Why I started Surrey Docks Farm

Hilary Peters

In the 1970s there was an infant plane tree growing out of a crack in the plinth of Cleopatra's Needle. I know that's impossible. The London Plane does not seed itself. But it was there. It wasn't a sycamore. It was a miracle.

But, if it had been a sycamore, it would still have been a miracle. It opened up a different world. The natural world is there, beneath the paving slabs, waiting to inspire us. I felt everyone has the power to connect with the natural world but we are cut off from it, impoverished by the lack but not knowing what's missing. We need a reminder: some contact with the wild. It felt like a need I could meet.

Surrey Docks Farm

Of all the plants and animals that represent the wild, goats, for me, are the most evocative. You only have to see a goat to know that all our attempts at civilisation are a thin veneer, like the concrete, like the infrastructure, like the virtual world. Beneath the layers, we are all connected.

It was that connection with the wild that I wanted to bring to London. Surrey Docks Farm was the result. It was a goat farm, with hens. Our goats grazed on the scrub that grew up when the docks closed. Our hens scratched on the deserted quays. We sold goat cheese and eggs and collected waste vegetables in a donkey cart. At first, we had 200 acres on loan from the Port of London Authority. Soon it was reduced to fewer than two.

People didn't see what I saw but they did see something. Ex-dockers saw that the land that had been their factory floor could become their allotments. Their children saw an adventure playground crossed with a zoo. Teachers saw a whole new learning experience. Social workers saw a potential cure for vandalism. Journalists saw a photo opportunity. Politicians saw a credit. The farm attracted dedicated workers who wanted to produce food from wasteland, artists who enjoyed contact with animals, watermen who brought us broken sacks of animal feed, friends of the earth.

The farm became established and very much smaller and more official. It even survived the property booms, the yuppy invasion, and the transformation of the Docks into hot property. We did change the landscape, not necessarily for the better. There is nothing more beautiful than working wharves, but they are accessible to very few. We did bring the wild to London. And besides the wild was the thrill of producing food from waste and working with nature rather than conquering it.

The farm isn't wild any more but it is still there and very active. A lot of people learn to grow vegetables and make compost and meet animals. It has a café, a shop, a resident blacksmith, and bees. You can learn a craft. You can still see goats there. You can still, if you choose, relate to the wild in you.

I even wrote a book about it: Docklandscape, 1979.

Surrey Docks Farm
Rotherhithe Street
London SE16 5ET
020 7231 1010