Bringing joy from tragedy

Horatio Chapple had the idea for a garden specifically for spinal injury patients. After his death, his family created an attractive and practical garden that also stands as a lasting memorial to an inspired young man

Some gardens have a mighty heart, and Horatio’s Garden is brimful. The concept was dreamed up by 17-year-old Horatio Chapple who, keen to study medicine, volunteered over two summer holidays at the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre in his local Salisbury District Hospital.
Horatio Chapple
‘Horatio spent much of his time chatting to the patients, who are among the few that are likely to spend months rather than days in hospital, because of the nature of spinal injuries,’ says his mother, Olivia. Noticing that their only access to the outside space was a smoking area in the corner of a car park, Horatio came up with the idea of creating a garden.

‘I thought it was a fantastic idea,’ says Olivia, ‘and I said “if you want it to happen then quantify it, do your research”. So he did: he identified an area of rough grass next to the spinal unit, then started talking to the patients and the staff about what they would want from a garden. He even drew some sketches.’

In August of that second summer, 2011, Horatio joined an expedition to Svalbard in Norway. One morning the camp was attacked by a polar bear, and Horatio was killed. From the horror and shock of this terrible moment there quickly arose a determination among his family and friends to create the garden he had thought so much about.

‘It seemed such a natural legacy. It had been the hot topic when he had left. I wanted to create something good out something so awful,’ says Olivia. Fundraising began among the family’s closest connections, but quickly grew and gathered pace; by November Olivia had raised the £350,000 needed to build the garden.

A place to escape

Horatio’s own research was essential in setting the direction for the garden. ‘He had found that most of the patients were resistant to the idea of a “therapy” garden,’ says Olivia. ‘They were struggling with life-changing injuries, and being constantly challenged to overcome them. Patients didn’t want more challenge when they came out here – they had enough of that indoors. The two words that came up again and again “accessible” and “beautiful”. They just wanted to escape.’

Olivia consulted gardening friends Mark Fane and Tom Stuart-Smith, who both suggested Cleve West as designer, confident he could be trusted with the ‘beautiful’ side of the brief. Cleve knew the centre well, having spent time there with an injured relative, so he was fully aware of the benefit the garden could bring.

But in fact the accessibility came before the beauty. One of Cleve’s first moves was to ask to be pushed around on a hospital bed, just as many of the patients would be experiencing the garden. ‘It’s a completely different way of experiencing the outdoors,’ he says, ‘you feel vulnerable and quite out of control, and you feel every tiny bump.’

A smooth surface and wide paths were essential to the garden, and the smoothness had to be extreme, limiting the landscaping materials that could be used. The whole area was levelled completely, the paths were built from resin-bound aggregate, and there are no thresholds on any of the entrances.

Olivia says, ‘For patients just starting to learn to use wheelchairs after spinal injuries, any bump more than a centimetre and we may as well build a brick wall.’ The path is wide and swoops around the garden, opening up into a larger area for events, narrowing under an enclosed walkway with a trickling rill, and leading to quiet nooks to sit alone or with visitors.

As well as serving patients, this garden is for visitors, too, who may well spend hours and days at the hospital. Olivia says: ‘I was talking to a patient, a young man aged 21, and he said his friends feel awkward about visiting and sitting by his hospital bed, but if it is a nice day they will come because they know they can all go out into the garden. It’s easier.’

Several curving dry-stone walls, representing the spine, snake through the borders, all of which are thickly planted with perennials. ‘I had to look at the garden from the patient’s point of view. Patients are often here for a long time and are in a clinical, unnatural environment for most of it. They want colour, texture and scent and want it to be different every time they come out here. It was obvious this had to be a perennial garden,’ says Cleve.

Aruncus ‘Horatio’, which bears plumes of creamy white flowers in midsummer, has become an important plant both visually and symbolically, and is used throughout the garden. Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’ with its bold black and white spires is found repeatedly, as are delicate, white, floating flowers of Libertia.

This ever-changing display, plus bulbs in spring and bedding plants in containers, makes for a high maintenance garden. Part of the garden’s mission, therefore, is to raise enough money each year to employ Head Gardener Stephen Hackett to keep it at such a high standard. Stephen is helped out year-round by many dedicated volunteers, who are proud recipients of the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.

‘Everyone loves the garden, and can see how much it means to the patients,’ says Olivia. ‘There is something transformative that happens when patients come out here, a physiological change – you see it sometimes. They can be really emotional. It is completely different to inside the hospital.’

For her, the garden – and the sister projects it has spawned at spinal units at Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire, Oswestry in Shropshire and in Glasgow – have been a focus for her own energies, and for her love for Horatio. ‘This has such an amazing impact every day, and I am doing it all on Horatio’s behalf. I know that he would have done this.’
Discover more about Horatio's Garden

*This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of The Garden magazine

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.