Heaven at the foot of the North Circular
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
Ruth Pavey is transported to a Mediterranean paradise in this slice of Cyprus in Muswell Hill, in an unpromising spot abutting the North Circular.
I meet many of the gardeners we feature in the Ham & High through local horticultural contacts, but with Demetrios Georgiou and his allotment, it was different.
Demetrios runs the motor repair garage where I take my car. As the car doubles as a tool shed, we were quick to discover our mutual interest in allotment gardening. The only delay has been in my taking up his invitation to visit his plot in Halliwick Park.
Why the delay? Well, the description of the site as being next to the North Circular Road, opposite Tesco was a drawback. But I should have known better.
Allotment sites have the power to create magical enclosures, almost wherever they are. True, the high fencing and gate at the entrance to Halliwick Park are forbidding, but wait till you get inside.
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On a warm evening in July there I was, outside. Five minutes, Demetrios had said, about seven minutes ago. Was this the right place? Expecting him to appear from inside, I hardly noticed a red car as it swung in next to me. But it turned out to be stuffed with three generations of his family. What a cheerful moment.
With the gate soon open we began a descent between the greenery of well-watered plots. Figs, vines, bright flowers, it was like arriving in southern Europe.
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Demetrios has two plots, with a vine-laden arch over the gate leading to the central path. “1999” is written underfoot, marking the year that he took over the then derelict land.
Two apple trees, maybe 70 years old, remain from a previous plot-holder’s time, but everything else is of Demetrios’s planting.
The path goes down towards the shed and the orchard of figs, cherries, walnuts, hazels, plums, apples and pears that screen off the main road. There are vines growing in several places. When the grapes are ripe Demetrios hands them over to a plotholder from Portugal, to make into wine.
Tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines are planted in pots on the verandah. Flat and curly parsley, mint, spring onions grow nearby, handy for cooking. Efrosyni, Demetrios’s wife, said that they did have a kitchen in the shed but then vandals got in, so now things are more basic. Even so, it was clear that the whole family is used to preparing supper at the allotment.
There was a waft of mint as grandsons Peter and James brushed against it while picking cherries, and then they were off to dig potatoes. Efrosyni and I discussed a salad herb called ylistiria in Greek, but she said that English people don’t seem to grow it. Demetrios fetched the seed packet with, in small letters, the English name, purslane. Demetrios gets some of his seeds direct from Cyprus, including a large tuber, all-purpose variety of potato.
It was those potatoes that the boys were digging, then enthusiastically washing under a tap. Growing and harvesting food is now taught in schools, but, even better, Peter and James are learning about it as part of everyday life. Presumably eating fresh beans, courgettes, chard, loganberries, strawberries, sweet corn, onions, kohl rabi, etc. is also normal for them.
Helen, the boys’ mother, and her sister, Joanna, remarked that the way Cypriots arrange their allotments reflects memories of the farms at home. In their mother Efrosyni’s case, with memories of a lost farm, lost since the war in 1974.
Looking back on my visit to Halliwick Park Allotments, I see them bathed in a golden glow. This is not just thanks to a sunny evening. North Circular or no, there was something paradisal about a place where people from across the world seem able to garden, cook and eat alongside each other in friendly harmony.