A small group of people starts to assemble in the reception area of a museum. Two or three at first, joined slowly by more, smiling and chatting and saying hello. The room is warm, despite the Yorkshire temperature inside a 200 year old imposing stone mill. Snippets of conversation are overheard: how people are feeling; secret beauty spots they’ve walked in the last week; the tree down the road that is beautiful in blossom again; someone’s got a new haircut, and it’s lovely.

Blossoms in front of a v skip.

Leeds Industrial Museum in spring showing tree in blossom, with V skip railway carts in the background.

By 2pm a cohort of about twelve individuals has formed, and they’re looking keen. They confidently head for the back door, via the store cupboard, each grabbing an essential item as they pass. A shovel. A trowel. A bucket of gloves. A cup of tea. A wheelbarrow full of bird seed. And then stepping into the outdoors, hoping for the warmth of sun, but happy to be here whatever the weather. A routine gladly repeated every Thursday at Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills – once the world’s largest woollen mill, now no less significant to these committed and wonderful Garden Volunteers.

Aloe, rockery, looking back at Leeds Industrial museum.

As well as traditional plants you might expect to find, the volunteers have selected some hardy surprised such as this aloe growing alongside cacti in the rockery.

There have been gardening opportunities before at Leeds Industrial Museum, making use of the picturesque grounds the mill stands within, straddling the River Aire and nestled in the Kirkstall Valley. This current project is part of ‘Outdoors Active and Well’, an innovative Leeds wide initiative by local environmental charity Hyde Park Source to help people improve their own wellbeing by improving green spaces. It has been ongoing now for almost 4 years, and is happily funded to continue. Some Volunteers have attended every week of those 4 years, some have joined recently, and many come when they can. But whether it is their first time joining gardening activities or they are founding members, they are all part of the group and the Colour Garden is Their Garden.

A willow tree in a garden

The beautiful grounds at Leeds Industrial Museum sit between the River Aire and the Leeds Liverpool Canal.

The Colour Garden is the hub of the weekly sessions. It resembles a cottage garden, which is exactly what it was until Armley Mills ended its working life in 1970. The caretaker and chauffer, Mr Trory, lived in the adjoining building with his family until then, and the garden was theirs. It is a delight to all of the museum staff and Volunteers when Mrs Trory and the family visit us now, bringing flowers and offering fascinating historical insights. When in conversation it was a mentioned that the wisteria was growing exceptionally well in a particular corner of the garden, these previous residents of the mill obligingly offered the reason: “that’s where we kept the chucks. Lots of chicken poo there”. Fertiliser! It all made sense.

Grape hyacinths and tulips

Grape hyacinth and tulips burst into life, March 2020.

Connecting the garden to its past is vital. It is the “Colour Garden” because dye plants traditionally used in the woollen industry are grown, many as a legacy of previous successful gardening projects at the museum. These include woad for blue, madder for red, solidago for yellow. More than that, it is also a splash of horticultural colour in itself, a vibrant and unexpected little piece of the city with its marigolds, roses, camellias, poppies, tulips, daffodils… colour for every season.  Large objects from the industrial past of Leeds form planters for strawberries, and inspiration is taken from the story of the site when planning. For example, an original Second World War air raid shelter may soon be accompanied by a ‘Dig for Victory’ style vegetable bed. If there’s a way to keep the squirrels off the carrots that is.

pieces of striped dyed blue cloth are hanging up

Woad is the native indigo plant in the UK, and is how the Celts famously used to paint their faces blue.

The Gardeners are also catering for current residents of the mill. The aforementioned wheelbarrow of birdseed was donated by a generous Volunteer – both barrow and seed. This, together with a flock of feeders and gaggle of bird-houses, has supported and increased the wildlife on site. In January the group took part in the RSPB Great Garden Bird Watch, and were enchanted by dozens of little critters: long tailed tit; blue tit; goosander; wren; pied wagtail; green finch; kingfisher… and the unforgettably thrilled (if respectfully hushed) cry of “Gold Crest!” as binoculars were excitedly passed around for everyone to take their turn and have a peek at a rare friend. Notes and photos were taken, and memories made. Outdoors Active and Well’s magic is underpinned by the ‘5 Ways to Wellbeing’, including the directive to ‘Take Notice’ – something that the safe spaces around the museum allow people to do; to stop, and slow down, and take notice of beauty around them. With this in mind, plans for the future include adding a bird hide to the grounds, to continue to offer new ways to delight in the increasing diversity of species visiting there.

a blue tit on a feeder

A blue tit enjoys seed and fat balls from a bird feeder in the colour garden.

There are always plans for the future. 2020 is to see the creation of a ‘Bee Bank’ and other habitats for invertebrates. Wild flowers have been sown for the all-important pollinators to enjoy, as ever sourced locally and responsibly. Younger museum visitors will be able to enjoy a Minibeast Trail soon, making wax crayon rubbings for a small zine as they explore for bugs in an area the Volunteers have reclaimed after the catastrophic 2015 flood. The often discussed water feature and pond may even leap off a drawing board at some point… And beyond physical interventions outdoors there’s the beautiful book the group wrote in partnership with the University of Bradford and University of Huddersfield capturing the essence of the project so far, which will be available from the museum shop soon.  The book’s covers are illustrated by cyanotypes made during a Thursday workshop session. Similar activities have included members of the group sharing skills such as book binding, basket weaving, and yes, magical natural dye workshops.

a book with the title colour garden project

Written by the Colour Garden volunteers and academics, the book aims to bring together best practice on gardening for wellbeing at a museum with experiences of people on the project.

But at the moment, surreally writing this in the middle of the coronavirus shutdown, thoughts turn to the Volunteer Gardeners themselves. The garden and museum grounds are closed until further notice. This is the longest the project has paused in 4 years (it only regularly stops for one week at Christmas) and it’s only early days. So we’ll be dispatching a camera when we can during regular site checks, in line with government precautions and policy, to keep the Gardeners and our visitors updated on developments. Already new flowers are blooming. The crocus have faded, but the daffs are in all their yellow glory, and the camellia on the arbour is about to pop into a vivacious display of colour. If a garden in shutdown can offer hope, it is this: nature continues unabated, and the Colour Garden will be there waiting for its guardians when they return. And the birds will be waiting for their lunch.

Daffodils in a garden

Spring is definitely springing, with daffodil bulbs lowering all around.


New shoots in the colour garden

‘Life… finds a way!’


By Chris Sharp, Assistant Community Curator at Leeds Industrial Museum and Thwaite Watermill.

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