In Pontllanfraith, Caerphilly, a community of volunteers has transformed three acres of neglected and overgrown farmland into a thriving horticultural site.
Groundwork Wales’ Routes 2 Life programme, part-funded by Caerphilly County Borough Council, is not only restoring biodiversity to this previously undermanaged site, but also giving adults and young people an opportunity to develop practical horticultural countryside skills, including hedging, strimming, fencing, gardening, pruning, and growing fruit and vegetables.
When we took over the site in 2014, the only things growing were weeds and blackthorn. This is quite a built-up, post-industrial area, surrounded by main roads and houses, so pollution levels are quite high. There was a need to reinvigorate the biodiversity of the area and enhance this important green space. Today, it is a little oasis.
Many of the volunteers working on site have experienced poor mental health or are socially isolated, so benefit from being outdoors and meeting new people. The project also offers them an opportunity to learn about biodiversity and countryside management, with some gaining Agored Cymru qualifications.
All the food grown on site is gathered and shared. Not only does growing food help volunteers reduce their grocery bills, but while they’re on site they are reducing their energy bills, which has been a source of concern for many as prices rise. We have plans to plant a mini-orchard and a pumpkin patch in 2022. If they grow well, we will invite the community in to pick the pumpkins ahead of Halloween.
Several ‘lead volunteers’ who have worked on site for a while use their specialist knowledge and skills to mentor other volunteers and young participants. The lead volunteers include a carpenter who helps us run any building activities, a former garden centre owner and qualified horticultural specialist, and another who is well educated in horticulture and countryside management.
Local school pupils are given the chance to learn from the land and understand greener ways of living. Some pupils come to our programme for several weeks to achieve their Duke of Edinburgh Award, or to meet Welsh Baccalaureate requirements, while others visit on school trips as teachers seek to incorporate more outdoor learning activities to meet the new Welsh curriculum’s six areas of learning and experience, including humanities. Increasing knowledge of nature and an empathy for the environment through outdoor activities is key to pupils becoming ethical citizens.
It’s important to consider how your existing skills and experience can benefit programme participants. When I began working on the programme four years ago, I brought the knowledge and experience I’d gained from time spent at allotments and years working on other Groundwork initiatives. I had created areas of horticulture in communities and schools previously and developed outdoor classrooms - skills and experiences that have helped shape Routes 2 Life.
The greatest resource has been the volunteers though, who lend their time, support and expertise week after week. Some have expertise in conservation, horticulture, biodiversity and carpentry, and are great mentors and sources of information for other volunteers.
They may be signposted to us from local third sector organisations or join us after seeing a post about Routes 2 Life on social media, particularly our Facebook page. Others are referred to us from the NHS after experiencing poor mental health.
While we cannot open the site to the public full-time because some of our volunteers are vulnerable, we recommend finding ways to welcome the community in and to demonstrate what is happening on site. Pre-pandemic, we would organise public open days where we would also sell some plants, as well as vegetables and fruit, for a low price. Any money raised went back into the project to buy new seeds or compost.
We also collaborate with Food Sense Wales, an organisation working with communities, organisations, policymakers, and governments across Wales to create a food and farming system that is good for people and good for the planet. We have monthly meetings where we share updates and bounce ideas off other organisations, which is invaluable.
There have been challenges during this project, one being the pandemics impact. We had reached a point where the site was as we wanted, and then Covid-19 forced us to shut down.
Most of our volunteers were vulnerable and already socially isolated, so we were particularly concerned about how the lockdown would affect them. In a bid to maintain communication and enthusiasm for the project, we provided seeds and other equipment needed to grow vegetables and herbs at home. It gave them something to focus on. As some people did not have gardens, and many live in flats, we showed them how to make edible hanging baskets or a herbs window box. We used a WhatsApp group to communicate and would call those without access to the app regularly to check on them and their growing projects.
Another common challenge we encounter when creating or caring for green spaces, particularly in schools, is watering. On sites such as ours, access to water can be difficult, as can ensuring someone is available to water plants during weekends and holiday periods – particularly during the hottest summer months when schools are closed. We would urge anyone working on a project like this to think about how they will navigate those challenges from the start.