I bet the word ‘allotment’ conjures up an image in your mind something like this: a small-ish site, plots laid out in rectangles, each one completely visible, lots of sheds, greenhouses and compost bins. St Anns Allotments are nothing like this.
St Anns allotments are the oldest detached town gardens in Britain, possibly the world; it’s history goes back over 600 years. The Grade 2 listed site is huge – 75 acres with 700 plots. 550 plots are allocated to individual tenants with the remainder designated for community or wildlife sites. The gardens are still in the layout created in the 1830’s, when the site was established as hedged ‘pleasure gardens’ for wealthy Victorian town-dwellers whose grand houses did not typically have gardens.
Once inside it feels like you’re wandering down country lanes, banked high on each side by hedgerow and ageing brick walls – so unlike the modern alltoment sites we’re all familiar with. These hedgerows mark out the individual plots and provide an important habitat for wildlife. There are 32 miles of them on this site – imagine keeping all that under control.
The hedged layout creates absolute privacy for each plot, a reminder of the Victorians desire for “peace, privacy and pleasure”. These people were serious about their leisure; the modern equivalent of around £20,000 would be spent on a brick summerhouse and the garden was a status symbol, used to show off, entertain and certainly not to produce food (staff would be employed to do the actual gardening and maintenance).
I took part in a heritage tour of the site, where we had the chance to visit two very different plots. On the first plot we met Angela & Mark, who have spent 5 years turning a blank canvas into something totally unique.
Everywhere you look on this plot there is evidence of countless hours of love and care. Regimented crops, serious rainwater collection, handmade raised beds and greenhouse, pond complete with ducks, not a single weed – so much work has gone into this place. Angela and Mark have even uncovered an original well on the site.
If I ever get slightly close to this level of order on my own plot I will be blissfully happy.
The other plot we visited was “Oliver’s plot”, named after the last tenant who worked it, Mr Tom Oliver. This garden is now divided into 4 areas illustrating the heritage of the site: Victorian, Dig for Victory, 21st Century and Wildlife. There’s such a sense of history here.
It also has an amazing restored glasshouse – I know cost and efficiency is why we don’t make them like this now, but I still wish we did.
In the late 19th century, with the area zoned for factories and working class dwellings, the site’s purpose changed and gardens started being used to grow food. Industrial depression around this time even saw tenants moving out of their rented houses and living in the summerhouses on their plots, a far cry from the leisurely days of the Victorians. During the 20th century occupancy dwindled until the late 1990’s, when a small group of tenants decided to fight the sale of part of the site. 20 years of campaigning later and the site is listed with English Heritage and back to it’s glory days, with full occupancy, fantastic staff and a real sense of ownership by the local community.
Everything about this place is just brilliant. The ‘hidden treasure’ nature of it, so secretive and inviting. The fact that it’s an inner city resource, a real green oasis in the city. The protection of so much prime urban space for something that’s not-for-profit. The community and wildlife gardens that are doing such wonderful work – educating, nurturing, preserving. The free family open days and workshops. The downright marvellous-ness of there being such a perfectly preserved piece of our history.
For more information about St Anns allotments, including details of their open days and heritage tours, take a look at their website.
Thanks to Mo at St Anns for her wonderful insight into the heritage of the site.
Joining in with Annie’s ‘How Does Your Garden Grow’ series at Mammasaurus.