A skip and a jump from King's Cross Station, are the gates of The Calthorpe Project — gates and a tree lined fence we must have seen hundreds of times walking down Gray's Inn Road. So how did we not realise this was here?
Through the gates and over the bridge, winding trails lead visitors in and around the brush and gardens. A woman is sitting on her jacket on the grass, book in hand. A group of guys have donned fluorescent vests and are playing basketball on the court. Two giggling children whiz past on the mosaic tiled path, which leads to a wooden cafe where we meet Ana Carrasco, the Project's fundraising and communications manager.
Ana is all smiles and excuses the fact she's tucking into her lunch — she hasn't had time to eat yet. Joining her is a lovely lady called Gladis Mottoa — 71 years young — who decided to drop in on one of her free days. She's not too confident at speaking English, but through Ana's translations she brightens and begins to reveal her story.
Gladis is one of The Calthorpe Project's elderly-group volunteers. Two to three days a week you can find her working in the vegetarian cafe, and on Fridays she's straight down the end of the garden tending to the herbs and salads, which are used as the kitchen's core ingredients supply.
Originally from the Valle del Cauca region of Colombia, she's lived in London for 25 years following a divorce and a wish to start a new life in the country her sister had already moved to. Gladis says she left two grown children behind, but brought her youngest daughter with her, and at first was supported by her sister until she found a job cleaning houses. "It was much easier to find work back then", she remarks.
10 years ago, she began to visit The Calthorpe Project after hearing about it through the Latino American Womens Rights Service (LAWRS), soon after turning her hand to volunteering in the allotments, and a year ago began cooking in the cafe. Not only that, Gladis has become a major fixture by teaching sewing during the week and attending yoga classes for the elderly.
"It's like a second home now," she says, grinning. "I feel very loved and relaxed. I can forget about my problems and the people here have become family."
Gladis's problems outside of The Calthorpe Project are common for many elderly people living around London and Britain as a whole; solitude and loneliness. Her daughter now lives further away, and one of the things she misses about Colombia is how close everyone is to each other there, where you can easily knock on a neighbour's door for a chat. Something that isn't replicated in London.
"I don't think I'll ever live in Colombia again," she says. "I want to stay here as I've been away too long. It wasn't the same there the last time I visited. My neighbours had moved, plus I have a great granddaughter here now."
It takes little persuasion for her to take us on a tour of the allotment where she spends so much time. She moves us from plant bed to plant bed, pointing out the different kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs growing there, and encourages us to stroke a mint plant with our hands to smell its perfume. "It's still young so the smell is not strong yet."
On our walk round we meet Naz planting cuttings grown in the on-site greenhouse. Naz is originally from Iraq and has worked with plants all her life. Moving to London, she was unable to continue her love for gardening — with green space in the city at a premium. Until she found Calthorpe, where she now spends a lot of time as she is "near her pension years", which is as specific as she got.
Other volunteers and visitors we pass are there for a huge variety of reasons. The Calthorpe Project not only provides companionship, it also teaches people how to grow their own food, trains them to cook, engages in horticultural therapy for those with learning disabilities and mental health issues and coaches children and young people in sports. Different kinds of organisations use their space, whether it be yoga or English classes.
One such person who has made use of the English lessons is Lola Mohamed. She came to London in 2006 after spending 13 years in France as a refugee from Eritrea. She's been at Calthorpe since March 2017. "I came to England because I wanted to learn English," she shyly says, "and now I want to give back because I know how difficult it can be as a refugee."
When asked about her background, she says, "there was war. It wasn't safe to stay, so I was sent away." Lola reveals that her mother was unable to take everyone in her family away, and so she was sent alone leaving behind a brother and a sister — she hasn't seen any of them since.
Lola found Calthorpe through Refugee Connection who use them as a valuable meeting space. "They help teach you how to see a GP, how to find a kindergarten for your children, how to apply for asylum, or if you need a translator." Like Gladis, The Calthorpe Project has become a second home to Lola and the people there are like family. She had been working in a florist in the UK for many years, and before that had attended a culinary school in France for three years, so working in the gardens and in the cafe perfectly matches her interests.
Asked what she would like people to know about The Calthorpe Project, she says "it gives you the chance to have experience, to learn the basics. The food comes from the garden, the recipes are based on the garden and are fresh and healthy. I want to continue here and help grow this place."
Getting hold of the cafe manager for a chat proves quite the task. Mila Campoy is here, there and everywhere: at the service hatch taking orders, on an important phone call, preparing food in the kitchen, out on the decking clearing tables. Finally Ana manages to grab her to sit with us for a quick chat.
The Calthorpe Project runs on grants and donations, but they needed to find another way to raise money, which led to the cafe starting up. "We needed to be creative and create a social enterprise, so we opened a cafe. At first we relied on volunteers, 95% who worked here were volunteers, but then we were able to start hiring a few."
Mila has been behind a lot of the activities that the Project does with children as well. "I worry how little contact people have with nature, there are not many community gardens here. Kids don't know what a carrot really looks like or how it grows. But they were curious about what I was eating in the gardens on my lunch break, so now we involve them in learning about growing."
Mila moved to London from Madrid 17 years ago and has a history working with environmental activities with children having studied horticultural therapy and nutrition. She has a long-time interest in cooking and growing, which she uses to great effect at Calthorpe but also with colleges and organisations in the wider community.
One aspect of Calthorpe she is most proud of is their work with department of disabilities in a nearby college. Some of their students come and do voluntary work in their gardens. "It's a way for them to be with the public in a normal situation, but in a safe space."
We then meet the director of The Calthorpe Project, the larger than life Louise Gates. She used to bring her children to the drop in creche, and then volunteered there until her kids went to school. She became a trustee, then had a part time job helping with the day to day administration until the role of Director came up for grabs 17 years ago. "No one else went for the job", she says humorously.
Louise is clearly passionate about The Calthorpe Project, as is everyone we speak to, and they are hopeful that they can continue the good work they do. "We're really invested in community, it's what we all have in common. Everyone wants a nice place to meet nice people".
However, the grants they get have been on and off for over 30 years. There are donations plates on each table in the cafe, but they note people rarely leave anything. "We don't charge to enter", Louise says, "we have two paid members of staff in the kitchen but really we need three. The cafe needs some renovation, and our specialty and big push right now is providing weekend play for kids to learn and connect with nature, but we're relying on fundraising to continue it."
The Calthorpe Project certainly is a worthwhile venture, and is clearly an important part of the local area in a city that many often complain lacks a sense of community. We're surprised to find that two hours have already passed and sadly we need to dash off; time seems to escape you there. Everyone gathers together for a group photo and to say goodbye, and then they're back to their tasks as a few more customers filter in. As we leave we overhear someone say "I can't believe more people don't know about this place." And to be honest, neither can we.