Between March and December 2020, more than 850 UK healthcare workers are thought to have died from Covid-19. In the months that followed, many hospitals have sought to mark these appalling events with living memorials: peaceful and beautiful gardens to commemorate both the loss of colleagues, and the efforts of all NHS staff in the pandemic.
The memorial garden at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, opened in spring 2021, claiming a quiet corner of lawn for rest and reflection. As you enter the garden, life-size silhouettes of medical staff to either side are a solemn but peaceful presence. Two smaller sculptures, by the Serbian sculptor, Bojan Krstic, depict a hug – that everyday comfort so often denied by the long lockdowns.
The idea for the garden arose after Broomfield lost three of its staff to the virus – Oliver Andrada, a domestic worker, Angela Hyman, an occupational health manager, and Andrew Eken Nwankwo, a nurse. The scheme was proposed by Andy Wright, a manager at the hospital who gave up two weeks of his annual leave to raise funds for it. Additional funding was then secured through the hospital charity, thanks to the huge sums raised by Captain Sir Tom Moore for NHS Charities Together. Further donations from local companies, eager to give support, have helped to keep the project well within its original £20,000 budget.
Richard Hughes, Broomfield’s Senior Grounds and Gardens Officer, who designed the space, says he hopes it will offer a thank you to all NHS workers who put themselves at risk while others were able to stay in their homes during lockdown: “They were worn out both psychologically and physically, really tired,” he remembers. “And they were working all these hours. And people being brave, going into the wards where they knew there was Covid-19, including domestic staff.” At the height of the crisis, he adds, there were three temporary mortuaries erected within the grounds.
Richard says the garden’s open appearance will change as it grows: the hedge, a species of prunus, will spring up quickly to create seclusion and privacy: people will be screened but can still enjoy the sight of mature trees on the nearby lawn. The dark foliage of the prunus offers a contrast to the white and silver colour theme that sets the garden apart as a healing and contemplative space. The plants were selected to give flowers and scent through most of the year, and include white heather, a strong scented daphne, white lavenders and a silver flax, astelia. A gazebo, which is the garden’s focal point, will eventually be covered in star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), an evergreen climbing shrub with scented flowers, giving a further the sense of enclosure.
Identifying a site in the grounds that was guaranteed not to be built on was a major challenge. The only space available, says Richard, was this triangle of lawn: an awkward pointed shape. To counteract this, his design comprises interlocking circles, which he feels are also appropriate: “A circle is all about completeness, wholeness, unity.” The silhouette figures, meanwhile, may look to be passing through, but are bolted to concrete slabs underground, and will withstand a strong wind if they need to.
The memorial garden is well used by staff who head for its benches at break times. The physiotherapists have made it a destination for older patients taking exercise. And while visitors rarely reach this part of the site, on the morning I visit, a grandmother is entertaining her small grandson during his mother’s appointment, and they’ve already found the gazebo.
The garden is also providing new opportunities for commemoration. Soon after it opened more than a hundred nurses met to plant a rose on the birthday of Florence Nightingale. They left white painted stones: an informal installation that again reflects the impact of the pandemic, with messages of sadness, thanks and pride.