My friend David has an allotment in a forgotten triangle of the London A-Z. It’s in the East End, a stone’s throw from the North Circular.
As we stand under the electricity pylon in the din of traffic roaring across the flyover, the pollution is almost palpable.
Another problem is that plots are regularly robbed and vandalised, sheds going up in smoke and runner beans ravaged.
But there’s a plus side: no-one has paid any rent for years.
The site seems to have disappeared off the council’s radar. So tenancy agreements are, shall we say, informal: if you let the grass grow under your wellies, your neighbour offers your plot to a passerby (how David got his).
I can’t help picturing a diamond geezer leaning over the fence and winking.
‘Oi, sunshine! What d’ya reckon to this larvely allotment? I’m not asking twenty pahnds, I’m not asking ten pahnds. To you my son, nuffink.’
Despite this threat, as on allotments everywhere there are different degrees of commitment. One couple have installed a wood burning stove in their corrugated iron shack and practically live there in summer, cooking veg as they go along.
At the other end of the scale, one bloke does the bare minimum, visiting once a year to torch his weeds and get blind drunk in his shed.
Even though this last option was one my Dad talked of fondly in the early days of our allotment tenancy oop North, the general contrast between the London set up and ours in t’middle of t’countryside couldn’t be more marked.
For a start, our allotments are spacious, quiet as owt and seen from the air via Google, actually look LESS verdant than their surroundings. It’s the other way round in the East End, where the lozenge of green has to breathe in to squeeze between grey-roofed terraced houses to the west, grey dual carriageway to the east and grey railway lines to the south.
In our small town, where we have only to raise our eyes to see open moor on one side of the valley and wooded hills on the other, demand for allotments is five times higher than in London. The waiting list for our site is 180-strong and growing. New applicants are told they won’t get an allotment ‘within their lifetime’. An odd turn of phrase, since the dead are hardly known for their gardening skills.
And there’s no chance our parish council will ever forget us. Especially not if Dad goes on writing letters to them about the wych elm. Consequently, we’re ruled and regulated to within an inch of our gardening-gloved, rabbit-proof-fenced, rotavator-totin’ little lives.
Heartening then that despite these differences, both allotments are home to the same sort of people. People who beam at the sight of a tightly packed spring cabbage and like to build cloches out of pairs of chair legs rescued from a skip. People who will stand in drizzle explaining how to cut flaps out of a lemonade bottle and hang it on a stick so it revolves in the breeze. People who build polytunnels from market stall scaffolding and sheds entirely from doors (as David says, it’s hard to work out which one you open to get in).
David and I spend happy hours talking about green manure. Then I leave, my bag full of seeds from his allotment, of things grown in the East End concrete and clay. Yellow tomatoes. Walking stick cabbages. Rainbow carrots. (‘Don’t expect me to eat those,’ says Dad later. ‘I like my carrots orange.’)
I can’t wait to plant them. I haven’t many seeds to give back yet, but there’s something magic about the exchange.
What will come up, from London seeds in Yorkshire loam? Pearly kings and queens, perhaps, springing up under the blackcurrant bushes. Beans with flowers that chime like the Bow Bells. A walking stick for Dad, with a handle shaped like the head of Phil Mitchell from Eastenders.
And down there on David’s plot, there’ll be flat cap mushrooms, taciturn turnips and curly kale that keeps ferrets up its trouser legs.
I wouldn’t be surprised.
Photos 1, 2 and 3 by D. Martin.