A LONG-RUNNING Northumberland gardening scheme is branching out after a major refurbishment.
The Northumberland Horticultural Skills Unit was set up at Hepscott Park in 1985 to offer training and work experience to adults with learning disabilities.
It provides activities five days a week for about 45 users, but was in urgent need of a re-vamp to extend its work and increase sales of plants.
Northumberland County Council set aside £360,000 for the scheme and on Monday more than 100 users, carers, partners and staff came together to celebrate the completion of the first phase, which included providing disabled access, new glasshouses and modern amenities, as well as extending the planting area.
Phase two will see the opening of a coffee shop next month, and products will be promoted from all five of the council’s learning disability day units and horticultural centres.
Council Executive Member for Health and Wellbeing Ian Lindley said: “The work that has been done and the second phase of the cafe will enable the centre to be much more of a commercial venture. If you come here to buy plants you are not just going to get great service, you are going to be part of something that contributes to the life and soul of the county.
“Every plant we sell here is putting some goodness into somebody’s heart. The work here is irreplaceable.
“It is hard to imagine now that this land was just derelict, rubble-strewn wasteland prior to 1985. We have made remarkable progress and the next stage is going to be even more significant.”
Coun Lindley unveiled a plaque with service users Raymond Easton and Sharon Storey to commemorate the re-opening.
Mr Easton, 51, has worked at the unit since it opened, and still travels there from his home in Seaton Delaval. He attended several meetings to help draw up the refurbishment plans.
“I have been coming here for 27 years now,” he said.
“It looks much better now and it is a lot lighter. It will be better working here.
“It is nice to come here and meet new friends, and old friends as well. You see the same people coming back and a lot of them are here for the re-opening.
“I was involved in the meetings right from the start and did some pictures of what we wanted. I think it’s even better than I thought it would be — we’re even getting a cafe.”
Ms Storey, 40, from Cramlington, has been attending the unit twice a week since 2003 and was involved in developing a new garden area, planting shrubs and climbers.
She said: “The refurbishment is fantastic, it looks really different.
“Before, there were old greenhouses with wood-rot. We have got all new wood now and the greenhouses are a lot stronger.
“We’re still getting used to the new area, but it means we can do more things. I enjoy working in the garden because I like being outdoors.”