The Plot Thickens

Hi, I’m Karen Meadows. Thank you for visiting The Plot Thickens.

I’m lucky enough to be the tenant of one of fifty large allotment gardens in the middle of the small and beautiful stone town of Stamford in England’s East Midlands. The gardens were first created by Brownlow Cecil, 4th Marquess of Exeter in the mid 1800s and their layout has remained virtually unchanged. Between the plots we have some 200 old apple trees, many of them rare varieties, and in 2017 Natural England awarded the gardens heritage orchard status.

Over the centuries at least 500 people have worked these plots. Follow our quest to discover who they were, what they grew, and what shenanigans they got up to. Be prepared for numerous diversions and musings along the way about gardening life here in our quiet (and occasionally not so quiet) little corner of Stamford.

If you haven’t discovered our website yet, do head over to Waterfurlong Orchard Gardens, where you will find a wealth of information about our gardens and gardeners, past and present.

And now for the small print...

The Plot Thickens is a non-commercial blog. All recommendations are based on personal preference and my own or our other gardeners’ own experience. Payments or free goods are not accepted in return for reviews of products and services. If an exception is made this will be clearly stated.

All words and images, unless otherwise credited, are my own. If you would like to copy text or images, I’d kindly ask that The Plot Thickens gets a positive mention and a link back to this blog.

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LOST THE PLOT: OTHER PEOPLE'S STORIES


Swallows and Sweet Peas © Janis Goodman



When notice to quit our plot hit us like a bombshell we thought we were in a really unusual situation, but people up and down the country have been messaging us with similar stories. We're sharing some of these to highlight the sorts of thing being experienced.


It's not just tenants on privately-owned plots - increasingly councils have been devolving management of their sites to allotment associations. Well-run associations can be great, but badly-run ones can be terrible, evicting reliable tenants because of prejudice, personality clashes, and cronyism.


These gardeners' stories are borne out by the South West Counties Allotment Association (SWCAA), which fights for allotment-holders' rights and has expanded to cover the whole of the UK. Its website states:

“Eviction without justifiable reason … is causing huge distress to plot holders who are in some cases being bullied and intimidated at an unbelievable level… These evictions seem to be mostly happening because association committee members [or landlowners] take a dislike to someone, or fear they are interfering, or asking too many questions.”

Talking to the SWCAA an even starker picture emerges: women, people with disabilities or mental health problems, and people of colour, all seem particularly vulnerable to eviction without good cause or explanation. Notice to quit might later be justified by vague or concocted allegations. Tenants who refuse to depart quietly sometimes face escalating intimidation, up to and including physical violence. The SWCAA is lobbying MPs to strengthen allotment and garden tenants' rights. At the moment, an activity that comes highly recommended for improving physical and mental wellbeing, is ironically leaving many people stressed, unwell, poorer and, sometimes, downright broken-hearted. This culture of exploitation and bullying has to change.


Note: names have been changed to protect identity.


SUE'S STORY


Teacher Sue from Hertfordshire was driven off her allotment after her father's death.


"Dad's allotment had been his pride and joy since the 1970's, winning prizes for his veg every year. When his arthritis got worse I started going over to help after work and in the holidays. I did the heavier jobs, we'd share a flask of tea, and Dad would teach me all his tips and tricks. In 2010 Dad needed a double knee replacement and got the Council to add my name to the tenancy agreement, which they were happy to do. He never really recovered from the surgery and after he died 'our lottie' was what kept me going. Although I didn't go in for competitions I kept the plot the way he would have wanted it and took loads of produce into school.


When the Council handed over to our Allotment Society it seemed to come as a shock that I was listed as the tenant and the Chairman told me they thought the Council shouldn't have added me. It wasn't as if I was neglecting the plot, quite the opposite, so I didn't get what the problem was. Then he said the Committee felt my plot should go to a family as it was one of the biggest ones and they wanted me to swap it for a smaller one in a rubbish state. No way was I moving but they made me feel like I'd got my plot through false pretences. They didn't like me kicking back and wrote giving a year's eviction and the offer of a half plot. Lots of the other allotmenteers were really angry but didn't know what to do to help, they were also worried the same thing would be done to them. I paid a lawyer to write to the Committee and that's when things became really horrible, someone sprayed weedkiller over my tomatoes and I started finding dead rats on the path.


One day I turned up to discover someone had dug up the grave of Dad's old dog, scattered his bones and stuck a spade there to show it wasn't animals. I just couldn't take any more, ran home sobbing and never went back. Dad's friend cleared out the shed for me and was almost as upset as me. Sometimes I wish I hadn't given up but they had destroyed my little sanctuary. Surprise, surprise, the Committee gave our plot to the Chairman's son-in-law who wasn't even on the waiting list. Now he's got the best plot on the site and all he grows is potatoes."

CARA AND RASHID'S STORY

Cara and Rashid are now happily gardening an allotment in Birmingham, but racial abuse forced them to leave a previous plot in Cambridgeshire before they'd barely got going.


"When I started seeing Rashid I had a neglected allotment I'd taken on with an old boyfriend. We had both been clueless and thought it would be a piece of cake ha ha, and we ended up doing more drinking there than digging. Looking back I'm amazed I didn't get sent an improvement notice.


Rashid ran a restaurant and had spent a lot of his childhood on his grandparents' plot in Birmingham so was ahead of me in the green fingered stakes. He was really excited about the plot and that rubbed off on me. He took a week off work to help me sort it out, hired a rotavator and turned up raring to go.


We worked flat out, got it all laid out and built raised beds, but from day one the complaints started from the old codgers. Too noisy, using a hose before June, not having builders' bags for the rubbish we were digging out blah, blah. Apart from a couple of friendly people at the other end of the site the atmosphere stank.


A couple of weeks later my brother came over to lay slabs for a shed while Rashid was at work. For the first time the old guy on the next plot said Morning and when a few of them were gathered for a brew I went across with some biscuits, they were quite chatty and actually said the plot was looking good. Wowzers! Then one nodded his head over at my brother and said "So you've moved on from our dusky friend" and the others sniggered. I was just gobsmacked. So full of rage I couldn't even speak.


I debated whether to tell Rashid but when I did he just shrugged it off, he was used to it, which made it even worse. He could ignore it but I couldn't!! I rang the Allotment Association chairwoman who was really defensive, basically saying she didn't believe me. She said she could only investigate what happened if I had a witness who would confirm it or a recording. Which of course I didn't. I could have written to the Council but just wanted out of the place. I ended up subletting the plot to my brother which is against the rules, but nobody complained. They were just happy he was white.


It was a big factor in making us decide to move to Birmingham and me and Rashid now have a plot on a lovely site where everyone is welcome and plotters grow such an amazing range of produce. Of course there's sometimes still friction but it's about stuff like giving out the key pad number not the colour of people's skin."


ALISTAIR'S STORY


Alistair and his fellow school governors lost the West Country orchard they had restored for their village's children.


"I'm a governor at a primary school and we got badly burnt saving an old orchard. Most of the village is owned by [a stately home], including what was a half acre of unused, overgrown orchard next to the school playground. We wanted to restore it as an environmental project for the children and an asset for the village. The landowner agreed, we had the trees identified and with parents' help and a small grant we raised £5,000. We replaced dead trees with local varieties, sorted out the hedging and bought wildlife cameras, benches and bird-boxes. The children planted bluebells, had bat evenings and bug hunts and the orchard became an intrinsic part of school and village life. One of the best things was the story-telling sessions where elderly people who had grown up in the village shared a picnic with the children and talked about their memories, including scrumping in the orchards and the harsh consequences!


In our fifth year, just when the new trees and hedging were becoming established we got wind that the landowner had managed to find a solution to a long-standing access problem (too involved to go into), which meant they could sell the land for housing. To cut a long story short, our orchard was bulldozed to build four so-called executive homes. Although we went through all the stages of objection etc, it was hindered by so many villagers being dependent on the landowner for work, housing or both and being worried about rocking the boat, I'm sure with good reason. We managed to give the school, the village and the orchard five fantastic years but the effort ended up being disproportionate and was wiped out by the stroke of a greedy landlord's pen."

ALAN AND JILL'S STORY


Alan and Jill from Bath lost the garden they had rented privately for 15 years.


"We can only say we feel your pain having lost the beautiful garden we rented for years. It was detached from the owner's house on the other side of the road and she already had a big back garden, which was more than enough for her, whilst we have a flat with a small balcony. For many years the arrangement worked brilliantly. The owner got rental rather than paying a company to maintain something she never used and we got something we could never have afforded otherwise in our part of the city. Because it's a conservation area there was no risk of selling for development and we had a tenancy agreement drawn up by solicitors that gave us protection if the owner ever sold.


The garden was pretty much of a blank canvas and we planted trees, built raised beds and put in a summerhouse and greenhouse. A lot of our family life happened there, our grandkids loved it and we even managed to squeeze in a marquee for our younger daughter's wedding reception. The owner was like one of the family, popping over regularly for a glass of wine. We gave her strawberries, new potatoes and roses and in return she only raised the rent once.


Then she started a new relationship and everything changed. The 'boyfriend' was a weird type, very hostile and seeming to resent our existence, claiming we were noisy, which we weren't. After an argument about the fairy lights in one of our trees which he claimed were flickering and giving him migraines through the window, we received an eviction notice. Like yours, no explanation, no legal recourse. The owner was stuck in the middle but we felt betrayed by her and still do.


In the end we had to sell or give away everything that could be moved and he was even bloody-minded about that, arguing that buyers' vans caused noise and obstruction. It's been 2 years now and they've done absolutely nothing with it! We would NEVER rent a garden again, not even an allotment. Covid has given us the chance to sell up and move out to the countryside. Finally we will have OUR OWN garden but know that is just a pipe dream for so many."



ETHAN'S STORY


Ethan has managed to keep his council plot in Lancashire, but only after a long, expensive struggle which exacerbated his already serious health problems.


"In 2014 I had a skiing accident, with multiple fractures and serious head injuries which left me with epilepsy, memory lapses and PTSD. I lost my business, my flat, everything and had to move back in with my parents miles away. I hit rock bottom and became so depressed I ended up hospitalised again. When one of the occupational therapists suggested helping out in the patients' garden I first thought she was mad but in the end couldn't be bothered to argue and surprised myself. After I was discharged I kept going back to help and picked up quite a few skills. I couldn't work, drive, or play sport and had no one to socialise with, even if I'd had the confidence and motivation to go out, which I struggled with, and the gardening became really important to me and something to get me up and out.

A family friend suggested I get an allotment and checked out if the Council could help. After a few months they managed to find me one a few minutes walk from home. It was in really good nick as they'd had it properly rotavated and there was hardcore for a greenhouse. The allotment manager was brilliant, really supportive, and completely understood that some weeks I was in so much pain or so down all I could do was sit there and read and watch the birds. She also gave me reassurance when my seizures got worse and I couldn't visit for a couple of months while I switched to new medication. It was around then that the Council handed over to the Allotment Association, and we didn't have a manager any more but a nightmare bunch of control freaks. They started issuing me with improvement notices because I wasn't growing enough (except weeds), which put me under unbearable stress. My doctors and my parents all wrote to the Council explaining my problems, but it just ended up making matters worse as that's when the Association gave me 12 months to quit. They eventually said it was because my epilepsy was a health and safety risk. Fast forward to today and with a lot of £££ spent on lawyers, the help of one of our councillors and a local head injury charity I'm going to be able to keep my plot and have some special concessions for my disabilities.


Don't give up in your fight, but for anyone taking on an allotment to help rehabilitate from physical injuries or cope with mental health, be warned that you're at the mercy of whoever's in charge. If the b******s don't like you or don't want you they'll do everything they can to throw you off." MHAIRI'S STORY


Mhairi was another private allotment tenant, who lost her Oxfordshire plot when the owner decided to turn the land back to paddock.


"I really understand how you feel as I lost my lovely little allotment on a private site. The owner had divided one of her fields into 60 odd plots which was a brilliant facility as we're in a village with no council allotments.


We all know the feeling of turning that little patch of land into something special and the ginormous work it takes. Access problems meant the owner couldn't sell for building which ended up giving us a false sense of security.


I think she found dealing with the admin side and sorting problems with loads of different people more hassle than she'd bargained for, and after ten years she got her lawyer to send us all a notice to quit. We couldn't get any explanation out of her but once she got us off she turned the site back to paddock. We got advice that there was nothing we could do legally because the notice was a year, and her sister was on the parish council, so they refused to get involved.


Allotments are like gold dust here and I only know five people who have managed to get other plots and all of them have to drive quite a way. We found out that if 11 people demand an allotment the parish council has to provide them, but we've got nowhere with that. There is something very wrong with the whole system."

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