It was a sentiment that kept coming to mind as I explored St Anns Allotments in Nottingham. Situated east of the city centre in a socially-deprived area that was once viewed as a no-go zone due to gang warfare and gun crime, its gardeners dwindled to such a small number during the early 1990s that many doubted whether the allotments would survive.
An aerial map from the time shows large swathes of abandoned land reclaimed by nature, and just a few pockets of functioning gardens, many of which had to be protected from constant assault by thieves and arsonists with walls of barbed wire. Today, however, the allotments are at full capacity and, as I stroll around the neat and well-kept 30-hectare site with heritage officer Mo Cooper, the closest we come to any danger is a group of shyly smiling schoolchildren looking for a hidden monster.
The transformation seems extraordinary, and stands as a testament to the dedication and hard work of a band of believers. The allotments’ ‘small group of thoughtful, committed citizens’ may not have saved the wider world, but they have changed this little part of it and as a consequence, changed the worlds of many who’ve become involved in its ongoing project.
“Although food has been grown on this bit of land since the early 1300s, it wasn’t until the 1800s that it was divided up into the plots seen today”
During our stroll, we witness no signs of decline or urban decay. Indeed, the gardens seem to stand outside of time, exuding a lulling sense of peace and lasting stillness. But it hasn’t always been this way and, as Cooper explains, reaching this point has been as bumpy a ride as the one provided by the pot-holed lanes that once wound their way around the site.
Although food has been grown on this bit of land since the early 1300s, it wasn’t until the 1800s that it was divided up into the plots seen today. At that time, Nottingham was experiencing a boom thanks to its textile industry, but the rules governing the surrounding common land meant that its swelling population wasn’t able to spill out beyond the town walls.
‘Enclosure came late to Nottingham,’ explains Cooper. This left a population that had grown from 11,000 people in 1750 to around 50,000 in 1831 crammed into what was little more than a small medieval settlement. By 1883, in an area of Nottingham known as Marsh, the population density stood at 750 residents per hectare, compared with just under 50 per hectare in the wider town.
Not surprisingly, disease flourished. Records from earlier that century show that half of Marsh’s children died before they were five-years-old.
Even the emerging merchant class found itself overlooking slum marshes and at risk of contracting cholera. It was a frustration shared by many residents of newly industrialised British cities, and those who could afford to, sought out land in the country.
“The lanes act as hallways, with smaller green, cloistered alleyways running off them, opening up onto individual gardens”
The then tenants of St Anns allotments, a group of freemen called the Burgesses, saw an opportunity and divided up their land to rent out to wealthy families as ‘guinea gardens’. ‘They would use them to entertain colleagues and friends,’ says Cooper.
They wouldn’t have done much gardening themselves; many employed a gardener and summerhouses, costing as much as £20,000 in today’s money, were viewed as the ultimate hosting accessory. ‘It was all about enjoying the three Ps of Victorian gardens: peace, privacy and pleasure,’ Cooper explains.
This explains the high hedges. Unlike more modern, open-plan allotments, most of the St Anns plots are surrounded by hedgerows up to one and a half metres in height. ‘There are 50 kilometres of hedgerow here altogether,’ says Cooper. Now they provide sanctuary for the area’s birds – 43 different species were recorded during a recent count, including threatened species such as the bullfinch and willow tit – but when they were planted, seclusion was the main concern.
It makes walking around the allotments an unusual experience. The lanes act as hallways, with smaller green, cloistered alleyways running off them, opening up onto individual gardens.
The set up inspires a feeling of intrigue, as much of what you see is just a teasing impression of what might lie beyond – a plum tree peeking above a hedgerow here; the roof of a summerhouse there; a hose disappearing under a gate; the sound of some chuckling children hidden from view; and the occasional tantalising glimpse of a vegetable bed or an allotmenteer. It leaves you with a sense of exclusion when you’re out in the lanes and an almost smug feeling of inclusion when you’re invited into a plot.
“By 1992, only half of the plots were occupied and whole areas were abandoned”
When the Nottingham Enclosure Award was finally passed in 1845, the city’s well-to-do began to move out to suburban villas and had less need for their detached gardens. Instead, they were taken up by nearby workers living in the newly built back-to-back terrace housing, who used the plots to help feed their families.
The allotments continued to be popular throughout the later Victorian period and subsequent world wars. In the peace that followed, new faces began to appear at the allotments as waves of immigration brought new communities to the area. ‘Just after the Second World War, there were quite a few Polish plot holders,’ says Cooper. ‘They kept hives and were good at making honey.’
Later, during the 1950s and 60s, men from the new West Indian communities, many of whom had been farmers or kitchen gardeners back home, began to take on plots. Tom Oliver’s plot, now a heritage show garden open to the public, is dedicated to the memory of the long-term St Anns gardener, who moved to the area from Jamaica.
‘It was one of the best ones,’ Oliver once said of his allotment. ‘Me grow tomato, chrysant, plenty of callaloo, corn on the cob, red peas, runner bean, and all that. I make good use of it... Was eating good, man!’
After the 1960s, allotmenteering went into decline. ‘The only people left were the pipe and flat-cap brigade,’ says Cooper. ‘Men in their fifties and sixties.’
By 1992, only half of the plots were occupied and whole areas were abandoned. ‘The allotments suffered from the type of antisocial behaviour that all derelict areas tend to attract,’ says Cooper, ‘vandalism, drug taking, sleeping rough, prostitution.
‘One man had his sheds burnt down three times,’ she continues. ‘I don’t know how they carried on. If it hadn’t been for that determined group of gardeners, a good percentage of whom were West Indian, the gardens wouldn’t have survived in the form they have today.’
“Now the allotments are full and have a waiting list for the first time in their existence. The gardeners range from 18-year-olds to 80-year-olds and reflect the diversity of those in the local area”
When the local government threatened to sell off part of the land for development, the baton was taken up by another small, determined band who campaigned to save the allotments as a community asset. ‘They were quite a different group,’ says Cooper. ‘Largely female and middle class.’
They called in English Heritage and managed to secure listing of the site as the oldest and largest area of detached town gardens in the world. ‘It was an extraordinary achievement,’ Cooper continues. ‘Battles to save allotments have rarely been successful. I think they were different because they had a real vision of what the place could be and they had come from campaigning backgrounds such as CND and [against the] colour bar [during the 1960s, many pubs still had separate rooms for West Indians patrons].’ The subsequent Heritage Lottery funding enabled the allotment management to build a visitor centre, create a show garden, and install a bore hole, among many other on-site improvements.
Now the allotments are full and have a waiting list for the first time in their existence. The gardeners range from 18-year-olds to 80-year-olds and reflect the diversity of those in the local area – from descendants of Nottingham miners to Eastern Europeans, Iraqi Kurds and even representatives of the local pagan population.
“People are very precious about their plots. A lot take more care of them than they do their homes”
Initially, people had to be lured back with offers of free rent, and the challenges faced by individuals restoring abandoned plots mirrored those faced by the campaigners. One found a hive completely hidden at the back of their land. ‘We had to call in the local beekeepers,’ says Cooper.
Another local couple, St Anns residents Angela Thornhill and her partner Mark Johnson, took on an area that had been almost completely reclaimed by nature. ‘When we first arrived, it took three of us just to push the gate open,’ says Thornhill.
Now, their plot has been transformed. The broken glass that once littered the site has been carefully collected; the Rag Beck, a stream believed to have healing properties, has been embanked; a series of neatly laid out raised beds have replaced the previous tangle of shrubs; and the plot’s crowning castle is a huge recycled summerhouse with a large veranda, the whole thing constructed entirely from old estate agent ‘For Sale’ signs.
Along the way, Thornhill and Johnson have discovered a myriad of ‘treasures’, including old Bovril bottles, antique clay dolls, mice, newts, a deep Victorian well, an original handheld Nintendo device, and a newfound sense of peace. ‘It has made me a lot more chilled,’ says Thornhill.
‘People are very precious about their plots,’ says Cooper. ‘A lot take more care of them than they do their homes. The underlying soil is clay, so you have to nurture it and literally put a lot into it in order to make it work. But there’s also a strong sense of community here. A lot of, “I’ll swap you some of my tomato seedlings for some of your bean plants,” and that sort of thing.’
As we come to the end of our tour, I have a sense of worlds being changed in many different ways – a national asset retained, a local asset restored, and people’s personal worlds transformed through the glorious opportunity to work on the land.
Now, with funding coming to an end, St Anns Allotments step tentatively into a new era, but Cooper is optimistic. ‘The allotments are thriving,’ she says. ‘It’s going to be challenging over the next few years, but I think we’ll be alright.’
This was published in the October 2014 edition of Geographical magazine.