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Calthorpe Project: Saving Camden’s green oasis

Calthorpe campaigners move on to the site in 1983. Miller Jones can be seen in the glasses.

Calthorpe campaigners move on to the site in 1983. Miller Jones can be seen in the glasses.

Often described as an inner city oasis, the Calthorpe Project in Gray’s Inn Road is to lose all of its funding from Camden Council by the end of the year – some £70,000 –  a move that will see key workers sacked and a range of activities at risk.

“We are stunned by what has happened,” said Miller Jones, the organisation’s vice chair. “While other group have retained all strands of their funding, Camden has decided to cut all of ours.

“Calthorpe is much more than a community garden,” she adds. “Over the years we have built it into a safe place for children of all ages to play in and for adults to meet up, either as volunteers or in classes. Now so much of this could go.”

As staff and users debate the way forward, she is hopeful that the energy that gave birth to the project in 1981 will be summoned up once more to carry it through its biggest crisis yet.

Looking at the beautifully landscaped gardens dotted with lush trees and shrubs it is hard to imagine 30 years ago there was nothing here but a 1.2 acre expanse of earth and rubble.

Once the site of workshops originally occupied by William Cubbit, who 150 years earlier built much of the neighbourhood’s Georgian houses, it had been acquired for offices by property developers Lyons in the 1970s. But the firm went bust and Camden Council stepped in.  

Annika Miller Jones

Annika Miller Jones

“It was just abandoned and all that was there were steel piles sticking out of the earth,” recalls Miller Jones, an architect whose flat in Ampton Street overlooked the site. 

The council wanted to sell the land for £3 million for offices but local residents had other ideas. “We were crying out for more community facilities not another office block towering over us.” 

After a vociferous campaign by local tenant groups, Camden offered to throw housing and an open space into the mix, but eventually agreed to drop the idea altogether. “They asked us what we wanted, so we drew up a questionnaire and the overwhelming response was either for an open space or health centre.”

After further meetings, the consensus was that in the short term it would become gardens. The town hall helped out with funds and expertise, while the Greater London Council, soon to be killed off by the Thatcher government, gave money for a building. “We were known as the mini Coin St,” recalls Miller Jones referring to the community  housing scheme that sprang up in the 1980s on a derelict site on the South Bank. 

In 1983, work started on the Calthorpe Project, named after the Calthorpe Estate, which owned a swathe of land between King’s Cross and Gray’s Inn roads during the 19th century. 

“As soon as we moved onto the site, it was open to the public. We grassed a piece of land, fenced it off and got people in to plant bulbs,” recalls Miller Jones, who became the project’s first co-ordinator.  

A wooden hut was put up and English classes for Bengali women, most of them newly arrived, started, along with an under fives drop-in. A few years later the main building was erected enabling more activities to be launched.  “It just grew organically – we responded to what people wanted and what we were able to offer.”

Today, while office workers and locals regularly use Calthorpe as gardens to relax in, salsa classes, food growing, gardening and cookery courses, holiday play schemes, are among the many activities on offer. You can even rent mini allotments. In recent years the outdoor sports pitch has been renovated and an under fives extension has been added.

Last year Camden, which still owns the site, made overtures to take part of it back to build luxury flats. Although nothing came of it, the encounter underlined the limits of the partnership in the light of the government’s austerity programme. 

On Tuesday (October 11),  organic foodstore Kennards held a fund raising auction at its premises in Lamb’s Conduit St in support, and sold produce prepared from apples harvested by Calthorpe staff and volunteers from the La Sainte Union School orchard in Parliament Hill.

“At the end of the day, we need people power like this to generate ideas and get things moving,” says Miller Jones. “Our grant ends at Christmas and that’s when staff must go. Once they’ve left, the life of this local gem is at stake. 

The finished garden

The finished garden

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