Cauliflowers fluffy and cabbages green, strawberries and runner beans as tall as we’ve seen… The Growing Hub in Thurnby Lodge is taking tasty shape around the Christchurch building and it’s an exciting prospect for both the church and its community.
It’s hard to believe that little more than a year ago this was wasteland - a 10 foot-high tangle of grass, weeds and shrubs.
Today, the community garden is burgeoning with fruits, vegetables and flowers. The produce is already being sampled by those who are working on the project and the ultimate goal is to be able to regularly supply the local foodbank with fresh fruit and veg.
But The Growing Hub is so much more than a church allotment; it’s a faith-based community project with a vision.
PLANT - to improve confidence and knowledge in growing vegetables.
GROW - to provide hands on experience in growing vegetables.
LIVE - to improve self-esteem and access healthy, locally grown food.
Behind the initiative is Cath Savage, Community Hub Coordinator at Christchurch. She says: “This vision helps us, as a church, to love and serve our community of Thurnby Lodge.
“It’s also about actioning that faith, by working with the people who need our support across all generations, and of all faiths and none. God loves us and sees us as a whole and that means our physical and mental wellbeing, too.”
Cath says a Bible verse that’s close to her heart for the community work carried out here is Mark 4: 30-32. Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
The story started back in March 2020 when we were all told to stay at home and the huge changes brought about by shielding, furlough and job losses, created a situation where ‘food poverty’ began to rise in Thurnby Lodge.
An emergency food parcel distribution scheme was run out of Christchurch, with supermarkets and other sources donating surplus foods; but when it came to fresh fruits and vegetables, the stock was minimal and the condition was relatively poor or past its sell by date.
That’s when the idea for The Growing Hub was born - an idea to grow, cook and connect with the community. And, with a small amount of funding from Leicester City Council Get Growing Grant and the support of Leicester Ageing Together, things really started to take shape.
At the heart of this project is Christchurch’s churchwarden, Pete. He worked tirelessly last year to get things off the ground, clearing the overgrown area almost singlehandedly.
“You couldn’t even see the gate,” he says, pointing to a patch that now offers access around the church and is beautifully framed by flowers. “I took it on as a challenge,” he laughs. “There were rocks and slabs all over and it was really hard work to clear, but we got there.
“I had this vision,” he continues. “God gave me this project and I felt Him with me as I worked.”
An engineer by trade, and at 75 years of age, Pete says he’d never grown anything in his life before he started rustling up vegetables out of bread baskets. “Seeing those first shoots was just wonderful,” he remembers. “I managed to get a good crop of carrots, potatoes and onions that way last year.”
But they couldn’t keep growing out of trays. It was then that Pete prayed for help. “I didn’t know where to go from there, but I knew that He would, and along came Tracey and Debs – they were quite literally God sent,” he says.
This year, the team have been working with Leicester Aging Together partners Tracey and Debs to create a safe and enjoyable area for people to volunteer from. They have tidied the garden area, built and prepared raised beds, set up a greenhouse and potting area, organised seating, and planted countless fruits and vegetables, including a grapevine.
“It makes me proud to know I’ve helped make this happen,” says Pete. “I’ve learnt so much - but it’s as much God’s work as it is mine. I want to be able to see that food going out to people who need it, to see them taught how to use it properly and then eat healthily.”
Tracey is Leicester Aging Together’s Community Connector for Thurnby Lodge. “Growing your own food needs to be a positive experience to make it really work and that’s why supporting people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to do so is important,” she explains.
“Isolation and loneliness is a very real thing for the over 55s in this area and it’s our privilege to be able to bring people into projects such as the Growing Hub.
“Churches are incredibly important in our communities - they’re the lifeblood and the key to building relationships with people - and the work Cath and Reverend Paul Savage are doing here to make the church open to everyone is amazing.”
The Growing Hub held an open day in May which was really well received by the community and has helped bring people together in the project. The Hub also has links to various local groups, such as Coffee and Chat at Christchurch, and hopes to run jam-making sessions and cooking demonstrations in the future.
“The idea is that we connect suitable volunteers to the project,” says Tracey. “It’s all about partnerships, making links across the city and in the local community, and working together.”
Additional supporters include Leicester Link, The Conservation Volunteers and Together Leicester, who have offered advice and helped connect people to The Growing Hub.
The day we visit, volunteers Wendy and Mohammed are doing their induction training, which covers all the necessary health and safety aspects of working in the Hub, as well as learning how to sow seeds properly, and recognising when to take tea breaks!
Wendy is 76 and a member of the Christchurch family, often helping out in the church charity shop. She says: “I’m loving being part of this, knowing I’m doing some good by growing to help supply the food bank and supporting the people who need it. It means such a lot to me and is an important as part of my faith.”
It’s Mohammed’s first week volunteering. Having had a stroke two years ago, which led to the diagnosis of blood cancer, he has spent much of the pandemic alone at home.
“I really needed a way to be able to interact with people again and get out and back into the community and this is giving me the opportunity to do just that and have an aim,” he explains. “Finding friendships is really important for me. It’s also a way for me to get rid of my health anxiety.”
As well as building on the Plant, Grow, Live philosophy, future plans for the Hub include a quiet area, a wildflower patch to attract insects and a recycling station, to support Christchurch’s work towards achieving Eco Church status.
Cath says: “It’s a new project and we’re all growing as we go along – I guess you could say we’re doing what we can with what we’ve got - but ultimately we want to make the church accessible and welcoming to everyone and to grow and thrive in God’s love together.”