We visit Chigwell’s Grange Farm Centre to meet the dedicated team behind the ACE Gardeners, a charity project providing fun and stimulating outdoor activities for those in need
Words and photos: Debbie Thomson of the National Garden Scheme
Ace is their name and also the perfect description for a group of individuals who are learning and enjoying the amazing facilities run by Voluntary Action Epping Forest (vaef.org.uk) at Grange Farm Centre in Chigwell (grangefarmcentre.co.uk).
Visiting Grange Farm Centre, a 90-acre community facility, on a Thursday in early summer, it is a joy to see a team of dedicated staff and volunteers providing stimulating, educational and fun activities for their members and to see the results of their various tasks. ACE Activities (aceactivities.org.uk) is a project for people in the districts of Epping Forest and Harlow with learning difficulties and autism and is managed by the independent charity Voluntary Action Epping Forest (VAEF), whose mission is to support and develop voluntary and community activity. For two days each week, they are able to use the amazing facilities at Grange Farm Centre in Chigwell for creative and horticultural projects.
State-of-the-art facilities at Grange Farm - Credit: Debbie Thomson
On this particular day, the team is making the most of the sunshine, working at the Grange Farm Community Garden, planting vegetables in immaculately prepared beds and pricking out seedlings for hanging baskets in the polytunnel. At the same time, some are working on clay tiles which will make up a mosaic to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The common theme for everyone there is commitment and a desire to be the very best they can.
Each member goes about their task with enthusiasm, building on previously learned skills. The aim is to provide interesting and meaningful activities that allow the members to learn practical skills and work towards individual outcomes to include independence, improved health and wellbeing and increased social skills, as well as reducing isolation and loneliness.
Sally Panrucker, learning disability coordinator - Credit: Debbie Thomson
Sally Panrucker, Learning Disability Coordinator for ACE Activities, explains how they operate, ‘We have two projects based in and around the beautiful Grange Farm Centre and the Roding Valley Meadows. On Thursdays, we tend to work in the Community Garden, and at the moment the new allotment beds are being planted up with vegetables germinated in the polytunnel. Our volunteers, Alan Brett, Viv Davis, Richard Ford and Cliff Bissell help make all this possible.’
The polytunnel was completed in 2019 and was partly funded by a grant from the National Garden Scheme as part of their annual Community Gardens Awards, which support gardening projects carried out within local communities all over England and Wales.
‘The timing could not have been better,’ says Sally. ‘At various points during lockdown we were able to continue some activities in the tunnel as it conformed with government guidelines. It was so important to our members to maintain some of their routine. Then, of course, it qualified as an outside space, although we had a roof over our heads, so it made lessons during the winter possible.’
Thursdays are spent at the polytunnel - Credit: Debbie Thomson
At the moment, the tunnel is being used to plant up hanging baskets with plug plants, which the members have grown from seeds. Vegetable plants, also grown from seed, have been hardened off and are now being planted out on meticulously planned allotment beds outside. Each crop is labelled with a sign made with old furniture legs as part of their upcycling project.
This project was started with a Jack Petchey grant. In the early days, the members made bird boxes and now they make an array of products, such as planters, all from upcycled wood, which they sell and use the money to facilitate more projects. Some of these products will be available for sale on the National Garden Scheme open day.
Members have made labels for their produce in their upcycling class - Credit: Debbie Thomson
‘If you know where to look online, there are grants available for projects such as these,’ says Sally. ‘Part of my job alongside Charlotte Copping and Nina Gavens is to make sure we are sourcing relevant funding, helping us to extend our work. We have 30 members across the ACE Activity Projects at the moment, which include cookery, upcycling, music and art. Twelve of our members are on the Gardening Project at Grange Farm, but I hope to grow that number to nearer 40. We are nearly at the point where we can build a second polytunnel, which will enable these numbers.’
In fact, The Grange Farm Trust itself has donated funds to a variety of clubs and groups since it was set up. ‘Since 2015, Grange Farm has donated £1.5million to a range of organisations across Epping Forest District Council and London,’ says site manager Rob Draper, who is delighted with the partnership work with VAEF. ‘The garden has been a great success, not only by providing the facilities but also by helping fund the scheme.’
Volunteers Alan Brett, Richard Ford and Viv Davis help run the sessions - Credit: Debbie Thomson
The ACE community gardeners are now in a position to share their hard work with members of the public and will be opening their allotment gate on Thursday 21 July between 10.30am and 3pm for the National Garden Scheme. The admission fee for adults will be £4 and children are free. Light refreshments will be available as will plants and produce grown by the team.
The meadows at Grange Farm - Credit: Debbie Thomson
Private group visits can also be arranged by contacting Sally on email@example.com. Visiting the project is a wonderful opportunity to see the very high standard of horticultural skill and joy that this brings, and the ACE team will be on hand to show visitors around. Visitors will also be able to enjoy a walk around the meadows, which form part of Grange Farm.
To learn more about Grange Farm and its history from 1951 to the present day, you can purchase the book Battle for Grange Farm by Gwendoline Templeton from XXXXXXXX.