Horatio’s Garden: The life-changing gardens that ‘give you hope and take away the darkness’

George Plumptre visits the extraordinary Horatio Garden in Salisbury, an “inspiring place” that demonstrates the power of horticulture.

Recently, while visiting a friend in the hospital, I came across what was called a garden. It was a sad business, there was more concrete than plants, and, sandwiched between the hospital wings, there was little light and no view. This did not give the patient any rest or consolation; rather, on the contrary, it most likely spoiled his mood. Quite different from Horatio’s Garden, located next to the spinal cord injury unit at Salisbury County Hospital in Wiltshire, which opened in 2012. From what used to be the hospital car park, patients can now look out over a strip of perennial grasses and sanguisorba, surrounded by an apple walk, overlooking the distant chalk plain. As one patient said: “It’s such an inspiring place, it gives hope and takes away the darkness of being in a clinical environment.”

Garden designer Clive West showed how to solve a difficult non-horticulture problem. It had to have unhindered access from the adjacent ward for both wheelchairs and hospital beds, as well as smooth and even paths. They form the skeleton of the garden, along with low limestone walls in the shape of a human spine, which also serve as seats. There is a garden room for year-round socializing, as well as a greenhouse and garden therapy area where patients can actively garden at wheelchair height.

Ten years after Salisbury, in 2022 in Wales, the last Horatio Garden, designed by Welsh designer Sarah Price, opened at Llando University Hospital, Cardiff. Although it fits the same brief, it is full of subtle differences and individual idiosyncrasies. She wanted to convey a sense of the diversity of the Welsh landscape, so her trademark impeccable paths wind around flowerbeds with meadows, fragrant, vegetable and flower gardens. Shrubs and small trees have well-defined trunks, with foliage canopies to overlook the garden, and various flower beds contain a succession of perennials depending on the season. The beautifully designed pavilion and conservatory allow gathering and gardening throughout the year.

Sobering is the fact that these gardens are part of a group born out of a shocking tragedy. In 2011, 17-year-old schoolboy Horatio Chapple was killed by a polar bear while on an expedition to Norway. Horatio’s father, David, is a consultant spinal surgeon at the Salisbury District Hospital, where Horatio volunteered just a few weeks before the expedition. He found that what patients yearned for was access to the garden; after his death, his parents, David and Olivia (an internist), decided that the Salisbury Ward garden would be a suitable legacy for their son and set about implementing it.

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The Salisbury project showed Mr and Mrs Chapple the benefits of a garden for patients. They knew it was one of 11 spine departments in UK hospitals, so they set about engaging with the relevant hospitals to get permission to build a garden outside their specialist department, raise the necessary funds and select another designer. for each. Now there are gardens in six cities: Salisbury, Glasgow, Stoke Mandeville, Oswestry, London and Cardiff. Work began in Belfast, followed by Sheffield, Hartlepool, Wakefield and Southport.

All gardens are strikingly different, and yet there is a common thread. Some of it is the sheer quality of the design, the craftsmanship and the individuality of the plantings, but it is also the general inspiration to work for such a deserving audience, as proposed by Tom Stuart-Smith, who designed the London Garden. “It’s something that gives people hope, change and growth and has the power to change their lives when they need it most.”

Most people who become patients in the spinal cord injury department have experienced an accident that has changed their lives. They invariably stay in the hospital for an unusually long time and are completely or partially immobilized. All these factors mean that confinement in a ward is especially difficult. Access to a garden, fresh air, plants, and privacy becomes disproportionately beneficial.

As far as I know from experience, in the past hospital gardens were quite haphazard. Horatio’s garden showed what was possible. From a small, family-run charity, it has grown into an organization of national importance. His achievement was elegantly summed up by Horatio’s mother, now chairman of the charity: “Horatio’s garden changes the way hospital gardens are viewed. We show the possibilities for great garden design in the clinical environment and the impact this has on the health of patients, families and staff.”

George Plumptre is the Executive Director of the National Garden Scheme, which is the largest contributor to the Horatio Garden (www.ngs.org.uk; www.horatiosgarden.org.uk).

The NGS executive and regular contributor to Country Life chooses a family portrait to hang on the wall.

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