On a cold and windswept February day, the author Robert Macfarlane sweeps into Horatio’s Garden London to host a creative writing workshop. Robert is no stranger to the hospital – murals inspired by the art and spells of his book, The Lost Words, co-created with Jackie Morris, adorn the corridors, wards and waiting areas of the building. With his mark firmly stamped on the hospital walls, it’s only fitting he should return to further inspire the patients.
Robert is both a writer and fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge where he teaches English Literature. He’s best known for his books on nature which include Mountains of the Mind and The Old Ways. Brought up in a medical family where Christmas days were spent visiting the wards, Robert’s ease in a hospital environment is immediately apparent. Describing himself as a teacher before an author, his passion for teaching quickly shines through.
Due to Covid restrictions, only five patients, Sam, Mark, Elizabeth, Gabrielle and outpatient Miriam, are present. As great balls of hail bounce off the roof, Robert wryly comments that the weather blows through our spirits as much as it does the landscape. Settling into a relaxed vibe, we briefly discuss our favourite nature authors before Robert launches into readings on encounters with animals. A ferocious lion has our rapt attention as we’re transported to the African bush before returning to British soil in the company of a swooping Peregrine Falcon.
It’s now over to us to write about our own encounters with animals. After two minutes of panic followed by three minutes of feverish scribbling, we share our stories. Our tales range from a back garden encounter with a Sparrowhawk to a bedroom tussle with an eight-legged terror. As we get drawn into the stories, every tale highlights the rich diversity of talent in the room.
Piling on the pressure, Robert warns us that our next task – describing landscapes – is notoriously difficult. Weather apparently has no language and light is similarly tricky to describe. To inspire us, he reads from a few of his favourite authors including Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. After the readings, we’re each encouraged to share our stories. This time we’re transported to the foothills of Nepal where we encounter Water Buffalos, before taking in the wonder of Britain’s old oak trees. By the end of the session, we’re all in need of a reviving cuppa and a cupcake provided by Garden Administrator, Tracey McCarthy.
Wielding our pens after the break, we move onto nature journaling, which as the name suggests involves writing about nature. Journaling has a myriad of benefits such as: calming the mind, improving attention to detail and increasing our appreciation of nature. Robert points out that journaling need not be a daily occurrence but can be done once a week or even once a month.
Journaling also aims to take away the intimidation of the blank page: replacing fear and duty with anticipation and wonder. It’s our own way of time keeping, aligning us with the comforting rhythms of the changing seasons. Following a reading from Notes from a Walnut Tree by Roger Deakin, we’re reminded that our musings needn’t be remarkable. Rather it’s in the smallest details that the greatest personal significance lies. A reading from A Still Life by Josie George confirms we don’t have to travel to appreciate nature either. There’s wonder in our own backyard where mountains can appear wherever we choose to conjure them up.
To kick start our journaling, Robert recommends we firstly set a date, time and place and focus simply on the British weather. From there, we can move onto the physical sensations we experience through our five senses. How does it feel to touch a silver birch? How does the breeze feel against our face or the sound of the snapping of twigs feel beneath our weight? Involving all the senses leads to a much fuller awareness of the world around us. We’re informed that journaling can also be a tactile experience – leaves and petals leave an indelible mark on the page.
Feeing inspired, I gaze out of the garden room window. A rare burst of sunshine slants through the hail clouds switching on the petals of a quivering hellebore. Taking in the garden with fresh eyes, I realise there’s magic all around us if we just take the time to look.
By Linzi Clark
Volunteer in Horatio’s Garden London & South East
Robert Macfarlane is a member of The Rathbones Folio Academy, an international group of people, primarily writers and critics, who are immersed in the world of books. The Academy is a community where conversations about the value and direction of literature can take place. It plays a decisive role in selecting titles to be considered for the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist, and each year the judges are be drawn from The Academy’s number.
We are enormously grateful to the Rathbones Folio Prize for making Robert’s recent visit to Horatio’s Garden London & South East possible and for their continued support of the charity’s Arts Programme running in each Horatio’s Garden across the UK.
Thank you too to photographer Hilary Stock for capturing the afternoon so beautifully and for generously sharing all the photographs you see appearing here.