As part of a series exploring Big Local responses to COVID-19, our journalist-at-large Ryan Herman speaks to Paul Wright from Firs and Bromford Big Local and Cath Fletcher from Welsh House Farm Big Local about the role community groups can play and the value to be found in activities like gardening at a time like this
Following the announcement on Monday that the UK was effectively about to enter three weeks of ‘lockdown’, many community groups that had spent the previous week putting their COVID-19 action plans into practice had to come with a new strategy.
Paul Wright is a resident and volunteer in Firs & Bromford Big Local, which is located in North-East Birmingham. On Tuesday he published an impassioned blog about the challenge that faces Big Local areas given that so much of what they do revolves around bringing people together.
Paul wrote, “We are community builders. We creatively find ways to encourage social gathering, reduce social distancing, and encourage people to de-isolate into the community. We would say all social gathering is ‘essential’, and the way we encourage this 99% of the time is what politicians would call ‘pressing the flesh’. Encouraging physical contact, shaking hands, hugs, knocking doors to have a face-to-face conversation, hosting places of welcome, encouraging people to come out of their houses and gather socially.”
“What does a neighbourly response look like? How can our many gifts, skills, and talents be channelled into new creative and exciting ways? How do we continue to unearth the gifts of our neighbours, and encourage new ways these can be shared with each other?”
“We have people offering their time and cars to drive to pick up prescriptions, do foodbank runs, and go shopping. We have people offering to deliver seeds, tools, and resources required to start growing their own food, and ideas for food that grows in less than 2 months. Some of these are a re-imagining of things already present, some are new ways people are sharing themselves.”
One person who is ‘re-imagining’ how she can continue engaging with her community is Cath Fletcher – seen on the left before the lockdown was enforced – a horticulturist, community gardener, and resident of Welsh House Farm Big Local in Birmingham.
She also works as Green Connector on projects with Firs & Bromford, one of which was a Beautiful Border due to go on display at this year’s BBC Gardener’s World Live show at the NEC Arena.
She says, “We were also thinking of providing materials and instructions on planting crops like potatoes, veg, and salads which that grow within two-three months.”
Staying indoors for a minimum of three weeks means finding new ways to stay physically and mentally active. There’s only so many times you can watch Dion Dublin saying ‘stairs up to the bedroom’ on Homes Under the Hammer.
But if you have any green space, then this is an opportunity to make the most of it.
“We had a family local to me who had to self-isolate and the moment I dropped off some packets seeds they went straight into the garden,” says Cath.
“It’s practical in different ways, it’s good for mental health but will also bolster the food supplies. I don’t think anyone should kid themselves that they will suddenly become self-sufficient, but even a few carrots and a spud is something extra and you’ve done it yourself.
“We might print out and share online information for what you can do in your garden at this time of year. For those who have spare money, some nurseries are doing free deliveries on orders over £10, and other online ordering is still possible – Big Local areas might want to put some money aside for that kind of service.
“Shows like BBC Gardener’s World Live and the RHS Flower Shows are where nurseries generate a lot of income. They are understandably very worried about the long-term effects of this. So this is also a way to support local businesses.”
Cath will be sharing her expert advice on what to do with your green spaces. “I’m trying to get people to send pictures on what they are growing, put them on social media and provide tips and ideas. I’m working on developing this into an online local garden competition for the summer.”
In what are unprecedented and unsettling times, she says there must be some positives to be had. “Take what you can from it, learn a new skill, and maybe it will become a new passion.”