"The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth."
- Dorothy Frances Gurney, Garden Thoughts
"Most of the men sang or whistled as they dug..." - Flora Thompson, Lark Rise
For generations of working people, having a garden was not just about pretty flowers. For country folk, employed on the land, the back garden was where fruit and vegetables were grown, the front being reserved for the "show garden" (the origin of the cottage garden).
Since Mankind first settled, people have grown crops. At first, they probably cleared land near their settlements, and grew their own wheat and barley, and raised their animals. In England, this had been going on for thousands of years, when along came the feudal lords, various Enclosure Acts and the Industrial Revolution, all of which spoiled the show. From being able to grow one's own food, most people began to rely on others for sustenance.
In some places, common land was reserved for grazing of animals, but even for those on the edges of the city, there was a reliance on others to provide for them, often at great cost. Into this vacuum came many concerned people, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, many model villages were constructed (such as that at Bournville), with sufficient space for the residents to grow vegetables, and even raise a small number of animals.
The Allotment Act
The old systems of farming relied on small strips of land being rented out, the rent being taken in produce. Over time, many landowners "enclosed" this land, creating larger and more profitable fields, and taking on their former tenants as workers. In addition to the removal of common land, this reduced the ability of the common man to grow crops to feed his family. This Agricultural Revolution had a major impact on poor farmers, although many landlords did allow them small strips near their own homes. In the 17th century the General Enclosure Acts formalised the process by which a community or an individual farmer could enclose land, and various of the Acts recognised this, and made allowance for allotments (small parcels) of land to be made available.
The 1887 Allotment Act recognised that more and more people were living in towns and cities, and forced local authorities to provide land for allotment gardens where there was demand. There certainly was enough demand. Many workers could not afford fresh food and wanted to grow it, and the health of factory workers and city-dwellers was declining. Whilst many rejoiced at these improvements, many councils resisted, and in 1907, the Smallholding and Allotment Act became law. This was more strictly policed and was a great success, as parish, urban district and borough councils were all equally responsible.
Digging for Victory
The Second World War saw Britain in a state of siege from German warships, especially submarines. The island status of the country left it vulnerable, and food and many basic commodities were rationed, from fuel to bread. The Government was concerned, and launched the "Dig For Victory" campaign. Posters everywhere encouraged householders to use every spare bit of land to grow food. Millions responded, and of course, anyone lucky enough to have an allotment could reap the bounty for his family and neighbours.
It all worked. Tens of thousands of allotment holders became market gardeners and helped supply the deficit. The result was a healthy population, able to support other war efforts (including tearing down most of Britain's metal railings to make munitions). Some have said that the Land Girls won the war for Britain, but the allotment gardeners certainly helped.
Nowadays, every community has at least one area set aside for allotments, there are probably about 230,000 plots available, and many organisations have sprung up to encourage and support those who choose to use them. So, what is the point? After all, these days most people have access to inexpensive food, have a reasonable income, and plenty of vitamins, so why have an allotment in the first place?
I can only tell you from my own experience. My own decision was made intitially for one reason. Fresh vegetables. I don't mean "fresh" by supermarket standards, two to five days out of the ground, I mean really fresh. Fresh enough to have the smell of the soil on the potato, the gorgeous scent from the carrot, the springiness still in the runner bean. I wanted to be free from GM foods too, and to get some fresh air and exercise.
I had my memories of my grandfather's allotment garden too - the neat, towering rows of beans, knotting onions into strings, and hanging them on nails in his shed. I recall the sweet smell of compost, and the delights of grubbing the spuds up out of the damp, fragrant earth. Above all, I wanted that sense of peace and satisfaction that I observed in him, the joy of teasing life from earth and seed and water, to carry home the bounty and enjoy it.
So I rented my garden. I forget how much it cost, but it was about 40 feet (12 metres) square (today, that would cost me about £30 a year in Nottingham). It took me the better part of the winter to clear enough of the brambles, goutweed and thistles, along with the occasional horseradish, as well as a couple of tree root remnants (it was the site of an ancient apple orchard).
I set out a bed for the carrots (with some sharp sand dug well in), one for asparagus (which I double-dug and composted well) and a framework for the string beans. I put a roof on the brick hut in the corner, and settled in, working anything up to 10 hours a day at the weekends, and soon enough, began to gather my produce. I took home potatoes, and root vegetables, brassicas of all sorts from turnips to cabbages and broccoli. We ate fresh peas and beans, peppers from the cold frame and pears from the huge tree in the corner.
Fresh herbs were another part of the tale - we had a little patch at the back door, but here I could grow my beloved sweet basil in sufficient quantity to make real pesto. With sage, tarragon, lovely chives and garlic, I was, so to speak, in clover.
But the vegetables were only half the story. There was the gathering of stuff. "Wombling" for timber, bricks, tiles, anything that could be used. For the allotment gardener is an inventive creature, and will not spend good money on factory-made coldframes if he can make one from paving slabs and old window frames.
"Closer to God in the garden"
With my water butt and compost heap, good nettle tea and organic regime, I felt at home with the whole earth and the goodness I was growing. It was a spiritual place for me too.
I could stand at the top of "my land" and look out over the city (just three-quarters of a mile away) and gloat. This green and pleasant land was my little piece of country, the hedgerow full of wildlife, the soil full of growing things raised by the sweat of my brow. I was a king in those moments.
Then there was the sense of community. Whether this is a throwback to the War years I don't know, but the neighbouring gardeners (there were over 300 gardens, from an old manor house orchard) were an amazingly social and supportive group, willing to help and advise at the drop of a hat. When I first started, their old tools came my way (my main tool being an army-surplus garden fork), so I quickly had a hoe, trowel and border spade. Tatty but functional.
That "tatty but functional" describes many allotment gardens, it was certainly true of mine. On a recent train journey back from Bristol, I noted many allotments by the railway line, with weather-beaten huts and gardeners, but with straight lines of vegetables and flowers, and doubtless contentment reigned in there just as it did in mine, my grandfather's and many more besides.
Of course, not every garden is scrupulously maintained, but even the neglected plots have huge value; this time to the wildlife that comes to roost, nest, feed and mate. This is an environmental treasure we should never forget.
Damodred says I miss ours .... I suspect the generation of these was similar in Poland (where ours is), and I have many fond memories.
Dedicated to Grandpa, with fond memories, and thanks