CHRISTINE Bentley put it simply when she said: “You take a big deep breath and start digging.”

The allotment holder at Pickards Field off Pinehurst Road is one of hundreds of people who have experienced the benefits of having access to such a facility during the coronavirus pandemic.

Figures released earlier this month by the National Allotment Society show applications for council-run allotments in England have soared over the last five months.

According to NAS, 40 per cent of councils in England that responded to a survey reported an increase in applications to join waiting lists during April. It also reported a 45 per cent increase in requests for information through its website.

“There are all sorts of benefits which having an allotment brought during the lockdown,” said Christine, who lives on Collet Avenue and has had her allotment for 18 months.

“It gives you an outlet. You can go down there and dig, plant, do whatever you want to do.

“You do what you plan to do and what you know needs doing, often because of the month of the year.

“This helped keep a sense of normality for people. It made it easier to deal with lockdown, because you knew you could go down to the allotment and plant or clear an area or prepare it for next month, even when you couldn’t go out and do other things.

Christine is a member of the Swindon Allotment and Leisure Garden Association and also runs its shop.

The organisation has seen a 30 per cent increase in new members since the start of the year.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest from people over the last few months,” said Susan Stevens, secretary of SALGA. “People are contacting us online or coming down to the shop.

“We’ve had 60 new members since the start of this year, which is wonderful,” she said.

“And the takings on the shop are up about 50 per cent for the same time last year too.”

SALGA runs a members shop from a container at Pickards Field.

“ Of course we were open when the garden centres were closed and you have to be a member to use it because we don’t have a normal trading licence. But it is indicative of the kind of interest we’re seeing in the allotments,” Susan added.

Even at the height of lockdown, the plots remained open to the public

“It’s easy to maintain social distancing on an allotment,” said Susan. “And people bring their own equipment so we don’t have to worry about cleaning anything.

“Allotments, even though they’re in the middle of town, always seem to be quiet and peaceful and there tends to be quite a bit of wildlife on them. I think it’s just a little peaceful haven to go to, and when you’re on your allotment you can forget about all the bad stuff that’s going on outside.

“It’s so good for your mental health,” she added.

“Having a place you can go where there aren’t loads of people, which is outside of your usual four walls at home, has a huge impact on your mental health and wellbeing.

"When you're at home, even if you only have the radio you have the news every hour and it can be quite depressing. It gives you an opportunity to move away from it."

Christine added: “Growing things gives you an enormous sense of achievement.

“You can go down to your allotment at any time of the day. You can grow things, you can experiment you can try things you’ve never grown before. Or you can just grow the basic stuff and appreciate it when you pull it out.”

The keen gardener said she isn’t actually a big fan of vegetables but likes to share produce with her neighbours.

She said: “Ironically I’m not a big veggie lover. There are some specifics that I really enjoy but a lot of what I grow I don’t like. It is true though that when you grow something you really appreciate it and when you taste it fresh out of the ground it’s always that bit different. It just tastes better.”

Susan also grows flowers and has a fruit section on her allotment.

“It’s just so tranquil up at Pickards,” she added.

“It backs on to the northern roads fields so you’ve got all that lovely countryside in the middle of the town, with fresh air and plenty of space.

“It’s so restful and I defy anybody with that sort of atmosphere to be grumpy or miserable or tense there. It’s a place to get away from all the worry over the virus.”

"They really were a lifeline for people during lockdown"

PARISH councils are responsible for all allotment sites in our town.

Central Swindon North Parish Council alone manages 10 different sites within its boundary, comprising over 700 plots available for hire.

Pickards Field allotments off Pinehurst Road has more than 200 allotments, making it the biggest site in Swindon.

Estates manager Andrew Briggs said: “Covid-19 has resulted in a boost of interest from people in the allotments.

"Whether it’s indirectly or directly linked to it, we’ve certainly seen an increase in demand.”

The council decided to keep the allotments open to tenants, although it did restrict new people letting plots from March.

“We’ve now reopened this since July and we’ve been working our way back through the waiting lists,” said Andrew.

“We knew the importance of the allotments to the people who use them and obviously the negative impact it would have had if we had closed them on tenants. Hundreds of people make use of them on a daily basis and it really was a lifeline to some of them during the height of the lockdown.

“They provide physical, social and mental stimulation to people,” Andrew added.

“It’s been announced recently there’s been a spike in the number of people suffering with depression.

"Something like allotments where people can also say hello to their neighbours while social distancing, and retain some normality has been hugely important for people,” he said.

SALGA looks to the future

SWINDON Allotment and Leisure Association has roots going back almost 60 years.

In 1962 a group of gardeners and allotment holders in the town got together to form a club intending to sell some seeds and bulbs amongst themselves.

The club quickly grew to 60 members, with it taking five days to put together seed orders.

Originally the group was known as the Swindon Allotment and Leisure Gardens Association but had to add the name Thamesdown due to local government reorganisation in 1974.

But in 1998 the club reverted back to the original name after the council became a unitary authority.

Membership peaked at around 800 in the late 1990s but now membership remains between 350-360.

“We’re always on the look out for new members,” said SALGA secretary Susan Stevens. “At the moment our membership is primarily older people, but we’re keen to attract younger generations too. Younger people are more aware of being environmentally friendly and are more keen on doing organic gardening.

“We’re selling a lot more organic things in our shop these days, like organic fertilisers and compost and hopefully that will cater for an attract new, younger members.”

The association has continued its monthly meetings via Zoom during lockdown, having met at Gorse Hill Community Centre before the coronavirus outbreak.

To join email