For the past four years, a war has been waging amid the runner beans, water butts and compost heaps of the 160-plot Pointalls Allotments in Finchley, North London.
It has been bitter, extremely expensive and, some might say, utterly ridiculous.
It has also involved everything from ‘murderous thoughts’, ‘wild eyes, flared nostrils and clenched fists’, to the desecration of prize lilies, bullying, the threat of bulldozers and — whisper it — the bête noire for all allotment holders, allegations of non-cultivation.
On one side is a handful of members of the board of directors of Pointalls Allotments Ltd who enjoy order, organisation and the heady rush of power, perhaps more than the simple joys of horticulture.
On the other are social worker Elsie Price, 71, and her husband Wayne Armsby, 70, who were accused by the board of antisocial behaviour and using the plot as an extension of their land, and have now spent £110,000 in legal fees to clear their name so they can keep the double plot they’ve cultivated for the past two decades.
Yes, £110,000! To hang onto a couple of allotments that they rent for £150 each a year and will never, ever own — however nice they’ve made them by planting trees, digging ponds, transforming a waste mound into a raised pumpkin patch and building a comfy seating area.
For the past four years, social worker Elsie Price, 71, and her husband Wayne Armsby, 70, (pictured) have been at war with a handful of members of the board of directors of Pointalls Allotments Ltd in Finchley, north London
‘We never expected it to cost so much — or that we could somehow find this sort of money. It’s a lot.’
A lot? It’s a fortune! And, sadly, one which includes Elsie’s entire pension pot, most of their savings, Wayne’s inheritance from his elderly mother and, by their calculations, about £20,000 donated by supporters at the sprawling site.
‘We could have done a lot with that money,’ says Elsie. ‘There’s so much work we need to do on the house. It was derelict when we moved in 15 years ago and it’s a 30-year project.’
They also haven’t had a holiday for years, live mostly on sandwiches and Elsie has recently returned to work to help make ends meet.
So it must be particularly galling that, despite triumphing on a point of law at appeal at the Central London county court, it could all be for nothing.
Because Pointalls Allotments Ltd also served them with a separate eviction notice, under a different law, which takes precedence and should have seen them thrown off the site at 4pm yesterday.
The couple were accused by the board of antisocial behaviour and using the plot as an extension of their land – and have now spent £110,000 in legal fees to clear their name so they can keep the double plot they’ve cultivated for the past two decades
When we met on Thursday, Elsie and Wayne were still pinning their hopes on a last-minute appeal they had lodged that morning to temporarily halt the eviction — just in case they hadn’t spent enough time and money on this silliest of spats.
There was rousing talk of a sit-in with wine (‘if ever there was a reason to break a Dry January, then this is it’ says Elsie), supporters, snacks, bunting and garden chairs if, and when, the bulldozers arrived to flatten their plot.
‘We will never give up. We’ll take it to the very end — to the wire,’ says Wayne. ‘We can’t give up now. We’ll never, ever, give up.’
Elsie warms to the theme. ‘It’s the principle, we’re not antisocial. They’re bullies,’ she says. ‘We’re not going. This is our allotment.’
Sadly, though, it might all be out of their hands.
But Ruth Hendrick, Treasurer of Pointalls Allotments Ltd, is in the other camp.
‘They never treated it as an allotment,’ says Ruth. ‘It was their garden!’
What a mess. But, more importantly, how on earth did a dispute over two rather scrubby-looking allotments escalate to such ridiculous proportions? The County Court trial documents alone ran to more than 1,200 pages.
For Wayne and Elsie, the love affair with allotments started back in 1998 when they bought a derelict house backing onto the Pointalls site.
‘Back then, allotments weren’t trendy like they are now,’ he says. ‘There was no waiting list and any number of plots up for grabs.’
So the club secretary was a bit surprised when instead of a ready cultivated one, Wayne chose an overgrown slab in the far corner.
‘It had been used as a dumping ground for the whole site for about 20 years,’ he says.
It took him months to clear up all the waste and whip it into any sort of shape. But it was worth it, because it backed directly onto his property. Soon, he was accessing it directly via a door from his own outhouse.
‘It was a total joy,’ he says. ‘I would come over here and it didn’t matter what was happening in the world, it just all fell away. I’d lived in flats and was sort of transient; I’d never had a garden before.’
Which is perhaps why, over the next few years, he and Elsie adopted a more freestyle approach to their allotment than the traditional sharp-edged beds and regimented runner bean stands.
Yes, they planted fruit trees, and grew everything from sunflowers to sweet corn, potatoes to artichokes.
It’s the principle, we’re not antisocial. They’re bullies. We’re not going. This is our allotment.’
‘And I had a lovely show of dahlias last year,’ says Elsie.
But they also developed a large lawned area, attached sheds to the back of their property, dug two ponds, constructed a large, moon-shape sculpture out of garden waste and built a sitting area with an old sofa and benches, where they’d relax in the evenings and socialise with fellow allotmenteers and other friends — all accessed directly from their home.
Even at this time of year — on an icy January day — you can see the charm, the appeal, the 50-odd trees Wayne has planted at his own cost in the vicinity, and why they would want to hang onto it. Not least because their own garden was a mass of sheds and outbuildings.
You can also see why it might have annoyed some of the traditional allotment holders.
In particular, those in charge of enforcing the site terms and conditions that say plots must ‘wholly or mainly’ be used for growing fruit and vegetables and warn that those failing to comply with the regulations ‘risk losing their plots’.
Which, in turn, would be great news for the 80-odd people sitting patiently on Pointalls’ waiting list for vacant allotments, usually dished out at a rate of about six a year.
The rumblings and grumblings really started in early 2017, when the newish board of directors first took issue with the lack of cultivation on Elsie and Wayne’s site and insisted they took remedial measures.
To be fair, they did make the requested changes — levelled the top of the mound to plant pumpkins, took down the illegal structures, got rid of the moon and carved out more growing areas.
But relations were soured and, ever since, both sides have been mired in a sorry slurry of acrimony, allegations and accusations.
Elsie and Wayne are still brimming with furious allegations of trespass, the misuse of proxy votes, secret ‘sub-committee meetings’, bullying and dictatorial behaviour.
‘They also flattened our magnificent yellow irises without warning when they dumped a metal grid on our ponds ‘for health and safety reasons,’ says Wayne.
Meanwhile, the board accused him of ‘staring’ at them in a threatening way. ‘He’s there all the time standing on his roof, staring at people,’ says Ruth.
In one incident in 2019, Wayne allegedly prevented access to the allotments’ communal area. ‘Of concern was his demeanour; raging, wild eyes, flared nostrils and clenched fists. Our personal safety was under threat,’ wrote director Derek McMaster in his trial witness statement.
And when Elsie completely lost it at the 2019 AGM, she was accused of antisocial actions.
Allotments are supposed to be places of solace and sanctuary, where members can dig and hoe, spend happy hours discussing the merits of brassicas and pink fir apple sets, and blot out the stresses of everyday life. (File photo)
‘She put her face two feet way from mine screaming I was a liar, repeatedly!’ says Ruth.
After that, it was war.
Elsie and Wayne seem a very gentle — if rather fragile — couple when I meet them. But they were given a month’s notice to quit. And when mediation failed soon afterwards, they issued legal proceedings.
‘We couldn’t believe it. For an allotment!’ says Ruth.
‘If anyone had told us then how this was going to escalate, I don’t think we would have believed them.’
It does seem completely bananas. It would be funny if it wasn’t so desperately sad.
The Pointon Allotments war has taken its toll all round, and not just financially.
‘It has caused stress. Huge stress,’ says Wayne.
‘I’ve been taking anti-anxiety medication since 2019, because I started having heart palpitations and murderous thoughts, which is not at all me.’
Naturally, Elsie has been worried sick. ‘I had to ask the board not to write to him — to copy it all to me — because he couldn’t take it. I’ve been so, so worried.’
The board have struggled, too. ‘I wish I had never got involved in the allotment society,’ says Ruth.
‘I persuaded my husband to join and it’s dragged us both into the mire. I used to grow lots of blueberries and strawberries, but I don’t even enjoy my allotment any more.’
Meanwhile, Elsie and Wayne’s financial situation is increasingly precarious. ‘We’re not totally broke yet,’ says Wayne. ‘But it’s starting to get very hard to justify. We’ve used up pretty much all of our savings.’
Perhaps the truly astonishing thing is that the judge didn’t send them all packing.
Instead, they all dug themselves deeper and deeper, wasting a colossal amount of money.
And yes, it goes without saying that their emergency appeal on Thursday was successful.
So, at the 11th hour, they won a seven-day extension, cannot be evicted — not this week, anyway — and the whole thing grinds on, and on.
Which is, of course, great news for Elsie and Wayne, but to what end?
Because, of course, the really daft thing in all this is that allotments are supposed to be places of solace and sanctuary, where members can dig and hoe, spend happy hours discussing the merits of brassicas and pink fir apple sets, and blot out the stresses of everyday life.
Not at Pointalls Allotments, sadly. Not now, not in the immediate future.
Perhaps never again.
Certainly not until this lot can see a bit of sense.