Grow Batheaston: A Learning History

Grow Batheaston: A Learning History



Account shared by: Victoria Wells, Alison Harper. Emily Wright, Ali Rogers

Conversation facilitated by Nickie Bartlett and recorded then written up.

Grow Batheaston is a community organisation which has developed over the last 18months. It is based in the village of Batheaston on the eastern edge of Bath and over the last year and a half they have worked together with their local community to enable a range of community activities including Forest Gardening.  At the end of September 2021 I met with 4 members of their steering group: Emily, Al, Alison and Victoria. We sat in Victoria’s back garden, and over mugs of mint tea, they shared their story. What follows is their jointly told tale with some possible learning for National Forest Garden Members.

The spirit which helped to propagate Grow Batheaston probably took root in 2019. A friend of Victoria’s, a former Parish Councillor had decided to garden a small piece of untended land alongside the Penthouse Steps opposite Victoria’s house. Victoria offered to help, and set up ‘Wine and weed’ evenings, communicated via informal social networks amongst village friends. Victoria wanted to extend the project out to the wider community, but discovered that the land was unregistered. This meant that the land couldn’t easily be purchased, but that didn’t stop a group of villagers from adopting the land. This initial enterprise helped to grow both the spirit and also the initial networks that helped to catalyse Grow Batheaston
Penthouse Steps Guerrilla Planting

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Everyone knows that we’re doing it (gardening) …Ali has certainly done a lot of gardening and we just carried on planting. Planting with donations from everyone. Local residents…Craig’s plants, Emily’s plants, gooseberries and strawberries from our (Ali’s) garden…lots of leftovers from the growers club…this is how it threads on…free will gardening.” Al  
In early March, just before lockdown, while working on some raised beds for Transition Batheaston, Victoria describes her neighbour Toby putting his head through the hedge and in response to the evolving pandemic said ‘We have to do something about this.’ At the time the team recalled that there were empty supermarket shelves and being concerned that there were no significant shops in Batheaston. Emily remembered feeling quite shocked at how vulnerable their village was to shortages of food.   
At this time Emily, Ali, Victoria, Alison,and Toby, Craig, Phil, Immi members of what is now Grow Batheaston’s steering group didn’t know each other well or most hadn’t even met. Over subsequent days and weeks, through a mix of chance conversations, informal village networks, pre-existing village groups with similar interests such as the Riverside Group, Transition Batheaston and Incredible Edible and some of the connections made through ‘Wine and Weed,’ a loose body of people formed who had similar concerns and longings.   “All looking for something – How can we make a better community’ Emily    Work within local networks to identify and  develop a body of committed people who have similar passions/values/concerns.  
Over the subsequent 3 months, the group organised themselves into a structure, with a chair, secretary and treasurer. They sorted out a bank account and together they agreed a shared purpose which would guide the group’s future direction. Strengthening Community, Encourage Biodiversity, Increase Food Security Members of the steering group were busy growing plants and a number of seedling swaps took place during this time. Victoria recalled how neighbours and friends in the village joined in with this, some of whom had never gardened or grown plants before. The steering group were both committed to the cause  and also brought a range of skills with them such as graphic design, organisation skills, permaculture and gardening expertise. They recognised the value of each other and shared out the work. Emily reflected that   “Things that would take months to do at work and cost lots of money, like developing a website, were done to a really high standard in just a week or two” Emily     Harness the skills and the passion of the whole team.  Share the work .  Continue to promote your activity through informal networks  
During this 3 month period as the group coalesced and Grow Batheaston took shape, there were lots of meetings which helped build connections within the group. These took place over zoom, or socially distanced in Victoria’s back garden. On occasion there would be disagreement within the steering group. Emily and Victoria reflected on how they managed that and the impact that some difficult conversations had on them.   “Define your aims. Know what you’re committed to and declare your interests. Get your terms of reference or constitution sorted out…that makes it a professional interaction, it takes out the personal element. This provides a place to stand…this is what we’re about and this is what we’re doing and what your suggesting/implying/taking action on is not consistent with that. That’s the conversation you need to have.” Emily   “I’ve learned a lot from it (disagreement) and actually having discourse is when you learn. And when you make…I don’t like to call them mistakes, but when the branch cracked a bit, do you repair it, or do you remove that limb, like when you’re pruning a tree and hope that something will grow back again…and that’s where I think a lot of groups can end up failing, because they get stuck in discourse. We’ve sat in the uncomfortableness of it and said ‘Right let’s try and work through it,’ but still be clear with our boundaries…As chair there are times when you just have to make a decision.” Victoria   Governance Ensure clear shared purpose.
Agree a decision making process.
Agree an organisation structure.
Work though disagreement together in an open way.  
More connections and networks were made. A group called Blooming Whiteway who were previously associated with Bath City Farm were approached by Grow Batheaston. This small local organisation subsequently donated free plants. The group promoted their work via a local news letter called Local Connection. They now have a regular slot in the magazine which is circulated to all the suburbs and surrounding villages in the eastern aspect of Bath. Members of the steering group also used their personal connections through work, friends and colleagues to build wider networks which has subsequently helped with plant donations and funding. The group have reached out to organisations such as the local council, but they have found that as word has spread, organisations have reached out to them. Phil, who works in permaculture asked some of his clients for funding, and he is so passionate, that people just gave him money. When asked ‘What has it taken to keep the project going’ the reply was   “Networks, networks, networks”          ‘Networks, networks, networks’  
Ali has completed a permaculture design course and more recently has completed a Forest Gardening course along with another Batheaston resident. Together they completed Forest Garden designs for 2 gardens. One designed for some untended parish council owned land next to a formal garden, and one for an area of privately owned lan d next to the local doctors surgery on the Elmhurst Estate, where Ali lives. Ali expressed some frustration at how long it was likely to take to get permission to use the parish council owned land and Victoria surmised that now was not the right time to negotiate with the doctors surgery. Despite these initial set backs, Grow Batheaston have been seeking alternatives to take their vision of developing forest gardening forwards.   Ali described her initial ideas for the Elmhurst estate where she lives   “ Initially I wanted the whole estate to be an edible landscape. Get rid of the grass and just have edible plants everywhere so that people can share herbs and veg and sort of teach people. But obviously I pared it back a bit, because some people like really neat gardens, so we just started with the fruit trees and the next step is the wild flower meadow…We started gorilla gardening…planted a load of fruit trees along our road. Got a slap across the wrist from BANES, but the rest of the estate is Curo (housing association) who own a lot of the land and are responsible for maintenance. We approached Curo and said we wanted to plant a load of fruit trees for the community. We planted about 40.” Ali   When asked how this was funded the reply was   “ Phil’s clients donated money. He’s just so passionate. And we made Christmas wreaths!”    Be inventive with sourcing funding and resources. Use local sources of funding. Share your passion.  
“We’ve hit a few dead ends – The Medical Centre and the playground’ Al   “A lot of land is unused. Develop microcommunity gardens throughout the village and then people are living next to them and taking ownership of them. Building up slowly feels a more sustainable thing to do.” Victoria   “Go where the energy is.” Emily     Over the last 6 months or so Ali, Toby and Emily who all live on the Elmhurst estate have negotiated with Curo. They have been in regular contact with them and have gained their trust. They believe that that they have done this through demonstrating commitment to maintaining the planting on the Elmhurst estate. They have influenced the individual they have been liaising with and she has raised environmental issues higher up Curo’s agenda. They also regularly engage and work with the maintenance staff and the local residents who they live with, to better understand their needs in relation to the planting and ongoing maintenance. As a consequence Curo are now supportive of their forest gardening and wild meadow planting and are open to contributing.Be flexible. If at first you don’t succeed try again. It’s ok to start small and build up gradually.      
It helps to work from within the community in which you live  
Consider finding a sympathetic local land owner to work with.  
  Keeping a project going beyond the initial enthusiasm and excitement can be a challenge. I wondered how Grow Batheaston envisaged taking their work forwards and sustaining it for the future.   ‘Tree planting…basically we’ve got friends on the estate. Phil said ‘Come and help us’ It was a horrendous day, it was torrential rain, but I said ‘No we’re doing it. We were sliding down the hill it was so wet’ Ali   “I think we’ve got to be really OK with events like that…you may not get the numbers, so don’t have your expectations like…loads of people will turn up, and if they don’t it’s a failure. I’m grateful, you know, we had a tree planting group the other day. There were 5 of us and we had such an enjoyable time that I know it will just grow and grow and grow.” Emily   One of the themes that came through in the conversation was ‘Meeting people where they were at.’ For example: not expecting local residents to be on the steering committee, but supporting them to do what they felt able and wanted to do to support the local community. The steering committee also embodied this, supporting each other and allowing people to step up or down their activitity depending on current personal circumstances. It felt as if they were kind to other people and to themselves.  Pay attention to your own well-being. Allow local residents to engage in the work in their own way.  
In response to a comment about engaging the school Victoria said   “We need an awareness of the demographic of the local population and to tailor activities to people with different needs, skills and availability…not everybody has children, engaging those who want to be engaged during the daytime.” Victoria   “Top tip ‘Good Gym’ cycle or run to the job and will do a couple of hours work. They’ve been a couple of times and now their texting me for more work!’ Ali    The local community may join the project gradually in their own time. Momentum builds gradually as local residents see the planting happening close to their homes by people who live amongst them.   Find out if you’ve got a Good Gym in your area  
What has been the impact of Grow Batheaston on Well-being?   “The true sense of community is what you get through being together through a really difficult time. I do believe that we, from a wellbeing point of view, have come through lots of stuff that’s been really hardfrom a wellbeing point of view we are supporting each other because we can say ‘We’ve got this going on in our own little circle’ but as a collective consciousness, what we’re doing, we’re really fighting the good fight and it’s really worth fighting. For me personally it has distracted a lot of things that I have to go through on a physical level and has brought me great joy.” Victoria   “I always wanted to feel like I lived in a community. I grew up in a village and there was a sense of community. Still the village politics, but I was part of the whole thing ‘It takes a village to grow a child.’ There’s a lovely piece by Johann Hari and his human connection piece…a lovely tale he told about Berlin. There were certain sections that were very deprived and places falling apart, and what a difference a community coming together did to enliven it and make it a lovely place to live. I think that being part of a community and feeling that connection with people is fundamental to who we are as human beings, its in our DNA from when we were tribes etc etc. and the pandemic heightened the anxiety and depression for individuals because we’re not feeling part of a community. But now I feel part of a community that wants to benefit each other.” Emily   “The good thing about planting trees and growing things and for people to interact in that way is wellbeing becomes less individualised and more collective wellbeing.” Victoria   “The big draw for me…the ‘Make the Change’ is about peoples connectivity with nature.’ Alison  The wellbeing impact of forest gardening is as much about the community coming together to develop and plant the garden as it is about the connection with nature.  
The people I met from Grow Batheaston came across as committed people driven by a cause greater than themselves. A desire to make where they live a better place. I finished off the interview by asked them ‘How does Grow Batheaston fit with your hopes for the world?   ‘Encouraging people to connect or reconnect with nature and the environment. You can solve all of life’s problems in a garden.’ Ali   “I think about it a lot because I’m always in this micro/macro constantly. I suppose with Grow Batheaston it’s made me very concentrated internally, but, doing the Cambridge Climate Conference last year with Carbon Copy and watching what Carbon Copy are doing with the phenominal way they are galvinising groups, and I can feel them marching up to Glasgow (COP26)  and if I could march up to Glasgow I would join them because I do think that’s so important.” Victoria  Harness people’s values and passions and enable them to live those through the way you develop a forest garden  
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.pngBIG MESSAGE: Starting a forest garden from within an already established or establishing community group is likely to be easier than starting from scratch. Linking the forest gardening initiative with other community activities and nature based projects helps to both get it off (or in) the ground and keep it going. It’s OK to start small and steadily build momentum as the project takes hold and grows roots within the local community.