There’s something going on 100 feet below the streets of London. Unseen by the people walking overhead, an underground network of once pitch-black tunnels is springing to life, and it’s being spearheaded by two friends.
In two and a half acres of dimly lit subterranean space, a series of strange tables are bathed in red light. The temperature in the unseen shelter sits at a constant 60 ºF, making it perfect for its new purpose.
Right now you’re probably thinking that all of this sounds like a U.K.-centric version of Breaking Bad. But what’s actually going on below this bit of London is perhaps more surprising than even that.
The Clapham North deep-level bomb shelter was among eight such structures built in London between 1940 and 1942. It was used during the Blitz, its 2,400 feet of tunnels capable of housing 8,000 people when the bombs were dropping.
There were plans to use the shelter as part of the underground train network after the end of the war, but a lack of funds put an end to that idea. Fate had other ideas.
Yet while other shelters would, among their other uses, help to house immigrants, the Clapham North shelter remained empty. And it stayed that way until 2014, when two life-long friends came up with a brilliant way to use the space.
Richard Ballard and Steven Dring spent their youth on farms in the west of England. Then, when they relocated to London, they spent a lot of time in the pub putting the world to rights.
Society’s biggest problem, the pair reckoned, was the upcoming population explosion; London alone was expected to squeeze in three million more people over the next decade. Throw in ever-shrinking resources, and the result, the friends believed, was a recipe for disaster.
So it was that the idea for Zero Carbon Food (ZCF), which trades as Growing Underground, was born. But there was a problem: where in London would Dring and Ballard be able to find two and a half acres of space to start growing their produce?
The pair looked under the streets for the answer, and they found it in the form of Clapham North’s deep-level shelter. And so these tunnels, which once protected Londoners from German bombs, became an underground farm.
It sounds like something from a science-fiction movie, but the subterranean farm – which after 18 months moved to a similar tunnel below nearby Clapham Common – has a lot going for it. Some of the benefits aren’t, however, immediately obvious.
Among the pluses is the cost: land is at a premium in London, and yet prices drop when you head 100 feet below ground level. Plus, the chances of being able to find that much space in a bustling metropolis are pretty low.
Then there’s the fact that the tunnels are enclosed and located away from the rest of the world. In the absence of airborne pests, greens can be cultivated without any pesticides.
Furthermore, along with the constant temperature in the tunnels – 60 degrees all year round – there’s another benefit to working underground. And, when you stop to think about it, it’s a pretty weird one.
There is, of course, no natural sunlight down in the subterranean space, so ZCF uses LEDs to generate the light that the plants need to survive. The energy used to power them comes from exclusively renewable sources, too.
The technology allows Ballard and Dring to have complete control of their growing conditions – minus any adverse environmental effects. It really is the perfect vegetable-producing solution.
After sprucing up the tunnel, ZCF is now using one of London’s overlooked assets to create eco-friendly, locally grown food. Indeed, the company is already selling its produce at supermarkets and restaurants in the British capital.
A mark of the start-up’s success is that it’s brought in Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr. as a director. Better yet, the culinary star has promised to help ZCF boost its product range.
ZCF and its underground farm serve as a wonderful example of what a discussion at the pub and a big idea can lead to. It also shows how we can make use of the resources around us in new and exciting ways.
So the next time you’re wandering around the streets of South London, why not have a stop and a think. Right below your feet two men in a once-abandoned tunnel are trying to change the world.