Fertile ground

Gardening and horticulture have long been recognised as therapeutic tools to enable people to increase their self-esteem, build confidence, learn skills, and maintain or improve their quality of life.

The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, in Cheshire, is involved in just such a project. The museum has a relationship going back 10 years with Astmoor Day Services, a centre for adults with learning difficulties run by Halton Council. However, the two organisations’ Positive Partnerships project has taken the collaboration to a new level by not only providing meaningful employment but also helping to change the public’s perception of people with learning difficulties. This will culminate in Astmoor’s conservation group being based permanently on the museum site.

“It’s a fantastic working relationship, which has immense mutual benefits,” says Steve Miller, the museum’s director. Indeed, Norton Priory was shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year in recognition of its work with the day service.

Over the years, the day services team has renovated a pear orchard, created a wildflower meadow, planted a glade of quince trees, maintained and developed a “tots’ garden”, and kept the monastic site free of weeds and leaves.

The most high-profile project, working alongside museum staff to recreate a medieval herb garden, was featured in the Hidden Gardens series on BBC television earlier this year. “It was a unique project,” says Miller, “and one that we couldn’t have undertaken without the day services team. The work they do enhances our visitors’ enjoyment and helps bring about a positive change in the public’s perception of adults with learning difficulties.”

Norton Priory’s head gardener, John Budworth, agrees: “They help me and my staff to carry out important development work, and play a vital role in maintenance. We get on well because we’re people with a common interest in conservation.”

The seeds of the partnership were sown by Neil Warburton, a day service officer with Halton Council whose background is in horticulture and conservation. “About 10 years ago I asked the Priory if there were any conservation projects that the Astmoor day centre could get involved with. We ended up helping to restore the pear orchard. Since then, our relationship has gone from strength to strength,” he says.

He adds: “I work alongside clients who express an interest in gardening and conservation, or who want to get some fresh air and exercise. And everything we do here is done for a genuine ecological reason.”

Positive Partnerships benefits clients, says Warburton. “They know they’re contributing not only to the Priory, but also to society. They’re doing a job of work and this brings self-esteem and confidence. They work as a team and gain respect for each other. They interact with staff and volunteers, and build friendships. And the Priory and its visitors respect what they do.”

Such work is changing public perceptions, he says. “In the early days people would see a group of adults with learning difficulties carrying spades and saws, and would hurry past. Then they began nodding casually. Now they’ll stop and chat.”

The day service clients are proud of their achievements. For example, one participant, who spends two days a week at Norton Priory, comments that he enjoys the work, particularly making gravel paths and sawing down trees. He and his friends have appeared on television, he says, and their work has attracted the attention of celebrities including weatherman Fred Talbot and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Lessons learned   

  • Adults with learning difficulties can work with tremendous success as part of a museum scheme. “Positive partnerships are vital when a museum has insufficient resources to operate core functions,” says museum director Miller.  
  • Where institutions such as Norton Priory lead the way, others will follow.  Astmoor Day Services has gone on to work with the Woodland Trust, Groundwork Mersey Valley and Halton Council’s conservation section. 
  • Productive work is key to self-esteem. Day service officer Warburton says of his clients: “They feel valued. They’re making a contribution.”

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