It might seem like a genteel pursuit, pottering around and growing your own veg in what the less horticulturally-minded think of as a glorified garden, but the reality of allotments is that they are last vestige of commoners rights, the one compromise that the politicians made as the enclosures act systematically placed the bounty of the land in to the pockets of the landowners.
Way back in Anglo-Saxon times the concept of common land was part and parcel of the old feudal system, and while the landowners still owned the land the commoners had rights to grow crops on an allotted strip of land, graze their animals on common land, cut hay from meadows and collect firewood for winter. While not the epitome of an equal society by any measure, it went some way to redress the balance given that the land which once was owned by no-one had been claimed by the aristocracy.
Enclosure in some limited form began very shortly after the Norman conquest in 1066, but it wasn't really until the 1700s that it became a nationwide project to enclose any land of agricultural value in to the wall-to-wall farms that dominate our landscape today. This effectively meant that in order to feed their families everyone had to buy all their food rather than grow it themselves and of course the ones making the money here were the landowners and farmers who had taken away their rights to the land in the first place. You can see why the peasants were revolting, it would make anyone cross. There are many similar things happening today that still make me cross as anyone unfortunate enough to follow me on twitter will know all too well.
Allotments are first recorded in something like their modern form at around this time. They tended to be in rural areas and occupied some of the less productive ground or odd shaped corners of fields. My very own allotment is located in one such odd shaped corner of a farm field. These were allocated to the revolting peasants in an attempt to get them back working in the fields although the size was much reduced in order that the men who took them wouldn't be too tired to work for the farms! Urban allotments were introduced through the 1800s and became essential in the war efforts as a way of keeping Britain going with no square inch left uncultivated. The popularity of allotments has always waxed and waned with the times depending on how much people needed them and the next big surge was in the 1970s when people were attracted to the idea of organic food and having a go at self-sufficiency inspired by the TV show "The Good Life".
Maybe there is a grain of truth to the suggestion that many allotmenteers are just middle-class people playing at growing their own inspired by Tom and Barbara Good, but if you take a trip to any allotments you'll find traditional old-skool gardeners who have neatly mown grass paths and vegetables grown in rows of military precision right next door to people experimenting with new approaches like 'no-dig gardening' and permaculture forest gardens. You'll see members of almost every class in our supposedly classless society and people from every possible ethnic background growing the food they want to eat. And that's the point. That's where the politics comes back in to it, we're all growing food that we want to eat, on our own terms, not on the terms of the supermarkets. We're not playing the game and by denying the land-owners who ripped our ancestors off back at the time of Enclosure their cut of our weekly food bill we're on some level saying that we still haven't forgiven them for a dreadful period of history. It won't start the revolution, but it will get you outdoors, exercising and increase your knowledge about what you eat.
Allotments are still enshrined in law and if your local authority doesn't provide one, you have the right to get together with five other potential plot holders and demand that they provide one. Section 23 of the 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act states that local authorities have a mandatory obligation to provide one if it is required (although not in London unfortunately). In a time when it feels like our rights as commoners are once again under threat, it would be good to hold on to the few land rights we still have.