Horse and plough come to East End

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The Independent Online
WHAT WAS once a strip of litter-strewn ground, sandwiched between a rusting gasworks and an inner-city council estate, is being transformed into flourishing meadowland in a unique antidote to decades of urban sprawl. Last week, two towering shire horses ploughed over the shallow layer of soil covering an East London bomb site to re-seed the land and prepare it for new planting.

Within a couple of months, according to Gavin Jones, the artist and gardener who conceived the project, the former wasteland will erupt into a richly coloured array of wild and cultivated flowers and grasses. Mr Jones's aim is to create a "belljar ecology" - an experiment with nature under controlled conditions - that will provide an oasis of wildlife amid the monotony of grey buildings.

Just yards away from the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, the horses and ploughman cut a curious post-industrial silhouette against a backdrop of billboards and pylons.

What gives this image added significance is the fact that 98 per cent of Britain's meadows have been lost to the combined post-war advance of intensive farming and new building, and the last of them are in danger of disappearing.

It is the third year that the land by the Aberfeldy and Teviot estates - a haphazard mix of Fifties, Sixties and Seventies council housing - has been ploughed, rolled down, harrowed and planted with rotating crops. The project, originally funded by Tower Hamlets council, which owns the land, is now overseen by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers as part of a wider EU-funded regeneration project in the East End.

This year, one section of the meadow has been left untouched to bring on the foxgloves, hollyhocks, yarrow and shepherd's purse already rooted there. Another section is planted with pin stripes of sunflowers alternated with a mix of tough, fast-growing garden and wild annuals, including blue linseed flowers, corn marigolds and field poppies.

Though overshadowed by the silver Canary Wharf tower, the meadow in bloom provides a rich food chain for species of wildlife that have disappeared from much of Britain's increasingly barren countryside. Cabbage-white butterflies have flocked to the strategically planted brassicas, attracting, in turn, peacock and red admiral butterflies. Bats and a variety of birds have also been spotted, including two kestrels nesting on a tower high above the coiled barbed wire on the gasworks wall. The taller flowers have proved good cover for field mice.

It is not nature as we once knew it, but Mr Jones, a ponytailed graduate of Slade School of Art whose pockets of his long coat are stuffed with rolling tobacco, is hardly a typical countryside champion.

"As natural environments are lost, any ecology we introduce is going to be in the form of a theme park," he says. "That doesn't have to be a bad thing. While a traditional meadow is about 40 per cent grass, we have gone for effect by planting around 90 per cent of this land with flowers. It's a way of getting people here interested in gardening and providing a `living view' that changes in unexpected and exciting ways."

Bringing the horses in is another way of stimulating interest in the land and costs the same as using a tractor. "We love coming over to watch the horses and have even visited them where they live on the Isle of Sheppey," said Natalie Skeels, who lives across the road with her two-year-old son, Alfie. "A lot of children come from school to help plant the flowers."

Mr Jones intends to develop a similar project in Westminster and is talking to groups in Northern Ireland about replacing expensive mowers with horse-drawn equipment on public land. He is also working with the Peabody Trust, a housing charity, on a mix of gardening and environmental projects at two schools in Bethnal Green, east London.

At one he wants to build a greenhouse-style classroom of bricks of broken glass. At the other, passiflora and wisteria would shade a Seventies school whose large windows have made summers unbearably hot.