Two local businesses are working together to bring Bedford’s first ‘living wall’ to an overlooked corner of St Cuthbert’s Street.
The patch of wall, on the side of The Store at St Cuthbert’s Arcade, will soon be home to a framework of over 1,000 plants, selected by Alan Cooley and built in sections at his small-holding in Stevington.
The project was the brainchild of Rosanna Heasman, owner of The Store, who was able to apply for a Town Centre Priority grant from Bedford Borough Council to bring her vision to life.
The benefits of the wall include improving local air quality, enhancing the town aesthetic, absorbing sound and heat to benefit the local environment and the benefit to our mental health of being around nature.
To mark Earth Day (22 April), the Bedford Independent spoke to Rosanna and Alan about what the project – which will be unveiled in early summer – means to them and to Bedford.
“When I opened The Store, I knew I wanted to do business differently,” said Rosanna.
“I wanted to be more hands-on, more people-focused, less profit-driven and to measure our success by how much positive change we could bring, over how much money I could make.”
For Rosanna, The Store isn’t just about getting people to switch to buying less plastic or choosing eco-friendly products, but also about helping to create a greener, healthier, more conscious world, and making Bedford a better place in the process.
She was encouraged to apply for a grant from the Town Centre Priority Fund, set up to realise ideas that would enhance the town centre and bring people back into Bedford. The £8,000 grant will cover the majority of the costs, with Rosanna contributing the shortfall.
“I love being on St Cuthbert’s Street and I’m passionate about loving where you live and bringing change, creativity and innovation to where you are,” she said.
“The space that the living wall will be constructed on is a gross, completely unnoticeable and desolate wall, that many of us won’t have really taken note of before.
“People keep seeing shops closing and things moving, and I want to show that life can come from these dead spaces and maybe something better than before.”
Seeds of success
Alan Cooley, of Silverfields Living Walls in Stevington, was keen to get on board with the project as soon as he chatted to Rosanna.
“I loved what Rosanna wanted to do,” said Alan. “She’s got ambition and passion and it’s a privilege to be able to work with her to create Bedford’s first living wall.”
Alan has spent the last decade working with Adam Shepherd at Tapestry Vertical Gardens, creating bespoke living walls all over the country, but with a large focus on London. This is Alan’s first solo project.
“We build the structure in sections at our small-holding in Stevington to allow the plants time to establish and then piece it all together on site,” explained Alan.
“The preparation off-site takes several weeks, but the actual transformation of the wall is really quick and usually installed in a day.”
The location of the wall – in a sunless corner of St Cuthbert’s Street – proved challenging plantwise, but Alan has chosen 20 varieties of evergreen plants that will not only enhance the street, but also the air quality.
“Over 1,000 plants are going to be working overtime to drag pollutants out of the air,” he said.
Bringing life back to the town centre
In November 2020, Rosanna put together a plan to give something back to Bedford to help the town move forward and heal following months of retail closures and lockdowns.
“If all we see are closed down shops, lifeless concrete, neglected buildings and dead spaces, that will start to affect our mood,” she said.
“So I thought why not let’s start taking some of those ugly, everyday places people see on their way in and out of work, or on their daily walk, and why not make it something worth looking at.”
Cllr Henry Vann, the portfolio holder for the town centre, said the council was committed to supporting new ideas that enhanced visitor experiences and encouraged footfall.
“This is a really exciting project which I am delighted has been secured with support from the Town Centre Priority Fund,” he told the Bedford Independent.
“I encourage everyone to visit the living wall to see it for itself when it formally opens and continue to shop local and support our amazing independents, town centre and Embankment gardens.“
A borough council spokesperson said, “The Town Centre Priority Fund was set up so that local groups and organisations can propose projects that will increase footfall in the town centre and contribute to the overall vision of a town centre that is vibrant, accessible, green and diverse.
“The Living Wall project does exactly that by creating a brilliant town centre spectacle that can be enjoyed by shoppers and visitors alike, whilst creating a more pleasant environment for residents by purifying the air and reducing levels of noise pollution.
“We look forward to seeing how this project develops and getting to enjoy the Living Wall once it has been installed.”
Rosanna said that seeing shops reopening has made people feel good about life coming back in and around the town.
“Seeing things with life does have a positive impact on us, so hopefully this has the same impact,” she said.
“Maybe we’d start to see and believe there’s still life in our old town yet.”
Because, as Rosanna says, even though it’s only a small contribution, surely walking past a beautiful, thriving, living, green wall will make any bad day feel better.