It all sounded so easy. When my friend Digger urged me to quit moaning about a lack of outdoor space and told me to get an allotment, it promised to be a turning point in my bleak urban existence. But, dear flat-dwellers, before I raise your hopes to the point where you can almost smell the dollops of manure being exchanged between neighbouring plot- dwellers, and before you start ripping down doors with a view to crafting them into your very own allotment shed, I must point out that my own quest has been fruitless. Forget the Groucho or Soho House - this is an exclusive club where many are called but few are chosen.

Initially, my diligent research led me to the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardens. They informed me that there was no local list they could send me, rather I should contact my local council. And that's when it began to go pear-shaped. The first person I spoke to from the information department of Islington Council had no idea what an allotment was. She insisted on putting me through to the women's unit ("No, I said it's a bit like salad patch, not I'm going through a bad patch"), followed by the consumer and environmental protection unit.

A friend informs me that even if I had got through, the waiting list is at least two years. Next, I tried Lambeth. This time, I was put straight through to the right department, only to be told that the waiting list for their site is so long that they've torn it up. As a spokeswoman pointed out, most of the people on the Lawn Lane waiting list "won't be around" when their plot finally comes up for grabs. She advised me to keep my eyes peeled for private allotments.

For those currently stuck on a waiting list, a new exhibition in Manchester is a welcome distraction, if only to persuade you that it will be worth the wait in the end. "Can you Dig It?" at the Pump House People's History Museum charts the 200-year-old history of a pastime that has shaped our landscapes since the first parcels of land were "allotted" to agricultural workers after the 18th-century enclosures act. Their popularity peaked with "Dig for Victory" during WWII, when more than 50 per cent of manual workers held them and when they were producing about 10 per cent of Britain's overall food production.

Displays also chart the recent increase in demand for allotments, which are no longer the preserve of Arthur Fowler-types, desperate for some privacy. On the contrary, more and more young people are putting their spade where their mouth is, particularly in view of the scope for organic production. Yet many allotments remain under the threat of property development: around 50 statutory sites have closed in the last nine months.

Those in any doubt as to the need for all communities to call a spade a spade over the allotments cause should indulge themselves in some of the marvellous stories highlighted by "Can You Dig It?". "Allotments sometimes seem to be an invisible or ignored part of our landscape," Sarah Gore, curator of the exhibition, explains, "but I think people will be surprised by the richness and diversity of their history. I visited many sites when I was researching the exhibition. One blind man, who goes to his plot every day with his guide dog, says it's the only place he does not feel blind - where people treat him normally and come and ask him for advice on tending their plots. Another man I met has not bought an onion in 25 years."

It's enough to bring tears to your eyes.

INFO

National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardens (01536 266576)

"Can You Dig It?: Allotments past, present and future", The Pump House People's History Museum, Left Bank, Bridge St, Manchester M3 (0161-839 6061) from today to 20 Sept

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