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.”

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So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).

The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

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

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