What are you plotting?

Gill lives in rural Scotland surrounded by books. She is a permaculture and forest gardener, a climate change resister, a stickler for honesty and integrity, a breast cancer survivor, an intersectional socialist feminist, and a single parent of twins. She has trained and worked in organisational development for over 45 years and been a member of worker and housing co-ops for over 40 years. She is currently using these skills and experience to chair her local U3A group and support individuals and organisations through Covid crises. When she’s not doing that, she’s running interference between her cats Kima and Keir.

Gill once helped make a poet famous despite telling him she didn’t like poetry (apparently, she liked his poetry), and starred with her family in a Panorama programme about civil partnerships before they were a thing.

Have you seen Ethel & Ernest, the animation of Raymond Briggs’s book of the same name? Briggs’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel Ethel & Ernest was first published in 1998 and the film based on it is an emotional journey about him and his parents, and the relationships between them until 1971 when his parents both died.

The film includes a scene with young Raymond and his dad, Ernest, working on their allotment in the last years of WWII as a V-1 doodlebug silently glides over them while they cower together. It doesn’t show the damaged allotments, but that bomb would’ve been a severe blow to the London families who’d been working those plots hoping to have fresh produce that year.

Allotments have a long tradition in the UK after the enclosure of common land.

They were formalised in the 19th century to feed the landless poor, but during WWII they were needed not just to feed the poor, but to become places where working homeowners like the Briggs family could supplement their limited rations with fresh food in a kitchen garden away from their house.

Raymond had learnt a bit about food production when he was evacuated to rural Dorset during the first half of WWII. Ernest, his dad, would also have valued good quality, unadulterated food from having worked for the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society, a forerunner of The Co-op, which was established to provide good quality food and milk at a time when there was no trading standards legislation.

Many of us now might take our access to reasonably good quality, fresh food for granted until very recently, but climate change, Brexit, the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine have been a bit of a wakeup call with fresh food supplies more limited and supply chains – based on a fragile ‘just in time model’ – fractured. Are traditional allotments a solution for more of us to cope through the imminent cost of living crisis we all now face? Or are other solutions needed?

One option might be what we in the UK call ‘community gardens’ where a plot of land is held in common and worked by volunteers who share the bounty, wherever in the plot it comes from. While the land might appear similar to an allotment scheme, in practice there are more policies and practices agreed for the whole area. This can help with tricky issues like irrigation and pest control, given pests notoriously don’t follow allotment boundaries; tools are likely be owned and maintained collectively, polytunnels can be larger and welcoming on a wet and windy days, and people can work in teams together on whatever needs doing at any one time. Many community gardens also provide benefits to the wider community in supporting different ecosystems, managing bees and other pollinators, arranging seed swaps, and contributing to community events, such as Forest Farm Peace Garden.

Another solution could be ‘edible’ projects based on the Incredible Edible model originating in Hebden Bridge. Small plots of communally owned or derelict land are planted up by anyone to grow food for their community. The produce is available to anyone who needs it; they can simply help themselves. This model has been developed all over the UK with ideas like planters in shopping areas and fruit bushes at railway stations. 

All of these and other options have their strengths but combining them as part of an edible strategy (PDF link – 2.4MB) integrated with elements like local farming diversification, agroforestry and community and producer markets takes the benefits up a few notches.

Allotments have worked pretty well for centuries.

There’s an existing infrastructure in most of the UK (https://www.scottishallotments.org/) that not only requires local authorities to provide sufficient allotments to meet need, but also to protect them from sale to developers unless stringent criteria are met. This makes them a fundamental cornerstone for a local edible strategy in the UK. And, as always, allotment organisations are moving with the times to meet local needs for communities as well as for food growth.

Photo: BBC

The role of soil in the success of allotments and food growth should not be underestimated and is one which the aptly named Soil Association takes very seriously in their aim to maintain and improve it organically. They wrote about this in their blog for National Allotment Week.

Raymond Briggs sadly died on the 9th of August, the beginning of National Allotment Week in the UK. All his life he continued to support his local dairy by having his milk delivered, watch on BBC iPlayer.

He’d no doubt have been pleased to see allotments becoming increasingly relevant now. Perhaps we should all be a bit more like Ernest & Ethel. 


Gill previously wrote for Autumn Voices during our #CLANGERS series of blogs in 2021.

You can also use the hashtags below to follow up on some of the topics Gill mentioned and search for information, individuals and organisations online on these themes.

Our flash theme for August is cats, Edinburgh and allotments!

Here we are in August. With so many things happening in the world, we plan to keep distracting you with the nicer things in life. This month, it’s #InternationalCatDay (very important to Orlando), Edinburgh festivals season and allotments, just for good measure.

We have some content coming up on the website this month from people who have brilliant and successful creative lives that chime with their love of all things feline. We’re also hoping to hear from allotment lovers to celebrate #NationalAllotmentsWeek and take a peek at older performers at the Edinburgh festival. These are also the themes of our monthly flash competition, which is a photo competition this month.

Are you aged 60 or over? Send us your cat photos! If you’re not a fan of cats (whyever not?), send us your Edinburgh Festival photos! Or send us your allotment photos!

Entries will be accepted until midnight on August 31st and we’ll pick our favourite in early September. The winner will receive a copy of Cat Brushing, the fabulous new short story collection from Jane Campbell, published by riverrun, and imprint of Quercus. The Autumn Voices Content Editor has just read it and reckons it’s very good…

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