IF ATTENDING church was thought to be good for the soul, one might have assumed that the commendation related to an activity taking place inside the building. These days, if you are urged to attend, it could just as well be by a doctor suggesting that you join its gardening group.
Referring a patient to take part in a social or physical activity such as gardening or singing — social prescribing — is becoming increasingly common. The Academy of Social Prescribing was set up by the former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, in 2019, and it urges NHS trusts to look for community groups with which to work.
Its website states that some problems “cannot be fixed by medicine, or doctors, alone”, and that patients may benefit from activities such as group learning, arts, gardening, befriending, cookery, healthy eating advice, and a range of sports. Academic research is fast supporting their position.
This has proved to be true for a number of the ten projects showcased by the Church Times’s Green Health awards, set up in partnership with the Guild of Health and St Raphael, and the Conservation Foundation, and with the backing of the Church of England. Since the awards in 2018, some have become sanctuaries for people with mental-health issues; and, when the pandemic prevented their getting together, the gardens quickly benefited other people in need.
Gill ThomasPlanting at St Paul’s Woodland Garden in Camden, north London
The winner of the Green Health awards, St Paul’s Woodland Garden, Camden, in north London, has gone from strength to strength. The Woodland Garden is part of the grounds of St Paul’s, Camden Square, and is run by two gardeners from the Green City Project appointed by the Rector, the Revd James Elston, to help people who are experiencing social exclusion or mental or physical health challenges.
The £2000 Green Health prize money enabled the gardeners to apply with the church for a National Lottery partnership grant. Awarded £135,520, they set about gardening with patients from the hospital’s traumatic-stress clinic, and isolated older people, among others.
They made the site wheelchair-accessible, put on workshops and events, and taught participants how to cook, using the garden’s fruit and vegetables.
When lockdown began, the volunteers could no longer attend sessions, and the gardeners, Catherine Tidnam and Ben Ledden, stayed in touch with them via WhatsApp and phone, and gave those in the nearby St Pancras Hospital tomato and pepper seeds to grow in its gardens.
They restarted the gardening groups “really early”, last July, aware that very few such activities were continuing.
Meanwhile, therapists at the hospital’s traumatic-stress clinic asked whether they could go into the garden when it was not in use, for therapy sessions that could no longer take place indoors.
Dr Livia Ottisova, a clinical psychologist, said that clients found the environment “soothing” and “refreshing”. Her colleague Eileen Walsh met a client there throughout the winter: both cycled there in fleeces, and her client brought a hot-water bottle.
The gardeners and the church were delighted to share the space. Ms Tidnam hopes that sessions will continue after the summer, having won a grant for a shelter with external sockets for eco-friendly heaters.
Ms Tidman and Mr Ledden have started three more gardening groups and opened a second site. St Pancras patients now germinate the Woodland Garden’s cucumbers on the hospital’s warm wards. The gardeners have run outdoor Messy Church sessions for the Sunday school.
Working on the Meadow Garden at St John’s, Upper Norwood
Ties between the church and the gardening project are strong. “Many people who come to the project are interested to see the church . . . and some people have joined the congregation,” Ms Tidnam says. “People are very welcoming at the church, and very interested in what we’re doing and the volunteers who come along.”
Fr Elston says: “By sharing our green space, we have been able to serve the most needy in our parish and welcome them into the life of the church.”
MOST church garden projects are not conceived with budgets in six figures. The Meadow Garden at St John’s, Upper Norwood, in south-east London, is funded with about £1500 a year from the congregation’s giving. Most of its work has been suspended during lockdown, but the Meadow, a large, quiet green space, has become of service to the tower-block-dominated community.
In the 2018 Green Health awards, the project won £750 (News, 5 October 2018), which was spent on tools. On the eve of lockdown, the church welcomed not only a gardening group, but also a fitness group and a music group, referrals to which were made by local GPs.
When lockdown began, referrals were suspended, and most volunteers shielded; some contracted Covid. Two church members helped volunteers to grow small sustainable boxes at home on their balconies. The garden was maintained by the Vicar, the Revd John Pritchard, and individual volunteers. He began to notice new visitors.
Kamal DuncanThe garden at St John’s, Old Trafford
Although the church is not on a thoroughfare, “people actually use the site now as a place to sit and contemplate,” he says. And, as indoor activities are still restricted, the Meadow has become the new home of the music group, come rain or shine.
Others have found that their existing work has merged with new directions in health and well-being. At one church in Manchester, GPs have begun referring patients to activities run from its busy community centre only this year.
The gardening project at St John’s, Old Trafford, has been going for eight years, without the label of social prescribing, but with all the benefits: skills training, confidence-boosting, improvement in mental health, and combating isolation.
The group of eight to ten volunteers, of all faiths and none, is sufficiently established that, even when its leader fell ill, and lockdown meant that members could turn up only one at a time, the garden was maintained. Yields were down, but there was enough produce for the food parcels sent out from the church centre, which the local authority designated a Covid-19 response hub.
It was not possible to induct new members, although existing ones stayed in phone contact with one another. Lockdown “made local people appreciate the garden more”, the learning co-ordinator at the centre, Emma Wilton, says. “The wildlife has been loving it, because things have been left that wouldn’t otherwise have been left.”
OF COURSE, growing produce is not the only way in which a church can use its land to help people in difficulty. When restrictions began, St Giles’s, Lincoln, locked its community garden and shut its doors to all the groups that used its hall: Alcoholics Anonymous, occupational health, a nursery, a group for drug addicts, an ADHD support group. When they were allowed to resume meeting indoors, socially distanced, a churchwarden, Debra Armiger, made the garden available to them.
After seeing parents from an ADHD meeting emerging in tears, she wanted to offer “quiet time, if the sessions have got too hard”, Ms Armiger, a former mental-health nurse, says. So, although the volunteer gardeners have not been able to use the garden for more than a year, relationships with the community have “flourished”, she says.
“Count on Nature” in the Community Garden at St Giles’s, Lincoln
For some garden projects, the therapeutic dimension is not new: it is central. The ACCEPT project, in Leicestershire, is a private “well-being garden” for people with long-term mental-health issues. About 12 participants a year cultivate fruit, vegetables, and flowers, and help to develop the space, which has a well, a log cabin, and a reflection area. Many have been referred by the local NHS community mental-health team or social services. ACCEPT has been taking NHS referrals since its foundation in 2003.
Gardening stopped during the first lockdown, but continued through the second (autumn) and third (spring). “Meeting together has been more appreciated than ever,” Aidan Lucas, who founded ACCEPT with his wife, Frankie, says.
In response to the pandemic, the couple launched a bereavement friendship group. Covid has complicated the grieving process, Mr Lucas says: people may have been “isolated, [they] haven’t been able to meet with others . . . can’t invite many to the funeral, can’t have a wake afterwards, haven’t been able to see their loved one towards the end of their life, either”. What difference does the garden make? “People describe it as an oasis,” he says.
NOT all the projects in the 2018 Green Health awards centred on gardening. One of them, run from Manchester Cathedral, is a bee-keeping project — one of a number of skills-building initiatives offered by the resident charity Volition to increase participants’ employability. On the eve of lockdown, Volition was working with about 120 people a year, for ten-week periods.
The director of Volition, Anthony O’Connor, explains: “When you get long-term unemployed people with very low confidence, low self-esteem, low motivation, and you give them something practical to do — whether it’s our bees, or taking part in our cooking, or welcoming guys in the cathedral — you can see how they change and how they grow.”
Christmas round the fire at ACCEPT, in Leicestershire
Since the start of lockdown, grants and donations have kept the project afloat, but the number of volunteers fell. The charity’s main source of volunteers — job centres — closed, and some of those willing needed to shield. In addition, several of the employers who had working in partnership with the charity went bust.
“It’s been a struggle,” Mr O’Connor says. None the less, when a bee-keeper, Catherine Charnock, was able to welcome volunteers back on to the cathedral roof, the bees proved “most popular”.
At a church in south London, developing the therapeutic and practical dimensions of its garden project has developed into exploring the garden’s spiritual potential. The Therapeutic Garden at St Mary the Virgin, Lewisham, was created out of the old graveyard for patients at the next-door Ladywell Mental Health Unit.
On the eve of the pandemic, it hosted about 25 volunteers from several mental-health facilities, at weekly sessions of gardening and mindfulness (the latter “was very Christian, it just avoided the word ‘God’,” a Reader, Marion Watson, explains).
During lockdown, the volunteers had to stop coming, but the garden was quickly discovered by the local community, says Ms Watson, one of four church volunteers overseeing the project. Young families flocked there after the public parks were locked. The Assistant Curate spotted an opportunity — to make the garden more overtly religious. He also placed a QR code for donations on the gate, which has raised £750, supplementing various grants.
A tree was turned into a prayer-tree, to which visitors could tie ribbons with prayers written on. “People . . . haven’t been able to get into church to light a candle and pray, so this has been a substitute,” Ms Watson notes. Another church volunteer left scripture verses discreetly around the garden.
A man who had lost his job found a verse next to him on a bench. “He said: ‘That just got me right here,’ banging on his chest,” Ms Watson recalls. He was not alone in bringing his sadness to the garden. “We have listened to so many stories — people in crisis . . . so many people have lost their jobs,” she says. The church has also begun using the space for special services, notably during Holy Week.
FIVE hundred miles apart are two churches whose spiritual outreach has been accelerated by pandemic restrictions. Polwarth Parish Church, Edinburgh, is an imposing 800-seater sandstone building surrounded by railings, “so it’s got a kind of ‘Don’t come in here’ tone to it,” the Minister, the Revd Jack Holt, says.
The prayer tree in St Mary’s Therapeutic Garden, Lewisham
But, during the first lockdown, “a lot of folk came into the garden” to exercise, and a singing group came to practise. Developed by soldiers returning from Afghanistan, the garden has proved a source of tranquillity amid the stress of the pandemic. Mr Holt reflects: “It was almost as if what we had been doing before was to prepare for something like that.”
He speaks about the garden with generosity. “It’s seen as more of a community space shared with everybody, with the church . . . making it available,” he says. The church’s outdoor ministry has also expanded through a social partnership whose canal boat the church has allowed to be moored at the end of its garden.
When the congregation was allowed back into church, they saw the potential “for building what we did as a Christian community, outside”. They created a prayer-tree — “I was amazed at how well used that was,” he says — and members of the church created installations to tell the stories of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. A children’s area has been set aside, complete with a Noah’s Ark.
Meanwhile, St Pol de Léon, Paul, in Cornwall, has expanded its open-air activities and become a “more outdoorsy church”, the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Andrew Yates, says. They have a certain advantage: their “Celtic quiet garden” looks out over the azure waters of Mount’s Bay.
In the first lockdown, “people came and prayed because they couldn’t go to churches.” They came to contemplate, and families played. He noticed that boards in the garden telling stories of Celtic saints and inviting a response started getting more use.
The congregation, frustrated at not being able to sing in church, has worshipped outdoors for Remembrance Sunday, Christmas, and Easter, and this summer will worship outdoors once a month. A labyrinth, installed just before lockdown, has proved popular with children and was used at an Easter Day baptism. Mr Yates says that outdoor services are less daunting for non-churchgoers to attend.
A gardening club stopped using the site because they could no longer afford the transport, but another gardening group, for older men, has taken its place. They were back “as soon as they were allowed out”, he says, as were the dementia support group, renamed the Paul Nature Group, whose members have planted sunflower seeds there. In the summer, a special five-week holiday club for vulnerable children used the space.
While some of the projects here have been able to respond to the disruption of the pandemic creatively, for the community gardening project at Wharton and Cleggs Lane Church, Salford, it was one challenge too many. The project, which won £750 in the Green Health Awards, has also had to sit out the construction of a new church building adjacent, and the demolition of the old.
None the less, a church trustee, Helen Bolton, is upbeat. The gardening group has a £500 grant and ten days’ expertise from the Royal Horticultural Society to use. It is also about to merge with a similar group, which will mean more hands, more equipment on site, an extra shed, and some more raised beds, which are ideal for less mobile gardeners.
The trustees have also won funding to bring in befrienders to support the gardeners. Plans to work more closely with GPs will be resumed. A seating area and wild-flower meadow are planned.
The volunteers have begun returning, and mental-health professionals are delighted. The church project has “been a really great place to encourage people to visit when they’re venturing back into the community”, sys the Revd Kathleen Loughlin, a chaplain at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Trust.
“We try to look for places where people who are vulnerable and who are struggling . . . will be welcomed, be safe, be made to feel valuable.” The trust has sent staff along to discuss and take questions on mental-health issues such as depression, as well as give basic mental-health training to church volunteers at its community café.
ECO-PROJECTS to promote well-being point to a new way in which churches can minister to their communities, David Shreeve, the Archbishops’ environmental adviser, says. He believes that the most successful green projects take place in small, inner-city spaces created for people with no garden of their own. “It’s the companionship that makes it, and, if they’ve planted something, they’ll want to nurture it,” he says. The lockdowns, he goes on, have underlined people’s need for green spaces.
Weeding the woodland in St Mary’s Therapeutic Garden, LewishamMr Shreeve has recently been appointed to the advisory board on mental health of the Academy of Social Prescribing, which, he says, “is showing the Church now has a place at the table for advising on how this sort of thing can be developed. . . It’s a great bit of PR if the Church simply says, we’ve got people coming from our local community, all shapes and sizes, all sorts of belief. . . Some people who won’t ever come on Sunday mornings get a hell of a lot out of coming on a Thursday afternoon to garden.”
Sophie Awan, a clinical lead occupational therapist at Ladywell Mental Health Unit, says that patients value the gardens as a tranquil space, away from the ward. “Gardening itself is really therapeutic and enjoyable, [and] gives them a sense of mastery, achievement, and pride, as well as providing them with the opportunity to socialise,” she says.
“We have even started doing some gardening in our hospital-patient garden, too; so even those who are not yet well enough to attend the church garden can begin to engage in these meaningful tasks.”
When the Green Health awards were devised, no one imagined that, three years later, public parks would be locked and spaces such as these would prove a lifeline. Yet the gardens’ experience of the pandemic is similar to that of their users: some have experienced isolation and enforced neglect; for others, it has been a time of surprising creativity.