Mount Vernon Cancer Centre is one of the pilot sites for the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare’s Nature Recovery Rangers project, which started in March 2021. One of the key lessons learned from the pilot is that Nature Recovery Rangers work well in different places because these are flexible roles that can be shaped to suit different situations. This can be clearly seen in the way that Mount Vernon’s ranger has adapted her post to suit the particular needs of this site and its staff.

Right from the start of the project, Mount Vernon’s small, intimate scale showed its potential to offer opportunities (and challenges!) to our Nature Recovery Ranger, Karen MacKelvie. Its 500 staff are spread over a disparate but compactly sited cluster of small buildings, which has enabled Karen to form close relationships with small staff teams close to their own work bases. Each of the buildings has a unique relationship with and potential for green spaces, which gives the ranger many varied opportunities to create and enhance habitats for both people and wildlife.

Nature Recovery Ranger launched the staff gardening competition at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Ranger Karen MacKelvie plug plants wildflowers at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Wildlife blackboard at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Wildlife blackboard at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Karen MacKelvie / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Staff gardening competition

The ranger has given staff ‘permission’ and motivation – largely via a site-wide gardening competition – to green their own areas, with some focusing on feeding birds, and others on planting bee-friendly flowers or sweet-smelling herbs to enhance the entrance to their buildings or wards. Even the staff housing block within the centre’s grounds has been augmented with a rest and relaxation area complete with BBQ with Karen’s encouragement.

“Mount Vernon has a unique atmosphere and is a fantastically fun place to be a Nature Recovery Ranger. The building started life as a sanatorium for patients with TB and other diseases of the lungs, so patients were regularly encouraged to go outside for fresh air treatments. The 100-year-old lawn and listed buildings are nestled into pockets of ancient woodland, where veteran oaks lounge and mature yew and eucalyptus don’t look out of place. You can imagine, in its heyday, the tropical plants growing in the ‘orangeries’ and a vintage being bottled from the grape vine growing near [what is now] Nuclear Medicine.”

– Karen MacKelvie, Nature Recovery Ranger, Mount Vernon Cancer Centre

Small courtyards offer relatively private and protected places where patients and staff can enjoy green spaces by spending time in them, as well as by viewing them from the wards. In one such space the Ward 11 staff have renovated a pergola, to create a sheltered seating area. In the radiotherapy staff room, chairs have been rearranged so that staff can look out onto their newly created garden – complete with a wheelbarrow ‘planter’ and bird feeders – during breaks.

Hidden nooks and crannies between buildings or in tucked away corners have been transformed into pleasant lunch spots by the addition of seating, often created out of natural or other found materials, such as palettes, a slab of flat rock or an empty cable wheel which now forms a huge wooden table. Other quiet spaces have been dedicated as wildlife havens, such as Nuclear Medicine’s hedgehog garden, where a rescue hedgehog has successfully been encouraged to hibernate.

Courtyard greened up by staff at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Courtyard greened up by staff at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Staff garden outside the Lynda Jackson Macmillan Centre, Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Staff garden outside the Lynda Jackson Macmillan Centre, Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Meadow creation

Karen came into the role with a passionate commitment to seeing how much of Mount Vernon’s large lawn areas could practically be turned over to native wildflowers. Given her close relationship with the estate teams, she was able to get approval to put significant amounts of grass over to meadow. Some has been plug planted, some has been filled with flowering bulbs and a large swathe has been nutrient degraded in a process called ‘cut and collect’. During this process, the grass clippings were taken off-site over several mowing sessions, and the ground was then scarified and seeded with a carefully selected mixture of British native perennial wildflowers which should grow well on the hardpacked, silty-clay soil.

Large-scale projects

As well as the grassroots-type projects, such as the gardening competition, Karen has supported the development of larger green space engagement initiatives. The first of these was the creation of a Woodland Walkway, which cuts through the compact woodland at the end of the newly created meadow. The walkway was launched with an event open to all staff, and the installation of benches and waymarkers encourages staff to spend time in this secluded, natural space. Its proximity to some of the offices and the staff canteen means staff are often seen heading down here with lunchboxes or coffees, taking a break away from the hospital environment to enjoy the woodland views and birdsong.

Donors, staff and volunteers on the new woodland walkway at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Donors, staff and volunteers on the new woodland walkway at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
The Fern Garden and chemo shelter at Mount Vernon
The Fern Garden and chemo shelter at Mount Vernon. Photo: Carey Newson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

The second project was the Fern Garden, which has been developed beside Mount Vernon’s chemotherapy suite. It’s a fully accessible, tranquil space for patients and visitors to sit while waiting for treatments; those receiving chemotherapy indoors can enjoy the leafy views out of the large windows. A bespoke wooden shelter has been built in the garden to encourage people to sit out here all year round; it has electricity and the hope is that in future patients could have the option of receiving treatment in the shelter. Read more about the Fern garden and the shelter here.

Cross-site collaboration

Mount Vernon Cancer Centre is a relatively small institution sharing a site with the much larger Hillingdon Hospital Treatment Centre, as well as with other smaller, specialist health spaces. This situation has allowed many activities to be scaled up and made available to the nearly 4,000 additional healthcare professionals close at hand. The Nature Recovery Ranger’s unique remit of working in the outdoor spaces meant that she managed to get many of the organisations on the site to take part in the gardening challenge, strengthening relations between different parties on site and encouraging communication through the sharing of gardening ideas and the fun of the competition. The larger reach that she manages to achieve is for the benefit of people and wildlife. Walks, open days and the green spaces generally are now also enjoyed by the large site’s wider healthcare community.

Ranger Karen MacKelvie gets staff gardening at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Ranger Karen MacKelvie gets staff gardening at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Karen MacKelvie / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Ranger Karen MacKelvie with volunteer staff and community members plug planting a wildflower meadow at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Ranger Karen MacKelvie with volunteer staff and community members plug planting a wildflower meadow at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Karen is making the most of this combination of separate institutions by working collaboratively to create a map that will enable all 4,500 staff members, as well as the many hospital visitors, to find their way to the diverse green spaces all around the site.

The Mount Vernon pilot shows us that even through the development of small green spaces, a Nature Recovery Ranger can make a very big impact.

Related articles