Ground force adds order to unruly West Hill site
- Credit: Archant
WESC Foundation’s two-year project to transform ‘jungle’ land into outdoor classroom.
A site overrun with brambles and once considered dangerous has been transformed into a learning facility to support young people with visual impairments.
The WESC Foundation charity has poured thousands of hours into its eight-acre site, which can be found off the B3180.
Know as the West Hill Project, it is an initiative fitting of a television show, as a small team of staff and volunteers worked to make the woodland safe.
Many people would have baulked at such a humungous task, but, with every new project, the team could see the fruits of their labour unfolding from the wild jungle they first encountered.
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The site was given to the charity by Otter Garden Centre to help people with disabilities to experience nature.
Patrick Phillips, horticulture project leader at WESC Foundation, has been at the helm since day one and has always believed the site had 'huge potential'.
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The gardener has been at the site full time, five days a week, battling a 10-foot bramble forest, felling dangerous trees and clearing rubbish - all with the goal of transforming the site into an extensive outdoor learning environment.
"Since we took over the management of the site in 2016," he says, "we have worked tirelessly to develop it as a resource for the young people who access our education, care and support services.
"The whole site is a really a huge, outdoor classroom, and it has been important to look at ways to continually improve access around the different zones.
"They wanted it to be used as a place where people with disabilities can experience nature. We spent a year of jungle-busting to make sure there was accessibility for all.
"We work with nature not against it."
The site has been carefully crafted to be used by students with varying levels of visual impairment, and Patrick encourages them to use all their senses to experience nature.
It has two polytunnels, a huge glass house, propagating greenhouse, fruit trees, jungle garden, pond and forest school.
"We have to take them right back to basics," Patrick says. "For someone with little or no sight, they feel the trees because everything is alien. We take all these things for granted."
The site has a sensory garden along the 'touchy feely' path, and the team is looking to develop it further over the winter.
"West Hill never sleeps," Patrick says. "We are always pushing the project forward and looking at ways to develop the site to improve the space for more people. With several projects planned for the winter, the development of the sensory garden has started. At the moment, one side of the garden is planted for colour and touchy-feel tactile grasses and is looking splendid."
In their sessions, the students help to plant trees and vegetables and learn about the legacy they will leave as the wildlife grows.
March 3, 2019, marked two years to the day since the West Hill project started.
In its second year of management, the charity has been able to more creative.
Its projects have included laying 350metres of material to create pathways and preparing ground for planting.
A huge step was taken forward when a pair of volunteers helped develop the site further by building a bridge. The new access will enable learners with wheelchair needs to access the meadow and forest.
The bridge was made using timber sourced from the site, including three conifers felled from the forest area, to build the foundations of the bridge.
Each piece of wood weighed more than a ton and was moved into place using levers, rollers and a tractor.
The removal of the trees will ensure the survival of a nearby oak, which was being crowded out by the conifers.
The team continue to work through all weather conditions to improve the site and have future projects in the pipeline.
As the project enters September, Patrick says he is grateful for cooler weather, as temperatures in the greenhouses or polytunnels can be 10-15 degrees warmer than outside. Plans for the next year include making greater use of the site by students and the wider community, developing the site's pond area and continuing to produce herbs, vegetables and summer plants to be sold at local shops, pubs and cafes.
Already, the charity sells the plants grown in the greenhouses and vegetable patches in shops.
If you walk around the site, you can find pumpkins, onions, tomatoes, courgettes, butternut squash, cucumber, peppers and aubergines.
"We are always looking for more volunteers," Patrick says. "Historically, we have been growing bedding plants and selling in our charity shops. We may continue with this, but we will be concentrating on selling herbs. All the products we grow are completely organic."
You can keep up to date on the latest development at the site through the WESC Foundation blog. To find out more, visit www//wesccountryworks.blogspot.com/
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