It was a quarter to ten on Monday evening when the phone rang. We were all watching television in the upstairs sitting room and Si' had to dash downstairs to get it before the answerphone kicked in. He missed it but brought the phone back upstairs in case the caller tried again. A few seconds later they did and the news was not good. A fellow allotment holder was calling to say that more than one of the allotment sheds were on fire. Si' asked if he knew which ones. I held my breath - one of them was ours. As we dashed downstairs to put on coats and wellies and collect the torch, two fire engines went tearing up the street, sirens blaring. As we arrived at the gates they had already located the nearest water supply and as we approached the sheds the crews were already dousing the flames and raking the debris away to get water to the heart of the blaze. The first day proper of the half term holiday, the second night since the clocks had gone back, enveloping us all in early darkness, and we were faced with this. All I could think of was how we were going to tell the elderly gentleman two allotments up from us that his shed - and all it contained - had been completely destroyed by fire. By the time we'd said goodbye to the fire brigade, after thanking them profusely, and walked round the site in search of the culprits with a member of the local police force, it was half past midnight before we got to bed. We were up again at seven in an effort to get back to the allotment before the early risers. It would have been a terrible shock - especially for our older members - to have discovered it for themselves, believing that we were unaware. Si' had to take the day off work as we set too to deal with the aftermath. Mr TB, who also lost his shed, said immediately that he thought he would give up. His entire crop of onions had been hanging in the shed to dry. We suggested that he think about it; particularly since he has already dug his plot in preparation for next year. We then visited the council - to arrange skips for the debris - and agreed a time for the local press to visit the site. The police had suggested that we ring those allotment holders whose sheds had been entered - but not set alight - to see if anything had been stolen. During these calls, Mr TB's neighbouring plotholder said he would be more than happy to share his shed - and any of his tools - with Mr TB. As we explained to the police, the allotments are not just a leisure facility for our more mature members but a central part of their day to day existence, around which the rest of their lives are organised.
We have learned from past experience not to lock our sheds. We live with the fact that we get occasional night visitors who rifle through the contents. If the doors are locked they rip them off in the belief that something valuable is stored within. Nothing ever is, as we take our better equipment home with us, but a door torn from its hinges takes more repairing than one left swinging in the wind. For us it was not just the loss of the shed itself and its contents but all the other things around it that were ruined by the heat. You can see at the top of the picture above how the heat melted not only the adjacent waterbutt - standing on the bricks to the left - but the plastic dustbins alongside it and all three of our compost bins. Si' was looking forward to a few days working in the orchard this holiday but, after the skips arrived on Thursday, we spent two days barrowing all the debris into them. Just as we'd started yesterday, I could see Si' talking to a man and a little boy just inside the gate. I thought that they were there to ask about an allotment but it turned out that he'd come to offer us a shed - if we wanted it - and also some tools, having read about our plight in the local press.Talk about restoring one's faith in human nature! After that we had a constant stream of people all day coming up to give us their support, including the man and his little boy again, this time with arms full of tools. They left with the promise of allotment bounty in exchange! We didn't see the article in the paper until we got home. I'd deliberately contacted Chris - the journalist who wrote the article - as we'd worked together when I was Press Officer at the school and I knew he would deal with the issue sensitively. He did not disappoint us. It's a bit of a shock to see yourself as front page news but if it has helped to raise public awareness and to encourage plotholders on our own and other allotments in the area to be more vigilant, then so much the better. When Andy - the photographer - asked if we could stand in the middle of the debris to have our pictures taken, I asked him if this was to create a visual metaphor; that of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Because we have absolutely no intention of letting this dent our spirits or forcing us to give up. Albert Camus once said, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger". And he was absolutely right!