Thursday, 27 August 2015

The amazing Nomadic Community Garden in the heart of London's East End

A magical inner city oasis for the local community in East London

As I was strolling around Brick Lane last Saturday afternoon, my eye was caught by a sign that said "Nomadic Community Garden".

My curiosity piqued, I followed the sign and found myself walking into a large open space. Just beyond the entrance was an enormous sculpture of a horse, and next to it an old fishing boat.

Further on there was outdoor furniture made from recycled pallets, old tyres, and so on.

There was street art on the walls around the compound.

In the middle of the area there was a portakabin with a covered area in front of it, where a few people were sitting and chatting. Beyond that, more open space with more informal seating, and a large wall at the very end with an enormous mural.

I got chatting to the people by the hut and learnt more about the project from James, who turned out to be one of the founders of the project. Prior to this he had worked as a labourer,  in theatres, on organic farms, and in other jobs, in England, Berlin and Copenhagen, acquiring along the way the skills and ideas for this scheme.

This site had been derelict for 20 years, and had been acquired by LondonNewcastle for development. The developers have allowed Nomadic Community Gardens to use the area until construction begins, and they have been very supportive. The Gardens have been there since May.

The gardens themselves are allotments that have been made available to the local community free of charge. It's a very clever concept.  Using modular raised vegetable beds that can be lifted with forklift trucks on to lorries for transportation, they can be deployed almost overnight, which is what happened here.

The allotments were heavily cultivated by the locals, many of whom were from the local Bangladeshi community, and originally from rural areas. When the project was starting up, the organisers chatted to the local residents in the surrounding streets. Word spread and all the units were snapped up. The place was clearly well loved and well maintained. I'm not one for gardening myself, although I appreciate and admire the effort that others put into such activities, and to my inexpert eye, all the vegetation in the units looked green, lush, healthy and abundant.

In addition to the allotments, there is a park and play area, an events space, and a library. There's also a beehive, which they hope will eventually produce honey.

The street art had created by artists who learnt about the project. The giant painting on the end wall was being worked on while I was there. I was told that this was the largest open air art gallery in London.

The very impressive giant horse at the entrance had been constructed from salvaged materials by an artist who had turned up and looked around, and apparently it had been done without any preparatory drawings.

Everything here has been made from material that has been donated, salvaged, or recycled.

The boat was from Norfolk, and had been due to be scrapped. Instead, it was brought down to the garden and will be made into a play area. The hull is in reasonable shape but needs repainting. The wheel still turns the rudder, which I thought was delightful. The floorboards are gone and will need to be refitted. I wasn't so keen on their plan to cut a hole in the hull for people to climb through, but I guess it will be fun for the kids. They liked my idea of a mast with crosstrees from which they could fly signal flags. I thought what would really be fun would be if it were to be set up so that the children could scramble up the rigging, like on a tall ship, but I didn't mention that.

It's a wonderful, uplifting and enchanting place. It reminded me a little of the city beaches I had seen in Berlin, and a little of Womad, the world music festival. They have succeeded in creating a socailly and biologically diverse "third space" for the benefit of the community.

The plan is for some of the funding to come from hiring out the events space for events, fairs and performances. There was nothing on when I visited, but there was an art fair the following day, and another event is planned in support of bees.

This is an excellent way of making use of derelict land for the benefit of the community, and it's been set up independent of local authority organisation or funding. It's a model that could be replicated everywhere. There are always plots of land, some derelict, some unused, some awaiting development. This is a clever way to use them for everyone's benefit. If and when the land is required for other purposes, the garden can be demounted and moved elsewhere.

The project is run by volunteers, and does rely on contributions. If you'd like to contribute your time, skills, materials, or money, have a look at their website, or drop in. They are trying to raise £13,320 by the end of September; LondonNewcastle have contributed £2000. They still need about £10,000. Please help if you can.

Fleet Street Hill
London E2 6EE

Usually open daily until about 11 pm.

Update. 1 October 2015: 
I haven't been back to the Garden, but unfortunately they failed to raise the required money from their appeal.
Quite by chance, I visited another sort of pop-up, temporary community garden, also on a building site. Read about it here.

Update. August 2016:
I revisited the garden and wrote about it here.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The London Craft Beer Festival

A most agreeable beer festival in Hackney

Last Friday, we paid a visit to the London Craft Beer Festival which was held at the Oval Space, in Hackney. The walk there was a little dreary on account of the rain, but I suppose rain is the price of a green and pleasant land.

Unlike other beer festivals I've attended, where you have to pay each beer you drink (in measures of a third, a half or a full pint) this was essentially a drink-as-much-as-you wish buffet. For £38.50 you got entry to a 5 hour session (7 pm to midnight in our case), during which you could have unlimited 90 ml servings of any beer on offer. The usual measure at beer festivals is a third of a pint or more, and 90 ml is about a sixth of a pint. The smaller measures meant that I could sample more beers, and service was smoother because the staff didn't have to fiddle around with cash. 

Unlike the drinkables, the eatables had to be paid for separately. The beer was served indoors, but food was mostly sold from stands that were a little exposed to the rain, and we didn't explore the full range. Nevertheless, I had a superb portion of ribs and chips, my wife and had excellent burger, and a snack later on, we shared this, which was delicious:

All the beers that we sampled were excellent, a testament to the state of brewing these days. The well known craft breweries from London were strongly represented, of course, and I was interesting to note how many I recognised, whose products I knew and liked.

There were also brewers from other parts of Britain, and from abroad including Estonia, the US, Barcelona and Norway. Although the hall was packed, it was very easy to get served, much easier than in a crowded pub in fact. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, and rather good music was provided by a DJ in the middle of the room.

Everything we tried, we liked, without exception, so it would be a little unfair to single out highlights, but there were a some enjoyable oddities, as you might expect at a beer festival, and a couple stood out:

- Wild Beer's Cool as a Cucumber, a low-strength (2.9% ABV), refreshing beer, infused with cucumber and mint.

- Partizan's Negroni Saison, served over ice with a twist of orange peel, as shown in this video:

And for those inspired by the festival, who might want to have a go at making their own, there was this stand:

It's the Grainfather, and ingenious, elegantly designed, all-in-one home brewing system, with essentially all the components of a full scale brewery in the metal container, apart from the fermenting vessel, which in the photo is the plastic container on the left. Not cheap, but certainly something to consider if you were planning to do a bit of serious home brewing. Perhaps one of these days ...

We had a very agreeable evening, with good beer, good food, and good music. The all-you-can-drink system has a lot to commend it, and I wonder if it operates at other such events. It's the first time I've encountered it and I thought it worked very well. I think part of the reason is the 90 ml servings: people who want to go out and get bladdered are probably not going to be drinking sixths of a pint. I'm definitely going to come again next year if I can.

We left pleasantly refreshed. It had stopped raining, and we had an agreeable walk home, during which I took a few more pictures.