ALLOTMENTS in Leamington have been brought to book.
More than 100 years of history at St Mary’s Allotments is told in Twenty Acres and a River, by Nigel Briggs, Lesley Campbell and Jim Layton.
The allotments have weathered two world wars, development pressures, floods, power struggles and a plague of rats to become a flourishing and diverse retreat.
Plot-holders have mucked in for the wartime ‘dig for victory’ effort, laid claim to the Leamington Sweet Pea and rebuilt after being all but washed away in the flood of 1998.
They have also helped people with disabilities, played their part in Leamington’s Britain in Bloom gold awards and created a haven for wildlife.
Formally established in 1909, the allotments occupy a swathe of south Leamington bordering the River Leam, the Radford Road and the reservoir.
Civic pride marked out the early years as the first tenants raked in trophies for their finely-cultivated fruit, veg and pigs.
This stake in community life was also evident by the provision of seeds for the unemployed from 1935, in line with the early vision of the plots being a way for the ‘working man’ to escape the evils of idleness and drink.
Racing pigs were kept on site while less welcome creatures included an “abnormal” number of rats, according to AGM records unearthed by the authors.
A proposal to build a school on the allotments came to nothing as producing food took a higher priority during the Second World War, with women and children becoming more active on the site as they rallied behind the ‘dig for victory’ effort.
A host of dedicated, much-loved and sometimes eccentric characters are given rich form in the book through first-hand interviews and archival research.
They include former secretary Bill Ward, who won a military medal in the First World War but preferred a life among his prized carnations, dahlias and chrysanthemums.
After taking over in 1951, the stickler for neatly-kept plots and paths presided over a resplendent and orderly site for nearly two decades.
Gardeners kept punts at coveted wooden chalets on the banks of the River Leam, enjoying “the quietitude”, as one plot-holder termed it.
In the 1960s, the highly-scented Leamington Sweet Pea joined the shallots, onions and potatoes that were among the most popular crops on the site. The pea, which remains in catalogues to this day, is believed to have been created by St Mary’s member Norman Slater.
The 70s brought harder times, with the growth of ready meals, supermarkets, foreign travel and home computers.
A new wave of migration, mainly from India, Italy and the West Indies, brought the fresh impetus that the allotments needed but this was hampered by hostile attitudes among the committee of the time.
The authors chart the power struggles in the 80s and 90s to create a more welcoming place for women and people of different nationalities.
Perhaps the biggest blow in the history of the allotments came with the Leamington floods of 1998 that washed away plots, huts and left one greenhouse in a tree.
But the tenants prevailed, creating a meeting place for people of different backgrounds who harvest crops from the traditional potatoes, carrots, parsnips and beans through to artichokes, fennel, methi, coriander, chillies and callaloo.
Outdoor theatre, a memorable cameo on Channel 4’s Shed of the Year and the presence of mental health charity MIND have all helped the site blossom in the 21st century.
Twenty Acres and a River is priced £8.95 and will be available from September 21 at local bookshops. The launch takes place the same day at 11am at the site, where copies will be available.
* The allotments will welcome visitors for Heritage Open Days on Saturday and Sunday (September 14 and 15) and the following weekend of September 21 and 22. The site entrance is opposite Sydenham Drive at the traffic lights junction on Radford Road.
Visit www.stmarysallotments.org.uk for further details.