MARTYNDALE, Rue du Lorier, St Peter’s… that’s where the seed of A Guernsey Gardener in London was set, though it was not for another four decades and more that the seed would be sown.
Looking back, those days of the late ’60s and early ’70s were pretty idyllic for me… a huge garden with flower borders, loads of lawn to play on and a good area of ground set aside for the growing of fruit and veg. We were surrounded by fields, flower-splashed meadows and family, friends and a host of aunts and uncles who were named such simply for being part of our lives than being a blood relation; the occasional cow found in the garden that would be led around the side of the house, up the road, and along Route des Paysans and back into its field; secretly scrumping in a nearby orchard (when in fact the owner always knew full well); the spring-picking of violets and primroses that would be sent off by dad to Covent Garden (note – not something to do these days); the whole street pasting asters of all colours of the rainbow onto a float for entry to the Battle of Flowers… and that heavy heady smell of the glue; walking to St Peter’s School and all the playground fun, and swimming certificates for a width, a length, two lengths and more; and the utter joy of a walk down to L’Eree and a day on the beach… a beach which to this day is one of my favourite places in the world to sit, chat, laugh and reminisce with a swiftly melting soft ice cream cone and crumbly chocolate flake in hand.
We were the family of five at the end of the lane. My dad was a docker and mum ran our guest house, then there were my two older brothers, and I was the youngest, appearing as a surprise some six years after my middle sibling. From Easter through October the guest rooms were busy and at points us boys would decant to bunk beds in the garage, freeing up extra beds for guests. To a young boy like me the ever-changing faces of all nationalities was intoxicating, with many connected with dad’s work in one way or another. Year-on-year familiar smiles would return for a week or a fortnight, a few would become life-long friends.
While mum busied herself with the day-in-day-out husbandry of the guests, dad would be off to the White Rock for the mail boat, container ships, and the coal boat (from where he’d come back covered in coal dust and smeared sweat and in much need of a bath). Then he’d be out into the garden mowing the lawn, deadheading dahlias and roses, tending to the veg garden and picking soft fruits for the guests to have with thick and golden Guernsey cream after their evening meal. Mum and dad worked hand-in-hand, each having their own jobs and each helping the other in theirs. Downtime was garden time, with the occasional night out at the Carlton or Royal for the summer season show.
It was in this tending of the garden, the mowing of the lawn, the deadheading and the sowings, plantings and harvests of fresh, squeaky vegetables and soft juicy fruits that my passion for growing began. In this mix too were aunts and uncles who grew the Guernsey tomato for export in vast vineries, later switching to heavy-scented flowers that would end up in exotic hotels and homes across the UK. It was no surprise I was bitten by the growing bug, though in following my ‘career’ on the mainland in the coming decades it would be many years before I’d get my hands back in the soil and begin nourishing myself again, both my body and soul.
London has been a mainstay since I was 18 and a fixture since my mid-20s. In the early years of house-shares and rentals gardens were little bigger than a pocket-handkerchief, simply allowing room for a place to sit. It was only when my partner and I bought a flat in west London that we could work on a larger garden with shrubs, trees, flowers, scent and heart.
Then, on 20 December 2014 ‘the call’ came – it was from a trustee of the Charity of William Hobbayne, which has existed in one form or another in Hanwell, west London since 1484.
A few years earlier I’d put my name down on the waiting list for a growing space at a local community garden – it’s literally down the road and a bit to the left and no more than a two-minute walk away. In 2009 the charity began creating the William Hobbayne Community Gardens alongside the towpath of the Grand Union Canal in Hanwell. The space had been derelict for many years, though used to be a working wharf, being just two miles upstream from the Thames and many, many miles downstream from Birmingham.
The call was to tell me my name had now reached the top of the list and I was to be offered a 3m by 3m growing space. ‘When would I like to go and see it?’ My very swift reply was ‘Well, what about now?’.
It may have been small and overgrown, but it had potential and could be my space where I could grow solely fresh vegetables and hand-picked soft fruits… a space to pick up from where I left off some four decades earlier.
I set to that same afternoon and with the winter light dimming cleared the unkempt patch of weeds and plant detritus and gave it a really good forking over. Only a perpetual spinach, a thyme and a few fronds of herb fennel remained. The soil was dark and rich, and with additions of peat-free compost and well-rotted horse manure it would be incredibly productive for us. Over the coming years this small growing space gave us tomatoes, chard, Brussels sprouts, celeriac, beetroot, squash, strawberries, autumn-fruiting raspberries, and a bountiful supply of summer salad leaves.
It soon became clear that as well as a space for growing our own produce, the place itself would become a haven away from the daily grinds of work and London life. My work for many years had come first and that famous work-life balance of which so many talk had suffered. In the coming years my life would begin to change and that legendary balance would begin to reach a better sense of level.
It was during this time that my partner and I became YouTubers and my own love of growing and sharing as a Guernsey gardener in London would begin to change further how my partner and I would begin to live our lives.
Paul Savident and his partner, Richard Leighton-Hammond, live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot.