Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Imagine the Garden behind the Walls

You'll have to imagine what the garden inside Holloway Women's Prison looks like, as photos, and indeed the carrying of cameras or mobiles, are strictly prohibited.  I was one of the lucky twelve who saw behind the forbidding exterior this year when Holloway Prison again opened its doors for Open Garden Squares weekend - and I had waited two years for this chance.

I wasn't disappointed - the wait was well worth it and I'd encourage you to book early for 2015 to be in with a chance.  The garden is managed by the fabulous Chris Stewart, who is very ably assisted by Mr Mac.  Chris has been a stalwart for Open Garden Squares, opening the garden and even accommodating extra visitors in past years, when other London prisons have had to withdraw their visits.  Chris and Mr Mac are both retiring later this year, so this blog is dedicated to them and their commitment over the past 30 and 20 years respectively to the garden, the wildlife and their girls inside.

After the clang of the gate as you enter the prison, you can't help but notice the cheering, bright colours of the bedding plants and a reproduction of a Monet painting of a field of poppies in the first courtyard you enter.  On from there it is amazing how far the prison grounds extend - as one visitor remarked, "It's like one big council estate".  You walk through different courtyards, with the central one a riot of clashing colours of  summer bedding plants.  Pink and red geraniums nestle up to one another in regimented ranks.  Geraniums, marigolds, alyssum and cineraria predominate. The plants are all grown at a prison in Brighton and Holloway has to take pot luck with the colours that arrive.  This is all to change in the future, when two new polytunnels are constructed, which should enable Holloway to grow its own plants from seed and, hopefully, give more inmates the chance to garden.  There are also plans for a small wildlife meadow.

At present, out of approximately 550 inmates, there are only 16 gardeners.  Prisoners have to earn the privilege by showing good behaviour, and Chris is proud of the progress many of the women in her care make.  "Give me a good bad girl", she says, "and it's clear she loves her job, and the gardeners love her."  A stray cat, called Sky, follows us around, past an enormous London plane tree.  The facilities for the women prisoners are impressive - a swimming pool and two gyms, and specialist units for detox and mental health.   Multicultural and multi-faith support is emphasised - even a pagan priestess visits from time to time.

There's a hill inside the grounds where over 20 chickens run free.  Known as the Holloway Hens, they are ex-battery chicks who, ironically, have been freed and get a good end to their days on earth here in the prison.  They give the gardeners fried-egg sandwich treats too, and are much loved and prized. 

Mr Mac looks after the tool shed for the gardeners -  its order and precision is astounding; but, as you can imagine, you have to keep a careful watch on the tools handed out to prisoners.  Mr Mac uses a token system for every spade and fork issued and knows exactly which prisoner has which tool at any given time.  The need for security in everything is paramount, and we get a chilling taste of prison life when Chris slams a cell door shut and shows us for a moment what it feels like to be locked up. This visit gives you a  great glimpse of the world inside prison as well as the gardens.

This was the last tour Chris and Mr Mac will do for Open Garden Squares Weekend - we wish them a happy retirement and trust that their legacy will live on in the future and even more women will experience the joy of gardening and the chance to learn new skills to equip them for their future lives on the other side.