“The painting was quite traumatic. I did it by myself in about three or four days – I just wanted to do it, to get it done, so I was in here for fifteen hours a day, just going completely mad. Painting’s a lot harder than I thought. I got paint all over myself. It just wouldn’t come over, so I thought, well, you know, I’ll just keep it – I’ll just keep myself painted, and then I was walking around and people were looking at me a bit strangely. I realised it was because my eyebrows were white,” Magdalenite Madeleine Ellis-Peterson tells me as we sit in what is soon to become the Hog Roast, ‘Oxford’s most eco-friendly café.’
I have just cycled down Abingdon Road on a friend’s bike in whose brakes I have little faith, turning off down a side street just after Folly Bridge. “Grandpont nursery take track on past soap,” the notes I typed into my phone elusively tell me.
After some deciphering, a bumpy ride down a path that is surprisingly rural for something just minutes away from the centre of town, and wandering hesitantly over a rusty-looking bridge spanning the railway, I arrive in what used to be Corpus Christi’s playing fields. Sited in a flood plain, the fourteen acres of land were evacuated by the college a few years ago for grounds near Iffley Road and have since become Hogacre Common, an ‘eco-park.’
You can still see the spaces that were tennis grounds, and the red brick building in which we sit, despite the jars of paint and air of controlled chaos, was very obviously designed as a pavilion. I assume the wind turbine is a recent addition. The rent for all this? One jar of honey a year.
Ellis-Peterson tells me about her vision for the Hog Roast: “There’s actually loads of eco projects around Oxford, a really strong green movement. But I feel like it’s quite disparate in many ways. So I see [the Hog Roast] being, maybe, the link, acting as the hub, where people can come and learn about all the things that there are out there.”
I ask her how she came up with the idea. It turns out it was through a chance meeting with the manager of the common, a man called Ben Haydon: “He was talking about how underused the pavilion was… So we thought a cafe in here would be a really great idea to get people down here, and just make the land open to people who maybe wouldn’t normally come here. So since then I’ve been working on the project, in making Oxford’s most eco-friendly cafe.”
She promises that everything will be terribly ethical, and locally sourced. Horse burgers, I imagine, won’t be on sale, or, if they are, the horses will very much be in favour of the idea too. In the summer the plan is to sell the Common’s own produce. But Ellis-Peterson’s ethical concerns aren’t just limited to issues of sourcing: “We’re looking for ingenuitive ways of dealing with the waste we produce, so I’ve been reading about growing gourmet mushrooms in old coffee grounds.” She pauses, and then says, in a slightly stern tone of voice, “Which is the done thing.” It’s as if I might question her about what she means.
When I do, she explains, with a barely audible chuckle, “So coffee grounds are just a really good fertiliser, apparently, so you can grow like really delicate mushrooms. So we could get these really great mushrooms.”
During our conversation I ask how she’s managing to set up a café as well as study for a degree. She doesn’t really answer the first time round; when I press her, she replies, “I wake up quite early,” and, after a long pause, “That’s really the only thing I can think of.”
We then take a walk around the site. The soft tennis court has been transformed into a community garden, run by a group called OxGrow There’s a greenhouse made of plastic water bottles (which is just about warm enough for growing tomatoes), lots of neatly marked out beds, and even a scarecrow. “He’s just really terrifying. Every time you look out of the window [of the pavilion], you think there’s a strange man standing in the garden,” Ellis-Peterson tells me, spontaneously.
Back in the town centre I arrange to meet up with a man called Andy Williamson, who runs OxGrow. He suggests the Turl Street Kitchen, home of the Oxford Hub, the coordinating organisation behind a considerable amount of the student charitable work that goes on in Oxford; it is a place Ellis-Peterson had agreed was not dissimilar to her plans for the Hog Roast.
OxGrow was set up in Spring 2011 by four postgraduate students and one college gardener. The idea was to establish a space in which anyone could learn to grow food and maintain a garden. They now meet twice a week, operating on a ‘just turn up’ basis. The project’s affiliation with the Oxford Hub is how the group maintains its links with the University.
“It was a political project for the people who started it,” Williamson tells me. “Certainly they had very strong environmental concerns. If you read the constitution, one of our aims is education, and by that they mean teaching people about the problems with conventional agriculture, and teaching them alternatives based on low impact organic farming, and other systems of farming that don’t involve monoculture.”
Is OxGrow still a political project? “Very much so,” he replies. “I don’t know how aware you are, but agriculture counts for about twenty five per cent of global carbon emissions, and it’s mainly because of the amount of fossils fuels that are used. Lots of people talk about cows farting and things like that. It’s not really. So I wanted to look into methods of producing food that were much lower in terms of their impact on the environment – not just in terms of carbon, but generally that use less land, less water. So that was the reason I got into it.”
I suggest that globalisation may be a cause of the problems he sees in contemporary agriculture: “There is an anti-globalisation element to [the OxGrow project]. It depends whether you see globalisation as the cause of the problems that exist in the food system or not; most of us do, but I don’t think you necessarily have to blame globalisation for the current problems in agriculture.
He continues, “For some of us it’s more political than for others. But that doesn’t come out very much at OxGrow. I mean, only really in informal discussion, some of use might start talking about some of our ideas, and we just have a little debate about it. But as of yet there’s been no formal… acknowledgement, or there haven’t been workshops or talks or formal discussion or anything like that. Just some of us weave it in to our conversations.”
When the garden begins producing, it does so abundantly, to such an extent, in fact, that the OxGrow team have spent time wandering around the local streets trying give away the food to locals on their doorsteps. Williamson tells me, however, that even if they wanted to, the group would struggle to give their produced away to the homeless: “A lot of our volunteers also volunteer with the Oxford Food Bank and we know through that they can’t even give away all the food that they’ve got. They get food from supermarkets that’s just on its sell-by date, or whatever, and they’re left over with so much stuff. It doesn’t seem like there’s actually, even with all the homeless people, a big enough market for fresh food in Oxford.”
The final person I arrange to meet is in fact the very man who inspired Ellis-Peterson to set up the Hog Roast in the first place: the Common manager, Ben Haydon. We both agree to wear brightly coloured (indeed mine were suede) shoes to facilitate recognition; I go for purple (perhaps too dark a shade indeed) and he chooses blue.
Haydon has been living in Oxford since he was three, and tells me about his illicit trips to Corpus’ sports grounds: “I probably shouldn’t say this but the Hogacre Common space that was in Corpus’ hands was five minutes away from my doorstep and I used to stroll over the bridge and take unsanctioned visits down there to wander around. Now I’m really pleased that they’re opening it up as a public space, and everyone who’s growing up locally can do what I did.”
And whatever happens to that rent, the annual jar of honey? “I believe it’s ceremoniously handed over to the president of Corpus once a year, and he has it on his toast,” Haydon explains.
The Grand Opening of the Hog Roast takes place this Sunday, 9th June, noon to 5pm. From Sundays then on the café will be open 11am-4pm.