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  • Writer's pictureHattie Hearn

The Allotment

Updated: Nov 10, 2018

Renting an allotment is a hugely personal endeavour. The Cumbrian farmer will tell you that his side of the fell, toiled by generations of the same family, is engrained in his DNA. Whatever you do, don’t tell him that the same sense of ownership can come after a few hours of back-breaking digging on the half plot you signed the tenancy for the previous afternoon.

Before you know it, the resident robin - who waits patiently on your fork handle for newly unearthed worms - is definitely yours and yours alone. In fact, it doesn’t take long before everything within the confines of your pegged boundary is yours, from the earliest radish shoot to the first strawberry. Everything except weeds. Weeds are definitely not yours.

From time to time the allotment holder will unearth a relic from a previous owner. A bottle top, tent peg, or sherd of blue and white crockery that for one absurd second you think might be Ming. Some diggers may even chance upon a clay pipe or button. These artefacts, before they’re unceremoniously flung on the compost heap, briefly remind us that our plots haven’t always been ours. They connect us to the wider history of our little patch of earth.

Many allotment sites are centuries old. My own plot in the Mousehold North site in Norwich has been worked since the turn of the twentieth century, at a time when the rural Norfolk fields had been engulfed by the suburban sprawl of the Victorian period. By 1907, rows of terraced houses had been erected for workers near the newly constructed Silver Road tram depot. In order to provide the labouring poor with the means for self-sufficiency, the church established allotments to the east of Sprowston Road.

The creation of this site, and hundreds like it, was in response to a growing movement in support of the social, health and economic benefits of self-sufficiency, formalised in 1908 by the Small Holdings and Allotments Act, which placed a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments for residents. While the concept of ‘growing your own’ had existed for centuries before the act, it was this piece of legislation that officially recognised the importance of allotment growing to British life.

Despite this statutory recognition, allotments have never been completely safe. Their very purpose often means that they’re located in inner-city areas or on the outskirts of suburban populations, prime spots for development. But as with any institution under threat, they’re not without their staunch defenders. In 1910, Norwich Town Council proposed the construction of a new road to link Mousehold Avenue to Gilbert Street. The idea was thrown out on the simple fact that it would “dispossess a large number of allotment holders”, thus “infringing a principle”. The allotment holders won and the road wasn’t constructed for another twenty years.

The allotment movement was mobilised on the outbreak of the Second World War with the launch of the government’s 'Dig For Victory' campaign, which hoped to create half a million more allotments. Use was made of railway sidings, parks, front gardens, and even bomb sites to help combat the crippling effects of rationing. Allotments offered the young and old, men and women, an opportunity to personally contribute to the war effort.

Children dig a vegetable patch on a bomb site during WWII

With the gradual improvement of living standards after the war had ended, enthusiasm for allotment growing declined. In the 1970s half of the Mousehold North site was sold for development. My little patch of paradise is now surrounded on every side by houses, many of them council-owned. But more than anything, this accidental walled garden stands as a physical reminder that allotments were always intended to be at the heart of the community. Even when the kid on the third floor plays his music loud enough to scare the robin away.

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