Surrounded by shears, shovels and watering cans, Ron Algar is clearly surprised by the success of the recent garden tool amnesty called by the Meersbrook Park Users Trust.
“They did something on the internet and the tools came pouring in,” he said with delight. “Every time we came in there’d be a pile of tools on the floor – and they’re still coming!”
Naomi Brent and ‘other half’ Kaktus (you only need one name, he says) put the word out a couple of months ago and over 100 assorted garden tools have since arrived at Meersbrook Park’s Community Walled Garden, many donated by former collectors from Woodseats Allotment Society.
Ranging from a 150-year-old scythe to 1920s gardening books, the aim of the Meersbrook Park Users Trust is to collect any old tools and gardening equipment to form a gardening museum in the Walled Garden’s old messroom.
“We’re going to call it the Messroom Museum when we get the sign done,” said Ron at the museum’s official opening ceremony last Sunday, performed by local gardener Roy Platts, former deputy training manager for Sheffield Council’s gardeners at Meersbrook, whose team was based at the walled garden for many years.
In his opening speech. Roy recalled the days when up to 50 students and apprentices would be learning the gardening trade at Meersbrook.
“We had people coming to see how it was done from as far away as Brighton and Inverness, and I remember I’d work unpaid over the weekend to ensure there wasn’t a weed in the place when they arrived.”
Apprenticeships have now disappeared, he bemoaned, thanks to the “economic scalpel of a service run by accountants rather than gardeners.”
Nevertheless, he was pleased to see new life in the Walled Garden, restored by volunteers of the Trust over the last 12 years.
“This was a dumping ground, there was a rubbish tip over there and this greenhouse was completely wrecked,” said Naomi Brent of the Trust, as she glanced round from the new herb garden, restored by Trust volunteers and Heeley City Farm.
“The bushes were so big that every now and then when we were clearing it out, we’d come across something like the gingko tree and say, ‘Oh I didn’t know we had one of those’.”
Roy Platts was clearly impressed and described the restored garden as being like a phoenix, albeit still with a few more weeds than he remembered from his retirement in the 1990s.
Inside the museum, he cast his expert eye on the tools currently on display: the steel forged bulb planter, which scoops up a plug of soil for the canny gardener to kick back over the previous bulb without troubling to bend down. “A simple technique but it works,” he said.
Shovels and forks of all shapes and scythes, in the past sharpened in five stages from coarse carborundum to leather. “I once worked with an Irishman who was able to cut a bowling green with his scythe,” said Roy.
Hoes, pushed and pulled by the English, pushed only by the Dutch due to their finer soil, said Roy, and metal watering cans of all sizes.
“I saw modern versions of those fetching 60 quid at Harrogate show,” he said. “Of course they’re prepared to pay that in Harrogate, whether you’d get that in Sheffield is another story.”
“We’d better chain them down anyway,” said Ron Algar.
Ron then produced a small concrete box and a story to go with it.
“This old gent, well into his 80s, six and a half stone stone wet through, arrived with his rucksack, and said, ‘I reckon you’re collecting tools lad? Well help me off with this’. And he got out this heavy concrete lantern which he’d found in the rubble of Lees Hall Farm when it was demolished nearly 50 years ago. We could only think it was used in the war when steel was at a premium but the farmer would still have to light up his barn, so they fashioned a lantern out of concrete.”
“Shall I tell you what it is?” said Roy. “It’s a German bird box, made out of special concrete, but without the front panel with the hole. Once the sliding front panel went missing, they were sometimes used for candles, like this one.”
Ron was delighted. “Everyone adds to the story, so this has got two stories now,” he said.
“We want people to come down and say: ‘I haven’t got a clue what this is, but it’s old’ and then someone else will come down and say: ‘I remember them, when I were a lad my dad used to use them on his allotment’, or ‘that one there is used for… so and so’. The museum is an ongoing project, this is not the end, this is the beginning.”
lIf you have old gardening tools, clothing or equipment, contact the project on: Sheffield 2810423 or firstname.lastname@example.org The team are particularly looking out for spades, trowels and knives at present.
Alternatively drop in to see them and the museum at Meersbrook Community Walled Garden on Mondays between 10am and 4pm or Friday mornings from 9.30am.
The Trust also hold open days on the first Sunday of every month, usually with a special theme: August 7 is the Peace Picnic, September 4 is tomato and chilli day, and October 2 is apple day.