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The only way is Essex: the community breathing new life into a disused country estate

Laura Sevier

11th November, 2011

In Romford, Essex, villagers are getting their hands dirty transforming a historic walled garden at Bedfords Park

If you listen carefully to the lyrics of Imogen Heap's new song ‘Neglected Spaces' you might hear the sound of smashing glass and references to bat's sonar rays. ‘I'll look after you if you look after me,' she whispers hauntingly.

The quirky multi-instrumentalist singer was inspired to write the song as part of a wider project to help restore an abandoned walled garden near her home in Romford, Essex. For years she jogged past the four metre high walls without knowing what was behind them. Then she learnt about the garden's 200-year history. In its Georgian heyday it was a thriving kitchen garden that even grew pineapples in greenhouses. But over the last decade the garden, which Imogen says is ‘the size of a football pitch,' has been badly neglected.

‘I wrote into the song what I felt the garden wanted before we got there. For people to believe in its relevance again,' she says. ‘These manmade structures for people to work and live in are completely useless and redundant in the loss of human interaction.'

After visiting the garden with her partner Thomas Ermacora, who heads up regeneration design charity Clear Village.org they decided to step in and help various locals bring the garden back to its former glory.

‘Being in the garden, I hear it almost sigh in relief with the news of this fresh enthusiasm,' says Imogen. ‘As if it's been calling out to anyone who might catch it from dust, to fall in love with it again.'

Imogen is no stranger to nature-based projects. Last year, she and Thomas created a compilation film called 'Love the Earth' by asking her fans to contribute nature themed film footage. The film was screened at the Albert Hall to her original score.

A secret garden comes to life

The day I go to visit the walled garden, an autumn dampness hangs in the air. It's late afternoon and the light is fading. The garden hides within a forbidden area of Bedfords Park, a former country estate that has been owned by Havering Council since 1933. The tranquil park has panoramic views of London and Kent and is now a wildlife reserve complete with a visitor centre, captive red deer and Giant Redwood trees.

I'm with Thomas who has offered to show me round the garden. He collects the keys from the visitor centre (the locks have to regularly be changed because of the threat of vandalism and theft). The path to the garden is lined by rows of ancient trees shedding their leaves. It's a pretty scene. But when I see the garden I'm shocked. What remains of the outhouses are covered in graffiti. None of the greenhouses have any glass in them. There are huge clumps of nettles and weeds everywhere and much of the garden is cordoned off with red and white plastic tape (health and safety) looking like something out of a crime scene.

Surveying the mess, you get a vague sense of what the garden must have been like in its hey day but you need to use a lot of imagination. Thomas told me how the council took over the garden to use it as a nursery for the local parks but also to grow food for disadvantaged communities. You can see various traces of its legacy - a concrete nursery, a broken polytunnel. But for various reasons the council abandoned the site 10 years ago. ‘The place became a disgrace,' says Thomas. ‘It was a liability. There were water leaks, the walls were falling down. The place was targeted by thieves who took copper, glass and bricks.'

Thomas and Imogen are not the first people to try and rescue the garden. Both are keen to stress the project is a collaboration, a combined effort between various groups. Local gardening group the Friends of Bedfords Park do what they can to help the garden, the original soldier being Lois Amos who almost single handedly kept the garden alive for the last eight years. She also applied for a Big Lottery Local Food Grant. ‘It didn't get beyond the first stage because the Friends were not a legal entity,' says Thomas, which is where his organisation has now become strongly involved. Through the charitable status of Clear Village, he has reapplied for a lottery grant for £250,000 and recently filed the second stage application.

He sees the role of Clear Village as a ‘catalyst organisation'. Not everyone was happy with his efforts to step in and get involved - it took him a year to convince local stakeholders to become partners. ‘The village politics were messy. It was a delicate situation, but once there was a general consensus we found a way to create steps towards incremental change' he says.

Most recently Thomas organised a ‘Garden Angels' outdoor workshop in September to help stage 'a context which would showcase how the garden could be revitalized collaboratively,' says Thomas.

Imogen lent her social media network to attract volunteers. ‘We needed some hands on action to move the garden's story forward and I knew I could count on a few brave creative hearts to dive into this strange request,' says Imogen. The request, posted on her blog page attracted some 50 volunteers although many could not come on the set dates.

A community comes together

Thomas, with the help of the Clear Village team curated the events of the week. Some locals, including Lois, joined the group. They cleared the decks for planting, did a load of weeding (some weeds were five feet tall) particularly around old Essex apple varieties that had been planted a few months previously. They also co-designed a hexagonal, temporary bamboo structure for winter planting of cabbage, kale, turnips and other winter greens.

Thomas has a background in urban design in France, and has worked mostly with creative or strategic projects to grow awareness on sustainability, even trying himself as a slow food inspired restaurateur in Paris. He was keen to give the ‘Garden Angels' a fun, learning experience.

‘They wanted to continue to toil, to clear, build, sing and talk even after we were finished for the day. They couldn't get enough,' he says. ‘One said: "it's the best thing that's happened in the village." It brings people together, it's fun and it's open to the world.'

Besides the obvious advantages of growing food for the local community, Thomas shares a wider vision for the garden. He points out that growing food binds the community together, and can provide good physical and learning exercises for young and old and locals and visitors via a proposed learning centre. Workshops could range from growing vegetables to biomimicry design.

But looking around I can see that these actions, though positive only make a small dent in the overall picture. So much depends on funding. He'll hear back in early 2012 if the lottery grant been successful or not.

Whatever happens he will still organise thematic co-creative workshops (or ‘labs' as he calls them, on subjects from traditional building to organic gardening) to make gradual progress on the premises. And if they do get funding the garden will still rely on volunteers. Thomas stresses that Clear Village takes no real fee in the process and is not budgeted into the grant to the exception of hire of a project manager for the collaborative regeneration. However, it seems that volunteers are easy enough to find.

Some of the ‘Garden Angels' plan to return to the garden ‘to keep it from going back to weed heaven,' says Imogen.

Any tips for anyone who stumbles upon a similar abandoned garden? ‘Don't give up,' advises Thomas. ‘Gardens can be our mini Edens that make the "big society" idea - not the political one but the conceptual one - actually happen.'

For more information or if you want to get involved email garden@clear-village.org or go to www.clear-village.org

Laura Sevier is a freelance journalist


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