When we took on the first half-allotment four years ago almost exactly, I don’t think we’d considered at all what a big part it was going to play in our lives. We’d always grown things in a series of different houses and allotments – you’d probably have described us as ‘greens’ for many decades, but over the years the sense of urgency has increased and where once we were content to have a few home-grown treats off our various gardens, by the time we moved here it seemed apparent that growing some of our own food was about to become a necessity. We had much less money once we retired, and there had been straws in the wind when relatively minor events like a bit of snow, or a petrol strike had brought the country to its knees and seen the shops emptied, and especially after the 2008 financial crash we felt that the system could no longer be trusted. Insecurity was becoming embedded in our lives and there was a growing sense of cognitive dissonance between the world as we and our children were experiencing it, and the world as it was being sold to us by politicians and their friends in the media.
So when we signed the first and then the second agreements on our two small plots, we felt that with the aggregate of 250 square metres – a British standard allotment plot – we’d be a good deal safer if the economy tanked. At that stage it was a conceptual move rather than one driven by an immediate threat. The brexit vote and then the election of the new government did nothing to allay our fears that the future was darkening by the day, and yet never once did it occur to us that the occasion of the collapse would be an escaped virus leading to a pandemic. That was truly left-field.
Until very recently, growing your own has been a kind of lifestyle choice – in fact many allotment and cooking blogs are categorised as lifestyle blogs. Home grown vegetables, and kitchen gardens tended to feature alongside gingham tablecloths and wicker shopping baskets at the homes and gardens end of the coffee table trade. Bread baking – especially the sourdough loaf – lined up with all manner of artisanal products as forms of conspicuous consumption among the hipster classes. It was all very ‘let’s pretend’ as head scarves worn 1940’s style with dungarees became fashion items allowed us (yes I mean us) to toy with the idea of wartime austerity conditions without actually having to put up with them. For a while offal became the latest trend in high end restaurants and you could show off to your friends by demonstrating mastery over removing 200 tiny bones from a breast of lamb before stuffing it with truffles and gold leaf.
And now it’s happened and everything has changed. Over the past 50 years 65% of the land given over to allotments has been sold off by local authorities for housing development or to be turned into parks – both extremely important social needs, but suddenly allotments are back in vogue because the cracks have opened up and the shelves are empty. The pandemic has demonstrated that our way of life has become so hollowed out that it no longer functions under stress. Four years ago when we signed our first lease you could barely give allotments away and now you’ll probably have to wait for years to get one as they work through the recently extended lists, and those who have taken them on for the first time have to cope with the closure of garden centres and shops and the seizing up of the seed supply chain.
Waking up this morning into a different world was a bit of a strange experience. There was sourdough batter proving in its warm spot on the stove exactly as it has done for years, but I was painfully aware that we’ve only got 1 Kilo of flour left and no idea how to get any more – we may, we may not, but whether this is the last loaf for a while lies outside my control. The freezer was stuffed to capacity but probably 50% of what was in it was only put there because we couldn’t think what to do with it back in the day.
And so I did what I often do when I’m troubled about something, I decided to spend a day on the stove. First up – and wheeze of the month – I decided to take all of the soft fruit out of the freezer, mix it all together and make a batch of jam under the label “allotment jam”. It contains redcurrants, whitecurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries, all picked last year, and it smells lovely. We (I) tend to make far more jams, preserves and pickles than we could possibly eat, but the boys like them very much. However even this simple idea led to a mini crisis, because I’d run out of honey jar lids. Four years ago I bought a big batch from a wholesaler and proudly boasted that I’d never need to buy another lid – until today, that is. A quick scout around the internet revealed that the mighty Amazon have them at 10 (yes ten) times the price I could get from an old contact in the bee supplies business – so guess who I placed the order with!
Next, from out of the freezer, came a load of old chicken bones and a bag of unidentified material I think may be pigs cheeks, bought because they were there on display at a time when I had no time. The freezer can be a bit of a dustbin if you’re not careful. We had all the veg I needed to make stock apart from fresh herbs and leeks and so we went to the allotment and gathered some of each. Once again, the takeaway point is that the leeks I collected were so small you wouldn’t be able to give them away at the supermarket. As I’ve mentioned before, they didn’t do well last year, but dug, washed and trimmed they smelt better than anything you could hope to buy and they, and all the other ingredients are simmering away slowly on the stove, along with some more rhubarb. Bread, soup, stock and pudding all in hand.
This whole change of context has changed the way everything feels. In times of shortage, anything we can muster and make something from becomes that bit more precious. Intellectually I’ve known for years that our western way of life is unsustainable, but this painful lesson has taken us back from our focus on the detail to show the bigger picture. Climate change, global extinctions, dirty air, poisoned land, polluted water, poverty, sickness and obesity are not discrete challenges that we can tackle one at a time when we get around to it – they’re one unified and terrifying challenge.
Yesterday we found the remains of a chicken on the allotment, almost certainly killed by a fox. I could see at a glance that it was (had been) a domestic bird because the remains of its crop were stuffed with maize. The condemned prisoner had enjoyed a hearty meal! Today when we went back every trace of the maize had gone; almost certainly eaten by a fortunate mouse. The last of the feathers went on to the compost heap. That’s how nature works; endlessly recycling herself with no creature taking more than it needs or can find nearby, until – that is – we came along and tried to take it all.