The farmers working 33m underground in a TfL tunnel

Image: Pete Muller for Growing Underground.

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.”

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.