Walking around Dulwich it is easy to miss the many allotment sites. Hidden from view from the main thoroughfares, lie over 920 of the UK’s 330,000 allotment plots, providing fresh fruit and vegetables - and a lot of enjoyment - to many local families, as well as valuable wildlife habitats and community resources.
These sites do not have continuous histories of cultivation, unlike some rural allotment sites. Gunsite Allotments in Grange Lane were founded in 1966 on the site of the WWII gun battery. Grove Park Allotments in Camberwell are part of what was once eighteenth century physician Dr John Lettsom’s gardens; this site was established when allotments in Camberwell had to be moved. And Grange Lane Allotments, below Dulwich Wood, was a barrage balloon emplacement during the Second World War, but according to Adrian Hill, chairman of the Camberwell & District Allotment Society, the fragments of clay churchwarden pipes that are unearthed when digging suggest that prior to that, the land was a staging post for cattle on their way to the slaughterhouses of the city; the drovers using the rest to take the opportunity to enjoy a pipe.
The variety of produce grown on these plots is vast, including fruit and vegetables that are now difficult to buy on the high street, such as redcurrants, gooseberries, quinces, medlars and an extraordinary range of pumpkins and squash. The Allotment Secretary of Grove Park, Grant Smith, knows of a class at Dog Kennel Hill School which grew a crop of Canadian wheat on their plot at Grove Park which they milled and baked into bread. But the benefits of Dulwich’s allotments extend far beyond what can be grown for the table.
The massive Rosendale Allotments (18 acres, 480 plots, of which 450 are workable) has its own community building, shop and café for plot holders. Many allotments sites have beehives, providing honey and pollinators for local gardens. And the community aspect of allotments is important - Grove Park has a plot held by the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, and Rosendale Allotments leases a plot to a group of adults with learning difficulties. Rachel Sharp, Treasurer of Rosendale Allotments, explains that following consultation with the horticultural charity Thrive, Rosendale is also currently raising money for changes that will make its site more accessible to people with mobility difficulties. These include simple solutions such as benches half way up the (steep) hill and a plot that is fully wheelchair accessible.
Other benefits of Dulwich’s allotments are less tangible than the vegetables or the sense of community. The views across London from the open sites at Rosendale and Grange Lane are magnificent, sweeping from Battersea Power station, past the West End and the City, all the way to the Millennium Dome - an extraordinary panorama, and a good reason to stop digging once in a while (many plots have benches for just this). These benches are not just for admiring the view: Dulwich’s clay can bring some hard physical work - one website warns uncompromisingly that “the soil is pure bog in winter, baked brick in summer”.
The allotment sites also provide havens for wildlife. As well as the crows, parakeets and pigeons of south London, Dulwich’s allotments provide habitats for slowworms, woodpeckers, sparrowhawks, hedgehogs and on a smaller scale stag beetles and Jersey tiger moths - and of course the ubiquitous slug. Philip Milner, chair of the Gunsite Allotments, tells of a founding member who used to feed part of his sandwich lunch to a young fox, which would put its paws on his knees.
The sites are very different in character but one thing all the allotments in Dulwich have is oversubscription - Rosendale has closed its waiting list and Grove Park has an estimated waiting time for a plot of around fifty years. There are some local community projects such as the Dulwich Vegetable Garden behind Rosebery Lodge, and the Community Greenhouses in Brockwell Park, giving everyone a chance to try growing their own food, but the waiting lists for allotments just show what a valued, and very special, resource these sites are for Dulwich.
Dulwich’s allotments contacts:
Grange Lane, Grange Lane - http://grangelane.org/
Grove Park Allotments, Grove Park - http://groveallotmentsdulwich.wordpress.com/
Grove Allotments, Dulwich Common - http://www.groveallotments.org.uk/
Rosendale Allotments - http://www.rosendale-allotments.org.uk/
Gunsite Allotments, Grange Lane - http://gunsiteallotment.co.uk/
Cox’s Walk/Lordship Lane Allotments - http://www.dulwichallotment.org.uk/
See also http://www.southwark.gov.uk/ for other nearby allotment sites.