London’s allotments


I’m delighted that the fight to save Northfields Allotments is still going on. I visited them last year and was very impressed by the amazing variety of vegetables and fruit being grown. Established in 1832, they are London’s oldest. If the proposed plans to build housing goes through, people using the allotments could lose 10% of the space, leaving many gardeners without a plot.

At one time, if you went to a party and told someone that you had an allotment, they would nod, try to appear interested and then quickly start scanning the room for an excuse to get away.  ‘Back in a minute. Just need to catch Phil.’ Allotments were where you found glum old men in caps shuffling along with a wheelbarrow or slowly turning over soil with a spade before lighting their pipe and furtively disappearing into a small shed.

Tending an allotment was something you did when you had entered the twilight years of your life, like the characters in Last of the Summer Wine. It was a way of filling empty days – and maybe getting away from the wife. Allotments belonged to a world of bingo, meals on wheels, and those days centres where people sit staring ahead in wing-back chairs.

Things have changed now. If you want an allotment in London, then you will have to put your name down on a waiting list and often wait several years before one becomes vacant.  The waiting lists for some allotments have been closed.

The popularity of allotments reflects both the increasing interest many of us have in knowing more about what we eat and where it comes from and a disenchantment with the kind of fruit and veg on sale in supermarkets.

Allotments also tap into a romantic middle-class urban yearning for a more rural and simpler way of life. Allotments are about reconnecting with the natural world and escaping a corporate and hectic city life.  Allotments are no longer sniggered about. They can touch something deep inside us.

In London, where many people live in flats and don’t have a garden, if you want to grow vegetables, then you have to do it on a windowsill or, if you have one, a balcony. And, of course, you are limited to growing things such as basil or parsley or maybe tomatoes.  It’s not a good idea to grow anything big or hard on a windowsill, at least if you want to avoid newspaper headlines such as ‘Postman hit by potato.’

London has around 36,000 allotment plots, the vast majority of them located in the outer boroughs. In fact, three London boroughs, the City of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and the Corporation of London, don’t have any allotments at all. Brent, Bromley and Ealing have the largest number.

The history of allotments is obscure, but it seems that they can at least be traced back to initiatives in the eighteenth century when some of the rural poor were given small patches of land to grow food. Many had been plunged into poverty as a result of the open field system of agriculture being replaced by enclosures. This meant that what was once common land was now owned by the wealthy.

Another factor behind the rise of allotments was the way the industrial revolution dramatically changed the face of England, with the working population moving from agriculture and the countryside to big factories in towns and cities. Some workers were given small parcels of land to grow food. It’s unclear whether the primary motivation was for them to feed themselves or to keep them occupied and away from taverns.

Various legislation was passed in Parliament to force local authorities to provide allotments, but it wasn’t until the First World War and concerns about food shortages that allotments really took off.  By 1917 there was around 1.5 million plots in England, much of it requisitioned.

After the war, some of the land was returned to its owners, but many returning servicemen were given small plots. The economic depression that followed the war led the Quakers to launch a scheme to provide allotments for the unemployed, so they could grow their own fresh food.

At the outbreak of the Second World War worries over how Britain was to feed itself returned and half a million extra plots were created.  A “Dig for Victory’ campaign was launched by the Ministry of Agriculture.  Bright posters and leaflets sought to take people’s minds off rationing and encourage them to get digging, and advice was provided on how to compost, sow seeds and weed.  Private gardens, sports fields, parks, land beside railway lines were all transformed into allotments. Even the lawns outside the Tower of London and at Kensington Gardens were turned into vegetable patches.

Characters such as ‘Doctor Carrot’ and ‘Potato Pete’ encouraged people to eat more vegetables and recipes were provided and on Sunday afternoons people would sit around their wireless listening to Cecil Henry Middleton on the Home Service give his gardening tips.

From the fifties onwards allotments went out of fashion, as food became mass produced and more available.  A brief revival in growing your own food occurred in the Seventies, perhaps due in part to The Good Life, the TV comedy about a couple who quit the rat race and convert their garden in suburbia into a farm.

What I remember most about the programme when I watched it as a teenager being awakened by his hormones is not the couple’s attempts to keep chickens or grow vegetables, but Felicity Kendall. Nearly all the boys in my class at school had a crush on her.

I hope those fighting to save Northfields Allotments can persuade the property developers to leave them alone. London needs these wonderful spaces.





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