did Terry remember him? He'd had an allotment in Bingley, hadn't he?

"Yes! Arthur Walton. Grand man. He'd come home from work, have his tea, dress in breeches, long socks, boots, collar, tie, waistcoat, and jacket, and then work his allotment all evening. He was one of the founders of the Bingley Chrysanthemum Society in 1937."

Terry showed me the site of the Walton allotment. It was large. "And he kept it tidy! Oh yes! Not a weed in sight. Immaculate."

Well, naturally.

He was, after all, an old-fashioned barber.

*A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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