Thursday, April 30, 2009


A few months back I finally gave up shopping at supermarkets...

I'd come across a pretty damning report by Corporate Watch about the effects of supermarkets on people & planet and decided to do what I could to challenge the status quo. I'd read about the 'cheap food myth' whereby the consumer really pays three times over: once in the store, a second time in taxes to subsidise farmers and a third time in more taxes to clean up the pollution left by industrial agriculture and subsidise the road transport infrastructure. I discovered how supermarkets guzzle their way through as much energy as factories with their bright lights & open chiller cabinets. (Imagine leaving your freezer door at home permanently open!) I was already aware of how supermarkets bleed small farmers dry. How they cut a swathe through the High Street and suck money out of local communities to far-away shareholders. How 276 jobs are lost every time a large store opens in the UK. How buyers select products for maximum shelf life and appearance rather than taste. I could go on... The question was: How was I going to do it?

I was off to a running start in as much as I don't eat meat or dairy products and base my diet around fruit, vegetables and pulses. I was already getting a reasonably priced weekly delivery of tasty Herefordshire-grown organic veg from Boxfreshorganics, who I can phone to order delicious extras ranging from mushrooms to apple juice to fair trade coffee. To fill in the gaps, I got on my bike to do a tour of the local independent shops. Unfortunately Northfield and Selly Oak, my nearest shopping centres, are dominated by supermarkets and poorly endowed with independent shops. But over in Kings Heath I found a marvellous wholefood store called Thyme Out, run by a friendly couple called Jo & Gareth, where I buy items like pasta, tofu, cooking sauces and spices at reasonable prices. If I can't be bothered to bake it myself, Leverton & Halls in Bournville do lovely fresh bread and stock organic veg grown in the UK. They also have bins of rice, flour and sugar and a barrel of washing-up liquid, allowing you to refill your own container and avoid packaged goods. Just over the road there's an organic butcher, where I can buy meat for my wife & daughter. For heavier, bulkier items like 2 kilo bags of muesli and cartons of soya milk, I pop into Holland & Barrett during my lunch hour or on my way home from work.

So, all in all, after doing a bit of scouting around, giving up supermarkets has been no great hardship. I might spend a little more on organic food but as far as I'm concerned the quality of what I put in my family's mouths is a top priority. In fact, my new weekly shop has become a real pleasure -it's good exercise, gets me out & about, and it's lovely to meet shopkeepers who really care about their customers, their food and where it comes from.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


As a complete novice, I wasn't quite sure where to start. I knew very little about soil or compost. Or what grows where and when. What I did have an inkling of is that our current food system is not in a healthy condition. I wanted to make my own small contribution to 'digging for victory'.

We've been lucky enough to move to a house with a sunny south-facing garden, most of it lawn and flower beds, but with one obvious asset for growing our own - a small glasshouse on the patio.

Keen to get started, I bought a little book from Oxfam about organic gardening, which explained the benefits of compost and its key role in nourishing the soil. I also came across a helpful leaflet from the Council which emphasised the importance of getting the right mix between 'green' kitchen waste and 'brown' drier stuff like torn up bits of cardboard. I fashioned a rudimentary compost heap in a large bin bag with holes punched in it for ventilation. It won't be any good this spring, of course, but I'm looking forward to using it next year.

A few friends suggested I buy some grow bags as an easy way to get started. At the local garden centre I found some labelled organic and peat-free (J A Bowers New Horizon range). Deciding to play it safe, rather than buying seeds, I opted for some small plants that were already established in pots - cherry tomatoes, green & yellow peppers, marrow and some mange tout peas.

Back at home, I simply followed the instructions on the grow bags, making some small holes in the bottom for drainage and cutting some larger holes in the top for the plants. I watered the bags through the holes and then transferred the tomato, pepper & marrow plants to the grow bags, using my figures to dig away and mold the compost - nice grimy fingernails! To plant the peas, I poured some loose compost into a freestanding container and used some sticks to support the climbing stems.

All this was only a couple of days ago but already I've spotted some small flowers on my tomato plants. I feel like a proud parent! This is all exciting uncharted territory for me. Up to now my growing ambitions have extended no further than sprouting a few seeds on the kitchen windowsill. Now I'm taking my first baby steps to becoming an organic vegetable gardener.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


london-midland whisks me clickety-clack
through rolling fields
from university
to droitwich spa
swiftly out of town
via quiet country lanes
where startled baby rabbits
scamper into hedges
and bluebells line the verges
gaining momentum
shifting through the gears
up hill and down dale
fleet through holt fleet
then a lunchstop by the severn
through the trees
witley church spire crowned in gold
proclaims the glory of its secret treasure trove
climbing steadily now
getting into the groove
no pain no gain
up up up and away
over the crown of kingswood common
to misty vistas of clee
punctured by abberley clocktower
the wind of an exhilerating descent
rushes through my ears
down down down
to the banks of the teme
where mistletoe hangs from orchard boughs
saddle sore to martley
the comfy curves of the seat
yielding to the bumps and bruises of the road
feet up and a refreshing pint of pale burton ale
then back through the lanes
to my waiting train

Friday, April 24, 2009


no coats today
buds bulge on chestnut trees
and on the doorstep of a big old house
a young man stands and plays his flute
i watch the silver notes fly up
and circle in blue sky above the traffic
travelling where they will
and suddenly this paving stone
midway between my front door and the bus stop
is a starting point
from here i can go anywhere i choose

new season by wendy cope