Saturday, 24 March 2012

Down on the (city) farm

Growing up in a village in the Midlands I was surrounded by farming.  Many of my young friends lived on farms, and weekend walks would include much hanging over fences talking to sheep or stomping past herds of curious cows.  And I loved these animals.  For a while I resolved to become a farmer when I grew up, and then a vet (until I realised I would never make it through five years of veterinary medical school).  At home, I watched sheep being shorn, the wobbly, naked-looking creatures staggering out of the pen back to join their flock utterly confused about what had just happened to their cosy fleece. I saw large, patient heifers being milked in parlours that gleamed and hummed with machines, and was also taught how to milk them by hand.  I rode ponies and mucked out their stables, and enjoyed feeling their hot, whiskery lips gently take an apple from my outstretched, flat palm.   From an early age I developed a particular fondness for pigs, and begged for one of my own. In fact, I was once offered my own tiny runt to take home, but one look from the Accidental Mother (who foresaw what it would do to her garden) and that particular dream was dashed.
When I moved to the city I resigned myself to only seeing such creatures when I went back to The Midlands to visit my parents.  How wrong I was to be.  Having lived in ignorance for my first few years in London, last year I discovered just how many city farms there are scattered about the place.  From Houslow to Mudchute,  there are tiny small-holdings and market gardens tucked into the most unlikely of places.  In Kentish Town the city farm is surrounded by three different train lines, which weave beneath the collection of enclosures and allotments.  A small group of goats scrambles up above the tracks, climbing over large concrete boulders, probably pretending they live in a small Alpine village somewhere. 
Goats are pretty standard inhabitants of London's city farms, as are sheep, cows, and pigs; from the large pink variety to a rather fetching pair of small, curly-haired, marbled individuals, called Edward and Jenny, who live in Vauxhall.  (Also at Vauxhall lives a rather incongruous alpaca, some distance from his Latin American roots.)  Ponds also seem to be popular farm features, usually inhabited by ducks of different shapes and sizes, and maybe the odd goose.  I visited Kentish Town City Farm one Sunday morning during frog mating season, and their pond - bristling with amphibious inhabitants - rang with vibrating calls, as if they were all taking part in their own weekly church service, singing their froggy hymns.  Chickens often ramble freely, either by design (at Kentish Town City Farm) or when an over-excited, young visitor lets them loose by accident (I once watched a frantic parent chasing a clutch of them back into their coop at Freightliners Farm in Islington).   

Most farms seem to have 'small animal' areas too.  Outside London, where back gardens are more common, hutches of rabbits, guinea-pigs and even the odd chinchilla are nothing remarkable.  But down here, where many of us live without the merest sliver of green lawn, we have to go to our city farms to see and stroke such furry friends.  Freightliners Farm has built a lovely wooden town for its rabbits, although when I visited I found that a large tortoiseshell cat had moved into one of the colourfully-painted houses, kicked out the rabbity resident, and was snoozing soundly on a bed of straw.  Vauxhall City Farm boasts quite the most enormous bunnies I have ever seen, with velvety ears five inches long.  (When I visited, one of these monsters spent a lot of its time rushing around the rabbit enclosure trying to rape its neighbours, who were at least half, if not a third of, its size.)  Vauxhall also had, as if to contrast the mega-bunnies, a handful of tiny, newborn guinea pigs which were utterly enchanting.

Some farms offer an adoption service, whereby visitors can adopt their favourite animal, contributing financially to the upkeep of the farms. Freightliners Farm, which operates such a policy, does stress however that sometimes its adopted animals may be 'retired out of London', rather like a weary former City banker who moves to a Cornwall cottage to grow roses when he's done with the city.  All the farms I have visited are entirely free to visit, and survive on charitable donations, the help of volunteers, sponsorship and heritage funding.  Maybe more funding comes from the allotments which exist in some farms, alongside the animal enclosures.  I wonder who tends them, and envy them; what bliss to have a plot of land on which to grow flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables, surrounded by the chattering sounds of ducks and chickens and the smell of hay and, yes of course, manure.  In fact I can think of no better neighbour for an allotment than a farm, due to the plentiful production of entirely natural fertiliser.

For this up-rooted, former country girl, these farms are a pleasing reminder of home.  They are an opportunity to escape the whirl of city-life to exclaim over the fetching furry knickerbockers of bantam hens, and the adorableness of cheeky pygmy goats.  And for even the most hardened city-dweller, I am sure that the sight of a cow staring lazily over a fence or chickens scratching around a yard as they whisk by on the bus to work, adds a little something different to the standard urban day.   

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Surat: the not-so-little city that could

When the financial crisis really began to bite in the UK we all did a lot of moaning.  Then we looked for someone to blame, whinged about the bankers and the government, and then sort of sat back and did nothing, intermittently complaining about gas bills and fuel costs.  Life handed us lemons and we sat and watched them moulder.  The past week however I have visited a city that when handed lemons began the process of creating an entire lemonade empire.

Surat is the 8th or 9th largest city in India (the jury appears to be out on that one), with an official population of 4.5 million people.  The additional number of people living in informal settlements in the city - unrecognised by official statistics - puts the total size of the city more accurately at around 5 million people.  This is a city about the same size as (if not bigger than) Singapore, but have you ever heard of it?  The city is a hive of industrial activity, producing 60% of all synthetic textiles in India and cutting and polishing between 80 and 90% of the world's diamonds.  Yet it has not always been so.  The city has seen extraordinary growth over the past few decades, since the 1960s and 70s, largely thanks to the arrival of millions of immigrants, who now vastly outnumber the native Surtis.  With the desire to move to the big city comes a desire to make something of oneself (I write as one still desperately trying to achieve the latter!), and Surat positively fizzes with entrepreneurial energy.  Everything is in development; skyscrapers are being flung up, brand new raised highways are in construction, industries are constructing shining HQs here.  And business is booming.  Sure, it's been hit by the economic crisis, but virtually nowhere in the world has sailed blythly through that particular disaster unscathed.
A brand new, mock French chateau belonging to a successful local builder sits incongruously amongst the tower-blocks and tents of Surat

However, Surat has witnessed two localised major disasters in the past 20 years which would have destroyed a lesser city.  In 1994, 60% of the population fled Surat in an attempt to escape an outbreak of pneumonic plague which struck a city with the standard afflictions of much of India; low water quality, poor preventative healthcare and highly vulnerable communities living in risky areas.  Built near an estuary mouth, Surat is split by the River Tapi; a wide, muddy, malodourous presence within the city.  Not only is it a breeding ground for vector-borne disease carriers, and a source of highly polluted water, but it also floods the city on a semi-regular basis during particularly heavy monsoon seasons.  And so in 2006 as the rains fell hard and fast the Tapi quickly rose, swamping slums on its banks, washing away belongings and entire livelihoods, causing vast property and stock damage in homes and businesses, and bringing the city's bustling activity to a crashing halt. 
Whilst many cities would have languished beneath the flowing waters and succumbed to disease, in 2006 the Surtis themselves took to the streets, and amassing 40 JCBs and several hundred able bodies they cleared the streets themselves; manning the diggers 24 hours a day in teams.  In three weeks time business and everyday life had resumed as normal.  Inhabitants of former slums on the floodplain were relocated by the Surat Municipal Council to new apartments far from the risk of fluvial flooding; a designated public space is now replacing the slums to prevent resettlement and exposure to risk again.

As a result of the plague in 1994, the Municipal Corporation had established a comprehensive health action plan which included disease monitoring, training and education efforts, and drug stockpiling.  No plague returned to the city following the 2006 floods, and Surat is the proud owner (I know just how proud they are, I've been given the full guided tour!) of the sole city wastewater treatment plant in India.  Yet for this piece of urban infrastructure to be such a novelty tells a sad tale of the country in which Surat is forging its own path to development.  
Looking out on the zipping motorbikes on the dusty roads, the shacks built from corrugated iron and tarpaulin, the wandering stray dogs and the eclectic skyline, Surat still has some way to go before the rest of the world even recognises its existence, let alone its extraordinarily inspiring spirit and resilience.  If the Thames rose and flooded London tomorrow I wonder how many of us would take to the streets and unite with our fellow citizens to get our city moving again.  I have a sad feeling that most of us would be far too absorbed with our own personal losses to realise that we would also have lost something of our city.  Yet a culture of community action, and a deep sense of pride in this city to which many inhabitants have moved in order to contribute to its economic growth, is not something which Surat lacks.  And it is these unique social characteristics which are contributing directly to its flourishing wealth.  Maybe this is where the world got a bit lost with the economic crisis, as we all forgot that behind true financial success lies social cohesion and personal sacrifice.  If you disagree, go and  visit Surat.  I bet it could change your mind.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Pin It button on image hover