Sentimental journey to North Roe

The Shetland garden dedicated to raising awareness of motor neurone disease which won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show inspired a pilgrimage to the isles recently.

The garden is now in its new home in North Roe, and Michael Bassey from Nottinghamshire decided to visit as a tribute to his late wife Penny, who died of the disease two months after the Chelsea show.

The Basseys had already seen the garden when they went to the show as guests of designer Martin Anderson from Not­tingham, who created it after being inspired during a holiday in Shetland. He had seen plants flourishing in the lee of dykes and plantiecrubs and was struck by the parallel with the Motor Neurone Disease Association, an organisation he helped to found, which offers shelter to sufferers.

A DVD has now been made by Shetland film company Digital Imagineering of the story of the garden and all proceeds will go to support the work of MND associations.

Michael Bassey made his first trip to Shetland in November. Here he describes his impres­sions and his quest to find the garden.

“I’D like you to come to the Chelsea Flower Show as part of the MND Shetland Croft Garden exhibit and meet the Queen.”

It was Martin Anderson, a founder of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, inviting my wife Penny and I. She had been diagnosed with MND four years earlier. As described in the just-released DVD the exhibit won a gold medal – and the plants were returned to Shetland and the croft and garden reconstructed.

Penny died in July, two months after Chelsea. As part of my grieving I came to Shetland, my first visit, in November. I stayed at the welcoming Sumburgh Hotel in a comfortable room with four-poster bed and views west across the West Voe, south to Sumburgh Head and lighthouse and north-west to the fascinating archaeological site of Jarlshof, topped by the “Auld Hoose o’Sumburgh”.

There was snow overnight, but the weather forecast wasn’t too bleak so I had the cooked breakfast to stoke me up and set forth – a strong wind hit me as I walked to the car. The road had been gritted overnight and seemed safe – at 76 I’m not a speed merchant.

The landscape was beautiful and the snow enhanced it as I drove north towards Lerwick. Gentle slopes with low hills and shallow valleys, few houses, some sheep and Shetland ponies. Few cars. No trees. Glimpses of the sea to the east. After an hour I arrived at Lerwick and I found my way to the recently-opened Shetland Museum.

How awful for the Picts, I thought, having lived here for generations and peacefully farmed and fished from the shore to eke out an existence against the raw elements of nature, to be slaughtered by incoming Vikings. A curator said I must buy The Shetland Times. (“Everybody here reads it on Friday”). As recom­mended in it I bought Jonathan Wills’ Wilma Widdershins and da Muckle Tree and Sharon Tregenza’s Tarantula Tide for my grandchildren – and enjoyed reading them myself.

The Shetland Fudge Shop provided my Christmas presents and at the tourist office I asked where the Shetland croft garden was relocated. Maree Hay looks after it and I was given a map with North Roe ringed.

I wasn’t sure about driving that far but on my last day I checked the weather forecast and set off.

Looking at the map some of the names reflect the austere glory of the land: Hill of Skurron, Whaa Field, Petta Dale, Punds Water. A large billboard said “Welcome to Northmavine” and nearby was a road sign “Otters crossing”.

After a long stretch of bleak but beautiful countryside – peat bogs and moorland with a few sheep and the road winding on and on – I saw a signpost ‘Ollaberry Stores – one mile’. I turned off and asked the ladies there if they knew Maree. They were helpful and tried to telephone her, but in vain.

I continued north for another five miles on the single track road. Where is North Roe, will I ever get there? Round corners, down past sea inlets, no habitation, not even animals.

At last a small hamlet. At Ollaberry they had said the garden is behind the church. There was a church and a few scattered houses – but no way to the back of it. I tried to ask at a house but the only occupants were two dogs who barked fiercely (from inside fortunately).

Should I turn back or try a bit further on? Watching the sky anxiously for bad weather, I saw a small primary school. Iwent in, apologising for interrupting a violin lesson. They were most helpful. “It’s behind that wall over there.” And it was – behind a second church. Such a small community – how can there be two churches?

Inside a walled enclosure was the Chelsea Flower Show croft, with drift wood fence and wintering plants. For the first time this week I wept, thinking of Penny in May, in her wheelchair in front of the croft at Chelsea.

A car drew up. It was Maree, who’d been told that someone was looking for her, friendly, lively and so enthusiastic for her work here. She sees it as a step to community development, involv­ing local people. It was the intended graveyard for the church but since the ground is solid rock it hadn’t been used. She’s had to bring in soil to grow her plants.

The garden is at an early stage – but I was so glad to see the croft standing there. Maree hopes to raise funds for both developing the garden and supporting the MND Association. I gave her a donation for
plants for the garden. She gave me a hug, and drove off.

Back home I kissed Penny’s photograph. I’m proud that the DVD is dedicated to her. My pilgrimage to Shetland had hallowed her memory and I said a prayer of thanks.


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