It’s 2019 and I’m standing in an air raid bunker 30 metres below ground. Having stepped out of a gated lift and donned a white lab coat (with co-ordinating white wellies), I walk out into a series of striplight-illuminated tunnels, their corrugated metal walls and concrete floors damp with humidity. Around me, hair-netted men and women in blue and red tabards busy themselves at a series of polished metal workstations. Across the hallway, another tunnel, lined floor to ceiling with symmetrical shelves of greenery, stretches into the distance bathed in raspberry-pink light. If it wasn’t for the Backstreet Boys playing over the sound system, this would probably feel like a sci-fi movie set, but it’s actually Growing Underground, a sunlight-free farm buried deep under the bustling streets of Clapham.
Richard Ballard, one of the co-founders, is giving me a guided tour. Back in 2008, after the failure of his garden furniture business, he decided to fulfil a life goal, aged 34, and move to London from his native Bristol to read Film Studies (suddenly the Kubrick vibe of this place is starting to make sense). With Crossrail getting underway in the capital, he started to plan his final project.
‘I wanted to do a project on hidden London, what’s going on under the streets,’ Ballard says as we walk down the main tunnel, lined man-high with shelves upon shelves of sprouting peas, garlic, coriander, and broccoli leaves – the crops of Growing Underground’s subterranean fields. ‘By the time I finished my degree, I was making a film on the future of cities and how we were going to feed and power them.’
Initially, there was a space we were trying to get under the City of London that was a former MI6 communication hub
As the project came together, his research brought him into contact with the work of Jeremy Rifkind – an author who advocates the Third Industrial Revolution, where urban buildings’ excess energy is fed back into the grid – and Dr Dickson Despommier, whose work at Columbia University in the early 2000s produced the idea of the vertical farm, using skyscrapers to produce food in stacked layers. It was the discovery of Despommier’s ideas in particular that made Ballard realise he wanted to switch from film to farming.
‘[Despommier’s] work inspired a new generation of young farmers, including myself, to look at how we can do things differently,’ says Ballard. However, if he was going to do it, he was going to have to adapt Despommier’s ideas to fit London; a purpose-built skyscraper was a little out of budget, even after teaming up with his childhood friend Steve Dring to help raise funds for the project. If this was going to happen, it would have to be in a space that already existed, but one that was big enough to grow enough crops to make it potentially profitable. With light and soil not a necessity, since these crops are all grown hydroponically on recycled carpet taken from a factory in the north of England with low-energy LED lighting, it turned out the solution lay underground.
‘Initially, there was a space we were trying to get under the City of London called the Kingsway Exchange,’ says Ballard. ‘It was totally classified until the mid-Nineties as it was a former MI6 communication hub between the USSR and the USA during the Cold War. It didn’t work out, but we found this space which is owned by TfL.’
You might be wondering why Transport for London owns a former bomb shelter. In fact, it owns eight, stretching from Clapham South up to Belsize Park. Built during the Second World War to give 8,000 locals shelter from the Blitz, these structures were engineered to become part of a proposed express branch of the Northern Line after peace was declared. But when the funds to do this evaporated, they ended up empty. Considering the one we’re currently in has a total area of around 65,000 sq ft, that’s a lot of empty real estate without an obvious tenant. No wonder TfL were keen to give Ballad and Dring a chance.
‘TfL was intrigued and allowed us to do a small trial back in 2012,’ says Ballad. ‘It worked so we did a bigger trial and that helped us to work out some costings, which then allowed us to bring in some investment.’
Initially, according to Ballard, that was tough; subterranean farming like this had never been tried before and the crops they intended to grow, microherbs (small leaves like coriander, pea shoots, rocket and red mustard often used together as salads or for decoration in high-end restaurants) were a relatively niche product. However, a board including acclaimed chef Michel Roux Jr brought in the kudos and connections they needed to get the farm off the ground.
‘Today, we have raised about £2.5m,’ says Ballard, proudly. ‘We’re getting very close to breaking even this year. You’ve got to grow a lot of salad to make this stack up!’
Then why microherbs? Well, despite the combination of hydroponics and LED lighting being able to sustain much larger crops, it’s the pressure to make the business profitable that dictates what’s grown. The longest growth period of any crop down here is three weeks, but the vast majority are much shorter. The fastest to produce are pink stem radish leaves, which take just eight days from sowing to harvesting. In time, with improvements in technology (such as the use of artificial intelligence), Ballard hopes that this will change and that they will be able to utilise far more than the current 15 to 20 per cent of the space in these tunnels for more varied – and more substantial – crops.
But perhaps the biggest question is: Why do we need all this? Ballard says it’s a matter of efficiency and urgency. World populations are growing, cities are expanding fast. More mouths to feed mean we need more space to grow food, but land is increasingly being given over to urban bloat. Beyond that, growing crops in traditional methods on land is unpredictable.
‘Above ground you can only grow many of the crops for about three months a year due to the weather conditions. Down here you can grow them year-round,’ explains Ballard. ‘Take pea shoots. Outdoors you get about eight to 12 harvests a year. In a greenhouse that wasn’t controlled, you’d get about 25 to 30 harvests. Here, you can get up to 60.’
With this method of farming being wholly reliant on electricity, some say all of this is far worse for the environment than above-ground farming, but Ballard is quick to respond. ‘Yes, you use more energy because it’s a controlled environment, but you are getting a greater yield as it’s far more efficient. Plus it uses less water [than traditional farming methods] and reduces food miles as you’re growing very close to the point of consumption.’ He also uses Good Energy, which only uses renewable sources to generate electricity, to power the farm.
And all this is before you consider that consumers now want seasonal produce year-round. In the long term, according to Ballard, hydroponic farms offer a solution to provide these products in a way that’s better for the planet.
What does the future hold for Growing Underground? ‘There are other areas in the country we’re looking at – Manchester, maybe?’ muses Ballard. ‘But first, we want to expand this site, go to full capacity, and then look into other sites in the capital soon.’
With a further seven identical bunkers still searching for their purpose deep below the streets of London, it looks like that particular future could be closer than you think.
Growing Underground offers tours on Thursdays and Saturdays, growing-underground.com