Jacquie Rich, Luke Allanson-Clarke and Alan Nicholas in the greenhouse.
Photographs: Charles Francis

June 2012: People blossom when they come to Kehelland. The village, just outside Camborne, is the home of a horticultural centre which offers training and work experience for adults with learning difficulties. This year, trainees were given a special task: to grow and plant up masses of red, white and blue flowers for Camborne’s town centre, to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Kehelland has its own cause for celebration in 2012.  At the beginning of the year, the horticultural centre, previously part of the adult social care department at Cornwall Council, became an independent charitable trust.

Kehelland has been a pioneering place since it was set up 30 years ago: it was then the first facility of its kind in Cornwall. Now, at a time of council cutbacks, it is being seen as a beacon for other day care centres interested in becoming independent. Centre manager Robert Williamson explains the benefits for Kehelland: “A lot of avenues will now be open for us. We’ll be able to look at new funding opportunities, and providing courses in things such as craft skills, which can be very hard for people with learning difficulties to access.”

When Kehelland Horticultural Centre opened in 1982, it was a shed in a field. The 16-acre site now has glasshouses, orchards, a Christmas tree plantation, and a shop selling fruit, vegetables, seeds and compost.

Simon Cole splitting kindling wood

The centre’s work has evolved over the years, as Robert explains. “Kehelland used to be somewhere where people were sent to be cared for. Now it’s somewhere where they can grow and develop. They are here because they want to be here.”

Around 50 people with mild and moderate learning disabilities now come to Kehelland regularly. Some attend five days a week, and others come for a few hours. They need varying levels of support, so a wide range of work is offered: sowing seeds; potting on; watering; weeding; harvesting; packing salad bags for local restaurants; serving in the shop; and working in the kitchen, where they help to make good use of produce grown on site.

Some are happy to write plant labels all days, while others are always keen to take on new tasks. Julian Mannell’s favourite job is working with Kehelland’s flock of seven chickens. “I used to have chickens years ago,” he says. “We sell the eggs here, and we cook with them.”

Annette Edgecombe, Kehelland’s horticulture leader says: “No one should be excluded from gardening — it should be available to all. Horticulture historically has been known as a tool for healing, and Kehelland lends itself to that. It’s a beautiful place to be.”

Annette Edgcumbe and Robert Williamson with civic planters

Working alongside the clients are volunteers, many of whom are unemployed or, like Roger Bath, recovering from illness. The former gardener and handyman describes the atmosphere at Kehelland as “very therapeutic. Everyone is so kind.”

Roger has been working on the construction of the site’s new sensory garden. “It’s at the very early stages, but we’ll be using plants with colour, taste, or texture,” says Annette. “It will be a lovely area. We’re also developing a wildlife area with a water feature, and planting a model fruit garden in a plot the size of a backyard to show people what can be grown in a small space. We already have a mature traditional orchard, and now we also have a new orchard with Cornish apples. All the trees have been sponsored by local people.” 

Kehelland has played an important role in the life of the community since it opened, says Sally Pyner, secretary of the board of trustees. “Village events often take place here, like the tea treat, which has been held as long as the chapel has been here. There is also a barbecue to raise money for the senior citizens’ Christmas lunch, and the Young Farmers do a charity fund-raiser at Christmas with carols, animals and mulled wine. We ourselves run a giant vegetable competition, and our annual Apple Day, which has been a resounding success.”

Sally Pyner tending salad crops

Sally is excited about the centre’s new status as the Kehelland Trust. “We have been given independence not because the council wanted to get rid of us, but to show others what can be done,” she says. “We are proud of what we have achieved.

“People who don’t want to talk to anyone when they first come get really engaged when they’re doing something like sowing seeds: social engagement is much easier when your hands are busy. Being outside with plants can make such a difference to people’s happiness. It’s wonderful to see the transformation.”