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London's Gardens: Allotments for the People

London's allotment gardens are an unusual and vibrant system of community gardens that grow across the city. Tended by immigrants, retirees, chefs and fans of fresh food, the allotments make up a kitchen community like no other.

"Allotments" were not a world we knew until we went to Dublin and London to do Kitchen Sister workshops and began to sniff out hidden kitchens in that part of the world.

Wedged between buildings, planted in abandoned open spaces and carved into hillsides, these community plots of open space began to be reserved for neighborhood cultivation with the industrialization of England in the 1860s, when rural people poured into the city.

The allotments started to flourish with Britain's "Dig for Victory" movement of World War II, an effort to feed the starving population of London during the war. They are exploding today with the organic gardening and "good food" movements, and efforts to food self-sufficiency sweeping the country.

Claire Ptak, whose organic and beautiful cupcakes are sold at the Violet stall at Broadway Market in London Fields, first told us about the allotment movement in London. And we just had to see for ourselves.

Bachelors, Artists, Immigrants, Foodies

For about 20 years, retiree Charlie Gregory has been cultivating his plot at Fitzroy Park Allotment in Hampstead Heath, next to hipster artists and an immigrant couple with three Yorkies. There are apple trees, black currant bushes, blueberries, onions and shallots.

"Everybody knows everybody," Gregory said. "I'm a bachelor myself. I'm 78 now, and I'm keeping on the go. It's not expensive. For 27 pounds a year, you've got the space of land, you know, and this beautiful spot. You want to keep fit and live to a good old age? Get an allotment!"

London chef Oliver Rowe gets almost all his food from farmers and producers working within the radius of the city's train system. In the kitchen of Konstam at the Prince Albert, his restaurant in Kings Cross, Rowe's bread is made of wheat that is grown, milled and baked within 20 miles. The walls of his café are lined with jars of Dartford broad beans, sloe gin berries and sweet squash that he canned last year.

"Anywhere where there's a bit of unused green space has the potential to be turned into an allotment," Oliver said. "On the edge of a railroad seating or squeezed in a patch of disused land ... If you go to an allotment in east London, you may have a group of Bangladeshi women who grow all the things they can't buy here, because it's not available or too expensive.

"And you'll find old men, puttering around down there, getting away from the wife, sitting in a chaise reading the newspaper, getting some exercise, bringing home some nice food."

Jo MacDonald, a woman we met selling vintage clothing, has an allotment of her own.

"I think it was the thing that kept me sane when my marriage was breaking up," she said. "I used to just go and wallow about in the allotment."

A Long Tradition

John Kelly, publisher of Prospect magazine, says he once had a plot in north London. He said allotments started in the 19th century and were sparked by philanthropy and health concerns.

"So as people fled from agrarian poverty into working in factories, land was given to the city in perpetuity for people to cultivate vegetables," Kelly said. "The allotment boom really happened in 1940s, 1950s."

"There were most definitely different communities ... The Italian guy opposite me who was fixated on growing Tuscan grapes for wine. And the Irish were there really just to dig... . There were posh English ladies creating conceptual art, so you'd see these sort of scarecrows in hand-me-down Versace."

Historic Allotments: Manor Garden

Talking to people, one place kept coming up: Manor Garden Allotments, a small patch of land in the heart of working-class east London. It is more than 100 years old.

But the area has now been lost, at least temporarily. In October 2007, Manor Garden Allotments was bulldozed to make way for a path and landscaping for the 2010 Olympic Games. The 100 or so families growing food there have been moved to another site, but they are hoping to return after the games.

"You'd go past rambling old factories, down a little alleyway, behind the bus depot, lots of rubbish everywhere," said Julie Sumner, a Manor allotment holder and organizer. But anyone opening a gate to see the River Lea, she said, would find a different scene.

"The slopes of the side of the river [were] covered with plum trees," Sumner said.

She said the person who set up the Manor Garden Allotments in 1900 was an aristocrat named Major Arthur Villiers, who was a friend of Winston Churchill.

"He was so appalled by the treatment of working-class people during the First World War that he devoted his life to providing facilities for the poorest of the poor over in the East End. They built squash courts, swimming pools, cricket grounds."

Villiers also saw a need for poor children to eat better food — and for their parents to grow it. Allotments were his answer.

"He always said to the people he gave the allotments to 'these are going to be yours in perpetuity when I'm gone,'" Sumner said.

Hassan Ali, a Turkish Cypriot who is a retired mechanic, had an allotment at Manor Garden for almost 20 years. "That place, I tell you, is a dream place — like we were living in heaven," Ali said.

"I always cook every day something. My friend Reggie, 17 years I know him. Every day we together. And he brings something from his garden, and I bring something, and we cook and eat there, me and Reg."

The loss of the Manor Garden Allotments to the Olympics construction came despite protests and calls for preserving the area.

But the allotment movement is flourishing all around London, aided by the Good Food movement, the British devotion to gardening, soaring prices of food and fuel, and a desire to create and maintain a meaningful community.

Samantha and Sam Clark, longtime Manor Garden allotment holders and owners of Moro, a four-star Mediterranean restaurant in London, chronicled the stories and recipes of their allotment neighbors in their Moro East cookbook.

In it, they describe an unusual garden community, forged across many religious and cultural divides. Daily rituals of tea — and traditional grilling of meats in garden sheds and outdoor kitchens — bring families together in ways that defy the divided times in which we live.

They have allowed us to share the following three recipes from the book:

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Kitchen Sisters
The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.