You wouldn’t want your car brakes to fail on Bentinck Road. Joining Newcastle’s Westgate and Elswick Roads, it’s a steep drop down to the River Tyne. It’s the area where the great and good of Newcastle once chose to live.
The top end of Bentinck Road, by what was Newcastle General Hospital but is now the Campus for Ageing and Vitality, still has its fair share of impressive houses but long ago they were divided into flats, offices or care homes for the elderly.
It’s behind one such imposing building on the corner of Bentinck Road and Tweed Street that a remarkable project is helping Tyneside’s vulnerable, disadvantaged and homeless.
NE4 VEG is based in the walled garden of Elliott House, the Cyrenians’ direct emergency accommodation for people aged 18 and over.
Launched in 2006, this organic garden (although it is not officially certified organic due to the cost of applying for the necessary accreditation which the homeless charity can ill afford) has helped scores of socially excluded men, women and teenagers improve their lives and integrate back into society.
The premise is simple: nature’s power to heal.
The benefits of gardening are legion. Research has shown that horticultural therapy improves physical and mental wellbeing, helps build confidence and relieves anxiety and depression.
That’s not to mention the obvious advantages of working outdoors and the opportunity to acquire a whole new range of skills that has, in some cases, seen those who have taken part in the NE4 VEG initiative move on to rewarding garden-inspired careers themselves.
Then there is the evident value of both growing and eating the freshest, most wholesome produce. So successful is the NE4 VEG project that the rare and heritage vegetables are not only being used in the Cyrenians’ kitchens but being sold to the public and restaurants such as Ernest, in the Ouseburn Valley, and Food Social at the Biscuit Factory, Shieldfield, where head chef Andrew Wilkinson admires the “high quality” of the produce.
He likes not knowing what offerings will arrive in the twice-weekly vegetable delivery, thus allowing him to use his culinary flair and imagination, and is pleased that by taking what he regards as “great seasonal produce” he is “supporting a local charity that’s helping people get their lives back on track”.
But seven years of hard work and success could end this autumn unless the Cyrenians can find the ï¿½90,000 needed to keep the project running for another 12 months.
Four years’ worth of funding from Local Food – the ï¿½59.8m programme that distributes grants from the Big Lottery Fund to a variety of food-related projects that are helping make locally-grown produce accessible and affordable to all – runs out in October.
It’s an anxious time for NE4 VEG’s head gardener, Phil Buxton.
He has spent the last few weeks filling out grant application forms and is “50-50 hopeful that we will get the ï¿½90,000. You have to be. We know it is valued by the service users and we just need to ensure it can keep going.”
And if the cash doesn’t materialise? “The reality is we are a charity and if the funding runs out…” There is no need for the 66-year-old to finish the sentence.
Sadly NE4 VEG could never be self-funding. That is not the point of it. Its success is measured not in pounds and pence – although income from the sale of produce does contribute towards the running costs – but in the positive changes that have been wrought on users’ lives.
Phil, a trained geologist who worked in mining in Canada and as a hydragraphic surveyor before turning a passion for gardening into a full-time job, can reel off many examples highlighting the garden’s positive influence on everyone who comes into contact with it.
He cites the case of one troubled young woman who came along to help out for just one day. “She only pulled about 10 weeds and we haven’t seen her since, but that doesn’t matter because while she was here she enjoyed the quiet atmosphere and it was obviously enough to help her.”
The Elliott House garden is certainly a tranquil oasis in the West End of Newcastle. From Bentinck Road you would be unaware it was even there.
Less than half an acre in size, it supplies a vast range of fresh fruit, vegetables and even flowers, grown both outdoors and in poly tunnels and a greenhouse.
At this time of year the area is a riot of colour. Crops include lettuces, courgettes, potatoes, strawberries, chard, cabbages, leeks, cucumbers, chillies, aubergines, raspberries, broad beans, peas, garlic, herbs and tomatoes ranging from the classic red through to orange, yellow, black-purple and even striped.
Phil believes NE4 VEG is the only place in the region still growing carlin peas, the dried version of which were once traditionally eaten during Lent on Passion Sunday.
There are even half a dozen hens, whose eggs are sold to help raise funds.
Everything is naturally grown, meaning no artificial fertilizers or pesticides are used. Rapid composting and comfrey fertilizer are employed. There is a wormery, and methane gas heating and solar energy are deployed.
The project is run by a small team of paid staff. But most of the work is done by volunteers - hostel users and members of the local community.
Hostel users receive training in horticultural skills, giving those completing the programme the chance to move on to jobs in the area.
NE4 VEG also provides training programme for others who are interested in a career in horticulture or simply want to learn how to grow fruit and vegetables. Phil, who runs courses throughout the year from Elliott House, is fervent about encouraging more people from all walks of life to grow their own.
He is saddened that the public has in general become disconnected from their food and now accepts that the bland, commercially produced fruit and veg served up by the supermarkets is how it is supposed to taste.
He tells of a group of young people given a freshly picked NE4 VEG grown tomato to eat.
“They didn’t like it as they weren’t aware of how a tomato should really taste,” Phil says sadly.
“You buy supermarket strawberries and they are hard and acidic. But a freshly picked one is soft and sweet.
“If you grow your own then you are eating produce that is at its peak. The stuff you buy from the supermarkets was probably picked weeks ago. All fruit and vegetables quickly begin to deteriorate once they are picked.
“But you eat one of our tomatoes and it has real flavour, bite into it and it is sweet, and the juice runs down your chin.”
He waves to a baker’s tray packed with salad leaves, spring onions, edible flowers and herbs.
“That’s destined for Food Social. Everything was picked about 20 minutes ago and it will soon be on its way to the restaurant. You can’t get any fresher than that.”
Part of his brief is to encourage members of the local community to start growing for themselves, whether on a small scale in window boxes or containers or in a garden or allotment. It is what Phil calls “returning the city to a more natural environment”.
Does he believe that is happening? He laughs. “That depends on what mood I am in! But I think in general more people are wanting to grow their own and we are working with other people to ensure this happens.”
But sadly all that could come to an abrupt halt in October if sufficient funding is not forthcoming. The loss of NE4 VEG would be disastrous not just for The Cyrenians, whose mission is “changing lives, building futures”, but their many service-users who have benefited from nature’s healing hand and the wider community keen to discover more about healthy eating.
For more information on The Cyrenians and its projects go to www. thecyrenians.org
As part of this year’s Eat! NewcastleGateshead food festival The Cyrenians will be teaming up with Blackfriars restaurant to host a Fareshare NE Banquet raising awareness of food poverty and food landfill issues.
Taking place on September 8 at 1pm at Blackfriars, the lunch costs ï¿½25 for three courses.
Call 0191 261 5945 or go to blackfriarsrestaurant.co.uk to book
Eat one of our tomatoes and it has real flavour, bite into it and it is sweet, and the juice runs down your chin