Hungerford Arcade’s great friend and author, Stuart Miller-Osborne leads a very busy life with his lovely wife Caron but somehow, he still finds the time to write brilliant articles for which we are very grateful and judging by the feedback we get from our readers, they also enjoy them. So, on behalf of Hungerford Arcade and all our readers, thank you Stuart. Rita and all our readers in ‘Blogland.’
And you say to yourself. What a strange title. Has poor Stuart finally taken leave of his senses? But there is a link, a very strong link between the antiques trade and the humble allotment.
Have you ever noticed that as you walk around the Arcade how many garden tools you actually see? Some are easily recognisable, some not so recognisable and others are just downright puzzling. We have all grown up with allotments whether we were lucky enough to live in the countryside or were brought up in large city or a town. Many, many things change as the years pass but the humble allotment does not whether you are in Hungerford, Henley or Hastings. They are always the same.
Some of the gardeners take an extreme pride in their small patch of land and their cultivation resembles the factory farming of history. Everything has its place, the long canes are correctly positioned, the wooden shed is pristine and even the grass borders are well kept. Mr Smith (let’s call him that), is always at the allotment at the given time, even if the weather is foul. You can set your watch by him. Sometimes he brings his grandchildren who are given menial but nevertheless important tasks which he insists are carried out with a military precision.
Mr Smith is a friendly person but deep down he is an allotment snob. He cannot understand why other allotment users are not following his shining example. He looks at the allotment that is run by Mr Graham and sighs at the sorry looking leeks and the rather porous potatoes.
But worst of all, Mr Graham leaves his wheelbarrow out when he leaves for the day. Does he not realise that wheelbarrows are valuable items and can be stolen? Mr Graham is an allotment slob. He agreed to rent an allotment as he wanted to get away from the constant criticism of his wife. It was to be his sanctuary away from trouble and strife of everyday life. He does not really have an interest in growing anything apart from the easy vegetables and does not really care whether his results are good when harvesting his minimal labours. He can be found in front of his dilapidated shed in a deckchair smoking his pipe and chatting to the other allotment slobs. Martha’s hip is playing up and she is miserable as sin so I thought I would come down here. Your tatty’s look poor.” It has not been one my most memorable efforts maybe I will pop into town and purchase a bag and rub them in the soil she will not know the difference. They look at Mr Smith and smile. If he carries on the way he is going he will be adding to the GNP of this fair country of ours. More likely he will be taken over by the Chinese. The slobs settle down and chat for the rest of the afternoon. They listen to the Test Match whilst poor Mr Smith works himself towards premature ill-health.
As you might have guessed, allotments were a Victorian idea. This said, there are indications that the concept of allotments date back to Anglo-Saxon times. Our friends the Victorians soon realised that with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, it was a good idea that land be given over to the labouring poor so that they could grow their own food. Obviously there was no welfare state so it was quite easy to slip down the slope towards destitution. If these people could ascertain a degree of self-sufficiency then apart from nutritional values of the food and the avoidance of diseases it would, in a lot of cases, give these proud individuals a sense of self-worth. Too often if things went wrong men would just fade into the bottle or worse. In short allotments and other ideas of this kind helped to build the individual.
Whether this line of reasoning was right or wrong it is hard to tell as the problem was much greater than just growing one’s own produce. This said, the United Kingdom is a land of allotments. Wherever you travel you will find allotments.
The 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act appeared and this placed a duty of all local authorities to provide enough allotments for local demand. Things did not really take off until after World War One when the Land Settlement Facilities Act of 1919 was settled to help the returning servicemen. This was followed in 1922 Allotments Acts and the 1925 Allotments Act which really firmed things up.
In short, the 1925 Act was the strongest because it established statutory allotments which prevented the local authorities from selling these designated areas off without Ministerial consent. When you think of the inter-war building boom you can see how important this act was. Also it impacts even today for even in the largest of cities you find areas designated for this purpose. This is obviously prime building land in urban environments but the greedy developers cannot touch it and this is why so many allotments survive.
Although I am by no means an expert, I have noted that there are still allotment acts being passed the latest being the Localism Act of 2011. In this lovely island of ours we tend to muddle through but very occasionally we come up with a long and lasting idea which benefits all. The idea of allotments is one of the best.
If you are thinking about running an allotment then do so (I am told they are quite cheap to rent). But what about the tools? Be different, do not just pop down to your local garden centre and buy mass produced faceless tools. Purchase a garden tool that has been much used, whether it be a rake,a spade or a hoe. It is likely that the tool will last longer than a newer version as it has seen history and although not unique was probably crafted to better standards.
These tools (and not forgetting wheelbarrows) are quite often seen. Indeed here in Hungerford the Arcade and other establishments always seem to carry an interesting selection. It is up to you but the thought of it is fun. To me there is a certain Zen in tending to an allotment and to use tools with a history may add to the experience.
Mr Smith would not see it this way and Mr Graham would probably think I am strange but there will be some who will share my sentiments. The next time you are in the Arcade or elsewhere just take time out to look at these tools and think of their past. Take one by the handle and share its history there is no pressure to buy the item. The experience is free.
I do not run an allotment (no time) but nonetheless love them to bits. As some of you are aware, I come from Bradford on Avon which is about an hour from Hungerford. As with any town, Bradford had its share of allotments and occasionally I would wander up just to chat with some of the people there.
One of my favourites was a Captain Simpson who was ancient even when I was a child. He had fought in the First World War and often told me stories of the conflict possibly to educate me that war was not all about death and glory. He had been wounded during the conflict and by the 1960s found it difficult to complete some of the heavier labours that running an allotment involved. So I occasionally helped him (as did others in the town) to grow his vegetables. He always offered me three pence or sixpence for my services but I always turned him down which I believe secretly pleased him.
I can remember one day in September 1967 when after football practice, I passed his allotment. I waved but the Captain did not wave back. He was sitting in the doorway of his old wooden shed looking a little distressed. Fearing the worst, I ran across and found him reading Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves. Although there were tears in his eyes he smiled at me and explained that he had been remembering the war and the friends he lost.
It was because of them that he now enjoyed his allotment and occasionally he would think of his late comrades and this would upset him. I had interrupted one of these moments. He noted that the peaceful nature of his allotment gave him a lot of time to think and he felt privileged to be able to grow things and watch the seasons change.
An experience that his wartime friends could not share. This short exchange taught me a lot about life and now many years later I can see his point that allotments do reflect a lot about the way we live. Captain Simpson died in 1975 (by this time I had moved to London).
I can remember receiving a letter from his widow noting the sad news and informing me that the Captain had left me the Robert Graves book as I had admired it so much. I still have the book and it is sitting next to me as I write this article.
Maybe as this is Good Friday and the weather is so pleasant, I might just walk down to the allotments between the railway and the canal and meet the people who run them and who in a way, have shaped an important part of my life.