September 4, 2023

On Tulips, Words and Healing: An interview with Robert Macfarlane

You may remember that back in April we had the pleasure of welcoming Robert Macfarlane, author of several prize-winning books, to Horatio’s Garden London & South East at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore.

Here, Robert held a creative writing workshop with patients, NHS staff and the charity’s volunteers in the garden and garden room, at the time surrounded by spectacular spring blooms; among them, a dancing array of vibrant tulips.

It is the second year Robert has kindly led a workshop in Horatio’s Garden London & South East. Much of his afternoon was spent with everyone contributing words and ideas to chorally co-create an acrostic poem, or rather a spell, in praise of the tulip.

However, he also found a moment to generously and thoughtfully share why he continues to make the journey back to Horatio’s Garden London & South East.

So, spend a while reading Robert’s interview below and cast your mind back to a time when the world was a riot of tulip colour in time to relish the spell waiting for you at the end of the story. You can also watch Robert read TULIP by clicking here.

Thank you to the Rathbones Folio Prize for kindly funding Robert’s workshops in Horatio’s Garden.

We are grateful to volunteer Vicky for collecting Robert’s beautiful responses and to photographer Hilary Stock for capturing the afternoon perfectly in pictures.


How did you become involved with Horatio’s Garden?

My first encounter with the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) at Stanmore was because The Lost Words images were commissioned by the RNOH for the walls of a number of wards. [These images are based on art and spells from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris]. My involvement with Horatio’s Garden came about at the request of Andrew Kidd at Rathbones who asked if I would be prepared to do some teaching at Horatio’s Garden London & South East in Stanmore. In view of The Lost Words connection and also because my father, my brother and my brother’s family are all doctors, I immediately said “yes” because it made perfect sense to me for nature, healing and healthcare to all come together at the RNOH.

How did you come up with the ideas for the workshop?

My first workshop (in 2022) started with a long process of consultation. I wanted it to go as well as it possibly could and to do that I needed to understand the particular needs of the patients that I’d be working with. I talked a lot to people like Victoria (Executive Trustee), Evie (Arts Programme Coordinator) and Tracey (Garden Administrator) and others who have day-to-day experience of what those needs are and what would and wouldn’t work. We spent a long time discussing the format of the workshop and developing it for the first iteration. In that first workshop we worked on a series of individual written replies a bit like the first exercise in today’s workshop. When I was asked to do it again, I thought we should do something a little bit different and thought it would be nice to try and make something choral, as in a communal choral piece. I wasn’t sure if we would have time or if it would work, but I think it worked really, really well.

What did you hope to achieve with the workshop?

I wanted to give people the confidence to speak and write using language in ways that they might not easily allow themselves to do. I was thrilled that basically everyone in the room contributed, even the accountants and lawyers amongst the group! One of the patients took the lead, broke the ice and then we were off and everyone joined in.

And, I wanted to write a spell together. A choral, communal spell. And, in particular, I wanted to see if we could site it in the garden amongst the nature that the garden makes available. And as we did that with our spell about the tulip, these themes of healing, of different orders of time-keeping, of thinking, dreaming with and hoping with nature, and being reminded of its resilience and its recoveries, all emerged very naturally in the contributions and I was very touched by that.

How can creative writing help people affected by spinal injury?

Well, I’m not the best person to answer that. I think that’s the first thing I’d say. If you speak to the patients, perhaps they would answer that better than I can. But at a simple level, I hope it’s a distraction. There is the pleasure of making, of creating, in a group and of sharing and trusting in a group, which I think is a very powerful medicine, or therapy. It was lovely to see people gaining confidence, even in the space of the hour and a half that we were working together, and being lit up by the language of others, the images of others, the stories of others.

So, I hope it will encourage patients to draw closer to one another at a time of great need for them. We began the session with that idea of an oak tree as a community of species, thriving together and I guess that is what a hospital and healing contact would be in its ideal.

What did you find most interesting whilst running the workshop?

Well, it was definitely the process of creating a poem communally and the richness of the material that surfaced very, very quickly, especially from some of the quieter members of the group, perhaps. You could see them trusting themselves or trusting the situations and the context to offer something; their ideas were often beautiful and wonderfully strange.

So, everyone has a slightly different way of looking at the world and when you all focus on the same thing, the tulip, we grew those different perspectives into one poem. There is a wonderful Wallace Steven’s poem called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and this felt like ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Tulip’. Our poem moved, it moved a long way, from the general to the specifically historical, to the present and right down to this garden, here and now.

Did anything surprise you whilst working with patients?

I suppose the readiness to participate which isn’t always the case in a teaching context. I have had some very difficult seminar groups and I wish that they had had the enterprise and readiness and trust that this group showed!

How have you found the experience of working with Horatio’s Garden?

Moving, inspiring and teaching for me as well. I’ve learned so much from working in this teaching context.

How would you describe the garden to someone who hasn’t seen it?

A haven. A heaven. As I said at the beginning of the session, I spend a lot of my life thinking and writing and talking and campaigning around the relationship between humans and the living world and trying to make systems recognise better how indispensable and inextricable the living world is from us and our wellbeing and our spirits and our hopes. Here, all of that is concentrated into one inspiring space, where the truth of it is kind of inescapable, that it means so much to be able to open the doors of that ward and move out to the pods and to be consoled and uplifted by it. And we heard it from the participants today. One was saying how he watched the tulips through the window and they gave him hope, because they stand up and have resilience and strength. Another was talking about the colours and the scent and how she wanted to be a rose. And some of the synesthesia with the tulip.

It just makes visibly true many of the things that can come across as abstractions to people. Nature is crucial to our lives and our wellbeing and here we can see it in practice.

Has this experience inspired you to continue working with charities in future?

I was a founding member and trustee of a charity called Action for Conservation which works with young people taking them into nature. So, I am already involved with charities. What this experience has inspired me to do is to come back and run more workshops in future years – if Horatio’s Garden will have me. It is a real anchor point and perspective giver in my year.

Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience of running the workshop?

As I said, it is a kind of anchor point and a perspective giver and a reminder of the power of nature and language to reach into the spirit and speak to people’s hearts and to some degree, therefore, their bodies.

As I mentioned I was born into a medical family and my father and brother are doctors. I can remember we used to go onto the wards with my dad every Christmas and we would serve the patients their Christmas lunch. I went off in a different direction and did an English degree and it didn’t really make sense. But, on the way home last year I rang my parents and said that I felt my world of writing and teaching had circled back all the way round and my childhood and being a doctor’s son and thinking about hospitals and healing has come full circle. So I’ll ring him again on the way home today and just talk to him about today.



Tulip, how far you have travelled through time and space to be here now; traded and trafficked from Turkey to Holland, below and above, the focus of fetish, of greed, of need, of love.

Unsurprising though, Tulip, for the flame-licked goblet you grow is a marvel of making; a cupful of lush velvet, spun from satin, so rich and plush that when the eye touches Tulip it sinks deep in.

Low burns the fire of the spirit over winter, but when March is done, up comes Tulip’s tiny sun, sat in earth’s silence for so long; emblem of new starts –– a beacon that heals, heralds, lifts hearts.

I watch from from the window, Tulip, awed by your beauty but also your strength: pummelled by winter’s last hail, thrashed by spring’s first gale, but still you’re there for me, the lantern that burns day after day, asking for nothing in return.

Passing between you –– your petals like candies, flowerbeds as sweetshops –– I just want to eat you, Tulip: to nourish myself with your colour, to stow and save you, make honey with your hues, so that when the cold creeps in again, the light dims, your freely given beauty will see me through the darker times unriven.

Please click here to watch Robert read TULIP, co-created with beneficiaries in Horatio’s Garden London & South East.

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