At St Mary’s Secret Garden
St Mary’s Secret Garden is situated in a quiet back street in Shoreditch and it comes as a welcome surprise to discover this verdant enclave amongst the dense maze of streets and housing that surround it. Yet two hundred years ago, this area North of Old St was the preserve of market gardens and nurseries, before the expansion of the city rendered what was once commonplace as the exception.
In 1986, some volunteers cultivated plants upon a piece of wasteground and, twenty-five years later, there are well-established trees and a density of luxuriant growth that propose a convincingly leafy grove worthy of being described as a secret garden. You walk through the gate and you leave the realm of concrete and enter the realm of plants. Here nature is not something to be eradicated but is encouraged, where the enclosing trees induce a state of calm and urban anxieties retreat.
One overcast August morning, with fine rain blowing in the wind, I walked over to spend a morning at this Shoreditch Eden. I followed a path through an overarching stand of hazels with beehives in a line, leading round to the greenhouse and an old market barrow used to display plants for sale, while beyond this lay a vegetable garden organised in raised beds and a peaceful herb garden with a huge bay tree at the centre, with plants selected for their scent and texture.
Once you have made this journey you are at the centre of St Mary’s Secret Garden, and when I sat here alone to contemplate the peace, an hour passed before I realised it. Clearly it is not just me that finds gardens therapeutic because, as well being open to the public, St Mary’s runs gardening sessions for people with disabilities of all kinds. Horticultural therapy is the smart name for it.
“I saw an ad in the Hackney Gazette for volunteers to come and clear this place up, it had been neglected” explained Ita Keown who retired from teaching in 1996, “I started volunteering then and I’ve been coming back ever since.” Ita was keen to tell me about a group she supervises who come each Thursday afternoon from the nearby Mildmay Hospital. “As they live in the hospital, they are very keen to be outside and do some digging.” she confided, “Many are from African or Afro-Caribbean or Indian backgrounds, and they know about growing food and are keen to put those skills to use. In the Autumn, we make chutneys with green tomatoes, pumpkin and beetroots. In the Winter, we work in the greenhouse planting bulbs for selling, and packing seeds in envelopes, and we make lavender bags. For these people, it can be their only opportunity to leave the hospital and it’s the most exciting day of the week for them.”
Yet before this group arrived, I joined a small club of people with mental disability who were there for the morning, planting a new garden that is approaching completion. Here I met Israel Forrest, an enthusiastic gardener who has been coming from Donnington each Tuesday and Thursday for the past six years and Victoria Fellows, an occupational therapy student on a Summer placement, and we all sat and chatted in the rain, while planting Scabious in a shingle bank. Others wheeled barrows of gravel around and some laid brick edgings and everybody was placidly occupied, working as equals and sharing the peaceful camaraderie of gardening.
Anyone can come to St Mary’s Secret Garden to find solace. You can volunteer, take gardening courses, rent space to grow vegetables, and buy plants and seeds cheaply. Or you can simply escape the city streets to sit and dream surrounded by the green leaves – as I did – enjoying horticultural therapy.
Victoria Fellows and Israel Forrest planting Scabious.
The garden where I lost an hour.
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