Hidden behind Faversham’s finest medieval street, next to the churchyard of St Mary of Charity, and adjoining the 1587 Grammar School, now a Masonic Hall, is an extraordinary half-acre walled garden, the Abbey Physic Community Garden. The garden invites involvement and participation, but it also has a potent spirit of place that enfolds volunteers and visitors in peace and serenity, while buzzing with activity on all but the bleakest days of the year.
Volunteers, who are all members of the organisation, are referred by the mental health services, charities concerned with homelessness and drug abuse, and increasingly by GPs. Many people self-refer, having discovered the garden’s healing properties. People immerse themselves in a range of tasks – on a recent autumn day, for example, pruning a medlar tree, clearing a site for new building work next to the listed rhubarb tunnel, harvesting apples and pears and digging over and mulching no-dig raised beds, ready for next year’s crops. The modest site is densely cultivated, with rose beds and pergolas, a grapevine and 30 fruit trees. There is a ‘dead hedge’ made from woody stuff, bug hotels with resident minibeasts in evidence, a pond popular with schools for pond dipping, an outdoor classroom and a large, accessible, odour-free composting loo.
Leased from the Freemasons for a peppercorn rent of £2 a year, the garden was established 20 years ago by the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, now renamed Rethink Mental Illness. The Abbey Physic Community Garden became a charity in its own right in 1997. Since then there has been growing recognition of the therapeutic value of gardening. Monty Don summed it up in a packed lecture at the recent Canterbury Festival: ‘Nothing heals the mind and body as well as working the soil.’ Earlier this year, the leading health think tank, the King’s Fund, recommended that doctors prescribe gardening to enhance wellbeing and reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity.
The Abbey Physic Community Garden has just won a new award sponsored by the Diocese of Canterbury, Kent Life Community Garden 2016. That’s in addition to a Green Flag award and others including It’s Your Neighbourhood and Kent Wildlife Trust. Recognition is making it easier to attract funding. Suzanne Campbell, the Garden’s inspiring manager, tells me with excitement about the grant of £200,145 recently awarded by the Big Lottery Fund under its Reaching Communities programme. ‘It was a hard one to get – it took a year,’ she said. ‘It will pay for us to become a City & Guilds-registered centre to deliver an NVQ Level 1 in Horticulture, and to employ Antoinette as our horticultural therapist.’ New in post, Antoinette has been a volunteer at the physic garden for a year. ‘As a horticultural therapist I deliver basic gardening skills to help people with mental health problems interact with others, using plant material as the medium. People come into the garden and work on their own for a while, then, after a week, they’re chatting to others.’ She adds that people often go on from working in a community garden to further education.
Other initiatives to be funded by the Big Lottery grant are the Ground Force Action Team, which will spend two to three days a week clearing overgrown gardens for local people, and the Good Grub Club, where participants can learn how to grow food and cook healthy meals on a budget. ‘There is a lot of evidence,’ says Suzanne, ‘that food influences mood.’ They are waiting for planning permission for a new cabin that will be a café, welcome centre and shop for the products made by volunteers. These include Santa Claus candle holders turned by Stewart on the lathe in the Men’s Shed, another imaginative project that supplies sheds for men to hang out in, socialise, share skills and make things. The candle holders are beautifully decorated by Helen, using a pyrography pen, which burns patterns and pictures on wood and leather – a modern version of the Victorian craft of pokerwork.
The Abbey Physic Community Garden is involved in numerous community events, including Faversham Food Festival and Open Gardens Day. Members of the public are welcome whenever the garden is open, to sit under a vine-laden pergola with a cup of tea or coffee, to breathe in its tranquil air and sense of timeless peace or to do some voluntary gardening. Donations of plants, time, friendship and money are welcome.
Abbey Physic Community Garden
Faversham ME13 7BG
Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 9-2pm and Saturday 11-3pm
Text: Sarah. Photography: Lisa and Richard Senior