You’ve seen the plaque on the side of Hanover Street Tesco? It reveals this chain-store site to have a very fertile history – and marks the starting point of an exploration into the curious social history of our city. From the ground up.
The store sits on land once owned by Mr Seel (hence Seel Street), once a vibrant tapestry of allotments, small holdings and orchards. Soil made rich from endless summers of propagation and toil – now excavated, flattened and stained with the poured concrete of car parks and hotel foundations.
Today, outside of the chap on Whitechapel and the ubiquitous Tesco (with its 11th branch slated to open, on Dale Street, this spring), you’d be hard pressed to gather your five a day in the city centre. But there was a time, as unearthed by the Mr Seel collective, when the city’s map found space for market farmers, butchers, milk herders and back yard vegetable growers.
The Mr Seel’s Garden project, which has been collecting memories, photos and clippings over the past year, is set to present its findings this weekend at the Bluecoat. And, by all accounts, they’re about to take us on a fascinating, and fertile psychogeographical trip into the city’s long-lost back yards.
With the help of the Friends of Sudley House Estate, and Everton Park, and steered by Transition - Liverpool’s environmental evangelists – a co-ordinated excavation of Liverpool’s terroir has been peeling back the Liverpool ONE tarmac to get at what lies beneath.
“We hope that, by learning more about the past, it might teach us more about the future,” says Transition Liverpool’s Michelle Bastian, researcher on the Mr Seel’s Garden project.
The project is well timed – as the friends of Granby set out their Patchwork Farm project, and Sudley House plan a suburban walled garden rich with herbs and veg, there’s a definite sense that we’re returning to the soil. That Tesco might have won the battle, but the war is far from over.
One of the project’s strands is the development of a ‘food-hacking’ App. A geo-fenced tour of the city, unlocking local memories of long vanished chicken coops, street-end dairies and community butchers. Point your iPhone at real food barcodes and you’ll get quotes and stories unearthed from their research, and directly related to the ground beneath your feet. You can try it out this weekend.
The app will tell tales of the Allerton countryside, prime cabbage-growing territory, of ‘Radish Time’ – when school kids were given time off school to harvest those fiery red salad bulbs. Of Jewish bakeries up Mount Pleasant way, where the same kids would stop off, en route to class, for hot, freshly baked bagels.
It will show a city that was as cosmopolitan, productive, and as connected to its food as any liberal London suburb is today. Of best-practice permaculture in an age before Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, food-miles and Lark Lane farmers’ markets.
And, as Mr Seel’s Garden has discovered, you don’t have to dig too deep to discover a city in touch with the ground beneath its feet.
Just a generation ago, pig rearer Brian Hogg ran his Mossley hill pig farm. The last cows were herded out of the city as late as 1979 (in 1900 there were 900 registered ‘cow houses’ in Liverpool: backstreet dairies, very much part of home life and a cornerstone of the community).
Only two cow house buildings still remain in Liverpool: Marlborough Road in West Derby, which was the last to close, and Harper’s Dairy in Rose Lane, which managed to keep the dairy shop running until, with the arrival of Tesco in 2000, they sold their last pint.
Market farmers, too, were a common site in the suburbs (especially in north Wirral), growing food for local shops and restaurants. Most are now built over, or are given over to horse paddocks.
“The European Coommon Market drove people out of business,” Bastian says, “and then, the rise of the supermarkets in the 80s really spelt the end of the suburban market garden. It’s incredible how quickly it’s changed, and how quickly we could lose the skills we once had as a city. By sharing our stories, we hope the project is the first step in bringing us back to the land.”
And, as the project has discovered – and charted on its interactive Google Food Map – things are changing.
“There’s so much stuff happening here now, thanks to community initiatives, networks such as Project Dirt swapping best practice, and a general move away from tasteless supermarket produce, Liverpool’s grassroots show a real awareness around food issues. It’s very encouraging,” Bastian adds.
History, Bastian says, is one of the best ways possible to ignite our interest – and to encourage our participation. Along the way, they’ve also been learning about the city’s changing tastes. Surprisingly, not much tea was imported into Liverpool in 1820 – it was mostly coffee.
But most importantly, the project shows that if, thirty years ago, Liverpool’s suburbs were as productive as Tom and Barbara’s Surbiton back garden, it stands to reason that they could be again.
Take a look at the Google map assembled by the Mr Seel project and you’ll see – butchers, orchards, bakers, chickens, soft fruit, salad veg. It’s like the world before the flood.
“Drawing people into sustainability can be a hard sell,” Bastian admits, “but over the past year, we’ve learned so much about where we used to get our food from that, hopefully, we can inspire some radical ideas about where we could grow our food in the future.”
This weekend, the project’s Show and Tell Sunday will present the project’s findings. A harvest festival, if you like, featuring a range of speakers, including local historian Duncan Scott (author of ‘Urban Cowboys’) and representatives from local food projects in Liverpool.
Memories of Mr Seel’s Garden: Show and Tell
12-5pm, 27 January
Main pic: George Bargh, Cowkeeper in Liverpool, dairy in Walton Village. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Robinson