Given the complex nature of many of the conditions treated here, parents can often spend months on end at the hospital. And for some of our smallest patients, the hospital is the only home they’ve ever known.
Dr Vin Diwakar, Medical Director at Great Ormond Street Hospital
Put this way, you can see how great a gift a garden might be. In a children’s hospital like Great Ormond Street, which is so geared up to helping patients and families get on with normal life under abnormal conditions, the lack of somewhere to go to think quietly and escape from the bright lights and constant noise of a large hospital has been sorely felt.
Not any more. Joining the school where children can continue their education; a chapel; a Citizen’s Advice Bureau; parent accommodation and other services, is a green retreat right at the heart of the hospital. And we get to see all the complications of its installation this week on BBC’s DIY SOS Big Build.
A garden in a well
Given the brief, it’s not surprising that RHS Gold-winning garden designer Chris Beardshaw leapt at the chance to take on the challenge. Two-fold, it demanded, not only the creation of a garden in a difficult space, but one that Morgan Stanley would be proud to sponsor at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.
“It’s the first one I’ve done which has been quite as specific,” Chris told me at the show in May. Fortuitously, the size of the finished garden is very close to the standard plot size at Chelsea. Sixty extra square metres, not in the Chelsea design, are taken up with an additional terrace and pathways.
“It’s two storeys up over an old Victorian roof,” Chris said, “in the well of a ten-storey building, so there’s very little light direct into the garden.” It’s also overlooked by Intensive Care and the arterial corridor in the hospital. He first visited the hospital to talk about the challenges of a garden within its confines a year earlier. “We wanted the most people to see it most easily. It is at the genuine heart of the hospital.”
It is very much a contemplative space. “The point is this is for parents,” he added. “It’s a green chapel, somewhere they can catch their thoughts.”
Clinicians appreciate the need. “Having a quiet space can be invaluable, providing a much-needed place to pause and think when needing to make difficult decisions,” said Dr Diwakar. London has plenty of green spaces, but for some they’ve never been an option. “Things can change for our young patients in a single moment, so even a five-minute walk away from the hospital feels just too far.”
Garden design reflects Great Ormond Street philosophy
It was talking with the clinicians, parents and patients that helped Chris create the philosophy of the garden. “The way in which the hospital works makes a unique relationship between parents, clinicians and children. In many hospitals you tend to hand yourself over. Here there’s a genuine dialogue.”
In the design, this element resolves itself into groups of threes—of pavilions, types of Cornus, circles. “Many parents feel as if their child is flawed. I also try to capture the fact that childhood is perfect. In geometric terms, the circle is the perfect form.” In the Taxus baccata topiary domes and pools of planting, and the main circle of planting that intersects with the canal, he represents this perfection.
Planting-wise, there is no coherence or obvious order, to reflect how children flit and move unrestrained. “It represents the ephemeral nature of childhood,” said Chris. Childhood is also represented by the statue 'Joy' that stands at the end of the canal, based on the artist's daughter Isla, who has “a boundless sense of elation”. “You think you know them for a split second," says Chris, "then there’s a glint in their eye and they change. Here the play of light changes with the water, waterlilies open and close. It’s a different experience each time.”
An awkward spot for a garden
Less obvious in the design are the constraints presented by the site. The deep well of enclosed space could have made it claustrophobic, but it has a tree canopy that breaks up the impression of overbearing surrounding walls. Deep shade is dealt with using lush planting, including Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum’ various hostas, geraniums, paeonies, primulas and Dryopteris, but neither of these challenges was the most important consideration.
"Each acer weighs 3.5 tonnes and they sit on the original columns that support the roof.” The roof structure also demanded planting beds of 700mm, filled only with a lightweight growing medium. “It all governed how we utilised space.”
Happily the constraints work to create a classical geometry that adds the desired serenity to the tapestry of trees, topiary, hedging and herbaceous plants. They also didn’t hinder Chris, sponsored by Morgan Stanley, from gaining a Gold at RHS Chelsea.
Don't miss it on DIY SOS Big Build
We’ll hear a lot more of the technical challenges when DIY SOS’s Nick Knowles and his team are shown transporting the garden across London and craning full-size trees over the buildings, not to mention his scepticism that such a small green space can help parents who are watching their child in pain.
It promises to be a fascinating and, yes, emotional programme. “This project is one of the most significant and poignant gardens of my career,” said Chris. I know I’ll be glued to BBC1 Thursday 10th November at 8pm.
NB In case you're wondering, as I did, what happened to the canal when the garden moved to Great Ormond Street Hospital, it was decided not to include water as it was not worth the risk of water-borne diseases in a hospital situation.