Flower power restored

27th February 1998 at 00:00
The Chelsea Physic Garden in London fulfils all the requisites of Frances Hodgson Burnett's book: it is a secret garden. Pedestrians in Royal Hospital Road pass by its high wall oblivious of the richness within. Founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries, it was originally designed for the growth and study of medicinal plants.

After a period of neglect, it was resurrected to make a place that is a delight to wander in - a haven from traffic. More than that, the curator, Sue Minter, and her staff are active in providing a rich programme of botanic education, from public lectures to in-service training in environmental education for teachers and practical activities for primary schools.

Tucked away behind the original 17th-century curator's house where the main lecture room, tea room and offices are situated, is the new education centre. Funded by Lottery money, it opened in May last year.

One of the first groups to visit was a class of 11-year-olds who took part in a day of forensic biology. They crunched along the formal gravel paths, past the crooked hazel bush, the magnolia and the big iron gates which look out on to the Thames Embankment. They explored the beehives in the gardeners' yard and marvelled at the tree fern in the greenhouse.

Then, almost drooping in the heat of the tropical corridor built against the perimeter wall which links the greenhouses, they returned to the new classroom.

The pleasure of working in such a place is to see the garden unwrap its treasures through the seasons.

Dawn Sanders, the education officer, takes great pleasure in her work. "Our educational philosophy emphasises the experience of being here," she says.

With an arts background and a qualification in ecology and conservation, Ms Sanders likes school children to appreciate the aesthetic and the scientific aspects of the garden. She has equipped the education centre with everything a school could need for the sort of activities the garden offers, from pond-dipping to microscope work.

Sharon Duffy is a regular visitor, bringing pupils from Servite RC primary school in Kensington about four times a year - and in all seasons - as part of a structured programme. "We have a consultation with Dawn Sanders and set up a visit to fit in with the science scheme of work," she says. "She leads the activities on the day. We do things like seed dispersal on one occasion, identifying and grouping mini-beasts, or art with plants on another."

In the context of a topic on climate and plants, for instance, the tropical greenhouse corridor provides Servite children with first-hand experience of rainforest conditions. "They could do some of the work using books," admits Ms Duffy, "but it's so good for them to see plants cultivated in an environment that is manageable and to experience for themselves the differences in temperatures."

Another school that knows the garden well is Christ Church primary, only a few minutes' walk away. "I work with them a lot," says Ms Sanders. But it is not only local schools that benefit from her enthusiasm. Schools from 13 different boroughs have visited in the past year bringing some 2,500 pupils of all ages.

In-service training sessions are held to help teachers make best use of their own school gardens or local facilities. Two were run last year, which brought in outside expertise, including workshops on slugs, bees, photography and the cultural aspects of plants. Now that the classroom is open, in-service days can be arranged throughout the year.

Thanks to funding from Save amp; Prosper, an additional education officer has been recruited for two days a week. Michael Holland will help to develop the garden's growing education programme.

Supermaket botany - an offshoot of The Science and Plants for Schools' Supermarket Science - is the latest idea in the pipeline.

Virginia Purchon s Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 3HS. Tel: 0171 352 5646 for recorded information. Education office, extension 23. Open April to October, Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. Guided tours available. Entrance fee pound;3.50 (students, children and jobless pound;1.80). Education programme free for schools

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