Youngsters are out to learn the plot

Keeping an allotment is no longer just for those of a certain age, as one award-winning Suffolk allotment field has proved thanks to its involvement with children from the surrounding community.

Keeping an allotment is no longer just for those of a certain age, as one award-winning Suffolk allotment field has proved thanks to its involvement with children from the surrounding community. Katy Evans reports.

Think of allotments and most would conjure up an image of old men pottering away in green houses or reclining on deckchairs, pipe in hand, while surveying their copious crops of cabbages, carrots and courgettes.

But gardening is gaining in popularity and the trend looks set to spread even further as more of us want to step back from the rat race, even if just for a few hours a week, and live life at a more leisurely pace.

Allotments are now no longer the preserve of those who have reached retirement age. Over the past couple of years, thanks in part to conscientious parents campaigning for better, organic food for their children, plots are being snapped up by adventurous young families keen to have a go at 'growing their own' and getting back to nature.

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And with all the concern over obesity of late, it seems preferable to have children out in the open doing something both physically and mentally stimulating, rather than slobbing in front of the television.

One Suffolk allotment field has taken the youth movement to heart by inviting not one but two local schools to grow their own vegetables on site.

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Castle Hill Allotments, off Dales Road in Ipswich, recently won the Best Community Project award by Kitchen Garden magazine for their work with Thomas Mills Special School, Castle Hill Infants School and youngsters from the Youth Offending Scheme of Suffolk Crime Concern.

Their prize - £100 of seed vouchers and around £200 of gardening equipment - will be put into a raffle at the end of the month so all members get a chance to benefit.

“It's so nice to have recognition for the effort that's been put in,” says David Savidge, field chairman. “The editor spent a whole afternoon here and could not stop talking about it.”

And it's easy to see just why the people at Kitchen Garden magazine were so impressed. Barely three years ago the field was in a state, according to David, but has been transformed through sheer grit and determination into around 150 impressive vegetable patches.

And David's own plot, it seems, is particularly impressive for he just won the Allotment of the Year category in the EAWeek/BBC Radio Suffolk Gardener of the Year 2006 Awards.

The Castle Hill field is bisected by a linear track that acts as the main artery and runs from one end to the other. At the heart of the field is a communal shed, serving as both a central hub for chit chat and for storing all manner of garden paraphernalia.

Such is the community spirit that Eric Horton, field secretary, says it often takes him an hour just to reach his plot halfway through the field due to everyone stopping him to have a chat about this and that.

Other eye catching features include children's swings, wind chimes, numerous flags of all nationalities dotted around, and a colourful menagerie of papier mache animals - from gorillas and giraffes to penguins and pandas - found peeking out from trees and bushes in the children's area. Eric Horton, field secretary, takes me on a tour of the mini jungle, recalling with fondness how each animal was made and by which child, sounding somewhat like a proud surrogate parent.

Other animals hiding among the foliage include blow up dinosaurs, plastic snakes, bats and monkeys hanging in the trees, and a chameleon made of clay.

But even without the papier mache creatures, Castle Hill allotments are teaming with real creepy crawlies from dragonflies, stag beetles and newts all sharing the environment with a variety of trees from plum, walnut and hazelnut to native Suffolk ancient apple trees.

The field is also full of history, what with all the sharks teeth, fossils and coins which are dug up, as well as an ancient hedge that dates back to the late 1700s. The first plots at Castle Hill were opened in the late 1930 and stretched up to this hedge. Then in the early 50s the other side was opened up, stretching all the way to Larchcroft Road.

On the day of my visit, the sun is blazing down as we sit and chat around the wooden table in front of the big shed and I can sense the community spirit pervading the field.

David says: “It was a big rubbish tip when we started. The field was derelict. But we've come a lot further than we thought we would. Thirty plots were totally over grown with brambles and trees.”

Five 10-metre skips were needed to cart away all the carpet, barbed wire, glass and old sheds that had been left to rot over the years. “It's amazing what you find - even old Bunsen burners,” exclaims David.

That was back in early 2004. The following year they got to the plots that had not been touched for 20 years, followed by developing the top area which is now taken over largely by the school projects.

A small working party got together in 2005 to organise an open day both to attract new members and to raise money for the Suffolk County Council Cano' peas project to raise money to buy canopies for the Thomas Wolsey School so children could sit outside during the hot summer months, but by the time the open day came around, not only had most of the plots had already been let but the money for the appeal had already been secured.

The committee decided to go ahead with the open day, instead ploughing the money they raised (£1500) into the new wildlife project started earlier in the year by field warden Jean Austin, and putting in wheelchair ramps and raised beds to give access to those pupils in wheelchairs.

The school now sends students to the allotments around once a week to work on their own patches in which they grow a variety of root vegetables and flowers. Blind youngsters also get to participate by having their senses of smell, touch and taste tantalised by the fragrant herb garden - “they love the curry plant and the spearmint” says Eric, “and we've got one herb expert who can name all of them,” he adds with amazement.

Some of the cabbages grown by the pupils were also cooked by canteen staff and served for school dinners - a great way of getting children think about where the food on their plate has come from.

The children also enjoy sitting on the bench up by the railway track (the field runs parallel to the Ipswich to Felixstowe line) to watch the trains, which have to stop just next to the bench to await signals. “They love it because they think the trains are stopping especially for them,” smiles Eric.

The other project on the go is working with the Youth Offending Scheme of Suffolk Crime Concern, which sends young people with community service orders to work on the plots. But rather than resent it, as you might expect, Jean says they enjoy spending time there digging and clearing, including helping out with the wildlife area. One boy even laboured away to clear debris from a shaded border by the railway track which is now an attractive rock waterfall feature.

Castle Hill Infants School became involved earlier this year and now have their own patches where they have grown, among other things, pumpkins for the harvest festival.

“We have 65 children on the field at one time and they talk non-stop from the moment they arrive to when they leave. They only come for about an hour and a half but the time just slips by. They really look forward to coming here,” smiles Eric, who clearly loves laughing and joking with the enthusiastic little ones.

“Even in bad weather we manage to squeeze them all into the shed,” he says,

The school also now has raised beds on its own grounds, which members of the allotment association helped to build, so the pupils can cultivate their green fingers even when not at the field.

With so many young people involved, Castle Hill allotments must surely have one of the lowest mean averages in terms of age of any field in the country.

“It's a real family allotment now. Most new tenants are young families,” agrees Eric. “Some of them bring picnics down here at the weekend and it's nice to see families making a day of it,” adds David.

“One family live in a house that backs onto the field and have a gate that leads straight into their plot,” explains Eric. “It's great that the children come home from school and can come straight into here and play with the chickens.”

It's incredible to think that in just under three years, the neglected, bramble and rubbish-filled allotments have been so transformed into the thriving, colourful and community-spirited field which can be seen today. And with the enthusiasm shown by David, Eric and Jean, it's clear the field will continue to thrive for many years to come.

“It's a good stress buster. It's good to be in the open air and I love growing flowers,” enthuses Jean, who says she also loves being involved with the running of the allotments.

“It used to be a man's thing and I was afraid to put my hand up to make suggestions at the meetings back then (before 2003),” she adds, feeling far more confident now thanks to the praise of her peers.

David also loves being outdoors but says “the camaraderie on an allotment field is what's important”.

“For me it's the fitness. I'm probably as fit as I can or want to be at my age!” laughs Eric, who seems sprightly for his 66 years.

And staying on the fitness theme, racing around with the energy of six steam engines is five-year-old Oliver, grandson of Jean. He delights in clanging the metal and wooden chimes hanging from one of the apple trees and insists on showing me the old sleepers and the make-shift water butt up by the railway line.

“He loves digging up the potatoes and carrots to take home and cook for dinner - luckily he loves eating vegetables,” says Jean.

And if Oliver's enthusiasm is representative of the school pupils, youth workers and children of plot holders who visit on a weekly basis, the future of allotments look very healthy indeed. Who knows, if the trend continues, the current generation of mini couch potatoes might be tempted away from their computer screens for long enough to grow their own potatoes - and get fit while doing it.

There are 15 allotment fields in Ipswich. To rent a plot or go on the waiting list, call Ipswich Borough Council on 01473 433500 or visit .

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