Charity garden helps those with additional needs to blossom
- Credit: Beyond the Wall
Beyond the Wall is a Suffolk charity creating an environment in which those with learning disabilities can thrive. As part of the East of England Co-op's #EastTogether campaign in partnership with Archant, centre manager Karen Bleay explains how the idyllic setting of the walled garden provides therapeutic benefits that change lives.
Gardens are spaces for both horticultural and personal cultivation. By tending the garden, people become better at tending to themselves, encouraged to flourish like the flowers and fruit blossoming about them – a concept epitomised by the work of a local charity supporting young people with disabilities.
Based at Thornham Magna in Suffolk, Beyond the Wall provides therapeutic horticultural work for people with additional needs aged 16 and above.
“Walls prevent people living the life they want to live,” says centre manager Karen Bleay. “Here the metaphorical wall represents the idea that people don’t have opportunities just because they have a learning disability.
“We see beyond the disability to the whole person and try to help them find out what they want from life. We show them what they could do or be and help them to move on to the next step in their journey towards leading a healthy and fulfilling life.”
Established by the late Lord Henniker as Thornham Field Centre Trust in the 1980s, the not-for-profit was originally conceived to promote the health benefits of integration with nature. The charity was renamed Beyond the Wall in 2010 as it began to focus on providing horticultural therapy for people with learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorder.
“We focus on gardening because it is a meaningful activity that offers huge health benefits,” Karen says. “It helps our service users become more independent and self-reliant, while working in a team.”
The two-acre garden features a double herbaceous border with mirrored rose beds, glasshouses, a marquee and 40 different types of fruit tree, including pears, medlars, quince and the local 'Lady Henniker' apple variety. The multi-sensory effect of colours, textures and fragrances provide a sense of being at one with nature.
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“We go for woodland walks every day and conduct nature studies: learning the names of plants and birds,” Karen says. “Our service users start to care for the wildlife with responsibilities like topping up bird seed, composting, propagating plants or ensuring the pond is maintained.”
With the 10ft high wall and lush greenery towering above, Karen says the space feels cosseted. “If people with autism, for example, need to run and blow off steam and just let their emotions out, they can do that. They can feel safe but also free at the same time.”
Throughout the pandemic the charity has continued to provide support online, including scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, yoga and ‘survival cooking’ lessons.
“Even those that are non-verbal were really happy to see their friends on the iPad,” Karen says. “It has been a lonely and isolating time for everyone, but especially for some of our service users. They didn't understand what was going on – some of them thought it was their fault.
“Lockdown proved that when you take the service away, their mental health suffers. The garden is vital as it makes a massive difference to their wellbeing and mental health, and we can also offer respite to parents and carers, many of whom have been at home with no support.”
The garden will re-open to the public on Sunday afternoons between 12pm–3pm from May 16, when visitors might be fortunate enough to encounter rabbits, pheasants, deer and even peacocks. And then there is Mrs Perkins, the resident cat. “That was everybody’s first question during lockdown: ‘How is Mrs P?’” Karen laughs. “She's very popular.”
Beyond the Wall received a grant of £500 from the East of England Co-op, which was used to stock the newly refurbished tea rooms and kitchen. “The East of England Co-op has been very generous to us over the years, donating prizes for raffles and events on several occasions, including wine, tea, coffee, biscuits, food hampers and store vouchers.”
Beyond the Wall benefits from donations from the public to provide additional support and activities. Karen says you can also help by offering to volunteer in the garden.
“We're always looking for people to help. If you have any special skills – whether it's something artistic like photography or life skills like cooking, we do all sorts of activities.”
Beyond the Wall also sells herbs, perennials and produce such as strawberries and rhubarb onsite and in local community shops, creating a network whereby service users can gain work experience in other settings like the Forge Café and Roscoes Deli and Farm Shop.
“We’re planning to host our Apple Day event at the end of September and we also hope to put on a Christmas market,” Karen says.
Lost in the green grass and purple petals, it is easy to appreciate how such an idyllic setting provides the potential for personal growth.
“The best part of my day is in the morning when I greet everyone at the gates,” Karen says. “Everybody is so happy to be here.”
For more information, please visit www.beyondthewall.org.uk
Watch more episodes from the #EastTogether series at www.eastofengland.coop/easttogether