Todmorden's Homegrown Revolution

A group of food lovers are trying to turn Todmorden, in West Yorkshire, into England’s first self-sufficient town. Yorkshire Post columnist Chris Bond finds out more.

The last time that Todmorden was meaningfully involved in any kind of revolution, the Napoleonic Wars were raging and Britain was in the process of transforming itself into the greatest industrial powerhouse the world had ever seen. Back then the currency of change was cotton. Two centuries later, it is plants and vegetables, like chard and rhubarb.

Surrounded on three sides by the Pennines’ lush valley walls, the town is an unlikely staging post for a foodie revolution’. However, the campaigners behind the Incredible Edible Todmorden initiative believe it can become a catalyst for communities up and down the country.

The self-sufficiency drive is the brainchild of Pam Warhurst, who has been running the Bear CafÈ in Todmorden for the past 20 years. Since February, with the help of her friend Mary Clear, they have set up a website and online forum, three community fruit and veg gardens and a seed exchange network.

Pam switched on to the idea after listening to Professor Tim Lang ñ the man who coined the term food miles’ ñ speak at a national land conference. He said: forget about growing plants, grow vegetables. ‘It just struck me,’ explained Pam, ‘that with all the pressures we’re hearing about, regarding food prices and the big changes likely to take place in the future, the best legacy we could leave our children is to make sure people understand more about what they are eating and where it comes from.’

In just a few months, vegetable patches and herb gardens have sprung up, transforming disused land and grass verges. ‘We’ve got herbs growing up at the railway station,’ Pam enthuses. ‘…Some said they’d be trashed within days but no one’s vandalised them.’

Mary, a Todmorden in Bloom’ volunteer, believes that they are helping safeguard the town’s future. ‘I have seven grandchildren and I am very aware that during their lifetime, there’s likely to be big food shortages,’ she said.

Mary and Pam think one of the reasons the scheme is proving so popular is down to the place itself. Todmorden has a real community spirit and a strong sense of identity. People are literally stopping them in the street and asking what they can do to help.

Several local schools have set up allotments for youngsters to grow their own fruit and veg, to be sold at nearby markets. Any profits are ploughed back into buying seeds and plants. There are also plans to hold cookery classes and introduce land management and horticulture courses. ‘A lot of kids at school don’t want to be brain surgeons or go into IT. They would rather be an apprentice to a local farmer or have a bakery business. That’s quite attractive,’ says Pam.
Local firms are getting involved too, with ambitious plans in the pipeline for a lottery bid to help fund an organic fish farm.

Sceptics might dismiss what is happening here as little more than a fad, but Pam disagrees. ‘If we don’t link farmers into it and if we don’t get consumers and producers working together and buying into the Todmorden brand, then it’s not sustainable and these hillsides will fall back into non-production,’ she says. ‘Because more people are starting to buy local eggs, farmers are coming to us and saying they’ve never sold so many and now they’re talking about getting more free-range hens and pigs.’

Pam believes the self-sufficiency drive can underpin the local economy. ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating and if we have a brand of sustainable tourism… it means you have more B&Bs and more jobs on farms and in cafÈs.

‘Ultimately, year on year, we want to raise the amount of food locally grown and locally consumed. If, in turn, we can create more local dairies and abattoirs, that would reinvigorate farming communities and have a knock-on effect,’ she says. ‘This town can start a bit of a revolution and if we get it right, we could be reaping the rewards for generations to come.’

Article courtesy Yorkshire Post

Above: Pam Warhurst, Estelle Brown and Mary Clear of the Incredible Edible Todmorden’ initiative

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