Crocus valley blooms again

By - Wednesday 14th October, 2015

How Ally McKinlay brought saffron home to Croydon

Photo by Croydon Saffron Central, used with permission.

Boxpark? Just a fancy place for a sandwich. Westfield? Retail detail – see one and you’ve seen ‘em mall. The stand-out Croydon story of 2015 is horticultural.

In August, the people of Croydon responded enthusiastically to a proposal to bring crocus-growing back to the town centre. In Roman times, the species crocus sativus grew here, producing saffron and giving ‘Croh-Denu’ its name (or ‘Croindene’ – both mean ‘valley of the crocus’). Now, crocus valley is set to return: within just six days, thanks to enthusiastic sharing via Twitter, Facebook and email, donors raised over £4,000 on a crowd-funding site called SpaceHive to create a saffron farm on the empty site where Taberner House once stood.

The project’s name is Croydon Saffron Central and it’s the brainchild of Croydon Radio DJ Ally McKinlay. I caught up with him at Matthew’s Yard to hear where the idea came from and how he made it all happen.

I learned that the history of Croydon was all about crocuses

Photo by Croydon Saffron Central, used with permission.

“The genesis of the idea was my radio show”, he tells me, “about local people and the positive things they’re doing in Croydon. If I had no guests lined up, I looked for interesting dates and anniversaries that co-incided with the show. That was when I found the history of Croydon was tied to crocuses grown here by the Romans for saffron. I started to map our crocuses and encourage people to phone in with crocus spotting and I really got a sense of how widely they were still dispersed across Croydon. That was Crocus Watch.

“Then I purchased 100 crocus corms – they’re what crocuses grow from, like bulbs, and they look like little brown onions – and I grew them in my garden. From this I got the idea of sharing them around the borough. If you look after them properly, crocus corms will multiply and you’ll get more in future”.

Crocus Watch then gained a high tech dimension as Ally discovered the TiCL app. It allows smartphone users to take a photo of a crocus and then record its location using GPS. So, as Ally realised, “you can build up a map of where they are”. It was a representative of TiCL with whom he was working who first said: “By doing this, you are mapping Croydon’s heritage”. Anyone can download the app and join in.

Croh-ham has the most interesting name

By this time, Ally was captivated by Croydon’s history. “I’m most interested in Croham – that’s Croh-ham, so it’s named after the crocuses. Man lived on top of Croham woods three and a half thousand years ago as hunters, then moved down into the valley to farm. The map shows valleys running up through south Croydon into the town centre, specifically the Wandle and Bourne river valleys. They flow into the Thames, then out into the rest of the world”. He can’t be sure, but Ally believes that this is where the original crocus valley lay.

He’s also become a keen horticulturalist. Crocus sativus is autumn-flowering and takes around forty days to produce its red, lilac and purple blooms after planting. He talks knowledgeably about both growing and harvesting saffron. “They’re beautiful flowers. If you get close to them, they have these purple lines running through”. These, he explains, are the stigmas. Where this crocus differs from all others is its three long red strands, which are the saffron. It’s picked out with tweezers, making saffron harvesting labour-intensive work, and it’s this which explains the high value of the crop. It’s lucky, then, that the central Croydon site has twenty-four hour security, plus eight foot high fences to keep out foxes, although Ally thinks that the greatest threat to the growing plants might be squirrels.

And, of course, there’s English autumn weather. 80-90% of the world’s saffron comes from Iran and Spain’s a producer too, which tells us that dryness is important. We need to keep the Croydon crocuses as dry as possible, so they sit on a gravel drainage bed, carefully constructed within long wooden channels built from scaffold boards. This also means that the flowers are packed closely together in case the wind gets up.

The site is strewn with glass, tiles and metal – it’s off-limits on safety grounds

There are other reasons why security is needed. Taberner House had foundations and lift shafts, and the parts of these which were below ground have not been removed. Could you fall down a shaft? It seems that it’s a possibility, and the area is also strewn with broken glass, tiles and metal from the former building and therefore off limits to anyone who’s not had a proper safety induction.

But with safety a priority, things on site now are very well-organised. Potting was done by volunteers on Saturday 19th September in Queen’s Gardens. It was a day of true community spirit: the Second Selsdon and New Addington Scout troop erected a marquee and the Croydon Women’s Institute (known as ‘the Croydon crocuses’) served tea and cake to almost 200 volunteers between 10:00am and 5:00pm. They potted 19,500 corms, stopping only when the pots ran out with 300 of them still needing a home. The potted corms were then moved onto the farm site, which is surrounded by hoardings but will soon have viewing windows (to be cut in the shape of crocus petals).

Things may be running smoothly now, but this wasn’t always the case. For Ally, back in August, Saffron Central didn’t get off to the most straightforward start. As he explains: “I’d gone on holiday with the family just as the idea was really taking off. We couldn’t delay – the corm suppliers were telling us that we must plant quickly if we wanted a crop this autumn and that soon there’d be none left. But SpaceHive checks a project’s viability before they’ll accept it, so before I could raise the money, I needed all the costs”.

My phone was in pieces, and it was my only way of communicating with the outside world

By this time, Ally was on the island of Aland, a province of Finland, reliant on his phone to submit the information needed as quickly as possible. Then disaster struck: cycling home late in an area where street lights go off at midnight, he fell into a hole next to roadworks and was quite badly shaken. Continuing home slowly in the darkness, wheeling his bike, he realised a few minutes later that his phone had fallen from his pocket, and by the time he’d gone back, a car had run over it. “My phone was in pieces”, Ally says, “and it was my only way of communicating with the outside world, just as Spacehive had verified my account and we were about to go live”.

Ally McKinlay (front row, second from left) presents crocus sativus corms to Croydon councillors.
Photo author’s own.

What to do? Ally remembered that his son had a much older phone which was at least functional. “So the whole week’s work was done on that: all the emailing, all the social media. The software wasn’t up to date; it was like going back in time, and so slow. Everything took much longer. My family was very understanding that all this was going on during our holiday, which wasn’t ideal. I suppose that in some ways it gave our holiday an exciting edge!”

What next? The crop’s in now, and already the first sprouts are appearing. Since crocuses take around forty days to bloom, the harvest should be ready around Halloween. “Some tweezers, a steady hand and a deep heavy pot will be essential,” Ally explains. “The ability to squat or possession of a low stool would be pretty useful! There’ve been some lovely suggestions for a harvest event, so further details soon. We’ll hold it at Matthew’s Yard maybe, if they’ll have us. I want to talk to some bakers in town and give them some saffron and recipes for saffron buns. Then we could invite all the people who contributed and the volunteers and everyone who’s helped”.

Deep golden saffron – the most expensive spice in the world

The saffron may also find its way into some very fine cuisine indeed, with interest both from Malcolm John’s Brasserie Vacherin restaurant and Joby Wells’ Albert’s Table in purchasing the crop. How much saffron do 19,500 crocuses produce? Around 150-200 grams is the answer, although Ally himself isn’t sure what that quantity will look like since saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, consists of extremely fine, deep golden powder strands.

Then it’s out across the borough, for as Ally says, if looked after properly, the corms will multiply. He hopes that they’ll be planted in community gardens, parks, public spaces and even school playgrounds, not just to recreate but also to extend beautiful crocus valley. He’s already begun the process, presenting bags of sixty corms to councillors representing the wards of Croydon for distribution.

He’d like to thank all of those who’ve helped him: those on social media who spread the word so enthusiastically; Nathan Elvery, council CEO, who emailed the whole council to drum up volunteers to carry scaffold boards onto the site; councillors Paul Scott and Alison Butler, who adopted the plan early and helped it progress; Croydon council and the Quadran company, which both provided pots; local papers; Gee Tees Bulbs and Suttons Seeds, who supplied the corms and have been helpful and generous with advice; Andrew Dickinson from Green Croydon; Josi Kiss and the Friends of Park Hill Park; Robin and Carol McKinlay, who donated a bespoke soil mix prepared by Provender Nurseries with just the right pH balance to help the crop; Graham Collins from Uprise Construction, who kindly paid the difference when it turned out that second-hand scaffold boards (which Ally had based his budget on) were unavailable and he’d have to use new ones; Deborah Services, who delivered; and David Wilson Homes, the company which stepped in on the final fundraising day with a generous donation to reach target. Huge thanks also go to Dean Myles at Croydon Council for allowing the project to use the land and being so exceptionally helpful.

This brings Croydon’s rural past and urban future together

Croydon’s biggest crocus is, of course, Saffron Square Tower. The colours of the building which now marks out the town centre for miles around are those of crocus sativus, a striking symbol of Croydon’s rural past and urban future coming together. The saffron farm itself has been reclaimed from beneath concrete: Taberner House, our former council building, once stood there and another inevitable edifice of apartments will in future cover it once more. For now, though, we’re back to our roots.

The apartments will sell for very large amounts of money. A community, though, belongs to everyone. I helped for an hour on 19th September and as I inexpertly potted in the sunshine I could feel it. I think that that’s what Croydon Saffron Central is all about.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

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

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  • John Gass

    Ally’s project has really given Croydon a lift, so thanks to him and everyone who made it a reality. Maybe a fund-raising paella party could follow?

    Whilst Googling Croham recently, I found a song by Oliver Cherer called ‘Croham Hurst’. Here’s a link: