Gardens: Annie Green-Armytage visits a Norwich community green space
Set in the heart of Norwich alongside the Inner Ring Road, Grapes Hill Community Garden is a special place. Annie Green-Armytage finds out what sets it apart
Take one piece of cracked concrete and tarmac, fenced off, locked and abandoned by the local council due to antisocial activity. Add a local homeowner, an organic gardener, and a king-sized dollop of vision and determination. Mix with an enormous amount of energy and hard work, and you have Grapes Hill Community Garden. Just walking through the sturdy steel gates with their embedded heart motifs takes you into a dif-erent place, both physically and mentally; with the ring road traffic constantly churning just a few yards away, the rejuvenated space provides a haven for people and wildlife alike.
One of the founders of the charity which created the garden is history teacher Fran Ellington, who lived in one of the houses bordering the back of the land. "A group of us had this initial idea of creating something, not just for this row of houses but for the whole area, which has a lot of social housing with no gardens, and many people with low-health and low-mobility," she says. The idea was to create something beautiful out of something ugly in the centre of the city, where people can come and learn to garden, and take part in a group activity, especially people who may feel quite lonely and isolated in city areas.’
Along with Richard Bearman, then Green councillor for the ward and keen organic gardener, and several other like-minded people, they formed the Grapes Hill Community Garden Group, raised initial funding and commissioned a first design. Right from the start, though, the community was at the heart of the development. "We wanted local people to take ownership of the space," explains Fran. "So we got local artist Patrick Goodall to draw a picture and then had a big community awareness day in February 2009 where people could say what they liked about it, what they didn’t like, and suggest changes."
An architect’s drawing, many questionnaires, and lots of knocking on doors later, they had
a plan for the hard landscaping. Wheelchair-accessible, with small raised beds to allow accessible working, it also had space for children to play, adults to sit, groups to meet, and most importantly space to grow edible crops. "Part of the educational value within a city is to teach youngsters about where their food comes from," says Fran. "And the crops are for the community – you can pick the fruit or herbs, as long as you leave some for others."
The initial planting was designed with support from local botanist Dr Jeremy Bartlett, and is based on the principle of a forest garden, where planting occurs in layers. The four existing ash trees dominate the garden and take up a lot of light and moisture, so these are underplanted with early-maturing crops such as redcurrants, which will flower and fruit before the tree foliage fully matures. Other fruit includes traditional Norfolk apples, and pears which are grown as cordons to maximise productivity in this small space. Boundary railings and a central pergola are host to vines and berries, while salad crops, herbs and edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, thrive amongst the ornamental plants.
Growing in this garden has an additional and overarching purpose; it is all about inclusion. Sensory plants such as soapwort and blackcurrant sage (which really does smell like blackcurrants when you rub the leaves) are enjoyed by local children’s and autistic groups who visit regularly. Hands-on organic gardening workshops are open to all, along with parent and child gardening sessions which introduce children to the idea of growing in a playful way.
Lottery funding has enabled a further dimension to this outreach. Special events have attracted a diverse section of the local population, including a celebration of Armistice Day for older people, a series of Nature in the Garden events, and an annual Celebration of International Culture. This welcomes everyone living in and near Norwich, particularly those who have migrated here for whatever reason. "It’s all about integra-tion, to create a
more cohesive community," says Fran. "Once you start to listen to people’s stories, you can start to see someone who you might have labelled ‘an immigrant’ as a fellow human being."
This event has encouraged involvement from other groups too: street food stalls from New Routes, which promotes crosscultural integration and supports asylum seekers and migrants locally; and a fund-raising stall from Society Alive, which runs a community cafe in Clover Hill Village Hall. Local musicians and story-tellers have given their time, and a yoga group even ran a free session in the first event in 2017.
This encapsulates the spirit of this garden: a place where local people can get to know each other, join in communal activities, garden together, or just sit in peace. And you feel better for it, as Fran has found on a personal level. "Sometimes I’m a bit reluctant on a Sunday when I set out for the fortnightly volunteering slot, but at the end of the session I’m always smiling. I always realise it’s therapy for me as well," she says with a smile. Perhaps most importantly, in today’s world of fear-mongering, false news, and egomania, Grapes Hill Community Garden is a place which celebrates togetherness and common purpose rather than difference. Definitely much more than just a garden.
Grapes Hill Community Garden, Norwich is open seven days a week, from 9am - 8pm May Aug; 9am - 6pm Mar, Apr, Sep, Oct; and 9am - dusk Nov-Feb. Admission is free. Access is off Dereham Road via Golding Place, Valentine Street and off Earlham Road via Paragon Place (NR2).
ABOVE: At the end of the garden is a small grassy area, with an assortment of tree stumps as seats. The back of the garden is bounded by a fig tree and a stand of bamboo (Fargesia murieliae). In the tubs are dwarf ‘Liliput’ pear trees
RIGHT: A performer at the Celebration of International Culture event
RIGHT:Looking up the garden. Plants include various fruit trees, asters (michaelmas daisies), Sedum‘Herbstfreude’, hardy banana Musa basjoo, and grassStipa gigantica.Overshadowing the garden are four mature ash(Fraxinus excelsior)
ABOVE:The garden is alive with people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities for the ‘Celebration of International Culture’ event
LEFT (TOP):A ceramic mosaic of a sunflower, designed and created by Peter Ellington, decorates part of the back wall. Two sculpted wooden hearts sit in front, a fitting symbol of the garden’s philosophy
LEFT (BOTTOM): Detail of a heart and leaves on the metal gate at the entrance of the garden