The king of Quill Street allotments says goodbye to Islington
- Credit: Archant
A retired artist and gardener who campaigned to save a Finsbury Park allotment from developers is relocating to Cornish soil at Christmas.
Jack Rickards, 81, has lived in Blackstock Road with his wife Lucy for the past 30 years, during which time he’s been known to some as the “king” of Quill St allotment.
Jack was the long-standing chair of the Quill Street Allotment Association, and fought for it to be reopened in 1998, after the old site was closed in the 1980s.
“We are a democratic association,” said Jack. “But we still have to keep in line with the council and it has been very good to us over the years.
“It’s amazing to have this intense country in the middle of the big city – this is an oasis and the neighbours have always been extremely friendly and we can hand things over the fence.”
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The Gillespie Park allotments, where Jack and Lucy also shared a small plot, were closed when British Rail, which owned the land, was being put under pressure to sell-off land, including its Gillespie Park freehold.
But neighbours, including Jack, contested the plans and British Rail ended up selling its freehold to Islington Council.
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The land was then divided up between Gillespie Park, an extension to the Parkland Walk, the Quill Street Allotment and space on a new social housing development.
Jack and Lucy say the new allotment is a smaller, hillier version of the old Gillespie site.
Jack said it took a while to open the new space. “The person who was in charge at the time was very wary of the association and didn’t want troublesome allotment keepers,” he said. “Unfortunately this area was left derelict for years, until there was a dispute when we managed to get it back.”
He added that when the gardeners returned to the site there were electric cables trailing across the terrain, leading to a nearby house where squatters had been living.
The couple also complained they inherited “terrible” soil for the relaunched allotment, which had been mixed with concrete, iron and bits of plastic.
But Lucy said: “With the help of two tremendous local priests and support from our MP Jeremy Corbyn and councillors we tiled a workable fruit and vegetable allotment site.”
Jack and Lucy are currently growing rhubarb, rocket, onions, shallots, raspberries and Jerusalem artichokes in their allotment.
Their friend, Jackie Bodley, who also keeps an allotment, waded across the rhubarb leaves to say hello.
Jackie, 78, of Riversdale Road, said: “Jack and Lucy are absolutely wonderful and we use to call him the king of the allotment.
“They gave big harvest suppers around the time of the allotment association’s annual general meeting, where people everyone would bring their own produce they had grown and cooked.
“They were always really generous with their hospitality, which must have been difficult when there were 40 people in their kitchen.”
Jack grew and Lucy will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary later this year. They met while studying art at Reading University.
He went on to teach history of art at Northumbria University in the 1970s, then Newcastle Polytechnic, before moving to London.
Jack later had an “excellent” experience teaching ceramics at City and Islington college, and he said: “It’s a shame they no longer teach traditional crafts to students.”
They couple are soon moving to Bude, Cornwall, to live closer to their son Jim.
Reflected on his imminent departure from N4, Jack said: “We have been incredibly lucky to live in the beautiful neighbourhood of Finsbury Park, which has a perfect multicultural equilibrium.
“The community has been very kind to us and we will dearly miss living here.”
The current chair of the Quills Street Allotment Association, Annie Monaghan, also paid tribute to the pair. She told the Gazette: “Jack has done so much for the allotment gardens over the years and is such a well-known face to the community surrounding the gardens.
“He has been such an ambassador for the allotments. They are two very special people departing from Islington – a remarkable couple.”