Culpepper Garden
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Seeds of change

Adam Caplin and James Caplin
8 Jul 2000
The Times of London
News International, Page 56
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 2000)

A community garden in a previously unloved part of inner-city London has paved the way for an urban jungle of a different kind.

Culpeper Community Garden looks, at first sight, like an unusually lovely public garden. There is a lawn, a shaded area in which to sit, a pond, a rockery, a long walk with a pergola over it dripping in roses, jasmines and clematis, a big bed furnished with a splendid collection of euphorbias and hellebores, a fine loquat tree and a thriving silver-leafed pear. In fact, it is much more than that.

Clare Sutton, who works here part time, greeted us as we entered and sat us down with a cup of tea because she had to deal with an emergency. A six-year-old had spotted a frog in the undergrowth and Clare just had to see. As we gazed across the garden relaxing from our terrible journey through inner-city traffic, we started to notice the people rather than the plants. There were men and women, young and old, white and black, all pottering around.

Clare returned and gave us a tour. The garden has a framework of public areas - paths, lawn, rockery - and 46 individual plots, each six yards long and three yards wide, which locals who have no garden can rent.

The site is three quarters of an acre in the London Borough of Islington. Although the borough is now popularly associated with all things sun-dried, much of it is densely populated, with vicious traffic and many poor residents who have no access to soil.

Culpeper was conceived in 1982 by Anthea Douglas, who was then teaching "children who didn't settle in mainstream education". They were scratching about in the dust one day when she realised that what they needed was a proper garden facility. She secured a grant from Islington Council and set off on her bicycle to find a suitable derelict patch of ground. She remembers parking her bike and looking over a broken-down wall: "Lo and behold, it was there, the vision was there." She discovered that the site was being considered for the new King's Cross Police Station, or if not for that, perhaps for a nearby Sainsbury's. But it was ten years before any development was planned to start and she got it in the interim. Culpeper, supported by a whole host of enthusiasts and activists, has been going strong ever since.

Part of the reason Culpeper works is that the individual plots are wonderful miniatures. Pelegrino has made a small patch of southern Italy with stunning garlic in rows, onions and potatoes. Bryan has the marvellous collection of hellebores and euphorbias. Faran, Tori and Finley, all under ten, have a collection of colourful flowers and abandoned projects. Julie's plot is very jolly, and jolly odd, but then she has never gardened before and, as she freely admits, hasn't a clue what she's doing. Maureen and Frank's plot boasts some impressive herbaceous perennials. Everyone enthuses about the place. Maureen, a school dinner lady, says she comes here every day. "It's lovely, just so relaxed, like a little oasis. It's just so nice to see things popping out of the ground." Her grandson Archie first visited when he was three months old, and he is now a bold two-year- old, striding around like he owns the place. Julie, resplendent in high heels and a Tyrolean hat, explains that, "It brings out the best in people - I see things in other plots and say, 'I like that', and they say, 'You can have a bit'." Bryan, who sometimes arrives at 7 o'clock in the morning, sits on a bench in the sun chatting to Pelegrino and tells us that, "It's that sense of wanting your own piece of ground. Eight years now I've been coming here."

Clare radiates positive energy. Her background is in social work with autistic children in Glasgow - and more recently in horticulture. While she was showing us round she also stopped some children playing football, organised a long list of people to talk to us, helped a group of impatient children get tools and start gardening a plot, and never appeared other than cheerful and relaxed. She is magic. Unfortunately there appears to be a question mark about the council grant that goes towards Clare's salary. It would be madness to lose her, because her skills are rare, and she helps make Culpeper what it is today.

Culpeper is deeply integrated into the local community. "Non- gardening members" support it with money. "Volunteers" come here to garden even though they don't have a plot. The local city farm supplies it with manure. Culpeper supplies local schools with frog's spawn, and they bring the hatched tadpoles back. There are plots reserved for the local play group and for people with learning disabilities. Clare explains that a local gang come here to hang out and snog, "but even they pick up their litter, so the place works on them too". Culpeper even has regular plant sales, which are worth visiting. It is nurtured by local people, and provides nurture to them.

We came away shamed and uplifted. Shamed because we have not - yet - helped create or support a Culpeper . Uplifted because some day in the future we are determined to do so.

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A corner of London that is forever green

By: Anna Pavord
The Independent (London)
Travel & Outdoors, 19 Apr 1997, pp 18
1997 Newspaper Publishing P.L.C.

Because gardening teaches you the value of the long view and the virtues of stoicism (plants are great stoics), gardeners generally are not militant - even in their own defense. But when Islington Council withdrew an annual pounds 12,000 grant from the Culpepper Community Garden in north London, the local people who garden there fought hard to defend the patch that provides them (and anyone else who wants to walk there) with a restorative touch of green in an area that desperately needs it.

The garden, next door to a children's playground, is at the south end of Cloudesley Road. Over the railings, you look into a patchwork of tiny gardens, each no more than 10ft by 12ft, growing an extraordinary mixture of trees, fruit, flowers and vegetables. One plot is full of comfrey, grown to make liquid feed. Another has a mouthwatering selection of broccoli. A third has sedum, lavender, euphorbia and daffodils, each daffodil surrounded with scraps of red brick.

Like allotment sites, this community garden speaks volumes for the inventiveness of gardeners. But this is different from an allotment site. It is gardened by individuals, but done for the pleasure of all. And pounds 12,000 seems a cheap way for Islington Council to fix the patch. They'd pay three times as much to garden it under council tender, as public parks are.

I asked Ken Standing, chairman of Culpepper's  management committee, how Islington's grant was spent. Most of it is used to pay a garden worker, Nicola Reynolds, who looks after the bits between the plots and, by her presence, cuts down on the vandalism that is a constant irritation. Some money is needed to repair paths and fences. Some was spent on the sturdy compost bins that stand behind the community hut.

There's no vetting of members. Anybody who lives nearby can ask for a plot. as long as they do not have a garden. Mr. Standing said they had Italian gardeners, Spanish and Portuguese. That explained why there were so many good vegetables there. Especially calabrese. And red-leaved chicory growing with marigolds.

One tiny patch was rather grandly planted with an evergreen Magnolia grandiflora. That was worth pounds 6,000 as a heart lift on its own. There were amelanchiers in delicate blossom, and a fine alder tree growing by the hut. Over the brick wall that closes off the garden from Cloudesley Road, a sweet-scented Clematis armandii flung long, voluptuous trails.

So what's the fate of the garden now? The Culpepper gardeners won a victory in persuading Islington not to dump them altogether, but the council has halved their grant to pounds 6,000. The management committee is loath to put up garden rents (at present pounds 10 a year) because they don't want the place to become, in Mr. Standing's phrase "an inward-looking, garden clubby sort of place." The search for alternative funding is on.

If you would like to contribute, go to the Culpepper Community Garden plant sale on Sunday 27 April, 11am-1pm. To join the community garden, call 0171-833 3951.

1997 Newspaper Publishing P.L.C.

Last Revised: 02 Jan 2015


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