Imagine helping yourself to a juicy cob of sweetcorn from the yard outside a police station, or taking some tomatoes from along the canal towpath. There are strawberries to be eaten outside the college and herbs to be snipped on the station platform; fruit trees in front of the health centre; cauliflowers in the raised beds at the old people’s home; salad by the fire station and broccoli at the bus stop.
Where on earth could you find and eat all these things? In Todmorden of course, or – as it is now better known – Incredible Edible Todmorden.
Not so long ago, Todmorden in West Yorkshire was another town suffering badly from the slump in manufacturing of the 1970s onwards. It faced a failing high street, falling house prices and the future looked bleak. But then it went through a revolution and it now attracts the media, academics and tourists from all round the world. That revolution wasn’t to do with political leadership though, it was to do with food, and this book, by Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson, is the story of how it all happened.
Over the last seven years or so, a dedicated group of Todmorden residents, spurred on by what was happening to their town, as well as by concerns over rising food and fuel prices, global economic decline and erratic weather patterns, set about transforming the area in which they lived, filling every possible spare piece of land with edible plants and trees.
The idea was not just to provide free food for local residents: they recognised that, ‘if you want to find one single task that will start to change how you think about life and the way you respond to everything around you, then that one task is growing food’. Thus food (‘propaganda planting’ as they call it) became the Trojan horse for a whole new way of thinking and being in the world: and what a fun and delicious Trojan horse it sounds like that has been!
Their approach has been based around three principles: ‘action not words’; ‘we are not victims’, and, ‘stop passing the buck’. I wonder how much our world would change if our political leaders decided to take up these principles as well? Alongside these principles is the belief that three key elements are needed for transformation truly to take place: community (‘how we live our everyday lives together’), learning (‘how we share skills both in school and out’), and business (‘how we ensure that citizens have meaningful work and a way of providing for their families’). It is a crucial combination.
Forgive the cliché, but the story of what has happened in Todmorden really is truly incredible and I challenge anyone to read this book and not come away hopeful and inspired. As someone who has been involved in community regeneration for a long time myself, I can appreciate just what a remarkable thing it is that they have achieved. To create a vision that has inspired people; to stick at it when things were difficult; not to be put off when bureaucracy seemed to stand in the way; to get others motivated and involved: all of these they have done, and done them well.
Perhaps the aspect of the story that I loved most was the non-middle-class emphasis of what they have done. Contrary to the popular stereotype, they have proven that local, healthy food can be enjoyed by people from all sectors of society – even those ‘living on the wobbly side of life’.
So buy this book and enjoy the read! As well as the story itself, you also get some nice recipes from community members and a final practical section at the end with useful advice and templates for those wanting to do something similar in their own neighbourhoods.
It can be easy to spend all our time reading and learning about the problems. In this book I think you will discover some of the solutions.