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Lockdown prompts a return to the land with a surge of interest in Bishop's Stortford's allotments

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News editor Sinead Corr, currently digging the first beds on her new allotment, talks to Bishop’s Stortford fruit and veg veterans Anne and Steven Ratcliffe about how the coronavirus lockdown is prompting a surge of interest in 'The Good Life'...

Dig for Victory was a slogan of the Second World War but it also seems to fit well as the country combats coronavirus.

Social distancing has given us a new-found appreciation of space while supermarket shortages have made home-grown produce an alluring alternative.

Anne and Steven Ratcliffe's allotment (33639084)
Anne and Steven Ratcliffe's allotment (33639084)

In this situation, what could be better than an allotment, enabling you to exercise in the fresh air and grow your own fruit and veg?

The pandemic has prompted a surge in applications for plots in Bishop’s Stortford, while there is already a waiting list in Stansted as residents get back to the land.

This month the allotment holders at the Hallingbury West site in Stortford were looking forward to encouraging new recruits at an open morning.

Hallingbury Road Allotments West, Bishop's Stortford. Anne Ratcliffe on the allotments. Picture: Vikki Lince (33639735)
Hallingbury Road Allotments West, Bishop's Stortford. Anne Ratcliffe on the allotments. Picture: Vikki Lince (33639735)

Although it was cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis, green-fingered advocates Anne and Steven Ratcliffe are still hoping for new neighbours.

Both 64 and retired, they are in their fifth season as allotment holders and enjoy tending their plot with their two adult children and two grandchildren “who love helping”.

Anne said: “Having an allotment is a great way to grow your own vegetables and fruit. If you start now, you could be eating home-grown food in a few weeks. There's still time to plant salad crops from seed. Potatoes, carrots, brassicas, onions, beetroot can all be started off now, along with many other vegetables.

“Small plants can be bought by mail order and grown on. Some garden centres are even offering delivery as we are unable to visit them at the moment.”

Anne and Steven Ratcliffe's allotment (33639082)
Anne and Steven Ratcliffe's allotment (33639082)

She advised: “A new plot may look daunting at first, but start by clearing a small area and plant salad for relatively quick results. Then use more of the plot bit by bit as you get your confidence.”

Anne recommended BBC TV shows Gardeners' World or The Beechgrove Garden as inspiration.

“Besides the obvious benefits of growing your own, allotments provide us with an opportunity to improve our physical and mental well-being and meet new people – at a safe distance, of course," said Anne. "Children benefit, too, by learning to appreciate where their food comes from. They really enjoy picking strawberries!

Anne and Steven Ratcliffe's allotment (33639086)
Anne and Steven Ratcliffe's allotment (33639086)

As she prepared to plant potatoes and pick rhubarb for a crumble with custard, she said: “There are vacant allotment plots in Bishop's Stortford – just call the town council for details. The cost of a plot is very reasonable. The potential benefits are priceless.”

Town council chief executive James Parker confirmed there had been a surge in interest since lockdown, but plots at some sites are still available.

The town has 630 plots at 10 allotment sites:

  • Barrells Down Road – 65
  • Cricketfield Lane – 43
  • Elm Road – 7
  • The Firs – 53
  • Hallingbury Road East – 66
  • Hallingbury Road West – 125
  • Haymeads Lane – 115
  • London Road – 6
  • Thornbera Road – 65
  • Ward Crescent – 85

There are 51 plots available, mostly at Haymeads Lane and the Hallingbury Road sites, and 22 people on the waiting list.

Mr Parker said: “Unfortunately, many of those on the waiting list want plots on sites where there are currently no plots available. Alternative sites are always offered, but, of course, residents are free to accept the offer of an alternative or remain on the list.”

Allotments are available in plots of 2.5 rods (7m x 7m) and 5 square rods (10m x 12m) and cost £5.90 a rod per year to rent, with concessions for pensioners and those on benefits. There is a 'new tenant' administration fee of £28.

In Sawbridgeworth, the town council is not currently allocating plots. It has 124 in total: 50 at Southbrook, 54 at Bullfields and 10 each at Bellmead and Vantorts.

In Stansted, I am one of the 50 lucky tenants getting to grips with a virgin plot at the village’s first public allotments at Elms Farm, although more are to follow at the new Walpole Farm development and there is a private site at Pennington Lane.

The lockdown has prompted new applications, but the waiting list at Elms Farm already has 11 names on it and Walpole Meadow has 14 applications for 14 plots. I'm not surprised – the allotment site is a little piece of heaven with blue skies and birdsong.

Starting the cultivation process during a pandemic has a very specific set of challenges. The first has been getting hold of tools, seeds and plants. With shops shut, online services are struggling to cope with demand and we are still waiting for tomato plugs ordered just before the lockdown began and a selection of seeds.

So far we have been able to plant only beetroots, onions and shallots with a nursery of chilli, lettuce and coriander seedlings on our windowsill propagator at home. Reluctantly, we have had to accept that our shed plans must be shelved for the next month or so, too.

At Stansted as elsewhere, we are following safety guidance from the National Allotment Society and limiting how we use our plots.

My hopes of allowing my eight-year-old niece to nurture some plants and study their growing cycle while school is cancelled have fallen foul of social distancing requirements – only the leaseholder and one other member of their household are allowed on site, with special restrictions on children.

In line with Government advice on limiting time spent outside and exercising once a day, the society recommends that an hour or so working is reasonable, provided social distancing and strict hygiene are observed, especially when coming into contact with communal water troughs, taps and gate locks. Allotment holders are urged to walk to their plot rather than drive and bonfires are outlawed.

Despite the restrictions, there is still something deeply relaxing and reassuring about seeing new life spring forth at a time of great stress and sadness.

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