wilko pub sign

Permaculture in the Pub!

Graham Burnett describes how a broken down pub yard became a community garden without any formal funding, but with a lot of imagination and fun!

Sitting in Southend on Sea’s Railway Hotel as I type this, I’m  reminded of just what a vibrant and life affirming place it is. A basically unaltered traditional Victorian tavern in one of the oldest parts of this Essex seaside town, there’s a ramshackle steam punk vibe about the place. Frank Zappa, Fats Waller and The Undertones take their turns on the record deck, a couple of local musicians are composing songs in French at the next table, and there’s chat at the bar about organising a concert of retro synth music to celebrate Dr Who’s upcoming 50th anniversary. Indeed it’s The Railway’s mix of great live music, fantastic company and a general ‘it’s your space, use it’ ethos that has been a major factor in helping me to recover from some serious personal health challenges over the last couple of years, and I wanted to give something back.

Photo c/o Paul Hughes

Photo c/o Paul Hughes

Shortly after returning to work at Project 49, a local authority run ‘hub’ providing services for local people with learning disabilities I happened to be talking to Railway manager Dave Dulake about all things organic and permacultural. He remarked that he’d “love to see the community use our back garden and maybe grow some fresh organic vegetables…” With the yard at that time a dumping ground for broken furniture and other assorted rubbish, the idea may have seemed more of a pub chat pipe-dream than a serious proposal, but for me it was a eureka moment… “So how do we make it happen then Dave???”


Project 49 are always keen to find innovative ways of developing peoples’ practical skills and promote social inclusion, so it just made sense that we should work with the Railway, especially as we are based literally around the corner. This small courtyard would make a perfect space for growing vegetables and learning other independent life skills plus raising awareness about healthy living choices. An informal meeting at the beginning of 2013 between Dave and myself and my Line Manager Pete Shimplin plus a few of our service users gave the project the green light. A rough design was sketched up for a system of raised beds  that would be easy to maintain, particularly for people using wheelchairs. Water harvesting opportunities were also identified, as well as thinking about the placement of elements such as compost bins. We also created a somewhat wibbly wobbly time-line for the implementation of various stages of the construction, an element of the design that has been crucial in it’s project management even though it was written on the back of an envelope and is ‘subject to change at short notice’ as they say… The important thing was that the pub chat was quickly becoming a reality…


By the middle of February the rubbish had been completely cleared, and 36 recycled wooden pallets sourced and delivered from a nearby industrial estate. Once these were on site we were able to play about with various design ideas for the beds, eventually coming up with an incredibly low tech system that simply involved removing two of the three runners from the bottoms of two pallets. These were then upturned and used as sidewalls, with a third whole pallet being placed between them, resting on the runners to act as a raised base. The structures are then simply nailed together and given a coat of environmentally friendly preservative.

pallet building

Much of the construction work was carried out by people from Project 49 who got a chance to develop basic carpentry skills. Volunteers from the pub’s regular customers were also recruited via it’s Facebook page, a resource that proved to be invaluable when co-ordinating work days over the following weeks. Word of the project quickly spread and generated an enthusiastic response – practically every time I went up to the bar somebody would thrust a tray of seedlings or a bag of onion sets for the garden into my hand to take away with my pint…


The Permaculture principle of turning problems into innovative solutions has informed the project’s implementation – For example, cutting back a particularly vicious pyracantha bush overhanging from the neighbouring garden generated a large amount of rather nasty and spiky prunings that were proving difficult to get rid of. So they were turned into a kind of instant Hugelculture system by chucking them into the bottoms of the beds to be covered with soil, slowly releasing fertility as they decompose.

pub garden

Another ‘problem’ that turned out to be a gift when viewed from a fresh perspective was the fact that we had no budget whatsoever. Although 90% of the materials and labour including the pallets, bed liners, water butts and some rather snazzy cast iron railings were either scavenged or donated free of charge by local businesses, some cash outlay was still incurred, in particular for the soil needed to fill the beds. Then there were all the small things such as water butt taps and connectors, nails, paint brushes and so on. Mostly these were inexpensive, but costs tend to add up. Facebook and the Railway community to the rescue again! An all day ‘Make Compost Not War’ fund raising benefit was ‘organised’ (a term I use loosely…) that ended up sprawling across two floors of the building and out into the garden. Fifteen (I think, I lost count somewhere along the line!) of Southend’s finest bands and performers turned out to create a gloriously chaotic day that not only more than covered what we needed financially, but also became a magnificent launch party that saw blues, punk, jazz, rockabilly, funk and acoustic jamming rocking on until long after closing time! Funding applications? Who needs ’em! And here’s to running out of money soon so we can do it all again!

garden party

We are moving into late summer as I write. Over the last few weeks an abundance of onions, courgettes, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, salad leaves, beetroots, carrots, squashes, runner beans, kale and sweetcorn have been harvested. Yet the most important yields from the Railway Garden aren’t the crops but the community ‘edges’. The people from Project 49 have not only been learning gardening and cooking skills, they have become a part of the lively pub scene, often coming into the bar after a work session to enjoy a pint or have a go on the piano or any guitar that happens to be lying around – the sort of experiences many of us take for granted, but historically have been denied to so many people with learning disabilities. The books about permaculture often emphasise the importance of protracted observation and careful placement when making design decisions. Rightly so perhaps, but sometimes the call to action is more about working with a more spontaneous collective energy. Even though we had a vision and a direction, the Railway Garden has been a bit like a gig at the Wednesday evening jazz club – all about flexibility and improvisation, and seeing what or who turns up. A bit messy sometimes but somehow it always comes together – and that’s the great thing about the power of a community like The Railway!

Photo c/o Nick Range

Photo c/o Nick Range

Footnote – in the late summer of 2013 the Railway Garden project were the winners of Anglia in Bloom’s prestigious award for the best Special Needs Garden category. The project was also awarded a STARS award from Southend on Sea Borough Council for best Community Cohesion project.


A big thanks to everyone who helped make this project happen, Pete Shrimplin and all the folks at Project 49, Dave and Fi at The Railway and all the volunteers from the pub who helped out, Gary Worsley, Ron the Welder, Tinky of Flower Power Garden Services, Josh, all those who donated seeds and plants and all the bands that played at the gig or that came along to support – it couldn’t have happened without you!

Graham Burnett

This article first appeared in Permaculture Magazine no 78, Winter 2013.

For more photos from this project see the London Permaculture Flickr site.

Graham runs permaculture courses and is the author of Permaculture A Beginners Guide and The Vegan Book of Permaculture. Spiralseed are interested in developing other community garden projects particularly in urban settings. If you are interested in working together with us please drop us a line!


A presentation about the Railway Garden project for South East Essex Organic Gardeners Jan 2014