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At the fourth Observer ethical awards held on 3 June Nigerian poet and awards judge Ben Okri described the winning ethical garden project, Lower Shaw Farm in Swindon, as "an oasis in the credit crunch."
Lower Shaw Farm tenants Andrea Hirsch and Matt Holland, with volunteers in residence, Daniela Novak from Austria, Melissa McBride from Canada, Rachel Clark from Newcastle
The event organised in association with Ecover at the Roof Garden restaurant in Kensington recognised ethical achievements in a range of categories, recognising green politicians, campaigners, local retailers and work with children.
This year's judging panel was made up of some of the country's top sustainability experts like Dan Pearson, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Dragon's Den member Deborah Meadon aalong with well-known environmental and social justice enthusiasts such as the comedian Steve Punt, the model Erin O'Connor, and the billionaire David de Rothschild.
Actor Colin Firth presented the winners with a trophy depicting the entrants' carbon footprints. The ceremony was the culmination of a voting and judging process that launched in January and attracted thousands of votes and nominations.
Above, Andrea and Matt with Lucie Siegal, Observer ethical columnist and Colin Firth. Photo: Alicia Canter
Right, the award CO2 character
Andrea Hirsch and Matt Holland have lived at Lower Shaw Farm for over thirty years, apart from a short break in the early 1990s. The farm is leased from Swindon Borough Council which purchased the property and surrounding land in 1974 in the years before the town's westward expansion. What was once a dairy farm is now surrounded by 11,000 homes but remains a delightful and green oasis in suburbia.
In 2006 the council looked at redeveloping the farmhouse and using the land for executive housing. Massive public protest with the support of swindonlink.com, and a consultants development brief that showed the plan not to be viable, forced the council to reconsider the implications of shutting down a tremendously successful and sustainable project in its midst.
Andrea Hirsch, who is responsible for coordinating community participation activities at Lower Shaw and the gardens said, "we're absolutely delighted and bowled over by the award. It was pleasing to be told that there was no dispute amongst the judges that we were worthy winners. We'd want to thank all the thousands of people who have visited the farm over so many years, from Swindon and all over the world, for their support and their encouragement for what we do here. And the hug from Colin Firth made the occasion even more special."
Matt Holland added, "this award is definitely one for Swindon and its people. It helps put Swindon on the ethical eco-map. We're all about giving people the chance to work together for the good of all.
"There was a lot of foresight in Swindon Council all those years ago when the planners ensured there were rivers of open, green space running through the housing development. The late Andrew Hake, who was the council's community development officer in the early 1970s, saw the potential of the farm when Dick Kitto who started the Foundation for Alternatives approached the council about leasing a place to start an education centre based on sustainable principles which we have continued ever since."
The farm is very much about growing the mind and expanding horizons. Apart from the organic garden, a couple of sheep and pigs and countless chickens and ducks, offers a wide range of residential courses and events, runs a weekly community cafe for all, and provides a meeting place for groups. It is also the headquarters of the Swindon Festival of Literature which is organised by Matt.
In the Observer colour magazine published on Sunday 7 June, award judge Dan Pearson, wrote: "We wanted to make Lower Shaw the winner because it is also fighting a quiet battle, with a short-term lease of just 18 months. The previous lease was due to be terminated, but such was the outcry from the local press and community that this was revoked. Hopefully, Lower Shaw Farm has another 30 years of sustainable inspiration left in it yet."
Rachel Clark from Newcastle, helping at Lower Shaw on a Working on Organic Farms week said, "it's a fantastic award which I hope the local community will recognise and be proud of."
Swindon Old Town resident and Observer reader Diana Eddy, who nominated Lower Shaw for the ethical award, said she never thought her submission would go so far. "It's wonderful, I'm absolutely over the moon. It's a well deserved win.
"Lower Shaw Farm has done so much for Swindon, it has been become a heart and soul centre for the many and various people who want a more ethical way of living and caring for our planet, people who want our world to remain beautiful and sustainable for future generations.
"Lower Shaw Farm is a beacon to light the way for others, countrywide, perhaps even worldwide to change the unsustainable direction that our world is going in."
Keith Williams, Swindon Council cabinet member for leisure and corporate services, congratulated Matt and Andrea and the volunteers involved with the farm. "Lower Shaw Farm makes a significant cultural contribution to Swindon. This well deserved award is national recognition for the hard work they have been putting in over many years.
"I would encourage people to attend their next open day or attend one of their Wednesday open coffee mornings."
Click for the full list of winners of Observer ethical awards.
See the Observer videos on the winners.