Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Stream Walk Community Garden

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee'

Last  Saturday I put my gardening skills to the test at Stream Walk, a community garden growing organic fruit and vegetables. My gardening skills have never really been tested, at least not  since primary school when I grew a bean under damp cotton wool. Today, years later, the plants in my house survive more through luck than skill.  Despite this, I was hoping that I could be put to good  use on Saturday.

The community garden is situated on a large plot of land surrounded by houses, just off the Streamwalk footpath by the railway station. It is shared with the Whitstable Volunteer Centre and a local charity, the Kent Enterprise Trust. Their aim is to create a beautiful space for people to learn about growing fruit, herbs and vegetables in an environmentally friendly way. This is a new project, barely two years old. The garden is well on its way, from the empty, overgrown place it once was it to an allotment with sections carved out for lettuces, potatoes, leeks, turnips, artichokes and the like. Pathways crisscross the borders. There are lavender bushes waiting for the warmth of summer, scented rosemary and golden oregano.  By the entrance is a garden shed surrounded by potted plants and an impressive compost toilet made out of shingle. 

 On Tuesdays and the third Saturday of each month, Stream Walk takes in volunteers to help with its maintenance.  My first task was to plant willow alongside the north facing wall.
The willow before being planted
The stems stood at over six feet tall and can be weaved into baskets. We planted the darker stems at the back, twisting them 12 inches down into the soil, then, in the middle,  yellow green ones, the colour of an African grass snake. We placed the fire red stems at the front where they will stand out.  

Once planted I pruned them down. It felt like an act of vandalism, but is, I believe, the most effective way to help them root. After planting the willow we got to work clearing a mound of surplus earth from a vegetable patch ready for planting. When the excess soil had been removed, I took up a hoe, swinging it up and down to break up the damp clumps while earthworms struggled in the soil.

 Saturday was icy and wet day. It rained down without a stopping, that cold rain laden with ice. The pond was close to saturation. Mud squelched up my wellies and squelched its way into my hair. The scarecrows at the far end slouched forward, sodden.  A couple of hours in we stopped for hot drinks and chocolate beetroot cake. We stood huddling in the shed, packed together closely with our fingers wrapped around steaming coffee cups.

 In spite of the weather and my apparent lack of gardening skills there was a therapeutic feel to working the soil and watching my area slowly transform. I arrived tired after a week at work, thoughts and worries swimming in my head like trigger fish caught in a bowl and I left calmer, ready for a weekend free of all that. I suspect our sanity may depend on places like this one, where we work close to nature growing what we need to eat, bringing life to empty spaces.

If you are wondering why I started this blog with the opening lines of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ it’s in honour of the sleeping dragon in the far corner of Stream Walk’s  garden.  Before you think I am indeed mad, wander up to the end, and you’ll spot a mound of earth  stretched out in the shape of a dragon. It has the arched back and flat pointed head. Decisions are underway as to how it’ll be brought to life and with what bits and pieces. It is hoped that when the dragon is formed, children can climb on its back, play, imagine they’re flying. There are  many ideas - please bring them along with your gardening skills.  Everyone is welcome.
And if ever you’re tired, stop by to wander around in this magical space, breath and rest.


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Windy Corner Stores

They do things differently at Windy Corner Stores. There’s a deliberate quirkiness about the place. The tip box on the counter asks for donations towards ‘Psychiatrists Fees,’ a request which raises a smile and, if anything, seems to encourage more generous giving.
Windy Corner is a local store, a bohemian cafe with solid wooden tables serving breakfasts, lunches, teas and fresh home-made bread. They don’t rush, breakfast comes when its ready. The store smells of garden herbs, earthy coffee beans and cooking.

There’s a little bit of everything for everyone, free dog biscuits at the entrance, a scattering of children’s wooden toys, sketches and postcards made by local artists, sweets stacked up on vintage fruit and vegetable crates. There’s a notice board with advertisements for yoga retreats, organic food suppliers, local gigs and meditation classes. On the shelves stretching the length of an entire wall are random arrangements of summer holiday conveniences; ales and wines, olive oil,  bread, fruit, marmalade and jams, pickles, ketchup, ice cream cones, baby wipes and washing up liquid. In summer the store offers barbeque packswith the barbeque itself to take down to the beach.

Places like Windy Corner Stores naturally attract a more eclectic mix of customers than the polarised sorts who on the one hand will stick to their local ‘greasy spoons’ with a religious fervour and the others, dedicated to overpriced designer coffee bars. I’ve spotted young and old, writers, builders, foodies and the occasional ‘lunatic’ wafting around inside. And every now again there’s people like me, with my raucous nephews, who unashamedly vandalised the table and a guest with stickers of ‘Pepper Pig’ and his friends.

You get the feel that anyone is welcome, that it’s a place for people, whoever they are and wherever they’re going. But over the few years I have lived in Whitstable, I’ve come to realise that the quirkiness of Windy Corner Stores is not just for show. There’s a serious side to how they operate, rooted in a community, which while appearing idyllic,  like many others around the UK, has to deal with the uncomfortable reality of intolerance. The store, in its own way makes a stand that few others would. This January when protesters took to the streets in an effort to stop the closure of the Cromwell Road post office, Windy Corner Stores provided them with tea and coffee. Last year, after college tutor Norman Maciver was beaten up in a racially motivated attack residents gathered in Nelson Road, to show that racism and other hate crimes will not be tolerated in Whitstable. Windy Corners provided the meeting place, and the teas and coffees.

It's busiest at breakfast on the weekends, but everyone manages to squeeze in somehow – they have just expanded with bar style seating at the back. There’s also the Coastguard’s Ally bench outside on the porch for summer days.

Coffees are strong and robust, excellent with the French pastries,  hot croissants, and cakes on the counter. For the more traditional, try a full English breakfast of fried eggs, fried bacon, sausages, bubble and squeak; and if you are more inclined to the alternative, there is a healthy breakfast of creamy poached eggs, chunky slices of wholemeal bread, mushrooms, beetroot, spinach leaves, fennel and tomato. If you want to pretend you’re healthy, but also fancy something fried like I did, that’s fine too.

‘You mean you want the healthy breakfast with a high calorie option’ my waitress asked.

‘Afraid so, just throw in some beetroot with the fry up and my conscience is clear.’ So she did. Spinach, fried bacon and beetroot. Like I said before, they do things differently.

Windy Corner Stores describes itself as a ‘community’ cafe and general store, which it truly is in all senses of the word. You will find it on the corner of Island Wall and Nelson Road. It looks ordinary from outside, but step in and you’ll see that it’s not.