Incredible Edible Todmorden
The first time I arrived in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden, I saw something rather remarkable on the station platform. Planters full of herbs. And, sticking out of the compost, a little sign saying ‘help yourself’.
The idea is that commuters on their way home from work can pick just what they need to finish off a delicious meal. The sign also suggests that if you are just hanging around waiting for a train, you could perhaps do a spot of weeding.
Those planters are still there today, and if you take a walk round the town in the growing season, you will see more and more evidence of this innovative approach to growing. There are runner beans in the cemetery, tomatoes along the canal path and broccoli stems at the bus stop. You can pick your five a day from the fruit trees outside the health centre, or pop round the back to find some more herbs in the apothecary’s garden.
Even the local bobbies are in on the act. The raised beds outside the police station boast some splendid sweetcorn, along with many other fine crops. And no, they won’t arrest you if you take some; they’d actually rather like it if you did.
|Planters with sweet corn and other vegetables outside the police station in Todmorden.|
This simple but radical action of growing food in public places for everyone to share is transforming Todmorden. It began when two local women, Mary Clear and Pam Warhurst, became convinced that a food crisis was looming – one that would directly affect their children and grandchildren.
They were determined to take action but suspected words like ‘peak oil’ and ‘transition’ would make people switch off rather than get involved. On the other hand, everyone is interested in food. Food could be the catalyst that got people thinking about what they could grow and what that meant for their whole environment.
So Mary did something drastic. She knocked down the wall that separated her garden from the street. The garden was full of roses, a passion of hers, but, as she likes to point out, ‘you can’t make jam from roses’. So she dug up the flowers and her husband Fred built some raised beds instead. They planted salads and herbs, fruit trees and vegetables. And they put up a sign saying ‘Help Yourself’.
That got people talking. Mysteriously, more and more vegetables began to spring up around the town. Propaganda planting was taking off.
Eventually, a public meeting was held and the volunteer movement that is Incredible Edible Todmorden was born. Now every primary school in the town is growing some kind of food, and the secondary school not only has a vast polytunnel overflowing with organic veg for the school dinners, it’s even building a fish farm with a grant from the lottery.
There are cookery courses for everyone, a campaign to make ‘every egg a local egg’, and another to encourage more beekeeping. Farmers are reporting an increase in sales and have been inspired to create new products such as cheeses, and sausages from rare breed pork. Recently, volunteers transformed a large piece of donated land into a centre to train people in the skills of sustainable food production. There are also plans for an edible ‘green route’ through the town.
Of course I only ever go to Todmorden as a visitor and cannot know the inevitable tensions and difficulties that arise when a change of this nature is underway. But the evidence that this is working is everywhere, from the children who no longer think carrots come in plastic trays to the social housing tenants who are opening their homes to be used for cookery classes.
Incredible Edible Todmorden emphatically does not fly under any religious banner. However, as a Christian, I find it challenges my faith. I see the transformation that began when someone was prepared to give up their rights to their own garden produce for the good of the whole town and I ask myself whether I would have the courage to do the same. I fear the answer is no, despite the fact that the Bible is bursting with instances of God urging his people to be generous with what they have, and especially their land.
I also think that IET’s attitude to growing is prophetic – and by that I mean that it’s a clear demonstration of a right approach to stewarding land (which is not the same as saying that they have all the answers). Many of us Christians have been very slow to grasp the urgency of the environmental crisis that faces the world, let alone take any action. In Todmorden I see a group of people who are not prepared to sit back and let things go from bad to worse, leaving their grandchildren to cope with the consequences.
What should this say to those of us who claim to worship the One who created the environment in the first place?
Joanna Dobson is a mature student, writer-in training and mother of three who lives with her husband Julian in the wonderful city of Sheffield. Aside from books and her family, she loves walking, knitting and growing things and is always looking for ways to live more sustainably. She blogs at http://joannadobson.wordpress.com/