Posted by: njs44 | September 25, 2010

Green and pleasant London

The sun was shining and the sky a particularly brilliant, autumnal blue. It was much too good to stay indoors, so I googled things to do in London, and the Time Out site led me to this one which listed the various ‘community food-growing spaces’ which took part in this event.

So off I set for the Kings Cross Skip Garden.

King's Cross Skip Garden

St Pancras from Camley Street Park

Just a few steps from St Pancras International Station and I was in another world. Children come here to learn about growing things, and cooking as well in the Yurt-like tent. The site is tiny, but an awful lot of things grow here, including young minds. A volunteer who works there told me that apart from school parties it is also used by Young Offenders on Community Service. ‘Restorative Justice’ the lady said they call it. For people who would otherwise have no access to a garden it is surely most restorative place to be.

Then I set off along Camley Street to the Camley Street Natural Park. Have I blogged about this before? Never mind, it deserves another plug, although I hope it never gets too popular. This is a real oasis, in the heart of London, spitting distance from King’s Cross, and as I walked around today it felt as though I was in the heart of the countryside.


After this I ventured even further up Camley Street to the King’s Cross Orchard, as it is called. Here, at the side of a wharehouse belonging to the Alara wholefood company, the owner of the company, Alex Smith, and some of his employees have, over the past four years, developed a beautiful garden crammed full of all kinds of fruit trees, plants, flowers, herbs and several grape vines. I can’t describe how uplifting it was to see all this happening. As well as the gardens, there is a community plot where local people grow things, and in a tiny strip of land squeezed between the footpath and the neighbouring factory, an orchard of trees has been planted. A real legacy for future generations and a sign than not all businesses are about maximising profit and cutting costs. Here’s an extract from Alex’s blog on the subject of what he calls the Dream Farm:

It seems to be clear now that a mind created world is in danger of chopping off the very roots from which it has grown and for both to evolve into the future, the integration of both is required. This integration seems to be gathering pace everywhere and Kings Cross seems to be a good place for it to happen as well.
The dream is that this local weaving of basic food growing into the very fabric of the city will help catalyse internal personal development, improve individual physical bodies, develop new social structures and enhance local cultural life.
So far there are five separate food-growing spaces at Camley Street, a permaculture Forest Garden, a vineyard, a community orchard, community growing raised beds and a compost collection point. If you want free compost please just turn up. We do ask that you sign for it in the adjacent Alara factory.

I browsed around the Alara website when I got home and learnt more about this remarkable man and how he came to start his business.

The business started in a squat in Tolmers Square in Central London. This whole unique early Victorian, egg shaped Square, where Alara originated was due to be demolished to make way for a large office development. For a year before starting Alara I had been living in Tolmers Square with out using any money at all, as this seemed the only moral position to take to oppose this, for money, development.
In this no money period all heating and lighting came by burning wood from builders skips. Water came from the roof and washing was done in a wood fired sauna bath, built in the basement. Food was scavenged from New Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, a dairy distribution centre by Regents Park and from spillage in a Natural Food Wholesaler, Community Foods that was also in Tolmers Square.
Life was a bit limited without money and, with someone else to consider it seemed serendipitous that, as I was walking in the square one day in 1975 I found two one pound notes in the gutter. The only money I had had during the previous year was a five-pound note given as a birthday present. This had been used to light the fire. Two pounds was the cost of vehicle entry to New Covent Garden Market. Using a friend’s Morris Minor pick up van I went to Covent Garden and filled the pick up truck with thrown away fruit and vegetables from the bins. These were sold from an empty dairy squatted on the entrance to Tolmers Square. Alara had started.
On the first day we took £2, and by the end of the week were taking anything up to £5 per day. The second week we bought wholemeal flour from Community Foods and started baking bread in the old gas oven that had been left behind in our squat. Soon we were buying bulk beans and rice and selling them in retail quantities. Turnover went up to £40 per day, and we tried to open a bank account. Even though we had money to deposit and did not need to borrow anything it took us two months to find a bank that would take our cash.
After almost a year we were evicted from this shop which was eventually renovated. We moved business premises to a new squat, right next door to where we were living, 19 Tolmers Square. It was here that we started to make muesli in a fifty-gallon plastic water tank, mixed with a huge oak spoon. Wholesale customers at Community came over to us to buy their bulk muesli.
After a year we were evicted by Camden Council, who knocked down the whole square and built a huge office development themselves. By this time however we had saved enough money to buy the tail end of a lease on a small shop in Cromer Street, behind Camden Town Hall. We ran this as a wholefood shop and mixed muesli in the basement, selling it in bulk to Community Foods. To get good prices we also bought in bulk from Community and delivered to other shops in the area.
In 1981 Alara moved from Cromer Street to bigger premises, Marchmont Street where we did more of the same. In 1983 the wholesale delivery service and muesli mixing moved to a small industrial unit behind Kings Cross.
We then moved to larger industrial premises in 1985, still behind Kings Cross, where we are to this day. During this time muesli production was becoming more and more important. Production was increasing as we were very early producers of the natural, no added sugar type muesli that was getting very popular. We were also developing new varieties for both Alara brand and own label. Our customer base expanded and included most of the natural food wholesalers in England and through them the natural food retailers, all of whom we are still serving. Muesli exports began to flourish.
In 1983 we started to make organic muesli, again one of the first manufacturers to do so in England. In 1988 we joined the Soil Association, who still certify our organic production. In 1995 we decided to concentrate on muesli and began a long restructuring process so that by 2000 Alara was just manufacturing muesli. In 2000 we also achieved BRC certification. Among the almost 200 varieties we now produce are Fair Trade muesli, Nut free muesli, Gluten free muesli and from 1999 the Alara brand Organic muesli range.
Our aim is to produce very high quality, tasty, healthy and innovative mueslis. Organic muesli is the natural way to fulfil this desire.

As if all this wasn’t enough, on the way back to St Pancras I stumbled upon St Pancras Old churchyard. Another beautiful green place in amongst all the buildings and traffic. I’ve lived in London for nearly 40 years and there is always so much more to discover about this green and pleasant place.

St Pancras Old Church


  1. great article!

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