Allotment owners fear they will be trampled by the Olympics

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The Independent Online

As protests go, it was more mellow than militant. Led by the Moro restaurateurs Sam and Samantha Clark yesterday, a group of east London allotment holders welcomed visitors to their plots with guided tours and a taste of their city-grown produce.

Their point, though, is anything but laid back.

While the chefs are newcomers to the Manor Garden Society Allotments, having secured their plot just five years ago, the 1.8 hectare site dates back at least 80 years, and was bequeathed for the public good by a local philanthropist, Major Villiers.

Now it is under threat from plans to build a footpath for the 2012 Olympics.

An alternative site has been offered by the London Development Agency, the body charged with securing all the land necessary for the Olympic village.

But the allotment holders, some of whom have had a plot for more than 50 years, claim they are only guaranteed to be able to stay for seven years and held an open day yesterday to explain their plight.

Samantha Clark, one half of Moro, said the allotments were invaluable.

"Being in a big city, being able to travel 10 minutes and feel as if you're right in the countryside takes all the frustrations of the city away," she said.

"After 15 minutes, you feel yourself relaxing and totally focus on the little things, like how much the tomatoes have grown. Just being in touch with nature is lovely.

"And the whole community side is important. They have been going for years and it's extremely friendly. We're more busy than some others so don't spend as much time up here as some, but for lots of people it's their life."

The produce was not intended for professional use, though they did use some marrows in their restaurant when they had a glut.

"It was really satisfying not leaving them sitting around," she said.

But the alternative plot was not satisfactory. "It's right next to the motorway. If there's a way that the two [the allotments and the Olympics] can live together, that would obviously be the best scenario."

Albert Dickinson, 86, one of the oldest gardeners, has spent 54 years working his plot. Julie Sumner, an NHS antenatal teacher and allotment holder, said a short-term alternative made no sense for gardeners.

"My asparagus bed took four years to start cropping," she said. "You just can't get going on the basis of seven years.

The scheme also threatened a nature reserve next door. She said: "It's crazy to be talking about a green Olympics and to be annihilating the nature.

"The London Development Agency and the mayor [Ken Livingstone] launched a food strategy and bio-diversity strategy to increase access to fresh food, particularly in places like east London, but all they're talking about is deleted [if we lose the allotments]."

The diversity of residents of London, from Greeks and Jamaicans to Africans, is reflected in the range of produce grown there, from vines and fig trees to globe artichokes.

A public inquiry has been proceeding at the ExCel Centre in Docklands since May to decide on which compulsory purchase orders are necessary for Olympic building to go ahead.

A London Development Agency spokesman said yesterday: "We have been working with all parties concerned, including the local council, to ensure we negotiate a deal that is best for both sides.

"The LDA is at the public inquiry now, where people's objections are being heard by an independent inspector, and we will listen to the inspector's decision."

Getting the plot

* While allotments once suffered from the image problem of being perceived as the preserve of elderly men in cloth caps, the interest in fresh produce and the proliferation of gardening shows on TV has prompted renewed interest.

* To find an allotment, contact your local council to find out where the nearest sites are. They usually own the land and can allocate a plot or put you on a waiting list.

* Facilities normally include a water supply - which is essential - and may also include lavatories and site huts. Some councils will provide sheds for their tenants and charge rent for them.

* The rules of the allotment site are stated in a tenancy agreement, which normally includes a requirement that the site must be kept clean and maintained in a good state of cultivation.

* Some local authorities allow livestock or bees to be kept but authorities can impose conditions and restrictions.

* Fruit or vegetables grown on your plot are for personal consumption only and allotments are not permitted to be run as businesses.