For centuries the kitchen gardens of Britain’s stately homes were dedicated to producing fruit and vegetables destined for the mahogany dining tables of the ruling class. Now, the National Trust is turning over the one-time private greengroceries of aristocrats to the masses in the shape of 1,000 allotments.
In an attempt to encourage a renaissance in small-scale horticulture, the trust, which is one of Britain’s biggest landowners, will provide land ranging from small allotment-style plots to communal vegetable gardens at locations from Blickling Hall in Norfolk, the one-time home of Anne Boleyn’s family, to Kingston Lacy, the former seat of the Earls of Lincoln.
Demand for allotments is at an all- time high with more than 100,000 people currently on waiting lists nationwide. Sales of vegetable seeds are outstripping flower seeds for the first time in decades as rising food prices and the lure of homegrown produce create a recession-driven impetus towards self-sufficiency. The initiative is reminiscent of “Dig for Victory” – the campaign that saw public parks and flowerbeds turned over to potato and cabbage production in the Second World War.
The project, to run over the next three years, will see an area of National Trust land capable of producing about £1.5m of fruit and vegetables entrusted to individuals and community groups on about 75 of its 200 historic houses and gardens and some of its 250,000 hectares of land.
The locations for the potential plots range from within the grounds of large stately homes to smaller areas such as Dedham Vale, the Essex landscape immortalised by Constable. Once all the allotments are in place they will cover a space equivalent to all of the allotments currently available in York.
Many will be on unused land adjacent to trust properties, such as fallow fields on tenanted farms, or existing kitchen gardens. The charity denied that it could face legal difficulties over much of its land being listed or in areas of scientific interest, saying all the new plots would be located away from conservation areas.
Fiona Reynolds, the trust’s director general, said: “There is something in the air. There is a sense that this is a zeitgeist moment for growing your own food. More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables. This isn’t just about saving money – it’s really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour.”
Managers of the scheme are aiming to place the plots close to rural and urban populations to ensure easy access. It is also recruiting experienced volunteers to offer advice to horticultural novices. Perhaps aware of its earnest reputation, the trust said it would not be requiring its allotment tenants to grow its organic produce or rare vegetable varieties.
As the gardening plots become available they will be posted on the website of Landshare, an initiative to overcome the shortfall in allotment space by matching wannabe growers with people offering space in their gardens or on unused land. The trust said that it would charge a nominal rent in line with other allotment societies – which usually ask for just a few pounds a year – but would not be making a profit on the scheme.
Despite the exhortations of celebrity grow-your-own evangelists such as Jamie Oliver, the space dedicated to domestic fruit and vegetable growing is at an all-time low. In the late 1940s, there were 1.4 million allotments, falling to around 500,000 in the 1970s. Today there are 300,000 plots.
Confessions of an allotment debutant
There are fewer more satisfying experiences for the city-bound allotment keeper than seeing the season's first new potatoes emerge from the suburban soil or shelling a pile of spring broad beans.
Equally, there is little more depressing a sight than an entire crop of lovingly-tended tomatoes succumbing to the fungal menace that is bottom end rot. Such were the joys and tribulations of my debut season as the custodian of 25 square metres or five rods (the arcane Anglo-Saxon unit used to measure out allotments) of vegetable-growing real estate on a former watercress farm close to my home in south-east London.
What followed was a less-than-scientific attempt at, if not self-sufficiency, then at least making fewer trips to the supermarket fruit and vegetable aisles and introducing my enthusiastic five-year-old child to the propagation of sunflowers.
There were notable successes. I had more sorrel than anyone could decently need and a steady stream of sprightly spinach. My clumsy attempts at the exotica of salsify, pattypan squashes and asparagus are best consigned to horticultural history. But the greatest pleasure is the exhilaration of arriving each weekend and on a summer evening at my plot to shed the cares of the world with a session of watering, weeding and day-dreaming.
300,000 allotment plots in the UK today; in the 1940s there were 1.4 million.