Len Grant reports on the fall and rise of an allotment society where there are plans to grow more than just carrots and turnips.
“My dad had been coming down here for 30 years. It was the only thing he ever did, the only thing left. Then developers decided they wanted the site for houses. A compulsory purchase order was slapped on the allotments and everyone seemed to just give up. Dad told me to sell his tools.”
This is when Patrick Maher decided to get involved and help to save the Edge Lane Allotments Society in Openshaw. He took over one of the derelict plots and began working with the remaining plot-holders to fight for the 4-acre site.
“We had to prove the community wanted to keep the site, which of course they did, and finally, by bringing in new members and working with the council’s allotment staff, we fought off the closure threat. Now, nearly two years on, it’s gone from being a wasteland to a thriving community resource.”
Sharron Comer tried unsuccessfully to find a plot on other sites before taking a look at Edge Lane.
“It was just a patch of barren land, full of weeds when I first saw it,” she recalls. “There was no fencing, no sheds, nothing. That was over two years ago and for the first year I had to weed the plot top to bottom.”
Since then Sharron has laid paths, installed new glass in a derelict greenhouse, planted fruit trees, dug a pond and constructed a summerhouse for her daughter. “It’s great for the kids, they love coming down and helping out. And they will eat all the vegetables because they are the ones who’ve grown them.”
Now Sharron grows all the regular allotment fare: carrots, cabbage, broccoli, turnips swedes, potatoes, parsnips, cucumber, tomatoes, as well as melons, grapes, apples, pears, raspberries, red, black and white currants, blueberries, and gooseberries. Her plot hardly seems large enough to fit it all in. But, not only does she grow enough produce for her own family, but there’s always extra to swap with others.
“Apart from a couple of months in the winter, I never buy anything from the supermarket,” she says. “Home grown tastes so much better. Our carrots are sweeter, our cabbages softer. Supermarket food has travelled for four weeks before it reaches the shelves, so it’s hardly fresh.”
Not since the second world war, when growing you own was pretty much mandatory, has the demand for allotments been so great. Back then there were 1.4 million plots but, through the 60s and 70s, as food became cheaper and the lure of the supermarket stronger, allotment sites were sold off because there was no one to work them.
Now, with a shift towards environmentally-friendly food, the allotment is popular again. It is estimated that 330,000 people have allotments in the UK with another 100,000 on waiting lists.
“We’ve got 88 plots here,” says Patrick, “and at least another 20 families waiting to get one.”
But Patrick and his green-fingered colleagues are not content with merely reaping the fruits of their labour for themselves. They have their own big plans for development.
“There’s an area by the entrance that needs clearing,” he says enthusiastically. “That can be used for any number of community groups or schools for project work on healthy eating or sustainability. We’ve got a classroom facility too, so there can be a more formal setting if that’s needed.”
The allotment society has already made links with Discus, a youth project in nearby Beswick. “We’re not all bright academics but when you see the sense of achievement on those young people’s faces when they have cleared a site, that’s very rewarding.”
Patrick would like to see more disenfranchised young people working the land learning the ropes from older horticulturalists. There’s a funding application pending for a carpentry workshop for young people to make bird boxes and hanging baskets. And, with some of the plots home to donkeys, poultry and even racing pigeons, there’s even potential for husbandry skills to be passed to a younger generation. “If a young person is coming on here every day to look after the animals, then they’re not on the streets getting into trouble.
“This is not the old school allotment,” says Patrick. “This year, we’re going to offer as many different services as possible to as many groups as possible. The more people we can get involved, the better.
Seventy year-old Billy Maher is back on his plot, just as Patrick remembers. “Dad has somewhere to come now. He swears that working on the land has kept him going.”
If your school or community group would like to find out more about the Edge Lane Allotment Society then contact Patrick Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org