was an outcry at the social and economic problems caused by enclosures, and
allotments – patches of land for growing crops and rearing animals on a small
scale – began to be offered as compensation to commoners for their loss of
common land. This move began to be enshrined in law starting with the
Small Holdings and Allotment Act of 1908.
But allotments really came
into their own during the first and second world wars, when food shortages
prompted the government to urge people to use every scrap of spare land for
growing food, sparking the still famous Dig for Victory campaign.
From the fifties to the present day, the number of allotments in the UK has
been in decline, despite their becoming fashionable in recent years as the
organic movement has championed the joys of growing your own hyper-local
food: there are now about 300,000 allotments left from a peak of about 1.4
million in the 1940s.
how big is an allotment plot? It varies, but most are, put roughly, the size
of a tennis court or smaller. In an arcane nod to their past that may mystify
non-British readers, most allotments are still measured in the ancient units
of the pole, perch or rod. A standard plot is 10 sq poles/perches/rods (confusingly they’re all the same measurement), although a lot of sites now offer half plots of five square poles
– that’s the size of my plot.
And who’s the land owned by? The
majority of sites are owned by town and district councils – in other words,
local government – and have some protection against being sold off or
converted to other uses. The rest are privately owned by organisations such
as the Church of England, rail companies or individuals. Each plot holder,
or allotmenteer as they’re also known (I rather like the latter because it
almost sounds like I am climbing mountains, not turning the soil) signs a
yearly agreement that they’ll take good care of their patch, and stumps up
anything from £5 to £150 a year in rental. My five poles sets me back about
six pounds a year – which is just about what you’d pay for a Chinese takeaway
for one these days.
The allotment ethos has always been
simple: that by growing fruit and vegetables (and in some cases by raising
livestock such as chickens, goats or rabbits) on local land, plot holders
could improve their quality of life, save money, enjoy the fresh air and have
access to fresh produce. That ethos remains today, although the emphasis is
now on the health benefits of homegrown veg, enjoying the outdoors
and bypassing the sterility of the neon-lit supermarket shelves laden
with vacuum packed, regimented dull produce.
now trendy. They’re sloughing off their image in popular British culture as
the domain of dour men wearing flat caps and growing ranks of leeks and
cabbages: Arthur Fowler from the TV soap EastEnders was their poster
Now you’re just as likely to see young professionals bringing along their
small children to grow globe artichokes, peppers and asparagus, or retirees
trying out beekeeping or small-scale self-sufficiency.
you’re interested in finding out more about the allotment phenomenon, try
exploring the websites of the National Society for Allotment and Leisure
the Allotments 4 All site, and
the Allotments Regeneration Initiative.
perhaps the best way of getting a taste of life on the plot is by tuning into
some of the great blogs written by allotment holders: some of my favourites
are Pumpkin Soup,
My Tiny Plot, Spadework, and Allotment Lady –
there are lots of links to more great allotment blogs on my blogroll.