Reg, veg and community spirit

When Reg Curnock came out of the army in 1958 he and his wife moved into a house on a dirt track just outside Oxford. He started growing vegetables for his growing family, while all around his vegetable patch, streets and houses sprouted up. They were to provide homes for workers in the new car factory going up in Cowley.

Reg has seen the car industry rise and fall in his many decades on what became the Blackbird Leys Estate. And more recently everyone on the estate is feeling the pinch of the recession. Reg feels that he’s seen the “sense of community” fall too, and says the drug dealing that now goes on means the old people “keep themselves to themselves”.

But last night the community spirit was reasserting itself. Perhaps not exactly the community that Reg was used to, but a new kind of community blending black, white, Polish, English, young, old and middle aged. And Reg himself. What they all had in common was a purpose. They had gathered to discuss, over a shared meal, plans to start a community market on the estate. The organisers of the event had been gathering people’s views on the idea.

To the first question, “Does Blackbird Leys need a market?”, there was a resounding and unanimous Yes.

To the second question, “Why?”, two answers predominated. One, to provide a source of fresh vegetables to people on the estate and two, to bring the community together.

What did people want to buy at the market? Overwhelmingly, fresh fruit and veg. What would they be willing to sell? Alas, mostly cakes!

But fortunately Reg and his fellow members of the Blackbird Leys Allotment Association, were there with plans to provide the vegetables. And the fruit and herbs and flowers and seeds and seedlings…  As a father of six, whose grandchildren were weaned on his pureed vegetables, Reg knows the value of fresh produce. His wife used to keep track of what he grew and what it would have cost to buy in the shops. She calculated that they saved £18 a week in the 1970’s. “Imagine what that would be worth now,” he says. (Thanks to this rather handy website, I can tell you that £18 in 1975 would be worth £185 now using average earnings!)

At each table, over freshly cooked baked potatoes, vegetable stew and salad, we discussed ideas for the market and wrote them on post-it notes. Our excitement grew as the ideas flowed, bouncing off each other and getting more and more ambitious. Could we recreate Paul’s thrilling childhood memory of when the cast of the Planet of the Apes arrived in full costume on horseback to entertain him and the other kids at an earlier market?!

“But what makes me really angry,” said Paul, “Is Mother’s Day. On the Tuesday a bunch of flowers will be £3.99, and come Friday it will be £7.99! And that’s kids they’re taking that money from. We could grow flowers on our allotments and even if we sell them for a pound a bunch we’d still be making something, and the kids wouldn’t be being ripped off.”

Reg, who was last year’s winner of the Oxford Allotment Competition, suggested that as well as selling fruit and veg, they could provide advice to help people grow their own. They could sell seeds and show people that you could save your own seeds to plant the following year instead of buying new ones. This might not sound like good entrepreneurship on Reg’s part – but it sounds like a lot like community spirit. Long may it live.

Photos from the Blackbird Leys Allotment website. Reg is the one on the left.

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