A Fragile Existence

Across the track, directly opposite our plot, there’s a hole where a hedge should be, the charred remnants of a shed visible. The lower gate to our plot is shattered, the locks on both sheds have been forced and the contents ransacked. We don’t leave expensive tools, don’t own expensive tools to leave. It’s the arbitrary nature of the act that’s unsettling; one shed damaged, another on an adjacent plot untouched, why? What remains of the shed opposite might be the most obvious and dramatic evidence, but sheds have been broken into all the way up the valley.

Thankfully this doesn’t happen often, it’s been five or six years since a similar incident on the site, our sheds not targeted that time. Looking at the chaos in the top shed, we’re not so fortunate this week. That said, two trays of elephant garlic remained untouched, apart from one bulb, the cloves separated and thrown onto the veranda, and nothing taken apart from a small lump hammer.

We’ve been on this site for over twenty years, arbitrary acts of vandalism happen; years ago, a caravan on the plot next to ours was set alight destroying our neighbour’s occasional workshop, but fortunately they weren’t at home. Allotments are havens of tranquility, but vulnerable too; all too easily disrupted.

The damage done, we replace boxes on shelves, repair the locks and get on with life on this plot; the early potatoes have been harvested, the beds refreshed and our leeks are in the ground now. We’ve picked our first beetroot; Madhur Jaffrey has a wonderful recipe for beetroot purée that we never grow tired of, and we’re growing Golden Burpee courgettes this year. They have a lovely flavour, are much firmer than our other varieties and planted into manure and compost which is a mixture of tea, egg shells, and banana skins. We garden on chalk which can be poor, so the nutrients in the tea mix are valuable for greedy crops like courgettes and pumpkins.

We’ve been making lots of courgette frittatas:
Courgettes seared dry on a skillet
Potatoes, cooked & sliced
Onions & garlic, sautéed
Mixed Herbs + seasoning
12 eggs

 

It’s in the Soil

…attempts to define a landscape necessitate judgements of cultural value, and throw up issues of power, authority and pleasure…[1]

The sun shone briefly, before clouds gathered, and rain set in again. We seek shelter in the shed, but not for long; the forecast is for heavy showers and that’s what we’re getting. The site appears deserted, maybe a little neglected, but it’s the season, the time of year. Standing on this hillside, or sitting drinking tea by the fire pit, we seem to have the valley to ourselves. But look again, there’s a scattering of people working their plots between the showers. Someone walks along the track though the valley, a small group passes by on their way to one of the allotments run collectively; during any day there will be people moving about this valley.

New plot holders, above us, have been clearing the skeletal remnants of a polytunnel Joe erected years ago, the plastic sheeting long since disintegrated. Other people moved on after he died, stayed a short time, then left, and with each successive leaving the plot became more neglected, abandoned to bindweed and nettle; it’s now being slowly cleared. Joe’s long since gone, but his presence is felt in the tap he installed by diverting water from the mains, or so he told us during one of our many disputes over access to water. He’d leave a pipe permanently attached to water his tomatoes in the polytunnel. An arson attack leveled his shed, left the Sycamore badly damaged and dangerous.

From the outside, maybe to someone walking the perimeter path, this site probably looks ramshackle, but what they don’t see is a process of constant change and renewal that this common ground undergoes, nor the histories that this land holds. Thinking about Joe, Arthur, talking to Gladys, who’ll soon be 92 and still working her plot; from the outside these lives, and the memories they carry with them of this landscape, remain invisible.

We are all temporary occupants; some will last a season, others, like Gladys and Georgina, stay for years, working, shaping the ground, but always in the knowledge that this land is not ours, doesn’t belong to us, isn’t our private property. The longer we stay, working, shaping, improving the soil, the more we hope the next occupants, strangers to us, will appreciate the work we’ve done over the years, and build on it, but maybe not. Looking at the photograph one of the site reps gave us when we first took on our plot, it has changed beyond recognition; perhaps those who follow us will do the same, and make it theirs for however long they choose to stay. For Crouch & Ward how we relate collectively through the unselfconscious landscape that [we] create […] is part of [our] individual and collective identity. It is and should remain public land, ground that we have responsibility for, land held collectively.

winter allotment view

 [1] Matless, D. (1998) Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaktion Books, p 13

Winter mulching

Non-gardeners treat late autumn & winter as ‘dead’ garden time, while growers see it as possibly the busiest part of the gardening calendar. We’ve been clearing old crops, trying not to over-tidy our perennials so insects have somewhere to overwinter & birds can still harvest seeds, whilst mulching beds in preparation for spring planting.

It’s also a time to strengthen social ties; we were recently over to see Phil & Anne, to collect horse manure from their stables. We could buy it by the wheelbarrow load via our allotment society, which we do when we run out, but we don’t mind shovelling horse manure, playing with Mutley, their Collie, and catching up with Phil and Anne. We gain from our connection with people we’ve developed a relationship with despite, or possibly because, our outlooks can often be quite different.

The allotment society manages the woodlands on the allotment perimeter and we’ve been using some of the felled timber to edge our raised beds where the old scaffolding boards have rotted. Years ago, scaffolding boards were free, not any longer. Scaffolders are cutting up older boards to reuse or selling them to recycling yards that then re-sell them at eye-watering prices. Aesthetically, the uneven nature of the felled timber softens the outlines of our beds; not so regimented, but then, we were never ones for plumb lines and straight edges, with meandering lines across our plot changing over time & use.

Local arboriculturalists provide the allotment site with a regular supply of wood chip, in season. It’s getting low at the moment but dig into the remnants and there’s a good load of older rotted wood chip turned compost we’ve begun using to mulch the potato and garlic beds. A top layer of this rotted woody compost over seaweed, green waste from last year’s crops, and manure on the potato beds should rejuvenate them after intense cultivation & make for wonderfully rich soil.

 

late light allotment

Roedale Valley

This is the first in a series of four short films we are making across the seasons on Roedale Valley, our allotment site, on the edge of Brighton, UK.
Its spring and Gladys and Georgina reflect on the changes that have happened since they first took on tenancies over 30 years ago.

Craven Vale (Jane’s Plot)

This is the 3rd. in our series of short films about Craven Vale allotment site, on the eastern edge of Brighton, UK.
We continue our exploration of the value of these green spaces, in a densely populated urban environment, in the context of the ongoing threat posed by potential development for housing.

 

 

Craven Vale (the carers plot)

This is the 2nd. in our series of short films about Craven Vale allotment site, on the eastern edge of Brighton, UK. This allotment site is currently included in Brighton council’s urban fringe assessment, as potential development land.

We spoke to Sara Padhair-Tutton, who started the carers plot, and Warren Morgan, leader of the Labour and Cooperative group on Brighton and Hove council, about the value of allotments and green spaces in a densely peopled environment.

Craven Vale

We are making a series of short films, over the seasons, about Craven Vale Allotment Site, on the eastern edge of Brighton, UK. The site has been identified, in the Urban Fringe Assessment for Brighton’s City Plan, as potential development land for housing. Nationally, councils have been directed by central government to produce a City Plan. Without a plan which sets out local councils’ development priorities, the decisions on what gets built where, will be taken by central governent without any proper reference to local need and desires. So, this assessment is essential, but, in Brighton, it’s been poorly researched, and with minimal consultation, to date.

These films will capture peoples’ stories of growing, and the value they attach to green spaces on the urban fringe.