Mrs Thatcher was not a friend of allotments, despite (or perhaps because of) being a grocer’s daughter from the famously potato-growing county of Lincolnshire. In July 1980 her government attempted to repeal Section 8 of the 1925 Act. Had she succeeded it would have meant abolition of the last remaining safeguards against local authorities wishing to dispose of allotment land, thereby enabling them to use the proceeds in whatever way they saw fit. Allotment associations from all over the country were mobilised. Resistance was doughty. There was even talk of a march on London. For once the Iron Lady relented.
It was a cohort of equally determined women of a green-fingered variety who led the way when it came to the revival of the allotment movement. As the fashion for pipe-smoking, cap-wearing, cabbage-growing and shed-building dwindled so the number of female allotmenteers increased. Having made up only 2% of plot-holders in 1960, gender parity was achieved within a lifetime. Wendy Skinner Smith (also from Lincolnshire) a female pioneer at Cripley Meadow and Chair of the Oxford and District Federation of Allotment Associations 2007-2019, was adjudged Britain’s Best Organic Gardener and Best Woman Gardener in the Royal Horticultural Society’s nationwide allotment competition (1990). She has fed her entire family from home-grown Cripley produce all year round and ever since.
Oxford today boasts 36 allotment sites, including the gloriously named Spragglesea Mead and Dean’s Ham, adjacent to Hinksey Park. Some plots are very neat and regimented. Some are rather more ad hoc. All are bursting with life. And just as each has its own distinctive soil character, so each has its own history, replete with human stories. For allotments are not just places of vegetation: they are spaces of community and folk lore, monuments to both individual commitment and common purpose.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than at Court Place Farm in Old Marston. Here, six people have come together with adjoining plots to form what is known as a forest garden: a joint endeavour organised on permaculture principles. Clearing away chest-high brambles and nettles, scything back docks and thistles, covering the area with cardboard and woodchip to form a weed-preventing mulch, pollarding a willow to provide fencing, collecting bundles of brush to deter deer, planting fruit trees and bushes – alder and apple, damson and greengage, raspberry and gooseberry, red, back and white currant – sowing beans and spinach, making a pond and lining it with local clay, ‘celebrating the land together’ under the canopy of an oak tree planted in a previous century …
Studies show that allotments have: (1) the greatest insect diversity of any urban habitat; (2) much higher average food yields than farms; (3) significantly better topsoils than commercial producers. Their carbon footprint is negligible. The food they bring forth is fresher, cheaper, healthier, and tastier.
Moreover clear evidence is emerging of what scientists like to call the ‘bio-psycho-social’ benefits of growing natural produce. It seems that the camaraderie of the spade, as well as the physical exercise and sense of engagement, are significant in their effect, to the extent that doctors are now ‘socially prescribing’ gardening as a pathway to well-being. The green world is good for us. We may live in a cramped flat on a crowded street, but an allotment under the Oxfordshire sky is never far away.
And so to the centenary year.
Seven grant applications were approved at the annual Oxford Allotment Liaison Meeting: Barns Court and West Minchery Farm for solar security lighting; Barracks Lane for polytunnel work; Fairacres for a ‘trees for bees’ project; John Garne Way for shed security; OSTNB for path restoration, St Clements and District for rainwater harvesting.
The total amount was budgeted at under £3 thousand [*NB: UK farm subsidies last year amounted to over £3.5 billion.] It was resolved that any additional funds would be used to purchase vouchers for the allotment competition.
The Big Green Day Out, planned for 8 June in Broad Street, had to be cancelled at the last minute due to poor weather – a disappointment on one level, though several invitees were heard to mutter, ‘We could do with a drop of rain.’ A sunnier reception was held al fresco on 21 August to mark the hundredth birthday of the Federation. And on 28 October a giant centenary bash took place at West Oxford Community Centre, next to Twenty Pound Meadow.
And the winner of the Challenge Trophy was …
Find out about the Oxford & District Federation of Allotment Associations (O&DFAA) and the allotment associations who manage the 36 individual sites here.