Local Spotlight: Borrowed Light

Meet Sarah and Claudia, Co-founders of Walthamstow's Borrowed Light

Letting nature take its course comes naturally to Sarah Purchase and Claudia Van Rensburg. You see it in the billowing, seasonal displays created by their north London floral studio, Borrowed Light. In their sustainable practices that aim to make the floristry industry a little greener.

To date, they’re most proud of their project at the Walthamstow Wetlands. Using British-grown flowers and foliage from their allotment in Waltham Forest, they brought the Engine Room to life with floral “clouds” as part of the Chelsea Fringe. “I’ll take any opportunity to hang flowers in a big industrial backdrop,” says Sarah, who comes back to the reserve for long walks and wildlife spotting.

We caught up with the florists about digging into community gardening, why we need to stop asking florists for white roses in winter and where they go to get a sense of perspective in Tottenham. (Good news, it’s a ten-minute walk from The Gessner.)

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Tell us about your backgrounds. How did you get into floristry?

Claudia (C): I've had a passion for plants and flowers since I was very young. I started training as a physiotherapist in Germany, but floristry was a better pathway for me. And I've been doing it for 20 years now, working for a small florist when I first moved to London, then The Dorchester for many years, then freelancing.

Sarah (S): I trained as a curator, working on installation art in galleries before moving to floristry. The Dorchester was my first full-time paid job, which is how we met.

Sustainability is a big part of the way you work. Why? And what does that mean in practice?

S: The problem with flowers is that people want everything and they want it now. It’s the same issue that you get in supermarkets. We’ve lost the idea of seasonality. People want white roses [a summer bloom] for their wedding in winter. That demand means flowers are grown all over the world, wrapped in plastic, kept in refrigeration and transported. It’s the same with a lot of houseplants too. They’re tropical for the most part, not from the UK environment. So they’re grown in plastic pots and greenhouses.

It’s difficult to be sustainable in the very early stages of growing. We try to source things locally, and grow certain annuals on our own small allotment in Waltham Forest. And we've started a contract with a tree surgeon, so we get a lot of foliage through them. Later on, we use brown paper instead of plastic, deliver in glass vases and have started using a local courier service with low emissions. Small things, but we’re trying.

You’ve done lots of events and installations. Any favourite projects to date?

C: I think the Walthamstow Wetlands installation was one of our favourites. In the Engine House, we put together three big dried-flower clouds.

S: It was part of the Chelsea Fringe, and all about the water cycle, which fed in nicely to the work done in the nature reserve. The brief was really loose, so we could get creative. Personally, I’ll take any opportunity to hang flowers in a big space with scaffolding. I like filling an industrial backdrop with nature. Love the contrast.

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You founded Forest Flora, a hub for community gardening. Tell us more about that.

S: Urban gardening is about working with nature in a built-up area. Any scale. It can be part of a community space, a window box in front of your house or transforming a derelict place. We noticed a massive amount of people doing this stuff, but they weren’t linked in any way. So we founded Forest Flora as a way to pool knowledge and resources. We’ve got experienced gardeners, landscape designers and people who are completely new to gardening too.

At the moment, we’re working on a trail that will connect community gardens across Waltham Forest. It’s our way of saying “hey, these people are doing lovely things” and encouraging others to join in. There’s a volunteering section on the site, and information about how to get involved.

Tell us about your visits to Tottenham. Any favourite parts of the neighbourhood?

S: It has to be the Wetlands, where we’ve done a lot of work. It's one of the largest urban wetland sites in Europe and a beautiful place for people to see loads and loads of interesting flora and fauna. It’s right on Tottenham’s doorstep, and free to visit. You get a sense of outdoor space and scale around there. You can walk for ages and just see big, wide panoramas and feel at peace. The team makes updates of what's going on, listings to what's nesting and what's been seen, so get an idea of seasonality as well.

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