Pub allotments: The Good Life

By Katie Coyne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Shepherd neame Public house Tomato

The idea of growing your own fruit and veg seems to conjure up surprisingly poignant memories for people. There's the historic collective memory of...

The idea of growing your own fruit and veg seems to conjure up surprisingly poignant memories for people.


There's the historic collective memory of the Dig for Victory campaign during the Second World War - which you don't have to have lived through, just a childhood visit to the Imperial War Museum will suffice.


But then there are the more personal episodes. I remember helping my granddad collect runner beans in the back garden and then as an adult looking forward to eating the miniature squashes picked from my big sister's allotment.


And it was fond childhood memories that spurred Michael Buurman, landlord of the Duke of Sussex in Acton Green, West London, to get into the growing game.


"I remember helping my dad on his allotment and I've always fancied having my own plot ever since," he says.


Last year, he grew cherry tomatoes in the pub garden but they never ended up on the plate as customers picked them off the vine and ate them as they ripened. This year, Buurman has learnt his lesson and is growing tomatoes in his allotment. Having a tasty tomato crop will be a great addition he says, particularly as he doesn't think much of the watery specimens available in the UK.


"Being able to chop fresh, tasty tomatoes into a salad makes a real difference," says Buurman. Other crops that will supplement the pub's veg supply include Swiss chard and courgettes. And he is also growing peonies for decoration.


However, the garden at the Duke of Sussex - part of the Realpubs group - is already liberally scattered with wine boxes overflowing with tarragon, oregano, mint, sage and thyme.


"We grow enough for everything we do, except parsley. We'd need to grow a field of parsley, the amount we get through," says Buurman.


The pub is very into using "fresh" ingredients and a key component of its summer elderflower cooler drink - elderflowers - are collected from a field across the road.


However, being a popular foodie pub, there is no way that the quantities of veg grown on Buurman's allotment will make much of a dent in supplies.


"It probably will save us a few quid," he says, "But I just think it's a nice thing to do."


Donated space


It seems allotments also bring out the best in people. Shepherd Neame, for instance, has generously donated a three acre site to its local community in Knockholt, Kent, to be turned into 32 allotments.


Resident Doreen Jones wrote to Shepherd Neame to propose the idea and the brewery responded to her letter in the affirmative overnight. The allotment was opened earlier this month by local boy and presenter of Channel 4's gardening show Landscape Man, Matthew Wilson.


One of the plots has gone to Martin Leman - tenant and landlord of Shepherd Neame pub the Harrow Inn. Leman plans to grow vegetables and flowers for his gastro pub - but will focus on flowers as they are expensive to source.


"Maybe one day we will get plenty of stuff," says Wilson, who is taking a long-term, "realistic" view on the project, envisaging being able to use produce from the allotment in a couple of years' time.


Land round the well


And Shepherd Neame is not the only industry business going all green fingered. St Austell Brewery is leasing the land that its private well - water drawn from it is used in all its beers - sits on to be turned into six allotments. The rationale behind the move was that while the land can't be built on because it's home to the brewery's water source, it is a very fertile patch and would be ideal to grow on.


But that's not all: one of St Austell's pubs, the Falmouth Arms in Ladock, Cornwall, is supporting a new allotment plot opposite it by agreeing to buy veg from the site. And new tenants at the Polgooth Inn in St Austell - another one of the brewery's pubs - plan to link up with a local primary school to grow the veg for their school dinners.


A similar project already under way is taking place at the Eagles Hotel freehouse in Corwen, Wales. Husband and wife team Keith and Lesley Hughes are massive fans of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage on Channel 4. They were inspired by the show's 'grow your own' message and acutely aware that a small patch of land at the bottom of their pub garden lay unused.


So when a Pub is the Hub letter dropped through the letter box one-day offering them the opportunity to apply for a grant they jumped at the chance.


They have used the money to transform their patch of unloved land into a community allotment that will help teach local kids about healthy eating and the journey from seed to plate. The pupils get involved in planting as well as fence painting and other maintenance.


"We're growing all types of different veg - tomatoes, cucumbers - and strawberries," says Keith. The garden also has an out-house for use during the week by local groups - like the knitting club - and as a community café at the weekend.




So why are allotments so popular?


Is there something about times of austerity that unleash the gardener in us all?


Liz McInally from the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners agrees that recent increases in demand have coincided with the recession but argues that allotments have always been popular.


So much so that her organisation has been campaigning for some time to get councils to create more allotments for residents.


"We are pushing local authorities to compulsory purchase - the land is there, it's just not being used," says McInally. She adds that as you don't need planning permission to turn ground over to agricultural use, the process is relatively straightforward.


The Marlborough Tavern in Bath actually backs onto allotment land and proprietor Joe Cussens looks out at it every day enviously.


Allotment land is not supposed to be used for commercial gain and only surplus amounts of produce can be sold. So pubs - including his own - are usually prevented from having their own plot, although licensees can, and do, lease them as individuals.


"We have looked into having an allotment there because it would be great obviously," says Joe. "But you can kind of understand why we can't - they are there for householders."


Customers do occasionally "throw" some produce Joe's way, which he eagerly accepts. But most of the time he has to make do with growing herbs and veg on the pub's flat roof. And while this might not quite fulfil his ambitions it is a "nice little feature".


He adds: "It's a talking point seeing the chefs out on the roof."


Produce grown on the top of the pub includes artichokes, beetroot, rocket, radish, mint, sage, coriander, parsley, oregano - so it's amazing what you can do with even a small amount of space.


Joe says the venture means the Marlborough Tavern always has fresh mint for its Pimm's and mojitos, which it "really gets through" in the summer months.


He adds that they even have some, "very nice, but currently rather small strawberries".


Allotments are cheap to rent so pubs and breweries aren't going to make a lot of money out of them. And while growing your own produce can be deeply satisfying it won't save huge amounts either. Yet it can provide a talking point, impress your customers and help forge closer links with - and hopefully inspire loyalty from - your local community.

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