'It makes people feel safe': how the Hepworth Wakefield garden inspired a community

'It makes people feel safe': how the Hepworth Wakefield garden inspired a community

A riot of colour in autumn, the modernist garden came into its own this spring during lockdown

An aerial view of the Hepworth Gallery garden in Wakefield.
An aerial view of the Hepworth Gallery garden in Wakefield. Photograph: Tessa Bunney/The Guardian

During lockdown in the spring, the garden at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery – designed last year by renowned landscape architect, Tom Stuart-Smith – became a lifeline for locals. “The bulbs were particularly powerful,” says Nora Keany-Corr, who lives nearby. “All the messages then were of doom and death; I worried for friends and family and it all felt pretty dark. But when you walked into the garden and hundreds of narcissi and tulips were out – it just lifted your mood.”

Today, walkways weave among autumnal displays of blazing red rhus trees, echinacea and rudbeckia seed heads, and clouds of bright blue Michaelmas daisy. This colourful oasis is a far cry from the vacant and isolating acre of grass that previously lay here, an intersection between the Hepworth and a 19th-century woollen mill complex abutting Wakefield’s River Calder. A local describes to me the muddy diagonal path that formerly shuffled commuters and residents towards the waterfront through this historically industrial area of Wakefield. “A lot of people take this route into town. But you wouldn’t come over in the evenings; you’d feel quite exposed,” she told me. The garden is now a place she meets friends, and fosters the imaginations of her young children and their interest in nature.

Katy Merrington takes cuttings of Coreopsis tripteris.
Katy Merrington takes cuttings of Coreopsis tripteris. Photograph: Tessa Bunney/The Guardian

The Hepworth opened in 2011 to exhibit artworks by Wakefield-born artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), together with those of contemporary artists. Designed by David Chipperfield, its striking pale concrete structure celebrates both the city’s industrial heritage and the sculptural qualities of the artworks within.

The gallery team had two stipulations when they commissioned Stuart-Smith to design the garden. First, it had to be freely accessible 24 hours a day, offering spectacular planting in the public domain; second, there should be something new to see each season.

Viewed through the high gallery windows, the garden’s patchwork of pale concrete paths, miniature piazzas and low-clipped lawns present a whimsical nod to the contorted modernist sculptures residing within the Hepworth. Down among it all, visitors wander freely through dense planting into step-free, bench-clad open spaces exhibiting artworks. “Awkward, unaligned naturalism” is how Stuart-Smith describes the inspiration behind his design – something he found in Chipperfield’s “crumpled box” architecture of the gallery itself; in Hepworth’s rosewood sculpture Kneeling Figure inside, and, interestingly, the organic layout of medieval cities.

Dark seedheads of Echinacea pallida contrast with grass Stipa lessingiana.
Dark seedheads of Echinacea pallida contrast with grass Stipa lessingiana. Photograph: Tessa Bunney/The Guardian

“In older cities you find that streets are often not parallel, blocks of buildings are not square; everything is unaligned and composed of narrow constrictions and wider places where people meet,” he says. “And I think that lends itself to patterns of movement and social gathering.” The garden was therefore conceived in terms of likely use and activity, “rather than just an abstract pattern on the ground that looked nice”.

Arriving at the garden, I find “cultural gardener” Katy Merrington leading a group of volunteers in weeding between ornamental grasses, clipped beech and late-flowering perennials that contrast beautifully with the gallery’s minimalist grey. Merrington has worked in many diverse gardens, from Tresco Abbey on the Isles of Scilly to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, but considers the Hepworth Wakefield unique. “Working in a public space is completely different – the average visitor here might never have paid to see a garden before or encountered this kind of planting. I want it to offer the same kind of experience as an RHS or National Trust garden.”

Symphyotrichum ‘Anja’s Choice’.
Symphyotrichum ‘Anja’s Choice’. Photograph: Tessa Bunney/The Guardian

There’s also the sense of community the space facilitates. Between horticultural tasks, Merrington is frequently engaged by passersby. “People know you – they sometimes come just to talk to you.” Her job title reflects this. “As cultural gardener I’m here to build a community, offer a friendly face and to make people feel welcome. Sometimes they bring me ice-cream,” she laughs, “or they’ll leave me a cake under the hedge. I think the garden gives this area a sense of habitation, and people feel proud of the place.”

As with the gallery, the Hepworth garden is part of a wider plan to regenerate the city’s waterfront into a lively artistic and social hub. Partnering with Wakefield council and funded through a successful public appeal and grants from Arts Council England and multiple foundations, the Hepworth has achieved a kind of high-end horticulture rarely exhibited in urban city planting – an asset proving increasingly beneficial for civic wellbeing, as demonstrated by the innovative planting schemes of Prof Nigel Dunnett in Sheffield or designer Dan Pearson at King’s Cross, London.

Many volunteers signed up when the garden was installed last year. I meet David Taylor, who comes for the zen atmosphere and the opportunity to develop new skills. For Emily, it is an escape from the office desk; Helen, like many others, enjoys the social camaraderie and Stuart-Smith’s ever-morphing planting progression. “It’s just marvellous,” she says. “Nothing is ever the same as the previous month – it’s always different and always interesting.” This autumn the team are adding a staggering 50,000 bulbs, including narcissi, scillas, chionodoxas and tulips, bulking up those planted the previous year.

For Merrington, interactions amid the first lockdown wave were particularly moving. “I’d meet people who could no longer access their social work or mental health support. You realised how much people were suffering, and this was somewhere they could come.” Throughout the summer she saw the garden frequented by a wide demographic: “There were parents with under-fives running round the beds; older residents taking regular walks on the flat paths; teenage girls taking selfies and lads lying out on the lawns. I think seeing somewhere tended and cared for makes people feel safe.” This sentiment is echoed by Stuart-Smith: “It’s brilliant that the Hepworth have said: ‘We want to have an impact on our surroundings and on the quality of life of the world around us.’ If only more people had the guts to do that.”