Doddington Place Gardens

Crossing the Borders

The Abbey Physic Community Garden in Faversham, Kent

Having just been given a handsome new book ‘Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds’ by Victoria Summerley (wwwfranceslincoln.co.uk) my thoughts naturally turned to the ‘secret gardens of East Kent. The Abbey Physic Community Garden (www.faversham.org/community/clubs/abbey_physic_garden) in the ancient market town of Faversham instantly sprang to mind. Tucked away behind the churchyard of St. Mary of Charity by the late 16th century grammar school, now a Masonic Hall, a small sign indicates the modest door, set into an old brick wall, to the Abbey garden.

The garden is overlooked by the houses of Abbey Street, one of the most attractive streets in England.  It was nearly swept away for a bypass in the 1960s.

The garden is overlooked by the houses of Abbey Street, one of the most attractive streets in England. It was nearly swept away for a bypass in the 1960s.

Stepping in to the walled half-acre garden one immediately feels as if one has stumbled on an enchanted world. The garden is an organically managed community garden that exists to promote the therapeutic benefits of horticulture. At first it is hard to focus, there are so many different sections to the garden and one wants to embrace it all at once such is its quiet magnetic charm. It is a hive of activity with individuals busy working away, some on their own, some in pairs or in small groups.

The late 16th-century grammar school now a Masonic hall.

The late 16th-century grammar school now a Masonic hall.

Leased from the Freemasons for a peppercorn rent of £2 a year, the garden was established just over twenty years ago by the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, now renamed Rethink Mental Illness. A registered charity since 1997, the Abbey Physic Community Garden is also a Land Learning Centre with the Permaculture Association. It offers training in various areas such as NVQs in horticulture in association with Hadlow College, and other garden-related courses.

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It has been proved that working outside is restorative for those with mental health issues. ‘It is enormously beneficial for people who have become isolated through their illness to feel that they belong to a group who can offer peer to peer support. It is all about confidence building’ says Suzanne Campbell, the garden’s part-time manager who exudes warmth and enthusiasm combined with a hands on approach to overseeing the garden. The volunteers came from a large catchment area including Maidstone, Rainham and Canterbury. ‘Everyone has a part to play. We can absorb people, and the more areas we have in the garden, the more people we can absorb’.

Tudor Whimsy - a heraldic garden with shieds painted by pupils at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School.

Tudor Whimsy – a heraldic garden with shieds painted by pupils at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School.

Walking around the garden it is astonishing to discover just what can be accommodated in half-an acre. There is a wildlife pond, a ‘dead hedge’ made of cuttings too big to be composted ‘it is fantastic for wildlife, birds have been known to nest it and is popular with insects’,

The 'dead hedge'.

The ‘dead hedge’.

a greenwood working area, a herb garden, an agroforestry area, a polytunnel, roses, a composting toilet, bug palaces, a living willow bower, more than 30 fruit trees, soft fruits and even a hugelkultur, (pronounced Hoo-gul-culture, translated as ‘mound-culture) – traditionally found in Germany and Eastern Europe, it is an ingenious no-dig raised bed which is made by first digging a slight hollow which is then covered with logs, leaves, and whatever biomass is available with a final top layer of soil. It mimics the natural cycle found in woodland and has many benefits – as the wood gradually decays it provides nutrients as well as being a source of heat, thus extending the growing season and it also acts like a sponge, storing rainwater which is then released during dry periods.

A fine bug palace.

A fine bug palace.

The ‘Men’s Shed’ is the newest introduction to the garden What used to be the tool shed has now been reinvented as a place where male ‘Shedders’ can congregate and work together. ‘Men are notoriously bad at supporting each other.’ Says Suzanne. The day I visited the men were busy making a wooden pergola which will become an outside classroom. This brilliant scheme is run under the auspices of Kent County Council www.kentsheds.org.uk and was set up in 2014.

The greenwood working area.

The greenwood working area.

‘It is estimated that more than one million men in the UK suffer from chronic loneliness and social isolation’ says David George, director of the film documentary ‘Better Shed than Dead’ about shedders in Broadstairs and Sandwich who explain how the initiative, which originated in Australia in 2007, encourages them to share skills and make new friends.

As the Pevsner ‘Kent : North East and East’ says ‘Faversham is pleasurable in many small ways rather than for spectacular beauties’. Small the Abbey Physic Garden may be but it is undoubtedly pleasurable.

The Abbey Physic Community Garden

Abbey Place, Faversham, Kent ME13 7BG

Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 9am-2pm.

Saturday 11am -3pm.

Delicious homemade cakes and teas and coffees available as well as jams made with produce from the garden.