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Growing Underground

Ruth Wyatt meets the founders of a unique initiative supported by Michel Roux Jr to grow food underneath the heart of Clapham High Street.

Michel Roux Jr bounds into the Growing Underground office and plonks himself on a chair – briefly, as he’s rarely still for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s just a social call; the two Michelinstarred chef is often next door at his cookery school at Cactus Kitchens or filming at Cactus Studios, and he likes to pop in on the UK’s first subterranean farm, of which he is a non- executive director.

Growing Underground has transformed a Second World War bomb shelter deep beneath the streets of Clapham into a thriving agricultural business producing micro herbs and salad leaves at a fraction of the usual environmental cost. Yes, you read that right: a thriving, sustainable agricultural business 100 feet below Clapham High Street.

“It’s just such a brilliant idea,” Michel enthuses. “The concept itself is beneficial in so many ways – reducing food waste and food miles, being unaffected by weather and climate change, and harnessing new techniques to feed a growing population. Just recently, our own supermarkets here were rationing vegetables!”

Growing Underground was established by Steven Dring and Richard Ballard, entrepreneurs and childhood friends. They met when they were 12 and “spookily our parents used to work together,” says Steven. What started off “as two boys in a bedroom with an idea” has become a serious business growing eco-friendly food and supplying some serious names. They’ve been providing micro greens to high-end restaurants for almost two years, have recently sealed distribution through Ocado and this month begin supplying one of the big names on the high street.

“Getting Michel on board was a real achievement for us,” says Richard. “We knew that would really make people pay attention.”

“I think Growing Underground would have been successful even without my involvement,” Michel counters. “I suppose, perhaps, having a chef on board might have grabbed the attention of other chefs and the hospitality industry a bit quicker than it would have done otherwise, but obviously I’m not the only person that thought it was a fantastic idea – as you can see by how hugely successful the crowdfunding campaign was.

“I got involved because I thought it was a great initiative; there is so much underground space that isn’t utilised, not just in London but all over the world. Eventually, there will be more people in the world than we currently have the capacity to feed. If we can start to utilise spaces like this properly, the potential is huge,” he concludes.

Michel is a local lad who grew up playing on Clapham Common. It’s an odd thought as
Steven and I traverse the seemingly endless tunnels designed to protect 8,000 Londoners from the Blitz that directly above our heads is where Michel played as a little boy.

At one point, Steven points out that the massive Sainsbury’s on the high street is about 100 feet north of where we stand.We turn down another tunnel and he flicks his iPhone to illuminate a shadowy staircase that leads up to Clapham Common tube station. The entrance is bricked up but you can feel the deep thrum of the tube passing close by in your bones, as well as hear it. Then, we’re down another level and there’s another tunnel and another. It’s all a bit Alice in Wonderland, with a touch of Breaking Bad, especially around the filtration equipment. By the end I’m thoroughly disoriented. “Everyone who comes down here says that,” Steven remarks.

So far, only one sixth of the available underground space has been cultivated, but what has been done is impressive. Row after vertically stacked row of tiny green and red shoots line the walls. “Here, try this,” says Steven handing me a pinch of wasabi shoots that explode with crisp heat on the palate, as we march down one of the tunnels infused
with pink light.

Growing Underground is a massive undertaking born of a genuine desire to make a difference. Richard’s final project for his film degree was about sustainable living. He and Steven, by then running a PLC, spent many a long night chewing over water scarcity, food shortages, green technology, the democratisation of energy and smart grids. “We wanted to do something positive, something sustainable both in terms of the business model and its impact on the environment, and creating a business that could be successful,” Steven recalls.

The idea of vertical urban farming captured their imagination, and the opportunity to practise it presented itself in a disused bomb shelter opposite Clapham North station. “It addresses the issues around food, water and energy consumption in a positive, practical way,” Richard extols.

It sounds mad – growing fresh food in dark caverns – but it is an elegant solution to the ever more pressing problem of how to feed all the extra mouths in this city and others. Take abandoned underground spaces and put them to work as farms, employing the latest hydroponic technology, which uses significantly less water and energy than traditional farming, and no pesticides. Urban locations scythe through the number of food miles involved in distribution and the produce arrives on the plate or supermarket shelf often within a few hours of being picked.

The original site lacked a lift, which meant a laborious haul up and down 177 steps with raw materials and produce, but was successful enough for the pair to establish a proper business. The premises off Clapham High Street that they moved to two years ago were previously used for document storage and came equipped with lift, loading bay and lights.

Growing Underground is currently producing 12 crops, which are sold individually and in five salad mixes from different ethnic influences, blended by Michel. There’s a great deal of room for expansion, both in terms of the range, which could run to some 40 products, and the space needed to grow it. Depending on demand from the new retail customer, it could be supplying 85 of its stores in London within a year and there’s a further distribution deal with another big high street name in the offing.

Growing Underground is a pioneering business, as innovative as it is important. “Luckily for us the majority of people just get it – they can see what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it,” Richard smiles.

Founders Steven and RichardGrowing UndergroundGrowing UndergroundMichel Roux Jr© Martin CervenanskyMichel Roux Jr with founders Steven and Richard