Now I have to admit that I have a good sized garden and would love to have green fingers/thumbs. (dependant on which side of the pond you are!) My mother is an expert gardener and loves nothing more than to tend her plants and seedlings which I promptly kill through neglect or overwatering etc.
Me? l like nothing more than to sit in my garden and share a meal or read a book but the garden doesn’t look after itself! Even when I do get something to grow my productivity dwarfs my mothers and that of the community garden I’m involved with that rather than my rather paltry salad for one seems to produce copious amounts with crops I can only dream about.
The cucumbers last year were a revelation and bore no relation to the supermarket variety – taste and crunch were commented on even by my teenagers as something very special and no plastic either! This was in no way down to me albeit I did water them occasionally and was rather good a harvesting them!
Take a look at our Community Garden at Sheddington and pay homage to Hugh who does wonders with it!
I’ve covered moving in retirement mainly with advice to be aware that the countryside dream may not be quite what you expect and making new connections can be difficult with some people finding they are considered interlopers even decades later! However although Bob and Ann Paton thought they were just moving to their dream country home and do a bit of gardening they had the idea to turn their six acres into a small farm! Rather them than me!
But Paula Cocozza tells another story in her incredible Guardian series.
“We didn’t intend to be farmers,” Bob Paton says. In their 50s, he and his wife, Ann, envisaged “one more move”. They lived in Newcastle upon Tyne and had a checklist for their dream house: “Northumberland, stone-built, a bit of character and a reasonable garden,” Bob says.
The place they found ticked every box but one. Instead of a reasonable garden, it had six acres. As they walked the grounds, Bob turned to Ann and said: “We could turn this into a small farm.”
Eleven days before his 60th birthday, he retired as a managing director with the IT company Accenture. Ann, 63, had already sold her deli. Together they began to farm.
The next two years were a struggle. The four fields were badly fenced and waterlogged. The soil was poor. Growing vegetables was “not a common thing to do in this cold, wet and windy area of Northumberland”, says Bob, 65.
They dug up thousands of stones. “It was backbreaking. We would say: ‘What on earth are we doing?’” Ann says. She nudges Bob. “Del Boy here always said: ‘This time next year, if we’re not making money, we will give up.’”
“We were never going to give up,” Bob interjects. “We’re not that type of people.”
The son of a coal miner, Bob grew up in Ashington, 15 miles north of Newcastle. He helped his father on his allotment. “Sunday lunches in mining communities were big things. My dad used to dig up potatoes. They melted in your mouth – the freshness! The memory stayed with me. But I think it was the sense of trying to achieve something. Throughout my life I’ve been driven by trying to achieve things.”
Ann’s father worked for ICI, the chemical company, and took “two or three jobs just to keep us all going”. Her mother was a seamstress and keen gardener. “We both come from very hard-working socialist families,” she says.
They met in the 90s in Ann’s deli, Country Whey. Bob’s first words to her were: “Can I have a peanut butter and banana sandwich with red onions, tomato, in a white butty, cut in half? Please.”
They became friends as their marriages were ending. One day, they were walking on Gateshead Millennium Bridge and Ann realised: “Bloody hell, I love him. One minute I didn’t and the next minute I did.”
“We had the same beliefs. We both like gardening,” Bob says.
“It wasn’t just the gardening – it was life in general,” Ann says. “You couldn’t do this sort of thing if you didn’t get on well.” They married in 2012. “Dream team,” Ann says.
The turning point on the farm came in summer 2018, when an adviser from the Soil Association told the couple: “You’re making fantastic progress.” It was “a fillip we needed,” Bob says. They were advised to stop digging, to preserve the soil structure. “Overnight, our produce became amazing,” Bob says. “It was transformational.” In the months that followed, the Patons could say with confidence: “We’re farmers.”
Now one field is home to a two-acre orchard. Two others house polytunnels, herbs and 50 varieties of vegetable. The fourth belongs to their Tamworth pigs. As Hexhamshire Organics, they sell 100 organic vegetable boxes a week, and supply Northumberland’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. “I used to say I retired, but now I say I had a career change,” Bob says.
They have never worked so hard. “It’s usually the light that stops us,” Ann says. She brings a career in catering and retail to bear on the business, while Bob is the planner. “Plan tomorrow today. Plan next week this week. Plan next month this month,” he says. His spreadsheet logs “every single vegetable”, from sowing to harvest, and calculates output to the square foot.
Ann puts it more simply. “We are an elderly couple growing vegetables in Northumberland. It happens to be organic. And it happens to be – although we say so ourselves – not bad produce.”
Still, it is very labour-intensive, and I wonder how much longer they want to keep doing this. “I don’t want to stop, ever,” Bob says.
He looks at Ann. “While we can,” she says, “we will.”