Armstrong allotments in Newcastle have their open day once a year. Like a vegetable themed Brigadoon this is the only day of the year when mere mortals can pass beyond the fence and see up close what must be some of the most attractive grow your own plots in the UK. I walk past the site on a regular basis and look down at the verdant valley through the fence posts, but it is a bit of a secret garden moment when you are welcomed inside by the friendly allotment holders of Heaton on that special August Saturday afternoon.
|Awesome Armstrong allotments|
These 69 allotments were land saved from development because their sandy foundations weren’t suitable for building and Lord Armstrong let the land be used by local people to grow things. There weren’t many people who had gardens in the Heaton area (and there still aren’t) so allotments provide valuable access to green space and a way to get close to nature.
These allotments are extremely tidy and well attended with mature fruit trees and bushes dividing up the plots which are surrounded on one side by suburbia and on the other side by trees and parkland. I spotted huge blackberries ripening in our rather watery northern sunshine and a couple did just happen to get popped into my mouth while passing. One old greenhouse which had been there many years had given up its entire interior to the growth of a huge grapevine tangled forever with a giant bramble bush inside. It made such a statement that it could probably have applied for an Arts Council grant as an installation. I couldn’t see any chickens though, I think these may have been outlawed due to the noise pollution caused by crowing cockerels.
Dave, a leading figure at the Allotments Association was showing a couple of newbies around the allotments and they were getting very excited by the possibility of taking over a whole or even a half a plot. Looking after an allotment is hard work and time consuming but, I imagine, a very rewarding way to spend your spare time. People who have allotments (a bit like people who work with animals) always look rather happy and stress free to me.
Along with vegetables many of the allotment holders choose to grow flowers, usually Dahlias or Chrysanthemums (why is that?) but other things too like Crocosmia and Sweet Peas bring splashes of multi colours to many of the plots.
|Such Sweet Peas!|
The gazebo and the lanterns were up, the rain had stopped and people were starting to arrive, buying raffle tickets for the Tombola and venturing into the members clubhouse or large shed, for cups of tea and vegetable related cakes. The courgette and nut cake was particularly moist and carrot cake is always a favourite.
|Spud u like|
Competitions had happened and prizes awarded. Best flower arrangement, best marmalade or jam and best Mr Potato head were notable, but my favourite was the winner in the ‘One Heavy Onion’ category. Was this a comment on its actual weight or was it just an exclamation of its impressive size? As in ‘Man, that is one heavy onion..’
|The big cheese of onions|
The highlight of the event for me is undoubtedly the excitement of the allotment auction. Huge combination boxes of vegetables including jars of homemade jam are sold at spectacularly uncompetitive prices. If you bid a pound you will likely win the whole thing! Dave was brandishing his giant marrow and was struggling to get an offer for 50p for it! The lady next to me kept repeating ’I’m going away on Monday so there’s no point buying them and there’s no room in the freezer..’ Although I noticed she snaffled up a large bag of scones at a knock down price ‘I can take them with me.’ she explained.
|Dave’s large legume|
Michelle was better at the auctioneer’s patter, she dispatched the boxes of veg and jams and cakes, including an allotment themed one which someone had made especially.
|Who grew those?|
She even sold off an enormous brassica (always an allotment tradition) ‘What kind of cabbage is that?’ I asked. ‘It’s a giant one!’ was the reply.The flowers came last and I was delighted with the gigantic bright Dahlias I procured and the huge bunch of fragrant Sweet Peas.
As usual, I got quite carried away and I was forced to return home to get the car to carry all my spoils back to Beatrice Road. I had bought far, far, too many things. The next day I was steaming beetroot, blanching parsnips and making the biggest pan of ratatouille you have ever seen for quite some time. Some things would live in the fridge for a while and others donated to friends who may also appreciate the very special pleasure of home grown veg. And now the gate of the lovely Armstrong allotments is closed once again, until next year…