Magazine article Geographical

A Growing Community

Magazine article Geographical

A Growing Community

Article excerpt

For this month's Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Discovering Britain walk, Olivia Edward discovers how a committed set of agriculturalists has breathed new life into a neglected part of Nottingham's inner city

The US anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.' It was a sentiment that kept coming to mind as I explored St Anns Allotments In Nottingham. Situated east of the city centre in a socially-deprived area that was once viewed as a no-go zone due to gang warfare and gun crime, its gardeners dwindled to such a small number during the early 1990s that many doubted whether the allotments would survive.

An aerial map from the time shows large swathes of abandoned land reclaimed by nature, and just a few pockets of functioning gardens, many of which had to be protected from constant assault by thieves and arsonists with walls of barbed wire. Today, however, the allotments are at full capacity and, as I stroll around the neat and well-kept 30-hectare site with heritage officer Mo Cooper, the closest we come to any danger is a group of shyly smiling schoolchildren looking for a hidden monster.

The transformation seems extraordinary, and stands as a testament to the dedication and hard work of a band of believers. The allotments' 'small group of thoughtful, committed citizens' may not have saved the wider world, but they have changed this little part of it and as a consequence, changed the worlds of many who've become involved in its ongoing project.

A BUMPY RIDE

During our stroll, we witness no signs of decline or urban decay. Indeed, the gardens seem to stand outside of time, exuding a lulling sense of peace and lasting stillness. But it hasn't always been this way and, as Cooper explains, reaching this point has been as bumpy a ride as the one provided by the pot-holed lanes that once wound their way around the site.

Although food has been grown on this bit of land since the early 1300s, it wasn't until the 1800s that it was divided up into the plots seen today. At that time, Nottingham was experiencing a boom thanks to its textile industry, but the rules governing the surrounding common land meant that its swelling population wasn't able to spill out beyond the town walls.

'Enclosure came late to Nottingham,' explains Cooper. This left a population that had grown from 11,000 people in 1750 to around 50,000 in 1831 crammed into what was little more than a small medieval settlement. By 1883, in an area of Nottingham known as Marsh, the population density stood at 750 residents per hectare, compared with just under 50 per hectare in the wider town.

Not surprisingly, disease flourished. Records from earlier that century show that half of Marsh's children died before they were five-years-old.

Even the emerging merchant class found itself overlooking slum marshes and at risk of contracting cholera. It was a frustration shared by many residents of newly industrialised British cities, and those who could afford to, sought out land in the country.

NATURE'S HALLWAYS

The then tenants of St Anns allotments, a group of freemen called the Burgesses, saw an opportunity and divided up their land to rent out to wealthy families as 'guinea gardens'. They would use them to entertain colleagues and friends,' says Cooper.

They wouldn't have done much gardening themselves; many employed a gardener and summerhouses, costing as much as 20,000 [pounds sterling] in today's money, were viewed as the ultimate hosting accessory. 'It was all about enjoying the three Ps of Victorian gardens: peace, privacy and pleasure,' Cooper explains.

This explains the high hedges. Unlike more modern, open-plan allotments, most of the St Anns plots are surrounded by hedgerows up to one and a half metres in height. …

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