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Bury St Edmunds youth project is flourishing in the calm of a secluded spot beside cathedral

Tucked away behind old flint walls in the shadow of St Edmundsbury Cathedral’s millennium tower, The Yard is easy to miss.

But that secluded setting in the cathedral grounds makes it the perfect sanctuary for the young people who use it - a place they can call their own.

The Yard is home to a community youth project where they can learn new skills, make friends, improve their mental health, wellbeing and resilience … or simply chill and toast marshmallows round the fire pit.

The Yard before renovations
The Yard before renovations

But just a few years ago it was a derelict site, overgrown and used for storage and a dumping ground. That all began to change in 2020 when Covid lockdowns paralysed the country and clamped down on the usual ways of seeing friends.

Young people involved with the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds were wondering how to meet up within the rules when their eyes lit on the desolate-looking patch of ground that was once the backyard of a kebab shop.

They identified it as somewhere they could get together and do something useful at the same time by renovating the area. With then-cathedral curate the Rev Sarah Geileskey supporting them and acting as a motivational force an idea took shape that would not only clean up the site but also give it a future.

The Yard after renovations
The Yard after renovations

Four years later The Yard has been reborn as a safe space for holiday and after school activities and one-to-one sessions that include scrap-woodworking, eco crafts and horticulture - and the transformation is still going on.

Even in the depths of winter the outdoor area and renovated single story garden room are full of signs of current use and preparations for the seasons ahead. A recent £10,000 National Lottery grant will help it carry on and expand its activities over the next 12 months.

Twenty years ago the area became part of the education department at the cathedral and was an outside classroom with the garden room used for crafts and activities. The department, now known as the Learning Hub, moved into the Cathedral Centre around 2009.

Project leader Jane Dow at The Yard
Project leader Jane Dow at The Yard

Jane Dow, project lead for The Yard, says: “When young people connected with the cathedral became involved during the lockdown they realised it had potential to become a permanent youth space. We had a steering group including the young people. They were involved at every stage of the process.”

Initial funding came from the Dulverton Trust - an independent grant-making charity that supports UK charities tackling social issues, protecting the natural world, and preserving heritage crafts.

More money came from the National Lottery #iwill Fund which supports social action opportunities for young people.

Cooking onion rings at the Yard
Cooking onion rings at the Yard

When Jane saw the job of project leader advertised, asking for a garden restorer, youth worker and fundraiser all in one role, she immediately recognised herself.

“I knew that was my job! I had those skills -I thought I am probably the only person with all those qualifications,” says Jane, a trained tree specialist.

“I was running volunteers for One Life Suffolk and before that I had been working for the Red Cross as fundraising manager for Suffolk and a youth engagement manager for Suffolk and Norfolk.”

Last year saw a successul potato harvest at The Yard - including “the world’s smallest potato”.
Last year saw a successul potato harvest at The Yard - including “the world’s smallest potato”.

She was also restoring a cottage, and is currently working on another, so also has DIY know-how. “I’m very practical. Skills I have picked up renovating the cottages comes in handy here, also my tree surgery work.

“I started at the beginning of 2022. We developed the project as we went along. Right at the start the young people from the cathedral called it The Yard.

“At first it was mainly restoration, then when we had holiday activity funding we ran our first activities.. We started to establish what was needed.

Pallet stripping at The Yard
Pallet stripping at The Yard

“Some of the children were really keen on woodwork, making bird boxes and benches. Others were keen on art. We also did mindfulness sessions,” said Jane, who in the past also trained as a meditation teacher.

“We never have more than eight children at a time, with three or four support workers. Some of the young people can be challenging.

“After lockdown a lot of them found it really difficult to build relationships … we were providing a safe space for them to build those relationships again.

“We have a small team of volunteers or sometimes parents or carers will stay - we always have a small pool of support workers who will make themselves available at times - people with relevant experience.”

Jane is passionate about the benefits of getting outside. “It’s about being in nature, and engaging with what’s around us - and not being on a phone. My generation had it automatically, just being outside and playing without a gadget in your hand.

“There is very strong evidence that outdoor projects like The Yard can be tremendously helpful in helping young people to restore mental health and build community.”

The Yard has bug hotels, bird boxes, a hedgehog home and the ‘leaning tower’ slightly wonky bird table, all made by youngsters out of scrap wood, as is the rain shelter with a green roof, covered in soil and planted with flowering sedum for the butterflies and bees.

A grape vine pergola will eventually provide shade, and be covered in a sweet variety of grape they will be able to eat.

“There are raised beds where we grew tomatoes and salad last year, dwarf fruit trees, blueberries, raspberries, and a strawberry planter made out of an old pallet,” said Jane.

“We had great success with courgettes and potatoes. We gave some of the courgettes to the cathedral cafe because we had so many. We also grew sunflowers, then used the seed heads on the bird table.

“Sausages are cooked over the fire pit. All our food is vegetarian, it’s easier and also done with sustainability in mind. We’ve also spent hours cooking onion rings over the open fire,

but what they really love is toasting marshmallows.

“We made nettle soup last year, and I thought it was absolutely delicious - the kids tried it but didn’t really like it. They prefer tomato and sweet potato.

“There’s also a quiet corner where they can go and sit under an overhanging canopy of ivy and chill with the blackbirds.”

Holiday sessions for 11 to 18 year-olds are open to families in West Suffolk eligible for the government-funded Holiday Activity and Food programme including those receiving free school meals, and refugees.

The peaceful location of The Yard, small group sizes, and relaxed atmosphere that takes things at their own pace, has proved particularly positive for young visitors.

“If they have autism they can’t be in a noisy space. The Yard is tucked away. They just feel safe here,” said Jane.

Last summer The Yard teamed up with Bury-based Innov8, a charity that provides mentoring sessions for young people from Suffolk who are outside mainstream education. Jane does one-to-one mentoring in term time.

The space is also opened up to Outreach Youth which supports LGBTQ+ young people, and Suffolk Family Carers.

Fundraising applications take up a lot of Jane’s time. “Community Action Suffolk are great at pointing you where to find money, and that’s also where my Red Cross experience comes in handy,” she says.

“The cathedral has given £1,000 for us to open additional hours, and with the lottery funding hopefully that will enable us to open extra hours for a whole year, late afternoons and weekends.

“We run as an independent project hosted by the cathedral. We also get admin support from them, and they are 110 percent behind the project, because we are really meeting a need.”

Last year The Yard’s work was recognised with a Suffolk High Sheriff’s Award, now framed on the wall of the garden room among the artwork.

For more information email janedow@stedscathedral.org or call her on 07747 540594.