From Dublin to Shepherds Hill: celebrating an allotment for the ages

Ruth Pavey catches up with Ena Duffley, who is marking 50 years as a plot-holder at Shepherds Hill Allotments.

This should have been written last year; Ena Duffley’s fiftieth as a plot-holder at Shepherds Hill Allotments.

Her fellow plot-holders celebrated the occasion by giving her golden flowered plants, but this piece marks the unusual milepost of fifty-one and a half years.

All that time, as Ena engagingly puts it, on “the same plot, and I’ve never had it sorted”. Because? … “always, something happens…”.

Never-sortedness does not, however, mean that Ena’s plot is a mess – it may just describe the difference between an ideal mental picture and the reality of unceasing plant growth.

On a gentle slope down to the bottom path that separates the allotments from Queen’s Wood, Ena’s plot is a patchwork, with a grassy background and about 20 small flower and vegetable beds let into it. White cosmos, purple verbena, marigolds, runner beans, chives, tansy, roses, courgettes, carnations were some of the plants growing in late September.

Top left is a bower with a bench and a tank with water lilies and fish, bottom right, under the trees is a shed with a blue door, with just enough room for two people to sit down.

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Ena grew up in Dublin, where her father was a good amateur gardener. Career opportunities there for young women were not wide, so Ena took a job in the civil service, which bored her. A working holiday at the Herb Farm in Seal, Kent, gave her the idea of a permanent job there, but on the way she took one in Regent Street, and was soon “engrossed in London”.

She lodged with a family in Barnes, with whom she is still friendly. They supported her interest in gardening, taking an allotment for her.

It was not until 1963 that Ena bought her own flat in Hornsey Lane. She was out “venturing” in Queen’s Wood when she saw a notice board offering allotments. On 1st April, 1964, she signed a lease between herself and the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Hornsey, allowing her to take on her plot. Ena has preserved this relic of the old, soon to be supplanted, borough. The plot was bare but not derelict. At that time many of the gardeners were elderly men, any women were likely to be their wives rather than plot holders in their own right. The site was orderly, with straight lines, regulation style sheds and none of the bushy, higgledy piggledy variety that makes it so attractive now.

Ena was at work during the day and often out at weekends, so the early evening was her allotment time. Sometimes on the bus home she would wonder if she had the energy for it, but being at the allotment was so refreshing that tiredness would melt away.

This timetable meant that she rarely saw her elderly fellow plot holders, but she got on well with those she did. One gave her a trenching tool, which she showed me with some pride. It looks in very good condition. I wondered about that tool … those old men would have been of an age to have fought in the First World War … but Ena says that she was too young then to think of asking what they might have been doing in their youth.

I asked Ena which she preferred, the era of straight lines or the way the site is now. She sought the right words to express why she likes it better now, but when I suggested that, with all the bushiness, each plot might have more privacy, privacy was not at all the right word … no no, privacy sounded as though you wanted to shut people out … it was … At this point Ena despaired of putting the atmosphere of the site into language, and fell back upon wishing that there was a poet to hand to articulate it.