London’s Lavender Hill Mob

It sounds improbable: derelict south London land transformed into fields of lavender. But you can see and smell the two and a half acres planted on abandoned local council property by the visionary BioRegional Development Group (BDG).

The group was founded in suburban Sutton five years ago on the green idea of sustainably producing local goods for local needs. Unlike other green collectives in England, it is market-led—the products are designed to stand on their own.

© 2000 Stephen Foster© 2000 Stephen Foster

BDG Director Pooran Desai says the group decided to farm lavender for two reasons. First, it is highly in demand at the moment for beauty and health products—resources co-ordinator Nicola Davies calls it “the groovy crop of the 90s.” Second, lavender is a part of South London’s heritage. At the turn of the last century, South London was the lavender capital of the world (leading to area names such as Lavender Hill). Clients for the product include the local Body Shop, Covent Garden Flower Market and Sutton library, which sells bags of lavender at one pound each.

The volunteer labor of low-risk offenders from nearby Downview Prison has been vital to the success of the project. Working in the fields for the last 16 months, prisoner Jim Devine has cleared away mountains of brambles, corrugated iron and the occasional bathtub. He says he has stuffed his pillow with lavender to aid sleep and is now growing other crops, including lemon balm, apple mint, black mint and Cologne mint, which he intends to plant on the remaining half acre.

Besides the allotments, BDG has three other projects. It is developing a revolutionary clean-technology paper-recycling mill readily transferable to emerging countries bedeviled by pollution from old-style industrial mills. BDG also co-ordinates the provision of smokeless charcoal to 500 retail outlets—clients include big chains such as B&Q, Homebase and BP. The charcoal is made from the debris created in the forest-clearing practice known as coppicing, which allows light into the woodland environment, encouraging ancient woodland flowers such as dog’s mercury, butterflies and dormice.

BDG’s planned solar-powered, grass-roofed sustainable village on a brownfield site will be one of the biggest in Europe, Desai claims, housing over 300 people. “We’re not trying to build a utopia, just make use of the excellent materials we’ve already got,” Desai says. “In 10 years time, I’d like to see a world where people take the whole idea of living sustainably for granted.”