It may be a small plot in Osterley, west London, but it has provided Karen Peck’s kitchen with row upon row of cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, fava beans and garlic.
But Peck, 60, gets far more out of her allotment than just fresh food.
“It’s so tranquil. I have a favorite robin who comes to visit, then the blackbird turns up, and there are wrens in the corner,” Peck said in a telephone interview late last year. “You appreciate the birdsong and the tiny little brown mice, hedgehogs, urban foxes.”
The connection with nature had been especially nice during the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
Allotments — small pockets of urban land sectioned off for city residents to grow fruit, vegetables, plants and flowers — were once common in British cities, particularly at the height of World War II.
As German U-boats laid waste to supply ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Britons were urged to grow their own food, and the “Dig for Victory” campaign was embraced with vigor.
By 1945, well over a 1 million allotments were supplementing peoples’ meager wartime rations.
That changed in the decades that followed, when the urgent need for new homes saw the arrival of land-hungry, affordable housing schemes. Low-cost, mass-produced supermarket food also saw a change in culinary habits.
But in the midst of the pandemic, demand for allotments has soared in several British cities including London, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Sheffield, according to the South West Counties Allotment Association, a not-for-profit organization which protects and promotes allotment use across the United Kingdom.
“For me, it’s about more than just food,” said Peck, whose 430-square-foot plot is surrounded by dozens of others, also growing a colorful mix of flowers and produce.
Located just a minute’s walk away from her one-bedroom apartment, the urban vegetable garden has offered her an escape and chance to mingle in a responsible way with like-minded, nature-loving neighbors.
“I live on my own. I think if I hadn’t seen the people at the allotment, I would’ve gone nuts during lockdown,” she said.
At the best of times, this is important; but in a year of enforced social isolation and loneliness, she added that her “little oasis has proved no less than a godsend.”
“Having a space that’s semi-private, outside, doesn’t conflict with social distancing rules and offers the chance to do a bit of practical work, grow some food, burn off some energy and anxiety, and maybe even socialize a little bit — that’s proving important,” said Miriam Dobson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield studying the resurgence of allotment life.
Published in November, her team’s study corroborates the idea that allotments offer a multitude of benefits, including physical exercise, stress relief, friendship, connection with nature and a sense of tangible accomplishment.
“More than one person described their allotment as a lifesaver during lockdown,” she said.
For others hoping to reap the benefits of an allotment, the waiting list is long and can run anywhere between five and 20 years, depending on where you live.
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Owned by a mix of private landowners and local authorities, there are likely no more than 330,000 left in the U.K., according to The National Allotment Society, a representative body for British allotment holders.
“In recent years, and especially now with Covid, demand has gone up hugely,” said Ayesha Hooper of the South West Counties Allotment Association, who waited five years for her own plot in Barnstable, a small town in southwest England.
“People are constantly contacting us saying they want local authorities to provide more sites,” she added.
New allotment space is not always available, however, and the omnipresent threat of property development means existing plots are often at risk of closure.
“You can have sites that have been around for hundreds of years just get sold off for development and people don’t necessarily know how to fight that,” Hooper said.
Staff at her association, which assists allotment holders threatened with eviction, are nonetheless optimistic for the future, with a younger, diverse and more female crowd getting involved, she added.
Ania Klimowicz is at the forefront of this demographic shift.
A victim of Britain’s chronic shortage of affordable housing, it took time for the 36-year-old to scrape together enough money to buy a home with her husband. But with no yard to speak of, she put her dreams of a garden to the side — until she landed an allotment near her home in southeast London in 2018.
“Even though I do growing and crop rotation, and all that sort of stuff, we’ve kept a bit of a lawn and I’ve got a picnic bench and a barbecue. When we invite people over, we tend to invite them to the allotment rather than the house,” she said.
Much like Peck, for Klimowicz it’s the escape from urban life, work stress, and, during the pandemic, the isolation of lockdown that she appreciates most about her allotment.
“As soon as I walk in, I take a deep breath of fresh air, and it really does feel like leaving the city,” she said.