Willington Court Community Garden

Willington Court: the name of a street in Lower Clapton, Hackney, NE London. This street now features an open plan, shared community garden, where 5 years ago there was no such thing.

Willington Court is about the 7th or 8th community space which I have had the privilege of being able to help make, shape or re-imagine so far. We haven’t tended to give them names as such, rather thinking that it isn’t our place to do so. Willington Court garden, as it turns out, was given a sign by some of the street’s residents.

Perhaps the first thing I might share, before delving further into the W.C. garden story, is who I mean when I say ‘we’.

‘We’ could include the official Ground Maintenance Team of the estate. It could include people for whom the street or estates are home (this is how I got involved). ‘We’ includes everyone who contributed to the design, build and ongoing upkeep.

‘We’ also includes everyone who now gardens there, enjoys the table and seats, or who picks fresh fruit as they wander by; it includes the surprised visitors, who never expect to see such a lovely thing as they round the corner. What I’m trying to recognise here is the importance of the unique relationships that many people can have, in all manner of ways, with one outdoor space.

The Willington Court garden came about something like this…

Planting the seed

I had been facilitating local urban agriculture projects for a while. Through the combined efforts of John Little (Grounds Maintenance Team) and myself, word had begun to spread that there were opportunities for people to get involved in local, healthy, outdoor projects growing veg, fruit and trees.

Through word of mouth, posters, online and face-to-face chats, people were hearing about our work. We were quite visibly doing green, outdoor things and enjoyed chatting with whoever wanted to approach us.

Peacemeal Urban Community Garden
Before Willington Court. Making a shared Community Growing area by a local Community Hall one half term.

A small group of Polish women, and one man, had joined in when we were doing free related activities for kids in nearby Nye Bevan Park. They continued to volunteer with many different tasks: harvesting flower seeds, making signage for public herb beds, moving soil. They joined us at one of the first community meals which my then-partner and I got started with the Chair of a local TRA (Tenants Residents Association).

It was during one of these sessions that they ‘popped the question’ so to speak. The question in this instance being – would we work with them to raise funds for and build a new food growing area, on the street where they lived?

The answer was yes, we would! By now, something of a pattern had formed in how we undertook our parts in these projects – not a prescription, but rather a range of options from which could be picked different aspects. We explained our position more fully to Natalia, Dagmara, Weronica and Szymon. We talked about what might be possible, when and where the project could be started and who could help. They took this information away to make decisions with their neighbours and friends.

Our Polish friends dutifully and warmly undertook the challenge of garnering views and opinions from their neighbours, in the first instance a simple yes or no. A garden or no garden? These initial chats led, as we had hoped, to a gathering of interested neighbours. Great effort was taken to ensure that no one would feel left out, pushed out or excluded.

Building the garden

We knew by now that a few things would be required, as well as the people, to do the work. High amongst these were physical resources and money –  but these being no more important than creativity, hopefulness, cheerfulness and honesty. Not forgetting prayer (the last being first in this list!)

While the residents talked, I set about aiming to secure enough funds to at least match – but hopefully exceed – their hopes and dreams for the flat grass rectangle outside their homes.  Money in this instance came through a funding application made to Groundwork East London.

Together with the Groundwork staff, a plan was formed and agreed by all – at a gathering which took place in the middle of the grass. It was probably the first time that this number of families from the street had shared this community space all together. Some expressed that it reminded them of times when their kids were young, and there had been much more mixing back in the day.

Hopes, desires and ideas all shared and worked through, practical chat intermingled with the hopes and dreams and formed a final plan. I regularly reminded everyone that, being a public space, there can be no sense of exclusive use about any community gardening project. Whilst taking ownership of a community space, we must always remember The Other and try not to exclude anyone.

Peacemeal Community Garden Urban Agriculture
Old display racking made into a bench.

The final plan included 7 raised beds for growing fruit and veg, one of them extra high to accommodate a disabled neighbour. The garden would also feature a 15ft long picnic table with matching bench, a fruit hedge, pergola with grape vines, climbers added to existing railings and a wild life habitat wall.

Building the garden involved many different people and ways of working. As we moved literally tonnes of soil, this time around we attracted a much wider network of volunteers through the Groundwork London network. The wildlife habitat wall was built in a workshop of interested people from the 3 nearest estates, and then the finishing touches were crafted by the folks who lived on Willington Court.

Willington Court today

Willington Court Garden today is, I think, a beautiful spot for people to catch some fresh air away from the busy roads. It is also a comforting and safe outdoor space for the many people too anxious to venture on to the open park, known as the Marshes.

Many stories and truths told down the years contribute to a fear of the Marshes. Willington Court Garden sits opposite, and it remains my hope that the garden will help to refresh the connections between the streets and this sadly under-explored park.

Sitting on the garden’s benches, people can look across the canal and are silently urged to consider the beauty on the opposite side.

A few weeks ago I visited the area. As I turned the corner on to Willington Court, I was delighted by the sight which met me – that of a large family of Afro-Caribbean neighbours making exuberant and enthusiastic use of the table and space. Laughter and jokes filled the air as they enjoyed an outdoor meal together.

I have it on good authority that this kind of scene takes place regularly in Willington Court garden, involving folks of all different backgrounds.  I have been delighted to have been invited to some of these local parties, by the Polish girls whose enthusiasm and heart helped to kick this garden off in the first place.

Peacemeal community garden urban agriculture
A garden I volunteered to help make, called Forever Young Garden, is on the Kingsmead Estate – a warm-up for adventures in Clapton Park.

About the Author

Rob, 42 is a Community Activist, Community Gardener, Illustrator, Writer, Project Facilitator (sometimes Manager), Wood whittler, Baker, God Dad, Uncle, Fundraiser, and Member of the Green Party. He loves being outdoors and getting his hands dirty, and likes to mix this up with amateur theological reflection and writing.

He currently works  part time as a Community Development Officer for CVS South Gloucestershire – seconded to Abbotswood Action Group.

A message from Rob:

“I am very happy to offer any thoughts, opinions or advice in support of Community led growing and green projects and such things organised by Churches – especially where they help local community and Church share space, time and resources together. I’m very open to discussing potential commissions or short term contracts for involvement in such work – or, if time allows, visiting and helping in exchange for travel costs.

Please do get in touch if you’d like, lets see what positive things we can help happen together.” Email Rob

Want to know more about community gardening?

Groundwork are ‘the community charity with a green heart’, and they provide a complete toolkit to get your project growing – visit their website and find out about creating your own community project. As well as advice, Groundwork offer grants, direct support and many existing initiatives you can get involved with.







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