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> > > Grace Eyre's disabled-friendly Sussex Beacon Open Garden in Hove
photo of a garden box with a label that reads 'garden group' on the side of it

Photo: Sheila McWattie

DAO has been publishing a profile of work by Grace Eyre members since summer 2012. Sheila McWattie reports on Grace Eyre members' participation in a vibrant community gardens scheme across Brighton & Hove in partnership with The Sussex Beacon, due to open to the public from 29-30 June 2013

“Watering makes me happy,” Georgie tells me, calmly moving the large spray across startlingly blue ceonothus and burgeoning celery. What is her favourite plant in Grace Eyre’s disabled-friendly garden? Long pause. “Well, I don’t really have one. I just treat them all the same.” Her clarity leaves me in no doubt that bees, butterflies and earthworms will be welcomed with similar respect at this Hove-based community space.

Long-term gardener and Grace Eyre member Lara particularly enjoys holding large garden bags open to collect the rubbish, while Rosemary, who’s been attending for four years, cleans and tidies this long, narrow abundant space, framed by colourful raised beds, that is soon to become the organisation’s contribution to The Sussex Beacon’s Open Gardens weekend across Brighton & Hove for the first time.

This new partnership represents positive growth for both community-based charities. The Sussex Beacon has been running for 21 years and focuses on meeting the needs of men and women affected by HIV, while Grace Eyre, a century old this year, aims to provide an accessible space and activities for people with learning difficulties in a converted church on a corner of Old Shoreham Road. The Sussex Beacon has been running its Open Gardens scheme with more than 70 gardens for 17 years. Each one is different, and for Grace Eyre’s gardening group co-ordinator Emma Willcocks, it’s a chance to bring the people on the outside in. There’s lots of work still to do to prepare for the big weekend, and in the limited time available Emma is busy delegating tasks.

“People chuck all sorts of things into our garden, like plastic bottles and cigarette ends. But it doesn’t matter, because we make sure it’s always looking lovely,” explains Lara, who’s wearing celebrity sunglasses for her Monday afternoon gardening group on this unusually warm Hove day. She’s glad of the opportunity to dress up: “I love colours. That’s why I make my own bracelets and necklaces. I like the colours of our plants, too. No, I don’t have a favourite one either.”

Photo: Sheila McWattie

Rosemary shows me yellow irises further down the long path as tall Josh sweeps the paved area around the wheelchair-accessible picnic bench holding a large green box bursting with tools. Over at the corner, beside a newly donated bench, Emma explains to Gerda, one of today’s relief workers, that Georgie has become expert at using secateurs for pruning. After six years of running this gardening group, Emma is happy that Grace Eyre’s Open Gardens partnership with The Sussex Beacon is now taking shape: “It’s a chance for us to show off our garden to the public who pass it on a daily basis on the outside of the fence, and invite them in to share our garden; it’s an opportunity for us to build links with the local community and promote our organisation which supports a diverse group of people, and for the local community to get to know us.”

Safety is paramount for everyone, so with lots of sharp tools available, members are encouraged to follow health & safety rules – “Josh – please be careful with that broom handle. Can you lower it a bit? Thanks” – and provided with a high staff ratio at the weekly gardening and allotment groups. Relief support worker Gerda finds out what she’ll be doing when she turns up for her  shift at Grace Eyre’s buzzing community space – a vibrant café decorated with mosaics, canvas bags and other artwork specially created for the recent Brighton Festival’s Artists’ Open Houses scheme. It’s all about flexibility here, so Gerda’s day could involve anything from supporting an individual to work on a film project, to ensuring that the four current members of the gardening group get the most out of their two hours on a Monday afternoon.

“Members tend to stay a while in that group. People like engaging with each other and the plants. Soon they’ll be engaging with the public too, when we’re part of the Open Gardens scheme,” explains manager David Matthews.

“And in the art groups we’re increasingly encouraging artists to sell their work – to make a product that is marketable. It’s a great way of building confidence and supports Grace Eyre by returning 30% of the sale price to the organisation to contribute towards the running of the exhibitions, whilst bringing recognition and an income to the artists for their work.”

Each group has a 16-week schedule; if spaces are available, participants can choose to continue their course or choose something new. A kaleidoscope of artwork, movement, conversation and a comprehensive list of groups greets visitors at the modern self-opening doors – an immediate sign of the extent of activity, positive action and advocacy undertaken in this social, educational and entertainment space – including an upstairs theatre – with service users of all ages from 18 upwards.

“Our oldest is over 90,” says David. “Younger people here tend to be more vocal, with different expectations. We aim to offer an inclusive space for all and people can self-refer. We try to strike the balance between our duty of care and encouraging positive risk taking. Our Travel Training group is a good example: most people need to have the confidence to venture out independently or travel if they want to get a job, so we offer support to learn routes and recognise the characteristics of safe strangers. The gardening group is a great place for people to bond and have regular social interaction, and of course working with the plants and keeping the area pleasant for our other service users to go and sit or enjoy lunch or a cup of tea outside is a fantastic contribution to the quality of all our service users’ lives.”

moscaic of a brightly coloured butterfly within an arc

Photo: Sheila McWattie

Open Gardens project manager Cath Mattos says: “The Sussex Beacon is a Brighton-based clinical care centre for men and women affected by HIV. It has a 10-bed inpatient unit as well as outpatient services such as anxiety management, sleep and day services and a women and families service.

“The Grace Eyre garden is one of several wheelchair-friendly gardens that are open over the weekend of 29-30 June 2013. Partnering with the gardeners of Grace Eyre is really important to us as it offers wider community inclusion, along with the chance to highlight each other’s work and raise funds – all while visitors enjoy the fabulous range of gardens and even tea and cake at the many garden venues.”

The Sussex Beacon Open Gardens 2013: Sat 29 – Sun 30 June, 11am – 5pm. Weekend tickets £10 in advance or £12 on the day. Children under 12 go FREE.

Find details of open gardens and buy tickets at
or from Sussex Beacon shops (London Road or St James’s St, Brighton.
Funded by Awards 4 All - DAO has published a tranche of work by Grace Eyre members on our creative writing pages, in our gallery pages and in a DAO blog