This Landlady Turned Her Pub Garden Into a Community Vegetable Patch
“I had all this space outside and I just thought, ‘Why not use it for something worthwhile?’” explains Jan Parker-Brooks of Bolton’s Stork Tavern. “The children can learn about where food comes from and afterwards, I serve it in the pub for everyone.”
Bolton landlady Jan Parker-Brooks. All photos by the author.
It's barely gone midday and Jan Parker-Brooks, landlady of The Stork Tavern in Bolton, Greater Manchester, is presenting me with a cold beer while extolling the virtues of fresh vegetables.
"I only feed my grandchildren fresh veg," she explains. "I don't think it's more expensive in the long-run if you cook all your meals from scratch, and I think it's vitally important that we instil a strong relationship with food in our kids. Food is our sustenance and we need to put good things inside our bodies. Treats are fine, I just think you need to base everything on fruit and veg."
Parker-Brooks' pub is a proper English boozer. To my right, a darts board hangs on the wall and at the bar, a couple of gruffled regulars are nursing local ales and holding intermittent conversation. Football plays quietly on a big screen in an adjacent room and a Guinness-swilling group of friends gather around the fireplace in the main bar.
But outside, The Stork looks a lot less like your average watering hole. That's because Parker-Brooks has turned her pub garden into six allotment patches. Surrounded by terraced houses and trees, the patch is tended to by local residents, including school kids who have been helping to plant vegetables since she converted it last month.
"I had all this space outside and I just thought, 'Why not use it for something worthwhile?'" says Parker-Brooks. "The children can grow their food and learn about where it comes from. Afterwards, I cook things and serve it in the pub for everyone."
This is field-to-fork eating without the pretence. The Stork's six plots of are full of onions, cabbages, potatoes, sweetcorn, peas, broad beans, and rhubarb, with more crops planned for later on in the year. So far, Parker-Brooks has served pumpkin soups and broccoli quiches to the pub's darts team using produce from the allotment. Her husband, Graham, likes broccoli and cheese best.
"Oh yes, I love Jan's quiches," he says, arriving with another pint for me. "They're perfect for darts. I like them crustless—they're lighter and you can have more."
Maintaining the allotments is a team effort, with the pub's regulars helping to build the plots.
"Everyone pitched in," says Parker-Brooks. "Gary, Glen, Simon—everyone donated, people with diggers gave up their time for free, and the lads spent hours putting up the fences. A scaffolder gave us the planks to make the soil beds at no charge. It was amazing, actually. I'd no idea it'd take off so well—we've got a waiting list for the next plots. I'm so pleased the idea is so popular."
Everyone seems to know everyone in this pocket of Bolton. Parker-Brooks tells me about a recent evening at the pub with a "sublime cheese board," when one guest pinched a pricey block of Stilton.
"We noticed a wedge of cheese had gone," Jan says. "This wasn't any old cheese either—M&S! But I found him, I saw him pocket it on the CCTV, and posted a still image to Facebook. He came forward. He posted it back to me, he hadn't touched it. No way were we eating that cheese though, not after it'd been in his back pocket."
Cheese theft aside, The Stork feels homely. Parker-Brooks takes me to meet the group at the fireplace, who've long since moved onto the next round of Guinness. We watch a man staggering around on the opposite side of the road. He's shouting at a passing van. I think he's on drugs.
The van abuser proves a comical ice-breaker. Hardly needed, however, as I've rarely been made to feel so welcome anywhere, ever. Everyone in the group proceeds to tell me about the allotments, the kids who'll benefit, and the dishes they plan to create.
"I got one of the allotments to help teach my son Owen more about the necessity to understand fresh produce," explains Donna McClarence, 38, who works at the city's Warburtons factory. "He plays football at a high level but alongside that, it's nice doing the allotment. He was really keen. All the kids were—they absolutely love it."
Cassie McBurnie, 39, also has high hopes for The Stork's allotments. She's a bartender at the pub and her four-year-old son was as excited about the coming sweetcorn batch as anyone. Parker-Brooks' daughter Paula, meanwhile, has been planting potatoes with her son. She tells me of a recent accolade earned by her partner Stuart, a.k.a. "Mr Masher," when the pub held a mashed potato contest.
"We had a mash off," says Paula. "Mr Masher, he won it. The key is a creamy consistency isn't it—lots of butter, a little milk. You've got to use a ricer, haven't you? I actually quite like a lumpy mash but in the competition, that's not going to win.
There's talk of pea and ham soup off—very Lancashire, I'm told. It's a Bolton staple, as is "pigeon peas," which are black peas soaked, boiled "into eternity," and then dressed with vinegar and salt.
I mention pie but am quickly rebutted: "Pie's in Wigan, lad," Glen chimes, before buying me another pint.
Talk then turns to the "bolognese cobbler," which is the Italian staple given a Bolton makeover—that is, topped with garlic dough balls. Potato hash is spoken about with a sort of holiness.
"It's just potatoes with corned beef, some stock, carrots, salt and pepper—oh, and plenty of onions," Paula informs me.
Many of these ingredients will soon be yielded from Parker-Brooks' allotments.
"I've got plans," she says. "I'll be whipping up soups, plenty of quiches. Who knows what else we'll do. It seems like there's potential for other things."
A sandwich platter arrives and chat turns to comedian Peter Kay, a Bolton legend. Apparently he's somebody's cousin but I fail to find out who, as with my third pint polished off, I'm due to depart back to London.
Back home, I'm met with endless LEON and Pret A Manger chains, and the dull green of edamame beans and quinoa. It further convinces me that we need more beer gardens like that of the The Stork Tavern.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2016.