England’s first women-only physic garden: from dream to reality

Rachel Anderson and Cis O’Boyle, co-founders of idle women.

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by Rachel Anderson and Cis O’Boyle

Stretching along the curve of the Leeds to Liverpool canal in the heart of the postindustrial town of Nelson, Lancashire, something vital is growing.

Born of necessity, as austerity and care-less governments cut all in their path, women feel the blow. Carrying the weight of extra worry, of scarcity, of the loss of specialist health, education and recovery spaces, we mourn the closure of our refuges, safe houses and day centres. We mourn our places of sisterhood, of understanding; the places of unwitnessed being that fortify us for the complex difficulties of being female in this particular world.

Nelson sits in the shadows of Pendle Hill and the memory of the twelve who were hunted and hanged for being ‘witches’. The legacy of these murders today includes cartoon bus signs, sexy witches branding the travel centre doors and old hags riding brooms on the arrows that mark public footpaths. The tourism industry and Pendle Council prefer to draw every penny from a genocide of women, rather than to sit with a more truthful analysis – that the witch-hunts put in place systematic violence against women that is still gruesomely evident across the world today.

Did you know that ‘gossip’ once meant ‘female friendship’? In the times of the first European witch-hunts, gossips of women were a positive, forceful, celebrated part of society. Women worked, gave birth, cooked, created and healed in gossips. One of the mechanisms of the hunts was to withdraw one woman from her gossip and to torture her until she ‘confessed’ and denounced the others as witches. One of the many legacies continued today is evident in the change of meaning to the word: ‘gossip’ now refers to the often harmful, dishonest talk that women do together, dismissed and derided.

At idle women we think of the witch-hunts as the start of our women’s movement. Women, incredibly, resisted the hunts for over three hundred years. It was the birth of our resistance against all forms of violence against women. These women are our roots and the source of our strength. If we follow the line of our mothers, there are just 28 generations between us and the witch hunts.

We founded idle women in 2015. We wanted to bring together two separate aspects of our lives – our professional lives as artists, and our service to the women’s movement. Now we very simply ‘create spaces for women’.

We built a narrow boat and towed it along the canals, and on that journey we learned how important access to nature is – not only for us, but for most of the women we met. Canals are considered unsafe ‘no-go zones’ for unaccompanied women and girls, but en masse we can take up the space they afford, we can access the hedgerows, sit in the sun, watch the wildlife, think, recover and create.

We spent a lovely summer moored in Accrington with over twenty women visiting us every day. It was an abundant idyll. In our final fortnight a local woman asked if we could keep the boats moored there permanently, because (unknowingly) we had interrupted the local men’s sport of bringing their dogs to the canal to attack the swans, geese and ducks. Tragically, we witnessed the truth of her story during our final workshop, when a dog snapped the neck of one of the goslings we had watched grow since it was born.

In that moment we all looked on, shaken, devastated, consumed with regret. The metaphor became clear to us then: that the touring boat enabled a temporary vortex, a forcefield under which women could meet and gather – but as soon as we left, the peace was broken. We needed something permanent.

We often feel that other forces guide idle women, so when we saw that a garden mooring was for sale in Nelson, we launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise £25,000 to purchase it. We managed to raise well over our target – close to £37,000 – because so many people contributed and campaigned tirelessly to spread the word. Now we have enough money not only to buy the land, but also to begin the work to create the UK’s first physic garden which will be built by, dedicated to, and in trust for, women and girls.

We formalised a partnership with our long-term collaborators Humraaz support services, who provide specialist services for women. The garden will be purchased in partnership with them, and owned in trust for all women and girls. We also welcomed sponsorship from Weleda – the Derbyshire-based company that produces natural and organic personal care and wellbeing products from medicinal plants.

This garden is for the hundreds of women who we have met over the last three years, and the hundreds we are still to meet. It’s for all women, always.

In our work creating art with women we witness many brutalities and daily struggles. We feel the depths of violence that women navigate and we see women surviving and thriving in spite of this. We are not the first to wonder – if women can achieve all this in spite of the violence against them, how far could they go without it?

A physic garden is a garden for medicinal herbs and plants. In medieval times, every town would have had one, and women would have known the uses of the plants that grew there. They had the means to manage their own reproduction: the art of creating lay with them, as did the art of destroying.

With the independence gifted to us from the funds raised publicly, we can work at a natural rhythm with women to create this garden. The first year, at least, will be for observation – so that we can see what grows there already, how the landscape changes with the seasons, how we change with the seasons, and other fine details about us, the garden and the plants. These observations will inform a slow-growing design over the next few years and beyond. We welcome all that will grow – the things that we plant, and the self-seeding ideas that we can’t even imagine yet.

The physic garden is a place for women to heal, to learn, to expand and stretch: a place for us to grow. We are growing something vital in Nelson, and this garden can’t be taken away by anyone.

Rachel and Cis are co-founders and caretakers of idle women - an artist-led organisation that creates work with women based in north west England.

4 Replies to “England’s first women-only physic garden: from dream to reality”

  1. Andi Alexander says: Reply

    Wonderful, inspiring!

  2. Lisa Hadden says: Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful overview. I found it interesting learning about the journey of the word “gossip,” and how something so positive has become so negative. Thank you again!

  3. Dear All at The Hedge School, thanks a lot for these interviews, knowing all these initiatives opens a world of possibilities for us women to start joining our dreams and make them real. Loved the work of idlewomen. All the best for the years and the projects to come.

  4. Rachel, cis and all women. I would love to be involved in the garden in some way as an artist and as a woman. I can offer many skills with making, and gardening. I could run workshops? I am always keen to find connections between art and growing things, so often run workshops that combine sculpture and plants. I have my own kiln. Would you be interested in me running something? Or helping with the garden? Sally

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