A few days ago, on a whim, I popped into my old allotment, in Dulwich, south London, to see what had become of the plot my girlfriend and I had tended for three years, until 2008. The strawberry plants were going strong; the old wooden compost bin still looked like it had been subject to a controlled detonation; and all over the dozens of deserted plots lay a pretty frost. As I took in the scene I felt a pang of regret. A small one, about the size, perhaps, of one of the garlics we failed to cultivate in 2007. But a pang nonetheless. So I hopped back on my bike and pedalled away before it took root. Because I know the awful truth about allotments...
But first the better news: allotments are good for you. Last week a Dutch study offered the none-too-surprising conclusion that "having an allotment garden may promote an active life style and contribute to healthy ageing". Well, smack me over the head with a spade. Still, who knew the Dutch liked grubbing about in wellies with manure and bits of old bamboo? In fact, it turns out that, even though the Queen apparently has one, the allotment is about as British as siirtolapuutarha – which is, as you well know, the Finnish for "allotment". It is faintly reassuring to learn that the desire to cultivate one's own speciality tomatoes on a tiny smudge of land is felt as far afield as the Philippines.
But what is astounding, though, is the rise and rise of the allotment and grow-your-own fruit and veg. After decades of decline, during which the number of plots fell from 1,400,000 to the current figure of about 300,000, there is a resurgence of people who think they, frankly, can do better and cheaper than Tesco: last year a report claimed the rather unlikely figure that there are six million people on allotment waiting lists. And even though the National Trust recently announced that it was giving over land to allotment use, others are having a job defending their patches from developers (three cheers for Fortis Green allotmenteers who this summer managed to do just that).
I was probably drunk on just such loamy hysteria when I put our name down for our plot. Five years ago, my girlfriend and I decided we weren't much impressed with the grounds of our London residence: a 3m by 2m balcony on our ex-council flat in Brixton. A year later, in early summer, we got a note in the post telling us we were the new tenants of a two-rod, half-plot, about 10m by 3m. The allotment treasurer welcomed us, looked askance at our rectangle of tussocks and weeds, and sold us a second-hand spade and a fork. As rusting metal implement met south London clay (they don't make bricks out of it for nothing), the few other allotmenteers present winced. But we were happy!
Those first couple of seasons flew by. This was us getting away from it all, wasn't it? From the neighbour who settled a drug deal gone wrong outside our flat with a "for sale" sign, for a start. We had no kids, plenty of free time and a weekly, hour-long stroll from Brixton to Dulwich in our boots allowed us to bliss out on our pastoral fantasy. The raised beds, the composting bins, the purple sprouting broccoli, the bonfires, the purple sprouting broccoli, the thermos-and-sarnies picnics – for some reason my girlfriend was obsessed with purple sprouting broccoli and determined that we should grow some (we didn't). But I rarely questioned her planting: she was the brains, flipping through Titchmarsh book tie-in after Titchmarsh book tie-in at home; I was the brawn, toiling in my own 30sqm of the Somme, and loving it: my own Iron John sessions, just off the South Circular.
It seemed to work, too. That summer, of 2006, we had a good year: cucumbers, strawberries and courgettes in particular. But I was beginning to suffer the first inkling that the allotment was perhaps not the rus-in-urbe retreat that I fondly imagined. The green-fingered neighbours didn't help. To one side was the elderly Welshman, Bill, with, by the looks of his unbelievably neat plot, a monoculture fetish for onions. To the other was Julian, an interiors photographer, who had hand-built his lock-up and whose cornucopia of a plot seemed to have been styled for a Waitrose Kitchen magazine shoot (Julian changed into nicer clothes to work on his plot than I did to go to work...). Each was pleasant, and generous with tips and surplus seedlings. But given that our three plots were more or less the first that visitors came across, I couldn't help but feel that we newbies were, to be blunt, the big turd on the front lawn. My girlfriend, of course, looked at me as if I was insane when I told her this, but there it was – discreet asides from the committee that we should keep our borders well trimmed didn't help.
Yet still, it was our plot, our little garden, where two or three times a month, we dug, weeded and harvested in peace. We quickly realised that there was nothing cheap about grow your own – the compost, the tools, the bins, it all added up. For cheap fruit and veg, try Sainsbury's. But your own strawberries, your own lettuces, beetroot, parsnips, carrots, even borlotti beans one year – they're priceless aren't they? The high point of our love affair with our patch came in 2006 when I proposed to my girlfriend on the plot (popped a written proposal into a casket, buried it near the onions, hid the bubbly in the compost, and, a few days later, pointed her in the right direction with a spade... bingo!). In quick succession, we got married, got new, busier jobs, bought a flat that needed a lot of work doing to it – but that was OK because the allotment would still be a sanctuary from the wallpaper paste, the office, the commuting... wouldn't it?
It was about the same time that I started to notice the little old men on the allotment. And in confirmation of that Dutch study, they were fit, happy little old men too. Some were allotment clichés, down to their flat caps and braces; others harder to spot, in tracksuits and trainers. But once I'd made the mistake of catching their eye, I was doomed. There I was, trying to salvage my sweetcorn or get my spuds in and over they'd wander, with "advice". Dread word! "No, no, no," said Fred, the West Indian gent, "you're planting your garlic much too shallow." On it went, whether I wanted the "advice" or not. Then the following week, along would come Derek, with news of his takeover of yet another plot, and the wise words that my garlic would never come up from that depth. Then another greying but horribly spry chap would frown at part of the irrigation ditch that was my responsibility to keep trimmed back and mutter dark words about the forthcoming committee inspection.
Too late, it dawned on me. My allotment was a retreat from nothing at all. All of life is to be found on an allotment, with all that entails. It's society in miniature (without the drug dealers, to be fair). My wife got pregnant and we realised that, after three years, giving up the allotment was probably for the best. The relief was palpable. I took up cycling which, wonderfully, fantastically, does let me get away from it all.
But I can still remember my last visit to our allotment, a couple of years ago. I snuck in one early July morning and checked the coast: no old men, no committee busy bodies, nobody at all. Just me and my strawberries. I picked as many as I could carry in my Tupperware and left dreamily, happily, and for ever.
Names have been changed to protect the cantankerous (and the kind)Reuse content