Allotments were once a space for working-class families to grow cheap, wholesome food. Now a trendy new tribe of gardeners is encroaching on their territory, and all in the garden is not so lovelyby Katharine Quarmby / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1952, a small group of men set to work in a field near their homes in south London. Centuries earlier, the field had been the last grazing point for cattle on their journey to slaughter at Smithfield market. But over the years the land had become fallow, and oak trees and scrub had crept in from the nearby woods. The men felled the trees, scythed the long grass, cut back bramble and cleared away tons of wartime scrap. Then they dug and fed the soil—and turned the field into allotments.
These men, who included our friend Ben and his father, were white working-class men, “mostly postmen and policemen.” They grew potatoes, beans, carrots: staple crops to feed families still on rations in the postwar years. When his father died, Ben took over his plots, as often happens.
The allotments are still there today. So are some of the original group, now in their eighties and nineties. But alongside the traditional vegetables grow chard, raspberries, asparagus, chilli peppers and many others. And the allotmenteers themselves represent a modern nation: working and middle class, black and white, middle eastern and Mediterranean.
In recent years, Ben and his friends have looked on in bemusement as allotments have become fashionable. Michelle Obama started one in the White House garden shortly after taking up residence. Last year, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called for people to reconnect with the land and for more sites to be made available for allotments. The National Trust, British Waterways Board and Tesco have all offered land for plots. In June, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver added his support for the growing number of people who want to produce their own fruit and veg. Even the Queen has an allotment now, although its shapely semicircle of potatoes hints more at aesthetics than need.
This enthusiasm is evident in our shops, too. In March, B&Q said its sales of vegetable seeds were up nearly threefold on the same period last year (itself a record year). The “grow your own” movement has inspired television shows, newspaper columns and books, which in turn fuel demand. But the supply of land has not kept pace. There are around 200,000 allotments in Britain. Most are council-owned and some are run by charities or farmers; others are self-run but on council land, while Ben’s allotment is owned by a private estate. A 2009 report from the think tank New Local Government Network, “Can You Dig It?”, estimated that 100,000 people are on a waiting list for an allotment.