Robert Thompson - meet Altrincham Market’s evergreen gardener
PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 June 2020
Robert Thompson learned to garden at his mother’s knee during the war years. Today, the 83-year-old is still producing good things to eat and pretty things to see
Born in 1937, when civilians were being encouraged to turn over their gardens to reduce Britain’s reliance on imported food, Robert Thompson was one of five little mouths to feed. Growing up in Nottingham, he lost his father during the war and his mother Olive took to growing potatoes, onions, carrots, marrows and salad in the back garden of their vicarage home to feed the family, after marrying her second husband who was a vicar.
“We all got involved by watering and picking off caterpillars,” Robert says. Later, the now-confirmed gardening enthusiast started perfecting his art, but it was more than half a century later that his hobby became a late-flowering career. “I’ve always been interested in gardening,” says Robert, who now lives minutes away from Altrincham Market. “But it took a back seat when I started my own business as a kitchen designer, and it never really took off again until my daughter Jen asked if I would be interested in helping out in the garden at Atlas Bar in Manchester, which she then ran. It was very different, planting everything in pots, but I loved it.”
When Jen and her partner Nick Johnson took over Altrincham Market in 2013, they asked Robert for a helping hand. The plan was to grow vegetables that could be used in Market House, a now multi-award-winning indoor food hall filled with six eclectic kitchens, a coffee shop, chocolatier, a wine shop and a bar. “I set about filling those deep, recycled silver tubs with potato plants, tomato plants, carrots, beetroot, cabbages and herbs,” Robert says. “For the first time I had to think about what other people would like, so I tried to choose varieties that were not only tasty, but interesting to look at, too.”
Robert spent his Mondays, when the market is closed, watering and pruning his plants and growing a veritable greengrocery of vegetables, as well as edible flowers such as nasturtiums. The following year he filled an additional 10 tubs at Altrincham Market and 10 more at Manchester food hall Mackie Mayor, which was also overhauled and reimagined by Jen and Nick.
But finding a balance between his ordered approach to gardening and the slightly more ‘chaotic’ style of his daughter has proved a challenge. “For example, this year I had all my spinach organised in neat little rows, and thanks to her, all of a sudden these big pink tulips started popping up, right in the middle of my spinach patch,” he laughs. “I have to admit I sulk a bit when we have to let leeks go to seed for the flowers, which look just like alliums. We’ve reached a compromise now though, and as long as we get to eat two-thirds of it, I feel all right about it. Most of my garden and the market garden is now full of things you can eat, and it looks really pretty.” The Government’s lockdown has left Robert ‘in a bit of a pickle’, surrounded by produce that has nowhere to go. Thinking of one of his six grandchildren, 12-year-old Kitt, who was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome at the age of five, Robert potted up some of his vegetables and flowering plants in exchange for a £10 donation to Didsbury-based charity Reverse Rett. Rett syndrome is a neurological condition that can strike healthy little girls, leaving them with multiple disabilities for life. Kitt is no longer able to talk, walk unaided, go to school or play with friends. “All the things kids her age do,” Robert says. “It’s extremely hard to get hold of plants at the moment, so in my 83rd birthday week in mid-April, I decided to raise some money by selling useful plants – a tasty collection of three garden vegetables and two beneficial flower plants. I also planted up some boxes containing tomatoes, a courgette, a bush sunflower and a calendula and asked for a £10 donation for each pack. I’ve managed to raise about £500 so far. Charities for rare conditions really struggle to raise money, and I’m 100 per cent behind this one because every single penny raised goes into research.” And the secret to market gardening success? “You just need patience and a little bit of TLC,” he says. “Yes, it can be time-consuming, particularly in the summer when everything needs watering, but I love it; it’s always been a fun thing – even now at 83; it makes people smile. And it fits in with what the market is all about. It’s people and nature coming together.” u
To donate to Reverse Rett, go to justgiving.com/campaign/ReverseRettResilienceAppeal. Altrincham Market is currently offering a pre-order system where customers can order for pickup in a designated time slot.