The Gardens

While the front gardens of the houses were mere squares, the back ones were very long, for the planners had seen gardens as part of the family economy. Tenants would grow their own vegetables and live a healthy life. It was part of the 'garden city' concept which had built Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City at the turn of the century. Thus was to be a garden estate.

That first season the gardens presented a serious challenge to town people unused even to a window box. Acres of brown clay were divided by concrete posts and round iron bars painted red. At the back door was a concreted area leading to the W.C. and coal shed with, at the far end of the garden, a gap in the railing but no gate. All between was open and bare.

The local ironnonger must have sold a lot of spades and forks that season as each household began digging over the soil inexpertly. On the day we bought a spade my father marked out a path from the house to the gap, disliked the spade and, so far as I can remember, never picked one up again. There was little we children could do to help except to collect the brick ends and stones to throw on the pathway. There, with the ashes from the fire, a sort of path emerged but it was a long process. My mother paid a neighbour ten shillings to turn over the soil and a few weeks later she raked a patch smooth before sowing a lawn. Slowly things began to grow.

It was in the gardens that the differences in family age and income between one household and the next first showed. One man, manager of the butchery department of a large local chain-store, had grown-up children and only one still at school. The butcher came home to lunch each day carrying a small piece of meat - nothing excess­ive - but it would have cost other people money. Three children were already working, but still living at home. Four wages were coming into the house with only one rent and reduced food bills. The result showed in the garden. Instead of pecking weakly at the clay like most other people, the family had the manpower to double dig the garden all over, turning it up as if it were wartime trenches. Then, leaving it ridged and ready for the winter frosts to break it up, large wooden posts and trellis work were delivered, to the amazement of the neighbours. For a month the smell of creosote and the sound of sawing filled the air. The family completely fenced their back garden to a height of eight feet, cutting themselves off from the sight of everyone else. Compared with what other people could achieve it was as if Louis XIV had come to live in a council house.

Most people were far more modest. A small lawn in most front gardens, to be cut by shears and in the back garden, a grass patch for the children to play on. Beyond that it depended on the energy and dedication.of the family. Everyone grew runner beans, some cabbages and potatoes. Some gardens grew them well and some less well, but within a twelvemonth most people had something in the garden. We had a rose pergola made of hornbeam poles, hard and durable, but difficult for beginners to use. "One nail for deal and three nails for hornbeam, because you bend the first two," but once built, a mass of single yellow roses flowed over the pergola and arch, protecting the house from view and making it beautiful.


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