Lea Valley Allotments, Hackney, London
Athletes to Zucchini : An A-Z for Manor Gardens Allotments by Juliette Adair
A is for Athletes, Architects and Aspiration
On July 6th 2005 the London Olympic Bid is announced to have succeeded. There is dancing in the streets. Lots of people are happy. An urban wasteland, a toxic site, will be regenerated. There will be new transport, new energy and wonderful new sports facilities. Property prices will shoot up. This is a cause for dancing. In particular it will be good for local kids. It will inspire them. The world’s athletes will be coming to Hackney. Perhaps there will be a local hero(ine). That would be something.
And for Allotments
The next morning, at Manor Gardens Allotments, Hackney, Hassan is making an omelette.
He picks chives and marjoram to flavour it and throws rice to the pigeons and the magpie which watches from the fence. His friend, Reg, brings spinach and some ripe tomatoes. Together they chop the veg and put out some plates on the table under the vine-covered arbour. As Hassan starts to cook the egg, Julie arrives from the plot next door. They do not speak as usual. Hassan throws the egg shells on the ground and the birds peck at them.
Have you heard the news?
B is for Bombs, Bridge, and Bulldozer
The Number 30 Bus had its roof blown off. The Hackney bus. Hassan listens to the news on a radio powered by a car battery. He came to London from Cyprus. He does not wish to live with violence again. Everyday he cooks lunch for his friends, and some extra in case there are visitors.
To get to the allotments you turn left off Waterden Road just after the bus depot. There are two gates. You have to unlock and relock each one behind you. The second is high and laced with barbed wire. No parking, it says, including Sunday. Then you cross the bridge. The River Lea flows underneath it, its banks black and printed with the feet of moorhen and mallard. Sometimes there are swans or cormorants and, just occasionally, the blue flash of a kingfisher’s wing.
On the far side of the bridge is another kind of world. Bluebells and later red hot pokers surprise you with colour in the high grass. The old gravelled track has grass down the centre. You can leave your bike in the hedge and no one will take it. It reminds me of my childhood in Dorset. The birdsong and the wind in the plum trees along the bank and the wide sky, all these things and something else: the air of quiet industry, the sound of a spade hitting a stone as it is sunk into the earth, the smell of a bonfire. A place distant in both time and space is brought into the present here.
Manor Gardens Allotments is on the east marshes in Hackney. It is right in the middle of the proposed site for the 2012 Olympics. It is to be levelled to make way for a concrete footpath: a glittering white motorway for pedestrians entering the Olympic Village.
I am to be given a plot and a mission to make it as beautiful as possible in the time left. Perhaps then, it will be just a little harder to bulldoze.
B is also for Blossom and Beating the Bounds
In spring the plum trees which completely cover the steep bank down to the river are covered in blossom. The season is short. I missed it, just catching the last blooms on the last tree. Perhaps I will get to see it next year. It will be the last chance. The London Development Agency is planning to take ground level right down to the water: it’s about twenty feet, perhaps more. The plum trees will go, every one.
In May, The Green Party encourages people to Beat the Bounds. This is the old ritual of beating with sticks on the margins of common land to reassert the public right to use it. They walk the boundary of the Marshes. It feels poignant now, important and ineffectual in equal measure. This year it rains like it used to – heavy all day. But they still go ahead.
C is for Cauliflower and Compulsory Purchase Order
The notice is up on the gate at the back of the allotment. It’s a gate out into the wilds of the nature reserve. The grass is already high. There is no sign that anyone makes the effort to undo the wire holding the gate shut or that anyone has a key to the rusty lock. Still the notice is there. Is anyone aware of it? Does it count as Notice? We have to be given notice by the end of April or else it cannot be served until September, the end of the growing season. We have one year from the time notice is served. So it makes all the difference. Everyone is hoping for an extra summer here. (Later I am told that Reg often goes out that way walking to the bus stop on Ruckholt Rd through Bully Point nature reserve. He reports on the number of rabbits in the warren out there. The rabbits seem to be closing in on the allotments as their land is gradually bulldozed and the foxes, normally good at keeping the rabbits in check, have vacated altogether.)
Julie shows me a cauliflower grown by Reg. I take a photo and when I look at the print, I notice how tenderly she holds it – as if it were a small baby and she’s moving aside the leaves as you would a blanket hiding a delicate face. What a beautiful cauliflower. The leaves are generous and stiff, the heart clean and firm.
D is for digging.
We get our allotment on Easter Monday. It used to be worked by an old man in his 80s called Sam. It’s a beautiful plot. The fruit tree is white with blossom that day and old roses climb across the green house roof and over an archway into the plot. I want to say garden, but I don’t know if anyone calls a plot a garden. The paint on the fence and the greenhouse is layered: turquoise, lime, dark green. It has an unassuming beauty. It needs a bit of shoring up and the glass in some the panes and on half of the roof is broken. We pull out the broken panes and put them in a crate to take to the dump later. We replace them with corrugated plastic. I would love to do it in glass but for such a short time, it seems too expensive. We also mend a hole in the roof of the shed. On this first day there are five adults and two children working. The children spread seeds randomly before we’ve got the beds ready, but maybe the plants will come up anyway. We dig about half the plot, pulling out clumps of grass that have established themselves amongst the marjoram and the wild rose, trying to trace the bindweed deep down and pull it out. Matt tackles the nettles behind the bean netting and makes an amazing difference. We are all happy. Digging makes us content.
E is for Eviction.
F is for Feverfew, Flowers, Forage, Football and Fig Trees
When the rain stops and they decide that it is really summer, Hassan and Reg will spread towels over the reclining car seats and lie under the fig tree. For now they prune the lower branches so that one can walk underneath without spearing an eye.
It’s the last time, Hassan mourns. We’ll be out by next year.
And will it be worth planting a new one on the temporary site? asks Reg.
Fig trees take their time about getting established. Like people.
G is for Grow Your Own Food Campaign
Reg is famous for growing his lettuces early. He knows a lot about how to grow vegetables, having come here as a boy with his father. Now he is in his 70s. He has had his plot for fifty-three years. He brings some young lettuce plants for Julie to plant in her plot.
The Mayor, in acknowledging that transporting food over long distances increases Greenhouse Gases, has promised to support schemes to boost locally produced food. East London is apparently a Food Desert when it comes to the number of people growing their own. He says, ‘I want London to set a standard for other cities around the world to follow in reducing its own contribution to climate change. How we deal with food will play an important role in this.’ Quite. But, Ken, phrases about left and right hands come to mind.
H is for Hands, Heartsease and Harvest
I is for Involvement
Also, Identity, Immigration and Integration
J is for Jerusalem Artichokes
It’s possible that we have too many cooks. Iona and I plant sunflower seeds along the south-facing fence. Two weeks later there is a row of plants at least a foot high. Wow! I say. They did well. It turns out that our neighbour Ali gave Matt some Jerusalem Artichokes and he planted them, having no idea that we had put in the seeds. They will be high and beautiful with nasturtiums sprawling at their feet. Fartichokes, says Matt – which the children love.
K is for Kite Flying and Kohl Rabi
L is for Laurel and Lammas Land
At the front of our plot, among the Chinese lanterns and the mombresia, a laurel has sprouted. I wonder whether to pull it out. If I don’t, in a short time it will overwhelm all the other plants and even the fence. The Olympic plant, its likeness will be stamped out in gold, silver and bronze to decorate the winners. And in this guise it will dominate this plot whether or not I pull it out now.
One of the places the LDA is thinking of moving us to in on Lammas Land in Waltham Forest. Lammas Land is land held in trust by the council for public use. The new Lammas Land Defence Committee has formed to protect the marshes from changes of use. No one would win from moving the allotments onto this land. Apart from the fact that the proposed new site is currently polluted with asbestos and rubble from WWII, our move there would be temporary. Open space which is currently a wonderful green amenity for everyone would be lost while its value as allotments is limited as well.
L is also for Lollo Rosso, Leeks, Lemon Balm, Larkspur and List
Julie sends me a list of all the vegetables, flowers, herbs and wildlife that she has on her plot. Such diversity on one small patch – this list has a beauty of its own. You can find it at the end of this piece.
M is for Muck
At one time Hackney was crammed with horses. There have been large stables in the area for hundreds of years. The Lea Valley Riding School sometimes trailers manure up to the allotment and gives it out for free. I was tempted to put this under U for Urban Regeneration, because what better symbol is there of recycling, reuse and reinvigoration? Muck into veggies and harmonious multiculture. Certainly more productive than a concrete path. It puts me in mind of line from a poem by WB Yeats – surely the laureate of the plot holder – ‘Love has built his mansion in the place of excrement.’ For the next line, see under S for Sheds.
N is for Newts and Nature Reserve
On the far side of the allotments is Bully Point nature reserve. It is a remarkably peaceful, litter free and relaxing place. Mown paths allow one to wander through it and admire its wildness. There has always been a pond there with a large population of Great Crested Newts. When the Stratford/Channel Tunnel rail link was built, the pond had to be moved. Great care was taken and English Nature’s guidelines for relocating these protected animals were followed. A grant was obtained and volunteers mobilized to do the work.
What will happen now? I have not, as yet, heard what the LDA plan to do with the newts. Will there be another nature reserve established? Will English Nature’s (extensive) guidelines be followed this time?
O is for Open Days
The open day in May is wet wet wet. It rains hard, almost non stop all afternoon. Still, nearly 100 people come. Lots of people have made food using produce from their plots. Elif makes traditional Turkish borek: a pancake cooked on a metal plate using spinach and spring onions. There are barbeques and cakes and herbal teas. The local paper reports how the visitors are amazed that it is all free. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed despite the weather.
Matt has got a generator and set up his telly and DVD in the community shed – for the purpose of showing a film made by St Etienne about Stratford, Hackney and featuring Manor Gardens, ‘What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day.’ It shows an area rich in history but a bit of a ghost town. There is a shot of the bridge to Manor Gardens over the River Lea and close ups of some sunflowers, but no shots of people. It is beautiful but elegiac. I feel that it kills off the allotment community prematurely. Apparently it was made quickly, almost casually, after a brief cycle ride through the area. Happily, the makers want to do another now that they know more of the people involved. Places and communities take time to reveal themselves. The architects of the Olympics need to bear this in mind.
Our next open day on July 2nd 2006. This time we have food cooked by the Moro Restaurant owner, Sam Clark, who is also a plot holder. The plots will be that much more luscious than they were in May.
The LDA told us: to make an omelette you have to break eggs.
This community is one of the eggs.
P is for Pathways, Perpetuity and Peas
My daughter, who is six, doesn’t like peas. Or she didn’t until Sunday. She moans about going up to the allotment, but we persist. We take some fish with us to barbeque and go to see what the hot weather has done to the plants. As soon as we arrive, she is excited. Everything has grown so much since we last came up – and she hasn’t seen it since the Open Day in May. Spinach, beetroot, sunflowers and calendula are all doing wonderfully. Our sole surviving pumpkin has quadrupled in size and seems rabbit-proofed in its water-bottle tube. She suddenly claims to have planted everything herself and no-one wants to contradict. We find some strawberries. The strawberries really were planted by the children just after Easter when we first got the plot. Now there is a small bowlful of ripe berries: the first fruits, literally, of her labours. And then there are peas. We have a crop of about a dozen mange tout. For beginning veggie gardeners, this is exciting in itself.
I’m going to take some round to Julie, Iona says.
On the allotment, a six year old can roam alone. The joy of this is felt all round.
A few minutes later, she returns, twice triumphant. One, she has found the way to Julie’s plot and back. Two, she has tasted peas fresh from the pod – and loved them. Julie has made her a present of a good handful of pods. Iona carefully opens one each for us and eats the rest herself.
Later I show these paragraphs to Julie. She tells me that they made her cry.
She says, I can’t tell you how honoured I felt that Iona came by herself and brought me some of her precious crop. This is what it’s all about for me and I saw it so often when we used to grow veg at Grazebrook [School].
Q is for Quiet
R is for River, Reed Bed, Restaurants and Robins
A robin is nesting in an old dustbin on Adile’s plot. One by one we creep in to look at the chicks. The mother follows Adile around because she does so much weeding and turning the earth. Hassan nicknames the bird Adile.
Now the six chicks are flown but she still takes food to them in the tree.
S is for Sheds, Seed Swapping, and the Speaker of Hackney
‘For nothing can be sole or whole, that has not been rent.’ WB Yeats.
An unsympathetic eye saw Manor Gardens as little better than a shanty town. Our sheds are colourful and composed of reclaimed timbers and other materials that no-one else considered useful. Each one is different; some, indeed, are held together by little more than faith and the plants they support. But this is what the French collage artists called Bricolage: things put together in an immediate, trial and error way – creative and resourceful. We are bricoleurs; we are sole and whole because we are rent.
T is for Toxic
Also for Tree Nursery, Toads and Treading
I have heard that Hackney Tree Nursery is also threatened by the Olympic upheavals. The travellers’ site on Waterden Road may be relocated there. Clearly, a new site must be found, but on green marsh land? And where will the tree nursery be allowed to put down its roots again?
U is for Urban Regeneration and Urtica
V is for Villages
W is for Wheat, Walking and The Wick
Ali tells me about his first gardening joy. His grandfather had a farm in northern Cyprus. All the ploughing was done with oxen – everything by hand. When Ali was five his grandfather gave him a little bag of wheat and let him plant it himself. He dug the ground and raked out the rows. Then he threw down the wheat. He gestures now, showing me how abandoned he was. He covered over the soil and went back to Nicosia for the winter with his family.
The next spring he returned.
I was amazed, he says. The plants were so high, I got lost in them.
They harvested and ground the corn into flour. They made cracked wheat – bulghar – and bread. For several months the family ate the food that five year old Ali had grown.
His plot hints at his early experience. It is teeming. Among the potatoes and onions, jerusalem artichokes, carrots and everything else, is a profusion of self-seeded fennel, poppies, and a mass of fragrant coriander. His sister-in-law also has a plot and he often helps her when she’s too busy to get up there. He is still feeding the family. In the week he drives a lorry transporting biscuits. Sometimes he brings Jammy Dodgers for tea.
Albert is 86 and has lived all his life on Hackney Wick. His dad sold fish on a stall at Ridley Road market. When he was six his mum sent him from the The Wick up to the market to do the shopping. He paid for the groceries in fish from his dad’s stall. He got two large bags full, heavy things like potatoes, and set off home. But the buses were on strike. Instead of telling his dad about this, he walked. It’s a good way from the market to Hackney Wick – I’m not sure of miles; they always seem difficult to calculate in a city – but for a six year old it was a marathon. I wonder if the strike he remembers was the General Strike in 1926. The timing would be right. For Albert, the story is mainly about the row that his parents had when his dad got home: a row that happened in the 20s still blazing in Albert’s memory.
X is for Exodus, Excavate, Ex.
Y is for Yarrow
Milfoil, Thousand Weed, Bad Man’s Plaything. And it has many other names. Good for staunching wounds and stopping nosebleeds. Reputed to help with measles and baldness. Also used as snuff.
Our Olympic legacy – what will it be? What sort of landscape will we leave and what will it say about our values?
Z is for Zucchini
Barbequed by Hassan, one of Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, zucchini concludes this A-Z and leaves a lingering sweetness on the tongue.
For enquiries about Manor Gardens Allotments or suggestions for the campaign to save the site from development, please contact Julie Sumner. Email: Aireyworld[at]aol.com
This article copyright Juliette Adair. For permission to quote from it, please contact Juliette Adair, juliette.adair[at]dial.pipex.com
Read more about this threatened allotment on
our England in Particular campaign pages
Read about Helen Porter's allotment in Mere, Wilts
For other inventive local producers, see Producing The Goods