In the latest instalment in a series showing how Durham is Powered by People, PETER BARRON meets the inspiration behind a community project that has grown out of adversity

SURROUNDED by neat rows of healthy plants – the fruits of her labours – Carole Lawford can’t hold back the tears as she recalls the day she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“I was terrified,” she admits. “I couldn’t see, couldn’t walk, couldn’t drive, and they told me I might need to go into a care home. Almost overnight, my life had changed beyond recognition.”

A year on Carole has shown remarkable resilience by swapping her career as a Government lawyer to run a community market garden business that’s proving to be a lifeline for isolated people in Sedgefield during the coronavirus crisis.

“I know my condition will get steadily worse, but I’m living my dream,” she says, punching the air with both fists as the tears are replaced with a smile.

Carole had to retire from the legal profession when her diagnosis was confirmed in April 2019.

A colleague had suggested Carole didn’t seem herself, so she’d gone to see her GP. From there she was sent to hospital, where she was initially treated for meningitis before tests revealed she had MS. By then her sight, mobility and short-term memory were all badly affected.

She still has double vision, needs a rollator to help her walk, finds speech difficult, has to write down basic information and relies heavily on ‘Alexa’ to keep her organised. Despite all of that, she has created something special on a little patch of land that runs adjacent to the playground at Sedgefield Primary School.

Carole has loved growing things all her life, recalling happy memories of planting radishes with her Grandad when she was a little girl. “I loved radishes because they grew quickly and were pink, which was my favourite colour,” she says. “I told Grandad it was magic, but he said: ‘No, it’s not magic – it’s mother nature.’”

Now Carole credits mother nature with giving her a new lease of life, despite the onset of MS which led to her having to move out of her cottage on the other side of town and into an adapted ground-floor flat overlooking a duck pond.

“I needed something to keep me looking forward, so I turned to the soil,” says Carole, who lives alone, but has her beloved ‘assistance dog’ – Honey, the cockapoo – for company and to help guide her home on the days when her memory fails.

With the help of her local Area Action Partnership (AAP) – one of a network set up by Durham County Council to give people and organisations in County Durham the opportunity to work together and take action on local issues – she launched a community interest company, called The Market Garden (Sedgefield), to produce fresh fruit and vegetables.

Carole was put in touch with Sedgefield Primary and, after discussions with head teacher, Andrea Cox, she took over the school’s strip of land, complete with a couple of greenhouses, and started a project called Growing Together In Sedgefield. The timing couldn’t have been better because it coincided with the lockdown being announced.

With more help from the AAP, Carole accessed a grant from the county council’s Covid Relief Fund to buy wood to build raised beds as well as a polytunnel, tools, canes, a hosepipe and a wheelbarrow. To ensure local projects were able to help those in need during the outbreak, the council dedicated £1.4m to a coronavirus support fund which has been shared amongst the county’s AAPs.

Three months into lockdown, the business has flourished. Mother nature has worked her magic, with Carole’s crop consisting of mixed salad leaves, onions, sweetcorn, carrots, green beans, runner beans, broad beans, Romanesco cauliflowers, shallots, beetroot, courgettes, cucumbers, peppers and strawberries.

The AAP helped Carole to put a plan together: sourcing other food staples such as bread, milk and eggs from local producers and recruiting volunteers to help bag it all up with the fresh fruit and veg then deliver it to those most in need.

“There are always going to be people who slip through the net,” says Carole, explaining that her ‘customers’ include elderly, isolated people; young families hit by job losses and cancer patients having chemotherapy. She also has a strong affinity with the military veterans’ community, with a passionate belief in the power of horticulture to boost mental health.

“I would have loved to be involved in making the deliveries and meeting people, but it’s just not possible,” says Carole. “This is such a lovely community – there are so many acts of love and kindness all around us.”

It is because of kind, resourceful and passionate people like Carole that the county council promotes Powered by People, putting people at the forefront of promoting Durham as a great place to live, work and grow businesses.

Cllr Brian Stephens, Cabinet member for neighbourhoods and local partnerships, describes Carole as “a fantastic example” of Powered by People: “Carole has done something incredibly positive for her community. The AAP supported this project with an award of £1,330 because it was much needed in the community to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.  It has excellent links and a partnership with the local primary school and it is sustainable. We hope to support the expansion of the project,” he says.

The next stage of Carole’s dream is to find another piece of land to expand the project. She’s also appealing for funding to have a summerhouse built, with a kitchen and rest area for the volunteers.

“This can go on bringing benefits to the community long after coronavirus,” she says. “It’s not just feeding people, it’s about education too – imagine the value it could add to the curriculum.”

Helping children to discover the magic of mother nature – just as she did when she first helped her Grandad plant radishes – is all part of Carole’s grand plan.

“The time will come when I can’t manage, but then I’ll be a customer – and we’ll need new people to take it over,” she says.

Glancing over the fence, into the fun-filled playground, Carole Lawford sees a lot more potential for her dream to grow.

  • If you can help Carole, please email her at
  • To find out more about the Powered by People movement, go to 


The Northern Echo: