My countryside: Alys Fowler
Idyllic days by Hampshire chalk streams as a child have given the gardening presenter a taste for English countryside wild swimming
'Life took place around the kitchen table in my childhood home. My parents had a large vegetable patch, so there was an abundance of food. I’d sit and shell what seemed like vast piles of beans and peas, while my mum made jam and chutney. She was always experimenting with flavours. Now I make my own preserves, stewing ripe berries with sugar, and crushing chillies with salt and vinegar to form homemade Tabasco. It’s incredibly satisfying.
'One of my earliest memories of the countryside is paddling around in chalk streams near our home in Silchester in Hampshire. They bordered farmland and a wood, and I would spend hours there with our springer spaniel, while my siblings Rebecca and Jonny, who were a lot older than me, built tree houses. My parents never worried about my whereabouts because the dog knew when to head back for dinner, and I knew to follow her.
'That love of water is something I still have and I regularly go wild swimming. The River Stour in Stratford-upon-Avon is my favourite spot and it’s just a short train journey from Birmingham, where I now live. Chucking yourself into cold water is thrilling, and I enjoy being outside of regimented public pools and surrounded by nature – you can look up at the sky and interact with the birds and insects.
'I live in a city, so my garden and allotment are a rural idyll of sorts that I can experience every day. They’re such wonderful places to get lost in. I keep herbs and salads at home because they need the most attention, and vegetables including garlic and cabbages at the allotment. I’m very slapdash in my approach to growing and don’t dig down, but build up, creating mounds of earth to plant into. This method aids water drainage and is cheaper than installing wooden beds. I’m also trialling using manure from a nearby stable to increase soil temperature and extend the sowing season – hopefully it will help to combat the unpredictable weather we’ve been having.
'Like most of us, I’ve had my fair share of horticultural disasters. I’ll never forget the time my salad crop was decimated by a freak April hailstorm – I could only watch from a window as every lettuce leaf got flattened. Now I grow a diversity of plants so I have some alternatives to fall back on. Blight-free potatoes and perennials such as globe artichokes, which have an extensive root system, are reliable options.
'What I can’t grow, I buy from independent shops and farmers’ markets. Each mouthful we eat has an impact on the way in which British agriculture develops and the increase in the number of farms being run for supermarkets is something that worries me. I don’t think everyone should grow their own necessarily, but being an informed and responsible consumer is important.
'I believe too many people use living in an urban area as an excuse to not follow a green lifestyle; there is a wealth of nature in our cities. In Birmingham, I probably have access to more parks and public spaces than I would if I lived in the countryside, surrounded by private farmland. I don’t even need to leave the town to forage: not far from my doorstep I can pick almonds, Oregon grapes, Japanese quince and walnuts – ornamental species you’d struggle to find in rural areas. I gathered so many chestnuts one year that I had enough to grind into nut flour, which made delicious biscuits.
'We’re fortunate to have such wonderful countryside to explore. I moved to the Midlands five years ago but am still discovering new places. I like to take a train from Birmingham to Stratford and stop off at the tiny rural stations on the way; I try a different one each time. I’ll go for a walk, sometimes taking my husband and dog with me. Somehow, having to stick to a railway timetable to get home makes it all the more of an adventure.'
'Abundance: How to Store and Preserve Your Garden Produce' by Alys Fowler (Kyle Books, £16.99) is out now. To order a copy for just £12.99 with free p&p, call 0871 803 6764 or visit allaboutyoubookshop.co.uk