The beautiful, uplifting community gardens of Meersbrook

'People have really appreciated having something like this in lockdown'

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Our first Tribune ‘weekend read’ is about a flourishing movement of community gardening in south Sheffield, and what happens when a good idea takes off among neighbours and friends.

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It all started with a verge, a path and a patch of grass.

The Meersbrook branch of B&M Bargains isn’t the obvious site for the start of an environmental movement, but thanks to the efforts of one Sheffield community that’s exactly what has happened.

More than a quarter of a century ago, a small community garden on a tiny patch of wasteland off Chesterfield Road became one of the first much-loved gardens in this south Sheffield neighbourhood.

It was set up in 1995 after the space was given to a worker at Gresham’s timber yard. A brightly-coloured mural, painted by children from Carfield Primary School, proudly declares that Anne’s Community Garden will be ‘cherished always’. But its future wasn’t always so secure.

Gresham’s later became B&M and during the redevelopment the garden was torn up to make way for retail units. But not before volunteers could take samples from all the plants so they could be meticulously replanted after the building work had completed.

Looking at the site today, it’s ‘guerrilla gardening’ at its most basic: little more than a lost space which has been lovingly — if haphazardly — reclaimed from the relentless march of development. It’s a message drawn into the earth, telling people that there’s more to life than value shopping.

Anne’s Community Garden is now just one of 11 in Meersbrook, all with their own history and all of which perform different but equally important roles in their neighbourhoods. Despite their variations in scale and purpose, common threads run through all of them.

All are run by and for their local communities, often by people who live in the houses just a stone’s throw away. Many are on the sites of former dumping grounds, areas of land that were forgotten and unloved until local people intervened. Many have also been inspired by each other, with one garden helping another get off the ground, which then in turn spurs a third: the seed of the community garden floating from street to street, as if on the wind.

73-year-old retiree Judy Stewart helps to look after Anne’s Community Garden, and has also recently taken on the responsibility of connecting all the sites together with a walking map. She says all the sites are unique and perform distinct roles in their communities. “Some are more for children while others are used as a space for the neighbourhood to get together,” she says. “The idea is to link us all up into one entity but also to put us on the map so others can get enjoyment from them.”

Judy herself lives on Argyle Road, which is joined to Upper Valley Road by an as yet unnamed garden featuring mosaics designed by local children and decorated trees. It is often used as a thoroughfare by families on their way to Carfield Primary School. On a chilly and grey March day it has an austere beauty, its trees and plants slowly emerging from their long winter hibernation into the glorious riot of colour of the spring and summer to come.

Just yards down the hill, Kent Road Community Garden has been built on the site of a house that was bombed in the Sheffield blitz. The tiny ‘pocket pond’ next door even has its own Instagram page. Anne’s Community Garden celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, and interest in the idea has peaked in the past year as the lockdowns intensified people’s relationships with their local areas.

Brooklyn Road Community Garden was set up by early years practitioner Sally Faulkes last summer on a site formerly known in the neighbourhood as ‘poo corner’. Up until last year the patch was more likely to attract fly-tipping than visitors, but has now been transformed into a children’s paradise complete with glass ‘pools’, dozens of magical creatures and even a tree sloth.

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Sally says she and her partner Tim only started to take more of an interest in the garden after they were furloughed last year, but that it has taken on ‘a life of its own’. “Initially I just put some fairy doors on one of the trees but before I knew it was just full of families,” she says. “I just think people have really appreciated having something like this in lockdown and we’ve got some momentum behind us now.”

By far the grandest site of the 11 is Meersbrook Walled Garden. The former fruit, vegetable and flower garden for the 18th century Meersbrook Hall, it was acquired under license from the council after a public campaign in 1999. Ever since it has been tended to by a man everyone knows as ‘Kaktus’ — real name Richard Leach — and his team of around 20 volunteer gardeners who have developed it from little more than a dumping ground for the council into an award-winning community space.

More than 2,000 species of plants can be found inside, as well as a traditional Japanese garden and a 30 metre tall Chinese Sequoia. But despite its grandeur and popularity — up to 900 people can turn up at the regular events they hold in non-Covid times — Kaktus says they don’t think of themselves as any more important than the others.

“All the sites have different purposes and we are happy to support any garden in the area,” he says. “We are open to the public but we are about getting people involved with creating gardens as well. If anyone wants some help to set up a small plot then we are all for it.”

Along with the Walled Garden and Anne’s, Woodbank Crescent’s community garden is one of the longest-standing sites in the area. Built on the site of an old house which blew down in the great Sheffield hurricane of 1963, the plot lay derelict for decades before residents secured a £10,000 loan to turn it into a community asset. Sheffield Wildlife Trust designed the garden and it’s been under the care of local man John McMillan and his partner Ruth, with help from residents including BBC Radio Sheffield reporter Andy Kershaw, who lives opposite.

With John about to leave the area, Andy is currently trying to corral a team of residents to keep it going after he has gone, with the overgrown Sheaf Valley viewing platform and its badly rotted bench next on the list for intervention. Andy says that the garden has really come into its own over the last 12 months as a way for people to escape the unremitting isolation of the pandemic. “During coronavirus it’s allowed people to share skills, equipment and their passion for gardening,” he says. “But it’s a wonderful little space where people can get together for picnics or barbecues.”

“I remember my kids playing around in it in the 1980s when we moved here but it was dangerous back then,” says Fred Cooper, another Woodbank Crescent resident. “But under normal circumstances now you can have parties in it. It’s been a great idea.”

When Judy finishes her map, these seven gardens will be joined up with Heeley People’s Park and community gardens at Heeley Green, Harley Street and Alexandra Road. All are unashamedly altruistic, a virtue that has resonated with residents in the tightly-packed streets of Meersbrook and nearby Heeley.

The area has what one resident describes to me as a healthy contingent of ‘active citizens’. As if to prove the stereotype, as we walk through Meersbrook Park on the way home, multiple people stop to speak to Judy, all connected to her by one group or another from community gardens and choirs to litter picking parties and even a grassroots Covid-19 contact tracing group set up at the beginning of the pandemic.

For some residents, the community gardens have political significance as evidence of the power of people working collectively, situated in the rich traditions of South Yorkshire socialism. For others, this is a rewarding pastime that gives them a sense of purpose and pride in the community. Whatever the reasons behind Meersbrook’s flourishing garden movement, it’s clear the community’s collective altruism benefits everyone. 

“No one has to pay for anything except with their own effort but the gardens give everybody pleasure,” says Judy. “People stop and say thank you for lifting my spirits. We get the sense that we make people happy.”


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