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Our Love Affair With Allotments – Digging for Victory and Beyond

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 20, 2014

By Gail Middleton

  • The Women's Land Army saw thousands of women drafted into farming roles across the nation, including the Black Country, with our girls going out into the countryside to work all week.

  • The austere war years gave us some of our brightest and most enduring art and design

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AS WE saw last week, until the outbreak of the First World War, allotments were primarily for individual and family use. Most tenants grew fruit and veg to supplement the family diet, and for many working class folk, allotments were a godsend.

During World War One, the nation came perilously close to starvation as German U Boats and blockades on our shipping caused serious food shortages. It was time for a drastic re-think of land use and management if we were to survive.

One source of land suitable for allotments, but not large enough for general agricultural use, was land owned by the railway companies. These parcels of wasteland were often given to railway workers for allotments. With food in such short supply even these small pockets of land were utilised for wartime food production. As the shortages grew worse, and more men were needed at the Front, the Women's Land Army was set up to work the land. Initially, the "Lilac Bonnet Brigade", as some male critics dubbed them, were sneered at. But, very soon, they proved to be worth their weight in gold.

During World War Two, the pressure to feed the nation was even greater. Every scrap of land was called into use for food production. Parks, school playing fields and sports grounds were dug up during the 'Dig for Victory' campaign, including grounds at Buckingham Palace. Food rationing and shortages kept the demand for allotments and home grown produce high until well after the end of the war. Rationing was still in force until 1954, so Britons kept digging away well into the 1950s.

In terms of effective land use, allotments are highly productive. During the Second World War, allotments contributed about 1.3 million tonnes of food from 1.4 million plots. Allotment use peaked in 1943, but after that a decline set in which lasted until the 1970s. With the popularity of the TV show, 'The Good Life', there was a huge upsurge in interest. Growing your own became fashionable, rather than a necessity. Suburban gardeners played at self-sufficiency, just like the fictional TV characters.

When the programme ended in 1978, allotment gardening slid into another decline that continued until the mid 1990s. By then, we were all becoming more aware of issues such as GM foods, pesticide use and our carbon footprint. And, as we slowly became "greener", demand for allotments started to rise again. These days, few plots lie empty and many sites have long waiting lists for would be "plotters".

And, it's not just about the benefits to our health and wallets. Allotments are close knit communities in their own right. It's almost as if things have gone full circle, back to the days when cities like Brum were encircled with allotments and 'town gardens'. Plotters are a gregarious and friendly bunch, generally willing to lend a hand and pass on tips to new and less green-fingered neighbours.

And, there is also something quintessentially British about the sheds. As we saw last week, the 18th century summerhouses in Birmingham's Guinea Gardens were small havens of tranquility amidst the ever-growing urban sprawl. Today, allotment sheds still exude an aura of temporary escape to a rural hideaway.

Not far from where I live in Penn, there are still a few smallholdings that were set aside for service men returning from the First World War. Back then, smallholdings of 20-60 acres were much sought after, as well as units of 40 – 50 acres that were often used as small dairy farms serving the rapidly expanding town of Wolverhampton. When I first moved there, in 1979, there were also several farms in Springhill Lane, as well as the smallholdings. There was also a large orchard and poultry farm.

When 'Osses

Ruled the Roads

Further down the lane, you reach the small but lovely village of Lower Penn, which is where I spent a very pleasant few hours on May the 5th. Formerly held each Easter Monday, the village's annual Spring Horse Parade is now a May Day Bank Holiday fixture, as the weather is generally kinder. This was the 17th year that folk were treated to the sight of heavy horses, in all their finery, trotting round the South Staffs lanes, to the delight of one and all.

'Osses have served us humans for millennia. And, until well into the last century, they could be seen working in urban as well as rural areas. Whether it was hauling the Titanic's massive anchor from Noah Hingley's yard or delivering our daily pinta, horses were indispensible to our lives.

Over time, modern technology made most working horses redundant. Yet, not all have vanished, as some brewers still use horses to pull their delivery drays. And, there are still pockets where the old skills are preserved, where you can see horse ploughing displays and matches. Happily, these skills can still be seen in Lower Penn.

As usual, the annual horse parade was organised by local farmer, Robert Reade, with all proceeds from collections, food and raffle going to the village's Victory Hall. Prior to the parade, the osses and ponies are pampered and groomed, manes and tails plaited and harnesses burnished to perfection. Many of the riders dress in fancy costume, their mounts also decked in spring flowers.

Each year, the parade sets off just before noon, from Langley Farm, wending its way around the village, ending up at the popular Lower Penn watering hole, The Greyhound. Next door to the pub, there is always a spring fair at the Victory Hall, the village's community centre and hub of village business. Once again competing in the Best Kept Village competition, Lower Penn is a quiet backwater on the South Western fringes of Wolverhampton. Mentioned in the 'Domesday Book', it has a long history and still maintains its roots with the land. In earliest times, Upper and Lower Penn were inhabited by native Britons, the name "Penn" being a Celtic word for a hilltop. When the Romans invaded, the area was part of a massive forest with clearings carved out by early farmers. In Saxon times, a small farming community worked the land, which was owned by Saxon nobility. Lady Godiva, who famously rode, naked, through Coventry, owned lands in Upper and Lower Penn, together with her husband, Leofric, the powerful Earl of Mercia. When the Normans conquered, ownership of Lower Penn passed to the Buffery family. In Medieval times, the area boasted a monastery and mill. These have long since vanished, but Lower Penn is still a thriving community. For centuries, the tranquillity of its lanes and byways was disturbed only by the sounds of 'osses hooves and cart wheels. For a brief moment, onlookers were transported back to those more peaceful times when 'osses ruled the roads.

As a bit of a breeze whipped up, no-one felt like emulating Lady Godiva's ride! In any case, the stars of the show, as always, were the fabulous heavy horses. Over the years, I've seen these gentle giants many times. Yet, they never fail to move me. In this day and age, it's a rare treat to see such noble beasts as our native Shire Horses. Many thanks to the organisers and the good folk of Lower Penn.

Long may the 'osses strut their stuff.

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