These days, King’s Cross is awash in vertical flower walls, canal side walkways and gushing fountains but across the railway tracks in the industrial park, nature is in a better established, more productive mode. Way back in 1985, when King’s Cross was seedy backwater inhabited by gasometers and ladies of the night, the London Wildlife Trust took over a tongue of land along the canal side beside Camley Street and established a wildlife area including mixed woodland, rainwater ponds, marshland and a summer flowering meadow.
In the very same year, Alex Smith moved his muesli mixing business from Marchmont Street to the industrial estate which borders the Camley Street Wildlife Park. Alex had built up his muesli business from a shop trading vegetables and baking bread in his squat in the famous Tolmers Square. By the mid ’80s he was supplying organic, no added sugar muesli to most of the natural food wholesalers and many of the retailers across the country.
But Alex had a dream beyond muesli. An early sustainability pioneer, he set out to make the new premises in Camley Street as sustainable as possible. It has been a long process but Alara is now 100% sustainable. They source ingredients in the UK whenever possible; by 2008 they had achieved 100% waste management reusing or recycling all packaging and office equipment; large solar panel produce their light and power; they deliver locally by bicycle or electric car and ingredients are shipped rather than flown in. But, for Alex at least, sustainability is not only about recycling cardboard boxes and off setting carbon emissions.
The narrow strip of waste land which separated the industrial estate from the railways offered the possibility of setting up a small holding which could be a template for small self supporting communities around the world. Given King’s Cross’s history it is not surprising that it took several years to clear the 50 tons of rubbish (including many thousands of discarded needles) from the half acre site but cleared it was and very gradually brought back into productive use.
And productive it most certain now is! Plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, damsons, edible hawthorn, sharon fruit, quince, mulberries, goji berries, pomegranates, eleagnus (nitrogen fixing), pineapple guava (pictured on the right – you can eat their petals!), figs, Japanese wine berries, strawberries, blueberries, black berries, raspberries, ugnee, bluebean, valerian, gooseberries, pears, Chinese pears, artichokes, purple beans, Jerusalem artichokes, purple mange tout, courgettes, squash….
Their orchard includes over 40 heavily fruiting trees whose fruit they bottle and preserve but they also have a small tree ‘nursery’ bringing on young trees for the London Orchard Project who find places to plant them permanently. Last year the project gave Alara a bug house as a thank you. It came to join their beehive (you can see it in the picture at the top overhung by loads of plums). Very happily, on the day that we visited the garden, a new colony of bees had just taken up residence – their last queen had died some months ago and left them bees-less.
While the garden embodies Alex’s dream of sustainable, self supporting local communities, it also provides food for all of the staff and for various local groups who help him to maintain it. And not only food.
On another narrow strip of land down the side of the loading bays is a seriously flourishing vine from whose grapes they make some very fine Chateau King’s Cross (30 bottles in 2011 but up to 60 bottles by 2013) – while the overhanding elders provide masses of flowers and berries for elderflower champagne and elderberry cordial.
A shed along one wall provides storage space for broken pallets and other bits of this and that which will get recycled into a raised bed or something ‘useful’ – while reclaimed slabs of stone and marble, found on the site when they cleared it, are used as tables and chairs for lunch, for meetings in the summer and for their parties! There are two of these – a ‘wassail’ party at the end of winter to wake the fruit trees up after the winter and tell them to get on with the job of making fruit – and a harvest party at the end of summer to congratulate them for having made fruit so well!
But, apart from their sustainable garden, what else do Alara do these days?
Well their main focus is still on muesli of which they make a very wide range, both classic and filled with exotic berries and super foods – many of them gluten free. (Alara was the first cereal company in the UK to get the Coeliac UK accreditation.)
But they also have a superfood brand called Of The Earth which includes yumminesses such as Raw Peruvian cacao nibs, organic lucuma and beetroot powder, milled organic linseeds and hemp seed with chia or, my absolute favourite and what kept me going on the slog back down the motorway after the Liverpool Allergy show last year, their Spirulina and Lemon and Acerola and Goji berry truffles!!
For the Of the Earth range spool down to the bottom half of their products page here.
Otherwise, check out their website for more on the garden, their products and their philosophy. Meanwhile, we are looking forward to that Harvest Home party!!