Leading designer Cleve West is coming to the Cotswolds next month to talk about the importance of gardening to health. Ahead of his visit, we chatted about designing, turnips and whether
he makes a difference.
It’s a cold, miserable February day and Cleve West is heading for his allotment when I catch up with him. It’s not the most appealing weather to be outside but that doesn’t seem to matter.
“It’s the dullest day you could ever imagine,” he says “and already I could stay down here all day.”
His allotment, he explains, is a place he and his partner, Christine, use as somewhere to escape.
“This is where we unwind. It’s our 17th season coming up and it would be quite a difficult wrench if we suddenly lost this little bit of sanctuary.”
Yet, across the country, allotments are being seized for building land, something Cleve deplores.
“We should be protecting allotments,” he says. “They’re part of our heritage and for some people they are their only access to a garden.
“The benefits are incredible, not only for the food, but for the exercise and peace of mind. They are a place to come and relax.”
It’s these health benefits – both physical and mental – that have made him appreciate the importance of gardens and his role in creating them.
“I always wondered what use we are as garden designers and I came to the conclusion that we weren’t too much use,” he admits. “But reflecting back on some of the gardens I’ve done and then doing Horatio’s Garden, suddenly the penny dropped.”
Cleve was responsible for designing the first of the Horatio’s Gardens, set up in memory of sixth former Horatio Chapple, who was killed by a polar bear on the Norwegian island of Svalbard.
Set in the grounds of spinal injuries, they aim to help the recovery of patients by allowing them access to the natural world.
Cleve’s garden is at Salisbury Hospital, a place he knew well as his best friend had been a patient there. Another garden has since been built at Glasgow, designed by James Alexander-Sinclair, and fundraising is taking place to build a third, designed by Joe Swift, at Stoke Mandeville.
It was the reaction of patients to Cleve’s garden that made him “rethink” his work.
“Some [patients] just burst into tears because they had been locked indoors without a place to go for several months.
“To get that opportunity just to go outside and feel fresh air, sunshine, rain, snow, whatever and connect with nature again. It’s such a simple thing but we all just take it for granted.
At first, he planned to fill the garden with low maintenance shrubs to keep down costs for the charity – “people don’t really appreciate the fact that it is all very well doing these gardens but they need looking after,” he observes.
But it was soon decided that perennial planting that gave a sense of the changing seasons would be far more stimulating for patients. A strong volunteer network and regular fundraising help to fund the head gardener and new plants.
It’s experiences like this that will underpin Cleve’s talk at the Gardens Illustrated Festival at Westonbirt School in March.
“It really is going to be very personal,” he says. “It’s based on my observations and experiences.”
He will cover all types of gardens from those based on healing plants to what he describes as “a more spiritual level” where a garden can help with emotional trauma such as grief.
Cleve also believes gardening is important to the wider issue of biodiversity and protecting the environment, something that he feels passionately about.
If the realisation that he does make a difference came slowly, then so did his love of gardening.
He was introduced to growing by a great aunt who lived in Chiswick, London.
“I used to go to see her and potter around the garden with her,” he recalls. “Then she got too old to do it and I took over.
“Slowly but surely I got bitten by the bug.”
A garden maintenance round in his early twenties, followed later by a design course with John Brookes at Kew, paid for with a legacy from his aunt, started a career that today sees him working both with private clients and designing award-winning show gardens.
Both have their stresses. While he designs with reference to the house and surrounding landscape, compromise is sometimes necessary with a client who has fixed views.
“It’s not always an easy job,” he admits. “That’s why I quite like show gardens. Stressful as they are, it’s the only chance you ever get to do something exactly the way you want it.”
Even so, he’s glad to have a year off from Chelsea and the other RHS shows giving him the chance to concentrate on his private work and beloved allotment.
It will be, he says, a “catch-up year”, a chance to reclaim areas where weeds are out of hand – probably by planting lots of potatoes and squash – and with time to grow a full range of fruit and some flowers.
Which brings us to turnips. Dinner with friends recently converted Cleve to their taste and he’s growing them for the first time this year.
His main ambition though is to build a polytunnel for his favourite crop, tomatoes. An oak is now casting shade over the greenhouse and an alternative is needed.
“It’s going to be a tomato tunnel,” he says. “Fresh, hand-picked organic tomatoes – lovely.”
It’s a sentiment that’s hard to argue with and as strong an argument for the importance of gardens as any.
• Cleve West is one of the speakers at the Gardens Illustrated Festival on 25-26 March 2017 at Westonbirt School, Tetbury. For more information see website
• There are three Horatio’s Gardens or more information about Horatio’s Garden see here