When people come together, inspiring things happen.
I was flagging a bit by late Friday afternoon. It was time to head out on my bike for the opening of Shieldfield Art Works (SAW) community garden. A week of back-to-back meetings was taking its toll and my energy levels were on the low side. The fact that it was chucking it down didn’t help.
That all evaporated with the warm welcome I received. Rev Alison Wilkinson has pastoral oversight of SAW, previously known as The Holy Biscuit (which brought to mind 1970’s Batman). It was one of those places and events which inspires and energises.
What had been a patch of grass next to a car park is transformed into a flourishing community garden. A green, wildlife-friendly oasis in the heart of a busy urban area. The North of Tyne match-funded their crowdfunder, so they could afford tools and trees, and they’d invited me to come and celebrate it.
There’s a wild-flower meadow, raised vegetable beds and fruit trees. I recognised some Red Windsor apples – I grow them in my own garden, they’re crunchy, delicious and grow well in our climate. There’s space for gatherings and for contemplation, a cooking area for socialising. Together, they make a common ground for growing new friendships, building a sense of community in the middle of a dense urban area. There was a real buzz about the place, and it wasn’t just the bees. People shared food and swapped tips on growing veg and fruit, kids ran around playing, safe from traffic.
There’s also the outdoor gallery, “PROCESS” – seven large-scale posters on the outside of the SAW building. They describe it as “a form of protest in order to laugh at power, talk back and weep out loud.” Lydia Hiorns the Programme Manager, told me how growing food as a communal activity builds local solidarity and raises understanding of climate change.
The project works seamlessly with the local cooperative, Dwellbeing Shieldfield, and there a weekly gardening group. Lots of local residents live in flats and have no garden. Some are older residents, who enjoy a garden without having to do the heavy digging and weeding. Others are refugees, from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan.
I chatted to a young couple with two small children, newly arrived in the UK as refugees and now placed in a local hotel. I watched their smiles as they spoke of the welcome and hospitality they had received at the garden. It’s given them new hope and boosted their children’s happiness and confidence. Five years of instability since escaping Iran had taken its toll.
Fiona, who’s lives in Shieldfield for donkey’s years, described how much she enjoys hearing the stories of new friends from different countries and cultures, and how she relaxes in the garden with a new perspective on the world.
And there’s plans to grow beyond the community garden. In the centre’s workshop space, a wall-sized map of Shieldfield catches your eye. It’s no ordinary map, but an imagining of Shieldfield as a “garden of edible ideas.” Dr Mikey Tomkins is a specialist in urban agriculture and greening innovation. He invited residents to imagine how the multitude of hidden and public spaces in Shieldfield could be repurposed for growing food and as green spaces.
It’s an ambitious idea, and Dr. Mikey stresses it’s a concept, not a polished plan. But we’re seeing more of this across the North of Tyne. Nearby in Newcastle there’s Greening Wingrove in Fenham, and in Heaton back-lanes are bursting into colour with flowers and fruit trees, all supported by the North of Tyne. There’s loads more – Hexham, Heaton, Byker, Whitley Bay, Scotswood, Cresswell and Meadow Well. If you want to do something in your area, Google “Crowdfund North of Tyne”.
After speeches, food and music, it was time to plant some climbers. The clouds parted and evening sunshine broke through. Rev Alison must be well connected. I rolled up my sleeves and a new honeysuckle is twining its way up an archway.
It had been a long day, and getting late, but thoughts of an “edible city” made my cycle home a doddle. When people come together like this, inspiring things happen.
*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 4 July 2022