Heritage, horticulture and happiness – the glorious grounds at the Royal Hospital

20th May 2019

When the Chelsea Flower Show comes to the Royal Hospital Chelsea each May, our grounds are in the spotlight – but the gardens here are a wonderful asset all year round and an integral part of our heritage and culture. They are not only of historic and botanical interest, but play a vital part in the Chelsea Pensioners’ wellbeing and quality of life – whatever their needs.

A time-honoured tradition – and an oasis for everyone

The Royal Hospital’s history shows the key role gardening has played in the lives of Chelsea Pensioners over the years – from  a 19thcentury reference to providing veterans with “seeds, tools and so forth for their occupation in the garden”, to the key role our allotments played in eking out wartime rations.

Today, gardening continues to play a central role in the lives of many of the Pensioners. The  benefits extend to the wider community too. Children go to a woodland forest class and tend a school garden; young apprentices from the Royal Parks work alongside Pensioners and the general public can visit the famous Flower Show in May, or explore the green oasis of Ranelagh Gardens during the rest of the year.

Boosting health and wellbeing

The positive impact of gardening on physical and mental health is well recorded. It not only improves fitness but helps to boost wellbeing and help with stress and depression. 

At the Royal Hospital, we make sure that all residents can benefit from growing and tending plants. The more able Pensioners tend allotments, while the less mobile can look after raised container gardens. The frailest residents can grow plants in circular mobile gardens – made of segments that can be lifted out and replaced. The Pensioners can also socialise at the gardening club.   

Chelsea Pensioner Jim Lycett, who rediscovered the joy of gardening when recovering from a leg injury at the Royal Hospital, explains why he enjoys it:

“It keeps me fit, I get fresh air and I’m still meeting people. There’s a little community down there. It cheers people up. I love it here at the allotments because it’s peaceful.”

Chelsea Pensioner Barbara Whilds
Fellow resident Barbara Whilds, who is passionate about growing fruit, agrees:

“You benefit from the work put in preparing the ground, looking after the plants, then collecting the fruit and eating it. It helps physically, emotionally and mentally and is very good for dementia. I was a nurse who went into psychiatry in the Army and when I left I went into dementia, but we didn’t have the facilities. We’re very fortunate here. I do wish every elderly person could have what we’ve got.”

Don Cressweller, another keen gardener, has three plots including the delightful Post Room garden:

“I call it my cottage garden. I’m growing sweet peas and morning glory. Next week I’ll put out hanging baskets with trailing petunias. I’ve gardened all my life and will garden as long as I can… I’ve got to know lots of people through gardening. I love talking to people.”

Head Groundsman Ron Wilmore expands on the value of gardening to Pensioners:

“Friendships are forged and ‘buddies’ weed and water when a fellow Pensioner is ill or away. They give each other seeds, cuttings and plants. They ask our advice and tell us how to garden! There’s great banter, which is good for everyone.

Horticultural therapy is big in America but is just starting to happen here. They’ve proved it works for soldiers with PTSD, and it works for our old soldiers too. The camaraderie, mutual help and variety of things to do here is why the Chelsea Pensioners live longer.”

A closer look at the Royal Hospital’s Grounds

The South Grounds, close to the river, were originally water gardens, which were demolished when the Chelsea Embankment was built. Ranelagh Gardens, designed in 1860, was a fashionable ‘pleasure garden’ and still retains its original undulating layout – when the trees are in leaf you can hear no traffic at all. More recent additions include the Contemplation Garden, where Pensioners can enjoy the shade on hot days. 

The grounds boast an abundance of flowers and a variety of trees from a prize-winning ‘incense cedar’ to the enormous Acer Davidii near the Soane Pavilion. A wealth of wildlife, ranges from foxes, bats, voles and wood mice, to frogs, butterflies and bees. Birds include tawny owls and green and greater spotted woodpeckers.

Something for everyone

From stately avenues of London planes to masses of scarlet geraniums (known as the Hospital flower for their long history here and a colour that echoes the Pensioners’ coats), the Royal Hospital Grounds are rich with colour and fragrance and resonant with its long history. The Pensioners who garden follow in the footsteps of their forebears who have been tending plants here and reaping the mental and physical health benefits for hundreds of years. 

Here, at the Royal Hospital, it’s not hard to believe, as Barbara does, that:

“you’re closer to God in a garden”. 

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