Everyone has had their own unique experience of COVID and lockdown – maybe isolation, anxiety, financial hardship, uncertainty, or simply boredom. For many it has also been a time of loss as loved ones and friends have passed away; for others a personal battle as they endured their own fight with the virus. Lockdown has both separated us and brought us together. Enduring memories may be of shielding in a nursing home, or being alone in a gardenless apartment, or simply being cut-off from friends and family, unable to see or hug a new-born grandchild. But the 'clap for carers' on a Thursday evening brought a chance to step outside, see the world beyond the front door and both re-engage with our old communities and forge brand new ones.
Through all of this the NHS - and the tens of thousands who work as part of it - has been the centre of relentless work to provide care and support while others had to sacrifice to keep the health services going. Not just nurses and doctors, but the physios, pharmacists, porters, therapists, technicians, caterers and the thousands of other unseen and unsung staff who had to face their own individual challenges of isolation, anxiety and loss while keeping the health service running.
At the same time, the UK universities and research groups were working flat out to find treatments and vaccines – and have led the world in doing this. The unique partnership we have in the UK between our hospitals and our universities puts us centre-stage for tackling COVID-19.
Developed in collaboration with those who were on the frontline throughout the pandemic, this garden aims to provide a space to reflect on our experiences, to remember those we may have lost and a place to imagine a better future. Entering the garden, the sheer imposing verticals of the timber canopy represent the sharp descent into fear at the outset of the pandemic, which is where the water starts its exploration through a series of rills and pools which represent the collective efforts of the many groups of people working together in different fields towards a common goal.
Stepping down into the garden, the centre of the space provides an immersive experience within the planting, with the gentle sound of the water flow, to allow one to reflect on one's own experiences and the collective response. While the pandemic has brought many challenges, it has also brought positives like the renewal of nature which changed during lock-down – birdsong seemed louder, untended hedgerows appeared greener and wilder, and the contrail-free sky seemed bluer and crisper - and how re-connecting with nature really helped so many people. To reflect this, the warm palette and soft textures of the planting provide a safe space for reflection and contemplation, bringing optimism and hope of a better future.
Water is a key theme – a medium that flows and fills spaces, providing connectivity. Shallow rills run the length of the garden linking small pools of collective effort. The rills meet, and join together into one larger pool, representative of a bigger collective that can work towards a common goal. Visitors may take meaning from the water in different, personal ways, depending on their own experience, but underlying this, the garden is, more than anything, a 'thank you' to all those who have worked so hard to help us through the COVID pandemic, and a chance to think what we all want our world to look like as we move forward towards our new normal.
Find out more about the NHS tribute garden on the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021 website