‘Volunteer at Dilston’
Retire? Done. Downsize? Done.
Time for some fun. Time to find different ways to spend my days.
That wasn’t meant to be a poem, just a summary of what led me to volunteer at Dilston Physic Garden, roughly half way between Hexham and Corbridge in Northumberland. I’d visited it many times, and attended workshops there, and now I spend most Wednesdays enjoying it from a different perspective.
One of only a few physic gardens in the UK, Dilston was created by Emeritus Professor Elaine Perry, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University. Each plant grown in a physic garden has the power to heal or to maintain health, and Elaine directs research into plant medicines.
Of course any garden needs constant attention so there are always jobs for the team of volunteers. Here’s an account of a typical volunteering day. It begins with a delightful walk from the car park along a lane fringed with wildflowers… and along a leafy track.
That short walk is the perfect start to my volunteering day – a gentle warm-up for the joints and muscles, and also a mental transition into the joys of the day ahead.
I report for duty to Nicolette Perry, to is looking after volunteers today and is also the Education and Science Director at the physic garden, and she consults the list of the tasks that need doing. Broadly, the work done by volunteers is weeding, pruning, watering, or potting-up and harvesting herbs. The garden is open to the public on Wednesdays (also on Saturdays, and Thursday afternoons) so there are opportunities for volunteers to spend time with the public, either showing people around, serving them pots of their botanical tea, or assisting in the Physic shop.
I opt to start my day weeding, and Nicolette shows me the angelica bed. Good choice – the domed white flowers are exactly at nose height so their delicate scent is all around me. All tools and gloves are provided, so I equip myself from the tool shed and get to work.
Weeding in a Physic Garden needs a slightly different mindset from the type of gardening I’m used to. The herbs are left to seed naturally because wild herbs are more potent medicinally than cultivated plants, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the tiny seedlings of angelica and the seedlings of invading species. Angelica leaves are soft and downy, so I end up weeding without gloves so that I can feel each seedling and check its parentage. Also, the style of the garden is not neat and tidy – it has a wonderful wild look. The plants are very much at home, living their lives and going through their cycles as we merely pass by.
There are plenty of seats and benches around, so I can sit and listen to the birdsong whenever I need a rest from my weeding. There are also many sculptures and artistic decorations in the garden, including a beautiful metal Angelica Archangel. The plant’s Latin name is Angelica Archangelica, so named because a monk had a dream in which an archangel pointed to the herb as a cure for the plague.
There is fascinating information about all the plants and the trip to and from the compost heap takes a while because I stop and read each one. Other volunteers are beavering away.
Moira is weeding the chamomile lawn, using a dinner fork to tease out the weeds without leaving a bald patch on the lawn …
Margot is cutting back a rampant dog rose …
Melanie is weeding the plants associated with dog health (herbs have veterinary uses too) …
And Linda is harvesting sage to be used by medical herbalists in the North East.
On my first day as a volunteer I took a packed lunch, but it stayed in my rucksack. Professor Perry provides a delicious meal which we eat around a table under a shady tree. The whole day is very relaxed and there are no pressures to complete our tasks or our lunch within a certain time, so we sit and chat.
In the afternoon I choose to move from weeding to pruning, and an overgrown hedge needs cutting back to clear a pathway. The whole garden is criss-crossed by gravel paths, and although the overall ethos is for a wild look, there has to be intervention when the plants obstruct exploration by visitors.
Volunteer Frances begins pruning at one end of the path …..
While I start at the other …..
While we work we can hear the happy sounds of visiting children exploring the garden. They scamper about exclaiming at the sculptures (a foxglove fairy, mugwort goddess, phoenix and dragon all feature), or they have a go at croquet or chess.
Sometimes we stop work mid-afternoon for a cup of herb tea – I haven’t offered to make the tea yet, but leave it to a more experienced volunteer to wander off and gather a mixture of herbs to brew together. The resulting flavours are always different.
The physic garden closes to the public at 4pm and I head back to the car park and look across the fields where the garden’s Herbology House is just visible against the woodland backdrop. I’m looking forward to next Wednesday already.