Meet the latest in our series of Bristol Food Heroes. Lucy Mitchell runs the allotment project in North Bristol, managing volunteers and vegetables alike.
It’s mid-afternoon at the Golden Hill Community Garden and the sky is already starting to darken.
A gaggle of cheerful volunteers wrapped up against the cold are putting their tools away, whilst a hearty few are still digging. Lucy, who runs the community garden, rushes over and immediately says “I’ll put the kettle on”.
She heads off to a polytunnel where the kettle is, passing baskets of potatoes and leeks. “These are vegetables that have been grown by the volunteers and picked today” Lucy explains and then turns to a new volunteer and reminds them to take some. “Everyone gets to take the fruits of their hard work home.”
The Golden Hill Community Garden was opened 7 years ago in a corner of the Golden Hill Allotments in Bishopston, and Lucy has been here since they began work on the site.
“The allotments have been here for 100 years but no one wanted one in this corner as it’s so wet, so it had been mostly abandoned.” Lucy explains whilst clutching a mug of steaming tea. She sets off for the small balehouse where a woodburner is burning brightly in the corner, inviting us, and continues to explain how the garden came into being.
“One of the plot holders was in very poor physical health and used to be pushed up in a wheelchair by her family. Together with some other plot holders she came up with the idea to turn the space into an accessible community garden that anyone could come to and get involved in.” Lucy stops and smiles before saying “So they put in a bid and needed a worker, and that worker was me.”
Calling Lucy a worker is an understatement. Her energy and passion for what she does is remarkable and the constant stream of volunteers throughout the year is a testament to that. “The beating heart of our project is the Wednesday volunteer days. That’s why we’re here. You can come for 10 minutes, or for 1 hour or 1 day. You can just turn up. If you’ve got fluctuating health levels, or energy levels then you cans still come.”
The age of the volunteers ranges from 21 to 80 and they come for a whole host of reasons. They may come with a support worker, they may be unemployed or retired, seeking company, wanting to learn about gardening or just wanting to get outdoors and involved in the community. There is a variety of jobs on offer depending on the time of year, including plant care, weeding, watering and potting on, as well as site maintenance and preparing for the events and groups which are run here.
This may be a garden but Lucy is keen to stress that it is not just about growing things. “In some ways the vegetables are by the by. What’s most important is that we’re a people project” she says. “Everyone who comes to volunteer gets a tour and then they sign an agreement to be nice. You’re not just coming here to help with the garden, you’re coming here to support the garden and everyone in it”.
People care is at the core of how Lucy runs the project and it’s clear that this is what drives her. “I got involved in community gardening because I was at a low ebb and it was amazing. I think there is nothing more positive you can do for your mental wellbeing than be outside with people you wouldn’t normally spend time with, working to make a place better.”
Lucy pauses before continuing, “In a life full of horrendous long term goals and difficult work, you can come and weed a bed, complete the task and tick it off. I don’t think you can come here and not feel better when you leave.”
Situated just off Gloucester Road, the garden is a true community project. Alongside the volunteer days Lucy also runs toddler groups, an afterschool club where local kids “can go a bit feral”, a holiday club for children with special education needs and their families and an annual cycle of events, including bonfire night and a spring fair. They are all well attended and loved by the Bishopston community.
All proceeds from these events and groups fund the garden so the volunteers can keep attending and creating their own community. In a world where loneliness is at critical levels, gardens like this can be a lifeline for people. “They should be everywhere” exclaims Lucy “I don’t think Bristol has enough!”
We leave the cosy balehouse to walk around the garden passing through a cluster of small trees. “This is the edible forest, a collection of some of the world’s toughest edible trees and plants that survive in this bit of the garden” Lucy explains, going on to recite a list of exotic sounding plants such as Russian Mulberry and Edible Bamboo. “It’s hard work” she says, “but there are days when we stop and say ‘Wow! We’re eating a strawberry guava!’ which make it worth it”.
As we continue we pass a pizza oven in the shape of a frog. “This is Mr Froggles” Lucy points out, “made out of clay from the pond.” This year Lucy and her team of volunteers will be running a family pizza making event during Bristol Food Connections. It’s an opportunity to remind people of the good work they are doing here and celebrate it.
“Eating and cooking together is one of the great joys we have in the garden. We started doing a soup every week 2 years ago and our winters have been transformed.” Lucy says. “When I was thinking about the best thing we can do in the garden that involves food and togetherness pizza was the obvious choice”
Lucy leads me past beds of onions, winter lettuce, chard, herbs, winter cabbage, brussel sprouts and root vegetables, all for soup or taking home. “The hot summer had a big impact here” she says sadly. “Our celeriac is tiny and we don’t have any swedes or winter turnips. It just makes me think I’m grateful I’m not a farmer. If we were depending on this for food or to live and earn a crust it would be such hard work.”
She disappears into one of the two polytunnels which is full of greenery, a welcome surprise in the depths of winter. It’s enough to raise anyone’s spirits. “In here we’ve got overwintering peas and salad, more winter greens, lemongrass, potatoes and winter purslane.
As Lucy talks, the pride and love she feels for the garden is palpable. “It’s a patchwork of 100’s of people’s efforts” she says passionately “we have these triumphs, and we share them. It could just be a massively long carrot. Or a melon. You just get one tiny taste but it’s so precious. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t plant it, or water it, or weed it, by being here you get to share the triumph”.
As the light begins to go and the icy wind picks up it’s easy to see how the promise of home-grown melon in a matter of months can provide great hope and comfort. “There are so many opportunities for really simple joy if you garden, like flowers on the table or the peas being ready” Lucy says “It’s really infectious and it spreads though our volunteers here!”.
One more thing…
What do you think is the biggest food challenge facing Bristol?
It’s got to be how Bristol, or any city, feeds itself without outstripping resources and how to deal with it responsibly. Also, how to deal with all the wastage in the system. I’m glad it’s not my job to sort that out.
Which local schemes inspire you?
I am always consistently impressed with Incredible Edible Bristol.
Who is your Bristol food hero?
Hmm… I think it would involve a greasy vegan treat I enjoy – Jeevan from Jeevans Sweets on Stapleton Road who make the best samosas in town.
Where is your favourite place in Bristol?
Here – there has been so much love and work and time and sweat poured into this ground. I also love Easton Community Garden which is where I first volunteered. It’s a beautiful patch of ground, it’s so well established and it’s totally volunteer led.
Do you have any food resolutions for this year?
Every year we try and grow something we haven’t grown before, so next year we are going to try and grow quinoa after 2 failed years. One year we just nurtured a weed until I realised it was plantain! We’d like to try again, just for fun. We’re not going to feed Bristol with it, not even ourselves but we’re going to try again!