When I arrived back in Totnes I was thrilled to learn that not only had new allotments been opened and were already producing well…
but that there was to be a new public space launched. The Leechwell Garden is a project that has had a dedicated team of people hard at work for seven years. Many of these people are now active in TTT (Transition Town Totnes) as well, among them Robert Vint, local councillor, Sue Holmes, dedicated gardener, and Jill Tomlin, fabulous strategist.
The really exciting thing about Leechwell garden is that it is in actual fact a piece of land returning to public use after many years as part of a private garden, and after a close call when it narrowly escaped becoming land for development.
The Leechwell refers to a series of three springs that flow into Totnes from the nearby hillside. These springs have names that sometime in history acquired the evocative titles of Toad, Snake, and Long Crippler (a local name for the slow worm). It is said that their waters can cure skin complaints and eye disorders, but they are most commonly thought of as the place where lepers could be cured. Totnes once had a hospital for sufferers of leprosy on Maudlin Road and it is believed that the lepers could take one of the three paths that lead to the Spring, the path that leads down from Maudlin Road past the site where the springs come out of an old stone enclosure and into three stone troughs, one for each, some 200 yards uphill of the new gardens, to bathe in the triangular shaped bath that is currently very overgrown.
The triangular bath is set to become a listed monument, and perhaps then funding will become available to start to research more of its dim and distant past. For now though, the stone and slate bath is fenced off awaiting care. Not so with the rest of the site; it has been carefully tended so that the stream that flows from the bath is visible in two places, and accessible for paddling at the bottom end, the old apple trees are still producing fruit, and the old diseased trees that had to come down have been lovingly transformed into a new and exciting children’s play area.
The garden is grassed, with paths leading around it. There is an area close to the gates where a herb garden is to be planted. The most exciting thing of all is that the garden is not finished; it is simply ready for the community to come forward and make it their own.
On the 17th October crowds of more than 200 people gathered to gain entrance to their new garden. Families and retired folk, young and old, single people and groups of friends, the local press, and the local council, all waited eagerly outside the new gates.
At 3pm the mayor and his lady (also a very active member of TTT) arrived, Tony & Carole Whitty, and were ceremoniously presented with a huge golden key with which to open the gates. It was to no avail. There was no keyhole…
There then followed a lovely performance orchestrated by mistress of ceremonies Helen Sands, in which giant puppets representing Toad, Snake, and Long Crippler, the old apple tree, and the woodpecker, spoke out as guardians of the land, and the waiting people and children called out their intention to care for the land and all who dwelt in her, they would tend the gardens, and take care of her creatures.
The gates opened and the creatures of the garden in the form of the giant puppets and the local children came out and processed around the waiting people, music played, and the people followed the creatures into the garden, more than 200 of them, they filled the garden and I can feel my eyes well up with tears as a little like Oscar Wilde’s story of the selfish giant, those who have been shut out are let in and the sins of the past are swept away and the joy of the families breathes life into the space.
Leechwell Gardens are in the very centre of Totnes, the hidden jewel at its midst, surrounded by car parks. The Leechwell group say they have their eye next on a little known about car park that backs onto the Leechwell garden. It feels as if the market gardens that Rob Hopkins talks about so beautifully here http://transitionculture.org/2009/07/08/insights-on-resilience-from-the-recent-history-of-totnes-2-the-market-gardens/ , the gardens we lost to car parks in living memory, are on the verge of making a comeback.
Already we the community have ideas for this space, intergenerational storytelling, herb and vegetable growing, tree planting, conservation work. We won’t be short of ideas for the car park next door either; Totnes is taking back its sense of place, remembering our love of the land that came long before our addiction to motor cars.