When parks manager Victor Chin-Kit built a few raised beds next to the café near Clapham Common's Bandstand five years ago (2012), he never dreamt his food-growing idea would blossom into what it has become today.
The following year Diana Linskey and Fiona Law set up the Bandstand Beds Association (BBA) with a Squash and Bean Swap, where people were given seeds to take or plant to grow at home. I joined the group around this time and guerrilla-gardened a large pumpkin on wasteland behind my house – one of many used at BBA's first autumn feast held on Clapham's Notre Dame Estate. It was a fantastic event, and a sheer delight to see such a diverse group of people coming together to prepare, cook and enjoy a meal together.
In February (2014) I was encouraged to take over as chair of BBA and that spring we planted our first plot of soft fruit bushes, in what were aptly called The Spinney Beds as they are directly opposite a children's nursery with the same name. With this connection, it seemed fitting that our autumn harvest celebration should also be held at The Spinney. More than 70 families came along to enjoy the autumn feast, and local people were really starting to get a taste for food growing on the Common.
At the beginning of 2015, Bandstand Beds had 10 members and although it may not seem many, they were all enthusiastic and committed to making their garden grow. Seeing this, Lambeth Council came up with an offer we couldn't refuse. Would Bandstand Beds like more land?
In the centre of Clapham Common there is an area used for recycling green waste and storing unwanted items, known locally as ‘the dump’ – and it was! Lambeth's plan was to create a more efficient composting site and for Bandstand Beds to reclaim a corner of the dump and convert it into a community garden. They agreed to clear and level the land, and the rest was pretty much down to the group. The project was a daunting prospect that would require a lot of hard graft and money, so we set about fundraising and secured almost £10,000 to buy a polytunnel, raised beds and other gardening equipment with additional money from the Common's Environmental Impact Fund spent on putting in a water supply – vital for the garden to thrive.
Work began in the spring of 2015 to level the site. Our group organised volunteer days followed by picnics, to weed, litter-pick and prepare the site, and we were making great strides forward. That is, until a large concrete slab, the remains of a Second World War gun emplacement, was uncovered. Interestingly, there had also been allotments on the Common as part of the war effort (see Clapham Common Management Advisory Committee (CCMAC)). But our efforts were now thwarted as the slab was right where we planned to have a polytunnel.
After much hand-wringing, Lambeth Council agreed to let us have a little more land and in July the polytunnel was installed alongside the concrete slab. Our vision for a community garden was finally taking shape – although a few local residents saw the structure as a visual intrusion. Undaunted, BBA volunteers continued with the dream to build our garden and, a year on, everyone was full of admiration for this beautiful green, growing space on what was once an ugly, derelict scrap of wasteland. Passers-by stopped to admire the growing space and during our gardening sessions many of them dropped in to pick up freshly harvested home-grown veg.
During 2016, Bandstand Beds went from strength to strength, the common interest of gardening brings together people from all social, economic and ethnic backgrounds. The group now has more than 70 members! In fact, there is so much enthusiasm for this food-growing project in the heart of Clapham that Lambeth Council is allowing us to reclaim more of what was formerly 'the dump'. What's more, with £2000 donated by Clapham BID and other money BBA has raised, we are now able to buy a shipping container to kit out and use as a kitchen and for storage. This will enable us to hold cooking workshops alongside our regular gardening sessions, encouraging healthy eating while bringing people together to share skills and knowledge.
When Victor first built the raised beds next to the café, the idea of a community food garden on the Common would have seemed to many like pie in the sky – pumpkin pie we like to think!
Photos © Bandstand Beds