The residents of Todmorden using food as an agent for change

A community has decided to use food as an agent for change and a better future. Mary Hampshire reports Photographs by Joan Russell

In Todmorden, West Yorkshire, a food revolution is growing. Walk around the former mill town, surrounded by steep-sided Pennine valleys, and you’ll see raised beds full of fruit, vegetables and herbs such as echinacea, chamomile, lavender and comfrey in the grounds of the health centre, railway station, market and police station.

Alongside the canal towpath, crops of apple trees, borage, beans, fennel and crab apple are there for the picking, and bug hotels and insect homes have been installed on walls to encourage hibernation and pollination. Welcome to the handiwork of Incredible Edible Todmorden, a campaign group of ‘propaganda’ gardeners. Their idea of growing local food in public places for the community - without permission - has gone local to global since its inception four-years-ago. One of their current projects is to create a ‘linear larder’ along the four-mile canal path stretching from Todmorden to Hebden Bridge.

‘We spot unloved and ugly areas and transform them with edible plants, and we don’t ask for permission,’ says Mary Clear, 57, a former community worker and one of the group’s founders, who has lived in the town for 10 years. At least 36 places nationally and 20 in France are following Todmorden’s lead, replicating their campaign. An Incredible Edible project can involve a city, borough, town, community or housing estate.

Such has been the interest in the Todmorden project, that the group now runs weekly tours. Headline visitors have included Prince Charles, Roger Doiron from America’s Kitchen Gardeners International, which successfully campaigned for a new kitchen garden at the White House, and Diarmuid Gavin, the television garden designer. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has cooked with their leeks, grown outside the local college when he visited for a harvest festival.

Mary began growing edible plants in her front garden and leaving a sign inviting the public to pick them. ‘There’s fennel, brassica, herbs and currants. Everyday kids walk by and pick some. One mother left a bowl of soup on my doorstep in return for the food she picked,’ recalls Mary, proudly. She along with others also started planting in public areas.

The idea soon caught on and attracted the support of community organisations in Todmorden including the local health centre. Every school in the town is now involved in growing their own food. Rhubarb has been very popular. The local cocktail bar by the canal uses fennel for their fruit snaps. ‘But the cherries have done badly’ admits Mary. ‘We are very keen for any cherry experts to get in touch.’

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The seeds of the idea, Mary explains, came initially from a feeling of doom and gloom including a sense of helplessness about the state of the economy, and concern about the future of town centres and over-reliance on imported food.

‘We decided to use food in our town as the agent of change, to make a better future. We know so many talented and clever people in Todmorden, and there’s a cross section of society here including accountants, artists and poets. It was a question of bringing them together to see how we could try and make a difference. We are a small and isolated market border town. Our industry has suffered so it’s really important we bring something new into the town. Incredible Edible is becoming a world movement. It’s taken over my life as it’s grown,’ she enthuses.

The campaign has become much more than growing food in public places, also stressing the importance of developing a sustainable local economy, fostering a stronger sense of community, improving prospects for the next generation and developing education and training opportunities. The campaigners have secured lottery funding to create a social enterprise company that is building a food hub, including a fish farm, at Todmorden High School.

They want young people to understand where local food comes from and how it is grown. They have pioneered work on local housing estates and run cooking events to foster a reconnection with food. The group is working on donated greenfield land to develop ideas about hilltop farming and education. They are hoping to develop apprenticeships in market gardening and other land based skills. They’ve also run courses for adults in, for example, bee keeping and permaculture. ‘We had no idea that the project would become this big,’ adds Mary, ‘but incredible things happen to us.’

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