Is it a sign that I am fully middle-aged, not to say old, that I have just nipped down the allotment? Probably – although, as we shall see, the nature of allotments and gardening has been changing in the UK. But first, what is an allotment? Basically, it’s a small area of land usually owned by the council (local government) or parish (local church) that has been set aside for people to grow vegetables on. There’s normally an allotment in every local area of a town or city, although you might not see them because they are often hidden away behind a group of houses and might only be reached through a narrow path and a gate. Each allotment is divided into a number of different sections – or plots – which people rent from the council for a relatively small amount of money. The one I have costs about £40 a year. And on each plot, there may be several beds with rows of vegetables.
Originally, allotments were provided for the urban poor to help them survive. People were literally allotted a piece of land – given it for a specific purpose. Since the early twentieth century, local governments have been legally obliged to provide land for people to grow food on, where there is a need. Allotments were also expanded during the war as part of the ‘Dig for victory’ campaign, to grow food for the whole nation.
For many years, the typical image of an allotment holder was a working-class man who would go down the allotment as much to avoid ‘the wife’ – or ‘her indoors’ – as to do gardening. The man would have his shed – a small wooden house that he’d keep his tools in – where he might sit and drink tea, smoke and read the paper – occasionally going out to do a bit of digging or talk to fellow allotment holders about their onions. Incidentally, someone who ‘knows their onions’ is someone who is skilled and knows their stuff! The allotment also was the place where competitive veg growing started – most holders were men, after all – and being men, the competition was very much ‘Mine is bigger than yours! Look at the size of my carrots!’
These days, the image of both allotments and gardening is changing. With the growing interest in foodie culture and the focus on organic food and knowing the provenance (exactly where it was grown) of what you eat, home-growing and allotments have come back into fashion and are increasingly being taken over by the middle classes. I would like to say that these days young hipsters are as likely to be found digging potatoes as serving up coffee by the ounce in some trendy cafe – as this article suggests. Sadly, that would be stretching the truth. There are certainly no bronzed, muscly hipsters on our allotment, but maybe they are all on the waiting list, because allotments have become so popular that there are now thousands of people waiting to get a plot – and that could be a long wait as people don’t generally retire from allotments – they go there to retire!
As well as the changing class of people growing veg, allotments have also become much more female over the years as women have also discovered the pleasures of getting into a shed and escaping family life. It’s just that these sheds now have curtains and look a lot nicer!
Why not study with us and find out more about British culture on our Advanced English and Culture or English Boost courses this summer?
- Are there any equivalents of allotments in your country? How popular are they?
- Is foodie culture and organic food a big thing where you are? Why? / Why not?
- Do you have a shed? What’s in it?
- Where would you go to escape family life – or is that just a weirdly British idea?