Women dig in and help revive city allotments

Stressed-out city dwellers have come to the rescue of one of Britain's most familiar but frequently neglected urban features: the allotment.

Nearly half of the plots in Britain were taken over by developers during the 1970s and 1980s. But since 1997, just 167 of England's 7,796 local authority sites, which require the secretary of state's approval for change of use, have been sold, the Government told the House of Lords yesterday.

A glut of gardening and cookery programmes on television, combined with concerns about unhealthy diets and lack of exercise have been credited for the revival.

Some London boroughs report waiting lists of several hundred people; many of them women, young professionals and people from ethnic minorities ready to replace the ageing, mainly male population of tenants.

Allotments were the nation's kitchen garden during the Second World War, when every patch of cultivatable land was turned over to vegetable production. But as the generation which maintained them got older and people turned to supermarkets for their grocery needs, more and more plots became derelict.

Between 1978 and 1996, the number of council-owned plots - accounting for three-quarters of the total - fell from 479,000 to 296,000.

Jeremy Iles, the director of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and an allotment holder in Bristol for the past eight years, said: "After the post-war consumer boom, growing food wasn't so fashionable. It was what your grandad did.

"People have got more and more concerned about the provenance of their food, their lack of exercise and the fact that their kids can't go out and play safely in the street any more. An allotment answers all these needs [and] the food tastes better."

The Allotments Regeneration Initiative (ARI), a national campaign, was started last year to bring derelict plots back into use and teach people how to work them. When its research confirmed the public image of allotments as scruffy, male-dominated places, the group set about overturning the stereotype to increase allotment use among other sections of society.

Mentoring schemes help novice gardeners get to grips with their plot, underused sites have been regenerated with facilities for the community and vandalism curbed by improving site security.

Richard Wiltshire, the senior lecturer in geography at King's College London, and author of Growing in the Community - a good practice guide to allotments - has seen a shift in the type of people taking allotments. He said: "The decline has reached a bottom and demand seems to be vibrant, particularly in inner urban areas."

In Camden, north London, there is a seven-year waiting list for an allotment and ARI have set up a scheme allowing residents to take on plots in nearby Harrow.

At Uplands allotments in Birmingham, one of the largest sites in the country with 400 plots, 900 children from local flats - the next generation of allotment holders - are getting hands-on lessons in growing vegetables.

A change in the law in 1998 assured the future of many sites by categorising them as undeveloped land; making it harder for builders to develop allotment sites. Now housebuilders, such as Borland, have been advertising the proximity to allotments as a selling point for a development of flats in Nunhead, south London.

Mr Wiltshire said that, while the ARI's research showed that the fastest growing group of allotment holders was women under 40, traditional plot-holders should not be forgotten. He said: "'Old geezers' are the fastest growing group in society. It's always treated as a negative stereotype but having an allotment is a great way for old people to keep active."

'I use it to get away - it's my escape'

It started with a conversation about tomatoes, and once Dawn Hackett had visited her friend's allotment to see them growing that was it: she decided that she had to have one too.

Dawn had to go on a waiting list for a year for her plot, at the Grange Lane allotments, which is high on a hill in Dulwich, south-east London, with sweeping views of the city's skyline.

She said that the peace and quiet she found on the allotment was what made living in the city bearable. "I use it to get away; it's my escape," she said. "We moved house to be nearer to the allotment: it was either that or leave London."

Before taking on the plot four years ago, Dawn's gardening experience amounted to little more than fond childhood memories of sitting in the rain eating sweets and watching her dad digging in his allotment.

Dawn, 39, grows things that "look nice or are expensive in the shops", such as kale, shallots, French beans, flowers and "plenty of pumpkins and squash for the winter".

She goes to the allotment most evenings in the summer and once every few weeks in the winter, often taking her children Osin, seven, and Erin, two, with her.

Dawn's partner Adam is keener on sampling the produce than the spadework, but he knows how to keep her happy: for Christmas he gave her 10 scaffolding planks and the labour to use them to make raised beds on the allotment. "Not very romantic," she admitted, but her plot is a place close to her heart.

The couple plan to get married soon - and the allotment is on the list of possible venues.