This is a collation of the memories provided by H&DAA plotholders and former plotholders to celebrate the Centenary of the Association in 2017. Amongst the stories told are reminisences of WWI and WWII, prison riots, a family of foxes, glimpse of other wildlife, plots in the snow, the enjoyment children get from growing, allotment characters, early allotment mistakes, and success stories.
The First Year is the Hardest
It was October – after a year on the waiting list, not a moment to be wasted. Brimful of enthusiasm we made a start the very next day. To say the plot was overgrown is a serious understatement. In common with most new-comers we found knee deep couch grass, chick weed, horsetail and much else covering every inch of ground. By the end of the first month we had cleared and dug one-third of the plot; manure was delivered; the shed roof re-felted; and even the first spring cabbages, broad beans, peas and garlic planted.
November was very much the same. Much digging and weeding. Little and often quickly delivered progress. By mid-December compost bins and some raised beds had been built. A very wet January hindered further progress but most of the digging was complete by the end of February. It had been five hard months but at last we could see the ground ready for planting. The first early potatoes and carrots were sown.
Most of March was spent watching England playing cricket in New Zealand, followed by a short break in Mauritius visiting family. We needed the break but often wondered how things were at the allotment. We returned fully recharged at the end of March to discover that it had been cold and wet while we were away. We couldn’t have done much. However, the potatoes were showing and needed earthing up quickly before any more frost could get to them.
Finally we were feeling as if we were gaining some control. The hard slog was over and planting could begin in earnest. Our first root of potatoes and broad beans at the end of May was noted in our diary – “Tasted exquisite”. A bit over the top but it was our reward for some sore backs and hands. As the Summer went on we knew we had made the right decision to get the allotment. We felt fitter. We had enjoyed some wonderful times with friends and family. Great picnics and BBQ’s. The vegetables were a bonus.
We were learning a great deal from our successes and failures. Someone must have thought we did OK as the Best Newcomer award in Baptist followed.
Now ten years later, we are still re-organising the plot; doing things differently; learning from others, but our enthusiasm remains the same. We enjoy the camaraderie of the winter work parties and take real pride in being part of the Allotment.
My memories are of:
- Planting my spuds upside down in Year 1 and then stupidly telling someone
- Embedding 11 foot long scaffold planks in the ground to form a path and then getting stuck between the boards when I tried to turn around and twisting my ankle.
- Using a small green pot as a beer slug trap and then trying to throw the beer and 10 slugs over the hedge and throwing it all over my head. It stank.
- Watching a hawk launch itself from a high tree behind my plot and glide for 100 yards in perfect silence down to the Prison Lane …..amazing!
- Hearing other people’s stories and realising that we are all the same… we have ups and downs and we can all help each other in this centre of peace and beauty that is The Allotments.
Over the last 5 years some of our happiest allotment memories have been spending time with our friends and their kids on Baptist 30. Most don’t have their own allotments or can’t grow much food at home due to lack of space, time or both! Helping younger generations discover the joy of food growing has become an unexpected bonus of being an allotmenteer, something I definitely intend to cultivate!
Last summer, we invited small groups of under-5s and their mums to help us harvest new potatoes, leeks and beans. Although the kids were slightly tentative at first, there were squeals of joy by the end. My personal highlights include competitive potato digging, little ones taking to leek-pulling like ducks to water; and the sight of a one mum’s astonishment as her son ate fresh beans off the stalk! In an attempt to complete the plot-to-plate story, we carted our cooking equipment onto site and turned our freshly harvested food into lunch.
One winter it was so cold that the water in the allotment troughs froze solid for weeks. My children stood on one and stomped carefully about, and I sang “In the bleak midwinter”, enunciating ‘water like a stone’, and pointing at their little feet. They smiled, this being in the days before they were mortified by any small maternal eccentricity. Its melancholy tune now falls into my head whenever there is ice on the troughs. The tune lends an air of noble suffering to my winter efforts, often hampered by frosty winds.
I recently read that it was a favourite carol of soldiers in the First World War and I can see why: it is a total embrace of bleakness and cold, while also rendering it beautiful and poetic. Maybe it helped them to rise above the trench foot, frost bite and exposure during those long, awful winters. The men working our plots during the First World War – and it was mainly men – would have been the fathers and uncles of soldiers, as well as those men injured and returned from the front.
It is these same men who went on to form the backbone of the Allotments Association, and their names pop up in letters and minutes down the next 30 years and more as they battled over pieces of land, oversaw squabbles, and generally brought an air of permanence and respectability to our emergency patch of scrappy ground. They may have been sticklers for rules and standards and suspicious of different techniques but my hours in the records office have given me a new respect for them. As we reach midwinter, I will raise a glass of mulled cider to them and all they achieved, long ago.
We came to the allotments in autumn 1996- our eldest child was 18 months old and we were going s bit stir-crazy, so the allotments offered us an outdoor space where we could get some exercise away from the house. We often took it in turns to come and dig…or we’d bring an old car seat up for him to sleep in. We remember him being wedged into the shed door.
It’s about being outdoors – with a view over to Purdown and Kelston Hill – it’s a connection to the seasons and the wider world – spotting the green woodpecker, bats, hedgehogs, foxes, frogs – a buzzard or heron in the distance – hot air balloons used to fly over the plots – so close you could shout a greeting to the passengers.
And it’s about learning some growing skills – improvising, building my poly-shed and using old baths as raised beds… And about eating your own food – we think that for about 4 months of the year we are self-sufficient and we always have something from our plot, either fresh, or frozen stewed apple through the winter.
I have worked plots since the late 1970s, intermittently. What thrives, what struggles, what grows too enthusiastically in our soil? That period has seen the earlier maturing of many crops and a longer growing season with milder winters. The raised bed has risen with the move away from digging. Shears and push mowers have given way to strimmers.
Runner beans are almost bomb-proof; rhubarb, raspberries and onions too. Beware the fecundity of courgettes. Carrots need ingenuity. Don’t go on holiday in August. Don’t stint on manure. Asparagus takes years to reward you, but worth it. Slugs will always rule and tomato blight arrives on the wind like clockwork.
I have seen a songbird killed in flight close to me, as a sparrowhawk appeared, jinking sideways to grab it. That shook me. A slow worm glided out of a fissure in the soil in a prolonged dry spell, flicking its tongue and calmly disappearing under the courgette leaves. Foxes slink around as often as cats as the daylight fades. It is magic to sit in the shed and watch the flight of blackbirds, starlings, crows and pigeons. Blue tits, wrens and sparrows flit from hedge to blackthorn. Squirrels and magpies exchange insults.
I am no wiser than when I planted my first potato crop and Jo stopped to explain that the spuds are put at the bottom of the trench, not on the crown. I treasure memories of Jim on the neighbouring plot planting out French beans, on his knees, treating each as a child that he was settling for the night. He taught me to slow down and appreciate the moment. It all becomes more precious by the year.
Lucy Mitchell – Community Garden lead worker
- Pip singing “Balehouse Rock” in the sunshine at the grand opening of the Bale House;
- Fireworks over the garden next to the raging bonfire with over 400 guests.
- Singing the allotment solstice song round the glowing embers of a big fire on a cold December night
My family pedigree as a land toiler is strong. My grandfather was head gardener of a small estate in Hertfordshire (think a cocktail of Kew Gardens and Downton Abbey). My father had one of the finest amateur orchid collections in Kent. With that background I should have the finest plot on the site. Regrettably not, my grandfather would applaud my efforts but shake his head at the results. As is say to other allotmenteers, “it is meant to be enjoyed not worried about”. If you see me sitting outside my polytunnel, seemingly talking to myself…. fear not. I will either be asking my grandfather for divine gardening intervention or talking to the frogs that inhabit my large saucepan ponds.
Our allotments are a bit like a Beryl Cook painting: quite a few buxom women and too many men with beer guts. I thought the digging and the good harvest would be more like a Lowry painting, with stick thin people but then we do live in a wonderful world of sugar and fast food.
Living a life in buildings, the allotments are your playground, the light and the greenery are wonderful, the way that each allotment is different from the one next door; what people grow, the ornaments they place around their bit of land. I’ve even noticed flags and banners appearing giving the place a Glastonbury festival feel, and why not, it’s our bit of heaven and I want to feel happy, relaxed, surreal and euphoric. (I’ve got to stop growing marijuana in the polytunnel.)
Times have moved on from the men in flat caps growing just onions or just potatoes as the two brothers did for years a few plots away from me. I love the allotments because they offer interest and variety everywhere you look, and as I walk around the large site most days I notice other people doing the same, enjoying the whole area. Even dog walkers and things called kids are beginning to appear. It’s now a wonderful things for the whole family to do.
I inherited a very disheveled plot from an elderly (West Indian) gentleman (Basil) who had had the plot for years. After a huge clearance it was cleared and cultivated. In honour of a longstanding gardener who was fondly remembered by all his neighbours I still have his trilby hat hanging in the shed. I will keep this, hopefully to inspire and encourage people to continue to enjoy the great outdoors.
In 2009, the snow came (see photo) and getting onto the plot was hazardous, as the plots and the paths between them were hidden by the snow. Only the huts and the bigger trees remained clearly visible.
I was digging on the plot and became aware of a presence – I turned round and saw a female fox. I carried on digging. This happened day after day – the vixen would appear every day and watch me digging. Then one day when I was planting a gooseberry bush I saw the fox approach the path up to the plot; then she came right up to me so that I could feel the hairs on her snout against my skin.
My wife and I christened her Freda. She used to bring the whole family over to the plot. She had 2 cubs who used to play on the plot. Then, later on the dog fox came with her – we called him Fred. The last I saw of Freda she was not in a good state -her fur was very ragged as she had the mange.
It has been wonderful to help out kids have the same experiences of seeing what it takes to grow good food: hard work but abundant rewards. I will never forget my son’s face when we dug up the first potatoes we had planted a few months before – a look of total amazement and disbelief that the 20 potatoes had now become about 100: “Daddy – who put all those potatoes there?”.
A man from the West Indies had a plot on St. Agnes backing Longmead Avenue. He only grew calaloo, cultivating the plot and getting the plants growing. Thereafter, he was hardly seen. Eventually, the whole crop disappeared in a single day and the explanation was that it had gone with him in a van to Birmingham.
In the 1990s, plots were often poorly tended and there were a lot of vacant plots. Existing plot holders were encouraged to take on another one especially if it was next to their own. It meant several plot holders ended up with 3, sometimes more. Within a decade it had changed completely with allotments becoming fashionable and waiting lists developing. It was difficult for multiple plot holders to then hand back well-tended plots.
My most vivid memory from the first few years is of the Horfield Prison riots in 1990. The prisoners had got on to the roof of the prison and had stripped the roof of its slates. They were throwing them like Frisbees across the prison yard. There must have been half a dozen or more prisoners up on the roof. They were shouting out protests and the noise was quite something. In those days there was open access into the Golden Hill site from Monk Road, with no barbed wire or locked gate. A large crowd of onlookers had gathered in the haulingways up from the Monk Road entrance and were watching the action in the prison. It was an ideal vantage point as the path rises up so that from halfway up the St Agnes allotments you got a great view of the prisoners on the rooves. As I carried on trying to dig my plot it was difficult to concentrate – it was the most exciting thing to happen on the allotments in years!
I enjoyed the peace and quiet of Golden Hill site in the top left hand corner of Davis Field, I must have joined in 1968. After being in the city in an office all week it was a great escape and the comradeship of other tenants and advice and friendship, at that time, mostly retired gentlemen, just a few ladies.
Not so long after joining I was asked if I would take on the position of secretary (from 1975 to 2002).In the summertime this meant letting plots evenings and weekends; and in winter on weekends only over all 3 sites. My father used to say “You might as well take your bed up that allotment” if I had been unable to put in much time on the plot at the weekend because of plot letting. I would work in the evening if it was cool, of course dusk would start to fall, the lights of the prison would come on, and you know how it is “I will just finish this bit…”, and over the gate would come a voice – father – “You shouldn’t be up here on your own” – this was before gates were locked, back would be the reply, “I am just finishing”.
My grandfather (born 1871) had the plot backing on to the lane by the prison wall. Spending weekends at my grandparents, I was familiar with the allotments as an infant. My father, Jack (born 1896), took over this plot when his father passed away in 1947. He already worked two plots further up the field – to provide fresh produce to feed his large family (I am one of 11 children).
On Sunday lunchtimes, when my father was working on the allotment, I would be despatched with a bottle to the local pub to buy a flagon of cider to refresh him after all his hard work. The bottle would be sealed with wax to stop us having a taste!
The fascination for us boys was the pond, where we would spend our time catching newts and tadpoles, being warned to keep away from the large pile of soot used for top-dressing.
A few years ago on the plot next to ours which is Longs 30 was a gentleman called Chris. His plot was more like a National Trust Garden with a multitude of box hedging and the whole plot was beautifully tended. Chris was very proud of his plot, would praise the effort of others and had a wonderful ability to dig surrounding areas removing thickly clad bramble by the roots. Often he could be seen sitting at the end of his allotment on a chair resting from all his efforts. Chris was a person who could relate to everybody and we felt profoundly that he was a very kind person who cared in an understanding way for the well-being of other individuals.
In the early days we fed foxes and fought against encroaching weeds from the adjacent hedge, then the weeds and grass from adjacent unoccupied plots before giving up.
Nearly twenty years later and approaching retirement, we decided to try again. The allotments provide an oasis of tranquillity where we can get away from the noise of traffic and enjoy birdsong only interrupted by the happy sound of schoolchildren enjoying playtime at Bishop Rd School. It is better than a park, because you can spend your time profitably growing veg and fruit.
My name is Bill Pain and I joined this society in 1924. I was elected on the Committee in 1926. I was Secretary for 35 years and during this period I was instrumental in the provision of water to the allotments behind Horfield Prison, free of charge, by the Ministry of Agriculture.
We used to employ a man regularly to mend gates and fencing trim hedges and do minor repairs to Oakley Hall. He was paid weekly and came to the Office every Friday evening to collect his wages and report on the condition of the fields and ditches.
We now have many vacant plots and the lease expires this year (1990). We are only allowed so many vacant plots and if the number exceeds this we have to pay rent. If the position worsens we will not be able to carry on as an Association.
My first memories of an allotment was in 1939 when my father said he thought we should get an allotment.. He was allocated a plot in Longs Field second up from the fence that was the boundary to the houses in Longmead Avenue. This fence was chestnut palings and it was not long before Dad had forced the palings apart to gain entry onto our plot to avoid the long walk round.
War had started and Dad was using his illegal entry to the allotment, and when he was ordered to “close the gap” he replied that this was his way of gaining quick entry on to the allotment to extinguish bonfires that were showing flames during air raids. This small gate is now a legal entry onto Longs Field from the Longmead Avenue lane. Dad lost his right arm in the First World War and I was always fascinated with his style of digging, pulling the spade over his left leg with his one arm. Dad was a military man and everything was planted to perfection: to get the distance between seeds and rows a gauge rod was used.
My Dad died in 1943 when my brother was 13 and I was 22 and as a family we decided to keep the plot on, the work being done by my brother and I. The rent and seed purchase was paid by us all – Mother and my sisters, brother and I putting a halfpenny in a tin every Saturday. We continued to work the plot between us until my brother was called up for National Service.
After the war I got a plot in Longs and I have worked this plot for over 50 years. I use the single gate into Longs every time I visit my plot and think of my Dad and how he made this temporary gate. I don’t think he ever used the gate to extinguish any fires!