People find it hard to believe there was no waiting list in Oxford when I got my first allotment plot in 2018. In fact, four allotment sites had closed in that decade, because of a lack of use. But digging a little deeper – the story of allotments in the city of Oxford, as it is across the UK, is complex. As Crouch and Ward accurately observe: ‘There is no typical allotment-holder or allotment site. The diversity of allotments has been shown in the variety of experiences in different parts of the country that we have described.’ In Oxford, the four sites that closed were in less well-off areas of the city. Arguably, in these places residents had less clout to challenge the council as the value of urban land continues to rise. In the financially wealthier parts of Oxford, however, plot waiting lists run into years.
All of this had changed by 2021. Oxford’s allotments were full for the first time in decades, and sites without waiting lists since the 1960s now had one. The reason was the COVID-19 pandemic. During the lockdowns, cultivating an allotment site counted as an hour of daily exercise, and access to one quickly became a coveted prize – especially for those who did not have a garden or outdoor space at home. I spoke with many people whose allotments were now their sanctuary.
This access to allotments during the pandemic came down to two controversial words that were added to the name of the National Allotment Society in the 1960s: ‘Leisure Gardens’. It followed a report by the geographer Professor Harry Thorpe who was inquiring (on behalf of the government) why so many allotments had fallen into disuse. He felt allotments needed upgrading if they were to survive. That upgrade did not happen – most allotments, for example, still do not have toilets on them. Instead, the 1970s brought about events that perennially ensure the survival of allotments – another national crisis. At that time, it was a steep climb in oil and gas prices that strained the economy and triggered an interest in self-sufficiency and being able to grow your own food. It might not have been on the scale of the Dig for Victory campaigns of the Second World War, but by the end of the 1970s there were double the allotment plots available across the country compared to the start of the First World War.
Yet cultivating on allotment sites has always been so much more than ‘growing your own’. As Crouch and Ward put it, ‘The allotment is a different kind of place in which different values prevail.’ These different values often seem paradoxical to the non-allotmenteer, but are precisely what ensure that allotment sites survive. In this book, one gardener tells Crouch and Ward: ‘The allotment is 51 per cent hard work, and 49 per cent disappointment.’ So why on earth do people carry on allotmenteering? When I carried out my research across numerous sites in Oxford, the words that people use to describe allotments tell us why – ‘paradise’, ‘magical’. Allotment sites are utopias.
Where else in the city can you rent land for between £8 and £30 a year? A plot that provides an escape from the drudgery of life, if you need one. A plot that allows you to grow plants in the company of people from all over the world. Allotment sites are a typical example of English material cultural heritage, yet at the same time they are more diverse in people and plants than the cities that surround them, and have been for over three-quarters of a century. As well as the ‘old boys’ (white English working-class male allotmenteers who have been growing on sites in a more or less unbroken chain since the First World War), allotments welcome people who use them to ‘re-root’. People like the Jamaican man who came to London as part of the Windrush generation and soon found a place to grow his callaloo. The ‘old boys’ on the site had never seen callaloo before, but allotmenteers all over the country like nothing more than experiments and seed exchanges. By the time the Jamaican man died, decades later, nearly every plot on the site was growing some of his callaloo.
The ‘old boys’ I had the privilege of gardening alongside in Oxford were just as welcoming to me. Although allotment sites are places of great individual freedom, where no other allotmenteer will tell another what to do, ‘old boys’ extend help to novices who respectfully ask for it. With their incredible knowledge of plants, insects, soil and the weather, they taught me a lot about the biodiversity on allotments. They revealed the gift of the English maritime climate, making it possible to grow an astonishing array of plants whose origins come from every corner of the globe. When I asked allotmenteers why they would grow so many different things, even if they knew very little about them, they would say it was because of ‘love’.
This love and generosity spills off individual plots, through the allotment fences and into the wider city. On every allotment site, there is usually a place where people put their excess crops for anyone to help themselves. This is deliberate. Gifts carry obligations, and by being able to help oneself without being seen, the taker doesn’t owe anyone anything. They can also pay it forward, placing their extra produce at another time when they have it. I met a woman who survived on this gifted food – she lost her job during the lockdowns, and because she had only just secured an allotment, didn’t yet have her first harvest. Other allotmenteers grow cut flowers with the sole purpose to give them to people (often strangers) across the city, to spread joy. Even allotment fences that have been steadily erected around sites over the last few decades, to keep produce safe, break the normal rules of a city. Instead of keeping people away, allotment fences are often social places where passers-by strike up conversations with allotmenteers about what they’re growing, as well as to get a glimpse of the inviting chaos inside.
The fascination with allotments extends far beyond their fences and even beyond the British cities that they exist in. The Diggers, who are regarded as the ancestors of allotmenteering, may have had their efforts to create allotments in the 1600s thwarted, but they nevertheless went on to inspire movements around the world, from English squatters to the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra. It is after all a utopic ideal to be able to have your individual piece of land, growing and sharing a communal space without losing your own sense of freedom.
Despite their otherworldliness, allotments are very much a thing of the everyday, and allotmenteers routinely work on their plots much in the same way that people hold down jobs, go to school and carry out the things that we must do to live. Allotments are also utopias, because they are impossible spaces. They are rural artefacts that migrated to the city with their people. They are public spaces, but they are also private. They are local and cosmopolitan. They are well known and much loved but also curiously hidden from view. Every citizen in the country (as long as they go along with five other people from different households in their neighbourhood) has the legal right to demand an allotment from their local council. This is another thing that people do not believe when I tell them. Read it for yourself: Section 8, the Allotment Act. I have even witnessed it for myself during my research: six different households got together in Oxfordshire and held the council to account, and they are still growing on the site that was developed for them.
This is why allotments will continue well into the future, long after we have all become compost ourselves. And what makes allotments magical is the capacity they have to quietly sustain the cities that surround them – whether directly or through the imagination. Our urban areas are richer places for the knowledge that somewhere in our midst, there are people quietly engaging in an ongoing relationship with nature and the land, and making spaces more liveable for themselves and for us all.
JC Niala is an allotment historian who was awarded a Social History Society prize for recreating a 1918-style allotment as a living memorial to those who lost their lives during the First World War and the Covid-19 pandemic. She is also a playwright, poet and essayist who was awarded the Frank Allen Creative Writing Prize for her essay Field Notes from an African Anthropologist.
Banal Utopia is taken from the afterword to the new edition of The Allotment by David Crouch and Colin Ward, out now.