Sara Ward has created a mini country smallholding – complete with chickens – in her back garden in West London
If you were to walk past a certain West London primary school on a Wednesday morning, amongst the 4 x 4 drivers and the families from the local estates, you may spot a mum in wellies and jeans dropping off her daughter after kissing her husband goodbye as he leaves for the day at his design agency. The wellies are not a fashion statement. Sara Ward is one of the school governors who, when not out at her day job, will be rushing home to make the most of the spring sunshine, potting on her seedlings and mucking out her hens.
“I believe that there are a load of Londoners who dream about life in the country; they watch the TV shows, read the magazines and book annual holidays, taking every opportunity to get back to nature,” says Sara. “But I think that you can bring quite a bit of country life into city living.”
Well, Sara is certainly trying to do that! Since moving into her Brentford home in 2008, she has grown a project, Hen Corner, that is not only producing quite a bit of the family’s food but is also encouraging others to discover a more rural side to life through her blog and courses.
“It all started with eggs,” said Sara. “A friend was explaining the values of organic food and told me to try switching to organic eggs as I would really notice the difference.” Little did this friend know that, within just a couple of years, Sara would stop buying eggs altogether as her flock of garden hens, currently 15 strong, would provide enough eggs for the family, friends and beyond.
“We started keeping hens in our old home down the road, just two hybrids in a groovy green Eglu Classic from Omlet. When we knew that we were moving to the corner house with the bigger garden, we bought the bigger Eglu Cube that would allow us to keep extra chickens.” What do the family think about this? Is she known as the mad chicken lady?
“The chickens are easy,” says her husband, Andy, who helps her run the regular chicken keeping courses. “There are quite a few families keeping chickens in London now; the Eglus are easy to clean and the runs keep them safe from the urban foxes.”
Andy not only built the raised beds and brick pathways in the kitchen garden but really comes into his own each September for Cider Sunday. “We invite friends round, especially those who can bring spare apples with them, then wash, chop and press them into juice that ferments ready for Christmas. Even with the bad weather last year, our apple harvest wasn’t down too much…probably because of the honey bees that we started keeping recently.”
2012 was not a good year for those of us trying to grow-our-own. What with the hosepipe ban, the torrential rain, the low rates of pollination (because the bees can’t fly in the rain) and the plague of slugs that chomped through everything green, Sara said the crop least affected by the weather was the asparagus. “Once you’ve tasted it freshly cut, the spears in the shops don’t look that appealing anymore. Our almonds did very well last year too – that was until the squirrels took the lot! We are very much on a journey and learning as we go,” she said.
Sara certainly seems to have grasped a few of the basics, as in a previous year she produced all the fresh fruit and veg that her household could eat for three months over the summer and this year had leeks, cauliflowers and brussel sprouts right through into spring.
When Sara and Andy started talking about keeping bees several years ago, they were keen that it wouldn’t restrict the family use of the garden, especially in summer. With children James, 12, and Macy, 10, they also wanted to make sure that they were well trained before bringing in thousands of stinging insects! Sara did her initial training with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s team at River Cottage and subsequently joined her local beekeeping association in Ealing. Whilst admitting that she made some mistakes with the bees this year, she took off a pretty good honey harvest of 20lbs (nearly four times the average for London) and went on to scoop first prize for Best London Honey at the National Honey Show recently.
All in all, Hen Corner is about very much more than the chickens. It is about showing how the self-sufficiency dream can come true – even in a big city like London.
MORE: For info on courses or to follow Sara’s journey, subscribe to her blog at HenCorner.com, follow on Twitter @HenCorner and like on Facebook.com/HenCorner