BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Home Correspondent
Back To Nature
By Jane Labous
Producer: Simon Coates
Jane Labous is in Biggleswade, keen to discover why retraining to plant flowers in Beds is so popular there.
At midday in the polytunnel the air is thick as honey and smells of earth and raindrops. Over a crop of coral-coloured begonias a bee hums, hovers and settles. Sunshine filters onto a heady jungle of pink geraniums, alliums like lollipops, plump lavender and tall, bird-like yellow and purple irises.
People are scattered like flowers in the midst of the greenery; among them, a police inspector, an accountant, an artist, a teacher, a medical researcher, a former supermarket manager and an ex-courier; Ross, aged 30, who a few months ago was working sixty hours a week for a parcel delivery company. All study horticulture here at Shuttleworth College in rural Bedfordshire, where amid the bursts of cow parsley, the thatched wisteria-laden cottages and country pubs, life proceeds at a different pace than in nearby London and Cambridge. And certainly the students come because of this; for the peace, for the great outdoors and the happiness it brings.
My father Paul Labous, course lecturer, is waxing lyrical about irises. ‘Each petal has a UV strip,’ he says, ‘a runway for bees to land on.’ It’s the sort of random horticultural fact that peppered my childhood. As a toddler I’d follow him around the garden, watching his weatherbeaten hands splice and prune and secateur, noticing the earth beneath his fingernails.
I talk to Ross as he nips a juvenile fig into shape. Currently he lives with his girlfriend at her parents, they’re saving for a house. While studying, he works as the resident course technician, and has high hopes of a career in plant conservation. ‘I want to sort my life out and get a real job,’ he confides, deftly handling the gardening knife. ‘Horticulture is hands on, out in the sunshine. These days I feel so much better, physically and mentally.’
Another student, Jo, is a single mother whose husband left her with two kids and no work. Now she’s able to give up a job on the tills at Sainsburys to concentrate on her growing gardening business. ‘He’s earning 55 grand a year, and here am I scraping a living.’ She laughs. ‘But then I think to myself, I’d rather be out here than stuck on a train to London. Every time I’m feeling down, or cold and wet, a robin appears, or there’s a nice flower, and I think to myself, no, I’d rather be outside!’
Emerging from the tunnel, we stroll through the walled garden. Bees hum around the pelargoniums. The blue sky is full of bird song, and a dove croons loudly from the rustling leaves of a bright golden laburnum. It must be a far cry from your normal working day, I point out to police inspector Duncan Reeves, who for 30 years has been responsible for manning this county’s police force control room. He nods, telling me there are times when he might be managing stabbings, kidnappings or firearm crimes.
‘I always wanted to be a farmer,’ Duncan adds with a whimsical smile. ‘It’s only now, as I near retirement, that I’m realising how my everyday decisions hang over my head like a weight. When I’m out here in the fresh air, getting my hands dirty in the soil, I can feel myself decompress.’
We trail behind Paul to the fruit cage, where the students kneel in the white currants to look for greenfly. I fall into step beside Amber, 29, a theatre lighting engineer looking for an alternative career as a garden designer. Work’s so hectic, she explains; mostly in ballrooms, conference halls or huge arenas filled with cheering crowds, artificial flashing lights and loud music. ‘It can be really stressful,’ she admits, especially because she suffers from migraines. ‘Since taking up gardening I’m calmer, my wellbeing has improved, and my headaches have gone. I think people underestimate how important it is to have the movement of air around you.’ She grins. ‘You make a choice, don’t you, about what makes you a better person, what makes you happy. I want to be happier.’
On the way back, we gather around a jasmine plant cascading over the wall. ‘Jasmine is pollinated by moths,’ says Paul. ‘That’s why the white blossoms stand out at night, and why they fill the air with that heady scent. The moths love it.’ I imagine the moths in the dark, craving the perfumed flowers, drinking them in like evening cocktails.
Afterwards we gather near the potting shed, everyone a little sunburnt. These students’ smooth-skinned urban hands are dusty with earth now. Everyone is smiling. Gardeners, I think - through and through.