Tagged: Hackney

Gardens Illustrated | nature’s palette

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 01

This feature appears in the June issue of Gardens Illustrated
Photography by Rachel Warne

Dyer and designer Katelyn Toth Fejel hails from America but currently lives in Hackney Wick. As well as acres of urban grit, this part of east London also has a river, the Lee, and a modest tangle of woodland called Wick Woods. In the summer it’s tempting to get a little bit lost in its lushness. Sadly, I meet Katelyn on a day that’s less than perfect.

How many people in the fashion industry aren’t a little bit allergic to rain? Katelyn has excellent couture credentials but constantly craves the outdoors. Persistent drizzle, and the subsequent waterproofs it requires, doesn’t put her off. A walk in Wick Woods with Katelyn, her local dye foraging spot, involves getting down on your hands on knees to peer at things in intimate close up, whatever the weather.

Inspired by permaculture, Katelyn is part of the Permacouture Institute, works for the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion and helps run an ethical boutique called Here Today, Here Tomorrow. She’s a nature lover and environmentalist as much as she is a designer, and these passions inform and shape her work. “I approach fashion as if it were an ecology, an ecosystem.”

She began experimenting with mail order natural dyes at art school and hasn’t looked back, quickly graduating to ones she makes herself. “I love the diversity of the experience when you pick the dye yourself. With powders you get the same result each time.” She talks of the beauty of creating a dye palette that reflects her local environment, suggesting the blur of colour you might see through a car or train window is likely a similar spread of shades you would get from dye plants sourced in that area.

Katelyn champions species that are abundant but others may see as a nuisance. “I love plants that do many things like nettle – it can be used to make soup or tea, as a fabric and a dye.” A favourite last summer was a container of cut-and-come-again pot marigolds – the flowers are delicious in salads and can also be used as a dye. She has a huge bag of frozen petals in her freezer, ready for brewing into a dye bath when the right project comes along.

Making natural dyes from plants is a lot like cooking – there’s no one way to do it. Bark likes to be cooked long and hot, whereas something light and leafy needs much gentler treatment. To turn the concoction from colourful stew into dye you may need to add a mordant like alum, which helps fix the dye to the fabric. It’s gentle enough that leftover dye can be used to water acid loving plants like blueberry or rhododendron.

Katelyn’s experiments with plants have produced hues of ombre, chestnut, rust, gold, mustard, terracotta, pink, mink and cream. The colours compliment each other and have unusual depths. “Natural dyes, like a Seurat painting, change in different lights,” she says. “They shimmer. It’s almost like an optical illusion. They have a richness and depth that synthetic colours lack.”

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 02

For Katelyn, dock root is “an unusual blessing”. It may need to be boiled for several hours to release the dye, but the resulting rusty pinks, shimmering golds and autumnal oranges are worth it. In a world dominated by yellows, natural dyers come to prize the reds. Dock works beautifully on silk or wool, and you can achieve many more shades by adding acid or alkali to the dye. A dash of baking soda will bring out a warm terracotta. Dock leaves can be used too – young foliage produces a bright green-yellow, older leaves create more of a mustard.

As someone who loves a challenge and embraces the opportunity to experiment, cherry is a favourite of Katelyn. “It’s such a mystery, still. If I had any tree it would be this.” While some people hate the inconsistency of natural dying, she relishes the unknown. The bark from young, fallen branches can produce a dye that ranges from pinks and oranges to greens and golds. The colour achieved depends on the variety of tree and the environmental conditions where it is found, not to mention the fabric you are dying – wool and silk will turn different colours when dipped in the same dye bath.

The inner bark of the birch tree produces a pretty pink, while the outer bark achieves a paler, subtler shade. The leaves create yellow or olive green. Add iron to the dye bath – Katelyn nurtures rusty nails in jars of water especially for the task – to produce a creamy, purplish grey. A range of special effects are possible with natural dyes and specific techniques can be used to create unusual patterns. For example, Itajime – Japanese wood block clamping – leaves behind un-dyed shapes with haloes around the edge. You can use natural dyes to colour yarn and for screen-printing projects too.

The bark, leaves and berries of the elder tree can all be used as dyes. The bark creates a delicate metallic colour like the palest pink of the inside of a shell, while the leaves produce tans, greens and golds. The berries can be used to create a fugitive purple stain, which changes over time and eventually washes out. Katelyn welcomes the impermanence – “embrace unpredictably and accept change – dye a dress afresh every season.” Her foraging also embraces the edible and she advises you eat some elder berries too. The ideal plant will colour your cloth and make a meal.

Lost in London | life cycle

This feature appears in the spring issue of Lost in London

Let’s begin this story where it ended, back in a small north London flat. A woman in a helmet bejewelled with a million rain drops, and a high-vis vest made heavy with wet, stands soaked to the skin. Messy clouds of black mascara lace her cheeks and a comic drip clings precariously to the end of her indignant nose. Her hands burn with cold. For many reasons, including the weather, relying on a bike to get about is not always fun.

But rather than feelings of hopelessness, today she feels empowered. Today, she is the master of her own machine. She’s just returned from a place where she learned more about bicycles than she ever knew before. So you can throw a bucket of dirty water over her head and she will still believe that cycling, most of the time, is the best way to move about the city. What else can magic an hour’s complicated bus journey into a free twenty minute ride?

The soggy specimen with the gleaming helmet is obviously me, and it’s my beloved bronze Claude Butler bicycle that’s just been treated to the London Bike Kitchen once over.

The newly opened bike kitchen in Hoxton is the baby of Jenni Gwiazdowski, and it was inspired by a beautiful bike frame. The frame sat in Jenni’s bedroom, where she dreamed of building it up into a bicycle. She began hunting for a course that would teach her to do just that. Although friends offered to help, she really wanted to learn in a classroom style setting. But the class didn’t exist, and the idea for a bike kitchen in Hackney was born.

“Bike kitchens are found all over the world – they’re volunteer run spaces where people can fix their own bike,” says Jenni.  “You pay a small fee to use the space and tools, and people are there to help you.

“I decided to take the model one step up and run this bike kitchen as a social enterprise, so we are a business with social aims. We don’t want to make a massive profit but we do want to make a living. I’ve been talking to bike mechanics and, while they love their work so much that they’ll do it for free, they’d also love to get paid.”

The London Bike Kitchen can be found in a row of shops close to the Regent’s Canal on a fairly quiet road that’s popular with cyclists. Don’t let the ‘Kitchen’ part of the name confuse you – it’s not another bike themed cafe but a proper workshop, with a cold concrete floor and tools on the walls.

The shop had been empty for years before Jenni got the lease. When she moved in, she found the ghost of the hardware store that lived there long ago; a peg board, a grinder and a vice. She reclaimed them for use in the new workshop. Originally it was a fishmongers and white enamel tiling gives the space an old school charm.

In the welcome company of a mechanic called Lish Ng, we hoist my bike into a stand beside a slim workbench laden with tools, oil, an apron and a grease cloth. £5 gets you access to the equipment and the mechanic for half an hour.

We do an ‘M’ check to see how healthy the bike is. Moving in an M shape across it, we check key things like the wheels, brakes, handlebars and gears. My bike is in pretty good condition but the front brake pads are hitting the tyre slightly so we do some readjustments using spanners and clamps. I also oil the chain and gear cables, my hands getting suitably blackened and greasy (there are gloves on offer but the sticky dirt feels like a badge of honour).

I love my bicycle but know nothing about how it works. Spending this kind of time with it is both fascinating and useful. What’s great about Lish is that, while she’s more than happy to take charge and help out, she makes an effort to encourage me to get involved and learn what to do. She’s supportive and knowledgeable, but keen not to take over. Certain jobs need two pairs of hands and we work as a team to get those brake pads sorted.

If you know what you’re doing, the London Bike Kitchen provides you with the space and tools to do it, with parts on sale should you need them. If you’re a novice, there’s lots of advice on offer too.  Optional membership will be on offer – for £10 a year, members will get invites to special events and hopefully feel part of a cycling community.

Jenni is also working on a programme of classes and courses, and is keen to encourage all sorts of people into the workshop.  A critical thinking and analysis/bike building class for young people is being planned, as well as a women and gender variant night. Jenni would like to work with Muslim women and refugees, hoping the workshop will become a place that feels open to everyone.

“A lot of bike shops you walk into have got their own scene going on, and you might not feel comfortable.  I want to create an environment where anyone can come and feel that they’re not going to be judged. A lot of bike places are male-centred and when you ask a question you feel stupid. ‘Any bike, any rider’ is part of our slogan” says Jenni.

“I think the biggest barrier that stops people cycling is fear.  If you can feel more confident on your bike, you feel able to position yourself further out in the road – I would rather that drivers be angry at me for doing that because it means they see me. It’s when they don’t see me that they can do me damage.”

Take to a bike, and London’s face changes and same-old journeys shift their shape. Your head space alters as you move alone through uneven fields of pitted and pocked grey, and you’re forced to interact with motorists in a very direct way.  Unlike them, you’re not hermetically sealed in a bubble of conditioned air. You literally embrace your vehicle and feel the skin of the terrain its wheels traverse.  Understanding how your bike works surely improves your cycling.

Jenni thinks so. “You become more confident riding when you become confident fixing. I remember it took me years to understand how gears work. I know a lot of people still don’t and I’d love to teach them because it’s fascinating.  The person who invented the bicycle is a genius – it’s amazing how the system works. From that understanding I realise I’m not riding a crazy computer – it’s a machine and it’s simple, and from that I feel like I have more control.”


This article was originally written for the Londonist

Last frequented by the Londonist back in 2007, our ongoing eco-eating mission gave us the perfect excuse to return to Pogo.  A small vegan cafe found in deepest Hackney, it’s run as a co-operative by volunteers, has a strong activist streak, a busy notice board and a library of flyers.  A chamber for voices calling for change, Pogo is also a rather nice place for a hearty, animal and planet friendly lunch on the cheap.

Found up a humble side street, it’s a simple space that was fairly quiet on the midweek lunchtime we chose to visit.  We lingered over our meal making and were around to see a large delivery from Growing Communities arrive.  Pogo is a pick-up point for people who order boxes of local veg from the Hackney food growing enterprise.

There’s a chalk board of daily specials – both lunches and cakes – as well as a fixed menu of meat and dairy free burgers and child-sized options.  Both burgers and salads come in small and large sizes, allowing the eco eater to try a few things and still economise.

We opted for a snack size Tex Mex tofu burger.  It was huge and served in a delicious homemade bread bun packed with avocado, salad and jalapenos, as well as a succulent and perfectly seasoned patty made from organic tofu and pumpkin seeds.  It was a full meal on a tiny plate and only £3.75.  We loved it!

We also had a large bowl of carrot and spinach salad and a red cabbage coleslaw – acid bright dishes that weren’t fancy but were fresh with clean, crisp flavours.  They came with slices of a quite strange, stodgy, sticky bread that was almost cake-like and clearly homemade.

More than just a lunch venue, Pogo runs a series of regular and one-off events including Monday film nights and Saturday morning yoga.  Perhaps not a destination lunch spot that’s worth travelling great distances for, it is somewhere to seek out if you’re a local or you find yourself in the area.

It’s definitely somewhere we’re keen to return to for an evening event – we noticed a poster for a just past BYO acoustic mash-up which sounded great.  And that tofu burger really was top notch.

Pogo Cafe, 76 Clarence Road, E5 8HB / www.pogocafe.co.uk / closed on Monday and Tuesdays

INTERVIEW The Pangea Project

This interview was orginally written for the Londonist

Rosie.  Photograph by Travis HodgesOpen for just over a year and a half, The Pangea Project in Stamford Hill (up the hill from Stokey station, opposite the huge supermarket) is both a tiny but buzzing venue and a community space. It hosts an eclectic range of performers, mixes a decent drink and serves up delicious veggie food from a hatch that opens out onto the street. We talked to Rosie Schura who, along with Selim Goksel, runs the project about how it all started, romance, recession and plans for 2010.

Rosie, where did the idea for the project come from and how did it go from concept to real live place, busy with people and performers?

When Selim and I met we had a shared vision of setting up a creative community hub with cooking, music and arts. We found the venue by chance when visiting our friends who were setting up Playground Studio downstairs. We had come in to do a recording, but by the time we left everyone was buzzing with the idea of a live music venue linked to a recording studio. Selim was leaving the week after for his visa, so we had to decide quick. When we returned, we built a stage and a sound booth in 48 hours with help from our friend Jon, put in two busted up Behringer speakers, two beer taps and unlocked the door…
Any romances to confess to along the way…?

I met Selim six months before we started the business. We got married three months after we opened, so it was a very crazy life changing year! I often feel like we went to marriage boot camp… living and working together 24/7 with little time for stroppiness… Everything was baptism by fire back then.

Who goes to Pangea Project?

Initially people would come only to see specific events and therefore the audience would differ from night to night. At this time we had doubts about the variety of our programme, a lot of customers were uncomfortable not being able to categorise us according to musical genre… are we a jazz club / are we a hip hop showcase… and we felt pressure to hone in on a particular scene. We’ve stuck with keeping it eclectic though, and I think people are now attracted to something beyond the gig. All kinds of people like all kinds of music, and that’s what we seem to get.

Tell us about the food…

Chef and nutritionist Janos Atkins creates unique dishes and sauces from scratch. Thanks to him we have some of the most delicious vegetarian food in London. We’re foodies; we don’t say that lightly. It’s probably some of the most hearty and nutritious takeaway in town. The products are ethically sourced, with as much organic and fairtrade goods as possible. Meat eaters are always surprised by our uncanny veggie lamb and chicken. If you’re veggie or vegan, the food is not to be missed.

What kind of music do you have on?

Blues, Rockabilly, Flamenco, Afro-beat, Bluegrass, Brazilian Choro… these are styles that keep coming back with bands such as Awale, Fernando’s Kitchen, London Afrobeat Collective, Ramshackle Union, Club Do Choro. The gigs are of a really high standard and we are now doing live recordings with Playground Studios who operate downstairs. Getting a CD after playing a great live gig is a nice touch for musicians. They spend way too much time and money on recordings…
Rosie and Selim outside Pangea. Photograph by Travis HodgesHow about comedy nights?

Ah yes, Tom Webb’s outstandingly funny and ridiculous Party Piece. Demand for spots is high and we usually have 10 to 15 comedians every Tuesday night. This night has come a long way from where it started, when it was a few sweaty squirming comedians and one extremely uncomfortable audience member. It’s now really busy. We’re continuously amazed at how many people have the urge to get up on stage and place their ego in the drunken hands of the general public… Some of them are gems, some are terrible and some rather offensive. Same goes for the comedians!

And the venue is also a hub for community groups?

Transition Town Stoke Newington has been meeting at Pangea since December 2008. The Transition Town movement aims to build links in local communities and find ways in which to deal creatively and positively with the environmental and social challenges that lie ahead. We hold a social event every third Thursday of the month, which starts with a shared meal (bring a dish) and continues with discussion, sometimes a topical film and music.

And there’s Pangea Chorus, a free weekly choir which I’ve been running since October 2008. It’s just for fun – we stretch and sing and have a laugh, remembering that singing is good for everyone, not just for people who are amazing at it. It’s a no pressure choir.

How important is the local area to the character of Pangea?

For those that don’t know Stokey, we find ourselves in the Hasidic heartland of Europe plus little Istanbul, not to mention yummy mummy central and a very long established creative arts community… it’s a very diverse corner of Hackney and the people who live here invest in it – they go out here, they shop here, we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on without the strength of this community.

Did you have any doubters, any opposition to your plans? How have you dealt with that stuff?

I think the most doubt has come from within. Most people have really believed in us and been very supportive; probably because they havent seen the books… Ultimately, I hope we are learning to deal with the impossibilities of running a small business with some grace and valour…we’re run ragged, but still kicking!

It’s almost impossible for us to stand back on a busy night, but you do get those moments where the jam really hits a sweet spot and the whole room sets on fire. We’re not at a stage yet where we can breathe easy and say we made it, but we know it’s good. We’re very proud of our project.

Any favourite moments?

It’s hard to pick favourites, whether it’s moments, food or music. I guess one of them was not so long ago. We had a very difficult moment before the recession apparently ended where we had almost lost the business. We had gone so far as to submit our notice, when everything turned around. Our landlord asked us to stick with it, Playground Studio fought for our corner, and Fernando’s Kitchen and Ramshackle Union Band gave us our most successful weekend ever. This was the moment the scales tipped in our favour. It felt good being reincarnated by the support of everyone around.

What next? Any upcoming highlights in 2010?

Busy as always. The kitchen is starting food delivery, breakfast in bed, and off-site catering. Playground has just taken our first live recording, so we’re looking forward to a Live at Pangea Project series. Bands have been extremely patient and supportive of us. I hope we can give them something back with some fantastic recordings. Once you start something like this the ideas go into overdrive…

Find out more at www.pangeaproject.co.uk

A room with a view

From eyesore to architectural feat, people’s opinions of the inner city tower block range from horror to awe, but most would likely suggest such buildings have little or no wildlife value.  But the people who live in them disagree…

Daphne and Lillian, two ladies who have called an imposing Hackney tower block home for over thirty years, rave about the natural spectacles they witness from their cloud capped building.  The pair sit in the kitchen of a seventh floor flat, smoking cigarettes and reminiscing, all the time framed by a window that has sweeping views out over East Reservoir, Stoke Newington and beyond to central London.

Your eyes can trace the shapes of the Gherkin, BT Tower and London Eye, before settling closer to home on the steeple of Saint Mary’s New Church and then on the many birds resting on the glittering water at the tower block’s feet.

“The first time I came here I really couldn’t believe it, it’s such a wonderful view.  From the street you’d never think it” says Daphne.  “I’d spend hours staring out of the window at first.  My mother used to say you could never be depressed in this flat because of the view, because you got to see all four seasons in detail.  In the winter, when it snows, you look out and it’s like a village, with the snow on the trees and on the church.  It’s so pretty.”

Lincoln Court doesn’t look especially pretty from the outside.  It’s a tall, grey wedge of concrete and the main reception area is almost grim.  But ascend a few floors and enter Daphne’s spacious, light-filled flat and you’re transported to another world.  “You look out and you don’t see other people’s windows and walls, you see vast open space” says Daphne. The ladies feel blessed. “You’d miss out on all this if you were on the ground in a house” adds Lillian.

“You know when it’s most wonderful?” Daphne asks.  “In the summer when there’s a storm.  I love storms.  We watched one at 3am in the morning once.  We were glued to the windows watching it break over the reservoir.  The water looked electric lit up by flashes of lightning. It was fantastic.  We also get some really beautiful sunsets.  When you’ve lived up high for a few years you really start to appreciate what you’ve got, it’s amazing.”

For Lillian, it’s the creatures and natural dramas she witnesses from her high rise perch that make her love life in Lincoln Court.  She adores foxes and watches a local family of them every day, recognising individuals and learning to understand their behaviour.  She recalls an incident three years ago when she saw a partridge from her flat.  Watching the bird through her binoculars, she found her local foxes had also seen it and were in hot pursuit.  With delight she exclaims that the partridge shot up a pear tree and escaped.

Lillian is a birdwatcher and has seen everything from jays to kestrels high up on the tower block’s ledges.  “In the summer I left some food on my windowsill and a jay came and took it.  There are four of them now.”  Seagulls have recently moved in and the ladies comment that Canada geese used to be reservoir regulars but don’t visit any more.  They’ve watched the reservoir change over the years, saying it seems smaller now as the reed beds gain strength.  After initial concerns, both are huge fans of London Wildlife Trust’s community garden on the water edge.

Mark Pearson works for the Trust at the East Reservoir Community Garden and believes the local tower blocks are an essential part of the landscape.  A fanatic birder, he relishes the views afforded by such buildings.

“Being fascinated by London’s ever-changing avifauna, I spend more time looking up than is probably healthy in a city of white van drivers and bendy buses, but it’s more than worth it – there’s an incredible variety of birdlife above us in the city skies.

Visible migration involves the ebb and flow of migrating birds overhead, and is a phenomenon that is especially dramatic in late autumn. Raptor-watching, meanwhile, is concentrated mainly in the main migration windows of spring and autumn.

To appreciate these spectacles, there is no better (or more comfortable) venue than high up in a tower block. I’ve been lucky enough to see osprey, black kite, honey buzzard and marsh harrier circling over the reservoir – special enough from the ground, but much more dramatic from Lincoln Court, the tower blocks that overshadow the water.

The extra height from tall buildings gives unrivalled views of many birds in flight, from large raptors to battalions of smaller birds.  If you live or work in a London tower block, think of your window or balcony as a private, all-mod-cons bird observatory – because that’s exactly what it is.”

This article appears in the winter 2009 issue of Wild London magazine

Urban mud patch with play potential

As the summer holidays progress apace and a new school term appears on the horizon, Helen Babbs from London Wildlife Trust explores a growing trend for learning outside the classroom and natural play.

Natural play at East Res 1Just over a year ago, London Wildlife Trust took on the management of what was essentially a patch of mud sitting in the middle of an estate in particularly urban feeling bit of Hackney in east London.  It wasn’t just any old patch of mud though, this patch had potential.  It sat sandwiched between a reservoir, a river and several tower blocks.  It had wildlife potential and people potential, especially young people potential.  It was to be the East Reservoir Community Garden, and there was a lot of work to be done.

Over the last twelve months the mud patch with potential has been transformed into a thriving community garden, where local people from all different backgrounds come to share their skills and learn new ones.  It’s an especially important place for people who don’t have instant or easy access to green space.  The site has just been awarded a Green Pennant Award for being a high quality community open space, an incredible achievement in such a short space of time.  Making the garden a fun place for children to both learn about nature and play in it was a top priority and has shaped how the site has developed.

Kids versus nature

There is a worrying and increasing divide between young people and the natural world, especially but not exclusively in urban areas.  Children have much to distract them and keep them indoors, exciting technological advances and online social networks demand a lot of their time.  And parents and carers are more cautious than ever about the world outside their four walls, stressed by stories in the media and under pressure from other parents not to let their kids play out on their own.

But this tendency to stay inside means that young people are seriously missing out and so environmental educators are making it their mission to reconnect young people with nature.  It’s something that seems more important than ever in an era of climate change and where new scientists are becoming a much rarer breed.

A manifesto for natural learning

Natural play at East Res 2The idea of learning outside the classroom has gained significant ground, and the importance of natural play and environmental education is starting to be appreciated by government, teachers and parents.  A class that involves getting out of the school building is invariably popular with both kids and teachers, and lessons learned seem much more relevant when the young person experiences them in a direct, hands-on way.

The ‘Manifesto for Learning Outside the Classroom’, published by the then Department for Education and Skills, states that the use of places other than classrooms for teaching and learning often leads to “the most memorable learning experiences, helping us to make sense of the world around us by making links between feelings and learning.”

“These experiences stay with us into adulthood and affect our behaviour, lifestyle and work. They influence our values and the decisions we make. They allow us to transfer learning experienced outside to the classroom and vice versa.”

Memorable adventures on offer to UK kids include a boat trail on the Broads run by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, or how about exploring Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s Romano round house? Children can discover how their ancestors lived off the land growing food and herbal remedies, and they even get try their hands at dyeing using plant dyes.

Best bird hide, ever!

Returning to Hackney, the most exciting natural play project at the new East Reservoir Community Garden has been the creation of a hybrid bird hide play structure.  Tucked away in a leafy corner, and balanced on long stilts, it’s a combination of an adventure playground structure and a traditional bird hide.  It’s loved by young people and adults alike, and works as a perfect venue for both work and play.  The play value of the hide is high – underneath is flexible space for den building, a hammock will be installed soon and children can climb onto different levels.

East Res July 09 (5)The hide looks out over the stunning East Reservoir – a peaceful expanse of water that is incredibly popular with water birds, not least because of the beautiful and huge reed bed that surrounds it.  From the hide, you can look out over the water and spot all kinds of bird life as well as admire the London skyline in the distance, the ‘gherkin’ a tiny space ship on the horizon.

The community garden also has living willow structures, a tunnel to run through and a willow igloo for quiet play space.  Children of all abilities, from many different cultures and backgrounds, now attend education sessions in the garden, and are experiencing nature first hand, close to their homes and schools. After school clubs, play schemes and inter-generational volunteering sessions are encouraging local children to take ownership of their local environment.

Urban vegetable skill swapping

It’s not just about young people either.  Adults benefit from learning outside the classroom and natural play too.  Local residents of all ages come to the garden in Hackney and share all kinds of skills with each other, from building techniques and translation, to wildlife identification and cookery.

A vegetable shaped example is the Turkish Ladies’ Gardening Club that meets at the site once a week and has filled a section of the garden with delicious fruit and veg.  They’ve recently combined forces with a Healthy Spaces Club and, starting next year, they’ll be taking their skills out of the garden and into the local estates with an ‘adopt a grow bag’ scheme.  Natural learning really can take place anywhere and can be made relevant to anyone, even the most urban of city slicker in the most built up area.

Let a little play into your life

August means ‘Playday’, an annual event that promotes children’s right to play.  Each year ‘Playday’ has a campaign theme and this year it’s ‘Make time! The campaign is calling for everyone – from parents, carers and teachers, to policy makers and planners – to make time for play. See www.playday.org.uk for more info and events.

Find out more (environmental education resources)

Learning Outside the Classroom – www.lotc.org.uk

Field Studies Council – www.field-studies-council.org

SEEd – www.se-ed.org.uk

London Play – www.londonplay.org.uk

LEEF – www.leef.org.uk

This article appears in the September issue of Kitchen Garden magazine

Interview with Iain Sinclair

iain-sinclairTalking reservoirs, rivers, redevelopment and the importance of a good breakfast with the writer Iain Sinclair.

Iain Sinclair is a London writer, but he is also a London walker. In fact, both habits are completely entwined and he can’t do one without the other.

“For me the practise of walking and writing are not separated in any way. I discovered, as soon as I started to write full time, that I need to step away from my study in the house and move out into the landscape. It’s a way of deprogramming myself, and of allowing the voices of place to come to me, so that my writing becomes a collaboration with the topography.”

I invite Iain to meet me at the East Reservoir Community Garden in Stoke Newington as I know he’s a devoted Hackney-ite and I want to show him London Wildlife Trust’s newest site. He’s just published a book about the borough and the excursion brings back memories of walking Hackney’s boundaries and specifically walking past the reservoir along the New River. He recalls seeing the “beautiful spread of water with the reed beds and the sun setting behind it” and seems to delighted to return to the spot, confessing that “as I’ve got more and more ancient, I’ve realised that, having been in Hackney for so long, the very surroundings are kind of autobiography now”.

Every morning Iain and his wife strike out early, walking from their east London home across London Fields, through Victoria Park, before looping back along the Regent’s Canal. “The circuit only takes about three quarters of an hour, but by doing this all the time in the same landscape, you notice minute changes, you see particular wildlife and you see particular eccentrics, and the whole thing becomes a story and you belong to it”.

Iain worries about the massive redevelopment projects currently underway in his borough. “It’s like bits of your own memory are being burnt out, things that have become part of my story by passing by them are no longer there. It’s unnerving.” He worries that important areas are being lost, and is most alarmed about being prevented from walking.

“A lot of development is being done in a rush, brutally and top down, without genuine consultation. The first casualty is the freedom to walk. Endless streets just disappear, cones and barriers are put up, once public territory becomes privatised. My favourite walk used to be to wander up the lower Lee Valley, through bits of land that were industrially derelict, through old orchards and wilderness patches, onto the reservoirs. The mixture of life you would get there was astonishing. If you’re living somewhere as intensely urban as Hackney I think you desperately need these green lungs and open spaces and changes of light.”

Iain Sinclair is part of a long tradition of London writers who walk. He points to Dickens , who was famous for walking 15 miles a day, and to De Quincey, whose essays have a rambling and digressive style. It is a way of moving that allows the writer to access an almost dreamlike state. “The experience of walking is transcendent, magic, we can’t afford to lose that.”

Iain’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, betray a fascination with London’s riverside churches and churchyards. His interest in these spaces stems from working as a gardener for Tower Hamlets council in the 1970s. “Being a labourer in these spaces was a sort of privileged thing. It was interesting to see what wildlife felt happy living among the tombs, and to see the human wildlife too. Eccentrics would all feel very comfortable in these spaces because they were quite wild.

“I’d always take my lunch and my bicycle into the wilderness of Tower Hamlets cemetery, and have a picnic and a read and a wander. The density of birdlife in the thicket of these woods, and the plants that were growing up through the rich soil, made it, I thought, a prime ecological site.”

The River Thames is another strong presence in Iain’s work and he says that London without the river would hold no interest for him. “I don’t think there’s anything better you can do than big riverine walks”. For him, there is nothing finer than “traversing through streets and suddenly coming on this huge, glittering thing where the light changes so vividly and dramatically. But it’s also a dangerous thing, the currents are so complex.

“I would be a writer somewhere else, but I’d probably be a completely unsuccessful one. London suits the kind of writing I like to do, which involves walking, moving, wandering, random collisions, meeting strange people, behaviours duplicating itself – all of those things belong to London.”

The final thing to discuss with Iain are the practicalities of being such a prolific walker. He assures me that epic city walks are possible if one is wearing a decent pair of socks. He also knows the value of a good cooked breakfast.

“For a whole day’s walking, I like to start at about 6am, and then by 9am you’re really quite hungry. Recently doing a Thames walk from the Isle of Grain, I was in a wilderness-y bit of the Thames estuary and I thought we weren’t going to get anything to eat. We were at Ebb’s Fleet, where the new channel tunnel interchange is being built – a landscape that’s being completely revised. In the middle of all this there was a coffee caravan and it gave the best breakfast I’ve had in ages. Sitting in the open air, within a hundred yards of the river, it just seemed like a magical breakfast. After that, you’re fuelled up for the next ten miles of walking.”

Iain Sinclair is a writer, poet and film-maker and widely regarded as one of London’s greatest chroniclers. His many books include Downriver, Lights Out for the Territory and London Orbital. His latest book is Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, a personal record of the area of London where he has lived for forty years.

This interview appears in the spring issue of Wild London magazine