The history of the Gartnavel hospital campus in Glasgow is one which belies its name. Built as the city’s first dedicated ‘asylum for lunatics’, the old Gothic revival building looks like a feudal castle, surrounded by incredible greenspace which is where its name is derived from the Gaelic, Gart (field or enclosure) Ubhal (apple), the field of apple trees.
While the old asylum divided patients by class and sex, with the wealthy residents housed in the west of the building, the Victorian hospital superintendents understood the value of nature in improving patient’s health and wellbeing. That tradition is being continued today, thanks to a team of dedicated staff and volunteers.
The Walled Garden at Gartnavel is one of Glasgow’s hidden gems. It was once the garden of the hospital superintendents and their families, but now is home to what’s believed to be the city’s oldest pear tree, as well as plants and flowers bursting with life and colour.
Camilo Brokaw, 34, originally from the US, is a Senior Project Officer from The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), working with the Art in the Gart programme to develop the Growing Spaces project with volunteers and patients.
He said: “This space has so much importance – it’s a historic space that was originally conceived as being fundamental to the therapeutic process for the patients here. What we have tried to do is bring that principle back, giving this wonderful space back to patients and the wider community.
“The process of developing this space provides so much benefit both for patients and volunteers.
“It’s part of the mission of the hospital. We know how wellness and nature go hand-in-hand and having this greenspace is critical to that mission.
The volunteers work with patients from wards surrounding the gardens, involving them in growing and nurturing the space and hopefully, bringing benefits back to them.
Camilo adds: “If you think about, if a hospital does its job, then everything in the body goes back to how it is supposed to work – so in essence, it’s about going back to nature and that’s what we’re about here, finding that reset through finding something green, something growing. Nature is resilient and the patients who come here see that, that things can regrow and bounce back – it can be very powerful and they can carry that away with them.”
The impact can be life-changing. Robin was a patient at Gartnavel Royal before one day being taken to the garden and she is now a volunteer in the garden. She said: “While I was an in-patient at Gartnavel Royal, a Patient Activity Coordinator brought a group of us to the garden. I’d never seen it before and thought it was a magical place. I got in touch about volunteering after I was discharged. For the first couple of months there were times when I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but this feels like a safe place to come even when I’m not feeling good. That’s because people respect your privacy and there’s no judgement.
“The problem with depression is losing a sense of purpose and hope – the garden really helps with that. I enjoy the learning too: finding out how plants grow reinforces my sense of being able to learn.”
Camilo loves his work and Glasgow. He added: “I really look for and value a place where there’s both a desire to improve the natural spaces and something to work with – Glasgow has so much greenspace and a pride in its greenspace and I see the opportunity now for people here to make the most of that. I’m really excited to be here and to remove the divide between urban and wild and this garden is a real example of that. This is a busy hospital campus with this beautiful space within its walls. These spaces are part of our wellness and part of our wellbeing.
“TCV’s role here is focussed on how we can regenerate in a time of climate crisis, supporting people to connect to this beautiful space and come away feeling empowered to understand more about nature and more about the role of spaces like this and even small spaces where they live to deal with the climate emergency. We want everyone to sequester carbon, create biodiverse plant life and do their part in making the world a better place.”