Great Britain in the latter half of the 20th Century was defined by enormous societal change. More women were working and people began to enjoy the benefits of new self-service supermarkets, convenience food and home freezing. These factors combined to diminish the demand for allotments, which were still seen by many as a symbol of poverty and a haunting reminder of the austerity of war.
But by the 1970s a mini green revolution had renewed the idea of going ‘back to the land’, fuelled by increasing concerns about the origins of food and its impact on the environment; and with this came a surge in people moving to the countryside to become self-sufficient. This phenomenon became the basis of a BBC sitcom, first aired in 1975, that explored the idea of people’s desire to escape their job and follow their dreams of self-sufficiency. Surbiton was chosen as the location of The Good Life, specifically because its name invoked the most obvious connotations of suburbia, with the writers toying with the fact that self-sufficiency in suburbia was all but impossible. Lead characters Tom and Barbara Good nonetheless turned their front and back gardens into allotments, growing soft fruit and vegetables and even introducing chickens, pigs, a goat and a cockerel to the land.
The modern day popularity of allotments in real life Surbiton continues to have an environmental motivation at its heart, with many plot holders wishing to support biodiversity, reduce the pollutive impact of food transportation, and encourage recycling, composting and a reduction in plastic food packaging. In 1989 Kingston Council found itself facing hostile public opposition as it planned to develop a significant area of the Tolworth Main site; the public campaign ensured the prevention of such a development, and instead a Millennium Green and woodland park was developed in order to maintain the much loved green space. Some years later a disused acre of waterlogged land at the Knollmead Allotment was transformed into the Kingston Permaculture Reserve, now known as Kingston’s ‘edible forest garden’, a site of significant biodiversity and cultural value. It is home to a wide range of shrubs, plants, and even a tree nursery, which grows 21 varieties of apple trees, and the Permaculture Reserve also runs fruit growing courses for locals.
In more recent years the community has taken an active interest in the management of allotment sites, with control of many passing from local authorities and landowners to the plot holders themselves, known as ‘voluntary management’. In July 2003 the Kingston Federation of Allotment Gardeners (KFAG) was formally established to provide a forum to liaise with the council and to help let unused plots. KFAG promotes allotment gardening across the borough, provides information, support and advice to sites considering voluntary management of their allotments, and builds relationships within and between the allotment sites. KFAG also offered input into a ten year strategy that was released by the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames in 2008, which made recommendations for improving allotment provision and management.
Elsewhere, Surbiton firefighter and plot holder, Simon Jakeman was motivated to do his bit for the environment, having witnessed first hand the devastating effects and increased frequency of extreme weather events over 23 years in the fire service. From a single tomato plant in a fire bucket, Simon eventually transformed Surbiton Fire Station’s empty rooftop terrace into a flourishing garden, providing locally sourced food for the station’s mess and a habitat for local wildlife. Surbiton was crowned London’s ‘greenest fire station’ and Simon became London Fire Brigade’s Green Champion of the year. Having visited every single watch across London’s 103 fire stations and inspiring them to start similar projects of their own, Simon received a host of green awards, 2 RHS medals, and a British Empire Medal on the 2017 New Year’s honours list for services to the environment.