We took on our allotment at Plot 64a Culmer’s Allotments, Broadstairs on January 4th, 2020. We had been on the waiting list for just four months, having expected it would take at least a year to reach the top. I had zero experience of allotmenteering, having last grown fruit and vegetables in my parents’ garden when I was a teenager. The Beau had spent a brief time cultivating a plot at One Tree Hill Allotments in Honor Oak Park, South East London. We were both relative novices, apprehensive, but ready to take the plunge. Initially, we were given a choice of four plots; a large, ugly one; a small, pretty one; a neglected, weedy one; and a sheltered shady one. We opted for the large, ugly plot, an open space measuring roughly 16m by 16m (52ft by 52ft).
Our allotment is located around five minutes’ walk from The Watch House at the most south-westerly tip of a long site which dips gently to the east and the sea. The ground falls away to the north, forming the side of a shallow chalk valley. Our plot is on relatively high ground with a good, free-draining, chalky loam which is good for growing anything except blueberries! The Isle of Thanet is prime brassica growing country and we have certainly found they flourish here. We are situated immediately next to Vere Road carpark, on the opposite side of the fence to the pay and display machine. If you are ever passing and we are there, do say ‘hello!’. Plenty of folk do, and we enjoy the excuse to stop working.
The land on which you’ll find our allotment was bequeathed to the Vicar of St Peter’s Church, Broadstairs, by Richard Culmer in 1485. It seems probable that it has never been used for anything other than agriculture or horticulture. The Culmers were an important family in the area for many centuries, involving themselves variously in ship-building, agriculture and religion. Richard Culmer’s will left six acres of farmland in what is now the centre of Broadstairs to the parish. Five hundred years ago it would have been well away from the tiny fishing village clustered around the jetty (see image below), but now it’s hemmed-in by post-war housing, a small recreation space, a car park and a coach park. (In around 1820, The Watch House would have marked the farthest extent of Broadstairs inland, with Pierremont Park, to the west, only 35 years old, a private home favoured by the young Queen Victoria.) Income from Culmer’s farmland was to be used to relieve poverty in the area. Continuing that ancient obligation, the land is now in the ownership of the CT10 Parochial Charities and must generate an income. The allotments, and an open space with a sweeping path running through it, are leased to the town council until 2031. This arrangement does mean that the future of the allotment site is not secured in perpetuity. At least three parcels of land have been sold to developers in recent years and that attrition might easily continue in future.
In the 1940s and 1960s the entire site, including what is now a small recreation space and the Vere Road carpark, was divided into long, rectangular allotment plots. They would have been very substantial in size compared to those on offer today. Plot 64*, for example, would have been three times larger than Plot 64a is now, comprising the full extent of 64a, b and c and measuring something like 16m x 36m (576sq m). Unlike today, when much allotmenteering is undertaken for recreational purposes, growing your own was a serious business in the post-war years. There were no raised beds, fancy sheds, polytunnels, scarecrows, arbours, cut flowers or even fruit trees, just row upon row of fruit and veg, every square inch used intensively and practically. My grandfather gardened like this, in long, straight, no-nonsense rows. So does our allotment neighbour, Archie. Although not pretty to look at, there is a certain pleasure to be derived from the neatness of the rows and lack of clutter. This is how to grow food if your family’s health and wellbeing are at stake.
The image above shows a view of Culmer’s Allotments looking North East from the southern edge of the site, which is now the recreation space. The English Channel is on the other side of the buildings in the distance. Around a large part of the boundary there was, and still is, a high, flint wall. You can see it running in front of the mature trees in the distance, but there’s also a section immediately behind where the photographer was standing. The wall is a fine piece of workmanship, given how long it has been standing.
The aerial photograph below dates from 1940 according to Google Earth. I imagine its very existence is connected with WWII, given Thanet was frequently bombed by German planes departing our shores after making raids on London. (Off-loading any spare ammunition saved fuel for the journey home. When I moved to The Watch House we had a bomb shelter in the garden, which is not uncommon here.) Judging by the fullness of the trees and the parched appearance of the ground, it appears to be summer. Very few cars are visible. One wonders if there was a plan to extend Bradstow Way (the road leading South-East from the top left corner of the photograph) through the allotments to join Nelson Place. That never happened, but that entire parcel of land is now built upon.
This is all the history I have been been able to unearth. If you happen to know any stories about Culmer’s Allotments and the townsfolk who grew produce there, I would love to hear from you.
I am conscious that this is turning into a history lesson, so let’s return at least to 2020. Having taken on our plot in January, we had a couple of months to get our bearings. When the weather was fine we cracked on with clearing the beds of weeds and adding as much horse manure as our friend Heather could bring from her stables. We improved some of the paths by dressing them with woodchippings and took measurements of all the beds. When it rained, we drew up a plan of the site, decided what we would grow where and started buying seeds. We inherited little more than a gangly rosemary bush, some sage, a clump of rhubarb, several rows of raspberry canes, two dwarf apple trees, two gooseberry bushes and a fig, plonked in the middle of bed 2.
As you can see from the plan below, the plot was already divided into a series of beds, mostly edged with old palettes and scaffolding boards. I came to hate this edging as the year progressed, given it was mostly rotten and/or riddled with rusty screws. An element of ‘bodging’ (making do) seems to go with the territory on an allotment and our predecessor was a pro bodger. The first major job of 2021 is to replace the lot.