Words Jessica Brinton
Photographs Marco Kesseler
Having saved the Royate Hill allotments from development, Mike Feingold has worked tirelessly to turn them into an urban paradise packed with produce for all to enjoy. How does he do it? A cup of coffee and a fag every morning, he says…
Mike Feingold is hailed as a kind of celebrity in Bristol.
A celebrity in Bristol isn’t at all the same thing as a celebrity somewhere else though. You don’t read about them in a paper or see them at a premiere. You have to ask around, and if luck is on your side, you ask the right person, and that person leads you to them.
Often they turn out to be one of those people you would like to bump into when the world has just ended. Someone who would know what to do.
Mike would know what to do. I first met him about 10 years ago in the permaculture garden he runs at Glastonbury festival, where, every year, the dazed and confused come to find sanctuary.
He was born and raised in Kenya, where his parents were farmers, and when we met, he told me that he lived in Bristol on less than three grand a year. This made me want to move to Bristol straight away.
When, after moving to Bristol, I asked around for him, I got lucky and someone pointed me to Royate Hill allotments, a piece of land on the steep slope of a lost valley in the east of the city.
His corner of Bristol is the sort of place that makes visitors from London say, ‘Wow! it’s just like south London in the Eighties!’ Somewhere that feels like summer in the city is supposed to feel: kids playing in the street, bicycles tied to lamp posts, reggae and bangra floating out of open windows, and nature pushing up out of every crack.
It is summer right now. The brambles are heavy with blackberries almost sweet enough to eat and the plums in the orchard, the bit of the allotments that Mike keeps for the community, are ready to be picked.
The first thing I asked Mike when I saw him again was about the three grand. Was it still true? (I really wanted it to be). ‘Well it’s probably three and a half now,’ he said.
He has run these allotments since the late 1980s. A long time ago, in the 1700s, this was a dairy and fruit-growing area, which became a brick works in the early 1800s, before being converted into allotments when the local population began to develop rickets and scurvy.
Used heavily during the war in the Dig for Victory effort, they fell out of fashion when allotments everywhere fell out of fashion, replaced by cheap air freight from Spain and Costa Rica. When Mike took over, the land was so neglected that the council was about to develop it for housing, but he quickly intervened.
He’d been guerrilla-planting fruit trees there, and managed to convince the council that the land was indeed loved, and the rent was paid, by writing ‘Mike’s allotment’ on the council’s map. He divvied it up among the locals, and has been watching over it ever since.
It’s an unpaid position and ‘they keep changing the title from “site rep” to “site warden”,’ he says, knowing that’s the kind of civic language that really isn’t up to the job. Under his stewardship, and the principles of permaculture, the valley has become an oasis, a wilderness in the middle of a big city where one of the biggest employers is the Ministry of Defence.
In truth, the piles of rotting wood he leaves for the insects that feed the birds and flagons of homemade cider vinegar could make someone who likes a tidy garden very anxious. But if they thought that what they saw was chaos, they’d be getting it wrong.
Permaculture follows the inherent logic of nature. Invented in the early 1970s by two Australians, it’s a system for growing food and organising life without damaging the place where that happens, using every component to its highest possible value. Permaculture was sustainability before sustainability was even invented, a kind of wild arithmetic that becomes a lens for looking at the world through, and which, its devotees say, makes the fragile conveniences of modern life feel less like the only way to do things.
You can tell something’s working round here by the size of some of the plants. ‘Look at those two,’ says Mike, pointing to a pair of giant teasels, a weed with a deep root system that brings water to the surface and stores it in a tiny pond made by its leaves. He says there were more but they were chopped down to make green manure and ‘the goldfinches love that. We’re trying to create space for everyone,’ he says.
Mike left Kenya after growing up and realising how much the white settlers hadn’t left space for everyone. His father who, like his mother, had escaped Nazi Germany, had won his farm in a game of poker. After turning it into a highly successful export business, the family handed it over to the workers as a cooperative.
After a spell on a kibbutz in Israel learning about dry agriculture (‘I tried to drain a swimming pool to provide water for some Arab farmers and that was the end of that’) he went to Derbyshire to set up an organic cooperative there.
Later, aware of the imminent need for millions of people to change the way they live, he travelled to India in search of a new model and, convinced by the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, he connected with the Gandhian Peace Foundation, and worked with them to develop a large network for promoting rural development through natural farming.
Now it’s August on the allotment in Bristol and while the need for millions of people to change the way they live is more pressing than ever, today feels so lovely, it might actually be heaven.
Mike comes here every day. He isn’t teaching permaculture formally anymore, but in the summer, some weekends are away with his crew at festivals, where he sets up a pitch to patiently demonstrate the practice to the crowds. You can spot him at Shambala, wearing a jester’s body suit and pigtails. The Glastonbury festival garden, tucked away at Worthy Farm in an almost-missable corner of the Green Fields, is a big operation, a whole parallel reality alongside the commercialism of the main festival.
You can sit on a bench there, and there’s a café selling Royate Hill cider and a big fire, and like the feeling you have when you’re in it, the garden feels like it belongs there.
‘Exhausting!’ he says when I ask him how it went this year. ‘And I’ve run out of crew. Killed them all with hard work.’ He said this last year too, although this year was particularly heavy going because of the freakishly high temperatures, with their ominous message of climate emergency. ‘I sent out water with sugar and salt for the worst cases.’
The evening after the festival, as usual, they made a big free meal from food left behind by the on-site caterers. Mike’s not keen on waste of any kind, including words or time, but is effortlessly skilled at making people feel valued.
The first and third Saturday of the month, volunteering at the orchard is the nicest way to spend a weekend, and when you’re most likely to have the kind of casually existential conversation with a stranger that can only happen when doing something simple but absorbing together like sorting through a tray of seeds. Or having a cup of tea under a tree.
‘If people leave with a box of food and a full stomach, having chatted with other nice people who are doing interesting things, then I haven’t built community, they have,’ he says.
Some ornithologists did a survey of bird communities at Worthy Farm recently and there were woodpeckers, chaffinches, chiff chaffs, robins, garden warblers, blackbirds and even an owl. ‘Just more life,’ says Mike.
The chicken palace, an enormous fenced space under the trees for ex-laying hens in need of some R & R, is somewhere you would definitely want to live if you were a chicken. To feed them, he covers the area outside their enclosure with cardboard for breeding woodlice, and has developed a relationship with local shops, who give him their just-out-of-date food.
If this food is too good for the chickens, he re-distributes it around the neighbourhood. He used to take it to local refugee families but gave up when they kept saying thanks but no thanks. He explains that your own food culture is sometimes the last remaining connection a person has with the land you left behind.
The food from the orchard is everyone’s. ‘There’s lots of food here if you don’t mind the non-traditional variety,’ he says, picking a pod from a self-seeded radish. ‘Along the path there, there’s garlic mustard, which is quite a nice salad and self-seeds so I always have it. And that’s Fat Hen, which is from the same family as quinoa and is very nutritious.’
There’s sad news about the chickens. The other day, a fox got all of them. Mike had only recently re-populated the coop with a fresh clutch, since the fox or, as some suspect, a pine marten, got them last summer too. This time, he just cannot work out how Foxy got in, but somehow he did and Mike won’t be putting in any more until he’s worked out how to keep them safe.
The parsnips have had more luck. ‘Those are six feet high,’ he says pointing at some towering plants swaying near the leeks.
Soon the plums will be ready for everyone to descend and pick them. There are 12 varieties here and he most loves Shropshire prunes and greengages (‘honeyed nectar’). Then apples – there are 15 kinds and ‘my favourite has to be a Hereford russet. A small fruit with a great range of flavours.’
Mike will say ‘taste this’, and it will be the most delicious plum. Or the most delicious apple, or the most delicious tiny tomato from the greenhouse.
In a month, it’s the annual apple pressing, when local families bring the old bottles they’ve saved, then put the apples through the press and take fresh juice home. Mike pasteurises the rest, ferments it into cider and cider vinegar. What doesn’t become vinegar becomes toilet cleaner. ‘And then you can come back on the second Sunday of March to graft your own apple tree.’
Recently he’s been experimenting with biochar, a charcoal made by cooking plant matter under high pressure, which becomes a kind of super manure to stop nutrients leaching from the soil and to deter slugs, while performing the revolutionary function of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He’s just taken on another field next door for planting fruit trees and has lined up another three fields.
What’s the secret of your energy Mike, I ask him. ‘A coffee and a fag in the morning. That leads to a trip to the toilet and I’m ready for the day. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else but it works for me.’
‘My highest value use of the allotment isn’t the vegetables or fruit, it’s my sanity,’ he says. ‘I live in a bubble. It’s a nice bubble.’