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Local Spotlight: Hen Corner, Brentford

Local Spotlight: Hen Corner, Brentford

By Anna Scott

Even if you’re the most dyed-in-the-wool Londoner there is, the thought of upping sticks and moving to the country must cross your mind now and again. But does there have to be a choice between city and countryside? Is there a way you can have the best of both worlds? I recently met up with Sara Ward, who runs Hen Corner, an initiative that encourages you not only to ‘grow your own’ in the city, but to make your own, too. From her back garden in the heart of Brentford, she offers an ever-increasing range of courses as well as regular blog updates and school visits. She has successfully introduced many west Londoners to the wonders of chutney making, chicken rearing, beekeeping as well as other seasonal activities throughout the year. Combined with her work on Hen Corner, Sara is also responsible for community and families outreach work with Bless Community Church in Brentford.

Since moving from east London to west eight years ago, she has been on a mission to find ways she can provide food for her family from her own garden and to encourage others to do the same. I asked Sara how it all began and what’s in store for the future of Hen Corner.

Inspecting a frameQ: What prompted you to start Hen Corner?

A: It really started as a mum thinking, where does our food come from? And what are the implications of the food that we’re buying? These options of organic and fair trade—what do they actually mean and what do they mean for us as a family? It’s very easy for us in the western world, and in cities in particular, to just go down the supermarket, pick up some food and give them your plastic, and you’ve got what you want any day of the year. Just discovering more about the issues didn’t give me the easy answers—I found that for every question I asked, like ‘what is the best meat to buy?’, I was presented back with a whole load of other questions, almost like falling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole!

It’s gone on like this, but I thought surely the most sustainable food with zero packaging, zero miles, no pesticides and no other chemicals must be the food that we produce ourselves. So in our smaller back garden when we lived in our previous house, we started growing strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes and courgettes and I tried growing potatoes in a dustbin. It was all good fun, but I thought what I really want is a whole meal from our garden, not just a bit of salad on the side. I got my first pair of chickens in my old house in our terraced garden—they were just so easy to look after, and from that we’ve been able to move into this corner plot with a bigger garden. We’ve got raised beds that we rotate crops on, we’ve got 11 fruit and nut trees and now we’ve got chicken houses with 16 hens.

Whilst we’ve been learning and going on this journey toward being more self-sufficient, we are encouraging others to have a go through our website, blogs, recipes, films and courses. People come here and they can get a taster to see whether they want to have chickens themselves or have a go at beekeeping. Some people come just for the experience, thinking, ‘There’s no way I ever intend to keep bees, but I’m quite happy to put a suit on, open a hive and see what’s inside.’ I started my beekeeping training at River Cottage in Dorset but the rest of it was learning as we go, and inviting others to join us in the journey.

Q: What have proved to be your most popular courses?

A: The beekeeping courses have been very popular this year and we had one course that was overbooked so we had to borrow a spare beekeeping suit! This year in particular the preserving course was very popular, so much so that I had to put a second date in. It could be people who are growing their own—they’ve got tomatoes and don’t know what to do with them, or they want to make a present for somebody rather than just buying something from Amazon. Sometimes people come as a party. I’ve run hen parties here—hen parties at Hen Corner! They want to do something different and get the whole place to themselves for the afternoon.

Q: There has been some publicity about the challenges faced by urban beekeeping—how do you deal with this when advising prospective London beekeepers?

A: Bees are a very topical issue and without our bees we would lose a vast proportion of the food that we eat because we rely on them for pollination—it’s not just a case of ‘oh, I like honey so I’ll keep bees.’ We believe that keeping bees in an urban environment does produce a far superior honey to the rural honey—that’s because of how we’re farming in the UK. People think that surely out in the countryside with all those flowers and crops and fields it must be wonderful for bees, but because we tend to farm intensively in Britain, the crops have pesticides on them and the flowers are there for only three weeks of the year, whereas in London the bees have got fantastic forage, depending on where you are. Some people are genuinely interested in considering it for themselves, so if they want to take it further after the initial introduction with me, I recommend they get in touch with their local beekeeping association where they can have a mentor and get somebody partnering with them as they continue.

Q: Have you ever been tempted to relocate to the country yourself, or is the urban environment integral to the project?

A: What we’re really trying to do is interpret all the things we’ve seen on television about the countryside and ask, how can we weave that into urban living? I’m trying to stand in the middle and love both and say, actually, you can have a bit of both. We’re fortunate in that we’ve got a bigger garden here than others and we wouldn’t expect everybody to do everything we’re doing, but even if people just started tending a window box with some herbs and a strawberry plant, or just growing their own chilli and basil—that nurturing of the seed and understanding and caring for that plant, it does help you get in touch with where your food comes from.

Q: How do you work with schools and young people in the local area?

A: We’ve worked with a number of schools, normally on beekeeping or chicken keeping, and with the chickens, we’ve helped a number of them set up so they can have their own in the school. With the beekeeping, I will take in equipment and show films and we’ll talk to them about the role of bees and the responsibility of keeping bees. I’ve had school trips here where I’ve had observation hives, and we’ve had visits from Beavers who come to see stuff they don’t see in their own gardens. We also run family courses. We have a family chicken-keeping course on a Saturday afternoon a few times a year—‘Family, Feathers and Fun’—so if families are considering keeping chickens themselves, the children can see the chicken house here and we can teach them how to clean it out. It gives them an opportunity to see and feel how things fit in—then they can go away and think about it, rather than rushing into it and spending a lot of money.

Q: And lastly, what are your favourite places to visit locally and your favourite things about living in Brentford in particular?

A: Kew Gardens is great as it’s just over the river, and I love walking up the canal to Hanwell. I love the fact that we’re on the water. I’d much rather be on the water than in the middle of more and more houses—to be at the junction of the Thames and the Grand Union Canal is fantastic. If you walk up to Kew Bridge and look over the river in the summer, you think you’re on holiday! You can’t believe it! And Brentford Market is great on a Sunday morning.

There’s a fantastic community village feel in Brentford. We’re just waiting for the high street to be done and we’ll have lovely alleyways down to the river and more quirky and bigger shops. As more and more houses and flats are being built in the area, we’d love local people to shop locally and to invest in the community. We’re just waiting for that little bit more investment, but Brentford has changed and developed over the years as London is spreading out.

For more information about future courses as well as advice on making your own backyard more sustainable, visit the Hen Corner website and follow Sara on Twitter for regular updates.

If all this talk of growing your own has inspired you to give it a go yourself this spring, here are Sara’s own top tips for what to plant:

  1.  Grow some annuals, something that is reliable and that you can harvest every year like asparagus, globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes and rhubarb.
  2. Choose vegetables that you actually like to eat—swedes may be easy to grow but not that useful if you don’t like them very much!
  3. If you’re planning on growing something in larger quantities, choose a vegetable that will last once harvested—winter squash is a good example as it has a tough skin and can be used in chutney recipes too.
  4. Grow things that have a high value. Cheaper items like carrots and potatoes often require a lot of time and effort, so it’s usually more efficient to buy these from producers and concentrate on other crops.
  5. Grow something that tastes fantastic when it is freshly picked. For example, peas taste amazing when eaten straight from the pod, as opposed to ‘fresh’ peas in supermarkets that are often about three days old.

Anna Scott


About the author:
Anna Scott is a freelance writer, parent, procrastinator and Hammersmith resident. When she’s not attempting to write her first young adult fiction novel, in between reading and reviewing the odd book or two, she can be found chasing after her two little girls.  In a previous life she was a politics graduate and wine trade lackey.  Head over to Anna Scott Jots to find out more…

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