Posted on

The Secret Garden – From an Engineers’ Canteen to an Enchanting Community Garden:

The Secret Garden, at the Chantry Centre, Dursley

How permaculture principles have been secretly in action over 21 seasons of progress

Transformational change

5 years ago I noticed a call-out from Transition Cam & Dursley in our local paper. They were seeking volunteers to help transform the space at the back of a local community venue, The Chantry Centre.

This week I visited and was taken aback by its transformation. As part of the team in the early days I know first-hand the effort that goes into bringing this kind of change about – as much about socialising and steering as it is about spades and secateurs.

It is truly beautiful to see this community space alive again, attracting people and wildlife.

Living heritage

The site has a cherished place in local history as it was previously the social centre for Lister Petter (a long-time dominant local employer with worldwide influence, making engines and parts for everything from lawnmowers to ships).

The garden space was once the site of Lister’s canteen so would see 5,000 blue- and white-collar workers passing through on a daily basis. All that remains of this now is a 15m x 30m concrete plinth – a challenge to accommodate in any garden!

Welcome to the Garden, the entrance in 2014
Welcome to the Garden, the entrance in 2014

Inspiring vision

It was easy to get captivated by the project on seeing the mid-century photographs of garden parties on the flower-lined lawn, weddings celebrated in the gardens and tantalising evidence of the Edwardian pavilion-style veranda left intact above the suspended ceiling tiles of the main hall. Here was a chance to bring that thriving atmosphere back to the community and the aspirations of the team were to take a permaculture approach, establishing a sustainable garden and making use of what’s on site (so yes, that concrete plinth was staying).

#6Produce no waste.

The concrete plinth
The concrete plinth
Garden working day March 2014
Garden working day March 2014

First tasks for the 30+ strong team of gardeners, venture scouts, families and willing supporters that assembled on the advertised volunteering day were bramble clearance and shifting years of accumulated rubble and discarded items from various phases of building refurbishment. A careful process of sorting and segregating meant the ‘spoil heap’ took most of the rest of the year to clear during weekly volunteering days.

Clearing the spoil heap with the help of the Dursley Training Group
Clearing the spoil heap with the help of the Dursley Training Group, regular Wednesday visitors

While expediency has sometimes trumped permaculture principles in order to get traction in the garden, the fundamentals of permaculture are still threaded through in the design with #4 Self-regulate; accept feedback and modify being essential to progress.

New from old

Consultation at community open days
Consultation at community open days – ‘what would you like to see here?’

Having used community open days to consult on what people would like to see in the garden, plans were sketched and the creative process began of sourcing materials. Discarded palettes and tyres were the first brought-in items onto site. #9 Use small, slow solutions

Making palette furniture
Making palette furniture
Tyre planters still going strong
Tyre planters still going strong

Next came sculpting the new features, including much-desired rill and pond, making use of the vast amount of water that can be collected from the sprawling Chantry Centre roof #2 Catch and store energy

The rill runs hidden among herbs on the bank. There’s a focus on healing herbs including borage, everning primrose, calendula, sages, mints and a ginko tree.

The herb area is a peaceful place to sit
The herb area is a peaceful place to sit

The rill drops down into the pool with overhanging dierama (angel fishing rod) and clusters of daisies, scabious and alchemilla. On most visits you can see a frog or two crouching among the weeds, if you look very carefully.

Other great windfalls of donations include a set of telegraph poles as the framework for a gathering area/performance space and sturdy wooden cases donated from a local engineering firm which provide ample deep planting boxes for veg – currently bursting with leeks, various beans, lettuces, asparagus and great purple cabbages.

Plus two greenhouses (now in constant use by the Chantry Centre Community Garden Group (CCCGG) and Dursley in Bloom) #8 Integrate and even an entire kitchen which has transformed the facilities available to gardeners and others inside the Chantry Centre building.

Growing spaces

Growing spaces

 A little help from our friends

Grants and local fundraising (kickstarted by a Stroud District Food Grant applied for jointly by Transition Cam & Dursley and World Jungle, who brought in much needed financial and marketing experience) have enabled purchases of tools, heritage fruit trees (all local Gloucestershire varieties including the Blakeney Red, Cannock, Jenkins Red and Bird Pear varieties of pear trees and Dymock Red, Smiths Pruin, Shit Smock and Baisdon Read plums), a polytunnel and a good size garden shed that provides a space to make a cuppa and shelter if required.

Plum trees and roses thriving beyond the poppies
Plum trees and roses thriving beyond the poppies

Establishing new things has its way of attracting some unwanted attention and the garden has seen its share of vandalism. People-inflicted damage has been far more upsetting than the various sufferings brought about by the elements. Building the garden has involved a great deal of learning, repairing and moving on. It feels a more robust space now it is maturing.

A garden room

The transformed garden is an improved resource for the Chantry Centre, a contained outdoor space for gatherings and events. It benefits by being surrounded by an old brick wall that both outlines and supports the garden #11 Use edges. Fruit trees are trained along it in parts while elsewhere it provides a back to the palette composting system installed. The compost area has moved several times as the team adjust to patterns of work and garden design requirements. #1 Observe and interact.


Year 1 photo of the garden wall - where once was ivy, now apples are trained
Year 1 photo of the garden wall – where once was ivy, now apples are trained

The key elements of the garden are the original flower border, now revived and replenished; the bank with rill, pond and herbs; the main lawn; the concrete and the various raised growing spaces upon it; and the wilder areas accommodating fruit trees, a rose arch and a good supply of nettles. There is thoughtfulness and creativity in the planting. Take, for example, the dangerous wobbly slabs on one side of the steps – instead of restricting access with hazard tape, they have been planted with herbs which just as clearly direct you to walk down the other side of the steps. #7 Design from Pattern to Detail

Step in thyme
Step in thyme

Pause and celebrate

Taking time to mark occasions, pause and enjoy the garden has been an important part of keeping the team going. The various celebratory events are a good opportunity to bring in new people and build greater awareness of the garden and its potential.

Special events include seasonal plant sales (with bargains galore) and the culmination of the harvest year at AppleFest when the antique press is set up and all are invited to bring their apples and leave with freshly made fruit juice. Many adhoc activities through the year also provide plenty of excuses for firing up the pizza oven and practicing a bit of campfire cooking.

Standard garden days are Wednesday and Saturday mornings (10am – 12 noon) – turn up then and you’ll happily be found a job to do, but you’re also free to sit and enjoy a chat among the tranquil scenery.

There are two big events coming up over the summer that provide a perfect opportunity to come and see the garden in its glorious summer colour:

  • On Saturday 13thJuly the garden will be open as part of the Dursley Festival. The pizza oven will be going plus various stalls, including local produce and plants. The telegraph pole circle should have newly installed sails in place – come along and be among the first people to enjoy their shelter.
  • Then on Saturday 31stAugust the true talents of Cam & Dursley are revealed and honoured at the annual Flower and Produce Show. The show was revived 3 years ago as a celebration of local produce. To enter see the details on the Chantry Centre website – there are lots of categories to inspire you.

A happy chance discovery unearthed the original cups and awards that were presented at the Lister Flower and Produce show for many successive years last century. They’re now back in place, performing their original role with pride.  #5 Use and value renewables.

Dursley Flower and Produce Show at the Chantry Centre, 2018
Dursley Flower and Produce Show at the Chantry Centre, 2018

All welcome

There’s always been an open door to community groups and local individuals at the garden. #10 Use and value diversity. It’s wonderful when someone new pops their head round the gate just to find out what’s going on; mini-miracles happen when a garden day attracts a throng of volunteers; and the place couldn’t keep going without the regular core tribe who turn up weekly to sow, plant, cut back and harvest and the devotees who make a daily round of watering. They’ve been glad too through the years for the regular support of BBC Radio Gloucestershire and the Dursley Gazette who come to check out the garden and report on progress.

As ever, the garden is evolving. New plans are afoot to accommodate the local Dursley Operatic and Drama Society, giving them a permanent home. This will change the garden with a new building and require adaptation that is challenging the garden team to renew plans and layouts #12 Creatively use and respond to change

Talk to the gardening team and they’ll tell you just how much there is still to be done: a garden is a constant cycle, and their vision ambitious. I’d say this is a fine time to take stock and reflect. As they fling open the gates to welcome people in, they should proudly accept admiration as readily as they’d accept more helping hands.

Permaculture Principles,
Permaculture Principles,

July 2019

4 thoughts on “The Secret Garden – From an Engineers’ Canteen to an Enchanting Community Garden:

  1. Hi Laura I am a newer recruit to the garden and it is great to see your old photos and realise just how much has been done. This garden is a fabulous place to be and I’m hoping the more people who hear about it the more they will come to enjoy, praise and help, but only if they feel like it.

    Lots of activities go on in the Chantry Centre and thousands pass through it every year. It is nice to know that there is a pleasant view to look at even in winter, and a lovely garden to explore and enjoy for all.

    1. I think you’re doing brilliant work there. It’s a wonderful place to be, or to look out at, any season. Indeed, the more who can enjoy it, the better.

  2. This is good, I love reading it… thanks for the unusual and great write

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.