Diversions #4: Subversive Pastimes: Constructing and Cultivating a Floating Allotment

The outbreak of social protest in 1830 has been recognised by a number of scholars as the spark for the national movement for allotments. Embittered and hungry labourers destroyed agricultural machinery and set fire to haystacks in what is known as the Swing riots and links the organised allotment movement to political protest. The allocation of allotments (strips of land rented to labourers at market rates year-round) was not simply an attempt by elite landowners to buy off labourers and avert further rioting, it was also hoped that the commitment required to develop a flourishing allotment would instil several favourable virtues in the rural poor including self-respect, independence, industriousness, sobriety, thrift, and honesty.

Since then, the popularity of allotments has risen and fallen, but always remained a nostalgic image of self-sufficient British life. However, present times offer an unknown future for the allotment garden. The strip of land providing space for growing your own food is at even greater risk as land value is seen as an easy way for councils and private owners to bring in greater profits. And yet, there is a quietly radical side to gardening that persists in rejecting the privatised profit-driven society of the moment. Guerrilla gardeners, urban farming movements, and people squatting urban plots keep alive the act of protest that takes the form of planting, and in doing so retain that ‘resistance is fertile’ (not my pun).

There is a practical side to all of this as well. Food is essential, it is our life force. Food makes me happy and healthy. I can spend hours cooking dinner for friends, but even mundane evenings revolve around the kitchen and the table. So much time is spent perusing recipe books for pleasure, pondering the combination of spices, and taking detours to favourite butchers and fishmongers. So why do the bland vegetables offered up by the supermarket seem to suffice? Perhaps because the alternatives of organic wholefoods shops break the bank and vegetable box schemes inevitably end up with an overabundance of red cabbage.

But what if, like me, you live on a boat and move across the city constantly throughout the year, staying in one place for only two weeks at a time? On some occasions, I could be thirty miles away from a beloved allotment, which isn’t much use for harvesting those courgettes just as they reach perfection. So here comes my diversion: I have taken matters into my own hands this year and created a floating allotment – an idea over a glass of wine that actually turned into reality – go figure! A middle finger to the supremacy of supermarkets and the global food supply chain, bringing things back to the local, and, in the process, boosting my vitamin D and serotonin levels. And of course, a worthwhile distraction from my computer screen.

These were my key requirements:

1. It floats!

2. It can be pulled along beside or behind the boat when I move, but easily accessible when I’m moored up.

3. It’s cheap to build and uses as much recycled and found material as possible.

4. It looks good enough to boast about.

5. It’s big enough to have a good range of plants.

6. It can be covered during the cooler spring time to allow young plants a good start in life.

7. It’s stable (in hindsight this should perhaps have been further up the list)

The completed structure involved two wooden pallets resting on large empty plastic containers fixed in place, with a covering that can be rolled back, and two ropes for tying it to the boat. Miraculously it has been a thriving success and having never grown vegetables from seed before, I am now the proud cultivator of an array of edible delights.

Further diversions on the subject:

http://georgemckay.org/radical-gardening/

http://www.avantgardening.org/about/

The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture by David Crouch and Colin Ward. Faber and Faber (1988)


Isobel Ward is a second-year PhD student in the Geography department at King’s College London. Her research is about understandings of home in London; how changing immigration and housing policies or regeneration projects affect a sense of belonging, identity and home. She previously studied and worked in architecture, then completed an MA in Anthropology about the fluidity of home on London’s waterways. Isobel can normally be found floating around London somewhere on her narrowboat.

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