News / City Life

This Londoner is fighting to save Deptford’s community garden

Heather Gilmore My London Story
Photograph: Anita Strasser

Alongside fellow Deptford residents, Heather Gilmore is occupying a local garden to protest against regeneration plans…

I first lived in Deptford for a period in the ’80s, and I quickly grew to love the area. In 1994, the opportunity came up to move here permanently and I grabbed it. I had never lived in such a cohesive and diverse community before. The arts were also practised in abundance: my kind of place!

In 2006, a group of us established a community arts project called “A Madcap Coalition” to bring people together on different estates, engendering respect for each other’s cultures through the arts. We organised 50 events in seven years to a great response. In 2013, we did an event in Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden. I fell in love with it the moment I walked in.

The garden was beautifully designed by a landscape architect 20 years ago and planted by the teachers, parents and pupils of Tidemill School. It’s a magical place and has become incredibly important to me. I have a degenerative condition and may go blind one day, but when I come in here, my eyes are bathed in green light and it helps me cope with life. I feel at peace when I’m here.

In Deptford, there’s a constant hum of digging. It feels like we are being assaulted by concrete, glass and metal monsters, as well as noise and air pollution. Amid all this new development, the garden is becoming more and more invaluable – it’s priceless. A study by Goldsmiths has shown that this garden mitigates air pollution by half, in an area that’s six times over the World Health Organisation’s particle limits. It also provides working-class people, who may not want to (or be able to) fully participate in gentrified culture, with a creative, healthy and affordable space to be.

Soon after discovering the garden, I got involved in the campaign to save it. Lewisham Council’s developers have gained planning permission to build 209 flats here and on the site of Reginald House next door, around half of which will be for new social tenants at “London Affordable Rent”. We want the new social housing, but not the destruction of existing community assets.

We requested a community collaborative design process, and an architect member of the group drew up alternative plans that would save the garden, but the developers and council decided against our proposals. When we were instructed to leave the site by August 29, we decided to occupy it.

Among us garden users are some amazing, creative and resourceful activists, who have used their ingenuity to build sheds, tree houses, a kitchen area and a store room, as well as to create campaigning artwork, placards and banners. We have organised many events, bringing thousands of visitors and local people to enjoy the garden and resist its annihilation. Organising events for the campaign has made me feel valued, capable and confident that, despite my disability, I can still contribute to community life.

On October 24, we may be forced by a court order to end our occupation. It is the first time in 24 years that it has occurred to me that I might want to leave Deptford. Then again, I have little choice: this is my home. That’s why I will continue to resist its destruction.

Interview and portrait by Anita Strasser of Deptford Is ChangingFind out more about the campaign to save Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden.

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