'Allotment vandalism is soul-destroying'
For many locals, Perrett’s Park Allotments have been a source of comfort and relaxation for years, not least through the last 11 months of repeated lockdowns.
By Charley Rogers
But the much-loved space has been compromised, with increasing instances of trespassing and vandalism, leaving allotment-holders with smashed greenhouses, ruined plants, and even a shed burned to the ground.
“It all started for me last winter,” says Tony Watkin, who has held an allotment at the site for over 20 years. “I bought myself a small polytunnel, and started to find cigarette butts, joint butts and chairs from other allotments left in there.” At first he “tried to be pragmatic,” explains Tony, but the trespassing has continued, and it has become a cause of anxiety. “I work in a challenging field, and I like to have the allotment as a place to relax – we all know it’s good for mental health. And it’s not just me, I’ve spoken to a number of other allotment-holders who are having the same kinds of feelings.”
Too afraid to tend plot
One allotment-holder, who chooses to remain anonymous, also noticed the vandalism and damage ramping up around a year ago. They say: “It started off with chairs and sweet wrappers, but it’s slowly gotten more sinister.” The trespassing has developed into “empty drugs bags and vodka bottles” left around, as well as a break-in to their greenhouse, they say. The increase in damaging behaviour means this allotment-holder’s partner, who shares the site, is now afraid to visit. “I’ve reported the issue to the police twice,” they say, “but nothing has happened.” They have also attempted to contact Bristol City Council, which manages the site, with no joy. “There isn’t an email address for the allotment office, and when I called them they said they couldn’t tell me anything because of GDPR.”
However, allotment-holders are grateful that the council has been able to keep the site open throughout the pandemic, says Tricia Ireland, site rep and fellow allotment-holder. “I want to put on record that we’re very grateful Bristol City Council has been able to keep the site open,” she says. “The allotment office does a lot of good things, and I don’t want that to get lost amidst the negativity.”
That being said, security at the site is a bit of a problem, says Tricia. “The railings aren’t very tall, and the trespassers are young and athletic – they have no problem getting over them,” she says, describing their movements as “gazelle-like”. Although it would be great to improve security by making railings higher, etc, Tricia acknowledges that this is “nigh-on impossible” due to the council having its budget and resources cut. “I’m aware there is a very small team at the allotments office, and they have a tremendous workload,” says Tricia, “so I realise improvements are difficult”.
As well as a lack of budget, there is little that realistically could be done to keep people out, Tricia reasons. “If people really want to break in, they’ll find a way.”
While acknowledging these restrictions, Tricia is also concerned about the impact of the vandalism on allotment-holders’ mental and physical health. “It’s making people feel uncomfortable, and some are even too scared to go to the allotments anymore,” she says. “We get so much out of the space – it’s so important for mental and physical health, and has been especially important throughout the pandemic.
“I was talking to someone the other day about the situation, and they commented that it’s such a shame because the allotments are a ‘sanctuary’, and that’s the perfect way to put it.” They are also often a quieter option for socially distanced meetings with friends, says Tricia, while parks are regularly overloaded. “My partner uses the allotment to meet friends, as they’re a safer option – it’s difficult to stay socially distanced in a park when they’re so packed.”
'Flouting the rules'
The steady increase of vandalism has caused some allotment-holders to take more drastic precautionary measures. One such person has installed steel bars on their potting-shed door after a bout of break-ins leaving items stolen or broken. “Things have escalated so much over the past year that I have considered giving up my allotment,” they say. “It all just became too stressful – not knowing what I was going to find on a Saturday morning.” The allotment-holder, who chooses to remain anonymous, has had seedlings destroyed, chairs ripped from their fixings in the shed, and valuable equipment stolen. “There’s having somewhere to hang out, and then there’s malicious violence. People have had greenhouses smashed and all sorts. It’s soul-destroying.”
The trespassers are also flouting Covid rules, the allotment-holder pointed out. “They’re going in and touching people’s stuff. It might sound dramatic, but in the current climate that could be dangerous.” The allotment-holder is also concerned that many elderly people use the space, and that the breaking of these rules could be particularly dangerous for those that are more vulnerable. “It’s also really satisfying to grow your own produce,” they say, “and the allotments have been a really important pastime for many people, especially throughout the pandemic. To just have all that work and peacefulness destroyed is awful.”
One of the most dramatic and devastating acts of vandalism recently has left allotment-holder Jane Gunning’s shed burned to the ground. “My old shed got blown down in a strong wind last year, and so for my 60th birthday this past September my dear brother built me a new one, made out of recycled materials,” she says. “He spent a couple of weeks building me this beautiful shed, and then on 12 December I got a phone call from a friend at the allotment to say it was on fire.” The shed was “totally destroyed,” says Jane, which not only was a blow for her relaxing allotment space, but for sentimental reasons, since the shed was a carefully crafted gift.
“Youngsters have been using my shed to hang out in for years,” says Jane, “and I like to think the fire wasn’t intentional. They smoke weed in there, so I suppose it’s possible that they left a joint burning or something – I like to think they didn’t do it on purpose, but I don’t know.”
Jane says she didn’t lock her shed, because she would let other allotment-holders use it if they wanted a dry place to sit and look over the beautiful views of Bristol the plot afforded, being positioned on top of the hill. “It had really beautiful views,” Jane says, “and I don’t have green fingers but I used to love going out there for some peace and quiet, for some me-time.” A retired social worker, Jane has found her allotment to be a “lifesaver” during stressful periods through the years.
Many allotment-holders are understanding about teenagers wanting somewhere to go, but it is the mindless vandalism and destruction that they’re most concerned about.
“Although my kids are grown-up now, I remember when they were teenagers,” says Jane, “and I know they want to have somewhere to go with their friends, but it’s just very, very sad”.
Bristol City Council and Somerset and Avon Police have been contacted for comment but no response had been received at the time of printing.