The importance of having land designated or communities to grow food on is a long-standing British tradition. In World War II we were digging for victory on allotments, in 1845 the Victorians passed laws compelling local authorities to provide them, in fear of a peasants’ revolt and even the Anglo-Saxons had them. Having the opportunity to grow your own food should not just be a luxury in the UK, maybe it should be a right.

Photography by Caitlin Lock
Cover image: Beccy

As modern supermarket culture developed, the demand for allotments fell. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a nationwide renaissance. Visiting Marina Allotments in St Leonards it’s clear to see the benefits of having one is not just nutritional. For many people, tending to an allotment offers a break away from their daily life. Henry, a musician usually heard playing reggae on his trombone, comes to his plot for peace and quiet. “When I’m up here I don’t listen to nothing, my music is the wind and the birds and the sea sometimes if it’s rough”.

“You have your own oasis” added Ratko. He and his partner, Rowena, live in flats and access to this outdoor space is incredibly beneficial to both their physical and mental health. “But don’t underestimate how much hard work it is”. There can be a high turnover with allotments. When people arrive, they’re full of enthusiasm but often need help. Some leave and some stick it out and learn from their neighbours.

It’s that sense of camaraderie that keeps many people coming back. “It gives a feeling of belonging,” said Rowena, “everything is so fragmented these days, the community here is important”. Another resident, Rhod, agreed. “You still feel part of a community somehow, even if you’re not joining in”. It offers a place for both socialisation and solitude. There’s a caring atmosphere on the allotments which extends beyond people tending to their plants, and a great diversity of people who learn from one another in many ways. Those who, for whatever reason, can’t manage a whole plot to themselves can appoint associates to help them, or are encouraged to get involved with the community plots where people come together and share the load. The committee also organise events throughout the year, like bringing your own apples along to make cider or using your produce to bake pizzas in their pizza oven, hand-built by some of the residents.

Di

It’s particularly impressive to see how the range of professions join together to share and build skills. “I didn’t have anywhere to express my creativity,” said Mark, who was an accountant when he and his partner, Beccy first got their plot 10 years ago. Tending to their allotment led to an explosion of artistic energy and a complete career change, he’s now a cabinet maker. “We can’t wait to see what the next ten years bring!”.

Though, for some residents, the future of their allotment is concerning, as climate change looms. “We’re having to start thinking about planting different things,” said Rowena, “the last few years have been very unpredictable, the plants don’t know what’s going on”. The committee is looking at doing more conservation of rainwater and finding alternative ways of irrigating.

There are also solar panels on the allotment shop roof to power their machinery. A forest garden on the allotments has trees that are coppiced and used to make fences or bean poles, and one lovely resident, Di, fashions her old nylon tights into trellis.

Nothing goes to waste! Di uses the weeds on her plot to make herbal teas and has a very holistic approach. “You’ve got control over what you’re consuming,” she said, which was echoed by Beccy “it’s a statement against mass production!”. This feeling isn’t just limited to allotments. I also visited Josephine Fairley and Craig Sams who grow produce from their back garden in Hastings Old Town. Whilst their garden is quite large, the area they reserve for produce is reasonably small, consisting of a greenhouse and two beds.

“How often do you eat produce from your garden?” I asked, “365 days a year!” Josephine replied proudly. “We grow herbs, salads, corn, courgettes, tomatoes… and we’ll discuss Craig’s dandelion patch later!” she laughed. Each morning, Craig sprinkles dandelions and herbs on to his homemade bread with some mayonnaise for his breakfast. Before they lived in Hastings, they were in London with only a balcony, but even that small space didn’t stop them from growing their own produce. ‘What would you grow if all you had was a windowsill?’ I asked. “Tomatoes” replied Josephine. “I’d get an allotment”, said Craig.


Josephine & Craig

It’s not just growing your own food that brings people joy. Many people who I met on the allotments choose to produce flowers as well. Jen grows an array of stunning blooms and does so as a way of saying thank you, “my husband used to run this plot but then he had a stroke, people help me a lot so it’s really nice to be able to give them a bouquet”. One of the most touching things I found on the allotments was their ability to connect you to different people or places. Sally grows dahlias, which filled her garden when she was a child. “My dad used to grow them, he died thirty years ago but every now and then I look around and think he’d be really proud of me”. There’s an unexpected power and sense of magic, where people are growing and planning for their future whilst nurturing their past. There are residents with young families, finding pleasure in teaching their children how to grow, and one person recently had their ashes scattered on their plot. They mean so much to people.

Allotments are social and community-based in their nature. They’re rented, never owned, and you officially can’t make a profit from them. Ever changing with the seasons or each new resident, they provide solace and a sense of belonging. It’s no surprise that after Covid, with our newfound appreciation of outdoor space and human connection, allotments are having their day in the sun once again.

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