Croydon Saffron Central one year on


By - Wednesday 19th October, 2016

Bernadette Fallon interviews the movers and shakers and diggers and planters of the world’s largest urban saffron farm


A volunteer on the Croydon Saffron Central site.
Photo by Fluid4Sight, used with permission.

In an unlikely ‘garden’ in Croydon the first shoots are staring to appear. Fenced in by a burst of colourful graffitied panels and overlooked on all sides by buildings, the Wellesley Road traffic thunders past as this small part of built-up Croydon reconnects with its Roman past.

Inside, the crocus flowers that gave Croydon its name – Croindene, the valley of the crocus – should just around now be starting to appear. And soon the saffron that the crocus flowers produce will be harvested.

Over the summer and part of last year, small armies of volunteers have worked hard to make this fenced-off derelict space, site of the former Taberner House, into a colourful thriving garden, with sunflowers, a beehive, artworks and now, once again, a restored ‘crocus valley’.

“People who put Croydon down are not seeing the big picture, they’re not seeing what’s really happening here”

Lena, a volunteer, says: “We’ve been living here for thirty years, and a project like this brings people together. It’s great to see someone taking an idea and making it happen – things don’t just happen by themselves. The people who put Croydon down are not seeing the big picture, they’re not seeing what’s really happening here”.

It took just one man to galvanise the project and many tributes have been paid already to Ally McKinlay, who conceived the idea and put it into action in the unlikely setting of a small island off the coast of Finland last summer. (He was only there on holiday. Not even Ally McKinlay could run a successful project like this while living full-time in Finland.)

While on that holiday, he set up a crowdfunding page on SpaceHive to raise the money to buy several thousand crocus corms (you don’t call them bulbs). Despite cycling over his phone and smashing it, which meant he lost his internet connection with the outside world and his fundraising page, he managed to hit the target to raise over £4,000 in one week.

“We had 16,000 pots, 10 tonnes of soil, 10 tonnes of gravel, 100 metres of scaffold boards and 21,000 crocus corms”

And so back in Croydon, he bought the corms and called for volunteers to help him. With full council backing – he emailed them with his idea on Sunday, received a reply first thing Monday morning and by Thursday had got the go-ahead – he was on the former Taberner House site by the start of September.

“There were eight of us that first day, we had 16,000 pots, 10 tonnes of soil, 10 tonnes of gravel, 100 metres of scaffold boards and 21,000 crocus corms”, says Ally. Grace, another volunteer, is full of praise: “Ally is an inspiration. He works fulltime – he has a family – but he does something like this to bring people together”.

The call for people to come to help plant the corms went out on social media and 150 people turned up on potting day, along with the 2nd Selsdon and Addington Scout Group who put up a marquee and the Women’s Institute who provided tea and cake from inside it. Each Croydon councilor was also given a bag of 60 corms to share in their wards with community gardening groups and locals, so that Croydon could become a ‘crocus valley’ right across the borough.

Around 75 volunteers turned up to pick the saffron with tweezers and put it into jars

10th October 2015 saw the first flowering and people came to pick the saffron threads – in their lunchtimes, at weekends, whenever they had some free time. By the end of the month, everything was in flower and around 75 volunteers turned up to pick the saffron with tweezers and put it into jars.

Volunteer Anna had this to say: “It’s nice to meet like-minded people who are happy to give up a couple of hours for a community project. And it’s good for the soul to do something without being paid for it”.

Ally estimates that out of the 19,000 corms that were planted, 11,000 flowered; a 58% success rate which is in the higher percentage for a first-time planting, which is generally 40-60%. Ally dried out the saffron threads at home in his oven, put it in jars and sold it, with all the profits going back into the project. 58g of saffron was harvested in total. To put this in perspective, a supermarket jar of Schwartz saffron holds 0.4g.

Crocuses in bloom at Croydon Saffron Central.
Photo by Fluid4Sight, used with permission.

By all accounts, it tasted amazing. Brasserie Vacherin in Croydon’s South End cooked up three identical risottos using three different types of saffron. One was too dark, one was too light, and the Croydon saffron was deemed ‘just right’. (Goldilocks was not available for comment on the use of her ranking system.)

Which brings us to 2016, and the news that the site was going to remain empty for the rest of the year.

“By now, we had a lot of social media followers and we asked people what they thought we should do with it”, explains Ally. A lot of people were very interested in historical plants, those that used to grow in Croydon many years ago, such as woad, which was popular for its blue dye and is thought to be connected to Waddon – ‘Woad on the Hill’. There was also interest in the Shirley Poppy, created from the 1880s by a local vicar in Shirley, and now grown all over the world. Lavender was another one, also thought to be grown locally by the Romans. And finally, says Ally, they wanted to plant bee-friendly flowers, to do something to help the bees.

Gareth, volunteer: “I like doing, not talking. It’s a great approach”

Everybody was back on the site in early April, tidying up and making new beds where before there had been broken glass and old metal. People came with seeds for wildflower meadows, poppies, sunflowers and peas to celebrate the UN Year of the Pulse. Croydon Beekeepers installed a hive and the Croydon Gardener made ‘no dig’ beds using cardboard donated from the council offices and used coffee beans from Smoothbean!. Planters salvaged from Wellesley Road, donated water butts and pots from community garden projects meant that the project didn’t have to raise any more money to continue into its second year.

Croydon Saffton Central 2016.
Photo author’s own

And this summer the project bloomed in every way possible, with happy people, with art, with flowers, with plants, with wildlife. It won a Royal Horticultural ‘Thriving’ Award as part of London in Bloom.

Helen, volunteer: “I helped with setting up the original lanes last year and putting the gravel down. Once the plants grow well here they will be taken up and spread around the borough and Croydon will be a crocus town again”.

Now the crocuses are blooming once again and this year, all going well, Ally hopes to make £1,000 from the sale of saffron. This will all go back into the project. Because even though the site has now been sold for private development, Croydon Saffron Central will continue. Ally’s dream is to have a community patch in Queen’s Gardens, right next door to the current site – but if not here, definitely somewhere else in the borough.

“We’ll be here until we’re told officially to get out”

Janice, volunteer: “I love community gardening. I guerilla garden a plot at the end of my road. We don’t have a village green but we do have a space like this for people to congregate. When I feel anxious or unnerved I plant something”.

“For now, we’ll be here until we’re told officially to get out”, Ally smiles. “This has been our opportunity to show Croydon and London and the whole country that you can have community spaces in the middle of urban areas. Ideally school groups will come and learn about the plants and take some plants away so they can watch them grow. It would be great to have kids learning about plants that have a local connection; I’d love to have them all ‘Bravehearted up’ with blue face stripes created from the woad”.

And so on the last day of planting, despite the fact the heavens opened several times, despite the fact it was a dark, rather gloomy and slightly chilly Saturday in October, almost thirty people still turned up. Volunteer Charles tells me: “I like the idea of planting crocuses and making saffron in the place it used to grow all those years ago”.

“So many people, from all different places, have connected here”

“Today, I feel delight to have all the corms in the soil and ready to grow”, says Ally. “It’s a beautiful flower and planting it has been a therapeutic process for many people. It’s amazing that in the middle of a town of 400,000 people, with thousands of cars going past every hour, you just become unaware of everything. So many people, from all different places, have connected here. So may people who never met before are now forming relationships and working on other projects together. That’s why it’s important to have a central place in big urban areas where people can meet”.

Robin, volunteer: “I think it is a good project. It’s imaginative, it’s non-contentious; you can’t feel upset about people growing flowers. It’s people saying ‘let’s do something beautiful’. Croydon is a place not noted for its beauty, but it has some lovely spaces. This, for a while, has been transformed into a lovely space”.

Keep up to date as the crocus blooms on the Croydon Saffron Central page on Facebook.

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette has been a journalist since the age of 7 when she devised, designed and launched ‘Fallon’s News’ – much to her family’s delight. Brought up in Ireland, she was born in Addiscombe where she now lives, though it took her several decades to find it again. She works as a journalist and broadcaster. Follow her at Twitter.com/bernibee

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