These last few months living in lockdown and learning to adapt to a slower-paced life has forced many of us to rethink how we have chosen to spend our time in the past and, specifically, how we spend our money. While the supermarket aisles saw scenes of chaos unfold, it was the local grocers' and growers' who provided a sense of normality and security when it came to shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Since lockdown I've tried to learn more about how to shop locally for food and when a friend reached out via Instagram to let me know about the Walled Garden at Helen's Bay, I was thrilled! I couldn't believe I hadn't heard about it since I drive to the neighbouring beach almost every week but sure enough, when I made my first visit last Saturday, there was the sign at the side of the road welcoming visitors to the farmer's market.
The listed 1-acre Walled Garden was built by local linen merchant Thomas Workman back in the mid 19th century and supplied the fruit and vegetables for his estate at the nearby Craigdarragh House. However, after the economic hardships of both the World Wars and the lack of local labour, the garden was badly neglected. It wasn't until 2009, when Lorraine and James Small bought the land, that there was hope that the garden might be returned to it's former glory.
Since taking on the restoration, Lorraine and James have leased the land out to horticulturalists and growers who have worked tirelessly to transform the site in to a productive, working garden. Currently, it's in the trusted hands of Biruk Sahle, a 'no-dig' enthusiast and owner of Hahu Organics. Through Hahu Organics, Biruk and his family run a Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) box scheme, supplying a wide range of fruit, vegetables, herbs and cut flowers to the local community and some of Belfast’s top restaurants including James Street South, The Merchant Hotel and Bullitt Hotel.
Biruk is originally from Ethopia and his Hahu Organics business was named after the first two letters of the Amahric alphabet which, in in his native country, can also be used to indicate the beginning of something new. He started leasing the garden back in February 2020 and is clearly incredibly passionate about the garden and how much the local community connects with it.
I was snapping photos on my camera on my visit last Saturday when Biruk wandered over out of curiosity. He jokingly asked if I had requested permission and quickly broke out in to a laugh when he saw a flash of horror cross my face - being told off for taking photos is my worst nightmare! He was full of conversation and when I asked what lockdown had been like for the garden, he told me how amazed he was at the number of volunteers showing up to help. It was so lovely to hear about how in such uncertain times, people seek out local organisations to offer help and to learn something new too.
I wandered over to the stalls after I had walked a few laps of the garden, secretly dreaming that I might have something beds full of vegetables one day. Despite it being after midday, there was still plenty of produce up for grabs; courgettes, spinach, herbs and more. I made a few purchases before moving on the jams & chutney stand - my real Achilles heel. There I met Lorraine, the owner of the Walled Garden. She makes many of her salad dressings and chutneys using vegetables from the garden and also gets honey up from Co. Armagh too. She's hoping that by next year she'll have her own honey to sell, her colonies can be found in one of the corners of the garden.
After I walked my final lap of the garden and waved goodbye to all the friendly faces inside the walls, I thought to myself just how wonderful it is that a group of dedicated people have transformed such a neglected space in to a horticultural haven. Community initiatives like the walled garden are vital during such stressful times and provide locals here with a chance to reconnect with the land and at the very least, buy delicious food that's grown only a few miles from their home.
If you'd like to visit this little slice of heaven by the coast, make sure to look out for the wee black bicycle on the side of Craigdarragh Road on Saturdays from 10am - 1pm. Visit the Facebook page for updates on opening times and social distancing guidelines.