The Golden Tomato

And the Magic Kingdom

Sometimes the journey to a love of parks and green spaces doesn’t start with a park. In this moving and very honest Earth Story it starts on an allotment plot many years ago. Here Nick, project advisor takes us back to his first encounter with nature.

My earliest memories of playing at home were indoors or out in the yard at the back of our shop. We lived on the edge of Sheffield city centre, in a shop on a main road. My walk to nursery led you to a side road with a railway and a steel works at the end of it. So this was all very grey, gritty and urban.

At weekends we quiet often went to our grandparents, they lived at opposite ends of town, so it always involved a long bus ride and walk. I always looked forward to staying with my mum’s parents but really didn’t like going to my dad’s parents. They were really strict and there was nowhere to play. It also meant sleeping in their attic which was completely undecorated and unfurnished, so as a young child, was really scary!

My grandad on my father’s side was a steel worker, so he worked on Saturday mornings. We always waited for him to come home as we would all enjoy lunch together. I remember this one day I would have been about 4 years old, and it was sunny outside, but we hadn’t been allowed to play outside in the morning. So after lunch my grandad suggested taking me to his allotment. I suspect because I was becoming troublesome, whilst my sisters stayed back to do things with grandma.

It wasn’t a long walk from my grandads house but we first arrived at the park, so I thought he’d changed his mind. What I didn’t know was the allotments were hidden in the park. I had never been before, so didn’t know what to expect. We entered a gate into a magical kingdom! Where everything was taller than me, real Jack in the Beanstalks! Really tall! And giant rhubarb. I didn’t know what any of this was, until my Grandpa told me. It felt like being in a maze, with narrow paths, turning this way and that, with the sun beating down from above.

Then he said we had reached his garden. There was a wooden glasshouse. I had never seen one before. When he opened the door I all my senses were completely overwhelmed! The smell was fantastic. Wow! It was really warm in there. Everything was up on benches so towering over me below. All along the benches were huge pansies. The sort with the smiley faces! Such colours and sweet, sweet scents! I still love them to this day. Each one had a different face as big as mine, so I smiled back at all of them in turn.

Then my grandpa picked a golden tomato. It was warm and glowing like the sun, but slightly rough to touch. What do I do with this Grandpa I asked, just pop it in your mouth he said. It was so sweet and totally delicious! I started to cry! Whatever’s the matter he asked? I don’t want to go home, I said, I just want to stay here, forever!

I had found my paradise. At the age of 4. A garden. Pure and simple. I fell in love with plants and gardening from that day on. When my dad retired he took up gardening just like his father. He tried to grow exotic flowers and melons. This became a real bond between us. Which was a good thing it did.

As when I was 18 I found out why I’d had to go almost every weekend to my grandparents and I didn’t have any memories of my dad in those early years. He’d spent nearly 3 years in prison! So my mum went to visit most weekends. When I found out at 18 I was really shocked and couldn’t wait to leave home to go to university. It really caused a rift between us.

But instead of taking up my place at university in Birmingham I thought I would defer my place for a year. So wrote to the council asking for a job, in the parks service. After a year I had changed my mind about uni. I’m still here, now the advisor to the FPA. I did go to uni, 3 times in fact. So now I’m Green City Manager for Birmingham and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

As the years passed my dad and I slowly connected again, through a love of gardening and nature. My dad passed away a few years ago now with cancer. But I was the closest relative so got to look after him. He ended up on a small ward in a cottage hospital where they said he was going to die. Before he passed he was able to tell me that the proudest day in his life had been at The Royal Horticultural Society in London, when their President had awarded me a Masters in Horticulture, their highest award. And embarrassingly the two available additional prizes and a travel bursary. I used the bursary to travel to Japan to do a study tour of all their historic and temple gardens.

That magical kingdom opened up to me by my grandfather when I was just 4 through a golden tomato changed my life. As it set off a quest in me to understand that magical kingdom, that is nature. I’ve spent my lifetime enjoying it, studying it and being in awe of it, as it defies science. I want that future to be a possibility for every city child. The work we are trying to do is to make that happen. Where Birmingham commits itself to a new future as a City of Nature. If you don’t believe me, watch this space. If you want to join in and support us, follow the links. If you have an ‘earth story’ you would like to share we’d love to hear it.

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