“Entering an allotment field is like stepping into another part of Europe altogether or South America. Each plot bears the signature of its owner, and the shared enterprise of improvising a small-scale landscape is a source of endless originality and variety.” Roger Deakin, ‘A Local Habitation and a Name’, from ‘Local Distinctiveness’, Common Ground, 1993.
History and Local Distinctiveness
Seen from the train, allotments, plotted and pieced, welcome you to a city. The original railway companies rented patches to their workers on swathes of land extra to requirements and many persist, despite the diesel fumes.
Most allotments are owned by local authorities, having emerged in the nineteenth century as part of the movement to entice working people towards temperance and wholesome food-growing in the city. In the country, much earlier, they were vital to help agricultural workers survive when machines or economic fluctuation took their livelihoods.
Allotments’ roots lie in struggles around loss of common land and ancient rights and the ruthless land-grabbing of enclosure. During Elizabeth I’s reign, as common land was taken, commoners, if they were lucky, were given allotments of land near their tenanted cottages as part of their wages.
There were other beginnings. In 1605 Hunger Hill, Nottingham, was rented in plots to burgesses, freemen and their widows; by the 1920s there were 540 hedged pleasure-gardens plots. Cultivation of parts of the common of Town Moor in Newcastle began in the 1770s. Guinea Gardens, named after the yearly rent, were set up for the middle classes in Birmingham, Coventry and Sheffield from the eighteenth century, for recreation as well as food production.
These contrasted with allotments set up to help peoples supplement meagre wages or survive. Great Somerford, Wiltshire was the first Inclosure Act to ensure that land was made available for the labouring poor in 1806, but it was not until 1845 that the General Inclosure Act demanded that ‘field gardens’ must be set aside as a condition of enclosure. In 1887 the Allotment Act demanded that local authorities provide such land if there was demand.
Now, typically, an allotment may be paced out, thirty strides by ten, and may cost you from 25 pence to 85 pounds a year, but its functions and faces are wonderfully variable. Allotments offer a lateral look into the personalities of places: orderly lines of erect cabbages and huge leeks may await inspection, fruit trees may or may not be allowed, water catching devices and idiosyncratic sheds may dominate, formal paths separate the bean rows, particular languages may babble together and sounds of children delight the senses.
The North holds onto its pigeon lofts : Nottingham’s detached pleasure gardens, with their ‘front doors’ through hedges and their summerhouses, are Grade ll* listed by English Heritage; Birmingham still has its high-hedged Guinea Gardens (also listed), now a multicultural paradise. Bristol has its ‘leisure gardens’; Bolton, Lancashire its Food Plot organic and wild life allotments (with creche), including Nai Zingani (New Life) at Great Lever for Bangladeshi women. Wellbeck Road allotments in Long Eaton, Derbyshire have a clubhouse and community polytunnel (1).
Of the one an a half million plots that helped Britain through the Second World War, the number has dwindled to only 297,000 in England. According to the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG), ‘some 25ha of statutory allotment land (roughly equivalent to 80 football pitches) is lost each year.' (2)
The current situation
Today, allotments are provided by local authorities to give us the opportunity to grow some of our own food whilst engaging in healthy exercise. If we are lucky enough to have a garden at all, most are too small to grow vegetables in. As gardens are classified as ‘brownfield’ sites, big (and small) gardens are being sold for housing to the huge profit of the landowner, and usually to the great loss to the town or village it is situated in.
Some allotments have been situated in the same place for hundreds of years, usually encircling a town. There were 15 in and on the edge of Shaftesbury, Dorset, in 1919 and this was probably typical for a small town. Most have been built on since then. Four local authority-owned plots survive plus one that is privately-owned.
As towns expand, local authorities realise they can get much more rent from the land if they are covered with houses, so the allotments either go altogether or, if the tenants are ‘lucky’, they are found a field on the outskirts of town where they start afresh. But the soil which they have nurtured over generations, the knowledge of local conditions, the proximity to home and community and the local landscape will all be lost.
Allotment gardening is in vogue once again and waiting lists are growing – the best reason for not building on them, but for providing more. Allotments are one element of the open spaces in your neighbourhood. Get to know as much about them as possible. Make a map of them and find out who owns them. Evaluate management and provision. Understand the Regional Spatial Strategies, and get involved with the Local Development Framework of your Regional Assembly. Lobby your MP to get the muddled legislation relating to allotments overhauled and strengthened. Do not wait until your allotment is threatened: attend the Amenities and Planning Committee meetings of your local council, find out if your local authority has an allotment strategy and an allotments officer; form an allotment association- much more formidable than a disparate group of individuals.
If allotment land is statutory, i.e. provided for the sole purpose of being used as allotment land, it cannot be sold or used for other purposes without the consent of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Goverrnment. The criteria that would need to be met are: 1. Allotment is either not necessary and is surplus to requirements, 2. The council will give displaced plot-holders adequate alternative sites, unless this is not necessary or practical, 3. The council has taken a number of people on the waiting list into account, 4. The Council has actively promoted and publicised the availability of allotment sites and has consulted the National Society of Allotment & Leisure Gardeners. The allotment authority must consult plot holders, and any application will be dealt with by the Government Office for the Region. If successful, alternative allotments within three-quarters of a mile from the centre of demand should be provided. (Allotments Act 1925). But, according to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s response (now the Dept for Communities & Local Government) to “The Future of Allotments” (1998), replacement sites have been provided in only two of the 51 ‘statutory’ sites lost since 7 May 1997.
If allotment land is temporary, the land is allocated for other purposes but is temporarily leased or rented by an allotments authority, and can be disposed of usually after 12 months notice has been given to plot-holders plus compensation of up to a year’s rent, any crops lost and other costs (according to the Allotments Act of 1950). Privately owned allotment sites have a similar level of protection.
Eastleigh Allotments, Hampshire
Bloomfield Community Orchard, Bath, Somerset
Hill Close Victorian Gardens, Warwick
Manor Gardens, Hackney Marshes, London
Liverpool - debating the need for wildlife areas on allotments
Read about Helen Porter's allotment in Mere, Wilts
For other inventive local producers, see Producing The Goods
(1) Sue Clifford & Angela King for Common Ground, England in Particular, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006
(2) Geoff Stokes, Secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, Land (not) for sale, The Garden, April 2006.
Sophie Andrews, The Allotment Handbook: a guide to promoting and protecting your site, Eco-logic books, 2005.
DTLR, Allotments: a plot holders’ guide, 2001, www . dtlr . gov . uk or from DTLR, P.O. Box 236, Wetherby, West Yorkshire LS23 7NB.
David Crouch and Colin Ward, The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture, Five Leaves Publications, 1988/1997
New free pamphlet: Wildlife on Allotments from English Nature, www . english-nature . org . uk
Department for Communities & Local Government website has further information including ‘Allotments: A plot holders’ guide’ at www . odpm . gov . uk or call +44(0)20 7944 4400.
National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners / National Allotments Trust, Geoff Stokes, General Secretary, O'Dell House, Hunters Road, Corby, Northants, NN17 5JE, tel: +44(0)1536 266576, email: natsoc [at] nsalg . org . uk or see www . nsalg . org . uk or www . nagtrust . org
www . allotments-uk . com is an online directory of allotments and relevant information.
Allotment Regeneration Initiative is a partnership between the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and the National Allotments Trust. they are offering training courses on allotment management and improvement. Deborah Burn, UK Network coordinator, +44(0)191 262 8276, e-mail deborahb [at] farmgarden . org . uk. See www . farmgarden . org . uk / ari
Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, The Green House, Hereford Road, Bristol, BS3 4NA, tel: +44(0)117 923 1800 or see www . farmgarden . org . uk / ari
St Ann’s Allotment Network, Nottingham, dates from 1830s and created with the same intention as the West Midlands Guinea Gardens. It now "represent the most extensive detached garden site in England". They have been put on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England by English Heritage at Grade 2*. As well as numerous individual allotment gardeners, a growing number of community groups have taken on allotment gardens on the site, for a variety of purposes. See www . staan . co . uk
Earth Rights are a law firm and environmental rights charity who have helped campaigning groups including the Eastleigh Allotments Association. Contact them in Essex: +44(0)1279 870391, john [at] earthrights . org . uk or Devon: +44(0)1297 34405, charlie [at] earthrights . org . uk or see www . earthrights . co . uk
Visit our Producing the Goods pages
or the Campaign for Real Fruit & Vegetables