I started working from home when I first set up private practice, back in 1990. Parents frequently commented they liked that they were coming into my home instead of a clinic. I worked school hours so my therapy room doubled up as my children’s playroom. While my children had the advantage of having a sensory integration playroom, it wasn’t an appropriate long-term arrangement.
I thought the cottage was perfect for what I wanted. It had two barns, a byre, a loose box and two rooms either side of the kitchen, a bathroom out back, and a tiny upstairs bedroom. The garden, 0.8 acre, was totally wild and overgrown with docks, nettles and reeds. The ground itself was typical of the Drumlin County of Down, full of stones and rocks, even bedrock. I can remember bringing my children to see it and saying to them I just had this strong feeling, which I admitted was totally illogical, that it would be mine.
The next major challenge was to convince the bank they should give me a 100% loan, so I could put in a cash offer. The Bank amazingly agreed to fund the project. The manager said to me it was against his better judgement but he was willing to give me a chance.
When I began to seriously think about moving my practice I thought “what could be more perfect than a cottage in the country with a half-acre site?”. The fact that I was only barely managing to stay in the black and had no savings didn’t deter me from my search. Finding the cottage was a challenge in itself, as there was a Government grant scheme in place that encouraged farmers to knock down their old traditional cottages and replace with them with modern bungalows. The grant was 95%.
After I had phoned eighteen estate agents throughout Northern Ireland my husband eventually found a cottage advertised in the local newspaper. It was derelict and had a demolition order.
My first priority when I got the place was to recreate a home space for parents and children, where they could feel at ease and enjoy their time at the cottage.I hadn’t any money to do the garden so it remained derelict, and was a no go area for children. I eventually had part of the garden cleared to create a lawn. The stones collected reached the height of the house. For the next several years I had a gardener who mowed the lawn. He also patiently worked on a patch of stony ground and actually grew some vegetables. After fifteen years of neglect the garden was increasingly beckoning. I began to regularly walk the tiny piece of land with my husband Ray. Slowly ideas began to form in my head as I looked at the lay of the land and considered how it might provide for the sensory and attachment needs of both children and adults.
I am a creative thinker who doesn’t have the practical know how. Luckily my husband is the practical one, he has a civil engineering degree. So I would constantly tell him my wild extravagant notions and expect him to work out the logistics of changing my ideas into reality. However neither my husband or myself are gardeners so we needed a bit of expert help. At one stage I approached a horticultural student who attended the local college to ask would the college be interested in becoming involved in the project. The word back from the College was my ideas for garden were too complicated. One look at the soil didn’t help either. I was told students were used to digging decent soil, not stones. Various other appeals for gardening expertise fell by the wayside. I eventually decided last year that we just needed to get on with it ourselves and make the garden happen.
I began by getting a tree surgeon to identify the trees that were diseased or unsafe. The Cypress tree needed to be cut down, it was later to become the base of the Tree Boat. We have since planted over 40 trees, all native species.
Next a “digger” man was employed to come and dig a womb shaped pond. He also re-dug the lawn area to lay down drainage pipes. During that process he dug up a massive boulder that is now the entrance to the labyrinth walk. I never thought I would get excited about stones, but having decided to get part of the dry stone wall repaired every stone that emerged from the soil was regarded as a precious commodity.
Ray and I also set about clearing and digging the rest of the side garden, which was eventually to become the Secret Garden. The docks and nettles were waist height. We decided needs must that we would buy weed killer to try and clear the site. I thought we could just spray it on and the work would be done. I phoned a friend of ours to ask for his advice. He laughed at my naivety and informed me we would have first have to use a scythe to cut down the weeds and then apply weed killer. With a lot of hard work we eventually got things under control, the plot was finally ready for the best bit, the creation of sensory-attachment spaces.