Reb's family have given up their life in London and moved to a bungalow with only an acre of land, in a village called Fineham - a bit of Oxfordshire everyone's forgotten about. Now they have to try and make their self-sufficiency dream come true...
Next came the swotting up. All the farming had to be done from books, because my parents’ experience of agriculture up until that point could fit on the back of a recycled envelope, but they tackled it with scientific gusto.
On the windowsills there were little forests of soil testing kits – test-tubes full of coloured chemicals that told you whether your land was alkaline, acidic, fertile or useless. The kits told us that our land was low in nutrients and high in soggy, heavy clay. To be honest, you could tell that just by looking out of the window, but it was good to have it confirmed by Science.
Science also helped my dad plant his potatoes; taking the instructions in the gardening books literally, he marked off a long plank of wood with the correct distances between rows, and measured his way up the field. It looked very efficient and daunting and I was sure I wouldn’t ever have the skills to plant potatoes. It took him quite a few seasons to realise that it doesn’t really matter where you stick them, potatoes will pretty much grow anyway, until it’s time for them to be eaten by slugs.
Of course, we didn’t just spring into the countryside fully armed with spades and forks and rural equipment. We started off with no useful tools at all. This caused a problem, because my parents strongly object to buying anything new if they can possibly help it. They spent their wartime childhoods patching their clothes, only using an inch of bathwater and chopping their chocolate ration into tiny pieces to make it last. By the time we moved to Fineham the war had been over for nearly thirty years, but you’d never have known it at our house. I did have some new clothes, but my mum made them from Clothkits patterns and patched them when they tore – and it takes a bit of work to make a Clothkits jerkin rip.
I was nearly thirty before I realised you are allowed buy new things just because you like them, even if the old ones haven’t fallen to pieces. I have cake tins in my kitchen cupboard that my mum gave me to stop me buying new ones and when I asked her where she got them from it turned out they had been handed down from my Tyneside great grandmother and they are at least a hundred years old. There’s commitment to recycling, there’s make-do-and-mend, and then there’s my family.
Anyway, we ended up getting a lot of our equipment from farm sales. If someone was selling up livestock and land, my mum and dad would be there to snap up rusty trowels and leaky water butts. It’s quite easy to get caught up in the thrill of a farm auction, because absolutely anything can be up for sale, and almost none of it is very much use. Most things we ended up with were rusty, or bent, or chipped, or all three – but they Might Come In Useful. I was only small but I wasn’t immune to the auctioneer’s cry. Overcome with the spirit of the auction, I ended up bidding fifty new pence, months of pocket money, for an exciting kettle full of mysterious objects. When I got it home it turned out that everything in it was actually fused together with rust. I wasn’t even disappointed. Not every kid has a kettle of mutant tools.
I did try to keep out of my parents’ way, but every time I came out, there was a new hazard to fall into. Once they’d started, my parents just wouldn’t stop digging things. And as time went on, I was allowed to run in less and less of the garden. They started with an innocent looking artichoke bed, then launched into a gigantic potato patch, beans, peas, marrows, onions, kale, brussels sprouts and leeks. One section of the garden was fenced off in a fruit cage and down by the house a special plot was put aside for asparagus crowns. I was allowed on the strips of grass in between the veg beds, but only if I stayed on them and didn’t fall off the path.
Now that’s fine in theory. You can keep to paths in theory. But if you have found a heavy chunk of rusty iron in a nearby field you will naturally want to test yourself to see how far up the garden you can carry it without falling over. I’d stagger up between the rapidly-multiplying vegetable plots, misjudge things and fall on a pea plant, or I’d time myself to run a four minute mile up the garden and back, with one lap of the garden counting as each mile, end up mis-stepping and land full pelt on some purple sprouting.
My worst problem, though, was reading while walking. If it was raining, I curled up on a dining room chair with a book on the floor and my head hanging down off the chair seat like a strange tree sloth. But if it wasn’t raining, I took the book outside and wandered all over the garden with the book in both hands. It’s difficult to pay attention to your feet when you get to a gripping bit in Tintin and the Broken Ear. So the bean plants got a bit squashed...