I’ve just returned from quite an adventure (for me anyway). My first journey into Northern Ireland and the longest drive on my own for many years, with Donegal and Derry / Londonderry the destination. This was an 800 km round trip undertaken in just over 24 hours when we’re doing everything we can to reduce our mileage/carbon footprint!! However, weighing up the pros and cons, the journey was necessary and not taken lightly.
The reason for it was a meeting and get-together of the Community Garden Network that I was instrumental in establishing and have voluntarily coordinated since its inception in the autumn of 2011, hence my
need desire to attend all the meetings!
We decided in the very early days that we’d aim to hold quarterly meetings that would move around Ireland and Northern Ireland to give as many community gardeners the opportunity to meet, network and share experiences and knowledge. The fact that the group is countrywide rather than local just makes it slightly longer to establish and trickier to make arrangements. I’m therefore very grateful to have the help of local community gardening enthusiasts to help with local arrangements! The next steps may include Skype and Google+ hangouts but in the meantime, there’s nothing like meeting face to face all the people involved in establishing a network.
So far we’ve met in Dublin, Waterford and Athlone and when we announced that we’d like to meet in NI and were looking for a venue, we were delighted to be invited by the hosts of the UK City of Culture 2013 (which Gareth Austin has developed a City of Horti-Culture programme around) to hold the Network meeting in Derry / Londonderry.
I don’t mind admitting that I was personally anxious about this trip. I was about to embark on a five-hour journey on my own into a country with a history that, like many of you, has surrounded me for many years. I’m an English woman who’s lived and borne three children in the Republic yet the van load of mortars that were discovered in Derry last week instantly took me back to my years of commuting and working in London during the height of the bombings, with all the fear and uncertainty that brings.
As it happened the journey itself was uneventful though it did provoke emotions I hadn’t expected. I crossed the border almost without realising, there being no checkpoints or border controls. It was only that I noticed road signs had changed colour, petrol pump prices switched from euro to sterling and my mobile phone flashed its roaming sign, (something I hadn’t considered when I planned to sat nav my way across the country) that I realised I was now officially in the UK and the English voices on BBC Radio 2 confirmed this.
Driving along the ‘A’ roads through the fog, passing sign posts that for many years have been synonymous with ‘the troubles’ I struggled to make sense with what I was seeing. The countryside didn’t look any different from that which I’d just left. I was still driving along the same road. Through the drizzle I was glimpsing signs of beautiful rolling green hills, farms, villages, shops and roads that didn’t look overly different from the ones I was familiar with. Men, women and children were shopping and spilling out of schools, workmen were fixing roads and delivery vans going about their daily business.
However, I was also passing by names of towns I’d only ever associated with pain and hurt, not beauty and green fields…. Armagh and Omagh, Enniskillen and Belfast and I was driving closer towards Derry, a city laden with a troubled history.
On arrival in Derry, thoughts jumped around again. Yes, there is a history with visible signs of conflict, but there’s also architecturally beautiful buildings, huge green spaces and parks with old trees, as well as shopping centres that were busy and bustling – something that’s missing from our own local towns. There are a lot of hardworking, genuine people there doing really good things like Conor from NI Youth Action, Marion who wears a Transition Towns and GIY hat and who organised the lovely straw bailed & solar heated meeting room for us at The Playtrail, and there are lots of community gardening projects taking place too.
It was fascinating to hear Gareth, a Scottish horticulturist and our guide, talk about the many community projects he’s been involved with. For the past six years he’s been teaching young and old, nationalist or unionist, how to garden and take pride in their surroundings. He promotes gardening on Radio Foyle, writes about gardening, drives a car emblazoned with flowers, butterflies and Todds of Campsie (he’s a green ambassador for Todds Kia and their EcoDynamic message) and if that wasn’t enough to keep anyone else busy, he recently added voluntary weekend walks for anybody interested in major parks with local historian GeraldMcGill to combine history and horticulture to his interests.
As someone with no particular political or religious persuasions myself, just a love of our planet and a desire to look after it, when I asked Gareth about his motives he simply said:
“A blade of grass doesn’t care where it grows”
I immediately knew where he was coming from and what had motivated him to move to an area that wouldn’t immediately attract newcomers to it and to try to help with its healing. Gareth’s overwhelming desire to bring beauty, flowers and plants to a city that’s still divided and enclosed by wire fencing, barbs and bars and to give every individual living there pride in their place no matter what ‘side’ they’re on, was truly inspiring.
We know that horticulture, or the simple art of gardening, is a tried and tested relief for mental health issues and goodness knows the stress people living within cities so full of conflict (past or present) must have to manage – stress that many of us hope we’ll never have to face.
We were given a tour of two community garden projects that are working hard to overcome the issues that surround them and actively do something to improve their lives. It was tremendously encouraging to say the least.
My next blog post will share the story of the two community gardens as to add them now might send you to sleep it would be such a big post!
Leaving the North
So what did I and others come away with after our brief tours, talk and meeting?
I know I wasn’t alone with the positivity I felt as I left, as well as a feeling that a considerable amount of people want to see and help to improve their surroundings through horticulture. That when groups of people (or individuals) want to enact positive changes in their communities rather than negativity they can do so. That these laneways and ‘brown’ spaces exist everywhere, not just in Northern Ireland and there’s no reason whatsoever they can’t be replicated. That classrooms full of young children are growing up in the UK with Horticulture on their curriculum so they are learning the power of plants from very young ages, which can only positively influence them as they grow into young responsible citizens.
Lastly I came away with a sense of hope. The recent security alerts that are resurfacing in Northern Ireland cannot be ignored, but from one city at least, people are trying to overcome their issues through growing flowers and vegetables. They are experiencing for themselves the positive place gardening leaves them in… which can only be a good thing however difficult their task.
“Hope is a walk through a flowering meadow. One does not require that it lead anywhere” ~ Robert Brault