A few years back, I regularly flew to Amsterdam. From the Midlands there are two routes; from Birmingham, the planes track a thin scar, a line of running stitch above the M1, the M25, to the reflective meanders of the lower Thames estuary; or, from the East Midlands, heading out east, over first the Wash then the Waveney and down the Suffolk Coast, the glinting wind farms hover like mayfly above the surface of North Sea. Even from up high, you can see the silvery wakes of fishing boats. The glasshouses in the Fens glimmer and sparkle from up there too, more so as you descend down over the lowland, dune-ridden coast of Zuid Holland, over Zandvoord, Haarlem and Hoofddorp – there’s a stretch, just inland where the knobbly, tussocky grass gives way to endless glass. And my mind would always be filled with images of off-red under ripe winter Tomatoes, slightly grainy, crunchy even, courtesy of the assiduous Dutch.
Round here is much more mixed. Rolling land, fertile soils, here clay with beautiful cobbles where the land was once river, there dark loam, thick with centuries of leaf mould and ancestries of worms. About now we have swathes of oil seed rape, bright and pungent, but also stands of wheat that ripple in the breeze languorously, and dairy too – we’re not in the Netherlands, but you wouldn’t know it from the immigrant Friesians that plod and chew through these pastures. And despite ever more land given over to the floating trays of hydroponic strawberries, it’s definitely not greenhouse country. Most round here are like the one down on the village sports club. A semicircular structure, taught plastic film, not glass, that vibrates and buzzes when the wind blows just so, cost effectively constructed, hidden away in a corner. That greenhouse has yellowed with age, been patched or left, long grass grown around its feet like sock elastic gone limp. I assumed it was unused, unloved. Any radishes or carrots emerging from here would be leggy and odd shaped, surely?
But as I cut through the nettled footpath that brushes alongside it the other day, there were muffled grunts, chorused rumbles of gruff bass-voiced men and sudden sparks of shouting. A crime? A bizarre initiation? Stranger, a little further on there is a jerry-rigged frame of scaffold, wire and rope. I’d often wondered what it was – not industrial enough for an oil drill, too old for the frackers. Now, there was a thickly twined rope straining at a shabby concrete weight, lumps taken from the edges like a conglomerate loving dachshund.
The greenhouse in fact is nothing of the sort: it turns out that it is a rain cover. Underneath, a team of men, straining on a rope. “Keep it low” “Hold and heeeeave!”, pulling, lifting the weight, smoothly, in lengths of well-drilled backward stride. Here, in a curious circularity is the home of the coincidentally named Holland Tug of War Club. And this rather tatty greenhouse in the corner of a field is the training patch of the UK Outdoor Champions, not the vegetable patch of beetroot or lettuce.