GARDENING: DIGGING FOR UNITY

The country's largest collection of allotments has just turned 50. In celebration of this, Michael Leapman visited Handsworth in Birmingham and discovered a multicultural community united in enthusiasm for this very British institution

AUTUMN HAS come to the largest and most popular allotment site in the country. The stiff breeze blows light drizzle in from the hills to the north-west, towards West Bromwich. Fallen leaves in shades of brown and orange glisten and stick to the paths separating the plots of mature vegetables. Plump, bright pumpkins wait to be gathered in before the first severe frost. A squirrel scampers between the rows of produce, carrying in its teeth a ripe cob of corn almost as big as itself.

In spite of the weather, a few of the 400 plotholders at the Uplands allotments in Handsworth, a north-western suburb of Birmingham, have turned out to gather vegetables for supper or to catch up on some seasonal tidying. For them, this is the culmination of an important year of festivities marking the 50th anniversary of their allotment association.

For most people, allotments are something of a mystery - untidy strips of land with ramshackle sheds that speed past the train window, worked by Lowry-like figures performing strange rituals with grubby hands. Created in the 19th century as a philanthropic amenity for the virtuous poor, they seem a hangover from the Victorian era. Yet a vibrant allotment association means a lot more than a group of old men chewing straws and discussing how to eliminate clubroot. Vegetable gardening demands a high degree of commitment if anything useful is to come of it; visiting the allotment becomes part of daily life. Friendships - and sometimes enmities - are forged. The communities thus established not only reflect the wider context of the area that contains them, but have a marked impact upon the quality of life there.

The anniversary celebrations at Uplands - including artistic as well as social events - have been particularly heartfelt because only five years ago there were doubts as to whether the association would actually be able to continue. Handsworth is today a stable enough community but even so its multi-racial character produces strains and tensions in personal relationships, which led to a degree of bitterness and rivalry among the gardeners.

The association's secretary resigned and Mario Rozanski, a lifelong Birmingham resident but comparative newcomer to the allotments, was asked to take over. Since then, according to most people I spoke to, the atmosphere has improved. The former committee, dominated by a group of elderly white men, has been replaced by one comprising six whites, six West Indians and two Asians. Two of its members are women, including the chairwoman - a fair proportion, given that women only amount to 17 per cent of the plotholders.

"We have got 14 nationalities on the allotments," says Mr Rozanski. "It's a veritable Yugoslavia" - perhaps not the happiest of metaphors. "We have to work round people's prejudices and their individual differences.

"We do try to make it work but it doesn't always. I've fallen out with virtually everyone on the site at least once." Yet something clearly works, because all 400 allotments are assigned and there is a waiting list of 118 people mustard-keen to pay their pounds 20 annual rental and get their spades into the fertile Handsworth soil.

With so many nations and cultures represented, you would expect the Uplands allotments to be different from traditional British plots dominated by potatoes, leeks, cabbage and the like. Although the Midlands climate rules out many tender Asian and Caribbean vegetables, gardeners from those parts have discovered that a wide range of their favourite produce can be grown successfully.

Serjit Bansal is from northern India and has lived for 35 years in Birmingham, where he makes wrought iron gates. He has had his allotment at Uplands for 10 years and is immensely proud of it. It contains some leaf vegetables unfamiliar to me - methi (it helps relieve aches in the joints, he says) and hallon, good in stir-fries - as well as more familiar greens such as coriander, spinach and mustard, which Mr Bansal cooks like cabbage but with the addition of cornflour and garlic. Other vegetables include two kinds of squash, chickpeas and a large marrow that he is growing on for seed.

"Gardening has always been my hobby," he says. "I don't actually grow these things to save money but I mainly grow them for the exercise. I don't drink or smoke so I don't go to the pub to relax after work. The body, the brain and the heart benefit from the fresh air. On a fine day it's marvellous to be here and to be looking out over the fields and hills."

Cecil Lynch came to Handsworth from Jamaica 40 years ago and has been gardening at Uplands for 30 years. "I was one of the first Jamaicans to get an allotment here," he told me. "When I came the great majority of people who had plots were white but I told my Jamaican friends about it and four or five of them joined me. In those days the site wasn't full and you could have as many allotments as you liked."

Now retired from his job at a local aluminium factory, Mr Lynch keeps his plot in full production, even though his six children left home a long time ago. "I never bought vegetables at all," he told me. "And I save the seed from them for the following year."

He has a small greenhouse on the plot, bursting with cherry tomatoes. He grows enormous runner beans as well as red kidney beans - known as red peas in Jamaica, and one of the basic ingredients for rice and peas, a favourite national dish. "I feel happy that I've got some land to work," he says. "The people here get on well together and we spend a lot of time talking. You come up here and leave all your problems behind." Another Jamaican, Lin Carby, likes to grow soft fruits, such as raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and redcurrants. He is lucky to have a friend who keeps pigeons, because he finds pigeon manure especially beneficial for the fruit bushes.

He has had his allotment for 20 years and believes that things have improved since Mr Rozanski took over: "It's been better managed and they've paved the road that runs through it. Before we had to drive through mud."

Natalie Marshall, at 34, is one of the younger generation of gardeners. An artist, she goes to her allotment most weekends with her husband Joe, a software designer, their four-year-old daughter and, for the last six months, their baby son. They grow soft fruits, potatoes, spinach, onions - and have successfully replanted last year's Christmas tree on their plot.

"I don't feed the whole family from it all the time," Natalie confesses. "It's more a supplement to our food. But we do it partly because it's so healthy. You don't have to worry about whether the food you grow yourself has been genetically modified. I like to be close to nature and close to the land.

"My husband and I both grew up in small villages but now we live in the city we thought it would be a good idea to get an allotment; otherwise the children would only know about vegetables from the supermarket. I want them to learn how things grow, how you plant the seed in the ground and wait for it to come up."

She is exactly the kind of gardener that Birmingham City Council is targeting in its campaign to get more people to take up allotments. I bumped into Eddie Campbell, the council's Allotments Liaison Officer, when he was paying his regular monthly visit to Uplands, the jewel among the city's 119 sites and 7,500 plots. He too stresses the social importance of allotment gardening.

"We encourage it because it contributes to a healthy Birmingham," he said. "It's also part of the council's anti-poverty policy because it subsidises the family budget."

Some local authorities have been putting pressure on allotment sites in an attempt to use the land in a more efficient way, for housing or commercial development. During the Second World War, at the height of the Dig for Victory campaign, there were one and a half million plots in Britain. That was down to 500,000 10 years ago, and now the figure is below 250,000.

Birmingham, though, wants to keep as many as it can. "We're not looking to find excuses to get rid of them," said Mr Campbell. "We don't start thinking about rationalisation unless take-up is less than 50 per cent. Several of the sites around Handsworth have waiting lists.

"We started a very active campaign last year to recruit new plotholders, especially younger gardeners. We have a display board that goes round libraries and we have an information pack for people who inquire." The leaflet that supports the campaign bears this slogan in eight languages: "Allotment gardens welcome everyone." This is the philosophy that Mr Rozanski has tried to inculcate into Uplands since he became secretary.

"We want to create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere," he says. "That means, although we must have rules, we don't apply them too strictly. If somebody has a messy plot you have to find out what the problem is - it may be a social problem, or trouble at home.

"If you just send out a letter giving someone notice to quit without trying to find out why, you may be sending it to someone who's recently lost his wife and may be in great distress. We haven't sent out any notices to quit here for the last three years. Using a stick all the time is not the way to bring out the best in people.

"Dealing properly with people is the way to create a harmonious society. That's why the community side here is so important."

So next time you gaze out of the train thinking those messy little plots would look neater if they were replaced by a post-modern superstore, remember that what you are looking at is not just an exercise in hobby gardening; it may be a precious thread in a fragile social fabric. !

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