The lift clanks to a stop 33m below ground and I am led into a locker room, where I don hairnet, lab coat, and thick white Wellington boots. I leave all my belongings behind, bar a notebook and pen, and enter a tunnel lit by bright white and pinkish violet light.
Rihanna’s “Work” booms incongruously through the near-empty tunnels. As we walk past, several white-coated figures sprinkle black dots onto trolleys.
While this may sound like the sort of secret laboratory built by Bond villains, I’m actually here to inspect far less nefarious activities: a farm supplying microherbs to London’s chefs and food devotees from its unlikely location in a converted bomb shelter tunnel, 33m below the streets of Clapham.
Growing Underground was founded by Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, who is conducting my guided tour today, to produce hyper-local, fresh produce for London. “Our reasons for doing this are both really big, and really small,” Dring tells me now. “On the one hand, we’re facing population growth, a finite amount of agricultural land, the environmental effects of agricultural runoff and food miles.
"But on the small scale, we’re just growing salad. We are like any other business. We’re trying to make a profit.”
Herbs are harvested. Image: Pete Muller.
Dring and Ballard reckon that there are around 15 hectares of land in tunnels underneath London which could, in theory, be used to grow crops. The pair use LED lights and hydroponic growing techniques, whereby plants don’t grow in soil and are regularly spritzed with water, to grow their herbs.
While the lack of light in the tunnel would cause problems for traditional farmers, the enclosed spaces can actually protect plants from weather and all the margin of error it brings. “Pests also don’t come down into the tunnel,” Dring tells me. “But we have other challenges – we rely completely on a lift, and if it breaks, we’re lugging our product up the stairs. It’s swings and roundabouts, in that sense.”
Image: Martin Cervenansky.
Additionally, the artificial conditions allow the farmers to grow all year round, and sell the same plants no matter what season. Big supermarkets can do the same, but only by flying in food from all over the world. “We have higher energy costs because of our LED lights, but they’re using planes and fuel,” Dring says. This can allow chefs to offer a fully local, organic menu that doesn't shift depending on what plants are in season.
All around us, trollies hold tray after tray of tiny plants, some little more than seedlings. Those ready to be cut aren’t much bigger – microherbs are, by nature, small and strongly flavoured. There’s celery, coriander, red basil, wasabi mustard, and more. As we walk, Dring pulls off leaves and I taste a strongly flavoured red basil (it's much more peppery than its green counterpart) and rocket.
A pack of celery ready for sale. On Farm Drop, this punnet would cost you £1.30. Image: James Moriarty.
These seedlings are rooted in squares of agricultural matting, which is made from carpet cut-offs recycled from factories. The water, meanwhile, is sprayed on the plants, then collected by tanks under the plants and reused. Plants take anywhere between four and 30 days to grow, depending on the species. We pass a tray of lush-looking herbs, with a couple of yellowed leaves at one corner. “I’d reject that whole panel,” Dring says. “Our chefs expect the best”.
Every day, harvested herbs are sent direct to customers via a company called Farm Drop, and sent to new Covent Garden market be sold elsewhere. They’re sold in small amounts, usually of 30g, and at a relatively high price point – the idea is that you sprinkle a small amount of each herb on a finished plate. These figures make the farm’s output – potentially up to 20 tonnes a year, a relatively small number for a farm – sound positively kingly.
Interestingly, while the products are marked “Growing Underground”, they’re not marketed on the basis of the unusual scenes playing out around me, but simply on the basis of being fresh, pesticide-free, and available all year round. While growing underground may seem like a gimmick, it has turned out to be surprisingly practical.
Dring was a veteran urban farmer before embarking on this project – “I was the only man growing squash on a roof in Old Street” – and reckons there’s scope for more underground growing in London. The 15 hectares of tunnels around the city don’t necessarily have facilities like a lift, loading bay and office attached (this is why the Clapham location was eventually chosen to launch Growing Undergorund’s commercial operation); but this could be solved with a bit of investment form TfL, which owns most of the tunnels.
And from there? Other geographies in other cities. “The whole point is local food production,” Dring says. “People come and ask if we can send it to Leeds, or other cities, but I’d prefer not to go far outside the M25. It’s a local product.”