The allotment is a standard feature of British cities, towns and villages. They can be single small plots of land but more usually are portions of land divided into individual plots. Each plot is big enough to be worked by one person and support a family.
The history of allotments goes back hundreds of years. In more recent history, during the industrial revolution, land would be given over to the labouring poor to enable them to grow food. In 1908 the Small Holdings and Allotment act was written and local authorities were given a duty to provide allotment space. At the end of the First World War further land was provided to returning service men. Numerous statutes in the intervening time has preserved the allotment across the British urban landscape.
Allotments are massively popular and most councils have a waiting list of people wanting one; many of them for years. In 2009 there were reports of waiting lists reaching 40 years.
It’s hard to give a definition of an allotment beyond it being a piece of land. They are wonderfully varied places where the whole spectrum of society come together. They reflect the British temperament for eccentricity and the human desire for space, for creativity and at some level for meaning. The variety of sheds and their contents would be enough to provide study material for a psychologist for many lifetimes. Some of the sheds are little more than tool storage areas but some are veritable home-from-homes.
Once a place for people to supplement their family income with food many allotments are now primarily places of hobby, but a hobby that produces very valuable outcomes. The fruit, vegetables and flowers that they produce are treasured by those who graft to enable their fruition.
For most of my childhood we had two allotments which we imaginatively named as the top allotment and the bottom allotment.
The top allotment was where Mr Smith would come. That allotment was one of a single row of plots.
The bottom allotment was set in the middle of a far more comprehensive system off Kitchen Lane in Beverley. There are now 130 allotments in that area which seems about right from what I remember. Though it’s one large area there are really two allotment areas, the Kitchen Lane grouping and the Queensgate grouping.
Both allotments used to be on the edge of town, the top allotment still is, but there’s been quite a lot of development around the bottom allotment. I’ve no idea why one was chosen to be top and one bottom other then that seems sensible; the top allotment was roughly north of our house and up a hill; the bottom allotment was roughly south of our house and not up a hill. I don’t think it was anything more scientific than that.
There’s a saying in gardening circles:
One year’s seeding – seven years’ weeding.
When we took possession of the bottom allotment it had experienced at least one year’s seeding and plenty of marestail growing. Marestail is a terrible weed that creates networks of roots shooting all over the place below the depth of a spade.
That first year my Dad set about double-digging the whole plot as a good foundation for future years. Digging over a plot by hand is hard enough, spade-by-spade, row-by-row; double-digging is more than twice the effort. What you do in double-digging is that you dig a row to a spades depth, lifting the soil to a spare patch of soil. You then dig another spade’s depth in the bottom of that row, loosening the soil and adding in manure. You then dig another row moving the soil over the top of the first row, again digging in manure. You then dig over the bottom of the second row adding in more manure. You do this whilst also removing handfuls of weeds and miles of marestail roots. You then repeat until you have finished. I don’t know how long this took, but in my head it took FOREVER!
The essence of an allotment is it’s soil, without good soil all of your other efforts are worthless. Each year the soil would need to be prepared for the next year’s crops. This meant digging in the Autumn because you didn’t want to dig in the winter. Digging frozen soil is impossible, but it’s also detrimental to the health of the soil.
Autumn soil preparation also meant smoky fires and black potatoes. All of the remains of produce and weeds that managed to survive into the Autumn was piled into one corner of the plot where it was set alight using newspaper that we had brought with us. These fires weren’t roaring, flaming, affairs their purpose was to burn slowly and methodologically through all of the waste material which needed drying our before it would burn. As we dug we would regularly find potatoes that we had missed in the harvesting (I sometimes wondered whether Dad left them deliberately). These would be added to the base of the fire where it was nice and hot, but not flaming. There the potatoes would be left to cook until later in the day when we would pull them out and sit with muddy frozen fingers picking through the scolding potato flesh. We place each piece of potato into our mouths and pant heavily in a vain attempt to cool it down enough to be swallowed.
Spring days were taken up with seeding which would be done from packets that had arrived in the post in a small cardboard box marked with the name of Dobie’s. I can still picture the cardboard box and the green-turquoise packets that it contained. There are many seeds still today that I can name just from their size, shape and colour. Seeds are fascinatingly varied things.
Summer days were taken up with weeding, watering and cropping.
Weeds, what can I say about weeds, if you garden then you know about weeds, if you don’t then you are best left in blissful ignorance.
Watering was all done by watering-can. Each set of allotments had a free-standing tap. In our case it was a couple of plots over. The tap itself was a push-button contraption connected requiring you to keep the heavy button depressed to keep the water flowing. As a young boy I barely had enough strength to push the tap down let alone keeping it depressed for a whole can full. Thankfully some helpful sole had created a piece of wood with a slot cut out of it, this would be fixed across the tap to keep the button depressed as long as you positioned it correctly. At the bottom of the tap was a large bucket into which a watering-can would fit. You would leave the tap running to fill the bucket, you’d then fill your watering-can from the bucket. The trick was to water fast enough that the bucket never overran. Quite often in the summer the opposite problem occurred as all of the allotment characters queued up to get their fair share of water.
Cropping is an art-form, you have to know what you are looking for and how to treat each plant. Allotments are normally used for a whole variety of produce, we were no exception: strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, black-currants, white-currants, red-currant (immensely sharp), runner-beans, french-beans, broad-beans (that made your teeth squeak), peas, carrots, parsnips, swede, turnips, beetroot, potatoes, savoy-cabbages, red-cabbages, brussels-sprouts (left until after the first frost), onions, shallots, leaks, garlic, courgettes, marrows, squashes, sweetcorn (also cooked in the fire sometimes), cauliflower, broccoli, radish and lettuce. Different crops were grown in the different allotments because the soil was different and so was the sun and shelter, a small plot at home was also used to grow asparagus.
After a fulfilling day in the sun with a car boot full of fruit and vegetables you would get home and it was then that the preparation would start. We were expecting to do our part in getting everything ready to be frozen, dried, stored, jammed, turned into chutney and other preserves. I suspect that I cold still top-and-tail gooseberries while watching the television.
In those days the allotments were a place for the men, if women were there they were helping their husbands. I’m sure that many of them went the allotment to escape to some solitude. I can’t say that I remember many of the characters other than knowing that they were generally a friendly bunch always ready to give some helpful advice. Dad knew many of them by name. I don’t remember there ever being many children though, perhaps that’s because many of the other gardeners were older and their children had long since grown up also. Sometimes we would get bored and go off down the country lanes, but not very often, from what I remember.
Our cars always had some tools in the back ready for a trip to the allotment. My Dad has never been particularly car proud and has run some proper old bangers over the years, but that’s another story for another day.