A Farewell to Big Allotment Challenge: Reposted.

It was strange when it all came to an end. This lovely programme, which had enriched my summers for the past two years is done. It seems the joy of this gardening, flowery cooking programme has not caught the public’s imagination in the way other “challenge” shows have so we are to hang up our trugs and say a fond and sad farewell to Mapledurham.
To mark it’s passing I thought this week’s post should chart some of the highs and lows. I was working as a volunteer at University College Hospital when I was phoned by someone from Silver River, the production company who were making the programme, and asked if I would go and meet them.
A couple of interviews later I was told that I’d got the job as Eat judge on this new show. “The BBC think you have very strong hair” was one memorable phrase I took away from that conversation and it’s a phase that has rather stuck culminating in my hair having it’s own twitter account!
We filmed Big Allotment Challenge in the walled, and long unused, kitchen garden of Mapledurham house a post Jacobean mansion set on the river Thames just beyond Reading. A truly magical place,indeed  when I was asked how the gardeners found the strength to carry on the arduous schedule I’m sure the horror of leaving such an enchanted space had much to do with it.
So for two of the hottest summers on record I packed a case and travelled to Reading the evening before recording. A taxi would drop me at Paddington and having got my tickets I would wander over to pick up a Standard from the drop adjacent to the Cornish Pasty stand. I would mutter firmly to myself that I would not buy a pasty, not this week and yet within moments I’d be asking for a medium beef please.
Going to bed early was essential as I was usually in makeup at 7am, I owe looking as good as I did to Bridget who was and is a magician. Here I should say that seeing closeups of one’s wrinkles on a large screen TV is not for the faint hearted.
Made up and in costume, I never wear trousers so my clothing was a running joke, I’d hang around in our trailer being fed coffee and mini fingers of fudge by a team of delightful runners who’s job it was to do just that, run around looking after everyone.They would pop into Reading to buy me body lotion, pick up Fern’s lunch and generally run.
As our contestants soon found out filming is a long slow process with many many stops and starts.
Our location, whilst beautiful and very convenient for us London dwellers, was by a farm, on a stretch of river where cruisers sailed, close to a railway express line and under the flight path. This meant the soundmen constantly stopping recording for trains, boats and planes not to mention cattle trucks and various farm yard machinery. Frustrating for us and exhausting for our nervous gardeners.
The gardeners were amazing, skilled, dedicated fiercely competitive and great fun. We didn’t mix much with them on set as in competitions it’s important to be fair and not have favourites but we watched them and saw how they helped each other in a spirit of friendship forged over the 12 weeks they had garden together before we turned up.
Long hours, laughter, pinching tomatoes, runner beans and raspberries to nibble while we waited for takes, dark and perilous taxi journeys back to the hotel for desperately needed glasses of wine before bed and another obscenely early call. Happy Days
It was a delight to work with Fern again, rekindling a friendship that had started on Ready Steady Cook nearly 20 years before. Jim and Jonathan were good travelling companions and we shared many a laugh together in the bar at the MalMaison. The Silver River team were to a person lovely, lovely folk Sam and Mel, Emma, Cary too many to name, all delightful.
So it’s goodbye to wearing false eye lashes in the garden, goodbye to Great Western Railways Sunday night “service”, goodbye to tasting eighteen different pickles or jams and often trying not to wince, goodbye to the bacon buns Jonathan would bring me each morning as I left before the kitchens opened and goodbye to a lovely, warm and life enhancing time. Thank you all for sharing it.

P.S. My daughter and beloved grandchildren are home from Seattle so while I’ll miss BAC I will instead be enjoying picnics,trips to the swings, bath time and the joy two small children can bring. Who could says life is not fair!!




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