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Climbers for the garden

Zephyrine Craster and Oli Barker lend a hand or two at the Castle Climbing Centre, Stoke Newington.Photo:Susie Norris

Zephyrine Craster and Oli Barker lend a hand or two at the Castle Climbing Centre, Stoke Newington.Photo:Susie Norris

Have you wandered past the old water pumping station in Green Lanes recently? I won’t ask if you noticed its three turrets looming high on the Hackney skyline – it’d be pretty hard to miss those. But have you seen what they’re doing to their garden?

The acre of land around the Castle Climbing Centre building, modelled on Scottish castles in the 1850s, was once an ornamental garden that was greatly admired by the people of Victorian Hackney. But since the old pumping station was decommissioned in the 1950s, and throughout its 15 years as a climbing wall, this area has been nothing more than a scruffy lawn.

Last year, owner Steve Taylor began a project to change all that. For this characterful grassy space was to hold a key role in his aim of making the business environmentally sustainable. Quite an ask for the UK’s most visited rock climbing centre, which can attract up to 700 visitors in a day.

“The garden scheme fits in in an unbelievable number of ways,” said Steve, whose Environmental Policy includes recycling rainwater and refurbishing the centre’s offices with entirely sustainable materials. “I was just beginning to get my ideas together and I thought: ‘I need someone who knows what they are talking about.’”

Thankfully, regular climber Ida Fabrizio was fresh out of an apprenticeship at Growing Communities, a social enterprise based in Leswin Road that offers community-led alternatives to the current food system and provides organic fruit and veg boxes to 460 households in Hackney. And she was more than eager to use this knowledge for her very own project.

“It was really daunting at the beginning,” she told me, waving her arms towards the neat vegetable patches. “This area was full of overgrown, self-seeded sycamore trees – strong pioneering trees that grow very quickly and won’t let anything else grow around them.”

There’s not a trace of a sycamore now – apart from in some wooden mallets carved by carpenter and climber Tim Trimmins. Thanks to a team of volunteers comprising neighbours, staff and climbers (who Ida says are “the best team you could have” because of their physical strength and tendency for bit of competition), the space has been completely remoulded to form thriving and fertile plots whose functions can be divided into three main groups.

There’s the Castle garden, in which salad and veg is grown for the centre’s cafe, where anyone is welcome as long as they sign in at reception.

Secondly, a micro-site produces salad for the Growing Communites box scheme. Whilst the site awaits its Soil Association organic certification, Ida has been selling the yield – an impressive 50 kg of salad since 8 June – to restaurants on Church Street. You might have had some if you’ve eaten at Fat Cat Cafe, Alistair’s Brasserie or The Three Crowns pub lately.

A third area is set aside for community mini-plots. You may have seen these from the pavement. Twenty various-sized spaces for staff and neighbours to do with exactly what they will, completely free of charge.

To help build the mini-plots, the Castle received £1,000 from London Mayor Boris Johnson’s Capital Growth scheme, which aims to create 2,012 urban food-growing spaces in London by 2012. The Castle is number 102 of about 530 plots already in action, including the one at Baden Powell Primary School in Ferron Road which was a runner up in the Capital Growth schools competition in July.

Ethel Cass, one mini-plot owner, said: “I live in a small block of flats just behind the Castle grounds. All the residents in the block were offered a plot. We were to help by turning up on garden work days and helping with the community garden as directed by Ida. I think it’s a fabulous idea. All credit goes to Steve for allowing this land to be used by local people for growing food.”

Permaculture gardening principles are being applied where possible. Formed from the words “permanent” and “agriculture”, this technique develops human habitats that mimic nature’s patterns. “I think of it as a system where you’re not using up the world’s resources,” said Ida. As such, she uses recycled materials wherever she can.

One example of permaculture at the Castle is mulching in the fruit bush area, where cardboard, compost and straw are layered on the ground to create a barrier against weeds and to maintain moisture, leaving holes for the fruit plants to grow through. In nature, dead leaves on the forest floor form a natural mulching layer.

Ida has found fantastic new uses for former climbing equipment. Tomatoes climb up old climbing ropes, holey climbing shoes have become colourful flower pots hanging from the trees by their laces, and old climbing holds – previously bolted to the inside of the building and grasped by many a sweaty hand – have been scrawled all over with marker pen to form plant labels that sit on the soil. And when construction company Morgan Est finished doing some work on the reservoir next door, planks of wood and steel toe capped boots were rescued for a new life in the Castle garden.

Workers are not paid for their efforts, but regular volunteers can earn wages in Castle Quids (“coins” made from the very smallest climbing holds) that can be exchanged for climbing sessions or courses at the centre. Castle Staff are also allowed to use a few hours of their working month to help out in the garden.

“I didn’t envisage that there would be this much done by now,” said Ida, glancing over the flowers, trees, herbs, fruit and vegetables that have set up home here since she started the project in September 2009. And with the recent arrival of two bee hives from Hackney City Farm, plans for lots more veg plots, plus a pond to home the many frogs that currently reside in the garden’s nooks and crannies, one can only begin to imagine what fruits  – and veg – yet another year of hard slog might bring.

Garden features

20 community vegetable plots
Castle garden (growing produce for the Castle cafe)
Growing Communities microsite (growing salad for the organic box scheme)
Fruit trees
Bee hives
Herb garden
Fruity climbing wall

Future plans and produce

Honey from the bees
More plots
Hedgerow bordering front fence (already planted)
Fruit trees and rhubarb harvest


£250,000 Steve’s estimated cost of making the Castle environmentally sustainable
£20,000 Amount to be invested into the garden project by the Castle
£1,000 Grant received by the Mayor’s Capital Growth scheme
85p Price of a cup of garden-grown nettle or mint tea in the Castle Cafe
£0 Cost of one of 20 community mini-plots (sadly all allocated already)
One Castle Quid  – Amount paid  to regular volunteer for a gardening session (to be redeemed for climbing sessions or courses)

Castle history

1613 The New River Company is formed to supply London with fresh water
1831-2 London’s first cholera epidemic kills more than 6500 citizens
1852 The Metropolis Water Act requires all water companies to filter water
1852-56 William Chadwell Mylne, engineer at the New River Company, builds the pumping station and accompanying reed beds in Green Lanes
1971 The Metropolitan Water Board, having taken over in 1904, applies to local planning department to demolish the building and develop the site
1971-74 Local residents and societies campaign to save their ‘castle’
1974 The building becomes Grade II* listed
1988 The site is nearly sold to developers again due to the privatisation of water companies
1989 MP Diane Abbott calls a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons to try to save the site
1994 Steve Taylor buys former pumping station and creates Climbing Centre
2008 Steve hires consultants to look at the Castle’s energy use and produces a mission statement which form the beginnings of the Environmental Policy
2009 The Environmental Policy is launched and Ida Fabrizio is hired to take on the garden project

The Castle Climbing Centre
Green Lanes
Stoke Newington
N4 2HA
020 8211 7000

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