Losing the Plot!

PUBLISHED: 10:20 21 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013

Losing the Plot!

Losing the Plot!

There is something deeply comforting about walking around an allotment in the summer - honest people hard at work, the drone of bees, neat rows of ripening legumes, brassicas and roots sharing space with colourful sweet peas and dahlias. And of co...

Allotments have been a feature of our urban and rural landscape for centuries, very much a British tradition you might say, but in spite of a resurgence in popularity in recent years their continuing existence is now seriously under threat from local councils and private landlords who are giving up the land to developers determined to concrete over the green lungs of Hampshire. And there's not much we can do about it, except get our backs behind the allotment movement and help make a stand for a peculiarly British pastime that goes back over 400 years.

It's true that once these highly productive factories of nature suffered from a hopelessly unglamorous image - especially just after the second world war when allotment gardening was probably at its peak with over 1.5 million plots available compared with today's count of just over 300,000. Back then it was 'needs must' with food rationing and scant availability of fresh produce. Most people also thought of allotments as the last remaining preserve of the male, a safe place where he could retreat to tend his vegetables and doze in his potting shed away from the pressures of family life.

Back in fashion

Nowadays it's less a case of 'having to' and more about 'wanting to'. Allotment gardening is fashionable once more and our eagerness to pick up a spade and get stuck in is being attributed to modern day worries: global warming, carbon footprints, food miles and our growing obsession with feeding our families with home-grown organic produce.

Getting a plot of one's own virtually guarantees a healthy abundance of fresh vegetables and gets the family out in the fresh air too. There are more women and children participating now than ever before, a trend that all but the most curmudgeonly traditional of 'alloties' - as they are sometimes known - supports because it means new blood. And new blood means the possibility of a bright future. At least that's what Steve Dennett of the Romsey Allotment Association thinks. "The changes I've seen of late," says Steve, "is that allotment gardening has become a family matter, and this site for one has become more of a family environment. It's also become an environment for young people, women and friends. We have groups of young ladies here, for example, who've got together and taken a plot, and they work tirelessly producing their own vegetables because they want to eat good, healthy, home-grown food. It's wonderful to see."

Redevelopment threats

Yet even at an apparently secure and private site like the one Steve gardens at in Romsey, the spectre of redevelopment can rear its ugly head. "Our landlord is the Broadlands Estate and they provided a site for locals here for over 120 years. We have 12 acres which gives us around 146 plots and there are something like 400-500 people involved."

A sense of panic spread around the site as quickly as the tomato blight back in 2005 when the local authority wanted to close down two medical centres in Romsey and move them onto the allotment site. "The developer made approaches to Broadlands' Management to throw us off," remembers Steve, "but thankfully it never went through in the end." At Fordingbridge the picture is slightly different, and of great interest to those who've suffered from the deluges that have caused widespread havoc and flooding this summer. Malcolm Smith, an allotment holder at the site for the last three years, explains, "The national matter of concern on any allotment site is the threat of building. My view about Fordingbridge is that it is not likely here. The site is on a designated flood plain, and in the light of recent events, I doubt if building would be considered, or even allowed. The downside of being on a flood plain, however, is that we get flooded!"

Like Steve, Malcolm has also noticed an upsurge of interest in this gentle pastime.

"The waiting list has tended to increase with the rising popularity of allotments," says Malcolm, "but the council has been able to bring that down by encouraging existing allotment holders to relinquish parts of their plots if they find it hard to cope. Now the allotmenteers are a pretty mixed bunch, ranging in age from a schoolboy to a gent over 80 who gave up last year. There are those who are vigorous and others who suffer poor health. Some, such as myself, come in almost every day while others come at weekends or only a few weeks each year. The surprising thing is that all of these manage to produce significant crops. As far as I know, no-one grows for show, everything is for the table."

Produce to pavements

What happened at sites at South Street and Monks Way in Eastleigh is perhaps more representative of the trend for getting rid of allotment sites. They both fell fowl of the developers in 2003, and the story made headline news - locally at least.

John Prescott approved an application from the council to close the two sites and replace them with new sites elsewhere in Eastleigh and in Chandler's Ford. In spite of the council's provision of car parking, supplies storage and even the installation of toilets at the new sites, the move didn't go down too well with the allotment holders who believed they were being palmed off with inferior land. Let's just say that once the allotment holders were out of the way, Eastleigh Borough Council submitted a planning application for 432 new homes on the 13.5 hectare site, and the council granted planning for the development to go ahead.

At the time, council leader Keith House, explained, "The council's proposals to build homes on these allotments are necessary if the council is to meet Government house building targets and if it is to meet the growing demand for new homes. I also believe that the establishment of the new allotment sites will benefit more borough residents."

Ironically, the growth of allotment fever is commensurate with the gathering pace of development and the continued reduction in the size of domestic gardens. As modern houses now barely have room enough for a handkerchief-sized patch of turf and a family car, its move over Uncle Arthur with flat cap and an armful of winter cabbages, and hello to young families keen to grow and pick their own Swiss chard, rocket and sunflowers. Traditionally, of course, gardeners are peaceful and nature-loving people who are unlikely to stand and fight their corner against housing corporations and council planners. But as long as the demand for allotments continues to increase and residents demand what is, after all, their legal right - a nice little allotment site - Hampshire's allotment sites are safe for at least another generation or two.

Show your support:l Get an allotment yourself - if you can. Waiting lists can be long in big cities and towns, but you might get lucky. Once on site you'll need to keep your patch looking good or run the risk of being asked to give up your plot! Ask your local council for more details on a site near you and how you can apply. Need inspiration on what to grow and how to grow it? Visit the RHS website for valuable information, hints and tips on growing vegetables.

There's an annual National Allotments week - this year it was held on August 13-19 - why not visit the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardeners site for more information on what took place and for details of next year's events visit www.nsalg.org.uk

Buy a book about allotments. The Allotment Book by A M Clevely is a good one to start with (£17.99). Or get a book about vegetables to give you inspiration: Grow Your Own Veg by Carol Klein (£16.99). Both are available from all good booksellers.

Get started by buying seeds: suppliers include Suttons (www.suttons.co.uk) and Thompson & Morgan (www.thompson-morgan.com) - ask for a brochure and start planning next year's crops and recipes.

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