Merle Nunneley

The Alchemical Allotment:

Transmutation at Sydenham Park

Sydenham Park allotment sits just beyond a railway line and in the shadow of an electricity substation that produces a constant and very noticeable hum. It’s a green and grassy site, studded with ramshackle sheds, greenhouses, and a collection of faded soft toys impaled onto sticks. It is divided into small plots, each leased by a different plot holder with their character that seeps into the land. Some plots are haphazard while others have neatly bounded beds surrounded by cages of netting, and within all of them, a complex relationship between people and nature is growing. I became privy to this as I worked with Matt through the seasons. We went to great lengths to deter pigeons, found ourselves removing all kinds of creepy crawlies from the greenhouse, and dug up the deeply planted roots of some pesky weeds. To be on the allotment was not to love all forms of nature, but some of it was celebrated. I felt a sense of wonder as I observed the transformation of seeds into delicious and unusual salad leaves, and the sight of a plump bee ambling through the sky was joyous. It seems a constant and delicate balancing act between encouragement and control of the natural world.

Historically, allotments have been conceived as practical spaces to give working-class people a means to feed themselves. Allotments, as we recognise them today, emerged during a period of land enclosures that began in the 16th century, but their role has changed significantly in the last 150 years. In Western cities, we no longer rely on tending our land to feed ourselves, but allotments remain popular. Considering them as purely practical fails to consider the reasons for this continuing popularity. This is given more thought in contemporary literature, which considers the social and well-being benefits of allotment and community gardening and comes from many different academic disciplines.
My late grandfather, the artist Graham Percy, was also interested in allotments. He understood them more intuitively and imaginatively than this body of scholarship. In a series of surreal drawings titled ‘Alchemical Allotment’ he brings allotments into dialogue with ancient science. They’re shown to be built upon the magic of alchemy as if they rely on its power to come into being. The images are mysterious, full of symbols, and made in a sombre greyscale. By framing the allotment as a site of alchemical transmutation I investigate whether my grandfather was drawing attention to aspects of the allotment overlooked in literature.

Alchemists believed that all elements were the same, with differences coming from their varying levels of purity (Royal Society of Chemistry, 2023). Gold was the purest, and less pure metals (known as base metals) could be put through sequential processes of transmutation to gain purity. Alchemy was considered to be a philosophy that could apply to many other forms of change, with the transmutation of metals acting as material evidence of this possibility (Redgrove, 1911). I question whether processes of change akin to transmutation are taking place on the allotment. In a literal sense, water and sunlight are turning seeds into food. I theorise that we can also consider the changes that allotments bring to the environment, our bodies, and community to be forms of transmutation. In three sections, Transmutation of Nature, Transmutation of Self, and Transmutation of Community, I consider the changes brought about by the allotment, aiming to form a holistic view of the benefits of allotment gardening, as well as recognising how these might be limited.


Redgrove, H. Stanley. Alchemy: Ancient and Modern. London, 1911. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1969.
Royal Society of Chemistry (2023) What is alchemy? Available at: (Accessed: January 23, 2023).