The Granville, and other stories of south Kilburn

Words by Ruby Tandoh; Photographs by Elainea Emmott

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When London was young and green, the city consisted of the old Roman city of London and later the conglomeration that built up over the city of Westminster. Emanating outwards were the eight Roman roads, at all points of the compass, and around these roads, villages developed. Eventually the villages grew into towns, like an ink blot seeping into white paper, and these ingenious segments connected to become the megacity we know today. London is still, in one sense, a city of villages.

Dig deep enough along those roads and you will find versions of London that it casts off like skin. Pilgrims passed down Watling Street all the way to Canterbury; today that south section, called the Old Kent Road, contains pilgrims of another kind, seeking absolution through megachurches or simply by struggling to run a food business at the city’s financial entry-point. Further north, the Iter II became Watling Street became the A5 became the Edgware Road and Kilburn High Street. And with each renaming, a new set of pilgrims. But how much does the city’s character change? Do these old versions of the city, layered on each other like strata, lie dormant like the lost rivers we paved over? How often can someone create something new in a city that has seen it all?

In today’s newsletter by Ruby Tandoh, perhaps you will decide if the Granville sits within London’s long tradition of charitable missions or if it breaks free of that mould. Either way, we should all be paying attention to the work Dee Woods and Leslie Barson are doing, somewhere just off Watling Street, where food is not something dictated on or given by a well meaning saviour, but created with and by the community. By subtly reframing who it’s by and who has agency, it’s a model that radically goes beyond the strictures of the food banks and the soup kitchen. And perhaps, even if the Granville’s garden with its callaloo and echinacea plants, is buried into London’s topsoil, it too will lie dormant, waiting for the next generation to pick it up.

If you would like to know more about what The Granville is doing, you can tune in to the British Library talk tomorrow with Dee Woods and Professor Tim Lang on the future of food. Tickets are available here.

The Granville, and other stories of south Kilburn, by Ruby Tandoh

Merle Barriteau never forgets the meals she’s cooked – or the people who ate them. One regular to her diner was a schoolteacher named Barry. “He had this thing about fried dumpling,” she remembers. “He would always come in and eat fried dumpling and have his drink.” There was a music group who would order the fried snapper. Princess Anne once stopped by (though Merle is disappointed that she’d already had lunch). Sometimes the Trinidadian actor and Eastenders star Rudolph Walker came down. “He wasn’t an eater, but he’d have the Guinness punch, he’d have the pineapple punch.”

Drawn in by the promise of curry mutton, sky juice and rice and peas, diners would drift into Merle’s busy orbit, perching in the kitchen while she talked and tended to her food, or clustered around the tables in the dining area. Lunchtimes were particularly busy. Workmen in hi-vis vests, policemen, cricketers and pop star entourages all came and went, some idling a while amid the chat and clatter, others hot-footing it back across the courtyard before the parking warden could slap a ticket on the windscreen of their van. “Everybody had their own food that they enjoyed,” Merle laughs, and she knew each and every one. “There wasn’t nothing that they didn’t want.”

It was 1985, maybe, that Merle first started cooking at The Granville. Maybe, because it’s only when it comes to dates that Merle’s memory falters: she traces backwards from the age of her eldest child, adding and subtracting numbers until she settles somewhere around the mid-80s. Nestled in the shade of a tree-lined street, and flanked by a primary school and modest residential blocks, the building is perhaps an unlikely place to set up a food business. Nearby Kilburn High Road (a thoroughfare into and out of London since Roman times), is a hub for eating, drinking and spending. The Granville, by contrast, is a community centre in a residential area: a place through which people, not money, seem to flow. But wherever there are people, there is feeding to be done. In this building – where dance troupes, art classes and home education groups met and worked – in a part of the city that was, at the time, a hotspot for Caribbean culture, Merle met local appetites with apple punch, hard food and jerk chicken.

Born in Trinidad to Grenadian parents, Merle grew up cooking. “When I was young, you learned how to cook, you learned how to clean. This is just how things were.” But she was never content to just feed people – she wanted to delight them. From oxtail to chana and roti, Merle slowly expanded her repertoire. Through Jamaican friends, she learned about ackee and saltfish. She learned how to fry flying fish the Bajan way. By the time she started cooking at The Granville – where she worked informally for a while, slowly turning it into a full-time endeavour as her renown spread – she could cook her way across the West Indies with accomplished ease. 

Within a few years, Merle’s Diner was in full swing, the smell of simmering stews rising from the basement kitchen while eaters streamed in. Robyn Stone, the sister of Merle’s husband at the time, would often stop by with friends. “I used to go out of my way to go there. Merle’s food was really good.” She remembers Merle’s generosity with portion sizes, and her refusal to let any visitor leave hungry. “Merle has a lot of respect from people in the area. She’d always chuck something extra in if people were broke.” Sat somewhere between a community kitchen and a restaurant, Merle’s Diner enacted culinary perfectionism without financial ambition. “I got by,” Merle notes, “but I didn’t do it to make a profit. By the end, a big plate of food was £4, £5. This was food for the community. That’s what mattered.”

For more than 20 years, Merle spun her signature magic over platters of escovitch, bowls of coleslaw and endless ackee and saltfish. She cooked while Somali weddings dazzled in the hall above, or when the centre filled with tailors and costume makers for Carnival. She cooked as the Caribbean population of the area began to age and a new generation of migrants from North and West Africa settled. By 2009, when Merle’s Diner closed and she retired, Merle claimed to have fed everyone in South Kilburn. Through all those many eaters and countless meals, there wasn’t a single plate that wasn’t touched by her. It’s a point of pride for Merle, and a level of authorship that even great chefs – including those with power and capital behind them – don’t always manage to achieve. “No matter what, it always had to be seasoned by me.”

The Granville, or at least the land on which it sits, has been a food hub – whether for growing, cooking, distributing or eating that food – for hundreds of years. We talk a lot about food traditions that traverse people and places, uprooted from one place or culture and reinvented in strange new soils. But there are other food traditions, too: ones which transform not across space but over time, slowly adapting to meet the changing needs of the public they feed. A map dated 1824 shows the now buried Bayswater Rivulet running through a collection of fields – one of rye, a couple with barns in them – labelled Kilburn Farm. By the end of the century, the roads around south Kilburn were dense with housing and, in the midst of it all, a ‘mission hall’ that would eventually become The Granville as it stands today.

In the late nineteenth century, against a backdrop of rapid urban population growth and skyrocketing poverty, mission halls – akin to church outreach hubs, through which they could find a foothold in disadvantaged communities – were incredibly popular. South Kilburn’s Presbyterian mission hall, built in 1877, was an exemplar case. Records from the early twentieth century list mothers’ groups, Bible study and sick nursing as just a few of the charitable activities held there. Central to the mission was food, from a bread and milk fund to a mothers’ tea and a soup kitchen for the area’s poor.

The paternalism of the mission is hard to miss: memorandums detail complaints about ‘anti-Christian’ public sentiment and it’s clear the loyalty was more to the mission than the people it aimed to serve. But when times were hard, even the most scripture-laced hunk of bread remained a hunk of bread – the stuff of life itself. “The year that has closed has been one of the most trying that our friends in Kilburn have ever experienced,” noted one particularly sombre annual report in 1904. For three, sometimes four, days a week that winter, a Mrs Hodgson gave out portion after portion of bread and soup, filling up bellies that would soon grow hungry again.

A little over a hundred years later, it’s hard not to feel hopeless about the remarkable flatness of that expanse of time. Generations have grown and left. High rises have bloomed and fallen. Waves of Irish, then Caribbean, then African migrants have arrived and scattered along the length of Kilburn’s old Roman road, which has itself been rebranded almost as many times as it has been travelled. In the mid-50s, what is now The Granville was built up around the old mission hall after it was bought by Middlesex County Council from the Presbyterian church. Yet through all of this constant graft, growth and change, the struggles of the community remain much the same as ever. In 1890, roughly 20% of Kilburn’s population was impoverished. Today, the percentage of people living in poverty in Brent, the borough Kilburn sits in, is 43%. The pandemic has exacerbated these existing inequalities, being unsparing on the largely non-white, working class people of the area: between March 1st and June 6th, Covid-19 mortality rates in Brent were the highest in the country, with 210.9 deaths per 100,000 people. “In summer and autumn[…] work was scarce,” as that depressingly relevant 1904 report explains. “And when winter set in early, and with unusual severity, much distress arose from both want of work and sickness.”

In 2014, Dee Woods – a lifelong food ‘actionist’ – and Leslie Barson – who has been involved with the running of The Granville for nearly 28 years – had grown tired of seeing the gutting impacts of austerity play out while The Granville’s kitchen lay bare. It had been five years since Merle had left, and people were coming to the centre hungry and stressed, without enough money to feed themselves. “We set up this weekly lunch that a lot of people would benefit from,” Dee shares. They’d already planted a community garden in the yard at the front of the centre, sending roots down deep into the soil of Kilburn’s farming past. “So this was like: right, we’re growing all this food, why don’t we use it? We can teach people about food and growing.” Granville Community Kitchen was born, with weekly free meals for people in the community and food education.

Abby, who lives close to the centre, used to go to the weekly sit-down community meals with her mum and sister. The dinners, which ranged from vegetarian stews to chicken with rice, were as much about social nourishment as they were about the food itself. “They make you feel like family there,” she tells me. “If it wasn’t so friendly, I would never have gone.” But when lockdown hit, those meals were abruptly stopped. What’s more, Abby’s husband, who had been working in a restaurant, lost his job, and their financial situation became tougher than ever. Abby has been going to The Granville on Fridays to pick up a weekly food aid parcel – containing cooked meals, ingredients, toiletries and more – ever since. “It’s helped so much to have that support while we’ve been struggling. We’re blessed to have had them.”

With the help of South Kilburn Trust, Granville Community Kitchen is currently distributing around 190 food aid packages per week, feeding more than 600 people, and Leslie and Dee are working harder than ever. They’re looking for a place to start a community farm, reclaiming dead land and sparking new appetites. They’ve also just launched a Good Food Box, which can be bought cheaply (from £3.10 for a small box, or using Healthy Start vouchers) by those with little, and at a higher, subsidising cost by those with more money. Recipients can choose boxes that reflect their cultural and dietary needs, with yams and sweet potatoes available in some boxes, and potatoes and carrots in others. The kitchen is working in partnership with the African and Caribbean Heritage Food Network to make this happen, connecting with growers worldwide in order to ensure good quality, culturally appropriate food for all in South Kilburn. This isn’t local food, Dee emphasises, but localised food – food traded fairly, across people, cultures and places. “Local food tends to be hyper local and not inclusive; you can’t just drop everyone else in it after 500 years of a global food system. People need access to culturally appropriate food, for their health and happiness.”

It’s this question of food sovereignty, ensuring that people have some control over the food systems that nourish them, that sets Granville Community Kitchen’s aims apart from the work of the old mission hall as well as its modern analogues – food banks, food waste redistribution schemes and soup kitchens. Where the mission hall was a charitable project, with well-meaning ideas, resources and volunteers parachuted into the slums from outside the community, Granville Community Kitchen is created by and for the people of South Kilburn, its aims inseparable from the myriad cultures, desires and needs of the people it serves. Dee sees it as a matter not of charity but of dignity. “Everyone has a right to live in dignity. And for me that’s what I mean by food sovereignty: people have agency to decide what they want to eat, where they get that food from and how to define their own food system.”

In spite of the role it has played in feeding South Kilburn in recent months, The Granville is in danger. There are the big threats: the pandemic, lack of funding, ‘regeneration’ at the hands of developers and the council. But there are ordinary dangers too, those threats too mundane or too trivial to notice – until it’s too late. Leslie explains how it’s in Brent council’s small print – in curfew times and noise limits likely to be brought in after the construction of proposed new social housing on the site – that the centre risks losing its heart. “The needs of housing will be prioritised over the needs of the centre,” she warns. “It will be a painful death of community.”

In the gardens at the front of The Granville – which will be lost if the site is redeveloped – beds contain echinacea, lovage (known fondly as the Maggi plant, for the flavour it shares with the stock and seasoning brand) and a sprawling sage bush. There are strawberries and Masai bush bean, sweetcorn with jewel-coloured kernels and callaloo. There are bountiful tomatoes, too,  and runner beans clambering up makeshift frames. On mild late summer evenings, people drift through this small Eden in ones and twos, picking up food aid parcels.

Out of the gate and one minute’s walk west into the sun, there is a residential housing block, Merle Court. Named in honour of Merle’s services to the community, it was built in 2012, with flats for rent and shared ownership. Five years later, it was revealed that its cladding was the same type used on Grenfell tower, just under two miles away. Catalyst Housing, the management company responsible for the building, has since removed the cladding, but structural works remain to be completed. Some residents have left, Merle says, while others plan to stay.

Around the corner, Merle bustles around her home kitchen, enjoying the time that retirement has brought her, but never losing that urge to feed. The smell of chicken, stewing callaloo and frying dough float at intervals from her kitchen window and into the quiet streets outside. Sometimes  – when her back pain isn’t flaring up – she likes to walk, tracing the pavements of the neighbourhood she has made home. Her walks are seldom her own, though. At every corner, she is met with a shout – “Aunty Merle!” – from the other side of the street, a balcony, a garden. “Everywhere I go,” she laughs, “I see the children, and the grandchildren, of the people who ate my food.” In the golden hour haze, they reminisce about the meals they’ve shared and the meals they might have, someday, if circumstance ever allows. Far beneath their feet, old farmland lies buried, the Bayswater Rivulet still trickles, and layer upon layer of Kilburn rubble sleeps.

Ruby Tandoh is a cook and food writer currently living in London. She is the author of Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want.

The photography was done by Elainea Emmott, a chef and photographer based in London whose activism work has captured the Women’s March London, Million Women Rise, UK Black Pride and Black Lives Matter marches. You can find her on Instagram at @emmottelainea