Happy birthday, Hornbeam!

Then and now: The Hornbeam's founders outside the Hoe Street cafe in 1994 and 2019
Then and now: The Hornbeam’s founders outside the Hoe Street cafe in 1994, left, and 2019, right

Walthamstow environmental charity celebrates 25 years, writes Sue Wheat

The Hornbeam Centre – 25 years old last month – is a story of environmental passion, commitment, and fun.

On St George’s Day 1994, at the Bakers Arms end of Hoe Street, something special happened. A group of concerned environmentalists had coalesced around an idea of an environmental centre for Waltham Forest – and opened the doors to The Hornbeam Centre and Café.

Forest Recycling Project (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 in Hoe Street would be the perfect venue for the new centre.

Their enthusiasm soon rubbed off on other people. With a small amount of funding, a lot of volunteer effort, and an incredible amount of dust, they turned that newsagents into a centre for environmental causes. It’s still going strong today, with its vegan café and restaurant (previously called Gannets) and a community space that provides a vital venue for environmental action in the borough.

Last month some of those original idealists met up at The Hornbeam to see how their vision has evolved. Jim Craddock, a local Greenpeace volunteer in the early 1990s. was among those who came back to the centre for the first time in almost 20 years.

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.”

The Hornbeam now has many more strings to its bow. It continues to run a vegan café from Tuesday to Sunday, using veg now grown by its sister organisation, OrganicLea growing co-operative in Chingford, but also champions the use of surplus food by running a food rescue project which distributes food that would otherwise be thrown away. On Mondays, volunteers prep and cook food for a sit-down pay-as-you-feel lunch for anyone to come and enjoy.

The Hornbeam provides a space for all sorts of community groups to use. Events in May include workshops with Hedge Herbs learning how to make herbal medicine, a session on how to minimise food waste at home, and the café and meeting room is being used by various community gatherings from book clubs to knitting meet-ups and environmental campaign meetings.

The Hornbeam also now runs the Learning Lodge at Pimp Hall Nature Reserve, which hosts family events on weekends and during school holidays at this beautiful green space in Chingford. Sunday Family Club is every first and third Sunday of the month, and during May there’s an eco-printing and weaving workshop using food dyes and an Afro-Brazilian drumming workshop.

Anne Redelinghuys, Hornbeam’s co-ordinator, says: “The aim of The Hornbeam is to strengthen and inspire and we’ve had so many success stories over the last 25 years.

“For instance, one of the groups we have supported through to independence recently is the Hornbeam JoyRiders Women’s Cycle Club. They have just been awarded ‘Club of the Year’ by London Sports and are now able to leave the Hornbeam fold and run the group independently.”

SpiceBox, an amazing vegan Indian food business, also had the same experience – they were supported to run a vegan pop-up kitchen at the Hornbeam for three months so successfully that they now have their own restaurant in Hoe Street.

The Hornbeam founders were way ahead of their time and should be proud of the legacy they left. To still have this amazing, cosy, friendly, supportive environmental space, is one of the things that makes Waltham Forest so special. Here’s to the next 25 years!

For more information about The Hornbeam Centre and Cafe:
Facebook /HornbeamCafe
Instagram hornbeam_cafe
Twitter @hornbeamcafe
Visit hornbeam.org.uk