On not giving up (for Lent)

Newsome Mill and the Hart Street allotments

Newsome Mill and the Hart Street allotments (1980s), photo courtesy of Mr and Mrs Wood.

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
[“To His Coy Mistress”
by Andrew Marvell]

I spent two whole days this week agitating over my inability to get five bunches of daffodils to open. This was somehow appropriate for the not-quite-Spring of late February, when we’re busily trying to germinate seeds on our underfloor heating.

I once tried to grow several dozen giant sunflowers on a kitchen windowsill, just because I like sunflowers (and I didn’t have anywhere else to grow them). There’s something to be said for persistence, but only if you find the right time for it.

The daffodils were meant to brighten up our scout hall on a very soggy morning as we welcomed people from various local food projects in Kirklees and beyond. They had come to take part in a day of workshops (run by Growing Newsome, Stirley Farm and the Kirklees Environment Partnership) to find out how we’ve learnt to grow together in Newsome. This ‘Growing Communities’ event was just one commitment in a hectic first weekend of food growing activities this year (preceded only by our shed tidying ceremony in mid January).

I didn’t really know what I was going to say until I started talking, but I brought along a wall full of photos and some scribbles to give me a few prompts. One of the scribbles was a timeline, which began with our ‘Grow Your Own Food In Newsome’ survey, three years ago this week. I had also given up sleeping for Lent that week (not intentionally), so it was a small miracle that we got going at all.

It was sheer persistence that took me to that starting point. My refusal to let someone knock down the mill that our village has grown up around, and my desire to protect all that’s left of it (including the former mill-workers’ allotments at Hart Street). Local residents and the leaseholders have been in stalemate over this greenfield land for over two decades, with many planning battles and growing frustration amongst a community that values and wishes to use its open spaces.

The former allotment holders were turfed off this site in the 1980s, and the resentment is still palpable amongst those who live nearby. I grew up on Hart Street. I’m attached to that land. I was told for many years that the situation is futile, but of course I’ve never believed that. People who live here tell me what they think and feel about this place, and I don’t believe that those voices should go unheard in planning processes, or in any kind of local decision making.

One of the most frustrating things at this time was that our word didn’t seem to count. Our community forum had received a steady stream of requests from residents who really wanted an allotment in Newsome, and just couldn’t get one. Yet this demand was always ignored in planning decisions, because the only official figures for allotment demand were those held by the council, which were years out of date. The figures showed that there were plots available. They didn’t show that the sites were overgrown, inaccessible or unusable for other reasons. The information had got out of step with local people’s experiences, and we decided to do something about that.

We decided to get our own evidence of the demand for allotments in Newsome. And whilst we were at it, we decided to find out what the local community thought about food growing, and what kind of support people might need with growing their own food. We found a community research company who would support us in doing the work, and we got a community grant from the council to run the survey and turn the results into some practical support for residents.

It was a shock to find out that we’d need to get around 500 responses to make the survey statistically valid, and we would need to knock on many more doors to get that many responses. I was asked to find ten people who would volunteer to work an entire weekend knocking on doors and interviewing people. It seemed like a mammoth task, and a really big commitment to ask of people.

Fortunately, our fledgeling Timebanking project was able to make it happen. Rachel, our Timebanking Co-ordinator, was able to find some local people who cared enough about the issue to give it a go. I’d never met some of them before. It amazed me that people would turn out to do something they’d never done before and which some of us (including me) found really uncomfortable. I don’t think any of us understood the power of Timebanking until then. I gained new friends that weekend, and lots more besides.

It sounds obvious to say it now, but when you knock on someone’s door and get talking to them, you might get your survey form filled in, but you also get to hear their story. You meet individuals and begin to understand their circumstances, their aspirations and their frustrations. Doing that survey, we got so much more than we bargained for. Let me tell you about three doors that I knocked on, one after the other.

Door number one belonged to a gentleman in his early 80s who had been growing food for decades. His face lit up when I told him about the project, and he beckoned me into his kitchen. He had a special drawer of the dresser just for seeds – he fetched some out to show me, along with others that he kept in the freezer. I was thrilled to meet such a keen and experienced grower, bursting with enthusiasm. As we talked, he looked out of his kitchen window and gestured at a bashed-up greenhouse in the back garden. He told me that every year kids throw stones and smash some of the glass. “I might not repair it this time”, he said. In  that moment, I realised that this man was probably just at the point of giving up on something that he really loved doing, because it was just getting too difficult. I left that house feeling utterly helpless.

Door number two was right next door and belonged to a man in his 30s who said straight off that he wasn’t interested. I said that we wanted everyone to have a say, and we could fill in the form saying he didn’t want to grow food. He wasn’t keen. I turned to go away when he suddenly said: “Aren’t you Jean’s daughter”. We’d been told that local people knocking on doors would get a better response than strangers, and this proved to be true. He talked a bit more then. “You should try next door”, he said, “he’s really keen on growing vegetables. I do what I can to help him, fetch and carry stuff and that.” I suddenly realised that this man who said he had no interest in food growing what-so-ever was the person who was keeping someone else growing. I got the sense that he didn’t realise what an important contribution he was making to the other man’s life.

Door number three was just across the street and belonged to a young mum. She was interested in growing food at home and enthusiastically showed me their back garden. She’d already dug the whole garden up – there was nothing left but mud – and was ready to get growing. Then she said: “Of course, I’ve no idea what to do with it now.” And I wondered whether she knew the man across the street who had decades of food growing experience, who could tell her everything that she needed to know.

My experience of knocking on those three doors told me that, between us, we have everything we need. Right then, I stopped thinking about allotment demand and started thinking about how to build relationships between people.

There were many more doors after that. The one whole weekend quickly turned into two, and we scrambled every last bit of effort to get us up to 486 responses. In April 2009, we got the results of our survey work. Steve Wisher, the head of the research company, IbyD (Information by Design), said that they’d never had results like it. Our survey revealed overwhelming enthusiasm for food growing in Newsome, and told us that not knowing how to grow was as much a barrier as not having the land to grow on.

It was the combination of the figures and the stories that was so powerful for me. Over half of the people we talked to (53%) said that they would be willing to do something to help other people to grow their own food. Over half. And because of the stories that we heard on the doorsteps, we could see how we might use tools like Timebanking to start to make that happen.

Some people said: “Ah yes, but that’s just a survey. People won’t actually do it”. That really got my back up, because I’d already seen people quietly getting on and helping each other. I’d also seen a lot of people who didn’t realise that their knowledge was valuable, and people who didn’t have the confidence to start doing something that they really wanted to do. So we set out to prove that the results would come off the page.

Three weeks later we had our first event. I called it Growing Newsome, because the project was no longer just about growing food – it was about growing our community. 80 people came along to that first event. We got to hear the happy sound of people meeting each other and talking together about growing their own food. We got to see that 53% start to step off the page and into other people’s lives.

So here I am, three years later, a novice food grower co-ordinating a community food growing project, with a kitchen full of belated daffodils, a calendar already cram packed with growing activities for the coming year, a living room full of jam, and a lot to reflect on.

Oh, and along the way we fought off plans for a housing development that would have destroyed the Hart Street site. We sent our evidence to the Planning Inspectorate and we got the developer’s appeal turned down. We also worked with a local architect to produce our own plan for the community use of the site. It’s still a stalemate, but the land at Hart Street has managed to give us some fantastic gifts whilst it waits. Snowdrops appeared there today. And I still haven’t given up. I think our time will come.

What I told people in my workshop is that we found a way of appreciating what we have – our skills, experiences, patience, land, seeds and jam jars. Everything else has come from that. We’ve followed our participants’ interests and aspirations. Beyond the doorsteps, there was no advance plan, no schedule. We have created produce (hence the living room full of jam) but more importantly we have created a process, a way of working together and trusting in each other. And you can’t rush that.

This year for Lent, I’ve decided that I’m going to give up worrying about when the rest of the daffodils will open.

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4 Responses to On not giving up (for Lent)

  1. Pingback: On not giving up (for Lent) | weeklyblogclub

  2. Pingback: Tartan, jelly babies and Rolf Harris | weeklyblogclub

  3. I absolutely loved this post! It is such a positive story.
    I loved that you tried to grow sunflowers – not just a few but dozens – on your kitchen windowsill. I found myself wanting to be an artist-in-residence, portraying these people who have fought for and grow things on the allotments.
    I wish you the best of luck with the Hart St site.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, what an inspiring story to read. And I wholeheartedly agree with you that creating a process, a way of working together is important. And not only can it not be rushed, I think it is also important that the process was created by those involved.

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