Visit the 110 acres of Minsteracres estate – home to a wide range of flora, fauna and wildlife – today, and you’ll find a well-tended Peace Garden in one corner. But just a few years ago it was a scrappy, dusty home for little more than a handful of sheep who’d graze on the site. ‘We had a blank canvas,’ explains Katrina Padmore of Let’s Get Growing, a horticultural therapy charity, who with a range of volunteers, has spent the last eight years transforming the site from a space for sheep to somewhere that military veterans, and those with mental health problems and dementia can come to relax, surrounded by nature.
‘A lot of hard graft has gone into developing the garden,’ says Katrina. The area is now maintained by Minsteracres’ regular gardening therapy group, who tend the site on Tuesdays and Thursdays. ‘The original work on the garden involved some of the groups who come to Minsteracres as part of their outreach programme,’ says Katrina, ‘particularly groups of refugees and asylum seekers.’
But it took some imagination to turn the site into a working, learning environment for those who want to clear their mind from troubles by digging, pruning and paring. Katrina first heard about the site – and Minsteracres, a Roman Catholic Passionist community in vast grounds – from a mutual friend. She told a friend and colleague, Ross Menzies, about the site. ‘Ross and myself were very interested in establishing gardening as a therapy, specifically for people experiencing mental health difficulties,’ she says. ‘Minsteracres seemed like the ideal venue to do that. It’s a beautiful place, very spectacular, set amidst the most gorgeous scenery. On a clear day you’ve got views all the way out to the Cheviots. It’s a beautiful environment for people.’
Progress has been steady on the garden, turning it into a place where people can not only come to work the land and take their mind off their troubles, but also somewhere they can sit and relax amongst the carefully-crafted surroundings. Both have benefits to a number of mental issues, including depression, dementia and post traumatic stress disorder – and the Minsteracres project encourages people who suffer from all three, and more, to partake in their activities.
‘Often projects are set up in a way that people with a particular medical condition are segregated according to that condition,’ explains Katrina. ‘There are benefits to that, but there’s something very special about mixing all these people together. It feels much more normal and is more appealing to people, and they get a lot out of supporting each other. We try to be very non-institutional and have a good laugh.’
As well as simply talking and engaging with each other, participants can also improve their mental health through the process of gardening at the site. ‘Doing something practical, especially just getting your hands in the soil, is very grounding and helps you to get out of your head, which is usually where people are struggling,’ says Katrina. ‘There’s just something about being out in nature that really sorts people out.’
The Minsteracres group have managed, through determination and plenty of volunteer hours, to craft the Peace Garden into a serene getaway. As well as a quiet space to sit by a pond, the garden is home to a meditation corner, a herb garden, and a tool shed. The group even managed to raise funds to construct a timber-framed building in the garden, complete with a wood burner, so when the weather is too inclement to be outdoors the group can still get together.
‘Some people are with us for quite a number of years and others for just a short period of time before getting their lives back on track,’ says Katrina. Among the most committed members are two retired memebers of the armed services who suffer from long-lasting mental health problems as a result of their time on the front lines.
‘They love coming to the garden, and bring a lot of skills with them,’ Katrina explains. One – a 25-year-veteran in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Corp – helps fix lawnmowers and machinery in the garden. ‘He arrives with a trailer with his own strimmer, but finds it really supportive to be part of the group,’ says Katrina. He found it so supportive that he invited a friend he had met a veterans’ club, along too. ‘They’ve both had a lot of challenges as a result of their time in the forces, but we’ve observed them really softening and opening up,’ says Katrina.
The two won’t be the only individuals to benefit from Minsteracres and Let’s Get Growing’s plans. The group plans to expand its horticultural projects further into County Durham. ‘We’re right on the border of Northumberland and County Durham,’ says Katrina. ‘Traditionally we’ve been more linked in with GP surgeries and services in Tynedale, but we’re aware there’s a whole range of services around Consett, and would like to do more with them.’ The green shoots of growth continue to sprout at this charitable gardening project.