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Over the last 70 years, the Samaritans has answered 134 million calls – that’s millions of people in need of its free services over the last seven decades. Last year, volunteers spent nearly one million hours responding to these calls, and so it’s thanks to these 23,000 volunteers that the support provided by the Samaritans is even possible. And one of these volunteers has designed a show garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. 

Garden designer Darren Hawkes has lost friends to suicide and so he wanted to help the charity which could make a difference by offering his time but also by designing a garden to raise awareness of it on a global stage. 

“The Samaritans had always been on my radar as a charity that I have supported and have a personal synergy to, so I contacted them and said that I’d love to do a garden for them at Chelsea. So, we started developing ideas and hunting down ways in which we could source funding and sponsorship – and then Project Giving Back came along. I was able to apply for funding through them and we were fortunate enough to get accepted.” 

The Samaritans’ Listening Garden marks the charity’s 70th anniversary and serves as a reminder to visitors how vital its services are – arguably now more than ever, with soaring costs putting many under financial pressure. 

“Suicide is a very difficult subject to broach and it’s not something that you immediately align with garden design; but the idea that we might be able to create a garden that could express distress, pain, fear, discomfort – things that people who contact the Samaritans might be going through – as well as showing that there is security and sanctuary and comfort providing by the Samaritans, that is something that’s probably a bit more recognisable in a garden.” 

Hawkes didn’t want to “gloss over” the topic of suicide, and so the garden had to be “authentic” and show the struggle people can experience. Aralia chapaensis will form a foreboding entrance to the garden and a cracked pathway will lead the visitor into darkness, from which it will open out in a ‘welcoming’ sunken area with an oak bench beneath a canopy of elm.  

The garden also to be more sustainable than those Hawkes had designed previously. The materials used have either been “found, begged for, borrow or bought from reclamation and demolition.” So, there are few new materials quarried or manufactured.  

“There was an inspired thought of, how can we take a material that is basically refuge or something that’s going to end up in landfill and hone it or reshape it to give it a new lease of life? This isn’t completely related to the Samaritans, but there is a link; people come to the Samaritans when their life is maybe at crisis point or approaching crisis point, and hopefully through time and listening, the Samaritans are able to breathe new life back into someone, or at least allow someone to take the next step.” 

It’s not an easy build, though. Huge ‘curtains’ of reinforced concrete weighing half a tonne will be threaded onto pieces of steel wires which are less than 5mm thick and hovered above the plants below, for instance. Chelsea regulars Landform Consultants will be building the garden, which is the first one Hawkes will have worked on with the prolific team.  

But Hawkes says it’s the self-doubt that has been the biggest obstacle to overcome. “I thought about this garden probably back in summer 2021 and sustaining that vision and not having doubts is the hardest thing to cope with – to keep going and hold true to your vision.” 

But keep going he has, and the Samaritans’ Listening Garden will finally get its moment at Chelsea over the next week. Samaritan ambassadors Jason Flemyng – who recently starred in A Town Called Malice – and author Elizabeth Day will be visiting the garden, and Great British Bake Off finalist Laura Adlington will be unveiling a celebration cake for the charity’s anniversary – all to shine a spotlight on this remarkable charity which seeks to prevent us losing those we love.  

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