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A memoir of Beekeeping and Gardening

11th May 2018

Letters to a Beekeeper by Steve Benbow and Alys Fowler – a memoir of Beekeeping and Gardening.

Letters to a Beekeeper is a quite beautiful coffee table memoir written by Steve Benbow, founder of the The London Honey Company, and Alys Fowler, gardening writer and author of a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper. It describes a year in their lives as Steve (with Alys mentoring) sets up a pollinator friendly garden at Tate Britain in London, and Alys (with Steve mentoring) takes up beekeeping at her allotment in Birmingham.

I am, I confess, both a beekeeper and a gardener, which perhaps makes me a tad biased – but Letters to a Beekeeper is one of most delightful books I have read in quite a while. It is beautifully illustrated with Steve’s photographs and reproductions of the letters they wrote to each other (one on a runner bean with a stamp on it!). It is also, most importantly, chock full of fascinating facts and anecdotes about both beekeeping and gardening. There is a lot to learn, and they are both brilliant communicators.

A memoir of Beekeeping and Gardening

Steve Benbow (with Teal) at the Hexham Book Festival

I recently went to see Steve Benbow (and his dog, Teal) at the Hexham Book Festival. Steve has a fascinating tale to tell. A few years’ ago he was homeless in London, and he set up his first hive on the roof of a squat where he was living. He progressed to living (with his expanding colonies of bees) in a damp warehouse in Bermondsey. And now has hives on the roofs of Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Fortnum & Mason, The National Portrait Gallery, and Somerset House – he looks after the apiary at Highgrove House (the country house of Prince Charles), and lives happily in a proper home with a bee friendly garden in Hackney. Oh, and produces and sells some quite exceptional honey.

Steve and Alys met when they were on a stage together, promoting their individual books, at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years back. It was ‘love at first sight’ (well, not actually – Alys had come out as gay, and Steve has since found his life partner…). But they are absolutely best mates. And it shows in the letters they write each other. They are witty, sad, informative, and occasionally frustrated. Steve doesn’t always look after the garden at Tate Britain as he ought to and Alys (because Steve is so busy) doesn’t always get the support she needs as a new beekeeper. But somehow they get through the year without too many disasters.

This is clearly a book that appeals particularly to the Beekeeping and Gardening communities – but it is a story of friendship and shared endeavour that should have a much wider audience. Highly recommended.

Tony for the TripFiction team

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