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A History of St Ann's Allotments

23 July 14 words: Ali Emm
illustrations: Raphael Achache

With its community feel and green-fingered goodness, we look back at the history of Europe's biggest detached town gardens

There are a number of allotment sites in Nottingham but it’s STAA that dominates the landscape - figuratively and literally. A stone’s throw from the Viccy Centre, they are the largest detached town gardens in Europe at 75 acres - that’s about 41 football pitches to anyone who’s not a farmer or large land owner. They’re also the oldest and as such the site was given a Grade II listing status due to their cultural and historical importance.

The land the site sits on, between Woodborough Road, Hungerhill Road and Ransom Road, contains 670 individual gardens over three connected sites; Hungerhill Gardens, Stonepit Coppice Gardens and Gorsey Close Gardens. There are records of this land being rented for grazing, dating back as far as 1604, but it was another 200-odd years before it was divvied up into individual garden plots. Established as ‘pleasure gardens’ in the 1830s, it gave the good folk of Nottingham a chance to not only grow their own food but also escape the dirty, overcrowded confines of urban life. A slice of the good life for middle and upper class city dwellers. This set-up of green areas close to city centres wasn’t uncommon in most UK cities, but unlike elsewhere in the country, the St Ann’s Allotments survived the Victorian population and housing growth.

The shift from their use as pleasure gardens to working allotments would have come about at the turn of the nineteenth century when the textile industry had started to go into decline, with people easing the burden on their wages by growing their own fruit and veg. As the city expanded, their importance to the community grew as working class families moved to St Ann’s during its development as a residential area in the latter half of the century. Some of the land was swallowed up by housing but what remained was used by the locals to grow food, with any surplus being sold in local shops - presumably to the less green fingered folk.

In the early twentieth century the gardens became famous because of the annual St Ann’s Rose Show, the first exhibition of its kind in England. Judges at the first show couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw that roses had grown in April, only to realise that the clever boggers at the allotments had cultivated the flowers in “tiny glass houses.” That’ll be greenhouses to you and me. Always entrepreneurial round these parts, some of the allotment holders cultivated the roses in their leisure time, to then sell fresh cut roses to Manchester and Liverpool markets for a profit.

The allotments faced one of their biggest threat in the sixties when the council had grand plans to redevelop the now run-down area. Local writer and broadcaster Ray Gosling, although not a resident of St Ann’s, became involved in setting up the St Ann’s Tenants and Residents Association (SATRA). Always fond of a pint, he was drawn to the area for its good quality drinking establishments, and through that love, he fought to save St Ann’s.World War II came along and so did the Dig For Victory campaign which meant all available land was used for growing fruit and vegetables. This played a large part in keeping the allotments from being obliterated by the twentieth century demand for housing. The allotments were also home to a number of air raid shelters, an example of which you can see today in Oliver’s Heritage Garden. Unfortunately the efforts in the war weren’t long lasting and the allotments began to fall into decline in the late fifties and became rife with vandalism.

A chatty fella, he’d also made friends with an architecture student while lecturing, Dave Wilkinson, and through that friendship discovered the plans to knock down the slums of St Ann’s (as well as those in the Meadows, Hyson Green and Radford). This included plans for a motorway that would have cut through the centre of St Ann’s, forever changing the face city. The phased redevelopment was to clear all of the houses in the area, not just the ones which had become uninhabitable. Gosling, unsuccessfully, ran as an Independent candidate in the council elections with the catchy campaign line “Vote for a Madman.” By doing so he not only helped stop the complete flattening of a community, he also inspired David Sutch to form the now infamous Monster Raving Loony Party. Although a lot of the worst housing was eventually knocked down - some of it to make way for the Victoria Centre - the allotments survived the cull and the motorway was never built.

Although the land remained untouched in terms of reshaping the area, it was also left to fall into further disrepair. After such a close call in the sixties, rumours started flying around that the land was once again being eyed up like a big fat steak by the salivating property development dogs in the nineties. Startled back into action, a growing number of people began to campaign for the improvement of the site, to make it a safe and usable site to its full potential once again. To fight against the potential changes, the St Ann’s Allotments Campaign was formed in 1993, later morphing in to STAA in 1998. Another partner on the site is Ecoworks, which was formed in 1991 as a coalition; some from the charity MIND who were interested in mental health voluntary sector initiatives, some with an interest in environmental issues and setting up an alternative technology project. The not-for-profit company has evolved over the last twenty or so years and now provides veg bags to help sustain the work that they do in the community.

In 2001 their status was upgraded to Grade II Listed, essentially meaning that after all the ups and downs and the hard work of so many individuals, never again will the St Ann’s Allotments come under threat. And thank Gaia for that, because walking along the maze of hedged gardens, sheds, dirt paths and wild flowers is nothing short of mind-boggling when you think that within a five minute walk you’d probably be smack bang in the middle of the urban sprawl that is St Ann’s.

So what is its importance to Nottingham and the communities who use it? There are regular community, food and educational events and the some of the produce grown goes to food initiatives across the city. Some families who don’t have gardens use them to just hang out and relax in, and as safe place for their children to play. There are still a number of folk who use the allotments as a bolt hole to escape the pressures of their lives. Others use it as a place to socialise, to grow their own food, and to be part of something bigger.

St Ann’s Allotments Heritage Walk takes place on Wednesday 30 July at 12pm for £2.

St Ann's Allotments website

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