Mary Conway: A small business growing veg in the depths of St. Werburghs. Mary is one of our Bristol Food Heroes for her organically growing allotment (in every sense of the word).
Winding down the cycle path from Ashley Down to St Werburghs is one of Bristol’s best kept food secrets. As the traffic, concrete and buildings give way to trees, allotments and pathways, it can feel like you are entering an oasis.
Few people venture beyond here but if you were to carry on down the track past the quirky eco houses of The Yard, through a tunnel and past a camping site, you would discover something quite unexpected. This is Purple Patch, one of Bristol’s many smallholdings, right here in the city centre.
Mary Conway, the founder of Purple Patch, works here with her partner Jona, and when they’re not at school, their 3 children. On the day of the interview she appears with her toddler Ambrose and a puppy. “This is the latest addition to the family” she says as she gives the dog a cuddle.
Four years ago Mary’s passion for growing, plants and food drove her to seek out somewhere to turn her hobby into a job. She took one look at the site she is on now and was sold. “It’s just perfect. There were quite a few pockets the farmer, Rich, wasn’t using, so we initially asked if we could use a tiny field. He said yes and it’s gone from there.”
Now Mary grows everything from salad to sweetcorn as well as keeping livestock, with the current count at 2 pigs, a small herd of around 10 Dexter cattle and 20 chickens.
The land, which has been farmed since medieval times, was separated from Stoke Holly Estate to be gifted to the council and distributed amongst WW1 war veterans. The tenancies have been passed down through the generations and one of Mary’s neighbours, Bernie, is a direct descendent of one beneficiary and still lives on site.
Before Mary and her family arrived, Rich was breeding steers, which for the uninitiated are castrated bulls used for meat. “It was really labour intensive, really stinky and involved keeping cattle in sheds all year round” says Mary. “I just wasn’t really into that”.
Now there is a polytunnel for salad, a few grape vines, beds brimming with kale, carrots, potatoes and parsnips, and a greenhouse full of recently harvested squash. Some of her salad goes to local restaurants but most of it she sells through a salad subscription or in her veg boxes. “We do about 10 full or 20 half boxes, mostly to people in the Yard or friends; we hope to double it next year.”
As Mary looks across to the cows, which are contentedly grazing just below the houses of Muller Road, she tells me that in the last couple of years there have been 5 calves, 4 of them male. “When they get to 24 months they will go for meat”, she grimaces. “I had always been a vegetarian for practically my whole life” Mary exclaims, “but when we started this I could see it made sense for me to eat a little meat. So now I do.”
To use the meat from the farm and bring in some revenue they hope to turn the beef into burgers. Mary is in the process of finding a kitchen and they hope to use tomatoes, sauerkraut, salad, mayonnaise and bread all produced on site. The idea is still in the early stages but this could well be Bristol’s lowest food miles burger.
Source: Steph Wetherell, Bristol Food Producers
As the birds chirrup and the chickens cluck happily in the background it would be easy to wonder why more people aren’t signing up to this lifestyle, but Mary points out that there are plenty of challenges. “This is a funny old smallholding and when it comes to business it’s not like living in the real world. There are several people on this one who’ve been here for much longer than us and everyone has their say. Everyone is supportive but it’s difficult to stick to a plan”
A train rushes past, just above the polytunnel, which is a sharp reminder of where we are. This is one of several smallholdings in Bristol, which Mary believes are vital to city dwellers’ quality of life. “They get to see greenery and plants and nature and to connect that to where their food comes from. Rather than always connecting food with a packet in the supermarket. I think something really amazing and sacred is lost if that’s where you always associate your food is coming from.”
As Ambrose disappears behind a nasturtium plant you can’t help but wonder what a free range life Mary’s kids must have, a rarity in our modern urban world. “The kids love being here. My oldest, Fabian, has taken the chickens on as his own project and whenever people visit he takes them in for a little tour. When his friends come down they always run straight into the polytunnel and grab a cucumber. I love that.”
Unlike many farms this one has an open gate policy. There is a public footpath right through the middle and anyone can visit, buy eggs and have a look around. Several dog walkers pass through whilst we talk. “It attracts every kind of person you could possibly imagine. They stop to chat so there’s always new input and new connections being made.”
One of her most recent and memorable visits was from an old Jamaican couple. “They just wandered in really early in the morning and they kept saying it’s just like Jamaica because there were loads of squash and corn here. That was lovely”
When asked what her best moments are, Mary pauses and looks around;“I always love putting together the veg boxes because that’s the fruits of your labour that you’re handing over to someone else. And sitting on that hill watching the sunset and watching the trains go by and just realising that we’re in the middle of the city but so lucky to have this amazing bit of countryside to enjoy.
One more thing…
What’s your food resolution for the next year?
Just keep pushing to make it better – and those burgers!
Your favourite spot in Bristol?
It’s got to be here!