Blazing a trowel in the city's gardens

PUBLISHED: 14:16 08 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:47 04 May 2010

DOWN TO WORK: Ben Jones, left, with Geoff Challis and, kneeling, Steve Twigden.

DOWN TO WORK: Ben Jones, left, with Geoff Challis and, kneeling, Steve Twigden.

I M proud to be able to tell you that Ely has its very own version of Ground Force. Given the current obsession with home makeover programmes, some may argue that this is not a positive thing. I, however, wish to argue differently. The Helping Hands schem

I'M proud to be able to tell you that Ely has its very own version of Ground Force.

Given the current obsession with home makeover programmes, some may argue that this is not a positive thing. I, however, wish to argue differently.

The Helping Hands scheme is staffed mainly by volunteers. As it was National Volunteers' Week last week, it's a good chance to give the scheme some publicity.

Co-ordinated by Ely and District Volunteer Centre, Helping Hands has been running for eight years. After being funded by the lottery for the first three years, and then by the Community Fund for another three years, it has managed to continue, thanks to grants from various organisations and charities.

And it's vital that it does continue. Last year, Helping Hands looked after 78 gardening projects, helping more than 100 individuals.

The latest, for those of you who haven't spotted it already, is the small patch of land which adjoins Broad Street and Back Hill. Marigolds and geraniums are being planted there, by supervisor Steve Twigden and volunteer Geoff Challis.

Steve loves gardening, but is at pains to point out that the upkeep of a successful garden must be a continual project, rather than a fleeting dalliance.

"Do you want to get your hands dirty?" he asks me, perhaps a little too keenly. I respond in the affirmative, perhaps a little less keenly, and we begin to plant.

To save boring you rigid for the rest of this piece by giving intimate, yet frankly dull, details of me wrestling to plant a single geranium, I'm going to talk about the breadth of work that Helping Hands undertakes.

Complete garden makeovers are the most extensive project they take on. Grassed areas are turned into low-maintenance gravel gardens.

Paving slabs can be laid to assist wheelchair access and raised beds can be built for those less able, so that they can continue enjoying their garden.

There is a charge of £10 per hour to customers, which basically covers administration costs, but this is discretionary as for that £10 there could be six volunteers.

There's a number of way in which Helping Hands can give your garden the required revamp, but it wouldn't be possible without the volunteers who carry out so much back-breaking work.

Volunteers include people with learning disabilities, students, the long-term unemployed and those who are recovering from mental illness, depression or life trauma. Geoff, who will be 24 this month, is one such example. Nine years ago, he was riding a bike when it was hit by a juggernaut. He was in hospital for nine months.

"I'm lucky to be alive," he says, with hefty understatement.

He has a plate in his head as a result of the accident, but it has no effect on his ability to work hard or the fact that he's a better gardener than I'll ever be in a million lifetimes.

Volunteers receive £5 per day plus expenses, and several of them have moved into employment following a spell with Helping Hands.

In time, HH hopes to train its two supervisors to Royal Horticultural Society accredited standard, so the improvements will be of even higher calibre.

"High calibre" is not a term which could be associated with my gardening skills, as is becoming painfully evident during the course of the brief time I spend with Steve and Geoff.

In fact, when the photographer arrives to take the obligatory picture, I can't put my trowel down quick enough. It's time to leave it to the experts.

The next time you pass the Broad Street junction, take time to look at the work HH has done. Over the next two weeks, the work should be complete, so you can admire it in the fullest.

Helping Hands is just one of a number of groups co-ordinated by Ely Volunteer Centre.

There are many other hardy people who give up their time to improve all aspects of our lives, and if you would like to get involved, there's bound to be something which takes your fancy.

INFO: For more information on Ely Volunteer Centre and the groups it runs, contact centre manager Avril Hayter-Smith on 01353 666556.

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