The churchyard in Waterloo #3: Remembering the volunteers at Putting Down Roots

We're now exploring the Churchyard at St John's Waterloo, its history, its plants and its kind carers. Jonathan Trustram from the Churchyard of St John's, remembers with fondness the volunteers.

St John's Church

Putting Down Roots is the gardening project run by St Mungo’s to provide voluntary work and training for homeless and ex-homeless people. We began working at St John's in 2001 – I joined the project a year later and retired in 2012. My work was mostly in public open spaces. In SE1 we worked on Waterloo Green, Emma Cons Garden opposite the Old Vic, Mint Street Park and St George's churchyard in the Borough. Eventually, St Mungo's had to change the direction of the project. It needed to concentrate on work that brought in much-needed funding and could no longer afford to be an unpaid arm of the Parks Department!

The whole of the garden to the west of the lawn, apart from the huge plane tree, obviously, and the rather unhappy crab apple, was the work of Putting Down Roots. It dates from our heroic period. Until about 2009 nothing grew there except scruffy grass on an awkward slope and one or two scruffy shrubs which had perennially been victims of an old Lambeth policy of cutting everything down to about waist height once a year. When we began to dig, we discovered why the ground sloped up. It was a tip.

Between them our volunteers at Putting Down Roots had different skills and enthusiasms. Jacqui loved feeding the pigeons. In fact, it was like a sacred duty. She pointed out to me that as the descendants of birds domesticated for centuries, they were our creation and our responsibility, that we had conditioned them into thinking that the city was a gigantic dovecot. There were no rocky crags or gorges for them to roost and nest in. After about four years I gave up trying to stop her feeding them.

Michael liked making things and fixing things. Whenever he joined us, he would always prove to be hard working and serious. He made bird boxes, he found York stone and sharp sand in skips, he laid paths, he installed a heating cable in a propagation box he had made in the greenhouse at Cedar's Road, a St Mungo's hostel. Sadly, Michael passed away.

Giovanni was slightly built, Italian and gay. He had a gift for quickly grasping what I was trying to explain. And it was amazing to see him swing a pickaxe.

Patrick, whenever he kept us company, he would sweep. He never did anything else. But he could sweep religiously.

Others liked watering, or dead heading, or cutting the grass.

Kevin was skillful at pricking out seedlings and carefully watering them. He used to do that at the (unfortunately dark) greenhouse we had at Great Guildford Street hostel, where the project was based. Or, when we got a not very powerful blower, he would spend time chasing three or four leaves round the grass on a grey December day, and I would have to decide whether to indulge him or intervene for the sake of efficiency.

And there was always Chris, who would turn his hand to most things, who would patiently help to put the tools away even though it was growing late, and the others had gone home.

All our regular volunteers were touched, however faintly, by the work ethic. Even if they only came out once or twice a week, even if they could only work for half an hour without stopping for another cup of tea and another cigarette and a gossip, they found value in work, it made them feel better about themselves.

One thing that nearly all of them liked was a meaty project. Something with a beginning, a middle and an end, like a good story. So, we dug through rubble and rubbish, lifted big chunks of concrete, bagged up ancient tin cans – we found a threepenny bit, I think it was dated 1942. Nothing else of interest. We dug out a semi-circle on the side of the bank and protected it with a wall of concrete. We used thin ply shuttering to support the wall, but it was too thin and folded into waves, which was fine. We used bins and big old plant pots to cast the concrete seats. Then the mosaic project decorated it all.

It's worth mentioning here that when, the following year, we spent a lottery grant on remodelling the lawn and the paths around it, the contractors reinstated the path at a higher level than it had been before, so that our mosaic floor ended up lower than the path, and muddy water washes onto it whenever it rains. We will award a prize to whoever can sort out this problem. We have tried soak-aways, three times, each time deeper than the last, but they've not worked well. So, there's a lot of difficult cleaning to do. We planted our new bed with shrubs to create an informal topiary, and with the two cork oaks, grown from Spanish acorns. And the famous campsis. The path which runs around the bed was edged with granite blocks which came from Southwark Cathedral. (That path needs attention...)

Most of the time I was not on my own. My wonderful border collie, Lula, was known and loved throughout SE1. She liked to dribble a football with her nose. She helped us to win the respect of street drinkers and drug users in hostels and open spaces where we worked. And my wonderful colleague, A., was endlessly patient.. She was compassionate, humorous, and tough. And did one of us spend more time with the volunteers and the street drinkers, while the other was more concerned with planting and gardening? Yes. But the division was not rigid.


Jonathan Trustram is a gardening volunteer at the Churchyard of St John's Waterloo. You can follow his blog here.