Far from losing the plot

Dig the community garden, man. Allotments are all the rage again, says Michael Leapman
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The Independent Culture
visitors from another planet, driving round the London area this weekend, would be puzzled to see large numbers of people congregating in the open air and going through painful bodily contortions to get into close communion with the soil. The extra-terrestrials might take it to be some metropolitan fertility cult, given that the area is dotted with strange and unsightly wooden temples, many clearly put together by hand.

They would not be far wide of the mark, for the end of March is the traditional opening of the season for the nation's allotment gardeners, who approach their hobby with something close to religious fervour.

To mark the occasion Monday's edition of Carlton People (2.50pm ITV) includes a lyrical paean of praise to allotments and asks the age-old question about whether they have a future. Producer John Millner finds that the signals are mixed - as they have been ever since I began writing about the blessed plots 20 years ago.

On the one hand, the number of allotments under cultivation has been declining ever since its peak after the Second World War, when every corner of spare space was brought under the spade in the "Dig for Victory" campaign. In 1945 there were some 1,300,000 individual plots. Now it is probably not much above 300,000.

The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners' secretary, Geoff Stokes, says on Millner's programme that he detects signs of a revival. "Our membership has increased over the last couple of years, back to what it was 10 years ago. And I get more enquiries from women wanting to get plots. Allotments have always been seen as male-dominated but now there's a wider interest."

One reason for their spurt in popularity is the move towards healthier eating. More people, especially parents, are worried about what chemical substances may creep into commercially grown produce. They can, too, choose their own varieties of vegetables and pick them fresh.

Allotments were introduced early in the 19th century to provide productive employment for the industrious poor to whom they were "allotted" as a philanthropic gesture. Rents are still a pittance - my own 50 x 25ft patch just outside Brixton Prison costs £10.50 a year.

Availability varies. On the Finchley site, where Millner filmed most of his report, every plot is taken and there is a waiting list. Yet when last month Toby Jessel, Conservative MP for Twickenham, made his much- derided appeal to the unemployed to get themselves an allotment and start digging, he said a third of the plots in his constituency were uncultivated.

Local authorities control most of the allotment spaces, but not all: mine is owned by Thames Water. Part of the deal is that the holders have virtually no security of tenure. If the authority finds a better use for the land it can and will turf the gardeners out. Although new allotment areas are also being created (sometimes, as at Cable Street in Stepney, described trendily as "community gardens") the overall total steadily diminishes.

Losing a plot, though, can be a traumatic blow. One of those interviewed for Carlton People is Harry Mapley, who lost his Southgate patch after 10 years' hard graft because the council reclaimed it. "I used to love this site," he says, peering disconsolately at the now untended wilderness. "It's really knocked everything out of my life. I don't know what to turn to."