Oases of contemplation, exercise and recreation
Wednesday 15 May 2013
I was delighted when the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners joined Co-ops UK.
It has been around since 1901, and as a bona-fide Industrial and Provident Society has long been a co-operative.
Allotments hold a special place in working-class culture. While there is no typical allotment holder or allotment site, nonetheless they have produced an instantly recognisable landscape.
Interestingly, in their seminal book The Allotment, Its Landscape and Culture – now sadly out of print – David Crouch and Colin Ward argue that the allotment began as a moral project that promoted what was almost a parody of William Morris’s “useful toil.”
They say that the allotment was adapted over time to provide individual space away from the home and a means of escape from “real” life. Today it remains a sociologist’s dream space and is important as a place where a range of significant social activities, attachments and cultural encounters take place.
We are seeing a huge upsurge in demand for allotments. There are around 300,000 in Britain and Northern Ireland and it is said that there is a new breed of young professionals who are seeking to “grow their own.” These may be untypical, but, as Crouch and Ward point out, in over 150 years there has never been a typical allotment gardener.
There are more young professionals, families and groups embracing allotment culture, and demand has outstripped supply in many parts of the country with long waiting lists.
In 2009 the National Trust pledged to create 1,000 new allotments on its land and they were soon snapped up.
We can date the development of the modern allotments movement back to the Enclosures Acts of 1836 and 1840, which deprived many working-class people of access to the land.
The General Enclosures Act of 1845, following a degree of popular unrest, introduced the idea of “field gardens” for the landless poor, but while hundreds of thousands of acres of land was enclosed only a couple of thousand was set aside for such use.
It was not until 1887 that local authorities were obliged to provide allotments, but even this was uneven in its application.
It was the Smallholding and Allotment Act 1907 that imposed responsibilities on parish, urban district and borough councils to provide them and further legislation in 1908 consolidated this position.
For the late Victorians allotments were thought of as productive use of time for the working poor, taking them away from the demon drink. They where also thought of as a way to provide wholesome food for a workforce housed in high-density gardenless homes.
German U-boats in the first world war cemented the allotment in popular culture. The blockade cut off the supplies of many products, and workers took to the allotment as a way of filling the gap. Interestingly the Dig for Victory campaign in World War II was based on the same principle.
During the war many railway companies released land to their workers to grow food and this is why many sites are next to railways to this day.
After the war there was a steady decline in the number of allotments but in recent years this decline has stabilised and in parts of the country we have seen a growth in numbers.
Allotments have always been good for physical as well as mental health. They are obviously a space for recreation and exercise, but are also a space for contemplation and solitude.
Of course, while it’s hard work, for many poor people the chance of growing one’s own food was a great boon. Today when we are so alienated from the natural world and most of our food comes shrink-wrapped there is almost something spiritual about growing something you can eat yourself.
Allotments and urban agriculture projects often offer an opportunity for excluded groups to participate in gardening and horticulture and can contribute to a sense of self as well as a sense of community.
An allotment is defined as an area of land, leased either from a private or local authority landlord, for the use of growing fruit and vegetables. In some cases this land will also be used for the growing of ornamental plants, and the keeping of hens, rabbits and bees.
Rods, poles and perches are Anglo-Saxon names for the same unit of measurement – one rod equals five-and-a-half yards. An allotment is traditionally measured in this way and 10 poles is the accepted size, about the size of a doubles tennis court.
Never has such a small parcel of land carried so much cultural significance and added so much to our countries’ well-being.