It’s a cloudy early autumn morning as the Thrive team get a squirt of hand sanitiser before climbing aboard the minibus heading to The Vyne.
After a sedate 15-minute drive through country lanes, hamlets and villages, we arrive at our destination, a magnificent estate with a grand 16th century house at its heart.
But it’s not the house the group is interested in, as they make a beeline for the rear of the walled garden. Bags and coats are deposited in an adjoining storage building and after everyone is settled, the party head for the garden through a camouflaged gate.
The Vyne boasts a Grade 2-listed walled garden that dates from the 18th century and it’s impossible to escape the sense of history within its high red-brick walls.
There are many reasons why this is a special place, but one is that it plays an important role in helping the wellbeing of client gardeners and visitors alike.
‘I’m so glad to be back,’ says client gardener Richie as he familiarises himself again with garden. ‘It makes me so happy to be here.’
The group of four client gardeners, led by horticultural therapy practitioner Vicki and support volunteer Tim, go on a tour of the vegetable beds and are soon discussing what works needs doing and who fancies doing this or that.
With tasks allocated, it’s back to the storage room to pick up equipment.
Client gardener Thomas collects a basket and is soon busy picking end-of-season runner beans, which are still in plentiful supply.
When that’s done, he gets a pair of edging shears and gives the grass surrounding the beds and borders the equivalent of a short back and sides. It’s a job that brings instant results and makes things look smarter, befitting the surroundings.
Richie sets to work on a rhubarb bed that needs some TLC and a wheelbarrow is quickly half filled with the plant’s yellowing and dying leaves.
Nearby Tim has his work cut out tackling a herb bed that is congested and spilling over but soon settles into his stride. Why does he like it here?
‘It’s slightly different here from Trunkwell (Thrive’s gardens at Beech Hill) and you interact with the public who are always friendly, there’s lots of compliments.’
Across the pathway which acts as the main thoroughfare for visitors, client gardener Ann * is getting a good workout using a pair of shears to tackle long grass around a bed.
She takes a breather to talk: ‘I like coming to Thrive for the fresh air and exercise. It makes me feel good,’ she says.
Opposite, Rosie is working on a long bed that’s been cleared of crops, but weeds have moved in. Rosie confirms to Vicki that she likes weeding which is clear from the methodical way she is for digging them up with a hand fork.
It’s not all work though. There’s chat with Vicki about pumpkins, Hallowe'en, holidays and plans to meet up with a friend.
Such interactions underlie the nature of what Thrive offers – Social and Therapeutic Horticulture. Bringing people together in a garden is important for developing social and communication skills and confidence in a social setting, as well as physical and mental health.
That’s another reason why The Vyne is such a valuable place because it gives clients opportunities to interact with visitors, plus there’s the self-esteem boost they receive from seeing crops they have produced being bought and valued by them.
Is it lunch?
Thomas wanders over to Vicki and asks if it’s lunchtime. It is. The morning has gone faster than Haribo at a children’s party and everyone heads back to the storage room where the kettle is put on.
An ice cooler is opened, packed lunches are distributed and soon everyone is eating and discussing how the morning went. The atmosphere is very relaxed, like the group have never really been away from the garden.
After lunch, the sun comes out and the garden feels like it has been transported back two months.
Tightly packed beds of dwarf sunflowers, backed by a purple haze of verbena bonariensis, catch the eye and warm the heart.
The sun seems to attract more visitors to the garden, with some sitting on benches to take it all in and relax, while others stop to chat with the Thrive group.
In between the conversations, Ann is raking, Thomas is looking for more beans and everyone else is tidying beds.
By mid-afternoon, it’s time to pack up tools and prepare to leave but not before everyone has a chance to recount what they’ve done and reflect on their day.
Everybody agrees they have had a good day and Richie sums up what all the group are probably thinking: ‘I’m looking forward to coming back.’
* Name changed to protect identity