The landscape of allotments also plays a much valued role in the relationship between cultivation and identity building amongst plotholders. Allotmentholding is about much more than growing food:
Working outdoors feels much better for your body somehow. . . more vigorous than day to day housework, more variety and stimulus.. . . Unexpected scents brought by breezes.. . . The air is always different and alerts the skin. Only when on your hands and knees do you notice insects and other small wonders. My allotment is of central importance in my life. . .
I feel strongly that everyone should have
access to land, to establish a close relationship with the earth. Essential as our surroundings become more artificial. . . .
(Carol, Co. Durham, quoted in Crouch, 2002)
Working an allotment can engender community identity, through simple practices:
If you give somebody anything, they say – where did you get it from – I say I grew it myself. You feel proud in yourself that you grows it.
(Sylvester, Birmingham, ibid.)
The interchanges may be slight, but meaningful, and part of a process of confidence building too:
We learn things from each other. You are very social and very kind. You make me feel good, you don’t come and call at me. . . things in your garden, little fruits. . . which I have appreciated ever so much.
John, who is in his seventies, is talking with Allene, a woman in her fifties. She says:
And I’ve learnt a lot from him. I’ve learnt ways of planting, I’ve learnt real skills about planting. I’ve learnt Jamaican ways of growing and cooking… always said you could tell an Afro – Carribean allotment, an Asian allotment, an English allotment. And I’ve learnt about patience and goodness and religion too, it all links in.
They hardly ever speak together; they work quietly on adjacent plots, sometimes being there at the same time, but that does not matter. These kinds of expressions and exchanges describe the landscape of the allotment. It is a matter of understanding the landscape through human experience, relations and practices. Alone and together, plotters produce a landscape that is their expression of their culture.
However, this is not to say that allotment holders do exactly as they wish, although some do. Instead, working an allotment is composed of numerous negotiations. There are of course the rules that shape what can be done on a site; there are the negotiations between individuals who may not always be as agreeable as John and Allene, and which involve politics at a small scale. There is also a negotiation of the individual herself, working out, like Carol, her values and attitudes. In a very interesting expression of negotiated values and practices, the plotholders of Margery Lane site in the heart of the city of Durham found they had to negotiate very tactically between each other when their site was threatened (by its Diocesan owners) with closure and sale a decade ago. Some plotholders wanted to hold on to their dilapidated sheds. Others wanted to respond to the increasing public attention the site was given during the very public campaign for its retention (Crouch, 1994). Over a period of many months the plotholders held discussions and sometimes argued and eventually a few sheds were dismantled, but most were repaired and face-lifted. In consequence the site was saved, with the helpful support of the Durham Civic Society and the City Council.