What if London became a National Park City?

What if?
Just Imagine. 

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend an event at the Southbank Centre which tried to address this question. The event brought together thinkers and activists from across the world of conservation, from the team behind the project to create a floating Lido in the Thames, to children beekeeping at school and a gardening fire fighter. They told us the real stories about how people across London are working towards this, and provided us all with the motivation to take action and to make it happen.

The UK is currently home to 15 National Parks which protect and conserve our diverse and beautiful landscapes. Around 40,000 people live within the boundaries of the National Parks, but they are thought to host more than 80 million visitors each year. They contribute more to the UK economy than the aerospace industry and yet they cost taxpayers less than 80p per year to maintain. 

London, on the other hand, is the largest city in the UK, it is home to 8.6 million people from a wide mix of different backgrounds and cultures. When most people think of cities they see the industrial sites, transport infrastructure and sprawling residential development, but London is different. Thanks to the philanthropy of our Victorian forefathers, this city has been built to include a dense mosaic of gardens, rivers, parks woods, meadows, lakes and allotments. In fact London is currently home to at least 8.3 million trees, 13,000 species of wildlife and recent surveys have revealed it is around 47% green space by area, making it one of the greenest cities in Europe. Together with the unique built environment, this makes London one of the most unusual landscapes in the UK, offering unique opportunities for both wildlife and human recreation.

There are millions of people across London who are working hard to protect and care for these vital green spaces every day. Using the principles of the National Parks model would unify these diverse organisations behind the single vision of ensuring everyone in the capital has access to high quality green spaces. 

To make London the world’s first National Park City would provide improvements to the mental and physical health of its residents. It would help to buffer against the impact of climate change and provide protection against environmental pollution. It would ensure the provision of space for children to play outside and access to recreational facilities for all. By making London a National Park city we could turn it into an even happier and healthier place both to live, and to visit.

The idea of establishing National Parks had been around for a while, but the United States were the first to legislate and Yellowstone National Park was designated in 1872, making it the first and oldest national park in the world. 

The National Parks movement didn’t gain momentum in the UK until the 1930’s. As the interest in using the countryside for leisure increased it began to cause friction between landowners and countryside users. Public movements such as the mass trespass of Kinder Scout prompted the formation of voluntary bodies to take up the cause of public access to the countryside and, in 1931, Lord Addison chaired a government committee that proposed a system of national reserves and nature sanctuaries. It wasn’t until 1947 however that a committee led by Sir Arthur Hobhouse proposed the establishment of 12 National Parks in the UK.

In 1949 the first National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed with support from all parties. This enabled the establishment of the first ten national parks during the 1950s, mostly on poor-quality agricultural upland. A lot of the land was still owned by individuals or private estates, but with help from public bodies (like the Crown) and charities (like the National Trust) who supported and encouraged access to everyone.

As a child I was lucky enough to live within driving distance of both the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. I remember spending many happy hours rambling with my family through the picturesque landscapes. I am convinced that this access to the countryside as a child cultivated my own affinity for nature and probably lead to me choosing a job working outdoors when I grew older.

Since moving to London 11 years ago I have been able to continue working outside in some of the many diverse ‘pockets’ of green space that exist in-between the built-up environment. I have come to appreciate their unique nature and the value they have for the many people, as well as wildlife, that utilise them. In some ways the preservation of green space in the city, where it is under intense pressure, is far more important than the preservation of green space in the countryside, where it is abundant. The complex network of ecosystems sitting side-by-side creates an intricate mosaic of land use with an enormous number of ecosystem edges, where the biodiversity is at its most abundant.

To make London the worlds first National Park City would be a simple, and cost-effective step with the potential to push London forward as a world leader in environmental policy, making it a city where people and nature are better connected.

You can go to http://www.nationalparkcity.london to pledge your support and find out how to help the campaign


Sun flowers

The fact that anything grows in our gardens at all, is due to three main elements – soil, water and sunshine. Without these necessities plants would struggle to gain a foothold. 

It is hard to alter the basic structure of our soil, but we can gradually improve it by adding organic matter. We can alter the amount of water in the garden by harvesting rainfall, storing and directing it to where it is needed. However, sunshine is a difficult commodity to replace. Commercial growers have developed light bulbs that can substitute for sunlight, but they will always be running at an energy deficit. Without the colossal nuclear reactor at the centre of the solar system, life on Earth simply would not exist.

Through millennia of evolution plants have developed the unique ability to capture the Sun’s energy through their own ‘solar panels’, and convert it to carbohydrate for later use. Most of the energy on the planet is in some way derived from the sun (apart from nuclear). As yet, apart from plants (and a few other organisms) nothing has evolved quite as efficient or useful a skill, so for the time being, we must rely on plants as our primary means of capturing solar energy. 

Sun is fundamental to the garden, dictating where plants will thrive or die, and conducting their circadian rhythms. Much is said about the influence of the moon on plants, but it is the Sun which is the denominating factor in the equation. The rhythms of the planet are fundamentally tied to the sun’s passage across the sky, waking in the morning with its arrival and sleeping at night when it disappears. In the temperate regions, our environments fluctuate according to the seasonal changes of the Sun’s angle. Conserving our energy during the dark months of the winter, and celebrating the abundance of warmth and light in the long days of spring and summer.

Heliotropism is the name given to the action of plants that turn to follow the sun. In Ancient Greece the movement of sunflowers was explained by the legend of Clytie and Helios. Clytie was a water nymph, who loved the sun god, Helios. Unfortunately Helios was besotted by another woman, but Clytie would watch, every day, as Helios raced his chariot across the sky. After nine days of watching him without food or drink, she became rooted to the spot and was transformed into a sunflower. Whilst sunflowers are growing, by altering concentrations of minerals in its tissues, the whole plant, leaves buds and all, will turn to track the Suns passage across the sky, ensuring it absorbs as much sunshine as possible. Once the flower buds have opened they will stop moving and remain facing east to maximise their absorption of heat, making them as attractive as possible to pollinating insects. 

This past week we have been blessed with a brief flourish of sunshine as summer returned and we basked in some of the hottest days of the year so far. In the South East, the heat wave broke on Thursday night with torrential thunderstorms causing travel chaos, but for a few days in the UK, we were enjoying temperatures higher than most of our favourite holiday destinations, so I am told. 

These last days of the summer have helped to ripen the apples and turned my green, outdoor tomatoes a deep red as the sunlight was transformed into sugar. The warm golden glow of the sun makes everything seem more positive, as it stimulates vitamin D production and the blues of winter seem a long way off. On those rare scorching days, I start to relish the cooler and shadier areas of the garden, not as difficult places to grow, but as a refuge from the heat. They will continue to look lush and fresh whilst the sun baked areas of the garden will start to look tired and thirsty in the heat of the day. 

I try to do my best to not complain about the weather, although I know it is one of the most British of pastimes. We love to tell everyone how we are too hot the moment the sun starts to shine, or bemoan the rain as soon as it starts falling, but we cannot have one without the other. Our green and pleasant land requires both sun and rain to keep it green and pleasant and if the sun shone every day, I probably wouldn’t appreciate it when it did.

Growing for gold

This is the time of the year we have the local horticultural society show. If you are a member of your local allotment or horticultural society you will probably have had one recently or are deep in planning and preparation for one coming soon. Yesterday, my own society, Hampstead Garden Suburb Horticultural Society (http://www.hgs.org.uk/hortsoc ) held it’s 282nd flower show. The regular flower shows are a continuous thread running all the way through the 107 year history of the society, linking those first members in the early days to the gardeners of today. 

In June, I took part for the first time at the spring show, and was lucky enough to be awarded a 1st for my irises and a 3rd for my rhubarb. It wasn’t my first ever time showing. When I worked at Capel Manor College I had entered my dahlias into the Autumn show a couple of times, and was lucky enough to get 1st place two years running.  

This weekend I wasn’t as successful as on previous occasions, but I did manage to get a 2nd for my ‘Black Futsu’ squash, and a 3rd for both my runner beans and my potatoes. Nothing to be disappointed about, but I couldn’t help feeling that with a bit better preparation I could have done a lot better than I did.

I’m still a relative novice in the world of showing so it was a real treat when the head judge, Jim Butress (an RHS judge best known from TV program the ‘Big Allotment Challenge’) took some of the exhibitors around to give them tips on what he was looking for in a winning display. 

A lot of societies will require members to notify what classes they will be entering before the event. A quick reconnaissance trip to the allotment and a check around the garden in the week preceding the show is a good idea to see what will be ready in time. It’s hard to predict exactly what the weather will bring, but you can get a fairly good idea of what might be available. I had expected to be able to enter the cactus-type dahlia category, but when all of my best flowers took advantage of the warm weather to open the Tuesday before the show, I was left with a beautiful vase of flowers for the house, but less than perfect flowers for the show.

Study the show schedule carefully. Even with a bit of horticultural experience, I still misinterpreted some of the classes and needed to appeal to be changed into the correct class just minutes before the judging started. After taking part you will start to notice that some classes are less hotly contested than others, and you stand a better chance of a rosette focusing your efforts on ensuring you have an entry in those classes (although there is no obligation for the judges to award a prize if they don’t at least fulfil the expected standards.) 

I would however encourage anyone taking part to not focus on the rosettes too much. Whilst it is fun to be rewarded for your efforts with public acknowledgment the real joy of entering a show like this is for the strong sense of camaraderie they encourage. For everyone taking part, the day will be filled with the nervous excitement of their efforts being judged and all the participants will be only to happy to offer help, support and tips for one another. These events are an opportunity to build bonds within the local community and people who may not talk to one another for much of the year are brought together in a mutual appreciation of gardening and flowers to celebrate the bounty of the harvest together in an all-inclusive and non-religious way. 

Our local show also offers the opportunity to purchase some of the delicious produce of the local master bakers taking part, and usually lots of other entertainment. The Autumn show was filled with the rousing sound of the local brass band, and at the spring show we found ourselves jeering and shouting at Mr Punch as he fought to recover his beloved sausages from the mischievous crocodile in the most quintessentially British way.

Taking part in a local show is a great way to set yourself a goal. You will find you are even more motivated to learn more and put your skills in to practice so you can achieve the best you can. Simply growing the best flowers you can for a specific day is a real skill, and the more you do it the better you will get. I am reminded of a quote from the legendary Ice Hockey player, Wayne Gretzky “You miss 100% of the shots you didn’t take” – you have to have a go, to even have a chance of winning.

Tasteful gardening 

I’m sorry if you are disappointed, but this blog post will not tell you how to make your garden look more stylish. This post is all about one of my favourite times of the year – the harvest. 

Through the summer the amount of veg we are able to bring home from the allotment has been gradually increasing but it is in September that we really start to be able to savour the fruits of our labour. Through the rest of the year we have been hard at work; preparing the ground, sowing seeds, nursing young plants through their first months, fending off pests and diseases and watering like crazy. Finally the time has come that our hard work has come to fruition and the majority of our time at the allotment is actually spent harvesting our produce. Between the endless cycle of harvesting, preparing and preserving there is little time left for other jobs, but it is essential we put our reserves away now in preparation for the lean months of winter. There are few things more satisfying than cracking open a bottle of home-brewed cider in the dark months of the year or the tang of pickled red cabbage with boxing day cold cuts. 

I have fond memories of this time of year. As a child, the return to school would coincide with the ripening of the chestnuts, ready for endless games of conkers and the sagging branches of trees laden with ripe apples were perfectly placed for a spot of scrumping on the way home. I proudly remember carrying one of my dad’s enormous marrows, almost as big as myself, to present at the church harvest festival service. I can’t imagine that the old folk of the parish were all that grateful for the marrows. My own memories were that they were pretty bland and the endless nights of ratatouille made with homegrown tomatoes, onions and marrows could’ve done with a dash more of homegrown herbs to spice them up a bit. 

Our tastes change as we age. As children we are drawn to sweetness and away from bitterness. Bitter flavours are an indicator of poisons and we have a natural aversion to them, but as adults we learn that some of these bitter tastes (like coffee or beer) can be pleasant and beneficial. The sensation of taste is caused by the reaction of taste receptors in the mouth to food. A quick look in the mirror will show that our tongues are covered with thousands of tiny bumps. Each bump is full of hundreds of tastebuds and there are thought to be around 5000 taste buds on the average human tongue. Each taste bud contains 50-100 taste receptors, each one bristling to tell us what is going on in our mouths. These receptors are sensitive to the five main tastes; sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness and umami ( a Japanese word roughly translated as ‘savoury’). Recent research has also highlighted the possibility that we may also be able to sense starchiness in our foods. This may have developed as it is beneficial for us to be able to identify ‘hearty’ foods that contain lots of energy. Our perception of whether we enjoyed the food is not just about these five basic tastes, but can also be influenced by the aroma, texture and temperature of the food.

I used to work testing different varieties of fruit and vegetables. They would be rated for yield, disease resistance, ease of cultivation and appearance, but often the key factor that separated them would be how they tasted. It is all well and good harvesting a huge crop, but if they don’t taste particularly nice you won’t be motivated to grow them again next year. The ultimate destiny of any vegetable is to be eaten after all. The flavour can be affected by many aspects. Each variety will have a slightly different balance of flavours. The weather in any particular season can affect the flavour, and the combination of soil type and variety will have an influence, much like when a wine grape is said to take on the ‘terroir’ of where it has been cultivated. 

I have found, through growing my own fruit and vegetables, that one of the main factors affecting their flavour is also their freshness. The fact that with my own produce it can be just hours from plot to plate means they are incomparable to the products which have been through an industrialised system of cooling, transportation, and distribution networks over a period of days which can irrevocably damage the delicate aromatic compounds essential to their flavour before they ever reach the shops. 

On my own plot I have found myself growing less and less of the traditional ‘staples’. Whilst I will always appreciate that growing your own can improve the flavour of even something as simple as the potato, I am becoming more drawn towards using my efforts to grow items which need to be as fresh as possible, are hard to get hold of, or expensive in the quantities I desire. Cabbages and sprouts are reduced to make space for asparagus and sweetcorn, potatoes and carrots have given way to oca and yacon, and the areas devoted to grapes and apples for brewing my own wine and cider are gradually increasing. I will always save a bit of space for the staples like beans, pumpkins and onions, but will continue to experiment, trying both new and older varieties, until I finally manage to settle on my favourites