Flower power blossoms on a council estate

Cyril Jenkins wanted to turn his grim estate into a green and pleasant land. He planted trees and borders and his dream slowly took root. But now there's trouble in his paradise. Sandy Bisp reports
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If Cyril Jenkins is guilty of anything, it is of planting too many flowers. During two weeks' remand in Swansea and Cardiff prisons, awaiting sentence for possessing 44 grammes of cannabis, the 53-year-old former miner got word from fellow inmates that he'd been "grassed up" after his gardening turned him into a local celebrity - and a few others green with envy.

Cyril has worked minor miracles improving conditions on the grim housing estate in South Wales where he has lived for 20 years. So much so that Fernhill, in the Cynon Valley, has become a model for other concrete wastelands around Britain.

Cyril's tiny council house looks out over 500 similar barrack-like structures on the estate, where 85 per cent of residents, most of whom are unemployed, receive housing benefit. Three years ago, after declaring war on vandalism, burglaries and muggings in Fernhill, Cyril decided to plant as many flowers as he could get his hands on. When hooligans tore them up or trampled them, he planted more. He planted trees, too. And each time they were hacked down, he started again.

"I was determined not to give up," he says. "Mind you, I can't count the trees I lost - apple, pears, cherry, almond - at the start.

"The state of things here was dreadful. It was like a refuse tip with old beds, burnt-out cars, dirty nappies - syringes, too - strewn all round. We'd have left, like, only we couldn't abandon the wife's elderly parents living down the road. We were stuck.

"There have been murders here and everything. After an arson attack on the Post Office, a Pakistani family running it left rather than risk being firebombed again. I couldn't stand the way things looked any longer and so I started to clear the place up."

His neighbour Mike John, a family man in his fifties, offered to help. "We cleared the junk and then went up on the mountain for dead timber to fence in the gardens," says Cyril. "By cutting lawns on a private estate, Sierra Pines, we got some money to pay for a few shrubs and we started planting."

Thus the greening of Fernhill happened against all odds, not least a hostile reception from local residents. "We'd plant things only to find next morning most of what we'd done had been destroyed. But we didn't give up. Every time we started again.

"And we had to educate a lot of people - postmen and milkmen as well - who'd walk across flowerbeds rather than use paths we'd made. When I went down the community centre to tell a meeting of 300 how we could all live in a better environment, I got called a Communist."

After working from the age of 15 in pits such as Deep Duffryn and Nantgarw collieries - now no more - Cyril is marked by the grey pallor of many sufferers from "dust disease", or silicosis. He also has emphysema but neither seemed a reason for giving up on Fernhill. Similarly, Mike, recovering from a heart attack, refused to relinquish their dreams for the place - images of pergolas mantled in wistaria (which back then they only knew as the "purple stuff") and festooned with sweet-smelling white roses.

"I didn't have a clue about gardening to begin with," Cyril confesses. Yet he spent heavily from his state benefits of pounds 102 a week, transforming a barren corner the size of a football pitch.

Then Mike stunned neighbours by ordering a mower, costing pounds 300, from a shopping catalogue - paying weekly - so communal grass areas could be kept neat.

Talk of their green-fingered evangelism reached the Merthyr and Cynon Groundwork Trust, offshoot of a national charity with 10 years' spadework in the area to its credit. "We heard what Cyril was doing and wanted to see if we could help with plants or tools," says Antonina Byatt, the trust's project officer for housing estates. "We didn't want to take over: he'd been so successful, largely because his whole scheme originated on the estate rather than being imposed by some outside agency.

"We were amazed how he'd won people over, hiring bouncy castles for smaller children and organising barbecues for others. He made it clear that anybody spoiling the gardens wouldn't be allowed to join in the fun."

Tyrone Sandhu, 26 and unemployed, lives alone on Fernhill. He offered to help the two older men "and so help myself by having something to do". Gradually, other residents on different pockets of the estate got the gardening bug. Sharon Davies, Pat Beasley and neighbours reclaimed tiny front gardens, swapping cuttings. "London Pride's big here," says Pat. Then the women started painting their houses to match their neat gardens.

Forbidding concrete underpasses - virtual no-go areas - were decked out with environmental themes: Groundwork's landscape architect Joanne Gosage drew bold outlines for toddlers, teenagers, mums, dads and pensioners to fill in with bright colours. Suddenly, Fernhill became a place of pilgrimage for other embattled housing estate residents from nearby Merthyr Valley and farther afield. Now Merthyr's notorious New Gurnos estate - riddled with unemployment and petty crime - plans to follow Fernhill's example.

Carol Davies, a 35-year-old mother of four, lives next door to a fire- gutted house on Heather Road, Gurnos (flower names for streets run riot here where none grow). Living in a "concrete bunker" made it almost impossible for her to get her husband into an ambulance two months ago for hospital treatment for a blood clot in the leg.

"The ambulance couldn't get close," she explains. "It took four men, including paramedics, two hours to carry him out. Access here is terrible, like everything else."

But heartened by what's been happening on Fernhill, Carol joined Gurnos residents' association. She knows hers, too, will be a hard fight, but, like Cyril, she is determined to prevail over endemic animosity.

"People say, 'Why bother?' But even if things get destroyed, you've go to keep trying, haven't you? We look out at steep banks and high walls and mess all round. Now Groundwork has drawn up plans to show how things could look, and we've started clearing up. The children love being given plants of their own and want to have their names on them."

On remand in prison, Cyril's visions of Fernhill in flower were fading. A few women took turns to sit in the sunshine beside currant bushes which last year yielded fruit for summer pies, but otherwise nothing else was being done for the glory of the garden. Everyone knew that without Cyril as a motivating force, this oasis could revert to a wilderness.

For possessing a small amount of cannabis to smoke occasionally in his own home, Cyril could pay a high price. His wife, Margaret, says: "He was a tearaway in his young days, yes, but that was long ago. And he's never been in trouble over drugs."

"They have their problems, but some magic people live on these estates," says Superintendent Jeff Carroll of the South Wales Constabulary. "Surveys among the elderly on Fernhill show a return towards a 'feel good' factor with people less afraid to leave their homes."

Thanks to one judge's awareness of the miraculous rehabilitative powers of plants, at Merthyr Crown Court last month a judicial olive branch was extended to Cyril, in the form of two years' probation with 100 hours' community service in the gardens he created from nothing. Those on Fernhill who acknowledge how much they owe him are delighted he's "doing a Cantona".

But the final irony for Cyril Jenkins will have been the vandalising of his gardens yet again - on the day he reported to his probation officer to begin his community service.

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