Capital magic: Edinburgh’s Redhall Walled Garden
by Antonia Swinson
credit: Redhall Gardens Edinburgh
Perhaps the best way to describe Edinburgh’s Redhall Walled Garden is as a 21st century fairy dell – a special garden which breathes magic and transforms the lives of the people working there.
Founded 29 years ago, in an 18th century walled garden, Redhall is now renowned as one of Scotland’s best-established and most successful therapeutic gardening services, offering training in horticulture, conservation and other skills for fifty Edinburgh-based volunteers, or trainees as they are known, who are recovering from mental health problems.
Yet this is not a secretive operation tucked out of sight. Redhall’s glorious six acres are a city paradise for local people, who regularly pop in to buy plants and to enjoy the famous cream teas and Razzmatazz afternoons laid on throughout the year.
The gardens lie on the bank of the Water of Leith, Edinburgh’s powerhouse river which flows down from the Pentland hills through the city and out into the Firth of Forth. Here, near the pretty village of Colinton, the river flows fast through a shallow gorge, with the gorse-covered Craiglockhart hills providing a dramatic backdrop. It is an artist’s, as well as a gardener’s, paradise, right down to the little Palladian summer house currently being repaired and readied for opening to the public as an information centre. My fingers itch to handle both a paintbrush and a hoe. “Those 18th century garden designers knew a thing or two about harnessing nature”, says John, a former PE teacher and long-standing trainee, who now regularly guides visitors around the gardens. “They understood perspective and visual drama. Redhall is also incredibly well drained despite lying in a dip near the river. And as the walls are south-facing, we can grow apples, plums and pears, whatever weather is thrown at us. They even left gaps in the north-facing wall to prevent frost damage.”
On the afternoon of my visit, the gardens are a hive of activity as the trainees prepare for the annual Easter Eggstravaganza complete with children’s egg hunt and spring plant sale. The staff team on hand are horticulturalists first and foremost, albeit with mental health training, and the emphasis is on getting the day’s work done. Hundreds of pots require watering and tending for the big day, and it will be a big day, with over six hundred visitors expected. With luck, takings will exceed £1,000 – providing vital funds for the garden.
Working the magic
Redhall is practical magic at work. Many of us have experienced the stress-busting power of gardening, but imagine how much more you’d need its healing effects if, for example, you were recovering from a nervous breakdown or childhood trauma and could not work?
Redhall trainees sign an open-ended contract to work three to five days a week in the gardens and in the office. They also act as guides to the many visitors – both the general public and interested healthcare professionals who are sometimes surprised that people with mental health problems should speak so passionately about their gardening. But it is this enthusiasm that successfully challenges the enduring stigma of mental illness. “Folk arrive for a visit and are amazed,” says Team Leader Jan Cameron. “They often ask me what sort of people wind up here and I tend to look at them and say, ‘people just like you and me’.” Over half the trainees have university degrees and many have been successful professionals with careers as chefs, journalists, teachers, social workers, architects and engineers.
Finding a Future
Freddie is a former chef who came to Redhall after suffering a mental breakdown. He had become very isolated and had lost his confidence but working at the gardens has helped him to get back on his feet. He hopes to work with young people in the future and has also begun volunteering with a youth programme.
“I have now been at Redhall for just over a year and a half. I’ve found that working at the garden has put a routine back into my life, got me talking with people again and given me something to talk about. I’ve discovered that I have a talent for showing people round the garden and I enjoy hearing other people’s stories.
While I am still on the anti-depressants I no longer take the other medications. I have also rediscovered my old hobbies and am back to playing golf and meeting up with my old friends again.
I’ve learned that I like to help other people and there are so many different stories at Redhall, it puts my problems into context. It helps that other people are suffering in very similar ways and we can almost have a laugh about some of it – when you hear someone else saying exactly what is in your head.
A few months ago, I had a relapse into depression which was very frightening but thankfully fairly brief due to the support I received at Redhall. Having a reason to get out of bed helped me to keep going.
Redhall is the best place to be even on the darkest day. I have a better sense of myself at last. Waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘it’s alright to be me’ – I never felt that until I came here. I used to have to tell people that I was ill and unemployed. It’s great now to be able to say I’m a trainee gardener.”
The sense I get is that everyone working here feels lucky to be spending time in such an amazing garden. Framed by hills, it has a sense of height, depth, distance and space that makes its six acres look like twenty. This is partly achieved by the way it has been cleverly split into sections, with mixed hedges now blooming with forsythia and friendly signposts directing visitors to intriguing destinations. Turn left and you will come to the Beach Garden – a delightful sandy wilderness complete with dune grasses, shells and lobster pots. Turn right and you’ll find the Bee and Butterfly Garden, rich in buddleja and globe thistles. Then there is the five-star Frog Hotel – featured on Chris Evans radio show – which has encouraged many a guest to hop in from the river. And in the distance are the allotments which are carefully tended by the trainees who are proud of eating what they grow!
Frustratingly, though plenty of tatties are chitting in the nearby sheds, it is still early days for planting here in Edinburgh. Early morning frosts have only just finished, and still might decide on a return visit in April or even May, hence Redhall is an enthusiastic user of polytunnels. Inside these I found early rocket and salad greens coming on nicely, along with sweetcorn and herbs. Time passes quickly at Redhall, but then, this is a magical place.
It is only a handful of generations since our ancestors left the land and as I take my leave, I realise, not for the first time, that, these days, it’s probably only gardening which has the power to connect us to our essential selves. Redhall’s trainees are lucky enough to know it.
Redhall Walled Garden, 97 Lanark Road, Edinburgh EH14 2LZ, www.samh.org.uk