How ethical food production can change troubled lives
26th April, 2011
From Slough to the Moulsecoomb Forest Garden & Wildlife Project in Brighton, Warren Carter is a radical food grower on a mission to transform the lives of troubled youngsters. Jan Goodey meets him
Warren Carter is a 21st century Digger. Unusual for someone who grew up in Slough, forever yoked to Betjeman's unkind lines: 'Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! / It isn't fit for humans now / There isn't grass to graze a cow.' But then Warren is as uncompromising and down to earth as the earth he tills. And he tills a fair bit - nine allotments-worth with an itinerant group of volunteers working the unforgiving, chalky soils of Moulsecoomb, one of Brighton's most socially-deprived areas.
He certainly breathes life into Gerrard Winstanley's words (leading light of aforementioned 17th century eco-anarchists): 'The earth is a common treasury and the full meaning is played out each and every week at the Moulsecoomb Forest Garden & Wildlife Project.
Meeting him on site on one of the warmest days of Spring is a treat. The allotments lie on a south-east facing, terraced slope with boundary trees from the forest above lending ample, dappled shade. 'Have you had a drink, have you been in the shade yet?' his first words, not to me, but a volunteer with learning difficulties who he keeps careful watch over along with others, one of whom has come up all the way from Haywards Heath.
He goes onto explain about tadpoles while I take over a wooden bench and look on as lunch of meat balls with allotment parsley are fried up in the fire pit by local cook, Simon Parker. He comes in each Friday to do cooking detail so the other volunteers - local residents, the long term unemployed, refugees, and excluded school kids - can get tips on wholesome food.
Around 25 children can be up here in a typical week, mainly from nearby Moulsecoomb Primary, other local schools and the Swan Centre (support for students with special educational needs) at the Falmer Academy. 'We've worked with kids from the primary for eight years,' says Warren. 'The head, Charles Davies, is into giving them an outdoors education as well, and the grounds up there are amazing - they've won heritage awards, environment awards...[2008 Best School Grounds in the South East of England]. There are veg beds and a nursery that we do with them and they've just helped build a Neolithic chalk house!'
By getting them with outreach projects this early - 5-11-year-olds - there's no chance of the message getting diluted and by the age of 16-17 the same youngsters have full-on knowledge and understanding of growing your own and working with nature sustainably. 'Some of them will come up here [to the forest garden] independently in the holidays,' he adds. And as if on cue in walks a baseball-hatted teen to drop off his bag before heading off to look for a job - although admittedly he does return ten minutes later saying his crocked arm has ruled him out! Teen spirit dies hard.
Opening doors, bridging a gap
All the buildings on the plot - large sheds, polytunnels and an impressive, airy wood-build on stilts - have been put together with help from the younger volunteers using wood coppiced from the forest to the north west of the plot. Warren explains: 'The council said they're a shithole... do what you like with them, so we have.'
Lying on the edge of the National Park, the group has put together a woodland management plan: another tentacle of learning reaching out to the community, alongside photography courses, wild foraging and bug hunts.
'We're aiming to open doors, bridge a gap - kids here who are no good at school can be fucking brilliant at woodwork. If they just get that bit of confidence. This tends to be the only time they come into a mainly male environment and we make sure we break barriers down.'
Most come from seven schools in the east Brighton area and this is why Warren believes the project is so successful; 'We don't go chasing the money like some organisations. We turnover £30,000 a year, that's all. They'll go for major national funding and then look at giving every kid in Brighton 20 minutes worth of advice on composting. What good is that? We want people to copy our model so there are other small-scale, local groups. People say Moulsecoomb is a deprived area but you look round here and there may be less opportunities but there's so much space, so much to do.'
What are the perhaps less obvious highlights of working in such a space?: 'Open Days can attract 3-400 people and after one of those sitting down by the fire with some drinks is always a good time.'
As for a favourite time of year: 'Spring is a mental time of the year, loads to do - gardening is relentless - the Autumn lead into Christmas is less so and I like that.'
Anarchism and veganism
And how did it all start? Growing up in Slough, there was little opportunity for gardening and for a working class, Slough Town FC supporter, little desire. His dad didn't have an allotment but he did take him to Burnham Beeches of a Sunday - one of the finest woodland tracts anywhere in Britain where he became inured to different, more primitive ways. 'My politics have always been anarchistic and by 17/18 I'd become a vegan, militant bore! We set up a vegan caff for a while - the only one in Slough.'
The project in Brighton started in 1994 when with a small group of friends he took on an allotment plot. 'At first it was very low key and I hated it, it was boring. We'd go up for a couple of weeks then leave it for six months then come back. But gradually I actually started to enjoy it.'
And the gardening has become a political act as much as anything else now as he sees it as the best way of breaking down those barriers. 'Kids who have a racist attitude may come here and then through just working and meeting refugees and chatting to them they no longer think that way. They only have that "attitude" coz they don't know different people.'
And what for the middle class constituent, who buy their organic produce at top dollar and take their kids to the Eden Project once a year? 'I relate to kids from a working class background who don't have it all on a plate - given to them if you like. We're not teachers, well we are in a way, but we're not bound by that system which I hated - being told what to do etc. We get them to think and act for themselves.'
And so the circle is squared and we're back to where we started: the 17th century radicals, men like John Lilburne and Winstanley who fought the authorities for the right to cultivate common land, and nurture the sacred bond between people and that land. 'That true freedom... where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.'
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