Digging for Food

alottmentsmSubtly tucked away down a short path off Benefield Road is a small but enthusiastic site for the keen gardeners of Oundle. The Benefield Road allotment, bought by Robin Miller in the 1960s, and now co-owned by his son and daughter Peter and Anne Miller, accommodates a sizeable 27 plots, and is a very popular scheme in the town. It was originally bought to preserve Robin Millers view from his house across the street as well as develop his keen interest in gardening. To this day the allotments are an integral part of the lives of many of Oundle’s gardeners.

Allotments used to be seen as an occupation for retired people. Now they are a national on-trend movement, and are seen as part of the effort to reduce our reliance on imported food. Shops and restaurants compete with each other to have more local products on their menus. Gordon Ramsey, a supporter of locally sourced produce and in-season food at restaurants said: “Chefs should be fined if they haven’t got ingredients in season on their menu.” Allotments have a role to play in this.

Costing a reasonable £30 a year, the Benefield Road allotment is full of takers, and it shows, with a huge variety of fruit, vegetables and flowers being grown. Juliette Freeman, Peter’s partner, says that because of the demand for allotments they had “to create some more plots, due to the waiting list.”

The development plans have not stopped there. On the Benefield Road allotments website the owners describe how they would like to develop several other small projects within the area such as a wildlife area at the bottom of the field, a hedge to divide the hay meadow from the wildlife area, fences or trellis panels to provide privacy from the road entrance, as well as a communal storage shed or shelter.

One of the allotment holders, Mike Saunders, who has worked allotments in Peterborough since the 1960s said: “It is certainly beneficial for people of any town to be granted space to grow their own produce”. He regards the allotment scheme as important as “parks, play areas or any other common activity that promotes good health, exercise and quality of life.”

However, rumours have been circulating that the owners are interested in selling the land. Mr Saunders conceded that Peter Miller has “every right to sell it if he so wishes and it is not, and never was, his responsibility to provide allotment space for the town”.

In fact, the property is registered with the East Nothamptonshire Council for the next housing round for consideration in 2021. In the meantime, in order to elicit feedback before a planning application was progressed, the Millers have made a presentation to the OTC for development plans that include houses for elderly people wishing to downsize, allotment land and bike paths and walkways.

Juliet Miller is adamant that in the “short term, we are not selling.” However she did say, “Long term, selling the land is a possibility, but who knows whether it will happen. Right now there is no buyer interested so the allotment is not being sold at this time.” What will reassure the plot owners, however, is that the Millers’ intention is for the allotments to be kept, even if the land is sold.

However, by selling this land off to housing development, whether the allotments are kept or not, we would be taking another step backwards in the effort to keep some of these small pockets of open land that recall the town’s agrarian past and help provide for our future food needs.

By Joseph Braka