Culture, Interviews
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On Nature and Gardening With Sally Hallywill


Sally Hallywill cares for the plants and wildlife at Lordship recreation ground in North London. Read on as we catch up on all things nature…

I really like your theme of ‘sanctuary’, because it resonates so much with what I feel about the ‘outdoors’, and, at the moment, the specific places I choose to spend that time in. These are Lordship Rec, which I feel so fortunate to live near, and my shared house and land in France, where I started a small Orchard with a view to managing it organically both for the benefit of us humans who spend time there, but primarily for ‘nature’ to have a refuge from the extensive surrounding fields of industrial agriculture. This summer in particular I am also spending a lot more time with my sister and mother in south Norfolk, and enjoying the utter tranquility and wide open spaces around their village in the countryside.

My main interest is not so much in ‘gardening’ – I sometimes describe myself as an ‘anti-gardener’, but in observing and learning about nature. The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. I enjoy simply being outdoors, and observing. Since I was a young child I have always enjoyed being outdoors, and was lucky to have spent a childhood in many different countries and places where this was possible. I feel a deep sense of peace and contentment in observing nature, as well sometimes of excitement, when I might learn the name of an insect or plant that is new to me. I justify the often long hours involved by doing a practical task that enables me to notice minutely what is around me. This might be scything grass paths (instead of strimming or using a lawn mower), or watering young trees in hot weather, or hand weeding around newly planted fruit trees, for example.

Over the past two years, since I moved to Tottenham, I have become even more acutely aware of just how important our Public Parks are to us all, as perhaps the

only place where anyone can just go and ‘be’. 

I feel they are crucial places for all our mental well-being. I certainly achieve a sense of calm and happiness by doing what I do in the Rec, quite apart from whatever practical benefit the work I might do has. I truly believe that a park is a place of sanctuary.

The government has slashed spending on public services massively, including parks. I don’t think many people realise that it is literally a handful of dedicated park staff who care for each of our parks, staffing having been cut in Haringey from around 355 staff a few years ago, to just about 55 today. Luckily Lordship Rec has benefited hugely from an energetic and innovative group of local people who now work in partership with the Council to manage the park.

What is your first recollection of gardening?

I think I had my first ‘garden’ when I was about 8; I traded seeds across the garden fence with a neighbour.

Could you describe the soil that most of London is built upon and how it compares to other regions/countries?

Goodness! Where I have lived in London – 30 years in Hackney and the last two in Tottenham, the soil was basically clay. It is much the same in the region of France where I have my Orchard. 

It tends to be saturated and heavy in winter, and dried hard as concrete in summer. This is totally different from the chalk Downs where my grandparents and then my parents lived when we returned to live in the UK

What do you do at Lordship Rec and when did you start caring for trees there?

When I first moved to Tottenham two years ago I was shocked at the state of the planted trees. About 18 months ago I tried to start doing something about it, applying for a grant to plant more young trees with the wonderful encouragement and support of the Friends of Lordship Rec, but with the aim of using some of the money to foster a group of people who could start caring for the trees that were poorly planted some 6 years ago. I engaged Russell Miller of Hackney Tree Musketeers to advise on selecting varieties of tree, their management, and their planting. This was successfully achieved; but the work Russell advised to rejuvenate the poorly planted trees only began to take place this year as  the money had run out. It wasn’t until Dick Tomlinson, one of the two great Haringey Tree Officers, offered to lead a week-end in caring for the Heritage Lottery Trees,  that we began to start this work. This continues today. Constraining ties, pads and cross bars which had begun to badly bite into the bark of many trees have been removed, the area around trees weeded and most importantly, mulched heavily. This is key to conserving the moisture in the soil and keeping at bay competing grasses that would otherwise gobble up moisture and nutrients. With the recent heatwave and almost complete lack of rain over the past couple of months I have, with other volunteers, spent over 100 hours watering, especially of the young trees planted in the Spring of 2017 and December 2017.

Why are plants important to you?

I   see plants, grasses, ‘weeds’, shrubs, trees, lichens, mosses, fungii. and more, as all part of the interconnectedness of nature; they are all there because the conditions suit them, and they provide habitat and or food or something for a host of other plants or creatures.

 am fascinated by what depends on what. It is for this reason that I see much gardening as being destructive. People tend to plant for looks only, or scent, or some other benefit perceived by humans; seldom for the benefit of the rest of nature.

Do you follow any campaigns to increase or preserve green spaces in London?

Through the Friends of Lordship Rec I follow national user groups efforts to protect Parks. Through my beekeeping I follow both the news and discussion amongst conventional beekeepers and closer to my heart, for want of a better term, ‘sustainable beekeeping’. This has led me to a greater understanding of the importance of insects, about which most of us are abysmally ignorant.

What do you think the government should do to preserve the sanctity of nature in London?

Get serious about climate change for a start. Make a firm committment to keeping the environmental protection laws of the European Union, whatever happens – though I fear greatly that once out of Europe the government will renege on many key environmental safeguards.

What is the most rewarding moment you remember when planting/gardening?

Every time I ‘discover’ something new to me – this year my star discoveries in the Rec have been the Ermine Spindleberry moth (Ermine in Tottenham!) and the Skipper butterfly – or is it a moth. Anyway, it has the most incredible arrangement of sort of double decker wings.

Do you have a favourite tree/plant? why? 

No I don’t think I do. I have lots of favourites, many of which remind me of places I have lived or specific childhood memories. One is the scent of Box -once  we returned to my grandmother’s house in the UK at night when I was about 5, and I have always remembered that spicy tang in my nostrils as I brushed past the hedge, even though I couldn’t see the leaves.

Do  you have memories of your parents/grandparents generation gardening or being in nature? What was it like and how does it compare to now?

Yes, my paternal grandmother ran a hotel in Sussex and they had the most enormous ‘kitchen garden’, growing fruit and vegetables for their own use. My father grew up as a teenager in this country  village, which used to be dependent on agriculture. My father loved gardening and would spend hours and hours at it when he came back from work.

My mother created a beautiful sort of country garden and herb garden in Sussex. During the War my mother was sent to boarding school in England, and in the holidays stayed with an Aunt and Uncle who ran a farm, and sometimes with a friend. One of her best friends, who is still her best friend – at 90! – used to collect her to go and stay with her in a pony and trap!  ‘Going for walk’ (in Sussex on the Downs where my parents lived when they settled back in the UK) was just part of our everyday routine; but I realise now that this was my outdoor classroom where I learnt about nature.

Have you travelled to other exotic green spaces? What were they like?

I have lived in many different countries, and have memories of very different, yet each fascinating, flora and fauna, from hot and dry in Libya or Jordan, to hot and wet in Malaysia.

You mentioned once keeping a diary log of the progress of trees you plant, when did you begin doing this and why?

I started keeping a log of my inspections of my bees and realised how vital it was to help me compare one season with another, to be able to spot the origin of some problem, to be able to reflect on problems, because I had the data. So I started doing the same with the trees I planted. it is a learning tool for me.

Have you witnessed the positive effects of gardening on your or anther persons mental state?

Being outdoors and interacting with nature in some way definitely has helped me. I am also fortunate in that for the past 30 years or so cycling has been my main means of transport. When my children were small and I started back at work I could no longer afford to run a car, so sold it and the only way I could manage to get around to teach my classes was by bike. How lucky I was! Though I didn’t realise it at first. It meant I could be outdoors for roughly 2 hours every day travelling to and from and between work. Even in London this really does enable you to appreciate so much more of the environment around you.

Where you see the progress of the green movement globally in the future?

I don’t know! I think it is crucial that people begin to realise the impact humans are having on the planet, right now most people in the West are very disconnected from nature. Sadly, it is often only when something dramatic happens to us that we take notice. I’d like to see people, especially city dwellers, begin to get interested in something about nature. Once you have a little knowledge you start asking more questions, can see more connections, start caring about things, like trees, or insects, that you simply might not have realised existed or understood why they are important.

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