Olivia Chapple

Olivia Chapple: co-founder of charity Horatio’s Garden

The co-founder of the charity Horatio’s Garden on channelling personal grief into a series of gardens that are helping to transform the lives of patients recovering from spinal injuries. Words Lia Leendertz, portrait Charlie Hopkinson

Dr Olivia Chapple, chair of trustees of Horatio’s Garden, has been immersed in gardens and the outdoors since her childhood. “My father had a fruit farm and we were encouraged to play outside all the time no matter what the weather. Gardens were intertwined with my childhood life, not only at home but at the beautiful gardens of my grandparents.” It meant that she was always well aware of the good that gardens can do. “From a young age I experienced the joy that growing gives.”

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She was able to first put her appreciation of the therapeutic benefits of gardening into practice for herself when training in medicine. “My first garden was on a second floor roof terrace in Islington. I had to heave bags of compost up the steep stairs. But my efforts quickly paid off and what had been a small bleak space was transformed.” It became a sanctuary for her and her husband David after long shifts as junior doctors in A&E, a comfort during stressful times, gained by creating a garden in an unlikely spot.

In the awfulness of everything, it became clear we needed to complete what Horatio had set out to do

Olivia went on to work as a GP but a tragedy changed the course of her life. Her eldest son, Horatio Chapple, was killed in a polar bear attack on an expedition to Svalbard, aged just 17. Like his parents, Horatio’s ambition had been to become a doctor, and he had spent the past year volunteering at the Spinal Treatment Centre at Salisbury District Hospital. But like Olivia he also had a great appreciation of the therapeutic benefits of gardens. “He was a boy who loved the outdoors, and while he was volunteering he noticed that the patients, who often spent many months in the centre, had no access to outdoor space,” says Olivia. “He had decided to create a garden.” She and her husband tried to put him off at first with talk of bureaucracy and red tape, but Horatio pushed on, surveying patients and staff, and they soon realised he was determined to make it happen. By the time of his death he and the hospital chairman had identified an area of car park that could be a space for the garden, rough plans had been drawn up, and he had started raising money for it.

“In the awfulness of everything that happened it quickly became clear that we needed to make the garden idea work, as a focus for ourselves but also to complete what Horatio had set out to do.” There was a great outpouring of sadness and sympathy following his death, and enough money was raised to set the charity on course to go beyond even what Horatio had planned to achieve. “We found that we had enough money to do everything he had hoped to do, and to do it beautifully.”

Olivia stopped working as a GP and poured all of her time and energy into Horatio’s Garden, as the project and charity soon became known. It has been as helpful to her as it has been to the patients who have benefitted from the garden. “When you lose a child you lose all of your hopes, dreams and expectations for them in a moment, and you have to somehow find a new way to be a mother. This became mine.”

That garden at Salisbury, designed by Cleve West, was the first and set a template for what the others would need to do. For subsequent gardens the charity has also made use of experienced, high profile designers: James Alexander-Sinclair, Joe Swift and Bunny Guinness, with Tom Stuart-Smith’s design for the fifth garden at the London Spinal Cord Injury Centre opening this summer. Sarah Price is working on the sixth in Cardiff and Andy Sturgeon is lined up to design a seventh at the Spinal Cord Injuries Unit in Belfast. Olivia feels proud that they have taken Horatio’s idea so far. “We decided early on that we wanted to trailblaze. By choosing outstanding designers at the top of their field we set a quality standard. It showed the patients that they deserve the best, that the outside world cares for them, that they are cherished. We have changed expectations of what can be achieved in gardens in a hospital setting.”

Olivia now dedicates all of her time to working for Horatio’s Garden, leading the charity as a full time volunteer, concentrating on design and development. “This project has been a focus for my mothering,” she says. “I knew I had to create something extraordinary in the name of our extraordinary boy, and that is what this has become.” She is hugely proud of Horatio’s initial vision for the garden, and of his energy and determination to make it happen. “Horatio’s Garden was borne out of immense sadness,” she says, “but the gardens have brought such happiness, and there is not a day when I’m not told what a difference they have made to someone’s life. It has become such a fitting legacy.”

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Useful information Horatio’s Garden, 2 Throope Down Office, Blandford Road, Coombe Bissett, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP5 4LN. Registered charity number 1151475/SC045386. Tel 01722 326834, horatiosgarden.org.uk