Cleve West: Urban Gardener

Amighty wind
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The Independent Online

When it was time to consider a real job as a back-up to my aspired (and eventually unfulfilled) sporting career I chose not gardening, but a one-year course in periodical journalism at the London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing). Enter Fred Hunter, a maverick hack and the first editor of Independent Radio News, who somehow managed to persuade me and seven other students to join him in a broom cupboard where he launched Britain's first radio journalism course. State-of-the-art studios have replaced that broom cupboard and with the course having just celebrated its 30th anniversary I recently joined a few of my contemporaries to applaud Fred being commended for his work.

It must have been a shock when Fred found me digging up a front garden near his house a few years after the course, but perhaps this column, albeit a million miles from the stress of the newsroom, suggests that not all of Fred's efforts were in vain. Our paths are about to cross more frequently as Fred, like us, has kept an allotment for the last eight years, offering "a welcome respite from the pressures of broadcasting". We joined him recently at his plot in Kingston in Surrey, where he was winding down from his hectic schedule.

Visiting other people's allotments is a fascinating experience, the only trouble being that as soon as you enter the familiar, yet foreign territory, sirens from your own allotment begin their lament and make you feel quite guilty. Still, we stayed, watched Fred don two left boots (a mark of his eccentricity as much as his commitment to recycling) and helped him lug tools to his plot where we got a potted history of the characters, the successes, the disappointments, the laughs and disputes of a working community.

It was impossible not to make comparisons. Our allotment is fortunate to have Bushy Park as a backdrop whereas Fred's is surrounded by houses. It didn't feel unfriendly, far from it, but being unaware of houses makes an urban gardener's spirit soar just that bit higher. The topography seemed much flatter largely because sheds are not allowed. A shame, in my view, as the shed is the heart of a plot, giving it character and saying much about the person it belongs to. Sheds also punctuate the landscape and make interesting landmarks. I was going to tell him about a web-site called Fredshed (– a popular enthusiast's site that tests garden and DIY equipment) but didn't want him pining for the unattainable every time he checked on the reliability of a new gardening implement.

Fred's devotion to composting is admirable by anyone's standards (largely fuelled from the free deliveries of horse manure from a local stable), and he has devoted a huge percentage of one plot to offset the free-draining nature of his soil. I pruned an apple tree for him and, in return, was given a sackful of Jerusalem artichokes. These are completely different to globe artichokes in that it is the tubers, not the juvenile flowers, that are eaten. The flowers of a Globe artichoke resemble giant thistles whereas the Jerusalem artichoke is not unlike an anorexic sunflower that makes up for its light frame by growing in clumps and is therefore often used as a screen. The invasive tubers are deliciously nutty and, like the potato, can be eaten roasted or boiled and make an especially good soup. The only drawback is that they can cause rather violent attacks of flatulence. In my experience, this is true – but there is, I think, an element of chance here. On one occasion I had to fairly leg it to the loo before the last course, another time not so much as a peep passed all evening. It is therefore a favourite meal to serve up among close friends in the spirit of a sort of gastronomic Russian roulette. I'm pleased we'll be seeing more of Fred from now on and look forward to inviting him and his wife to supper very soon.

'Hacks and Dons: Teaching Journalism at London University 1919-39' by Fred Hunter will be published by Kultura Press this summer