News from the Home Front: VE Day celebrations 1945/2020

Out for my daily exercise yesterday, I cycled over to Ashwell via the green bye-way known as the ‘Stret’, and then back to Shepreth, with wonderful warm sunny weather. I passed through several villages bedecked with bunting and flags, people sitting on deck chairs on their drives and front lawns, chatting from a distance to neighbours across fences. Interesting to see a plethora of Union Jacks out rather than the red and white English flag.

Returned home to read through my notes from the Cambridge Independent News from May 1945 to see how the end of the war in Europe was celebrated in the Cam valley. In Melbourn there was a joint service of all the local churches in the parish church, filled to capacity. Pride of place was given to returning POWs, Flight Sgt. Jim Palmer (RAF), L/Cpl. Fred Field, RE parachutist, and Pte. Arthur Wardock, Royal Scots regiment. Local members of the Home Guard, Red Cross and British legion were all present.

In the afternoon there was a street party for children at Portway organised by the  council tenants. In the evening there was a huge bonfire in the field owned by Collis Palmer, a local farmer, where an effigy of Hitler was burned. Fire works were set off, some indiscriminately thrown about in the crowd.

On VJ Day, later in August following the end of the war against Japan, further celebrations were held in Melbourn, starting with a prolonged ringing of the church bells at 7am, various street festivities and a united church service. At 7.30 in the evening another large bonfire was lit at Collis Palmer’s meadow together with an ‘organised’ display of fireworks. Music and dancing took place in the High Street at Rose Inn corner with special lighting, lasting till midnight with as many as a thousand persons present. The news report added, all was quiet and orderly!

Between these two dates there had been a general election returning a Labour Government with a landslide majority and a Labour MP for Cambridgeshire for the first and only (?) time, overturning a Conservative majority of 8,000 by just 44 votes. This heralded a period of social reform and the creation of the NHS, which we have all been cheering on Thursday nights during the current Covid-19 lock down.

Might we turn our attention to our present social ills when the current crisis is over? The lock down has exposed the terrible problem faced by some women suffering physical abuse from their partners. More help and protection for them please. Better funding for the NHS and in particular for ‘public health’ administration – whose inadequacy has been so cruelly exposed by the pandemic. The reason for the severity of the lock down is that we did not have the capacity for nationwide testing and tracking in the early stages. Many of us had mild cold symptoms and are wondering was it Covid-19 or not? A government obsessed with Brexit has neglected so many areas where action is needed, in particular the crisis in social care for the elderly. This neglect has also been seen in the response to Covid-19 and the lack of PPE for care home staff.

If Brexit has divided us perhaps the Covid-19 crisis can unite us? A return to the spirit of 1945?

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News From the Home Front Part Five

During the present Covid-19 control measures small things become large and the picking of the first asparagus on my allotment for our evening meal last night was a joy. This follows on several pickings of rhubarb, which has supplied us with a breakfast compot and various puddings. The over-wintering chard is now producing some large leaves so we have fresh green stuff for a while until it goes to seed.

The onions which I set in late February are all looking strong and healthy. So too the strawberry patch which has received much care and attention. This year I have added a layer of well-rotted compost, dug in around the plants and paid attention to watering since we have had a long dry spell. The plants, once bedraggled and unkempt, are all ‘greening up’ and looking much healthier. I await the first green shoots of the potatoes poking through – with a light plastic tarpaulin at the ready to protect from frosts.

I have planted some small seed which is now showing – turnips and beetroot, and yesterday I added a row of early carrots. The greenhouse remains full of tubs with seeds and seedlings waiting for the end of May/early June for planting out, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans and courgettes. I have grown more kale and celeriac this year, still quite small and not ready for planting out.

All this talk of relaxing the control measures seems a bit premature although I would take advantage of nurseries and building supplies centers opening up again.

Instinctively, I think we are in for a long haul and what do we we mean by ‘back to normal’? We still have the existential threat posed by climate change – don’t we need ‘control’ measures to tackle that or are we just going to simply carry on regardless? A few less airline companies – no bad thing?

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Notes From The Home Front 2020 Part Four

Having implemented virus-control measures down at the allotments, tenants are driving to the site and working on their plots in isolation, getting on with the normal jobs at this time of the year, planting spuds, preparing the ground for seeds and seedlings busy germinating in greenhouses. Looking forward, we have suggested tenants set up a buddy system for watering etc, in case of infection later in the summer. The official infection rate rate in Cambridgeshire is around 100 just now which if we magnify by a factor of ten for the true rate, leaves us quite low in the league table.

I have been busy setting up a permanent runner bean trench. Just before retail outlets were closed down I bought two pieces of 8 foot 3×3 timber, and have some old post holders and scaffolding pipe, and have used these to create a rigid and gale-proof structure to which canes can be attached later in June when the runner beans are planted out. We have some old compost bays at the back of the site which are now providing good quality material, high in organic matter with a light texture which is ideal for filing the trench.

The rhubarb patch is getting going now although the stems are still on the short side. Still, we have had a small picking which has been stewed with raisins and dark sugar to produce a compote to go with our morning porridge or with yoghurt.

I have three propagation trays going at the moment. One with tomato seeds, all now germinated, which will produce around 20 plants, (Purple Cherokee, Brandywine, Green Zebra, Gillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Little Lucy – all heritage varieties from a friend in North Carolina, who has a business in this line). The second tray has celeriac coming through just now. The celeriac is interesting – since you lay the tiny seeds on the surface of the seed compost which has been well dampened and then cover. A higher temperature (18 degrees plus) is needed to kick start germination. These are now showing. The third tray has plenty of kale, green and dark purple varieties. This one is in the greenhouse and is now sending up small shoots.

In the next week or so I’ll be planting courgette and pumpkin seeds in large containers in the greenhouse. Still waiting for the soil to warm up down at the allotments before planting more small seed. At present I have a row of turnips and some chard under  protective cloche netting, together with a small seed bed of leeks for later transplanting. However beetroot and carrots await warmer weather before sowing.

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Notes From The Home Front 2020 Part Three

I’ve just returned from doing the weekly shop at Aldi in Royston, where they now have some good virus control measures in place at the tills. The store was fairly well stocked, with no signs of panic shelf-clearing. So I was able to do a normal shop for the first time in a couple of weeks. Hopefully this is a sign of things calming down.

Thinking back over the events of the past month or so, whilst there has been a lot of criticism of people not taking the virus seriously – my sister, who lives in Brighton, related to me how the beach last weekend was heaving with people from outside the town, coming down to enjoy the sunshine – the real blame lies with the government. They initially thought they could wing it with minimal controls, stressing how mild the symptoms were for most, etc. Then the situation in northern Italy blew up and they had to change course rapidly. The estimate of 250,000 deaths, without strict control measures, is similar to the mortality figures for our armed services in the Second World War. However, having preached one hopelessly optimistic line, (Boris Johnson’s forte), it’s taken a while for the public to come round and fully recognize what is required.

With the global pandemic now fully established we are going to need the level of international cooperation and control of resources akin to that achieved by the Allies in the defeat of the Axis Powers in WW2. We can expect the UK government to take control of more and more of the economy and of our daily lives. Unless, that is, we have something of a miracle…but we had that with the Sars outbreak.

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News From The Home Front 2020 Part Two

Following the introduction of virus control measures we have been enforcing precautions at the allotment site; taking care over use of communal facilities, such as wheelbarrows etc. and most importantly – social distancing. Our site is an isolated rural location away from built up areas, a place where tenants can safely come by car to get their allotted daily exercise. So we hope this will be allowed to continue. What we also fear is an increase in pilfering later in the year as crops come to the point of harvest. This has always been a problem, worse in some years, but food shortages may prove too tempting.

The dry sunny weather continues and one hopes that an increase in direct sunshine will kill the virus on open surfaces and reduce the spread of infection.

On the radio this morning it was reported that 9,000 UK citizens have signed up for work on the hop farms later in the year. Usually only a handful do so. Last year the top fruit industry wasted one million tons of apples, due to a lack of pickers to harvest the full crop, as the normal supply of labour from the EEC dried up. Movement restrictions this year pose a challenging problem for fruit growers during the harvest season, which begins with soft fruit (under covers) in April. Here is another opportunity for young service sector workers recently thrown out of work, and others, to find gainful employment and save our fruit industry.

Hold on to your egg cartons – there is a shortage of packaging as the large quantity of eggs for the catering trade, sold in large packs, is being redirected to retail outlets. We may well need these boxes to collect our eggs from local shops.

The only sounds I hear from outside, apart from the occasional car driving by, is that of birdsong. No planes in the air. A peaceful calm.

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News From The Home Front 2020, part one

May you live in interesting times, as the saying goes. Yesterday I did my first shop at a supermarket, having used local village shops around Shepreth for a couple of weeks. A somber sight I can tell you. However there was enough on the shelves to make the trip worthwhile. Since we don’t eat ready-made meals and processed foods much and do not seek comfort from having a year’s supply of toilet rolls (ready to hand) we can get by.

In order to reduce the frequency of shopping trips we are paying attention to meal planning and thinking about calorie/protein intake. No bad thing. Being a person who has always attempted a degree of self-sufficiency it’s a question now of putting more of this into practice. Down at the allotment things are taking shape. I’ll be planting potatoes later today. If the virus lasts for more than a few months food supply chains will start to feel the strain later in the year. I can easily foresee the government taking measures to increase food production. We are already seeing an increase in applications for plots, but unfortunately we are currently at full occupancy.

At home with my wife, Elisabeth and daughter, Robin, we are working out new ways of living. The thing to do is ration exposure to news and focus on the practical steps which can be taken to adapt to the situation. We are working out exercise routines, seeing what sessions are now available online from local trainers. The garden is receiving a lot of TLC at present. I have a list of DIY jobs to do around the house and we are going to do a lot of spring cleaning and clearing out of unwanted items.

Perhaps it take a crisis to deal with a crisis. We are stumbling forward to a climate change catastrophe. Drastic measures to curb travel for virus control point the way forward to stricter control of global mass-tourism to curb carbon emissions. With the economy – the threat of mass lay-offs of employees on zero hours contracts in the service sector has forced the government to bank-roll wages. We will all be paying for this through higher taxes and borrowing for years to come, sharing the burden jointly. Now perhaps we will start to value and appreciate all those workers who keep the economy ticking over for us, making deliveries to supermarkets, working on the production lines in the food processing factories, currently operating at 24/7, to make sure we have enough to eat.

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One last job on the allotment

It’s Sunday the 23 December. A grey, heavy and overcast day with a steady drizzle. At home the Christmas tree is up and decorated. The lights have been fixed to the porch. We are fully provisioned for the coming feast-days, with wine, meat and fish. The homemade Christmas pudding, patiently stored in a cupboard for a year, is ready and waiting. What better than to pop down to the plot and finish that one final job? In my case, pruning out the dried asparagus bushes for burning on the communal bonfire heap.

The ground on my plot is pretty wet now, best left alone. In any case I managed to get it all dug and turned by November. It has that loose saturated look, as if rising up with the moisture content. Not to be walked upon without sinking deep.  The over-wintering broad beans are looking healthy under their protective wire mesh and the green shoots of the garlic are showing though. In one of the raised beds the autumn planting of main crop turnips is doing well, though not quite ready to pick. The globes needing to swell and firm. These will go well in our hearty winter soups. There is still some chard which I’ll come back and harvest in January. Walking around the plot I’m musing on growing kale next year for a winter crop.

A quiet site since I am the only one present, apart that is from the cock pheasant I can see skulking in the bushes, waiting for me to disappear and return to his normal pursuit –  strutting arrogantly around the plots. There is a definite end-of-year feel about the site, winter-dormancy has set in. We have just passed the shortest day but summer solstice seems far far away. Low cloud on Chapel hill blankets the sky. There is no hint of sun.

Time for me to have a look around and see what needs to be done by the winter working parties in the new year: consolidating the communal composting bays, firing the bonfire heaps, clearing brambles, strimming out the bank along the ditch. We get a good turn out of tenants for these jobs, which is important since Haslingfield allotments is a self-managed site. We’ll get the jobs done then stand around the fire, warming our hands. Out comes the flask of tea… or something stronger. There is a good deal of friendly chat and banter; a good feeling which you only get from partaking in this sort of communal activity.

Oh well, the drizzle is getting heavier and I am feeling decidedly damp and muddy. Time for home….

Looking forward now to going through my box of seed packets, what to keep, what to throw away. Thinking about next year’s plantings. A job for January.

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