In planting their own vegetables on St Georges Hill in Surrey in 1649, the Diggers were taking a stand against a system of enclosure which, although then relatively new, would go on to define land and labour rights in modern Europe for the next 400 years…
As I have started work on my own vegetable patch in my back garden in Lewisham, I have found myself encountering urban green spaces rather differently. With my head full of soil types, sunlight-hours, tilling and de-weeding, I’ve been unable to resist approaching public parks, gardens and (currently disused) playing fields not only in terms of ownership or rights but opportunity, too. Imagining the alternatives, the possibilities of what could be done here, on this land and in these surroundings. Projecting different visions onto these spaces, reinterpreting their potential uses and exploring the forces at play in what appear to be little more than empty lawns. We might not see it at first, but there is a certain power here, stored in the earth, held just out of reach. The Diggers saw it, and in their opposition to enclosure during the English Civil War they set up farming as a principal factor of any revolution in land rights.
What follows, then, is a sort of hypothetical proposal, a nonlinear reasoning for the transformation of an open space into something very different; namely, public allotments. Without getting too bogged down in specific bureaucratic interactions and negotiations (although those are indeed the very indexes of legal spatial boundaries), I want to speculate on new frontiers within the city, a fostering of a communal space which in turn encourages the quietly radical, noncommodified production of food.
Originally conceived as little more than a power grab in the face of peasant revolt, the enclosure of the commons in the middle ages enforced principles of private property and ownership that still govern our everyday interactions with land. In their construction (or indeed ‘invention’) of fencing around large plots of land, English landlords denied the peasantry access to the commons, and in doing so managed to reshape our relationship with farming, food production and space. The commons were commodified, became owned, the property of a landlord who could punish you for trespassing. It was he, and he alone, who granted you the privilege of access to it and the labour wages it offered.
Over the past decade, a kind of folk revival has been taking place in Britain. Similar to that of the 1970s (The Wicker Man, Children of the Stones, the Canterbury Scene), popular interest in our pagan heritage has skyrocketed in film, art and cultural discourse. Much of it made accessible via social media such as Instagram (@weird_walk, @folk_pile), it has provided creatives, leftists and young people with an alternative British history to get excited about – none more so than Zakia Sewell in her recent podcast My Albion. Herself the granddaughter of both Welsh and Carriacouan grandparents, Sewell confronts the enforced construction of “Britain” head on, critically addressing historical narratives and looking rather to the Celtic “Albion” for a nation less tainted by colonialism and more sympathetic to non-capitalist societal structures. This is, of course, partly metaphorical, but in this loose mysticism there is a certain hopefulness, an optimistic image of what Britain could be if it was to embrace something other than expansionism as its core success story.
The Angelus is a mid-nineteenth century painting by Jean-François Millet, and depicts two farm labourers finishing their day’s work with a prayer, as the church bell rings in the steeple on the horizon. Embraced by the French Catholic peasantry, engravings of the painting were hung up in homes across the country, the reproductions themselves reminiscent of the pervasive nature of the church in rural agricultural communities. Its original title, however, was Prayer For The Potato Crop, and didn’t feature a church in the background. The tower was added later, and when we remove it from the painting, as I have done below, we immediately find ourselves in a very different scene. Whilst previously, the Church’s presence (with both a big and small “C”) implied an overbearing cultural force, one which apparently demands to be served through labour and punctuated by timed prayer, its absence now suggests an internalised form of faith, of spontaneous action and ritual, and a power of the peasants over what could now potentially be their land. Their actions are exactly the same, the figures haven’t moved, but they are praying by themselves now, for their crops and their livelihood. When the church is removed, the painting doesn’t fall apart, the farmers don’t abandon their work, they’re just doing it for different reasons. In which case, I put forward The Angelus as a potential symbol for self-sufficient farming, a theatrical imagining of what might happen if we are left to organise ourselves. The sentiment could be construed as anarchic, but this new image doesn’t portray any of the chaotic energy that is usually associated with anarchy.
Since their peak in the 1950s, total UK land used for allotments has dropped by 79%, from 475 hectares to 97 in 2019 (Edmondson et al., 2020), and the average waiting time for a plot is currently 6-8 months (The Guardian, 2020) – in Lewisham, this can stretch from 18 months to nine years. It’s clear that more are needed to have any impact on local or national economies, but where do we go to make these new spaces? In my notes, I have returned time and again to Goldsmiths’ green. Located behind the Richard Hoggart Building, and mostly disused throughout the year, the ‘College Green’ is accessible, gets plenty of sunlight, and is large enough to contain a variety of possible allotment styles. Although a plan to convert it wouldn’t get past the Senior Management Team anytime soon, I’ve used the space as a basic example with which to map out potential layouts. Combined with my own veg-growing efforts, it’s not exactly radical resistance – far from it – but I’ve taken to this imagined processing as an exercise in planning alternative forms of food production, and in doing so have realised the possibilities available to us.