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Bryony Hill on the loss of husband Jimmy and the healing power of growing and cooking your own

PUBLISHED: 10:37 19 March 2019 | UPDATED: 15:10 19 March 2019

Bryony Hill in her garden

Bryony Hill in her garden

Archant

When Match of the Day presenter Jimmy Hill succumbed to dementia, his wife Bryony determined not to fade with him. She reflects on the healing power of growing and cooking your own

When Bryony Hill reluctantly accepted that her husband Jimmy, the much-loved former footballer and sports presenter, needed full-time nursing care for his Alzheimer’s disease, she was faced with the stark reality of living on her own for the first time in nearly 40 years.

“As I was no longer cooking for two, it would have been so easy to rely on sandwiches and fall victim to what my mother, a nurse during World War II, called ‘bread and butter anaemia’,” she says.

But she determined not to buckle, and resolved that she would cook food for herself the way her mother had done when her father died.

Bryony also threw herself, with renewed vigour, into nurturing her own seasonal produce on the two-acre plot she had cultivated behind her 14th-century cottage on the outskirts of Hurstpierpoint in West Sussex. And now, with the encouragement of friends, she has produced a charming cookbook in which she shares not just her recipes, but also gardening tips and wonderfully evocative photographs charting the changing flowers, vegetables and wildlife to be found in her garden each season.

“The recipes are a mixture of family stalwarts and ones I have conjured up or interpreted,” she says. “It’s the sort of food I enjoy: uncomplicated, satisfying and full of natural flavours.

“I’m not evangelical about what I eat, but I do love fresh and tasty food. I don’t believe in intricate recipes or ingredients that sit in the fridge and never get used more than once. I use what I have to hand, and a lot of it comes from my garden.”

Bryony grew up in Bolney, just a few miles from her current home, but moved away to London before returning to Sussex with Jimmy in 1985.

“The garden at that time was mostly given over to lawn and there were very few flowerbeds,” she recalls. “But with Jimmy away a lot, and Mummy dead keen to get me into gardening gloves, it wasn’t long before I was learning to sow, propagate and plant basic things under her tutelage.

“After more than 30 years of hard work and landscaping, I’m very nearly self-sufficient in terms of fruit and vegetables, but I still can’t resist flicking through seed catalogues, ticking every other carrot, lettuce or must-have beetroot. I have plum and apple trees, black and redcurrant bushes, peach and quince trees, gooseberries and even young walnut trees, which probably won’t fruit until well after I reach pensionable age.

Jimmy, Charlie and Bryony Hill at home on a garden benchJimmy, Charlie and Bryony Hill at home on a garden bench

“I also try to grow crops which will enable me to pick at least something on every day of the year: salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and beans in the summer months, and all kinds of cabbage and leeks during the winter.”

She says Jimmy – whom she met, aged 25, when he advertised for a personal assistant – loved the garden, too, particularly in the latter stages of his illness. “He would look at the sky and the clouds, pick up the windfall apples, and just be so happy,” she says fondly.

But she acknowledges that his final months at home were painful, not least because she knew his condition would only worsen. “He was very confused and I was on the alert all night in case he got up and started wandering. How I survived I don’t know, because I was also caring for three other elderly relatives. I was running on pure adrenaline.”

Ultimately, the tough decision to place Jimmy in care was made for her. “In 2012, when I was heading for a meltdown due to fear and exhaustion, he developed a urinary tract infection and went into hospital. He never came home because it was seven hours before he was given antibiotics and I think that delay may have accelerated the effects of his Alzheimer’s.

“When you’re losing someone to dementia, it’s like watching sand slipping through an hourglass. At its height, the illness is like white water rafting. It escalates and you don’t know how you’re going to stay afloat.

“Then, suddenly, you get a little period of calm water, the illness plateaus, and eventually it goes out to sea and all is peaceful again. That’s when sufferers reach the end of their time really.”

The strain of caring for Jimmy finally caught up with Bryony less than two months after he died, in 2015, when she developed acute cholecystitis (an inflammation of the gallbladder).

“I think I had been harbouring it for years and suddenly I relaxed and fell ill, like people do when they go on holiday,” she says. “I had to have my gallbladder removed but, touch wood, I’ve been very lucky, although I was very, very unwell.”

Her grief has been harder to assuage. “My emotions are still very raw and I can veer from laughter to a choking tear in a split second. I still think in terms of ‘our’ and ‘us’ and ‘we’. I can’t ever use ‘I’. But I have good support from family and friends.

Bryony Hill in her raised vegetable bedsBryony Hill in her raised vegetable beds

“Writing this book has also been a great healing process and I’ve had the most extraordinary five-star reviews, which have moved me to tears. I hope my endeavours will inspire others to venture into the kitchen via the garden. If you’ve never gardened before, as I hadn’t, choose something that you like to eat. Buy a cherry tomato plant and learn how to take out the tips. Plant a couple of potato plants in a small bucket. When they’re ready, it will be like digging for gold.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than creating something which gives pleasure and satisfaction. Every seed you sow is positive.”

Grow Happy, Cook Happy, Be Happy: From My Garden to My Kitchen by Bryony Hill is published by RedDoor at £20

My favourite Sussex

• Restaurant: I much prefer cooking at home than eating out because I have so much fresh produce in the garden to inspire me. Besides, I love cooking.

• Pub: If I do venture out, I enjoy going to the Royal Oak at Wineham, near Henfield. It remains the same wonderful, unspoilt pub it has always been – a magnet for walkers, country folk and locals.

• Shop: I try to buy as much as I can in Hurstpierpoint to keep the village and its independent shops alive. We are spoiled with a post office, chemist, grocer, hairdresser and several off-licences, but they need footfall to keep them going.

• Place to visit: When Jimmy went into full-time nursing care, I joined the National Trust and have been enjoying my membership enormously, and getting to know its wonderful treasures. I particularly like Standen, near East Grinstead, because it was a real family home.

• View: It has to be from the bottom of my garden, looking out across the little wildlife pond in the neighbouring meadow and the distant fields. Jimmy’s ashes are scattered there because he was never happier than when he was relaxing at home.


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