Twenty-first Century Diggers

PUBLISHED: 09:43 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

Schoolboys on their way to their allotment to answer the Second World War appeal to Dig for Victory

Schoolboys on their way to their allotment to answer the Second World War appeal to Dig for Victory

Celebrating the centenary of the Act that gave us all the right to take a shovel to a patch of unused land by June Lewis

'England is not a free people, till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons'.

Gerald Winstanley, a leader of the Digger Movement, 1649

'The right to dig' is a statement locked more in our cultural heritage than embodied in the law of the land still voiced today by those determined souls who take a spade and shovel to a patch of unused land for the purpose of growing food. Those more law-abiding citizens, anxious to join the ever-increasing number of people wanting to grow their own fruit and vegetables, are turning to the local councils for an allotment, which was so much a part of the social structure of towns and villages until the 1980s saw many of the old plots swallowed up in new developments.

This year is the centenary of the Allotment Act of 1908, and to celebrate the British love affair with the old-style allotment gardening it has gained prestigious recognition with the week of 11-17 August designated as National Allotment Week. This will obviously give an even bigger profile to what has been traditionally the pastime of gnarled old men escaping to their plot where digging and hoeing and weeding were punctuated by the chance to mull over anything from politics to potato planting with fellow diggers. Today, allotment gardening is in the grip of a renaissance: it is taking the green movement literally to its ground roots; it is a culture fostered proudly by young professionals and serious minded people who want to make a positive link between physical exercise in the open air with choosing how their food is produced. It has become much more of a family affair and is creating its own social structure in the communities fortunate enough to have allotments.

Although it is estimated that there are over 300,000 allotments in the UK, many councils have a waiting list for any that are in their area, and pressure from others seeking to join the enthusiastic plotters. If there is the demand, a local authority is obliged to provide one under the Small Holdings and Allotment Act of 1908. For that to happen six local, registered voters have to put their case to the local authority - but, with land at a premium, actually getting the land to meet the legal obligations to provide fifteen allotments per 1,000 households poses a problem. One solution that some regions operate is to offer allotments a quarter of the normal size which, according to the Allotments Act of 1922, is some 300 square yards - but not exceeding 40 poles in extent.

Measurements since then have gone metric, but the link to the past is rooted in the system. A pole translates to about five metres and most plots were of ten poles - about a quarter of the medieval field strip of a furlong. The communally cultivated strips of the past originated in providing the poorer people with the means of growing their own food. Dating back almost to the Norman Conquest landowners steadily encroached on the common lands and full scale enclosures over the following centuries dispossessed the rural class of their only means of being self-sufficient. It was not a purely British crisis: there was an international trend of wealthy landowners seizing even more land to add to their estates, and many a country can trace its allotment policies to some heroic stand by a humble husbandman fighting for 'the right to dig'.

Gerrard Winstanley was probably one of the earliest key activists, leading a group of hungry victims of recession in a mass trespass to dig up an area of waste land and sow it with seeds of beans, carrots, parsnips and wheat in 1649. Despite being rapidly dealt with at the time by the Government, the Digger Movement was born and gave the impetus and direction for the moral right to till the soil to feed one's self and family. Winstanley's vision that 'the whole earth shall be a common treasury for every man' shaped the principle of the General Inclosure Act of 1845, which made the provision of allotments for the working poor mandatory throughout Britain.

The Victorians approved of the allotment scheme, seeing it as a fitting way for the labouring classes to spend their few hours away from a physically hard and long working day for the betterment of the family's table, and away from the temptation of indulging in the demon drink at the local pub. By the end of the Edwardian era Britain had more than half a million allotments. This trebled during the First World War as the threat of starving the country into defeat made self-sufficiency a real issue. No longer was renting an allotment a rural thing, the emphasis was on cultivating crops in urban areas as well - an imperative reinforced even more strongly during World War II. Urged on by the famous slogan Dig for Victory, playgrounds were reduced in size to allow for school gardens and many parks and open spaces were dug up to create more allotments.

A decade after, the enthusiasm for growing one's own food waned as higher employment and better wages and the availability of food supplies increased. Many allotments became neglected or declared redundant as a new generation sought pleasure from leisure time and recreational activities did not include toiling on the soil. Now, as an antidote to too much commercialism, sameness and power of the supermarkets, freedom from the confines of modern house small gardens, and the space to work in a different environment away from computer screens and road traffic, there is a whole new breed of gardeners taking pride in being an allotmentee. The focus is now on the quality of lifestyle rather than a necessity for survival. The physical and mental health benefits have proved to be substantial with the advantages of being as alone as Adam or forming friendships with fellow plotters.

Twenty-first century plotters are enthusiastic bloggers, too, according to the web sites available where ideas are bounced back and forth through space to be mulled over during a quiet dig, or debated over a brew up on an old primus stove with neighbouring plot holders. Community gardens, such as the Hayden Road allotments in Cheltenham which has recently achieved a Planting Places award, has proved to be a haven for the sick, a rewarding place for disabled people to get involved with the green and growing activities and an effective outdoor classroom for troubled students where practical and social skills can be taught in a spacious environment.

At Kemble the villagers are on their way to turning an overgrown piece of land off Station Road into a community garden with fruit trees, a vegetable plot and a recreational area. Supporting the move to producing as much of our own food as possible, the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust has launched a Don't Waste Wildlife project in the county and nutritional therapists underscore the health benefits of home grown food, and many parents see the advantages of involving their children in taking a pride and interest in the process of getting enjoyment from the plot to their plate.

The allotment has become the new, trendy outdoor social and therapeutic centre and celebrity spies have reported that a sprinkling of well-known personalities have become enthusiastic diggers of the twenty-first century. Guiding newcomers and old-time diggers through the practicalities of planning to plot is a highly recommended new book, called simply The Allotment Book by Andi Clevely.

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