Nestled amongst the high rises and building sites of Mile End is a hidden woodland; a 31-acre space with more species of butterflies than anywhere else in the UK.
This woodland was once a burial site. Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park was established as one of the “magnificent seven” cemeteries in London in the 19th century. Burials ceased in the 60s, but today more people are buried here than are living in the Borough.
Working deep within this forest most days is Paul Pulford, an ex-heroin addict who now runs a project called Grounded Ecotherapy. He’s bent over a campfire, occasionally checking a charred kettle filled with chai masala that’s sitting directly in the flames.
“You have to be mad to work here.” He grins, “Everybody that comes to work with us has had either mental health problems in their life, or they’ve had problems with alcohol, problems with drugs”.
Paul founded Grounded Ecotherapy in 2005. After living on the streets for years with a heroin addiction he moved into a hostel and got clean. Soon after he started to build a garden in the hostel’s concrete courtyard, salvaging materials from wherever he could to build planters. The garden flourished, and the hostel even helped out by buying fertiliser and seeds. After a while Paul took a horticulture course, and it was this course that introduced him to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
“I’m doing exactly the same things now as I did when I was a child, when I was really happy. Because when I was a child I hung around in the woods, I went camping, I built dens in trees, bridges across rivers.” Paul Pulford
Slowly a group of volunteer gardeners was born, and around six years ago Grounded managed to secure funding from Ecominds – a lottery funded offshoot of the mental health charity Mind. This gave them the chance to grow and to spend more time in the cemetery park. Now they’ve become self sufficient, “We’re doing this to earn money, because we have no funding whatsoever. So we’re actually a business, we’re as good as our last garden.”
Their work also focuses on providing the ex-homeless the tools to get back to work through giving them conservation training. But for those working here it’s more than just about getting back to employment. Grounded gives them a space to breathe and focus amongst the chaotic noise of modern life.
“To work with nature, to work with the earth, is the most natural thing for us to do. We’re so far away from that now, you know, we’re all living in the concrete jungles, paving tarmac, electricity around us. That’s why people go on holiday; the nearest most people get is they go the beaches to be by water or they go to the mountains to be with nature.” Paul Pulford
Much of the group working with Grounded have been here since day one. Kevin Fitzgerald, another key member of the group, has been working for years alongside Paul. He stands around the fire, cradling a cup of hot soup and seems completely calm in the woodland setting, “I’m 50 now and you tend to be a lot more philosophical about things, You look back – I’ve looked back on a broken marriage, prison, I’ve been sectioned, I’ve been a drunk, I’ve travelled around Europe, I’ve enjoyed books and music. I’ve done lots and lots of things. I’m quite proud of myself for the amount of things I have done.”
But he says this project has given him a new perspective on life. “For all my problems and I’ve had some, a lot of them I caused myself. But it gives me a sense of purpose; life does have a sense of purpose you’ve just got to find it. So doing this kind of work is a way of finding that purpose in life.”
“To me it’s not a hobby, what I do outside. Whether it’s recycling, digging, planting whatever. I feel it’s a kind of calling. Now you’re going to do something useful in life and this is what I’ve been called to do. Some people get Jesus, I didn’t, but I got gardening.” – Kevin Fitzgerald
The space that they work in certainly inspires a sense of calm. Besides the distant sound of a passing train, the heart of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park feels like it could be miles from civilisation. The surrounding tower blocks are obstructed entirely by the dense forest and air feels somehow fresher.
The concept of Ecotherapy is slowly gathering momentum as more and more studies demonstrating its benefits are being published. According to the Ecominds project, 69 per cent of people experienced significant increases in mental wellbeing after attending. As a form of therapy it’s also cost effective, and has a high success rate in getting people back to work. Grounded has so far got 15 people back to work, and for those currently volunteering the benefits are immediately obvious.
Grounded Ecotherapy aren’t the only group working in the forest, other people volunteer in the park throughout the year; but when the winter months come around Grounded is one of the few groups out braving the harsh weather. Park manager Kenneth Greenway calls them the “winter force”.
“We see great value in what they do. It is amazing, these guys are passionate about being outdoors, it makes them feel good, and it breaks down stigmas around homelessness and addiction. [It shows that] with the right support, and the right thing that works for you, you can do amazing things. I’m continually impressed.”
These successes show no sign of slowing, and Grounded have become a go to for public garden projects. Their successes have lead to them building the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Roof Garden, which they have been maintaining every year, and their recent efforts awarded them a silver medal at RHS’ Chelsea Flower Show.
At the end of the day the tools are packed away, the embers of the fire doused, and every human trace of Grounded is cleared away. They set off, dragging wheelbarrows and two big tree branches to use as goalposts for a kids play area; nothing is wasted.