From surviving World War II to "back to the land" revival and even a Harrod's range, the history, and popularity of Britain's allotment plots.
Editor's note: Originally published in 2008
Another workingman’s tradition had been hijacked for the cash-rich, time-poor middle classes. Back in 2008, Harrods launched a bespoke gardening service offering to design, create, and tend allotments for those too busy to dig themselves. For further vicarious delight, the London store installed a veg cam on its own rooftop plot, so customers could watch rocket inter alia grow before being sold in its food halls.
It was the antithesis of what allotment gardens were originally all about, which was to give the poor man space to grow veg and fruit to feed his family. It also ran counter to the spirit of my childhood recollection of “allotmenteering” in the late 1960s rural Dorset. Even then, many parents who had been raised in times of wartime food scarcities continued a “grow your own” policy on rented set-aside plots.
Off my family traipsed at weekends and evenings, down the field behind our cottage, to one of several dozen long, thin strips of land beside the old railway line: our own little world of backache and bounty. Come rain or shine, we were there digging, sowing, tending and harvesting carrots, spuds, and cabbages. We sheltered in the corrugated lean-to shed when the rain drummed down, or gently baked, like the soil, in the sun. No shop-bought lettuces, peas or turnips tasted half so luscious as those we had nurtured; no disappointment compared with a crop lost to blight.
To be fair to Harrods, its bespoke service encompassed all types of gardening, not simply “virtual allotmenteering” (but the media never let the facts obscure a good story). Alexia Williams, the store’s lifestyle spokesperson, said the response to the overall service had been good, but uptake for allotments was “not high.”
The allotment renaissance
Yet interest in allotments—genuinely sowing and growing your own—has been enjoying a nationwide renaissance. Geoff Stokes, secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG), reports there are currently some 330,000 allotments. Of these, most recent data show 74 percent are “statutory” (land specifically purchased or appropriated by local authorities for allotment use), 13 percent are temporary (owned by local authorities for another purpose), 8 percent are in private ownership, and in 5 percent of cases the status of ownership isn’t clear.
Allotments cover some 28,000 acres of land, Stokes says. “Standard size is 300 square yards and national average rent per annum is £20-£25. You certainly wouldn’t want to pay Harrods £300 for a design!”
More telling are the waiting lists of people who would like an allotment. In some places, there are plots to spare, but in many urban areas where gardens are small or nonexistent, demand outstrips supply. In London you could wait 10 years, by which time you’ve probably moved house. There’s a wonderful, if not widely known, law that says if six adults registered on the electoral roll approach their council in England or Wales and ask for land to be set aside for allotments, the council has a statutory duty to check local provision and meet demand.
So who are today’s “lotters” and what is their heritage? “Allotment gardening isn’t unique to the UK, but we were one of the first countries to have any legislation specifically relating to it,” Stokes says. “The origins of our movement go back to the days of Enclosure when common land was taken and commoners were compensated with allotments of land to allow them to grow food, graze animals or collect fuel.”
1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act
Fear of peasant revolt led to the 1845 General Enclosures Act and further parliamentary legislation compelling stubborn local authorities to provide allotments. Following the 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act, the number of plots in England and Wales shot from 58,648 to 130,526 in five years.
During both world wars, there was a drive for self-sufficiency on the Home Front. Emergency legislation, giving local authorities the power to confiscate land for growing food, pushed the number of allotments toward 1.5 million by 1920. When the Great Depression hit, plots were allocated to unemployed men to eke sustenance. A decade later the Dig for Victory campaign of World War II successfully urged folk onto some 1,750,000 allotments to counteract shortages caused by the Battle of the Atlantic.
"Back to the land"
Postwar interest in digging the land fell as modern supermarket culture grew. It was far easier to pick affordable, shiny, uniform produce from the shelves than sweat over a shovel! Councils quietly built on, or sold off, allotments. A revival of enthusiasm in the 1960s and 1970s, prompted by an idealized “back to the land” fashion and the popular sit-com The Good Life that romanticized self-sufficiency, lasted only as long as it took fair-weather friends to realize allotments need tending all year, not just on sunny summer days. The tradition became the preserve of fogeyish “old boys.”
Then, in the 1990s, people began to ask how many “food miles” it had taken to get those bright apples or tomatoes to the supermarkets, what chemicals had been sprayed on them, why they were cocooned in wasteful packaging. Concerns over global warming, coupled with the organic movement, suddenly made the idea of cultivating one’s own peas and beans attractive again: not rooted in absolute economic need, but a desire to grow what we want, how we want.
The NSALG ran a survey of members in 1993, and Stokes believes the results still ring true. “The main reason people took on an allotment was to grow fresh food. The second reason was recreational, to get fresh air and exercise. Cheap food came way down the list, lower than wanting to get out and meet people and enjoy contact with nature,” he says. “The majority grow vegetables. Ten percent of plot space is used for fruit trees and bushes, and just 5 percent for [cut] flowers.”
Today you’re as likely to find a young mother growing “safe” food for her children, or a city worker hastening of an evening to check his exotic cardoons and yams, as an old boy leaning on his spade and contemplating his brassicas. Some health organizations, too, run allotments, recognizing the therapeutic mental and physical benefits to patients.
Bristol has a typically thriving culture of green oases amid the urban sprawl, so I dropped in to meet the Hotwells and District Allotments Association (also a member of NSALG). It has some 444 lettings on six different sites in the city. Chairman Bob Franks, an allotmenteer of 10 years’ standing, showed me around the main Ashton Drive site, on Bristol’s southwest edge.
Stepping from a suburban side street through the locking gate into the allotments, I’m immediately struck by the sense of transition. It’s a semiprivate rural community, with glorious views to hills and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge.
Haulingways run between some 200 plots that burst with individuality: there are veg and fruit combos, neatly growing rectangles with picnic tables, hugger-mugger plantings and raised beds in geometric patterns. Old bathtubs collect rainwater, and there are greenhouses made of recycled glass and wood. A few plots proudly fly Cross of St. George flags. Someone stops to ask Franks to put up a notice warning people not to wash their feet in his trough—he has been dunking his blighted potatoes in it. A local farmer delivers a trailer of manure (it can also be collected for free from the nearby police horse depot). Children pass by on tricycles.
“There are about 12,000 allotments across Bristol,” Franks says. “The origin of our particular association goes back to 1912.” They rent their land for a peppercorn amount from the council and use the rest of their income from annual plot charges to pay overheads. Mains water comes via taps on the haulingways, and they have their own generator for electricity. They recently opened an on-site store-cum-meeting place stocked with well-priced gardening supplies, plus a small library of horticultural books largely donated by members. There are plans to build two on-site toilets.
Franks, ex-Army, ex-financial adviser and now retired, comes to the allotments most days, to water the plants in his greenhouse and do his rounds checking to make sure everything is running smoothly.
“Full plots of 300 square yards are let for £40 per annum, and there’s an initial £20 charge for a shed—which remains association property, but the plot holder must keep it in good repair,”
Franks says. “Half-size plots are let at £20-£22 with a shared shed. There’s about a year’s wait to get an allotment here, and two to three years on our smaller sites.
“A full-size plot can easily sustain a family of two to three in produce, and we tell people they should expect to spend 10 hours a week or more in maintaining their allotment. There’s a dropout rate of about 10 percent, mostly in the first year.”
Each new member receives a “starter pack” of useful information, and more experienced members happily share advice. Rules include: keeping at least two-thirds of a plot under cultivation, no hosepipes and no orchards (if someone moves on, it’s expensive to grub out). Only trees on dwarf rooting stock are permitted. Environmentally friendly practices, like rainwater harvesting, are encouraged. Some plotters compete for prizes in local shows.
We wander over to Franks’ plot. The soil is very clay (“good for brassicas and not much else!”) and rabbit incursions are a constant challenge (“protect your more vulnerable crops with wire”). He grows all the vegetables he and his partner Jenny (who gardens elsewhere) need, with slug-resistant pink fir apple potatoes a specialty. Soft fruits—gooseberries, red- and blackcurrants—are ripening in abundance, tomatoes are beginning to blush in his greenhouse.
“I was brought up on a farm and had a plot as a child, it’s so satisfying to grow things,” he says.
I meet Tess Green, who’s on the rota to serve in the stores. She says her allotment, which she has kept for nearly nine years, was a “lifesaver” escape from the stress she encountered in her job in social services. When she first arrived, many plots were uncultivated. Her partner, local publisher Roy Gallop, came to help her clear the neighboring plot five years ago, got hooked and now tends it himself. Between them they grow fruit, veg and salad stuffs through the year, including “the best rhubarb in Bristol.”
“We often swap spare produce with other people,” Gallop says. “And we grow on things like blackcurrants and gooseberries to give to younger couples to help them set up. It’s a very sociable world here.”
Steve Wilkinson and Anna McVey, their children Indya and Grace, are in their first week of allotmenteering.
“As parents, we take a big interest in what our children eat and we’ve been going more the organic route with shopping,” McVey says. “We’ve a garden at home, which we keep for looking nice. Here we can grow our own food.”
“It’s also great for getting exercise and bonding as a family,” Wilkinson adds.
A few yards away, Chris Adams pursues a more experimental approach to allotmenteering. Adams hails from Victoria, Canada, has been in the UK for 10 years and works in an organic food shop.
“Allotments are part of my way of life,” he says. “I loosely adhere to permaculture, aiming for permanent ground cover, growing perennials, and making as few inputs as possible to keep everything organic.” Adams cultivates edible flowers like heartsease and nasturtium, is adding spelled and other cereals, and has a small crop of willow to use in his basket making.
“Modern society has become disconnected from land and food. By keeping an allotment, you learn a lot about the rhythms of nature,” Adams says. “With issues like climate change, there’s almost a return to the mentality of Dig for Victory. The increased momentum of allotment gardening echoes that of wartime crisis, but people are having fun, too—it’s a great day out. Younger people are bringing energy and new ideas; it’s also very important to form a bridge with older people so that knowledge is passed on.” However you look at it, allotments provide more than food for the table.
* Originally published in 2008.