Charlotte's Garden at Barton Blount - an ambitious new project which hopes to transform lives
PUBLISHED: 14:02 10 January 2017 | UPDATED: 14:02 10 January 2017
Penelope Baddeley visits Francine Salisbury who is developing land adjoining her South Derbyshire home to aid the community
It’s a beautiful autumnal day with a low sun bestowing a beneficent warm light across the gently undulating fields and unspoilt countryside of South Derbyshire.
There’s a long approach road, where the only traffic is a plethora of pheasants, before a drive opens out onto acres of soft green parkland scattered with sheep and there revealed is Barton Blount – every inch the quintessential country house, framed magnificently with ancient English trees.
Inside the stunning Grade II listed property, which was largely re-built in the 18th century, I find its owner Francine Salisbury, aged 59, who seems particularly petite against the backdrop and grandeur of the generously proportioned, high ceilinged reception room.
Francine has lived at the nine bed-roomed classical period property, which lies close to Church Broughton, for almost four years with her husband Justin, who owns a world-leading marine engineering business, Cathelco, based in Chesterfield.
It was Justin who ‘fell in love’ with the house, which has a history so rich and evocative that Francine has created a little museum of interesting objects and finds on the first floor.
But Francine’s attention is currently directed outdoors, in an area far beyond the house, to a large walled garden, lately the focus of intense creative energy and activity. This 1.6 acre site has recently been acquired by the Salisburys and transformed from an overgrown jungle of thistles and weeds to a bare but neatly laid out area ready to be planted up, like a stage on which the actors are yet to appear.
This is ‘Charlotte’s Garden’, the central arena for a new ambitious project which Francine hopes will transform lives.
‘It has been named in memory of my cousin Charlotte who suffered from depression all of her life and killed herself. We have also had a friend whose son committed suicide and I felt that something had to be done to help others with mental health issues.’
In tandem with friend and horticulturalist Claire Teeling, who lives in a cottage near the medieval St Chad’s Church situated on the estate, Francine plans to create an oasis of peace and tranquillity which can be accessed by groups who have problems ranging from mental illnesses to eating disorders.
‘It’s almost like a secret garden and we are bringing it back to life. Our aim is to bring people together in a group, so they can talk and do gardening in the fresh air. We are desperate to get Monty Don as our patron!’
Satellite activities spinning off from the gardening, such as cooking using fresh produce and craft activities, are also planned and will be held in the spacious two storey brick-built Engine House, which was originally built to supply energy to the main house but has now been fitted with Francine’s old kitchen and kitted out with the contents from a former café; its country style tables and chairs.
The project was born two years ago after Francine met Claire and ‘over a glass of wine’ realised they were both passionate about gardening and promoting mental well-being.
Francine added: ‘It was also having this house, the beautiful set-up, the woods and the thought that we can’t have all this and do nothing with it. You have to try and bring a bit of joy to others.
‘We can’t just grow cabbages. We have been fortunate in life and we have to give back.’
For Francine, ‘Charlotte’s Garden’ is a philanthropic project, supported by her group of friends: Lesley Machin, Sue Duffin, Sandra Rooney and Mary Amott who together with Claire make up ‘Barton Fundraising’.
Over past years the female fundraisers have staged events at Barton Blount ranging from ladies’ lunches to a carol service at St Chad’s and have given proceeds to cancer organisations and an osteoporosis charity. But latterly they have donated to ‘Charlotte’s Garden’, buying items such as topsoil from a football pitch that was being AstroTurfed.
‘It’s fantastic quality topsoil!’ said Fran, who is happiest in a pair of gardening gloves and wellies, with Millie her English bull terrier at her heels.
For social entrepreneur partner Claire, the project will offer a chance to use her horticultural degree. She plans to offer horticulture classes, achieve educational outcomes for the users and with Francine’s help, collate information to support their firm conviction that working outdoors can alleviate anxiety and depression. ‘We have to build a reputation, gather data and make our argument,’ said Claire. ‘People need to understand the importance of plants and garden space for their own health benefits as well as for the natural environment.’
They will target groups which fall through gaps in provision – mainly adult education for those with learning difficulties and adults with mental health issues.
‘Anxiety and depression are so prevalent but so invisible,’ said Claire.
Claire, who has a PhD in plant genetic resources conservation and works part-time at the University of Birmingham, has set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) – named ‘Branching Out at Barton’ and aims to add to the body of knowledge proving the value of gardening to promote mental well-being. This will, she hopes, encourage health care commissioners who hold the purse strings to recognise the value of her work and pay for it.
‘We want to measure the social return on investment. It’s not easy to quantify but I’m hoping to write about it.’
Other income may come from the sale of produce and crafts made in workshops by users of ‘Charlotte’s Garden’.
‘I want to make the CIC a self-sustaining business,’ she explained.
The dream of creating ‘Charlotte’s Garden’ became a reality in spring 2016 when the Salisburys managed to buy the land, which was adjoining their large estate.
Test groups have already visited the garden but today is special as one of Francine’s group is visiting officially for the first time. The women each plan to have their own groups visiting on a weekly basis. It’s Francine’s turn and she’s brought in a group of ten men and women from Bank House in Swadlincote, which is a Drop In centre funded by South Derbyshire Mental Health trust and the local Primary Care Trust to support people with learning disabilities and severe mental health issues.
Francine will host the group for the day, providing them with activities, hot drinks and a home-cooked lunch.
She’s recently had a hip operation and is confined to crutches and a mobility buggy. She zooms down the pathways and across the gardens, with a basket loaded with gardening trowels donated by Sheffield company Burgeon and Ball. We take a path down a lime walk underplanted with rhododendrons towards the walled garden. The autumn leaves line the path. The light is mellow. Crows caw overhead.
The group is already assembled with three supervisors from Bank House in the walled garden, the exterior walls of which are resplendent with espaliered fruit trees, still heavy with apples. Inside the garden, three borders close to walls have been seeded with wild flowers. Francine is joyful. She checks out the height of the empty raised beds, to see they are level in height with her buggy and suitable for use by disabled groups.
‘Places like this are so important in life,’ she says. ‘We all need to get out. I feel massively lucky. I’m temporarily disabled but imagine someone like this all the time, stuck in a tiny flat, that’s how a lot of people have to live.’
Hundreds of narcissi bulbs are laid out in groups of ten round the borders of the raised beds ready for planting in groups. The visitors take on the maths puzzle of dividing the bulbs equally between beds, they chuckle and chat and pick up their trowels, working in the thin sunshine.
‘It’s a form of eco-therapy,’ says Lynn Pickering who works for Derbyshire Council and supervises at Bank House. ‘I used to work at the walled garden at Calke Abbey as part of my agriculture degree. We’re aiming for nothing less than National Trust standard here,’ she laughed.
In preparation for these first groups of visitors the garden was topped and cleared of thistles. Pathways were put in, formed from compacted aggregate and their borders neatly shuttered with wooden planking. Four large-scale square planting areas were created and each inset at the edges with a raised bed. Eventually colourful flowers such as dahlia will be planted in one large area, and vegetables such as broad beans, early potatoes, leeks, artichokes and squash will take root in another.
Bank House user Antony Hand has already designed a V-shaped planting scheme for a lavender bed and a box hedge planting scheme featuring a large circle with initials BH in hedging – representing the developing links between Barton Hall and Bank House. ‘I’m having these framed,’ says Francine proudly.
Beyond formal rose gardens, a box parterre, arched wisteria walkways and gravel paths edged with bay trees, there are greenhouses and holding beds housing hydrangea and standard roses, strawberry plants and herbaceous plants which will eventually be grown in the walled garden, planted and tended by the visiting groups. An order has already been placed for bare rooted box hedging plants, inspired by Antony.
The new garden still looks bare and barren but it’s already the fruition of a vision for Francine and Claire.
‘It’s just so exciting to see people happy here and see them getting into it,’ Francine says. ‘This is massively important to me. It’s my life and my world now.’
‘It’s brilliant, exactly what we dreamed of,’ adds Claire. ‘This provides an opportunity for people suffering from depression, anxiety and isolation, to be social and enjoy the fresh air, to be present in the moment and to remove themselves mentally from a bad place into where we are now; a good place.’
Lunch in the Engine House is cheerful beneath the exposed timber roof beams hung with colourful cloth bunting.
Antony, aged 38, the author of the garden plans, who suffers from unspecified mental health problems, reflects: ‘There’s a sense of comradeship here because we have been working as a team. It’s great to be out in the open getting fresh air, de-stressing and helping make a garden beautiful for everyone to see.’
Francine’s head is full of plans to develop her project. She aims to hold workshops for visitors in the future, in the Engine Room. A keen botanist, she hopes to lead sessions making wax flowers and has been collecting bits of wool shed from the sheep which graze on her land, for another art project.
Empty garages close to the Engine Room are to be developed as workshops for visiting weavers and potters to run sessions. Coursework will be sold to the public at open days in aid of her philanthropic work with ‘Charlotte’s Garden’, along with produce and cut flowers.
Surrounding us are sweeping grounds, immaculate formal gardens, a large lake with a heron flying overhead and unspoilt parkland and farmland in every direction.
I ask what she loves best about her vast gardens and parkland. ‘It’s just the openness of the place. It’s like living in a Constable painting. There’s not a day that goes by without me thinking, “Look at this”, and I want to share it with other people. You can’t have as much as we have and be selfish about it. You have to do something with your life.
‘I was very close to my cousin Charlotte. She was bi-polar. Her death affected me deeply. This project is all for her. Something in her memory.’
Anyone wishing to volunteer to work in Charlotte’s Garden can telephone 01283 585058 or to find out more can visit www.growoutside.co.uk, email email@example.com
DROP-in centre Bank House is hoping to raise funds to buy a mini bus, to enable centre users to get out and about in the community. ‘For example we would love to develop links between “Charlotte’s Garden” project and Bank House but it’s difficult to find funding for transport.’ Anyone who can help should contact Bank House on 01283 222881.