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Land in Hand – Postscript

18 Jun

This is a late postscript to the Land in Hand project. The selected photographs were included in an exhibition with Mairi Turner in May 2013, and in conjunction with that, Mairi and I collaborated on producing a book entitled “Land in Hand – the Making of Coton Hill Allotments”. The book is available to preview or buy on here:


Land in Hand by Andrew Howe and Mairi Turner
Not long after completing the book, whilst researching another related subject, I encountered a link to a fascinating PhD thesis by Dr Rosemary Thornes, entitled “Detached Gardens and Urban Allotments in English Provincial Towns, 1750 to 1950. Distribution, Abundance and Transformative Processes (June 2011)”. The paper was available on the website for the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Dr Thornes’s research focussed on Shrewsbury as a detailed case study.

It was found that Shrewsbury has an abundance of allotment sites, which have developed at different times. The earliest sites, including Coton Hill, are understood to have developed in the late 18th/early 19th Century or earlier in land beyond the urban fringe. It is unclear what caused them to be developed, or indeed when they first appeared, since there is evidence of some allotment type gardens in the UK as early as the 14th Century. It was not necessarily the case, for example, that wealthy land owners of large estates rented out land to poor tenants.

Earlier private ownership was replaced by public ownership in the wake of a series of legislation, which established the provision of allotments as a statutory obligation for local authorities. There were later phases of allotments which appeared in the First and Second World Wars, whilst some of the early sites were absorbed into the town as development expanded outwards. Most of such sites were built up on, but some sites still remain including a tiny site nestling alongside the original Town Walls.
The Coton Hill site is referred to in the research paper, and it was evidently distinct from many other sites in being significantly detached from the urban fringe, located just over half a mile from the housing built on Berwick Road at Coton Hill. I was intrigued to learn more, and subsequently met Dr Thornes to discuss her findings. She was kind enough to provide me with some copies of information from the Shropshire Archives.

In a map of the Borough of Shrewsbury dated 1832, there appear to be some 92 plots shown at a site known as Corporation Gardens. These cover the area, now recently re-established as part of the Transition Town Shrewsbury project, but then also extend both sides of Corporation Lane and on to another series of smaller plots aligned at right angles along the line of the old bed of the River Severn. It is peculiar that these plots should be so far from the town. They would appear not to have been related to the (now substantial) house at Coton Grange which in 1832 is indicated as being only a small building.
(I Hitchcock, A. 1832. Map of the Borough of Shrewsbury as extended and settled by Act of Parliament July 15th 1832. Scale 6”:1 mile. BL Maps.4930.(2.). SA 4756/1/20.

The audited accounts of 1833 (Corporation of Shrewsbury 1833 provide some interesting details. Audited Accounts. An account of the receipts and disbursements of the rents and profits of the estates revenues belonging to the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Town of Shrewsbury. SA Watton’s Cuttings.

Income of a year’s rent due on Lady Day was £63/8/6

There were various tenants as per schedule. The premises comprised an area of 1558 perches (where 40 perches = 1 rood, and 4 roods = 1 acre)
Payments were made of mole catching, gate repairs, ale for tenants (!), Highway Lewns, Receiver’s salary, Church and Pool Laws and repairs: Richard France, William Jones, Thomas Bowyer, Robert Norton and Thomas Lloyd.

In 1849 all plots had just been sold (tithe plots 80-89) (Tithe maps and apportionments, Parishes of St Mary and St Julian, Coton Township, 1849. SA PF257/3/1). New owners were:
Sam Croft Theckler 1 plot. 22 perches.
James Davies. 1 plot. 40 perches.
James Holmes and others. 2 plots. 143 perches and 53 perches
John Swain. 2 plots. 288 perches
William Tisdale. 1 plot 23 perches.
George Wode. 1 plot. 60 perches.
Representatives of the late Eleanor Brier. 1 plot. 20 perches

All together these made up 506 perches, only one third of the area mentioned in the 1833 accounts. It may be inferred that the owners were not without some wealth, but not sufficiently wealthy to own large estates.
Possibly cultivation of the plots nearest the old river bed was discontinued due to flooding. This may even have been exacerbated by the construction of the railway just to the east, which would likely have restricted the free passage of water along the channel.

The 1880 and 1900-01 OS maps (6”:1 mile) both indicate that the Corporation Gardens site had reduced in size to the area west of Corporation Lane near Coton Grange. The plots towards the northern end of the site may possibly have become orchard, judging by the map symbols. This is consistent with the remaining existence of several apple, pear and plum trees in and around the site. The allotments are again indicated in a map dated 1933, which also shows a new site known as Coton Hill farm allotments, just north of new housing at Coton Hill and west of Corporation Lane. These plots appeared during World War I.

It is not clear when either of the allotment sites at Corporation Gardens or Coton Hill farm ceased being cultivated.

It is good to have witnessed a new chapter emerging for the Coton Hill site as the current community rejuvenates its use as an allotment garden and establishes its place in history. When looking at the photographs of the current allotment holders, one cannot help but reflect on the heritage of the site, and the succession of former plot holders that cultivated the land. This is land that has served a local community over a significant period of time. It is all the more striking to consider how small this plot is, in relation to the surrounding land, some of which is agricultural, some is undeveloped wetland, and the remainder is increasingly becoming urban development. What are the relative values to the community of these land uses?

Coton Hill Allotments – Winding down

5 May

My last visit to the allotments to take photographs was on 26th October 2012.  I didn’t manage to get to the site during most of the harvesting season, but there was still much produce still in evidence.  Some of the winter crops, like leeks and sprouts were also well under way.

It was also good to see that at least one of the bee hives in the neighbouring field had been salvaged.  The bee colony had not been in great condition but hopefully it will thrive.

It was a cool damp day, but the Autumn colours of the leaves were particularly vibrant this year.  Colourful chard leaves also brought some brightness to an otherwise quite sombre day.  There were plenty of mushrooms around in the adjacent fields.

Some people were hard at work just starting out on preparing their plot and putting up fencing ready for next year.

Coton Hill Allotments – it was all worth it

3 May

By 21st July, the site looked fully established.  Another 15 plots had been created and were being prepared, albeit quite late in the growing season.  It was quite astonishing how mature the allotments appeared, as if they had been ongoing for some years.  There was a general relaxed air of satisfaction about the place.

Most of the plots already had plenty of vegetable produce.  One lady was watering her magnificent crop of cabbages and she allowed me to take her portrait with them, albeit that our conversation was somewhat limited by our different languages.

It was quite a warm balmy late afternoon, and it was just the time I had imagined way back when the project started – a late summer’s afternoon when one could relax after working on the plot, have a drink and may be enjoy a barbecue.  I could see that one or two folk had already tried out this particular blissful experience, but there were no barbecues on the day during my visit, so I missed out on that photo opportunity unfortunately.


Coton Hill Allotments – Summer?

24 Jun

It was a beautiful warm sunny morning when I visited in May.  After the warm weather in March, its been mainly wet and unsettled.  But there’s always a plus side for allotmenteers, as that means we don’t have to keep visiting the plot just to water the plants.

For me two of the key signifiers of an allotment are sheds and bean pole supports.  And they are certainly well and truly established at Coton Hill.  I’m fascinated by the character and care that goes into these constructions.

Most of the plots look immaculately well tended, whilst some begin to show signs of the torment of the owners’ struggle against weeds.  But I was delighted to see radishes being harvested in abundance.

Coton Hill Allotments – Open…its official!

15 Jun

I attended the official opening event on Saturday 21st April.  Thankfully the showery weather held off, just long enough for speeches of thanks and congratulations from Simon Howard, Lady Berwick and Cllr Andrew Bannerman.  The sun shone, and there was a tangible feeling of celebration of all the hard work, and relief at getting this far.

Most of the plots are now well developed in terms of fencing, sheds and other infrastructure, and plants are flourishing.

I left just as the hail showers started up again.

Coton Hill Allotments – And so it grows…

27 Mar

Suddenly with an incredible spell of warm, almost Summer-like weather at the end of March, the allotment has become an industrious place.  Its a busy time of year, but I managed to make a visit to the site early on 23rd March. 

I had a chat with the enthusiastic Martin Howard, who has done most of the work in developing the site.  He was continuing to work on the fencing and gates along the northern edge, having completed the work on the main entrance gates at the bottom of the access track.  He was awaiting further instructions on proceeding with the water connection to be made from the Berwick Estate. 

The most striking thing for me, was to see not only the immediate impact people have made on their respective plots, but the diversity of their approach.  As vegetation is not yet well established, the most obvious impact was the new sheds, greenhouses, cloches and other various structures.  Hard landscaping.  The idiosyncratic use of found and reclaimed materials is already evident, in addition to some brand new materials.

Some folk have gone for weed control and mulching – I fear the nettles will bite back.  Others have gone straight for digging and improving the soil.  Several of the plots have impressively neat rows of potatoes planted.  There is already a wide variety of vegetables and fruit bushes.  The most powerful signs of Spring were the few heads of rhubarb bursting out of the soil with an almost palpable energy.

The buds are emerging on the surrounding trees and the battle over territory with the rabbits goes on…

Coton Hill Allotments – Wintry reminder

15 Mar

So the day after our sunny visit to see the newly created plots (albeit interspersed with some fairly nasty hailstorms) I awoke on the 19th February to find a sprinkling of snow on the ground.  I rushed out to see the site and take some shots, and the snow was melting all around as I worked.  The sun came out and its was a beautiful crystal clear morning.

I exchanged a brief hello with Matt, walking his dog – thinking back, it seems like I have seen him on nearly every visit I’ve  made and I’m wondering just how much time he spends out here.  I can understand why anyone would want to be out walking in this landscape though.

I saw the first shoots coming through around the edge of the site, almost as a defiant thrust against the snow.  A clear sign that Spring is on the way, and it will be a race against time and weeds for the allotmenteers to get their seedlings on the go and then into the ground.  But not just yet, if this cold weather is anything to go by.

With the snow on the ground it was also all too evident just how much rabbit activity there is on the site.  Tell tale footprints led the way to burrows up to the north east corner of the site, and all around.  These mixed with bird footprints and the tyre prints of machines used to prepare the ground.

Once more I marvelled at the sculptural hedgerows intertwined with corrugated and wire fencing, gnarled trees, twisted branches and rabbit burrows.  There are some wonderful shapes, textures and details here, and it would be great to preserve the character of these.  I know that there are plans to lay the hedges, initially on the north side, and this will look good too, and will be a good way to set and manage the form of the site into the future.  But it would be a shame to lose all of the feel of the ancient landscape too.

Coton Hill Allotments – Lots of Plots

11 Mar

The day arrived when the ground was prepared, rotovated and marked out for 33 plots.  Prospective allotment holders were invited along to the Woodman pub to find out more and sign up for a plot on Saturday 18th February 2012.  

I went along and had a chat with most of the people there, and heard about their different plans for planting and growing.  Afterwards we had a wander along to the site.  There was a genuine sense of excitement.  Some folk, like Ron and Phil have played a huge part in preparing the site so far, and I can see that the other committee members and various friends and colleagues have put in a lot of hard work.  Other folk were just keen to take part in growing for themselves and there was a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation from the less experienced, and some general concern about how to combat the large rabbit population on and around the site.

I guess for an allotment site in current times, this is a relatively unique opportunity for a community to take ownership of a project and start out on it together.  So the sense of community can develop from the start.  For me starting out on an already established allotment at Castlefields, there was not such an immediate sense of belonging, although Julie and I have since got to know all our neighbours and various other folk on the site.  Sharing of ideas, tips, spare seedlings and produce is part and parcel of allotment life, and there was much conversation on the subject already.

Coton Hill Allotments – Making an Impact

13 Feb

By the time of my visit at the end of January, I could see a huge amount of progress even though there were not any plots quite ready yet.

The site when it was taken on was overgrown with nettles, and there were several trees and hedges that needed cutting back quite severely.  Some of the old tree were taken out, as they were not in great condition anyway.

A more difficult task was the dismantling and clearance of a dilapidated shed structure, which had some bonded asbestos sheeting.  This then required the lower area of the site to be carefully examined and scanned for other asbestos.  Simon and a fellow colleague from an environmental and engineering consultancy, based in Shrewsbury, undertook this work with great professionalism, and carefully bagged up the collected materials for appropriate disposal. 

In order to get the site underway, there needed to be some basic infrastructure.  So a water pipe was brought to the lower part of the site, an access road was constructed down a fairly steep old track using brick rubble, and new fencing/hedges were put up around the boundaries.

Finally, a community shed was erected on a concrete slab foundation.

Coton Hill Allotments – the little details

9 Feb

I spent the first visit wandering around the site noticing so many details of insects, vegetation, old rusty debris and I was most fascinated by the ancient lichens on the old fruit trees.  I took some macro photos, but difficult to get good shots without a tripod – something for a later visit.

On later visits I saw more of the signs of animal activity, such as hazelnut shells left by squirrels, stripped corn cobs amongst straw, and birds’ nests.

I’m also always drawn to the little signs of human activity, such as the rusty gates tied up with rope, shed doors, corroded corrugated sheets and barbed wire.  Given the site’s historical use as an allotment, it will be interesting to see what ancient objects turn up as the earth is dug open once again.

The allotment even when new, will surely be populated with found and adapted tools and other objects.  I like the ramshackle dishevelment of allotments, which on closer inspection reveal many layers of creativity, ingenuity, humour and general thrift.