Ben Barry takes new Corsa for a whirlwind tour around the capital, meeting the green-fingered people getting resourceful in the city
It’s a beautiful sunny day in the centre of London. On a rooftop in Bermondsey, with The Shard shimmering and spearing into the clear blue sky, and cars buzzing along noisily below, Dale Gibson steps into his bee suit and picks his away along the rooftop to his eight beehives, carefully set out on a small wall. Gibson, founder of Bermondsey Street Bees, will harvest the honey and market it under Bermondsey Street Bees’ Metro Label with help from his wife, Sarah. Passionate about his business and the environmental benefits of bees in urban locations, Gibson represents just one of a number of resourceful businesses that bring a little of the countryside to Britain’s capital.
Over the next couple of days, we’ll be learning a little more about Gibson’s aims, together with three other resourceful urban enterprises: an urban farm located under Heathrow’s flight path, a nature reserve within sight of high-rise tower blocks, and a hotel with a unique roof garden.
And what better way to get around than in the Vauxhall Corsa? Stylish enough to turn heads on the high street in its Satin Steel Grey paint and 17-inch alloy wheels, nimble enough to nip through town, and small enough to squeeze into the tightest of parking spaces, the Corsa is resourceful, too, thanks to a range of punchy and efficient petrol and diesel engines, including a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine with an output of 100PS that still does up to 55.4mpg on the combined cycle, as well as a 1.3-litre turbo diesel capable of over 870 miles on a single tank.
Our car gets Vauxhall’s new state-of-the-art 1.0-litre ecoFLEX engine. It’s got just three cylinders where most cars have four, but it’s also turbocharged, allowing this small, compact engine to punch well above its feathery weight with 115PS; that makes it both the smallest and most powerful engine in the current Corsa line-up. Not only that, but it can also deliver an amazing 57.6mpg on the combined cycle. A stop-start system that automatically cuts the engine when you’re stationary and re-starts it as soon as you select a gear plays its part, too.
Our first stop is The Woodberry Wetlands, a nature reserve located in north London. So we point the Corsa towards Hackney, and settle back into the comfortable sports seats. For such a small car, the sense of quality in the Corsa’s cabin is incredible, with luxury soft-touch materials wrapped over the top of the instrument panel, the trim highlighted in rich, satin chrome.
The Intellilink infotainment system takes centre stage, and comes as standard equipment on all but the entry-level Sting and Sting R models. Bordered by high-gloss décor and with supporting switches accented in satin chrome, the seven-inch colour touchscreen supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, meaning you can control a range of your most important apps, including your smartphone navigation, through your car. A very handy feature indeed!
We arrive at Woodberry Wetlands, just off Lordship Road, where we stumble across a parking place just large enough for the Corsa’s compact dimensions. A press of the ‘City’ button massively increases steering assistance, allowing you to effortlessly twirl the leather steering wheel while manoeuvring into the space while optional front and rear parking sensors watch your back. You can even specify optional Advanced Park Assist, leaving the Corsa to take care of the steering while you focus on gears and pedals.
A short path leads to the Woodberry Wetlands, an oasis of calm in the heart of the city. There we meet project manager David Mooney, who explains that the Stoke Newington East and West reservoirs on this site were saved by local residents in the 1990s and are today maintained by the London Wildlife Trust as the Woodberry Wetlands.
We walk round the gravel path that borders the ponds and dykes, and catch sight of a heron standing statue-like at the water’s edge among the reeds. With stately old oaks humming to the sound of wildlife, this is an idyllic setting, and only the tower blocks in the near-distance serve as reminder that densely-populated Manor House, Stoke Newington and Woodberry Down are close by.
If you want a taste of the outdoors in the centre of London, Woodberry Wetlands is definitely worth a visit. You can come along from 9am-4.30pm Monday to Sunday, and there are guided walks, craft workshops, and even a Wild Adventure Club for kids. Have a look at woodberrywetlands.org.uk for more.
It’d be easy to while away a day here – but we’ve got another appointment to make. Hounslow Urban Farm lies 22 miles to the south west of Woodberry Wetlands, located just on the other side of Heathrow airport’s perimeter road. It’s a great chance to feel the Vauxhall’s zesty little 1.0-litre turbo engine work its magic. Accelerate for a gap in traffic and the Corsa quickly responds with an eager whoosh of acceleration, and six closely stacked gears and a slick, short-shifting gearbox means the enthusiasm keeps on coming. It gives the Corsa a fun, energetic feel, all accompanied by a distinctively-characterful exhaust note. With less weight over the nose, the lightweight engine also helps handling: carve through a couple of roundabouts and you’ll quickly get a sense of how nimble and light-footed the Corsa is, especially on our Limited Edition model’s agile sports suspension.
When we park up outside Hounslow Urban Farm, the squawks of peacocks and grunts of pigs are incongruously punctuated by a steady stream of Boeings and Airbuses taking off over us. Father and daughter team Tony and Alice Purdy warmly welcome us into their cosy café, treat us to a cuppa and give us the farm’s background story. Covering 29 acres, Hounslow Urban Farm is one of London’s largest community farms with a history that dates back more than two decades.
Every animal on the farm has been rescued, and the pair work closely with the RSPCA, but it was on the brink of closure before being taken over a few years ago by the Purdys, who have given the farm a bright new future. We see Alpacas, five breeds of pigs, Hereford Angus calves, barn owls, Anglo-Nubian goats and marvel as peacocks strut and fan their feathers. Many of the school kids who visit the farm have never even seen these animals, let alone fed or petted them, so the farm offers the urban community a genuinely valuable chance to connect with the natural world.
Driving to the Hilton London Bankside hotel in the morning, the Corsa shows off its city driving prowess, including a forward collision alert which warns you before you have any low-speed prangs, traffic-sign recognition, lane-departure warning and following distance indicator.
At the Hilton Bankside hotel, we meet PR and marketing manager Georgina Morgan and say hello again to Dale Gibson. Four floors up, guests can look out onto the Hilton’s beautiful meadow garden right in the city centre. The meadow was conceived to reintroduce greenery into this dense urban landscape, but Georgina also hit on the idea that the flower-rich habitat would be perfect for beekeeping. So she got in touch with Dale Gibson, who supervised the installation of the four hives.
“Well-pollinated plants are more productive, which means more forage for birds, insects and small mammals,” he tells us. “There’s no shortage of bees in London, but there is a chronic shortage of food.”
We can all do our bit, explains Dale, but even a relatively small space like the Hilton’s fourth-floor meadow can play a key role in the eco-system. And with his own rooftop hives located less than two miles away, there’s a chance some of his 500,000-strong colony will visit. Once the honey is harvested, executive chef Paul Bates will use it to launch a new menu in the OXBO Bankside Kitchen.
For now, the clock’s counting down to 5pm and with London’s own worker bees preparing to take to the streets, it’s time for us to jump into the Corsa in order to beat the rush. It’s been a fascinating couple of days, during which we’ve witnessed nature thriving even in the most densely-packed city spaces, from Hackney to Bermondsey, from high-rise Hilton to a townhouse in The City. It’s all there if you look hard enough, and there’s no better car to take on your own urban wildlife trail than the Vauxhall Corsa.