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Everyday Changemakers: Rowan, Uppertunities Growing Spaces

Listen to 1000 Better Stories on your favourite podcast app or here.

Our Story Weaver, Kaska Hempel, talks to Rowan, who works for Uppertunity with their Growing Spaces Group. Uppertunity supports individuals with learning disabilities, autism and mental health barriers.

The story is the second in a 5-part series of weekly interviews with members of Dundee Community Garden Network (Grow Dundee) recorded this June, and an audio tour exploring the meaning and impact of community gardening. 

You can find a draft of the audio tour here:

Tune in next week for a story from the Victoria Community Garden.


Interview, recording and sound production: Kaska Hempel


Kaska Hempel: Hi it’s Kaska, your Story Weaver. Today we continue our conversations with Everyday Changemakers behind community gardening groups in Dundee which I visited during their open day in June this year. 

In the previous episode I spoke to Catherine from Bonnie Dundee at the Art/Science Garden in the car park area sandwiched between Dundee Science Centre and Contemporary Art Centre buildings. 

Next, I cycled away from the Tay heading North towards the hump of the Dundee Law. I passed through a few busy streets, followed by the quiet of the business area among the towering historic jute mill buildings, and finally pushing my bike up some steps on a short steep path away from the heavy traffic of Lochee Road. 

I arrived at the calm green South edge of Dudhope Park at the foot of the Law out of breath and super thirsty so I welcomed the offering of a juice from the Uppertunity’s Growing Spaces Group. They were busy setting up a refreshment and activity stall at the Dudhope Castle’s door and pottering around in the formal garden in front of it. 

Uppertunity is just one of a family of charities, social enterprises and community groups calling Dudhope Castle their magical home under the umbrella of The Circle, a Dundee-based business which aims to use its profits to fund positive social change. It seems that the place is truly living up to its “People’s Castle” nickname these days.

Once I caught my breath and the group finished posing for the Community Garden Open Day publicity photos, Rowan bravely volunteered to chat with me and we headed to a bench at the far end of the garden with a full view of the castle’s white fairytale facade.

Rowan: I’m Rowan. Um, I work for Uppertunity. In the castle behind us. and My role is, uh, It’s, it’s written down as project worker. Which basically means that I’m given some element of what we do here. And then I have to try and work with it. So I was given the garden, um, and a gardening group at the start about a year ago. Uh, and uh, now we, I think, we have about Three? Four? And then like one permanent volunteer, so it’s going quite well.

So we’re based at Dudhope Castle, uh, in Dudhope Park. It’s just at the bottom of the park, so everything kind of, sort of runs down towards us, and we have like a large square Victorian garden. Um, the castle’s had a lot of history, the castle that’s there now isn’t actually the original castle anyway, so it’s pretty much all Victorian, or some sort of mix of it.

There’s a lot of good space to use, but there’s a lot to improve and a lot to, a lot to maintain and fix as well.

Kaska Hempel: Can you describe your favourite part of the garden or part of the place?

Rowan: Um, it’s, it’s probably not the most interesting place for everybody else, but I really like, there’s a lawn just behind us over there, um, that grows, like, loads and loads of really long wild grass, um, and at the minute we’re just cutting, uh, paths into the grass so that you can walk through it and sort of sit in the grass and see the insects move around you, and then see the grass move as well, and so, there. Because I love the movement, I like, I like being able to see the wind, kind of, going through everything and turning everything around.

Um, but, I think, uh, I don’t know, I think anywhere here is really nice, honestly. I feel very at home here, and a lot of my friends work here.So there, at that lawn, or here and anywhere.

Kaska Hempel: Great, well good, that means that you’re in the right place for yourself.

 How did you get involved in, in doing what you do just now?

Rowan: I think it probably makes sense to describe the charity first because then it, it makes it a bit easier to describe why I’m here. Um, Uppertunity work with, uh, neuro and physio diverse individuals, like from 16 up. And the aim is to give sort of like, quality of life assurance and also, to create a, a more sustainable social environment for a lot of people.

A lot of people like myself who really struggle, uh, not being around people that are like me. Um, I’m autistic, so it, it helps to be able to be around a lot of people who are like me, and who have the same diagnosis, or who are seen the same way by a lot of people. So we have a lot of similar life experiences.

 So I met Daniela who runs the charity about three years ago, um, and, uh, things weren’t great at the time, I guess, uh, I was kind of coming off of being homeless, um, and, uh, I didn’t have any money, and she paid me 300 pounds to paint the wall of her cafe. Uh, which was great, and then she, uh, she let me volunteer, and then that kind of helped me get this routine going, um, to a point where I don’t, you know, feel a threat of being in the position that I was anymore, and then she started paying me money to learn how to make a garden. So, yeah, I think that about kind of winds it around, um.

Kaska Hempel: Amazing. It’s amazing. Yeah. You seem to be in such a happy place right now.

Rowan: Yeah, yeah. You would have seen something very different a few years ago, that’s for sure.

Kaska Hempel: Um, so when I say… community garden, what comes first into your mind?

Rowan: The people who are going to be in it, I think. Um, but also I think like close, close second if not competing with first is like everything that lives here.

You know, obviously we live here as humans and we occupy this space, but there’s there’s hundreds of thousands more animals and insects here right now, above our heads even, that have been here way before us. So, I think, for me, the task of the garden is, um, firstly trying to learn about rewilding, and trying to learn how to make the garden self-sustainable, rather than it having to depend on human input as much.

And then, the second, well, competing first objective is to make it accessible. Uh, cause, as far as I understand, there aren’t any accessible, fully accessible gardens in Dundee. I think maybe Barn Hill Rock Garden is accessible. It really depends, you gotta ask people who need the accessibility.

 And what I see is that a lot of people who come here who require the accessibility to be able to go round the garden, uh, don’t have it still. So, they kind of have to stick to roads and, and the paths and it would just be nice if people could actually be out inside this really nice space.

Um, so yeah, making it accessible and also making it self-sustaining. I think those are my two, my two objectives.

Kaska Hempel: Not a small ambition. No. Why not? Why not? What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt since getting involved in the garden itself?

Rowan: About gardening or about people?

Kaska Hempel: Both maybe?

Rowan: When you get the time, you’re out here a lot. Like, for hours and hours on end. And, um, you may be working on things that take a long time to bring together to full fruition. But we’ve got, quite a few projects on the go all at once at the minute. Because we need to bounce around them.

And that’s because a lot of people obviously have different capabilities. We want everybody to be able to join in and take part in it and make a piece of it happen. Often no matter who you’re spending time with, you’re always sharing stories or you’re, you’re sort of learning more about yourself through talking to people.

Um, and I didn’t, I didn’t maybe expect people to be as broad and as, uh, um, sort of… full of stories as they are. Which maybe sounds a bit strange, but, uh, it’s certainly a lot more than I expected. I have to, I have to take in a lot of information in a day, you know, um, but it’s, uh, it is certainly surprising and, and it, it, it kind of, um, I don’t know, it feels very normalizing, I suppose. Um, yeah.

Kaska Hempel: And did you learn anything about gardening as well?

Rowan: Oh God yeah! Absolutely. Um, I, uh, I think a lot of what we’ve been learning about at the minute is how to prepare the space. Like, if you look around now, it’s obviously quite ramshackled. Um, but there are things with purpose happening.

 A lot of what we’re doing is trying to just prepare the ground. Um, when we got here, uh, the whole place was kind of arid. I think if we look around now we can, we can see bees and birds and we can hear birds, that’s for sure. Um, but we can see a lot of other things as well if we start looking around and, and none of that was here. Like there wasn’t there wasn’t any bees. There wasn’t any like hoverflies or little smaller insects or anything.

And so if there were any plants here, they were really sparse and they were only flowering, I don’t know, like maybe one or two heads or something, you know.

And learning about how important it is to, to sort of be able to hold, groundwater, and, and, and, and just how impenetrable ground can be when, without you even realising. You can look at it and think it’s like a verdant space, but then you dig down about an inch and it’s bone dry.

Um, so, yeah, learning how to… just how to, how to maintain the ground and how to, like, actually bring some life into it. Even just with little flowers or just greener grass. It’s a good place to start because it’s important.

Kaska Hempel: Yeah, it sounds like you’re well on your way. So, what inspires you? Or maybe, who inspires you?

Rowan: Everybody here, I think. It’s quite hard not to walk into that left hand wing of the building and not feel inspired because, uh, as strange as a life I’ve had, there’s people in that room who’ve had a much stranger life than me. Um, for no reason, you know, other than, uh, people see them as being just a bit too different, you know.

There’s a lot of people in that room that, uh, I don’t know, I just, I’ll sit down and I’ll have a conversation with them and then I think about… sort of my life and theirs and I, I tend to think about the harder things that have happened to me that realistically will have happened to them as well and just how much easier it’s been relatively for me to deal with those knocks than it has for a lot of people who come in that room. Um, and so it’s nice to just sit among people who actually know how you feel, um, but also people that you legitimately feel like you could actually help have a slightly better day and a bit of a better week.

Um, and yeah, I’m always just impressed, really, uh, by just people coming in and just living their life. Like, because there’s a lot of opposition and I think a lot of people don’t see the opposition because they don’t spend time around the people that I spend time around. Um, and they don’t spend time around neuro- or physio-diverse people at all. Most people. Well, they maybe do but they don’t know it, you know.

I think there’s a lot to learn from people. So it’s, it’s… Yeah. People. People. Always people. Always people.

Kaska Hempel: I always ask at the end of the interview to sort of take a minute to imagine, let’s say this space that you’ve been talking about, and your community of people here that you’ve created, Ten years from now, and sort of imagine the best possible future for it.

 Rowan: Yeah.

Kaska Hempel: And if you could share a single memory from that. future with our listeners.

Rowan: Yeah. I think it comes back to accessibility.

Uh, the main thing that I would like to be able to see is someone maybe in a chair or a walker go from that gate to that gate. Because I know from looking after my grandparents, people in chairs and walkers don’t get to experience a lot of this, uh, which is silly, because we have the capability to be able to make it so, so why isn’t it. Um, so I, my, future memory, I’d like to be able to see somebody over there, uh, who wants to meet someone who’s over this other side, and I’d like to be able to see them meet in the middle.

That would be what I’d like to see.

Kaska Hempel: Great. Great vision. So, is there anything that you’d like to add?

Rowan: We need help. I’m primarily one person. It’s me and Ed, really, on the job. I mean if we’re doing the work you might need to be more capable for physically. Um, we definitely need help with that because we’re getting pretty tired.

Um, but also, I, it’s not like we’re looking for a specific kind of person to come down. We just want someone who’s committed and wants to make some element of change, but can, can just get along with, with the swing of things, I suppose, because we change minute to minute a lot of the time. Um, yeah, but we need help. So, if anybody wants to come down…

Kaska Hempel: Well, thank you very much for talking to me.

Rowan: That’s okay. Thank you for coming and talking to us and seeing the garden as well.

Kaska Hempel: Rowan rejoined others at the stall while I looked for the best route to my next stop at the Victoria Community Garden. Tune in next Monday for my chat with their garden coordinator Gisela.

In the meantime, you can find links to more information on the Uppertunity and their Growing Group, as well as their other fab projects: Serendipities Catering and ReBoutique Upcycling Shop in the resource section of the show notes. They have lots of videos telling stories behind the projects and people involved. I also included the link to the Dudhope Castle stop of an audio tour we’re putting together with Dundee Community Garden Network.

Catch you next week!


Uppertunities Growing Spaces Group

Uppertunity website (including ReBoutique and Serendipities project) 

Uppertunity on Facebook

The Circle 

History of the Dudhope Castle, including reasons for its nickname “People’s Castle” (Video) 

Barnhill Rock Garden