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Incredible Edible

Katie Hill gets the unofficial history of the community growing project

‘Pam Warhurst was on a train.’ I was sitting at a picnic bench in the centre of Bristol, surrounded by strawberry plants, a small fig tree, blackcurrants and various varieties of mint. It was essentially a sensory garden in the heart of the city centre: an antidote to the endless sea of grey and the buses that bobbed along it.

‘Now, the thing about being on a train is that you have no wi-fi – and a lot of time to think.’ I was talking to the formidable Sara Venn, horticulturist extraordinaire and project lead for Incredible Edible Bristol, who had created this oasis of calm as part of Bristol’s Big Green Week (11-19 June).

‘We don’t want to pass the buck and we don’t want to be victims. Moaning and being a victim makes you ugly. The days have gone when someone else is going to come around and save the world for you. Don’t underestimate the power of small actions.’

Chair of Incredible Edible Todmorden

‘Incredible Edible started with the question ‘How can I make Todmorden a better place to live?’ – this is the unofficial version of the story, by the way.’ Sara and I both know Todmorden very well: the small market town sits in the bottom of a valley in the Pennines, on the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Instead of inspiring territorial scuffles, Todmorden – which contains two different words for death – was a grim spot each county would happily have gifted to the other. There was a lot wrong with Tod when Pam got on her train in 2007 and contemplated how the town – and the lives of its residents – could be improved.

Pam and her friend Mary Clear felt the one thing that could pull a community together was food: and so Incredible Edible was born.

The transformation

With the help of a small group of volunteers, vegetables suddenly started sprouting from the most unlikely places – each marked with a mysterious sign: ‘Help yourself’. The land around Todmorden Health Centre was transformed into a beautiful apothecary garden packed with medicinal plants, all planted in secret – and all free for the picking.

Before long the station platforms were dotted with herb planters, the police were growing sweetcorn, artichokes and kiwis and the school was getting a fish farm. Like a modern Eden, the canal towpath started bursting with apricots, strawberries, kale and fennel and mulberries, raspberries and pears dangled invitingly over the carpark tarmac. Even Prince Charles paid a visit.

‘We work to support communities by growing food in lost or unloved places’, Sara told me. ‘From streets to schools – wherever.’ The idea of growing free food on wasted land is as obvious as it is inspired – especially considering, as Sara pointed out, the UK has no proper land policy. It appealed to guerrilla gardeners and cash-strapped residents alike, and everyone benefited from Todmorden’s makeover. ‘How can we change a space’, Sara asks, ‘so that instead of walking through it with your headphones in, you actually look up and engage? That’s what we’re trying to do.’

People travelled across the globe to witness this remarkable project, and the Incredible Edible model was exported to 800 locations around the world – as far afield as Canada, New Zealand and Madagascar – plus 125 sites around the UK. ‘You just have to not hear the word ‘no’’, Sara explains. ‘If you hear ‘no’, you haven’t pitched it properly.’

Click here for Todmorden’s full Incredible Edible story. More on the wider network is here.

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