Passion for allotments is still growing fast

A proud Ben Lancaster with his  home-made plant pot cake.
A proud Ben Lancaster with his home-made plant pot cake.

Overgrown land that once looked more like a forest has been reclaimed by a keen group whose hard work has brought an allotment site back to life, reports David Bocking.

The view over Hagg House allotments now looks much like many of the other 70 or more allotment sites in Sheffield, albeit with an impressive view of the Rivelin valley countryside in the background, stretching out behind the lovingly cultivated plots bounded by privet and carefully arranged stacks of reclaimed plastic, pallets and plant pots.

Rob Duffin makes a plant sale to Catherine Obbard and son Joe, 8.

Rob Duffin makes a plant sale to Catherine Obbard and son Joe, 8.

It was not always like this, however.

“Five years ago you could walk past and you wouldn’t have a clue there were allotments here,” said Rob Duffin at the Hagg House Allotment Association plant sale last Saturday. “They were head high in brambles and nettles and they looked more like a forest.”

There were only a small number of allotment holders on the site then, mainly hidden away down the hill from Bole Hill Road.

But, thanks to the growing interest in growing your own and the paucity of available allotment plots, a sizable gang of would-be gardeners descended on Hagg House as a site with a multitude of technically available sites – at the time, the allotment map suggested there were well over 100 vacant plots, said Rob.

Mick Brookes, left, in discussion with Matt Rhodes.

Mick Brookes, left, in discussion with Matt Rhodes.

“I had walked my dogs through here for 20-odd years and a complete wilderness had taken over,” said Hagg House Allotment Association chair Matt Rhodes.

“But this site became more attractive because of the waiting lists, as allotments themsleves became more attractive.

“There was a long wait at Crookes allotments, so you’d come down and see loads of people wandering around with the map trying to work out which plots were which.

“A lot of people started here about the same time, encouraged because they could see other people were also starting up so they wouldn’t feel isolated.

“But all of us have had a huge struggle to reclaim what had actually reverted to woodland.”

The site had been an old famhouse until around the 1920s – hence the name – and included around 140 plots stretching up the Rivelin valley hillside.

The enthusiastic new allotment holders got together and formed an association and started fundraising and talking to the council about what was needed.

Skips were hired – and filled in little more than a day with the remains of old greenhouses and rotten sheds – and the council even built a car park to cater for the fair number of new Hagg House allotmenteers who were travelling from several miles away due to lack of plots in their own area.

In time, the new allotment holders and the council cleared many of the invading trees (not always popular but needed to make more plots available, said Rob) and much more of the site was brought back to life.

There were 40 or 50 people at the first meeting about the site.

“It all gathered momentum, we felt we were all in it together, and there was a great spirit of surging forward with the idea,” said Matt Rhodes.

Many of the new allotment holders were younger people with small gardens, big enthusiasm and strong arms: just the sort of people needed to organise the clearance of a forest, Matt noted.

The interest came from the usual sources of 21st-century lifestyle and snap provenance reappraisal: where the family food comes from, is it organic, is it local, can I reduce my costs, can I get the kids interested in where their lunchbox provender comes from?

But the main reason is the one that Sheffield allotment holders have always known, said Matt: “It’s about coming down to clear your mind, it’s about relaxation and exercise, and doing something that’s so different to what you do at work. It’s somewhere to get away from it all.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that the new Hagg House allotmenteers include many project managers and IT professionals. This has led to one of the few subtle differences between 21st and 20th century allotment holding: information distribution at Hagg House is primarily via email and Facebook rather than a rain-swept noticeboard.

The council’s allotments department has had its critics over the years but Rob Duffin said the department now has two officers trying to get mores plots used and usable for an ever-demanding population.

He added that the growth of TV-generated interest often has a simple drawback: it ain’t always as easy as it looks on the telly.

“The reality is, you have to have a tetanus booster at the doctors because of all glass you’ve had to clear, and you’ve been scratched to pieces with brambles and you haven’t actually put anything in the ground yet.”

Having put all that work in does help to make it even better when you actually produce your first carrot with the excited kids. “It’s great to see the look on their faces after they’ve grown something.”

“It’s like a revelation,” added Matt., “when you smell the carrots you’ve just pulled out compared to the shops.”

None of this is surprising to allotmenteers like Mick Brookes: he’s had an allotment in the Hagg House former forest for over 35 years.

“In the past one or two have come in and tried it but found it too much like had work. I’m down here 25 hours a week now I’m retired and I used to come down straight from the terminus when I was working.

I like being outside, I don’t like to sit around all day, and I like to watch all the wildlife out here. It’s great a lot of new people are taking them on as long as they know what they’re doing.

“My daughter comes down with her kids and she loves it, and I like her coming because she loves weeding.”

Rob and Matt believe the new interest in allotment holding may have gone up and down in the past but may now be here to stay.

“I was talking to an old bloke down here the other day,” said Mick, “and he said, ‘I’m getting a bit bored, I fancy taking on an allotment.’ So I asked him how old he was, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m 85.’”

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