When I felt like I was being poisoned on the inside with the chemotherapy drugs, it was very helpful to witness living things growing and carrying on in nature. It gave me hope.Claire Paton Breast cancer patient at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
A small crowd gathered on the paths and patios of the Fern Garden at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre on the evening of 23 November. The sun had gone down several hours earlier and the temperatures hovered above freezing, but the atmosphere was warm and the space was lit by dozens of tealights and lanterns, dotted about the flowerbeds and along the walls. A pot of spiced, mulled apple juice bubbled away on a portable stove, while a firepit cracked in the background, adding to the festive feel.
Hospital staff, volunteers and other guests were assembled for the opening of the Fern Garden, a leafy, private and fully wheelchair-accessible space overlooked by the large windows of the chemotherapy suite at this west London hospital. Patients will be able to take in the verdant views while they undergo treatment indoors, or sit in the garden on warm days with their loved ones or nurses. It’s also a space where staff can relax during even the briefest of breaks.
Mount Vernon redeveloped the garden in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare and their landscape designer Aileen Shackell. Today the area is a sleek and beautiful space where wide walkways and slopes provide easy access for patients and carers, but in 2018 it was cordoned off and gathering weeds in a state of disrepair. Community Engagement Manager, Ginnie Abubakar, explained to the guests that the project began with the observations of a patient:
“She was looking out over the grey concrete and made a promise to herself that when she was recovered, she would come back and tend to some of the gardens and improve the look of them. And then she recruited fellow members of the W.I and they stayed with us for many years.”
Lit by lanterns at the back of the garden was its brand new centrepiece: a bespoke wooden shelter, offering a space for patients to sit, and also potentially to receive chemotherapy treatment during the warmer months. The shelter, designed and built by local carpenter Andy Trotman, is open at the front to face the chemotherapy suite, while the sides are constructed with vertical louvres which can each be turned individually to let in sunlight and garden views, or closed to offer privacy or shelter from the wind. These moving parts, created from smooth larch, are tactile and add an element of fun to a space with a serious purpose.
As people walked by, they reached out to touch the louvres, to turn them and peek through. This was clearly pleasing to Andy, who watched as the guests interacted with the new shelter in exactly the way he had envisioned.
“The louvres are just quite playful, really,” he said. “It’s just something fun to do. It has some function as well, but mainly it animates it and allows you to interact a bit with the building. It’s not static.” He compares them to Tibetan prayer wheels: “It’s a sort of meditative thing to do as you walk past and move them, there’s the action of that as a prayer. So I’ve always been interested in these bits that kind of rotate within buildings and change the light, create different effects.”
The shingles on the overhanging roof add another whimsical element. Carved from sweet chestnut, each one has a unique texture and colour, giving it a fairytale cottage-like quality. The shelter is equipped with electrical sockets to allow chemotherapy to take place. There are also plans for subtle lighting casting light upwards over the underside of the shingles.
The space will look completely different by day of course, but as Advanced Nurse Practitioner Karen Harrold acknowledges, “It’s going to change throughout the year. It’s going to change throughout the seasons. This is just the beginning of it, really… Because it’s going to develop as the ferns grow, as all the rest of the plants grow.”
This space will also change in other ways. A large brick wall at the side of the garden will become the site of a constantly transforming art installation, created by award-winning artist Jeni Cairns. Jeni is working on designs for a large hawthorn branch cut from dark metal, which will spread across the wall. Donors – which may include former patients and their relatives – are invited to commission a hawthorn flower or a leaf, with carved words, which can be added to the branches for a year. After that time, the piece will be given to the donor.
Fundraiser Joe Dunster explained the thinking behind this project.
“Mount Vernon means so much to so many people. They’ve been through an awful lot, they’ve invested heavily as well, you know. Some, sadly, who haven’t made it, but others who have lived beyond cancer and are continuing to live beyond cancer. And we found that this would be a really lovely dedication, to put up onto the wall some kind of sculpture whereby they could invest and buy almost a moment, and just keep hold of it, either a honeybee or a blossom or a leaf, and we can get that leaf engraved.”
The Fern Garden and the shelter were completed with support from Heathrow Community Trust, the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund, East and North Hertfordshire Hospitals’ Charity, Mount Vernon Cancer Centre Charitable Fund, The Comforts Fund, Greystoke Builders and the Co-op Local Community Fund. Several former patients also made generous donations to the build. Volunteers have played a vital role throughout, turning up on even the wettest of days for clearing and planting.