On my daily commute through the winding back lanes of rural West Oxfordshire, I would often wonder what was hidden behind the high walls and ornate gates of Bridewell Gardens. With little in the way of signage and no visible public access, Bridewell was intriguing – a secret garden on my doorstep. I wanted to know more.
A quick Google and exchange of emails later, and I did…
Bridewell Gardens is, in fact, an incredible charity offering mental health recovery for adults through social and therapeutic horticulture. The gardens and vineyard provide a working environment where the emphasis is on being outdoors, taking on new challenges, and becoming part of a team. For people with ongoing mental health challenges, who are often isolated, this is an essential part of their recovery – helping them build confidence and move forwards until they can lead more active lives in the wider local community.
Feeling instantly inspired by Bridewell’s work, I knew that I wanted to support them through the mark-making* volunteer scheme. And Bridewell’s Autumn Open Day provided the perfect opportunity – a rare chance for locals and visitors to enjoy the gardens, understand more about the service, and raise vital funds.
After a warm welcome, I was paired with one of the regular volunteers and introduced to the wider team. Already a hive of activity before the gates opened, there was a stall selling Bridewell plants and produce, a cafe serving drinks and homemade treats, and even an opportunity to take home a beautiful posy of Bridewell flowers carefully curated by two of the charity’s service users (known as Gardeners at Bridewell).
My role on the day was to support the smooth running of the cafe – clearing tables, washing up, and restocking crockery – and to keep my co-workers well-fed and watered. It was the perfect job for getting to know the Bridewell team, work, and Gardeners better, as I got to wander the grounds taking tea and coffee orders (chatting) while enjoying the stunning surroundings.
And they really are… From the vibrant beds of cosmos, dahlias, and sunflowers, and the neatly pruned fruit trees and topiary, to the tranquillity of the pond and quiet clucking of the hens, Bridewell is a real treat. But I think my favourite part of the experience was learning about the impact Bridewell has had on the individuals who benefit from its services. Gardener quotes are positioned along the footpaths and interspersed among the plants, providing a gentle reminder of the immense value this charity brings:
“Thank you for… All of the kind words. The skills. The laughter. The food. Always holding hope for me. You made me ‘me’ again, only better.”
“Thanks to Bridewell I soon learned that I was not the only one in the world with mental health issues. I thank you all for getting me back into the sunlight.”
“For today I will just be present here. Here is safe.”
More than expected
The Bridewell website promises “a busy, happy day” to event volunteers and I would 100% agree – I had a great time! But I would add that volunteering at Bridewell gave me back so much more than the time and effort I put in. It gave me a better understanding of mental health recovery, an insight into the benefits of horticulture as a therapy, and new connections with compassionate and generous people, as well as to my local community. Thank you Ruth and team, it was a genuinely rewarding experience. I hope you’ll have me back some time!
If you’re interested in learning more about Bridewell Gardens or would like to attend the next Open Day, please visit: bridewellgardens.org