Everything must grow as allotments take on Chelsea

The Leeds and District  Gardeners Federation at the Harrogate Spring Flower Show.
The Leeds and District Gardeners Federation at the Harrogate Spring Flower Show.
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Once seen as the preserve of the older generation. the allotment world of 2014 is becoming a grassroots success story. Paul Robinson reports on its past and present.

THEY came back from the nightmare of the First World War to promises that Britain would now be a ‘land fit for heroes’.

Swingeing cuts in public spending and a decline in industries such as coal and steel meant that, for many, those promises would soon have a hollow ring. Others, though, could at least content themselves in the knowledge that they had their own piece of land fit for a brighter future.

Demands on allotment production had soared during the war as food shortages took their toll on life on the home front. Then, after the close of the conflict, land was made still more widely available as a way of assisting returning servicemen.

Today, nearly a century later, the food growing revolution inadvertently ushered in by the ‘war to end all wars’ shows no sign of abating. Leeds City Council has 99 allotment sites and for the 2,725 full-sized plots, there’s a 1,000 -strong waiting list.

“From our perspective, it’s really good to see,” says Leeds City Council’s executive member for the environment, Coun Mark Dobson. “When I was younger, you would maybe associate allotments with older people. More and more these days, though, it’s young people and couples who are wanting to get involved.

“There has been a real change of attitudes, with people becoming more aware of the environment and more aware of the importance of eating fresh produce. Allotments have a proud tradition in Leeds and it’s great to know that is continuing.”

A trawl through the archives shows Coun Dobson is right to salute the proud local tradition of allotmenteering. Back in 1966, the chairman of the National Allotments and Garden Society, a Mr A.G.W. Measures, told his members: “If you want to know how to organise allotments, go to Leeds.”

The archives also reveal an oft-voiced gripe over the years has been rent rises. Allotmenteers in Garforth were up in arms in October 1974 at plans to charge £2 a year for a standard plot – an increase, claimed one gardener, of 700 per cent. Fast forward to 2014 and although the sums involved might have altered, stand-offs between landlords and tenants are still with us.

The Leeds and District Allotment Gardeners Federation (LDAGF) has issued an application in the High Court for a judicial review of city council plans to put up rents. The case, however, is a rare blot on the landscape for the federation, which scooped prizes at last year’s Harrogate Spring Flower Show and the Great Yorkshire Show.

Now the group is preparing to mix it with the big boys by taking a demonstration allotment to this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

Their ‘techno allotment’ will highlight some of the gizmos and gadgets used by gardeners, one being a solar undersoil heating system made by LDAGF publicity officer Phil Gomersall from an old radiator and an ice cream tub. “We are delighted to be going to Chelsea – it’s all about promoting the benefits of allotment gardens,” he says. “We thought, ‘if we can do it at the Great Yorkshire Show, then why not Chelsea?’ We knew there was quite a waiting list to get in down there, so it was nice to be accepted first year.”

And the benefits that Phil and co are hoping will strike a chord with the great and good at Chelsea?

“Basically, that this is a lovely recreational activity,” he said. “You get fresh air and exercise – and then there is the social aspect. That’s a very big thing when a site is self-managed. You get together almost like a family and everyone knows each other. There is also a benefit to mental health. There is so much stress around with people’s jobs, when they finish for the day they can go down to their allotment and unwind.”