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 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 a horticultural college in the market town of Biggleswade, just off the A1 in Bedfordshire. Amid the bursts of cow parsley, the thatched wisteria-laden cottages and country pubs, life proceeds at a different pace from that in London and Cambridge which are both an hour or so away. And certainly the students come because of this; the peace, the great outdoors and the happiness they bring.
My father Paul, 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 weather-beaten hands splice and prune, noticing the earth beneath his fingernails.
I talk to Ross as he snips a juvenile fig into shape. Currently he lives with his girlfriend at her parents, they’re saving up 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. Now she’s leaving a job on the tills at a supermarket to concentrate on her growing gardening business. “I’m scraping a living,” she admits with a laugh. “But then I think to myself, I’d rather be out here. 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!’”
A little later we stroll through the walled garden. Bees hum above the pelargoniums. 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 the police inspector – Duncan – who for 30 years has been responsible for manning this county’s police force control room. He nods.
“I always wanted to be a farmer,” Duncan adds with a whimsical smile. “I’m nearing retirement now, and 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 among the white currants to search for greenfly. I fall into step beside Amber, 29, a theatre lighting engineer looking for an alternative career as a garden designer. Work is 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, 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 contented. I want to be happier.”
On the way back to the entrance of the walled garden, we gather around a jasmine 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 them.” I imagine the insects fluttering in the dark, craving the perfumed flowers, drinking them in like evening cocktails.
Afterwards we all shake hands near the potting shed, everyone a little sunburnt. They all have earth beneath their fingernails.
This essay was first broadcast on 19th August 2018 on BBC Radio 4. You can listen here.