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A smiling garden gnome, dressed as a firefighter, oversees an unlikely paradise on the rooftop of Brixton Fire Station. The sound of a water feature, made from a repurposed fire hose, can be heard trickling between the neighbouring sirens, while daffodils and herbs try desperately to make an appearance from their pots, despite the recent cold weather.
The tranquil space is the London Fire Brigade’s first dedicated mindfulness garden, masterminded by Mat Rosendale, a watch manager at the station in charge of a team of 12 firefighters and two fire engines. Mat, 49, wanted to create the garden to provide his colleagues with a space to unwind, reflect and de-stress in between busy shifts. His own role ranges from responding to 999 incidents to leading community fire safety sessions. He tries to visit the space himself every day.
“It’s just nice to escape on your own for 10 minutes, just weeding, tidying and pottering. Then, if you’re very lucky, 10 minutes of admiring your handiwork,” he explains. “That 10 minutes sat quietly in the garden helps me to recharge my batteries and clear my thoughts. It gets me through the day.”
While Mat is clearly a joker among his team - insisting we photograph him in his favourite hat with a prop - he’s also first to admit working in the emergency services can take its toll on mental health. But the garden provides he and his colleagues with the chance to practice mindfulness, by allowing them to reconnect with the present and immerse themselves in nature, which Mat describes as “a form of therapy”.
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Gardening has always been part of Mat’s life. “My dad was a keen gardener and I often helped him out. It was nice doing something together. I am just about on top of my garden at home now,” he says. However, it wasn’t until two years ago, when he became a “blue light champion” through the mental health charity Mind that he first heard of mindfulness - focussing on the present moment to improve one’s mental health.
Mind’s Blue Light Programme is dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues across emergency services. For Mat, launching the garden as a specific space for mindfulness was a way of telling colleagues his door (or vegetable patch) is open if they ever want to talk. He joined the fire brigade at the age of 18 and, in his 31 years of service, has become gradually more aware of how prevalent mental health problems are across society.
“If you have no mental health problems, you have mental good health. But statistically, at some point in your life, you will come across problems,” he says. “If it’s not you, it could be your children, your wife, your mum or your dad who needs help.
The garden provides a safe space away from the office, Mat explains. If there’s something that’s troubling a colleague, they can go and chat – he doesn’t give advice, but is there to listen. “If they’ve got a problem they feel a little bit more relaxed to open up about it. Whereas inside, it’s a little bit too formal and official,” he says.
The calm atmosphere of the rooftop provides much-needed respite for Mat and his colleagues. While working for the fire brigade is rewarding, it’s also “very upsetting, quite often”, he says. “It’s not just human suffering, but it’s the loss and destruction of property that’s hard as well,” he explains. “It’s upsetting when you see people’s houses ruined and trashed along with their lifelong possessions.”
When a call comes in, Mat’s team need to be out of the door within 60 seconds. “The constant state of being keyed-up is exhausting,” he says. “All of the facilities in a fire station are geared up for immediate response, from the sliding poles to the quick opening doors. Even your dinner plate has your name on it ready for when you come back.”
But spending time in the garden forces the team to slow down on their breaks. “It is good to listen to the noise around you: the sirens, trains, cranes, building site,” he says. “When you properly relax, you can then hear the birds, the bees and the gentle breeze. That’s when you are in the mindful zone.”
His favourite times in the garden are at night. “It’s at its best around midnight in the summer when the solar lights are all on,” he says.
Around 50 people work at the station and “most of them muck in” to help out with the garden upkeep. Some arrive early to spend time among the greenery before beginning a shift, and the team are planning to grow vegetables to include in the meals they eat together.
While the garden is only open to those at at station and their visitors, Mat recommends gardening to anyone looking to improve their wellbeing, whatever industry they’re in. “Your ‘garden’ can be as big or small as you want it. It could be just a few pot plants or tubs,” he says. “It becomes a good talking point. Give it a go!”