While many people are aware that there are allotments located somewhere towards the south end of Queens Road, not many know exactly where they are, and even fewer have visited them. Hidden from public view by the houses encircling it, this patch of green land has remained an unwavering oasis of tranquility while bearing witness to huge changes in its surroundings.
In 1877, the field which is now Queens Road Allotments was known by the delightful moniker ‘Puffers Close’. By 1902 Puffers Close had been turned into individual allotments, along with acres more land on both sides of Queens Road, which back then was itself little more than a dirt track. Over time, more and more of the allotments were eaten away by housing developments, until all that remained were the current plots and another smaller group of 45 plots known as Cradock Allotments.
Controversy at Cradock Allotments
By the 1980s, the majority of people who owned plots within Cradock Allotments had agreed to sell their land to housing developers, should the opportunity present itself. In 2001, after two failed planning applications, a public enquiry, and much acrimony, planning permission was granted for a new housing estate to be built on the site and it wasn’t long before building began. Those allotment owners who were against selling their plots were overruled and effectively forced to leave, some relocating north after managing to secure plots within Queens Road Allotments.
When I moved to Southernhay Avenue last year, the fact that the house was only a few years old was a major draw. With fresh plasterwork, modern insulation and a reliable boiler, this pristine little town house was an unimaginable joy compared to my shabby old flat. It was only after stumbling on the Queens Road Allotments website, and reading about the Lottery Funded ‘Not lost the plot’ campaign, that I discovered that my house was one of 46 new properties built on the site of the old Cradock plots.
This realisation fed my existing fascination for the nearby allotments. There was something slightly enigmatic about this mysterious place, just a stone’s throw from my front door, yet hidden by overgrown vegetation and with no obvious entrance. Sometimes a plume of sweetly-scented wood smoke would rise from within, and the jovial sounds of a lively social gathering could be heard through the trees. Clearly interesting things were happening on my doorstep and finally with the August open day and produce sale I had the opportunity to investigate.
It turns out that the main entrance to the allotments is right off Queens Road, directly to the left of Queens Road Medical Centre. The sealed road surface quickly gives way to a series of grassy tracks which lead deeper into the allotments, with the individual plots off to either side. Viewed on a map, the demarkation of the separate pieces of land looks uniform, but on the ground the impression is that of a higgledy piggledy and slightly disorientating patchwork of gardens separated by overgrown hedgerows.
A haven for wildlife
I bumped into Dee Yorke, Secretary of the Friends of Queens Road Allotments, during my visit. Dee explained to me that all of the plots are privately owned, and while some are worked on by those who own them, many are rented out, and still others are incorporated into adjoining gardens or left unworked.
“The waiting time for renting a plot is about 20 years at the moment,” says Dee, “Because all the plots are privately owned, inevitably some of the people who own them don’t work them. It’s a shame when we have so many people waiting, but it’s what makes the place such a haven for wildlife and gives it its unique character.”
There is a distinctive atmosphere at the allotments. It’s an extremely peaceful and calm place, while at the same time energetic and industrious. “You wouldn’t believe you were in the middle of the city,” agrees Dee. While the hum of traffic can just be heard through the trees, it’s the sounds of nature and the gentle industry of the allotmenteers that dominate.
Another advantage of private ownership is that people are less restricted in the activities they can undertake. So while many of the plots subscribe to the traditional image of an allotment with a shed, a greenhouse and painstakingly cared-for fruit and veg planted in uniform rows, others are a little more quirky. Restoring old cars, keeping chickens and bees, wine-making, and painting are just a few of the hobbies people enjoy on their plots.
“There are some families who do home schooling here,” says Dee, “So the kids learn here and get to play in the allotments making dens and things when they’re not working.”
If you’re thinking that this place is starting to sound like a slightly nauseating middle class utopia, then you’re a little bit on to something to be honest. It’s certainly a far cry from old Arthur in Eastenders, sat outside his scruffy shed with a brew, using self-sufficiency as a foil to escape the constant nagging of his other half. Thankfully, the sheer variety of the allotments is its saving grace and is what gives this little community its charm. Pristine plots sit alongside ones which have been left entirely to entropy, and kids and dogs run amok up and down the grassy lanes while devoted elderly plot owners lovingly tend their crops.
A special place
“This place is a photographer’s dream,” says Kathleen Millward, a Stoneygate resident who like me had jumped on the opportunity to visit the allotments having learned about its history and unique diversity online. Indeed, many visitors on the open day were busy snapping away at some of the more unusual sights, which include an ornate ceramic bath used to store rainwater, a washing machine repurposed as storage container and a series of hubcaps incorporated into some fencing. Not to mention a medley of sheds, garages, scarecrows and ingenious contraptions for storing and distributing water among crops.
“This is a special place,” says allotment owner Dave Houlton, who was chatting to visitors outside the entrance to his plot, “I’d been helping my friend out with her three plots for a couple of years, then this one came up for sale and I bought it straight away.”
As an experienced gardener, Dave is keen that wannabe allotmenteers are under no illusions about the effort that goes into managing a plot.
“People don’t realise how much hard work it is,” he says, “It’s really hard physical work and it takes up a lot of time.”
“We’ve started splitting the plots into three to make them more manageable,” Dave continues, “People with full-time jobs or children often don’t have the time to take care of a whole plot so it’s a good way of making things a bit easier for them.”
As I walked along the path at the south end of the allotments I glimpsed my house through the trees and was struck by that odd dislocated feeling you get when you unexpectedly catch sight of something extremely familiar from an entirely new angle. After hours spent within the haphazard, sylvan confines of the allotments the uniform lines of the new estate appeared rigid and uncompromising.
“There’s still some ill feeling about that,” Dave had said when I’d mentioned Cradock Allotments. I can only imagine how the people forced to leave their plots just over a decade ago must feel when they catch sight of Southernhay Avenue in all its modern hard-edged glory, and it’s no surprise that all along the south edge of Queens Road Allotments the verdant borders are particularly densely packed.
Not lost the plot
Much has changed since the demise of Cradock Allotments at the turn of the millennium. Organic and locally sourced products have become increasingly fashionable in recent years, and many people have discovered the pleasures of growing their own fruit and vegetables, either in their own gardens or in allotments or community gardens. As a result, allotment owners are more likely to see the value in preserving their precious little patch of fruitful soil, rather than seeking opportunities to profit from a quick sell to a housing developer.
In the case of Queens Road Allotments, the strengthened sense of community and the more organised approach to maintaining and renting out plots which has been in place since 2002, suggest its future is in safe hands. There is a real sense of optimism and determination amongst the allotmenteers, which has been bolstered by the creation of the Friends of Queens Road Allotments in 2008 and the small Heritage Lottery Fund Grant which enabled detailed research into the history of the land.
The window of my front room looks directly north over the allotments, the rooftops of Clarendon Park, and on a clear day all the way past Victoria Park to the university buildings. My insight into the life of the nearby allotmenteers has given this panorama an extra dimension; it’s comforting to know that this historic patch of fertile land remains an inspiration for the devoted community who work on it today.
I left the allotments with a bumper crop of fruit and vegetables which perfectly captured the late summer season and were brimming with the potential to be turned into some tasty morsels. I’m very excited to have been invited to write a guest blog for E and B, who write the fabulous Make Do and Spend blog this week. You’ll find my recipes for blackberry lemonade and plum, apple and courgette cake over there – I hope they provide a bit of inspiration on how you can showcase your own home-grown harvest!