Socially Scented Connections During the Pandemic

By Julia Randell-Khan, SCL Consulting Fellow, New Map of Life™

The Scented Walled Garden, London

The Scented Walled Garden in a west London park has a prescient history for our current pandemic. It is the original kitchen garden on the site of the 14th century Palingswick Palace where the mistress of King Edward III lived. Her name was Alice Perrers. She would arrive by barge on the River Thames from Westminster to spend time at the estate. All that is left is the stables (now a café) and the Walled Garden which would have been the kitchen garden of a manor house built on the site. Historical fiction novels1 recount how the orphan Alice Perrers rose to be the “Sun Queen“ under the patronage of King Edward III and become one of the wealthiest and influential women in England in the late 1300s.

It was during Edward III’s reign that the UK faced the ravages of the Black Death, a bubonic plague which killed 45% of the English population. Quarantine and hygiene measures were imposed and ports closed as the country was locked down to control the epidemic. Some seven centuries later, this walled garden2 has again been closed amid equivalent isolation restrictions. What would Mistress Perrers have made of our current pandemic? I have pondered this question with my group of garden volunteers as we work to preserve the historical site for our local community.

“Community makes us – we have more in common than that which divides us”. These are the powerful words of the UK’s Jo Cox MP, killed in 2016, whose mission was to tackle loneliness and social isolation in our society. Physical and social restrictions imposed by Covid-19 have brought these societal problems into sharp focus. And in our disconnected age it is not just the older members of our communities who have suffered from loneliness as a result of the social distancing rules but also the young people. Loneliness does not discriminate by age. A recent study3 shows that while 24% of all adults in the UK have felt lonely because of coronavirus, young people were the most affected group, with 44% of people aged 18 to 24, and 35% aged between 25 and 34, saying they felt lonely during the lockdown. There are similar statistics in the US showing the incidence of loneliness and mental distress from Covid-19. The public health impact of these issues, particularly for older people, is well-documented.

Yet our Covid-19 experience is also bringing generations together, also with governmental support – the UK has had a Minister for Loneliness to tackle loneliness since 2018. And we know that this natural engagement across all ages is good for us. As Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of observes4 – “an extensive body of research on purpose, generativity, relationship, and face-to- face contact makes it plain: engagement with others that flows down the generational chain will make you healthier, happier, and likely longer-lived. It’s the real fountain of youth”.

New research by McCarthy & Stone, a leading developer and manager of retirement communities in the UK, shows that the Covid crisis has seen a significant narrowing of the generation gap and changes in intergenerational perceptions. The research shows that 60% of younger (18 – 59) and older (60+) have spent more time speaking and learning from each other, mainly on the phone, since the start of Covid. And both groups want this to continue. Alex Smith, CEO of The Cares Family and former Obama Fellow writes about the value of connection: “Finding connection in a disconnecting time can be exacting. But as the research has shown, it can also lead to richer lives: improved happiness, a greater sense of community, more appreciation of the world, a greater sense of belonging, a deeper connection to self – and a feeling of being ‘part of something bigger’ than our own lives”.

Our community gardeners group has been one example of people and communities coming together during Covid-19 to improve maintain and connections. In late June each year, to honour her birthday, the Jo Cox Foundation champions The Great Get Together for people to celebrate connection, compassion and community. The relaxation of the pandemic physical distancing rules meant that for the Great Get Together our group was able to meet up and rescue the roses from the goose grass and lavender and hollyhocks from the bindweed and get stuck into our weeding and digging. But it was not just the plants being rescued that day. Many of our gardeners live alone, often in apartments with no outside space. Many are young people keen on conservation who are new to the area and come to meet like-minded enthusiasts. We have older people whose partners have died or are in care, carers looking for a brief respite from looking after dementia sufferers and grandparents who come with their grandchildren.

I live just five minutes walk from Ravenscourt Park in west London where the Scented Walled Garden is located. I “discovered” the garden when I was searching for a place of calm after the death of my dear niece Ellie in 2019. At age 29 she died from a very rare form of lymphoma. She was a kind, pure young woman, always smiling and happy to see her Auntie Ju on the far too few occasions we saw each other. I found solace among the rambling roses, pastel pink hollyhocks, fragrant lavender and honeysuckle and the stately yews of the garden – a hidden place of floral abundance tucked into a corner of the park behind an intricately worked wrought iron gate.

I joined the volunteer gardeners group as my way of saying thank you to this place of beauty and tranquillity.

My co-gardeners have different stories to share on why they have been motivated to give their time to keep the garden blooming under the expert guidance of George, the park’s head gardener for over 40 years. Our group’s leader is Angela. She was inspired nearly 20 years ago to use a £150 conservation grant to start a clean-up of the garden which had fallen into major disrepair. A local callout for volunteers gathered a small group some of whom still come by each week. Despite getting a grant for bulb planting from a local supermarket Angela says it’s not really the money we need – “it’s just time”.

Sui Chin is from China. She is a mother of four and a self-employed Chinese teacher. She lives with her four children in a flat with no garden just a small balcony. The garden gives her a chance to get her hands dirty and meet local people. Sometimes she takes a very tiny clump of what looks like chives to plant on her balcony because she likes to see things growing. At the last session she brought her four-year-old daughter who pottered around the rose beds trying to catch the butterflies.

Pratap is the driver of a school bus. He has sat in the garden between shifts and enjoys the peace. He wanted to give back to the garden in a practical way.

Tom was told by his wife “you need to exercise” so he comes and digs for two hours, listens to his radio play and leaves. But he seems quite a horticulturalist – apparently his brother “breeds” award winning bonsais.

Francina looks forward to the gardening as a personal respite from looking after her husband who has dementia. She is always the first to arrive and the last to leave, squeezing in as much personal time from the garden to re-charge her energy for her daily caring responsibilities.

When I’m in the garden I see Ellie‘s face in the blooms, in the butterflies, hear her voice in the songs of the birds and in the breeze through the roses. For me it is the most calming, tranquil place where I can reflect on the short but important life that Ellie had. She was an expert in molecular cancer with a PhD in the field and worked as a researcher at King’s College in London. One of her reports was credited by her professor at a conference just two days after her funeral. Her intellectual legacy lives on. The Walled Garden helps me keep Ellie‘s memory fresh, grounds me when feeling sad and helps me appreciate the joy of being alive. One of her favourite pieces of music, which she determinedly taught herself to play on the piano, is Debussy’s Clair De Lune. I often listen to this piece when sitting in the garden. Its lightness of touch helps the memories live on held safe by the natural beauty and abundance of the scented Walled Garden.

For all of us, conserving the environmental and historical legacy of Mistress Perrers’ medieval Walled Garden has been a way to ease the lockdown blues and re-connect with nature and each other.

1Intrigued by the history I read Anne O’Brien’s  The King’s Concubine – a fascinating fictional account of the life of Alice Perrers. There are other fictional portrayals.

2A walled garden is a garden enclosed by a high wall for horticultural protection to shelter the garden from wind and frost. Within the garden temperatures are a few degrees higher. The walled garden in Ravenscourt Park is now laid out in traditional Victorian “Old English” style. It is divided into four quarters with rose beds, rose arches and exotic herbaceous borders with giant poppies and irises.

3Mental Health Foundation Longitudinal Study, Cambridge University, April 2020

4How to Live Forever, The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations