For a group of ex-servicemen and women struggling to adapt to life on Civvy Street, their community allotment at Seaton Delaval Hall is harvesting rich rewards different to the normal fruit and vegetables. SADIE PARKER of the National Trust has the details
PALE mid-morning sunshine is illuminating one of the jewels in the National Trust’s Northern crown – Seaton Delaval Hall.
The magnificent mansion designed by Sir John Vanbrugh stands proudly overlooking the coast in south east Northumberland, a few minutes’ drive from Whitley Bay.
All is quiet on this December day. The crowds and the cars have gone and the normally colourful gardens are wearing a seasonably grey mantle.
The 18th Century mansion acquired by the National Trust at the end of 2009 has bedded down for the winter.
But in the walled garden that can trace its roots back to the 18th Century, and which once met the culinary needs of generations of the Delaval and Astley families, there are definite signs of life.
At one of the community allotments that now occupy a corner of the walled garden, three men helped by Seaton Delaval Hall’s gardener-in-charge, Debbie Crombie, are harvesting winter potatoes, carrots, leeks and cabbages.
The vegetables are destined to take a starring role in a three-course meal being served up at St Andrew’s Church in Newgate Street, Newcastle, for veterans of the Aden conflict nearly half a century ago.
Until recently the men gathered at the plot knew little about either the delights or benefits of sowing and growing their own fruit and vegetables or of cooking wholesome, nutritious homemade food.
Now they will be helping prepare the festive meal of homemade vegetable soup followed by roast turkey with all the trimmings and mince pies for the military veterans and their wives.
It is thanks to Seaton Delaval Hall’s Community Kitchen Gardens project, generously supported by Greggs in honour of Sir Michael Darrington who was managing director of the firm for 26 years.
It has so far seen 19 shared allotments offered to groups as diverse as SureStart, New Delaval Primary School, Whitley Women Community Choir and Yummy Mummies and Dishy Daddies, that people of all ages and backgrounds are being given the chance to reconnect with the food chain – and learn new potentially life-changing skills.
The group of novice allotmenteers and would-be chefs gathered at St Andrew’s Church on this particular day all use the services of a not-for-profit social enterprise called About Turn.
The clue to the group’s origin and its purpose is in its name. About Turn is a Newcastle-based support group for vulnerable ex-servicemen and women.
Started just over three years ago by former Royal Marine turned social worker and probation officer Tony Wright, 52, About Turn – which is sponsored by computer software accounting firm Sage which has its headquarters in Newcastle – seeks to help ex-military personnel adapt to life back on Civvy Street.
Many leave with little or no skills and struggle to find either a job or adapt to civilian life away from the strict regime, camaraderie and adrenalin of the frontline.
Tony, who was invalided out of the Royal Marines after just three years at the age of 21, recalls only too well the problems he faced back on the home front.
“I had signed up for nine years but ended up coming out after just three,” he explains. “It was very difficult for me to adjust to being a civilian. The support that was available was very limited.
“I ended up retraining as a social worker and then as a probation officer, but I kept coming across vulnerable people who had been in the forces and were feeling isolated.
“They needed someone to help look after them and point them in the right direction. So I set up About Turn. In the last three years around 200 people have accessed our services.”
These include helping with housing and homelessness issues, peer-led resettlement and transitional help, film-making, art, digital photography, angling and cookery classes, debt advice, work placement, sports coaching and now horticulture.
Tony says the importance of Seaton Delaval Hall’s community plots to groups such as About Turn cannot be underestimated.
“Firstly there are the health benefits of working outside in what has been dubbed the green gym; secondly, gardening is very therapeutic, especially for those who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as you are at one with nature; and thirdly it teaches people how to cope.”
There is an added spin-off. The allotment is not only giving those involved access to fresh seasonal vegetables, but could potentially lead to a new career in horticulture.
And the cookery lessons put on for free by contract catering firm BaxterStorey, which runs the food operation at Sage where About Turn is based, not only utilise the produce off the allotment but can include gaining a hygiene qualification.
Some of the vegetables have even made their way into Sage employees’ meals. BaxterStorey chef Alan Moore who has been working with the About Turn team says: “We’ve been getting leeks, kale and cabbages when there has been a surplus.
“BaxterStorey is a huge supporter of fresh, natural ingredients and you can’t get any fresher than vegetables straight out of the ground. The quality and variety has been fantastic.”
On a more basic level, however, Tony says veterans can learn about nutrition, growing their own and cooking on a budget. “When you are in the military they do everything for you. A lot of guys do cook for themselves, but it’s not necessarily nutritious.
“We teach them how to cook interesting food and how to grow their own. And for those who decide they want to retrain as a chef we can start the process.”
About Turn took on the allotment at Seaton Delaval Hall 18 months ago. Among other things, they grow leeks, carrots, garlic, onions, curly kale, potatoes, celery and lettuce.
“Over the last year we have had around five veterans working on the allotment regularly,” Tony says. “It’s a wonderful setting and everyone at the hall has been very supportive.
“The allotments are a wonderful initiative and it’s great that Seaton Delaval Hall is being used as a community asset year round.”
The hall is one of more than 20 National Trust properties across the country that now run their own allotments, community gardens and orchards on or near their sites.
Gibside at Rowlands Gill near Gateshead has also turned part of its walled garden over to community allotments. Soon fruit and vegetables grown in an area of the historic walled garden once used as an overflow car park will be on the menu in the cafe, sold at the property’s twice-monthly farmers’ market and be available via a box scheme.
Seaton Delaval’s gardener in charge Debbie Crombie says an activity as simple as gardening is a great way of bringing people together, getting them talking, finding out about each other and learning new skills.
Debbie adds: “We have a good mix of people involved already with experienced gardeners and novices sharing information.
“There is a real community spirit, which is what Seaton Delaval Hall is all about as it provides a wonderful space where people can come together to use the land and the building.”
Seaton Delaval Hall, The Avenue, Seaton Sluice, Northumberland, NE26 4QR, 0191 237 9100, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ seaton-delaval-hall; Facebook: www.facebook.com/nationaltrust seatondelavalhall; Twitter: @SeatonDelavalNT
Seaton Delaval Hall is closed until March 25 for major electrical and re-roofing work. This month the National Trust is starting a recruitment campaign for volunteers to help support the work of the charity at Seaton Delaval Hall. Those interested are asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org
Any groups interested in potentially taking on one of Seaton Delaval Hall’s community allotments should call Debbie Crombie or Mark Warr on 0191 237 9100.
For more information on About Turn’s work go to www.aboutturncic.co.uk
WHAT THEY SAID
What do the people who tend About Turn’s allotment at Seaton Delaval Hall think of the National Trust scheme?
Stephen Jackson, 64, from Walkerville, Newcastle, ex-Royal Northumberland Fusilier
“I’ve been involved with the allotment for about six months and try to get along there as much as I can.
“I really enjoy it and it is fantastic growing and harvesting your own fresh vegetables which we then use in the cookery classes.
“I came to About Turn through a charity called Combat Stress. I find working on the allotment very relaxing and calming.”
John Roberts, 45, Gateshead, ex-Royal Marine
“I was in the Royal Marines for seven-and-a-half years and I’ve had a few problems since I left. It was Stephen who put me in touch with About Turn. I couldn’t do without them and the group has given me something to focus on and more stability.
“I’m doing the cookery course and have learned lots of new skills, and I’ve also got involved with the allotment. It’s a chance for me to get out and keep fit and it’s great growing your own fresh fruit and veg.
“Being out in the fresh air working on the allotment encourages you to eat more and better. Given the chance, I’d love to have my own allotment now.”