Sunday 28 October 2012

Of Pigeons and Sheds

A couple of sort-of allotment-related items coming up in Stoke-on-Trent's Conjunction contemporary arts festival. One on pigeons, another focusing on a shed...

"Fiona Long: 'Pigeon Scare' (Fat Cat Cafe Bar, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent)...

Fiona Long humorously examines our ambivalent relationship with pigeons. Do we want to scare them away from our crops and our buildings, or are the pigeons actually scaring us?"

Andrew Holmes: 'Lych Gate' (Hanley Park, 18th Nov - 21st Dec)...

"Working with the staff, friends and visitors of Hanley Park, Andrew Holmes will be creating a hand-built meeting place / shelter / sculpture using materials reclaimed from the demolition sites and waste grounds of Stoke-on-Trent"

Too many bees?

The Independent has a news story today, claiming that there are now "too many" new beehives, at least in London. In the capital a beehive has become the oh-so-fashionable thing for the upper middle-class garden, and also for the office roof at some large businesses. Yet there simply isn't enough pollen and nectar in the urban metropolis to support them all.

Thankfully that's not a problem that should affect bees in Stoke-on-Trent, since the city is nestled amid a vast patchwork of green spaces.

On a more national level, the news report also worryingly mentions a...

"survey by Mori [UK] last week showed that nine out of 10 people could not identify honey bees next to other insects."

I guess that's partly an inevitable result of that fact that 49% of UK children are simply not allowed to play outside. But it suggests that those with new beehives might want to have an actual picture of a bee on the initial publicity banners and leaflets, when the hives arrive.

Above: Honey Bee by Tie Guy II. Creative Commons.

Of course, in future we may have robo-bees...

"Engineers from the universities of Sheffield and Sussex are planning on scanning the brains of bees and uploading them into autonomous flying robots that will then fly and act like the real thing."

Friday 26 October 2012

12th day on the plot

Weather: a stiff North wind, the first frost on its way.

I popped up to the allotment for a quickie hour, in a bitterly cold wind which heralded tonight's first frost. I got the remaining end of the first row on the middle-plot dug over and weeded, so I could put the remaining two little gooseberries in. They're a bit small, and the roots are not good — but it's to be hoped they'll be putting down some decent roots by next Spring.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Lives in a Landscape documentary on allotments

Available online now, the brilliant new Lives in a Landscape radio documentary about the people of an allotment in Hastings.

Sutton Seeds

I just registered with Sutton Seeds and ordered the paper editions of the new 2013 (released Oct 2012) main catalogue, for some Winter window-shopping and ideas. Good to see that they take PayPal.

Although I suspect that this book may be of more use to me, come Spring... ;)

If Bach had been a beekeeper

I found another poem by the poet Charles Tomlinson (1927-, Hartshill born and raised). The poem is again relevant to the allotments here (and to the site's coming beehives)...


If Bach had been a beekeeper

If Bach had been a beekeeper
he would have heard
all those notes
suspended above one another
in the air of his ear
as the differentiated swarm returning
to the exact hive
and place in the hive,
topping up the cells
with the honey of C major,
food for the listening generations,
key to their comfort
and solace of their distress
as they return and return
to those counterpointed levels
of hovering wings where
movement is dance
and the air itself
a scented garden


Tuesday 23 October 2012

11th day at the plot

Weather at the plot: autumnal, mild and still. 98% humidity. 15 degrees at 3:00pm, 14 degrees at 5:30pm.

At the allotment for a few hours this afternoon. I walked the hoe up there, through Hartshill Park.

* Hoed the remaining weeds off the lower plot.

* Put ten half-sacks of bark chippings onto the path edges, to help suppress weeds.

* Pruned and then dug out a big unwanted gooseberry bush from my immediate neighbour's plot (with permission).

* Dug over a strip of the middle plot, in order to plant my row of gooseberry bushes. I'm hoping these can be trained into a 'hedge' that will divide the lower from the middle plot. One of them had just been left in a pot, and stuffed in with the mint. There are still two more small ones elsewhere, that will have to be transplanted into the row on another day...

The first light night-frost is due for this coming Friday night, according to the Stoke forecast.

Monday 22 October 2012

Got a hoe

I now have a hoe. No, I haven't been scampering around the back-streets of Cobridge with scantily-clad ladies. It's the other kind of hoe :) A B&Q Carbon Steel Dutch Hoe, for £6.50. It looks pretty sturdy, and I hope it'll enable me to skim weeds off the plot this winter, without trampling all over the wet soil and compacting it.

I had a look at the seeds while I was in there, and also spotted some of the Royal Society's beneficial root fungi 'Rootgrow', which I've heard great things about and which I shall probably get in the Spring. The ungainly B&Q website doesn't seem to know Rootgrow exists, but I found it's actually £2 cheaper than their shelf-price on the Daily Telegraph's gardening site.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Up The Garden Path

One of the oddest gardening-related publications ever to come out of Stoke was a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing adventure booklet called "Up The Garden Path". Issued in a tiny print-run for the 1986 Stoke-on-Trent National Garden Festival, it was only sold at the Festival and at the Royal Horticultural Society Hall in London. Which means it's incredibly rare, and now sells to collectors for about $2,500.

RPG travellers journeyed to the Festival site on a salamander-driven steam train run by gnomes, and then used the real site-map as a game map. In an Alice-like world they encountered monsters including an IffanbutT, Shadow Wolves, the Arborinexorabilaneous treants (living trees, or ents), and the Snap Dragon.

A scan of the booklet is currently available to read on Scribd.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Urban Wildlife

A fab edition of BBC Radio 4's "Open Country" documentary programme, on Urban Wildlife. Available to listen online.

Apparently the fleas that often infest hedgehogs don't and can't live on humans, dogs or cats — only on hedgehogs. Photo: Will Burton.

The tenth day: 'dug for victory'

Weather at the plot: 15 degrees at 3.30pm, 14 degrees and chilling rapidly at 5.30pm. Very light wind, and high mostly clear skies.

Walked up to the plot this afternoon through Hartshill Park, for a go at digging out the weeds and weed roots from the final section of the lower plot. As you can see, victory...

And an apple as a reward...

Although the lower plot is going to need a hoe in a week to so, to keep down a few of the straggler weeds that are already showing a leaf.

I finally met Mr. Next Door the landscape gardener, named Stuart, who kindly agreed to let me take his unwanted large gooseberry bush out and replant it on my plot.

I also had a tour of Ben's (site newsletter and communications) plot, which is a fabulous patchwork of micro-climates and types of veg. I had the useful tip from him of "only water once a week" in warmer weather, since if you do it every day the plants don't put down deep roots.

More path bark-mulch has arrived in the big hoppers by the main gate, so I shall get some more of that down on my path next week.

To do next: transplant the rhubarb, take the gooseberry out. Start digging out a strip of the weeds on the next section up of the plot - so that I can get a line of the various gooseberries in before the first frosts.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Lanky Fred

The Stoke-on-Trent artist and writer Arthur Berry (1925-1994) has one poem about allotments in his out-of-print (and now nearly unobtainable) collection Dandelions (1993):


He always said "you're a long time dead"
Did lanky Fred
When he was alive, in his life
After he had buried his wife
And the air was thick
With summer dust and cobwebs
And the heavy bodied bees
Staggered from the dahlias
To the sweet peas
When the dog rose grew in
The hawthorn hedge
And there were
Wild fox gloves
At the back of the well.
When the pig styes
In the next allotment
Began to smell
And thick stems of dandelions
Grew between the sunken bricks
Of his garden path
Lanky Fred would sit in his little shed
And spit outside on the path
His mouth black from chewing twist
His dry skinned hands had
Blue birds tattooed on the wrists
And his cord trousers were held up
By braces and a brass buckled belt
If Fred spoke honest
About what he felt
He’d never been better off in his life
Since he'd buried
His clean hard working wife
And now he was free as you might say
To do as he pleased
And have his own way
To spend all his pension on twist and drink
And be damned to what
The neighbours think
When his poor wife was alive
They had to make ends meet
By selling tomatoes,
Rhubarb and mint
And Fred was very often skint
Him and his little stiff tailed dog
Were often as dry
As a lime-burner's clog.


* "styes" is the old spelling, used in the 19th century.

* "fox gloves" is the old way of presenting the word 'foxgloves'.

* "twist" was a chewing tobacco made from leaves that were flavored and then twisted to resemble a rope.

* "Lime Burner's Clog" was a northern English nickname given to those Victorians who advocated total abstinence from alcohol. Victorian limeburners were freelancers who voluntarily worked with intense heat and their clothes were often scorched and charred. It apparently used to be common practice in the British Isles for all allotment holders to regularly 'lime' their plots in the Spring, if the plot needed it or not.

Berry's autobiography Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man is currently easier to get hold of than Dandelions. The book takes the reader from his working class childhood at the north end of the Potteries amid the Great Depression of the 1930s; through his discovery of art and life at the Burslem School of Art and the many seedy grotesqueries of pub life in Burslem during the Second World War; down south to London's bohemian scene where Berry was an art student amid the social changes of the 1950s; then back up to Stoke-on-Trent as an art teacher - increasingly appalled and depressed by the new socialist hatred for figurative art (one of his poems opens with: "I'm no radical, no lefty") and by the yobbishness unleashed by Labour's 'permissive society'.

Burslem Park needs Gardening Volunteers

Gardening Volunteers are wanted at the newly Lottery-refurbished Burslem Park, in the north of Stoke-on-Trent...

"Our gardening volunteers group meets 10am on Fridays at the park pavilion, and the session runs to 12.30. All welcome - drop in to meet the group and find out more."

The Garden

More contemporary art, this time from Stoke-on-Trent's Rachel Grant...

It's a mugs game

Classic enamel Utility-style "Dig for Victory" mug, for your allotment shed.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Sunday Afternoon

More allotment art from Stoke. Vicky Mount's "Sunday Afternoon", a view of allotment life in Stoke-on-Trent (you can see the distinctive bottle kilns of the ceramics factories, in the distance).

Although no allotment holder has bricks that clean...

Dolly Lane

More contemporary allotment art from Stoke-on-Trent — the Dolly Lane site at the north end of Burslem, with the Port Vale F.C. stadium in the background. Painted by Stoke-on-Trent artist Rob Pointon, who sells at Burslem's Barewall...

And Rob's original pencil sketch, without his trademark dynamic distortion...

Pottering about

Lovely bit of local allotment art from Stoke-on-Trent, "Pottering About" by Chris Cypus. Available from Barewall in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent. The picture is of a real allotments site and view, with the Middleport Pottery (the last working Victorian pottery, now being refurbished by the Prince's Trust) in the background.

BBC Lives in a Landscape: allotments

Next Wednesday on BBC Radio 4's excellent Lives in a Landscape documentary series, a 30-minute programme on a Hastings allotments site.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Ninth day on the allotment

Weather at the plot today: 11 degrees at 2.50pm, 11 degrees at 5.30pm. Very pleasant in the sun as the storm finally passed away north, and the wind dropped, but then feeling colder as the wind picked up about 4.30pm. Ground damp, from the rain of the previous 24 hours.

Another afternoon at the plot. I've now dug and weeded nearly all of the lower section of the plot...

One more afternoon, and the lower section should be done... and six green garden sacks of weeds and weed roots will have been taken out of it.

I met "Mr. Euro" for the first time, and he kindly gave me three nice-looking Bramley cooking-apples. He's an Oxbridge-voiced bloke situated two plots north of me, where he flies a very tattered little European EU flag. I also met a nice couple who took over a disused plot next to the Park, back in July, cleaned it up, and who are now enjoying taking their bags of Autumn produce off it.

Worrying report in today's paper. A woman's smallholding at Sneyd Green (a long way from my allotment, at the back-end of Burslem) was broken into and all her geese and chickens were killed and taken, seemingly with intent to sell them on a market (the birds were found cached in a nearby field). Thankfully, my site has just changed all the gate padlock combinations, but such things are still worrying.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Friday 12 October 2012

A good boot scraper

An excellent cheap boot-scraper / cleaner for firm mud is a child's junior hacksaw, with the blade taken out. The end bit can get into the treads on the boot, and generally act as a precision mud-picker...

I discovered this by accident. I took the little saw up to the plot for lopping small branches on the back hedge, but the blade sprang off and vanished into hyperspace. Left with the shaped handle, I found an even better use for it.

And on the eighth day...

Weather at the plot today: 12 degrees and cold. Sunny day after a rainstorm. Very breezy with a cold south-west wind. One sharp shower, but otherwise a fine afternoon.

I walked up to the plot. All the sweet chestnuts on the tree in Hartshill Park are down, and the squirrels have scampered away with every seed they can lay their little paws on.

It was the first "under t-shirt and thick waistcoat day" on the allotment plot, today. Up until now a simple top has sufficed to keep me warm. I dug more of the lower plot, and plucked out another bag of weeds and weed roots. About two-thirds of my lower plot has now been cleared and cleaned...

The pile of rotting apples in the wild bit at the top of my plot seems to be attracting the occasional late butterfly, presumably to feed on the sugars in the fructation.

I also made a panorama picture of the tree-felling area, which is set to be a new bee-keeping glade...

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Seventh day on the plot

Weather at the plot today: 12 degrees, feeling quite cold in a blowy south-easterly breeze.

I went up to the allotments for only an hour today. The wind was turning cold, preparing to bring in the heavy rainstorm tomorrow morning. I just dug out a small L-shaped section, including one of the awkward "raised beds" corners, and yet still took half a sack of weeds and weed-roots out of it.

Discovered a nice crop of fungi growing from the roots at the side of the shed...

Also discovered that Mr. Next Door seems to have installed an alarm in his shed. But the battery seems to be running down. Hence it very loudly "chirrups" every two minutes to give warning, to the delight of some local caged birds who loudly reciprocate. Either that, or he's keeping a Really Big Bird in there.

I've decided to take a sketchbook up to the plot next time I go — not to sketch, but rather to macro photograph small objects isolated against white. When a page gets too muddy it can just be flipped.

Pot sunk in water bucket. Click for full-size.


Some photos of the tree-clearing that happened this last weekend, elsewhere on the allotment...

Photo by Ben

I could use one of those mini-diggers!

Plot No. 235

This sounds like an interesting sci-art project:

"As her graduation project Anne Geene decided to execute a systematic, almost scientific, study of her allotment in Rotterdam [Holland]. The book contains three parts. It starts with the geographical demarcation, the lay-out of the allotment and some facts and figures, like the most common weed (goutweed) and most common species (the woodlouse). Part two is the main part of the book and provides a detailed account of all her observations. She not only documented and photographed all the vegetation and species that occupy the allotment, but she also included different shapes, colors, patterns, animal behavior, animal traces, skies and water. The third and final part presents the results of various measurements like the transparency of leaves, the speed of swimming ducks or to what extent the camouflage of a frog resembles its surroundings."

The work has now been published as a book (in Dutch only), Plot No. 235. Encyclopedia of an Allotment...

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Sixth day on the allotment

Weather at the plot today: 15 degrees at 3.30pm, 14 degrees at 5.30pm. Very light but cold Easterly breeze.

I've broken the back of the lower section of the plot, without (as yet) breaking my own back. Three bags of weeds and weed roots have come out so far, and I reckon there's another three to come. Another half to go, but I can see progress...

The work is a little easier now, as I'm getting better at the fork-craft and at taking out the weeds.

At some point, before the worst of the Autumn gales, I need to unfold the plastic sheeting, remove slugs and mud from the sheets, and either fold or roll it into a state where it's easily layable without it flapping in the wind.

"The Pigeon" made a low-flying reconnaissance mission, but didn't stop. I'm guessing the best time to sow peas and beans (which the birds apparently love and will dig up) will be the edge of dusk, when birds are roosting for the night.

Mr. Next Door (a landscape gardener who has only recently taken his plot over) has put up a useful little boundary fence at the bottom, which also means a big new plastic water-butt is indeed on my plot and is mine. Useful.

A little drip

Ferreting around in a drawer I found an old Aqua Balance bottle-top watering spike top. They're used with a large plastic mineral water bottle of the sturdier type, and a "drip irrigation" watering spike that goes into the soil. I've used them before, back when I had a small garden, and they're excellent as long as you use the right type of bottle and follow the instructions.

A Lidl bit of a gadget

Thanks to my friend Pete for alerting me that Lidl currently have a very cheap £2.50 electronic weather station. What's unusual (and potentially useful for allotmenteers) is that it...
"Automatically saves min./max. [temperature] values"
   [Hat-tip: Pete]

Monday 8 October 2012

Fifth day on the allotment

Weather at the allotment today: 12 degrees at 2.30pm, warming to 15 degrees at 4.30pm.

A couple of hours at the allotment this afternoon, fueled by a curry that was made delicious by two garlic cloves from the allotment. I didn't go up there at the weekend, as contractors were cutting down all the trees on the western side of the allotments all weekend, and I didn't fancy the constant noise of chainsaws. Don't worry, there were no trees there worth saving, and the light and air gained will benefit the beehives when they arrive.

* Picked all the litter that had collected along the south fence of the allotments.

* Took up some new green plastic garden sacks, to use as weed rotting-down sacks. Stuffed the old weeds into them, and started another bag with today's weeds.

* Dug over another row of soil, and took a large sackful of weeds and weed-roots out of it...

* Destroyed more slugs, gathered from the useful "slug-trap planks".

* Scraped the weeds off a little brick path I didn't know I had.

* Found a stainless knife in the soil, still sharp and un-rusted. Might be useful for cutting hand-to-get weeds in brick crevices.

I found a small mustard-coloured frog, which obviously likes the dampness around the mint bed. It hopped into a crevice before I could get the camera and photograph it. Nice to know that the site has frogs! Some of the allotments have ponds, and I'd guess a few of these get frogspawn.

I also encountered 'The Pigeon' again. It seems to be attracted to next door's bonfire pile for some reason. Perhaps it thinks the pile is some kind of giant nest?

Spectating on allotments

The UK's venerable The Spectator has dropped its paywall for one month, revealing some munchable and entertaining articles on allotments:

Seeds of Change (on science and modern techniques on allotments)

My Secret Garden (on the 'secret garden' nature of allotments)

Thin On The Ground (on the threats to allotments under Labour)

Digging the dirt (on Labour's facile evocation of 'Dig for Victory', at a time when Labour had been allowing the sell off of allotments for a decade)

Talking Heads (on allotment holders in winter)

Growing Your Own (on the costs of cultivating vs. buying veg)

A Place to Plot on the perfect writer's shed...

"The sheds I see online are all roughly constructed out of orangey-pine and look like doll’s chalets, with horrible black cladding on the roofs and blank-faced, plasticky windows, that look as if they should be toll booths or housing hot tubs or a kennel for Alsatians, or some other grim purpose."

Round The Galleries (review of the gallery show "A Common Treasury: The Sheds Lost to the Olympiad").

"A Common Treasury: The Sheds Lost to the Olympiad", Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London, Sept 2007.

Sunday 7 October 2012

In the bag

The Royal Horticultural Society is running a free soil-sampling service, ending at the end of October 2012. Just bag and send them five soil samples for testing, and you don't even have to be a RHS member.

Hoe Hoe Hoe...

I think I shall probably have to get a Dutch hoe tool at some point soon. It'd probably be best to have one over the Winter, in case it's mild and the weeds keep sprouting. I'll see what happens re: sprouting weeds when the digging-over stops, and the first frosts settle in.

Dutch hoes are surprisingly cheap on Amazon UK. There's even one there for less than a fiver... the Silverline 186817 Dutch Hoe. Apparently it used to be even cheaper in 2011, at an amazing £2.99 delivered. I guess there's not a great deal to a hoe. 50p of shaped steel at the end, and a tube. I'm guessing India or China probably knocks them out wholesale for less than £1 a time.

But UK home delivery is always such a huge hassle, with anything that can't fit in a letterbox. So I guess it's a B&Q superstore purchase for me, since (without a car) B&Q is my only accessible garden centre. The B&Q website tells me (while tediously pummeling me with Flash, and pop-up invites to take part in their site survey) that their cheapest Dutch hoe is £6.48. That one sounds like my choice, and it's worth the extra £1.50 just to avoid the hassle of dealing with courier delivery drivers.

Perhaps Amazon should offer to make an annual seasonal delivery of tools and equipment direct to an allotment gate, provided more than twelve tools are ordered at one time?

Mind you, if you have a sound old wooden tool shaft in your shed there's a slightly cheaper way to get a hoe. Just buy the steel hoe head on eBay, and get the seller to promise to send it my normal Royal Mail rather than a courier. You'd then fit the head with your own wooden shaft...

Friday 5 October 2012

Of carpets and quangos

It appears that the Lottery-funded and government-funded semi-quango Allotment Regeneration Initiative is closing down soon, at least according to the UK's Horticulture Week magazine...

"More allotmenteers are getting thrown off their plots. This is a good thing, say some, because of waiting lists. Mainly newbies who are giving up, allotment types tell me, such as Allotment Regeneration Initiative, which is closing."

I'm dealing with consequences of such abandonment. Thankfully the Allotment Regeneration Initiative's website has a useful "Restore the Plot" PDF pamphlet, which gives sound and succinct advice on restoring an abandoned allotment plot.

Interesting note in the PDF about the chemicals in some types of cheap carpets, which are used on allotments as weed suppressant material. I can't imagine that the EU's health and safety commissars would allow carpets for sale in people's homes though, where babies might chew on a corner or dogs might lick them, if the chemicals in them were really that toxic to humans or animals.

Remembering "The Good Life" TV series

Getting an allotment has reminded me of my youthful chuckling at the TV series The Good Life, many years ago now. The Good Life was one of the many popular sitcoms of mid and later 1970s, a time long before the Internet when there were only two TV channels to choose from for comedy, ITV or BBC. The BBC's The Good Life featured an urban couple who turn their front and back gardens into allotments, in a bid for self-sufficiency in food. I vaguely remember watching the series as a young child, and think I must have watched the whole run. But it ran from 1975 to 1978, and so I would have been too young to get all the jokes in the earlier series. The Margo character has always been the most vivid in my memory.

The historical context of the show was that UK in the 1974-1979 period was collapsing under socialist rule — power-cuts / waves of strikes / food shortages / rampant inflation and more — and this was a situation which also inspired everything from sitcoms like Citizen Smith (a hapless wannabe leftist revolutionary), to the biting drama series 1990 (the grim portrayal of an investigative journalist trying to live under a future socialist dictatorship in Britain).

Against this grim background, the rather twee presentation of the suburban self-sufficient dream certainly must have appealed to a wide TV audience. Even The Queen was apparently a big fan, at least according to Wikipedia.

I may have seen a few repeats in the 1980s, although I don't remember them. So I'm now looking forward to another viewing of the show. Many 1970s sitcoms have aged badly (Are You Being Served?) while others have become timeless classics (Open All Hours springs to mind) and I'm just hoping that The Good Life will live up to my old memories of it. Judging from YouTube clips like this, it probably will...

Thursday 4 October 2012

Fourth day on the allotment

Weather at the plot today: 13 degrees at 12 noon, 16 degrees at 4 o'clock. Light breezy south wind. Mostly sunny.

Fourth day today, taking advantage of the fine early Autumn weather. What was done at the allotment plot today:

* Carried the spade up to the plot, from home. The Sweet Chestnut tree in the park I walk through is dropping its nuts, but sadly they're not fat enough to eat.

* Harvested what I thought was the remains of some garlic, which had been strimmed. But it turned out to be mostly onions — with just a few garlic cloves...

A very well-fed and healthy pigeon arrived shorted after I'd finished grubbing these up with the fork. Possibly it was expecting I'd planted peas or beans, and was after the seeds? Pigeon pie may be on the menu...

* I finished digging and weeding what is now a side 'herb' border, which sits against a little south-facing wall. Took out nearly all of the weed roots there. It seems suitable for herbs, so I put the sage and the lemon balm there. The remaining space will be for other varieties of herbs, as-and-when. Laid down a couple of access planks for it.

* Found that the older wooden boards — which I stacked alongside the path in the middle of the plot yesterday — are a perfect slug magnet. All I have to do is pick up the one leaning board, and there are all the slugs, ready to be carried up to the "altar" and destroyed.

* Partly covered the bonfire pile with a "rain-hat" of heavy folded-up old carpet, to let it dry off. It'll also serve to compact the pile, making space for a big pile of dried-out weed roots.

Found a vole-hole that goes under the roots of the oak. Here's the very lair of the wee timorous beastie...

The first funghi have appeared on the plot, under the apple tree...

Spotted an air-blimp off in the distance, on the other side of the valley...

Yes, this is urban Stoke-on-Trent. We're just a very green city.

And finally, here's a photo of the public path-facing side of the shed. Still needs a couple of brambles cutting out of it...

Possibly some potential for chalk-art here...

Charles Tomlinson's "The Allotment"

The Richmond St. allotments are in Penkhull, and I've found out that a poet who was born and raised in Penkhull, Charles Tomlinson (b. 1927), wrote a 1972 poem titled "The Allotment". With the descriptions of the valley below the site, he could almost be writing about the Richmond St. allotments. Here's an early part of the poem...

   of clinker heaps
        go orange now:
through cooler air
   an acrid drift
        seeps upwards
from the valley;
   the spoiled and staled
        distances invade
these closed comities
   of vegetable shade,
        glass-houses, rows
and trellises of redly
   flowering beans.
is a paradise
   where you may smell
        the cinders
of quotidian hell beneath you;
   here grow
        their green reprieves
for those
   who labour, linger in
        their watch-chained waistcoats
rolled-back sleeves—
   the ineradicable
        peasant in the dispossessed
and half-tamed Englishman.
   By day, he makes
        a burrow of necessity
from which
   at evening, he emerges

Wednesday 3 October 2012

History of Richmond Street allotments

I found an interesting discussion of the history of my allotments site, on the Web at This Is Staffordshire. I thought I'd paste the relevant bits here, just in case that page gets deleted at some point:

Leeguv wrote:

"Am pretty sure it was called "Richmond Hill" before Richmond Street was laid down in late Victorian times. I accidentally came across that little factoid while doing some family history research about ten years ago. Before the street existed (prior to the late 1800s), the area (mostly fields) was called Richmond Hill. When the street name was changed from Jubilee Road to Richmond Street in the 1950s, it was no doubt a tribute to the area's historic name."

Gazzer40 replied:

"in the past when it [the Richmond St. allotments in Stoke] was a field with a bigish pool [in the 1920s] the pool was fed by a spring which is still going in the middle of the allotments now."

I also found an old 1890 map which shows the field later used for the allotments, and the pool in it. Possibly the pool had been enlarged by the 1920s, to serve as a fishing pool. The hillside spring which fed it can still be seen at the foot of one of the allotments. The boundary between the allotments and the Richmond St. park appears to be the same today as the field boundary of 1890...

The City Council purchased the field sometime in the 1930s, presumably in the early 1930s and presumably in order to provide Depression-era allotments.

In the 1940s on the allotments, Hitler tried to bomb Stoke's factories the strategically important marrow and cabbage reserves of Stoke-on-Trent. Mrs I.J. Stone told the BBC's archive of public memories of Second World War bombing...

"We had a positive shower of incendiary bombs in and around the Richmond Street allotments. The then vicar of St. Andrews was in there with me and he picked up what he thought was a sandbag and plonked it on a smouldering bomb. It was, in fact, a bag of manure and he almost gassed the whole population of Richmond St and Penkhull and the fire watchers never let him forget it."

Old photos or memories of the Richmond Street allotments site are most welcome, so please contact the Committee if you have any.

Allotments on BBC radio

BBC Radio "Listen Again" online programmes on allotments are surprisingly rare, but here are links to two that I found:

* BBC Radio 4 Allotments and health (28 mins, 2012)

* BBC Radio 4 The benefits of life on an allotment (10 mins, 2004)

Away with the fairies...

Margaret Drabble writing in The Spectator in 2011 explained: “The Potteries are one of the strangest regions in the British Isles". It's quite true. There are even people who still believe in fairies in Stoke-upon-Trent town. I went into the newsagents to get a paper today, before going to the allotment. There was a pensioner in there, obviously well known to the newsagent (who had a bemused smile on his face), telling the newsagent about: "the hob-elfs, they call 'em — they has little arrows, tiny ones, with stone points... they fires 'em at you... you look out for 'em, they're sharp..."

This belief persisted quite late, so if the chap has a family tradition, it's quite possible the belief is still alive for him...

"References to folk-beliefs attributing the ills of humans or their livestock to 'elf-shot' persisted in some rural areas of the British Isles into the 19th century." — The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, 2009.

Third day on the plot

Weather at the allotment today: 12 degrees at noon, then 14 degrees for the rest of the day. A breezy south-westerly wind, sunny with just one light shower.

Four hours of work at the allotments today.

* Moved some dumped flagstones into a more orderly pile, which serves nicely as the slime-covered sacrificial slug altar...

* Spent 90 minutes hacking and pulling all the brambles away from some completely swamped currants. Then I hacked back the evergeen hedge behind the currants, so I can get at the currants from either side and keep the brambles' suckers down in future...

* The bramble detritus from this was chopped and put on a growing bonfire pile, which I'll cover soon and then after a month of drying will hopefully be ready for Bonfire Night...

* Hacked back some escaping mint from its prison raised bed. I'll have to eradicate all the roots that have escaped, since mint is a prolific spreader.

* Found two straggly 'weed' gooseberries, and a nice vigorous gooseberry in a pot that was being completely swamped by the mint.

* Sorted and stacked the old wood planks I collected yesterday. Rotten or wormy planks went up the back or onto the growing bonfire. Middling stuff was stacked at the side of the plot. The good planks were kept by the shed, ready to become walking planks for the plots.

* Moved some old plastic sheeting onto my plot, ready to brick it down as weed suppressor.

* Cleaned up and moved some loose fertilizer bags that had been at the top of the plot.

* Tidied up up the little picket that's on the public side of the shed.

* Undertook a basic dig of my first row, against the low south-facing brick wall. This will be a little herb row, in time. Gareth has kindly started me off with this, by donating some sage and a lemon balm plant...

Time for lunch...

A nice hot coffee

Eek! The Telegraph has a horticultural scare story today about an invasion of giant 10-inch Spanish slugs...

"we're in the midst of an invasion — and the slugs are bigger and more ferocious than ever."

Apparently a bucket of hot strong coffee kills them...

"a bucket of hot water [with coffee granules] Research by the US-based Agricultural Research Service in 2011 found that a 1 to 2 per cent caffeine solution kills slugs and snails."

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Second day on the plot

Weather at the allotment today: 17 degrees at 10.30am, down to 14 degrees at 12.30am, as a brisk southerly wind brought the first spots of rain in.

I popped up to the new allotment for a few hours this morning, before the rain hit. I thought I'd only have time to do a couple of jobs — but, like a TARDIS, time seems to expand when you're on an allotment...

* Installed my tools and other useful stuff in the shed.

* Fitted a time / temperature / humidity etc monitor for the shed, so I never have to bother with wearing a watch on the plot. It also means I can keep a basic record of actual temperatures over the year.

* Got a decent chair for the shed.

* Cut away all the brambles that were swamping the little oak tree.

* Found a load of bamboo bean poles under the grass at the top.

* Chopped up the cut brambles to start a bonfire pile for Bonfire Night.

* Got a pile of old planks no-one wanted.

* Filed the rust patina off the tines of the fork I've inherited, and rubbed them down with WD40.

* Discovered the member's Club House orchard and its free apples.

* Discovered that the members have a tool shed from which items like strimmers can be borrowed. The shed is nicknamed "The Tardis".

* Discovered that the planning permission request for the new new allotment holders's HQ hut has gone in recently, but that funds still need to be raised for it.

* Met Gareth, and the current Chairman. Four pallets to make a compost bin should be on their way to me at some point.

* Bonfires are best had when the wind is light and from the south.

* Found and squashed my first caterpillar-grub thing.

* Took back a garlic clove to dry (will dig out the rest of the old cloves later this week). Also took back four of the good apples from the tree, but found they they're a bit too sugary and floury for me. Was kindly also given some free tomatoes.

* Found that one advantage of being high up and on a slope is that you an excellent view of the skies, and can tell at a glance what weather's coming and what's going (and in what direction).

A tiny photo of what my allotment used to look like

Thanks to Gareth, I've found an old photo of the allotments in 2011, probably in early Spring 2011. It's rather small, but at least if I squint I can get some faint intimations of how my plot (and the neighboring roadside one, with the nifty flag-shaped beds, also disused in 2012) was used before it became overgrown and before I came along...

Photo: Gareth Sheldon.

The history of British allotments: a survey

I though it might be useful to place online a quick survey of some items on the history of British allotments:

A history of the allotment system in the Victorian period can be found in the Earl of Onslow's book Landlords and allotments: the history and present condition of the allotment systems (1886). This is free on, and has Kindle and iPad editions.

A new academic book on the Victorian period is The Allotment Movement in England, 1793-1873 (2011). There is also a close examination using local Victorian sources, in the book Breaking New Ground: Nineteenth-Century Allotments from Local Sources (2010).

The history of allotments in Britain to the start of the First World War is briefly covered in the first chapter of the free Allotments for all; the story of a great movement (1918), which is available for free on Kindle and iPad versions are available. Most of the book is about the wartime experience.

A longer general survey can be found in the book The Allotment Chronicles: A Social History of Allotment Gardening (2006).

A short left-leaning academic summary paper is Allotment Gardens: A Reflection of History, Heritage, Community and Self (2011), which is free online. The paper has a rather timid bibliography, which doesn't include the two books linked above. It also glosses over the right-wing roots of the 'Dig for Victory' campaign in the Second World War, opting to mention the left-leaning Quakers instead. For instance, the wartime Agriculture Minister responsible for instigating 'Dig for Victory' had been a member of the ultra right-wing English Mistery theoretical grouplet — on this see Dan Stone's "The Far Right and the Back-to-the-Land Movement" (2004).

A general book-length history of allotments in the Second World War can be found in Digging for Victory: Gardens and Gardening in Wartime Britain (2010).

The history of British allotments also features — with an anarchist slant — in Colin Ward's The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture (1988) which has much to say about Council sell-offs in the 1960s and 1970s.

A more academic book that covers the 20th century in Britain is Denis Moran's The Allotment Movement in Britain (1990).

Some allotments societies have produced their own published histories, such as Gardeners' city: A history of the Letchworth Allotments & Horticultural Association, 1906-1996 (1996). Some cities have also produced history pamphlets, such as Lincoln's Allotments: A History (2008), or have included chapters on their city history in a book-length general survey — such as Allotments and small holdings in Oxfordshire (1917).