It is a garden whose fertile soil grows leeks, tomatoes, skills and confidence.

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The historic walled garden and greenhouses at Holt Hall are not just putting food on the table of the “big house” as they have done for generations - but also changing the lives of people needing a helping hand in life.

Youngsters enter its gates and sweeping woodland drive with special needs and out of step with mainstream education.

They leave with a wheelbarrow full of self esteem and ambition having been nurtured by an award-winning Roots and Shoots project.

Youngsters who struggle in the classroom eagerly roll up their sleeves in the great outdoors. Some who barely speak at school suddenly blossom amid the vegetable patches and compost heaps of an education centre where the pens and exercise books are replaced by forks and hoes.

Project manager and lifelong gardening fan Chris Wright has just been named as one of north Norfolk’s community heroes in awards run by the Victory Housing Trust and North Norfolk News.

He has run the project since 2007 after being headhunted from Sidestrand Hall special school where he ran outdoor learning for students with complex learning and behavioural problems - having learned teaching skills during a 30 police career which saw him range from beat and community relations work to training young officers.

It began by getting students involved in growing produce in the restored walled garden - but now sees students and adults with a range of educational, physical and learning problems visiting and finding new experiences and hope.

“We wanted to create opportunities for students to learn about horticulture and gain qualifications as well as making it an all-round experience,” said Mr Wright from Beeston Regis.

“Most students get a qualification in some form of work or work-related learning,” he added. “Everyone has a skill.”

Mr Wright cites success stories such as:

●A teenager who lacked confidence and had learning needs going on to start his own gardening business and seeking more qualifications at college.

●A twice-excluded lad with a range of behavioural issues who went back to mainstream school armed with the vision to go to college and seek training to work in farming

Holt Hall factbox

Holt Hall nestles in 83 acres of secluded woodland with lakes lawns and gardens off the Kelling Road just past the town recreation ground.

It has been a special place for generations of Norfolk people spending educational visits there, and still hosts about 30,000 youngsters a year on courses.

It also hosts events such as a Fairy Fair, Lego festival, a Dubs at the Hall gathering of VW fans and is also a wedding venue.

But it is seeking to widen its appeal and open its gate to the public more often to help raise funds to ensure its survival.

It holds an open gates session for people to explore on the third Sunday of every month.

To find out more visit www.norfolk.gov.uk/outdoorlearning

Students from Woodfields special school’s sixth form at Sheringham were at the project when the News visited.

Alistair Grant from Norwich busied himself digging compost into the vegetable plots announcing: “I like forking up the pig poo and weeds.”

Chloe Brewster from Dereham cheerfully collected chillies in the greenhouse and helped take down dying tomato plants, saying she had fun planting bulbs including in the pots in Holt town centre which Roots and Shoots has the contract for tending.

Schoolmates planted garlic in neat rows, glued bamboo into birdhouses to make bug and bee hotels, and painted pots for Christmas dried flowers.

Teacher Ruth Diver said the weekly visits gave the students confidence and saw them learn to take instruction from strangers.

Roots and Shoots has also designed gardens for schools, teamed up with the Hunny Bell pub at Hunworth to create a kitchen garden and teaching high school students cookery, and produce its own art and sculpture on the site.

Its achievements have earned it a hat trick of accolades this year which also include an environment award from the district council and a Bernard Matthews food champion prize for its Hunny Bell scheme.

Mr Wright said the awards were great for raising the profile of the scheme, and the prize money was being put towards courses to help young people use their new-found skills to find employment including setting up their own ventures.

The project gets its income from fees, as well as some grants and fund raising - and is always in need of financial and volunteer support. To lend a hand call 01263 713117 or email rootsandshoots@holthall.norfolkedunet.gov.uk

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