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For the benefit of any foriegn readers, an allotment is a plot of land made available by the local authorities for a small annual rent. This is an English custom that dates back thousands of years to the days when the principal landowner was the Church. In those days, the land was made available to those that needed it in exchange for 10% of the produce, known as a tythe.
The traditional measurement of land in England is the acre. One acre being roughly the amount of land a man with a team of oxen could plough in a day. The acre was divided into quarters called roods, the measurement of which is ¼ chain wide, (1 pole) by 10 chains long. The 10 chains length was considered the maximum practical distance for ploughing and became known as the furrow-lengh, furrow-long or furlong. Remember, in those days the plough could only work in one direction and the ploughman had to lift the ploughshare up while the oxen pulled it back to the beginning ready to start another furrow. The chain also just happens to be the length of a cricket pitch.
That was rural life in the dark ages. In more recent times, successive wars created food shortages in the towns and cities and several laws have been passed to force the local authorities to provide land at economic rates wherever there was the need. As city dwellers lacked the teams of oxen, the rood (¼ acre) was divided into quarters to make a piece of land of 10 poles. This was considered enough to keep a family of urchins full of greens. Nowadays, these plots have been further reduced in size to 5 poles.
Allotments by their very nature tend to be of marginal quality in nature, fairly small, unsuitable for building and often underlying wet. In London, they are of heavy clay and do a wonderful job of growing brambles. These sites are always rich in wildlife, (and I don't just mean the plotholders), and are a facinating study by themselves.
A typical site will have between 20 and several hundred plotholders, each with their own unique reason for being there. Each plotholder will have a different method of cultivation, and their own choice of crops. This gives rise to the ramshackle appearance of these sites particularly as most occupants pride themselves on their ability to avoid spending money.
During the latter part of the 20th century, allotments in general fell into disuse and were in danger of being lost forever, but recently they have been having a renaissance in popularity and are now becoming hard to find, with sites in better locations having waiting lists of several years.
This upsurge has brought in many newcomers, and while they have the spirit of the enterprize, they tend to lack knowledge, tools, fitness and strength. The 5 pole plot looks like one good weekend will sort it but this is far from the case. The reality of hard clay soil, a bewildering array of pests feasting at your expense and weeds regrowing the moment your back is turned often spoils the dream.
Over the next couple of years, I plan to put together a series of pages to provide an insight into what is required to work an allotment satisfactorily. This will not become a blog or diary, but a series of articles that I hope will be of use or interest to you.