Interview with Terry Walton
STEVE CHILCOTT went to meet Terry Walton, the Welsh allotmenteer who has a cult following on BBC Radio 2
STEVE CHILCOTT went to meet Terry Walton, the Welsh allotmenteer who has a cult following on BBC Radio 2
Terry Walton is the man with the unlikely soubriquet ‘Radio 2 Jeremy Vine Show Allotmenteer’ and, being something of a fan, I was really looking forward to a CS assignment to talk vegetables with the nation’s favourite five-a-day phenomenon!Terry was waiting for me in the road outside his tidy modern semi in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales – and greeted me with a big smile and those mellifluous Welsh vowels so familiar after some five years’ worth of quirky radio broadcasting. We sat down on the patio, in brilliant sunshine, with a freshly-brewed pot of tea, overlooking a delightfully packed and immaculate garden with the green Welsh hills beyond ... and Terry kicked proceedings straight into overdrive.
GARDEN HEAVEN“I love this. Two days of sun and this garden will be heaven! I’ve got a slide presentation I do for my talks – I did one a couple of weeks ago in Lincoln – and I’ve got this in peak summer. It really is beautiful. “I don’t use any slug pellets here in this garden because I don’t want to harm the frogs living in my pond. I come out at night with a torch and two kitchen knives and I kill them – the slugs, that is! Shine them right in the eyes …and as they blink I stab them right in the heart …then I sling them in the garden and let them shrivel up! The small ones I put in the goldfish pond!“Under the cloches, where I’ve got my tender stuff, I still use the mini blues, but once they’re growing I don’t care. A couple of holes are neither here nor there!”Terry said that up behind the allotment there is a vast expanse of mountainside that’s always damp. “I suspect the slugs just get sick of grazing on the rough pasture up there and decide to charge down in the summer for a good feed, like raiding parties off the hillside! You can almost see the rustling in the grass as word gets round that you’ve just planted your lettuces.“The little greenhouse is my driver; I mostly grow flowers down here. I don’t have a polytunnel – on the allotment it’s too windy. I grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers under glass and everything else out in the open air. There’s just the greenhouse and my shed. My father bought it a few years before he died. I had an old wooden one I made myself at one time, but when he died I brought it over there, so I had a posh shed!’ You’ve got a nice lot of bees hereYes that’s campanula … a nice open flower; easy to get the nectar. It’s loaded with them. Bees love blue. Somebody once told me never to go down to the hives wearing jeans – works them up to a complete frenzy!See the yellow flowers there open in the sun? That’s the poached-egg plant, Limnanthes douglasii. They love it as well because it’s a nice open flower for pollination. I dot things around especially to attract the bees.
We’re getting these terrible stories about the decline in bees …Bees are up this year actually, bumbles in particular. Bumbles are the best of the lot because they can pollinate deep-throated plants like runners. The honeybee cuts through the back of the plant and gets the pollen that way, whereas the bumblebee pollinates correctly. There are about 20 different kinds of bumble…Runners need bees to pollinate them, and in wet, windy conditions there is often a heavy drop of flowers that can cover the base of the plants with a rich red carpet. French beans, on the other hand, are self-pollinating and so every flower will form a bean, and, even though they don’t bloom as prolifically as runners, the eventual crop is often heavier.So tell me how this all started…I was 37 years in industry. Started off as an engineer, worked my way up to management and ended up as managing director. We made scientific instruments, the ones used in labs to analyse the breakdown of various chemical compounds.I loved my job, but used to leave work and hotfoot it down to the allotment as an antidote to the day’s confinement. Gardening’s my psychotherapist, my stress-buster!I took my first allotment in 1957. I was an 11-year-old boy. My father kept his going while I took mine on and they all sort of tut-tutted! Everyone was growing for food and this young boy was taking up the plot, which shouldn’t be done! These were retired guys; no females were allowed in through the gate in those days. Wives came up on rare occasions to collect fruit and that’s about all! All guys in their 60s, tall, waistcoats, flat caps, moustaches…in those days everyone was waiting for a plot!I did my paper round and this was a way of making a bit on the side, totally contrary to the allotment rules! The allotment law (1) says you can’t sell anything; you can give it away or you can share it with friends and family, but not for commercial gain. You can swap, and trade…In the early 60s, with my Beatle-haircut, my number of allotments went from one to ten. As people gave them up I grew more and more. There was just no demand for them, so I took them on. I was in school and came up and tended them in the evenings; I only grew summer vegetables then, harvesting beans, potatoes, cabbage, carrots…In those days tomatoes would come in from Guernsey, so I’d get these wooden boxes from the local greengrocer’s and, on a Friday night, I’d put up the orders for all my customers…”
So you were selling it?Well, I had a large deposit on the box! Good bit of enterprise … but we’d better not print that!I reckon I was the founder of the box system, although nobody will substantiate that!In ’64, at the age of 18, with the profits I’d made from the allotments, I bought my first car, a new three-gear Ford Popular, for £300! She was bright, canary yellow!
How did the Jeremy Vine thing come about?This was about five years ago. Jeremy had just taken over from Jimmy Young. He did this feature at the end of the programme called ‘Your Money or Your Life’ and he did an hour on allotments. As a townie he couldn’t believe there could possibly be so much interest in the subject! At the end, he said, a bit tongue-in-cheek, ‘Does anyone want any allotments adopted?’My wife listens to the show and she said: “Hey, Jeremy Vine did a thing about adopting allotments today – why don’t you write in?’I wrote a humorous email to the show. They came back about two weeks later, but I thought it was a practical joke from a mate of mine. Hundreds of people had phoned in and two, weeks later they interviewed me! Four weeks later, the producer Phil Jones rang to say he had shortlisted me down to the last five! Could I cope? ‘No awkward silences please … can you do it? …Right, you’re ON, this Friday live!’Must be a big leap of faith to ask someone who was never trained as a broadcaster: ‘Can you do it?’ ‘Yep’, ‘OK, here’s the microphone!’Yes, but I love it! Radio is real. TV you do a lot of false things to set it up.I think it must have gone well because I’m still here five years on; I’ve got the original tape somewhere.Normally I go up in the morning and set up the props, talk to the researcher and tell her what’s going on. At 11.30am I listen when Jeremy talks to Ken Bruce and see what has stuck in his mind; we’ve got a fair chance that that’s what’s going to come out! I concentrate on that. Doesn’t always work! Jeremy likes to decide spontaneously – he selects the topics – but he can catch you out sometimes! Fortunately I can think on my feet!
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Have you ever stood on your phone or dropped it in a bucket?One time I was earthing up potatoes and I dropped the phone in the furrow and couldn’t find it! Just went dead on air! I said: “Jeremy, you owe me a new mobile phone – this one’s full of earth!”One other time I was pulling sweetcorn, and when I jammed the phone into a plant to hold it I pressed the ‘hold’ and everything went dead. All you could hear on the radio was: “Terry where are you? Terry you’ve switched us off! Terry, what’s going on?”The spot varies from seven minutes to about 20 minutes, sometimes an hour-long ‘special’.We did one with Jimmy, from ‘Jimmy’s Farm’, and we said we’d do it again sometime. He’s a lovely lad! Got on like a house on fire! He was talking from the livestock point of view and I was talking about the growing. It’s the only time I’ve been in the studio; the rest has been done juggling, one-handed, on the mobile!I’ve done loads of television now too, all because of the radio show. We did 10 shows for BBC 2 called The Big Dig, and eight programmes for HTV Wales called Going to Seed. Chelsea a few weeks ago with Alan Titchmarsh. I did GMTV recently for a couple of hours, I Love Wales, and one called Grassroots …What I don’t want to do is move away from the gardening. If I can’t do what I’m doing now – go to my allotment most days -– what’s the point? I love the gardening, and that has to be number one priority.
You talk about these Italian seeds on the show…Yeah, this guy turned up with a carrier bag full of Italian seeds, so I’m growing a load of weird Italian plants now. I can’t remember the names – I’ve got to look at the packets. Some, admittedly, are only fancy names for stuff like lettuce, spinach and radish. Standard vegetables really…If you go into street markets in Southern France you see strange onion varieties or bean varieties and you’ve no idea what they are...I love going abroad and going to the markets. Abroad they grow all sorts – a lot of sweet potatoes, for example; well you’d struggle to grow sweet potatoes in the UK. You can, but you’d struggle.I’m growing a traditional potato variety called Mr Little’s Yetholm Gypsy, which is red, white and blue apparently, when you cut through the middle, and I think they stay that colour when you cook them!A lot of vegetables you grow dark and the colour disappears when you cook them. I grew black French beans one year just for the variety in colour, but disappointingly they went green when we cooked them…
What about tomatoes; black tomatoes? They don’t excite me very much! They stay black! There’s two in there actually (pointing towards the small aluminium greenhouse below us). Somebody who listens to Jeremy Vine in America, online, got hold of my address and sent me a load of American seeds. I got some sweet American pumpkin, some spaghetti squashes and some black tomatoes…
What about the book?As a result of the radio show, I was asked to go to the Abergavenny Food and Wine Festival and do a talk. That was three years ago. Jeanette Orrey, the Jamie Oliver dinner lady, was there. She’d just done a book and her publisher was there, Transworld Books. “There’s a book here,” they said, and they sent me a synopsis: 85,000 words. So I decided upon 12 chapters, 12 topical tips and 12 recipes from Anthea, my wife. It’s a sort of autobiography and took me a year to write. The hardback has sold about 10,000 copies, which is pretty good; the hardback came out a year last April, and it has just come out this April.They’ve asked me back to the festival again this September, which is great.
Has Jeremy been down here to see you?Yes, twice. They did one party political broadcast down here. They toured the country for the election and he started in Scotland, went to Manchester, came to Cardiff, and when he was here he came up to the allotments and interviewed the prospective candidates for the Rhondda … on my plot! He really gave them a grilling about the politics of education and then he floored them with his last question. He said: “Terry is going to vote for you in the Rhondda; what are you going to do for his allotment?” They just waffled an answer!
He’s a good journalist isn’t he? He stirs it. But he has a good sense of humour; he has the human touch…He’s a very sharp cookie. He picks up on things very quickly.
So how did he turn out to be in terms of growing? Well, let’s just say his lack of gardening knowledge makes the combination work! His mother-in-law is a fantastic gardener, down near Sidmouth in Devon. His wife is a Devonian. I’ve done several hundred broadcasts, but I’m still always very tense … until the adrenaline starts flowing! The first time I hear the show is when I come home and play ‘listen again’! Sometimes I can’t hear what he’s saying. I’ve got the phone down there and I’m fiddling with something up here. Sometimes I text him and say “I’m sorry I just didn’t hear what you said there!” He always texts me back and tells me what he thought of the show. He’s a real pro!I’ve never claimed to know all the answers. I’ve never considered myself to be an expert (a term I define as a combination of ‘ex’, someone who’s past it, and ‘spurt’, a drip under pressure) and would rather describe, myself as a practical gardener with 50 years experience.
ADDENDAQuotations from Terry’s delightful book My Life on a Hillside Allotment, published in both hardback and in paperback by Transworld Publishers/Bantam Press, at £12.99 and £9.99. Available through the CS Bookshop.Feedback please to email@example.com