Surviving Cancer: The therapeutic power of gardens

Since 1927 the National Garden Scheme has been opening exceptional gardens to raise millions of pounds for nursing and health charities. And this year on June 2, Barbara Johnson is opening her glorious garden at Neasham Abbey near Darlington for the first time, not only to share her love of gardening but to celebrate Cancer Survivors Day too.

“The day is intended as a celebration of life, marking my recovery from colon cancer and the importance of my garden to my survival,” she says.

For Barbara, who ran a thriving boutique hotel business, keeping her cancer secret was important. “I wanted to keep running my business, it was 24/7 and although my daughter was fabulously helpful, I felt it was important for me to be there. I would have my chemotherapy at home and then go to work. It’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve told anyone outside the family about it.”

The stress of those difficult days was softened by her garden, a ten acre haven of tranquillity that borders the River Tees.

“I would walk the dogs around the garden planning what I would do with it when I was better. I had so many plans, that not surviving my cancer was never an option!” she adds. “I needed the tranquillity, I needed the peace, I needed to be surrounded by the garden, by the continuation of life. It played an important part in my recovery.”

River garden

Barbara’s haven of tranquility

Barbara says she knew instantly and instinctively when the cancer had gone and, when she sold her business three years ago, she at last had the time to realise her plans for the gardens at Neasham Abbey.

“I exchanged one kind of stress for another,” laughs Barbara. “But the stress of gardening and making it ready to open to the public is a wonderful stress!”

Barbara’s favourite spots in the garden are serenity corner, a place to rest at the end of a hard days gardening with a well-deserved gin and tonic while the sun sets around you and the ornamental pond.

“I have a chandelier hanging from the magnolia tree near the pond, it’s so sheltered that you can light the candles without them going out, and there’s a huge mirror reflecting the garden back at you,” she says.

Visitors on June 2 will be treated to a country house garden with views of the River Tees, a walled garden of beautiful old red brick surrounding shady borders, a newly planted orchard, a rose garden and an ornamental pond, there’s even a children’s adventure play area. There are even treats in store: “I intend it to be a celebration all the way, so we’ll be serving prosecco too,” says Barbara. And, should you want to talk about cancer, or gardening, Barbara is happy to chat… or perhaps you’ll slip off to serenity corner and simply enjoy the tranquillity.

Walled garden at Neasham Abbey

Neasham Abbey, Durham

The garden at Neasham Abbey opens on June 2, 1 -5pm. Refreshments will include home-made teas. Admission: Adults £5, Children Free. All proceeds support the National Garden Scheme and its beneficiary charities including Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie, the Queens Nursing Institute, Hospice UK, Parkinson’s UK and MIND.


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