Darren Hawkes: ‘This is what I should be doing’

Gold-medal winning designer Darren Hawkes talks about his personal mission to bring the Samaritans Listening Garden to RHS Chelsea

Darren Hawkes

RHS Chelsea has long been an opportunity for charities to raise awareness and champion their cause, though rarely is there such a personal connection between designer and garden. Not only is Darren Hawkes creating a show garden for Samaritans, he’s recently qualified as a Samaritans listening volunteer. When it comes to sharing the motivation behind the garden, it’s his time to talk and our turn to listen.

How did you get involved with Samaritans?
I approached them and said ‘can I build a garden for you?’ I had lost friends to suicide, I knew I wanted to do something that maybe dealt with that and I knew some of the materials I wanted to work with and the sort of garden it might be. Samaritans don’t hide away from those tougher questions and subject matters and that was really inspiring. 

This feels like a very personal project for you. You’ve trained to become a Samaritans listening volunteer as as well.
Yes, it wasn’t intentional for it to become personal, but there was a whole weird group of coincidences that happened. Just today, somebody I built a garden for years ago got in touch, I didn’t know he was a Samaritan, he’s now my (Samaritans) mentor. He also knew a friend of mine who took his own life, we didn’t realise we both knew him. There’s just been a few things like that that makes me think this is what I should be doing.

Samaritans' Listening Garden
You describe the garden as ‘beautiful, enveloping, harmonious’ but also ‘brutal and foreboding’. What’s the reaction you are hoping to achieve?
I hope people who go to the show and have struggled with their mental health might look at the garden and immediately recognise something that isn’t pretending life is perfect. I hope there’s a reaction of recognition that this is a space that reflects conflict, a struggle – probably the struggle that we all face now, of coming to terms with the craziness of the last two years and what that means for us all. From a design and aesthetics point of view, I’m also interested in the idea of the beautiful garden. What constitutes that? I hope what I’m doing here has beauty – it will definitely have beauty about it – but it’s maybe slightly unconventional. I feel like I’ve been playing with that with my last two show gardens, this is just taking that further.

Tell us about the sculpture, Listening, which will be in the garden.  
I knew an artist living in Cornwall, I knew his wife very well, sadly she took her own life a couple of years ago. Andrew, her husband, got in touch and said ‘I’m working in sculpture, we ought to meet up because there might be something for one of your garden projects. I went round and I noticed this small female figure in clay that he’d made called Listening. I commissioned him to make a full size bronze statue of her for the garden.  Andrew is a contemporary artist, his work can be seen to be slightly disturbing or obscure, his figures often appear lonely or in isolation but this figure, she’s sat upright, he said ‘I don’t want her to appear a victim’ and it’s quite interesting to talk about whether she’s the one listening, or whether other people are listening to her.

 “I hope what I’m doing here has beauty”

What’s the criteria you have for selecting plants?
Form comes first and colour second, we have loads of spiny plants. That is a massive part of the opening of the garden but it also needs to run through the garden in slightly different forms. We’ve found this amazing Eryngium that’s got tiny little spikes, which is going to sit in the sanctuary type space. The idea is that even if we pass through really difficult mental health or personal struggles and come out the other side, those difficulties stay with us. Same as you pass through the garden, the planting gets softer and more enveloping and is much more recognisable as a garden, but in amongst that are still echoes of the things we’ve seen earlier on.

A lot of the garden is reclaimed, was that a design choice or a sustainability choice and does it bring any extra challenges?
There was a desire to do something that was sustainable, but it was driven by the thought that beauty and precious materials should come about through craft rather then just buying expensive desirable objects. If we work with this salvaged concrete in the right fashion, rather than being thrown into a skip, we can turn it into something that grabs our attention and that we might want to touch and treat differently and that process- that’s alchemy. Working with your hands to shape something and present it in a way that suddenly it becomes desirable.

Can you tell us about your training to become a Samaritans listening volunteer?
The really difficult bit is that if you care about people you want to fix them, but it’s realising that actually, a really strong way of supporting people is to just be there. We were talking about the difference between empathy and sympathy and being able to - as a Samaritan- say ‘I hear you, I stand alongside you and I’m attempting to see the world from where you are, so that you know that I’m with you’ is enough. As a maker and designer my default is ‘I can fix it’ so that’s the biggest challenge to understand, that what people might need most is just to be heard.  That’s why Samaritans exist.

Darren has over 20 years experience working in the landscaping industry. He has won a number of Gold medals at RHS Chelsea Flower Show and works from his design studio based in Cornwall.


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