This weekend (20 April 2019) the Hornbeam’s founder members gathered to celebrate the Centre’s 25th birthday milestone. They shared stories with us of this remarkable journey.
The Hornbeam started with a dream in the hearts of two people – Jowanna Lewis and Diane Sizer in 1994. With around 100 volunteers and much dedication, commitment and endurance the Hornbeam came to life.
The vision then was creating a community hub in Walthamstow, providing food, meeting space facilities, and resources to educate and empower people on sustainable living.
Today 25 years later it is still our vision. Thanks to everyone that has contributed and is still doing so to make the world a better place. Viva for the next 25 years!
This article first appeared as a magazine article in Stories from the Grassroots in 1994.
So long… and thanks for all the dust.
That was the title penned by a friend and co-volunteer for his novel about our experiences building The Hornbeam.
We’d spent an entire Sunday chipping loose plaster off the walls and doubted we’d ever be free of the dust. And as for the thought that one day people would be able to eat in the planned vegetarian café, well it seemed inconceivable. But the novel never got written, since the friend took the easy way out of volunteering at The Hornbeam – he emigrated to the USA.
So what is a Hornbeam? Well it’s a tree that’s very common in our area of North East London. But now it’s also an Environmental Centre, and very proud of it we are too.
I guess my involvement began back in 1990, when I first met Jowanna and Diane at a meeting of the local environmental forum. They’d met while working at a local vegetarian café, which had become the meeting point of a Friends of the Earth group. Unfortunately the café had closed down, but Jowanna and Diane realised the place was more than just a café, it had been an environmental focus for the whole area, and they weren’t going to let that focus disappear just because the place wasn’t open any more. So the idea was born. An urban environmental centre, run by the community for the community. A vegetarian café and restaurant, a retail outlet for fair trade goods, exhibition space for local arts and crafts, meeting rooms, an environmental educational resource, offices for environmental groups, displays of renewable energy systems, the list was endless. But how do two well meaning people turn a dream into reality? Well after four years hard labour we’ve all learnt the hard way how to do it.
Jowanna and Diane told me their ideas and I was sold on it. Basically along with many other people, I wanted there to be just such a place. Those people included the Economic Development Unit of the local authority, a community recycling project, the local environmental forum and a number of individuals. The recycling project made some office space available, the EDU made a feasibility grant available and Jowanna and Diane took it from there. They produced a business plan and on the strength of that got a couple of grants and some low interest loans.
Now all that was needed was some premises. The recycling project occupied part of a council owned building and the rest of it was vacant, and with plenty of imagination Jowanna and Diane saw the environmental centre of their dreams. It needed plenty of imagination though, since the building was virtually derelict, and the £20,000 of money wasn’t going to go very far.
Anyway the lease was signed and the volunteers moved in. Looking back it’s hard to believe how naive we were. We started work in February 1992 and talked about it being open soon after Easter. It makes me blush even thinking about it, but I suppose if we’d realised how long it was going to take then we’d probably never have started.
So the building work commenced.
Initially we were just demolishing rickety walls and removing plasterwork and flooring. But as time went on we attracted a few professionals and with their guidance our confidence grew. You name it, we did it; built walls, laid bricks, plastered everything (including ourselves), re-wired, re-plumbed, installed central heating, built toilets moved the stairs and had a tremendous amount of fun doing it. At one stage, Jowanna actually considered giving up the environmental centre idea and starting her own building firm, but it didn’t last.
By the summer of 1993 the centre was really starting to take shape, but the money was running out. We’d been continuously fundraising, but the big grant applications hadn’t come off, and although the quiz nights and benefit gigs helped, the money didn’t go very far.
The building was owned by the council, and since we were improving one of their properties, we decided to seek a grant from them. After a few problems trying to explain what we were about to a few councillors, but with the whole-hearted support of other councillors and officers, we received a grant of £8,000 to complete the building work. So we did.
As November drew to a close, the basic work was completed. As planned, the downstairs was ready to open temporarily as a shop, to raise some much needed cash by selling Christmas merchandise. On November 30th we worked till well past midnight, stocking the makeshift shelves and creating a window display. We left for home in the early hours, with great expectations for the morning. These however, were dashed by some uninvited visitors, who must have watched us the night before. At around 6am they forced the fire exit and started helping themselves to our merchandise. Fortunately for us a police officer, who was on his way home from work, spotted them and intervened. The burglars ran off and the police sat in the centre until our shocked volunteers turned up at 9 o’clock.
Although nothing had been stolen, most of our stock had been packed into boxes by the thieves, so the police took it all as evidence. So come our opening time we had nothing to sell. Word soon spread and volunteers started arriving. One went down to the police station, and by 11 o’clock was back, arriving in a police car with all our merchandise. Amazingly, by midday we were open, with all our original stock. The feeling of relief was incredible, and we got plenty of publicity, but it was a trauma we could all have done without.
The shop, which was entirely run by volunteer effort, stayed open till Christmas Eve, and we closed down £1,000 better off.
The next time we opened the centre would be complete, but only if we could raise a further £5,000 to equip the kitchen and restaurant. Without these we would not have the means to be self-financing, and we weren’t prepared to always be dependent on handouts. This is where our supporter scheme saved the day.
Back in November, when we’d realised we needed to raise funds for the kitchen, we came up with the idea of the supporter scheme. Basically we asked local people to loan us £50 (or multiples thereof) for five years. Interest would be paid in discount vouchers for the restaurant, and the money paid back after the five year period. The response was staggering, over £5,000! All we had to do now was build the kitchen, and finish off the rest of the building.
On April 23rd at midday the Mayor, accompanied by two local MPs, cut the ribbon and the centre opened. It was a marvellous day. Everyone involved was on a high, which was a good job, since we worked non-stop for the previous two weeks. And the party that night was a heck of a do.
So The Hornbeam has now been open for six months (December 1994), with Jowanna as Centre Coordinator and Diane as head chef, but it’s been far from plain sailing. Initially staff were recruited to run the café and restaurant but business was a bit too slow at first. After three months we hit a cash crisis. Supporters chipped in with a further £2,000, expenditure cuts were made and some staff took pay cuts or even voluntary redundancy. The lost working hours and more besides were made up by volunteers, including the people who’d taken redundancy.
So the centre survived, business has now picked up and we’re about to recruit more staff, though we’re still dependent on volunteer labour at the moment. We also recently won our first regional award, which was a tremendous morale boost.
But what have we achieved? Well, Jowanna and Diane’s dream is a reality. They’re the first to admit that it’s not as they imagined, but I feel we really have created what they set out to achieve; Hornbeam is an urban environmental focus for the area. Groups are meeting at the centre and taking initiatives which would not have happened had Hornbeam not been there. People, previously uninvolved with local environmental issues, are coming into the centre and getting involved. The centre is also providing a means of distributing information and enabling communication.
And how about the individuals, the 90-odd volunteers and everyone else involved, what have we got out of creating our own environmental centre? A tremendous feeling of community between everyone involved. Skills which we never imagined we’d get (and perhaps wouldn’t have wanted five years ago). But what stands out for me, is the realisation that with a lot of vision and a little encouragement, ordinary people can achieve great things.
It’s hard work, but can give you a buzz like little else. It brings you to tears when it goes wrong, but the elation when you succeed makes it all worthwhile. And it produces a hell of a lot of dust.
Jim Craddock, one of the founding ‘Hornbeamers’ tells the story of how The Hornbeam came into being.
Twenty five years ago on St Georges Day – at the Bakers Arms end of Hoe Street – something special happened. A group of concerned environmentalists had coalesced around an idea – an Environmental Centre for Waltham Forest – and on 23 April 1994 – they opened the doors to The Hornbeam Centre and Café.
From left to right it’s David ‘Nod’ Ellis, Jowanna Lewis, Bundy Braga, Diane Sizer, Dave Cullen, George Warren, Lesley Broadbent and Christian Mountney.
There had been a vegetarian café in Palmerston Road, which had provided a focus for locals, but that had closed. Forest Recycling Project (which is still going from strength to strength after nearly 30 years) had just started out, so Jowanna Lewis and Diane Sizer, who’d met at the Palmerston Road café, decided an old newsagents on Hoe Street would be the perfect venue for the new one.
Their vision was amazing and their enthusiasm soon rubbed off on other people. And so with a small amount of funding, a lot of volunteer time and effort and an incredible amount of dust, Hornbeam Environmental Centre opened on 23rd April 1994. And it’s still going today, with its vegan café and restaurant (called Gannets) and community space providing that continuing focus for environmental action in the borough.
Jim said: “We didn’t realise what we were getting into back then, but there was something infectious about giving up your weekends to build the place, and then, once it had opened, volunteering at the restaurant once you’d finished your day job. Seeing it thriving 25 years later has made that investment so worthwhile.”
What the Fattoush? are serving plant-based, Palestinian plates alongside coffee, cakes and pastries from 4 April for a few months.
What the Fattoush?is a plant-based, Palestinian street food company founded by best friends Jess and Meg. They were taught to cook Middle Eastern food whilst volunteering at refugee camps across Europe and Palestine. Gluten free options available.
What the Fattoush? donate 10% of their profits to SkatePal – an NGO supporting young people in Palestine through skateboarding.
They will be running the cafe from Tues-Sun including early breakfast openings Tues- Fri.
We have so enjoyed having Palm Greens as the Hornbeam’s Test Kitchen since January – but remember they are only with us to end of March, so come and experience their culinary delights this month before they go!
You can experience Palm Greens amazing food from Thurs to Sundays:
Thurs, Fri 11am-5pm
(kitchen closes at 4pm daily)
Palm Greens is run by vegan culinary duo Kali and Membe and they are all about food that is fresh and made from scratch, flavour-packed, veg-led cooking.
They explain: “We use whole grains & largely organic ingredients, using local suppliers.Flavours are inspired by our travels, but using seasonal and local fresh produce, we serve up modern international flavours while keeping food fresh, vibrant and nutritionally balanced.” Favourites such as the Tostada bowl; punchy Mexican flavours, the Kale Caesar; a twist on the classic & Daal with lemon, ginger oil & fresh sourdough.
“We aim to make this type of food accessible and easy for guests, without skimping on quality, ethics, taste and fun. Food that benefits the mind and body, while keeping connections with our community and our planet.”
Kali is all about flavour and good quality ingredients, she’s worked internationally as a chef for over 10 years. She loves big flavours and to create fun exciting dishes that are also food healthy, and cruelty free.
Memby has worked in the music industry for 20 years, but he’s also a big lover of food and hospitality, combining forces he brings the charm and smile to the brand.
We are so excited to have them start our new year off with a flavoursome bang! Great to have you with us Palm Greens!
Sample menu (this may change weekly with seasonal availability of veg):
SMALL PLATES Sourdough with confit garlic oil £2.50
Chips & Dips £3
Caramalised onion salsa & dip of the day
GARLIC MUSHROOM ON SOURDOUGH roast portobello, confit garlic, nutritional yeast & parsley, cashew caesar dressing on toasted sourdough – until 1pm (N)
Kali has worked as a freelance chef for more than ten years, travelling the world for work and pleasure. She’s always been a lover of food and conscious of the treatment of animals and well being of the earth.
Fascinated by the way food works with your body Kali trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, a school specialising in vegetarian health supportive cooking, this is where her style of cooking began to develop. Building relationships with local growers such as Growing Communities has encouraged Kali’s enthusiasm and belief in the need to be more in touch with where our food comes from and the impact the food system has on our environment and local community.
Hornbeam JoyRiders basked in the media spotlight today, being featured on BBC London News(go to 4 mins 40 secs), ITV London News, and BBC Radio News (go to 1 min 25 secs) as a shining example of one of the 30 local community projects across the capital Transport for London supports through the TfL Cycling Grants London. We were also covered by local media.
Hornbeam JoyRiders has been running since Jan 2017 and has had around 250 participants take part in rides around Waltham Forest (including family bike rides with dads and children), particularly off-road in some of the borough’s most beautiful natural areas. The TfL funding has enabled us to reach out to women and their families in Waltham Forest to help them gain confidence cycling, learn from scratch or brush up their skills and enjoy cycling with a supportive group.
We’ve also recruited and trained 20 Ride Leaders, four women have become instructors and at least at least 50 have been inspired to buy their own bikes. Anyone who doesn’t have access to a bike can hire one of Waltham Forest’s bikes for free on rides and ride with us, including more stable three-wheeler electric-assisted bikes, cargo bikes for carrying children, and specialist bikes for disabled passengers.
TfL is committed to increasing the number of women and diverse groups that cycle, including those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and people with disabilities. Hornbeam JoyRiders has reached out to Muslim women in particular, but women from all backgrounds are welcome.
Cycling Grants London funding particularly helps groups that are traditionally under-represented among those choosing the healthy and sustainable way of travelling. By breaking down the barriers to cycling and making it safer, TfL aims to diversify cycling and make it accessible to people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.
The other winning projects stretch across London and range from schemes that train young people in bike maintenance, a project that encourages women working in hospitals to cycle, training for young offenders to become bike mechanics, cycling groups for disabled and homeless people and a cycle training and maintenance project for the Hindu Bengali community.
Carolyn Axtell, Hornbeam JoyRiders Founder and Project Lead explained the backround of the project to the TV crews on a ride today at Jubilee Park, Leyton: “Hornbeam JoyRiders aims to empower women through introducing them to the joys of cycling, which can also help to build their confidence in other areas of life.
“I started taking my three kids to school by bike about three years ago and we found that it liberated us as a family. The school run became a pleasure rather than a stressful experience.
“Two years ago I discovered that at least 90 per cent of the other local mums would love to cycle but hadn’t had the opportunity, or had barriers preventing them, such as lack of confidence and not knowing how to cycle. This is why I started organising informal, social bikes rides once a month for women during school hours, and once a month for families and women-only group training for those who couldn’t cycle.
“The Cycling Grants London funding has enabled me to build a strong, ever-expanding network of participants and volunteers, as previously we didn’t have enough Volunteer Ride Leaders to accommodate all of the demand.”
Will Norman, London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner who came to join the JoyRiders today was definitely impressed by our project and explained how he feels projects like these are essential to help broaden the appeal and benefits of cycling: “By giving Londoners of all abilities, ages and backgrounds the confidence to cycle, we can improve their health and quality of life, as well as reducing toxic air pollution, which improves our city for everyone.”
TfL offers free Cycle Skills training to give people of all abilities the chance to improve their confidence on the capital’s roads.
To book free cycle skills training please use this link:
What the Fattoush? are trialling their first ever brunch menu at The Hornbeam Cafe with dishes including a typical Palestininian breakfast and shakshuka with vegan ‘eggs’.
Why not pop in for the kanafeh and coffee deal? Sweet cashew ‘mozzerella’ topped with vermicelli and drenched in orange blossom syrup. Try Palestine’s favourite dessert and a cup of Arabic or filter coffee for £7/£7.50
The What the Fattoush? small plates menu will run on the evenings of Friday 25 Jan and Saturday 26 Jan with dishes including beer battered okra with a date and tamarind sauce as well as aubergine and bulgur kefte balls.
What the Fattoush? opening times:
Thursday 24 Jan 11am – 5pm
Friday 25 Jan 10am – 4.30 & 6 – 10.30
Saturday 26 Jan 10am – 5 & 6-10.30pm
Sunday 27 Jan 10am – 4pm
What the Fattoush? donate 10% of their profit to @Skate_Pal, an NGO supporting young people in Palestine through skateboarding.