Gardening with common sense

Newcastle was one of the first industrial cities and is described as built on coal. Although its great steel ships travelled the world the noxious fallout from the coal smoke that formed them hasn't and continues to be a problem today. In Newcastle nobody is ready to accept the consequences of urban soil pollution and the state of denial is complete. The insidious damage to health by historic pollution is considerable, with gardeners and groundworkers in the front line. The healthy production of food in urban Newcastle is impossible, yet so many people try, in the mistaken belief that they are growing food 'organically'. This is both an unfeasible and dangerous superstition and the persons that lead these schemes should be treated as the dangerous nitwits they really are.

And on other pages:

Newcastle's Tree Protection Orders:  A true story

Ouseburn Farm - the true story

Nunsmoor Allotments - Spring 2015

Contaminated tomato plants
There are about sixty five allotment sites in Newcastle on Tyne. Most are cultivated by older people who depend on the fresh air, sunshine and the close contact with nature that a city garden provides. There are democratic rules set in law to govern the management of allotment gardens and these are closely followed at the best sites and abandoned or ignored at the worst. There is a single council officer who acts as a liason and facilitator and who tries to settle minor disputes. It is the principle of the city council to allow the allotment sites to be almost entirely independent and they are often set up as gangs, with the ruling members the most experienced and vociferous gardeners. This inevitably leads to discrimination and exclusion. What is a fifteen year waiting list for one person might be just a two week wait for another. Newcastle doesn't mind that allotment law is ignored as long as the rent is paid on time and that the gardens are tidy and peaceable. It has recently published a guide to committee structure after direction from the Local Government Ombudsman.

<  Toxic strawberries taste just as sweet!

There used to be a municipal waste incinerator in Byker and ash from this furnace was dispersed in 1998 to many allotment sites to surface paths. This was a disaster as the wrong ash was sent out - flue bag ash instead of firebox ash - and illness was reported by gardeners almost straight away. The hundreds of tonnes of this incinerator ash was supposedly removed from the tracks and paths, by council workers, and a soil survey was commissioned from Newcastle University around 2000 to attempt to determine the extent of the problem. These well conducted soil samples, at all the allotments that had received the Byker ash, were sent to an accredited laboratory for analysis and the results showed that soil pollution was widespread and severe. None of the sites tested were anywhere near acceptable, by the Soil Association standards, for the organic production of food. Some of the vegetables tested, notably carrots, would have been illegal to offer for sale to the public, due to contamination by lead. Newcastle's response was to hide the results of the tests and to deny there was a problem. What they should've done was to restrict the worst sites immediately - but most are still intact and without intervention or comment.

Contaminated leeks taste great - rust is endemic on this site  >

Contaminated leeks

Lead is a bane of modern life and it causes problems because it is chemically similar to Calcium, an essential mineral. Plants thrive with low levels of dissolved lead (believing it to be calcium) and a growing child's body readily digests it, incorporating it into bone and hard tissue. There is no safe dose for lead and any exposure at all is considered harmful. In the body it interferes with natural processes and has harmful effects on the mind. In an adult these effects are slowly reversible, by avoiding further intake of lead, but in a growing child they will become permanent. Only an idiot messes about with this stuff.

A common symptom of low level lead poisoning is cognitive dysfunction. It means that the ability to think intelligently is impaired. Exposure to lead will cause confusion, depression and poor decision making. Creativity is mangled and the intelligence needed to solve everyday problems is reduced. It is unfortunate that these skills are exactly the ones needed to avoid lead poisoning and in this way lead contamination remains self-secret. There is an abundance of literature on the symptoms of lead poisoning and, as well as lead, the Tyneside soils are contaminated by arsenic, cadmium, zinc, copper, nickel, chrome and mercury. Newcastle City Council opened a children's farm on the former site of a leadworks, despite knowing that the soils were heavily polluted and all the while claiming there was no problem. Forty years on and it's still allegedly poisoning children!

< This garden was always full of bees and butterflies
An unsorted league table of Newcastle allotment sites has been compiled. (It is here as a printable document and here as a spreadsheet). The best sites, to the north and west of the city, are suitable for growing vegetables and for visiting children but the very worst sites should only be approached with protective clothing. It is distressing to lose one's garden but it is a far better outcome than remaining with it and risking becoming (or remaining) sick and disabled. The active gardeners at the worst sites are also the least able to understand the situation and given the choice they will inevitably stay. Not one of the Newcastle allotment sites tested by the university was capable of passing the Soil Association guidelines for organic production of food yet the city still judges gardens in an organic category. This illustrates the depth of self deception that gardeners and council workers must embrace. This writer's experience is that dissent leads immediately to illegal eviction.

The soil on these potatoes contains 0.1% lead by dry weight   >
Contaminated potatoes
For flying insects

The allotment movement is based entirely on cooperative and democratic aims and yet, if the industrial soils of Newcastle are so badly polluted, then it might be expected that the urban soils of many other great cities are as well. The patchwork nature of urban allotments form an excellent habitat for many wildlife species and this should be the direction for the careful cultivation of city allotments. Moths, butterflies and bumblebees depend on these gardens for both nest sites and pollen. The toxins in the soil can be safely sealed in place by turf and perhaps a re-creation of heathland is a tolerable direction for urban gardens with contaminated soil. All gardeners who believe themselves to be lead-poisoned from an allotment should visit their G.P. and request a blood test. This is the only reliable way to assess personal contamination.


David Aspinall, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 6NQ England.
All rights reserved. Page updated: 29th July 2022