THE BIG INTERVIEW: Plotting a plan for modern gardeners

Swindon Advertiser: Andy Laker Andy Laker

“FULFILMENT is a massive thing,” said Andy Laker with the passion of a true gardener.

“You plant a seed, you walk away and after a week you come back and you see the seedlings sprouting up. It’s a wow factor – I’ve done that, I chose the seeds, I made sure that the soil was right.

“It’s a magnificent feeling when you get any produce that you’ve pulled out of the ground, or when you have an entire salad that comes from your space and you know exactly how it was grown.”

Andy has been passionate about gardening since childhood, and the same goes for entrepreneurship. The passion for teaching, just as strong if not stronger, came later.

Andy was born in Bristol and grew up in the nearby village of Wickwar. His father, George, ran a vending machine business and his mother, Jessicia, was a nurse. Andy is one of three siblings – his brother is an RAF officer and his sister works at WH Smith’s Swindon distribution centre.

His early ambition? “I wanted to be a businessman. I think I was very driven by the motivation of money. I’ve changed now.

“It was just being independent. I wasn’t quite the same as some of my peers in terms of getting handouts. I discovered early on that if I wanted something I was going to have to earn it.

“I started a car washing round and ran that successfully for a few years.

“I found a lot of my friends were getting part-time jobs, but being independent was better and far more rewarding.”

Other early enterprises included a brokerage service for football sticker collectors needing to complete their collections and making fluorescent bracelets – there was a fad for them at his school – from brightly-coloured shoelaces. Running parallel to this was a love of tending the large garden of the family home. He first did this with father, but after his parents split up, Andy worked on the plot himself.

“I just kept going with it to the point where I used to keep chickens and ducks. I would sell a lot of produce at the top of the road, just with a sign.

“People would come and knock on the door and ask for a pound of beetroot and I’d go and take it out of the ground. I just loved trying to grow new things.”

Leaving school, he worked for a year with a chain of newsagents and became an assistant manager, then headed to Swindon College for an HND in business and finance which he later upgraded to a degree in business enterprise at Wolverhampton.

He considered teaching while still at university but dismissed the idea through a lack of confidence and instead took a job with Cellular Operations, mainly in web design.

“To a certain extent I found it rewarding but I discovered that it was not quite enough for me.”

After two years Andy booked several weeks off work and went to Barcelona for a stint teaching English. He enjoyed it so much that on returning to England he dusted off his old plans for a teaching career and went to Gloucester and Cheltenham University for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education.

He had found his vocation, and has now been a teacher for a dozen years. The last eight have been at Dorcan, where he heads ICT and Business.

“I always describe it as accidentally falling in love with teaching,” he said. “There are some lessons that I walk away from and I’m on a massive mental high. You feel you’ve achieved something, given something. There’s no greater feeling. That’s why teachers are teachers.

He has no ambition to move into very senior roles. “I have a philosophy that teachers who move up fast are not necessarily good teachers. Some are but some clearly are career-driven, and a career-driven teacher is a dangerous person to have high up the hierarchy.”

My Patch happened because Andy’s early love of gardening never left him. Instead it lay dormant until he had a garden once more, but the gardens of most modern houses, including his own, don’t have enough space for the dedicated grower.

“I wanted an allotment, but when I saw the waiting list my heart sank. Then I thought, ‘Hang on, I can do something about this.’ I knew it wouldn’t be a massive hard-and-fast business, but it would be a massive opportunity to combine a passion, start a business and hopefully solve a problem.”

With rates starting at about £30 a month for a smaller plot and rising to about £50 for a larger one, My Patch is intended to be affordable but to attract people with a real enthusiasm to work the land. Water stations and excellent security are also part of the deal.

For Andy there’s also another priority: doing his best to ensure the land will always be used to grow things. Plots are divided in such a way as to make the land fiendishly difficult for developers who might eye it in years and decades to come.

“It was quite horrifying when I started doing research and discovered that most of the land was already owned by developers. I’m hoping to build a community down there.”

The My Patch website is mypatchswindon.co.uk

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