Sandra Lawrence investigates a very unusual farm, buried beneath Clapham High Street in an old war shelter that might have been a high-speed tube line.
Eight deep-level bomb shelters were constructed across London in the early 1940s. You can still see their drum-shaped entrances at locations including Belsize Park, Goodge Street, Stockwell and Clapham. Each was capable of housing 8,000 of the capital’s beleaguered, blitzed citizens. The shelters were cunningly constructed in long, tube forms. The war couldn’t last forever and afterwards a brave new world would need fast, efficient trains to the suburbs. Whip out the bunk beds, install some tracks, join up the individual stations and commuters would be laughing.
The plan was doomed. Post-war Britain couldn’t build enough houses, let along invest in major tunnelling. The deep shelters mouldered. A few found odd short-term careers, such as Clapham South’s foray as a brief hostel for Jamaican arrivals on the Windrush. The rest, if they found work at all, were nothing more glamorous than high-security storage facilities.
Wild suggestions for re-using the shelters abound. But the very reasons that make them ideal for document storage would render them useless as nightclubs or bars. Emergency access sucks. For anyone who can make a go of 65,000 square feet of inaccessible tunnels 100 feet underground, however, London’s last squeak of affordable real estate is up for grabs.
“I saw the ‘to-let’ sign,” says entrepreneur Steven Dring. He and business partner Richard Ballard had originally been looking to disused office blocks for their new baby, an urban farm growing microgreens in a sustainable, carbon-neutral, local-to-need way. High-rise prices made vertical farming prohibitively expensive, however.
LED lighting was the technical breakthrough that made everything work. Low energy lights don’t emit much heat on their own, but put them together and you can get enough warmth and light to grow the range of leaves Dring and Ballard had in mind. After a test-drive at the somewhat dilapidated Clapham North shelter, they took the lease at Clapham Common. This shelter has a lift, a loading bay and better electrics.
Growing Underground is now trading. Before launching, though, the facility had to go into sanitation lockdown, after which those entering have to undergo decontamination procedures to reach the salad (there are no pests or diseases down there and that’s the way it’s going to stay, thank you). We managed to get in first, taking our chance to snoop around both London’s newest farm and the darker, creepier, older areas that still seem to carry the whiff of rationed spam and dried egg.
Clapham's bomb-shelterers probably didn’t have to sign a hygiene statement before descending to the bowels of the earth. On the other hand they didn’t get an elevator either. They had to trudge 180 steps down the double-helix staircase. The lift fits through the middle of the helix, all heavy metal, thickly gloss-painted bolts and accordion-grilled doors straight out of Doctor Who. (It is no surprise that 1968 episode The Web of Fear was apparently set, though not filmed, in the mildly dystopian post-war architecture of London’s deep level shelters.)
On stepping out below, the first thing that hits is the smell – that odd, underground odour you can’t quite place, but get in practically every ageing tunnel. This one enjoys a slightly vegetal edge. It looks like every wartime tunnel too but, a few steps in, white doors reveal a cross between a 1960s science fiction movie and a Tate Modern installation.
White walls. White floors. White ceilings. Pink lights. Bright pink lights. “It’s the LEDs,” explains Chris Nelson, Horticultural Director of Growing Underground. “It’s all industry-standard kit, just put together in an unusual way.”
What was once a potential tube line has been stripped and cleaned to within an inch of its thick concrete ribcage. 1940s bunks are a distant memory. Today’s beds are still racked in neat, pull-out rows, but the inhabitants are rather smaller. Giant drawers of salad leaves, grown on capillary matting made from recycled carpet, are tended with constant irrigation, a specially formulated diet and a sophisticated ventilation system blowing a gentle breeze across the seedlings. It’s basically a hi-tech version of the mustard and cress you grow at school on bits of damp kitchen roll, but without the mould when you forget they’re in your desk.
When Growing Underground opens for business, barely-born, perfectly tender pea shoots, radish, mustard, coriander, amaranth, celery, parsley and rocket will grace the kitchens of top restaurants. Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr is already signed up. The public will also be able to purchase the veal of the plant world via hyper-local supplier Farmdrop.
Currently just a small part of the vast underground system at Clapham Common is utilised by ‘farmland’. The clean metal frames, white-painted tanking and minimal shelving have an eerie, sci-fi feel but it’s even spookier when the door at the other end opens to reveal areas not yet colonised by horticulturalists in lab coats. One side of the door is 21st Century clinical, the other is a timewarp to 20th Century wartime Britain, where gaping holes stretch to seeming infinity.
Northern Line tubes rumble through the earth nearby, a reminder of the shape of this peculiar world: round, for trains. Down in the lower half of the round, where irrigation pumps buzz quietly, stretch yet more tunnels. They’re largely empty. “London Transport Museum took a salvage team to remove anything of historical interest,” says Steven Dring. “Maps, posters, benches, water fountains...”
It’s somehow comforting to know that this place, built for Britain in its hour of need, still has the potential to be called into duty. The lease includes various covenants including surrender of the building in case of national emergency. Happily, however, London is enjoying a time of peas. Business is good and getting better.
“There is potential for six tunnels, down here,” says Chris Nelson. “We have, so far, used just part of one. There are five more to go.”
Can London eat that much fancy salad? Almost certainly.