Focus on Girton Allotment Society
The first time that I drove north through Girton up the Cambridge Road past the allotments, my thought was "I'd like one of those - and if they're ever sold for housing, there'll be a mint to be made". Indeed, even at today's depressed land prices, the 6 acres (2.4 hectares) occupied by the allotments would provide land for 120 (at least) houses almost in the centre of Girton, potentially increasing the village population by up to 20%. But fortunately, the prospects of such a social and ecological disaster in Girton are remote.
There have been allotments in Girton since at least the early 19th century - the first records date from 1808. Initially these allotments may have been at several sites including the present Wellbrook Way, allowing farm workers to feed their families; The Charities of Cambridgeshire report of 1839 lists a total of 52 ½ acres of town and church lands, some of which may have been used for this purpose. The Cambridge Road site was known as the Montague allotments, but the origin of the name is unclear. In 1909 a separation of the various assets in the village between the Girton Church Charity and the Girton Town Charity took place, including the division of the allotment site approximately equally: the south half belongs to the Church Charity and the north half to the Town Charity. The central path still divides the site. In 1994 the Girton Allotment Society was formed to take responsibility for this voluntary (but not statutory) site.
Allotments have been a significant part of England's social history almost since its earliest days. In pre-feudal and feudal times, the peasants were allowed in their meagre spare time to cultivate parcels of common land for the sustenance of their families. The enclosures movements of the 17th and 18th centuries put pressure on this concession. Various enlightened landowners and the Church (in particular) established allotments for their impecunious tenants and parishioners as in Girton. During the industrial revolution, the urban rootless poor became a cause of public concern, and local authorities created allotments around the great cities and towns to permit the new workers to grow food. The motives were partly economic and altruistic, but also to prevent social and political unrest, to offset the evils of alcohol, and generally to oppose "moral degeneracy".
Allotments have been controlled statutorily by a stream of legislation since the mid-19th century, of which the Allotments Act 1950 is the latest. Local authorities have a responsibility to provide allotments if their residents request them, but the obligation is not well defined. Times of war greatly enhanced the demand for allotments, which reached a high point of between 1.5 and 2 million during the 1939-1945 War. Older readers of the Girton Parish News will remember only too clearly the highly successful "Dig for Victory" campaign of this period. Since the mid 1960s, local authorities have increasingly tried to dispose of their allotment holdings for housing and other civic amenities. The present figure for allotments is probably a little under 300,000, although public interest is rising rapidly in view of present economic and ecological concerns. Within SCDC, responsibility for allotments is mainly delegated to parish councils, since most allotment land in Cambridgeshire is in private (not municipal) ownership. The Girton Parish Council therefore ensures the continuance or any extension of this public amenity, and has passed this on in turn to the Girton Allotment Society. The Cambridge Road site now is the only example of allotments (statutory or voluntary) within the parish,
The Girton Allotment Society administers the Cambridge Road site for the two charities, paying them a peppercorn rent. A committee of eight plot holder members, chaired by Liesbeth Ten Ham, runs the allotments. The site manager is Ray Gordon, who has held a carefully tended plot for over fifty years and who is also vice-chairman. The Society is solidly solvent, and ensures that the site is maintained in its present well organised, tidy and productive state. The Society provides services (water from two pumps fed by boreholes), security (the site is enclosed by hedging, a secure metal fence and gates controlled by keypad), insurance, maintenance of the grass paths separating plots, and facilities such as mowers, rotorvators and barrows. It also organises a seed and seed potato purchase scheme - not to mention the many informal exchanges of advice between members on a day to day basis. Most normal activities are allowed by the Society's rules: there are few restrictions, other than dogs, bonfires at sensitive hours, and ball games. You can install a (permitted) garden shed, store or greenhouse, and even fruit cages or raised beds (for instance for the cultivation of asparagus) are allowed. The Society currently has 98 members, and all new plot holders must live in the village.
Plots in Girton follow the English tradition of being 10 rods in area, about 302 square yards (252 square metres), which was deemed sufficient to feed a family throughout a year. This extent may well prove to be too much for the present day desk-bound employee, and so the Society suggests that a new member starts with a quarter or half plot, and sees how well he or she copes. Rents are not dear: quarter plots are £8 per year, half plots £12 and the full monty is £18: there is also a £50 deposit on taking on a plot, refundable on returning it in serviceable condition. The Cambridge Road site contains a total of 95 plots, all fully cultivated. There is a waiting list of up to a year - so be patient!
The soil of the allotments is quite varied in quality and nature, even though it has been intensively tilled for over a century. By the Cambridge Road it is relatively pebbly (there is a sub-stratum throughout of Girton grit) but close to the western boundary by Giffords Close, heavy clay can be found. The Society in 1999 planted a thicket of hazel here which thrives on the heavy soil, and a part of which is coppiced each year to provide members with a supply of free sticks for peas and other plants. But almost all sorts of vegetables, soft fruit and flowers can be grown successfully. One of the few exceptions is the swede, which requires more water than the Girton climate provides, at least so the local experts opine.
The members of the Girton Allotment Society are pretty diverse bunch, representing a wide range of occupations and ages. Ray Gordon approvingly notes the increase of women plot holders and their young family helpers, for whom there is a central grassy play area when they are exhausted. He also mentions that the oldest plot holder is still enjoying his hobby at the age of 94: he is Donald Hood of Gretton Court. Long may he continue!
The future of the Girton Allotment Society looks secure. The risk of drought has been addressed by the installation of new pumps, the security issues have been met by the new and visually-sensitive fence, and the membership waiting list is under control. The links with the community have also been addressed: Year Two of the Girton Glebe School when visiting the allotments this Spring were riveted to see how their food actually grew from seeds in the earth locally, not in plastic packets in the supermarket - so new members are in the pipeline. For new members, the Girton Allotment Society can offer no prospects of "moral degeneracy", but a real promise of healthful, organic fruit and vegetables at an economic cost - and the companionship and help of fellow enthusiastic gardeners.
Contact: Ray Gordon,
Vice-Chairman, Girton Allotment Society,
10 Pepys Way, Girton, Cambridge CB3 0PA
"Focus on Girton" is a series of occasional articles on the organisations of Girton. The first series ran from September 2005 to April 2007 and concentrated on public service and commercial organisations. This present series covers the community and voluntary organisations of the village. Articles are written independently by members of the editorial team of the Girton Parish News, with the consent and cooperation of the organisation concerned. The selection of organisations featured is entirely at the discretion of the editorial team. The articles do not in themselves represent an endorsement of the aims or activities of organisations. No link exists between the publication of an article and any advertising in the Girton Parish News, whether in the same issue or more generally.