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Meet the man who transformed a field into an oasis at Five Acre Wood School, in Boughton Lane, Maidstone

When Paul Atkinson arrived at Five Acre Wood School as head of horticulture in 2017, having left the manicured lawns and ferns of a private school, he had a mammoth challenge ahead of him.

In fact, there was no garden to speak of at the Boughton Lane site, only bare grass.

Paul Atkinson, head of horticulture, in the sensory garden Picture: Matthew Walker
Paul Atkinson, head of horticulture, in the sensory garden Picture: Matthew Walker

However, aided by volunteers and local businesses, he has created an oasis for the Maidstone school’s pupils, all of whom have special needs, where they can explore nature and escape from the obstacles they face outside its grounds.

Friends of Five Acre Wood School, a group dedicated to raising funds on the establishment’s behalf, is the Kent Messenger’s charity of the year for 2020.

Over the coming months we will be shining a spotlight on the school’s good work and the people dedicated to giving its 520 students, aged from three to 19, the best possible start in life.

Paul, 51, has been working in horticulture since he was 16 and was head gardener at Sutton Valence School, in Maidstone, for more than 20 years.

Whilst working there, his daughter, who had special needs, tragically died aged just 22 months.

Paul's daughter, who had special needs, tragically died aged just 22 months Picture: Matthew Walker
Paul's daughter, who had special needs, tragically died aged just 22 months Picture: Matthew Walker

Having always wanted to help children with similar needs, 10 years after his daughter’s death, and encouraged by his wife, he joined charity Autism Action.

The father-of-four said: “I spent 22 years working in a private school and people take that environment as normal. I just wanted to give something back.”

The month he joined Five Acre Wood, a £4,000 Tesco grant kick-started work on the ‘sensory garden’ project, which, it was hoped, would stimulate and calm the children by appealing to all their senses.

“I said ‘I want to build something different from anything else and it has to be accessible for all our children,’” Paul remembers.

The garden, roughly three-quarters the size of a football pitch, is focussed around a central hub with different paths leading off it, each offering a different sensory experience.

Paul Atkinson, head of horticulture, in the sensory garden, where children can play and explore Picture: Matthew Walker
Paul Atkinson, head of horticulture, in the sensory garden, where children can play and explore Picture: Matthew Walker

They range from a variety of plants which the children can feel with their hands to one route using underfoot textures, tailored for wheelchair users.

Paul and his team placed pieces of flat decking on a stretch of sand, to resemble a beach. A path which rises and falls to mimic the sensation of a roller coaster is also in the works.

There is a rock pool and a machine that sprays water, creating a misty effect, donated by a parent, and event a Hobbit hole under construction.

A raised outdoor aquarium is next on the list, where children can gaze as fish dart and meander under water.

“You can see the effect the garden has”, Paul says.

“It makes a massive difference to behaviour. The children don’t get so many anxiety attacks. It’s a place where they can calm down.”

The government only funds the basics at the Boughton Lane School, which has satellite classrooms in Allington and Snodland, and Paul relies on volunteers and donations from the community to keep the garden thriving.

"They love coming into the garden, they love being outside no matter what the weather..."

Some four tonnes of rock, given by the Maidstone based Gallagher Group formed the foundation of the site and even the children pitch in, with ideas and planting seeds.

Paul said: “It’s about them enjoying their surroundings and putting something into the garden. Because it is a community everybody feels responsible.”

Speaking at the unveiling of the garden, head fundraiser for Friends of Five Acre Wood School, Alex Meaders, said: “Two years ago it was just a grassy field and today it is full of incredible opportunities for our children to engage on a sensory level.

“They love coming into the garden, they love being outside no matter what the weather.”

The Kent Messenger is supporting the school’s Buy a Brick Campaign, which aims to raise £50,000 for a house where older pupils, can practice life skills. So far the total stands at nearly £12,0000. To donate, click here.

The KM Group is committed to helping the community through the KM Charity team. For more information and to find out what other good causes you can get involved in click here.

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone


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