Nestled in Stanmer Park on the outskirts of Brighton and surrounded by trees lies ‘Common Ground’, a secluded, nature-filled plot of land with an organic food growing space, a wildlife pond, and a small orchard of apple and pear trees.
Common Ground is a social enterprise project offering a place in nature for marginalised groups in the community to learn and share knowledge about food growing, cooking and land-based skills.
Creating the Project
Common Ground was designed, created, and now run by Alexandra, a horticulturist and permaculturalist, and Nick, who has a background in nutrition. Inspired by years working in education projects in London, volunteering in community gardens, and a general interest in nature, health and wellbeing, they decided to create a project incorporating all of their interests: a supportive space for members of the Brighton community to reconnect with the earth, themselves and each other.
“Ten years ago, on a trip to Stanmer Park we thought wouldn’t it be lovely to have a plot here and grow some food, and then five years ago, we found a space available and thought let’s take it on! It was a huge, eight foot high, nettle patch as it had been disused for five years,” Alexandra tells me.
After a year of dedicated work, Alexandra and Nick reclaimed and uncovered the garden, restoring biodiversity and incorporating organic and permaculture gardening techniques, with ongoing plans to create more areas for wildlife and a food forest, as well as spaces for workshops and an outdoor kitchen.
Finding Common Ground Through Food
From the start, Common Ground was designed to be a communal space to share food and knowledge. Nick explains: “It’s a lovely privilege having our plot of land but if we didn’t share it with people, it wouldn’t be worthwhile. It’s lovely to feel that ethos of connection which just spreads out further and wider.
“We wanted to create a place where everyone was able to interact with everyone and have a real sense of being part of the community and owning that community. Not just being invited to join, but actually being an important part of the collective community.”
The starting point for this community is food, and visitors to the garden are able to help with, and learn about, growing, cooking and sharing food. The aim is to simplify and de-mystify the discussions around food and nutrition, making it accessible to everyone. As Nick points out “cooking and food growing are quite primal activities and bring us back to the things that connect us.”
Alexandra continues: “We all have stories to tell, and we all have a common theme, which is to eat, and where do we get that food from? No matter where we’re from we all eat, and it’s just beautiful hearing all the different stories and learning what plants and vegetables mean to people and how they’re used in people’s lives”.
At the moment, the garden has a large variety of organic fruit and vegetables. They also grow many unusual varieties. Nick says “We try and mix things up from what you can buy in the supermarket. We have quite a few different salad leaves. It surprises people because a lot of what we usually have [in the UK] is quite bland, like iceberg lettuce and things like that but when you pick these out of the ground and try them its a real flavour hit.”
Future plans include workshops on a variety of land-based skills, from traditional woodcraft and whittling to storytelling and the folklore of plants and gardening.
Supporting The Refugee and Migrant Community
During the pandemic, Common Ground supported Brighton based charity ‘Voices in Exile’ by donating over a quarter of a tonne of the fresh produce grown in the garden to refugee families in Brighton and Hove, supporting 40 – 45 families a week.
Although Common Ground welcome all who would like to volunteer, the project is currently aimed specifically at the refugee and migrant community, a cause close to Alexandra and Nick’s hearts.
Nick explains: “I’ve been lucky to travel around the world, and I’ve always been very grateful for the warmth and hospitality that I’ve received, and the welcomes I’ve had. I’ve experienced a well of warmth and kindness.
“We know that migrants and refugees don’t always get a particularly warm welcome when they arrive in this country, in many cases already having been through some very difficult experiences. Unfortunately it often doesn’t stop when they arrive and often there are other cruelties and inhumanities that people suffer, so it was really important for us that there was a place that they could go and know that they would receive the welcome that they deserve, and where we can say ‘you are a part of this community’.”
Common Ground and their advisory board work closely with Voices in Exile and Student Action for Refugees. Once coronavirus restrictions are over, the garden will be open for refugee and migrant families to visit, either taking part in workshops and activities, or simply coming to enjoy the peace and quiet of the garden.
Alexandra says “We want the families to feel comfortable and feel that the space is theirs. We will have this beautiful pond with some seating, so people can go and have some quiet time to reflect, to write, to read. There will never be any expectation to work in the garden. It’s an important aspect of the garden to just be.”
Common Ground has multiple volunteers of diverse ages and backgrounds who connect through spending time in the garden. Nick finds that “you very quickly find the common ground and the common areas you want to discuss.”
“There’s a feeling of respectfulness that we haven’t worked to develop but seems to come naturally, of people feeling relaxed and having that kind of space for discussion. I think often with filtering mechanisms and the internet we can become more polarised in our point of view. It’s quite nice to see people challenging each others ideas but not for the purpose of proving they’re right or winning the argument but just because they’re genuinely interested.”
Alexandra adds “We don’t force conversations, but when you garden something beautiful happens, when you’re in community, there’s this kind of flow – it takes that mask off and you feel more true to yourself and feel that it’s ok to talk about these things in life that its hard to put into words.”
“For me, the space has not only been a place where ideas and creativity can bounce freely, but also a place to land and be with people who are all trying to make the world a little bit kinder. It has been so nourishing to see this project grow into what it is today: a productive, dynamic and welcoming patch of pachamama.” – Roxy
“My 18 months as a volunteer with Common Ground have been an incredible experience. I have learnt so much about growing food and working on the land, gained many new skills and made some lovely new friends. I am so excited to be a part of the Common Ground community and can’t wait to see it fulfil its dreams by finally welcoming refugees to the plot in the new year.” – Adam
“I got involved with Common Ground through Student Action for Refugees. This wonderful green space has given me the opportunity to explore my passion for self-sustainability, whilst helping to support and welcome marginalised groups in the community… In a time where we often find ourselves trapped indoors, Common Ground has bought me so much joy, purpose, motivation and courage. p.s Alex and Nick are the best.” – Maoyzya
Caring for Wildlife and Connecting to the Earth
Caring for and connecting with wildlife and biodiversity is at the heart of the project. Nick believes “our connection with the earth, especially in more developed countries, has been, in many ways, severed, and we’ve distanced ourselves from the planet. You can see that on a policy level, for example with carbon offsetting, thinking you can chop down a rainforest and then plant some more trees in a different place, and that equilibrium has then been restored, rather than realising you’re taking away the lungs of a living organism.
“It’s important to provide places where the wildlife feels safe and protected. We have a guardianship role with the wildlife, even if they do eat half our produce! It’s been lovely for us to watch it thrive,” he continues.
“We’re trying to make sure there are areas in the garden that are encouraging habitats for wildlife, so there are piles of logs that are housing all sorts of bugs and little creatures. We love seeing and hearing the birdlife so we have birdhouses around the garden. The robins especially get so close. We also have a weasel that patrols the garden running around too. We’ve got three birds of prey now too, which is good as it points to a redressing of the balance of the ecosystem.”
During an unsettling year, spending time at the project has been a solace to many who have felt the benefits of spending time in nature.
“We’ve seen a lot more interest around what we’ve been doing. When we went into lockdown it became impossible to find seeds and compost as suddenly everyone’s interested in food growing. I don’t know if the birdsong got louder or if we had the opportunity to notice it but there has been, as far as we’ve seen, a real move towards more observation and awareness of nature,” Nick tells me.
“Covid has caused a lot of complications for so many people and a lot of tragic stories have come out of it, but one of the positives we’ve seen at the garden is people thinking about some of the priorities they have and some of the priorities that might better serve them and the planet and the ecosystem they live in and the community they live in, the loops and the cycles of food growing and what’s on the plate and how it affects them. So we’ve definitely seen a change, not just in enthusiasm for the project, but as a whole to people’s ideas and priorities and thinking.”
Nick and Alexandra’s inspirational project provides, in their own words, a way to think about “a world that’s a little more respectful of the environment, a little more aware of our ecosystem, and a little more connected to our planet and to each other.”
How to Support Common Ground
Follow Common Ground on social media @commongroundbrighton to stay updated and to learn more about how to support their ongoing projects.
Common Ground are currently fundraising to create a food forest on the plot. Please click here to learn more about it and donate.
Alexandra and Nick are extremely grateful for all the volunteers that have helped get the project where it is today as well as all those people in the community near and far who have donated to their fundraisers, they have been blown away by the support.