Requiem and reality check – the end of Croydon Saffron Central

By - Monday 16th April, 2018

Land in Croydon isn’t only for profit, and our saffron farm proved it

Photo by Peter Ball, used with permission.

On Saturday 7th April 2018 a team of volunteers stripped out the site of Croydon Saffron Central, as it prepared to close forever.

Croydon’s urban saffron farm was founded by Ally McKinlay in the summer of 2015.  Ally first became fascinated by our town’s history of crocuses while working as a DJ for Croydon Radio. They are our namesake flower: Croydon’s name derives from ‘Croh-denu’, Anglo-Saxon for ‘valley of the crocus’. The rich purple blooms are the source of saffron, the world’s most precious spice, and were cultivated here in Roman times.

A crocus valley bloomed again in its ancestral home

So for the last two-and-a-half years, crocus sativus has been grown right in the heart of the town centre, opposite Fairfield Halls, where the former council building, Taberner House, used to stand. The amazing story has been told by the Croydon Citizen’s writers as a crocus valley bloomed again in its ancient home.

Many hundreds of people have visited, and numerous Croydonians have worked on the saffron farm. Croydon Saffron Central was twice part of Open House London, the annual festival during which unusual buildings and landmarks in the city are opened to the general public. It featured on ITV London news, on London Live and on BBC Radio 4′s Food Programme. It won awards in the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘London In Bloom’ campaign at two different levels: level 2 (‘developing’), then level 4 (‘thriving’).

Photo by Peter Ball, used with permission.

Nearly 40,000 of its corms (the bulbs from which new crocuses grow) have been shared with community gardens and schools. Some were presented to Croydon’s local councillors, who distributed them to parks and public green spaces in all twenty-four wards of Croydon. New crocuses will bloom across the borough in the future, creating a Croydon saffron legacy.

Chef Malcolm John from South Croydon’s Brasserie Vacherin purchased it to use in cooking at his restaurant. It was of very high quality, winning John’s blind taste test against a Persian saffron and another product sold by a world-renowned company. Watch the test on You Tube hereSaffron Central also became a bee haven, sown with bee-friendly plants and flowers.  It produced over twenty jars of honey, extracted by the Croydon Beekeepers’ Association.

Photo by Peter Ball, used with permission.

And alongside all of this, the place became a symbol. Croydon has struggled for decades with relative economic decline and all the social problems that this brings. Our futuristic architecture saw us labelled as ‘ugly’ and ‘brutal’. Our culture lost confidence and failed to thrive. Worst of all, the years of national abuse have created a terrible sense of Croydonian self-loathing.

The farm was an inspired creative response. Becoming a crocus valley once again took us back to our roots – to the ground that we stand on, beneath the concrete paving. Our hometown must once have been vividly beautiful. Croydon Saffron Central was a fragment of that beauty.

Now they’re going to build some more flats on it.

Croydon Saffron Central stood fragile and defiant

The saffron farm was always a ‘meanwhile’ usage of a prime piece of real estate. For months there have been efforts to find a new home, but no new home has been found. So on that Saturday, anyone able to put its resources to good use was welcome to take them. Its twenty-four planters (themselves recycled from the revamp of Wellesley Road) have now been donated to the Our Green Mile project, which seeks to transform the severely neglected area of London Road in West Croydon with flowers and plants which will be tended by the local community. Some crocuses will also go to a sensory garden for young people with special needs. In a very real sense, the project will go on.

It was never intended to be permanent, but that cool and hazy spring Saturday was a reality check. Croydon Saffron Central stood on highly-valued ground, and all of us are helpless before the price of land. Massive profits can be made by piling on high-density housing – not the family homes that Croydon needs, but endless units intended for investors, rammed in as tightly as possible. Any piece of history, any asset of community value, any green space that its users cherish can be bulldozed. Nobody will stop it. Nobody can.

But for a moment in time, Park Lane’s crocus farm stood fragile and defiant, reminding us that land has an older, deeper meaning. Many will cherish it in memory. Thank you, Ally McKinlay, and everyone who helped him to grow our flowers.

August 2015 – April 2018. Croydon saffron requiem.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Charlotte Davies

    People came from all corners and communities of Croydon to collect plants and to share a dream of a Borough swathed in crocuses. There are so many good people across the Borough who just want a better and more cohesive environment.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Lovely comment :) Indeed there are x

  • Andrew Dickinson

    Well done Ally Mac for bringing the heritage of Croydon to so many and bringing so many folk together. Giving up so much of your time and effort to make your vision happen. Whatever happens next, at least we’ll all have the memories of this wonderful project. I’m looking forward to the closure get together bash.


    Fantastic project – thank you Ally for all your hard work. It will be great to see splashes of purple all over Croydon in the late Autumn when they flower.