Reclaiming the City: The Foragers of Burgess Park

Words by Isabelle O'Carroll; Illustration by Olga Loza

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The idea of multiple cities taking up the same space is not a new one ─ most memorably China Mieville’s novel The City and the City deals with it in its most literal form, where the denizens of two cities operating side by side are taught not to see each other. I was thinking about this while trolling Nextdoor recently, where I’ve found that there are two versions of Burgess Park, except this time one which always keeps one overly-beady eye on what the other is up to. I’ve written in a previous newsletter about why I love this park; it didn’t occur to me that there’s a fair number of narcs, neeks, snitches and curtain twitchers who view having a barbecue as anti-social activity, that there are people who see a park being used to its full capacity and think ‘No. This is Not On’.

Maybe part of the problem, or perhaps depending on what you see, part of the brilliance of the park, is that there seems to have been no planning on what the park is actually for. While editing today’s beautiful newsletter by Isabelle O’Carroll on the multiple avenues Burgess Park offers its foragers, I came across a Youtube discussion of two slightly crotchety architects discussing the design of the park, or rather the lack of design. While people like Simon Rendel puts the creation of Burgess Park up there with the achievements of the Green Belt and the New Cities, the pair also admit that there is no one designer they can associate with the park, no overarching vision of what the park should be, what it should look like, who it should be for and what they should do in it.

I don’t see this as a flaw. Burgess Park has been built up piecemeal in mazes of heterogeneous avenues, superimposed over a city that was once there and has now gone, leaving behind traces that make little sense. By being a park for no one it is a park for everyone; there aren’t two ways of seeing the park but thousands depending on what you’re using it for and what you know, each one of which reclaims the space temporarily for ourselves. Did you know, for instance that there are two large mulberry trees in the park, whose incarnadine fruit will only stain the hands of those with ladders or the skill to climb them? Did you know that in early August, Bolivianos gather in the park en-masse to play music, dress up and eat salteñas to celebrate Bolivian independence? Did you know that on the day of Eid-al-Adha, men from the local mosque will come to one hillock to turn their mats towards Mecca, turning it a brilliant white? Did you know, as I did not know until reading today’s newsletter, about the cultural uses of different cherry trees, about mugwort and mallow, about linden blossom?

Or perhaps you did know, and are sending in your complaint this very minute to your local neighbourhood forum.

Reclaiming the City: The Foragers of Burgess Park, by Isabelle O'Carroll

Balancing on her stepladder, Priscilla holds up a cherry to show me. “This is very good for collagen, magnesium and vitamin C. It’s good for blood pressure,” she says. A carrier bag hooked through her free arm, she gently pulls long, laden branches down to reach the cherries. Priscilla comes here most days during cherry season; she has been coming for four or five years. Originally from Sudan, she moved to Southwark in 2010. 

Handing me a dark, plump cherry, she urges me to taste one. I bite into the deep wine flesh, it’s sweet with a reviving tart finish. “I eat them,” she says, gesturing to the small handful in her palm, “at 5-6pm, then I rest, I take my cup of tea and then my dinner in the evening.”

These cherry trees line the main avenue of Burgess Park, one of the largest parks in south London. Bordering Camberwell, Peckham and Walworth, its unusual history distinguishes it from that of most London parks, which were often simply carved out of old estates or fields and given definition by the city around it. In the case of Burgess Park, it is the other way around.

Originally called the North Camberwell Open Space, Burgess Park was named in 1973 after Jessie Burgess, Camberwell’s first female mayor. It stands on a patchwork of former industrial land, bombed-out streets and existing green spaces, hatched as part of the 1940s Abercrombie Plan, which sought to create a coordinated park system in Greater London linked to the Green Belt. Progress on the park was very gradual as owners in the remaining streets were often reluctant to move, but they were soon rehomed at the neighbouring Aylesbury Estate, which overlooks the park. It quickly became used by locals, with Simon Rendel, the group leader of parks and open spaces at the GLC, calling it the embodiment of the “Victorian recipe for recreation as the centre of an industrial city”. Author and journalist Hunter Davies, writing in 1983, soon after the addition of its lake, described it as “the most incredible park in the whole of London,” adding that “no one, anywhere in the world, has ever bulldozed the urban landscape on such a scale, just to make a bit of open space.” 

Greg Chandler Smith, the head gardener at Burgess Park, sees the space as having a slightly different remit to a lot of the more traditional parks. “Burgess Park is designed to be a new, wildlife-friendly, more relaxed space,” he says. Despite its fairly urban setting, the park is a haven for wildlife such as Egyptian geese, a diverse fish population that lures anglers hoping for carp, frogs and crows, and a wide variety of moths and butterflies. Anyone who has walked through Burgess Park by night can attest to the existence of bats that flutter around slightly above head height. It is also home to a small selection of edible plants and fruit trees.

A central part of the landscape, the cherry trees were due to be ripped out when the park underwent drastic landscaping and renovations more than a decade ago. They were originally planted in the 1990s by Groundwork, a charity that improves green spaces in communities, but didn’t fit in with LDA Design’s ambitious plans (a tagline on the LDA Design website describes their work on Burgess Park as ‘turning no-go to must go’). However, a local campaign to save the trees proved successful. “It’s really good they didn’t rip them out because it’s one of the most formal, useful and traditional parts of the park,” Chandler Smith told me. 

Joel, aged 10, is picking cherries in with his mum Rose and her friends. “What I like about the cherries is that you get to pick how much you want instead of going to the supermarket and not getting a lot for your money. You can come and get some here for free,” he says. Rose tells me, “Every morning I pass with my uncle, I’ve been waiting for them to get to this point here,” she says, pointing to a tree. “I go every year, we’ve got quite a lot of cherries at home!” At one point I approach a man casually picking cherries while walking down the avenue; it turns out he’s from Ecuador and although we don’t speak the same language, we linger around the tree for a bit, pointing. Through some translingual telepathy, I manage to make out that he harvests the sour cherries for a variant on a liqueur called Pacharán, usually made with sloes. 

Originally cultivated from some nursery saplings, the cherry trees – a mix of sour and dessert –  are all grafts, where stems from one tree are spliced on to rootstock of another, which is often selected for its hardiness and consistency. This ancient practice provides a guarantee on the quality of the fruit, unlike sewing from seed where unknown variations appear. It also means that, as the fruit trees reach the end of their 30-to-40 year lifespan, they revert back, since “over time more of the dessert cherries will fade and more of the wild, suckering cherries will come up,” Chandler Smith explains.

As I speak to Priscilla, at one point she wanders off to a bit of scrubby wilderness behind the trees. Plucking some short stems of white-flowered weeds she thrusts them towards me, saying “you cut it and boil it, it’s very good for headaches and colds.” She points to another plant that she tells me her neighbour, a Chinese woman who comes to the park every morning at 6am, taught her to pick. “This one, it’s for migraines, you boil it and drink it.” When I ask her how many dried herbs she has at home, she spreads her hands wide, conjuring up a broad, stocked shelf. 

Chandler Smith has also learnt from the foragers who visit the park. “It’s really interesting walking around and speaking to all these people from different places because they’re focused on different plants. Eastern European women come and pick mallow leaves for salads, which I never would have thought were edible.” he tells me. The plant that Priscilla’s neighbour shared with her turns out to be mugwort, which a number of Chinese locals pick for its medicinal uses. Chandler Smith has chatted to a number of Chinese women who “obsessively pick dandelions”.

With all the more dedicated foragers I speak to, there is a bank of knowledge that flows freely from person to person, a current without currency. “This park is a very rich park; when this season goes, there’s another thing coming,” Priscilla explains, telling me about the wild rocket she picked earlier in the year. 

Clem has lived in Southwark for thirty years, and before that spent the first 21 years of his life in Dulwich. “They’ve got no fruit trees there!” he tells me, laughing. His dog Bella, a small Jack Russell, stays at his side while he pulls branches down. “I was going to bring my stepladder but I’ve got this now!” referring to his long grabber. He tips me off about the nearby damson trees before lamenting the lack of a good elderflower tree in the area. I gladly give him rough directions for a squat, bushy tree by one of the exits of the Surrey Canal Path. 

Clem has been picking cherries here for three years, after coming across them by accident. “People don’t realise [the cherries are] here, it just rots on the ground. The price it costs from the shops, it’s worth spending a couple of hours just picking individual cherries, one by one!” he laughs. “I think they should put food trees in all the parks,” Clem says, citing the orchards in nearby Kennington Park and the trees in nearby Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, which include pear, apple, quince and mulberry trees.

With Noma-imitating restaurants promoting locavorism as a form of lifestyle, foraging can often be portrayed as a white, middle-class leisure pursuit. But when I speak to Adrien Labaeye, a Berlin-based academic who spent a few years conducting field research in London, he told me he had observed that foraging was a largely working-class activity, with the economic motivation central to its appeal. For people living on meagre incomes, Labaeye says, foraging is “extremely important”, explaining that the foragers were often “adding to their diet with some products that are usually very expensive to get on the market.”

In an ever-more gentrifying borough like Southwark, public spaces such as Burgess Park remain a free, consistent source of enjoyment for its residents. There is a mesmerising number of activities that happen in the park, from foraging to fishing, people playing tennis on the courts, BMX biking on its track, barbecues, as well as running routes and cricket and football pitches. 

Of all of those activities, foraging is one that happens on the margins: there is no designated area or visible patch. In a city, the way you inhabit a space is often heavily prescribed and legislated: you cross a road a certain way, you purchase goods using money. The boundaries of acceptable and legal behaviours in urban spaces are shared common knowledge, whereas the act of foraging results in a much more intimate and spontaneous way of inhabiting a city. 

That in-depth interaction with nature can also be seen as transgressive. Labaeye points out the curiosity that springs up from passersby when someone is foraging. “Very often they ask, ‘What are you doing?’, or ‘What is it?’” he says. “Implicitly, we are told, we should mind our own business.” In this sense, foraging in a city crosses those boundaries of predetermined behaviour; veering off the path to pluck a leaf or a fruit is anything but minding your own business. 

However meagre, having food sources on common land changes the nature of the space as well as the social contract, which dictates that a park is a space for leisure consumption. Chandler Smith is vocal on the idea of the park being more of a food source for locals. “I’d happily have a wheatfield here and people cropping the wheat!” The main difficulty is the land: the patchwork of former industrial and residential land isn’t the ideal ground for growing. “There’s a thin crust of topsoil and under that there’s all kinds of goodness knows what,” he explains. “It breaks the old expectations of a park as a space where people come and do sport and walk around to say, ‘well, why can’t we have food as well?’”

“Maybe it’s my hat!” Ludmilla exclaims as I approach her, hidden underneath the branches of a linden tree. Her jaunty hat makes her stand out as she picks limeflowers, gladly showing me her haul of leafy sprigs. “It makes your body stronger, I’m 65,” she says. Ludmilla comes to Burgess Park every day, but this habit she only started last year since the death of her husband. 

Originally from Crimea (the area with “the Black Sea and good mountains”) Ludmilla says the knowledge of the wild herbs of her homeland, passed down from her grandparents, helps her identify some of the more obscure herbs in the park. “I know many things about herbs,” she tells me, “I get a special grass which I put on my knee.” She lists a handful of herbs in Ukranian, the linguistic barriers proving inflexible in their unwillingness to share secrets. 

Ludmilla has been making jam from the cherries, for the winter. “I need to take the stones out, which is a very long process but for me now it’s relaxing, because this is coronavirus and we have time,” she says. She tells me in her daily walks she has become very well acquainted with this part of the avenue: “There are black cherries, pink cherries, different tastes, I know each tree!”

In the practice of knowing an area so intimately, you begin to expand your perception of the city and what it can offer. This is something Labaeye observed during his research, “[The city] that was rather grey, threatening and artificial becomes something which is actually green, lush, something that growers would care for,” he tells me. For some of the people he spoke to, foraging had a profound psychological impact. “This meditative state they get into when they’re foraging, they actually forget where they are,” he says, adding that quite a few people reported a feeling of a calming “harvesting mentality”. The likelihood of being able to feed substantial numbers of people through urban foraging is low, but one of its central aspects is that it reframes our understanding of space.

I think of my conversation with Ludmilla, as she explained how picking fruit and herbs has lifted her mood over the last year. “Before I was busy and never visited [the park] like this. It is very good and relaxing for me. It makes my spirit more…” Ludmilla pauses, mentally weaving through her native Ukranian and her adoptive English, looking for the right word to encompass the ways in which this park soothes her grief, before settling on “nice”.

Isabelle O'Carroll is a freelance writer who darts between food, drink and ADHD. A native Londoner, Isabelle also writes a food memoir newsletter, the Heart of Eating. 

The illustration is by Olga Loza, a PhD student, baker and sometimes illustrator who lives in Edinburgh. She misses Ukraine, where she grew up; in the summer, she would eat cherries with her mom every day, until their season ended. She loves dill and making jam. You can find her illustrations here.