Two summers. Ten cities. Two hundred allotments. A different perspective on British urban life, viewed through the frame of soils and harvests and as many free raspberries as you can manage. Nonetheless, a perspective just like any other of the city: characterised by differences of geographies, class, demographies and local culture. Individual allotment sites blur into each other at the end of the second season, a haze of sunshine and the smell of ripening plums, but some stand out. Amongst the individual experiences, common themes emerge. Here are some snapshots.
In Cardiff I met a man who had been off work with mental health problems for the past five years. Unable to function at work, he rented an allotment to help himself use up some time. Six months down the line and he swears it has transformed his life – he’s outside most days, except when he goes to his new job, which he is managing better than he ever thought possible. The very next person I met was a woman who had struggled for thirty years with alcoholism, estranging her from her friends and her granddaughter. She got her plot in February and hasn’t touched a drop since – now, her daughter brings the granddaughter to help work the ground, and the shared activity of caring for the soil has begun to mend long-broken bonds. As the elderly gentleman in Liverpool put succinctly: ‘It gets me out of the house, and it keeps me out of the pub’.
A Maltese gentlemen who had settled in Britain after being part of the Merchant Navy is the only remaining living member of his Maltese community. He feeds a cat, a fish and a tiny frog on his plot. Perhaps this is the same cat that Barry, on the same site, also feeds – both of them seem to believe it is their own cat, but the descriptions seemed remarkably similar. Down in Southampton, shared responsibility for five feral allotment cats is taken up by a number of plotholders, one of whom has a bell attached to his shed: when he rings it, late every morning, anyone else around working their plot takes a break to share some coffee and gossip and relax on the site.
The closest thing to a castle for some is a shed, and for others it might be all they have. I heard of a Syrian refugee family living in a shed on one site, and on the other end of the spectrum was treated to a tour of one man’s shed extension, complete with white leather three-piece suite and huge mirror reflecting the debris of a party a few nights before.
A different sort of party was in preparation up in Newcastle the week before the major late summer vegetable shows. Giant leeks like toy soldiers stood to attention in heated greenhouses and I managed to persuade a few gardeners to part with some of the trade secrets involved in winning the giant leek competitions so part of the heritage up here. Against a soundtrack of pigeon calls from the racing lofts, I learnt about how to get the best contrast between the white and the green of the leek, and what varieties were tipped to be winners.
Some greenhouses were fancier than others – the heated, competition-winning leek growth chambers stood out – but my personal favourite was seen in Bristol, where somebody had managed to acquire a supermarket car-park trolley stand to house vegetables rather than trolleys from now on. Many greenhouses and sheds are made with whatever is to hand: old doors, windows, and corrugated iron. Some contain surprising crops as well. I never thought I’d see a kiwi tree fruit in Britain until I found one in a polytunnel in Liverpool – and there were a few occurrences of what we recorded as ‘misc. herb’ in secret corners of greenhouses, although the location of where those were found will always remain a secret.
Sometimes the humour can get old. The first time I saw a sign on a shed declaring ‘Trespassers Will Be Composted’ I chuckled – by the four hundredth time, it had somewhat lost its charm. ‘Too Many Weeds, Not Enough Thyme’ also gets an honorary mention for being particularly bad.
The generosity of gardeners, with their crops, their time, their tea and biscuits, and even sometimes their beer and homemade wine, has had a lasting impact on me and I will always be grateful to every single person who took an hour or two out of their day to talk to us about their allotments. By far the most surreal example of this occurred when the couple who lived next door to the site, and who we had liaised with for access as they were both committee members, invited myself and Roscoe round for lunch. We had a lovely picnic with them on their terrace in the garden, and shortly after found ourselves in the cellar of their house, where we sat surrounded by musical instruments as we were treated to a concert of original jazz satirical songs on piano. It was the sort of situation that became awkward to excuse ourselves from, ostensibly to go back to work, but also because there is only so much original jazz satire that one person can cope with in a day.
There are more stories from this experience than can fit into a single post, and I will probably put another together at some point to tell some more stories of the amazing everyday of allotment gardeners. In the age of individualism, where lip service gets paid to the ‘Big Society’ by fat cats concerned only with their own pockets, allotments are a testament to the real sharing economy, where everyone and anyone can trade knowledge, tools, time and seeds, and those in need are noticed and looked after irrespective of gender, race or class, brought together by the desire to grow food and kept together by the realisation that having an allotment gives you so much more than just some slug-nibbled radishes.
To the gardeners of Leeds, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Milton Keynes, Newcastle, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol and Southampton: thank you. Keep growing in every way.