A gift of a garden, five years on

Dr Charlotte Gascoigne describes how she and her colleague volunteers transformed the appearance of the front of the Royal Free Hospital.

Saturday 28 November 2015 was a day of freezing, torrential rain. But a hardy group of garden volunteers had booked a plant delivery for a new garden in front of the hospital on Pond Street, so we all turned out for our first planting day. As we approach our five-year anniversary, the group is still maintaining and expanding the garden, for the benefit of patients, staff and visitors.

Comments from the public indicate that it’s working:

  • “Visiting my brother in intensive care has been very stressful. Seeing the beautiful plants and flowers on my way in and out has lifted my spirits and been a moment of joy in an otherwise very negative time.”
  • “I have treatment every week at the Royal Free Hospital. Whenever I come out of the hospital, the gardens make me feel less frightened.”

One passer-by even described the garden as “a miracle on Pond Street”. And of course, we volunteers also have fun: it’s often reported that gardening is good for you and we all gain from the social and physical activity.

When we started, the soil was poor and rubble had to be hacked out – including an old fireplace, plastic pipes, masonry and mangled metal. We even found a buried section of a First World War gravestone – for Alfred, killed in action in March 1916 – which we have preserved in the garden, although we are still baffled as to how it got there. A core group of 8-10 volunteers does the planting, digging, pruning, weeding, watering and maintenance as well as picking up litter, which is sadly a frequent task.

Funded by the Royal Free Charity, the group was founded by Linda Grove and myself, with Malcolm Grove also playing a key role. Since the Groves’ retirement,  I have continued to organise the group, in collaboration with Emma Hill, with additional horticultural expertise from long-term volunteers Patricia Langley and Debra Craighead.

In the coming year, we plan to extend the planting at the top and bottom of Pond Street, linking up with the new landscaping around the Pears Building and using a few “signature plants” to create unity across the whole site. And after that, who knows? There are plenty of other areas around the hospital site which could be greened up.

The group meets on Saturday mornings and more volunteers are always welcome: we need a variety of different skills and strengths, so if you have some gardening expertise, and can commit to at least a couple of Saturday mornings a month, do contact [email protected].