This is a blog from our member, Sandra. In it, she talks about the place she’s missed visiting most over the last 12 months; Nature’s World. It’s Middlesbrough’s very own ‘secret garden’ and a space where Sandra feels most comfortable and ‘at one’ with nature…
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It was once a bustling, botanic centre set in 28 acres, and focused on organic management of the land and recycling, before recycling even became fashionable. Households, shops and other businesses used to donate unwanted goods in the hope that they could be put to use. Timber, paint, old tyres and much more found its way to the centre. Nature’s World was regularly frequented by childminders and school parties as well as the general public. Some of the donated materials became, in a child’s mind, a death-defying assault course, a ‘don’t-invite-your-granny’ slide and climbing frames that could set a mother’s teeth chattering. Personally, I used to love hurtling down a hill on a sledge with one grandchild or another, or sliding down the same hill on warmer days on a piece of old carpet. There seemed to be something for everyone in this mix-match of formal and informal gardens. In its heyday, the playgrounds rang to shouts and chatter of excited children while the paths played host to many grateful visitors, not all of whom were human. There were foxes, weasels and even the occasional roe deer. Can you imagine that? A roe deer in Middlesbrough!
Unfortunately, its gates closed to the public in 2014. Since then, a small band of volunteers, Friends of Nature’s World have battled against couch grass, vandals and greedy speculators, winning concessions slowly and painstakingly over the years. I am one of those volunteers.
All of us have history there. Some of our children were present when Nature’s World was officially opened by David Bellamy in 1992, having helped to dig out the model of the River Tees which ran through the grounds. I have a special connection – I owned a small shop there, a retirement dream, but the allure of the site was so strong that it made very little profit. In time, I would add a couple of allotments and a rather large polytunnel to my portfolio.
During lockdown, the council shut us down. Now, we are to be allowed to return. Last week, I spent an hour there as half of a socially distanced pair. Our stated aim was to make an initial survey to assess the damage wreaked by 12 months of neglect. Of course, this was a subterfuge. As relatively experienced gardeners, we were painfully aware of the extent of the task ahead. What we openly admitted to was nothing less than a compulsion to revisit the place that long ago wove its spell into our hearts, to breathe in the fresh sweet April air and to feel once more that affinity with nature that nowhere else quite satisfies.
We walked slowly, almost reverentially, soaking up the atmosphere at Nature’s World. There was fresh growth in the forest garden, and the musty smell of woodland plants pushing through the damp soil. We visited our own areas of responsibility. Denise secured a sagging sapling in her cottage garden and I was delighted to see that the lavender I planted in the Sensory Garden had survived. We felt it our duty to inspect as much as our allotted time allowed.
We did notice some very real changes. An environmental group with whom we share Nature’s World have been clearing an area for allotments. We laughed a little. The water table in this part of town is very high and I recalled how hard it had been to raise successful vegetable crops.
“Ducks swam on my allotments for nine months one year!”, I told my companion.
Another development has more far-reaching implications. A school for children with learning disabilities is being built on a third of the original site. We have welcomed the new situation. It could have been yet another clutch of new builds few people in this area can afford. We’ve already established links with the school who seem very keen to work with us. We have always wished that Nature’s World could be enjoyed more widely. Now that is well and truly on the cards.
As our walk progressed, we remembered the great times we’d had. Three or four times a year, we are allowed to host public events. We recalled the Fairy Day when we should have been entertaining local children with tales about our very own wee folk. We were forced to cancel because of an invasion of horseflies. That wasn’t so wonderful! Apple Picking Day evoked more pleasant memories. Visitors pick the fruit and can take home all they can carry. We borrowed a cider press and turned some of the apples into juice. Children with sticky fingers wended their way home with smiles on their faces, to apple crumble suppers. Now we can look forward to sharing this fantastic place once more and the arrival of the new school can only add to that.
At the end of our walk we saw more volunteers and had one of those odd, but increasingly familiar meetings. We formed a circle with so much space in between us that we almost had to shout at each other. I felt refreshed as I drove home.
Old passions have been revived, friendships renewed and we have the promise of new roads to explore. I sense exciting times ahead.