Plot and characters

Forget grand archaeological digs around historic houses and ancient castles. Ian McMillan joins a group plotting the past of York’s allotments.

It’s a windy late morning in York. At the bottom of the Scarcroft Allotments a group of people are making a poem with me and a felt tip pen and a flipchart. The wind is increasing in strength, and the sheets of paper on the flipchart are flapping like sails. I’m writing down the lines that people from the group are shouting out, shouting as loudly as they can above the gale. We’re sheltering under a couple of those temporary gazebos that you might put up in the garden for a kids’ party. Suddenly a severe gust of wind grabs the gazebo and chucks it around and then throws it on the floor like a wrestler flinging an opponent to the mat.

There’s a moment of silence and then we just move on to the next gazebo, which is still standing. Allotmenteers, you see: they’re built of stern and resilient stuff. I’m standing there holding on to my flipchart at the request of Hannah Baxter, from the York Archaeological Trust, who is running a project on the allotments called Plotting the Past; as she says “there are a thousand allotments in York and every plot of land has a story to tell.”

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Plotting the Past is an ambitious project which will encompass a shed survey, oral history sessions, a morning of film making, and me and my flip chart. Archaeologists these days don’t simply spend time excavating ancient sites with careful toothbrushes and tiny trowels at the bottom of an ancient wall. There’s a new movement of finding archaeology wherever you happen to be; perhaps the most famous of example of this being the “excavation of a van” that a group of archaeologists from Bristol did in 2006, doing the kind of forensic work you might expect on a Roman villa on a red transit van, making studies of all the receipts and triangular sandwich packs and old newspapers that often get left in those pockets in the inside of the doors. And the point is serious, of course; archeology can examine any form of human endeavour, can investigate anything built or left by people anywhere.

And that’s why we’re on Scarcroft Allotments in a force nine gale, hanging on to a flip chart. Allotments are communal places, where people watch out for each other, keep an eye on rows on veg, or help their neighbour out with a barrow or a hoe; and so we begin by making a group poem, them giving the ideas, me scribing and shaping them a little.

The resulting work isn’t Shakespeare, but maybe it shares the Bard of Avon’s love of the language of the streets, of the rhythm that pervades all human speech and of the possibilities of rhyme. It begins: “There’s a lot of dirt/and some hard work/too much digging/makes your back hurt.” As I said, maybe it isn’t literature but you should have seen the glee on our faces when we came up with that last line! That was just before the moment that will be forever remembered in Scarcroft Allotment folklore as The Moment of the Gliding Gazebo.

After making up the poem together we wandered around the allotments looking for ideas to put in our next poem. The event was hosted by the Scarcroft and District Allotment Society who are a forward-looking and dynamic force in the world of allotments: in the past they’ve organised Bat and Moth Evenings, hunting them out and gazing at them, they’ve had visits from the wonderful Mikron Theatre Company from Huddersfield, and their shop sells fantastic produce so fresh the muck’s still on it, so it seemed, as Hannah from Plotting the Past explained, to be a perfect fit for the project. “They’re keen to be involved,” she told me ‘and they’re up for new ideas…”

The allotments, just off Scarcroft Road, have been there for a long time, the first spade hitting the first earth in 1917. (As our collective poem said: “They’ve been here since ‘17/Heroes dug those pots of old.”) The First World War had been dragging on for three long and terrible years and vacant land was being put to good use all over the country to aid the war effort; growing your own produce was practical and patriotic and 319 plots were developed with a rent of ten shillings a year. The allotments flourished in the years between the wars and were heavily involved in the Dig For Victory campaign.

After the war, redundant Anderson air-raid shelters were sold to the tenants for a fiver each. One survives as a tool shed, and there are a couple of fragments of others in use as compost bins and fencing respectively: archeological evidence!

After our wander round the allotments on the ancient paths and the droveway that criss-cross the site, we went back to where the gazebos used to be and we made a long poem on a long sheet of paper that we decided to wrap around a shed.

We stood by some tables gazing at the blank sheet, the length of a roll of wallpaper. I think we all felt how those first tenants felt in 1917, about to dig into a piece of virgin soil. The wind had settled down a little but the edges of the paper flapped and I suggested that we hold 
it down with some weighty words. I 
wanted simple and beautiful words 
that suggested the essence of that simple and beautiful thing that an allotment is. After a short silence someone said “A lot meant. A lot said.” And we were away 
with a beautiful play on the word allotment and the poem began to grow: “A lot 
grown, time spent, crooked rows, straight fence…” winding up and down the sheet of paper until it ended with “evening wine, hands of grime, laden barrows, giant marrows, squeaking home…”

We carried the poem with due ceremony to a shed in an allotment near the road 
and we wrapped the shed in the poem 
and we stood back and admired it. We clapped, and I felt sure the ghosts of those first allotmenteers from 1917 
were clapping too. And then we took 
the poem down because we didn’t want 
it to blow away like a gazebo. Maybe 
more sheds should be wrapped 
in poems, though: there’s nothing like a collective poem for capturing the probable histories and possible futures 
of allotments.

And now maybe we should bury 
the poem in a jar and let a future generation of archaeologists dig it up. Now that’s a way of plotting the past…

Plotting the Past:

Scarcroft and District Allotments Society: