Growing wild in London

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Photo: Hilary Burden | Inside a London allotment

     A wilderness festival was held in Oxfordshire at the weekend. It’s funny to come to London and discover how wilderness is a thing. In Tasmania we seem so often hung up on debating the concept of it, yet in reality live next door to some of the wildest places in the world. We seem so fixed on discussing the boundaries of our world heritage area, we forget how we might be part of it.

     “Wander often, wonder always” is one of the mantras of the three-day posh hippy festival west of London where people gather to go “wild swimming” in a spring-fed lake, forage for food, learn butchery, go on wild medicine walks, canoe, listen to artists like Bjork … You get the picture. Run annually for the past five years on a private nature reserve, The Guardian reviewed it as “a place where art, intellectualism and fantastic gastronomy share equal billing with music”.

When ‘real’ wild is so far away from most people’s experience on this densely populated island (more than 80% of Britons live in towns or cities), urban dwellers are learning to appreciate finding and accessing the wild and natural in where they are.

I’m lying jetlagged in a berry patch in the middle of Barnes while my friend Lizzie weeds her allotment plot. It’s a peculiarly English view. Elegant four-storey apartment buildings and houses (one bedroom selling in the vicinity of £750,000) surround the 2ha allotment that lies beneath the Heathrow flight path. At this time of the year, the gardens are at their productive best, and a seasonal feast for the senses for this traveller who left Tasmania in a snowstorm.

“You Australians have your space but this is a people’s heaven in the middle of a concrete jungle,” said one of Lizzie’s fellow gardeners tending his plot.

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The waiting list for a plot at the Barn Elms allotment – one of around 30,000 in London – is 90 long. Over 100 gardeners pay £30 per annum rental, signing up to site maintenance rules that include: no fruit trees over 3 metres and garden sheds to be maintained respectably. If your plot is judged neglected by the Plots Committee, you’ll receive a letter from its Chair requesting the weeding be done. Three letters and you’re out!

I’m not sure I could cope with the all the rules and overseeing, and suddenly have a renewed appreciation for how lucky Australians are to have the space to grow what we want, how we want.

Either way, in city or country, localized food production and smallholdings are increasingly important for our survival, a point made by Prince Charles in an interview on BBC Radio Four’s version of the Country Hour.

In a week when one English supermarket chain cut the price it pays farmers for milk to 23p (48 cents) a litre for milk – below the cost of production – the Prince’s call for more to be done to help small farmers stay in business is timely.  “It can’t all be done by gigantic corporations and agribusinesses,” he told On Your Farm. “Some of them try, but a lot of them are not interested in biodiversity or culture or rural communities,” he said. “We witnessed in the UK the depopulation of the countryside, the disappearance of so many family farms, the effect it’s had on the countryside, the wildlife, everything. I happen to think the small farmer, the smallholder, is absolutely crucial to the maintenance of food security.”

To this end, a couple of programs in England also stand out.

Grow Wild England, supported by the Big Lottery Fund and run by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is a flagship mass participation outreach program, inspiring people to do something positive for where they live by sowing, growing and enjoying native plants and wild flowers. It’s important because the UK has lost 98% of its wild flower meadows since the 1930s – which means less butterflies, bees, bugs and birds. Less places to lie in and watch the clouds go by.

There’s also an impressively organized grassroots campaign to turn London into the first ‘National Park City’ and celebrate “our great outdoors”. Here’s the argument:

Fifteen National Parks in England – protected areas that include mountains, meadows, moorlands, woods and wetlands, as well as towns and villages – host over 80 million visitors each year and contribute as much to the economy as the UK aerospace sector. Taking inspiration from the successes of National Parks, the campaign aims to transform Greater London into a new kind of National Park that sits outside of current legislation.  A Draft Charter has been developed, based on advice from the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London, and consultation opened last month to turn London into a ‘National Park City’ for which no precedent exists. The campaign’s efforts are based on gaining the support of at least two-thirds of London’s 649 local electoral wards, as well as the Mayor of London. Instead of seeking government leadership, it’s hoped Londoners themselves will turn the vision into reality and declare the capital a National Park City.

On the Thames footpath at Barnes (a 294 km walking trail following London’s famous river) a man has stopped his bicycle to forage for wild blackberries, startling a wood pigeon from its nest. On the other side of the river two cranes are busy building a new lifestyle development where 2-bedroom apartments are selling for over £2m. The two seem happy bedfellows.

I wander and wonder how in Tasmania we might be more caring about clearing wild blackberries and native verges from some of our country roads. My Karoola corner, once profuse with wild blackberries along the fence line, is now sprayed and kept cleared by council workers. A refuge lost not only to us but all species with whom we share this place.

First published in Tasweekend, 22nd August 2015

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2 thoughts on “Growing wild in London

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this, Hilary. In the UK recently, I was surprised at all the allotments everywhere… and also loved all the rambling roadsides where one could forage safely.

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