Photographs: Charles Francis
August 2015: At the height of the summer season in St Ives, Sam Blades likes to escape to his allotment with a radio and a flask of tea. It is one of 60 plots, perched high above the town, which offer stunning views of St Ives Bay. “So many tourists come to St Ives, and it gets very busy,” says Sam. “But if you have a gap in the day, you can always say: ‘I’ll go up to the allotment’. You do some work, of course, but you spend a lot of the time enjoying the moment. It’s a really tranquil place.”
It is also, he adds, a very sociable place. “It can take you three-quarters of an hour to get to your plot from your car because you stop and chat. People are always giving you produce from their plots: ‘Here, Sam — have this’. That’s rather nice.”
This year, Sam, who is chairman of St Ives Allotment Association, is growing strawberries, broad beans and courgettes, potatoes, pumpkins and peas. “It’s hard work, but it gives you a sense of achievement to turn rough ground into something manageable. The soil is amazing — really fertile.”
Sam was one of the prime movers in the campaign for allotments for residents of St Ives. Finding a suitable site was not easy, so he was delighted when, in 2010, the town council offered to lease four acres of former farmland at Trowan, on the outskirts of St Ives. “We were lucky to get this site, as it’s so near the town,” he says.
“It was an arable field, and had never been worked. Four of us came up here and worked out the plots of 10m by 12m with bits of rope and wooden pegs. There are no taps. We were given a tank, and we dug a borehole, which has a pump using two industrial batteries, powered by a solar panel. The tank fills up from the borehole, and people dunk their watering cans into it. It works fine.”
Sam chose his own plot carefully — on the southern side, by a hedge, and beneath local landmark Rosewall Hill. “The plots near the hill got taken first. As you walk towards it, the land becomes more sheltered. As you walk away, towards the sea, it gets windier, and people have had to put in windbreaks.”
Hungry rabbits are a headache for growers in all areas of the site. “We have rabbit-proof fences, but everyone has to make sure the fencing has no space at the bottom for them to get through,” Sam says. “Earlier this year, whenever I came down here, there would be a rabbit sitting in the middle of my plot!”
Growing in exposed conditions can present challenges even for experienced allotmenteers like Liz and Trevor Hoskins. “We both grew up in families who planted crops in their back gardens, and we’ve had allotments all our lives — and I can say without doubt that this is the hardest,” says Liz. “But the good thing about Cornwall is that if you poke a stick in the ground, it will grow. And where else could you get a view like this?” She also likes to think that she and Trevor are tending land with an ancestral connection. “We are incomers — we used to live in Cheshire — but Trevor’s family did come from Cornwall.”
Stephen Penhale feels the same. He is from South Wales, but as his surname suggests, he has family links with Cornwall. His great-grandfather was born in Gwinear, just a few miles from St Ives. “I’ve come back to my roots,” he says.
Gardening is a Penhale family tradition. “My dad was a keen allotment holder, so I learned a few things from him. When I got my allotment here, I decided I wanted fruit trees. It takes a long time to see the fruits of your labour, but hopefully this year I will get raspberries and blackberries.
“I’m planting flowers round the edge to give me some colour, and easy crops like perpetual spinach — the bugs don’t seem to like it very much. It’s good exercise, especially in the winter, when you have to do the digging. And it’s a joy to be up here on a sunny day.”
One allotmenteer has a willow arbour, another grows perennial lupins, and there is also a beekeeper on site. “One guy grew a 50ft cabbage,” recalls Sam. “It took three of us to dig it out of the ground. He put it on a trailer and took it to Malvern Horticultural Show, where it came third, a good result in a national show.”
Gary and Sheona Brownsword are novice growers. “We’d been trying to get an allotment for years, but we’d never even had a garden, so we went in completely blind,” says Gary. “But we’ve found that it’s all quite simple, really — you put stuff in the ground and grow it for a month.”
Runner beans were among their first crops. “People told us: ’They’re really easy to grow’,” says Sheona. “And they were — but then we thought: ‘We don’t actually like runner beans!’” Gary describes garlic as his specialist subject. “That’s what I love growing — and purple-sprouting broccoli, beetroot, rhubarb and strawberries.
“But as well as being a place to grow food, it’s become a place to hang out. Our dog likes coming here, too.” He and Sheona have yet to train their Shitzu, Maximillian, to make a useful contribution to the allotment. “He’s not very good at weeding,” says Gary. “What he really likes doing is eating strawberries!”