Part of the plot

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Primary children in south London are hitting the allotment to prepare for a home-grown feast. Heather Neill reports

Go through the gateway into Rosendale allotments in the south London borough of Lambeth, just a few hundred yards from the traffic fumes of the South Circular, one of the capital's main arteries, and you enter another world. A peaceful vista opens out, green space as far as the eye can see, dotted with neat potting sheds and gardeners bent over their plots.

Not far away is a primary school. And, since last September, small groups of children have trooped across the road from Rosendale school into the allotments, led by teachers, artists and gardeners, to tend two beds of their own. They are all taking part in Feast, a year-long project organised as part of London International Festival of Theatre's (Lift) five-year inquiry on what theatre is and where it crosses the boundaries of everyday life. Feast is part of the "poetics and politics of urban spaces" section.

All of which seems a long way from the scourge of aphids. While the children experience the hard work of growing healthy vegetables, they are also preparing for the ultimate community feast, a shared meal to celebrate the equinox in September. They have already marked the winter and summer solstices, as well as the spring equinox, and they have made decorations to transform the growing space into a magical "dining room".

Back to those aphids. Catriona Andrews is the gardener who has been working with the Rosendale pupils. In the Feast hut with one of the core groups - each year has representatives who report back to class - she explains that they must try to keep damage to a minimum but, this being an organic garden, without using chemicals. The children have already worked out that they can model birds of prey from potatoes and feathers to scare off small birds; that prickly brambles between the plants will discourage slugs and snails; and that marigolds and sage planted among the crop will attract egg-laying butterflies away from the cabbages. Now, on to aphids. They suck all the goodness out of plants with their sharp tongues, but ladybirds love to eat them. If you can't be sure of enough ladybirds, arm yourself with a soapy-water spray gun. After the discussion, everyone troops off to wash the aphids out of the plants.

Martin Brockman, a sculptor in clay and wood, has been working with 120 children to make platters for the September feast and is tending the clay kiln containing them - "five times hotter than a pizza oven" - near the potting shed, ignoring the drenching rain that turns to steam.

Not far away, chef Ken Hawksworth puts batches of rolls into the outdoor oven as they are presented to him by a parade of dripping junior chefs in tall white hats. Mr Hawksworth taught them how to bake bread the previous week, "getting their feet off the ground when they're kneading".

Sheltering in the potting shed, project leaders Clare Patey and Cathy Wren, the "curators", describe how Feast started. They went to Lift with the idea, then, with the school on board, approached the allotment association and started planning the whole elaborate enterprise. Lift's Theresa von Wuthenau was appointed project manager and much hard work followed, with parents helping to clear and prepare the ground.

Rosendale, an Artsmark school, is the ideal partner. Headteacher Wendy Jacobs is delighted by the effect the project is having on the whole school, with all members of staff involved and children in various year groups learning to take responsibility for each other. The annual arts week concentrated on food this year, teachers have learned to make pots, a skill, along with the newly formed relationship with the allotment association, that is set to become a feature of Rosendale.

Ms Patey describes how artist Sophie Herxheimer has overseen the dyeing of cloth for tablecloths, in a vat of indigo dye in the playground. On another day, near the end of the summer term, artist Madhumita Bose showed a core group how to take long pieces of golden fabric (coloured with saffron the previous week), fold them, tightly tie the corners and dip them in beetroot juice. After drying the pinkish wodges with hairdryers, the children were delighted to find repeating patterns of exotic shapes. The fabric will transform tall bamboo bundles into elegant columns at the allotment entrance.

By now the children know each other well and are enjoying each other's company. Aharoneiye decides he is King Richard, so Lewis obliges by becoming Sir William. Someone announces poetically that the juice looks like purple blood from lions. Rose Fenton, a director of Lift, would be delighted. The inquiry is all about blurring the distinction between watching and participating; between actors and audience.

There were 40 responses to Lift's call for commissions for the "poetics and politics of urban spaces"; six were given research and development funding and three, including Feast, have reached fruition.

Feast includes so many powerful topics - the development of cities, global interdependence, environmental and ecological concerns, children's diets and the relationship between schools and the community - that it became the focus at a recent world cultural forum in Brazil attended by Ms Fenton, and is likely to be copied worldwide.

Tony Fegan, Lift's director of learning, says a DVD of the project is in the pipeline, and perhaps a Feast "how-to" manual. A performance element is yet to be added, but there are already stories, recipes, those plates and the children's "memory banks". Mr Fegan says: "They have experienced real labour and understood the act of faith needed to plant and wait for growth.

It is an analogy for the creative process, which also involves a lot of tending, growing and sharing."

Sharing will take place at the great Feast on September 24 and 25. And there won't be an aphid in sight.

For more information go to or email: main funders of Feast are the Heritage Lottery Fund, Lambeth council and the Foundation for Sports and the Arts


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