A piece of green in the city
27th April 2020
When Wanda Mayer feels depressed or anxious she knows it’s time to visit the place she calls her “haven” – an allotment just 1.5 kilometres from Nottingham’s city centre.
“I can be really down, but if I come up here and do something my mood changes,” she says. “My mum has to push me to come sometimes, but it always helps.”
Wanda’s sanctuary is part of St Ann’s Allotments, a 75-acre site believed to be the largest inner-city allotments in Western Europe. Unlike more conventional allotments the plots at St Ann’s are large – about 420 square metres on average – and hidden away behind high hedges and walls.
The quiet seclusion of Wanda’s patch of land is one of the reasons she loves it. “It allows me to socialise, but to do it on my terms,” she says. “Rather than an open allotment it gives you a private space. For the first three years I only talked to a couple of people, but now I bump into other gardeners and chat to them.”
Now, in her fifth growing year, her confidence and self-esteem is blooming alongside her vegetables, fruit and herbs. Her Instagram account, Wanda’s Allotment Haven, is attracting a growing audience and her neighbours in St Ann’s are benefitting from a steady supply of fresh produce. The runner beans are particularly popular and a newly arrived African family has asked her for pumpkin leaves.
“I live right in the middle of St Ann’s where everyone’s out in their gardens and there’s ten different types of music being played,” she says. “Here it’s calm and peaceful. It gives me something to look forward to.”
About 560 of the 670 plots at St Ann’s are let to gardeners, the rest are considered unlettable or given over to nature as designated wildlife spaces. More than 40 species of birds have been spotted on the site as well as newts, bats, foxes and voles.
As well as gardeners, the allotments attract architecture students thanks to the collection of 19th century summerhouses, sheds and glasshouses scattered across the site. The buildings are a reminder that the land was once home to Victorian pleasure gardens where Nottingham’s middle classes would grow roses and sip tea.
The fact that the St Ann’s allotments are thriving is partly due to funding from The National Lottery. Thirty years ago they were almost derelict. Fly tippers used the site to dump everything from old fridges to toxic chemicals and the bunch of hardy gardeners who continued to grow food there often felt unsafe.
Site and Tenancy Manager Nicola Hinton says a consortium called the Renewal Trust was formed in 2000 with the aim of conserving and restoring the site. “They started doing research in to the site and realised there is an incredible history here,” she says. “It’s a special place.”
In 2008, the Renewal Trust was awarded $4.5m by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a massive restoration project got underway. Fourteen hedge-lined avenues and several car parks were built to allow gardeners to move across the vast site. A borehole was sunk to replace the mains water supply, some of the more significant heritage buildings were restored and the site’s security was upgraded with fencing and electric gates.
Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.
“£4.5m is a lot of money,” says Nicola. “But if you looked at pictures of the site before restoration you’d realise the extraordinary amount of work that has gone into it.”
As well as the plots used by gardeners, St Ann’s is home to six community gardens and an orchard where visitors can tend plants or simply enjoy a green space.
Artist Valerie Turton has had an allotment at St Ann’s for just over three years. She has built a small studio on her plot and shares the space with other artists who make work or simply enjoy sitting in the shade of a tree and chatting. She describes the allotments as a “unique place – mostly because of the people and the history”.
Valerie says she was quickly embraced by the St Ann’s community of gardeners – “honest, good people who will do what they need to help you. People are very generous with their knowledge.”
The long waiting list for a St Ann’s allotment is evidence the restoration has been a huge success, says Nicola. But the Renewal Trust knows it cannot afford to be complacent about the future. A new project that aims to protect and enhance the work done to date is being funded by a £67,300 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Wanda can’t imagine relinquishing her ‘haven’. “Just putting my name down on the list for an allotment was quite a big step for me - I asked my niece to come with me because it was a big deal,” she says. “But I’m so glad I did.”